Big Little Lies 250px-Opening_Title_Card

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


“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.


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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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


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.


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

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.



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.



Meeting Julian Carnation and the Florists

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


“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.


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



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:




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



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”, 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).


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


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


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


14 nominations!


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!!!)


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)







“Tell me what Democracy looks like”

“This is what Democracy looks like”






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A Fond Farewell


Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours – Stevie Wonder

A small gesture of thanks and appreciation.

To a fine example of our ability to be decent, empathetic, smart, wise and caring.

A reminder to act in good faith and listen to our better angels.

And though this may be a day of farewell, it is not a good-bye.

The journey together continues.

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New Categories for Movies, Theater and LGBTQ Themed Articles

Version 2

Three new categories have been added to the Notes from a Composer archives:


Cinema Scope

– For the love of movies, and not just the musicals


Live! On Stage

– Live performances / a life in the theater


LGBTQ Alphabet Soup

– Special focus on Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer Issues


Since “Notes from a Composer” debuted on the Interwebs almost two years ago, it has evolved a little bit beyond its originally intended focus on musicals, my own and universally.  And over time I responded to that expansion of focus by adding new categories to the site archives covering all articles.  I am happy to announce a big new addition, a one two three triple addition to the archive categories: Cinema Scope, Live! On Stage and LGBTQ Alphabet Soup!

It has become clear to me that these three themes – cinema, theater, queer sexuality – have become a big part of many of the approximately 200 blog pieces posted so far on Notes from a Composer, often even more central to certain articles than the original categorization(s) they were posted under.  I also have realized that most of the popular posts here, including ones that continue to find more and more readers long after they were originally posted, happen to be articles that deal with cinema, theater and queer sexuality.

So it made sense to create those particular categories for the archives.  And to add those category designations to previous articles that needed them.

To the right on every page of Notes from a Composer, just below the Twitter feed, are links to the various categories all posts here are filed under.  If you want to read more articles about movies, click on “Cinema Scope”, to read about live performances as well as stories about life in the theater, click on “Live! On Stage”, if you are curious about Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender sexuality, find “LGBTQ Alphabet Soup”.

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A Little Advice on How to Love THE HOBBIT Trilogy Better


An Unexpected Journey – The Desolation of Smaug – The Battle of the Five Armies

Finally watched the extended edition of the third Hobbit movie.  Took a while because we wanted to carve out the consecutive evenings to watch all three extended editions in close succession, in hopes it would improve the experience.  And it did.

Because I’d enjoyed the first one, really liked the second one (best movie dragon by far!), but the third one, in my view, suffered from the year long separation from the previous editions – the emotional payoffs weren’t there among the endless action bombast.

However watching The Hobbit Trilogy not as three movies but as one extended fantasy adventure saga, like you might binge watch a Netflix series, works so much better.  Unlike the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, where each film can stand individually, The Hobbit trilogy really only works when seen as one multi-part “miniseries”.  And you can make it a three parter or a four or six or 10 parter, choosing your breaks where it works for you (for example, watching all the Dragon parts as one uninterrupted section, from the last 50 minutes of Part 2 to the first 12 minutes of Part 3 really is ideal).


Thorin & Bilbo (Richard Armitage & Martin Freeman)

Yes, there is even more “bloat” in the extended sections, but for the most part it is very fun bloat, in particular adding a lot more humor to all the action of the third movie, which in its cinema edit came off as just too grim.  Plus the extended edition gives us the final fates of secondary characters like Alfrid and Dain, unclear in the edit released in theaters.

And more importantly: the emotional relationship stuff, like between Bilbo and Thorin, Tauriel and Kili, Legolas and Thandruil, finally resonates when binge watched over several days in a way it just didn’t when interrupted over three years over three movies (a problem the more superior LOTR trilogy avoided – yes, those movies are also best seen in close succession in their extended editions; but each individual LOTR film also stands alone as a fully satisfying individual experience, which is something I cannot say of the third Hobbit movie).

(Speaking of Kili and Tauriel, this track includes my favorite themes from the Hobbit movies, closely associated with the Kili/Tauriel story line:)

Kingsfoil – Howard Shore


Kili & Tauriel (Aidan Turner & Evangeline Lilly)

So now I love The Hobbit Trilogy well and better.  The movies may still be “hobb-led” a bit by the attempt to give Tolkien’s children’s story the same heft and depth that Tolkien would later give his epic Lord of the Rings and his expanded Middle Earth lore.  The strain shows somewhat.  Two movies, as originally planned, may have made for a more satisfying stand alone cinema experience.  But enjoying the extended trilogy like a lavish miniseries at home; that’s where The Hobbit really comes to its own in all its eight and a half hour, over the top generosity.

It’s one of the great cinematic fantasy adventure stories we can enjoy; and it would be churlish and unfair to expect it to equal that once in a lifetime masterpiece that is The Lord of the Rings.  But then, that extended trilogy experience is eleven and a half hours long.  😉

And while I’m at it, and to get a little music into the discussion, how about I share the three end credit songs from the Hobbit movies, each featuring male vocalists where the end credit songs from the LOTR trilogy had featured females.  But then The Hobbit is more male centric, with 13 Dwarfs plus one Hobbit dominating the story line (the movies had to create the character of Tauriel just to get at least one more prominent female after Galadriel on the screen, and even Galadriel isn’t in the book).  Each song works beautifully, yet the most winning one is also by the most famous singer, Ed Sheeran.  Nonetheless, it is sweet to hear Billy Boyd (LOTR’s Merry) work his lovely singing pipes again.  (As good a place as any to direct you to his band Beecake.)

Song of the Lonely Mountain – Neil Finn


I See Fire – Ed Sheeran

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TONI ERDMANN Finds The Greatest Love of All


I finally saw “Toni Erdmann”, which A. O. Scott in the New York Times calls “by a wide margin the funniest almost-three-hour German comedy you will ever see”, which swept all the top awards (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) at the European Film Awards this year, and if all things (as in English language and non-English language films) were equal at the Oscars, really should at least be nominated in those same Academy Awards categories, and not “just” hold the front runner position in the foreign language film race.

A.O. Scott, one of the best reviewers smartly and specifically writing about a movie without spoiling it by giving too much away, describes “Toni Erdmann” both as “a thrilling act of defiance against the toxicity of doing what is expected, on film, at work and out in the world” and “most simply but also most elusively, a sweet and thorny tale of father-daughter bonding”.  It also happens to bring that chestnut of ballad bombast “The Greatest Love of All” back to the movies where it originated, possibly elevating it to a higher plain in the process.  “Toni Erdmann” doesn’t save the song from the guilty pleasure cringe factor that envelopes it; in fact it ruthlessly takes advantage of the cringe factor for comedic effect.  But just how throughout the movie embarrassing and absurd situations are played within the rhythms of uncomfortable naturalism rather than classic farce, thereby mining honest feelings and truths, so does the movie’s absurd performance of “The Greatest Love of All” render the words and message of the song more poignant, more meaningful than ever before.

That “ever before” didn’t begin with Whitney Houston but nearly a decade earlier with Muhammad Ali and George Benson:

Songwriters Michael Masser and Linda Creed wrote “The Greatest Love of All” for the 1977 bio-pic about Muhammad Ali “The Greatest”, which more than partly explains why the lyrics insist “learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all”.  It only takes a cursory knowledge of Muhammad Ali’s life, career and struggles to see how much of the song’s lyrics fit all too well in his biography:

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone’s shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity

George Benson recorded the vocals for the song, which plays over the movie’s end credits, and was a modest hit as a single (peaking at #24 on the US charts).  It is of course Whitney Houston’s cover that became the huge hit that defines the song nowadays in popular consciousness.  However the recording was not initially considered a hit track by the record company.  It was exiled to the B-Side of her first single “You Give Good Love”.  Yet after radio stations started playing it too, Houston’s Greatest Love of All was released as a single and became her then biggest hit (at least until she sang that other great “Love” behemoth “I-ee-ay-ee-ay Will Always Love You-u-u-u-u-u”).

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the song, starting with the original George Benson version.  I understood the underlying positive message that in order to love well and live well you must be able to love yourself, have self worth (see full lyrics at bottom of this post).  And nurturing children to find the “beauty they possess inside” is a good thing.  However the lyrics never specifically talk about loving others well.  Instead the narrator claims “I never found anyone to fulfill my needs; A lonely place to be; so I learned to depend on me.”  When the song then dramatically, and in Houston’s case even bombastically, asserts loving yourself is the greatest love at all, one can be excused for fearing that we may be crossing over into a more vainglorious, even narcissistic form of love.  There is self esteem, and then there is sociopathic self-regard, as a recent unpopularly elected political figure demonstrates.  Of course, my therapist husband reminds me that that kind of narcissist doesn’t really love itself, and surely was not taught as a child to nurture positive self esteem, but on the contrary is a black hole of desperate need for love that can never be filled exactly because he is not capable of true self-love, only monstrous self-regard.

Oops, got a little side-tracked there.  Back to the song and back to “Toni Erdmann”.

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