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Korean War, Old Amusement Parks, and Norah Jones on PBS

Three summer programs on the government’s Public Broadcasting System (PBS) look interesting.

In Unforgettable: The Korean War, Korean War (1950-1953) veterans recount their memories of America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when young Americans were drafted by the government and shipped off to defend South Korea as United Nations forces against the invading Red Army in the north. For three long years, Americans fought North Korea and Communist China to save South Korea. The men recall the “un-won” war that never ended, which the Truman administration did not even want to call a war (it was “the Korean conflict” or a “police action.”) Finally, it was called the Forgotten War (for more on the Korean War, read my book review of Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950 and my interview with its author, Martin Russ). PBS airs the program in the High-Definition (HD) format from 10 pm to 11 pm ET, Monday, June 21 (repeats 6/24/10, 10 pm to 11 pm ET).

PBS will re-broadcast a 1999 program, Great Old Amusement Parks, about the pre-Disney days before theme parks, when amusement parks were the places where families gathered for a cool escape on a hot summer day. Among the featured parks: Playland in Rye, New York, Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, and Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in northern California, where people can still ride the merry-go-round. The special also checks out some classic wooden rollercoasters and other rides (airs 8 pm to 9 pm ET on Wednesday, June 30). Later this summer, Soundstage features singer and pianist Norah Jones, whose debut album sold 18 million copies worldwide. This episode was filmed earlier this year at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York City, with Ms. Jones performing a blend of covers, hits such as “Don’t Know Why” and “Come Away With Me,” and tracks from her newest album, The Fall (airs 10 pm to 11 pm ET, Thursday, July 1).

Screen Shot: ‘The Runaways’

The RunawaysThe Runaways feels like an experiment. This dark, graphic account of two San Fernando Valley girls in 1975 who join an all-female punk rock band, based on a book by one of the band members, opens with blood dripping and closes on a curiously upbeat note while winking with Joan Jett’s hit cover tune of “Crimson and Clover”. What happens in between, in a generic tale of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, is neither original nor interesting. The five-girl band is urged by a maniacal recording industry type to “be like men” which suits most of the lost girls, who are all but abandoned by their parents, and what might have been a biting take on punk subculture is reduced to a punk version of the mediocre Dreamgirls. Kristen Stewart (Zathura) shines as lesbian rocker Joan Jett, in a sincere performance, while Dakota Fanning (Hounddog) as the blonde lead singer takes up screen time in a flat characterization that never takes root. The film is hazy in spots, reflecting the 1970s, the music is raw and crude, and the main characters are children neglected by lousy parents (look for Tatum O’Neal in a cameo). Left to fend for themselves, the girls play out the decade’s chaos and confusion. They manage to survive, but The Runaways, overloaded with Dakota Fanning and focused on style more than substance, doesn’t show us why.

Sade’s ‘Soldier of Love’

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Soldier of Love, the new album from pop singer Sade, is perfect. Soft, soothing melodies fill this 10-song collection, available from Sony Music, with strings, horns, piano, and, of course, Sade’s clear vocals, which sound slightly more weathered than when she began her impeccable career during the 1980s. With the driving, irresistible title track, which grows on you, as the sole departure from her signature style, and a minor divergence at that, everything here is in order. Less sultry than her smash, Love Deluxe, but with more nuances, too, Soldier of Love is another meticulous, accessible recording from artist Sade Adu (who co-wrote the album). Sade’s unhurried delivery and gentle rhythm wraps around a tune every time. Dim the lights, loosen up, and enjoy.

Music: Susan Boyle’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’

ph-susan-boyleSusan Boyle’s new album, I Dreamed a Dream, is just right; not overblown (thanks to producer Steve Mac) and happily focused on her vocal performance with an interesting selection of cover tunes ranging from the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” to Madonna’s “You’ll See”, the weakest choice for re-recording. Her “Daydream Believer” is a fresh rendition and one of the best tracks but every song here, including “Cry Me a River,” which has been recorded too many times, is exceptional given the muck of today’s popular music. Miss Boyle, who broke out with a memorable appearance on British television and became a huge hit in America thanks to YouTube, sticks to her craft. Among the 12 tunes: the abridged title track from the musical Les Miserables, which she famously performed on TV, “Amazing Grace”, “Silent Night”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Proud” and a rousing original song written for the songstress, “Who I Was Born to Be”. Thankfully, there are no surprises and every entry is an understated display of her talent. I Dreamed a Dream is a wonderful new work of fine, previously released pop music. The CD includes her notes on why she chose to record each song.

Michael Buble’s Crazy Love

The 13 songs on Michael Buble’s latest album, Crazy Love, do not match let alone exceed the quality of his previous efforts. The majority of tunes, including the title track’s cover of Van Morrison’s original, are produced by David Foster. That doesn’t appear to be the problem. No single song is a disaster among this collection of ballads and uptempo numbers, yet the overall approach is unfocused and slightly manic. Buble doesn’t play to his strengths and his bombastic version of “Cry Me a River” is a mistake. On an album in which one of the most memorable tunes is a remake of a mid-range rocker by the Eagles, “Heartache Tonight,” you know it’s not Buble’s finest moment.