Friday, August 30, 2013


What? You haven't seen 20 Feet From Stardom yet? Not even once?

Why are you still sitting there?

Morgan Neville's documentary tribute to the often unheralded, and yet so necessary heroines of rock—the background singers onstage and in the studio—is as incendiary as the voices of these incredible vocalists.

The stories of these primarily black women—how they were used, abused, and/or empowered by the industry, whether or not they dared to take that 20-foot walk into the spotlight, and how they fared—are a remarkable cultural document of four or five rich decades in the pop music scene.

But OMG, the singing! When these ladies open their chops, either on record, or in vintage concert clips, or for Neville's camera in the present day, I promise you will find true religion. You'll rock, you'll roll, and I defy you not to tap or hum or sway along.
Ready to rock: Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, Lisa Fischer

I came because I love Merry Clayton, whose powerhouse contribution on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter" is arguably (by me) the most iconic back-up performance of all time. ("Rape! Murder! It's just a shot away, it's just a shot away-e-yay...")

Clayton tells a funny story of being rousted out of bed in the middle of the night and escorted to the studio in hair curlers and silk pajamas because the Stones thought the song needed "another voice"—yeah, one that can sing like wildfire!

But every singer in this movie is a treasure. Take Darlene Love, longtime indentured servant to Phil Spector, whose era-defining lead vocals on hits like "He's A Rebel" and "Da Doo Run Run" went uncredited for years in songs attributed to The Crystals, and other artists. Still full of sass and vinegar, and still in full possession of a great set of pipes, Love's induction, at long last, into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame ("...and about time, too!" beams presenter Bette Midler) concludes the movie on a high note.

In some classic '70s footage, Claudia Lennear (allegedly the inspiration for the Stones' "Brown Sugar"), a former Ikette, works out onstage with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell on the "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" tour, and leads the back-up choir at George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh. From the next generation comes the phenomenal Judith Hill, who is shown rehearsing with Michael Jackson (she was chosen as his duet partner) on the ill-fated "This Is It" tour. Hill also sings a soulful composition of her own, "Desperation," accompanying herself on piano, that has "Spotlight" written all over it.

But my favorite in the film (and someone I'd never heard of before) is the divine Lisa Fischer. For years an accomplice of Luther Vandross, a confederate of Sting, and a fixture in every Rolling Stones tour since 1989, Fischer's voice is an incredible instrument of melody, color, and soaring emotion. Private and personal, or big and powerful, trading saucy licks with Mick Jagger onstage, she is a hypnotic performer, not to be missed.

For a little indie doc, this one is breaking records all over the country. Here's the trailer, to get you in the mood. Don't let me find out you missed it!

Friday, August 23, 2013


Hey, kids!

It's Happy Dance time again!

Just back from two week's vacation when I got the email I've been waiting for for months—the good news that the long-missing contracts between my UK publisher, Snowbooks, and my soon-to-be US publisher have finally been signed, sealed and delivered.

Which means that, yes, a US edition of Alias Hook will be coming out from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press in Spring/Summer 2014! I'd be jumping up and down, but I don't want to spill the champagne!

Many large and sincere thanks are due to TDB senior editor Pete Wolverton, and his most excellent assistant editor, Anne Brewer, for shepherding me through the process so far. (Thanks for all the pep talks and virtual hand-holding!)

I am SO looking forward to working with these two on the US edition. They even asked me for suggestions re: the new cover design—how cool is that?

For those of you who came in late, feel free to bop over to my Alias Hook Facebook page and read all about it.

And of course, if you just can't wait till next year, the Snowbooks edition of Alias Hook (with a dynamic cover designed by Anna Torborg) is available as we speak online from The Book Depository —with free shipping worldwide. Such a deal!

Monday, August 5, 2013


In honor of marriage equality, and spurred on by the current Cabrillo Stage production of La Cage aux Folles,  I thought it would be fun to celebrate the (brief) history of same-sex domestic partnerships in the movies.

Not  passionate gay relationships; there are plenty worthy examples of those, the best being Brokeback Mountain. Longtime commitment is definitely a major factor in that relationship, but it's never domestic. In fact, the characters have to create faux domestic relationships with other people—wives—to conceal their clandestine romance with each other. And I was trying to avoid the self-loathing gay stereotypes of a movie like Staircase, in 1969, where Rex Harrison and Richard Burton struggle to act fruity and waspish, as a long-together couple who basically hate each other.

My criteria is positive images of gay partnerships and here, in ascending order, are my faves:

At # 4, a nod to the original French film, La Cage Aux Folles, which was adapted by screenwriter Jean Poiret from his own stage play. The lead couple are still very much in the gay comic stereotype mode (it was 1978, after all), as dapper and fastidious club owner, Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) labors valiantly to keep his flighty, flamboyant drag queen partner, Albin (Michel Serrault), more or less tethered to terra firma.

What was groundbreaking was the depiction of this couple in a long-term domestic relationship not only based unabashedly on love, but in which they had also raised a child together. Quelle horreur! And yet, (amazingly, perhaps, to the general public of the day), the young man has not only suffered no ill effects from this arrangement with the unorthodox parental units he loves, he's planning to marry a woman.

Waltzing in at #3 is My Best friend's Wedding. It's 20 years after La Cage; still, Rupert Everett's partner does not have a speaking part in the movie. He's never even seen, except in the background at dinner parties with friends from which Everett is constantly being called away to the phone to deal with best pal Julia Roberts' neurotic crises. But a clever arrangement of photographs shows the partners and their loved ones in a variety of perfectly ordinary domestic scenes and family events.

And why, exactly, is Roberts heaping all of her problems at his feet? Not simply because he's the best-looking man in the movie (fat lot of good it does her), or clearly the best dancer, but because Everett's character is stable, sensible, and way more experienced in domesticity. He, unlike Roberts, knows what's involved in a committed, long-term relationship, and is the voice of reason throughout, even as she tries to wreck other lives to get her own romantic way.

Antonio Banderas has more screen time as the lover/partner of Tom Hanks' terminal AIDS patient hero in my #2 pick, Philadelphia. True, their physical relationship is mostly kept offscreen, except for a romantic slow dance together at a costume party. But his character is a presence throughout this 1993 film, not only as lover and loyal caregiver, but also a source on incipient, highly relatable domestic friction when the stress occasionally becomes too much.

In the accepting world of Philadelphia, both Hanks and Banderas are beloved by Hanks' large extended family of cousins, nieces, nephews, and siblings, beginning with his indomitable mother, played by the great Joanne Woodward. This love-feast of tolerance may seem a trifle idealized, but it's all in keeping with director Jonathan Demme's subversive agenda of presenting gay couples and their families as, you know, just like everybody else.

 And finally, my vote for the best domestic partnerships in the movies (to date) goes to The Kids Are Alright. The sublime Annette Bening and Julianne Moore star as a devoted, long-married couple raising their two kids in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Their family has its quirks, but the kids respect their parents, each other, and themselves.

That this movie is NOT about the fact that they are a lesbian couple is just one of the things that make Lisa Cholodenko's comedy so fresh, fun, and appealing; you could substitute a straight, hetero couple into the plot and the story would play out exactly the same way. It's not a "lesbian comedy," it's a family comedy that resonates with everyone.

I was trying to go for a Top Five list, but these are the only qualifying examples I could think of. I'm sure I'm forgetting something obvious, or maybe there are other contenders out there in movies I haven't seen. If you have any suggestions, let me know, and I'll post an update.

Friday, August 2, 2013


Hugh Jackman pops out the adamantium claws once again in The Wolverine, a punchy action adventure that successfully revitalizes our favorite X-mutant as franchise material (after the debacle of X-Men Origins: Wolverine).

It works because director James Mangold and scriptwriters Mark Bomback and Scott Frank stick close to the tormented psyche of Jackman's brooding Logan as he copes with everlasting life and unsettling dream appearances by deceased lover Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), while coming to terms with his responsibility to the world. Stunts and CGI effects, while often impressive, are secondary to the human story.

The setting is modern-day Japan, where Logan has been summoned to the deathbed of a powerful tycoon whose life he once saved. (This follows a prologue set in a Nagasaki POW camp at the end of WWII, a pretty nifty sequence except for an unusually benign atomic bomb which takes its time wafting over the hills toward the camp instead of incinerating everything in sight on contact.)

Anyway. Before long, Logan is in the middle of a war between Yakuza mobsters, Ninja assassins, and the evil schemes of a sexy mutant called Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova).

His slowly simmering romance with the tycoon's granddaughter, Mariko (Tao Okamoto), falls a bit flat, if only because we keep rooting for him to hook up with plucky, pink-haired warrior girl Yukio (Rila Fukushima) instead.

But the fact that time is spared for Logan to develop a romance with anybody is a plus in a summer action blockbuster. On the other hand, Jackman is such a personable and charismatic guy, onscreen and off (yes, even as Wolverine), it's too bad they don't give him better dialogue throughout—especially when delivering a coup-de-grace to some villain. ("Go f**k yourself, pretty boy," lacks a little something in flair; it's not exactly in the same league as, say, "Make my day.")
Still the action is fairly inventive, from a fight atop a speeding bullet train to self-inflicted open heart surgery. The central premise of whether Logan would give up his immortality as Wolverine for a "normal" life and the promise of eventual death—and if so, on what terms—is compelling, and Jackman still has presence enough to make us care.


Fred Arsenault and Gretchen Hall
Laughter and love reign in gorgeous SSC 'Taming of the Shrew'

Shakespeare Santa Cruz launches its 2013 season with a crowd-pleasing, often uproarious production of The Taming of the Shrew. The company has a newly rebuilt and reconfigured performance space to show off in the Sinsheimer/Stanley Festival Glen (although to the lay viewer, nothing appears to be radically altered), and they inaugurate it in style with this visually gorgeous production.

Lively incidental music and B. Modern's lavish costumes evoke the Renaissance, while the action flows gracefully across Michael Ganio's formidable, multi-tiered set, and all around the Glen. It's a splendid setting for one of Shakespeare's brightest, yet most misunderstood romantic comedies.

Director Edward Morgan wisely keeps the emphasis on laughter (literally; every character has his own distinctive chuckle), so that the lusty romantic coupling at the play's core sneaks up on the audience by stealth, then explodes in all its heartfelt complexity.
Hortensio (William Ellsman) woos Bianca (Victoria Nassif)

Things get going with the arrival of fussbudgety Hortensio (the hilarious William Elsman) and elderly Gremio (an irascibly funny Kit Wilder), two wealthy suitors to pretty young Bianca (Victoria Nassif). But her doting father, Baptista (the wonderful V Craig Heidenreich, who always manages to coax four or five insinuating syllables out of his daughter's name), has decreed that Bianca cannot wed until her elder sister, Katherine (Gretchen Hall) finds a husband.

Katherine, underappreciated by a father who clearly prefers her sister, and too smart to suffer fools gladly or curb her sarcasm, is ill-tempered most of the time, and the dynamic Hall shows us every atom of her frustration.

But Bianca's suitors collude with Petruchio (Fred Arsenault, suitably robust and witty), a rough-hewn, outspoken knight from Verona, to woo Katharine.

The play is often considered problematic, chiefly by those who interpret the words "taming" and "shrew" too literally. Kate is profoundly unhappy in her home life and unable to escape it by any other means than marriage. Petruchio is an eccentric drawn to an unconventional spirit equal to his own. He's not trying to break her spirit, nor demanding Kate's blind obedience to a capricious master; rather, he is asking her to trust him in maneuvering around social conventions to create an extraordinary life together.
In an effective production like this one, Kate's final speech resonates because we understand the complicity between the two of them—to rise up together above the mundane conventions of their society and live on their own terms. Their partnership is not a "taming," it's a liberation—for both of them. We get that here when Arsenault's jaunty Petruchio reacts to Kate's speech not with a victor's smugness, but with astonished awe. His Kate has outwitted them all, and we see in their final embrace the birth of a genuine love match that warms the audience all the way home. (Read more)