Thursday, July 22, 2021

Soundtrack Of The Week: HAROLD AND MAUDE

One of the most memorable elements of Hal Ashby’s 1971 classic cult film, HAROLD AND MAUDE, is its profoundly tuneful soundtrack made up of songs written and performed by Cat Stevens. Stevens (latter rebranded Yusuf Islam), who was a popular British artist with a few hits, and platinum albums under his belt, was suggested by Elton John, the original choice of the filmmakers to compose the soundtrack.

Stevens’ songs were a great addition to the movie that concerned a young man (Bud Cort) who was obsessed with death falling in love with an old lady (Ruth Gordon) who is obsessed with living life to its fullest. Much like Simon and Garfunkel’s score for the 1967 classic, THE GRADUATE, Stevens was the principal performer throughout HAROLD AND MAUDE, although there are snatches of works by classical composers such as Johann Strauss II, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and other bits of incidental music.

But it’s Stevens who dominates and illuminates the movie’s message. Unfortunately the soundtrack wasn’t released in America when the film came out, but A&M put out a version of the material on vinyl in Japan in 1972. It was a flawed collection as it omitted two crucial songs, “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” and featured a few Stevens tunes that aren’t in the movie.

The two songs, “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” were written specifically for the film, but not released until his 1984 compilation, Footsteps in the Dark: Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. That’s a long time to go without two of Stevens’ best songs without being commercially available except on videocassettes of the film.

Much later, in 2007, a limited edition of the soundtrack was released by Vinyl Films Records. It contained all of the Stevens songs that were in the movie, plus five previously unreleased tracks including banjo, instrumental, and alternate versions of “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” and demo, and alternate takes of “Don’t Be Shy.” The icing on the cake is that a 36-page full-color booklet about the making of the film is included. There’s also a picture disc version of the album.

The bad news is that the 2007 release is very pricey as it was a limited edition of only 2,500 copies. The newest edition of the soundtrack was released on Record Store Day (July 17, 2021), and it’s also a limited release, but at 8,000, it’s at least a little bigger of a run.

Dubbed “The Songs From the Original Movie,” the RSD release doesn’t have any of the bonus tracks from the 2007 edition, and at nine tracks, it’s a bit short, but it’s yellow vinyl, and a great listen of the to the songs presented in the order that appeared in the film (the 2007 one does this too, but since that one is out of print and expensive as hell, let’s go with this one).

I was happy to score a copy on RSD, and have been enjoying it since. Of course, by this time, it’s an expensive get – along with every other version of the HAROLD AND MAUDE soundtrack it seems. But if you really want you own copy, you can do what I did decades ago and compile one from the Stevens’ albums, Tea for the Tillerman, Mona Bone Jakon, and Footsteps in the Dark (Greatest Hits, Vol. 2). That’s the best suggestion I have. Otherwise, you can wait for another, more affordable version to come on the scene in the future. Until then, if you want to sing out, sing out.

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Friday, July 16, 2021

Actors You Recognize, But Don't Know Their Names: Walter Olkewicz

uring an epic re-watch of Twin Peaks, I noticed an actor I’ve seen in countless TV shows and movies, but never took note of his name. As Walter Olkewicz has appeared in a sick amount of projects, it’s time to right that wrong.

I bet you’ve seen this lovable lug – maybe in such shows as the aforementioned Twin Peaks or possibly The Rockford Files, Taxi, Barney Miller, Alice, Family Ties, The Love Boat, Wizards and Warriors, Cheers, Newhart, The A-Team, Night Court, Matlock, Who’s the Boss, Murder She Wrote, and…let’s just say every program that aired in the ‘80s. Oh yeah, he also was on Dolly Parton’s one season variety series, Dolly! I totally forgot that existed.

In the ‘90s he honed his surly and sarcastic (but still lovable) persona on Seinfeld, was a semi-regular on Grace Under Fire, and appeared on ER, Dharma & Greg, Sliders, Chicago Hope, and voiced a character named Falcone on a couple of episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.

Movie-wise, he’s acted in 1941, JIMMY THE KID, MAKING THE GRADE, THE CLIENT, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY, THE BIG PICTURE, LAST DAYS (not the quasi Kurt Cobain flick), MEETING DADDY, and…okay, so his filmography isn’t as impressive as his television work, but it’s still pretty extensive.

This entry also sadly also serves as an obituary as Olkewicz passed away last April at the age of 72. He left behind quite a legacy that will live on as long as there are reruns that make folks remark “Hey, it’s that guy.” I doubt most people will learn his name, but, hey, I’ve done my part.

Stay tuned for more in the Actors You Recognize But Don’t Know Their Names series.

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Thursday, July 15, 2021

Soundtrack Of The Week: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY

I’ve long been amused by this record. Obviously it’s the soundtrack for the 1978 rock biopic, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, but what I find funny is that it completely consists of the film’s star, Gary Busey taking the vocal duties on for a platter of Buddy Holly classics. Around a dozen of ‘em. Sung by Busey. You read me right.

Now it’s not like this is that rare. Many actors and actresses have done their own singing in biopics. Sissy Spacek performs as Loretta Lynn on the COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER soundtrack, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix do the same as June and Johnny Cash for WALK THE LINE.

It’s reported that Val Kilmer did many of Jim Morrison’s vocals in THE DOORS, but I’m not so sure. I’ve heard that his and the lizard king’s voices were mixed together at times, but the bulk of the songs used in the movie are the originals. This is confirmed by the credits for the soundtrack, which has no mention of Kilmer. It’s similar to GET ON UP, in which Chadwick Boseman contributed some singing, but probably realized early on that there’s no way he could top the Godfather of Soul.

Anyway back to the Buse! I haven’t seen Steve Rash’s THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY in a long time, but remember it pretty well. The longer ago it gets, the casting of Busey as Holly grows weirder and weirder in my psyche. He was 34 when he got the part – the lanky Holly was 22 when he died – and he had a much larger frame, so this looked like it would be the miscasting spectacular of the decade!

But Busey, against all odds, pulled it off. It helps that he’s younger, and less edgier, and not the abrasive assholish lunatic that we all know and love now. The film itself has all kinds of issues, especially with all of its inaccuracies, but Busey makes it feel like like it’s a notch above the typical TV biopic. Or half a notch because it’s still is in made-for-TV terrain. Busey even got an Oscar nomination (he lost to Jon Voight for COMING HOME), and much critical acclaim, but record reviewers largely ignored the soundtrack, and it didn’t get much chart action either.

I can totally understand that. I mean, if you want to purchase a Holly album why go for an album in which Busey takes the lead? It’s like wanting to buy a Beatles record, and picking up Beatlemania: The Album, in which clones play the music of the Fab Four note by f-in’ note on Broadway.

To up the ante, the actors who play Holly’s bandmates, The Crickets - Don Stroud, who plays Jesse Charles, and Charles Martin Smith portrays Ray Bob Simmons - are actually Busey’s band here contributing drums and bass respectively.

Most of the album was recorded live, with a loud audience, sounding like they cut a number of tracks between shots during the roller rink scenes, and the Apollo gig. Busey sings a song, “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” in acappella, and it’s actually not embarrassing.

The band admirably churns through a medley of Holly’s hits such as ”That’ll Be The Day”/ ”Oh Boy!”/ “Peggy Sue” / “Maybe Baby” and you can feel the fun in the air. Though I must say that its sounds better if you’re in another room from the stereo. Otherwise my mind keeps picking apart which nuances work and which ones fall flat.

Just last year, a Deluxe Edition of THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was released that featured 10 bonus tracks. That brings the tally of Busey does Holly tunes up to 22. Maybe by the next re-issue, they’ll have amassed enough of Busey’s material to equal Holly’s entire oeuvre.

I’ll leave you now with this clip of the fake Buddy Holly and the Crickets playing the Apollo (they were the first white act to play at the iconic venue btw):

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The Sequel To A QUIET PLACE Is All Over The Place

(Dir. John Krasinski, 2021)

This was the first film I’ve seen on the big screen since March 2020, which is when it was originally scheduled to be released. Of course, you know why it was delayed, and why I went so long avoiding movie theaters. Now that things are getting somewhat back to normal, I caught up with John Krazinski’s sequel to his 2018 sleeper hit, A QUIET PLACE. I had enjoyed the first film, which depicts a family headed by the real life married couple Krasinski and Emily Blunt as Lee and Evelyn Abott trying to survive in a post apocalyptic world where tall, lanky blind aliens with multiple rows of sharp teeth will kill them if they make even the slightest sounds.

Although Krasinski’s character, Lee Abbott, was killed in the original, he appears here in a flashback opening which goes back to the first day of the alien attack. The scary creatures violently interrupt a little league game in an unspecified small town (somewhere in upstate New York), and it’s a thrilling sequence that I wish the movie stayed with longer. 

Instead we flash forward to Day 474, 385 days since the events of Part I, and we find Blunt’s Evelyn and her kids, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who’s deaf, and Marcus (Noah Jupe), who’s main trait is that he’s very nervous, living on the same farm, but not for long as the Halpert, sorry, Abbott family sets on a supply run across dangerous, devastated terrain. Oh, yeah, there’s the baby that Evelyn had in the previous installment, but he mostly naps in a soundproof wooden crate, or sucks on an oxygen canister.

Presumably because writer/director Krasinski thought they needed a moody male presence since the Dad is gone, Cillian Murphy pops up as Emmett an old friend of the family. Murphy’s character is a little reminiscent of his role in DUNKIRK, as he’s also a traumatized solider.

Much of the movie is set at a compound, a former Steel Mill, where Emmett lives in an air-tight bunker. Some of these scenes drag, but there are enough jolts, and shocks to keep one engaged. The last third concerns Emmett and Regan finding themselves at an island colony of survivors who act as if things are getting back to normal. The colony’s leader, Djimon Hounsou credited as “Man on the Island,” brings the promise of a weighty note to the narrative, but he doesn’t last long enough for his part to have much impact.

The finale, of course, is the family/monster showdown, and there’s a clever element to how the humans attempt to take down their slimey tormenters (I won’t Spoil it). However, I liked PART II a lot less than PART I. It didn’t feel as grounded or as emotionally gripping, and a lot of its tries to mirror the beats and scares of the original I could really see coming. It’s fitting that the film skips from one location to another, as it often feels like it’s all over the place. Where is a quiet place anyway? Is it the farm from PART I and part of PART II? Is it at the top of one of those silos? Or is it somewhere inside of us all?

A QUIET PLACE PART II is a fair follow-up that will likely be most appreciated by fans of the first one. It does have the highlight of the performance by Simmonds, who could very be seen as the film’s lead protagonist. Blunt puts in a solid, intense turn too, as does Murphy, but Simmonds steals this sequel fair and square.

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Thursday, July 08, 2021

BLACK WIDOW: Too Dark And Dull To Pop

Tonight, the first Marvel movie in two years hits the big screen, and Disney Plus:

BLACK WIDOW (Dir. Cate Shortland, 2021)

Since she was first introduced into the Marvelverse in IRON MAN 2 in 2010, Scarlett Johansson has portrayed the character of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow seven times. This includes extended cameos in all of the AVENGERS films, the two CAPTAIN AMERICA movies, and an appearance in CAPTAIN MARVEL. So it seems fitting for her eighth time in the role in the 24th entry in the franchise be a feature-length showcase for Johansson’s interpretation of a killer comic character that dates back to 1964.

The movie starts off as an origin story, with the young Natasha, played by a blue-haired 13-year old Ever Anderson, living what looks like a conventional family existence in Ohio. But her sister, Yelena Belova (10-year old Violet McGraw), and their parents Alexei (Stranger Things’ David Harbour), and Melina (Rachel Weisz), have to abruptly leave their home because it turns out that they’re Russian spies, you know, like that FX show, The Americans.

As they make their getaway, Yelena requests that her favorite song, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” be played on the car stereo. Usually when a particular song that is significant to a character is played early in a movie, that means it will come up again in a meaningful way later.

So the unrelated family make their escape via a getaway plane with Harbour’s Alexei hanging on the wing amid gunfire. There’s some excitement here, but overall due to its strong familiarity this opening sequence is underwhelming. But just you wait because this film isn’t finished serving up underwhelming sequences!

Natasha and Yelana get sent to some scary dark facility, called the Red Room Academy where they are groomed to be assassins (I think so - like I said it was dark). 21 years later, as a title tells us, Natasha has now grown into Johansson, who we can see is a troublemaker who is again on the run, but this time it’s the FBI headed by General Thaddeus Ross (a digitally de-aged for some reason William Hurt).

Yelana, now grown up to be Florence Pugh, is a fast-acting trained killer like Natasha, who, after a fight on a bridge with an thickly-armed mystery figure named Taskmaster, tracks her sister in Budapest, and they immediately get into another of the film’s savage yet unengaging fight scenes.

Then there’s a motorcycle chase through the streets where the sisters are pursued by black-clad attackers, and Taskmaster pops up again in a tank. Following that MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE-style activity, Natasha and Yelana break their super soldier Dad (actually fake Dad), now sporting an exaggerated Russian accent, out of a Siberian Prison in one of the movie’s better sequences as involves a riot, helicopter acrobatics, and best of all, an avalanche.

Unfortunately, that’s followed by a drawn out family (actually fake family) reunion on fake mother Melina’s Russian pig farm. An attempt to explore the complex dynamic of these peoples’ relationships, this talky drama section lasts over 20 minutes long and is tediously dull. It maybe the most boring bit in the entire Marvel movie canon.

The finale concerns the faux family bonding together (or trying to) to take down the film’s real villain, Dreykov (Ray Winstone, also with a questionable accent), and destroy the Red Room program which has transformed scores of young girls into brainwashed Black Widows. This is where we get screen-filling explosions, more hand-to-hand combat, paratroopers firing machine guns in the sky, and plenty of strained superheroics.

Problem is not much of BLACK WIDOW worked for me. Perhaps I’m burned out on the whole Marvel franchise, but the formula fell flat, and while I appreciated that the filmmakers, including Director Cate Shortland, and screenwriter Eric Pearson, set out to make a gritty Marvel film, with little of the flashiness of the other entries, the way too dark picture just doesn’t pop.

I have loved many of Johansson’s performances, but there’s not much of a character here. She mainly comes off as cold and humorless, which could be said of the movie in general. Despite that Pugh, who was solid in MIDSOMMAR, has some good wisecracks, and enjoyably makes fun of Johansson’s fight pose established in her previous turns in the roles; and O-T Fagbenle (Elizabeth Moss’s husband in The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu series) has some amusing moments as a guy smitten with Johansson, there’s precious little humor here. This is the Marvel movie, I bet more than what's on the horizon, that will suffer the most from not being able to have a funny Stan Lee cameo.

Marvel fanatics will probably like BLACK WIDOW a lot more than me as it has a fair share of action (except for the extended dysfunctional fake family segment), and fills in some gaps in the franchise’s continuity. But I was largely bored with the 24th entry in the never-ending Marvel saga, and think I really need a break from these movies.

For those of you that are going to it no matter what, don’t forget to stay for the after credits bonus scene. Of course, if you’re one of those that are set on seeing this movie, you already know that drill.

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Monday, July 05, 2021

Soundtrack Of The Week: HIGH ANXIETY +

nspired by comedy legend Mel Brooks’ 95th Birthday last week, I dug out the soundtrack to his 1977 Alfred Hitchcock parody, HIGH ANXIETY. I’ve had this record for around 40 years as I collected many soundtracks, and comedy albums as a kid. This album serves as both a soundtrack, and a comedy record, though the first side is closer to a conventional score.

Although the album is billed as the Original Soundtrack of HIGH ANXIETY, only Side A features music from the film. Side B is a Greatest Hits collection of tunes from Brooks’ previous films, which were written by either composer, John Morris, or Brooks or both.

The movie, HIGH ANXIETY, involves Brooks as the newly appointed Director of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very Very Nervous, who finds very strange occurrences seemingly everywhere he looks at the hospital. Brooks incorporates elements from such Hitchcock classics as NORTH BY NORTHWEST, NOTORIOUS, PSYCHO, THE BYRDS, REBECCA, DIAL M FOR MURDER, but mostly VERTIGO, as you can see from the album cover at the top of this post.

Now, HIGH ANXIETY didn’t reach the comic heights of Brooks’ earlier films such as THE PRODUCERS, BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, but it does have a bunch of solid gags, and a great cast including Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, and the mighty Dick Van Patten. Also, it should be noted that Hitchcock himself loved the film, and sent Brooks a case of wine with a note: “Splendid! I wish I had done it.”

The soundtrack starts with the Main Title, which, like a lot of movies’ main titles is an overture of the various bits of the score throughout the film. Morris does a great job of providing a homage to Hichcock’s long-time composer, Bernard Herrmann’s styles. It’s funny how the orchestral music decorating the airport-set opening is similar to Elmer Bernstein’s score for AIRPLANE!, which would follow three years later. I’m not saying anyone is ripping anyone off, it just seems that this is the way airports should sound in these satires. “What a dramatic airport!” Brooks remarks at one point.

The highlight of Side 1 has got to be Brooks’ Sinatra-style crooning to impress love interest Madeline Kahn with the title song “High Anxiety.” It’s a psychiatric condition (fear of heights) that his character suffers from so it’s amusingly convenient that he has this song handy. Brooks performance of the song is very charming most likely because he wrote it himself. His character didn’t write it – in the world of the film it appears to be a standard. Watch it below:

The rest of the score regurgitates the same melodies from the Main Title, and a reprise of Brook’s “High Anxiety” caps it off, but another track really stands out. It’s a parody of ‘70s glam rock called “If You Love Me Baby, Tell Me Loud.” It appears when Dick Van Patten’s character is locked in his car, and he’s tortured by the obnoxious song which keeps getting louder until it kills him. Surprisingly, the tune was also written by Brooks, and he and Morris are credited with performing it. If you didn’t know that Brooks can write and play rock ‘n roll, you sure know it now.

So after the five short tracks (the longest one is just over three minutes) that make up the HIGH ANXIETY side fade, it’s time to get to the real heart of the matter. In chronological order, we get two tracks from THE PRODUCERS, two tracks from THE TWELVE CHAIRS, three from BLAZING SADDLES, and two each from YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and SILENT MOVIE.

This “hits” collection is a very funny and entertaining listen. It begins with the Busby Berkeley-style musical number “Springtime For Hitler” from THE PRODUCERS which kicks off the record with a ridiculous flourish. Such a perfect example of something that nobody could get away with these days. Other highlights include trio of songs from BLAZING SADDLES, especially the theme sung by Frankie Laine, and Madeline Kahn’s hilarious Marlene Dietrich-impression on the world weary ballad, “I’m Tired.”

Another favorite is “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which features Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle. The event surrounding the song is the unveiling of Frankenstein’s Monster, and I’ve never been able to hear the song the same way since. As it’s written by Irving Berlin, this is the only track in this set that wasn’t written by Brooks or Morris.

Sure, some of this material is dated, but HIGH ANXIETY: Original Soundtrack paired with Mel Brooks’ Greatest Hits Featuring The Fabulous Film Scores Of John Morris is a fun album that every comedy nerd should have in their collection.

I’m not sure that I’ll seek out Brooks’ later stuff on record like TO BE OR NOT TO BE or HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART I (there was actually a single of “It’s Good To Be The King” released from the film). Not sure I’d listen to that stuff much. The soundtrack to Brooks’ 1987 STAR WARS spoof SPACEBALLS is mostly other artists like The Spinners, Van Halen, and The Pointer Sisters, so that’s a pass for me.

So that’s the first entry in my new soundtrack series. I’ll be babbling about other soundtracks in the weeks to come so please check back later.

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