Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Blue-Eyed Soul: A Consideration

While riding Amtrak down to San Diego on the way to this year's ComicCon, I was listening to random tunes on my iPod. Up came a live version of Boz Scaggs’ wicked “Miss Sun”, originally on his ‘Hits’ album from 1980, but this particular version was from a live greatest hits collection released a few years ago.

Relaxing on the train, with a nice pair of headphones, I was struck by how timeless the groove, melody and Scaggs’ inimitable foghorn baritone voice continues to resonate. That got me on a train (no pun intended) of thought about my continuing fascination with pop oriented artists from the seventies and eighties who combined their love and appreciation of R&B music with their own unique Top 40 sensibilities.

It should be noted that while there are countless stories about how white artists have ripped off black music, in most cases (to be clear, most, not all) when I research pop artists who show a heavy R&B influence, those artists are quick to acknowledge the skill, ability and inspiration that the original artists provide. For example, it was quite nice to see The Spinners open for Hall & Oates at the Hollywood Bowl for two sold out shows last summer. All Philly boys, it was pleasing to see H&O give props to the source. Granted, everyone doesn’t do it, but more do than you’d probably think. Music is the great equalizer.

Back in the day, music wasn’t nearly as segregated on Black radio as it is today. In the seventies and eighties, it wasn’t uncommon to hear The Doobie Brothers, Hall & Oates, Kenny Loggins, Steely Dan, George Michael, Boz Scaggs and occasionally even David Bowie on R&B radio stations. The music delivered by those artists was connected by a specific alchemy that blended pop strains with R&B sensibilities, appealing to an urban audience as well as a larger pop concern.

In today’s market, when you hear a white artist on R&B (or hip-hop) radio, it’s generally an artist who is specifically striving for an R&B sound, pop be damned. Robin Thicke, Jon B. and until recently Justin Timberlake all come to mind. Amy Winehouse and Duffy are among the new breed of artists that seem to be working from a more traditionally based R&B foundation that is sprinkled with a pop awareness not generally found in today’s young multi-format artists.

Anyway, considering all of this inspired me to come up with yet another list, one that I reserve the right to change on further consideration. I’ve always appreciated the slinky, cool grooves that these guys were able to put down. Recognizing that one of my favorite singers, Daryl Hall, resents the term ‘Blue Eyed Soul’, calling it reverse racism, in the interest of clear identification, I present my first pass at my favorite Blue Eyed Soul Grooves, circa mid seventies to the present. Please feel free to forward any additional suggestions to this list.

1. Miss Sun: Boz Scaggs
2. Walk On By: Michael McDonald
3. No Hope In Here: Lewis Taylor
4. FM: Steely Dan
5. Heart to Heart: Kenny Loggins
6. I Can’t Go For That: H&O
7. Green Light: Jamie Lidell
8. Waiting for Your Love: Toto
9. I’ll Be Alright Without You: Journey
10. School Boy Crush: AWB

Friday, July 4, 2008

Hancock: Flawed but Fascinating

The summer of 2008 hasn't been bad as far as superhero/adventure flicks are concerned. 'Indiana Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull' came up short, but 'Iron Man' was outstanding and 'The Incredible Hulk' was a lot more fun than it deserved to be. And the summer's still got 'The Dark Knight' waiting in the wings. Also in this bumper crop is an interesting original film about an alcoholic, surly superhero. 'Hancock', starring Fourth of July mainstay Will Smith is a flim that doesn't really work, but it's got some elements that make it a somewhat subversive, challenging film.

Originally written several years ago as 'Tonight, He Comes', the script was very well regarded around Hollywood, but went unproduced for years. Director Michael Mann was attached to direct for several years, but it still lay in limbo until Mann protege' Peter Berg (The Rundown, Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) signed on, with Mann serving as executive producer.

Berg has a habit of focusing on characters who are flawed creatures that have difficulty fitting into the mainstream. A former actor, Berg is known for edgy, jittery upclose camera work, that emphasizes the trials and tribulations that his cast is going through.

Will Smith has shown over the last few years that he can do almost anything and do it well. From his Oscar nominated performance in 'Ali' and 'Pursuit of Happyness' to the comedic charm of 'Hitch', Smith has become America's most popular actor while continuing to stretch at almost every opportunity. Given that, he's a perfect choice to play the sullen, sour 'Hancock'.

An amnesiac superhero with little self control and almost no regard for others, Hancock is a mess: he drinks, he smells, he destroys as much property as he protects. In the midst of saving the life of a PR agent (Justin Bateman), Hancock is confronted with the realization that he's lonely and somewhat ashamed of his behavior. The PR agent convinces him to turn over a new leaf and clean up his act.

Hancock turns himself in to the police and is incarcerated until the level of crime is such that the police need his help. The new Hancock, cleanshaven, polite and wearing a superhero costume, saves the day and is immediately embraced by the public. During this experiment, Hancock develops a foster family, consisting of the PR agent, his son and his beautiful wife, who immediately has both a conflict and attraction to the reformed superhero. To go much further would spoil the film's big surprise, but suffice it to say all isn't as it seems.

Theatrically released with a runtime of 92 minutes, 'Hancock' was originally over two hours long. The screenplay juggled humor with a decidely dark side that proved problematic for a film that was due to be Sony's big summer film. The final film has bits and pieces of the dark side, and Will Smith totally commits to playing 'Hancock' as a bastard, although one who has not totally lost touch with his humanity. The realization that Hancock is a lonely creature, seemingly the only one of his kind on Earth, is beautifully captured in Smith's performance and Berg's direction.

Charlize Theron plays the wife with a secret and perfectly compliments Jason Bateman's low key but humorous performance.
'Hancock' is the type of film that shouldn't have been a summer franchise flick. If left to its own devices, 'Hancock' would have been a quirky, possibly disturbing take on the popular superhero genre'. As such, it's a captivating failure that bears repeated viewing. One hopes that Sony will allow Peter Berg an opportunity to create his director's cut for the inevitable DVD.