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Tom Petty, 1950-2017

With Blondie, David Bowie, the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Cars and various other American and British punk and New Wave recording artists, Tom Petty, who died last night in Santa Monica, revived rock and roll in the late 1970s with fresh, original and elementary songwriting and tunes.

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The 66-year-old Southern Californian, who was born and raised in Florida, dropped out of high school and met Elvis Presley on the Ocala, Florida, set of Follow That Dream, which inspired him to pursue a career in music. Petty, who’d been physically abused by his father, later said he’d decided to commit to becoming a rock and roll musician after watching the Beatles perform on live television. The early trajectory goes to why he’s being widely praised and mourned by music fans. I think part of what distinguishes Petty is that his songs and sensibility represent middle class American values. He brought both urgency and simplicity to rock’s essential roots. He did so with distinction.

I discovered Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with his breakthrough, bestselling 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes (pictured) with its powerful songs bursting with sharp guitar riffs and biting, straightforward lyrics expressed in Petty’s bluesy, emphatic vocals in “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers”. As the years and decades passed, from his cool, distant “You Got Lucky” and “The Waiting” to “Free Fallin’” and the Dave Stewart-tinged “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which Petty sings with the deep, slow and dead-on anger of someone who’s seeing things clearly for the first time, arcing up at the end for a fine, guitar-raging finish, and the simple yet insightful song he wrote with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, “Learning to Fly”, a Tom Petty single always expressed a mood, sense or thought with melody, structure and clarity. Even his duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks for her bestselling solo album Bella Donna, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” is distinctive in its first few notes. Whether on his own solo album, Wildflowers, or in his brief collaboration with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in their band the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty made his mark.

As far as I know, Petty stayed focused on making music in his own way and he never strayed, holding to the unpretentious, childlike spirit of trading his slingshot for a box of 45s, many of them Elvis Presley songs, when he was a kid. In his recent book Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes reportedly wrote that “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go. In time, the Beatles would be the map to get there.” Self-made Petty met, performed with and honored some of his own heroes, remaining active, touring and playing music he made, leaving behind a catalog of songs about life. I am one beneficiary of his having gone full speed ahead.

Devoted to Olivia

I was sorry to learn today that Olivia Newton-John is “reluctantly postponing her June U.S. and Canadian concert tour dates”, according to an authorized statement on her behalf, as the back pain the singer initially attributed to her sciatica “has turned out to be breast cancer that has metastasized to the sacrum.” Olivia pledged in the announcement to pursue natural wellness therapies, complete a short course of photon radiation therapy and is “confident she will be back [on tour] later in the year, better than ever…”

I decided on my direction of therapies after consultation with my doctors and natural therapists and the medical team at my Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia,” says Olivia Newton-John.

I have long admired her work as an actress, songwriter and singer—since the 1970s, when I first heard Olivia’s hit songs on AM radio during family road trips to Wisconsin and soon discovered Olivia’s albums in record stores. I had the pleasure to meet and interview Olivia at her home in Malibu and, years later, backstage at her shows at the Greek and in Las Vegas, where I attended a preview concert which was the basis for her Vegas show’s first review.

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I know firsthand that Olivia, whose 2008 duets album, A Celebration in Song, provides some of the best music for those with cancer, is a thriver, as she once told me. This outstanding artist is a leading champion for finding a cure for cancer and she does so with grit, grace and strength. As I wrote of her collection of inspirational songs on this blog in 2009, Olivia makes music “for anyone battling cancer or any of life’s difficulties.” From the opening anthem, “Right Here with You” to the last track, Belinda Emmett’s (1974-2006) “Beautiful Thing,” it’s one of her best. “Courageous” is the perfect tune for summoning one’s innermost abilities to thrive in life. I’m wishing courageous Olivia a speedy recovery and the best of everything with love.

Rescheduled concert dates will be posted on her official Web site “in the coming weeks”, according to the statement.

Related Links

Official Olivia Newton-John Web site

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre

Exclusive Concert Review: Olivia Newton-John in Las Vegas

Music Review: ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Music Review: ‘This Christmas’ by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

Exclusive Interview: Brett Goldsmith on ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Movie Review: One Hour With You (1932)

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Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald star with Genevieve Tobin as a temptress-best friend who’s double-crossing her gal pal to seduce the husband in Ernst Lubitsch’s witty One Hour With You. This is not as frivolous as it might appear.

With a deft, pre-Code sexual simplicity, terrific cast, rhyming dialogue, fourth wall breakdown and light, charming songs, it’s easy to see why One Hour With You demonstrates the Lubitsch touch. As with everything he did, Lubitsch adds a layer here and there to provide depth to the gay look, feel and music with real, complex attitudes about women, men, sex, friendship and marriage. Though George Cukor had already been asked by Paramount to direct, this movie became a pet project for Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, So This is Paris, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Heaven Can Wait (1943) To Be or Not to Be), who apparently bonded with Chevalier in his endeavor to re-cast the film for his own creative purposes.

The result, with Chevalier’s smiling, debonair doctor husband speaking and singing directly to the audience, is 80 minutes of one man’s account, perspective and philosophy of romantic love, which I saw at The Egyptian on Hollywood Boulevard in 35mm during the TCM Classic Film Festival. How One Hour With You begins—in France’s City of Lights, Paris, at a public park being policed for public displays of affection—is crucial as pretext for the surprisingly fabulous plot resolution. Doctor Andre (Chevalier) and his wife Colette (MacDonald) set the terms that wanting sex and being greedy to make love are utterly human and crucial for a healthy marriage. “What a Little Thing Like a Wedding Ring Can Do” is a standout tune for its easygoing wit and intelligence but all the songs are bright, cheerful and entertaining, even if at the root Mitzi’s (Tobin) seduction is both humorous (because it’s played as irony) and arresting (because it’s realistic).

So, it is not exactly that One Hour With You equivocates about infidelity (someone today is sure to call Chevalier’s smiling and singing “mansplaining”) or rationalizes its potential wreckage. This is a man of medicine who resists temptation, says “phooey” to the anti-sex police and knows a hussy when he sees one (and Tobin’s performance as the tramp is delivered with conviction). Andre loves Colette and all the songs, silk pajamas and Parisian airs, charms and sets only reinforce that he loves his work, life and sex, which only makes what happens perfectly understandable and, in a certain context, enjoyable. An hour can feel like a moment, One Hour With You demonstrates in melody, rhyme and lightness, and a moment’s yield to whim can lead to an hour’s agony. What to make of any given moment, and hour, is ultimately up to you.

Music Review: Divide by Ed Sheeran

For clear, powerful pop music, and I am an admitted fan of pop music, Ed Sheeran’s new album, Divide, adds, multiplies and satisfies. From the first listening to the most recent, its lyrics, melodies and ranging styles sound better and better.

Beginning with a lament about his early pop fame, “Eraser”, Sheeran sings about “friends and family filled with envy when they should be filled with pride.” Then, he croons what I regard as a songwriting masterpiece, “Castle on a Hill”. This propulsive tune contrasts various pauses, pleas, percussion and steady repetition of guitar playing with an easygoing but deceptively shrewd, wry and progressive observation about earning one’s wisdom. Sheeran spins it into an exultant if exhausted embrace of the facts of reality.

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In “Dive”, Ed Sheeran (who co-wrote the songs) delivers a polished paean to lovesickness with the right blend of vulnerability and affirmation. The lustful, sexually themed “Shape of You” applies an irresistible lyric to undulating rhythm in electronic soul. With a scratchy, old recording sound as prelude, his love song “Perfect” is truly perfect. With Sheeran’s clear vocals lavishing its rhyming lyrics with sincerity, with seriousness fueling the soul of his talent, as with the best of England’s new wave of soul singers—James Blunt, Adele, Sam Smith, all of whom are evoked in the brightest sense on this exceptional album—in a song you’d expect to hear on oldies radio. “Galway Girl” is a jaunty mix of hip hop and regional music that stands on its own. “Happier” is the most haunting heartbreak song since Blunt’s “Beautiful” or Adele’s “Hello”.

“New Man” offers another modern beat, with a nod to social media and digs at kale, overspending and plucked eyebrows. All of Sheeran’s 16 songs are meticulously created and recorded, with memorable, piano laden melodies. This is especially true of the lullaby “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and a few other favorites, including Sheeran’s ironic upbeat ode to his brand of self-made music “What Do I Know”. “How Would You Feel” is lovely, too.

Sheeran saves the best for the deluxe album’s last five songs, though “Castle on a Hill” remains sensational. How sad that it has to be considered refreshing to hear a man sing a simple proclamation of love for his mother in “Supermarket Flowers”. “Barcelona”, which neatly evokes a summer night along Las Ramblas in that Spanish city, and “Bibia Be Ye Ye”, tease and dare you to not want to dance. Ed Sheeran’s tribute to his parents’ love, “Nancy Mulligan”, toasts the best of one’s legacy in values. Finally, the reflective and prayerful “Save Myself” plays like young, successful and rich Ed Sheeran’s egoistic answer to his album Divide’s first song, “Eraser”—intentionally or not—promising with a solemn vow to remember that, before he loves someone else, he’s “got to love myself.”

Clarity, melody and sincerity unify the elements of Ed Sheeran’s intimate and triumphal Divide.

Movie Review: Po

Rational parenting of an autistic child is the topic of director John Asher’s Po, which is currently seeking a distribution deal. The movie, starring Julian Feder as the autistic boy known as Po, Christopher Gorham (Ugly Betty) as his widower father, and Kaitlin Doubleday (Rhonda on Fox’s Empire) as a teacher for autistic kids, gets better and stronger in the second half and it’s made more convincing and complete by the musical score. Colin Goldman wrote the script based on his story with Steve C. Roberts.

Po’s tale hinges on the lessons of widowed parenting. The autism comes into the picture prominently from the start, with young Po struggling at school, where he’s being both mainstreamed and bullied, not to mention overlooked by school officials. Though his Prius-driving, engineer father overcompensates, the mystery of Po is not just what’s driving the boy into his own world but what’s driving his dad’s fear and anxiety.

PoPoster2016With a demanding work project and his job on the line, government child welfare on his back, a wife lost to cancer (which isn’t immediately clear), a kid that colors in mustard on the walls and Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” as a sensory immersion, Po piles a lot on Dad’s plate. This is undoubtedly part of Po‘s point. Some of it drags, doesn’t add up—a ponytailed boss and a British accented character are badly cast—and takes too long or needs editing. But when Po faces the prospect of danger or life in a home for “special needs” kids, his plight and his father’s dilemma come into sharp focus.

The demands of an autistic child are also on full display, thanks to a fine performance by Feder, who is not autistic. Like The Boy Who Could Fly, Silent Fall, Radio Flyer and other remote boy-themed movies, such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Po gets into the child’s world and examines reality partly from his distorted or skewed perspective. By the time Doubleday’s blonde autism instructor shows up, it is clear that the father-son bond is taking a beating and the audience wants to know why. Po discovers a friend at school. Meanwhile, his dad discovers the prospect of a hybrid airplane. They spend quality time together with flight as a theme, building and flying model airplanes while the father worries about losing his job and his employer-provided health plan.

At a certain point, Po, who draws pictures of rocket ships, activates his vivid imagination, including a visit by an adult stranger and Po’s solo dance to Generation X with Billy Idol’s New Wave anthem “Dancing With Myself”.

It’s about joy, confidence and loving yourself, Po tells the stranger as he happily hops around to the song, so it’s clear that the son’s intelligence is not in dispute. But his connection to reality is slipping as his dad struggles to keep pace with work, school and parenting an autistic kid. This while he’s being pounded or taunted at school, missing his dead mother and telling his father not to be afraid.

The plot thickens around the notion of departure and, more compelling in the second half, Po keeps the audience guessing with a surprise, suspense and a gentle lesson in doing what’s best for the child, which might not be exactly what you think. Gorham, Feder and Doubleday are fine and the movie unfolds briskly in the second half, aided and masterfully scored by Burt Bacharach, including a new song he wrote which was recorded for the film by Sheryl Crow, “Dancing With Your Shadow”. The legendary songwriter’s score, sparingly rendered with perfection, casts a glow over Po.

The Laemmle Music Hall theater screening included an interview with director John Asher and composer Burt Bacharach (“Close to You,” “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “Say A Little Prayer”) the great composer, songwriter, record producer, pianist and singer.

Discussing how he and Po‘s song lyricist Billy Mann (“Dancing With Your Shadow”) have an existing connection to autism, director Asher told the tale of his serendipitous commercial airline flight meeting with Bacharach, whom Asher said he didn’t recognize, let alone know about Bacharach’s own tragic link to autistic parenting. His daughter with his former wife Angie Dickinson, Nikki, had Asperger’s, he said, and had been so traumatized by the treatments and ordeal that she eventually committed suicide as an adult. When presented with the opportunity, Bacharach, who said he’d first watched Po without music in a hotel in New Zealand, said he knew that “I could score this with love.”

John Asher, who told the admiring screening audience that he had learned from Bacharach the meaning of musical terms such as resolve and dissonance, explained that Bacharach had the film for two months.

Bacharach told the audience that he is “very proud” of his work for Po and that he seeks to “raise awareness” about autism, which he said he wants to eradicate. He added that he was careful and meticulous with the score, telling Asher that one scene needed no music. When I asked if there’s a moment in Po that he regards as a perfect alignment of movie and music, Bacharach said that’s difficult to say. Later, he cited What’s New Pussycat (1965) as an example of such an alignment because he said he’d found the Peter O’Toole character to be sort of “weird and jagged” which, in turn, inspired that sense in the title song he composed for Tom Jones.

The young child actor who plays Po in the film, Julian Feder, also appeared and, when I asked about his preparation for the role, said he watched What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Rain Man “many times”. But it was Grammy and Oscar-winning Burt Bacharach, whose legacy of popular hits and timeless compositions, many with lyricist and frequent collaborator Hal David, who made the screening memorable. John Asher told everyone that he sought to make a “positive and uplifting” film about parenting an autistic child. With Po, and with help from the parent of an autistic child before such a term was known and more deeply understood, Burt Bacharach, who scores the picture with unmistakable tenderness, I think he succeeds.