Monday, July 27, 2020

The beat goes on: The Eddy

Nobody can question Damien Chazelle’s jazz credentials; the Academy Award-winning writer/director of Whiplash and La La Land has demonstrated a bravura flair for crowd-pleasing, music-oriented dramas. His involvement with The Eddy — as co-executive producer, and director of the first two episodes — therefore generated high expectations.

Too bad he wasn’t also involved in the writing.

The 2020 Netflix miniseries comes from creator Jack Thorne, who wrote five of the eight episodes, and shared writing credit on the other three. Noting that he also scripted last year’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials tells us everything we need to know about Thorne; his world-view is dour, dreary and relentlessly depressing. All the characters in The Eddy are unhappy at best, forlorn and miserable at worst. The core plot drags along solely because these people don’t talk to each other, at least not truthfully. Our primary character lies relentlessly — foolishly — even when there’s no good reason to do so … except to stretch things along in contrived fashion.

Ah, but the music is sensational, all of it written by composer/keyboardist Randy Kerber and songwriter, lyricist and record producer Glen Ballard. Jazz is ubiquitous: mostly live performances within the context of the drama, running at length.

“Randy and I have both been working in film and television our whole careers,” Ballard observed, “and I don’t think either of us has done anything like this. Music normally comes in at the end [of production], but in this case not only was it there at the beginning, but also during shooting. For me it was fundamentally essential to the tone, and this indefinable energy which comes out of real people playing music in real time.”1

“On occasion during filming,” Kerber added, “Damien asked us to play longer. So we did long performances, and these then became embedded into the drama, which then underscored what was happening thematically. Which meant it reached a point where the music and story reached a level of interplay that added something new.”2

Chazelle agreed. “It was important to let things take their course. That was a desire all the directors seemed to share, whether it was improvising around the edges of a scene, filming the music live, or doing full takes and seeing what happened. That helped give the show some of its flavor, and is certainly in the spirit of jazz.”3

Intentions notwithstanding, whether the music compensates for the overcooked melodrama will depend on the eye-rolling tolerance of the individual viewer.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Recent discovery: Agent 077, sfida ai killers

This one resulted from a pleasant suggestion from a fan, who wondered why I hadn't explored actor Richard Harrison’s second outing as “all-American CIA Agent Bob Fleming.” Answer: No reason at all, aside from lack of time and space. So let's make up for it now.

********

Allegiances shift at the blink of a seductive eye in 1966’s Agent 077, sfida ai killers, released in the States as both Killers Are Challenged and Bob Fleming: Mission Casablanca.
Apparent good gals turn bad (rather randomly); bad gals turn good; other bad gals staybad. Perhaps aware that their film doesn’t make much sense, director Antonio Margheriti and scripter Ernesto Gastaldi hid behind the respective pseudonyms Anthony Dawson and Julian Berry. 

Harrison once again has an affable looseness as Fleming, reprising his role from 1965’s Secret Agent Fireball (which you’ll find in my first volume). He’s reasonably adept with a quip, and he definitely holds his own during an energetic mano a mano skirmish with a thug who wields spiked brass knuckles. Editor Renato Cinquini gives this scuffle the brisk intensity of James Bond’s train compartment struggle with Red Grant, in From Russia with Love.

Carlo Savina’s score is an occasionally awkward blend of light jazz and orchestral string cues, and the title theme — vocalese by Nora Orlandi’s 4+4 — is positively dire. That said, Savina’s jazz touches are quite pleasant; he favors walking bass, percussion and flute-driven reeds, the latter often echoed by muted trumpet. Some of these cues evoke fond memories of Henry Mancini’s work on both Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. Riccardo Pallottini’s cinematography is a bit too self-indulgent; he succumbs to pointless overhead camera angles and ground-level close-ups that stare into Harrison’s nostrils.

Once the ghastly title theme concludes, double-time walking bass powers a lively swing cue while a scientist watches in horror as a colleague — in an approaching helicopter — is blown to smithereens; this observer soon meets a similar fate. They’re two of three researchers who’ve perfected a new energy source “that will make all other types of fuel obsolete” (a common goal in 1960s Eurospy films). In order to protect himself, the third scientist — Coleman (Marcel Charvey) — has changed his face via plastic surgery. This gives Fleming the opportunity to draw enemy attention by impersonating the man, while the actual Coleman is spirited to a safe house in Geneva. Cue all manner of attacks, many — but not all — arranged by smarmy Tommy Sturges (Aldo Cecconi), a wheelchair-bound Texas oil tycoon.

Sturges often is accompanied by the slinky Velka (Susy Andersen), whose relationship with the man — nurse? escort? paid companion? lover? — remains undefined. Savina introduces her with a deliciously sexy burst of bossa nova that once again favors bass and flute. Velka earns most of the subsequent jazz cues; she has a habit of popping up at unexpected moments, often saving Fleming’s hide … despite the fact that she just as frequently seems to put him in danger. Savina works in some fast-paced action jazz midway through the caper, when Fleming is ambushed in an open-air marketplace; the ubiquitous walking bass is augmented by harpsichord during a later car chase.

Pouty Halima (Janine Reynaud) and Moira (Mitsouko, born Maryse Guy) — both atrocious actors — serve as the death-dealing lieutenants to an initially unseen “big boss,” although Moira’s heart doesn’t seem to be in her nefarious activities. As a result, she earns a gratuitous whip-and-bondage “punishment” from Halima. That’s an oddly exploitative sidebar, but worse is yet to come; the film climaxes — if it can be called that — when Fleming lands in a protracted waterfront bar fight that leaves no cliché behind: destroyed furniture, bottles broken on heads, a drunk who continues to enjoy his tipple despite the carnage surrounding him, and even a series of (sigh) dwarf jokes. It’s slapstick nonsense on par with The Three Stooges, and it brings the film to a thudding halt for what seems an eternity; Savina wisely didn’t even try to grant this a musical backdrop.

Agent 077, sfida ai killers failed to generate a soundtrack album, although the title theme is included on Orchestra Cine Sound: Suspense Screen Themes Best 14 (release date unknown), issued on Japan’s Philips label.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Recent discovery: James Tont Operazione U.N.O.

Actually, it's more accurate to call this one a recent re-discovery.

As explained in my books' introductions, I didn't have the energy — or page count — to thoroughly cover the wealth of "Eurospy" films released in the wake of the 1960s James Bond entries; attempting to do so would have led to madness. Italian filmmakers were particularly aggressive about milking the secret agent cow, so I did make a point of including a dozen or so with (reasonably) solid jazz scores.

But I'm fully aware that many more likely await, and — with more time available, now that the books have been published — they'll pop up here, as warranted. I've spent considerable time with Matt Blake and David Deal's The Eurospy Guide, a voluminous alphabetical listing of such films; I only wish the authors had been more detailed about the existence — and quality — of jazz scores (then again, I guess that's my job).

Anyway...

A recent perusal reminded me of a film I'd seen way back in the day, and which remains one of the most notorious copyright offenders...


********


Although Italian filmmakers produced a wealth of James Bond spoofs in the wake of Goldfinger and Thunderball, none was more brazen than 1965’s French/Italian co-production of James Tont Operazione U.N.O., also known under the more eyebrow-lifting title of Goldsinger. Writer/directors Bruno Corbucci and Giovanni Grimaldi shamelessly stole — ah … parodied — all manner of elements from its British namesake, starting with the fact that the hopelessly inept Tont (Landa Buzzanca, who later starred in numerous Italian sex comedies) is best known by his code name: Agent 007½. That, by itself, was enough to arouse the wrath of the United Artists legal department, which issued a stern admonition: 

“Only James Bond, the character from the novels by Ian Fleming, can be Agent 007 … Warning is given to all Italian companies which, exploiting the success achieved by Agent 007, have distinguished the leading figures in their films by the same numerals.”1

Most prints were hastily changed back to James Tont Operazione Uno, but it’s easy to find Internet versions that still bear the Goldsinger title.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

From the cutting-room floor: A Man Called Adam

Most film directors shoot far more footage than they'll ever use; the quality of the finished product is shaped via subsequent trimming and sequencing by the director and editor(s). Given that studio commercial considerations sometimes triumph over artistic preference, satisfaction can be obtained via later "director's cut" editions for home video and/or streaming release. But even those rarely use everything the director originally shot.

(Alfred Hitchcock was a notable exception. His vision of a film was so precise, that he almost never shot more than he used ... which made it impossible, during post-production, for potential "tampering hands" to mess with his cut.)

During the three years spent gathering films and TV shows that fit the parameters of this project, some were included more out of personal desire, than an adherence to my own fairly rigorous rules. When I ultimately emerged with a manuscript that was five times what my contract specified, and it remained almost three times too long after judicious editing, McFarland graciously permitted the single-book contract to be re-written as a two-volume set. But even though they tolerated a slightly higher per-book word count, I still had to trim some more text. The easiest — and least painful — solution, in order to retain the documents' integrity, was to lose some of those "marginal" entries.

They'll be resurrected here, from time to time. Think of this as an ongoing "author's cut," or a series of little bonus features. They'll also open a window to process, because these are the full-length, first-draft versions of each essay, prior to two rounds of editing. (Very few entries ran anywhere near original length, by the time of the manuscripts' final draft; I initially included a lot of production and/or plot detail — as you'll see here — that ultimately proved superfluous.)

I also get to include a lot more pictures...


********


Biographical dramas about abusive, mean-spirited and self-destructive jazz musicians were a cinematic cliché in early 2016, with three released within weeks of each other: Nina (Nina Simone), Miles Ahead (Miles Davis) and Born to Be Blue (Chet Baker). All share a spiritual ancestor with the independently produced A Man Called Adam, which covers much of the same overly melodramatic territory; the primary difference is that the title character played by Sammy Davis Jr. is fictitious. Since this is a fairly straight drama, with no criminal activity to speak of — although drug use is vaguely suggested at one point — its inclusion in these pages might raise a few eyebrows. [Of course, it ultimately wasn't included.]

Adam gets a pass because Jack Priestly’s occasionally arty black-and-white cinematography has neo-noir touches — if self-consciously pretentious ones — and also because, frankly, the jazz is too choice to ignore.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Lamentably overlooked: Le Deuxième Souffle

I know, I know.

How could I possibly have missed this one, for Volume One?

It's particularly baffling, given the well-deserved attention paid to so many of writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville's other jazz-hued crime films. But that's the nature of the game, and I knew it going in: the very definition of "falling through the cracks."

Thank goodness for blogs, and for being able to atone for such eye-rolling lapses.

Onward!

********

A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death. But if he chooses because he’s weary of life, then his entire existence has been without meaning. 

So begins 1966’s Le Deuxième Souffle (Second Wind), writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville’s similarly brooding follow-up to his earlier crime dramas, Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos. As with those films, the characters in Le Deuxième Souffle are defined less in terms of being “good” or “bad,” and more by whether they adhere to loyalty and honor; the “villains” here — regardless of their position on either side of the law — are those who succumb to avarice and betrayal. The film is based on Corsican-born, convicted killer-turned-author José Giovanni’s 1958 novel; he and Melville collaborated on the screenplay. The dour film noir atmosphere is enhanced by Marcel Combes’ gritty monochrome cinematography.

The story opens as career criminal Gustave “Gu” Minda (Lino Ventura) escapes from prison; he reunites with his lover, Manouche (Christine Fabréga), who runs a posh Parisian restaurant alongside her stoic and resolutely devoted bodyguard, Alban (Michel Constantin). Gu arrives just in time to dispatch two thugs sent by rival club owner Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi); as is Gu’s custom, he kills them without a second thought. Manouche wishes to abandon her dangerous career, if only Gu will accompany her; he’s unwilling to do so without financial security.

He therefore joins a gang planning to steal cases of platinum from an armored car transporting the precious metal along twisty and (mostly) deserted mountain roads; the caper is masterminded by Jo’s brother Paul (Raymond Pellegrin), who bears Gu and Manouche no ill will. The heist — the film’s centerpiece — goes down flawlessly, although the caper draws the attention of Gu’s longtime nemesis, Police Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse). Despite operating on opposite sides of the law, Gu and Blot respect each other’s “honor code”; the same cannot be said about Ricci and Blot’s subordinate, Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur), neither of whom bothers with principles. Melville methodically develops an atmosphere of grim inevitability; it’s obvious that these and assorted sidebar characters — notably the enigmatic Orloff (Pierre Zimmer) — are destined for a bad end.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The publicity machine wheezes into life

Promoting a new book was already difficult, in an era when reading seems to have turned into a lost art, and publishers have gone out of business in droves.

Too may people have designated physical media of any kind — books, magazines, newspapers, whatever — as "old school," and therefore not relevant. One can but wince.

Bad as things were, they got significantly worse as a result of COVID concerns and restrictions. Prior to this past March, authors always could count on a well-attended "coming out party" at a local bookstore, but such gatherings remain unlikely for awhile yet. Similarly, interviews with local newspapers and other outlets are conducted via phone, Skype or Zoom; best intentions notwithstanding, that lessens the collaborative dynamic that results from in-person chats.

McFarland (and many other publishers), responding to fears of transmission via shared objects, have — in most cases — sent PDF review copies, rather than physical books, to potential interviewers and reviewers. In one sense, that can be preferable; under optimal conditions, PDFs arrive instantaneously, with no USPS delay. But as I've learned, folks aren't always savvy about attachment restrictions imposed by ISPs; a 17G file sometimes just "vanishes," without alerting sender or recipient. Days and weeks go by, with both parties waiting for the other to say or do something. I've had to micro-manage a few such, ah, issues ... in one case meticulously explaining email and attachment parameters to a recipient. (And boy, you'd think radio people would be more savvy about such things.)

Anyway...

Queries sent to roughly 40 jazz magazines, bloggers and radio stations prompted enthusiastic interest from just over a dozen: not a bad return. I've done three interviews thus far, all of them quite enjoyable:

• KCCK's Dennis Green — in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — was first out of the gate. We had a lively chat that aired May 8, and subsequently became available as a podcast. Dennis put a lot of post-production work into the result; he even managed to find a copy of Lalo Schifrin's title theme for the TV series T.H.E. Cat, which impressed me greatly.

• Our nearby NPR station — Capital Public Radio, in Sacramento, California — booked me for a live interview June 2, on the news/public affairs show Insight, hosted by Beth Ruyak. Unfortunately, rapidly breaking news left me with only half the time originally intended, but Beth and I made the most of it; the result, brief but packed with juicy tidbits, can be heard here.

• Back in 2012, I got a great interview and plug for my Guaraldi bio on Cocktail Nation, a weekly Australia-based podcast devoted to "All Things Lounge, Tiki and Swank," and hosted by the effervescent Koop Kooper. I'm delighted to report that Koop and his podcast remain an essential part of my week, eight years later; he and I taped an interview about my two newest books in mid-May, and you'll find it in last Saturday's installment of Cocktail Nation. Koop also knows his way around the music that occupied my life for the past four years, and he dug up some great tracks.

More to come (I hope). Stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

A month of swing from TCM

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was invaluable during my research phase; they had — and continue to have — numerous titles that couldn't be found anywhere else. Best of all, TCM occasionally offered "theme programming" that dovetailed nicely with my focus.

This month's TCM Spotlight is "Jazz on Film," which brings a smile. Monday and Thursday evenings through June 25 will feature jazz-enhanced cinema in a variety of categories: "Classic Jazz Scores," "International Jazz," "Jazz Noir" and several others. Full details, along with brief descriptions of all titles, can be found here.

Mind you, not all titles fall within my purview; I didn't include biographies, conventional dramas or musicals. But numerous entries are familiar friends, and — as often is the case with TCM — a few are new to me. (Looks like I may need to investigate early Japanese crime cinema!)

Monday evening (June 1) began with a powerful quartet: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Bullitt (1968). All are covered at considerable length in my first volume, thanks to awesome scores by (respectively), Alex North, Elmer Bernstein, Duke Ellington and Lalo Schifrin.

Here's what we can look forward to, during the rest of the month. Entries marked with an asterisk (*) are included in my books.

Thursday, June 4
8 p.m. — Cabin in the Sky (1943) 
10 p.m. — Stormy Weather (1943) 
11:30 p.m. — All Night Long (1962) 
1:15 a.m. — A Song Is Born (1948) 
3:15 a.m. — High Society (1956)

Monday, June 8
8 p.m. — A Man Called Adam (1966) 
10 p.m. — Young Man with a Horn (1950) 
Midnight — The Five Pennies (1959)
2 a.m. — Some Like It Hot (1959)
4:15 a.m. — The Connection (1962) *

Thursday, June 11
8 p.m. — The Glenn Miller Story (1954) 
10 p.m. — The Gene Krupa Story (1959) 
Midnight — Sweet and Low-Down (1944) 
1:30 a.m. — Around the World (1943) 
3 a.m. — Ship Ahoy (1942)

Monday, June 15
8 p.m. — Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) *
10 p.m. — Farewell, My Lovely (1975) *
Midnight — The Man I Love (1947)
2 a.m. — I Want to Live! (1958) *
4:15 a.m. — Crime in the Streets (1956) *

Thursday, June 18
8 p.m. — The Warped Ones (1960) 
9:30 p.m. — Elevator to the Gallows (1958) *
11:15 p.m. — Knife in the Water (1962) *
1 a.m. — Pale Flower (1964)
3 a.m. — Black Orpheus (1959, and of significance to Vince Guaraldi fans!)

Monday, June 22
8 p.m. — Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)
9:30 p.m. — Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988) 
11:15 p.m. — Jammin’ the Blues (1944)
11:30 p.m. — Shadows (1958)
1:15 a.m. — Mickey One (1965) *
3:15 a.m. — Blow-Up (1966) *

Thursday, June 25
8 p.m. — New Orleans (1947)
9:45 p.m. — Lady Sings the Blues (1972) 
12:15 a.m. — Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955) *
2 a.m. — Blues in the Night (1941) 
4 a.m. — Rhapsody in Blue (1945)

If you missed any of Monday's quartet, bear in mind that most films on TCM also are available for streaming for a short period after they air, either via the TCM web site or the "Watch TCM" app for Roku or iPads. (One must already receive TCM via a TV provider, in order to access the app.) Films are available for one to four weeks, which varies. The stream includes the most recent host introduction.


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Motherless Brooklyn: A jazz masterpiece

It was inevitable, of course; the moment the ink dries on a project such as this, it becomes incomplete.

Mere weeks after my two manuscripts went to bed last autumn, director/scripter/star Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn hit theaters.

The jazz tapestry is impressively diverse in this compelling and luxuriously atmospheric adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning 1999 crime novel of the same title. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s alternately agitated and poignant underscore is a treat; the cherry on top is a diegetic jazz club set of iconic covers, by a sassy combo ghosted by Wynton Marsalis and several top-flight associates.

“I wrote the arrangements,” Marsalis explained, “and we used some of our Juilliard students, fantastic young musicians, to play.”1

Lethem’s novel, although contemporary to its late 20th century arrival, has the attitude, atmosphere and plot stylings of 1940s and ’50s pulp detective thrillers. Honoring that style as a jumping-off point, Norton retained the primary character — and very little else — while bouncing him back to 1957, and dropping him into an entirely new story that blends fact, fiction and noir sensibilities in a manner we’ve not seen since 1974’s Chinatown.

Lethem’s intriguing protagonist now clashes with a facsimile of the clandestine, Tammany Hall-style empire ruled by the powerful Robert Moses, the real-world, mid-20th century developer/builder who — by manipulating politicians behind the scenes — ruthlessly transformed New York City into his vision of a metropolis. It’s a fascinating slice of history, which Norton cleverly blends with the character that he also plays in this thoroughly absorbing drama.

Lionel Essrog (Norton) and colleague Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee), operatives of a small-time detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), tag along when he arranges a meeting with shadowy figures left unspecified. Frank is more than a mere boss to Lionel; he’s also mentor, friend and protector. When Frank winds up dead, this hits Lionel hard, particularly since he’s far from “normal.” He’s obsessive/compulsive and also suffers from an uncontrollable tendency to erupt in nonsense speech: often punning, rhyming and “clanging” against what somebody else has just said. He’s constantly forced to apologize for the “glass in his brain” that prompts such spontaneous outbursts; we recognize this as Tourette Syndrome, a designation not at all familiar to the characters in this re-imagined 1950s version of Lethem’s novel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Greetings!

Welcome to ScreenActionJazz.com, the companion blog to my two-volume study of this genre — Crime and Spy Jazz on Screen, 1950-1970 and Crime and Spy Jazz on Screen Since 1971 — published by McFarland & Company.

If you've somehow found this blog before first, you can place advance orders via the McFarland links to the right. 

(And if you've arrived after finding the URL in purchased copies of one or both books, you've made a starving author very happy.)

My goal, with these two books, was to provide a contextual survey of action/spy/detective/crime jazz, from its television and film origins (1949 and '50, respectively) to the present day: a celebration of all the cool music by Henry Mancini, John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Edwin Astley, Quincy Jones, Laurie Johnson, Jerry Goldsmith and hundreds more. Unlike the few existing books on this topic, I wanted to discuss the way in which a score is used within a movie or television show: how and why a composer's efforts helped — or sometimes hindered — the finished project.

And — equally important — the degree to which a director knew how to employ the cues for maximum impact (along with the lamentable cases where a director clearly didn't have the slightest idea how to effectively place music).

This project began not quite five years ago, as a pitch for a single volume not to exceed 125,000 words. (Boy, that was naïve!) After spending months building lists of potential candidates that fit the plot criteria, I wound up with 486 films and 750 TV shows; they were whittled down to 350 and 206, respectively (the others discarded for their lack of jazz scores).

Then came 3-1/2 years of viewing, listening, analyzing and then writing, with the resulting manuscript running just shy of 600,000 words. Okay, fine; first drafts are over-written. Several rounds of judicious pruning later, I wound up with 250,000 words: still far too many. But at this point, I knew that further trimming would have deleted too much of the "good stuff." The text would have been compromised beyond repair, destroying my intent to supply a truly definitive study of this jazz sub-genre.

Fortunately, the kind folks at McFarland agreed with my proposal to re-write the contract for a two-book set, thus preserving every word of that final draft.

Of course, a project of this sort begins to go "out of date" the nanosecond after publication. While it's true that the golden age of jazz scores is decades behind us, with scant few new ones debuting, it's important to acknowledge those that do arrive. That'll be one of this blog's functions: to serve as an ongoing update.


Late 2019's Motherless Brooklyn, to cite a recent example, arrived after these books "went to bed." Its sensational jazz score, boasting considerable work by Wynton Marsalis (among others), will be covered in a future post.

Of equal importance, this blog also will allow me to discuss films and TV shows that I either overlooked — such as 1989's Harlem Nights (and how I missed that one is a mystery for the ages) — or simply didn't know about until recently, such as the 2016 miniseries Four Seasons in Havana.

I also expect to hear from readers demanding to know how I possibly could have forgotten about this movie, or that TV show. All such input is welcome, although please take note of the books' limitations (and mine). Although intended to be a definitive study of American and (to a slightly lesser degree) British output, I had to hold the line at only occasional acknowledgments of international entries from farther afield. As an obvious example, I've no doubt an entire book could be devoted to 1960s and early '70s Italian spy jazz, given all the secret agent knock-off movies that were cranked out, in the wake of '60s Bondmania. Ergo, please don't take it personally if I've omitted one of your favorite films or TV shows, or completely "overlooked" a particular composer. Or two. Or three. Such decisions were borne of practicality, not prejudice.

I hope this becomes a lively forum where fans can help each other empty their bank accounts, in pursuit of ever more sensational jazz scores.

Let's keep on swinging!