The Press Defies the State

PPThough serving what is largely a symbol of pretentiousness, the Pulitzer Prize juries boldly defied the American government and awarded the highest prizes to those who reported facts disclosed by an American who worked for the government, defied the government, fled the country, heroically spoke against total government control and was deemed a traitor by the state.

The Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize today for a series of stories that exposed the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs. An award also went to a team associated with the British-based Guardian newspaper, which also reported extensively about the NSA’s secret programs. The Guardian’s NSA articles are also based on classified documents leaked by Edward Snowden, the former government employee and contractor who fled to exile in Russia.

In a statement about the awards, the Jeff Bezos-owned Post‘s executive editor, Martin Baron, said today that the NSA reporting exposed a national policy “with profound implications for American citizens’ constitutional rights” and that “[d]isclosing the massive expansion of the NSA’s surveillance network absolutely was a public service…In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy. All of this was done in secret, without public debate, and with clear weaknesses in oversight.”

But, as far as what barely remains of a free press is concerned, the best part of what Baron said is that, without reporting on Snowden’s disclosures:

  We never would have known how far this country had shifted away from the rights of the individual in favor of state power.”

Today’s press is bullied, pressured and dominated by the state, and permeated by faith in either the dogma of statism or traditionalism, as evidenced by most of media including MSNBC and Fox News, a fact reflected by the worst part of what Baron’s statement says: “… As even the president has acknowledged, this is a conversation we need to have.”

The free press is not based on need and does not exist to have a conversation, though a conversation may be fostered and may occur, whether a conversation is acknowledged by the leader of the executive branch in a republic based on individual rights. By using the language of the Obama administration, which controls the government that has a monopoly on the use of force and has seized unprecedented power through unconstitutional means, the Post‘s editor undercut the truth of what he said – that individual rights are paramount. The press exists to express, report and speak in free exercise, but at least the editor identified, named and defended individual rights, he said it out loud, and he said it in defiance of a government that exhibits contempt for the rights of the individual, aims to destroy the nation based on this sacred ideal and seeks total power over every aspect of the individual’s life, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness.

The nation’s capital newspaper editor defied the nation’s government in explicit support of “the rights of the individual.” This fact, and the free exercise of press independence, is pure progress.

Music Review: Hotel Sessions by Olivia Newton-John

hotel+sessionsAn extended play recording of seven unreleased demo tracks by legendary artist Olivia Newton-John is on sale (for a steep price, too, at $20) exclusively at Olivia’s new residency venue in Las Vegas, The Flamingo. The set goes on sale soon on her Web site and iTunes.

The new songs – titled Hotel Sessions because the music was recorded between 2002 and 2011 at various hotels in Olivia’s hometown, Melbourne, Australia – come in conjunction with her new Las Vegas show “Summer Nights” opening this week (read my exclusive review here).

Produced by Olivia’s nephew, Brett Goldsmith (except where otherwise noted), who wrote or co-wrote three of the songs and whose iPhone photos provide CD cover art, Hotel Sessions is a fresh, mature and surprisingly polished series of techno-pop demo cuts. The opening song, “Ordinary Life”, is a simple guitar looping, driving anthem. The buoyant “Best of My Love” is an instantly enjoyable ode to someone who is hard to love and there’s a dance remix included as a bonus. “End in Peace”, co-written by Olivia Newton-John, is a ghostly prayer for better days which faintly recalls “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia” in melody and vocals, “Bow River” rocks and pops with ONJ torching it against backup vocals, piano and synthesizer and Olivia’s cover version of Mister Mister’s 1980s’ hit “Broken Wings” is, in Olivia’s care, less strained and slightly faster. I never liked the original much and I like her rendition here fine but the dance remix of the cover, which with piano added and ONJ high notes and bass enhanced is more urgent, is even better.

The independent ONJ Productions EP, which is being released after the death of Olivia’s sister, is thoughtfully “Dedicated to our sister & mother Rona Newton-John”.

Review: Summer Nights by Olivia Newton-John at The Flamingo Las Vegas

ONJSNFLVOlivia Newton-John’s first Las Vegas residency, inside the Donny & Marie Showroom at Caesar Entertainment’s Flamingo Hotel and Casino, is an intimate, poignant show she calls “Summer Nights”. The 20-plus song production premiered this week. I’ve met and written about Olivia over the years at various stages of her extraordinary career and, in Vegas for a conference, I wanted to see her new show before the grand opening.

The iconic star emerged looking and sounding fabulous. Stepping out in black and white, framed by the venue’s familiar pink, her understated stage presence is as relaxed, seasoned and elegant as the themes of her earliest hit records. After decades of recording, filming and touring, Olivia is a masterful artist, who, like Doris Day, never really gets the serious credit she deserves. With a refreshing emphasis on music, Olivia sang her most popular and audience-friendly songs and a few cover tunes. Her 45-date engagement runs through August.

In perfect tune on every song from “Physical” to “Have You Never Been Mellow”, Olivia clearly takes care of herself. Her voice, which still expresses her unique blend of struggle, strength and sweetness, achieves clarity in every song and clarity defines her superior vocal style. She moves with ease in simple, playful choreography that wisely lets the spotlight stay centered on the 65-year-old pop star. The skilled eight-piece band and spot-on backup singers play against a black and white stage design, which complements ONJ’s pronounced style. She kept banter light and humorous.

Xanadu soundtrack songs include the hits “Magic” and “Suddenly” and the show features luminous images from the 1980 picture, from movie publicity stills to clips of her film character, Kira, dancing with co-star Gene Kelly. “Summer Nights” includes themed segments for Grease (1978) songs (“We Go Together”, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee (reprise)”, “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “Summer Nights” and “You’re the One That I Want”) and a medley of Olivia’s early country recordings and hits, including “Country Roads”, “If You Love Me Let Me Know”, “Please Mr. Please” and “Let Me Be There”. The show’s title number, the boy-girl, tell-me-more ensemble duet from Grease, is a crowd pleaser. When the audience added its own pathetic attempt at the heavy sigh that was originally John Travolta‘s oh at the climax of the story in song, Olivia hilariously broke character and turned to the audience in mock horror, a brief moment of self-awareness which made the finale all the more satisfying for everyone in the room. “Summer Nights” employs a jovial, even raucous, sense of life. It’s hard not to have a blast when she’s singing about “good, Kentucky whiskey”, getting animal and places where nobody dared to go.

Though this longtime fan missed hearing Olivia perform songs from Two of a Kind, Back with a Heart, Soul Kiss, Grace and Gratitude and The Rumour, the show is a musical journey from “I Honestly Love You” (1974) to ONJ’s Brazilian-influenced Gaia anthem “Not Gonna Give Into It” (1994) and more, so it is understandable why certain songs didn’t make the final set list. Whatever one’s favorite moment or song from the remarkable career of Olivia Newton-John, some of the most powerful performances in “Summer Nights” are her covers of “Cry Me a River”, “Over the Rainbow” and the stirring rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s layered “Send in the Clowns” from the 1973 musical A Little Night Music. The mystery of what moves us in music is of course enormously complicated, so each member of the audience will be touched in some unique way by Olivia’s incredible range in theme, technique and life experience. But you will never think of Olivia as a mere pleasant voice or source for fun pop diversion from the past again. Here, she delivers a rewarding sample of why she is the best.

The impeccable performance – expect stark staging, not glitz ala Cher or Celine Dion – stems from ONJ’s status as a true pop music diva who has earned every dollar; she was an opening act for Charlie Rich at the Las Vegas Hilton in the summer of 1974, worked with Don Rickles, Eddie Rabbit and other Vegas acts, so Olivia knows the boulevard’s demands and strikes the proper tone for a show that combines glamor and ability. Her 40th year return to performing in Las Vegas, this time in headline residency, is a triumph.

The fact that Olivia recently lost her sister, Rona, to cancer, makes the charitable part of this production especially meaningful. In 1992, Olivia was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her personal thriving led her to create a partnership with the Austin Health and the creation of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre (ONJCWC) in her hometown of Melbourne, Australia. Olivia donates a portion of the $68-$249 ticket price to the ONJCWC, which provides comprehensive services for cancer treatment, education, training and research as well as a dedicated wellness center.

Who:: Olivia Newton-John

What: Summer Nights

Where: The Flamingo Las Vegas

When: April through August

How Much: $68 to $249

New Music Interview: Henry Jackman

HJCATWSRead the new interview I recently conducted with Captain America: The Winter Soldier composer Henry Jackman on The New Romanticist. In this exclusive interview about America’s top movie, a Marvel Studios picture which exceeded expectations to earn $96 million in the opening weekend, Jackman talks about the meaning of music for film, whether he sees man as heroic and whom between Captain America and Captain Phillips, another title character from the last film he scored, he would prefer to have as a dinner guest.

This is one of my most free-wheeling interviews – we went into overtime – and, besides The King’s Speech composer Alexandre Desplat and Grammy-winning songwriter Melissa Manchester, who co-wrote a song for The Weinstein Company’s Dirty Girl with Mary Steenburgen, it offers a closer examination of the creative process of telling stories through motion pictures. I hope readers enjoy the new interview as much as I did.

Speaking of music, I am still enjoying what I listen to on CD and iTunes, from James Blunt, Stevie Nicks and Elton John to Avicii, and newly remastered or released recordings by the great conductor Arturo Toscanini. I am also working on an exclusive new series of interviews with one of my favorite artists, Melissa Manchester, who is making a new, crowdfunded album (her 20th!) of the great American songbook with new tunes she wrote and appearances by classic jazz and pop artists. I’ve been privileged to attend recording sessions for the new work and I am excited. This week, I am planning to attend a preview of a new, live show, Summer Nights, by another favorite artist, Olivia Newton-John, at her residency at the Donny and Marie Showroom in the Flamingo Las Vegas. Olivia also has a new record, which I plan to review. New music from legendary artists and for enjoyable movies (and my writing teacher Leonard Peikoff just announced an amateur jazz performance at OCON in Las Vegas this summer) should make for more good tunes throughout the year.

Mickey Rooney

MickeyRooney (courtesy Getty Images)From the Andy Hardy movies to his appearance as a security guard in Night at the Museum (2006), Mickey Rooney, for all of his wives, antics and flamboyance, was an actor who was capable of creating memorable characters in strong performances. I think I first noticed him during a TV showing of his movie Captains Courageous (1937) with Spencer Tracy, an excellent and powerful film to this day. I was always moved by his volcanic performance as Whitey in Boys Town (1938), also with Tracy as a Catholic priest, in the climactic scene when hero-worshipping Pee-Wee is downed. Rooney as Whitey makes the tragic scene feel like a sock to the stomach.

Whether he was playing iconic title roles in Young Tom Edison or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and later as an old horse trainer in The Black Stallion (1979), and even in those silly Andy Hardy pictures with Judy Garland, he was always a jaunty or pugnacious screen presence. He had an energy that was quintessentially American. The obituaries describe Mickey Rooney, who was 93 years old when he died this weekend, as America’s boy next door. But really he was more than that. He used his voice to perfection in several animated or stop motion Christmas movies for TV. He used his foulest language in new types of villainous roles in pictures such as The Domino Principle (1977). He became something of a regular guest like the late David Brenner or writer Truman Capote (whose novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was adapted for the film in which Rooney played a racial caricature that does not age well) on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He played on Broadway in Sugar Babies and on TV as a mentally retarded man in Bill. Rooney could play opposite Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and Judy Garland on her own TV show. The Brooklyn native had a rare, remarkable career.

Whatever his real personality and pitfalls, Mickey Rooney had talent and he was committed to a career of singing, dancing and acting, crafting roles that inspired generations of plucky – or sneaky – boys and cantankerous if wise old men. As an archetype, he embodied the spirit of a scrappy American youth, stealing away with a runaway slave down the Mississippi River or telling Father Flanagan off, getting naughty with Johnny Carson or nasty with Gene Hackman, or creaking with wisdom for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or a boy who wants to ride a stallion to victory. Shirley Temple Black was recently lost, too, and she was another child star who indelibly marked an American cultural standard that disappeared long ago. Mickey Rooney’s death marks the end of a line that traces back to Hollywood’s Golden Age.