“Radio Radio” – Elvis Costello with the Beastie Boys (from the SNL 25th Anniversary Show, circa 2000)

Before you watch this clip, here’s some background …

Elvis Costello made his US debut on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) in early 1978.  He was supposed to perform “Less Than Zero,” a song about racism in England and Costello got through about 15 seconds of the song before he abruptly cut it and launched into “Radio Radio,” an extremely critical song about the increasing control of media by corporations.

Cut to 22 years later … SNL is broadcasting a 25-year tribute show.  The Beastie Boys perform their hit “Sabotage” when Costello runs on stage and … well … I think you can figure out where it goes from there …  a clever way to pay tribute to one of SNL’s most notorious moments and a terrific performance of one of Costello’s best songs with help from one of the most innovative rock / rap groups of all-time.

Even nearly 40 years later, the lyrics still bite:

“Some of my friends sit around every evening and they worry about the times ahead.
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed.
You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it.
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel.”

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Reflections on watching Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” 32 years after its 1982 relase

My 10-year old son watched an episode of the “The Goldbergs” this week where the lead child character watches “E.T.” in a movie theater for some untold multiple time.  As a result, my son asked if we could watch this tonight.  I watched it with him.  Here are my thoughts …

1.  This film still packs an emotional wallop.  I still found myself tearing up on multiple occasions, even though I’ve seen “E.T.” several times over the years.  Many people deride director Steven Spielberg as being “manipulative.”  I cry “bulls–t” on that.  Why is being called “manipulative” a bad thing for a film director?  Because the filmmaker made you feel an actual emotion?  Because you felt something in a film involving something fantastical instead of something “real”?  I realize there’s enough rancid and depressing “real” s–t in this world to make you feel agony 50x over.  But why is getting emotionally involved in something less than “real” a bad thing?  This is what’s called “drama” and sometimes, it’s OK to be involved in a drama that has faint resemblance to reality. Especially when it’s done well.

2. The composer John Williams deserves at least 50 percent credit for the artistic success of the film.  Not to deride Spielberg’s talent, but that score is one of the most emotional scores ever recorded.  This is music that can raise your spirits to the highest highs and then completely devastate you at the drop of a hat.  Williams has recorded many great and classic scores for filmmakers as diverse as Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone.  His score for “E.T.” is arguably his best because it’s such an integral part of the film’s power.

3. I realize I’m going to catch a lot of s–t from cinephiles for saying this … but the unspoken influence on “E.T” may be … Robert Altman.  OK, I realize if Robert Altman directed this film, there would be 30 additional major characters and the extra-terrestrial part of the story would be reduced to a subplot … but stay with me here.   During significant parts of this film (especially during the first half), there is an emphasis on naturalistic dialogue (helped by brilliant editing and sound design) that isn’t always in the foreground.  You can hear what’s being said, but it’s way more subtle than a modern day filmmaker attacking similar material would allow.  Assisting this are brilliant … extremely real … performances by Henry Thomas, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, and every other child actor in this film.  Watching them interact together, you feel like you’re watching a real family interacting amongst each other and their friends.

4. For a special-effects central film from over 30 years ago, “E.T” holds up really well.  Ignoring the obvious clothing and set design cues from 1981-82, the non-CGI effects hold up much better than many CGI-heavy films from the 1990s.  Yes there are a few opticals that look out-of-date, but I’ll take those opticals over bad CGI any day.  Why?  Because you can do a lot with camera placement, editing, blocking, dialogue, set design, model building, and acting to make whatever limitations you have in special effects seem non-significant.  Spielberg assembled a talented crew and the result is remarkable and believable.

5. Spielberg was a bit of closet hipster here. Not only can you here Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” in the background while the boys are playing Dungeons & Dragons, Elliott’s brother Michael sings the lyrics from Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen” when he comes home from school and is looking through the fridge.

6.The final scene (shown above) is still amazing for its emotional intensity.

7. I realize hipsters claim “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are Spielberg’s greatest films, but as great as those films are, “E.T.” is still the king.

“Battered Old Bird” – Elvis Costello and the Attractions

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One of Elvis Costello’s best and …. arguably … least-regarded songs is “Battered Old Bird” from the 1986 “Blood and Chocolate” album. It’s a song you never hear on the radio or even discussed that much. Graham Thompson dismissed the song in less than a sentence (calling it “dreary” and “disjointed”) in his Costello biography “Complicated Shadows.” I had pretty much forgotten about the song myself until I heard it again today and it knocked the wind out of me.

From what I’ve gathered “Battered Old Bird” is about the building where Costello grew up as a young boy and the various people who lived there. The song almost sounds like Costello’s version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” only much sadder and more despairing. The song starts off quiet and builds in intensity and emotion, with Costello’s voice getting louder and cracking at various moments.

Some particularly memorable lyrics:

“But on the first floor there are two old maids
Each one wishing that the other was afraid
And next door to them is a man so mild
‘Til he chopped off the head of a visitor’s child
He danced upon the bonfire
Swallowed sleeping pills like dreams
With a bottle of sweet sherry
That everything redeems”

And another:

“Here’s a boy if ever there was
Who’s going to do big things
Guess that’s what they all say
And that’s how the trouble begins
I’ve seen them rise and fall
Been through their big deals and smalls
He’d better have a dream that goes
Beyond four walls”

Again, this song crept up out of nowhere on my iPod today and nearly left me shattered by the end of it. An immensely powerful song that should be a standard, even though I’m kind of glad it isn’t.

“Tear Off Your Head (It’s a Doll Revolution)” – The Bangles

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I can’t find the incredible Elvis Costello original on You Tube, so this totally kick-ass cover by the Bangles will have to do instead. However, please note this is no consolation prize by any stretch of the imagination.

“Pump it Up” – Elvis Costello

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Another classic from Mr. Costello. Second only to “Watching the Detectives,” this is my favorite Costello song. A very accurate approximation of 60s garage punk with all the bile and sexual frustration you’d expect from 60s garage punk. You have to watch this video for what Costello does with his freakin’ feet.  One of the most freakishly intense performances I’ve ever seen. I’d be shocked if he’s not wearing orthopedic shoes today, just for his work on this video alone.  From the classic 1978 album “This Year’s Model.”

“God Give Me Strength” (from the 1996 film “Grace of my Heart”) dir. Allison Anders

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This film appears to be based on Carole King’s life … but not exactly.  Because writer-director Allison Anders did a very smart thing when she came up with “Grace of My Heart.”  Instead of going the straight biopic route … and getting raked over the coals for fudging details of what actually happened to keep the story moving, she fictionalized her account.  This way, she could create composites of people, tell a compelling story, and keep people focused on her film.  And, instead of trying to buy the rights to all of the great songs from the Brill Building era (which would have been cost-prohibitive), she hired the composers of that period (Burt Bachrach, Gerry Goffin, etc) and teamed them up with Elvis Costello and others to write new songs.  This was another incredibly smart move, because not only are the new songs terrific in their own right, but having the old songs would have further distracted audiences from the narrative.

Anders script and directing are terrific. There’s loads of great actors in this film (Eric Stoltz, Matt Dillon, Patsy Kensit, Bridget Fonda, John Turturro), but Illeana Douglas towers above them all in the performance of her career as the lead, Edna Buxton.  She should have copped an Oscar nomination for this.  Unfortunately, even though Martin Scorsese was Executive Producer, the film was released by Gramercy Pictures (the mini-major created by Universal Pictures and Polygram Films), who botched the release of a lot of terrific films of the period (“Dazed and Confused,” “Mallrats,” “Bound,” “Kalifornia”) that are now considered classics.  When they had the occasional hit (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Fargo”), it seemed purely accidental.  But I digress …

This is the musical highlight of the film, in my opinion.  “God Give Me Strength” was written by Burt Bachrach and Elvis Costello and is sung by Kristen Vigard (Douglas is lip-syncing).

If you want to hear a great podcast about this film, check out The Projection Booth’s episode on this film.  It’s really terrific.

http://projection-booth.blogspot.com/2012/04/episode-60-grace-of-my-heart.html