Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’
50. Arya Stark and the Hound, ‘Game of Thrones’
Sure, their partnership began with a kidnapping, ended with one of them leaving the other for dead, and only lasted for 10 episodes. So what? For the duration of Game of Thrones’ fourth season, the unlikely team-up of feral Arya Stark and her much older mentor in murder Sandor “The Hound” Clegane made them the Bonnie and Clyde of Westeros — both ultraviolently badass and a challenge to the very concept of ultraviolent badasses in the first place.
I wrote about the 50 Best TV Duos of All Time for Rolling Stone. I love pieces like this because I get to write a wide variety of things about a wide variety of work — seriously, this goes back to The Honeymooners and goes up to Broad City, hitting every conceivable kind of pairing and every genre of show (sitcoms, Britcoms, sketch comedy, prestige dramas, procedurals, kids’ shows, animation) along the way. Apples-to-oranges comparisons are good for the brain now and then.
If Lemonade exists in the Empire-verse, the Lyon family must be wondering what the fuss is about. An R&B record that uses extremely thinly veiled autobiographical tales of family turmoil as fodder for art? That’s pretty much every song Lucious, Jamal and Hakeem have ever made. Here in the real world, though…well, once you’ve heard Beyoncé’s latest, “Boom Boom Boom Boom” sounds a whole lot less impressive. Now her cathartic confessional album is threatening to do to this series musically what the presidential primary already kinda did to it politically: take a show that depends on feeling utterly of-the-moment and make it feel out of date. Like, can a coffee-house performance of a song called “Good Enough” really compete as a statement of personal freedom with, er, “Freedom”?
Maybe this is an undue burden to place on “More Than Kin,” this week’sEmpire episode. It could just as easily have been a comparison with fallen genius Prince, whom Jamal evokes with his live-band presentation, high falsetto, and “am I straight or gay” sexuality, and that wouldn’t have been fair either. As fun as the music on this show has been, it’s not really meant to go toe-to-toe with the titans of pop, Timbaland production notwithstanding. But – perhaps due to the season’s two-part structure and longer total running time than the short, surprise-hit Season One – the story is getting a bit soft, or more than a bit. That’s when you start noticing problems you might otherwise have overlooked, or never even thought of as a problem at all.
Say what you will about Lucious Lyon, but the man does not lack for chutzpah or cajones. Pushed to the margins of his company by his (seemingly) united family, lined firmly behind youngest son Hakeem, he takes a page from Karl Rove’s political playbook and attacks his kid’s perceived strengths. The fashion line that’s slated to open up a big new market for Empire? Send in a few goons with guns and trucks and make every item of clothing disappear. The Teyana/Laura tour that’s minted not one but two superstars for the Lyon Dynasty sub-imprint? Plant drugs on the tour buses, call the cops, and watch them haul away everything from the lighting rigs to the instruments. The music-streaming service that’s making the record label a major player as well? Sabotage it (with a little help from double-agent eldest son Andre, aiming for the throne himself) so it fails to launch on time. And the kicker? Show up at the big shareholders meeting and personally bring up all these problems. Voila: His son is deposed, leaving him the Emperor once more. That’s the kind of razor-sharp intrigue that made last night’s episode — “Time Shall Unfold” — the best since the show’s spring comeback.
I forgot to link to this in all the Game of Thrones chaos, but I reviewed last week’s Empire for Rolling Stone. The contrast in quality between that one and this week’s is striking.
If Game of Thrones were a Netflix show, there isn’t a man or woman in all Seven Kingdoms who wouldn’t have plowed right into episode two after watching tonight’s Season Six premiere. So many of the big storytelling beats went unresolved that the inability to binge-watch the next hour (or more) is an almost Ramsay Bolton–level torment.
We don’t get to witness the final showdown between Ser Davos and Ser Alliser. We don’t see the triumphant return of Dolorous Edd leading an army of wildlings (with or without a giant or two in tow) to his black brothers’ rescue. Neither of Cersei Lannister’s most loyal nights, her incestuous brotherJaime and her Frankensteinian bodyguard Ser Robert Strong (aka an undead Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane), face off against the fanatical forces of the High Sparrow. Tyrion Lannister and his buddy-comedy advisor Varys don’t free the dragons chained up in the basement of their Meereenese palace. Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon, the black beast called Drogon, doesn’t swoop in to save her from the clutches of Khal Moro and his Dothraki horde. Bran Stark, his wizardly mentor the Three-Eyed Raven, his M.I.A. kid brother Rickon, schemer par excellence Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and the ne’er-do-well rulers of the Iron Islands from House Greyjoy don’t show up at all. Most importantly, to paraphrase Chevy Chase, Jon Snow is still dead—if his psychic baby bro, his telepathically connected direwolf Ghost or the apparently ancient sorceress Melisandre are going to bring him back from beyond, we’ll have to tune in next week, same Stark time, same Stark channel.
Shit, we might not even get to find out then.
So how come “The Red Woman,” tonight’s long-anticipated comeback ep, felt so satisfying regardless?
I reviewed the Season 6 premiere of Game of Thrones for Rolling Stone, where I’ll be covering the show weekly once again. Yay!
5. What’s going to happen in King’s Landing?
Seriously, is there any place here that isn’t a ticking time bomb going into Season Six?! Like Jon and Dany, Cersei Lannister started last season in charge and ended up in deep shit. After empowering the extremist religious leader known as the High Sparrow — in the hope that he’d take down her rivals — she wound up in the crosshairs as well. Now she’s endured a horrifying walk of shame but will still have to stand trial … and we’ve all seen how trials in King’s Landing go. Her brother Jaime’s back in town, bearing the bad news of their daughter Myrcella’s murder, and her undead bodyguard Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane is running around too. There could well be a three-way bloodbath in the streets between Lannister, Tyrell, and Faith Militant forces before it’s all said and done — four-way, since Dorne’s Prince Trystane is a newcomer to the city this season. It’s a recipe for disaster potent enough to make Meereen look like Des Moines.
The emotional climax of Vinyl‘s first season is the performance of a fake punk band fronted by the son of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall. Songs by the Stooges and the MC5 — bands that did the Nasty Bits’ pseudo-proto-punk better, and years before the fact, IRL — bookend it on the soundtrack. The New York Dolls watch from the side of the stage, beaming with approval even though their very real, and also superior, music kicked off the season by literally tearing the house down. The individual members of the Ramones are in the audience, apparently so impressed that they go out and form a band, the way the Sex Pistols’ 1976 gig in Manchester begat Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, the Fall, and the Smiths (and, uh, Simply Red). The concert ends when the police shut it down on obscenity charges, like a Jim Morrison reboot. It’s supposed to be the second coming of pure rock and roll and the salvation of American Century — excuse us, Alibi Records; instead, it comes off like a needle scratch.
In the immortal words of Drake, “this ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more.” Throughout tonight’s episode of Empire (“The Tameness of a Wolf” — what is this, Game of Thrones?), Lucious Lyon has been prepping a music video that will tell his true life story, warts and all. This includes the childhood trauma he’s kept secret: the abuse he suffered at the hands of his bipolar mother, who shot herself in front of him over what she’d done. Proud of her ex’s honesty, Cookie screens a rough cut for her whole family at her birthday party. But instead of bonding them, it blows them apart. Andre explodes, lambasting his dad for hiding his grandmother’s illness — the knowledge of which could have helped him cope with his own. His father responds by calling both grandmother and son embarrassments. When it comes to being a bastard, psychiatry has yet to devise an effective treatment.
From the Nasty Bits’ lips (literally) to God and the writers’ ears: It’s always a great idea to place Jamie Vine at the center of the action. Juno Temple’s ambitious A&R up-and-comer is one of the series’ most vibrant players: living on the edge, ears and eyes open to new experiences but nostrils mostly closed to them. And since no good Vinyl character comes without a signature Seventies look, don’t forget her incredible hairstyle (her face seems to be poking through a blonde waterfall). She’s the “Rock and Roll Queen” that gave tonight’s episode its title, if the Mott the Hoople song that soundtracks her MMF threesome with Kip Stevens and his guitarist Alex is any indication. It’s her self-possession and confidence that turned what could have been a dreary “girl comes between the boys in the band” storyline—the exact one predicted by a furious Andrea Zito when she discovers both Jamie and CeCe are sleeping with American Century acts — into a surprising, spontaneous, sexy scene. Now that’s what I call conflict resolution!
It’s musical, it’s political, it’s packed with enough soap-opera outrageousness to make The Young and the Restless look like a work of gritty realism — all of this is true about Empire. But don’t overlook the secret weapon in its entertainment arsenal: It’s funny as hell. Tonight’s episode — “A Rose by Any Other Name” — may be named after a line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it’s more concerned with comedy than poetry, and all the better for it.
And as always, Cookie Lyon is the Empire’s First Lady of Shade, and this episode contains two of her Best. Insults. Ever. She calls her rival for the throne, Naomi Campbell’s scheming Camilla Marks-Whiteman, “Ol’ Resting Bitchface” — far be it from us to resting-bitchface-shame, but that’s pretty good. Later, when Jamal complains that estranged patriarch Lucious is spreading the word that he’d slept with a woman, costing him the support of the LGBTQ community, the Lyon Queen says “We all know your father is a tampon.” Problematic? Yeah. Hilarious? You bet your ass. When she tells lawyer Thirsty Rawlings, “Stop wearing your granddaddy’s suits,” he gets off relatively easy.
It’s the golden rule of cool: The more you try, the less you are. Should Vinyl ever take that lesson to heart, we might have a hell of a show on our hands. The fact is that when its characters are sagging rather than swaggering, losing rather than boozing — that’s when it’s at its most watchable.
Take the opening scene of tonight’s episode, entitled “E.A.B.” To the (highly expensive to license) tune of the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,”Richie, Zak, and Skip walk into a bank in slow motion, where they try and fail to get a loan. It’s a funny, charming sequence, taking full advantage of actors Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano, and J.C. MacKenzie’s sad-sack faces, their perfect period clothing and hair, and their natural Three Stooges interplay. In essence: When its characters fail, Vinyl works.
It’s only been four months since Fox’s hit show aired its “fall finale” before breaking for the winter — never mind that it feels more like four years, especially if you’ve been following the presidential primary season. The campaign trail’s thorny issues of race, class, sex, and gender have fueled a soap opera beyond series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s wildest imaginings, which makes the return of this primetime juggernaut feel oddly anticlimactic and understated. Annika pushed a pregnant Rhonda down the stairs? Donald Trump’s threatening riots if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination. Even for this ridiculous country, the outrageous-behavior bar has been raised considerably.
So does tonight’s episode — “Death Will Have His Due” (love, love, love these Empire titles) — stand its ground amid the shifting landscape? More or less, and largely by simply sidestepping hot-button issues entirely. While the show has traditionally drawn tremendous strength and displayed serious chops by sandwiching nuanced, morally and ethically complex social topics between big slices of high-camp cheese, the mid-season premiere keeps the action focused almost entirely on the business and its personal, rather than political, fallout. As such, it’s a fun hour for reuniting with your old friends (and frienemies), but pretty much a placeholder in all other aspects.
It lasted no longer than the A-side of a 45. But for a brief, beautiful period on tonight’s Vinyl — titled “The King and I,” because of course it is — it looked for all the world like we were about to enter an alternate timeline in which Elvis Presley invented punk rock.
As the late great David Bowie himself once sang, “Don’t lean on me, man.” Would that Vinyl had listened: The show’s sixth episode — “Cyclone” — was also its weakest, the first where its tales of excess and ecstasy threatened to just fall apart completely. You can’t blame Bobby Cannavale and Olivia Wilde, who seem to pour body and soul into every scene. But despite the high-decibel dedication and all that boundlessly destructive physical energy, their performances are practically drowned out by the pyrotechnics of twisty reveals and the clunky incorporation of IRL icons.
Five episodes into Vinyl’s initial spin and one thing is clear: This show hates Jethro Tull.
Remember a few episodes ago, when Richie Finestra got so incensed by the “Aqualung” impresarios’ flute-laden prog rock that he yanked the record off the turntable and smashed it over his knee? This week, merely presenting our antihero and his A&R right-hand man Julie with a group of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Ian Anderson renaissance-faire goobers was enough to get the Ivy League tryhard Clark (“I graduated from fucking Yale!”) demoted to sandwich gofer. Look, we believe Metallica should have won that Grammy 27 years ago too, but after the second season of Fargo used “Locomotive Breath” to score an amazing gang-war montage, this should all be water under the bridge. You’re really gonna listen to “Cross-Eyed Mary” and argue that these dudes were everything wrong with Seventies rock & roll, while Loggins & Messina walk free? Fight the real enemy, folks.
To be honest, not everything Vinyl does that falls outside the usual prestige-drama purview actually works. The frequent fantasy cutaways to late musical legends performing songs vaguely relevant to the characters’ state of mind — these things are already obvious from what we’ve just seen and stop the show dead in its tracks every time. Musically, they could just as easily be slipped into the soundtrack instead of unconvincingly staged by lookalikes in some celestial nightclub; unbelievable as this sounds, True Detective Season Two did it better. In the case of the many, many black R&B and soul singers these segments have featured: If the show (correctly) thinks they’re so important, maybe it should have been a show about them,and not about the obnoxious white guys who got rich off of their work. As it stands, there’s an uncomfortable touch of the “magical negro” trope to every time an African-American performer pops up to provide musical accompaniment to Richie and company’s innermost feelings.
And simply in terms of rock & roll fandom, there’s just something kind of off about these scenes. Vinyl‘s take on big-time music fans has generally been pretty tight — think of Richie and Zak trading childhood memories by the pool at his party — which makes this fundamentally misconceived device so frustrating. A good song can transport you to another place, but is that place ever an empty room with a lone, blindingly backlit performer? When you really connect to a song, it draws you in, weaves its way into your brain, becomes a part of who you are. It doesn’t leave you in the audience while the singer does their stuff. Maybe that’s why the most effective of these sequences involved Karen Carpenter, of all people: Besides the fact that there’s no icky race stuff in play there, her appearance melted directly into Devon’s life, singing in Mrs. Finestra’s car instead of in Rock Flashback Limbo. (By the way, the show’s respectful and admiring approach to the freaking Carpenters ought to leave people who complain about its supposed “rockism” with a lot of explaining to do. Sigh.)
I reviewed this week’s Vinyl for Rolling Stone. I actually liked it quite a bit, because it’s willing to buck tradition and be crazy rather than grim, but this was an aspect of the show I wanted to hash out.
Devon goes to visit her old friend Andy Warhol, with a silkscreen of herself in tow. As he shoots her with his new video camera, their playful banter turns serious when he realizes he’s being prodded to sign the painting so that she can sell it. The dance company she oversees up in Connecticut, the last vestige of her old bohemian lifestyle, needs the money. “I can get a brush and sign it. That way they’ll buy it,” he tells her as she chokes back tears, before adding a joke to put her at ease: “You want me to sign your dress? They’ll buy that too.”
It’s a killer scene for several reasons. One is John Cameron Mitchell ofHedwig and the Angry Inch fame, who plays the great pop-art painter. His Warhol, as others have pointed out, is an altogether warmer and more charming figure than the shock-topped zombie we’re accustomed to seeing in films. (Wouldn’t he have to be, given that his entire business model as a superstar artist was knowing everyone?) In Mitchell’s hands, the Pop Art godhead is a people person, immediately intuiting the real reason for Devon’s visit and becoming quietly defensive. Then when he senses how desperate she truly is, he responds by helping her out.
But the scene is a standout primarily for how it’s shot. Courtesy of the episode’s director, Mark Romanek — whose influential music videos include Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Johnny Cash’s “Hurt,” and Jay Z’s “99 Problems”— we see Devon primarily through Warhol’s camera, via either a nearby video monitor or POV shots from behind the lens itself. The living, breathing woman is out of focus, as is her silkscreen simulacrum; even the picture on the monitor is grainy. Andy’s questions become more like an interrogation designed to draw the truth out; Devon’s responses read like a performance playing positivity toward the camera. The setup emphasizes the fluidity of what she’s saying, the reduction of a former Factory luminary to a blurry memory of what she used to be. It’s thoughtful, carefully considered work, both verbally complex and visually stunning.
Best Actor, 1967
Warren Beatty (Bonnie and Clyde), Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate), Paul Newman (Cool Hand Luke), Rod Steiger (In the Heat of the Night – winner), Spencer Tracy (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?)
Meet the New Hollywood — most definitely not the same as the Old Hollywood. With Warren Beatty’s nomination for a celebrity criminal and Dustin Hoffman’s arrival as a new kind of leading man, the kids were taking over. Even Paul Newman’s nod came for playing a consummate rebel. Of course, the nominations for Tracy (posthumously; he died days after completing the role) and eventual winner Steiger, both portraying fiery but ultimately wise patriarchs in movies about the hot-button issue of race, were the dream factory’s way of showing the olds were alright. (Note that their mutual costar, Sidney Poitier, went shamefully unacknowledged even in the Supporting Actor category.)
Yes, it’s early yet, and maybe there will be more to these women revealed in future episodes. But it’s 2016, folks. Prestige drama’s “wife problem” is an issue of long standing, and giving the females in these bad boys’ lives something interesting to do — even if it’s constrained by the sexism of the time — is hardly asking the a writers’ room to split the atom. This show has enough faith in its musical message to allow us to laugh about it. Hopefully, it will display an equal commitment to its characters by taking all of them seriously.
This week’s Vinyl was a mixed bag, with a welcome sense of humor about Richie’s rock’n’roll salvation and a pro-forma lonely-wife storyline sitting uncomfortably side by side. I wrote about it for Rolling Stone.
Even a record that’s a start-to-finish stone classic has one or two standout tracks that sum up the whole blessed thing: your “Stairway to Heaven” or, say, your “Drunk in Love.” And in the pilot episode of Vinyl, — the Martin Scorsese–directed, Mick Jagger–produced Seventies NYC rock drama fromBoardwalk Empire creator Terence Winter — a pair of scenes distinguish themselves from the pack. In the first, a coked-up, bottomed-out record exec named Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) rapturously watches the New York Dolls deliver a performance of “Personality Crisis” so blistering it literally brings down the house. In the second, Finestra and industry sleazebag Joe Corso (portrayed by real-life ex-cop and frequent Scorsese collaborator Bo Dietl) take a radio mogul played by Andrew “Dice” Clay and bash his skull in on-screen.
Based on this initial episode, in other words, this show is not going to make converts out of skeptics. Vinyl is for Horror City nostalgia buffs and people predisposed to belief in the healing power of rock & roll. It’s for music nerds who’ll flip out equally for cameos by golden god Robert Plant, his maniac manager Peter Grant, and hip-hop progenitor DJ Kool Herc … all on the same night! It’s for those pop scholars who’ll catch references to both perpetual also-rans the Good Rats and soft-rock punchlines England Dan and John Ford Coley. And it’s also for the kind of Scorsese fans who’ll recognize a scene’s doo-wop-soundtracked mafia meeting as a GoodFellasdescendant and who crave first-person voiceover narration like Jordan Bellfort jonesed for quaaludes.
So is it for you? You may think you know the answer already. But don’t be so sure.