On the Anniversary of My Father’s Death

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My father, Abraham Ashkenasi, died on this date last year.  Above is the last picture I took of him, the last day I saw him in person.

It was February 16, 2016.  Two days earlier my mother called me to say my father was in the hospital and the doctor said there was a 50/50 chance he would not survive the night. I was about to leave for a production meeting ahead of the tech rehearsals for the workshop production of my musical “Speakeasy“.  Instead I purchased a plane ticket, worked out with my director how the show would manage without me during tech week, and flew from New York to Berlin, not knowing whether my father would still be alive when the plane touched down at Tegel airport the following morning.

My mother picked me up and told me Dad had made it though the night, but his situation was precarious.  His doctor considered him a dying man.  He would give no time estimates, but his attitude suggested days, rather than weeks or months.

In January Dad seemed well enough to plan a trip to New York.  He and Mom were going to come to New York in March to see the final performances of “Speakeasy”.  But early February there was a change and they announced his condition didn’t allow him to fly after all; so they cancelled their trip.  I realized then that the assumptions I had made of my father surely still having several good years with us may need adjusting, and I planned an April trip to Berlin, during the school Spring break when I wouldn’t be teaching in New York.  But even that adjustment was woefully optimistic.  The February 14 phone call from my mother came as a considerable shock.  None of us expected my father’s condition to deteriorate so dramatically so quickly.

The timing could hardly have been more awfully “inconvenient”.  I could only carve two and a half days in Berlin before I had to return to the production of my musical.  I knew I was very likely seeing my father for the last time, and I think he knew it too, but it wasn’t openly discussed.

I still don’t think I have the words, or yet wish to find the words, to describe what this circumstance felt like.  I knew I was at a loss for many words then and there; and because of that, and the accompanying sense of helplessness, a certain need to document, to do something, I took some pictures with my phone.  Of us the family, and of Dad in his hospital bed.  Most of the shots of him are not ones I would wish to share, but the final shot, the one above, of Dad napping and Mom looking on, is one that radiated a calm that seemed comforting.

After I took that picture, without much thought I turned the phone onto myself to document what I felt was etched into my face.

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The Lovers of Grand Army Plaza

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The photo above is one of my personal favorites I have taken during my random photo taking walks around New York City.  It is of the Bailey Fountain in Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn.

GAP2The reason I am posting this today is because when it is Spring the Bailey fountain will start gushing water again periodically.  It remains resolutely dry and still in the winter.  Spring has officially begun, but it is still resolutely wintery cold in Brooklyn today. Freezing cold, with blustery winds.  Perhaps posting this picture will help Spring hurry along.  I’ve joked that this year winter has come in like a lamb and is leaving like a lion, because it was so mild in January and February but snow storms and cold alternated discombobulatingly with warm spells in March.

I’m ready for a real Spring now. For warm weather to allow the Bailey Fountain to splash the Lovers of Grand Army Plaza with sexy condensation.

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Emma Thompson Tackles Tricky Tuplets in “Beauty and the Beast”

 

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This weekend the Disney live-action remake of the 1991 Disney animation classic “Beauty and the Beast” made a big splash with audiences, critics, and, especially, the box office.  I saw it Friday and was completely enchanted.  The movie smartly recreates in live action all that is beloved about the original, with eye-poppingly baroque visual effects, good writing and fine acting, while adding just enough winning new material and occasionally cleverly tweaking the familiar beats too.

The one tweak that got my attention so much I decided to write about it here comes in the new rendition of the title song “Beauty and the Beast”.  Emma Thompson steps out of the formidable shadow of the beloved Angela Lansbury to essay her own lovely vocals as Mrs. Potts, the singing teapot.  But unlike Angela Lansbury, Emma Thompson finds herself having to smoothly glide through some tricky rhythmic obstacles.  Listen and hear for yourself:

Beauty and the Beast – Emma Thompson (music: Alan Mencken; lyrics: Howard Ashman)

At the 1:01 mark this “Beauty and the Beast” turns into a waltz, in 3/4 time, something that didn’t happen in the original.

BntB1991In the original we see Belle and Beast dancing a waltz while Angela Lansbury sings about the tale as old as time, but the music nonetheless remains steadfast in common time,  1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4…  and the melody continues the rhythmic pattern set forth at the beginning of the song and followed through to the end, a phrase of four eighth notes followed by a longer note Beautyscreenshot(Tale as old as time — Beauty and the Beast  —  da da da da daah — etc.)

It appears that for the remake the decision was made that when Belle and Beast start dancing their famous waltz the music should join them in 3/4 time; and so it now does, subtly but definitely at the 1:01 minute mark in the recording, staying in 3/4 until the 2:34 minute mark.  But how does that change the melody of the song?  Is it rhythmically rewritten to accommodate the new time signature?  Nope.  bntbemmathompson

Emma Thompson keeps singing the song as if she was singing regular phrases of 4 eighth notes starting on a downbeat and followed by a long final note on the next downbeat. If anything, she holds onto that steady 4 note phrase more rhythmically evenly now than she does during the first minute, where she sings those phrases more freely.  In holding on to the steady 4 while underneath her the orchestra is playing a constant 3, Emma Thompson is proving herself the master of a very tricky tuplet.

 

 

Tuplet?

What the heck is a tuplet?

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SNOW SONGS for SNOW DAY (& a PI Song for PI Day)

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It’s a Snow Day here in the Northeast.  New York City is basically shut down and everyone is staying inside.  What was projected to be a nasty blizzard for the city has been downgraded to an unpleasant mix of snow, sleet, rain, wind and cold, but other areas in the Northeast are being hit much harder.

So while we wile away the day indoors with hot cocoa and books and Netflix, how about some Snow Songs? (And since this is also 3/14 AKA Pi day, I’ll throw in a bonus Pi song too).

Let’s start with two songs actually called “Snow”, both from movie soundtracks:

Snow – Gustavo Santaolalla – Brokeback Mountain

SnowBBM (1)An idyllic, relaxed take on snow.  Not the snow storm but the cool calm snow blanketed mountain landscape afterwards. And Jake and Heath keeping warm by the fire, and keeping warm under the blankets too…

Gustavo Santaolalla received an Academy Award for his twangy, subtly soaring score for Brokeback Mountain.

Snow – Abel Korzeniowski – A Single Man

single-man-4-1Abel Korzeniowski should have received an Academy Award for his aching string score for A Single Man, but alas he wasn’t even nominated.  This track, Snow, in contrast to Santaolalla’s calm Snow, is agitated and ominous, in keeping with the snow framed nightmare vision of the deadly accident it accompanies.

Quick, let’s move on to a prettier, happier musical take on snow;  snowflakes waltzing, to be specific:

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BIG LITTLE LIES’ Ideal COLD LITTLE HEART

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I have been following the HBO’s A-level mystery soap “Big Little Lies” and have been transfixed by the title credit music.  It begins with a haunting hummed falsetto motif that, after a few repeats, becomes the accompaniment to a plaintive, raspily sung soul melody.

A little internet research informed me this cool music was excerpted from Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart”.  On Itunes there were two versions one could download. The 9:57 album cut (from Kiwanuka’s “Love & Hate”).  Or a 3:30 minute radio edit.

Ten minutes seemed like too much of a good thing, especially when I only knew I loved the minute I heard during the “Big Little Lies” credit sequence.  So I opted for the radio edit:

Cold Little Heart – Michael Kiwanuka – Radio Edit (3:30 minutes)

ColdLittleHeartWhich starts with that haunting intro.  And after a quick verse chorus verse chorus go around there is a quick fade out, just as the music hints at an intriguing coda.  A coda that plays over Big Little Lies’ title credits, but is not included in the radio edit.

It sounded truncated.  I was curious what else, in addition to the title credit coda, was missing.  I decided to plunk down an additional $1.29 for the ten minute album cut.

It’s a three course meal.  With plenty of salad and appetizers before the main course, and a tasty dessert after:

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MOONLIGHT – the triple least “Oscar Baity” Oscar Winner

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“I just hope the weird pandemonium doesn’t overshadow the fact that a $1.5 million independent film by a black director about black, gay, poor people was named Best Picture.  The process to get there was very weird, but it’s an amazing thing.”

  • Ava DuVarnay

Someone on Facebook off-handedly commented that surprise (in so many ways) Best Picture Oscar winner “Moonlight” was “a little too Oscar baity”.  And I took the bait, by incredulously commenting that, if anything, “Moonlight” may be the least Oscar baity film ever to win.  LGBTQ protagonists/love story?  African-American cast?  Micro-budget indie?  Films with just one of these criteria struggled to just get nominated, but never won.  And sometimes even when they were so highly acclaimed they could not be ignored, they still somehow got slighted, see “Carol” last year with 6 nominations but none for director or picture, or “Selma” the year before with a picture nom but then just one more, for song.  (And then there’s the homophobic backlash that bedeviled the most acclaimed movie of its year, “Brokeback Mountain”…)

And what does “Oscar Bait” even mean?  It’s a lazy term that used to be applied to big historical epics or British prestige pics or anything Harvey Weinstein releases, or as of late any movie that celebrates Hollywood and Actors (Best Picture winners “The Artist”, “Argo”, “Birdman”, and 14 time nominee and 6 time winner “La La Land”).  Or that snarky moniker is simply directed at any film that appears to have been produced with Academy Awards hopes in mind.

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Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the play “In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” & Barry Jenkins, who adapted the script and directed “Moonlight”

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#OscarsSoCrazy – The Worst Best Thing that could have happened to La La Land and Moonlight.

In a moment that will be hard to beat as the strangest, most gasp-inducing thing to have ever and might ever again happen at the Oscars, “Moonlight” was revealed to have been the actual Best Picture winner after “La La Land” had been mistakenly read off the wrong envelope somehow handed to Best Picture presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.  “La La Land” was the clear popular front runner expected to win, and already the recipient of 6 Oscars that night, while “Moonlight” was the beloved underdog, the film many hailed as a deeply moving masterpiece.  But few believed the small, very-low-budget poetic movie about being gay and black and living amid the scourge of drugs would best the ravishing valentine to love, musicals and movie history.  That it ultimately did, even in such a spectacularly weird way, is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to both “Moonlight” and “La La Land”.

la-la-landFirst, how did it happen?  How does the film that won Best Director (Damien Chazelle) not also win Best Picture?  Director/Picture wins used to be the norm at the Academy Awards.  But it isn’t anymore.  Ever since The Academy expanded the Best Picture list of nominees to be up to ten pictures, there have been more splits between Picture and Director than not.  One reason, and I believe the main reason this year, is that the new system has votes for Best Picture tabulated differently than for all the other categories incl. Director.  For Director, Academy members simply vote for one out of the five nominees.  Whoever gets the most votes wins.  But for Best Picture, because there can be up to ten movies (there were nine this year), Academy members are asked to rank their top five choices in order of 1-5 on what is called a “preferential ballot”.  PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountants who somehow got the wrong envelope into Beatty’s hands, never reveal vote tallies, but it is possible for “La La Land” to have received the same leading share (plurality) of votes for director and picture #1 rankings.  Let’s pull a number out of the air : 35%.  And let’s pretend “Moonlight” and its director Barry Jenkins both got the second most votes for Director and Picture #1’s : 30%.  “La La Land” would win best director.  35% wins the plurality vote.  But to win Best Picture, over 50% of ballots must end up in the winning movie’s column; so the amount of #2 placements “La La Land” and “Moonlight” received on the ballots that listed the other films on the #1 spot  becomes very important.  A movie may not get the most #1 votes, but if it picks up most of the #2 votes it can overtake the front runner.  This is what apparently happened last year when “Spotlight” won Best Picture while the perceived front runner “The Revenant” received Best Director; and it appears to have happened again this year.

moonlight_2016_filmSo that’s the likely how, but what’s the why?  Sasha Stone at Awards Daily  theorizes that front runners that are divisive don’t fair well on the preferential ballot.  You can’t just have the most people put the film at #1, you also need most of the rest of the voters to put it at #2 or #3, not at the bottom of their preferential ballot.  So, was “La La Land” divisive?  Somewhat.  There have been several articles and voices that praised “La La Land” while also criticizing it for a perhaps blinkered or naive attitude towards jazz and Hollywood dreamers.  There were also those who felt, with everything going on in America right now, that this was not the year for the Academy to elevate escapism over social significance, even while acknowledging how reductive it is to box in “La La Land” with the “escapist” label and “Moonlight” with the “socially relevant” label.

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MANHATTAN BRIDGE and Associates

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A Grab Bag of Bridge Photos, Bridge Songs and Bridge Memories.

Art Garfunkel lays himself down like a bridge:

Bridge Memory #1 (Spies and Walls)

Adele’s love ain’t water under the bridge:

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Speakeasy Highlight Reel

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Chet Cheshire and NY Denizens sings “Speakeasy”

It’s the one year anniversary of the workshop performances of “Speakeasy – John and Jane’s Adventures in the Wonderland“.  To mark the occasion, here are some screen shots of the Speakeasy Highlight Reel, a 13 minute edit of selections from the musical, featuring excerpts of many songs, and functioning as a visual / aural synopsis of John and Jane’s fantastical adventures.

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Jane and John, before things start getting “curious”.

The Speakeasy Highlight Reel may be viewed by request only via a secure private online link.  To watch it, please send your email request to dannyashkenasi@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, these screenshots also function as a bit of a shorthand to most of the Speakeasy plot (find workshop performer credits here).  I will include links to many of the articles about Speakeasy and its evocation of 1920’s Queer history that have been posted on Notes from a Composer in the past two years.  To check out them all, seek out The Speakeasy Chronicles in the archives and/or go to the Speakeasy page.

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Above and to the right, John and Jane, after wondrous dreams, go through the “looking glass” and down the “rabbit hole”.

Below, Roberta White (i.e. the white rabbit) goes slumming in Harlem.

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Meeting Julian Carnation and the Florists

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SONGS OF JOB’S DESPAIR – “I’m Alive” & “Divine Intervention”

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“I’m Alive” and “Divine Intervention” are two songs that speak to humanity’s age-old despair, in the person of one man crying out against overwhelming unspeakable events outside of his fault and control.

They were written for The Song of Job 9:11, a hybrid of rock song cycle and classical oratorio I created in response to the events and aftermath of September 11, 2001.  It has been performed in concert and theatrically staged numerous times in New York City.

“The Song of Job 9:11” views the horrors of 9/11 via the template of the Old Testament’s Book of Job, a text about a good man to whom horrible things happen, and who challenges God for answers.  The musical piece combines contemporary accounts (eyewitness reports, news articles, op-ed pieces) with the original O.T. text (King James version), spoken verbatim, while the sung lyrics are mostly inspired by both.

While some songs engage directly with the events of 9/11, with the biblical Job offering commentary, “I’m Alive” and “Divine Intervention” are based most closely on Job’s own point of view.  After a short prologue enumerating the disasters that befall Job (destruction of crops and home, the murder of his children, debilitating disease) Job sings “I’m Alive”, whose lyrics hew closely to Job’s first speech in the Book of Job (Chapter 3):

Let the day perish wherein I was born

and the night which said, “A man child is conceived.”

Let that day be darkness!

May God above not seek it, nor shine light upon it…

Job’s final appeal to God in “The Song of Job 9:11”, “Divine Intervention” comes before God appears to Job as the voice in the whirlwind, and is based on Job’s speech starting in chapter 29:

Oh, that I were in the months of old,

as in the days when God watched over me;

when his lamp shone over my head

and by his light I walked through darkness…

Following are the lyrics and live recordings of both “I’m Alive” and “Divine Intervention”.  To watch videos of both (and the whole piece) and read more about “The Song of Job 9:11”, visit the Song of Job page.

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I’m Alive

JOB:    God curse the day that I was born

            And damn the night that didn’t shut my mother’s womb

            Nor keep this trouble and despair from my eye –

            Why did I not die at birth

            Come forth, expire and return to earth

 

E/B/Z: Man is born to trouble, his afflictions only double when he shouts to the wind

             Man is made of sorrow, all he can do for tomorrow is repent all his sins

 

JOB:    Just let me lay down and be quiet

            Where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary can rest

 

            I’m alive

E/B/Z: Praise the Lord for the blood in your veins – for each heartbeat that you gain

JOB:    I’m alive

E/B/Z: Praise the Lord for the air that you claim – as your lungs take constant measure

JOB:    I’m alive

E/B/Z: Praise the lord for the sparks in your brain – giving pain and taking pleasure

JOB:    Why was I born alive

             Tell me why I’m alive

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TRUMPIAN PARODY TUNES – Lyrical Agitprop Updates for Cabaret & The Producers

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Tinkle Tinkle

 

Tinkle, tinkle little tzar

Putin put you where you are

Up above the law so high

In your penthouse tweeting lies

Tinkle, tinkle little tzar

Putin put you where you are

 

Last night, at a meeting of concerned citizens eager to get politically engaged to stand up for our values, our concerns and the America we believe in, sheets of agitprop parody lyrics were passed around to close the meeting with a lighthearted yet pointed singalong.  Provided by Jessica Agullo and John Collins, who run the website NastyWomanStuff, these lyrics (in addition to the nursery rhyme above) very cleverly repurpose songs from the musicals “Cabaret” and “The Producers” that in their original form already made rather pointed comments about the politics of 1930’s Germany, an era whose echoes are reverberating rather too loudly again.

I’ll include recordings of the original as hum-along references for the parody lyrics:

 

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The Power Belongs to Me

to the tune of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from “Cabaret”

 

The blonde in the pageant, deflower’d in her youth

The wolf in the white house runs free

We gather together to TRUMP the truth

The power belongs to me!

 

Our great constitution is weak and it’s flawed

It need to be trashed as you’ll see

It’s time that it’s handled just like a broad

Whose pussy belongs to me!

 

I spend my days tweeting alternative facts

I run off with Putin to pee

But no way am I gonna release my tax

The truth now belongs to me!

 
 

Springtime for Donald

to the tune of “Springtime for Hitler” from “The Producers”

 

USA had lost its luster

Losers, carnage, mayhem

Needed a new golden leader

Make it great again

producers

 

Oh who could that man be?

We asked on bended knee

We looked up high into the sky

And found the man we need

And now its…

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LA LA LAND’s Nod to CABARET

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“La La Land”, writer/director Damien Chazelle’s widely critically and popularly acclaimed original movie musical currently basking in the glow of 14 Academy Award nominations, is a love letter to romance gained and lost, to Los Angeles and its tribe of dreamers, and above all to a rich history of movie musicals.

Much has already been said about “La La Land’s” evocation of classic musical films, with the Gene Kelly masterpieces “An American in Paris” and “Singin’ in the Rain” as well as Jacques Demy’s ravishing “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Young Girls of Rochefort” getting the most mentions.  But many many more classic movie musicals find themselves lovingly alluded to in cinematic references large and small – most I would assume threaded in deliberately by Chazelle and his collaborators, although some allusions may have possibly been unconscious, so much is the history of movie musicals baked into “La La Land” –  some day soon I am sure a whole book will be published discussing them all (for now there are dozens of articles, for example this video essay comparing “La La Land” to Scorcese’s “New York New York”).  Today I would like to look at “La La Land’s” nods to one particular classic movie musical: “Cabaret”.  The allusions there may be more subtle than to the other films mentioned above, but they are still clear.

“Cabaret”, Bob Fosse’s cinematic adaptation of the stage hit about hedonism and prejudice in pre-Nazi Germany, rewrote movie musical rules, won 8 Oscars, and made a huge impression on me as a kid (it still ranks as one of my all time favorite movies).  In story it and “La La Land” have little in common, except that both feature a lead female trying to break into show business (not unusual at all in musicals) and tells the story of a love affair (also very common in musicals) that comes to a bittersweet end (more unusual).

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Emma Stone singing “Audition”

The nod to “Cabaret” comes out most strongly in the pivotal “Audition” scene.  Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress disillusioned by too many rejections but back for one more audition that may turn around her career, is asked by the casting director not to act a monologue or read a scene, but to improvisationally tell a story.  This storytelling becomes the song “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)”  Mia chooses to tell about her bohemian aunt, whose wild, adventurous ways inspire the lyrics in the chorus that might as well stand as a credo for Mia, her boyfriend Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and “La La Land” itself:

Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
Here’s to the hearts that ache
Here’s to the mess we make

Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – Emma Stone

This song has a crucial relationship to the song “Cabaret”, which Liza Minnelli sings at the end of the eponymous movie, and which also embodies the singer’s (and by extension movie’s) credo in the chorus (“Life is a cabaret, old chum! So come to the cabaret!”).

Cabaret – Liza Minnelli

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Liza singing “Cabaret”

Both songs illustrate their point of view by using their verses to tell of a colorful female character whose unconventional, daring life inspired the singer.  It the case of “Cabaret” it is Sally’s girlfriend Elsie (with whom she shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea).  Mia’s aunt and Sally’s girlfriend are the ones who inspired them as well as their song’s points of view.

The clue that this relationship between the two songs is fully intentional is the word “liquor” and how it relates to both the aunt’s and the girlfriend’s demise:

In “Cabaret”:

The day she died the neighbors came to snicker:
“Well, that is what comes from too much pills and liquor.”

But when I saw her laid out like a queen
She was the happiest corpse I’d ever seen

In “Audition”:

She lived in her liquor
And died with a flicker
I’ll always remember the flame

Composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Noble Brown must have included that “liquor” reference as a knowing nod to “Cabaret”.

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COMPLETE OSCAR NOMINATIONS LIST – with plenty personal notes, comments and trivia – updated with winners

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This year’s Oscar nominations have been announced, and for once the media pundits and social media consensus are much happier with the overall outcome, with few gripes and much to celebrate.  Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty sighs about deserving favorites not making the cut – the Best Actress category especially was a bottleneck with many casualties (more on that later) – but more tellingly there are few outcries about supposedly undeserving candidates being included.

I myself am pretty happy about the nominations.  Even if I might have wished for more love for certain overlooked or barely acknowledged films (“Loving”, “The Lobster”, “Love and Friendship”, “Silence”…), I can safely say that I really really liked 8 of the 9 Best Picture nominees, even loved quite a few, and rate at least 3 among my top films of the year and even decade.  The one of the nine not included, well, I haven’t seen it yet…

The Oscars will be handed out February 26.  Here’s the full nomination list, with my little asides on trivia and taste (update 2/27: all winners have been underlined – read my response to the Best Picture weirdness here):

Best motion picture of the year

  • “Arrival”

    Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder and David Linde, Producers – 8 noms in total (One win):

Picture – Director – Original Screenplay – Editing – Cinematography – Production Design – Sound Editing – Sound Mixing

20161020171048arrival_movie_posterWhile “La La Land” got a record 14 nominations, “Arrival” and “Moonlight” both are in second place with 8 each.  A very good showing for the popular and critically celebrated cerebral science fiction thriller “Arrival”, with two notable omissions where nominations were generally expected: visual effects and Amy Adams’ lead performance, which anchors the films’ complex intellectual and emotional themes (plus there was one omission where there was an egregious disqualification, more on that later).  In the case of Amy Adams, it seems to be less a snub than an unfortunate casualty of the aforementioned Best Actress candidate bottleneck; and there may be a silver lining for Amy in that the already 5 time nominated but non-winning actress with this omission (that most everyone feels bad about) now might have the wind in her back to actually claim the award the next time around, rather than become the next Deborah Kerr / Glenn Close / Thelma Ritter (6 noms, no wins) of Oscar history (not to mention Richard Burton – 7 noms, no win – or Peter O’Toole – 8 noms, no win).  And with Amy Adam’s amazing track record (5 noms in ten years), there will surely be a next time around.

By the way, with his work on “Arrival”, Bradford Young becomes the first African-American cinematographer nominated for an Academy Award (1998’s “Elizabeth” gave us the first nominated black British cinematographer).  Just one example out of many deserving ones why this year so ain’t the year of #OscarSoWhite.

Meanwhile I can’t say enough good things about “Arrival”, the movie, except to reiterate how its themes of communication, understanding, and science in the face of dangerously irrational fear and prejudice have become only more important and potent with every passing awful day.

  • “Fences”

    Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington and Todd Black, Producers – 4 noms in total (one win):

Picture – Actor  – Supporting Actress  – Adapted Screenplay

fencesI had the thrill and the privilege of seeing Denzel Washington and Viola Davis perform their Tony winning and now Oscar nominated roles in “Fences” live on stage.  It was brilliant when revived on Broadway and it’s brilliant now brought to cinema, one of the great stage-to screen adaptations of one the American Theater’s masterpieces.  August Wilson (posthumously nominated for adapted screenplay) created a 10 play cycle about indelible individuals, about the African American experience, about America, each play set in a different decade of the 20th century – an achievement that puts him on the US Playwriting Mount Rushmore right next to Miller, O’Neill, Williams and Albee.  “Fences”, which takes place in the 1950’s, was the first of the cycle to be produced on Broadway, but with this year’s revival of “Jitney”, all ten will have been staged on the Great White Way.  And soon all ten will have been filmed.  After directing “Fences”, Denzel Washington has made a deal with HBO to produce movies of the other nine.

  • “Hacksaw Ridge”

Bill Mechanic and David Permut, Producers – 6 noms in total (2 wins):

Picture – Director – Actor  – Editing – Sound Editing – Sound Mixing

960This is the one film of the nine Best Picture nominees I haven’t yet seen.  And the main reason is that I fear it will traumatize me, because war movies and even war plays, when based on true events and unflinching about the true horrors of war, do invariably traumatize me.  So I hesitate to see them.  It’s not necessarily the depiction of violence, although that can be a problem too aesthetically, it’s the awareness of the reality of these horrors having been actually suffered by real people at that time.   Sleeplessness and nightmares will ensue.

I generally pride myself on seeing every film nominated for Best Picture before the ceremony, so perhaps I will still watch “Hacksaw Ridge”.  But I will concede that the few exceptions to my see-all-nominees rule have been war movies.  The fact that “Hacksaw Ridge” lionizes a pacifist conscientious objector do compel me and my Quaker husband to see it. The reports of the unflinching, gore filled depiction of the Battle of Okinawa give me pause.  We’ll see.  I have until February 26.

  • “Hell or High Water”

Carla Hacken and Julie Yorn, Producers – 4 noms in total:

Picture –  Supporting Actor  – Original Screenplay – Editing

You could hardly wish for a better action drama / modern day Western.  Great writing, directing, acting, taut suspenseful storytelling with smart multifaceted social commentary.

I want to make a shout out to one particular moment in the movie, the diner scene with the bossy waitress, which felt so random and so authentic that I was certain this must be a real waitress who treated the filmmakers this way for real when they dropped by her restaurant during pre-production or during the shoot and they just loved her so much they incorporated her just as she is into the movie.  That would have made a great story.  However, everything I’ve read about the scene indicates that it was scripted and cast just like any other scene:

  • “Hidden Figures”

hiddenDonna Gigliotti, Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Pharrell Williams and Theodore Melfi, Producers – 3 noms in total:

Picture – Supporting Actress – Original Screenplay

There was cheering and applause during the credits when we saw “Hidden Figures”.  And well deserved.  This crowd pleaser about the crucial contributions and civil rights era tribulations of black female mathematicians and engineers at NASA has come at just the right time to make a big splash at the box office.  With “Arrival” it is also the second best picture nominee to make women the unrivaled center of the story. As highly accomplished scientists as well as friends and mothers.  Both films show them to be smart. And empathetic. And heroic.  And show prejudice and irrationality to be the destructive agents of fear and backwardness that they are – just as they are taking over our nation and the planet for real outside of the cinema.

  • “La La Land”

Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz and Marc Platt, Producers – 14 noms in total (6 wins):

Picture – Director – Actor – Actress – Original Screenplay – Editing – CinematographyScoreSong – Song – Costumes – Production Design – Sound Mixing – Sound Editing

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14 nominations!

14!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Only two films have achieved that milestone in past Academy Award history: “All About Eve” and “Titanic”, both of which went on to win Best Picture and many more Oscars, a happy fate that appears to be set for “La La Land” too.  Most likely.  OK, 90%, 95% certainty.  Many movies with 13 nominations have ended up not winning Best Picture their year, especially recently, even though they were their year’s nominations leader.  But still, “La La Land” is so popular, with the public and the Academy (did I mention 14 noms!?) that it is expected to be rewarded with many golden statuettes including the Big One February 26.

And it could tie or surpass “Ben Hur”, “Titanic” and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” for the most Oscars – 11.  The most it could win is 13 (as it is competing with itself in the Song category).  Will the Academy shower all its love on “La La Land” or will it spread the wealth, as it has been more wont to do in recent years, especially since so many other nominated films this year are very much beloved too?  I believe a haul between 6-10 is most likely, but you never know.  “LOTR:ROTK” was nominated for “only” 11 Oscars, but wound up winning in every contending category.

I was in a swoon when I saw “La La Land”.  And how would I not be?  It lovingly plays homage to not only the musical genre in general, but also to specific musicals that I particularly cherish.  It speaks to everything I love and aspire to in musicals.  It really should be a no brainer that it would be my #1 movie on the Best Picture list.

And yet, as thrilled and infatuated as I am with it, it’s actually my #2…

  • “Lion”

Emile Sherman, Iain Canning and Angie Fielder, Producers –
6 noms in total:

Picture – Supporting Actor – Supporting Actress – Adapted Screenplay – Cinematography – Score

lion“Lion” is no mere tearjerker, it is a bucket filler.  A waterworkser.  A Niagaragusher.  And moreover, it is so well and so honestly made that it earns every one of those ocean filling tears. It certainly helps that it is based on the incredible true story of a five year old Indian boy who is accidentally separated from his family, eventually adopted by an Australian couple, and over 20 years later finds his way back to his lost home and family with the help of memory fragments and satellite pictures from Google Earth.  I didn’t think I would be crying any more at any movie than I did at “Lion” this year.  But there would be one film that similarly did me in…

  • “Manchester by the Sea”

Matt Damon, Kimberly Steward, Chris Moore, Lauren Beck and Kevin J. Walsh, Producers –
6 noms in total (2 wins):

Picture – Director – Actor – Supporting Actor – Supporting Actress – Original Screenplay

manchester2…not “Manchester by the Sea”, although I feared it might.  I did cry.  There is devastating sadness in this film.  But even within the immense tragedy it eventually  meticulously lays out over the course of its story, the movie tempers sentiment with humor and humanity and intelligence and restraint.  A smart movie about grief, I feared going in it may due me in, as grief has been a big part of my life this year.  In stead watching it I felt comforted by Kenneth Lonergan’s wise and subtle approach.  I felt respected as an audience member by the movie neither fully sinking into irreparable despair nor forcing an unearnable optimism.

“Manchester by the Sea” was long considered by the pundits to be one of the top three movies in the “Oscar race” this season, with “La La Land” and “Moonlight”, and it surely still is, having won a lead three acting nominations as well as directing and screenplay nods.   But its lack of a (usually considered crucial) editing nom and its recent 0-4 shut out at the SAG awards indicate that it may at best be a distant 3rd on the Best Picture list, while “Arrival”, which shares “Moonlight”‘s 8 nom total (but could/should have reached 11) and big SAG winners “Fences”  and “Hidden Figures” have risen in the odds.

  • Moonlight

Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers – 8 noms in total (3 wins):

Picture – Director – Supporting Actor – Supporting Actress – Adapted Screenplay – Editing – Score – Cinematography

moonlight_2016_filmSo there really is probably only one film that could surprise and overtake “La La Land” for Best Picture.  It’s very unlikely.  Heck, it is unlikely that a small, low-budget film about a marginalized person within a marginalized portion of a marginalized section of society, a film with no stars, a quiet film that favors subtlety, restraint, silence, would make such a big impact.  Historically such films are as marginalized as their subject matter.  Maybe they get Independent Spirit Awards.  At best a lone Oscar nomination for screenplay, or for one actor.  (The one major exception is “Brokeback Mountain”, but that’s a sore spot, as we all know about the homophobic backlash that prevented its Best Picture win).  But the passion and love for “Moonlight” is strong.  8 nominations.  In basically every category “Moonlight” could conceivably be expected to contend, it has been cited.  That is a sign of deep respect and passion for the film.

And I can understand why because I have experienced it too.  It isn’t just that I feel every aspect of “Moonlight”, screenplay, cinematography, music, editing, performances, direction has been exquisitely crafted, it is also that as a whole the movie achieves something sublime that exceeds the sum of its parts, goes beyond the elements one can readily explain and critique as to what makes them artistic, effective, masterful.  The quality of the filmcraft reaches beyond the literal, representative elements of cinema.  In my experience, “Moonlight” is one of those rare films that is cinematic poetry, that works on your subconscious like a great piece of music or painting, that touches upon a higher realm of the ineffable.

“Moonlight” achieves alchemy.  And in an art form dependent on so many moving parts from so many collaborators, that is a near miraculous achievement.

Therefore for me it is the movie of the year.

So, no movies past the letter M nominated for Best Picture?  What is this?  #OscarsSoFirstHalfoftheAlphabet?

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Jacqui Sutton and the Frontier Jazz Orchestra perform “Grass Dolls”

 

 

My friend and collaborator Jacqui Sutton has posted a video of her and the Frontier Jazz Orchestra performing “Grass Dolls”, a live performance that also functions as a video submission for NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts.

“Grass Dolls” is the first song Jacqui and I wrote together as part of our upcoming American Anthem song cycle, which Jacqui describes as a project to compose “individual anthems that seek to give voice to members of American society that have not historically felt included in the conversation about what it means to be an authentic American, and who decides what is American”.  (Jacqui and I go way back.  Listen to the demo recording of “Grass Dolls” as well as her covers of songs from my Mark Twain musical in this piece.)

One of the joys of collaborating with others on songwriting is when a true mixing and melding of one’s sensibilities with another’s sensibilities creates a new, unique sensibility that otherwise wouldn’t exist.  So is it with the songs for American Anthem.  These songs are a true blending of Jacqui’s and my sensibilities, so much so that I think of them as existing in their own independent universe.

jacquiIn the case of “Grass Dolls” I couldn’t say anymore which parts were Jacqui and which parts were mine.  I do remember that Jacqui came to me with the story of the Grass Dolls and pieces of melody and lyrics and rhythms, which we then together discussed and added to and shaped and massaged in my guest bedroom over note pads and my electric keyboard.  But I can’t remember specifically which ideas and additions came from whom, and probably it is rather beside the point.  Our work together that day was much like the grass blades being braided together to create the living doll in the imagination of the song’s narrator. Something that in combination comes alive and grows greater than the sum of its parts.  When I hear “Grass Dolls”, I think of it as Jacqui’s song, and then need to remind myself that I shared in its creation.

Here the demo recording of Grass Dolls, followed by Jacqui’s YouTube notes:

Jacqui Sutton – Grass Dolls

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All 5 Best Song OSCAR nominees on one page

The Oscar nominations were announced this morning.  Here are the five Best Song nominees, three very much expected – the “La La Land” and “Moana” songs, one pretty much expected, “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from “Trolls”, and, as is customary in this category, one unexpected addition: “The Empty Chair” from “Jim: the James Foley Story”.  But as Sting co-wrote and sings it, perhaps it should have always been more widely considered to be in the running, alongside songs like “Faith” by Stevie Wonder from “Sing”, “Running” by Pharell from “Hidden Figures”, “Drive it Like You Stole It” from “Sing Street”, which were three songs that had been much discussed as having good chances but ultimately didn’t get nominated.
  

  • “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from “La La Land”

    Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

The first of two songs nominated from “La La Land”, the original movie musical, which received a record 14 nominations today (sharing that record with “All about Eve” and “Titanic”, two films that also went on to win Best Picture at the ceremony, which it seems will the very likely happy fate of “La La Land” too).

     

  • “Can’t Stop The Feeling” from “Trolls”

    Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster

The “Happy” of this year.  Kinda hard not to smile and shimmy when listening to the song from the first of two animated features represented in this category.  Animated features tend to be consistently represented in this category.  They also tend to win…

     

  • “City Of Stars” from “La La Land”

    Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul

…Except I believe that this will be the winner of the Oscar this year.  The second song from “La La Land” to be nominated, it also functions as the movie’s main theme.  And it has a melody that is immediately memorable as well as slinks and undulates in idiosyncratically appealing ways.  The most distinctive song in this category of strong choices, in my view.


 
City of Stars – longer version – Ryan Gosling & Emma Stone

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SIGNS OF THE TIMES – Women’s March against Trump in NYC (also, NfaC’s 200th post!!!)

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March began 11am . More marchers congregate in gathering area on 48th street in the shadow of Trump World Tower looming on 1st Avenue like Barad’hur (12pm)

We Shall Overcome – Bruce Springsteen (The Seeger Sessions)

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“Tell me what Democracy looks like”

“This is what Democracy looks like”

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