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By Joe Bendel. How do you get from Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy cult classic The Holy Mountain to Ridley Scott’s moody blockbuster Alien? The road passes through Frank Herbert’s Dune and the legendary adaptation Jodorowsky failed to realize. It was a valiant effort that assembled much of the then unknown talent that would reconvene for the later science fiction-horror vehicle. The behind-the-scenes story of the greatest film-that-never-was is told in Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, which opens this Friday at New York’s Film Forum.

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Jodorowsky’s Dune boasts some of the greatest and most influential pre-production work maybe ever, but sadly you cannot see the final film. In 1975, Jodorowsky was at the peak of his international success, even though his films were still unevenly distributed in America. Along with the Rocky Horror Picture Show, films like El Topo helped define the Midnight movie as a profitable phenomenon. Looking for a challenge, Jodorowsky and his producer Michel Seydoux corralled the rights to Dune.

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Not exactly slavishly beholden to Herbert’s novel (which the Chilean auteur readily admits he had not read until after he committed to the project), Jodorowsky conceived an adaptation that truly boggles the mind. Still, Dune’s mind-expanding spice was perfectly compatible with Jodorowsky’s sensibilities. The prospective cast of Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, David Carradine, and Salvador Dalí alone would have guaranteed the film eternal cult status. However, Jodorowsky also assembled a technical crew of future genre superstars, including H.R. Giger, Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Chris Foss, and Dan O’Bannon, all of whom would contribute their talents to the O’Bannon scripted Alien.

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Recognizing their allure, Pavich includes liberal selections of the aborted film’s concept art, even animating small snippets to really torment genre fans. Despite the short term risks, there is no way this film would not have been profitable in the long term. Which would pay more dividends in the post-1970’s VCR era, Jodorowsky’s Dune or a safe studio comedy like I Will, I Will . . . for Now? For that matter, what sort of licensing and residuals does the unwatchable Streisand remake of A Star is Born still generate, even though it was a minor hit in its day?

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As a consolation, Pavich clearly suggests Jodorowsky’s efforts indirectly influenced scores of genre filmmakers, even if the experience was detrimental to his own career. Clearly, Jodorowsky is ready to talk about it, because he does so in great length throughout the documentary. Fortunately, he is quite a lively interview subject. Although we also hear from Giger, Foss, Seydoux, and Jodorowsky’s son Brontis (who would have played Paul Atreides), the senior Jodorowsky’s voice dominates the film—not that his considerable fanbase is likely to object.

During the course of the film, Pavich gives viewers a vivid sense of what Jodorowsky unmade film would have looked like and provides helpful context to appreciate the time and professional milieu in which it did not happen. A fascinating and tantalizing “what if,” Jodorowsky’s Dune is highly recommended for science fiction fans and frustrated filmmakers of all stripes when it opens this Friday (3/21) in New York at Film Forum.


Posted on March 19th, 2014 at 11:22am.

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The Case of the Three Sided Dream – Trailer from Adam Kahan on Vimeo.

By Joe Bendel. Even if movie fans do not know his name, they have heard his work, thanks to Quincy Jones. Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s reeds can be heard on the soundtrack for In the Heat of the Night and on Jones’ “Soul Bossa Nova,” a tune many people know as the Austin Powers theme. However, for real jazz listeners, Kirk requires no introduction. Adam Kahan pays tribute to the music and life force of the multi-reed titan in The Case of the Three Sided Dream, which screens today at SXSW.

The tenor was Kirk’s mainstay, but some of his most famous recordings feature his distinctive flute attack. He was also the preeminent stritch and manzello player, bar none. If that were not enough, he could also get incredible sounds out of clarinets, harmonicas, recorders, and sundry whistles. A true multi-instrumentalist, Kirk played any number of horns simultaneously, at a virtuoso level. Given his remarkable showmanship and an unearthly proficiency for circular breathing, Kirk was often criticized for resorting to gimmicks, but musicians like his former boss Charles Mingus knew better. To paraphrase Phil Woods, if it is just a gimmick, why don’t you try to do it? Incidentally, Kirk happened to be blind since infancy, due to a doctor’s negligence.

In all honesty, it is probably impossible to make a dull film about Kirk, considering the power of his music and personality. Frankly, there are scores of memorable episodes in John Kruth’s biography Bright Moments that did not find their way into the film. Nonetheless, Dream is more visually ambitious than most documentaries, using animation to help convey the spirit of Kirk’s inimitable stage pronouncements, which were a show in themselves. Yet, Kahan never pursues style at the expense of his subject.

Compared to many jazz docs, Dream features a relatively small cast of talking heads, but each one counts for a lot. Particularly notable are Kirk’s widow Dorthaan, who is a jazz institution herself through her work with WBGO (the public supported jazz radio station serving the New York-New Jersey area), and Steve Turre, Kirk’s sideman and protégé, who followed the leader’s example to become a masterful jazz soloist on the conch shells.

Of course, the music is really the thing in any doc like Dream. As adventurous as Kirk was, anyone comfortable with more soulful forms of hard bop will inhale his music like ice cream on a hot summer day. Still, Kahan’s generous clips demonstrate the difficulty in classifying Kirk under any general label. It is also rather ironic to see archival footage of Kirk’s all-star ensemble on the Ed Sullivan Show, opting for “Haitian Fight Song” instead of the producer-approved “Mon Cherie Amour,” since the propulsive Mingus standard would eventually be licensed for a Volkswagen commercial, in a slightly reworked form.

Oddly enough, Kirk’s “greatest hit” “Bright Moments” is referenced but not heard in Dream. That’s fair enough, but SXSW patrons could probably use its joyous sounds after the tragic incident late Wednesday. Regardless, Kirk’s music always has a restorative effect and Kahan presents it well. Highly recommended, The Case of the Three Sided Dream screens again today (3/15), as this year’s SXSW comes to a close.


Posted on March 15th, 2014 at 8:33pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Conservatory-trained Roger Marie Bricoux’s first ocean-liner gig was on the RMS Carpathia, which is best remembered for saving survivors of the RMS Titanic, which happened to be his last seafaring job, for obvious reasons. Considered paragons of the “show must go on” ethos, the dignity and tragic irony of the Titanic musicians’ lives are chronicled in Titanic—Band of Courage, a PBS special airing in select markets around the country over the next two weeks or so.

Sadly, none of the Titanic band-members lived to gig again. As most everyone knows, there was that whole business with an iceberg and an awkward lifeboat shortage. Matters could have gotten really ugly, but the musicians started playing to calm the passengers’ nerves. According to survivors, it really worked.

The night to remember offers no shortage of drama, but for viewers who are not Titanic junkies, Band of Courage also offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of working musicians during the late Edwardian era. Essentially straddling the lower middle class and upper working class, the ocean liner musicians were required to be proficient in a variety of styles, including operetta, light classical, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley. They had to be polished enough to withstand the shallow criticism of bored patrons and charismatic enough to earn their tip money. Scottish violinist John Law Hume was a natural in that respect.

From "Titanic: BandofCourage."

Technically, there were two Titanic ensembles: a quintet and a string trio. Reportedly, they only played together on that fateful night, but they shared a common repertoire, collected and conveniently numbered in the Titanic songbook. To give viewers a sense of their sound, a contemporary septet (a piano and six strings) performs each song under discussion as various talking heads weigh in, most notably including Hume’s grandson (whom he never met) and Steve Turner, the author of The Band that Played On.

Musicians and their friends will be particularly fascinating by the details of the ocean liner musicians’ working lives during the Gilded Age. Evidently, the agents handling the White Star Line’s exclusive bookings were not especially ethical or compassionate, suggesting some things in show business never change. Frankly, viewers are likely to conclude the eight musicians in question were not well served by their somewhat cartoonish portrayal in the bloated Cameron Oscar-winner. Interesting from both a musical and historical perspective, Band of Courage comes with convenient places to put pledge breaks, so do not be surprised if someone interrupts the broadcast to ask you for money.  Recommended for fans of string music and the infamously unsinkable ocean liner, Titanic—Band of Courage airs on participating PBS stations throughout the March 1-16 window.


Posted on March 4th, 2014 at 9:20pm.

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[Editor's note: the post below appeared yesterday at The Huffington Post.]

By Jason Apuzzo. Sunny southern California rarely gets its due at the movies. Ever since the 1940s, when film noir classics like Double Indemnity and The Big Sleep depicted Los Angeles as a dark urban labyrinth, you might get the feeling that southern California has remained in a permanent Blade Runner nightfall of neon signs, wet streets and detectives pulling fedoras down over their eyes. A world of call girls and corrupt police, of murder and car crashes; a bleak landscape of paparazzi and Black Dahlias, of washed-up actresses and sleazy district attorneys who wear too much aftershave.

It’s a shadowy, sexy and malevolent vision — except that it’s not really the day-to-day SoCal that longtime residents know and (mostly) love. Actually, the place is a lot brighter and more cheerful than that. And a lot goofier.


From "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

For one thing, southern California is actually huge, wide-open and flat — with endless horizons, whether of the Palm Springs or Redondo Beach variety — instead of the cramped, angular spaces you typically find in crime thrillers. And it’s got color — lots of color, from the saturated blues of the ocean and sky, to the lurid red-and-gold Fatburger signs on Pacific Coast Highway. Whoever dreamt up southern California was clearly dreaming it in 65mm Ultra Panavision Technicolor.

And contrary to popular belief, most people in southern California don’t pack guns or talk like they just stepped out of a Raymond Chandler novel, diverting as that would be. Most SoCal residents are sedate, middle-class people with just a hint of craziness to them — that quiet spark that drove them long ago to pack up and leave the East Coast/Midwest/Deep South to pursue their pot of gold right here in the Golden State.

And this brings us to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The wonderful folks at Criterion, who are forever saving our cinematic heritage from the ravages of time and neglect, have recently outdone themselves in producing a five-disc set (two Blu-rays + three DVDs) of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, all built around a pristine 4K transfer of the film and a newly restored 197-minute ‘roadshow’ version of the movie not seen in 50 years. (See a video on the restoration at the bottom of this post.)

And this new, authoritative version of director Stanley Kramer’s beloved epic comedy makes one thing abundantly clear: that It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World is the ultimate southern California movie.

For those unfamiliar with the film, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World depicts a pack of otherwise unremarkable southern Californians unleashed in a frenzy of greed when they learn that a stash of $350,000 in stolen money is waiting for them, ready to be dug-up in a park at Santa Rosita Beach (in real life, Portuguese Bend in Rancho Palos Verdes). Unable to come up with an equitable way of sharing the loot, the group breaks up into separate teams, frantically racing toward their hidden treasure by land and air — comedian Jonathan Winters even rides a girl’s bicycle for a while — all while the Santa Rosita Police, led by Spencer Tracy, tracks their progress.


From "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

So it’s off to the races, as airplanes smash through billboards (and even a restaurant at one point), cars roar off cliffs and bridges, an entire gas station is demolished, cast members are flung through the air by an out-of-control fire ladder, and every major speed law in southern California is broken. And although the wild conclusion of the film — a Hitchcockian visual effects extravaganza filmed in downtown Long Beach — leaves none of the avaricious group satisfied with their financial arrangement, it does leave everyone with smiles on their faces. (You’ll have to see the movie to find out what that means.)

And that’s really it. The premise of Mad, Mad World — greed — couldn’t be simpler, but it’s enough to power a non-stop, three-plus-hour chase from Yucca Valley to Santa Clarita to Malibu, all filled with dangerous stunts and comic gags performed by the greatest comedians of their time: Milton Berle, the recently passed Sid Caesar, Mickey Rooney, Jonathan Winters, Buddy Hackett, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Ethel Merman, Peter Falk and Jim Backus, just to name a few. Mad, Mad World also features spot cameos from the likes of Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Jerry Lewis, Carl Reiner, The Three Stooges and more comedy talent than you can shake a stick at. Continue reading »

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By Joe Bendel. It was a Texas kind of night in D.C. A concert bill that featured the likes of Billy Preston, Albert Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Delbert McClinton certainly reminds us of Texas’s contributions to blues, soul, and R&B. Ostensibly, the show was part of the inaugural festivities of President George H.W. Bush, another Texan, by choice. Of course, inaugurations are really just an excuse to party, which is definitely the vibe of A Celebration of Blue & Soul: the 1989 Inaugural Concert, which airs nationally on participating PBS stations during the March 1-16 pledge drive.

Long feared lost to the ages, the multi-camera recordings of the inauguration night bash have been rediscovered and restored, with a longer DVD release planned for the future. Naturally, Bush campaign manager and former Percy Sledge sideman Lee Atwater served as the honorary chairman of the concert and the invisible hand behind the scenes bringing it all together. After his greeting, the shorter PBS version launches into Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” perhaps the most perfunctory performance of the evening.  Next, Atwater’s old boss Sledge gives the crowd what it wants: “When a Man Loves a Woman,” for probably the 500,000th time in his career, but he still does his thing with genuine feeling.

Obviously, the 1989 concert has been edited with an eye towards greatest hits to make it pledge drive friendly, but just about everyone brought their A-game for their signature tunes. Eddie Floyd shows the showmanship of an old pro on “Knock on Wood,” while Sam Moore lays down the authority on “Soul Man,” backed by musical director Billy Preston and Stax veterans Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn.

Clearly, there is a lot of real deal blues on the program, including legendary Chess Records mainstay Willie Dixon performing “Hoochie Coochie Man,” which represents the height of blues authenticity. Albert Collins also gets his solo spotlight on “Frosty” (along with his protégé, Vaughan) as does McClinton on “Just a Little Bit.” Most of the artists are backed by the funky ensemble led by Preston and featuring Dunn and Cropper (but alas multi-reed jazzman Patience Higgins is not prominently spotlighted in the PBS cut). Of course, Bo Diddley brought in his own band, because that was how he rolled. He also had Ronnie Wood sit-in on the classic “Bo Diddley Beat” strutter, “Hey, Bo Diddley.”

From "A Celebration of Blues & Soul: The 1989 Inaugural Concert."

For understandable reasons, Stevie Ray Vaughan is the only artist allotted more than one number (this is pledge season after all), but he sure could play. He also closes the show with some fittingly nonpartisan, patriotic life-affirming sentiments. It is depressing to think only a year and a half later his own life would be cut short in helicopter crash, while he was still at the absolute peak of his powers. Indeed, the 1989 Inaugural concert captures for posterity many late greats in an appreciative setting, performing the songs that made them famous.

This is a great week for music on PBS. While the 1989 Inaugural Concert does not offer as many surprises as last night’s Jazz and the Philharmonic, it cooks along nicely. The concert itself is a lot of good, clean, soulful fun, but do not be surprised if someone asks you for money at least once during the broadcast. Recommended for fans of blues and Stax-style Memphis soul, A Celebration of Blue & Soul: the 1989 Inaugural Concert aired twice yesterday (3/1) on New York’s Thirteen and can be seen on PBS outlets throughout the country over the next two weeks.


Posted on February 2nd, 2014 at 2:51pm.

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By Joe Bendel. For many ardent listeners, the words “jazz” and “philharmonic” have heavy significance when used in close proximity. It automatically summons images of the all-star concerts and recording sessions the legendary Norman Granz produced in concert halls around the country. This is not a Granz production. The philharmonic reference is more in keeping with the classical tradition. However, the jazz is still for real in Jazz and the Philharmonic, a concert featuring alumni of the National YoungArts Foundation, the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra, and some of the top names in jazz, which airs on most PBS stations this Friday (yes, real honest-to-gosh jazz on PBS).

Of course, jazz and classical crossover fusions are nothing new. That is exactly what Third Stream Jazz was all about. While many of the program selections feature jazz soloists playing with the Mancini Orchestra (whose namesake would surely have approved of the program, especially the theme from Charade), there are several straight-up solo, duo, or trio jazz performances, which is obviously not a bad thing.

In fact, it is a very good thing when Chick Corea, Dave Grusin, and Bobby McFerrin open the concert with an elegant but persistently swinging “Autumn Leaves” for voice and two pianos. Corea fans really get their money’s worth throughout the concert, with the NEA Jazz Master performing in a variety of settings, mostly notably joining the Mancini Orchestra on his “Spanish Suite,” a composition perfectly suited to the evening. His duet with McFerrin, “Armando’s Rhumba” is not as distinctive, but they clearly enjoy making music together, which is part of the fun of a show like this.

In addition to “Spanish Suite, Terence Blanchard also has feature spots on “Fugue in C Minor” and “Solfeggietto,” probably the two most overtly swinging-the-classics numbers of the evening. However, he is probably best showcased fronting the orchestra for a rendition of “Charade,” a wonderfully lush arrangement that brings to mind his classic Jazz in Film CD. Yet, perhaps the most effective jazz and classical dialogue comes when Elizabeth Joy Roe and Shelly Berg tackle “The Man I Love” as a lyrical but muscular piano duet, from the classical and jazz sides, respectively.

From "Jazz and the Philharmonic."

Nevertheless, the surprise peak of the concert integrates the sounds of deep roots Americana as well as jazz and classical when violinist Mark O’Connor joins pianist Dave Grusin on a sensitive and soulful version of “Simple Gifts,” the Shaker standard subsequently incorporated into Copeland’s Appalachian Spring. Rather fittingly, Grusin’s “Mountain Dance” follows. Purists might dismiss it as too “smooth,” but man, is it ever a pretty melody, sounding almost tailor made for the full orchestral treatment. It also provides a nice launching pad for O’Connor. In fact, Grusin takes two rather impressive solos as well: one fleet and swinging and the second surprisingly adventurous—so take that jazz snobs.

Aside from a weird choice for a closer (Also sprach Zarathustra from 2001, really?), Jazz and the Philharmonic is an extremely welcome dose of jazz on primetime PBS. It ranges from pleasantly entertaining to downright revelatory. It should motivate viewer-listeners to keep an eye out for a talented newcomer like Roe and catch up with the work of accomplished veterans like O’Connor and Blanchard. Naturally, it always sounds great from a technical perspective, thanks to the late, great engineer Phil Ramone, in whose memory it is dedicated. Highly recommended, Jazz and the Philharmonic airs on hip PBS outlets this Friday night (2/28).


Posted on February 25th, 2014 at 10:22pm.

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