The SPB Q: Grad Chapter: Lisa B. Thompson

lisa thompson march 2010 headshot copyI met Lisa B. Thompson when she was at Harvard in 2010-11 as a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. We’d already “met” on Facebook, but meeting her in person was an automatic game-changer. Her generous spirit and ferociously funny personality made many a lunch or coffee date into an uproariously fun and educational event. I can’t walk by Chipotle these days and not think of her smile, her candor, her fierceness—and her love of burritos. Lisa’s become a wonderful friend and ally in this crazy world of academia, but she’s also become one of the peeps I look up to most. And as great as I think she is, it was during a heartfelt salute to her grad school mentor Richard Yarborough, for whom the American Studies Association’s Minority Scholars Committee named it’s new mentoring award, that I really saw the kind of soul and generosity Lisa brings to the academic world. She held forth in an early morning room crowded with scholars of all levels, and kept us laughing and tearing up as she expressed the love and respect she has not just for Yarborough but for mentoring as an important and viable project.

I think I identify with Lisa so much because she is the epitome of the scholar/artist. (The first time I’d actually heard her name was as the author of Single Black Female, her funny, touching, highly-regarded play, which was the toast of NYC in the summer of 2006. I can still remember everyone going to see it, and talking about it.) Her devotion to scholarly excellence—as a writer, professor and mentor—doesn’t take a backseat to her ambitions as a creative writer, and she moves smoothly between the two worlds with ease, balancing a remarkable lack of self-importance with a huge dose of self-assurance that makes her not just the perfect role model for peeps who are trying to do the same, but also a better cultural producer in both fields. Her first academic book, Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class– published by University of Illinois Press in 2009 and called “complex and nuanced” by E. Patrick Johnson and “path-breaking” by Valerie Smith—looks at representations and negotiations of black female sexuality in American popular culture, film, and literature, and received honorable mention for the National Women’s Studies Association’s Gloria E. Anzaldua Book Prize, 2010. Single Black Female, which has been performed around the country and was a 2004 nominee for LA Weekly’s Theater Award for Best Comedy, was recently published by the theatrical giant Samuel French. Lisa recently left SUNY Albany for  University of Texas, Austin, where she’s an Associate Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies, and where she seems to be flourishing and enjoying life, if her Facebook statuses and late-night texts are any indication. She also has one of the best kids in the game. Read her work if you haven’t; see her play if it’s ever in your neck of the woods…There’s a new one coming soon. You’ll know about it cause I’ll be blogging, tweeting, and status-messaging about it with the quickness. Hope you enjoy her SPB Q!

Name:

Lisa B. Thompson. My trailblazing grandmother chose my middle name so I always use my initial in honor of her.

Hometown:     

San Francisco, California. Yes, I’m a West coast sista. And no, you better not call it Frisco!

Grad School/Year:

Stanford University, Modern Thought & Literature, 2000

Dissertation/Book Title:

Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (2009)

Favorite book:

I’m an old school bookworm so I cannot select just one favorite text. There are beloved books from each era of my life. During my girlhood Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day sparked my imagination and warmed my heart. When I was a teen, reading Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf changed the shape of the universe for me. I carried it around all the time and performed the monologues for my girlfriends. During college I saw George Wolfe’s Colored Museum and felt assured that there was a place for my quirky, nerdy, irreverent, comic sensibility in the world.

Favorite author:

Toni Morrison! Sula Peace, Frank Money, Pecola Breedlove, Bill Cosey, Jadine Childs and Milkman Dead? Such unforgettable characters! I also deeply appreciate her work as an editor and public intellectual.

Favorite movie:

I’m cheating again by picking two. I love Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger. His rendering of black Los Angeles is so rich and layered. I pray he releases it on DVD soon so I can finally dispose of my VCR! I’m also a huge fan of the Bette Davis classic All About Eve. I’ve probably watched it more than any other movie. It’s about the intricacies of female friendships and the backstage drama in the theatre world, so what’s not to love?

Favorite song:

I absolutely adore the Duke Ellington masterpiece “In a Sentimental Mood.”

Academic text(s) that most influences your work:

Patricia J. Williams’s Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of Race and Rights; Glenda Carpio’s Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor and the Fictions of Slavery; Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Who Set you Flowin?’: The African American Migration Narrative; Daphne Brooks’s Bodies in Dissent:  Spectacular Performances of Race and Freedom, 1850-1910 and Valerie Smith’s Not Just Race, Not Just Gender: Black Feminist Readings. I’m inspired by dazzling ideas expressed in gorgeous language.

Academic(s) who most influences your work:

I had the pleasure of working with Kimberlé Crenshaw, Robin D. G. Kelly, Valerie Smith, and Richard Yarborough as an undergraduate and Masters student at UCLA. They showed me it’s possible to enjoy an impressive academic career while also mentoring the next generation of scholars. I also cherish my time at Stanford. I credit my graduate school colleagues Darieck Scott, Meta DuEwa Jones, Richard Benjamin, Diana Paulin, Lawrence Jackson, Nicole Fleetwood and Asale Ajani for creating such a rich environment to learn, think and write.

Academic High:

Spending my sabbatical as a fellow at Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research was my career high. I call it my magical year in Cambridge. I conducted research for my current book project on contemporary African American theatre, and Colman Domingo directed a staged reading of my new comedy Mamalogues at the Hiphop Archive.

Life High:

Without a doubt giving birth to my son in 2005 is my greatest moment. I still can’t believe that my play Single Black Female debuted off-Broadway six months later.  It was like having twins! He’s my Nigerian American Prince. Although being a “momademic” presents numerous challenges, there is simply nothing that gratifies my soul more than being his mother.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped in to you. What are they?

I’d take the entire Mad Men series—I never tire of watching that show. My library would consist of a massive volume of poetry such as The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill would provide my island soundtrack.

Your favorite quote:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Although I would revise that Frederick Douglass quote a bit to say broken people. Can you imagine a society where there are only strong children? Perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal because great wisdom comes from understanding your particular brokenness and using it to shape your journey and better the world.

Guilty pleasure:

Anyone who knows me knows that my weakness is dessert. I’m talking peach cobbler, oatmeal cookies, pecan pie, brownies, red velvet cake, apple pie á la mode . . . There is nothing better than devouring a decadent dessert while taking in a good movie. That’s my idea of heaven.

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REMEMBER THE TIME: In Memory of Michael Jackson (from Ebony Magazine, 2009)

This is a blog post from this day last year. In honor of my memories of Michael Jackson, I’m re-posting it. It’s become one of my favorite pieces of my writing—and that’s coming from a dude who never likes his writing! If you’ve read it before, I hope you remember it well. If it’s your first time reading, I hope you enjoy it…Either way, hope you remember the joy and the music and the time(s) MJ gave us…and share it (and this piece) with your friends…Be well.

****

Last summer, after Michael Jackson’s death, my friend Harriet Cole, then the acting Editor in Chief of Ebony Magazine, asked me to contribute a tribute essay about the Man. I was honored, not just because I’d considered myself MJ’s biggest fan but also because this would be my first piece ever for Ebony Magazine, the mag along with Right On! that provides my best memories of pics and articles about the King of Pop. Here, to re-launch SCOTT TOPICS, I wanted to run a slightly longer version of that tribute that appeared in Ebony last summer. Hope you enjoy, and like me, remember the time…

The day that Michael Jackson died, MTV finally played music videos again. For those of us grown folks who grew up on MTV (and, thus, Michael Jackson), who remembered when MTV was one channel on the cable box and not the monolithic, multi-channeled cultural phenomenon it has become, this felt like a flashback to another time. Not only were we being entertained by the short-form music films that changed the music industry, we were watching the evolution of one of the greats, one of the titans of pop music, who’s creative music genius and gift for visual dazzle, actually made MTV into what it is. Michael Jackson created MTV as much as any music industry executive, as much as any fan who sat watching the clips—because virtually any time you see some dancing/singing/attitude-slinging superstar going through their video motions, you are seeing the wildflowers of pop culture who grew from the seeds planted by the man we call the King of Pop.

That day, that sad day for so many of us around the world, means many things to a guy like me, a guy who as a kid interviewed Michael Jackson on the eve of the release of Destiny, shortly before he’d start rehearsing for his role as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s movie adaptation of The Wiz (and interestingly, the first place he’d work with Quincy Jones, the maestro who’d go on to produce Michael’s three biggest albums). Not only was I was enjoying watching Michael Jackson mutate from child phenom to adult icon, from a tiny whirlwind of youthful energy to a full-fledged man of music and mystery and mastery, I was enjoying the company of a young college classmate, a 21-year-old white college lacrosse player named Matt who seemed to be experiencing the whole of Michael’s career in one complete moment: too young to have experienced Thriller or Off the Wall at their significant and original cultural moments, too young to have known Michael before the tabloid junkies decided he was a freak and not a legend, Matt sat amazed at the beauty and, well, thrill of Michael’s artistic and creative legacy, even pointing out the postures and poses in Michael’s videos that are real and true antecedents to the work of Usher and Beyonce and Chris Brown and Ciara.

Something about this shared moment—me, the jaded music journalist who clearly remembers seeing The Jackson 5 on The Carol Burnett Show in the 70s , and the young kat who grew up on tacky jokes about our superstar and who thought of Michael Jordan when he heard someone say “MJ”—came to symbolize the true beautiful legacy of Michael Jackson. There hadn’t ever been an artist, let alone an African American artist, who’s sheer presence and magnitude had joined so many disparate communities together in the hurtling locomotive of pop culture, taking them for a ride so memorable and fascinating and enjoyable. And here we were, me smiling through tears I wasn’t afraid to cry in front of this guy, him asking me questions about MJ’s history, enjoying ourselves even as we couldn’t really wrap around our brains the fact that this King was no longer with us.

As I write this I listen to a song playlist I made months ago, compiled of Michael Jackson duets. This playlist seems to me to very much sum up the work and life of the man. Whether doing back-ups for Stevie Wonder (“All I Do”) or sharing the studio mic with his former Motown co-star (“Get It”, Bad’s “Just Good Friends”), whether grooving with his brother Jermaine on “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming” or singing with Paul McCartney on “Say Say Say” or “The Man” or Thriller’s first huge single, “The Girl is Mine,” Michael was always a showstopper, but never a scene-stealer. He blended with his co-stars, as he’d learned to with his brothers in the Gary, Indiana living room and the rehearsal halls of Motown, harmonizing effortlessly. And as much as I loved Michael Jackson, it occurred to me that the moments I loved him—when we all loved him most—were when I was sharing him, on the dance floor at parties and clubs, using hair brushes to lipsync to his music with my Aunt Glo (the biggest MJ fan ever when Off the Wall came out) in her Tampa family room, and now with my buddy Matt, across generations, across race and gender and sexuality and background. And that’s how Michael would want it, I think. The last song on my playlist is Michael crooning love notes with Siedah Garrett on the first single from Bad, “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.” We will never stop loving Michael Joseph Jackson. Not only because he told us, with Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie and a host of other superstars, that we were the world, but also because, as he told us on Dangerous, he wanted us to help him heal the world. And he wanted us to do it as one. Rest in peace, Michael Jackson. You knew pain, you knew the love of millions. Without you, we’ll have to start healing all over again. Together.

 

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The SPB Q: Grad Chapter: Mark Anthony Neal

The first time I “met” Professor Mark Anthony Neal he emailed me to let me know he was going to be teaching my book HUNG in a class at Duke University. After I picked myself up off the floor, I wrote him back and thanked him, and I been on his jock ever since (only slightly kidding; this brotha’s bad!). I’d already been a fan of Mark (or MAN as he’s affectionately known by those who love and roll with him), having read all his work before meeting him. Starting with What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and  Black Public Culture (1998) and Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (2002) through Songs in the Keys of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation (2003) and especially New Black Man: Rethinking Black Masculinity (2005), I hadn’t encountered a scholar who’s work blended the elegant prose stylings of a great cultural journalist with far-rangingly trenchant and revealing analysis of African American culture and the ways in which it asked some hard questions about gender, race, and sexuality while defining so many oft-problematic contours of the relationship between nation, community, identity, and masculinity. I’d read MAN’s work and secretly wished that I could do what he did—go deeper into my field without losing the presentational effects of good writing that was so important to me. It wasn’t until he and Joan Morgan invited me down to Duke back in 2006 to talk about hiphop, society and journalism that we met in person. And he did that thing that he does, that thing you see him do on his weekly webcast talk show “Left of Black”: he engaged me with his openness and curiosity; he seduced me with his smoothness; he cracked me up with his witty and subtle running commentary on the world around him. In MAN’s presence you feel truly engaged; he listens. One can only imagine how this quality must resonate with his students—experience has taught me that there aren’t many academics who listen as well as they lecture, participate as much as they preach. Recently, at a dinner while he was visiting Harvard for a lecture, our table was dynamic with conversation that ranged from Theories of Oprah to Old School Hip Hop to Life in the Academy to Race in Age of Obama, and never missed a beat because MAN, the frequent NPR commentator that he is, was leading the charge with his nuanced perceptions and witty asides. And you can catch these same qualities in his online presence, from Facebook to his blog to Twitter (you can follow him here, by the way): Whether he’s tweeting a link to one of his brilliant essays or providing academic info or recounting nuggets of family life, his Twitter game is always on. For a dude like me, coming to this academic game, Mark Anthony Neal provides a perfect model of the modern black intellectual: how to keep it real when the “real” can seem as surreal as a Dali painting, and how to be a good brotha when keeping it good sometimes feels like a losing proposition.  MAN is the “public intellectual” that I look up to. Mostly because he doesn’t look down at anyone from his status as a great thinker, terrific writer, and supportive scholar. I’m looking forward to his new book Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities (Spring 2012 from NYU Press) as well as the 2nd edition of That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader which Neal co-edited with Murray Forman, which will be published in July. (You can also check out some of his cool Black Music Month writing at his blog New Black Man.)
To get a taste of MAN’s public intellectualism, check out this talk he did at TED:

Hope you enjoy his SPB Q…I did, very much…

Name: Mark Anthony Neal

Hometown:   The place we affectionately call the “Boogie-Down” Bronx

School/Year:  State University Cat: BA/MA SUNY-Fredonia (’87, ’93); Ph.D. University of Buffalo ’96 in American Studies

Dissertation Title: Discursive Soul: Black Popular Music, Communal Critique, and The Black Public Sphere of the Urban North.  It was directed by the influential Black Feminist/Lesbian Masani Alexis DeVeaux

Favorite bookGreg Tate’s Flyboy in the Buttermilk [editorial note: one of the best collections of essays I’ve ever read!]; everything changed after I read that.  Recognized that literary style and intellectual substance were not mutually exclusive.  Also Haki Madhubuti’s Enemies: The Clash of Races; my introduction to a Black thinker.

Favorite author:  It’s not PC, but I love Ishmael Reed’s fiction (Paul Beatty’s a close second)—try to tell Ish that every time we spar.  Favorite poet is Henry Dumas—want to write a critical study one day (shout to Eugene Redmond).

Favorite movie:  Love baseball movies. The Natural, but especially For the Love of the Game, for linking the grace of the game with the grace needed to survive getting older.  If my wife were to ask me, it’s The Five Heartbeats, which we’ve watched together about 63 times.

Favorite song:  You’re joking right?  Linda Jones’s “Hypnotized” takes my breathe every time.  Have pulled to the side of the road many times with Donny Hathaway’s “Thank You Master for My Soul” in the car. Every time I hear Diana’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and Jr. Walker’s “What Does it Take?” they take back to times with my parents when I was really little—attach those songs to the sweetness of my childhood.  Conjure my grind every day with Jay’s “Roc Boys”—“I wish for you a 100 years of success, but it’s my time!”

Academic text that most influences your workMichael Eric Dyson’s Reflecting Black, bell hooks’ Yearning and Robin Kelley’s Race Rebels gave me tools that I couldn’t have imagined before I read them.

Academic who most influences your work:  Every time I read William Jelani Cobb, I need to go back to the lab.  Daphne Brooks’ attention to detail.  Fred Moten. Damn, just no words there. Sharon Patricia Holland, who made me love theory again. Richard Iton, because he’s just a beast and one of the most generous of readers.

Academic High:  Handed Dyson a copy of my diss back in ’96 when he visited Xavier in NOLA where I started teaching.  He called me 5 hours later at 2am to tell me he dug the work.  Needed that affirmation at that time.  Robin Kelley responding to a letter I wrote a year earlier as a grad student.  Tricia Rose taking time to talk with me for 2 hours at MLA back in ’92 before I got in a Ph.D. program.  My parents being able to witness my hooding.

Life High:  Still have vivid memories of the first times I held both of my daughters;   Being able to record a 70th Birthday tribute for my dad for NPR. My oldest daughter reciting  Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” at my Mother’s Going Home ceremony.  Minutes later when I couldn’t remove myself from the front her casket, it was my then 10-year-old daughter who came and got me.  Damn, just started tearing up thinking about it.

You’re on a desert island and can only have 5 CDs/books/ or DVDs shipped in to you. What are they?:

  • Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On
  • The 5 Season Box Set of The Wire
  • The Collected Criticism of Amiri Baraka
  • Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace
  • The 9 Season Box Set of The Cosby Show

Your favorite quote: From my blog ““I am a man of my times, but the times don’t know it yet.” –Erik Todd Dellums as “Bayard Rustin” (in the film Boycott)

Guilty pleasure:  Wii Baseball; Reruns of The King of Queens; Fig Newtons

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“Malibu” … a short story by SPB

I saw the coyotes again, right before Vivian arrived, feral as their own appetites, crawling through the bush beneath the worn mahogany slats of Sharon and Patrick’s deck. At least I think they were coyotes, mangy-looking and mean as they seemed. They might have been just some ravaged lost dogs for all I knew; but I fantasized them as coyotes, as long-toothed sentinels, guarding all the ghosts who refused to leave the house, and that fantasy kept me going for the early days of my visit. Whatever they were, coyotes or mere dogs, they seemed to have purpose and they didn’t seem half as lost as I’d been feeling, stuck out here, mourning Melanie, strengthening my bones, waiting for Vivian to arrive. Not that I needed Viv as much as I once thought I did. I’d been off my crutches for two weeks by then, and my hobble had somehow mutated back into a stilted stride. But I was still stuck; even though I was somewhat better, I still couldn’t drive, and wasn’t sure I wanted to. And walking along the Pacific Coast Highway, even for exercise, seemed as ridiculous as speeding drunkenly, depressively, down it, which is what put me in my recuperative state in the first place.

Seems like that’s all I did that year, wait. Wait for food to get delivered from the health food spot down near Malibu Canyon. Wait for Patrick to bring me shampoo and soap on his rare trips into the city. Wait for the mail guy to deliver the books I never read and the flat red Netflix envelopes of DVDs I never watched. Waiting for weight, too, it seemed, because I shed many pounds, waiting to get better, waiting to stop missing Melanie, waiting for the seasons to change when of course they weren’t going to change all that much, not here in California. That year in Los Angeles was like one long never-ending almost-summer day, poked through with some rain and some wind, but always, inevitably, summertime. So I made the seasons change with the music I played. I let Joni be the fall and Miles be the winter and Sarah Vaughn’s Gershwin concerts comprised my spring. And I prayed. Thanking God for giving Sharon and Patrick the good taste and foresight to have the sleek stereo system that they kept on some complicated altar-like shelves in the den.

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The New, Longer, Hotter Trailer for The VIPs!

I’m getting excited about the book coming out in just over a month…Wanted to share this new trailer with you all. Hope you like it. Hope you like the book, too! Remember, if you’d like to pre-order a copy of The VIPs, you can click here at amazon.com! Sincere thanks for all your support as the book was being written—and now it’s almost here!

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Rant #532: Lions and Tigers and New Movie Musicals…Oh My!?

Can anyone tell me why musicals (or movies with music) are suddenly all the rage in Hollywood? Or why so many of the ones in production or heading that way are remakes, re-treads, re-imaginings? Just in the past week I’ve heard that Clint Eastwood wants to direct Beyonce in a remake of A Star is Born. And Bryan Singer wants to make a biopic of legendary Broadway and film director/choreographer Bob Fosse. And last but not least, Will Smith and Jay-Z want to co-produce a new version of Annie starring Willow Smith. (I wonder how Daddy Warbucks feels about all that hair-whipping, considering his bald state of affairs.) Is it the success of American Idol that’s created this musical interest? Is it the success of GLEE? High School Musical? What has made the musical such a newly popular form? When did all these musical fans (if they are fans that is, and not just cynical showmen trying to get on a bandwagon—see what I did there?) come out of the closet? I mean, I remember when the movie musical was anathema in Hollywood, other than maybe Blake Edwards letting his wife Julie Andrews sing in a coupla flicks (and of course, if you’re gonna put the bell-toned Julie in a movie, you damn well better let her sing and create something as entertaining as Victor/Victoria!) or Disney churning out animated musicals (not that we knew most of them would turn up on Broadway in a reverse-maneuver of the old days when a hit show got the big studio treatment). Even if they seemed to be sorta successful again after the success of Chicago (an over-rated, dazzingly miscast version of a brilliant Broadway musical in my opinion), the versions of Rent, The Producers, and Dreamgirls alone should have educated Hollywood that you just can’t give over production/direction of a musical to just anybody! I mean, what in Clint Eastwood’s arguably great directorial history speaks to his ability to direct a big soapy melodramatic music film? Bird? I think not. This choice sorta reminds me of Sidney Lumet directing The Wiz: as great a director as Lumet was, he had a leaden hand creating the magic and suspension of disbelief needed to create the world of that show. And as for a biopic of the late Bob Fosse, who’s seen a return to popularity (if he ever lost it, that is) after so much of his choreographic style has turned up in music videos: he doesn’t need a biopic after the lasting images and sounds of All the Jazz, his brilliant, darkly cynical, semi-autobiographical rumination of sex, death, love and jazz hands. Not even directed by the talented Singer, unless he wants to do something way outré like perhaps making Fosse a superhero or the second coming of Keyser Söze.  I also think finding contemporary talent to represent all the great entertainers who populated Fosse’s life—Leland Palmer, Liza Minnelli (amazing here in Cabaret), Ben Vereen (working it here in All That Jazz), Ann Reinking, Gwen Verdon (stunning here as Lola in Damn Yankees), Chita Rivera, among them—would be next to impossible today. The new Annie might be the closest thing to a good idea in this mix, as Annie’s a sorta timelessly adaptable story that might benefit from an urbanizing like the original Broadway Wiz or the updating I hear Debbie Allen gave to Oliver Twist, but the idea of Jay-Z potentially adding to or writing new music for Annie’s beautifully theatrical score. I won’t even touch that…Okay I will, and I’ll be quick: Jay’s talented but sampling “Hard Knock Life” does not a musical make.

Here’s the thing: to make a musical, one needs first a sense of rhythm, the kind of rhythm that understands that the heightened reality of bursting into song and dance to express inchoate emotion demands imagination in the combining of elements like music, movement and narrative momentum. And none of these directors/producers seem to me to be prepared to dance that tango or name that tune. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I shouldn’t complain until I see the work on the screen. But I do know this: if any of these musicals feel as stiff as Dreamgirls or as inert as Rent or as silly as The Producers, I’ll always blame the rise of Rob Marshall: how he managed to make Nine, a play about film, even more boring on film that it was on stage is beyond me.

That said: here are some of my favorite movie musicals, adapted from Broadway or created from scratch, in no particular order…some of them are flawed yes, but none of them fail on the level of musical/dramatic/narrative integration (scenes from a few of them are below, too; compare any of that Fosse staging or Jerome Robbins choreography to Rob Marshall’s work in Chicago. Or Gene Kelly’s tap dancing to Richard Gere’s in the same flick. Or the narrative work done by the music and staging to Chris Columbus’s Rent):

Cabaret


Singin’ in the Rain

West Side Story


The Bandwagon

On the Town

Funny Girl

Grease

Cabin in the Sky

An American In Paris

The Wizard of Oz

Fame

The Sound of Music

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#87 … SPB’s Top 100 Records

“Captain Jack”, Billy Joel

Does anyone write epic seven-minute pop narratives of suburban angst like Billy Joel? Perhaps I have a soft spot for Joel because, like him, I was a Long Island kid with big dreams of the creative life. But it’s also a bit more than that. One of the most contested of contemporary singer-songwriters, Joel’s prolific 30 year run of Top 40-meets-Tin Pan alley throwback-meets-classic rock records has nonetheless produced some of the sturdiest and most popular songs pop radio has seen. Sure, he’s ripped off The Beatles to no end, from harmonic structures to phrasing (then again, who hasn’t, though Joel seems to have been criticized for it more than anyone). Sure he’s descended into some obvious moon-June rhyme schemes that don’t always hit the ear all that elegantly. Yes, there were moments where we wore his pop star insecurities like a defense shield against the rough-and-tumble rock hierarchy that sometimes treated him like just a suburban commuter to the serious big-city world rock-stardom. But for all his critics, he’s lasted longer than most and the fans understand. And they understand very well that it’s because of records like this one: “Captain Jack”—from Joel’s Piano Man album—is a finely etched portrait of suburban malaise, a true-feeling investigation into the complicated rhythms of post-war American masculinity. But it’s also just a terrifically rendered song, almost short story-like, drenched in melodrama and sadness. Set against a typical melodic Joel piano line, with a tension-filled chorus backed by some nice high-stakes guitar work, the lyrics recount some fraught moments in the life of a druggy fallen middle-class kid trying to find his way, blending Joel’s gift for conversational detail (“Your sister’s gone out, she on a date/You just sit at home and masturbate/Your phone is gonna ring soon, but you just can’t wait/For that call…”) with his epic sense of narrative structure. By the time the crashing organs are punctuating the final choruses, bathing Joel’s growling vocals in grand emotion, you can feel Joel reaching out to connect with the listener the way the kid in the song needs to connect with his dealer, for the hopeful headiness of that next high. “Captain Jack” will, indeed, make you high tonight, or anytime you hear it.

Listen to it here:

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