Weekly Mishmash: March 1-7
Various Artists — The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 9: 1969. These lavish, limited edition box sets from Hip-O Select are the only splurges I make for myself. Scrubbles readers might remember that I got the excellent 1966 volume a year ago, then I treated myself to the ’65 and ’67 volumes last October. Those three years were the prime era of classic Motown. Although I next wanted to move onward to 1968 (the year I was born!), the fact that the 1969 set has already gone out of print necessitated getting it next. With Holland Dozier Holland gone and the “classic” Motown sound giving way to grittier soul, I often thought that 1969 was an “off” year for the label. Now that I’ve heard all 148 tracks in this set, however, I find that I was wrong. Although it doesn’t have as many big hits as previous years, this was an brilliant, very eclectic set — probably my second favorite to the all killer, no filler ’66 set (which is now fetching hundreds of bucks on the resale market, I might add). After a time of concentrating on his sure-fire hit acts, this was a year in which Berry Gordy diversified his labels to capture audiences in rock, jazz, deep soul, even novelty records (Soupy Sales recorded for Motown?). These are interesting detours, but the real meat of the set are groovy a- and b-sides by Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight et. al. Presented chronologically, the singles hum along nicely with rarely a misstep (I’d say the horrid Supremes/Temptations cover of “The Weight” is the absolute nadir). By the time we get to October 1969 and the electrifying debut of the Jackson 5, things hit a delirious peak. It must have been a thrill hearing something as dynamic and forward-sounding as “I Want You Back” in ’69. With a handful of other singles, Motown was moving into similar uncharted territory. The Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You,” Junior Walker’s smooth “What Does It Take,” Edwin Starr’s hoppin’ “Twenty Five Miles,” and the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” — all new and different, yet not sounding very much alike at all. I’m overjoyed that I spent the bucks on this baby.
The Complete Peanuts 1963-64 by Charles M. Schulz. Speaking of a classic time. I’m continuing to play catch-up with these Complete Peanuts books. This particular volume is highlighted with a warm introduction by the late Bill Melendez, who animated all of the Schulz-era Peanuts specials (which debuted in the period that this book covers). Even if it’s a bit heavy on the baseball strips, which I enjoy but don’t particularly love, this was a stellar volume. Everything that people love about the strip was in place at this time, and Schulz was at the top of his game. Here we have Charlie Brown and his insecurities with the Little Red-Haired Girl, Linus running for class president, Lucy being the eternal fussbudget, and Snoopy dealing with a pesky flock of birds (who would eventually evolve into one bird, Woodstock). On the odd side, Schulz introduced a boy named “5″ and his sisters “3″ and “4.” These siblings would eventually join Shermy and Charlotte Braun in the annals of obscure Peanuts characters, but they can be seen dancing in A Charlie Brown Christmas. One thing I noticed here is how smartly Schulz references various famous figures of the time — how often does one find Rachel Carson or Willie Mays name dropped in a comic strip?
The Hoax (2006). I never thought Richard Gere was much of an actor, but playing author Clifford Irving seemed to be a natural fit for his smarmy charm. In the early ’70s, Irving rose to fame by co-authoring an autobiography with the reclusive Howard Hughes — an effort that turned out to be completely made up. I enjoyed Gere as Irving, along with Alfred Molina as Irving’s perpetually nervous assistant and Hope Davis as his editor (although I found it unnerving that Davis, dolled up in chichi makeup and hairstyle, looks exactly like Flo — that annoying Progressive Insurance chick!). Good as the cast is, however, this movie was a bit lacking for me. It reminded me too much of Catch Me If You Can, another recent ’70s-period movie about a charlatan. Both had stories that seemed interesting on paper, but in execution they wound up being bland and draggy. Perhaps because it’s too inevitable that the protagonists will eventually get caught?
New Years Sacrifice (1956). Picturesque melodrama about a woman trying to find her way in the early 20th century Chinese countryside after she becomes a widow. Attempting to find work and a home, she is indicted and beaten down by the superstitious townspeople around her. This somewhat obscure movie seems a bit smug on the surface (it fairly screams “look how far we’ve come!”), but it is absorbing and entertaining in its own modest way. The color photography and authentic Chinese music are both pleasant, and the actress in the lead suffered admirably.
The Squid and the Whale (2006). Divorce, ’80s New York intellectual style. I believe this was actually one of the better acted movies in recent memory. Not just with Laura Linney (brilliant as usual) and Jeff Daniels, but the actors playing their children managed to pull off appearing smart without veering into precociousness. Director-screenwriter Noah Baumbach based this story on his own childhood, which gives this movie a bit more heft and authority than the usual indie fare. Strangely, for such a downbeat subject, it has a lot of laugh out loud moments — like the girl auditioning for the school talent show by singing “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister, f’rinstance. Filled with sensitive and obscure folk tunes, the otherwise appealing soundtrack suffers from the “listen to my cool record collection” curse commonly heard in Wes Anderson’s work (no surprise, since Anderson co-produced this film). Since the family cat in this movie is constantly referred to as “the cat,” I can only assume that Noah Baumbach doesn’t like cats.
Vicki (1953). When a model dies, a creepy, stalker-like police inspector goes after the dead woman’s sister and boyfriend until somebody cracks. The killer’s identity is blatantly obvious from the start, so basically this whole movie is nothing but preposterous malarkey. I swear, the people in this film are so passive and stupid that I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle them.