Saturday, April 1, 2006

33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee

In February 1968 NBC cancelled The Monkees. The series, well into its second season, had never done particularly well in the ratings, even though the band themselves had seen incredible musical success. Well aware of The Monkees' continued popularity, NBC then struck a deal with the group to do three television specials to air in 1969. In the end, only one such special would air, the legendary (or perhaps "notorious" would be a better word) 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.

33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was the first Monkees television project produced without creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. In fact, beyond The Monkees themselves, only executive producer Ward Sylvester remained on the special from the show's production staff. The special's creator and producer was Jack Good, the man who produced the British pop show Oh, Boy! and the American pop show Shindig. It was directed by Art Fisher, who would go onto direct The Andy Williams Show and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. Together they concocted a bizarre script in which a mad wizard (played by Brian Auger of The Trinity) seeks to brainwash The Monkees into becoming the greatest rock band of all time, who will in turn brainwash the world. The special featured Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll (who would go onto sing the theme song to Absolutely Fabulous) and their group The Trinity promiently and included appearances by some of rock music's greats--Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and so on.

From the beginning 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee appears to have been doomed. A musicians' strike at NBC occurred just as the special was going into production. As a result they had to abandon complex sets built for the special and move the production to MGM studios. There many aspects of the special had to be improvised. This would perhaps would not have been so bad if the script for 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee had been better. The Monkees themselves were none too happy with Jack Good and Art Fisher's work. They considered the script to be both "sloppy" and "fairy tale like." Davy Jones himself complained that it focused too much on the special's guest stars and not enough on The Monkees themselves.

Indeed, this is one of the greatest weaknesses of 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Individually, Brian Auger and Julie Driscoll receive more dialouge and possibly even more screen time than the group themselves. In fact, the special seems to me more like it starred The Trinity with special guests The Monkees. In my humble opinion, the concept behind 33 1/3 Revolutons Per Monkee is sound. Like their movie Head, it seeks to desconstruct The Monkees phenomenon, while at the same time making a commentary on the manipulation of both artists and audience by the media. Unfortunately, I feel that The Monkees were right. The script for 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee was sloppy. I must admit that beyond the basic concept for the special, I had trouble understanding what was taking place at any given time. Why does Darwin (also played by Brian Auger) appear and why does he take The Monkees though various stages of evolution? Why is there a guy in a gorilla suit sitting in a forklift and wearing head phones? I sometimes get the feeling that Good and Fisher were at times being strange for the sake of being strange.

Because of the, well, sloppiness of the script, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee is very uneven in quality. As might be expected, the musical performances are good for the most part. A highlight is a medley (typical of those Good had used in both Oh, Boy! and Shindig) of Fifties rock 'n' roll featuring The Monkees and various legendary performers, as well as the climax featuring Michael Nesmith's "Listen to the Band." Peter Tork gives a solid performance of Michael Murphy's "I Prithee (Do Not Ask for Love)," which The Monkees had previously recorded in 1966 with Micky on lead vocals (although that version wouldn't be released until the Nineties), while Nesmith's "Naked Persimmon" is simply a great song. If 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee had been filled back to back with such performances, it might well have overcome the weakness of its script. Sadly, this was not the case. The Monkees' performances of "Wind Up Man" and Neil Sedaka's "I Go Ape" both leave me cold. Even worse is a long, psychedelic, interpretative dance sequence that I can only describe as, well, boring.

It seems that The Monkees were not the only ones who had misgivings about 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. NBC executives thought that the special was much too strange and much too subversive. They elected to to place it against the Academy Awards on April 14, 1969. I can only assume that they did so in hopes that no one would see it. Indeed, 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee would not see the light of day in the United States again until Rhino released it on VHS in 1997. Sadly, after seeing the special, NBC decided to do no more Monkees specials.

33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee can then be seen as a turning point in The Monkees' career. It marked the end of any chance The Monkees had for regular appearances on television, their TV show having been cancelled and NBC vetoing any more specials. Peter Tork having announced he was leaving the band shortly before the special aired, this would also be the last time during The Monkees' initial run that the four original members would perform together. "Listen to the Band" would be the last song they would perform as a quartet for 16 years.

Unless one is an extremely huge fan of The Monkees (as I am), I cannot recommend 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Fortunately, it is available on The Monkees Season Two DVD set, so that one can see the special for himself or herself while at the same time getting something that is actually worth the money (namely, the second season of The Monkees). While I love many of the musical performances on the special, I can't say I really like the special itself.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Build Me Up, Buttercup

Today finds me in not a particularly good mood. We had more storms last night (a typical spring in Missouri, I suppose...). I am tired. And I just generally feel blue. Given that, I don't really feel like making a long blog entry. I thought then that it might be time for another song.

Along with "Baby, Now That I've Found You," "Build Me Up, Buttercup" was one of the few hits that The Foundations had in the United States. The Foundations were a British soul band with members from London, Jamaica, Trinidad, and the West Indies. They had a fairly short career (it only lasted from about 1967 to 1971) and only had a few hits on both sides of the Atlantic. "Build Me Uo, Buttercup" was their lasting contribution to music history. The song went to #2 on the Billboard singles charts in 1968. Today most people probably remember it from the music video which appears in the closing credits of the movie There's Something About Mary. The movie's success actually resulted in the song once more hitting the Billboard singles chart, peaking at #71. Anyhow, without further adieu, here's the song:

"Build Me Up, Buttercup" by The Foundations

Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Harry Potter Movies

Warning: Here there be spoilers....

J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series could well be the most successful series of books in publishing history. I must admit that I am among the millions who have come under their spell. Of course, as with any successful series of books, there were the inevitable film adaptations. And, as might be expected, like most film adaptations they have sometimes met with mixed reactions from fans of the books.

Indeed, as usually happens with film adaptations, there have sometimes been significant changes in the movies from the books. The most obvious of these have been omissions of various characters, subplots, incidents, and so on from the novels. Even in the earliest of the films, which tended to be much more loyal to the novels than the later ones, there were sometimes things in the novels that simply do not appear in the films. While they appear in the book Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (that's what it's called here in America--the original British title of both the film and the book is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone), Peeves, Professor Binns, and Pansy Parkinson do not appear in the film (a scene with Peeves was filmed, but has not yet been released). In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Nearly Headless Nick's deathday party is ommitted entirely.

Of course, as the series has progressed the novels have grown in length. Because their sheer length prevent every single thing in the later books from being included in the movies, much more from those novels have been omitted. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban much of the backstory was even omitted. We are never told that James Potter (Harry's father) was an animagus (a mage capable of changing into an animal). The explanations behind Moony, Padfoot, Prongs, and Wormtail are not included in the film. As to other omissions, they are really too many to include all of them here. Neither Oliver Wood nor Cho Chang appear in the movie. The Quidditch House Cup game is omitted. The movie version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire omitted even more material from the book. The House Elves do not appear in the movie and hence neither does the entire subplot involving Hermione's organisation (consisting entirely of, well, herself) The Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare (S.P.E.W.). The Dursleys do not appear in the film at all, so that the movie begins with Harry already at the Burrow (the home of his friend Ron Weasley and his family). The fact that Karkaroff, headmaster of the Durmstrang school of magic, is a Death Eater is excluded from the film. As a result, he is never shown fleeing Hogwarts once Voldemort has returned.

As often happens in film adaptations of books, not only are things omitted from the books, but often things are changed as well. Even in the first movie, which was more loyal for the most part than most of the films, changes were made. For instance, Harry does not find out that Voldemort killed his parents until after he buys his wand. Just as there are more omissions in the later films, there are also more changes from the books. In the film version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the sexual tension between Ron and Hermione is much more obvious than it was in the book. Indeed, at one point Ron and Hermione unintentionally hold hands! In the book Harry receives his Firebolt broom as a gift from Sirius Black at Yule. In the movie it appears at the very end of the film. The following film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, saw many alterations as well. In the book, when Harry discovers Barty Crouch Sr. (by then quite mad), he is walking in the forrest with Viktor Krum. In the movie, he is walking with Ron, Hermione, and Hagrid. Similarly, although it is made clear in the book, it is never said in the movie that Crouch had been placed under the Imperius Curse (one of the Unforgivable Curses in the Harry Potter mythos, whereby the caster has complete control of the victim's mind).

Naturally, these omissions and changes have caused some controversy among Harry Potter fans. There are purists who want as much from the books included as possible, and there are perhaps even more fans who do not want to see anything changed from the books. My own thought on the omissions is that they are a necessary evil. Particularly with the later books, it would be impossible to include everything without the movie approaching six hours or more in length. For that reason the filmmakers must omit some subplots, characters, and so on. As to changes from the book, I suspect the filmmakers are probably altering things so that they simply play better on film. Let's face it, books and movies are different media. What works very well in a book may not work very well in a movie. While I do have some objections to some of the changes made from the books, I cannot say that I have any objection to alterations from the books in general.

As to the films themselves, I must say that I have enjoyed all of them. Indeed, I think that they have gotten better with each succeeding one. And while they do tend to stray from the letter of the books moreso than the earlier films, I do think that the later movies are more loyal to the spirit of the novels. Both Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are much darker movies than the first two. And Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is definitely the most English of films. Much of the British slang found in the book even made its way to the movie! While I love all the films (just as I love all of the books), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is my favourite movie of the series.

Of course, much of the reason I love the films is that they have cast the movies very, very well. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson are perfect as Harry, Ron, and Hermione. And there could not have been a better Dumbledore than the late, great Richard Harris. Even the secondary characters, such as Professors McGonagall (played by Maggie Smith) and Snape (played by Alan Rickman) were cast perfectly.

The film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is due to be released next year. It will be interesting to see how loyal it is to the book and to see if it is even better than the first four movies. Regardless, given how much I love both the Harry Potter books and movies, I will definitely go see it.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Hail Richard Fleischer! Richard Fleischer's Beard (well, ever if he wore one, anyway)!

Yesterday one of my favourite directors passed on. Richard Fleischer died yesterday of natural causes at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. He was 89 years old.

Fleischer was born in Brooklyn on December 8, 1916, the son of legendary animator Max Fleischer. Together his father and his uncle, Dave Fleischer, were responsible for bringing such characters as Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman to the silver screen. Among other things, they invented the technique known as rotoscoping. Despite having two of the greatest animators of all time as his father and his uncle, Richard Fleischer's career would be in live action movies. After studying drama at Yale, Fleischer got a job at with RKO-Pathé's New York newsreel division. There he directed shorts, documentaries, and compilations of silent films known as Flicker Flashbacks. He won his only Oscar in 1948 for Best Documentary Feature, Design for Death, alongside fellow producers Sid Rogell and Theron Warth.

Fleischer broke into feature films in 1946 with the B drama Child of Divorce. For the next several years he directed various programmers, many of them crime dramas that stuck close to the film noir genre: Bodyguard, The Clay Pigeon, Armoured Car Robber, and so on. The Narrow Margin from 1952, in which a witness must be protected from the mob while travelling on a train, is now considered by many to be a classic.

Ironically, it would be his father's archrival who would give Fleischer his first big break. In 1954 he directed Disney's adaptation of the classic 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. Regarded by many as among the best adventure films Disney produced in the Fifties, it is arguably Fleischer's masterpiece. Not only was he provided with a stellar cast (Kirk Douglas, Peter Lorre, and, as Nemo, James Mason), but he also had a superb script. Fleischer's direction was better than it ever had been or would be again. As might be expected, Fleischer was a bit puzzled as to why Disney hired him, given who his family was. Fleischer asked Disney if he knew who he was and Disney simply replied that he did and that he had hired him because he was the best man for the job!

Having directed his first major motion picture, Fleischer's career was at its peak in the Fifties. He directed The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing and Between Heaven and Hell before helming his second most famous movie, The Vikings. While hardly a classic in the sense that 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea is, The Vikings is arguably one of the best popcorn movies of the Fifites. Forget the fact that there are some glaring inaccuracies with regards to Viking and Anglo-Saxon culture. Forget that Tony Curtis is hardly convincing as a Viking. The Vikings is simply a fun movie, and much of that is because of Fleischer's direction. If he hadn't established it with 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, with The Vikings proved Fleischer had a gift for action movies.

From the Sixties into the Eighties, Fleischer directed a variety of movies. They ranged from science fiction (The Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green) to real life crime dramas (The Boston Strangler and Compulsion) to Biblical epics (Barrabas) to war movies (the American sequences in Tora! Tora! Tora!). He worked into the Eighties ,far longer than some of his more famous contemporaries. Fleischer did direct his share of clunkers (Dr. Doolittle, Mandigo, and The Jazz Singer among them). At the same time, however, he directed many films that are today considered classics, or at least very good films: 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, The Vikings, Compulsion, Barrabas, Tora! Tora! Tora!, Mr. Majestyk, and so on.

Fleischer also wrote a biography his father Max's career, Out of the Inkwell: Max Fleischer and the Animation Revolution. Until his death he was the chairman of Fleischer Studios Inc., which handles the licensing of Betty Boop and KoKo the Clown (both characters created by Max and Dave Fleischer).

Given the variety of films that Fleischer directed, there are many who do not consider him to be an auteur. Indeed, he has often been described as a "journeyman director" and his films as "workman-like." I think this is a bit unfair. Indeed, looking at Fleischer's career, it seems to me that one can make out two dominant themes. First, Fleischer was the consummate action director. And given the number of action movies he directed, he apparently liked the genre. He seemed to have a gift for action sequences that many directors lacked. Indeed, many of the action sequences in 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, The Vikings, and Mr. Majestyk are among the greatest such sequences in film history. He also seemed to have a talent for directing true life crime dramas, among them The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing (based on the murder of architect Stanford White), Compulsion (based on the Leopold/Loeb case), and The Boston Strangler among others. He was also not afraid to tackle controversial subjects, addressing both homosexuality and the death penalty in Compulsion, addressing interracial relations in Mandingo, and euthanasia (among other things...)in Soylent Green.

While there are those who tend to think of Richard Fleischer's films as workmanlike and don't consider him an auteur, I think he was one of the best directors of his generation. He produced more classics and more movies that are simply, well, good than many of his more respected contemporaries. Indeed, if his style varied from film to film, perhaps he wanted the director (himself) to suit the film and not the film to suit the director. Obviously, one cannot approach a murder melodrama like The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing in the same way one can approach an adventure movie like The Vikings. It is hard to say whether his reputation will improve in the coming years, but I can say that he will always be one of my favourite directors.