Category Archives: Musicals

Score (2016), directed by Matt Schrader

My granddaughter, Shoshi, is a very talented pianist. Not only does she play well, she also composes some of her own compositions. Whenever I am in the States and visiting Shoshi and the rest of her family, I ask her to play some of her own melodies. Hearing them is a pleasure and the music relaxes me. Life without music seems sterile; with music, it is vibrant.

Music occupies a very special place in cinema. Sometimes it is critically important because it underscores major themes in the film you are watching. It is the soul of the movie, part of the creative vision of the director and actors who want to convey the meaning of a film to those who see it. It is not just filler; rather it is essential to the creative film experience.

One of my first exposures to the power of music in the cinema was watching Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Academy Award winning film about racing. It begins with a scene of men running along the English beach preparing for the 1924 Olympics. The camera depicts in slow-motion the men running; the music in the background, composed by Vangelis, is transcendent and uplifting.

Score is a documentary that describes the history of motion picture scoring. It begins with a discussion of silent films. In truth, they were not really silent because an organist often played during the film to highlight and punctuate the action on the screen. The game-changer in movie soundtrack history was Max Steiner’s score for King Kong in 1933. The music transformed a standard special-effects monster movie into a total cinematic experience.

After this brief historical introduction, the film explores the creative processes of a number of composers whose work in films helped make the films memorable. They include such musical luminaries as John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, and Ennio Morricone.

Some soundtracks still remain with us after many years. They include such classics as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Star Wars, The Magnificent Seven, and Titanic. Just listening to the music conjures up images and emotions from the past.

What is fascinating is the technology and new musical genres that influence contemporary soundtracks. Innovation in sound is a hallmark of famous iconoclastic films. The composer does not limit himself to traditional orchestral instruments. Nature sounds and instruments of primitive cultures often substitute for conventional background music to accentuate what is happening on the screen.

Jewish tradition has much to say about the interplay of music, life, and emotion. When the Jewish nation crosses the Red Sea, the people spontaneously break out in song. King David, the author of Psalms, is known in the Bible as the “sweet singer of Israel.” The priests sang in the Temple every day. Prayers are often sung, not merely recited.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “There is an inner connection between music and the spirit. When language aspires to the transcendent and the soul longs to break free of the gravitational pull of the earth, it modulates into song. Tolstoy called it the shorthand of emotion. Words are the language of the mind. Music is the language of the soul.”

Score reminds us that dialogue in movies can take us only so far. The soundtrack, which is the last creative part of the film to be added, is crucial to the overall affect the film has on the viewer. So it is in Judaism. What enables Jewish tradition to pass from generation to generation are not simply the dry words of the Bible and Talmud, but rather the spirit, the music, through which it is transmitted. Song represents the soul within and the soul lives beyond the present.

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The Greatest Showman (2017), directed by Michael Gracey

greatest showmanIn the news recently was a story about a politician who announced that he was not going to seek re-election. He was successful in his career and made lots of money giving speeches across the country. Why was he retiring? He said it was because he did not want to be a “weekend dad” to his teenage children. He understood that his kids needed more face time with him, and he did not want to look back at his life and regret not spending more time with his children. Family was more important to him than fame or wealth. This dilemma in broad outline is at the heart of The Greatest Showman, the story of the rise of P.T. Barnum who makes choices between family and the pursuit of personal goals.

Phineas Taylor Barnum wants to make lots of money and be a celebrity. His wife is a polar opposite. She is content with little. For her, family is more important than fame or money. Phineas’ origins explain his perspective on life. Orphaned and poor, he is driven by his desire to succeed financially. Moreover, he possesses a creative and optimistic mind, ready to take on all kinds of challenges.

After losing his regular job in a trading company that goes bankrupt, he decides to open up a wax museum to support his family, a wife and two daughters, thinking that people will want to come to see his wax creations of famous people. It is a resounding failure.

He then launches a show introducing people who look weird, such as a woman who has grown a man’s beard and a midget. Others see his collection of oddities as a freak show, but he sees himself as giving these strange looking people a chance to celebrate their uniqueness. His motives, in truth, are a mixture of the altruistic and the pecuniary, and he is successful. His success enables him to tour all over the world, including America, and his family is left behind. Absence in this situation does not make the heart grow fonder. An emotional and psychological rift grows between husband and wife and it is only when tragedy strikes that Phineas rethinks his flamboyant lifestyle.

Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld, a veteran Jewish educator, writes regularly on sayings from the Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature. On the passage “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot,” he comments: “Wealth does not ensure happiness. It is an important means towards many other things — comfort, self-sufficiency, tranquility, peace of mind. But if we make it an end — if its pursuit consumes us and occupies all our waking hours — we will find nothing but stress and anxiety.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld quotes his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan Zweig, who also shares his perspective on the acquisition of wealth: “People who claim they are pursuing their careers so doggedly in order to provide comfortably for their families are generally deluding themselves. It is simply not true. They do it for themselves — for their own fulfillment. The pursuit of wealth and career assumes a life of its own. Such people become consumed with a drive for prestige, achievement, fulfillment, or they don’t even really know what. But career becomes their life goal in and of itself.”

The Greatest Showman on one level is an entertaining musical with songs and dances that engage your mind and heart. More important, it alerts us to the negative effects of possessing too much wealth and focusing on career more than family. In the end, it is family that endures, not money.

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The Last Play at Shea (2010), directed by Paul Crowder

last play at sheaIn the 1970s and beyond, Billy Joel was one of my favorite musical artists. At the start of his career, I had an opportunity to hear him in Atlanta, but I missed that chance. I finally saw him in concert at Madison Square Garden in New York in 2017; the show was one of those one-of-a-kind concerts that remains in your memory for a long time after. So it was with great anticipation that I watched The Last Play at the Shea, a 2010 documentary that recorded the 2008 Billy Joel concert that was the last concert at Shea Stadium, a huge sports venue that was scheduled for demolition the following year.

Primarily, Shea was known as the home of the New York Mets, so it was fitting that a native New Yorker like Joel was there to bid the stadium farewell. Interestingly, Paul McCartney of the Beatles makes a guest appearance at the end of the concert, which brings the history of the venue full circle. It was the Beatles who first appeared at Shea in 1965 soon after it opened; so when McCartney joins Joel for the concert finale, it poetically resonates.

The Last Play at the Shea is a blend of historical material, animation, and current footage of this landmark concert, interweaving the history of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel. New to me was the leadership of city planner Robert Moses, who was the engine behind the building of Shea and other city projects. In truth, Moses developed a master plan for the construction of the modern suburb in Long Island. He was ahead of his time when he began building the quintessential suburb in Queens. He comprehended that living in the city was cost prohibitive and that people would welcome the chance to work in the city but live in spacious, more affordable residences.

What impressed me were the comments of Joel as he tried to navigate his own career in a tumultuous time. He trusted people whom he regarded as friends and assumed they had his best interests at heart. Regrettably, some of these people swindled him and, at one point, he actually lost all his money. He felt compelled to tour relentlessly in order to rebuild his bank account, and this took a toll on his family life.

In spite of occasional disappointments, Joel maintains an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having the opportunity to perform before thousands who appreciate his music. His transparent sincerity endears him to his fans. He openly confesses: “If it weren’t for the Beatles, I wouldn’t do what I do.” His reuniting with Paul McCartney at the end of the film to sing the classic Beatles’ song “Let It Be” is a perfect ending to this nostalgic view of Shea, the Mets, and Billy Joel.

There is a powerful statement in The Ethics of the Fathers, by which Joel lives. The Sages say: “He who learns from his friend one chapter, one rule, one verse, even one letter, is obliged to treat him with respect.” Joel respects and appreciates the musical contributions of all who have gone before him. The Beatles were his muse, and their music changed him as well as the world. Joel understands that great rock music did not begin with him, but rather was an evolving art that expressed itself in a variety of ways over many years.

What stands out in The Last Play at the Shea is Joel’s honesty and sincere appreciation for those who helped him over the rough spots in his life. He is grateful for life, for the opportunity to do what he loves, and he is grateful to those people who inspired him along the way.

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Ricki and the Flash (2015), directed by Jonathan Demme

ricki-and-the-flashThere often is a price paid for celebrity, especially for family members. I read of Hollywood movie stars who have dysfunctional kids getting into all sorts of trouble and trafficking in drugs.

Nothing is simple and we know life is complicated, but the suggestion clearly exists that parents who make their personal fame a priority are often not available for their own children. As a result of their frequent absence, these kids find other role models and succumb to negative influences.

Ricki and the Flash depicts this kind of conflict. We see Ricki as a middle-aged rock star who has made a choice between fame and family. She has chosen fame.

One telling exchange between her ex-husband, Pete, and her reveals her thinking at the time she left the family. He observes: “I thought we were your dream.” She responds: “I can’t have two dreams.”

What brings Ricki into contact with her ex is a phone call from him informing her that their daughter, Julie, is having a nervous breakdown after being abandoned by her husband. Pete feels that at this moment of crisis, she needs her mother’s presence.

Ricki, who has very little money, immediately scrapes up the necessary funds to fly from her California home to Indianapolis to be with Julie. Julie at first is not happy to see her estranged mother, but the relationship soon warms and Julie begins to come out of her depression.

While with Julie at the family home, Ricki also reunites with her two other children, sons Daniel and Josh, both of whom barely have a relationship with their mother. Moreover, Pete’s current wife Maureen is upset at the upheaval in the home caused by Ricki’s arrival. Maureen and Ricki’s first meeting is fraught with tension and ends with Maureen asking Ricki to leave.

Things turn for the better, however, when Maureen writes a letter of apology to Ricki and invites her to Daniel’s upcoming wedding. The wedding becomes the occasion when Ricki and her kids finally understand and appreciate one another in spite of Ricki’s being absent from their lives for so many years. Ricki cannot make up for the years of absence; but her abiding love of her children, especially manifested in times of crisis, enables mother and child to still love one another irrespective of past disappointments.

Jewish law is very clear on parent child relationships. Parents have an obligation to teach their children morality and ethics, to give them an opportunity to learn a vocation, and to teach them how to swim, which means how to swim through life and navigate all the challenges that confront a child growing up.

I remember great Torah teachers of mine who would spend time every week studying with their children in the evening, even though the kids were being taught in school. The parent desired face time with his child, and did not want to delegate all of his child’s education to the school.

Moreover, there is a custom in Jewish homes of blessing the children on the onset of the Sabbath on Friday nights. The parent stands in front of the child, utters the priestly blessing showering Divine protection over his offspring, and at the blessing’s conclusion embraces the child and plants a kiss on his or her face. The ritual is a reminder that there is no substitute for face time with a child.

Although it is sad to observe Ricki’s dysfunctional relationship with her kids, there is some comfort in knowing that parents and children can have a rapprochement even after many years of neglecting their relationship. Ricki and the Flash reminds us that even though family ties never break, they weaken when a parent is absent. There is no substitute for a warm embrace.

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La La Land (2016), directed by Damien Chazelle

la-la-land-posterI live life as it unfolds in the present moment. I do not recall saying to myself “What if I had done this rather than that.” Yet I have friends who continually ask themselves “what would my life be like if I had made this decision rather than that decision.” The reality is that we cannot turn back the clock and decisions we made years ago cannot be changed. Those decisions affect our lives many years later.

This dilemma is the subtext of La La Land, a one-of-a-kind musical in which the protagonists arrive at a moment when the past is all too present in their minds, but it is too late to make midcourse corrections.

The story takes place in Los Angeles and describes the efforts of two talented people to succeed in the entertainment industry. Mia is an actress working in a coffee shop while she goes to endless auditions looking for a part in a movie or play. Rejections for her are both routine and emotionally painful. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who wants to open his own jazz club. For him, jazz is exciting, unpredictable, and innovative. He revels in the great jazz musicians of the past and wants to continue their legacy of musical innovation. The problem, however, is that he has no money and barely survives financially.

Mia and Sebastian meet serendipitously over several months. They bicker, make jokes, and slowly begin developing a serious rapport with one another. As love blossoms, they share their professional aspirations with each other. Each is the other’s muse, and they inspire one another to fulfill their dreams. When Sebastian hears how demeaning the auditions are, he suggests that she write her own material and present herself as a writer as well as performer. Mia encourages him to open his own jazz venue.

What happens next is the stuff of fantasy. They watch the classic film, Rebel Without a Cause, with its pivotal scene at the Griffith Observatory, and then actually visit the site and dance among the stars at the planetarium.

Recognizing their strong affection for one another, they share their goals again, measuring how far they have come to actualizing them. Mia is in the midst of writing a one-woman show and Sebastian has been offered a job with a touring band that is led by his old friend, Keith. The job will provide him with financial stability. They both realize that the pursuit of their individual careers may not permit their love to continue.

Judaism believes that it is important to set goals, to have dreams. In fact, once a year on Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year, Jewish law requires us to take inventory of our lives. What did we accomplish in the past year? How can I do better in the year ahead? What are my goals for the coming year? Azriel Hirsch Friedman, a Torah teacher and motivational lecturer in Jerusalem, writes: “Failure is the building block of success. Even with a promise of success from God, Moses failed miserably when he first tried to take the Jews from Egypt. To get out of the place you are stuck, you will unquestionably fail. Don’t worry. It’s often just God’s way of testing how much you believe in your own dreams, helping you to clarify, re-evaluate and perfect them. We are judged only on our effort and never on our success. Jewish success is to be able to know for yourself.”

Mia and Sebastian ultimately come to know themselves as they work to define their talents and strengths. That does not mean that the outcome will always be satisfying. La La Land reminds us that outcomes are not in our hands. Nonetheless, we still have to try our best as we navigate the challenges we face in our own lives.

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me (2014), directed by James Keach

glen-campbell-ill-be-meA couple of years ago, a friend of mine was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. I did not see him often, so it was unnerving for me to see him so helpless and confused when I finally visited him. Once a robust, intelligent, and expressive man, he was a shadow of his former self, needing almost 24- hour care. Now his family only had memories of the great man he once was.

I was surprised when I heard about the documentary recounting the life of musical icon Glen Campbell. Titled Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, the film deals primarily with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and the subsequent 151-farewell tour show upon which he embarked both to celebrate his music and to share his experience of dealing with Alzheimer’s.

Over the span of his career, Glen Campbell created a large catalog of hit songs including “Rhinestone Cowboy, “ Wichita Lineman,” and “Gentle on My Mind.” He began as a country music star and was the first to crossover into contemporary popular music. In this sense, he opened to door to thousands of country musicians who, until that point in time, played music exclusively for country music fans.

Campbell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011. Together with his wife Kim, they decided to go public with the diagnosis and begin a “Goodbye Tour” that was initially supposed to be for three weeks. However, due to strong emotional support and appreciative audience reactions, they continued with a nationwide tour that lasted for 151 shows.

The film begins in the doctor’s office with the diagnosis and it is fascinating to observe the physician’s questions as well as Campbell’s responses. His answers reveal that his memory is becoming more selective about what information it retains. For example, Campbell may not remember who was the first president of the United States because he thinks this is not useful information. However, he remembers song lyrics and how to play the guitar because these things still matter to him.

As the tour progresses, the quality of his performance declines, but his myriad fans do not seem to mind. They consider themselves fortunate to be present at what will probably be one of his final concerts. Throughout the tour, his family and small cadre of musicians, some of whom are family members, give Campbell support and love no matter the outcome of a particular performance. His children feel blessed to spend this time with their Dad.

Near the end of the tour, the question is asked why Campbell agreed to do the tour. The answer: he genuinely wanted to perform again and his family felt that his performance would give more media attention to Alzheimer’s, a disease afflicting so many Americans, and, by extension, to their caregivers whose lives are dramatically changed when they take care of loved one who may not even remember their names or who they are.

Jewish tradition emphasizes the dignity of man. We all are created in God’s image and are deserving of respect no matter our physical or mental condition. The image of God can still exist in a body damaged by disease or in a mind damaged by mental illness. Alzheimer’s does not define our value from the aspect of eternity.

One of the most touching moments in the film occurs when Campbell sings “A Better Place, “ a song that expresses his hopeful spirit in the midst of his mental decline. Here are the lyrics that resonate: “Some days I’m so confused. Lord/ My past gets in my way/ I need the ones I love, Lord/ More and more each day/ One thing I know/ The world’s been good to me/ A better place awaits, you’ll see.”

Glen Campbell: I’ll be Me is a one-of-of-a-kind movie, a film that reminds us of the fragility of life. What life is like today may not be what it is tomorrow. This is a life lesson that relates not only to those afflicted with debilitating disease, but to all of us making life’s journey.

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Beyond the Sea (2004), directed by Kevin Spacey

beyond the sea posterThere is a brief scene in Beyond the Sea, a biopic of singer Bobby Darin, which resonates with me personally. Bobby unbuttons his shirt and reveals his scar from open-heart surgery. It looks like a long zipper on his chest. I, too, have had open-heart surgery and remember other patients telling me I am now a member of the “zipper club,” all of whose members brandish an extended scar on their chest.

But there is something more that animates those who have experienced this kind of operation. All of us have an intense appreciation for the everyday miracle of good health, and all of us are sensitive to the reality that life is unpredictable and we have to both treasure and maximize our moments. This is the subtext of Bobby Darin’s meteoric rise to fame.

The film begins with the early history of Bobby Darin as a young boy plagued by many bouts of rheumatic fever which leave him with a weak heart. Doctors tell his mother that her son will be lucky to live past his teen years. Bobby, upon hearing this dire prognosis, is motivated to make the most of every moment of his life. He wants to rival Sinatra’s success; and so he forms a band, playing any venue he can to solidify his fan base and to develop his talents.

He achieves success with a recording of “Splish Splash,” a rock and roll song that makes him a teen idol. But Bobby does not want that kind of fame. He aspires to sing melodies with a big band, and eventually achieves major renown with his iconic version of “Mack the Knife.”

Bobby’s burgeoning success gets the attention of Hollywood where he is cast in a movie with Sandra Dee, an eighteen-year actress whom he marries after a brief courtship. Later he receives an offer to appear in Captain Newman, M.D. as a shell-shocked soldier, a performance that earns him an Academy Award nomination.

As musical tastes change, Bobby finds himself out of sync with contemporary musical trends and his popularity plummets. Bobby, however, does not give in to despair but rather finds a way to redefine himself as a musical artist for a new generation of admirers.

Bobby values the moment, does not take life for granted, and wants to make the most of the time he is given on earth. His childhood realization that he will not live into old age stays with him for his entire career, making him a super achiever. Although he died at age thirty-seven, his music still remains vibrant in the 21st century.

The Ethics of the Fathers cautions us to repent on the day of your death. How do you know when is your last day? You do not; therefore, repent every day since any day might be the end of your life. It is instructive to watch Bobby and Sandra resolve a heated argument. Bobby throws around furniture and smashes windows on his car, driving away in anger. He returns a few minutes later and, embracing his wife, realizes that life is short and he cannot let anger rule him. He must reconcile right away so that he and his wife can get back to the same page of their basically loving relationship.

Scripture tells us that it is better to visit the house of mourning than the house of feasting. The Sages explain that in the house of mourning, we entertain thoughts of our own mortality; and that is a spur for us to use time wisely, not to waste a moment.

Moreover, our forefather Jacob always felt he did not deserve God’s many kindnesses and so he constantly felt vulnerable. Feeling vulnerable makes you want to achieve more because you do not know what tomorrow may bring. This kind of sensibility pervades the psyche of Bobby Darin, who understood that any moment might be his last. Beyond the Sea reminds us of the brevity of life and to treasure every minute.

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Rudderless (2014), directed by William H. Macy

rudderless posterBeing a father is complicated. I sometimes wonder when I look at my kids to what extent I was a good parent, to what extent am I responsible for who they are today. There are no easy answers. I am sure I was influential; but at the end of the day, my kids, like all kids, have free will and they make their own choices. I cannot control them. I can only give them a perspective from which to view life. I cannot determine their future actions.

This topic is at the heart of Rudderless, a thoughtful film about parent-child relationships and the extent to which parents influence and are responsible for their children’s life choices.

The film begins innocently as Josh Manning is recording his own songs on his computer in his college dorm room. His father Sam calls him after closing a big deal at his advertising firm and wants to celebrate with him, even encouraging him to cut class to meet him. Josh acquiesces. As Sam waits for his son Josh at a restaurant, he sees scenes of a campus shooting in which six students are killed. The next scene reveals a memorial wake in Josh’s home in which friends try to console both Sam and Emily, Josh’s divorced parents, over the loss of their son.

Sam is inconsolable. He is unable to continue at work and succumbs to alcoholism. The story continues two years later with Sam living on a sailboat and working as a contractor’s assistant painting houses. When he meets his ex-wife to sign papers allowing her to sell their former home, she leaves him a stack of things that belonged to Josh. At first, he is reluctant to take them since there is no storage room on boat. However, he notices some notebooks and CDs that pique his curiosity and he begins pouring over the material. He discovers songs, words and lyrics, written by Josh. The melodies and words give him a new insight into his son, and Sam teaches himself his son’s songs. Sam even performs one of them at a local “open mic” venue, which catches the attention of Quentin, a young musician who is inspired by the emotional power of the songs. Thus begins a relationship between Sam and Quentin, which morphs into the creation of Rudderless, a band that features the songs of Josh Manning.

Both Sam and Quentin are evasive about their past and this eventually strains their relationship. In one sense, Quentin becomes a surrogate son to Sam, who sincerely wants to connect with Quentin both musically and emotionally. Quentin becomes the son that Sam no longer has, and Sam wants to help him.

The story then takes a sharp unexpected turn, which compels the viewer to reevaluate everything that has gone before, and I do not want to reveal such a critical plot turnaround. Suffice it to say that the relationship between Quentin and Sam undergoes a crisis, compelling Sam to rethink his performance of his son’s music and his involvement with the band, which is growing in popularity each day.

A key issue considered in the narrative is to what extent we are responsible for our children’s actions, especially when those actions are very bad. Jewish tradition is instructive in this regard. When a Jewish boy reaches the age of thirteen, he has a Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony that marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. At this celebration, the father utters a declaration known as baruch sheptarani, which in English means “Blessed is the One who has relieved me from the punishment due to this one.” The Sages tell us that a father has the obligation to educate his son from birth until the age of thirteen. Once he reaches that age, the father is not required to educate his son. The implication is that until that age, parents can influence their child. However, after that age the child becomes more independent and less receptive to the correction of the parent. Indeed, the parent can still coach and guide, but it is more difficult to teach a child in a direct way.

The implicit message of the blessing’s recital is that parents should spend lots of time with one’s children teaching and guiding them before they reach their teenage years. Once those years arrive, parents have less influence, so they need to build up a bank account of love and respect with their children. This will make it more likely for their children to follow parental suggestions. Rudderless reminds us that we are not in control of our older children; therefore, we need to be very involved with them in their early years in order to be influential in the rest of their lives.

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Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015), directed by Alex Gibney

sinatre all or nothing at all posterGrowing up in the 1950s, my musical icon was Elvis Presley. I enjoyed his songs, combed my hair the way he did, and even grew sideburns to match his. Frank Sinatra was still around and popular with my sister Martha and her friends who were five years older than me. Now in my senior years, Sinatra and his big band arrangements have re-emerged in my consciousness as musical classics that have withstood the test of time. Fifty years after they were written and performed, they still sound fresh and tuneful, which is why I found the four-hour documentary of his life, Sinatra: All or Nothing at All, fascinating to watch.

The main talking head in the film is Frank himself, who appears in archival footage being interviewed by Walter Cronkite and in a host of other unspecified settings. Sinatra’s story has been well documented over the years. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, he determined at an early age that he wanted to be an entertainer. First singing in local clubs, he eventually became a featured vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey band, and soon morphed into a solo artist selling millions of records.

When his career floundered for a short period of time, his professional life was invigorated by the movies. He won an Academy Award for his role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity, and from there he went on to star in a number of popular films. Furthermore, his appearances in Las Vegas gave new life to what was at that time a moribund city. Together with his celebrated “rat pack” of buddies, he injected new energy into the Las Vegas tourist industry.

As I heard his rendition of his classic signature songs at his “Retirement Concert” in 1971, I became more aware of what separated him from other crooners of the time. It was his impeccable pronunciation of words and phrasing. It was a mellifluous voice, one that was able to convey nuances of deep emotion by phrasing his words in idiosyncratic ways.

The documentary reveals that as a young man Sinatra took singing lessons to improve his delivery. He paid $3 a week to learn voice calisthenics to make him a better singer and it worked. His investment in learning at a tender age reaped rewards and Frank’s career blossomed.

This vignette of his early voice lessons reminded me of the Talmudic concept of girsa d’yankusah, the learning that one does as a youth. The Sages tell us that such learning stays with one for the rest of one’s life because it is given when a child’s mind is a tabula rasa, a blank page upon which indelible memories are engraved. Moreover, the Talmud tells us about a great scholar who remarked that his most important teacher was the one who taught him the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet, which was the bedrock of all his learning as a teenager and adult.

Frank Sinatra is one of the great musical icons of the twentieth century. Like all human beings, he is both talented and flawed. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All reminds us that his determination to be a musical star was not serendipitous. He worked hard to succeed and took advantage of every opportunity to move his career forward. His investment in voice lessons as a young performer indicates that Sinatra knew his weaknesses and wanted to correct them. He was not satisfied with merely being good; he wanted to be great, and he was open to receiving criticism if it helped him become a more successful entertainer.

Sinatra’s retirement concert, which is the linchpin of the narrative, demonstrates through song the many challenges that he faced and his ability to survive and prosper over many years of show business. His odyssey demonstrates how an ability to accept criticism and guidance in one’s youth can create enduring and felicitous consequences in the future.

Find out more information about this movie from HBO.

Begin Again (2013), directed by John Carney

begin again posterAt our Friday night dinners, we enjoy having guests. I am very busy during the week, and I rarely have time to engage people in conversation other than to give a quick hello and how are you. The Sabbath, however, is a day that moves slower than the rest. I disengage from my mundane activities and can think about life, about relationships, about getting to know people better.

On one recent Friday night when we invited a number of people I did not know well, I learned that one of our guests seriously considered becoming an actress. But she realized early on that such a career would be challenging for one who wanted to observe the Sabbath. Being an actress would raise other lifestyle issues as well. So many in the entertainment industry lead lives outside of conventional morality and the whole scene would be problematic for a person of serious religious faith. Therefore, she decided to stay away from a career in which her values might be compromised.

I thought of this as I watched Begin Again, the entertaining story of Gretta, a young singer/songwriter, who has a chance at stardom, but who, through the crucible of life experience, ultimately foresees the pitfalls of fame.

The story opens as Dan, a music producer who has fallen on hard times, discovers Gretta in a Greenwich Village bar singing one of her iconic songs. Dan is taken by her music and offers to sign her with his former record label. Though at first reluctant to work with him, Gretta decides to give it shot and see what happens. At first, nothing does happen, but then Dan gets the idea of recording Gretta’s album on the streets of New York. Dan, recruiting a number of talented musicians who are between jobs, is able to produce an album that might possibly be a huge success.

The entire experience of working together to produce the album bonds Dan with Gretta artistically and emotionally. Gretta takes an interest in Dan’s personal life, encouraging him to reconstruct his own life, which is in shambles. Divorced from his wife and disrespected by his teenage daughter, Violet, Dan is emotionally fragile and his friendship with Gretta gives him a new sense of purpose in life.

Gretta’s recent breakup with her unfaithful boyfriend Dave, also a singer/songwriter, has left her emotionally scarred. Gretta appreciates the honesty of Dan, who shares her love for music that is authentic and not crafted just to be commercial. To her and Dan, making music is not just about making money; it also about stirring the soul. In contrast, Dave is animated by the business of music. He puts great stock in the opinion of others and is quick to leave his principles behind. Gretta comes to understand this when she sees Dave performing before a packed house of female admirers who Gretta knows will satisfy Dave’s desire for fame and adulation.

Gretta wisely decides to assert her autonomy and chart her own course to success. For Gretta, music is her muse. Success means being able to share your creativity with the world. She will not compromise her principles, and so she allies herself with Dan who makes no demands on her and understands her need to preserve her artistic independence.

The Talmud instructs man to stay far away from a bad neighbor, someone who potentially can influence you to do bad things. The advice relates to choice of friends both on a personal level and in the marketplace. Gretta in Begin Again chooses to stay away from negative influences, from those people who value compromise over personal integrity.

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