Saturday, November 22, 2008

Frank Sinatra - On the Radio: The Lucky Strike "Lite-Up Time" Shows 1949-1950 CD Review

Written by General Jabbo

The end of the 1940s was a tumultuous time for Frank Sinatra. Waning in popularity, he worked more than ever to keep his name out there. From nightclub appearances to recording sessions to movie making (Sinatra made two films in 1949 alone) to radio shows, he was overworked to the point that by 1950, he suffered a throat hemorrhage. From September 1949 until June 1950, he was the featured performer on the Lucky Strike-sponsored Lite-Up Time, a 15-minute show that aired every evening on NBC radio. It is these shows that are featured on the new Frank Sinatra CD, On the Radio: The Lucky Strike ‘Lite-Up Time’ Shows.

The CD is among the first for U.K. reissue label Acrobat Music’s new U.S. division and is lovingly restored, with a nice slipcase and extensive liner notes detailing the history of the sessions and debunking the mystery of as many recording dates as possible. The music is the important thing though and the CD delivers. With remastered sound, the vocals are warm and the orchestra vibrant, like you were in the room with Sinatra. It’s hard to believe these recordings are over 50 years old.

And what of the music? With Jeff Alexander conducting the orchestra and chorus (time constraints made it difficult for regular Sinatra arranger Axel Stordahl to commit to the show), the band and Sinatra sound in top form, in spite of rumors at the time that his voice was losing it. The shows featured two songs from Sinatra, a solo spot for regular guest Dorothy Kirsten, and a duet between the two. Since this is a Sinatra album, none of Kirsten’s solo spots are included, however an excellent duet on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening” is part of the CD.

Sinatra’s smooth baritone shines on “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and “All of Me” swings as only he could. On the Gershwin classic, “I’ve Got a Crush On You,” he chuckles at the “big and brave and handsome Romeo” line, but it is a far cry from the sarcastic rendering in the 1966 Sands show in the Vegas box set. This is pre-Rat Pack, pre-Chairman of the Board period Sinatra here, and while his restraint might be due to the nature of the live radio broadcast, it also showcases this great performer at a different stage of his career.

“Body and Soul,” from one of the 1950 shows and not long before Sinatra’s throat hemorrhage, features renowned trumpet and coronet player Bobby Hackett who colors the song with some tasteful licks. Sinatra’s voice shows no signs of the strain it was under.

Completists may lament the fact that this collection is not complete, but with many songs performed more than once, On the Radio presents a nice overview of this radio show and reveals that even at a low point in his career, Frank Sinatra was the consummate professional and his voice never left him.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Who - At Kilburn 1977 DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

When it comes to live performances, few rock bands match the intensity of The Who, especially in their original incarnation. That edge is in full force in the two shows contained in The Who - At Kilburn 1977 DVD.

The Who originally filmed the Kilburn show for inclusion in the documentary The Kids Are Alright, but decided the footage was too rough and instead recreated the show at Shepperton Studios in London the following year (though “My Wife” from the Kilburn show appears on The Kids Are Alright soundtrack). Looking back, it’s a shame the band felt that way, as Kilburn captures a raw, but fierce intensity. The band had not played live in over a year, and rehearsals weren’t going well with the rapidly deteriorating Keith Moon. In fact, Kilburn was the next-to-last gig Moon performed with The Who, as he died less than a year after the filming. In spite of this, Moon still plays with most of his usual abandon. Pete Townshend lets all his frustrations out in the show, looking like a crazed man with his windmills and jumping. He genuinely seems threatening up there. In the height of the punk era, this was rock at its most dangerous.

Opening with “I Can’t Explain,” the band slams through 15 songs in the hour-plus set with songs ranging from their biggest hits (“My Generation,” “Substitute” and “Pinball Wizard") to more obscure tracks such as “Dreaming from the Waist” from The Who By Numbers (not from The Who Sell Out as the enclosed booklet mistakenly says) and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp.” The show includes the famous sequence of Roger Daltrey in the laser lights during “Won’t Get Fooled Again” that was recreated in the Shepperton show, but the true highlight is the first-ever performance (and sole performance with Moon) of “Who Are You.” As the album of the same name was not yet out, this version differs from the studio release and has a looser feel to it.

Visually, the Kilburn show is stunning as it was shot on 35mm film with six cameras, giving it a quality seldom seen in concert films, especially from that era. The film is presented in Dolby Digital stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Digital Surround.

If all this wasn’t enough, At Kilburn 1977 also includes the first-ever recorded performance of Tommy from the London Coliseum in 1969. It’s only when you compare the two shows that you realize how bad of shape Moon was in. While 1977 Moon was great, the 1969 Moon was superhuman, especially on cuts such as “Young Man Blues.”

The Coliseum show was not lit to be filmed, and thus the show is dark and grainy. Some of the video has dropouts, but its historical significance can’t be underestimated. This is Live at Leeds-era Who at their finest.

The only negative of this bonus disc is that it is presented with only the best video footage in the actual show. For instance, some of the mini-opera “A Quick One While He’s Away” is cut from the main show, as the video footage is not that good. The same goes for some of the Tommy songs. The songs are presented in their entirety as bonus features. One would think if they were to be included that they’d just put the entire show in sequence. Also, when Moon speaks, he is often subtitled on the screen. Granted, the audio is low and his accent was thick, but you can understand him.

Still, these beefs are minor and don’t take away from the powerful music contained on these DVDs. If you are wondering why The Who are considered one of the greatest live bands of all time, At Kilburn 1977 will show you many reasons.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tropic Thunder - Unrated Director's Cut DVD Review

Written by General Jabbo

The idea of a movie about actors whose life ends up imitating their art is not new — Three Amigos comes to mind as one of the more famous ones. Tropic Thunder is the latest in such a line of films and it delivers on all levels.

The movie tells the story of a group of actors filming a Vietnam War movie based on the book Tropic Thunder, written by war hero Four Leaf Tayback (Nick Nolte). The actors include Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller), a washed-up action-movie star; Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), an Oscar-winning actor whose character studies go so deep he underwent skin pigmentation to play the African-American Sgt. Osiris in the movie inside the movie; Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the overweight, heroin-addled star of The Fatties movie franchise where, in an obvious nod to Eddie Murphy, he plays all the characters; Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson), a multimedia star of movies and music who spends much of his time promoting his Booty Sweat drink and Bust-A Nut candy bars; and Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel), a young actor who idolizes the others, especially Lazarus, and is the only one of the group to have actually gone to boot camp.

Speedman’s career is in rapid decline at this point, after the giant failure of his movie, Simple Jack, in which he plays the mentally retarded title character in such an over-the-top manner that Lazarus tells him he went “full retard,” and that you should never do that as you’ll walk away empty-handed on Oscar night. Speedman’s agent, Rick Peck (Matthew McConaughey) is distraught over his client’s career and the fact that he has sunken so low he doesn’t even have TiVo on location. The TiVo reference is one of many in-jokes about product placement made in the movie that pokes fun at the entire Hollywood system.

Meanwhile, while on location, director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) gets a message via satellite from studio head, Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) who is furious that the movie is a month behind schedule just five days into the shooting. When Cockburn tries to shift the blame on the prima donna actors, Grossman instructs a man in the room to punch him in the mouth. Soon after, Cockburn meets with Tayback who tells him that to get anything out of these actors, he has to drop them into a real war zone so they know real fear and film them using hidden cameras. Cockburn loves the idea and proceeds to do just that, giving the actors only a map and a scene listing to go by in the jungle. Almost immediately after dropping them off however, Cockburn steps on an old landmine and explodes. Speedman believes it to be a special-effects trick, even scooping blood out of the bottom of his severed head. Lazarus realizes they have been duped though and that they are now in the middle of a real war zone, even if Speedman doesn’t believe him.

From there, we watch as the actors try to make their way out of the jungle, running into the Flaming Dragon heroin outfit along the way. Flaming Dragon believes the actors to be DEA agents and tries to take them out. Along the way, we learn that Alpa Chino resents Lazarus staying in character the whole time, as he is not actually black. We also learn that Portnoy has been hiding heroin in candy wrappers so the other actors are not aware of his addiction.

When Flaming Dragon captures Speedman, they recognize him as the actor from Simple Jack, a movie they love, as it is the only entertainment they have there. They make Speedman perform the movie live and phone Peck with ransom demands for his release. Grossman gets on the phone, says he doesn’t negotiate with terrorists and hangs up, fully prepared to let Speedman die. He tries to convince Peck this is in his best interests too, promising him a large sum of money and a jet if he complies.

Ridiculous? Sure. But Tropic Thunder succeeds in poking fun at virtually every element of Hollywood from prima donna actors, to materialistic agents, to ruthless studio heads. The film is one giant in-joke, but if you get the joke, it’s well worth watching.

The DVD comes with a number of bonus features: filmmaker and cast commentaries (with Downey in character the entire time), deleted and extended scenes, an alternate ending, documentaries and more. The bonus features are often as entertaining as the movie and make this a must-own DVD.