Wednesday, February 25, 2015

LOST AND SOUND

     Working on set and in cutting rooms, sadly, leaves little time for blogging. So it’s been a long time since I’ve posted here.  But I had so much fun talking about movie music on my good friend Lauren Fay’s UCLA radio show “Lost and Sound” that I want to write about it.

     First, live radio goes by at amazing speed.  Although I knew which pieces we’d play and had a sense of what we’d talk about, there were times when I felt like a little league kid facing a pro fastball pitcher.  Asked about my work on SOUL PLANE, for example, I responded as though I’d been asked about I’M GONNA GIT U SUCKA! Then the moment was gone, the ball already past me, in the catcher’s mitt.

     Teeing up Miles Davis’ brilliant score for Louis Malle’s ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS, I implied that Miles hadn’t been classically trained.  He’d studied at Julliard, of course, but there was no taking back the “swing and a miss.”  Earlier, I’d left the impression that INFINITELY POLAR BEAR, deftly scored by composer Theodore Shapiro, contained only songs on its soundtrack.  And as the show sped on I heard the ump growl, “Stee-ri-i-ke!”

     Omissions continued.  I never pointed out the fact that two of our clips featured sound design by the great Wylie Stateman.  I wanted to discuss what music supervisors do – supervisor extraodinaire Randall Poster’s work was behind four of the pieces we played -- but the subject never came up.

     All that said, however, I was relaxed… and light years away from my first radio gig, during which WBAI host and brilliant essayist Lenny Lopate reminded me, as I answered a yes-or-no question, “Our audience can’t see you nod your head.”

     I’ve always loved radio and I’m excited that young music aficionados like Lauren Fay embrace it, too.  Watching Martin Scorsese’s delightful documentary, BRINGIN’ IT ALL BACK HOME, we learn that Bob Dylan fell in love with music on stations thousands of miles from his Minnesota home while listening to his crystal set every night.  Whole generations of musicians and filmmakers discovered songs in similar ways.  And here in 2015, on “Lost and Sound,” Lauren shares her passions: Afro-Cuban records, “devil music,” local indie bands and, yes, movie soundtracks, with listeners for whom such sounds are all brand new.

     Perhaps I’m also fond of radio because, like film, it’s becoming rarefied.  Digitally recorded, digitally streamed music selected by Silicon Valley software is radically different from vinyl picked by impassioned disc jockeys, but it’s here to stay.  Likewise, digitally recorded motion pictures digitally projected or streamed on telephones don’t have the magic of light shone through celluloid onto giant silver screens.

     But I also appreciate that live radio is quite different from cinema. Making a movie, we shoot take after take after take, for weeks on end, until we have the best combination of performance and camera work for every beat of every scene.  We then spend months in the editing room, selecting, refining and rearranging these moments, and many more weeks creating and mixing the sound and music, tweaking visual effects and adjusting the color.  So it takes about a year to make a typical two-hour movie.  A one-hour radio show requires an hour of studio time.

     Which brings me back to things I omitted and errors I committed as the clock ticked away.  SOUL PLANE, which Lauren asked about in vain, was quite a trip from a musical standpoint.  Working with RZA on the score, with performances by Method Man, Snoop Dogg and Little John in the film, and with songs by 50 Cent, Nelly and Styles on the soundtrack, exposed me to a kind of music I hadn’t known well, but which was perfect for the picture. Another vibrant color on the palette, another important tool in the kit!

     All those tracks, of course, had to be wrangled - pieces tried for this scene or that, some rejected, some fitting perfectly.  Clearances were obtained and deals made with artists, publishers and labels.  Director Jessy Terrero and I needed suggestions for temp score, and alternatives to cuts that were too expensive.  We were lucky to have -- you guessed it -- a great music supervisor.  Melody London and I had worked together on several films, and on this one she knocked it out of the park.

     I also mentioned supervisor Randall Poster, with whom I’ve worked a few times.  He was supervisor on GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, for which composer Alexander Desplat just won an Academy Award for Best Score.  I remember an amazed Randy calling from a scoring stage in Romania filled entirely with balalaika players, an ensemble I suspect he had a hand in a putting together for that picture.  He currently supervises the Amazon series MOZART IN THE JUNGLE and worked on  GOODFELLAS, PULP FICTION, JACKIE BROWN and INFINITELY POLAR BEAR – movies from which I played records on “Lost and Sound.”

     I could go on about what we didn’t explore on the show:  the joy of working with Leonard Feather on the jazz tracks (and James Horner on the score) for SWING KIDS; the privileged moments, while working with Jerry Goldsmith on MEDICINE MAN, of chatting with the maestro about his writing 40 minutes of music a week for PLAYHOUSE 90 and conducting it live; the sense of musical adventure in every Martin Scorsese soundtrack, from the RAGING BULL’s  “Cavalleria Rusticana” to THE COLOR OF MONEY’s “Werewolves of London” and beyond.  I wish we’d had time to mine the gold of music documentaries.

     But take a listen to what we did do on the show.  In one hour, we presented a pretty exciting playlist that included a couple of Bernard Herrmann pieces, one by Miles Davis, and songs by Brenton Woods, The Chips, Townes Van Zandt, The Delfonics, Chuck Berry, The Fugs and, my own favorite, Rabbi Marshak from Joel and Ethan Coen’s A SERIOUS MAN.

Enjoy:

http://lostandsoundshow.tumblr.com/post/111552394815/michaelmiller



   


   

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

LAST WEEKEND

     LAST WEEKEND, directed by Tom Dolby and Tom Williams from a screenplay by Mr. Dolby, will have its world premiere on May 2nd at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It tells the tale of a mother (played stunningly by Patricia Clarkson) who, in the course of an eventful Labor Day weekend, comes to terms with the fact that she no longer plays a central role in the lives of her grown sons.  I’m proud to have been the film’s supervising editor.    

      At my first meeting with Tom and Tom -- my job interview -- the directors said the tone of the piece was meant to be Chekhovian. Specifically, Tom Dolby’s story about a gathering of kith and kin at a family estate soon to go on the selling block evoked The Cherry Orchard.  On the title page of Anton Chekhov’s text, the playwright tells us his piece is “A Comedy in Four Acts.”  Famously, Stanislavski directed its first production, at the Moscow Art Theatre, as a tragedy.  The challenge in editing, then, would be to keep both humor and pathos alive while still endowing LAST WEEKEND with a stylistic and emotional unity.

     And indeed, the narrative unfolds with a comfortable mixture of comedy and drama.  Combining levity and gravitas, of course, heightens an audience’s experience of each.  I was reminded of this artful dynamic a few months ago after a screening of Brian Percival’s THE BOOK THIEF.  Lead actor Geoffrey Rush arrived at the end of the movie for a question and answer session and asked, “Did we get the laughs?”  While that might seem like an odd query about a sad story set in Nazi Germany, it was an important one for Mr. Rush.  “If we don’t get the laughs,” he explained, “we don’t maximize the tears.”  He’s right; emotional extremes keep the viewer’s guard down.

     The Toms, as cast and crew came to call them, understood this from the start.  So my interview became a work session.  The directors’ vision -- the one to which an editor tries to remain true as a picture evolves -- was laid out.  Comedy and drama were to play equal roles as LAST WEEKEND’s story unfolded; to succeed, the film had to maintain a delicate tonal balance.

     It may surprise non-editors to learn that thematic and emotional values are what directors and editors talk about from the get-go.  But really, what else is there to discuss?  Nothing has been shot, so cutting rhythms and patterns are random abstractions at this point.

     There’s no reason for an editor talk to a director about the software she or he will use at a first meeting… or ever.  No matter how exciting editing students might find such a chat, discussing Avid or Adobe with a contemporary director would be as meaningless as telling Hawks, Hitchcock or Wilder what kind of splicer the cutter might use.

      So, the screenplay is the focal point of the job interview.  The director’s interpretation is paramount, to be sure, but the editor’s impressions are also quite important.  And Tom and Tom wanted to hear about mine.  I could see the Chekhovian nature of the writing, I told them.  But it also evoked, for me, the feel of George Cukor’s THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.  In that film, Jimmy Stewart’s character, Macaulay Conner, says more than once, “With the rich and mighty, always a little patience!”

     It’s not that Tom Dolby’s script defends oligarchy; it absolutely doesn’t.  But the film does show affluent characters to be multi-dimensional and deeply human. And yet, unlike most contemporary Hollywood movies, LAST WEEKEND refuses to shy away from dialogue about socio-economic class. In one amusing scene, the family patriarch (Chris Mulkey) boasts that he’s not nouveau riche as are his “dot-com-er” neighbors. After all, you see, his fortune (from a chain of workout gyms) is over two decades old!

     I guess the Toms were comfortable with my impressions and with the extent to which I understood and embraced their vision, because we did wind up, happily, working together.  But there’s also subtext to the initial director/editor meeting – something beyond agreement about the substance of a script.  Since directors and editors spend many hours a day in the editing suite for months on end, the question, “Is this someone I can abide in cramped quarters for a protracted period?” lies beneath the surface.   

     And the answer has little to do with whether the editor wears the right perfume or cologne (or none) to a meeting, or whether she or he likes indie bands, single malt scotches or the Dodgers. (Those things might come up, as text, to be sure, but they’re relatively unimportant.)  Potential compatibility in the cutting room is really determined by how prepared the editor seems to be, how eager she or he is to hear what the directors have to say and by the quality of ideas she or he brings to the table.

     What’s more, it’s imperative that those ideas relate to the directors’ vision.  If I had suggested Tom and Tom that LAST WEEKEND needed additional one liners to become more of a broad comedy I might have had a point, but not one related to the Chekhovian film about families they set out to make and that, together with my co-editor David Grey and the whole cast and crew, we succeeded in making.

     Recalling the successful meeting with the Toms, along with the lessons one can learn from it, somehow makes me think of my very first interview for an editing position – the exact opposite of my LAST WEEKEND experience. The word “disaster” comes to mind.  At the time I was just graduating from assisting other cutters, and had a couple of editing credits on “afterschool specials” under my belt.

     I'd read Ralph Rosenblum’s anecdotal feast, When The Shooting Stops (The Cutting Begins) and found it inspiring in all the wrong ways.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s much for filmmakers to glean from the book -- indeed, Tom Dolby read and enjoyed it while we were editing LAST WEEKEND –- but the author’s tone suggests that he singlehandedly “saved” almost every picture on which he worked, including Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, ANNIE HALL and INTERIORS.  Mr. Rosenblum's stories left me with the impression that the trait directors admired most in an editor was ruthless critical objectivity.

     So I took the room by storm. I was smug, superior and didactic – a real charmer -- telling the writer/director about all the things, real and imagined, that were wrong with her screenplay.  Her jaw and those of the producers dropped.  They were speechless.  As the silence became awkward and painful, I simply filled it with more hot air, continuing to insult an artist who has since received critical acclaim for her New Yorker short stories and other fiction. Not my shining moment!

     Indeed, I’ve come a long way. When recommending When the Shooting Stops to Tom Dolby I did so with a caveat about its tone.  I’ve long known that the most important contribution an editor can make to a film is to help shape it into the best version of what the directors envisioned in the first place.  And I’m confident that we did that with LAST WEEKEND.      
    






Thursday, April 17, 2014

A TRIBUTE TO DEDE ALLEN

            A tribute to Dede Allen, editor of such groundbreaking films as THE HUSTLER, BONNIE AND CLYDE and THE ADDAMS FAMILY, was long overdue.  So on Saturday, April 5, the Motion Picture Editors Guild inaugurated its Dede Allen Seminar Room.  The space is a perfect memorial for the late dean of New York editing, because she loved teaching her craft to others and she loved the guild.   Local 700 president Allen Heim (ALL THAT JAZZ, VALMONT, AMERICAN HISTORY X) used a good old-fashioned splicer to cut the “ribbon,” a piece of 70mm. celluloid.  

       Dede deeply affected everyone she mentored.  And several of her former assistants who became brilliant cutters in their own right – “Dede’s boys” as they were known –attended the ceremony.  Richard Marks (APOCALYPSE NOW, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT) and Jerry Greenberg (THE FRENCH CONNECTION, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, THE UNTOUCHABLES) and others credit her with being an inspiration as well as a great teacher.

       I never had the privilege of assisting Dede.  But she had a profound influence on every editor I know, and certainly on me.  Her cutting of, say, the bank vault scene in DOG DAY AFTERNOON continues to offer fresh insights into when to “match action” (or not), which character to be on during exchanges of dialogue, and shot-to-shot rhythms in general.

      Dede often had very large crews, in which collegial spirit abounded.  How large were they, Johnny?  Well…  I was once at a dinner party with David Lynch’s editor, Mary Sweeny.  Trying to figure out where we might have met before, we realized we’d both been assistant editors in New York in the 1980’s.  “Did you work on REDS?” Mary asked.  I hadn’t.  “Ah!” she said, “you’re the one.”

      I met Dede Allen while she was cutting REDS, when I happened to walk past her cutting room at Trans Audio on St. Patrick’s Day, 1981, just as she was taking a break.  She graciously invited me to share an Irish coffee with her.  (A more Irish punim than Dede’s I’ve never seen.)   At the time, I didn’t consider myself new to post-production, but I hadn’t met the dean.  And Dede wanted to welcome me to her amazing world.  Best cuppa Joe I ever had!

      Subsequently, I would run into her at union meetings or in the sacred corridors of Trans Audio and the Brill Building’s Sound One.  No matter how busy, she always showed a genuine interest in what I was up to and how I was enjoying the ride.

     That ride took me, in the 1990’s, to Warner Bros., where Dede had become an executive.  Studio brass realized they needed someone who understood what could and couldn’t be done to help a picture in post-production.  And they needed someone who was able to communicate with cutters in a way that they couldn’t.  Dede was the perfect person for them, and a gift to me.  She encouraged risk-taking for the good of the picture -- especially with mainstream material -- while also teaching me a bit about studio politics.

     During her tenure at Warners, technological changes began to transform editing.  Dede kept up with them and eventually returned to the cutting room, receiving an Oscar nomination for WONDER BOYS in 2001.  Right until the end she had and was eager to share filmmaking wisdom.  She’s been gone for four years now.  But when faced with an editing problem, I still ask, as do dozens of editors, “What would Dede do?”

     Dede’s children, extraordinary re-recording mixer Tom Fleishman (DO THE RIGHT THING, PHILADELPHIA, GOODFELLAS) and Ramey Ward, a “civilian,” both flew in to attend the dedication of the seminar room.  Ramey talked about why she chose not to work in the film industry: in less than one day in a cutting room, she realized post-production required much more anal retentiveness than she’d bargained for. 


      Tom spoke glowingly about his mom’s love of our craft, of her love for the women and men who practice it and for working people in general. He’s quite fortunate to have inherited those passions from Dede. And it’s always great to see him in L.A. for any reason.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A FEW RANDOM THOUGHTS

     Here are a few scattered thoughts, more diary-like than most of the posts on this site have actually turned out to be:

     First, it was delightful to start the post-Oscar movie-going season with Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL.  The picture’s opening scene, in which a tweedy Tom Wilkinson attempts to spin a yarn with some decorum but is pelted by his pea-shooting son in a fashion reminiscent of the Marx Brothers and “Our Gang,” gives viewers license to laugh.  Such permission is important because the design of the film is so artful, its plot so filled with unexpected twists and its balalaika score by Alexandre Desplat so original that one might feel too overwhelmed to guffaw as she or he should.

     Part caper movie, part screwball comedy and part buddy picture, GBH is brilliantly performed by Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, newcomer Tony Revolori and a shockingly star-studded cast that includes Wilkinson, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton and a host of less well-known but equally capable character actors.  (Fisher Stevens, Wallace Wolodarsky and Saoirse Ronan are among those who deserve to be more recognized.)

     The narrative unfolds like the cinematic version of a Russian nesting doll-- as a story within a story within a story. Bob Yoeman’s rapidly moving camera always hits its mark perfectly and contributes as much to the movie’s breakneck pace as Barney Pilling’s taught editing.

     Adam Stockhausen’s sets capture the grandeur of an exclusive hotel in the Dinaric Alps on the eve of World War II while also emerging as works of art in and of themselves. An elevator reminiscent of Matisse’s “Red Studio” shares screen time with intentionally primitive looking funiculars, hilarious paintings, Agatha Christie-inspired train compartments, impossible bakeries, Andersonian servants' quarters and a fa├žade that makes the Grand Budapest look like a dollhouse.

     There’s a model of Stockhausen’s hotel on display in the lobby of the Arclight cinema in Hollywood, and the rendering is eye-popping and fun.  But it’s also a reminder of the depth, complexity and hilarity of Wes Anderson’s story, not at all a relic of a movie overwhelmed by its own scenery. One takes it in while exiting the theatre and wants to turn around and watch film again.

     The pleasure of  seeing THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL at the Arclight – moving on to the next random thought -- brings to mind what a great city Los Angeles has become for motion picture viewing. Not only does it still have grand movie palaces (The Vista, El Capitan, The Egyptian and the main auditorium at Mann’s Chinese Theatre), its “repertory cinema” is at a level of quantity and quality I haven’t seen since I lived in New York in the 1980’s.  There, on any given night, I could watch great European and Asian films, old and new, as well as vintage Hollywood pictures, at such venues as The Thalia, The New Yorker, The Carnegie Hall and Bleeker Street Cinemas, at Cinema Studio and at the venerable Film Forum. Only Film Forum, as far as I know, survived the crushing blow of real estate development, which has made it nigh impossible for a single screen theatre with low admission prices to turn even a modest profit.

     But in L.A. today, Cinefamily, The New Beverly, The American Cinematheque, (at The Egyptian and The Aero) and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) all have excellent World Cinema and Hollywood “golden age” programming.  On March 1, the night 91 year-old Alain Resnais passed away, I watched a restored print of JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME at Cinefamily. (Resnais’ 1968 film also played that night at Film Forum in New York).  This month LACMA will present an evening with Ennio Morricone (THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, THE UNTOUCHABLES, DJANGO UNCHAINED) and interviewer/collaborator Quentin Tarantino.  Later in March, the museum will screen the Hollywood classics MY MAN GODFREY, GOING MY WAY and MOROCCO.

     It would seem, then, that all goes well for Los Angeles movie lovers. But I must end on a much darker random note:  I was deeply saddened to hear that director Scott Kalvert died on March 7, apparently by his own hand.  I worked with Scott on DEUCES WILD (2002), which featured a remarkable ensemble cast. Matt Dillon, Stephen Dorff, Brad Renfro, Fairuza Balk, Debbie Harry and a then-unknown James Franco were all eager to work with Scott because of his stellar direction of Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Juliette Lewis and Lorraine Bracco in a 1995 adaptation of Jim Carroll’s THE BASKETBALL DIARIES.

     I have no special knowledge of what made Scott despondent.  But it often seemed to me he never recovered from lawsuits alleging that murderers at high schools in Paducah and Columbine were inspired by a dream sequence in THE DIARIES.  The fact that the suits were frivolous – that they ignored the fundamental sociopathy of the killers – and the fact that they were consequently dismissed, didn’t especially mitigate the damage they did to Scott.  Filmmakers who excel at their craft must be unusually sensitive.  And any sensitive person would be devastated by the suggestion, no matter how wrongheaded, that his work led to the killing of innocent teenagers.

     Blaming Scott Kalvert’s adaptation of Jim Carroll’s memoir for the shootings was as preposterous as asserting that The Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” caused the Manson murders or that J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is the reason Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon.  No doubt, the British band and the reclusive author were affected by news stories linking them to heinous crimes.  But neither the fab four nor Salinger were sued by victims.  And both had bodies of work so extensive and esteemed as to insulate them from ludicrous accusations.  THE BASKETBALL DIARIES was Scott’s first feature film; he was all but defenseless.

     My deepest condolences to his loved ones. Rest in peace, Scott Kalvert.

     


         

Thursday, February 13, 2014

50 YEARS OF THE BEATLES

“In the increasingly mechanized, automated, cybernated environment of the modern world,… man’s need for his biology has become much more intense… Enter the Beatles – soul by proxy, middlemen between the Mind and the Body.  A long way from Pat Boone’s White Shoes.  A way station on a slow route travelled with all deliberate speed.” – Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (1965).

     When the Beatles first came to the U.S. in February 1964, the Cold War was raging.  Our country had invested in rich and diversified public school programs, reasoning that even lower middle class kids might contribute to the space race or to building bigger bombs.  One such program brought a string quartet to entertain our “assembly” at P.S. 165 in Queens, New York, shortly after the fab four’s appearances on Ed Sullivan.

     I listened to the recital politely.  But my true love (or childhood crush) was rock ’n’ roll and I couldn’t wait to ask the classical players what they thought of my new heroes.  Their response: “Fifty years from now no one will remember that these lads from Liverpool even existed.”

     The quartet’s not-so-great Paganini, of course, proved to be better than their prognostication.  Beatles music has remained enormously popular for half a century.  And it transformed all of pop culture right from the start.  The band’s influence remains powerful not just in music, but in film, video, art and literature.

      When the fab four came on the scene, pop records were immediately disposable.  “I’ll Get You,” for instance, B-side of the 1963-64 hit “She Loves You,” was released with a glaring mistake:  John Lennon, unsure if the lyric was “make you mine” or “change your mind,” settled on “mange your mind.”  This, no doubt, resulted from having a budget for only one take per tune.  But a mere few years later, the band would spend months in the recording studio on each album, with lots of editing, overdubs and electronic effects.  Rock music took on a perfectionism it hadn’t known, except, perhaps, on a few Phil Spector singles.

     The cultural sea change, however, entailed more than just higher quality records, as Eldridge Cleaver suggested in Soul on Ice. The Beatles weren’t a healing balm after the JFK assassination, Cleaver asserted.  They represented continued rejection of the Eisenhower years, initially signaled by Kennedy’s election.

     Underlying this rejection was African-American pop culture.  Cleaver quoted Norman Mailer:  “It’s no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro… For the Negro’s equality would tear a profound shift into the psychology, the sexuality and the moral imagination of every white alive.”

     Thus, after Brown vs. The Board of Education at Topeka, which outlawed segregated public schools, the sanitized, disembodied pop culture of the 1950’s began to unravel.  “It is significant,” Cleaver wrote, “that the Twist and the Hula Hoop came at the end of the Eisenhower era.” And then the Beatles arrived.

     “The popular music of urban Negroes – which was known as Rhythm and Blues before whites appropriated and distilled it into a product they called Rock and Roll,” the author of Soul on Ice continued, “is the basic ingredient, the core of the gaudy, cacophonous hymns with which the Beatles of Liverpool drive their hordes of… fans into catatonia and hysteria. For Beatle fans, having been alienated from their own Bodies for so long and so deeply, the effect of these potent erotic rhythms is electric.”

     Add to this erotic surge the fact that most of the band’s audience were post-War “baby boomers” – the oldest, then, being eighteen, all of them a roiling jangle of adolescent and pre-adolescent hormones – and electric became explosive.  The girls had to scream.  The boys never got that image out of their heads.

     Fifties and early sixties pop music had been dominated by the likes of Pat Boone, who covered r ’n’ b tunes but whitened them so much Pepsodent could have shared producing credit.  Deracinated, emasculated and disembodied interpretations of songs like “Ain’t That A Shame” (by Fats Domino),  “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” (both by Little Richard) made Boone the number two record seller of the period, just behind Elvis Presley. 
    
     The King, to be sure, paved the way for the Beatles.  As Cleaver saw it, “(The beatniks and) Elvis dared to do in the light of day what white America had long been doing in the sneak-thief anonymity of night – consort on a human level with blacks.” But Pat Boone and Elvis Presley coexisted peacefully. Not so Boone and the Beatles; the fab four’s preeminence abruptly ended his career.

     In a 2012 interview, the fifties star confided, “they had 5 of the top 10 records at once and were selling about 40 or 50% of all pop records… It knocked my record royalties into a cocked hat.” Once a superstar, Boone stopped performing, and turned to selling prints of Beatles oil paintings, some of which hang in Liverpool’s The Cavern to this day.

     So… 50 years ago, white audiences were ready to hear black music played blackly.  John Lennon said in an interview back then that his favorite act was an r ’n’ b girl group called the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), whose approach to vocal harmony can be heard in every song the Beatles performed during their first Ed Sullivan show. They opened their third Sullivan gig, on February 23, 1964, with “Twist and Shout” by Motown’s Isley Brothers.  And a few weeks later, Capitol Records released The Beatles Second Album, featuring six rhythm and blues covers: “Roll Over, Beethoven” (Chuck Berry), “You Really Got a Hold on Me” (Smokey Robinson), “Money” (Berry Gordy), “Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Please, Mr. Postman” (The Marvelettes) and “Devil in Her Heart” (The Donays).

     On “Long Tall Sally,” Paul McCartney didn’t so much adapt Little Richard as channel him, just as he did Fats Domino a few years later on “Lady Madonna,” his homage to the great South Carolina singer/songwriter. And what became known as “the British invasion” in the wake of the Beatles appearance on Sullivan consisted, essentially, of English rock bands releasing and performing faithful renditions of African-American r ’n’ b tunes. 

     Half the tracks on the Rolling Stones’ first U.S. LP were just such covers: “Carol” (Chuck Berry), “I’m a King Bee” (Slim Harpo), “Can I Get a Witness” (Holland-Dozier-Holland), “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” (Willie Dixon), “Walking the Dog” (Rufus Thomas) and “Route 66” (Bobby Troop, a white writer whose composition had already been recorded by Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry).   Their second album featured Berry’s “Around and Around” and “Come On,” as well as Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.”

     The Animals had a big hit with Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” and great success, live and on record, with John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom Boom Boom” and Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul.”  Even the Dave Clark Five had a deserved Billboard chart-topper with their soulful version of Berry Gordy’s “Do You Love Me.”   

     All of these English rockers had completely assimilated African-American pop music, then re-presented it in a way that enabled white Americans to hear it for the first time as it truly was – un-sanitized, sensual and and sexy. Europe had been starved for records from the U.S. throughout World War II and the immediate post-war period.  When budding musicians like John, Paul, George and Ringo; Mick, Keith and Brian; the Erics (Burdon and Clapton) and, yes, even Dave Clark and Mike Smith finally got their hands on vinyl from the States in the fifties, they couldn’t stop listening.  Their obsession with black American pop, and their reproduction of it, became infectious.  White America rediscovered the music, along with its physicality and subversiveness.

     Years later, while in college, I realized that British bands' passion for  rhythm and blues was similar to French New Wave directors' passion for Hollywood cinema in the late fifties and early sixties.  Having had no access to U.S.-made films during the German Occupation, young auteurs like Francois Truffaut and Jean-luc Godard consumed them ravenously after the war, then reintroduced Americans to the cream of the crop with articles in Cahiers du Cinema and with their own movies, filled as they were with homages to Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Fuller and Lang, among others.

     It was inevitable that groundbreaking New Wave filmmakers and British invaders would meet.  Expatriate director Richard Lester’s A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, like French films of the period, was shot in black and white and energized with jump cuts. When the Beatles contemplated a documentary about themselves, John Lennon wanted Jean-luc Godard to direct it.  Paul preferred Michael Lindsay-Hogg (son of Orson Welles, a god to the New Wave), who ultimately directed LET IT BE.  Godard, instead, helmed ONE PLUS ONE/SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL with the Rolling Stones.

     What early sixties French cinema and English rock ’n’ roll had in common was a new sense of internationalism in the aftermath of World War II.  The planet had shrunk.  16 million American men and women lived in Europe for over 3 years during the war, spreading U.S. culture and absorbing that of the continent.  This was in sharp contrast to the xenophobia both fueling and fueled by U.S. isolationism between the world wars.

     When the Beatles arrived at Idlewild airport on February 7, 1964, regularly scheduled transcontinental jet travel was only five years old.  Their PanAm Boeing 707 from London shared the tarmac with large, commercial turboprop planes.  The rapid and continuing increase in international mobility also contributed to post war globalism that fused British and American rock and roll.

      So did scientific advances.  Cold war investment in education, referred to above, increased exponentially when the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space in 1957. And five years later, a mere nineteen months before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, AT&T and Bell Labs launched Telstar, the world’s first communication satellite.  Hard to imagine a world before communications satellites!  But that technology was so new, the band would  participate in the very first transnational telecast, seen round the world performing  “All You Need is Love” live via satellite on June 25, 1967.

     By then, three years after Sullivan, the Beatles had changed the world and it had changed them.  No longer “disembodied,” their white fans embraced black music and moved from the Twist and the Watusi to writhing at Grateful Dead-driven “acid tests” as well as to the music of the fab four.  The boys themselves took LSD and recommended it to one and all. George Harrison wandered the streets of Haight-Ashbury during the “summer of love” while, in England, Paul McCartney helped introduce the world to Jimi Hendrix.  John preached “love and peace,” later earning the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover and getting on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War.  All the while, the group's music became stunningly bold, as songs incorporated sitars and tablas, orchestras, sound effects, complex time signatures and avant-garde experiments, and they pushed the bounds of existing recording technology.

     All of which makes it feel a little weird to celebrate the Beatles’ semi-centennial with cuddly grandpas Paul and Ringo leading us in sing-alongs of the band’s safest songs.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s sweet to watch audience members who clearly fell in love while listening to this tune or that chiming in with such gusto.  Delightful to see how deeply the two surviving Beatles love each other and how fondly they recall John and George.

     But what I remember is the fab four as agents of change.  I remember discovering Motown and Howlin’ Wolf and all kinds of great music because of the Beatles and the Stones.  I remember coming to expect that each new record, from “Rubber Soul” on, would take me to places I’d never been.  I remember, as a young teen, learning the term “consciousness” from the Beatles, and also learning that it was something to “expand.”   I remember getting the idea from them that popular artists grow by taking risks, in and outside of their work.  And that risk-taking was a good thing.