Monday 27 April 2020

The Grammy Hall of Fame, part 1

Hello, my friends! I know that I haven’t had a new story post since the beginning of February. I meant to post earlier but then the pandemic came and I really wasn’t in the mood. I’ve had time to think about it more and I have decided that since most of us have to stay at home, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to offer you something pleasant to pass your time. So, a new unity begins today. There is also another, more ambitious unity that is ready to go. If you feel like it, I will get on with both.

The Grammy Hall of Fame was made to honor musical recordings of lasting qualitative or historical significance. Inductees are selected annually by a special member committee of eminent and knowledgeable professionals from all branches of the recording arts. It is compiled by The Recording Academy in the United States and was established in 1973. Recordings (singles and albums) in all genres are eligible for selection and must be at least 25 years old to be considered. If it pleases you, we will be listening to as many of the inductees as possible.

The eight original honorees were the following, in chronological order:

Rhapsody In Blue (1924) by Paul Whiteman’s Concert Orchestra featuring George Gershwin:

West End Blues (1928) by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five:

Mood Indigo (1931) by Duke Ellington & His Orchestra:

I Can’t Get Started (1938) by Bunny Berigan & His Orchestra:

Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert (1938 – album released 1950) by Benny Goodman & His Orchestra. This is the whole album:

Body And Soul (1940) by Coleman Hawkins:

White Christmas (1942) by Bing Crosby:

The Christmas Song (1946) by Nat “King” Cole with The King Cole Trio:

We will complete today’s playlist with other classics from the pre-rock era that were inducted in later years. The older non-classical song to be honored was Nobody (1906) by Bert Williams:

Another standard – and a huge success at the time – is My Blue Heaven (1927) by Gene Austin:

Time for the Empress of the Blues: this is Empty Bed Blues (1928) by Bessie Smith:

The above song is the first of five songs in a row by black acts. This is Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1929) by Fats Waller:

Here’s One O’Clock Jump (1937) by Count Basie & His Orchestra:

Ella’s biggest hit was A-Tisket, A-Tasket (1938). It was credited to Chick Webb & His Orchestra featuring Ella Fitzgerald:

This is the heartbreaking Strange Fruit (1939) by Billie Holiday:

We certainly couldn’t leave out this classic Oscar winner, Over The Rainbow (1939) by the divine Judy Garland:

My favorite swing record is In The Mood (1939), by Glenn Miller & His Orchestra:

Walter Huston (father of director John Huston and grandfather of Anjelica Huston) was an Oscar-winning actor who also sang. His version of Kurt Weil’s September Song (1939) is one of the songs in our list:

The song that was at #1 in the first official US singles chart was I’ll Never Smile Again (1940) by Tommy Dorsey & His Orchestra featuring a young Frank Sinatra & the Pied Pipers:

Recordings of classical music were also inducted. Here’s one of my favorites. Bach: The Goldberg Variations (1955) by Glenn Gould:

That’s all for today. Next time, the list will include songs and albums from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. See you then!

Friday 7 February 2020

Let’s Talk About This Year’s Oscars

It would seem that in the time of information overload such as this, our options would be wider. Yet, as far as prestigious movie awards go, it seems that the access to all that information limits our options. A paradox? Let me explain.

Just before the major awards, the award gurus give their predictions. They are mostly worthy choices, even though they are more or less mainstream. Which is only natural, since the various guilds usually vote mainstream, in opposition to some critics’ groups, whose voting is more eclectic.

The predictions of the gurus become self-fulfilling prophecies. One after another, the major award bodies vote for the same films, the same performances, with small variations. If you especially look at the winners for the four acting categories in the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild awards, and the BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards), you will find the same four names. These actors will probably also win at the Oscars. Indeed, they are all great in what they do but they are not necessarily the best. They just fit in the current narrative in one way or another. At least in the two other major categories (Best Picture and Best Director), there is some suspense. We will begin with the “more predictable” acting categories and we will end with the “less predictable” Best Picture and Best Director.

I haven’t seen any of the nominated short films, so I won’t be discussing these 3 categories. Of the nominated feature film in every other category, I have seen all but two. The French International Film nominee Les Misérables and the latest Star Wars film. Since neither is predicted to be even close to winning, I think my not having seen them will not hinder my ability to talk about their respective categories.

Let’s begin with the Best Actor category. Joaquin Phoenix seems to be a sure bet for his performance in Joker. He is respected, has had multiple nominations in the past, and his performance is impressive. There’s no denying that he deserves the award. Here is his most iconic scene in the film, the rock-star dance down the stairs:

Joker, however, is a divisive film. Theoretically, this could hurt Joaquin’s chances - which may give the opportunity to my own favorite, Adam Driver, to get the prize. He is amazing in Marriage Story and on any other year he would have been the favorite. Here he is, singing Sondheim’s Being Alive:

It’s really a pity that Antonio Banderas’ exquisite performance in Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory and Jonathan Pryce’s delicate portrayal of one of The Two Popes don’t really stand a chance. It is the first nomination for both. Neither does Leonardo DiCaprio, who is also great in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. At least he already has an Oscar.

Will win: Joaquin Phoenix
Could win: Adam Driver
Should win: Adam Driver
Could have been nominated but weren’t: Taron Egerton (Rocketman), Eddie Murphy (Dolemite Is My Name), Christian Bale (Ford v Ferrari), Adam Sandler (Uncut Gems), Robert De Niro (The Irishman).

The five ladies nominated for Best Actress are all amazing. Each one would be worthy of the award. However, it is Renée Zellweger’s to lose. The fact that Judy Garland is a beloved figure of resilience in Hollywood history, coupled with Zellweger’s impressive comeback, when she was widely thought of as a has-been – this is a winning combination for the Oscars. Her touching rendition of Over The Rainbow certainly helped:

If anyone would threaten Zellweger, that would be Scarlett Johansson for her transformative performance in Marriage Story. While Scarlett hadn’t been nominated until now, they made up this year by nominating her twice. And it so happens that she is the second choice in both categories. Watch this scene from Marriage Story and you’ll realize that she, as well as Driver, give once-in-a-lifetime performances: 

Scarlet is my second favorite in this category. My favorite, by a hair’s breadth, is Saoirse Ronan for Little Women. In general, Little Women really exceeded my expectations – and Ronan was one of the reasons why. This is another career-best performance. The short video below doesn’t really do her performance justice, so I suggest that you watch the whole film if you haven’t yet:

In any other year, Charlize Theron and Cynthia Erivo would be among the favorites. This year, they should be happy they got nominated.

Will win: Renée Zellweger
Could win: Scarlett Johansson
Should win: Saoirse Ronan
Could have been nominated but weren’t: Awkwafina (The Farewell), Lupita Nyong’o (Us), Alfre Woodard (Clemency), Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Adèle Haenel (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Sofia Buenaventura (Monos).

Can you be an Oscar favorite for being too cool? It seems that Brad Pitt can. Not that his performance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood consists only of being cool, in fact, it’s a highly complex and accomplished one. But his coolness is the basis of his character, it’s part of his persona as a 24-carat movie star as well as a successful producer of good movies, it’s also there in all the acceptance speeches he has given so far. In short, it’s Brad’s time to get awarded. In this scene, you can observe how easy he makes it all seem:

If an upheaval occurs and Brad loses, it will probably be to Joe Pesci for The Irishman. Pesci had already won the Oscar – and after a long and illustrious career, he decided to retire. His friend, Robert De Niro, convinced him to come out from retirement to work together in The Irishman – and it was the right call. Pesci upstages all the other big names in the film, giving us one of his best roles ever. He didn’t campaign for the Oscars, however – and it’s hard to compete against Brad. Here is a scene with Pesci:

Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, and Tom Hanks are very good but they don’t really stand a chance. They’ve all had their Oscars anyway.

Will win: Brad Pitt
Could win: Joe Pesci
Should win: Joe Pesci
Could have been nominated but weren’t: Kang-ho Song (Parasite), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco), Alan Alda (Marriage Story), Wesley Snipes (Dolemite Is My Name), John Lithgow (Bombshell).

I will now admit that my three favorite films of this year’s Oscar bunch are Little Women, Parasite, and Marriage Story. Also, I love Laura Dern ever since I first saw her in Blue Velvet. Like good wine, she has grown better with age – and, like Brad Pitt, this is her time. She is impressive in Marriage Story. Just watch her fire up:

In the unlikely case that Dern loses, the award will probably go to Scarlett Johansson for Jojo Rabbit. She is a double nominee after all, and people liked Jojo Rabbit. Here she is in this scene:

However, in my opinion, it is Florence Pough who could go toe to toe with Dern, for the fine work she did in Little Women. She gave us the first Amy that actually makes sense. Here she is:

No offense to Margot Robbie and Kathy Bates – they are both excellent – but this isn’t their year.

Will win: Laura Dern
Could win: Scarlett Johansson
Should win: Florence Pough
Could have been nominated but weren’t: Shuzhen Zhao (The Farewell), Yeo-Jeong Jo (Parasite), Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Da'Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite Is My Name), Penelope Cruz (Pain & Glory), Ana de Armas (Knives Out).

The Screenplay nominees were all amazing, too. In the Original Screenplay category Parasite is the favorite but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Marriage Story are worthy opponents. 1917 will only win if 1917 wins everything (highly unlikely) and Knives Out, while it’s a great screenplay and highly original, doesn’t really have a chance.

In the Adapted Screenplay category, it will be a battle between Jojo Rabbit (the favorite) and Little Women (my preference). In another year, The Irishman, The Two Popes, and Joker would be in the running – but not this year.

Let’s now visit the Music nominations. First, these are the songs:

The favorite in this category is the legendary duo of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, whose songs were a big part of the soundtrack of our lives. Elton has already won for The Lion King (the good one, from 1994). They have never won an Oscar together though. It’s time they did. Plus, it’s the only nomination for the highly entertaining Rocketman. Here are Elton John and Taron Egerton singing (I'm Gonna) Love Me Again:

If a song is going to challenge the Rocketman song, it would be Stand Up, the epic song from Harriet, written by Cynthia Erivo and Joshuah Brian Campbell and sung by Cynthia Erivo:

The songwriting duo and real-life couple, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, already have two Oscar wins and no loss so far. They will lose the Oscar this year. Into the Unknown, from Frozen 2, is too much like Let It Go – and we have already overdosed on Let It Go. It, too, is sung by Idina Menzel:

I didn’t expect to like a faith-based film. Yet, Breakthrough touched me. I may have shed a tear or two. The song I'm Standing With You, by the multi-nominee Diane Warren, is actually interesting. Here it is, performed by Chrissy Metz:

I absolutely love Randy Newman. Especially everything he did during the last century. Having said that, I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away, from Toy Story 4, is not a good song. Judge for yourselves:

Let’s now visit the Best Score nominees. The favorite to win is Hildur Guðnadóttir for her appropriately disquieting score for Joker. Here’s a part of it:

Her closest rival is Thomas Newman (like Diane Warren, many nominations but no wins) for 1917.

Thomas' cousin, Randy Newman, has his second nomination this year for Marriage Story:

My personal favorite, however, is Alexandre Desplat and his exquisite score for Little Women:

Finally, John Williams scores his millionth nomination for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker:

We’re already running out of time, so let’s be quick with the technical categories:

Best Cinematography
Will win: 1917
Could win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Should win: 1917

Best Production Design
Will win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Could win:1917
Should win: Parasite

Best Costume Design
Will win: Little Women
Could win: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Should win: Little Women

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: Bombshell
Could win: Joker
Should win: Bombshell

Best Film Editing
Will win: Parasite
Could win: Ford v Ferrari
Should win: Parasite

Best Sound Editing
Will win: 1917
Could win: Ford v Ferrari
Should win: Ford v Ferrari

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: 1917 
Could win: Ford v Ferrari
Should win: Ford v Ferrari

Best Visual Effects
Will win: 1917
Could win:Avengers: Endgame
Should win:1917

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Toy Story 4
Could win: Klaus
Should win: I Lost My Body

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: American Factory
Could win: For Sama
Should win: Honeyland
Could have been nominated but weren’t: The Apollo, The Biggest Little Farm, Apollo 11, The Great Hack, One Child Nation.

Let’s pause a little to examine the Best International Film nominees. Parasite (South Korea) is the big favorite, naturally. It is totally worthy of the award. Here is the trailer:

However, if the voters decide to award Paradise with Best Picture (it would be a first) then they may decide to spread the love. In that case, Dolor y Gloria (Pain and Glory), Spain’s entry, the latest (and one of the greatest) by perhaps the biggest out gay auteur of our time, Pedro Almodóvar, could win. Honestly, I would be pleased either way. They are both great films. Here’s a scene from the film:

And here’s a photo (I censored it, in case I get any complaints. If you want the full monty, watch the film).

Honeyland (North Macedonia) marks the first time that the same movie is nominated as a documentary and as an international film as well. I think it has a better chance in the Documentary category. Here’s a scene:

Boże Ciało (Corpus Christi) is from Poland. It’s interesting, albeit uneven. This is it:

Finally, Les Misérables from France is the only one that I haven’t seen yet. Here’s the film’s trailer:

There are are some great international films that were eligible failed to make the final cut. Among the unlucky ones is And Then We Danced, a very powerful gay-themed movie that was Sweden’s entry, even though it takes place in Georgia. One of the best movies of the year, Colombia’s entry Monos. The poetic and wistful Atlantics, from Senegal. Also, Russia’s Beanpole and Hungary’s Those Who Remained.

The Best Director race is far from a done deal. It’s a very close race between Sam Mendes (1917) and Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite). It could go either way. Tarantino, Scorsese, and Todd Phillips shouldn’t worry too much over preparing their victory speech.

We have finally reached the most important category, the Best Picture. Parasite may be the one to break the spell, one that says that no non-English speaking movies ever win. Roma lost last year but I have a feeling that Parasite will be the one to do it. We’ll have to wait and see. Here a (different than the previous one) trailer from the movie:

However, it is just as possible for 1917 to get the big prize. War movies often get to be Best Picture and this one has a technical innovation to boost its chances. Here’s the trailer:

My two favorites don’t seem to have a chance of winning, which is a pity. Wouldn’t it be great for Little Women to win? Check out its trailer:

Alternatively, I wouldn’t mind at all if Marriage Story got the prize. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely. This is the trailer:

In the unlikely event that Parasite and 1917 neutralize each other, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stands to win. Hollywood people like movies about them. This is the trailer:

Ford v Ferrari is a perfectly entertaining movie. While there is a good chance that it will win in the technical categories that it’s nominated, I don’t think that it stands a chance to get the big one. Check out its trailer:

Early on in the race, The Irishman was considered the front runner. Now, it’s highly likely that it will join the not so desirable list of the films with the most nominations and no wins.

Jojo Rabbit is certainly a crowdpleaser. It stands a tiny chance of winning but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. This is the trailer:

Finally, Joker is the most nominated, as well as the most profitable, film of the lot. However, it is divisive and being voted Best Picture would probably send a message to the world that the Academy wouldn’t be comfortable with. Therefore, it will probably not win. Check out its trailer:

In a little more than 48 hours, we will all know whether these favorites actually win or not. May the best ones prevail!