Friday, June 12, 2015


     Judith Malina, co-founder of The Living Theatre, died on April 10th at 88 years of age.  I had the privilege of meeting her about seven years earlier, while renting an apartment on New York’s Clinton Street, a few doors from the company’s performance space.  On my way home one night, I asked a troupe-member on a smoking break if Ms. Malina was still active.  Yes, he said, she was directing their upcoming play about Edgar Allan Poe. 

     When I told him how deeply her work had affected me long before I ever thought about working in the arts, he suggested I come inside to meet her.  She was gracious, grand and generous, ultimately inviting me to watch rehearsals whenever I liked. 

     Sitting in on that process was eye opening for me because Ms. Malina’s brand of theatre was designed to seem spontaneous and unrehearsed.  Yet to make the play feel as alive and in-the-moment as she wanted it to - to allow for alterations in tone as audience responses varied from night to night - the core of the piece had to be crystal clear to actors and rehearsed with rigor and precision.

     Decades ago, when Judith Malina and her husband, Julian Beck, made their biggest waves, a term like “spontaneity” would have been too tame for them; “revolutionary” was more appropriate.  Mr. Beck, Ms.Malina and their troupe were pioneers in exploding conventions as basic as the imaginary fourth wall between spectators and performers.  As basic as actors wearing costumes.

     That’s right, costumes!  The first time I saw Judith Malina, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a 1968 performance of Paradise Now, she was stark naked.  Naked and challenging onlookers with the chant, “To be free is to be responsible.”

     The production sent shock waves through all of pop culture.   Jim Morrison’s arrest for indecent exposure onstage in Florida came shortly after he’d seen Paradise Now.  Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck were his muses.

     A sequence in Brian DePalma’s 1970 film HI MOM, known as “Be Black, Baby,” depicts an underground theatre performance in which bourgeois white patrons are brutalized by an acting troupe and love it.  DePalma’s brilliant faux cinema verite set piece ends with an audience member declaring, “Clive Barnes was right!”  Mr. Barnes, a New York Times reviewer, was indeed an early supporter of Ms. Malina and Mr. Beck’s work.

     Spurred by such critical support and a modicum of commercial success, other theatre companies engaging in radical experimentation began to reach wider audiences.  Richard Schechner’s Performance Group on New York’s Wooster Street triumphantly staged Dionysus in 69, a confrontational approach to classical characters comparable to The Living Theatre’s Antigone. The San Francisco Mime Troupe travelled the country with innovative outdoor productions of Brecht.  And Jerzy Grotowski’s Polish Lab Theatre toured the U.S. with its aim of “encountering the spectator – intimately, directly, not hiding behind… wardrobe mistresses, stage designers or make-up artists.”

     But Judith Malina’s late sixties success hardly overnight; The Living Theatre was founded in 1947. At that time, its focus was not on the fourth wall, but on dramatic language.  Conventional playwrights simply didn’t capture Ms. Malina’s vision of how to awaken audiences from their somnolence. So the company staged productions by Jean Cocteau, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and William Carlos Williams, among other non-traditional playwrights.

     Later, they took on gritty subject matter with dramas like Jack Gelber’s The Connection (1959) – about heroin addicts - and Kenneth H. Brown’s The Brig (1963) – about a Marine prison.   Both were adapted into powerful films, the former by Shirley Clark in 1961, the latter by Jonas Mekas in 1964.  Mr. Mekas’s made his movie to preserve Ms. Malina’s Obie Award-winning production after the IRS shut down the company’s West Village space.  His cinema verite-style filmmaking and the company’s acting were so intense that, according to critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, European viewers thought they were watching a documentary.

     Meanwhile, The Living Theatre’s tax problem afforded Judith Malina an opportunity to merge life and art.  Dressed as Portia from The Merchant of Venice, she defended Julian Beck at his tax evasion hearing.  But her performance was not successful, at least from a legal standpoint.  

     So The Living Theatre spent the next few years touring Europe, developing ever more radical form and content for their work, returning to the U.S. in 1969 with bold productions of Frankenstein, Antigone and the infamous Paradise Now.  Like novelist/activist Emmett Grogan (Ringolevio), they were reborn during their decade of self-exile on the continent.

     The fertile ground of 1960’s popular culture, however, proved to be exceptional.  After the company’s 1968 tour, The Living Theatre remained intact and innovative, but their cage rattling took place on the fringes.  And in 1975, Judith Malina made an unforgettable foray into the mainstream, playing Sonny’s (Al Pacino’s) mother in DOG DAY AFTERNOON.

     According to director Sydney Lumet, casting Ms. Malina was Mr. Pacino’s idea. And it paid off in spades, much as casting Lee Strasberg as THE GODFATHER PART II’s Hyman Roth had.

     Director Milton Ginsberg pointed out to me how generous and courageous it was for Mr. Strasberg to take the part:  his reputation as a groundbreaking acting teacher on a par even with Stanislavsky was secure regardless, but anything less than greatness in Francis Coppola’s film might have tarnished him.  The same was true for Ms. Malina. Her achievements in avant-garde theatre were legendary, and run-of-the-mill work in DOG DAY would have disappointed her admirers, myself included, and potentially diminished her stature.  But what she delivered was awe-inspiring.

     During the time I spent with The Living Theatre in 2008 a company member shared a story about Al Pacino’s ongoing support of its co-founder. When Julian Beck died in 1985, the multiple Academy Award-winning actor paid for the funeral and burial, asking in return only that no one mention his generosity to the press.

     Ms. Malina couldn’t afford to pay herself; avant-garde theatre simply doesn’t make money.  When she appeared in DOG DAY AFTERNOON, in fact, the production had to cover her bus fare to New York from the Vermont commune on which she lived.  And in 2013, even with considerable contributions from Al Pacino and Yoko Ono, The Living Theatre was forced to close its Clinton Street space.

     The theatre shut its doors for good, and Judith Malina went to live in the Lillian Booth Home for Retired Artists.  She’d had a 66-year run.  Not bad! 

     As I write this piece, I reflect on how her life and work connect to filmmaking.  Of course, there are the movies themselves – THE CONNECTION, THE BRIG, DOG DAY AFTERNOON (along with ENEMIES: A LOVE STORY, THE ADDAMS FAMILY, AWAKENINGS, LOOKING FOR RICHARD and even an episode of THE SOPRANOS).  There are the motion pictures she influenced: HI MOM, THE DOORS and others.  And there’s the age-old bond between theatre and cinema per se. 

     But Judith Malina’s strongest link to making movies is that her uncompromising nature and her vision continue to inspire all of us who got to see her work.  She dared to be bold and authentic to a degree most of us forget we can.  Her legacy makes us aim higher.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015


     Kenneth Branagh’s CINDERELLA is delightful.  Shots of geese early in the movie foreshadow the role one such creature will play in getting our long-suffering heroine to and from the ball.  But the imagery also suggests that Mr. Branagh’s film is going to be silly.  Unashamedly sentimental and melodramatic, never above slapstick to get a laugh, it is, after all, for the kids.

     Yet the movie is clearly stamped with the mark of its auteur.  When Ella is first smitten by the prince she mistakes for an apprentice, the director has her sing a ditty from Shakespeare’s MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.  During a stag hunt, Mr. Branagh uses tracking shots that recall the Battle of Agincourt in his glorious production of HENRY V.  And that film’s “chorus,” Derek Jacobi, plays the king in CINDERELLA, here to assure viewers that performances will be as well-honed as they are in all Kenneth Branagh films.

     Thus what might have been an insufferable iteration of an old Disney franchise is, instead, exciting cinema – so exciting it brings to mind Ingmar Bergman’s THE MAGIC FLUTE.  The usually brooding Swedish director opened his movie with shots of his awestruck daughter listening to Mozart’s buoyant overture; the opera, of course, is also “for the kids.” And Bergman’s filmmaking, like Branagh’s in CINDERELLA, was as masterful as it had ever been.  Excellent craftsmanship is apparent in the pace achieved by longtime Bergman editor, Siv Lundgren, and in the exquisite  cinematography of the director’s erstwhile partner-in-film, Sven Nykvist.

     Collaborating with the same talented people from picture to picture is always a boon to filmmakers.  Its value is evident in Bergman’s teamwork, as it is in Fellini’s partnerships with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and composer Nino Rota, Hitchcock’s associations with cutter George Tomasini and composer Bernard Herrmann and Woody Allen’s long runs with designer Santo Loquasto and editors Susan Morse and Alisa Lepselter.  Over the years, from movie to movie, directors and their teams develop a shorthand communication that makes the work easier and better.

     The list of similar such collaborations is endless, and surely includes – to come back to CINDERELLA – Kenneth Branagh’s work with composer Patrick Doyle.  Mr. Doyle’s contribution to the Disney fairy tale is as enormous as it was to HENRY V.  In that picture, his music enhanced the Peckinpah-like ferocity of the Battle of Agincourt as well as it underlined the deep emotions of Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day speech.  In addition the music unified the movie’s many varied tones.

     Mr. Doyle’s scores are an integral part not only of Mr. Branagh’s Shakespeare films (including HAMLET, MUCH ADO, TWELFTH NIGHT and AS YOU LIKE IT along with HENRY V), they lift spectacles like THOR, MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN and CINDERELLA high above mere commercial fare.  (Although Mr. Branagh’s LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST is one of my cherished guilty pleasures, it’s not completely successful, in part because its soundtrack consists primarily of old standards; Patrick Doyle wrote only incidental music for the picture.)

     The emotional colors of CINDERELLA, like those of HENRY V, are, indeed, diverse.  While at times the movie is “as silly as a goose,” it’s also infused with the sadness of loss, the melancholy of class distinctions and the romance of young lovers so smitten they ignore the rigid rules of social stratification.  There’s the heart-quickening tension of deep and magical secrets almost exposed, there’s vengefulness and forgiveness.  There’s the suggestion that all will end badly (even though we know it won’t), there’s the giddily happy ending.  And all are woven into a coherent whole by Patrick Doyle’s rich symphonic underscore.

     Many CINDERELLA viewers, like myself, found themselves welling up from beginning to end.  That, too, is a result of the composer’s rich, melodic music.  Of course the score is manipulative.  But the reason we watch a fairy tale, in the end, is to have our emotions played with.

     And after the final cathartic cry, Mssrs. Branagh and Doyle bestow a little gift upon those who sit through CINDERELLA’s tail credits.  As the titles roll on, Mr. Doyle’s original music ends and his arrangement of  “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” (from the animated 1950 Disney feature), now sung by Helena Bonham-Carter, takes over the soundtrack. Also known as “The Magic Song,” “Bibbid-Bobbidi-Boo” is the perfect coda to the magical experience of Mr. Branagh’s movie.

     I left CINDERELLA thinking I’d just heard a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score next February.  When Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was released this time last year its brilliant balalaika music by Alexandre Desplat made me feel the same way.  M. Deplat’s soundtrack was brilliant, but I wondered if the Academy’s music branch and its general membership would remember it eleven months down the road.  They did and GRAND BUDAPEST’s composer picked up the coveted trophy.  I won’t be surprised if Patrick Doyle does the same for CINDERELLA. 


Wednesday, February 25, 2015


     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.