Entertainment

What’s So Great About Color?

A few days ago, we ran Dennis Burger’s interview with Ray Harryhausen, where the justly revered special-effects genius talked about how happy he was with the colorized version of his 20 Million Miles to Earth. I know this is a touchy subject I can’t possibly begin to do justice to in the space allotted here, but colorization is bad—it has always been bad, and always will be. The fact that we’ve gotten better at it—like getting better at covering your tracks after a robbery—only compounds the crime.

 

There are so many ways to approach this, but let’s start with this: Why do we need everything to be in color? Why did the idea take root that black & white is somehow inferior? Are Dürer’s or Doré’s engravings or Ernst’s collages in any way inferior to their work in color—or any other artist’s work in color? How about Stieglitz’ or Walker Evans’ or Weegee’s photos? Does the

fact that Chaplin’s and Keaton’s films were shot in black & white—let alone Murnau’s, Eisenstein’s, and Griffith’s—make them inherently inferior to later, color films?

 

Then there’s the notion that color films look more realistic. Really? When was the last time you saw a movie where the color palette even came within spitting distance of reality? Movies are so heavily manipulated in post now that they look like the colorist let his six-year-old daughter loose on the file with a set of neon Sharpies. Yes, 4K HDR is capable of more accurately reproducing reality but the sad truth is that our addiction to retreating into superficial fantasy means practically no one takes advantage of what the tools can actually do.

Another argument is that colorization is a way to get jaded people raised on color media (in other words, Millennials) to check out older material. Not only is that cynical pandering, it assumes that it’s the black & white that makes these older movies and shows somehow irrelevant.

 

The only self-consistent explanation is that the need to colorize is part of the current mania to obliterate the past and to desensitize ourselves into an oblivious stupor. Eradicating black & white via color is akin to filling every movie with more and more gunplay, grosser and grosser gags, bigger, louder, deeper explosions, and greater and greater levels of intolerance.

 

Black & white, on the other hand, has traditionally been associated with things like sophistication (say, Lubitsch comedies or Astaire/Rogers musicals) and noir (take your pick), mainly because grayscale evokes both subtlety and ambiguity in ways color tends to obscure. So it’s not surprising we would want to annihilate anything that elegant and restrained, because allowing its vital progeny to run around loose would be an annoying reminder that the present is rarely a significant improvement on the past.

 

A colorization booster would say, “Why do you care what they do to some ‘50s monster flick—or some Shirley Temple movie, or some ‘50s sitcom?” But where do you draw the line—especially given how voracious and indiscriminate the people with their hands on the cultural levers have become?

 

The “Why do you care?” argument is inherently elitist—especially at a time when we like to pretend that all creative expression has been flattened to the level of pop culture (kind of like the apparatchiks using bureaucracy to enforce mediocrity during the Soviet era). I Love Lucy and the first season of Bewitched have been colorized, and that’s somehow OK because they’re “just” sitcoms (ignoring for the moment that Lucy was shot by Metropolis cinematographer Karl Freund).

 

What about something like The Dick Van Dyke Show? That’s just some old black & white sitcom, right? Except that it was beautifully captured by veteran Studio Era DP Robert De Grasse, and that its black & white ethos is redolent with the best still photography of the time, of the most sophisticated films, of magazine layouts for Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. In other words, it’s the very essence and epitome of that too brief era of American Enlightenment. Dick Van Dyke in color is no longer Dick Van Dyke—which is one reason why Carl Reiner decided not to switch over to color halfway through the series’ run.

 

Colorizing it now would go directly against the creators’ intent—that last an always dubious notion that has become inherently hypocritical and virtually meaningless now—and couldn’t result in anything but a curiosity, at best, and a travesty at worst.*

 

The notion that the addiction to color could creep from the world of monster films and I Love Lucy to, say, classic noir or early Godard should scare the crap out of anyone. It’s a path we should have never begun to venture down and needs to be nipped in the bud. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should.

 

What would be the colorization equivalent of nuclear deterrence?

Michael Gaughn

What's So Great About Color?

(* While doing my due diligence before publication, I discovered that some war criminal has actually committed that atrocity. Hopefully there’s a circle in Hell—preferably right below Satan’s crotch—reserved just for colorists.)

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Hamilton

Hamilton

I honestly can’t tell you how watching Hamilton from the comforts of my media room compares to seeing it live. I’d never seen the show before this weekend. On those rare occasions when the touring company made it within driving distance, my wife and I agreed we couldn’t afford to pay upwards of two grand for an evening’s entertainment.

 

We have, however, enjoyed quite a few streaming plays since the lockdown began earlier this year—most notably, the National Theatre at Home’s presentation of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, as well as 

the live arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar starring Tim Minchin. And I can tell you without hesitation that Hamilton is nothing like those productions.

 

During the first few minutes of the Disney+ stream, your brain can’t help but wonder: Am I watching theater or am I watching cinema? The answer is yes and no. It’s both. It’s neither. It’s like experiencing a play from the viewpoint of Mister Mxyzptlk, the impish multidimensional nemesis of Superman from the silliest comic books of that series. Sometimes you’re in the audience. Sometimes you’re onstage. Sometimes you’re hanging from the rafters. And somehow or another, it all just makes sense in the moment.

 

Honestly, though, by the end of the first number, you start to forget all of this artifice. You forget the nearly flawless 

HAMILTON AT A GLANCE

The show that reinvented musical theater gets diverted from its planned Summer 2021 release in movie theaters and bows on Disney+ instead. 

 

PICTURE     

A nearly flawless Dolby Vision video presentation.

 

SOUND

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is expansive and inventive, but a little too reverberant, making it difficult to understand some of the performers.

Dolby Vision video presentation and its gorgeous contrasts, its impossible mix of warm, earthen hues and dazzling primary-colored lighting. You even stop noticing that its only real visual flaw is the lack of absolute darkness in the shadows.

 

Your mind stops trying to make sense of the expansive and inventive Dolby Atmos soundtrack, which mixes not only audience reactions into the surround channels but also some of the catchy soundtrack instrumentation and sound effects. After giving myself over to Hamilton, the only conscious observation I had about the soundtrack is that there’s a little bit too much of the room in the mix at times, which makes it difficult to understand some performers, especially Daveed Diggs in his rapid-fire-rapping turn as the Marquis de Lafayette. (I also had to crank the volume up to 5dB above reference listening levels due to the relative quietness of the overall mix, but that was an easy fix.)

 

Once you stop focusing on the technical, what’s left is pure experience. As I said, it’s not quite theater and it’s not quite cinema, but this seamless patchwork of several different live performances recorded at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in 

Manhattan in June of 2016 works as its own thing.

 

And it may not quite compare with seeing the show live (again, I don’t know in this case), but what this time capsule does is allow you to appreciate not only the performances, but also the brilliance of the set design and choreography. There’s a reason Hamilton is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past decade—the Elvis, Beatles, and Star Wars of its era—despite the fact that so few 

people have seen it until now. Just like all of those touchstones, Hamilton looks forward and back at the same time. It not only brings musical theater kicking and screaming out of the past, mixing traditional show tunes (good ones!) with hip-hop, R&B, and soul; it also brings the past kicking and screaming into the present, making the foundation of our country and the hard 

work of governing it relatable in the most inventive ways.

 

Make no mistake about it: Hamilton isn’t attempting to be a historically accurate biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Instead, it’s about what his story means to us now. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton is a myth. Then again, so is the American dream. The beauty of this stage production, though—and the recording of it captured for 

posterity—is that it makes us believe in both myths. Or at least want to believe in them.

 

A lot has been written about what it means that this version of Hamilton went straight to streaming more than a year before its intended commercial-cinema run. About how it makes up in some small way for the lack of live theater at the moment. I really don’t have anything to add to that conversation. What did occur to me as the closing credits rolled is that this release also democratizes the show, putting it in front of an audience that couldn’t afford to see Hamilton if it were playing next door tomorrow.

 

I can’t help but think, with a devious twinkle in my eye, that this is a delightfully dangerous thing. Hamilton is revolutionary in more ways than one. It inspires the sort of patriotism (not nationalism, not jingoism, but genuinely transformative, thoughtful patriotism) that the power brokers of American politics don’t want most of us feeling.

 

Will most people settling into their comfy couches and loading up Disney+ see it this way? Almost certainly not. Most will merely be dazzled by the entertainment, and that’s fine. Hamilton is a hell of a show, and this time-capsule recording turns it into a home cinema experience unlike anything you’ve ever seen on any screen.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Is “Tenet” to Die For?

Is "Tenet" To DIe For?

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet routinely gets bandied about as the tentpole to officially launch the 2020 summer movie season and herald the reopening of movie theaters. AMC initially said it would have its 1,000 theaters around the world back in operation in time for its July 17 release, but as additional waves of the virus hit, it was pushed back until July 31 . . . and then just days ago to its latest official date of August 12.

 

Disney has been keeping an eye on Tenet, and has been shuffling its own summer tentpole, the live-action version of Mulan, back to be the second major film scheduled to hit big screens, moving from its original March 27 date to July 25 and then to August 21.

 

We can glean a couple of things from this.

One, we know Nolan is a huge advocate of the theatrical experience, specifically IMAX. Remember all of his calls practically begging people to see Dunkirk in full 70mm or IMAX if at all possible? He even wrote an impassioned opinion piece for The Washington Post back in March describing how movie theaters are a vital part of American social life.

 

He is also one of the few modern directors with the clout to bend a studio to his will, and perhaps it is even in his contract that his films will debut initially in a commercial cinema—or even on IMAX screens—before any other release. Warner Bros. certainly seems willing to follow Nolan’s desire. In a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, a studio spokesperson said, “Warner Bros. is committed to bringing Tenet to audiences in theaters, on the big screen, when exhibitors are ready and public health officials say it’s time.”

 

Second, it seems the studios have drawn a line in the sand (for now) for their major properties, and will stand firm on

releasing them theatrically . . . whenever that will be. Even it it means pushing them back a year or more.

 

Sure, we’ve seen lots of movies coming directly to home, whether as premium video-on-demand rentals or available for sale, but those have all been relatively small titles that didn’t have the revenue potential of a Tenet or Mulan (or Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick, the next Fast & the Furious installment . . .). A couple of notable exceptions are Disney/Pixar’s Onward and the decision to launch Hamilton on Disney+ a year ahead of its planned theatrical release date.

 

It seems unlikely we could have theaters responsibly opening by July 31, the current date planned for the Russell Crowe thriller Unhinged, let alone just a couple of weeks later for Tenet. And we don’t even know what things will look like when theaters do reopen, whether it will be to greatly reduced capacity and mandatory distancing in auditoriums, temperature checks at the door, requiring masks, limited/no concessions, etc.

 

As much as I love a night out at the movies, and want to see Tenet in the best presentation possible, I’m not ready to bet my—or your—life on it.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

This week marks the one hundredth birthday of Ray Harryhausen (1920–2013), the legendary visual-effects artist, writer, and producer whose name is practically synonymous with the art of stop-motion animation. Even if you don’t know his name, you’re surely familiar with his work from classics such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and Clash of the Titans (1981). Below is an interview I did with Mr. Harryhausen back in 2007, which appeared at that time in a much more abbreviated form in another, now defunct publication. Presenting our entire exchange seemed like a fitting way to pay tribute to the effects master on the centenary of his birth.

—Dennis Burger

You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a bit tongue-tied. I’ll admit I’m quite nervous to be speaking with you.

Well, I don’t have two heads. Just one.

 

I know it’s a question you must have been asked a million times, but how did you originally become interested in special effects?

King Kong, when I saw it at the age of 13 or 14, I think it was, at Grauman’s Chinese. I haven’t been the same since. That shows how a film can affect you. It just overpowered me. I had seen The Lost World in the silent days, when I was four or  

five, because my parents were great cinemagoers, and I had seen the German films—Metropolis and all of those. But somehow Kong, with the music and the sound effects and startling animation, was just amazing.

 

When did you start to develop your own special-effects craft?

Well, I started experimenting with it. It 

took a long time—it wasn’t just “Eureka!” overnight. It took several months before I found out the glories of stop-motion. I started reading about King Kong—there were various misleading articles in Popular Mechanics, assumptions of how it was made. Very few people knew anything about animation at that time.

 

What sort of misleading things were they saying?

Oh, one guy said Kong was a great big robot, and it showed drawings of a big mechanical thing walking through a forest, and big cables coming out of his heels and going to an organ, and there’s a little man in the corner playing this organ, and that was supposed to have made King Kong move.

 

So they were just guessing.

They were just guessing, or else deliberately misleading. They kept it secret how these creatures were made because there was nothing else like them on the screen. Finally, the secret came out in Look magazine and several others. It showed Fay Wray shaking hands with King Kong, and he was small and she was big! 

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

Say the name “Ray Harryhausen,” and most people think of those wonderful stop-motion animation models, but your Dynamation process was so much more than that, wasn’t it?

Yes, it was. It was a combination of special photography effects and animation. It was rear-projection, mostly, which was the basis of all my Dynamation. When we first released Mighty Joe Young, the critics would say, “Oh, it had animation in it,” and the word “animation” had always been associated with cartoons. So we wanted to get a separate name for this process. Charles [Schneer] came up with “Dyna-,” because he had a Buick at the time and it said Dynaflow, and we put “-mation” on it and made it Dynamation.

 

You’re kidding. That’s where the name came from? A Buick automatic transmission?

Yes. 

 

I believe that name was first attached to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad [1958], but you had been developing the same process for several years, right?

Oh, yes, before that—since The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms [1953].

 

So it would have been the same process on 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Oh, yes.

 

Which has been re-released on DVD.

In color! Because, you know, we would have shot it in color but our budget wouldn’t take it. At the time, color was very expensive, so we had to shoot it in black & white.

What do you think of the colorization process?

Oh, I think Legend Films have done a wonderful job. We colorized She—Merian Cooper’s old film. He wanted to shoot it in color originally, but RKO cut his budget at the last minute and he had to shoot it in black & white. The picture wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea—it dealt with reincarnation. I’m glad that 20 Million Miles is being released in color. It makes it a new picture. The color really helps things. You know, I worked really closely with Rosemary Horvath in colorizing it. She knew how to push what buttons to get the right shades. I’m not that up on computers.

 

Can you tell me about the process?

Well, it’s all done on the computer. I don’t know the details. I would just say, “I think this should look more bluish, because it’s ice, and this should look that way,” and we worked it out together.

 

It’s amazing how far the colorization process has come, because I remember when King Kong was first colorized, it looked like a child had taken to it with crayons.

I know! Well, this is much better, believe me.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

What do you think about using modern computer technology to enhance a film that’s more than 50 years old?

I think it’s good. It makes it sharper and you can do things digitally that are quite remarkable.

 

Is there anything you would have done differently had you been able to shoot the film in color?

No, not really. Black & white was so much easier to work with at the time, though. This process of rear-projection—there was a big problem in that when you photographed a projected image, the colors would change due to the lamp of the projector. That was a big problem on The 7th Voyage of Sinbad when we made it. But we overcame it by various processes.

 

You’re known for working alone.

Yes, I did everything myself—because there were no books at the time about special effects. Today there are a number of them. And everything is exposed about how things are done before the picture comes out. I think that spoils it. I used to keep it quiet, because I know I was haunted for years about how King Kong was made, and I thought it was wise not to divulge everything.

 

So you worked alone to keep your work secret?

Not only that reason. I preferred to work alone because it requires a great deal of concentration. And I didn’t want to be talked out of anything.

 

I think it would surprise a lot of people to find that you, as a sort of lone-wolf animator, had so much creative control over the stories of your films.

Yes, I worked on the stories. I don’t just wear the animation hat. So, many times, I would bring the original idea in. 7th Voyage was brought in by myself, although I was very modest in those days, and I didn’t realize that modesty was a dirty word in Hollywood—it took me 50 years to realize that.

And 20 Million Miles to Earth—that was your idea, too, correct?

That was originally my story, and then I got Charlotte Knight involved, so I gave her the full credit. But it was originally my idea. I had it set in America, crashing in Chicago, in Lake Michigan, but I wanted to take a trip to Rome, so I changed the location before I submitted the story to Columbia and Charles Schneer.

 

What did you think when you saw special effects houses like Industrial Light and Magic start to pop up?

It’s amazing that they made an industrial process of it, because I found it very hard to rely on other people to do things. I’m amazed that they did it, and they did a wonderful job.

 

When you saw ILM’s work with Star Wars and so forth, did you feel threatened in any way?

No, not at all. I think there’s room for every technique, depending on the story. Stop-motion gives a quality to a fantasy film—I think if you make fantasy too real—that was half the charm of Kong: You knew it wasn’t real, and yet it looked real. I get a lot of fan mail saying that they prefer my things to that of the computer-effects guys, who try to make it so realistic that it loses the quality of fantasy.

 

So, what did you think of the remakes of Mighty Joe Young—your own film—and King Kong, the film that inspired you?

Well, it’s another person’s point of view. Merian Cooper was a single producer, and they had five producers on the remake of Mighty Joe Young. They tried to do the concept realistically, and it was a fantasy, you know?

 

What did you think of the special effects in the new King Kong, though?

They were brilliant. But you know, people don’t go see a film just because of the special effects. I think they stretched it out, the new one. The beauty of the original Kong was that it was so compact. Right from the first word of dialogue, when he said, “Is this the motion-picture ship?” you knew what you were in for. The story was so compact—there wasn’t a superfluous scene in it.

 

Whereas the new one takes a bit of heat for being overly long.

Well, yes, because they go too far into Ann Darrow’s past. And people who go to see a picture like King Kong aren’t really interested in that. I think it breaks it when the girl tries to amuse the gorilla by doing tricks. It gets into the realm of Dino De Laurentis’ remake.

 

Oh, come now. It’s not that bad, is it?

No, it was a wonderful film, but it’s a different point of view. Everybody has a different point of view, you know. And Merian Cooper, being an adventurer himself, he specialized in these adventure films.

Celebrating a Master Effects Artist: Ray Harryhausen at 100

For someone my age, the film of yours that had the most impact was Clash of the Titans. That’s one of the major films of my childhood. But it was your last film. Why?

I don’t know. I just felt I’d had enough in the dark room. After all, I did 16 features, and did nine-tenths of the animation by myself. And most of it is the first take. We seldom had time to do retakes, so unless there was something radically wrong, we would never do a retake. With computers you can go over and over and refine it and refine it without it showing, but when you’re dealing with film, the minute you try to dupe it, it gets dupey looking. So we had great limitations.

 

When you were making Clash of the Titans, did you have any idea it would be your last film?

No, not really. I just felt we’d had enough.

 

What do you think about the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake?

Well, I think it’s a mistake. They’re not going ahead with it, are they?

 

I can’t believe I’m the one saddled with the burden of telling you this, but yeah, unfortunately.

Good heavens. Well, I read somewhere that they wanted to make it realistic. That’s the worst thing you can do to a fantasy film! You know, Greek mythology is not supposed to be realistic. I think that’s their first big mistake. But life will go on, I suppose. You have no control over that.

 

On a happier topic, what are some of your recent favorite films? Have you seen many new films?

No, I’m not attuned to the latest concepts. They forget that there’s supposed to be a story told, and they depend on cut after cut and dynamic zooms and eight-frame cuts, and that’s not my cup of tea. So I don’t see many recent films. The subject matter isn’t my cup of tea, either. They’re usually very depressing. I don’t like to sit for an hour and a half watching someone in the process of dying.

 

Given that so many people dislike CGI, why do you think filmmakers continue to use it?

Everybody wants to do things a little differently than the previous one. If someone makes a successful film, which has been going on for years, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and makes a similar type. And most of them depend on explosions.

 

What about things like Wallace & Gromit?

They’re wonderful, the puppet films.

 

But you never wanted to make them, right?

Well, I did. I worked with George Pal for two years in the early days, and we made puppet films. His films were very stylized. But Wallace & Gromit, you know, it’s a field in itself. It’s not the type of thing we were making.

 

Both the new Wallace & Gromit film and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride contained homages to you. They seem to be carrying the flame of your work.

They’re doing a marvelous job. Wallace & Gromit have been a big success, and I get a big kick out of Creature Comforts. They’re very clever.

 

Mr. Harryhausen, it’s been a real honor to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Well, I’m delighted. Thank you.

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2

In Part 1, I presented five films, ranging from the silent classic Metropolis to possibly the greatest musical ever, The Band Wagon, that have been restored with questionable results. Here, I will tackle some more recent films—if you consider the period from 1954 to 1972 recent—that weren’t necessarily improved by the efforts of the restorationists.

A Star is Born (1954)

The 1954 A Star Is Born ranks with Erich von Stroheim’s Greed as one of the most ruthlessly cut films of all time. When missing songs, footage, and soundtracks were found in the early 1980s and restored for a 1983 re-release, it was all quite exciting. Since two of the songs—“Lose That Long Face” and “Here’s What I’m Here For”—had been included on the best-selling LP soundtrack album, everyone knew something was missing, and a whole generation of Judy Garland fans had wondered where the footage could be.

This was finally and blissfully restored. However, there was also about 15 minutes where only the soundtrack existed, so production photos were shown over the audio to suggest what had once been there. At the time, this was fascinating and

lovely. However, the stills now look grainy, blurry, antiquated, and sometimes tasteless. But we are stuck with them.

 

In truth, A Star Is Born feels about 20 minutes too long anyway, and the “talking stills” only make that worse, interrupting and dismantling the fine dramatic story. Recently investigating this myself, I became suspicious that the scenes represented by these added black & white sections may have only been part of a preview print, not the opening-night presentation.

 

As regards the trimming of the film, one must remember that almost all road-show versions of films—which typically included an overture and intermission—were trimmed for general release. Only a handful of very popular epics like The Ten Commandments and musicals like The Sound of Music were never trimmed. Even Ben-Hur was trimmed by 1969. All films were trimmed of at least their intermissions and overtures.

 

So the actual problem with the butchering of A Star Is Born is not that it was cut down, but how and when. When Rodgers & Hammerstein movie musicals such as South Pacific, The King and I, and Carousel were trimmed, special versions were prepared in pre-release so, one, dramatically nothing was compromised; two, no songs were cut without approval from R&H; and three, you would never even notice anything was missing.

 

The producers of A Star Is Born should have prepared a 150-minute version for general release. It might have made 

it a better film, and Judy could have won her Academy Award! As it is now, we all have to suffer through the antiquated 1983 restored version, which now looks messy and choppy. Can’t the fascinating extra “stills” footage just be an addendum to the live-action version? We have all the songs now—that’s all we really want.

Touch of Evil (1958)

This oddball crime drama was seen for decades in a somewhat conventional 93-minute version that Universal-International prepared. It was always fascinating because of its set of major stars: Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, and Marlene Dietrich. And, of course it was directed by Orson (Citizen Kane) Welles. Universal’s version contained a jazzy score by Henry Mancini and a few additional scenes that were shot without Welles on hand. Directed by Harry Keller, these were primarily shot to clarify some of the more ambiguous plot points.

 

Because of the film’s team of stars, and Welles’ appeal to a growing audience, in 1976, Universal released a 108-minute version to cinemas and later issued it on video, billing it as “Complete, Uncut, and Restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all but a preview version.

 

By 1998, interest in the film had developed to the point where a full restoration was produced, based on Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal on how to re-edit the preview version. This version is certainly more complete, but eliminates Mancini’s music over the credits. This is a valid choice, meant to showcase Welles’ celebrated long take, but the opening isn’t as exciting sans the excellent score. Some of the scenes shot by Keller for clarity were also removed.

 

Today, the film makes less sense than it did in 1976. While it is fascinating to see what Welles’ envisioned, the more conventional Universal version is easier to follow. What went wrong is not that the 1998 restoration was done (or whether it is better or worse than the Universal version), but that it is now considered the only valid version of the film.

 

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

True, this was one of the greatest films of all time. And it still is. But, thanks to its restoration, it’s not quite as much of a great film as it was in the 1960s. Some footage was added in the 1990s, and the resulting edit was deemed to be the “Director’s Cut.” However, I suspect this was done to create a new copyright, and even to compensate David Lean financially. This longer version may have indeed been what Lean handed over for the film’s premiere, but the subsequent cuts made it much tighter and smoother.

The footage restored for the current version includes a shot of Lawrence’s motorcycle goggles in the bushes. Lean uses the same exact shot in Dr. Zhivago when Tom Courtney’s eyeglasses are flung into a snow drift during a World War I battle. Would he really have wanted to restore this shot once it had been seen in Zhivago? (Or would he have used it in the later film if Lawrence’s goggles were actually in the first road-show version?) The next restored scene is in front of a marble bust of Lawrence. This seems a bit campy, and I’ll wager Lean was happy to see it go in 1962.

 

The second half of the film suffers from the restoration of several scenes. This is exactly where Lawrence does not need to be longer. The lengthening of Lawrence’s torture by Jose Ferrer as the Turkish bey is slow, moody, and also a bit tasteless. But the scene that is simply overly long is the political discussion between Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal and Arthur Kennedy as Jackson Bentley. Peter O’Toole as Lawrence is far away. We wait patiently (or not) as we watch Alec Guinness in brown face affecting a singsong phony Arab accent. Add an always less-than-stellar Arthur Kennedy with his one-expression disgruntled face and you have a scene that looks straight out of South Park. Further add to this embarrassment overdubbing done by an older Alec Guinness in 1992 (that is noticeably dropped in) and the scene becomes a blot on the film.

 

I think the trims done in 1962 were all wise, meant to keep the film moving and word-of-mouth excellent. I’m suspicious someone at some point said, “Hey, if we can find 15 minutes to expand the film with, we can re-release it in 70mm again and market a new video!” I’m glad they found this footage, but can’t both versions be available in 4K HDR instead of only the overly long, questionable one?

 

My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the greatest movie musicals of all time based on probably the best Broadway musical of all time. It’s all expertly done, because as Bette Davis said to George Cukor: “You’re directing My Fair Lady? You’d better do it right or they’ll shoot you.” Every detail is meticulously done—even right from the first frame of the main titles. “Wait! What’s this?” you say. “All they do is flash grainy photos of flowers under the hard-to-read script credits?” Well, do you think in 1964 George Cukor really wanted to be shot? No! What you see in this most recent restored version is not the original main title!

 

Now remember, My Fair Lady was a very important film and it had to look that way from the top. Whether it was George Cukor’s idea or perhaps art director Cecil Beaton’s, here’s how it originally looked, as designed by Wayne Fitzgerald (The Music Man, Imitation of Life). The movie fades in to a picture of a beautiful rhododendron. It’s clear, detailed, and gorgeous. It then dissolves to a picture of a delicate carnation—but we begin to realize these are not freeze-frame pictures but actually live flowers filmed in 70mm! There’s another dissolve to another gorgeous flower! It seems to breathe as it sways in the soft breeze. The next set of flowers subtly waft in the wind. In Super Panavision and widescreen, it was glorious! After a while, you could swear you could smell the flowers’ perfume. The title card “My Fair Lady” appears over the soaring bridge of “On the 

The title sequence from the restoration

Street Where You Live” as the flowers seem to open up right in front of you.

 

It’s a very different and entirely special way to start a film. It says. “This is important. We spent a lot of extra money to do this ‘live’—and, like the story you are about to see, it’s subtle and intelligent.” That’s 1964 to 1993.

 

Now fast-forward to 1994 when the film is being restored so CBS can take back control of it from Warner Bros. Probably to save costs, it was decided 

to dump the old main title and create a new freeze-frame version rather than restore every frame. Presumably, no one would notice. Who would? Well, the answer to that is, yes, you don’t really notice outright, but (as with any brilliant detail) you do subliminally. Think of all the subliminal visual elements of, let’s say, Citizen Kane. Who really notices those shots that include a ceiling? Hmmm?

 

To make matters even more disturbing, the newest video restoration of My Fair Lady seems to have redone the credits yet again. There is still no live footage of the flowers, but now the timing of the dissolve between the names is slightly off, probably because it was done with video instead of real film. Each credit comes up a split second too fast so you can’t clearly read them. For the generation that isn’t used to reading (or writing) in script, the credits must look like strange markings in Sanskrit. As for the music, it’s mixed rather strangely too. The strings are too soft and fairly far off in the background.

 

In addition, on my video version, more than a few of the songs are out of sync with the actors’ lips. Now, this could have been a sound/sync problem with my home theater, but I have never noticed it on earlier video versions of My Fair Lady, or any other musical for that matter. Most egregious was “I Could Have Danced All Night.” Now I know Audrey was dubbed by the great (and better) singer Marni Nixon here, but other songs were out of sync as well—even songs performed by actors who did their own singing, like Stanley Holloway, and at times, even Rex Harrison, who sang all his songs live on the set! I’ve seen this film over many decades and it’s never been out of sync till now.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 2
1776 (1972)

This movie was originally filmed as a very straightforward adaptation of the Broadway blockbuster hit from 1969. It was planned to be a road-show presentation like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof—a film over two hours long, presented in two “acts” with an intermission. It also was the last film produced by Jack L. Warner, although it was filmed and released by Columbia Pictures.

 

But by 1972, road shows were a thing of the past. Either Jack L. Warner or Columbia decided not to present the film in that format, which meant it needed to be shortened and given a more modern or “cinematic” feel. Having witnessed that first version, I can attest it was quite excellent, and exactly the right choice. Even though I am a fan of the Broadway show (which, by the way, was originally performed in one act), I found the more cinematic version snappier and more contemporary for the 1970s.

 

In the 1990s, all the missing footage was added back in for home video. The additions include the second chorus of “Piddle Twiddle and Resolve,” the entire “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” two reprises, and a “new” (or perhaps original) main title that looks like a ripoff of the main title of Oliver! In this case, longer is not better. The songs now prove why the original producers eliminated them.

 

As far as stage-to-screen photographic efforts, these are the stodgier stage-bound segments, and, in the case of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” very bizarre. It has been said this number was cut by Warner at the request of then President Nixon because the lyric makes unflattering references to the political “Right.” However, on viewing the film version of the number, it is strangely overly stylized and doesn’t fit with the more realistic look of the rest of the film. My guess it was cut because it didn’t come off well and was an easy edit to shorten the film for general release.

 

The main title sequence the film was released with in 1972 is inventive. The film begins with founding father (“hero”) John Adams in contemplation beside the Liberty Bell. When the Continental Congress convenes, he rushes down the long staircase from the bell tower as the credits roll. He then begins “Piddle Twiddle . . .” It’s quite stylish and cinematic. Both versions are available on the 4K Blu-ray, which means you can enjoy it all and decide for yourself.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

Film is a living art form. Even though we may think a movie is a photograph frame permanently set on film and will exist as such forever, that isn’t actually true. The film frames and sound may stay exactly the same but how they survive is always an issue.

 

Beyond technical deterioration, there are other factors that influence how we view or comprehend a film from another era. How we perceive a film changes as much as society, morality, and language change for us day to day. A film from the 1930s is viewed quite differently by contemporary audiences than it was by an audience watching it in 1935. Of course, some films transcend time while others become dated, confusing, and sometimes even incomprehensible.

But there is another kind of aging, beyond physical decay and changing times, that might alter a film, decade to decade. What did the movie actually look like to the first audiences that viewed it? How did the creators intend it to look? What was the original (intended) length? Now that technology has progressed so much with digital photography and editing, many film distributors, creators, and owners have come up with various ways to “restore” a film. But that is a very broad term. What is being restored? A director’s vision? The color? The sound? The length? If so, is a preview print of a film as valid as the version shown when the film was released?

 

With the arrival of home video, and the potential for an older film to be financially lucrative, there has been a trend to restore classic films. Often this is done out of love of the art form, but sometimes financial issues play too big a role in the process. To be sure, most older films are beautifully presented for home video, but there are more than several classic films where the restoration effort may have gone wrong.

I am going to take a look at 10 films that have yielded questionable results, beginning with five from 1927 to 1953. In Part 2, I’ll consider some more recent classics like the 1954 A Star is Born and Lawrence of Arabia.

Metropolis (1927)

Fritz Lang’s incredible German Expressionist science-fiction film was trimmed substantially after its opening. It’s this shorter version that has been admired for decades. A damaged full-length print was found in a museum in Argentina in 2008. A long restoration was begun, and additional footage was found in New Zealand. The film now runs 148 minutes (still shy of the original 153-minute version). Length aside, the restored material is so damaged and scratchy, you are taken right out of the story and plunked down in a photo-lab class. Certainly, the power and horror of this masterpiece is diluted, not improved. This super-long version should be an extra on any video release of the film, not the feature presentation.

Lost Horizon (1937)

This classic Frank Capra film of James Hilton’s classic novel was a critical if not financial success in 1937. For years, many film lovers enjoyed the 118-minute version. Then, perhaps in an effort to mine more cash out of the film, a new video version was released with 14 extra minutes from, presumably, the original, extended “road show” version or possibly from a preview print. But not all the footage still existed, so some scenes consist of only audio tracks playing while production stills are shown. The footage that did exist was not from the exciting Tibetan or Shangri-La sections, but conversations on a small airplane. In both 

When Restorations Go Wrong, Pt. 1

cases, the additions very much slow the action of the film. The shorter, more concise version should be made available. While it’s fun to see what’s missing, that material should only be included in the extras.

 

The Wizard Of Oz (1939)

This is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time, and it’s a Technicolor triumph. However, in order to return it to its true splendor, so many “restorations” have been done that we are further from the truth than ever. Since the Technicolor company

of 1939 isn’t doing the restoring, what we have now is only a Technicolor simulation. As with The Band Wagon (see below) and other MGM musicals, the imaging is often too bright with low contrast, and more pleasing to the high-def generation’s eye than representative of what was originally there. In fact, the film is so clear and sharp now that all the sets look ridiculously phony.

 

That look isn’t so far off the mark for a film fantasy, so it is tolerable—except when 

Judy Garland turns into Rita Hayworth. Judy’s hair is now unabashedly red, but if you look at any color still of the film (shot on Kodachrome, etc.), she is clearly a brunette.

 

Another issue is the new “sepia-tone” wash on the film, which doesn’t come close to sepia. Just go find a photo of your grandparents from 1940 to see what sepia really looks like. In the current Wizard of Oz restoration, the front part of the picture simply has an orange-brown wash over everything. There are no true blacks or soft flesh tones.

 

In the color segments, the colors are bright, vibrant, and fun, but where are the subtle pastels? The last time I viewed an original color nitrate print of the film (made in the film’s premiere era), it was notable how the process could capture pastel colors side-by-side with the more vivid primary colors. The newer version is simply more saturated, so the pastels are no longer soft.

The Red Shoes (1948)

The great Pressburger/Powell film from 1948 certainly deserves to be transferred to home video with great care. But this magnificent and important movie has been so cleaned up, it looks like a vibrant video today. A lot of the scenes (for example, on the balcony with the train smoke blowing by) look positively phony. It seems reasonable to surmise this is not what the creators were going for. Also, the watery softness of the original British Technicolor is now bright, harsh, and cartoonish. I would much prefer to see a dusty (or even scratchy) old, true Technicolor print of this masterpiece.

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

This is one of the great MGM musicals, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minelli. It famously stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in their peak years in glorious Technicolor. The film has always been treated with great care by MGM (and by WB, the company that currently owns it). However, the art of restoring Technicolor can be a very tricky and 

subjective job. Since the process used to create Technicolor prints no longer exists, a restoration isn’t really a restoration but a simulation of “the Technicolor look.”

 

Most of the color looks fine today, except for one key scene: The “Dancing in the Dark” number is too brightly lit and with low contrast. The great dancing couple, who are dressed in white, are now upstaged by a very phony-looking backdrop. Originally, as it was processed by 

Technicolor, the company was able to add deeper black tones and more contrast to the background so the New York City skyline viewed from Central Park actually looked quite true to life.

 

The original designers, D.P., and colorist knew what they were doing. I saw one of the last new prints made by Technicolor in the mid ‘70s in a screening hosted by Vincente Minelli, who explained how he requested Technicolor to make the soundstage set look like an actual location shoot. The version we see today is so bright and digitally cleaned up that Fred and Cyd look like they are “Dancing on a Community Theater Stage.”

 

If one wants proof of the restoration mishap, one need only look at the original trailer for The Band Wagon. If you find a print of this from 1953, you’ll see the difference in color contrast. By the way, if you look at most of the trailers of color musicals of the 1950s, you can see what the original Technicolor looked like.

Gerard Alessandrini

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

5 Great “Road” Movies

5 Great "Road" Movies

The Straight Story

It’s no secret that road-trip movies are usually metaphors for the characters’ inward journeys, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining. Road trips are particularly well suited to American filmmaking, thanks to the vastness of the North American continent and the highway system that transects it. With all those thousands of miles available, there’s no story that can’t be told. The following examples represent a collection of human types as various as the regions they travel and the vehicles they travel in.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006)

If any movie can be described as dark and light at the same time, it’s this one. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Little Miss Sunshine is a comedic gem with a bitingly funny script by Michael Arndt.

 

Olive (the wide-eyed, adorable Abigail Breslin) is an average-looking but unusually determined seven-year-old girl. She’s been training for the Little Miss Sunshine competition, coached by her foul-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin is the 

5 Great "Road" Movies

embodiment of a man powered by pure sarcasm). Her exhausted, underappreciated mom (Toni Collette) convinces her hypercritical dad (Greg Kinnear) to drive the family from Arizona to California for the contest.

 

Along for the ride are Olive’s angsty teen brother 

(Paul Dano), who’s stopped speaking in honor of Friedrich Nietzsche, and her gay uncle (Steve Carell), a Proust scholar who’s fresh out of the hospital after trying to off himself over a failed love affair. The script’s best moments happen in the van on the highway as this crazy bunch of characters spar with each other.

 

Little Miss Sunshine may be about the ultimate dysfunctional family, but the movie is underpinned by such intense love that the joy outweighs the black humor in the end.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

Family is also the driving force behind The Straight Story, and this time the journey moves from darkness into light. But don’t expect the revelations to announce themselves in Hollywood fashion. This movie takes its pace from the people and landscape of the rural Midwest—long, slow, patient, inevitable. While it might be a surprising piece of work to come from David Lynch, it’s one of his best films. The screenplay, based on a true story, is by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, who also edited the movie.

Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly Iowa man, learns that his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton) has had a stroke. With his eyesight too poor to drive, and no available bus service, Alvin hitches a trailer to a 30-year-old John Deere riding lawn mower and sets out toward Wisconsin to heal the rift with his brother 

while he still can. The story is told through Straight’s interactions with strangers along the way, as he quietly doles out wisdom and humbly accepts small kindnesses. Sissy Spacek is wonderful as his special-needs daughter who holds down the home front while he’s away.

 

Profound but never preachy, the script is often very funny and the visuals rewarding. Rich green farmland melts into gray autumn sky, forming a continuous backdrop, the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Freddie Francis.     A / G / I / V

 

 

AMERICAN HONEY (2016)

Family doesn’t always mean blood relations, but chosen families can be just as challenging as biological ones. That’s one of the themes of American Honey, the ruthlessly hyper-realistic road movie written and directed by Andrea Arnold.

A young woman named Star (Sasha Lane) is stuck in poverty and an abusive relationship, so she doesn’t need much convincing when slick-talking Jake (Shia LaBeouf) tells her he can get her a job selling magazines in Kansas. She joins up with his band of scarred and scared people all seeking some strand to hold onto in life. The van they travel in acts as a protective chamber, letting them be their true selves in safety. Whenever the van stops and its inhabitants have to venture out, we see the “normal” world through their eyes, as a harsh, hostile place that can’t adapt to accept outsiders.

 

As the team’s leader, Riley Keough is an unsettling combination of maternal and cold. Arnold is careful to

Where to See Some Road Movies

Little Miss Sunshine, American Honey, and My Own Private Idaho are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services as well as Kaleidescape. You won’t find The Straight Story on YouTube or Kaleidescape, and Transamerica isn’t on Kaleidescape.

 

A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

avoid stereotypes among the troubled young people, focusing on specifics that make them individuals. A standout is Arielle Holmes, who plays Pagan, a tiny, delicate woman obsessed with Darth Vader because she understands the darkness he represents.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

TRANSAMERICA (2005)

While it’s not as original in its structure as any of the previously mentioned films, Transamerica is groundbreaking for its subject matter. A trans woman in L.A., only one week from her transition surgery, is amazed to discover that she has a 17-year-old son in New York. He’s in jail with no one to help him. She shows up, bails him out, and offers to drive him to California. But she neglects to mention that she’s his dad.

 

The script by director Duncan Tucker, while satisfyingly emotional and hilarious, uses the road-trip trope in predictable ways to develop, destroy, and rebuild the main characters’ relationship. Still, the issue of a young person discovering his parent is trans is new enough to cinema that it’s well worth exploring. Felicity Huffman is completely convincing as Bree, the trans woman, even if activists at the time were disappointed that a trans actor was not cast in the role. As her son Toby, Kevin Zegers hits the right range of teen overconfidence, rage, and sexual confusion. Graham Greene makes a wonderful cameo appearance as a good Samaritan who helps and befriends them as they pass through Texas.     A / G / I V / Y 

5 Great "Road" Movies

MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991)

Most road trip movies are about completing a journey; My Own Private Idaho is about how we are stuck being whoever we are, no matter how far we travel. River Phoenix is Mike, a homeless narcoleptic who turns tricks to scrape together a living. Keanu Reeves is Scott, heir to a fortune, who turns tricks because it amuses him to dabble “in the life” until he inherits his money.

 

Mike is in love with Scott; Scott acts like Mike’s friend—he even drags him to safety when his narcolepsy strikes, over and over—but friendship has no meaning to him. Their ragtag band of misfits is lorded over by Bob Pigeon (William Richert), aka Fat Bob, who is their Falstaff. Just so you don’t miss that allusion, writer/director Gus Van Sant wrote Bob’s scenes in iambic pentameter.

 

As for the road-trip element—well, there’s definitely a road. The movie begins with an endless black highway cutting through the flatness of Idaho (cinematographer John J. Campbell captured some breathtaking vistas). Mike stands on the shoulder, with no car in sight. This film is largely about what isn’t there. As Mike and Scott travel around—to Seattle, Portland, Idaho, even to Rome—it doesn’t matter how they got there. The places have roads between them, but just like Mike’s narcoleptic experience of the world, much of their surreal journey is riddled with blank spots. Even if you know what road you’re on, you might still be lost.      A / G / IKV / Y

Anne E. Johnson 

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.

How to Listen: The Firebird

How to Listen: The Firebird

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Mercury Living Presence (original LP & Qobuz 16-bit/44.1 kHz)

 

We haven’t yet done a classical LP in our “How to Listen” series, which many would consider an egregious omission—and I would agree. Aside from the considerable musical merits of classical, there’s arguably no better form of music to demonstrate what a good audio system can do—and perhaps no better disc than this 1959 recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It’s legendary, long-revered by audiophiles and classical aficionados for its sensational sound and thrilling performance. Simply put, The Firebird is a class in itself on what to listen for in an orchestra—and in a great stereo system.

 

Among Golden Age classical record labels, Mercury “Living Presence” and RCA “Living Stereo” LPs are the most acclaimed, with Decca right beside them. (Other labels like London, Everest, and Angel aren’t to be slighted, but among audiophiles and 

collectors, Mercury and RCA are the two most mentioned and re-issued.) Mercurys tend to be more dynamic and brighter, RCAs warmer and more lush-sounding.

 

The Firebird is a 1910 ballet (it’ll have its 110th anniversary on June 25!) about the journey of hero Prince Ivan and his encounters with the evil Koschei the Immortal, the mythical and captivating Firebird, and 13 captive princesses. As you might imagine, this is rich material for musical portrayal, and Stravinsky’s score is magnificently evocative—you really don’t have to know a word of the story to “get” the work’s emotional range. The music is energetic, colorful, impassioned, with a tremendous range of dynamics, moods, and tonal colors. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summarized The Firebird’s greatness: “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

 

The recording was engineered by C. Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart Fine, two of the greatest figures in classical recording. The disc was recorded in half-inch three-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. It was then mixed down to stereo. This simple, straightforward method of miking an orchestra yields remarkably natural sound, with the orchestra spread over a wide and deep soundstage, instruments accurately placed, and the natural ambience of London’s Watford Town Hall to be clearly heard—if your system is up to the task. The multi-miked recording techniques that later came into vogue gave engineers the ability to create instrumental balances after the fact and “fix it in the mix,” but also destroyed the phase relationships and hall ambience that make purist, simply-miked recordings sound so convincingly real.

 

And what a sound those mics and that tape captured. In particular, the dynamics are fantastic. Starting with quietly-bowed basses, the first few minutes sneak up on you. Set your volume control low, because this recording begins with a barely audible string passage, and then explosive 

orchestral bursts happen, beginning with the appearance of the Firebird in the musical story about five minutes in. If you’re wondering about the low-frequency capability of your system, the first time the timpani come pounding in, you’ll know just how deep and articulate your speakers are—or aren’t.

 

One of the many other striking things about this recording is its clarity. Instruments are reproduced with astonishing transparency and detail. The tonal colors and characters of each instrument are remarkably distinct and, on a good system, 

easy to hear. In fact, the ability to hear and differentiate between all the instruments is crucial to the full appreciation of Stravinsky’s often densely—and brilliantly-orchestrated score.

 

You shouldn’t just hear masses of woodwinds and strings—you should clearly be able to pick out the sweetness of the oboes as opposed to the timbre of the clarinets, the distinction between the violins, violas, and cellos, and other nuances. Percussive sounds are rendered with exceptional transient realism, with the pluck of a harp or the striking of a mallet instrument almost thrilling in their clarity. A real system test? In some spots the strings are playing some very fast, quiet bowed passages. They’re almost imperceptible at times—but they’re there. On a lesser system they’ll sound like one continuous bowed note—or won’t be heard at all.

 

The reproduction of the hall sound is also superb. When a solo trumpet plays or a timpani strikes, you can easily hear the echo of the acoustic space, and if you have the appropriate speakers, you’ll get a sense of the size of the hall and its physical presence. There’s a vast spaciousness, width and depth. For me, the combination of orchestral and hall sound is perfect. It’s simply beautiful to listen to.

 

If there’s one quibble to the overall sonic splendor, it’s that during very loud passages, the sound can get more than a little bright. The upper range is never harsh or grainy, but this recording, and other Mercurys, certainly can’t be accused of erring on the side of mellowness. If your system is on the edge of brightness, this recording may push it over that edge. On the other hand, the bass is rich and authoritative and the midrange is spot on—not too lean, not

The Firebird on Qobuz:
Streaming a Vinyl Icon

 

The original Mercury Living Presence LP of The Firebird (catalog no. SR90226) has long been considered one of the greatest orchestral recordings of all time. It’s had a “Best of the Bunch” highest ranking on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List for a very long time (a fact I’d forgotten about until doing this review). So . . . how did this iconic recording sound on a digital stream—a format that’s anathema to vinyl-sniffing purists? (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a vinyl aficionado myself.)

 

Well, I listened on Qobuz in 44.1k/16-bit on an extremely high-quality system and was impressed. It sounded smooth with good detail and not very “digital.” The wide dynamic range and tonal balance were there. It didn’t quite have the same richness or spatiality, and I think you need a good copy of the LP to get the “magic.” (There have been a few reissues of varying quality over the decades.) On the other hand, nothing can diminish the transcendent performance.

 

However, Qobuz gives the release date of this Decca Music Group reissue as 1991—jeez, can it really have been 30 years ago?—so this is crying out for a true hi-res 192/24 remastering.

—F.D.

too thick, just right. Instruments like violins and those oboes have a sweetness and expressiveness—the sound just gets out of the way.

 

You can truly hear Dorati’s hand—literally—in conducting the LSO, every nuance of control and relaxed grace easily heard. You feel as much as hear the ebb and flow. The performance of the orchestra is masterful. The musicianship is transcendent.

 

There’s not much more I can say other than to conclude with this: In writing the review, I listened to The Firebird multiple times. First to reacquaint myself and take notes. Then, having trouble tearing myself away, to simply bask in the utterly beautiful sound and performance.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

In “3 Must-See Music-Based Videos,” I presented a performance video, a jukebox musical, and a legendary concert performance. This time, all three of the highlighted titles are traditional movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less divergent in how they handle their music-themed material.

HAIRSPRAY (2007)

John Waters’ original 1988 movie was fantastic fun, with a quirky yet amazing oddball cast of characters including drag legend Divine, Debby Harry (of Blondie fame), Sonny Bono (yes, as in Sonny & Cher), comedian Jerry Stiller, Rikki Lake, and even special-guest showcases by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora.

 

While music is central to the movie—it has a terrific soundtrack—Waters’ Hairspray can’t really be considered a true musical in the theatrical sense. But the film became such a cult favorite over the years that is was eventually transformed into a fun hit Broadway musical. (I saw it in that original run with theater legend Harvey Fierstein taking over DIvine’s leading role of Edna Turnblad!)

 

Happily, the next stage for Hairspray was to bring things full circle and make a major movie out of the Broadway version, and that is where we enter the story:

 

“Good morning, Baltimore!”

 

The 2007 Hairspray is a wonder of poignant scripting, swingin’ songwriting, Technicolor-flavored staging, and a good ol’ dose of sweet-hearted fun. A joy to watch right from the opening number, the movie is chock full of earworm-worthy moments. (The 

Blu-ray version even has a sing-a-long feature!)

 

The terrific cast includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Jerry Stiller (yes, he appears in both film versions, in different roles!), and Nikki Blonsky in her feature-film debut as Tracy Turnblad. The ensemble cast becomes especially important for the large group and dance sequences later in the film. Even Travolta’s full-drag portrayal of Edna Turnblad makes a great deal of sense once the dance numbers start. (He’s much more limber than Harvey was on Broadway, obviously still retaining some of the skills he honed during his Saturday Night Fever days.)

Where to See Some Music

All of the films here are available on all of the major non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape.

 

A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

The original music in Hairspray echoes the vibe of early Motown soul and Brill Building girl group rock ’n roll, falling just this side of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. The songs effectively represent the near underground sounds that helped change the pace and face of musical entertainment in the early 1960s—a period when mainstream pop was quite bland and stagnant until about 1963 when Motown and The Beatles hit it big.

 

The 48 kHz (probably 24-bit) 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is gently immersive and mostly in stereo, with a tasteful use of the surrounds for select sound effects, choral group singing, and overall ambiance. The music sounds rich, warm, and rocking.

 

The film’s look and feel features a rich, diverse color palette balanced by the gritty street realities of urban Baltimore. All this combines to make Hairspray a highly enjoyable home entertainment experience that somehow makes time melt away.
A / G / I / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

ONCE (2007)

Starring Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, Once tells the story of a charming near-romance between two broken-hearted musicians who meet amidst unusual circumstances. In reality, Hansard is primarily a musician, singer, and songwriter who not only led his fantastic rock band The Frames for decades but also first came to this writer’s attention as part of the band in movie The CommitmentsIn Once, he plays an aspiring singer/songwriter armed with great songs, a passion for his unfulfilled musical dreams, and the unlikely prospect of reconnecting with his former girlfriend.

 

There is a great real-life back story to this film that ultimately became a terrific promotional vehicle for Hansard and Irglova, who ended up romantically involved and later formed a musical side project called The Swell Season. In the film, members of The Frames participate in a recording session that borders on Partridge Family idealism yet somehow manages to make you suspend disbelief while simultaneously tugging at your heartstrings. 

 

This is not a big-budget production, but Once has a great independent-film look and feel that plays well on a big screen. Parts of it were filmed guerrilla style on the streets in Ireland.

 

It’s well worth the price of admission to watch Once for the mesmerizing opening sequence and for Hansard’s jaw-dropping performance of “Say It to Me Now” on solo acoustic guitar. (Do take note of his guitar, which has been worn down so much it has gaping holes in it!) 

 

There is much joy to be found in this heartwarming film that eventually became a Broadway show. Once can be found on Kaleidescape and on Blu-ray with a stereo DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that sounds good and feels as natural as the cinematography. This film is ultimately a beautiful cinematic experience, thanks to compassionate acting, a strong script, and a timeless tale.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

3 Must-See Music-Based Movies

A STAR IS BORN (1954)

This Judy Garland masterwork—the second of the (to date) four versions of A Star Is Born and in many ways the benchmark-setter—deserves to be seen and appreciated on multiple levels. Beyond the fascinating and heart-wrenching story line, this film was a make-it-or-break-it moment for the Wizard Of Oz star. Accordingly, the studio pulled out the stops. Containing truly stellar performances by both Garland and James Mason, A Star Is Born contains many jaw-dropping visuals, including a fantastic behind-the-scenes perspective on what Hollywood was like in its Golden Age.

 

To get some idea of the richness of the production, one need go no further than the demo-worthy scene featuring the now classic pop/jazz standard “The Man Who Got Away.”  Set in an after-hours jazz club, you will see arguably Garland’s finest moment on the silver screen, a perfect blend of tremendous music, impassioned performance—I still can’t believe she’s lip syncing to a pre-recorded track, it’s that good!—and beautifully designed staging supported by expert lighting. This one scene is like a mini film-within-a-film that took months and several complete redesigns to perfect—as explained in the deluxe edition bonus features on the Blu-ray + DVD deluxe edition that came out in 2010.

 

From a home theater enthusiast’s perspective, one of the really interesting things about the 1954 A Star Is Born is that it has one of the first stereophonic movie soundtracks, a good four years before stereo records became a commercial reality. The movie is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but the surround channels are mostly for room-filling ambience. Most of the action is up front in stereo, and that’s just fine. The sound design is tasteful, innovative, warm-sounding, and ultimately an integral part of the viewing experience. 

 

When Norman Maine (James Mason) walks into the club prior to “The Man That Got Away,” note how the audio perspective convincingly creates the sense that you’re Mason’s character opening the door and entering that environment. And near the end, when Mason is starting to seriously contemplate suicide, the scene suddenly switches perspective. You can see him reacting to a distant conversation that Garland is having, which sounds like it’s literally coming from another room.

 

A Star Is Born is full of well-crafted details like that, making it an important film to take the time to appreciate. One of Warner Brothers’ first CinemaScope films, it remains one of the greatest dramatic musical movies ever.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

5 Great “Big City” Films

5 Great "Big City" Films

Anyone who’s spent much time in metropolitan areas knows that each big city has a distinct personality. Filmmakers have long taken advantage of this fact, allowing urban centers to be not just the backdrops for their stories, but practically characters. Woody Allen’s work is a prime example: What would Hannah and Her Sisters, Annie Hall, and Manhattan be without New York City? Here are a few movies that celebrate the good, the bad, and the ugly of major American cities and their inhabitants.

WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1956)

How can a film without a single on-location shot qualify as a celebration of New York City? Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps relies on studio sets for its very few outdoor scenes, and the establishing skyline doesn’t pretend to be anything but a hand-painted set. It works because a city is more than its buildings. In Casey Robinson’s screenplay, based on Charles Einstein’s 1953 novel The Bloody Spur, the characters’ actions, attitudes, and dialogue define Manhattan. On its surface, this is a homicide thriller, but we know who the murderer is in the first scene (it’s John Drew Barrymore). The real point of the story is to show how the news media exploits crime for ratings. That practice is commonplace now, but it used to be centered in New York.

 

Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV newsman, part of the Kyne News Syndicate, which has just been passed to its founder’s lazy playboy son, Walter Kyne, played with wide-eyed bafflement and bravado by Vincent Price. Kyne pits three of his top newsmen—George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, and James Craig—against each other, competing for the new job of Executive Director. Mobley gets caught in the middle of their battle. The underhanded dealings, the snide remarks, the workaholism fueled by alcoholism, the use of sex as corporate currency (Rhonda Fleming, Sally Forrest, and Ida Lupino hold all the power)—these are hallmarks of the frantic NYC media life of the 1956. We don’t need a shot of Times Square to recognize Manhattan’s pounding heart.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

PREMIUM RUSH (2012)

Fast-forward into the 21st century, to a very different movie that’s just as much a love song to Manhattan’s frenetic pace. Written and directed by David Koepp, Premium Rush stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee, a bike messenger who gets finds his life in danger when a customer specifically asks for him to pick up a parcel. Unfortunately, gambling-addicted cop Michael 

5 Great "Big City" Films

Shannon wants what’s in that package—at any cost. Good thing fellow messenger Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) steps up to help.

 

The normal whoosh of bike messengers in traffic turns even more breathless as Shannon chases bike-bound Gordon-Levitt from the safety of his car. The client is up at Columbia University and the package is going to Chinatown, so the movie becomes a lightning-paced tour up and down Broadway. This film uses only on-location shots, mostly outdoors, so 

lovers of NYC will enjoy recognizing landmarks block by block. Action fans will love all the hair’s-breadth near-misses as bikes maneuver between moving cars, thanks to visual effects orchestrated through a combination of a crack stunt team and the CGI magic of Zoic Studios. The sound design alone makes this movie a thrill; Jamie Baker and his Foley team put the viewer right there on the street with the yellow cabs.     A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

ABOUT LAST NIGHT (1986)

Not every city has that East Coast vibe. In 1974, David Mamet wrote Sexual Perversity in Chicago, a lean, sarcastic play about dating in a midwestern city in the 1970s. More than ten years later, the play inspired a screenplay by Tim Kazurinsky and Denise DeClue for Edward Zwick’s romantic comedy About Last Night. The only remnants of Mamet’s signature 

acidic, stylized dialogue are hilarious passages where Bernie (Jim Belushi) flaunts his sexual exploits to his pal Danny (Rob Lowe). Yet, while the language may have lost its zing and the expanded plot runs toward Hollywood predictability, there are few finer cinematic tributes to the city of Chicago.

 

From a baseball diamond in Grant Park and a walk over the Chicago River on the Adams Street Bridge to the commute north from the Loop on a clattering L train, Zwick and cinematographer Andrew Dintenfass capture the essence of the Windy City. The focus on noisy bar life squares with midwestern reality. Zwick filmed pubs on Division Street, and the interior of Mother’s, the characters’ favorite 

Where to See Some Big City

All of the films here are available on all of the non-subscription streaming services, as well as for download on Kaleidescape, except for the The Last Black Man in San Francisco, which isn’t available on iTunes.

 

A = Amazon Prime / G = Google Play
I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / 
Y = YouTube

hangout, is a studio set exactly replicating the real thing, although they chose a bar across the street from Mother’s to be its exterior.

 

As for the film itself, there are some interesting moments of truth about relationships as Danny dives too fast into a commitment with Debbie (Demi Moore). Debbie’s best friend Joan (Elizabeth Perkins) is the snarky-tongued female counterpoint to Belushi’s character, and she gets in some prime jibes about male behavior while simultaneously craving men.
A / G / I / KV / Y 

 

 

STRAIGHT TIME (1978)

On the West Coast, filmmakers have viewed Los Angeles from many angles and in many different lights. One distinctive view is Ulu Grosbard’s Straight Time, based on Edward Bunker’s novel No Beast So Fierce. Dustin Hoffman is Max Dembo, newly 

released from a six-year prison sentence for armed robbery. The opening sequence shows him lost in the wide, cold world of L.A., trying to get his bearings and re-enter life.

 

The fates and the system are stacked against him. An irresponsible friend (Gary Busey) and an unsympathetic parole officer (M. Emmet Walsh) make going straight impossible. A nice girl who thinks she wants adventure (Jenny Mercer) falls hard for Max, even as he returns to his life of crime with an old colleague (Harry Dean Stanton, who flat-out steals the film). 

5 Great "Big City" Films

There’s nothing nostalgic or sweet about this version of the city. To the accompaniment of David Shire’s sultry jazz score, Grosbard focuses on gritty L.A. as an empty shell. Its wide streets and wide sky ironically symbolize what a harsh, suffocating prison society can be.      A / G / KV / Y

5 Great "Big City" Films

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO (2019)

Some 500 miles north of L.A., writer/director Joe Talbot gives cinematic life to a unique perspective on San Francisco. This is the true story of a black man named Jimmy Fail (playing himself) and his best friend Jonathan (a wonderful performance by Montgomery Allen), who decide to go live in a historic mansion when the owners move out. Jimmy has been told his whole life that his grandfather built the house, and he believes he has an ancestral right to it.

 

This is a quiet yet intense film about the search for belonging. Jimmy and Jonathan, thoughtful and artistic, don’t feel they fit in with the colorful characters in their own poverty-line neighborhood. But they don’t seem to belong in a four-million-dollar house either. The spot between those extremes eludes them, a place where they could celebrate their heritage yet also be modern individuals. Innovative editing and the use of slow motion make everyday actions take on an otherworldly quality. There’s a lot of humor, too. San Francisco comes across as both a great mystery and an old friend, holding secrets in her fog and answers just over the rise of each hill.     A / G KV / Y

Anne E. Johnson

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer in Brooklyn. Her music journalism appears
regularly in
Copper Magazine, Classical Voice North America, and Stereophile. She’s
also the author of several novels and over 100 short stories, mostly science fiction
and fantasy. Learn more on AnneEJohnson.com.