Popcorn Superhet Receiver: An Orchestral Work by Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood: Popcorn Superhet Receiver

Jonny Greenwood: Popcorn Superhet Receiver

There may be no more rare product in today’s Hollywood film-making than a distinctive and original film score. Most soundtracks rely so heavily on a few computer-processed musical devices, fabricated swells of strings and cymbals, that when a composer adopts a more personal language the effect is revelatory: an entire dimension of the film experience is liberated from cliché.

So it is in Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie There Will Be Blood, which has an unearthly, beautiful score by the young English composer Jonny Greenwood. The early scenes show, in painstaking detail, a maverick oilman assembling a network of wells at the turn of the last century. Moviegoers who find themselves falling into a claustrophobic trance during these sequences may be inclined to credit the director, who has forged some indelible images. With that being said, the music does fifty per cent of the work; the opening sequences are almost entirely wordless, framed by music that is both dense and dissonant.

The music, at once terrifying, enrapturing, alien and intimate, comes from a Greenwood piece called Popcorn Superhet Receiver, and although it wasn’t composed for the film, it supplies a precise metaphor for the central character. The coalescence of a wide range of notes into a monomaniacal unison may tell us most of what we need to know about the crushed soul of the future tycoon Daniel Plainview. It’s hard to think of a recent Hollywood production in which music plays such an active role. Unfortunately, Greenwood’s work was judged ineligible for an Academy Award nomination, because the soundtrack contained too much pre-existing music.

There Will Be Blood: Prospector’s Quartet, Jonny Greenwood

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Christopher Guest: A Legendary Comic Impresario

Christopher Guest: Mockumentary Director

Christopher Guest: A Legendary Impresario

A Surreal Honorary Degree Ceremony

Honorary-degree presentation ceremonies are usually dignified and tedious events. On the other hand, when you’re honoring the songwriter who conceived Sex Farm and Big Bottom, stoic moderation would seem out of place. Consequently, when Boston’s Berklee College of Music bestowed a doctorate on Christopher Guest this past semester, the college and the honorary recipient embraced the ceremony’s dreamlike ambience. Mr. Guest, the actor, director, and musician whose humorously ironic songs spice up his documentary-style comedies, earned cult-hero status with his role as Nigel Tufnel, the bumbling guitarist from 1984’s hard-rock spoof This Is Spinal Tap.

Once the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony was over, there was time for a real rock and roll show. Mr. Guest joined a group of Berklee students, with whom he had rehearsed for two days, for a round of his greatest hits, some given new arrangements. “My one request about the ceremony was that it could be built around a concert,” Mr. Guest said, “as opposed to just showing up and putting on the cap and gown.”

Berklee usually honors jazz legends, like Ornette Coleman, or pop-music icons, like Aretha Franklin. But the concert showed that Mr. Guest has serious musical talents. The Spinal Tap songs might have been the fan favorites, but Mr. Guest raves about a reworked version of Skeletons of Quinto, a relatively obscure song that was featured only briefly in his 2003 mockumentary, A Mighty Wind. When students asked in one of his Berklee classes about his next project, ever-the-satirist Christopher Guest joked, “It’s a movie about a music school in Boston. Students learning jazz, what they go through.” The students filling the Berklee Performance Center laughed nervously. Their worry was understandable. Some of Guest’s more renowned films, This Is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, parody musicians. Yet the films also have a hearty amount of sympathy for them, owing to Guest’s own involvement with music.

However, more serious music is not as unusual for Guest as it might seem. He’d been a musician for almost twenty years before This Is Spinal Tap, attending the High School of Music and Art in New York and touring with his longtime collaborator Michael McKean’s Lenny and the Squigtones. Guest approached the music clinics somewhat apprehensive of students expecting him to be funny. “The one thing I’ve never done is stand-up comedy. I don’t even know any jokes,” he said. But his answers to students’ questions were couched in his own sense of deadpan humor. Often, his first response was a simple one-syllable answer. He’d wait a beat for the crowd to shift uncomfortably, then elaborate.

Asked by students what the biggest challenge of his career had been, Guest joked, “This has been.” But getting serious for a moment, he said that, “Making parodies is difficult, we have to pull back from reality-it’s too stupid or sad,” he said. He shared with the students an anecdote that he was never able to include in the movie: In the middle of Guest pitching his first movie, a studio executive fell asleep. The executive was startled awake a few moments later, and the first words out of his mouth were “Great, let’s do it.”

As was fitting in honoring a career that blends film and music, the tribute concert began with clips from his movies, then transitioned into a live performance in the middle of “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight.” Berklee students sang lead on most songs, with Guest either playing electric guitar or just looking on appreciatively. A full band backed them up, including piano, trumpets, saxophones, violins, and cello.

The performances themselves were interspersed with videos of musicians congratulating Guest on his honorary doctorate. Steve Vai warned him that he wasn’t a real doctor, so he shouldn’t “operate on anything but a G-string.” Elvis Costello played a bit of A Mighty Wind’s “Penny for Your Thoughts” and said Guest has “the soul and ear of an artist, but considerably more wit.” Tom Hamilton joked that Aerosmith opened for Spinal Tap, and “we all got completely wasted and destroyed the room. Cops came and arrested Nigel and took him to jail for destroying the hotel room. He’s not going to see this, is he?

Guest took it all in stride, working the crowd like a pro. And for the last song, the wall between performers and audience melted as over 50 student and faculty bassists filled the aisles for a rendition of Big Bottom that broke Spinal Tap’s previous record of 15 bassists onstage. It was a grand finale worthy of the greatest excesses of heavy metal-and of Guest’s films.

Up until an hour ago I thought this was a practical joke,” Guest cracked as he took the podium at the Berklee Performance Center. But the actor, director, composer, and musician’s body of work is no laughing matter. As the night’s MC, Larry Monroe said that at a clinic Guest taught earlier in the day, “His music is solid. There are gags in the lyrics, but there are no gags in the music.” And the audience saw the strength in the music firsthand as Berklee students and faculty joined Guest onstage for straight covers and unique interpretations of the songs from his movies This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and A Mighty Wind.

Guest Performing with Berklee Students and Faculty

A Mighty Wind: Christopher Guest’s Trompe L’oeil Satire

Christopher Guest’s Pseudo-Documentaries

In Guest’s films, beloved by so many that they can recite the lines by heart, his characters have grand dreams. In Waiting for Guffman, the citizens of Blaine (MO), want their community-theater production to move to Broadway; in Best in Show, a variety of dog owners push their pooches to win top prize at a Westminster-like show; in This Is Spinal Tap, washed-up rockers give a doomed comeback tour their all; in A Mighty Wind, three folk acts whose 15 minutes of fame expired 35 years earlier get a crack at a comeback. Guest has respect and affection for the oddballs he creates. No matter how absurd their circumstances, he always takes them seriously, which only makes them funnier. Their wrenching heartbreaks and tiny triumphs make them exactly like us.

In A Mighty Wind, Mr. Guest, his writing collaborator Eugene Levy (who also plays Mitch), and their goofy deadpan ensemble have decided to resuscitate the commercial folk music that survives nowadays mostly at summer camp sing-alongs and on public television, and they have done so with sweet-natured, goofy affection. Like the small-town troupers in Guffman and the dog-show competitors in Best in Show, the pickers and chirpers of A Mighty Wind are immune to embarrassment and utterly devoted to their own peculiar notions of artistic accomplishment and show-business glory. They are, it must be said, pretty good at making bad music. The soundtrack, full of swaybacked metaphors, rousing choruses and mind-numbing harmonies, may yet make stars of Mitch and Mickey and their fake-folk comrades, the Folksmen and the New Main Street Singers. Sincerity is the hallmark of this kind of music, and the parody of it that Mr. Guest and his company offer here is often indistinguishable from the real thing.

A Mighty Wind: Pretty Good at Making Bad Music

Guest’s first nomination for any kind of award was for an Obie Award for music he wrote in 1973 for the Off-Broadway show National Lampoon’s Lemmings. “I never did find out if I won,” he said, “because the category was omitted during the ceremony.” Then he and other Lampoon writers were nominated for three Grammys for their comedy records. “The first year, Cheech and Chong won,” Guest said. “Second year, Richard Pryor. Third year, Richard Pryor. And I thought, This isn’t fun at all.” In 1976, he won an Emmy for writing a Lily Tomlin special, and he eventually did win a Grammy in 2004, with Eugene Levy and Michael McKean, for the title song of A Mighty Wind.

The Title Song: A Mighty Wind

After seeing Mitch and Mickey, the legendary folk-music duo of the 1960’s, reunite on the stage of Town Hall to perform their signature tune, A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow in A Mighty Wind, some people want nothing so much as to go out to the garage and dig out some of their old LP’s, just for old times’ sake. The only problem is that these dewy-eyed singers, their songs so twee and noodle-headed as to make Richard and Mimi Fariña sound like the Ramones, never really existed. A Mighty Wind almost makes you believe that Mitch and Mickey were real, which is an impressive stunt. More than that, it makes you almost wish that they were, which is something of a miracle.

A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow

Guffman and Best in Show were devoted to subcultures from which the audience could feel a certain detachment, even (whether or not this was Mr. Guest’s intention) to the point of superiority. A Mighty Wind addresses a broader swath of American popular culture, making it more accessible, harder to escape and also vulnerable to the charge that it missed its satiric target. But to grumble too much about the filmmakers’ selective fidelity to the world that exists is to risk underestimating their fidelity to the world they invent. A Mighty Wind is only superficially a satire in the fish-in-a-barrel, sketch comedy sense. Its spirit is not so much caustic as utopian, though it conjures a utopia, like the one evoked in the title song, of blithe cluelessness, earnest self-delusion and joyful nonsense.

The film’s pseudo-documentary narrative is built around a memorial concert for Irving Steinbloom, a legendary impresario. The event is organized by Steinbloom’s son Jonathan (Bob Balaban), a compulsive, unsmiling fellow whose adult personality may owe something to the childhood experience of being forced by his over-protective mother to wear a helmet while playing chess. Jonathan enlists his father’s favorite acts, including the Folksmen (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Mr. Guest) and the New Main Street Singers, a ”neuftet” that blurs the boundary between singing group and cult. (Their leaders, played by John Michael Higgins and Jane Lynch, practice a spiritual discipline based on the vibratory power of color.) But the real coup is reuniting Mitch and Mickey (Catherine O’Hara), onetime lovebirds who endured a bad breakup and who have moved on to other things, he to a mental hospital and she to a second marriage to a model-train enthusiast who works in ”the bladder control industry.”

The matter-of-fact absurdity of this last phrase is a hallmark of Mr. Guest and Mr. Levy’s improvisatory comic style. Their jokes are sometimes so subtle as to seem imperceptible, until you realize that they are everywhere, from the broadest gestures to the tiniest details of dress and décor. There is something almost shockingly poignant about the way they portray former lovers who have drifted far from stardom, and from each other, and who are drawn back together by the power of music. The music may be perfectly awful, actually it is both perfect and awful, but its power, this movie suggests, is nothing to laugh at. Or so you might realize, if you could only stop laughing long enough to form such a thought.

The Kennedys Embrace Obama: A Man with Extraordinary Gifts of Leadership and Character

Sen. Ted Kennedy Endorses Barack Obama

Obama Understands the Fierce Urgency of the Now

Two generations of Kennedys endorsed Barack Obama for president on Monday, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy describing him as a ”man with extraordinary gifts of leadership and character,” a worthy heir to his assassinated brother. ”I feel change in the air,” Kennedy said in remarks edged with scarcely veiled criticism of Obama’s chief rival for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as her husband, the former president. ”I have marveled at his grit and grace,” he said of the man a full generation younger than he is.

From the beginning, he opposed the war in Iraq. And let no one deny that truth,” he said, an obvious reference to former President Clinton’s statement that Obama’s early anti-war stance was a ”fairy tale.” ”With Barack Obama, we will turn the page on the old politics of misrepresentation and distortion. With Barack Obama we will close the book on the old politics of race against race, gender against gender, ethnic group against ethnic group, and straight against gay,” Kennedy said.

There was another time, when another young candidate was running for president and challenging America to cross a new frontier. He faced criticism from the preceding Democratic president, who was widely respected in the party,” Kennedy said, referring to Harry S. Truman. ”And John Kennedy replied, ‘The world is changing. The old ways will not do…. It is time for a new generation of leadership.”

So it is with Barack Obama,” he added.

The senator made his comments at a crowded campaign rally that took on the appearances of a Kennedy family embrace of Obama, who sat smiling as he heard their praise. He was introduced by Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late president, who said that ”Obama offers that same sense of hope and inspiration” as did her father. Representative Patrick Kennedy also endorsed Obama from the stage before a jubilant crowd at American University.

This is more than just politics for me. It is personal,” Obama said when it came time for him to speak. He said he was too young to remember President John F. Kennedy, ”My own sense of what is possible in this country stems from what my parents had told me about the Kennedys.”  “I stand here today with a great deal of humility,” Mr. Obama said after Mr. Kennedy’s endorsement. “I know what your support means. I know the cherished place the Kennedy family holds in the hearts of the American people.”

Barack Obama: The Kennedy Endorsements are a Great Honor

Also on Monday, Senator Obama picked up the endorsement of Nobel Prize winning author and Pulitzer Prize recipient Toni Morrison, who read from her work at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration and once labeled him the ”first Black president.” Morrison said she has admired Hillary Clinton for years because of her knowledge and mastery of politics, but she cited Obama’s ”creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom.” Morrison said that her endorsement had little to do with Obama’s race, but rather with her great admiration of his personal gifts.

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Dolly Parton’s Joyful Anthem: Better Get to Livin’

Dolly Parton: Backwoods Dolly

Dolly Parton: Better Get to Livin

Dolly Parton’s Better Get to Livin

Dolly Parton’s forthcoming album might be called Backwoods Dolly, but one particularly uplifting single from the album, Better Get to Livin’, shows that the timeless entertainer is more wise philosopher than a painted, plastic country kewpie doll. She introduced this joyful anthem during an earlier prime-time appearance on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars. At the heart of the track is Parton’s sweetly distinctive vocal, backed by the angelic voices of acclaimed gospel songbirds Sonya and Becky Isaacs. The well-crafted lyrics find Parton encouraging others to live life to the fullest. Brimming with Parton’s signature wit, wisdom and personality, it’s the musical equivalent of getting a much-needed boost from your favorite partner.

Dolly Parton: Better Get to Livin

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Photos of the Day: Great Smooch and Big Hats

God Save the Queen:

The Hapless Essence of Britishness: Great Smooch and Big Hats

Great Smooch: Being Seen in Big Hats at The Ascot Races

The Queen’s Sartorial Commands

The queen has decided to “impose her will” by demanding that “inappropriate” and revealing outfits be banned in The Royal Enclosure at the famous Berkshire sporting event, which runs from June 17 to June 21 at Ascot. A royal source divulged: “Ascot has been overrun with tattoos, inappropriate attire and bare flesh in recent years. The queen has noticed these things and she doesn’t like them. She knows it is something that goes on across the country, but Ascot is her course and she can impose her will there.”

Later this month, race-course chairman and Her Majesty’s Representative at Ascot, the Duke of Devonshire, will send all 80,000 Royal Enclosure badge holders a strict dress code. The rules will include an insistence that ladies wear a hat or “substantial feather fascinator.” Miniskirts and off-the-shoulder dresses will be considered “unsuitable”, as will dresses with straps “less than one-inch wide.” The duke stated: “Midriffs must be covered and trouser suits must be full length and of matching material and colour.”

Ascot course spokesman Nick Smith added to Britain’s Daily Express newspaper: “There won’t be someone in a bowler hat checking straps with a tape measure. It is common sense. Ladies who turn up with bare shoulders will be sold pashimas before they can enter the Royal Enclosure. Standards had also been slipping in the general enclosure and men will be required to wear a shirt and tie. Jeans, no matter how expensive, will not be allowed.”

The Royal Crown Commands: Ladies Must Wear Hats or Fascinators

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Senator Edward Kennedy to Endorse Obama for President

Senator Edward M. Kennedy will endorse Barack Obama for president tomorrow, breaking his year-long neutrality in order to send a powerful signal of where the legendary Massachusetts Democrat sees the party going, and who he thinks is best to lead it.  Senator Kennedy is scheduled to appear with Obama and Kennedy’s niece, Caroline Kennedy, at a morning rally at American University in Washington tomorrow to officially announce his support.  Today, The New York Times gave a detailed report about Senator Kennedy’s planned endorsement of Obama for President of the United States:

“Senator Edward M. Kennedy intends to endorse the presidential candidacy of Senator Barack Obama during a rally on Monday in Washington, associates to both men confirmed, a decision that squarely pits one American political dynasty against another.

The expected endorsement, coming after Mr. Obama’s commanding victory over Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, may give Mr. Obama further momentum in his campaign for the nomination.

As Mr. Obama flew here on Sunday, he smiled when asked by reporters about Mr. Kennedy’s plans, saying: “I’ve had ongoing conversations with Ted since I’ve got into this race.”  He learned of Mr. Kennedy’s decision through a telephone call on Thursday, aides said, three days before the South Carolina primary.

Of all the endorsements in the Democratic Party, Mr. Kennedy’s is viewed as among the most influential.  The Massachusetts senator had vowed to stay out of the presidential nominating fight, but as the contest expanded into a state-by-state fight — and given the tone of the race in the last week — associates said he was moved to announce his support for Mr. Obama.”

You can read the full version of The New York Times report here.

Update:

The San Francisco Chronicle has just announced its endorsement of Obama for President.  You can read the full editorial statement here.  In addition, here is the video of Obama’s January 17th meeting with the Chronical Editorial Board:

(Please Click Image for Video)

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Obama Gets His Mojo Back: Trounces Hillary in South Carolina

Barack Obama Trounces Hillary in South Carolina Primary

Senator Obama’s Victory Speech

Senator Barack Obama won a commanding victory over Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary on Saturday, building a coalition of support among African-American and white voters in a contest that sets the stage for a state-by-state fight for the party’s presidential nomination.  Obama’s convincing victory puts him on equal footing with Mrs. Clinton, with two wins each in early-voting states, and it gives him renewed momentum as the contest heads into a nationwide campaign over the next 10 days.

Nearly complete returns showed Obama with 55 percent of the vote, Clinton at 27 percent, and Edwards at 18 percent.  In his victory speech to supporters in Columbia (SC), Obama emphasized his message of change, referring to “this country’s desire for something new….Tonight, the cynics that said what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina,” Senator Obama said, referring to his last major victory in the Iowa caucus.  “After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates and the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time.”

In the South Carolina contest, more than half of the voters were African-American, and surveys of voters leaving the polls suggested that their heavy turnout helped to drive Obama to victory.  Exit polls showed that Obama, who had built an extensive grass-roots network throughout the state, received the support of about 80 percent of the African-American voters.  He also received about one-quarter of the white vote, with Clinton and Edwards splitting the remainder.

In The Atlantic Magazine, Andrew Sullivan has described Obama’s South Carolina acceptance speech as the best that he has given so far in the presidential campaign:

“I’ve now listened to and read dozens of his speeches, on television and in person and in print.  Tonight was, in my judgment, the best.  He was able to frame the attacks on him as a reason to vote for him.  He was able to frame his foes as the status quo – beyond the Clintons or the Bushes, Democrats or Republicans.  He was able to cast his candidacy as a rebuke to the Balkanization of the American public, a response to the abuse of religion for political purposes, a repudiation of the cynicism that makes all political commentary a function of horse-races and spin.  It was an appeal to Democrats, Republicans and Independents to say goodbye to all that.  It was a burial of Rove and Morris.  And it was better than his previous speeches because he kept bringing it back to policy specifics, to the economy and healthcare and, movingly, to this misbegotten war.  The diverse coalition he has assembled – including an ornery small-government conservative like me – is a reflection of the future of this country, its potential and its irreplaceable, dynamic cultural and social mix.

This is the America we all love.  He is showing us how to find it again.  That‘s leadership.”

Update:

Today, Caroline Kennedy announced her endorsement of Barack Obama for President:

Over the years, I’ve been deeply moved by the people who’ve told me they wished they could feel inspired and hopeful about America the way people did when my father was president.  This sense is even more profound today.  That is why I am supporting a presidential candidate in the Democratic primaries, Barack Obama.”

You can read the full version of her endorsement in today’s issue of The New York Times.

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