Saturday, January 20, 2007

Denny Doherty Passes On

Denny Doherty, singer, songwriter, and a member of the Sixties vocal group the Mamas and the Papas died yesterday at the age of 66. He had recently undergone surgery for a a stomach aneurysm, following which he suffered kidney failure.

Doherty was born on November 29, 1940 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He began his recording career as the co-founder of a folk group called The Colonials, who changed their name to the Halifax Three after they were signed to Columbia Records. The group broke up in 1963 after meeting with little success. It was that same year that he became friends with Cass Elliot and met John and Michelle Phillips. For the next few years Doherty would be a part of groups that included either Cass Elliot or John Phillips. Finally, in 1965, Doherty became a part of the group initially called The Magic Circle, but which would be re-named the Mamas and the Papas after they were signed to Dunhill Records.

The Mamas and the Papas were a hit from the very beginning. Their first single, "California Dreamin'," reached number 4 on the American Billboard singles charts in late 1965. Their second single, "Monday, Monday," hit #3 on the singles charts. The group was among a number of American artists who blended folk music with rock and pop (other examples being Simon and Garfunkel and The Byrds). And while John Phillips was the group's primary songwriter, it was Denny Doherty who was the group's lead male vocalist on most songs. From 1965 to 1968 the Mamas and the Papas would have a string of hits, many of which hit the top twenty on the singles charts. Unfortunately, while the Mamas and the Papas would see considerable more success than the previous groups to which Doherty belonged, it would not last any longer. Tensions within the group would lead to its breakup in the summer of 1968. The group reunited in 1971 for the album People Like Us (recorded to meet a contractual obligation to Dunhill Records) failed badly on the charts.

For the rest of the Seventies Doherty released two solo albums. He also starred in the Broadway play Man in the Moon, written by John Phillips and produced by Andy Warhol. It only lasted five weeks in 1974. In 1999 he created an autobiographical play, Dream a Little Dream: the Nearly True Story of the Mamas and the Papas, which debuted in Halifax. In 2003 he took it to New York, where it played off Broadway.

In the Eighties Doherty teamed with John Phillips, Phillips' daughter Mackenzie (from a marriage previous to Michelle--she played on the TV series One Day at a Time in the Seventies), and Elaine "Spanky" McFarlane (of Sixties group Spanky and Our Gang) to form a new version of the Mamas and the Papas.

Doherty also had a bit of an acting career. In 1984 he played in the Canadian TV show Windows. As an actor he was perhaps best known for his role as the Harbour Master in the CBC children's show Theodore Tugboat.

Sadly, only one member of the original Mamas and Papas remains alive (Michelle Phllips, on whom I still have a big crush). Cass Elliot died in 1974 and John Phillips in 2001, both from heart failure. If Elliot's death ended any hope of a reunion of the original members of the group, then Phillips and Doherty's deaths certainly do. I remember the Mamas and the Papas from my early childhood. Indeed, along with various Beatles and Monkees songs, "California Dreamin'" is among the earliest songs I can remember. And I have little doubt that Doherty's soaring vocals was a key ingredient to the group's success. He was a gifted singer whose voice complimented the voice of Cass Elliot perfectly. Although he is not often credited as such, Doherty is then an important part of the history of pop music in the Sixties.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Art Buchwald R. I. P.

Art Buchwald, columnist, political satirist, and novelist, died yesterday at the age of 81 from kidney failure. Buchwald had refused dialysis that might have kept him alive longer and lived another year. In typical Art Buchwald fashion, it was Art Buchwald who announced his own death. In a video on posted the New York Times web site, he announced, "Hi, I'm Art Buchwald and I just died."

Art Buchwald was born on October 20, 1925 in Mount Vernon, New York. His father, Joseph Buchwald, manufactured curtains. He grew in Queens and left home at the age of seventeen. He enlisted in the Marines in 1942, bribing a drunk to sign as his legal guardian as he was too young. He served as part of the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing in the Pacific Theatre.

Following World War II, Buchwald enrolled at the University of Southern California, where he wrote for the college newspaper, the Daily Trojan, and edited the campus magazine, Wampus. Following graduation he went to Paris, eventually becoming a correspondent there for Variety. In 1948 he submitted a sample column focused on the nightlife in Paris to the New York Herald Tribune. The newspaper hired him and the column became Paris After Dark. Immensely popular, Buchwald started writing another column, Mostly About People. The two columns were eventually combined and syndicated across the United States as Europe's Lighter Side.

In 1962 Buchwald returned to the United States. Back in America Buchwald began writing his column for the Washington Post, which continued until a few weeks ago. There Buchwald lampooned the powers that be in Washington. Like his previous columns, this one met with success and would eventually be syndicated to over 500 newspapers.

Buchwald was also the author of over 30 books. He wrote both nonfiction and fiction, his books always laced with his trademark humour. Among the books he wrote were I'll Always Have Paris (about his experiences there), the novel A Gift From the Boys, and Leaving Home, a memoir about his early life. Buchwald even chronicled his last days in the book Too Soon to Say Goodbye. He also wrote the Broadway play Sheep on the Runway in 1970. Buchwald also sued Paramount over the Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America, sensing too much of a resemblance to his idea "King for a Day." Buchwald also wrote the screenplay for the 1960 Yul Brynner film Surprise Package and provided additional dialogue for the 1967 movie Play Time.

Art Buchwald spent his final year writing his twice weekly column and receiving visits from friends. Buchwald even attended book parties for Too Soon to Say Goodbye.

I can't help but be saddened by Art Buchwald's passing. He was, quite simply, one of the funniest Americans born in the Twentieth Century. He could possibly have been that century's greatest satirist. Indeed, Buchwald had the marvelous ability to send up important political issues and mock those with overblown egos without ever being partisan. It is little wonder that Buchwald was friends with such varied individuals as Humphrey Bogart, Stanley, Donen, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Carly Simon, and Theodor Giesel (better known as Dr. Seuss). With his sense of humor and zest for life he always seemed to me to be a very likable guy. Indeed, it is not surprising in the least to me that Art Buchwald faced his death the way he did, continuing to write and visiting with friends, all the while enjoying food from McDonalds. Art Buchwald was always so alive that he need not mourn his own eventual passing. Indeed, he was so always so alive that it is still hard to believe that he is gone.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Golden Globe Awards 2007

Having volunteered to work Martin Luther King Day, I missed the Golden Globes last night. But from everything I have read, it appears that once more it was a mixed bag. Of course, keep in mind that I have never taken the Golden Globes series seriously (see last year's entry for more details...)

Not having seen most of the nominees for Best Picture--Drama and Best Picture--Comedy or Musical, I can't say that I have any strong feelings about who won and who lost. Indeed, I wasn't surprised that Dreamgirls took the award for Best Picture--Comedy or Musical, considering the hype that has surrounded the movie. I have yet to see Dreamgirls, but I still have to wonder if Thank You For Smoking wouldn't have been more worthy of the award. I am glad that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HPFA) finally created a category for Best Animated Feature Film, and I have no objections to Cars having won the award (I have yet to see Monster House, although I understand it is quite good).

While I haven't any strong feelings about the motion picture awards, I do have some about the television awards. I have to ask the HFPA in what twisted world is Grey's Anatomy a better show than Lost, House (which wasn't even nominated for Best Television Series--Drama), or 24? I've said it before and I'll say it again--Grey's Anatomy is simply a standard medical drama with a greater quotient of sex. And while I have yet to watch Ugly Betty, which won Best Television Series--Comedy, I have to wonder if it really is better than Entourage, The Office, or My Name is Earl (which wasn't even nominated), the three best comedies on TV today?

Given the fact that I have never taken the Golden Globe Awards too seriously, I shouldn't complain so much about them. But the sad fact is that they do have an impact on both the Oscars and the Emmys. I just hope that this year that effect is minimal...

Monday, January 15, 2007

The Illusionist

Last year saw the release of two major motion pictures centred around stage magicians, The Prestige and The Illusionist. And while comparisons were perhaps inevitable, they are very different films. While The Prestige is a multi-layered, nearly epic film taking place over many years, at its heart The Illusionist is an old fashioned love story and mystery.

Set in Vienna around the turn of the 19th century, The Illusionist centres upon Eisenheim the Illusionist, a stage magician who fell in love with the Duchess Sophie von Teschen. After travelling the world and honing his skills as a stage magician, Eisenheim returns to Vienna where he and Sophie rekindle their relationship. Unfortunately, Sophie is engaged to the brutal and corrupt Crown Prince Leopold.

Within this setup, The Illusionist tells a tale that is both complex and satisfying. Based on a short story by Steven Millhauser, the screenplay unfolds like a good book, taking its time to allow both the plot and the characters to develop. Making the movie more convincing is a good cast. Edward Norton is convincing as Eisenheim, an illusionist whose dispassionate exterior hides the heart of a romantic, as is Paul Giamatti, whose Chief Inspector Uhl finds his ambitions in conflict with his honesty. Jessica Biel, best known for the show Seventh Heaven, proves to be a pleasant surprise. Finally she is able to show some talent in a role with some depth.

The Illusionist is a beautiful film to watch. Its cinematography is reminiscent of both old photographs and the early motion pictures of the 20th century. This gives the movie a moody, but at the same time soft atmosphere perfectly in keeping with fine de siecle Vienna. If there is one flaw with The Illusionist it is that some of the illusions may well have been impossible at the time. While I had no problem suspending my disbelief, others might not be able to.

In the end, it is hard to believe that this is only director Neil Burger's second film. He has made a better film than some more experienced directors. Ultimately, The Illusionist is quite simply an accomplished movie that succeeds in both entertaining and intriguing the viewer.