JON ANDERSON: SONG OF SEVEN; CHRIS SQUIRE: FISH OUT OF WATER

(ESOTERIC RECORDINGS/CHERRY RED RECORDS; 2020; 2018)

When Jon Anderson and Chris Squire first formed Yes in 1968 in London, they talked about their vision for a new style of music: melodic, layered and poppy like some of the major groups they loved – The Beatles, Byrds and Simon and Garfunkel among them – but perhaps more expansive somehow, more dynamically rich. I seriously doubt they had anything like CLOSE TO THE EDGE in mind back then, as that sort of leap only became possible with the incredible level of musicianship brought to the group by Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, et al. But yeah, they were thinking big. And their flair for melodic, commercially appealing classic rock was always present in their sound, no matter how Topographically expansive it got. These two solo reissues (we’re rather tardy getting a review up for Squire, but hey, it allows us to do this informative combo piece right now!) are terrific illustrations of the kind of diverse sonic stylin’ each musician felt free to do outside their mother group. They’re filled with craftsmanship, imaginative arrangements and an obvious love for romantic yet far-reaching pop rock ‘n roll.

JON ANDERSON, circa 1980 (uncredited photo)

SONG OF SEVEN was NOT Anderson’s solo debut; he’d already released the ethereal and somewhat esoteric OLIAS OF SUNHILLOW during a Yes break when all five members made solo albums. That album was sort of what you might have expected from ol’ Jon at the time… cosmic, spacey, drifty. Not so with SoS, though. What are fans of epic Yes to make of Jon singing lines like “Don’t forget I always want you by my side/Baby, by my side/Oh yeah, yeah, yeah… ”? Is this really the same guy that wrote “Dawn of the light lying between a silence and sold sources/Chased amid fusions of wonder…” etcetera? One and the same, yeah, yeah, yeah. Jon seemed to at least partially rebel against his “out there” image on some of the tracks here. He wanted to get straight to the “Heart of the Matter,” the title of the most conventional rocking song here. If not for that instantly recognizable high voice, this could be the kind of mainstream rocker, complete with breezy backing vocals, that any number of today’s more formulaic male artists might serve up. It’s upbeat to the max, and our hero even talks about getting his baby in the “back seat of my car,” which is sort of beyond belief if you stop to think about it. This ain’t Yes by a long shot! “Everybody Loves You” sounds a bit like Trevor Rabin-era Yes, with a normal chorus (“Everybody loves you/But I just love you a little bit more”) and an airy, sweet arrangement. The real gems, though, are “Take Your Time” and “Days.” The former is contemplative and relaxed as Anderson warns against rushing around too much and losing sight of the simple pleasures of love and enjoying each day. It’s short and agreeably low-key, making for one of his most enjoyable solo songs ever as a result. And there’s a nice keyboard bit and some fetching bass also, courtesy of John Giblin. Then comes the gorgeous “Days,” a Yes song in all but execution. It’s up there with “Wonderous Stories,” a recitation of nature imagery and the art of soaking up the beauty to be seen all around you, perhaps on a perfect spring day. There is no one better than Jon Anderson at this type of thing; you can just see him standing outside watching swallows circling, young deer sauntering through ferns in the mist, the aroma from the garden filling your nostrils… “The days are blessings,” he sings, and who would challenge the sentiment? Beautiful, and it’s followed by a harp solo, perfectly executed. This leads into some lush strings and the title epic, which is in a whole nother league from the earlier trifles I mentioned. In a piece that crosses the 11-minute mark (arguably a few minutes too long), with lyrics about how “everywhere you look you release parts of your senses/And everywhere there’s purpose and answers to all your dreams” as well as the line “starlight… telling me there’s something else to cling onto,” you get the trippy Jon most of us have come to cherish (or not)… he builds and cycles ever upward towards some lofty realization of the meaning of it all. There’s also a dazzling Clem Clemson guitar solo or two that sound like Steve Howe a bit, and some childlike voices joining in. This stuff isn’t for everyone, mind. Anderson’s core music requires you to lose your cynicism to fully enjoy it. But at least two thirds of this record is truly winning, and shows our prog hero loosening up quite a bit and demonstrating he can let his hair down when he wants. Sure, Anderson can be cloying here and there but damn, this guy loves music and life, and with his staggering body of work he’s earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. And on this record he wants to just sing odes to the beauty and ultimate goodness of it all, including gettin’ down with your baby (and perhaps BABIES). You got a problem with that, head elsewhere, pal… This reissue does NOT offer much in the way of extras, though, just a couple of US single edits of “Some Are Born” and “Heart of the Matter.”

JON ANDERSON and CHRIS SQUIRE with Yes, 1977 (photo credit: RICHARD DREW/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Chris Squire’s 1975 opus, FISH OUT OF WATER was his only major solo release, and as such earned plenty of attention. It’s a solid, compelling five-song disc showcasing both his legendary bass playing skills and his thin but pleasingly sincere vocals (Squire’s ability to serve up harmonies that perfectly complimented Jon Anderson made for part of that trademark Yes vocal sound). “Hold Out Your Hand” was a fairly popular single, balancing Squire’s fluid bass runs, some Wakeman-style organ (from Barry Ross and Wakeman’s replacement/predecessor, Patrick Moraz) and a bracing melody and arrangement. “You By My Side” is more pedestrian; a Yes veteran shouldn’t be writing stuff like “You know I love ya/I can’t be without ya/When I’m alone, I still feel this way about ya.” T’aint “Roundabout,” that’s for sure. To be fair, some lush orchestration later in the song improves things, and there is no doubting Squire’s melodic flair. As on Anderson’s disc, Squire also has an 11-minute opus for us after that, and it’s a doozy. “Silently Falling” opens with a gorgeous bit of old-fashioned classicism, with keyboards, flute and the like. Squire sings with a kind of achingly romantic tenderness, and his bass surges underneath the whole thing in that familiar Yes manner. Indeed, this whole thing sounds like Yes although without Anderson’s mystical tendencies. There’s a long keyboard-driven section that rocks but gets a tad repetitious, although you won’t mind if this aspect of the Yes sound is your thing. But Squire’s band cooks up a storm, that’s for sure. About halfway through, there’s a nice quiet passage, then a different section where Squire mostly sings “silently falling” over and over. You can picture him being lost in the majesty of the proceedings here, and it’s indeed substantial in that prog rocky way. “Lucky Seven” adds a bit of funk, introducing horns (not all that transcendent in my view), a nice Bill Bruford performance on percussion, and a decent string arrangement. Squire again sings mostly in a low key manner, which helps, since the music here isn’t always subtle. “Safe (Canon Song)” is the 15-minute magnum opus that rounds out the record, and it’s the most meaty and adventurous Squire solo track to date. Let me just say that the first minute and a half of this song struck me, when I first heard it long ago, as among the most beautiful passages on any rock record ever. The strings and piano are simply gorgeous and Squire’s plaintive vocal, opening with the phrase “When your savior lets you down… ” achieves an understated perfection. The music swells and flows, revealing the kind of powerful sense of purpose that Squire brought to many a Yes album. I simply love the verse where he sings “When you’re faced with all those doubts/Have no fear/When the changes come about/I’ll be here/I’ll be waiting beside you/To shelter your heart/Like a ship in a harbor… You will be, safe with me.” There is something so transcendent about this part of the song; it may well be the most soaringly romantic moment on any Yes solo album so far. It’s followed, then, by a particular series of notes that is repeated over and over on different instruments, including the string section. Squire plays one of his patented bass riffs to contrast with this semi-classical arrangement, squeezing out multiple variations of the same two or three ideas. Kudos to fine keyboard work by Moraz, Rose and Andrew Pryce Jackman as well. The piece lumbers along, taking no prisoners, and your own patience level will determine if you’re still digging it by the 10-minute mark or so. Myself, I am in awe of the sheer moxie it took to arrange this densely orchestrated beast, especially since Squire began it with such delicate beauty, and then gleefully allowed it to become this gargantuan epic of sonic razzle dazzle. It’s musically rich, and it helped FISH OUT OF WATER become one of the most popular Yes solo albums, one that still holds up nicely.

CHRIS SQUIRE, 1975 (photo credit: LAURENCE BERNES)

Disc 2 of this reissue includes the one-off Squire and Alan White collaboration “Run With the Fox,” which turned up on one of those Yes box sets sometime back. It’s a charming but unlikely Christmas song, full of seasonal exuberance and whimsy. Appearing with it is the seldom previously heard instrumental version called “Return of the Fox,” the B side of the original 1981 single. Although interesting if you like this sort of thing, it doesn’t really add much in terms of enjoyment. But the track with Squire’s vocal is undeniably a charming little ditty. You also get edited single versions of “Lucky Seven” and “Silently Falling,” although that latter piece is substantial enough that cutting it down to single size is a bit of an aesthetic insult. Still, Squire at least gave us one classic solo album before he died, to go with all the masterful, groundbreaking Yes compositions he had such a huge role in helping to create. Any true Yes fan probably should have this in their collection if they don’t already.


WAITING FOR YOUR CALL: THE TIMOTHY WOODARD, JUNIOR INTERVIEW

TIMOTHY WOODWARD, JUNIOR (photo credit: EVAN DE NORMANDIE)

Timothy Woodward, Junior is an actor, a writer, a producer and a director. He has done at least one of those jobs, and in some cases, most of those jobs on a variety of TV shows and film projects, including STUDIO CITY, HICKOK, BEYOND THE LAW, AMERICAN VIOLENCE and THE FINAL WISH.

Woodward’s current project is THE CALL, a psychological horror movie set in 1987 and starring the wonderful duo of Lin Shaye (THE FINAL WISH and the INSIDIOUS franchise) and Tobin Bell (the SAW franchise) as a seclusive couple who, after being tormented by four teenage pranksters (played by Chester Rushing, Erin Sanders, Mike Manning and Sloane Morgan Siegel), suffer a horrible tragedy. Edward Cranston calls the four to tell them that his wife, Edith, has died and has named each of them in her will. There’s a catch, however. For them to collect the money, each of them must go to a room in the Cranston home and make a phone call… to Edith, who had a telephone buried with her. If the youths can stay on the line for one minute, they will get their inheritance. Along the way, each must face their biggest fears and regrets. The film is a dark and brooding character study that occasionally brings to mind the lurid Slasher flicks of the 1980s in vivid splashes of red.

THE CALL DVD box

After a brief run at drive-in theaters in October, THE CALL will be available on DVD and Blu-Ray on December 15 at the usual outlets. This brief phone interview with Timothy was conducted on October 2, the day of the film’s theatrical release.

THE MULE: So, we got ten minutes. Let’s jump right into it. Watched the movie last night. I liked it… a lot. I’ve gotta say, a lot of stuff made sense to me that didn’t make sense in the trailer. Primarily, the press release said that it was set in 1987 and I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why such a bizarre… I mean, why pick 1987? And then… I mean, this is an homage to those classic Horror/Slasher movies from that time period.

TIMOTHY WOODWARD, JUNIOR: Yeah. For sure. And, you know, I turned four years old in 1987. That was the first year I watched my first ever Horror movie. So, that’s also why I picked that year. Could be the setting, ‘cause it was originally kind of generic ‘80s, so I picked ‘87. I just thought there was a lot of Horror that was coming out around that time. I kinda started setting out the sort of ‘80s Horror vibe.

THE MULE: Yeah, it worked really well, too.

TWJ: Thank you. I think we’re gonna release another trailer that’s gonna have more of an ‘80s vibe. We had two and we were going back and forth on which one we were gonna use. We didn’t want people, when they saw the trailer, to think that we were using the ‘80s almost as a crutch. So, we wanted to kinda catch people with the hook and then potentially release another one where we kinda focus on, you know, the more… as we get closer to the movie, the uniqueness instead of violence in the trailer.

THE CALL (Lin Shaye) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

THE MULE: Sure, sure. The one thing I gotta ask you, man: Working with Lin and Tobin had to be just absolutely incredible. How did you snag them for this work? I know that Lin had… she’s got a production credit in there but, other than that, how did you end up choosing them for these roles and how was it to work with them?

TWJ: So, I got the script, actually, from Lin’s manager through Lin. They were already producers on it and they gave it to me to direct. I worked with Lin on THE FINAL WISH. Jeffrey Reddick (producer on both films) and I had a really good rapport and working relationship on that movie and they liked what I did. They came to me and said, “Hey, look, we’ve got this script and we’d like you to direct it, maybe come on board as producer. What do you think?” And I wanted to work with Miss Lin again… in a heartbeat so, I read it, liked the concept and we started punching up the characters and, I think a couple months later we were in production, ready to go.

THE CALL (Tobin Bell) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

And, you know, the idea of Edward Cranston… we were trying to figure out… there’s this couple, revenge that has to happen, there’s… if you’ve seen the film, there’>s probably things that aren’t in the trailer, it’s not just a straight they break windows and a revenge thing by any means. So, you wanted someone who would feel suspect a little bit, did he have anything to with this. Someone, you know, who just fit and Tobin had come across in conversations between me, Gina (Rugolo, another producer on the film) and Lin and he just felt like a perfect fit from the start. I’m just so glad we went that direction because I think he did such a great job and Lin and him had such good chemistry immediately. Which, you usually don’t see people just walk on set, you know, never really met in person or worked together before in person and they’re iconic like that, in a certain genre, and then they just click and they disappear into their characters like they are just who they are, you know. They look like they fit, they feel like they fit and those scenes were so easy because their chemistry was so good. It was just point the camera and shoot.

THE MULE: Yeah. That’s amazing that you got into production so quickly. That almost never happens.

TWJ: Yeah, we were lucky that we were able to do it, to pull it off.

THE MULE: The… uh… I’m gonna put “teenagers” in quotes here, but they all really pretty much hit the spot with their characters and the horror aspect, their horror at what was going on… from originally, >you know, the whole prank thing… there’s a backstory there that’s just amazing.

TWJ: Thank you, man. Yeah, that’s something that I carved out… even while we were filming, I was coming up with different situations and ideas for that because the backstory in the original script wasn’t fleshed out much for each character, it wasn’t much more of a blueprint. The two weren’t originally brothers and we said, “Hey, let’s make them brothers.” I worked with Jeffrey Reddick and Patrick – Patrcik Stibbs, who wrote it and Jeffrey Reddick, who was a producer – and, I was like, “Let’s make these guys brothers and, then, kinda create a situation for all of them where it’s just a little bit more personal.” You know, the idea is, hopefully you think one way about a person, then you feel another way in another moment. And it makes you feel for them or you don’t. It’s just to make them feel more three dimensional, so they didn’t just feel like complete cardboard characters until you feel like, “Hey, I understand why this person may be this way.” I can understand what this person’s going through.

THE CALL (Chester Rushing, Erin Sanders, Mike Manning, Sloane Morgan Siegel) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

THE MULE: Right. I was actually going to say that, without giving anything away, all four of those characters come with baggage that kinda makes sense for… the way they turned out. Let’s put it that way.

TWJ: Yeah. Definitely. Yeah, for sure. And, their story for why they’re doing what they’re doing, you know… again, can’t give away too much… but, you feel one way, you think one way and then, it’s something else and the trailer tells you something completely different. That’s kind of the idea, we want you going in not really knowing exactly what it is you’re going to see and exactly who to pull for and in what way and be just… entertaining, you know. A psychological war. Psychological war is important to me because I think that’s… the idea of living in your mind and repeating your worst nightmares and your dreams… I mean, your fears on loop and repeat, that’s pretty terrible thing to be, you know.

THE MULE: And, it does work on that level, as well, as far as psychological horror, psychological thriller, whatever you want to call it. And, not only is it an homage back to those very bloody ‘80s kind of Horror things, but even back further than that when the horror wasn’t actually shown on screen, it was just intimated. I mean, it works really well because there’s stuff going on in that… in the final third of that movie that really… it sets the standard for stuff to come, I think.

THE CALL (Brooklyn Anne Miller) (photo courtesy: CINEDIGM)

TWJ: Yeah. That was the idea and it’s just a little bit… people are like, “Well, you got Tobin from SAW and SAW was gory… ” and people kinda automatically assume from the trailer that it’s gonna be really just this… gory film and I’m going, “You may be surprised. It’s not going to be just like you think.” It’s very different… on purpose. It was done that way because I think your mind can imagine way worse than what I can show you. If I can show you a piece of it, your mind can go other places, you know. So, that’s the thing about it. Whether it’s JAWS and the shark, you know… if you see it all the time it becomes this way… But, we wanted to pull out spots in a few areas to make your mind go, “Oh, shit!” and just let you wonder what they’re going through. Even at the end of it, ya know.


UP ON THE GLASS

(GRAVITAS VENTURES/SAVE THEM WILD DOGS (96 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Wow. I remember a review of the Viggo Mortensen film A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, in which the writer used the effective line “You won’t know what hit you” to summarize the dastardly plot. That’s how I felt at the conclusion of the genuinely compelling new film UP ON THE GLASS. I really don’t want to give away much here, because this film is worth experiencing on your own, without knowing key details beforehand. It manages to be suspenseful, visually appealing and non-formulaic throughout most of its 90-minute running time, and that is quite an achievement. So here’s what I can say. Jack DiMercurio (Chase Fein), the main star of this unique film, is a restless, introspective sort who is not given to explaining his emotions or thoughts very easily, and has an uncertain employment history. He’s agreed to spend some time at the lake house of his old friend Andy Shelton (Hunter Cross), who’s a bit too abrasive and honest, but is a successful businessman who seems to have good intentions. Andy’s wife Liz (Chelsea Kurtz) is only talked about for the first portion of the movie. We learn that Jack may have once been involved with her and gets moody when her name comes up. We also have to endure the obnoxiousness of a third friend, “Mose” (Steve Holm), who joins his old buddies for the weekend. At first you think this movie is going to be a character study of these three friends, starting to feel their ages, drinking too much, and questioning each other’s life choices. They’re in a beautiful setting along Lake Michigan, enjoying the shoreline and the imposing sand dunes Andy takes them to so they can lose themselves. “There’s space out there. Men need that,” Andy tells his pals. But though we’re shown some memorable scenery, and these guys overall seem to be basically likable, friction soon develops. Andy pushes Jack to share more than the latter is comfortable with. “I think you’re TOO smart,” he tells him matter of factly. “It trips you up. You overthink things.”

UP ON THE GLASS (Chase Fein, Hunter Cross, Steve Holm) (publicity still)

For this part of the film, I was admiring the believability and charisma of the characters, especially Jack, and the bright, striking cinematography by Mark Blaszak. I was intrigued. But then there is a sudden, rather implausible event that changes the entire nature of the film. Hopefully no one gives it away to you because, despite this didn’t-see-that-coming development, the film trades on a different kind of suspense and a couple of pretty rich themes from then on. Although we’ve been treated by this point to the appearance of a couple of lovely women from town, store employees Becca (Jessica Lynn Parsons) and Kate (Nikki Brown), their part in the story is mostly minimal. Not so when Liz shows up at last. Chelsea Kurtz does a fine job investing Liz with depth of character and conflicting emotions. She and Fein have clear chemistry and authentic-sounding conversations, and there is some seriously good acting going on here, as a sense of buried romantic potential must compete with a few other developing themes. You sort of WANT these two to get together. A dripping faucet in the kitchen, which Jack promises to fix at least twice, provides a metaphor for the passing of both time and opportunity, and these two terrific actors really do make you want to see what will happen in the next scene. The grim nature of reality, however, prepares you to expect bad stuff. Director and co-writer Kevin Del Principe shows plenty of command with his helming of this tale, and he has the patience to trust that most audiences will take the ride, slow though it may be at times. I think he has the makings of an exceptional filmmaker.

UP ON THE GLASS (Chelsea Kurtz) (publicity still)

I simply can’t say a word about the ending. I watched this film early in the morning, letting a couple of its big surprises wash through me, and I want to enjoy my feeling of sheer admiration, something I don’t feel near enough these days after I screen a film. You do NOT get a neat resolution of anything with UP ON THE GLASS. It does almost nothing that you want or expect it to do. It certainly gives you a couple of complex characters with shifting motivations. And it creates its own brand of intense suspense that for me was truer to what might happen in real life than a dozen bigger budget films. And I liked all six of the principal actors, with something pretty unforgettable being captured here by Chase Fein. He’s an actor to watch. Judging from a few less enthusiastic reviews on IMDB, not everyone was enamored with Del Principe’s directorial vision, however, and you certainly could be forgiven if you don’t like the main plot twist or the way you’re left hanging at the end. But I genuinely admired this film for how it avoided the obvious at most turns, and tried to hint at much bigger themes and character conflicts than what we usually get on screen. I won’t forget UP ON THE GLASS, that’s for sure, and I plan to follow the careers of virtually everyone who played a part in making it.


ECHO BOOMERS

(SABAN FILMS/SPEAKEASY/ORGANIC MEDIA GROUP/FOTON PICTURES/DARK DREAMS ENTERTAINMENT (100 minutes; Rated R); 2020)

You set yourself a real challenge as a director by making a film about unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things, something that director/co-writer Seth Savoy was probably NOT thinking that much about when he helmed ECHO BOOMERS, a sort of “millennials gone wild and destructive” story timed to coincide with the bitter division and economic meltdown of recent years (though pre-Covid). It’s hard to sympathize all that much with a quintet of college graduates bitter over debt and fewer real opportunities, who decide to work for a greedy criminal entrepreneur named Mel (Michael Shannon), robbing mansions of the well-to-do and then utterly destroying as much of their untaken possessions as possible. We know right away things aren’t going to turn out well because the film opens with an author (Lesley Ann Warren) asking the most conscience-troubled and otherwise sort of likable member of the gang named Lance (Patrick Schwarzenegger) if he’d be willing to recount the troubled tale for a book she wants to write about the dastardly crime spree. So events unfold in flashback, as Lance is asked by his cousin Jack (Gilles Geary) to join in an “opportunity” to make some good money and have some fun. We meet the crew at a poker game, with abrasive and dour Ellis (Alex Pettyfer) and the charismatic female member Allie (Hayley Law) providing the most screen presence apart from Lance. The gang have pre-arranged addresses of their wealthy targets; they then wear evil masks, go in and bust the place up big time (an explanation from Lance about the destruction preferences of each member – one likes to destroy family photos, one prefers disintegrating the most valuable objects – is genuinely painful to experience, but at least it’s given a bit of expository background), and retrieve selected paintings and other valuables for the resourceful Mel to fence through his connections. Money comes in, everyone theoretically gets paid, and that’s that.

ECHO BOOMERS (Hayley Law, Alex Pettyfer, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Oliver Cooper, Jacob Alexander, Gilles Geary) (photo courtesy: SABAN FILMS)

Not for long, though. Mel doesn’t trust his charges overall, and newcomer Lance really has a lot to prove. The gang don’t trust each other much either, and it’s quickly established that Ellis is keeping a watchful eye on Lance for his receptivity to Allie, who is obviously sort of involved with the tougher guy. Tension grows exponentially, with Lance doing a voiceover about the various “lessons” of this trade (ie: “If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep”) and how these quickly evolve into rules. The “they” he refers to, of course, is those dang selfish rich people, and it doesn’t quite wash that they deserve all this intrusion and destruction, especially when the motivation of the young anarchists is so selfish and unfocused. As stated earlier, these jerks aren’t that likable; moments of character and conscience are present but scattered. What makes the film compelling is wondering where the slip-ups will occur that will bring this enterprise crashing down, trying to follow Lance’s mini-journey of morality as he’s the most relatable character, and wondering if Mel or Ellis will erupt in violence, something that is certainly hinted at. To the film’s credit, it does NOT take a truly predictable path compared to similar genre offerings, and it does have some things to say about greed and trust issues in a criminal endeavor that is clearly shaky to begin with. This sort of keeps you watching. The opening clips from CNN newsreels about the nature of the times set an interesting tone, but doesn’t really provide enough context for what has motivated these entitled lawbreakers. You’re glad when things are brought to a halt, and I give Savoy credit for keeping a steady hand as a director and pacing the story more than competently.

ECHO BOOMERS (Lesley Ann Warren) (photo courtesy: SABAN FILMS)

The actors all do fine, especially Schwarzenegger and Shannon, a veteran of countless productions. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Lesley Ann Warren also, who has long been one of my all-time favorite actresses and a genuinely underrated talent for decades. She’s only in a few scenes here, which is a shame, as she always brings a certain authority and believability to anything she does. But it’s still great to catch her again. It’s impossible to say if ECHO BOOMERS will find an enthusiastic audience; it doesn’t break much new ground, and other than seeing a lot of stuff get smashed up, nothing is all that shocking. But it’s worth a view as a character study of bummed-out millennials doing dirty deeds not so dirt cheap. And maybe a rule should be added to Lance’s list which stops at 10: “You play with fire too much, and eventually you’ll probably get burned.


HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS

(RBG FILMS/CLUMSY TIGER PRODUCTIONS/LOADED IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (85 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Without a doubt, this is one of the silliest movies I have ever seen. HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS aims to be a kind of cross between DUMB AND DUMBER and THE LOST BOYS, in that it focuses on two very dim-witted friends, Hawk (Ryan Barton-Grimley) and Rev, his vegan-hippie space cadet counterpart (Ari Schneider) who are sure their town of Santa Muerte, California is being plagued by vampires. They wisecrack about everything, assemble a plan to take on the bloodsuckers that may or may not include the eye patch-wearing tough guy Jasper (Richard Gayler), and find time to parody other, better-known films such as FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. In fact, when former security guard Hawk tries to make a point about predictability to his clueless friend, he rattles off a long list of quotes from classic movies that Rev shows unblinking ignorance of. It’s a preposterous scene, and yet, it did sort of make me chuckle. So did a brief chat about how yes, you can still rent DVDs in some places, and seeing a trio of punk rockers mistaken for vamps (one of whom is a black leather covered gimp in an homage to Tarantino’s PULP FICTION… silent, but shown eating popcorn in one scene). The low-budget movie eases into its absurdity at first, with most of the budget apparently spent on some gory scenes that are over the top a la Monty Python. But by the final half hour, it simply goes all in on complete and total idiocy that, if you’re in the mood for it, will possibly give you giggle fits. The film is like an ego project for some college students making their magnum opus, probably stoned for most of the production. Weirdly, though, the acting is decent in a self-indulgent way, and Barton-Grimley is no newcomer. He’s been in the business for years, and I recognize him from one or two TV projects I can’t recall the names of. He’s obviously having a great time here, sending up every cliche in the world of vampire and crime investigation type films. The two leads are joined by a female writer named Theo (Jana Savage), who comes across as though she were doing little more than helping a couple of pals. And a bit of extreme gore in that last half hour will make college students chuckle, perhaps, but likely won’t be of much interest to anyone else.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS (Ari Schneider, Jana Savage, Ryan Barton-Grimley) (publicity still)

I thought at first of including some of the more comical lines of dialogue in this review, and decided against it. The pace of this film is frenetic, and it wears its willful stupidity proudly, honestly wanting to be a throwback to the ‘80s on almost every level. There is an audience for this kind of movie, just as there was for DUMB AND DUMBER, although that one was art compared to the slim production values of this thing. And yet, its gleeful dedication to a brainless aesthetic is admirable. I DID actually laugh a few times, and once I realized that nothing serious was going to happen and the “stakes” (pun intended) would remain low, I could appreciate the lack of pretension here and the high number of ridiculous scenes. But forget all about stuff you’ve seen before like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER if you watch this. That Joss Whedon show is like MASTERPIECE THEATRE compared to Hawk and Rev’s exploits. Describing the plot beyond what I’ve already said is pointless. These “vampire slayers” are just wanna-be’s, lug-headed friends whose main purpose is to send up a couple of time-worn genres. They do that moderately well at times, but any expectations at all for this film beyond indulging in some extreme silliness, are likely to result in head shaking and exhaustion. And yikes, it looks like a sequel dealing with werewolves is out there. You gotta be howling mad to make a franchise out of this stuff.


ROBIN’S WISH

(QUOTABLE PICTURES/VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT (77 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Our impressions of comic genius Robin Williams over the years came mostly from his manic, unpredictably spontaneous appearances on various late night talk shows, where he was a frequent guest, and from his creatively cultivated movie career, where he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was more than just an inspired funnyman in films such as GOOD WILL HUNTING (for which he won an Oscar), DEAD POETS SOCIETY, AWAKENINGS, THE FISHER KING, the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM series and many more. Williams had the kind of crazed, full-tilt energy that was hard to keep up with for audiences and fellow performers alike. “He was a constant spark,” says director Shawn Levy in the poignant new documentary ROBIN’S WISH. “I remember many many days when Ben Stiller and I were watching Robin Williams in his head just GO OFF, and that kind of manic, wildly creative bottomless pit of ideas – that mojo, that ability which was like a superpower; I’d never seen anything like it.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Shawn Levy and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

None of us had, of course. Although other comic icons like George Carlin had the ability to free-associate and connect different thematic threads inventively, Williams was unique in his rapid fire characterizations (often lasting just a few seconds), his physicality and his matchless ability to adjust immediately to a host’s question or an audience’s vibe by veering breathlessly from one comic tour de force to another. Arguably there has never been a comic artist with such an adrenaline-fueled presentation so consistently, and it could wear people out. As the movie makes clear, it sometimes did that to Williams himself. As we learn quickly in this compelling documentary, the culprit for what ultimately preyed upon and then killed Williams was a rare condition called Lewy Body Dementia, an insidious brain condition that has no cure. Williams never knew he had it.

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams memorial outside his home, 2014) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

“Lewy Body Dementia is particularly tragic in the way that it increases anxiety, increases self-doubt, causes delusions and misbeliefs that have never been present,” one of Williams’ main physicians explains. Robin’s wife, Susan Schneider, our primary “guide” for the downward journey we see the icon take in this well-realized doc, adds “When someone gets sick like that, it’s so confusing. It’s not their heart that’s sick. It’s the mainframe. It’s the computer. That’s very different.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams) (photo courtesy: RICHARD CORMAN)

Williams started showing signs of difficulty a couple of years before his death by suicide in 2014, an event that shocked the entertainment world. We hear from many of his close friends and colleagues in the movie such as Rick Overton, Mort Sahl, Shawn Levy (producer/director of the NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM franchise) and David E. Kelley (producer of Williams’ final TV project, THE CRAZY ONES, in which he co-starred with Sarah Michelle Gellar). All pay tribute to his love of performing and his boundless comic gifts. There’s a poignant segment on Williams’ close friendship with the late Christpher Reeve, and a spirited chapter on the LA comedy club the Throckmorton, where Williams began showing up for legendary, well-attended improv nights. Some of his colleagues talk about how difficult it was to even keep up with his energy. But some noticed him slowing down or starting to not show up. “There’s nothing sadder than when a comedian is by himself,” says one upon describing seeing Williams sitting alone one day.

ROBIN’S WISH (Susan Schneider-Williams and Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

Something was very wrong, and the tragedy this film makes so clear is that Williams simply couldn’t understand what was happening. Directors such as Levy describe how the actor would need to “check” if his work was okay, needing more and more reassurance. He took it personally, thinking he was losing his talent or ability to focus when in fact the truth was more insidious. Susan Schneider, who tears up and talks about how she and Williams met, how much they were in love and how gradually the change happened, makes the tragic elements of the story abundantly clear. “We had unknowingly been battling a deadly disease,” she says, “one of the worst cases they’d ever seen.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

It’s a marvel to see Williams doing voiceover work for some of his popular animated characters, and an eventful trip he took to entertain troops in the middle east ends up being unbearably sad. Williams had the proverbial heart of gold; he was a deeply empathetic person, wanting to make a difference to others while sometimes barely being able to reign in the untameable talent he possessed. For all the incredible work he did in his career, 63 seems far too young to be his age at death. He surely had much more to give, and though the film alludes to past episodes of substance abuse, it’s made clear that he was “sober, not on drugs” before he died. The film does a fine job of balancing observations of Williams by those who knew him best, with the need to explain about this bizarre “Lewy body” disease and the awfulness of debilitating brain disorders in general. Be warned that the grief and sadness hold more sway in this doc than the celebratory aspects of Williams’ talent, which you can find elsewhere. ROBIN’S WISH is an examination of a tragedy, an unexpected shutting of the doors on one of the most promising comedy and acting careers of all time. Director Tylor Norwood keeps matters close to the heart throughout, and gives us probably the most personal look we’ve ever had at Williams. If you’re prone to tears, you may want to keep the kleenex box close at hand while watching this movie. The degree to which Williams honestly CARED is the strongest impression you come away with. And you won’t soon forget the moment that Susan finds a scribbled note in one of her husband’s books after he died. It says, simply, “I want to help people be less afraid.”

ROBIN’S WISH (Robin Williams’ wish) (photo courtesy: VERTICAL ENTERTAINMENT)

More info at: robinswishfilm.com


LIMBO

(UNCORK’D ENTERTAINMENT/ALTERNATE ENDING FILMS/LIMBO ENTERTAINMENT (89 minutes; Unrated); 2020)


Whenever I’m assigned a review for a low-budget indie type film, usually something I’ve never heard of before, I have a tendency to mentally prepare myself for an experience that’ll be tedious and hard to write about, as has been the case more than a few times. It’s just that there are only so many ways to make a film genuinely entertaining and interesting; the “surprise factor” is a rarity in below-the-radar films. Imagine my pleasant reaction, then, when LIMBO turned up, on a particularly bad day for me when I was mostly making myself kill time, and lo and behold it grabbed me right away and didn’t let go. There have been other films that combined the legal profession and the underlying theme of good versus evil – THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE comes to mind – but there is enough clever, offbeat stuff in LIMBO to make it a worthy viewing experience. A timeless theme that has occurred throughout the history of films is given some curious new life here thanks to writer/director Mark H Young’s clear interest in the whole “heaven or hell” debate. And yes, I was surprised.

LIMBO (Veronica Cartwright) (publicity still)

A bad brute of a guy, Jimmy Boyle (Lew Temple) commits a senseless murder of a mother of three (Veronica Cartwright in a brief but memorable appearance), and must face justice. It’s giving nothing away to say that he dies himself; the film is concerned with whether he’s going to go to hell, or get a “redemption” that would allow him to go to heaven. So two attorneys in a dingy underworld office must argue the case: Balthazar (Lucian Charles Collier), a young looking guy with an oddly casual accent, gets to make what surely appears to be an open-and-shut case for why this reprehensible killer should go straight to hell, even though the “witnesses” called indicate he had a horrible, abusive father and a drug-addict mother. But not so fast: the white-suited new attorney for Jimmy, an attractive gal named Cassiel (Scottie Thompson) has some pluck and energy to take a deeper look into Jimmy’s past; this includes exploring his atypical relationship with a self-aware prostitute named Angela (Lauryn Canny). Balthazar is being pressured to “close this case down” quickly by a nasty rep for Lucifer named Belial (a fiery Peter Jacobson). And it sure seems like Jimmy is irredeemable; in fact, Cassiel tries to quit the case, figuring this is just NOT going so well. But Mark H Young has some things he wants to say about humanity and justice. “I’m very confused,” Cassiel tells Balthazar at one point. “I put my trust in God. But now that I’ve seen what humans can do with my own eyes, I don’t know what I believe anymore.” And the film does take a more interesting than you’d expect view of what makes a guy bad, with a couple of interesting twists.

LIMBO (Richard Rhiele, Lucian Charles Collier) (publicity still)

There is some dark humor along the way, and a crucial bit of acting levity by Richard Riehle as Phil, a wisecracking stenographer, whom film fans will remember from his role as Tom Smykowski in the cult film OFFICE SPACE. I enjoyed the understated, sort of weary back-and-forth between Collier and Thompson, two actors I was not familiar with; there’s a grudging mutual respect for the very separate worlds of good and evil that each has to represent. We do see various demons with minimal horns sticking out of their heads, including Riehle’s character, walking in and out of various scenes, and there’s an amusing sequence in a hell bar. And by the time Lucifer himself appears near the end (James Purefoy, adding to the endless unique interpretations of a character we’ve been conditioned to ALWAYS be curious about), enough interesting stuff has unfolded in this movie to make Purefoy’s performance a genuine delight.

LIMBO (James Purefoy) (publicity still)

While Temple is mostly one-dimensional in his portrayal as Jimmy, he is certainly unsettling to watch and provides a mostly compelling story arc. Thompson and Collier are both so unconventional they make things move along rather briskly, and Jacobson and Riehle are excellent. LIMBO aims for a fresh look at the most timeless theme in the world, that being good versus evil – and there are times when the plot is really a stretch. Jimmy doesn’t give us enough depth to care that much about him, and certainly there are questions of plausibility throughout. But I truly liked the setup of this film, and the whole notion of everyone getting a “trial” to see which way they are going after they die. The script has more panache than I expected, and I would say Young is a director to watch. I was never bored watching LIMBO; in fact, I am kind of eager to see it again. That’s a surprising thing for me to say, considering my not so enthusiastic attitude when the opening credits first rolled.


TWO WAYS TO GO WEST

(GLOBAL DIGITAL RELEASING (78 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

If a movie primarily consists of talking, and mostly features just two or three characters, a few things are essential. First, those characters should be distinctive and somewhat charismatic. Second, the thematic material covered should be compelling and fresh in some way. Third, the film needs to be shot and lit effectively. The little indie film TWO WAYS TO GO WEST gets about 50% of each of those categories down effectively. It looks good; everything is pretty sharp and clear, and the many, MANY closeups of the three leads help us get to know them and form at least some kind of opinion.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST (Drew Kenney, Paul Gennaro, James Liddell) (publicity still)

Those characters, Gavin (James Liddell, who also wrote and produced the film), Marty (Paul Gennaro) and Shane (Drew Kenney) portray old school chums who have loads of problems and are not too happy with each other for most of this movie. Gavin is a struggling addict who’s made some movies; one of these gets some attention early on in a discussion and we even see a poster for that film, a nice touch. Marty is the most organized and proactive of the trio; he’s trying to put a small bachelor party together for Shane but finds himself appalled by the behavior of his two chums. Shane has a fiancé that he’s struggling to commit to. Gavin is sort of involved with a Las Vegas dancer named Addison (Levy Tran), who is from the Philippines, is covered with tattoos, but seems to have the most common sense of all of them. So about those three essentials: the characters are “sort of” distinctive, and certainly physically appealing and masculine, but they don’t reveal much depth. They say a lot of abrasive things to each other over and over (“What’s wrong with you?” is a recurring line, and “You always take everything much harder than everyone else” is a charge leveled at Gavin), express disapproval, and talk about women – a LOT. Gavin is fighting the drug thing with only partial success. We don’t necessarily get much insight about his habit, but we DO see that he’s giving it his best shot not to go under. Shane tends to be selective in what he shares, and it’s revealed that he slept with someone important to Gavin in the past. There is some bad blood. Marty is really disappointed in his pals, to say the least, and has little faith that they will ever be there for HIM, in ways that he tries to express.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST ( James Liddell, Paul Gennaro, Drew Kenney) (publicity still)

So about that “thematic material” I mentioned? Well, “flawed male bonding” is the biggest take-away (including disappointed expectations of old friends), with the way relationships with women can impact things through the years. And also, cinematically speaking, the tensions, laughter and nostalgic asides that emerge in intimate, sustained conversation with those you think you know best. There are some believable dynamics and fast-moving discourse in this film, but it also gets tedious at times. You wait for a big revelation that doesn’t really come. By the time the film leaves the dark apartment where most of its “plot” takes place, and you get to see Marty in an actual diner talking to a sympathetic waitress who has a darkly funny story to tell (this story gives the film its name), the effect is oddly refreshing and memorable. And it helps set up a final conversation between the three friends that does have something to say about the passing of time, the possibility for change, and the ability of those we care about to face up to mistakes.

The film doesn’t quite earn any big emotions, and none of the three leads seems like someone compelling enough to imagine being old friends with (although they all try pretty hard to create real-life multi-dimensional chums convincingly). But as a talkie type film, it’s at least above average, and both the movie and its stars look plenty sharp, even if the emotional content goes flat at times. TWO WAYS TO GO WEST is directed by Ryan Brookhart, who does enough with his camera and perspective to make me think he’s got a promising future in character-driven films. He’s also chosen excellent country songs (including a couple by Suzanne Santo) to begin and end his little opus.


KEN OSMOND: AN APPRECIATION

KEN OSMOND, 1995 (photo credit: CBS VIA GETTY IMAGES/photo copyright: CBS PHOTO ARCHIVE)

I wanted to share a few thoughts about actor Ken Osmond who played Eddie Haskell on the classic TV sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, as well as its revival, THE NEW LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, in the 1980s. Kenneth Charles Osmond passed away on May 18, 2020; he was 76 years old. LEAVE IT TO BEAVER ran for si seasons, from 1957 to 1963, and is still widely distributed in reruns. The Eddie Haskell role was originally to be a one shot deal, but the producers of the show really liked Osmond’s portrayal and kept the character in the series. Eddie appeared in 96 of the series’ 235 episodes. He was shrewd, under handed and, even if he wasn’t up to something, he always LOOKED like he was up to something that was borderline legal. Eddie was everything that his best friend, Wally Cleaver (Tony Dow) wasn’t; Wally made good grades, was an athlete, popular with girls and well liked by everybody. Eddie was none of those things and, maybe that was the secret of their friendship. I think at times that Wally secretly wanted to have a little more of the bad boy in him.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, circa 1958 (Hugh Beaumont, Barbara Billingsley, Ken Osmond, Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers) (publicity still)

Wally’s parents, June and Ward (Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont), always saw through Eddie’s saccharine politeness (“Gee Missus Cleaver, your hair looks real pretty today.”), but generally let things be; he was always welcome in their home and they never told Wally that he couldn’t hang out with Eddie. Another friend, the loutish twenty year old high school senior, Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford (wonderfully played by Frank Bank), sometimes accompanied the pair, falling in with Eddie on whatever scheme he had in mind. Likewise, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver (played with kind of a dumbfounded simplicity by Jerry Mathers), had his share of friends who led him into mischief: Larry Mondello (Robert “Rusty” Stevens), who appeared in 68 early episodes and later, there was Richard Rickover, Gilbert Bates and Whitey Whitney (Rich Corell, Stephen Talbot and Stanley Fafara) to lead the gullible Beaver into some fairly far-fetched misadventures. But, it was Ken Osmond’s Eddie Haskell who was the gold standard for the bad boy character, played with an unctuous charm and a certain indefinable refinement that you really couldn’t help but like. We all knew (or was) an Eddie Haskell in grade or high school, so both kids and adults could easily relate to him and to the show. A few years back, TV GUIDE named Eddie as one of the most iconic characters in television history. It’s been said that Eddie was the role model for Bart Simpson.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, circa 1958 (Tony Dow, Jerry Mathers, Ken Osmond) (publicity still)

When LEAVE IT TO BEAVER ended, Ken made guest appearances in other series in the mid-to-late ‘60s (THE MUNSTERS, PETTICOAT JUNCTION and LASSIE, to name a few) and a handful of TV movies, but, he was so typecast as Eddie Haskell, that his career never fully recovered; he ended up playing the character in …BEAVER reunion movies and series, as well as reprising the role in a couple of ‘90s series, PARKER LEWIS CAN’T LOSE and HI HONEY, I’M HOME. With a wife and a new baby on the way, Osmond became a Los Angeles motorcycle cop, serving from 1969 through 1988, when he was granted disability due to an injury suffered in the line of duty eight years earlier. He wrote a book in 2014 called EDDIE: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF AMERICA’S PREEMINENT BAD BOY, definitely a fun read. After 60 years, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER and Eddie Haskell’s slimy machinations are still fun to watch. I wanted to thank Ken Osmond for giving me a lot of laughs and a great character to remember him by. In a favorite episode, June says to Ward, “Of all the boys around, Wally would have to pick Eddie Haskell as his best friend.” Ward replies, “Oh, I don’t know dear, we need someone to blame Wally’s faults on.” And that pretty much sums it up for me!

All six seasons of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER are available on DVD and Blu-Ray, either individually or as a “Complete Series” box set.


SHE GIVES ME FEVER

A LOVE-NOTE TO PEGGY LEE, ONE OF THE GREATEST SINGER/SONGWRITERS OF THE RECORDING ERA (by STEVE WAGNER)

A tip of the top hat and genuflection to Miss Peggy Lee, today celebrating the centennial of her birth. Peggy has long been one of my very favorite singers, from the day a friend turned me onto her album SUGAR ‘N’ SPICE in 1984. In the years since, I have delved deeply into her catalog, which is truly a gift that keeps on giving. Peggy was a towering figure in 20th century popular music. A singer for the ages, she was also one of the most accomplished lyricists in music history, and mostly at a time when very few women were songwriters, much less singer/songwriters. She was an innovator throughout her six-decade career, and, like most great artists, was restless, experimental, uncompromising, and a perfectionist. It is said she ran her sessions with no patience for lip, or amateurs. One simply did not question Miss Lee’s taste, or decisions, if one wanted to stay on her record.

PEGGY LEE, 1946 (photo credit: RAY WHITTEN PHOTOGRAPHY/MICHAEL OCHS ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES)

As someone who really values great vocals, I find Peggy’s oeuvre to be an indispensable primer on what makes a great singer a great singer. Frankly, most current singers leave me cold – I’m distracted and irritated by the faux emotion, self-indulgent delivery, calculated moans, endless vocal gymnastics at the expense of melody, and puzzling lack of awareness of what THE SONG is asking for. Peggy never exhibited such rookie behavior; she accomplished what every song called for with the exact opposite approach – rich tone, perfect pitch, intuitive timing, impeccable phrasing, and thoughtful understatement. She was a master of the “less-is-more” style, which I find much more moving than the egoic wailings we are frequently inundated with now. Peggy’s voice flourished across so many styles and genres – pop, jazz, cabaret, torch, blues, and comedy/novelty – while always remaining utterly singular and instantly recognizable.

PEGGY LEE on THE FRANK SINATRA SHOW, 1957 (photo credit: WALT DISNEY TELEVISION/GETTY IMAGES)

It would be impossible to summarize her long career here, suffice to say it is very telling that it closely mirrored that of Frank Sinatra’s throughout the decades. They both had their introductions as singers fronting the top big bands of the swing era – Frank with Tommy Dorsey and Peg with Benny Goodman – with both quickly becoming breakout stars on their own. Both dominated the charts as solo artists in the 1940s. Peg scored over twenty Top 40 songs in that decade, with her “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” the number one song of 1948, and Capitol Records’ top-selling single for sixteen years, until the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in 1964. Both branched into acting in the mid-50s with Oscar-nominated performances (Frank for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, Peg for PETE KELLY’S BLUES), and both also pioneered the concept album during this period (Frank with IN THE WEE SMALL HOURS, and Peg with BLACK COFFEE). Both managed to survive the explosion of rock and roll, maintaining a consistent chart presence throughout the ‘60s – indeed, they were really the only two singers from the big band years to remain commercially viable through that decade, even recording songs that are now considered amongst their best work. And both were ultimately defined by seminal songs late in their games – Frank for the testimonial “My Way” and Peg for the existential “Is That All There Is?” – which finally garnered her a Grammy for Best Vocal Performance in 1969, at the height of the classic rock era.

PEGGY LEE on stage (photo credit GEORGE RINHART/CORBIS HISTORICAL/GETTY IMAGES)

As a songwriter, Peggy is up there with the greats. She collaborated with many giants of the form – Harold Arlen, Mel Tormé, Victor Young, Cy Coleman, Sonny Burke, and Duke Ellington. Her songs graced numerous films, among others THE JAZZ SINGER (1952); TOM THUMB (1958); ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959); THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING, THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING (1966); WALK, DON’T RUN (1966); THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER (1968); and, of course, Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955), for which Peg composed the songs, and sang and voiced the parts of the female characters, not to mention two very devious Siamese cats. So many of her songs are timeless standards: “It’s a Good Day,” “Golden Earrings,” “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Johnny Guitar,” “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” “Mañana,” “He’s a Tramp,” and “I Love Being Here with You,” just to name a few. And while her career-defining hit “Fever” was originally penned by Eddie Cooley and John Davenport, Peggy added two original verses (“Romeo loved Juliet… ” and “Captain Smith and Pocahontas… ”) for her definitive version, and also came up with the idea to transpose the key up a half-step for each verse, which perfectly communicated the “rising temperature” motif. When the dust settled, her songs had been recorded by the cream of 20th century crooners and canaries: Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat “King” Cole, Tony Bennett, Sarah Vaughan, June Christy, Mose Allison, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior, Annie Ross, Elvis Presley, Nina Simone, Mark Murphy, Dionne Warwick, Michael Feinstein, kd lang, and Madonna.

PEGGY LEE with PAUL MCCARTNEY, 1976 (photo credit: JAMES FORTUNE)

If you’ll indulge me a few anecdotes I feel speak to Peg’s unique impact: She gave Quincy Jones a commercial biz leg-up in the early ‘60s, hiring the jazz wunderkind to arrange and produce for her. She gave her longtime lover Robert Preston singing lessons in preparation for his role as Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN. She was a favorite of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, charting one of their gems, “I’m a Woman” in 1962, which stands with Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” as a proto-feminist anthem. Jerry and Mike claim that a few years later she threatened to have their legs broken if they didn’t give her “Is That All There Is?” (which also became the first hit to feature Randy Newman, who was arranger). She was the inspiration for “Miss Piggy” on THE MUPPET SHOW and essentially the genesis of the Jessica Rabbit character in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, her immortal “Why Don’t You Do Right” the song Jessica breathlessly sings to a mouth-agape Bob Hoskins. In addition to cutting nearly every substantial tune from the Great American Songbook, she recorded songs by rock/pop innovators Burt Bacharach, Carole King, Jimmy Webb, George Harrison, John Sebastian, Buffy Saint Marie, and Ray Davies. Paul McCartney, a huge fan, specially wrote the song “Let’s Love” for her in 1973, one of her last singles. kd lang, one of today’s most acclaimed singers, considers Peggy to be a primary influence. Peggy’s nightclub performances are the stuff of legend – extended residencies at Basin Street East in New York in the early ‘60s attracted a veritable who’s who of show business glitterati nightly. The Beatles were said to have wanted to attend when they first came over to do the Sullivan Show, but knew that Beatlemania would overwhelm the club and respected her too much to disturb. And finally, Peggy sang at Louis Armstrong’s funeral. Mic drop.

PEGGY LEE at the first Grammy Awards, 1959 (photo credit: WILLIAM CLAXTON/courtesy: DENMONT PHOTO MANAGEMENT

If you have the time (and who doesn’t, these days?) I implore you to explore this incredible artist. Recommended albums: BLACK COFFEE (1956); DREAM STREET (1957); BEAUTY AND THE BEAT (1959); BASIN STREET EAST (1961); and MINK JAZZ (1963). Below, please find several songs and videos that I hope bring Peggy’s brilliance into deeper perspective.

Enjoy, and HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY, PEGGY!

First, here is an amazing film of Peggy at Basin Street, performing “See See Rider” with a presence that is, in a word, riveting. Tell me she doesn’t have the most expressive face this side of Elvis.

Peggy’s celebrated score for Disney’s LADY AND THE TRAMP in 1955 remains among her best known and most beloved work. It’s easy to hear why. Both the lyrics and vocal delivery are laced with lighthearted humor and cleverness. The two most famous songs from the movie – “He’s a Tramp” and “The Siamese Cat Song” – easily rank with the very best in the entire Disney animated film canon.

“He’s a Tramp”

“The Siamese Cat Song”

A wonderful example of Peggy’s singular approach to the blues, “I’m Looking Out the Window” is a simple sad chord progression in no hurry whatsoever to reach its destination, and only becomes a blues number because of the way Peggy interprets it. She takes what would be a straightforward melody and bends it into a poignant lament on waiting for a love that never arrives. Note that her take on this tune uses the same structural trick as her version of “Fever,” bouncing the key up a step with every other verse. This would normally produce a sense of hopefulness, or at least growing excitement. Peggy tempers this expectation by phrasing the lines more and more languidly as the song progresses.

One of the great, and still mostly overlooked, tunes from the standards era, this longing ballad (written by THE WIZARD OF OZ composer Harold Arlen in 1941) was recorded by nearly everyone, but never became a sizable hit for anyone. Among those who cut “When the Sun Comes Out” were the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, June Christy, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, and Nancy Wilson. Notably, it was one of Barbra Streisand’s earliest recordings, the B-Side of her first single, 1962’s “Happy Days Are Here Again” (later re-recorded for THE SECOND BARBRA STREISAND ALBUM in 1963). But to my ears, Peggy’s version is the best of them all. She never strays from the melancholy feeling the lyrics demand, never falls prey to affecting a “big finish” beyond allowing her voice to become more emotional as the narrative builds. The arrangement rightly follows suit. This is a song that is meant to evoke, not entertain, and Peggy’s version does just that, perfectly.

A great example of how to subtly turn a jazz number into relatable pop, “I’m Gonna Go Fishin” is a co-composition by Peggy and Duke Ellington featured in the classic Jimmy Stewart courtroom drama ANATOMY OF A MURDER in 1959. Peggy’s lyric masterfully matches the jazzy intervals while winking at the listener throughout. She’s out to “catch me a trout,” alright, and her vocal supplies all the needed innuendo even if one can’t discern the barely concealed true intent in the lyric.

Paul McCartney loved Peggy, and composed this soft nugget for her in 1973, where it became one of her last singles and the title of the album on which it was featured. “Let’s Love” is unmistakably a McCartney melody, but Paul clearly strove to create a song that would allow for and accent Peggy’s personal style. This is one that every Beatle fan should know and serves as both love letter and testament to Peggy’s bedrock influence on the pop artists and songwriters—at least the respectful ones—who followed in her footsteps.

Peggy should absolutely be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and not just as an influencer, but as a singer who deftly made the transition from easy listening into the more hard-edged styles of the rock era. This recording alone should be enough to deem her worthy. Written by the great songwriting team of Leiber and Stoller, “I’m a Woman” ranks with their best, and Peggy simply hits it out of the park.

Peggy’s two most famous songs show the wide range of her talent as a vocalist, bringing precisely the right emotion to the needs of each. “Fever” is the quintessential torch song, and Peggy sings it with a brusque beguile that is always on the verge of boiling over while maintaining a shrewd detachment. This wise woman schools us on sex as she works us into a lather. Conversely, “Is That All There Is?” is the ultimate world-weary take on life and loss and the eternal question of “to be, or not to be.” I remember being stunned, at the age of nine, by the directness of this song, as I realized what Peggy was really singing about. This is one of the most unique songs to dominate the 20th century pop charts, and Peggy sings it like someone who has lived it. Because she had.

“Fever”

“Is That All There Is?”