Thursday, February 20, 2014

Video find: The Band performs "Up on Cripple Creek" on the Ed Sullivan Show, 1969

Today's best picture ever: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Pop stuff: Inside Llewyn Davis; Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

What I'm reading, hearing, watching, etc.

Inside Llewyn Davis. Set in the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, this is the quietest, sanest Coen Brothers film to date. There are few of their manic touches on display. Mainly, what we see are the misadventures of the lead character -- a talented, but undistinguished singer and songwriter whose greatest obstacle to success seems to be himself.

Like many in the real folk scene were, Llewyn is preoccupied with being pure and uncommercial. His very lack of success means he's doing things right. To do better would be selling out, he tells the permanently cranky Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of a friend he may or may not have impregnated.

Jean's husband, Jim, (Justin Timberlake), does "sell out," hitting the charts with the lively, hilarious rock/doo-wop novelty tune, "Please Mr. Kennedy." The recording session where Jim, Llewyn and a fellow struggling folkie (Adam Driver) create the tune is one of the film's highlights.

But Jim's approach to music and art is more genuine and less self-conscious than Llewyn's "art." Jim is upbeat, maybe a tad overly earnest, but happy, at least, while Llewyn is none of the above. In fact, if he gets any more jaded and cynical, he may end up like a junkie jazzman he meets on the road, a walking cautionary tale played by Coen regular John Goodman.

The film is quiet, yes, but still engaging and well-paced. It's rare to spend this long inside one character's head, as we do here -- to come to understand his flaws and their roots. The performances are excellent, particularly Mulligan's and Oscar Isaac's in the lead role.

Really, Llewyn's biggest problem is that he's lost his musical foil, a partner who committed suicide. He blames those around him for not being able to move on. The film sends a message about art and authenticity, about what's really cool and genuine, and what's original. All questions that Bob Dylan -- an artist unafraid to be himself, or to be commercial -- forced the folk community to ask. In the film, Llewyn hears this new singer singing, and seems to hear the deeper possibilities of the music. Maybe he'll finally be able to move forward, too.

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. I love a laugh as much as the next guy. But, generally, the idea of non-situational comedy on TV doesn't grab me. I can't take those standup shows on Comedy Central with the too-loud audience laughter and the too-predictable jokes. All of which probably  explain why I'm such a latecomer to this charming show featuring Jerry Seinfeld and various guest comics.

What I like about the show is that it's not strictly played for laughs. Not that there's much in the way of serious conversation, but Jerry and his guests aren't trying overly hard to be funny. They are simply drinking coffee, conversing, and  being funny in the process. The laughs are organic, not forced.

The show appears online and also via the Crackle channel available on Roku and other streaming devices. Among the most entertaining eps to date are those featuring Larry David, Louis CK, Patton Oswalt and Gad Elmaleh.

Car nuts will want to check it out, too: In each episode, Jerry picks up his guest in a classic (or, sometimes, not-so-classic) car.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Video find: Jackie DeShannon performs "When You Walk into the Room" 1964

It was 50 years ago today: The Beatles meet Cassius Clay, Feb. 18, 1964

While in Miami for a live broadcast of the "Ed Sullivan Show," the Beatles dropped by the gym for a photo opp with the future Muhammad Ali, who was then training for his upcoming championship bout with heavyweight champ Sonny Liston.

Clay wasn't expected to beat Liston. He also professed not to know who the hell the Beatles were, but went along with the pictures, anyway. The result was mutual publicity for two up-and-coming acts who'd go on to become icons of the 1960s and the 20th century.

Hear a BBC Radio documentary about Clay-Beatles meeting here.

Today's best picture ever: Gene Simmons and Brooke Shields