Saturday, March 9, 2013

Oz: The Great and Powerful

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) was the first film I can remember watching all the way through. The second film I can remember watching all the way through was The Wizard of Oz (1939).  In those days it was shown every year on network television. In those days when VCRs were uncommon and DVRs were science fiction, the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz was one of the television events of the year. I rather suspect that few films were as heavily viewed as it was every year. Even though I saw The Wizard of Oz every year of my childhood and I would see it many more times as an adult, it remains one of my favourite films of all time. Indeed, it is perhaps my favourite musical and, except for It's a Wonderful Life, my favourite fantasy film.

It is because of this that I both looked forward to and dreaded Oz: The Great and Powerful. As a prequel to one of the most beloved films of my childhood, I worried that it could prove unworthy of not only its predecessor, but of the classic books by L. Frank Baum upon which both films are based. It is an unfortunate fact of life that prequels, sequels, and remakes of classic films made many years after those films often tend to be very, very bad. It was quite possible that Oz: The Great and Powerful could have been a travesty along the lines of the TV miniseries Scarlett or the 1998 remake of Psycho. What gave me hope was the fact that it was directed by Sam Raimi, a director whose work I have admired since the Evil Dead movies, and that the trailers did look rather impressive. Fortunately, any fears I had were not justified. While Oz: The Great and Powerful is not a film of the same calibre as The Wizard of Oz (let's face it, only a very few films are), it is a worthy prequel to that classic film.

Not only is Oz: The Great and Powerful  a worthy prequel to The Wizard of Oz, but it resembles the original film a great deal.  The film's beginning set in Kansas is even shot in black and white, just as the beginning of The Wizard of Oz was. Of course, here I must point out that the reason both films portray Kansas in black and white is the simple fact that in the original novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum describes Kansas as "grey (no less than seven times, in fact)." Oz: The Great and Powerful goes even further than simply giving us a monochrome Kansas in duplicating the look of the original film. From the Emerald City to the uniforms of the Winkie Guard, the Land of Oz in Oz: The Great and Powerful looks much like the Land of Oz in The Wizard of Oz.

Not surprisingly, then, the visuals are one of the film's strongest points. While the Oz of Oz: The Great and Powerful resembles the Oz of The Wizard of Oz, it is a much more detailed Oz. It is a land of mountains, woods, lush valleys, and even the even lusher Deadly Poppy Field. The special effects in the film are impressive even in these days when we have become so accustomed to computer generated imagery. The tornado that sweeps stage magician Oscar Diggs off to the Land of Oz is an incredible piece of work, as impressive today as the tornado of The Wizard of Oz probably was in 1939. If anything the Flying Monkeys are even more terrifying than they were in the original film. Perhaps the most impressive piece of special effects is to be seen in the character of the China Girl (voiced by Joey King). The China Girl is not a girl from the nation of China, but instead a girl made of china (the ceramic material often used for dishes and tea cups to this day). She both looks and moves very realistically, to the point that it is hard to believe that she is simply the product of CGI.

Of course, the character of the China Girl in the film points to the fact that Oz: The Great and Powerful not only draws upon The Wizard of Oz (1939) for inspiration, but L. Frank Baum's books as well. Those of you who have read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz may remember the China Country, where everyone and everything is made of china.. Oz: the Great and Powerful not only includes the China Country, but other bits and pieces from the books that did not appear in the original film.  We not only get to see the Munchkins and Winkies from the original film, but the Quadlings as well. Tinker, the master inventor (who is referenced in L. Frank Baum's original books but never actually appeared in them) even appears. Screenwriters
Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire clearly did their research.

While Oz: The Great and Powerful is visually stunning and draws upon L. Frank Baum's original books as well as the 1939 film, those things alone would not keep it from being a bad film. Fortunately, Oz: The Great and Powerful benefits from a strong screenplay and some truly good performances. Messrs. Kapnger and Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay is deliberately paced, avoiding the trap into which so many modern films fall of not talking time to develop either their characters or their milieu. What is more it is written in such a way that both children and adults can equally enjoy the film. Perhaps my only complaint with the screenplay is some of the dialogue. While the dialogue is intelligent and realistic, there is some of it that strikes me as a bit too modern for the era. While the phrase "take five" most certainly came about in the early 20th Century, I don't think it was as early as 1905. This is a minor complaint for me, however, and it didn't really detract from my enjoyment of the movie.

As to the performances in the film, James Franco as Oscar Diggs is not only the star of the film, but gives the very best performance in it as well. Before Oz: The Great and Powerful was even released, I had thought that James Franco vaguely resembled a yong Frank Morgan (who played Oz in The Wizard of Oz). Through his performance he convinced me that this was indeed the same man as the Wizard of the 1939 movie. James Franco plays Oscar Diggs as I could actually believed he was when he was younger--a man who is not only a humbug, but also a bit of a con man and even a bit of a lothario. It is a performance touched with both comedy and seriousness, and it easily makes the movie. The other actors also deliver solid performances. Michelle Williams is quite convincing as Glinda the Good Witch, her performance consistent with that of Billie Burke in the 1939 film. Joey King and Zach Braff did great voice work as the China Girl and Finley the Winged Monkey respectively. Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis both do quite well as the witches  Evanora and Theodora respectively.

Over all Oz: The Great and Powerful is a very entertaining film that can be enjoyed even if one has not seen The Wizard of Oz (1939) or read L. Frank Baum's books. It is also a fitting companion piece to the 1939 film that actually does justice both to it and the works of L. Frank Baum. I can easily see watching the two films back to back once it comes out on DVD. If you loved the original movie, love L. Frank Baum's "Oz" books, or simply enjoy well done films that owe more to the Golden Age of Hollywood than modern day special effects spectaculars, then Oz: the Great and Powerful may be for you.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Alivn Lee of Ten Years After Passes On

Alvin Lee, lead vocalist and guitarist of Ten Years After, died on 6 March 2013 at the age of 68. He died from "...unforeseen complications following a routine surgical procedure" according to his web site. 

Alvin Lee was born in Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England on 19 December 1944. He started playing guitar when he was 13 years old. Two years later he started playing music with bassist Leo Lyons. In 1960 they formed a band that would eventually be known as The Jaybirds. In 1966 the band moved to London and changed their name to "Jaybird." The band then went through another name change to" Blues Trip, Blues Yard" and finally, in November 1966, "Ten Years After." The band signed with Deram, a subsidiary of Decca, and released their first, eponymous album in October 1967. 

Ten Years After's second album was the live album Undead, released in 1968. Another studio album, Stonedhenge, followed in 1969. Not only did the album do well in the United Kingdom, but it produced the single "Hear Me Calling," which was later covered by Slade. On 17 August 1969 Ten Years After appeared at Woodstock. Their fourth album, Ssssh, was released the same month. Ten Years After's fifth album, Cricklewood Green, was released in April 1970. It would produce their only hit single in the United Kingdom, "Love Like a Man," which went to #10 on the UK singles chart. 

It was in 1971 that Ten Years After signed with Columbia Records. Their first album for the label, A Space in Time, was released in August of that year. It broke with previous albums in being more commercial and less bluesy, as well as having a less heavy sound. The album produced their only song to hit the Billboard Hot 100, "I'd Love to Change the World," which peaked at #40 in 1971. The albums Rock & Roll Music to the World, released in 1972, and Positive Vibrations, released in 1974, were also more commercial than their earlier albums. Alvin Lee preferred the bluesy sound of their earlier records to the more commercial sound that Columbia Records liked, and as a result he left the band in 1974. As a result Ten Years After disbanded.

Throughout the late Seventies Alvin Lee released seven solo albums. His output slowed a bit in the Eighties, following the release of RX5 in 1981.  He released the solo album Detroit Diesel in 1986. In 1989 he reunited with Ten Years Later for one last album, About Time. The band would record two more albums without Mr. Lee.  From 1992 to 2012 Alvin Lee released five more solo albums, the last of which was Still on the Road to Freedom, released last year.

Alvin Lee was both a remarkable songwriter and a remarkable guitarist. "I'm Going Home," "Love Like a Man," "I'd Love to Change the World," and "Hear Me Calling" remain classics in the genre of rock. As a guitarist Alvin Lee was simply incredible. He could go from playing lead guitar to rhythm guitars in mere seconds and with seemingly no effort at all. Indeed, Alvin Lee could play exceedingly fast and exceedingly well. Few guitarists could change chords faster than he could, to the point that it is a wonder he is not better known. In truth, Alvin Lee should be ranked among the greatest of guitarists, alongside Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bobby Rogers of The Miracles R.I.P.

Bobby Rogers, best known as one of Motown group The Miracles, died on 3 March 2013 at the age of 73.  The cause was complications from diabetes.

Bobby Rogers was born  19 February 1940 in Detroit, Michigan. He started singing while still very young. Eventually he and future Miracle Pete Moore sang together. It was in 1955 that Smokey Robinson and Pete Moore formed The Four Chimes. It would not be long before Bobby Rogers joined the group. The Four Chimes would eventually become The Matadors and later still The Miracles. The Miracles auditioned for Brunswick Records in 1957. Brunswick Records rejected the group, although one person present at the audition thought that The Miracles had potential--songwriter Berry Gordy. Berry Gordy agreed to work with the group and as a result their first single, "Got a Job," was produced by him and released in 1958 on End Records. It was in 1959 that Berry Gordy formed his own label, Tamla Records. Their next single, "Bad Girl," would be their next hit. It was released in the Detroit area on Mr. Gordy's Motown label, but distributed nationally by Chess Records. The song went to #93 on Billboard's Hot 100, marking the first time The Miracles did so.

The Miracles' next single would be the first to be released on Berry Gordy's Tamla label, as would all of their subsequent releases. "Way Over There" also cracked Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at #94. The third time would prove to be the charm for The Miracles. Their third single was a collaboration between Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy. It not only reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart, but it also went to #2 on the Hot 100. In the end it became the first million selling record for the Motown Record Corporation. The Miracles' next several singles would not do nearly as well, cracking only the top forty of the Hot 100 and sometimes not even that. It was with "You Really Got a Hold on Me," however, that the group had their next smash hit. The song went to #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard R&B chart.

Thereafter The Miracles would regularly hit the Hot 100 for the rest of the Sixties. For the next few years they would have such hits as "I Gotta Dance to Keep From Crying," "I Like It Like That," and "Ooo Baby Baby." "The Tracks of My Tears" would not only prove to be a hit in the United States, but would also be their first hit in the United Kingdom, going to #9 on the British singles chart. The Miracles (and after 1966 as Smokey Robinson and The Miracles) would continue to have hits for the rest of the Sixties, including "My Girl Has Gone," "Going to a Go-Go," "I Second That Emotion," "If You Can Want," "Baby, Baby Don't Cry," and "The Tears of a Clown." Even though "Tears of a Clown" went to #1 in both the United States and the United Kingdom, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles would have only one more big hit. "I Don't Blame You At All" hit #18 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #11 on the British singles chart.

After Smokey Robinson left The Miracles in 1972 the group continued.  They would have a few more hits, including "Do It Baby (which went to #13 on the Hot 100 in 1974) and "Love Machine (which went to #1 on the Hot 100 in 1975). In 1977 The Miracles left Motown and signed with Columbia Records. Sadly, they would have no more hit records. The group disbanded in 1978, although in 1980 Ronnie White and Bobby Rogers formed "The New Miracles" as a touring group. Ronnie White retired in 1983, and so The New Miracles disbanded. In 1993 The Miracles reformed again and continued to perform sporadically until Bobby Rogers was forced to retire in 2011 due to declining health.

Bobby Rogers not only provided a smooth tenor voice for The Miracles, but he was also one of Motown's major songwriters. For The Miracles he wrote "That's What Love Is Made Of" and "Going to a Go-Go." For The Temptations he wrote "The Way You Do the Things You Do" and "My Baby." For The Contours he wrote "First I Look at the Purse." Over the years he wrote some of Motown's best known song. Bobby Rogers was then not only important as one of The Miracles, but also a songwriter as well.