Sunday, February 17, 2008

SuperFly: Get Your Hustle On

I was in New York recently, riding around town with my good friend, Vincent Davis, from the Boogie-Down Bronx. Vincent is a successful businessman, having launched the career of Keith Sweat, Silk among others, and founder of his own entertainment company, Vintertainment (yes, he's modest).

Vincent is currently producing his first film as a filmmaker, a penetrating look at all facets of the popular music industry.

As you can imagine, coming from the Bronx, Vince has a lot opinions and predictions that he's only to happy to share, whether you want to hear it or not. In our case, it always makes for lively conversation, whether I'm goading him about his hatred of Vince Carter, or he's berating me for my affection for the revisionist western, 'Tombstone'.

As we rode through Manhattan in his Cadillac pick-up truck, he popped in Curtis Mayfield's classic soundtrack to 'SuperFly', starring Ron O'Neal and directed by the late Gordon Parks Jr. Vince proceeded to tell me that the soundtrack was better than Isaac Hayes' Oscar winning score to 'Shaft' and that musically it was competitive with Rodgers and Hart. I agreed that it was better than most soundtracks that have been released, and competitive with other giants of the field. However, 'Shaft' has always held a soft spot in my musical heart, along with John Barry's score to 'Goldfinger'.

But listening to the music made me think about how fond I always have been of 'SuperFly' the movie. The story of a New York dope pusher looking to get out of the life and start over is a story that's been told before, but never from the point of view of a young, Black, intelligent protagonist. The gritty streets of Harlem, the tricked out car and unbelievable wardrobe, straight out of an Eleganza ad (If you don't know what Eleganza is, you don't know what you missed in the pages of Ebony in the 70s). Mayfield's score was perfect, his lyrics told the inner life of Youngblood Priest, the hustler in question.

Shot for $250,000, Superfly was funded by Warner Bros. but looks and feels like an indie film. Big, bold and fly, 'Superfly' had no precedent but many imitators. None ever really got it.

Topping it all of was the incendiary performance of Cleveland born Ron O'Neal. As Priest, he was handsome, cool, edgy, tough and introspective. It was also the first time that a light skinned Black actor had a chance to be a bad ass onscreen. As a high yellow brother myself, it really had an impact on me.

Ron O'Neal and his family lived around the corner from my parent's corner store in the inner city of Cleveland. I used to see Ron running by on his way to the Karamu theater where he was a mainstay for years. Shakespearean trained, O'Neal brought a level of depth and pathos to his role that few other actors would have been able to manage. His mother was a registered nurse and used to come in the store a few times a week. He had a sister, Kathy who taught school at Kent State. She was so beautiful I could barely look at her. She looked like a statuesque Egyptian queen.

Years later, I went to a Blaxploitation film festival at the Nuart Theater in Santa Monica. As I was heading towards the theater, Ron was coming out. I stopped him and told him who I was and he couldn't believe it, since I was about 12 years old, the last time he saw me. Kind and gracious, we had a nice chat and I was really happy to run into him.

Finally in 2004, Warner Bros. released 'Superfly' on DVD. Ron O'Neal passed away two days later.

To their credit, Warner Bros. did a nice job on the DVD. There are several featurettes, a vintage piece on Ron O'Neal, an audio commentary by a USC media professor and an audio interview with Curtis Mayfield.

There was a horrific sequel directed by Ron O'Neal, co-written by Alex Haley of 'Roots' fame, called 'Superfly TNT' ('taint nothin' to it). It picks up the story of Priest in Africa attempting to help a revolutionary overthrow an evil government. The less said about it the better.

Fortunately, bad sequels don't eliminate classic originals. If you haven't seen it, but you want an example of the real excitement and energy of the rawest flicks of the 70s, 'Superfly' has got you covered.

For my money, there are only five Blaxploitation movies that really stand the test of time and stand up next to films of other genres: Shaft, Coffy, Black Caesar, The Mack and of course, Superfly.

Okay Vince, do your worst.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Jill Scott live: Hot, Honest and Holding It Down

Jill Scott and Raheem deVaughn live at Gibson Amphitheater, Los Angeles February 14th.

Another of my favorite things: a great live concert. Something about the connection between an artist and an audience when it's real and not manufactured has always struck me as its own undefinable magic.

The first concert I ever went to scared me to death, because I had no idea what would to expect. I was 9 years old and I went with my mother and her best friend to the Public Auditorium in Cleveland to see The Dramatics, the Stylistics, Joe Simon and the Staple Singers, who had just reached number one on the charts with 'I'll Take You There'. It was a life changing event. The electricity and excitement, the communal feeling with 10,000 other music lovers was an incredible high. I've been a committed live music fan ever since.

Quick list of 10 best shows I've ever seen:
1. Prince: Dirty Mind tour 1980 Royal Oak Theater Detroit Michigan
2. The Jacksons: Triumph tour 1981 Cincinnati Coliseum
3. David Bowie: Station to Station tour 1976 Cleveland Public Auditorium
4. Bob Marley & The Wailers: Rastaman Vibration tour 1976 Cleveland Music Hall
5. Chic: Risque tour 1980 Cleveland Front Row Theater
6. Jill Scott: Who Is Jill Scott tour 2001 House of Blues Los Angeles
7. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Lifeboat Party tour 1983 Masonic Temple Detroit
8. Luther Vandross: The Night I Fell In Love tour 1985 Detroir Masonic Temple
9. Daryl Hall & John Oates: Bigger Than Both of Us tour 1977 Toledo Sports Arena
10. Seal: Kiss From a Rose tour: 1991 Wiltern Theater Los Angeles

Just missing the cut is D'Angelo's Voodoo rehearsal show at the House of Blues, running 3 hours, Stevie Wonder's Homecoming show in Detroit, 1982. Stevie was 2 hours late, but played for 4 hours straight. Sting's first solo tour, Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour, James Taylor's One Man Band show and on and on and on.

Last night I went to see Jill Scott for the fifth time. I saw her as mentioned earlier at the House of Blues, in her first official LA concert. She hit the stage a fully formed performer: great personality, song selection was tight, a lively band and a natural effervescence that was infectious. When she opened with 'A Long Walk' and the crowd knew every word, you could see on her face and the faces of her band that they were all surprised and elated. At the chorus, the energy of the song, the artist and crowd just elevated to a high level that was maintained until the show was over.

I saw her a few months later in Miami and her vibe was off a bit. The show was great, but she didn't seem happy, and with Jill Scott live, I think happy is the difference between a solid craftsman-like show and an inspired performance. Her live album that was recorded around that same time also feels less than stellar.

Saw her next in LA back at the House of Blues where she previewed her second studio album before it was released. A bold move for an r&b act, but she pulled it off, only reaching into her catalog for a couple of familiar tunes.

Caught her with Common at Radio City Music Hall in New York, when 'Golden' was her current single. The show was strong and she was in good spirits, buoyed by a crowd who was receptive to anything she wanted to do.

Last night's show was opened by a young male r&b vocalist, Raheem deVaughn, recently nominated for a Grammy for his latest single 'Woman'. A talented performed, deVaughn is a guy with so much energy he doesn't know what to do with it all. He had a guy onstage signing for the hearing impaired, he had a guy painting eclectic art, another guy distractingly filming him onstage with a cel phone and Raheem showered the audience with cue cards when he wasn't busy running back and forth across the stage. He wasn't bad at all, just hectic.

While watching deVaughn, I remember thinking, 'there's no one stepping into Luther Vandross' shoes when it comes to live performing'. From the very beginning, Luther had a knack of understanding what an audience wanted, even if the audience didn't know they wanted it. His shows were elegant, polished, funky and fun. Everything about a Luther Vandross show was buttoned up, but it rarely felt stiff or artificial. I did a quick mental tour of today's r&b and no one's even close to doing it like LV did.

Then came Jill. When her show opened and she arrived like royalty in a purple gown, that big ole' smile and that spectacular voice, it was all good. I've never seen her look better, she definitely had her sexy on.

Since the first time I saw her, Jill's been married and divorced, she's released two studio albums which haven't burned up the charts but have been consistent and a clear sign of an artist who's constantly striving to expand her horizons. Her fan base has remained loyal as evidenced by the nearly sold out venue populated by thousands of women who embrace her female empowerment ideas as their own.

As I watched Jill lead her crackerjack band through new arrangements of her classic tunes and tight versions of the new songs, I realized,in her own way, Jill Scott is carrying Luther's torch, whether she knows it or not. The professionalism, the intimacy with the audience, the emotional investment of each song, Jill's putting it down in a way that Luther would approve of.

Throughout the show she made reference to the challenging road she's travelled over the last few years, but she also made it clear that she's had some good times too. Watching her talk with the audience felt like listening to your cousin Pookie talking around the kitchen table, natural and homey.

Then we get to the voice. Jill Scott has one of the most impressive instruments in all of popular music, with an unmatched ability to emotionally become whatever 'character' is needed in a song.

The only flaw that I can point out was the decision to crank the audio up during 'Golden'. The music was so loud that it distorted everything, bringing an unnecessary element of irritation to an otherwise outstanding performance.

If my list went to a top 20 shows of all time, this one would probably be on it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

In Bruges: A GOOD Colin Ferrell flick?

After many years of going to the movies, I still look forward to the new openings every Friday. Back in the day, I was hardcore action flicks: Bruce Lee, Charles Bronson, Arnold, Stallone, etc. As time goes on, I've been more and more attracted to art house and foreign films. Don't get me wrong, I'm definitely looking forward to Indiana Jones, Iron Man, the new Batman and of course, 007, but the films in between the big boys are the ones that tend to stick with me.

'In Bruges', the new film starring Colin Ferrell, Ralph Fiennes and Brendan Gleeson is a small film set in Bruges, Belgium and it packs its own, quirky, weird but effective punch.

Ferrell and Gleeson are two small time hitmen who are sent to Bruges to cool off after a hit in London goes wrong. Ferrell is a rookie killer who hates Bruges, with a guilty conscience, while Gleeson is the veteran who's tired and is fond of the quaintness of Bruges. Late in the film, Fiennes appears as the boss who has issues to resolve with both men, leading to an unpredictable but satisfying climax.

Colin Ferrell burst on the scene several years ago in Joel Schumacher's underrated and little seen, 'Tigerland'. He immediately showed signs of being an interesting personality with considerable acting skills to match. Farrell quickly became Hollywood's latest bad boy,landing in the tabloids with regularity. He made many more movies, one more forgettable than the last until he bottomed out with Oliver Stone's 'Alexander the Great'. Farrell also became a father and did a brief stint in rehab, coming out if it all a bit more adult and more selective about his work.

Seen last month in Woody Allen's thriller 'Cassandra's Dream', Farrell was convincing as man deep in trouble that he wasn't smart enough to get himself out of. Now with his performance in 'Bruges', Farrell shows a variety of shades as the off kilter killer. At once funny, outrageous and pathetic, Farrell creates a character that you should be repulsed by, but you find yourself hoping he can pull it all off.

Gleeson, one of the best character actors working today, doesn't strike one false note. Content with being Farrell's straight man, he brings enormous pathos to his slump shouldered character.

The other surprise of the film is Fiennes, who jumps at the opportunity to play someone totally opposite of the type of roles that he's known for. Rude, vulgar but embued with his own peculiar sense of honor, Fiennes character is cut from the same cloth as Ben Kingsley's scary killer in the memorable 'Sexy Beast'.

There's also a love story and a subplot with a midget that ultimately pulls the story all together. 'In Bruges' is a perfect example of the ideal way to see a small, indie type flick: not much hype, no big expectations, that results in just a nice night out at the movies.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

It's CRIMINAL not to give this a read

For years, comic books have been regarded as for kids, or overgrown kids. Most people would think muscle-bound do-gooders running around in their underwear or funny talking animals. But things have changed quite a bit.

No longer just for kids, there are comics for almost any taste or preference. Interested in westerns, try 'Jonah Hex' or 'The Lone Ranger'. Interested in sci-fi, try 'Y: The Last Man', about a young twentysomething who discovers he's the last man alive in a world run by women. Now, if your taste runs towards film noir, crime and femme fatales, look no further than Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's 'Criminal'.

Published under Marvel Comics Icon line, 'Criminal' is an irregularly produced comic book that focuses on the world of crime from an almost blue collar level. Each story arc runs 4-6 issues, complete with a letters page and very well written crime articles written by a variety of well regarded afficianados. Topics have been a look at Robert Altman's 'The Long Goodbye', a feature on 'Blaxploitation' movies and the ultimate film noir 'Out of the Past' among others.

Ed Brubaker is one of the most popular writers in comics these days. Last year, 'Criminal' won the Eisner Award (comics version of the Oscar) for Best New Series. He also writes 'X-Men', 'The Immortal Iron Fist', the noir influenced 'Daredevil' and 'Captain America', where his controversial 'Death of Captain America' was the biggest selling book of the year. Even more impressively, until this month, there's been no Captain America featured in his own magazine and it's still an amazing read.

Sean Phillips, based in the UK is Brubaker's artist of choice, having enjoyed success with the series 'Sleeper' a few years ago. Phillips has a unique style that's scratchy and gritty, but is also a textbook on storytelling. Equally comfortable with oil paint as ink, Phillips is clearly an equal in this partnership.

All of the characters in 'Criminal' exist in the same universe and occasionally cross each other's path, usually in the speakeasy bar, The Undertow, itself a character.

The first story arc, 'Coward' is a about a small time criminal who always knows how to get away before the law shows up. In this tale, he's part of a heist that goes awry and his long winning streak of evading John Law may be about to end.

The second arc, 'Lawless', centers around Tracey Lawless, a military man who breaks out of jail to find out who murdered his less than honorable brother. Along the way he meets a woman, joins a gang and the fireworks begin.

Either of these arcs would make a great film. Brubaker is known for inventive stories, richly flawed characters, realistic dialogue and a real feel for the street. Coming this month are three standalone issues that focus on a different lead character. All of the stories have some connection to each other, but it's not necessary to read all three in order to understand what's going on. The art above is from the second story in the trilogy.

If you're up for a novel length crime read, give one of the trades a try. If you're more inclined to test the waters before you jump all the way in, try the new issue in February. Turn on a soft light and use Charlie Haden's 'Now Is the Hour' as a soundtrack while you read. Doesn't get much better than that..