Friday, July 30, 2021

The Wrecking Crew! (2008)

Written at the time of the film's fund-raising campaign at select theaters. After a Kickstarter campaign, the film was released nationally in 2015. 

And now, look at can watch it on YouTube for free. 


Unsung Artists of Note
Who the Hell Played It

They're the recording artists you don't know. The hit-makers. The band-members who never got credit. The recording artists who never got royalties. The ones who didn't tour (although some did). The ones who made The Sound.  

You could call them The Beach Boys or The Monkees, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, The Markettes, The T-Bones, The Byrds, The Tijuana Brass, Buffalo Springfield, The Association, The Mamas and the Papas, because they were playing the instruments for the recordings for all those groups.

They're the session musicians who walked in, got the sheet-music and made them sing through their playing, their economy, their versatility, and their incredible talent. Then, they got paid, walked out, and went to their next gig at another studio.

But, they provided the tightness of the arrangements of "Good Vibrations," the thumping bass of "The Beat Goes On" and "These Boots Are Made for Walkin,'" the sass in the sax for "The Pink Panther Theme," the bristling guitars of the "Bonanza" Theme, "Batman," the "Mission: Impossible" Theme, and so many more, their style and fingering are etched in those sounds that are the authentic vibes that echo in our memories as "authentic." And in so many cases, their sounds are irreplaceable, unmatchable, unique. Their breath and their fingerprints are all over the music of the songs of the '50's and the '60's.

And nobody knows their names. Hal Blaine. Karen Caye. Plas Nelson. Tommy Tedesco. Just a handful of the corps of L.A. session musicians who made the hits and backed the famous and their inimitable recordings. The name that was tossed around in the industry for them was The Wrecking Crew!
And the ultimate irony is that their presence in so much music is so pervasive, ever-present, and so essential to the telling of their story that it may make it impossible to see this movie celebrating them. It's a labor of love for the director and instigator, Tedesco's son, Denny, and so it has to be done right, and thus the music has to be there—it (and the interviews that make up the core of the film) cannot be told without it. But each one of those songs costs money to use in the film, and though the piper has been paid, the rights-holders to those songs must be satisfied. And there is so much music, integral to the telling of the tale, to lose anything would be to compromise...and that doesn't seem right for these artists. 

The cost is prohibitive, and so Tedesco is raising money through small screenings—one of which I attended the other night—to raise funds to pay off the reproduction, mechanical and distribution rights for the soundtrack to put the show on the road and get it seen...and especially heard. One screening at a time, one of those songs is cemented into the movie and its future, like the parts of an orchestra, the colors, creating a unified whole, the complete story in song.

It is so much fun to watch this movie—I had a big smile on my face throughout—that is a privilege to beat a tambourine in its praise. It is the best outcome—in every aspect—if you get a chance to see this marvelous film.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Great McGinty

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940) Guy walks into a bar in a "banana republic" and tries to ventilate his own head. Turns out he's an embezzler on the lam who's made one mistake and wants to end it all. The bartender manages to stop him, but doesn't give him any sympathy. 

He thinks he has problems? He used to be Governor of the State!

The rest of the movie is
Sturges' tall tale told in flashback that turns around the bar's doubters and the rolling eyes. 

Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy at his most engaged and energetic) is a bum. He finds out that if he votes for a candidate for Mayor at a polling place, the candidates' "political advisers" will pay him two bucks. Sounds good to McGinty. 

But if he votes for the guy at 37 different polling places, he'll get 74 bucks! The politico's can't believe it. They're only petty criminals. They don't think "big" like McGinty.

So, after a brief turner as a mob "collector," he goes to the next logical career step—politics! Once Mayor, McGinty starts shaking down city fathers and handing out favored construction contracts, his "tough guy" tactics backed up by mayoral power. And nobody can argue with him, save the mob boss (Akim Tamiroff) with whom McGinty regularly has knock-down-drag-outs.
Oh, and his "
married-to-look-good-for-the-lady-voters" wife/former secretary (Muriel Angelus), she gives him a kick in the pants every so often. But, when McGinty becomes governor, she talks him into doing some good for a change, and...well, you know that the old saw that "no good deed goes unpunished." That saw may be rusty but it still has teeth.

The characters are Dickensian, the fable is Aesop turned on his toga. And drama turned on its head. A tragedy is a good man who does something wrong. And in Sturges' street-wise script, tragedy befalls a bad man who does the right thing. No moral codes are being broken—McGinty is taken down. But Sturges' view is a cock-eyed, if soberly cock-eyed, story of moral growth and the trouble it can cause, especially if you're working for the people.

Told with brass and a wisenheimer humor, it's a criss-crossed morality play told from the other side—an anti-Capra film, told with that director's straight-forwardness, but with more of a knockabout flavor

This was the first film Sturges directed—he sold Paramount Studios the screenplay for $10 on the proviso that he directed it-and it has sophisticated ideas (which seem quite contemporary) told in a scruffy manner. If there's pretentiousness, it's all in the background and the sub-text, buried where no one can nod sagely at it. One gets the impression Sturges would look at a movie aiming for the handkerchiefs and blow it a raspberry. 

Before the year fades away, we're going to be looking at a lot more Preston Sturges, a director who doesn't get near enough acknowledgement in the movie history books. There's not enough Sturges in my head, and we're going to rectify that.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Don't Make a Scene (Redux): The Last Tycoon

The Set-Up: Here is F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Screen-Writing 101" interpreted by Harold Pinter, director Elia Kazan, and a young Robert De Niro (acting unusually spry and light-hearted at this stage in his career). The rest of The Last Tycoon, the film of Fitzgerald's unfinished last novel is a bit mordant, but this scene crackles, not only because of DeNiro's performance, but also due to Donald Pleasance as the stuffy British writer who "just doesn't get it (does he?)." He also becomes the audience-surrogate, drawn in by Studio Head Monroe Stahr's visual story-telling. The other two writers in the room have one line between them, and do a good job of communicating the "been there, done that" of hearing this (jesus!) speech again. The fellow on Pleasance's right doesn't say a word; he just sits with a writerly sneer on his face.

But follow the eyes (it's the reason there are so many screen-shots for a relatively quick scene). The looks that pass from Stahr to the writers and between them, do more communication than Monroe's three-corner dialog. And when he sits down, smugly satisfied with his performance, he lowers his head, waiting for the response he knows will come.

It's a bit specious, but it's a fine story illustrating how to use an audience's attention to lead them through a scene set-up. And Kazan's camera follows Stahr as he bounds around the room, playing all the parts, making sure that we see the audience reaction (Pleasance's) to each complication Stahr adds to the story.

And, of course, Stahr gets to keep the illusive nickel.

It's a nice demonstration of the sleight of hand that goes into "making pictures" (as John Ford called it) where, if you do it right, you make the audience complicit in the telling of the story, something all movies should aspire to.  It's an inexact fuzzy explanation of the inexact fuzzy experience of giving just enough information to propel story (and observer) along the ride.

The Story: What a day it's been for Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro), Production Head for the All-American Film Corporation: an earthquake, a pretty obvious attempted pass by his boss' daughter, insecure stars, scape-goated directors, oh...and then there's that girl who's a spittin' image for his late wife that's attracted his eye. The least of his worries is a novelist (Donald Pleasance) making an uneasy transition to screenwriter, who has been summoned to Stahr's office for a little attitude adjustment. 

This is you, watching.


(Boxley walks into Monroe Stahr's office a bit diffidently, eyeing the other two writers in the room seated in front of Stahr. Stahr welcomes him and offers him a seat between the other writers)
MONROE STAHR: Sit down, Mr. Boxley.
BOXLEY: I can't go on. It's a waste of time.

BOXLEY: You've stuck me with two hacks. They can't write.
BOXLEY: And they... bugger up everything I write.
STAHR: Well, why don't you just write it yourself?
BOXLEY: I have. I sent you some.
STAHR: That was just talk. We'd lose the audience.
BOXLEY: Talk?!
STAHR: Mm-hmm.
BOXLEY: I don't think you people read things.

BOXLEY: The men... The men are dueling...
BOXLEY: ...when this conversation takes place.
BOXLEY: At the end, one of them falls into a well...
BOXLEY: ...and has to be hauled a bucket.
STAHR: Would you write that in a book of your own?
BOXLEY: Of course I wouldn't. I inherited this absurd situation.
STAHR: Let me ask you, do you ever go to the movies?
BOXLEY: Rarely.
STAHR: Because people are always dueling and falling down wells?
BOXLEY: And talking a load of rubbish!
(Stahr gets out of his chair and comes around to the front of his desk)

STAHR: Listen... has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?
BOXLEY: I think so.
(Stahr crosses to the work-table at back of his office. Boxley's eyes follow him)
STAHR: Suppose you're in your office. You've been fighting duels all day. STAHR: You're exhausted.
STAHR: This is you.
STAHR: A girl comes in. She doesn't see you.
(Stahr crosses the room to the door, goes through it, then comes back in, looking furtively in both directions.)
(Stahr crosses to his desk and mimes the actions)
STAHR: She takes off her gloves. She opens her purse. She dumps it out on the table.
STAHR: You watch her.
(Stahr crosses back to the work-table)
STAHR: This is you.
(Stahr crosses back to his desk and mimes the actions, except for the nickel which he takes out of his pocket and bounces on his desk)
STAHR: Now... She has two dimes, a matchbox and a nickel. She leaves the nickel on the table. She puts the two dimes back into her purse.
STAHR: She takes the gloves...they're black.
(Stahr crosses back to the work-table)
STAHR: Puts them into the stove. Lights a match.
STAHR: Suddenly, the telephone rings.
STAHR: She picks it up. She listens.
STAHR: She says, "I've never owned a pair of black gloves in my life." Hangs up.
STAHR: Kneels by the stove. Lights another match.

(Boxley listens attentively, then catches himself. He's actually enjoying this.)
STAHR: Suddenly, you notice...
STAHR: ...there's another man in the room...
(Boxley can't help but look)
(Stahr crosses the room to the front door)
STAHR: ...watching every move the girl makes.
(Stahr crosses to his desk. Looks at Boxley. The other writers look at Stahr, then turn their attention to Boxley, who looks at them expectantly.)

(Stahr looks at Boxley, letting the moment hang. Then he slides into his chair looking like the cat that ate the canary. He looks again at Boxley and waits. Then he looks over at the other writer and smiles) BOXLEY: What happens?
STAHR: I don't know. I was just making pictures.
BOXLEY: What was the nickel for?
STAHR: Jane, what was the nickel for?
JANE: The nickel was for the movies.
BOXLEY: What do you pay me for? I don't understand the damn stuff.
STAHR: Yes, you do...
STAHR: ...or you wouldn't have asked about the nickel.

(Stahr feigns throwing Boxley the nickel, who grabs at it, then sees he's bought the illusion)
(And Stahr holds up the nickel)

The Last Tycoon

Words by: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Harold Pinter

Pictures by: Victor J. Kemper and Elia Kazan

The Last Tycoon is available on DVD through Paramount Home Video.