MacPsych at the movies: La La Land

I think I went to see La La Land at just the right time. Let’s face it: the first few weeks of 2017 have been pretty miserable from an international perspective and the news shows haven’t held back in delivering a steady stream of doom, gloom and bigotry on a nightly basis.

I also need to preface my review of the movie with an admission that I’m a massive fan of musicals. Always have been. My favourites are probably the classics staring Gene Kelly, whose voice and footwork still give me footsteps. There’s something about people singing and dancing on film that lightens my mood and gets my feet tapping.

Infectiously light-hearted and optimistic.

And that’s La La Land in a nutshell. It reflects and pays tribute to so many musicals, I lost count. There are the ‘dream sequences’ we came to know and love in Gene Kelly’s American in Paris, and the skirt-swinging, stamping attitude of West Side Story.

I was, quite simply, in heaven for the entire film.

But if you’re not a fan of musicals, you’ll probably be more critical and won’t enjoy the (apparently) random songs and dances. You’ll spot the slight ropiness of some of the singing and some of the (slight) mis-steps.

And that’s precisely what I loved about it. In a world where over-produced music is flavour of the month, to see two people skip through a song was a welcome change. The soundtrack has been bouncing around in my head ever since and I think it’ll become one of my most favourite Spotify albums.

The whole experience was a welcome palate-cleanser, helping me forget the shit-show the world has become in the last six month, just for a couple of hours. I haven’t lost my mind completely. I don’t think it’s worth 14 Oscars, it’s just a well-made, fun and light production.

There are better musicals. There are far better soundtracks. And there are definitely better singers! But the combination of song, dance, enthusiasm and timing got me where it counts. If you’re a hopeless romantic like me, sit back and prepare to smile.

A happy Spotify discovery

Have I told you lately how much I love Spotify?

This afternoon, my ‘Release Radar’ playlist was on in the background, when a live track came on and I thought to myself “I recognise that voice…”. I gave it a few more seconds, but couldn’t place it exactly. I picked up my iPhone to check the track and turns out it was the Tony Bennett 90th birthday concert.

Score one: I didn’t know they’d recorded an album of the concert! It was quickly added to my Spotify library.

Score two: the track in question was actually Kevin Spacey. Yes, That Kevin Spacey. And what a voice he has. I’ve embedded the track in question below – it’s a medley of ‘The Very Thought of You’ and ‘If I ruled the World’.

Score three: the album isn’t half bad! It includes tracks from K.D. Lang and Diana Krall, as well as some excellent renditions from Mr. Bennett himself. I’m so glad he’s getting the appreciation he deserves while he’s still with us. His back catalogue is superb and I’m happy to say I’ve seen him live here in London.

Though the concert was cut short by an electrical fire. in the Albert Hall of all places!

Still, 30 minutes of Tony Bennett live is better than no minutes of Tony Bennett live. Right?

This is cheering me up!

Tough couple of days, what with one thing and another. In fact, a few things. But I’ve just spent an hour listening to Gregory Porter and I’m feeling a lot better about life in general.

Music, eh? Cures all ills…

Gregory Porter’s new album, Take Me to the Alley is out now and is just lovely. This is one talented man.

And now, back to some more feel good tunes.

Well, that was random.

ESC_1

Last night’s Eurovision really was a change from the norm. On three counts, in fact.

For a start Sweden did a magnificent job of hosting a complex and demanding live TV show, not once but three times in a single week. Two semi-finals and a grand final. Additionally, each night was staged differently, with the hosts doing a fantastic job each time. Not just reading a script like robots, but ad-libbing, singing and dancing.

Secondly, the quality of acts has definitely improved over the years. We might not all agree (ha!) over who should have won, but I think we can agree that the show was slick and entertaining, which is a lightyears from how it all was in the early 90s, for example. Some of these songs have done very well in national charts over the last few months and the music is a lot more in touch with what the average person likes. I emphasise some. 

Thirdly – and I’m taking a sip of coffee here, to gather my thoughts – the voting was… different. For the first time, the jury votes were delivered before the tele-voting from the general public. And if it showed one thing, it’s that the juries are so out of the touch with he average Eurovision voter. How else could Poland go from bottom of the heap to 8th overall after tele-voting results were added?

(You can see how all the countries voted via this very detailed and complex table).

I’m all on favour of this new voting system as it just adds to the tension at the end of the show. Yes, Australia looked like the runaway favourite for so long, but was then overtaken by Ukraine when the there was still a chance for Russia to steal it. Those last few minutes were so very tense, like the bomb-disposal scene in a Hollywood blockbuster.

And given the very real conflicts between Ukraine and Russia over recent years, it was especially tense.

I think the Ukraine song, while not one of my favourites, resonated with voters. They also liked the Russian song, but at the same time I think everyone felt conflicted about awarding the contest to Russia again. Despite the EBU’s protestations that the Eurovision isn’t political. The Eurovision sure as hell is.

So after some fantastic songs and an almost flawless presentation of acts, voting and results, Sweden are the real winners here. They have raised the Eurovision bar and I feel quite sorry for the Ukraine who have a lot to live up to. Petra Mede deserves several awards for keeping things light and just the right side of sarcastic, while Måns Zelmerlöw demonstrated he can sing while moving around on a hoverboard.

My one outstanding question about the whole evening is why anyone thought it would be a good idea to have Justin Timberlake perform as part of the interval act? His ad-libbing in the green room with contestants was nothing short of cringe-inducing and his performance was painting by numbers. His whole attitude was “I don’t know why I’m here and I really don’t care”.

Call me old-fashioned, but a bit more about all that fantastic Swedish pop music that was glossed over so quickly would have been a much better time-killer until the voting.

Sure, I was very sorry to see Spain do so badly and to see Australia pipped at the post in the end, but it was a hugely enjoyable contest all the same.

So well done Sweden and here’s to next year in Ukraine – international crises and border wars permitting, of course.

And in case you missed it all (what were you doing with your Saturday night if you were’t watching Eurovision?!), here’s the winning song. Brace yourself, it’s far from cheery.

Eurovision 2016: Australia

You may very well wonder how and why Australia is competing in the Eurovision Song Contest. I stopped querying participation some time ago, to be honest. Apparently, the Eurovision knows no borders (though it does know outstanding membership fees, much to Romania’s embarrassment).

But they’re here now and so we better get used to it, as they seem to be taking it seriously.

Last year’s entry was great and did very well – back when we all thought it was a temporary thing, in honour of the Eurovision’s 60th anniversary. Maybe they even got a few ‘friendly’ or even ‘charity’ points. But they’re back. And they’re aiming to win, judging by the calibre of this year’s entry.

We need to take this threat seriously.

Dani Im is superb and the song is a perfect fit for her. She’s already won Australian X-Factor, could the Eurovision be next on her list? It’s a song that stands on its own merits – no need for costumes or gimmicks. And for that alone, I hope it does really well on the night.

I have to wonder: if Australia win, where will the contest be held in 2017? We need to start thinking about this…the Eurovision is just weeks away!

RIP Prince

As if the list of talented people who’ve died so far in 2016 couldn’t get any longer, Prince was taken from us earlier this week. One of the most talented and creative musicians of the last few decades is gone, but he leaves an amazing catalogue of music.

I’m not exaggerating here.

He had a massive influence on me. Before I ‘found’ jazz, I was actually listening to it (and funk and pop and pure, unadulterated swagger) every time I played a Prince album. I discovered him secondhand, via a friend’s older sister. I remember the first time I saw the cover of the ‘Parade’ album (on a cassette! If you don’t know what that is, go ask your parents) and how I couldn’t believe all that music – and that voice – came out of that head.

I’ll admit his gender-challenging image was a little unsettling for the young me. But I began to love it. He showed us all how you can be a man in very different ways. And how you can be a short man and still kick serious ass.

(This was important to young, short me.)

I picked up more Prince tapes whoever money allowed. I learned the songs by heart. I could pick out any Prince track within seconds and spotted his signature flourishes on guitar, keyboard and horns. I deconstructed the songs, as only a music nerd can. I untied the complex layers of music he weaved to make his hits and began to understand there was life beyond most of the frankly crap music that was filling the airwaves.

Music aside, the thing I loved about him was that he just appeared not to give a flying fuck what anyone thought of him. He was all about creating his music, giving performances that blew the audience’s minds and swinging his hips in one outrageous outfit after another.

And then? And then…I saw him live in concert in Dublin. It was 1992 (I think!), at the RDS and my mind was – essentially – blown. The energy coming off him and his band was overpowering. They gave it everything. Non-stop. I saw people around me get a little disinterested when the band deviated into some pretty hardcore instrumental improv, but I lapped it up. It was like a game for him. He seemed to push it and push it and the band just had to keep up.

I wished I’d seen him in concert again. But lucky for all of us, the albums kept coming. He was a one-man music factory and, while everything he released wasn’t an instant hit, it was an impressive body of work.

I spent most of last night and all day today, from my morning run to navigating London’s West End crowds, listening to a selection of my favourite Prince tracks.

Impossible to pick an absolute favourite album, as they’re all so very different. I replayed Parade quite a few times today, I’ll admit. But then there’s nothing like strutting through a crowd with ‘Sexy Motherfucker’ blasting in your ears. Today’s fave? ‘Girls & Boys’.

Ironic, no?

The video above is doing the rounds on social media and it’s superb. A tribute concert for George Harrison, it includes some great performances from the usual suspects. And then, out from the shadows steps Prince and it all steps up a notch. Or twelve. Stellar stuff, playing alongside some legends, but check out the looks on their faces when he lets rip.

And he made it all look so effortless. But behind that, you just know there was decades of hard work. And we all got to benefit from it. I read a quote today that Miles David (apparently) described Prince as ‘the possible Duke Ellington of our times’.

Yep.

I’ve also watched as TV news anchors asked squirming music journalists to compare Prince to David Bowie. I didn’t envy them. But it’s a pointless question. Like trying to compare water and air. Wine and cheese. Rome and Madrid. At least to me. Prince joins a pantheon of musical greats that have left an indelible impression on me. George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet Baker, Shirley Horn, Tom Jobim.

Thinking about the composers and performers we’ve lost definitely made me a little sad this week.

But then again, look at all the songs they left behind. And who they left behind. Let’s start really talent while it’s still around to be appreciated. And hope it’s a while before another genius is taken far too soon.

“Blues Brothers” at Universal Studios

As I said previously, we spend a day at Universal Studios Orlando during this month’s holiday. It was a fun, hot and expensive day. Universal sure know how you extract maximum expenditure from their visitors!

Anyway, aside from the various rides and exhibits, there were some live shows. I took some video of the frankly disturbing “SpongeBob SquarePants” review before quickly moving on. I don’t know how it doesn’t give kids nightmares. But I also stumbled across Universal’s own ‘Blues Brothers’ tribute act.

To be fair to them, the crowd wasn’t exactly enthusiastic – most people seemed to be obsessed with getting their hands on some green beer, this being St. Patrick’s day. I’ll moan about that another day…

And it was over 28C and sunny, so I can only imagine how hot they were jumping around in those suits. So it’s A for effort, if not for musical accuracy. Good fun, though. And Universal didn’t try to charge us even more to see them!

(Sorry for the shaky camera work – this was recorded on my iPhone 6s Plus and I was busy trying to avoid toddlers and slightly drunk parents, as well as various pensioners whizzing around in those electric scooters…)

Eurovision 2016: Finland

A combination of workload and business travel has kept me away from this blog for too long. This also means I’m way behind on my plans to share this year’s crop of Eurovision hopefuls as they are identified.

So, in no particular order, let’s move on to…Finland!

You’ll all remember (though probably with the aid of photos) how Finland last won the Eurovision. Through the spectacle that was Lordi. They’ve decided to move behind death metal and rubber masks, thankfully, and have chosen Sandhja to represent them instead.

I’ve listened to this a half-dozen times this evening and think it’s pretty good. It’s vaguely memorable and pretty upbeat – despite sounding very like another previous Eurovision entry that I can’t quite identify. Yet.

And there are times – in this performance at least – where the backing singers are a lot more impressive than Sandhja herself.

I think Finland stand a very good chance of getting into the final with this, but I’m not sure it’s a winner. As things stand, I predict it’ll lose out to both Ireland and Spain.

7/10