Category Archives: Musicals

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.

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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.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

The Artist (2011), directed by Michel Hazanavicius

artist posterWhen I was a principal of a day school in Denver, I decided to stage a Shakespeare Festival in which students in the 7th and 8th grades would read and enact excerpts from the bard’s great oeuvre. I gave speaking parts to the students, and I had a particular interest in giving Dimitry, a student who had emigrated from Russia, a chance to perform. When the performance day arrived and Dimitry spoke his lines, I was astonished. Not only did he pronounce the words properly, but he read them like a professional thespian, with understanding and feeling. It was a wonderful performance that forever changed our perception of Dimitry, who until then had not participated in oral presentations in any class. He finally found his groove, and his teachers were overjoyed. His sound made us forget about his silence.

The Artist is an anachronism. It is a silent movie made in 2011, which makes us reflect on the power of words and the power of sight to create art as a representation of life. George Valentin, a silent movie star, is at the top of his game in 1927 as his movies enthrall the audience. Serendipitously, he meets Peppy Miller, a young actress, outside the premiere of his latest movie, and he promotes her for a part in his next film. With guidance from Valentin, her show business savvy and talent grows until she becomes a major star in her own right.

Crisis comes two years later when talking films take over. Valentin dismisses them as a passing fad, but he is dead wrong. His efforts to produce a financially successful silent film when people want sound prove to be disastrous. Moreover, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 further destroys his wealth. George’s inability to respond to changing times leads to depression, which Peppy tries to dispel. Their relationship flourishes and flounders as George tries to navigate the new world in front of him, where everything hinges on the spoken and audible word.

Generally, Jewish tradition encourages silence as a fence to wisdom. More words often bring more gossip, more slander, and more criticism of others. However, sometimes it is important to talk, to protest, to engage, to share feelings with others.

A classic case of where it was important to speak and the absence of speech led to tragedy is the story of Bar Kamtza and Kamtza in the Talmud tractate of Gittin (55b-56a). Here the lack of speech led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. The Talmud records that a man invited his friend Kamtza to a party and, inadvertently, his enemy Bar Kamtza was invited instead. When Bar Kamtza arrived at the feast, the host was angry and insisted that Bar Kamtza leave in spite of the fact that Bar Kamtza would be greatly embarrassed and in spite of the fact the Bar Kamtza even offered to pay for the entire party. After being unceremoniously thrown out, Bar Kamtza vowed revenge because the rabbis at the party who witnessed this behavior said nothing; and saying nothing implied approval of what transpired. Bar Kamtza then decided to inform against the Jews to the Romans, which eventually led to the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Speech was required and the rabbis were silent.

The Artist, an innovative retrospective look at another time in the history of cinema, is many things. It is a story of a September-May romance. It is also a meditation on how people deal with change in their lives. Do they adjust to new realities or do they remain paralyzed in the present? It is, moreover, a thoughtful reflection on the power of silence and the power of words to change our lives.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012), directed by Malik Bendjelloul

searching for sugar man posterI have a friend who is a serious artist, and creates beautiful renditions of nature scenes. In fact, he recently had an exhibit at a well known New York gallery. He often debates within himself whether he should do more to promote his art or whether he should just create and leave the rest to God’s intervention. In the inspiring documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez, a Detroit folksinger, resolves the question of how much an artist should promote his work by disappearing into the woodwork and letting fate determine his destiny.

Sixto Rodriguez’s story is fascinating and wondrous. He recorded two albums in the 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, that sold only a few copies. Singing and writing songs in the style of Bob Dylan, Rodriguez impressed early impresarios with his smooth blend of thoughtful lyrics and catchy melodies, and they thought he was the genuine article who would be famous. However, as Rodriguez himself says, the music business is unpredictable and no one can predict with accuracy who will succeed and who will not.

In spite of not making musical waves in America, his albums serendipitously reached South Africa and there Rodriguez became a musical icon comparable to Elvis Presley. His music became the national anthem of the anti-apartheid movement. His lyrics, in particular, were liberating and inspiring to the Afrikaner protest musicians of the 1980s. Ironically, Rodriguez was totally unaware of this and was living the blue collar life of a construction laborer in Detroit. Sadly, he never received any of the royalties for the 500,000 albums he sold.

Rumors abounded about him in South Africa. Some said he committed suicide publicly by lighting himself on fire; others said he shot himself or died of a drug overdose. No one really knew him. But two of his fans decided to investigate what really happened to Rodriguez. They began looking for clues to his roots in the lyrics of his songs. Eventually, the cities mentioned in his songs led them to find Rodriguez’s origins at Motown Records in Detroit, the birthplace of many successful rock stars.

The eureka moment arrived when the fans discovered that Rodriguez was still alive and living the simple life of a day laborer in Detroit with his daughters. This revelation motivated his South African fans to arrange a concert tour in South Africa in the 1990s where he played to thousands of fans of all ages, many of whom knew his songs by heart. Reports of his successful shows reached his friends in Detroit who could not believe that their quiet and unassuming friend was a real rock star with a massive following.

The coda at the end of films informs us that even when Rodriguez made money at his South African performances, he gave it all away to family and friends. For him, it was enough to share his music with his adoring fans. He did not seek fame; rather he sought human connection with his admirers. He wanted fan and artist to symbiotically commune through the language of lyric and song.

The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, tells us that when man seeks fame and recognition, they will elude him. Rodriguez, by living an unadorned life away from the bright lights of celebrity and by eschewing materialism, provides a thoughtful model for us to emulate in our acquisitive age. Our Sages tells us that the truly rich man is the man who is content with what he already has. Searching for Sugar Man reminds us that it is who we are that give us our identity, not what we possess.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), directed by Martin Scorsese

A few years ago, I was visiting my daughter in Lakewood, New Jersey, home of the renowned Lakewood Yeshiva, when I noticed a peculiar item in the local newspaper. Bob Dylan, scheduled to appear at a baseball stadium in Lakewood as part of a tour with Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp, was accosted by a 24-year old policeman who arrested him for vagrancy. It seems that a resident had called the police and stated that a man was wandering around a low-income neighborhood looking at houses. When asked for his identification, he said “Bob Dylan,” but the police officer at the scene did not recognize the name. Dylan was apparently walking around looking at houses passing away the time before that evening’s show. The officers then asked Dylan, 68, to return with them to the hotel where the performers were staying, and there the tour staff vouched for him.

As a teenager, I grew up in the shadow of the great Elvis Presley, so Bob Dylan was never one of my musical icons. But as I grew older and my musical tastes became more eclectic, I began to pay attention to his music, especially his early material, which is why I was drawn to No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a fascinating documentary about Dylan’s genesis as a musical icon in America. As I watched the narrative develop with early footage of his career interspersed with a present-day interview, I made several observations. Dylan was a very curious and bright young man, totally disconnected from his home town mid-western environment. It was when he came to New York City that he flowered musically, for here he met other poetic and musical originals who shared his quest for artistic growth. He was awed by their talent and integrity. Over time, however, he truly saw himself as a “one-of-a-kind” artist, who didn’t need to answer to anyone. Other people’s opinions did not matter to him. What was important was to be honest with himself. He confesses that his early lyrics made him a hero to the civil rights and anti-war movement, but these political movements did not drive his art. His art was driven by his musical instincts. In fact, the movie includes footage of him being booed by the audience for performing electric rather than acoustic material. But he didn’t care what the audience thought. He listened to the sound of his own drummer. Moreover, he finds it absurd that celebrities are even asked their political opinions since they know nothing about such matters. For him, silence makes more sense than dangling political conversations that go nowhere.

Which brings me to a Torah perspective that is embedded in this movie. Our Sages tell us that one of the pillars upon which the world is based is emet, truth or honesty. Whether one agrees with Dylan or not, one certainly will admit that this film portrays him as an honest person in an industry full of pomposity and posturing. Moreover, his story reminds us that fame is illusive the more one pursues it. Dylan did not pursue fame in a conscious way; he pursued music and its varied expressions and fame came to him. This is what our Sages clearly tell us in the Ethics of the Fathers: “he who seeks fame loses it (Avot 1:13).The implicit message is to focus on being the best you can be and rewards will eventually come.

As I reflected on the movie, I began to appreciate more and more Dylan’s musical genius and his uncompromising integrity. At the end of the day, I understand why the police officer probably did not recognize him. The policeman was born many years after Dylan dominated the musical landscape and Dylan himself did nothing to promote his artistry other than write and sing songs. He did not rely on a publicist; rather it was his music that spoke for him.  In this sense, we can learn from this musical master. Perhaps if we are true to ourselves and do not look for recognition, we can make our best contribution to the world and notoriety will come to us. Furthermore, by rejoicing in our own uniqueness, we can celebrate the special gifts of others who collectively enrich the artistic environment.

 

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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