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Mischief: Exploring the Soundtrack of Eternal Youth August 21, 2014

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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Mischief1985Very few movies can appeal to both our nostalgia for Americana’s bygone eras and also to our, well, mischievous side at the same time. Yet the 1985 film “Mischief” accomplishes just that, putting it in a rare company of films. A critic for the New York Times once said it best: “If Norman Rockwell had wanted to make Porky’s, he might have come up with something like Mischief.” I could not have said it any better myself. “Porky’s,” the 1982 period comedy/raunchfest, also hits the mark of aforementioned simultaneous appeals. Writer/director Bob Clark put together the story of that movie out of his own personal experiences from his high school and college days, as a way of showing the youth of the 1980s that life was not all that different for teens almost 30 years ago (Clark graduated from high school in 1957, and that movie takes place in Florida in 1954).

As for “Mischief,” one can easily surmise a very similar intent.  Screenwriter Noel Black described the film as “somewhat autobiographical,” and did a marvelous job in showing the timelessness of many teenage experiences, from romance to, er, certain obsessions.

The 1980s were a great time for period pieces from the time of Americana, particularly the 1950s (think: “Porky’s,” “Back to the Future,” “Clue,” “Mischief,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and so forth). This was mainly a function of basic logistics at the time.  If you took the established professionals in their mid-forties of that decade, you would need to go back 30 years to examine their experiences as teenagers.  That particular chronological spot just so happened to be the mid-1950s, a special time when Eisenhower was in the White House (let’s face it: Obama does not even deserve to carry Ike’s golf clubs!), Rock n’ Roll had just exploded onto the scene, America was reaching a new level of prosperity, and styling set the pace for new car design, with tailfins, wrap-around windshields, and lots of chrome!

One thing that the viewer is reminded of, as this film itself is almost 30 years old, is the respective rate of change in the patterns of life in America over the two three-decade intervals. Yes, they have changed considerably in America since the mid-‘80s, what with Internet and smart phones, but what remains clear is that the change in patterns of life was even more drastic in the first 30-year stretch.  In the mid-1950s, the center of commercial activity was still Main Street downtown, not at a sprawling shopping mall on the city’s edge, just to point out one example.

That point is hit home all the more at the very beginning of the film.  Right after the opening 20th Century Fox fanfare, the famous opening line “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” comes on to the screen, in the exact same font as that line appears at the beginning of all Star Wars films, no less! Of course, the filmmakers quickly drop the other proverbial shoe when they conclude the opening line with “…Ohio, 1956.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

The filmmakers start things off with a bang immediately, for they begin the opening scene with Fats Domino’s famous rendition of “Blueberry Hill” playing during the opening credits – that song was one of the most recognizable ones from that year, even though it never topped the charts (full confession: I was introduced to that record before I got to kindergarten…which was in 1985).

The female love interests are certainly appealing, and recognizable.  A young Kelly Preston, in her youthful prime, in 1950s dresses?  Yes, please!  Film buffs might also recognize Catherine Mary Stewart as having played the girlfriend of the protagonist in “The Last Starfighter” from the previous year (also one of the late, great, Robert Preston’s last films – no relation to the female lead in this film, though).  Other great bit-parts abound in the movie, too. Terry O’Quinn co-stars, this time sans-moustache (film buffs would recognize him as Howard Hughes from the hit Disney flick “The Rocketeer” from 1991, another great period piece, this time taking place in 1938).

Anyhow, we barely miss the three-and-a-half-minute mark of the movie when we’re treated to our next Oldie offering in the soundtrack, “Young Love,” and the Tab Hunter version, at that (the version that actually did top the charts for a couple of weeks in ’56), not the Sonny James version from the same year that most listeners might ironically more readily recognize today.

The film is not without its fair share of period gaffes, however.  The song selection is, on balance, great, but some of them are a tad anachronistic: a great example can be discerned in the eighth minute of the film, when you can hear Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” playing on a transistor radio.  All well and good, except that “Sweet Little Sixteen” was from 1958, and the story is supposed to take place in 1956. Oops.

Also, one hazard one is likely to encounter in period films from the 1980s and earlier are contemporary re-makes of hit-songs from the past. Remember, this was still a relatively new artistic technique in cinema, largely pioneered by George Lucas in “American Graffiti” from 1973.  But this was 13 years later, and seemingly a disproportionately longer span of time between the contemporary and the bygone era the film attempts to portray.  Nevertheless, after more than a decade, they still apparently had yet to secure the necessary permissions to use certain authentic songs in movies, hence the contemporary knock-offs one hears of Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” among others.  It would not be until the 1990s when, apparently, that process would become more streamlined, and we would not have to settle for the knock-offs, occasional though they may be.

Even with the knock-offs, some are still out of place. Danny and the Juniors’ “At the Hop” was re-made for the film, but the original hit did not top the charts until the start of 1958, for example.  The ever-popular “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, also a re-make in this film, did not debut in its original form until the following year, 1957 – same thing on both counts with “Maybe Baby.” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby” fits the year, but they had to play a late remake of it, too, for some reason.

Thankfully, one of the most appropriate tunes of the entire film, “School Days” by Chuck Berry, is untainted in its originality of rendition.  Too bad it too was from 1957, not 1956.  Oh well!  The song is played at the perfect time, just as teenage students are walking in to their high school.  With such impeccable timing, who cares if the period authenticity is off by one year?

The film’s soundtrack is not without its pleasant surprises, either.  For example, I have been listening to ‘50s tunes my entire life, and was still not aware that the Fontaine Sisters did a cover version “I’m In Love Again.”  As if the filmmakers read my mind, they waste little time in switching to the more popular rendition of that hit by Fats Domino! Later in the film, we are treated to a third recording by Fats, this time “Ain’t That a Shame” from 1955, one of the songs that contributed to rock n’ roll exploding onto the scene that year.

They also do get it correctly, however, in the 25th minute of the film by playing part of Elvis’ 1956 hit ballad “Love Me Tender.”  Ditto with Mickey and Silvia’s hit “Love is Strange” in the 41st minute. Another example of an out-of-year tune, though is in the 47th minute.  The protagonist gets his first kiss with the girl of his dreams, and they play “One Summer Night” by The Danleers (1958).  Again, oh well!  Another interesting example is when the protagonist is in the process of cultivating a relationship with an attractive girl, they play Clyde McPhatter’s “A Lover’s Question (1959).

The best way I can explain these slight incongruities in the years of some of the selected tunes is that the filmmakers were less focused on being period-correct and more focused on trying to recreate the overall era with songs that were, in some cases, recorded three years after the story’s timeline.  A similar technique was used in the movie “American Hot Wax” (1978), where early rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest hits are all mashed in together ca. 1959-1960.

Other times, the filmmakers got it right in terms of correct-to-the-year tunes, but goof elsewhere. During the main love scene of the picture, they put on a 45 RPM record, supposedly “My Prayer” by the Platters (yes, from 1956, and in fact, the group’s first No. 1 hit).  But the Platters recorded on the Mercury label, and what is seen spinning on the turntable is a Roulette record – from the mid-1960s, no less!  Another curious choice of song is later in the main love scene, when they switch to “It Only Hurts a Little While” by the Ames Brothers.  Period-correct, yes, but I can think of dozens of more romantic records between 1954-’56 than that one!  They couldn’t play “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, for example? To be sure, Kelly Preston’s nude scene lives up the hype, but I digress.  At least the version of “My Prayer” is the real deal.

ThreeRecordLabels_Mischief

When one of the characters in the movie puts on a 45 RPM record, the song one hears is “My Prayer” by the Platters (right). Yet the record one clearly sees is a record with the Roulette label, from the mid-1960s at that (see left). In the mid-1950s, Roulette’s label had the design seen in the center. Translation: this was a double period goof.

Semi-curious is the choice later in the same love scene, where they are playing Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” (the flip-side to “Peggy Sue,” but from 1957, not 1956).  But shortly thereafter, they made a fine 1956-correct choice in Bill Haley’s “See You Later, Alligator.”  The timing is also great when they break out the venerable Platters hit “The Great Pretender” from 1955, though it peaked in the charts in early 1956.  Also finely-selected for setting the mood was the exquisite doo-wop ballad “Since I Don’t Have You,” by The Skyliners.  The song was not recorded until December of ’58, and did not chart until ’59.

By the time the 75th minute rolls around, you cease to care that Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day” (the first song I consciously remember ever hearing, and that is NOT a joke!).  After all, what Fifties-themed soundtrack is complete without it?  Same thing goes for the use of “It’s All in the Game” by Tommy Edwardsone of the greatest records of all time – even though it was a No. 1 hit in 1958, not ’56.

As an aside, is it not odd that they played a modern knock-off of Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue,”  but played the correct, original version of its flip-side, “Everyday” (Coral 61885)?  Just asking.

The usage of the Hoagy Carmichael tune “Heart and Soul” by the Cleftones, while a great tune, is even more curious, in that it was not recorded until 1959, and was not even released to the buying public until 1961.  That group had three solid doo-wop hits in 1956 (“Little Girl of Mine,” “You Baby You,” and “Can’t We Be Sweethearts?”).  Could they, the filmmakers, not have chosen one of those three instead, say, the third?  That said, and much to their credit, they nail it in terms of year and mood with the usage of the timeless Elvis hit “Don’t Be Cruel” from that year.  It takes an hour and half, but after holding out on us for the whole movie, we finally get to hear from Little Richard, singing “Rip It Up,” also correct to 1956, no less (to be sure, LR had a huge bumper crop of hard-rockers from that year)!

One aspect of the movie where the filmmakers did it consistently period-correct was the cars.  Not a single automobile that I observed – and as a long-time classic car nut, I observed very closely! – was more recent than 1956, and even they were relatively few compared to the other model years I noticed.  Plenty of 1953 Chevies, 1950 Nashes and Studebakers, and 1954 Buicks abound, among others. Only in the second half did I finally find one Cadillac – a 1956 model, one of the few cars actually from that year in the film.  Plus, there’s the occasional ’53 Studebaker, ’50 Hudson, ’47 and ’55 Plymouth, etc. So, there is a nice mix of cars and model years, overall.

It is my love of cars that made me cringe in some of the scenes.  “My goodness, I sincerely hope they did not actually warp the bumper on that ’50 Studebaker, or bend the front quarter-panel of that ’53 Chevy Bel-Air, or totally smash up that nice ’55 Chevy Bel-Air convertible.”  Hey, I care about my true classic cars!

All in all, though, the movie is well-written, very entertaining, and the soundtrack is, even with some of the unnecessary knock-offs, one of the best I have heard in a movie in a long time.  If you want to make for a cozy night in with your significant other with a great film on DVD, by all means choose this (provided you can stomach the occasionally awkward moment or two)! Who knows?  You might even gain some nostalgia for that time gone by yourself, even if the events taking place in the story predate your birth by a quarter-century or more.

Captain America: A Great American Film August 5, 2011

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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If you have not seen Captain America in the theatres yet and are looking for a good film to see this weekend, look no further.   This is a film that delivers.  To offer a small confession, I have seen more than a few superhero flicks in the theatres since the New Millenium began, and on the whole, I have not been disappointed by them (Hulk from 2003, however, is another matter entirely!).  Upon hearing the news that Captain America was to be released in the theatres this summer, I was more than interested, given my past moviegoing experiences for such fare, as well as with my admiration for the character and his patriotic attitude.

Moreover, as somebody who is a sucker for period pieces, I was all the more enthusiastic about seeing the film, since it takes place during WWII.  One of the great things about such movies in recent years is, given the high level technology and sophisticated techniques of filmmaking, each period piece tries to out-do each other with providing details of authenticity of past times, from the architecture to the clothing fashions to the cars and music of those respective eras.  The WWII-era backdrop in this movie is both nostalgic and convincing, so much so that it could show many of us who were born way after that time why that period was looked on as the “good ol’ days” by those who lived it.

Chris Evans plays the main character, who starts out in the story as Steve Rogers, one’s classic image of a 90-pound weakling, who, despite his skrawny body and sickly appearance, is nevertheless driven by a deep sense of patriotism and duty to one’s country.  Furthermore, despite these glaring weaknesses, he’s also resilient — somebody who quickly gets up no matter how many times he gets knocked down.  Rule no. 1 of any movie story is that the audience must be able to sympathize with the main character.  If you’re a red-blooded American, you cannot help but love Steve Rogers.  As Captain America, the hero is quite formidable yet still sympathetic.

Obviously, his weaknesses prevent him from passing physical muster for military service, despite trying to enlist several times.  This determination catches the eye of an immigrant scientist — played by Stanley Tucci — who is conducting a secret military experiment, offering him a chance to help his country in a special way.  Rogers takes the chance, and the story really takes off from there.

On the other side, the arch-villain Red Skull is played convincingly by Hugo Weaving.  No doubt moviegoers would instantly recognize him for his memorable work as Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy.  FYI, he also supplied the voice for Megatron in the Transformers trilogy, so clearly Weaving has had experience in these sorts of roles!

The love interest is supplied by a charismatic British intelligence agent played by Hayley Atwell.  The romance that eventually develops between her and Captain America has an appealingly old-fashioned feel, as if it were straight out of a real 1940s movie.  Tommy Lee Jones turns in yet another reliable performance, this time as a tough army commander, and the rest of the supporting cast is solid, too.

I was especially pleased to learn before attending the film’s showing that the movie was directed by Joe Johnston, whose previous credits include The Rocketeer, which I still contend is one of the most underrated movies of the 1990s.  One of the reasons I am so fond of that film is that it takes place in 1938 Los Angeles, and shows the sumptuous art deco architectural interiors of that time, the classic propeller airplanes, the 1930s cars of all sorts of makes and models, the period attire (gotta love those double-breasted suits and fedoras!), not to mention that 1938 was the height of the Swing Era, and I was able to identify at least three different Artie Shaw tunes.

Suffice it to say, Johnston pays just as close attention to detail with the WWII period trappings of Captain America that he did to that similar period in The Rocketeer.  If the viewer were to pay a few extra bucks for a 3-D showing, he or she would be all the more apt to be immersed in that era, particularly the artwork, the wartime propaganda posters, the clothes (always the clothes!), the cars, and more.

My only criticism of the film is that I found it rather light on contemporary recordings in its soundtrack.  I was able to make out I’ll Remember April by Woody Herman and Jersey Bounce by Benny Goodman, but that’s it.  As a long-time Goodman afficionado, I can vouch that Jersey Bounce is a decent record, and since it was recorded in 1942, it’s quite appropriate, but Benny and his band did other records of the time that were even a bit more peppy that could have provided the right mood and contemporary backdrop during some other scene, namely Yours Is My Heart Alone from 1940.  Surely they could have squeezed in Glenn Miller’s American Patrol (1942) some place, or an early ’40s Artie Shaw ballad, say Moonglow (1941), or even Stardust (1940) during one of the more tender scenes between Evans and Atwell.

Much credit is due to whomever chose to have the movie take place in the era when the character Captain America was created.  World War II provides the perfect patriotic setting where the true essence of the character can be appreciated by viewers of all ages.  In subsequent decades, namely the 1960s, the bleeding-heart comic book writers essentially perverted the character by superimposing their post-modern claptrap onto this paragon of patriotism, as Mark Steyn so eloqently observed.

They say that the numbers don’t lie.  That is especially the case when it comes to box office receipts.  It is no secret that Hollywood has been guilty of producing more than a few anti-American (or, at least anti-U.S. military/CIA) films in the recent years.  Ben Shapiro offers a laundry list of examples, such as the Bourne Ultimatum, Lions for Lambs, Shooter, Grace is Gone, Rendition, and The Torturer.  He could have also added Jarhead and Syriana to that list.  No doubt this sort of muddying of the moral waters appeals to post-modernists and other supposed sophisticates.

Yet the average public has chosen to favor other sorts of films, which explains why superhero movies have done so well at the box office since the beginning of the New Millenium.  X-Men grossed $157 Million by late 2000.  Spider-Man grossed $403 Million by late summer of 2002.  X2 tallied almost $215 Million by early fall of 2003, Batman Begins tallied $205 Million by October of 2005, Superman Returns rang up $200 Million by late October of ’06, and The Dark Knight set a record with $533 Million in box offices receipts.  In just a couple of weeks, Captain America already has brought in $130 Million in domestic sales alone.  The message is clear:  people like to watch movies where good and evil are easily defined.  Captain America not only delivers on that message alone, but it delivers with an unabashedly patriotic message that America stands for ideals that are worth fighting and dying for, and does so with fantastic period panache.  If you’re a red-blooded American, this film will give you your money’s worth.