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Muscle Shoals

Film Review: “Muscle Shoals” – Music Muscle from the Deep South

A 2013 documentary about an Alabama musical legacy, Muscle Shoals brings to light and life a group of musicians who never had their day in the sun.

Muscle Shoals

Two iconic recording studios in the tiny town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama – FAME (est. 1959) and its spin-off Muscle Shoals Sound (1960) – became the “must have” sound for, among others, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynrd, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Etta James, and many other legendary Rock-and-Roll artists. The magic of a group of background musicians, who called themselves the “Swampers,” some of whom were classically trained, were the touchstone of FAME. The Swampers were all white (a fact that was to surprise Paul Simon). Keep in mind this is the early 60’s.

Muscle Shoals, which premiered at the Sundance Music Festival in January of 2013, is the love story of America’s music roots in the Deep South. For this viewer, some of the most spellbinding scenes focus on Rick Hall, the pioneer and open-minded founder of FAME studio. Hall’s own poverty and family upheavals allowed him to empathize with the racial hostility young music artists of color faced in most of the United States, not just the south. Before the Civil Rights Movement became a force shaping our country’s history, FAME gave some of our most creative musicians their break in the music business. The film gives the impression that the principals of FAME were unaware of the significance of their race-neutral music production.

Hall was to bring black and white music together. He produced signature music: “I’ll Take You There,” “Brown Sugar,” and “When A Man Loves a Woman”. White studio musicians were to make unknown black artists famous.

Muscle-Shoals-sign

Muscle Shoals bears witness to how Hall’s color-blind passion for music infused a magnetism, mystery, and magic into the music that became known as the Muscle Shoals Sound. The filmmaker allows the key players to speak for themselves, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Etta James. On its own, the cinematography of Muscle Shoals, the backwater town along the Tennessee River is an eye opener. And Muscle Shoals is not to be missed for its music history, racial progressiveness, and its imagery. It’s a visceral and magical vision!

Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

Postscript:

1.) The original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios building is listed in on The National Register of Historic Places and maintained by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to turn the historic building into a music museum.

2.) FAME is still owned by Rick Hall and his son Rodney. Beats Electronics, because of this film, is underwriting the renovation of FAME to support young musicians.

3.) Actor Johnny Depp is developing this movie into a TV series, according to Variety.

You can read more from writer, artist and retired Stanford professor Diana Y. Paul at her blog Unhealed Wound:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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Strawberry Fields Forever

The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz, read by Alfred Molina (Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.95, 9 CDs – running time: 10 hours and 13 minutes)

Be careful what you wish for…  Or, in this case, the fellows who would eventually become the iconic rock group, The Beatles, were in for a shock when they got what they worked so hard to achieve – being the Toppermost of the Poppermost.   According to Bob Spitz, the author of this band biography, attempting to perform before an audience of hysterically screaming teenage girls is very tiring and puts one’s best musical efforts aside for the mere fact of being there in person on stage.

The usual biographical story line follows the lads from their early efforts at becoming popular and famous.   It’s well known that diligent practice, some songwriting and struggles to get gigs led them from Liverpool, England to Hamburg, Germany and back to Liverpool.   Eventually, they played to the USA audience via television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Well, as an ancient radio show host would say, “Now, you’re gonna hear the rest of the story.”   Spitz invested countless hours of research and sleuthing to come up with a more in-depth and, in some situations, gut-wrenching back story of The Beatles life cycle, from unknowns to way-too-famous performers.   This reviewer listened to the audio version of the book narrated by Alfred Molina, who is himself a well-known actor in films and on stage.   Molina’s confident depiction of the various voices and accents is a real listening pleasure.   It also helps to have a well-written narrative which Spitz delivers chapter after chapter.

The saga comes to life with frequent quotes from the people who populated The Beatles’ world (e.g., Brian Epstein, Sir George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe and his wife, etc.).   To his credit, Spitz did not include any of the band’s music in the audio book.   Whether this was due to the cost of the needle-drop or a conscious choice, it kept this listener focused on the interactions and emotions felt by all involved.

Honestly, it’s easy to jump on one’s laptop, go to You Tube and enjoy their  music.   It’s more of a challenge to stay with the biography and learn that these adorable fellows had plenty of emotional baggage and personal interactions that did not always bode well for the group.   Also, the rock scene in England and the USA was fueled by a wide array of illegal drug use.   The Beatles enjoyed their share of drugs, girls and fame.   Donovan was a pal as were other famous British rockers.   In the end it all fell apart and they were a group – a band – for less than a decade.

As the final track of  the CD closed out, this reviewer felt the enormous loss of something magical, something heard for the first time over a Ford Falcon station wagon radio as Martha drove the carpool group to our northern California high school.   It was love at first listen and it still is…

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   It is available via Audible.com .

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When You Wish Upon a Star

Last Night at Chateau Marmont: A Novel by Lauren Weisberger (Washington Square Press, $15.00, 384 pages)

“You have to be ruthless about your privacy.”

Lights, camera, action!   Lauren Weisberger’s latest novel makes the reader feels like she’s watching a movie.   Devoted wife and nutritionist, Brooke Alter, has supported her talented singer/songwriter husband, Julian, for years as he refines his talents.   Brooke works two jobs and yet still manages to attend most of Julian’s performances at local New York City bars and nightclubs.

All through these formative years, Julian and Brooke manage to keep their relationship healthy and meaningful.   Then, the obvious occurs when Julian’s marginal contract with Sony becomes a ticket to stardom thanks to a photo opportunity with a gorgeous woman.   The story line is foreseeable.   The studious, devoted wife of a dedicated musician must learn to cope with his success and fame all the while trying to keep in tact her own career as a registered dietician.   The paparazzi provide more fodder for Julian’s notoriety with more than a little help from him.   Brooke is thrown into a melee of popping flashbulbs and tabloid lies/half-truths.

Along the way the reader meets the families and the friends of both Julian and Brooke.   Brooke’s BFF, Nola, is a real treasure.   We should be so lucky to have her for a buddy.   A few real-life rock stars and acting celebrities are thrown in to heighten the mood and give a sense of scale to Julian’s newly anointed status as a rock star.

This reviewer had a malingering sense of impending doom for Brooke and Julian’s relationship and Brooke’s career.   Author Weisberger builds enough tension to keep the reader’s attention and foster plenty of sympathy for Brooke’s plight.   No spoiler alert needed.

This is chick lit at its most polished and predictable best.   Why go to the trouble of courting fame and fortune if you can’t enjoy it?

Recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Last Night at Chateau Marmont was released in trade paperback form on June 14, 2011.

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It Won’t Be Long

The Girl Who Became a Beatle by Greg Taylor

“I wish I were as famous as a Beatle.”

Sixties-inspired musician-songwriter Regina Bloomsbury is casting about for ways to keep her garage band from dissolving when, in frustration, she makes the wish that her band was as famous as the Beatles.   Fame, she reasons, would fix the problems in her life:  no boyfriend, a shaky self-image, and loneliness.   Enter the fairy godmother who Regina didn’t know she had, and suddenly she’s not just as famous as the Beatles, she’s inherited their place in history and their entire catalog of music.

Life in the Grammy lane is fab, but being the smart 16-year-old she is, Regina comes to understand the tradeoffs that go along with fame and world popularity.   Then the question becomes, Should she stay or should she go?

The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Feiwal and Friends, an imprint of MacMillan) is a rock ‘n’ roll-themed fairy tale for a young adult audience.   Though there is the drama of a girl-on-girl fight scene, for the most part the story maintains the innocence of the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” days.   The plot is fast-paced; the ending is satisfying, even though it’s predictable; and the characters are interesting “types.”   There’s the supportive, cool-in-a-Cosbysort-of-way dad; the divorced mom who’d rather be a big sister; and the soulful band-mate love interest.   The problem is that the characters never step off the stage and run with the story.   Even Regina remains flat, especially when she wonders things like, “Are all teenagers like that?   Ricocheting from despair to euphoria within one turn of the minute hand?  If so, no wonder we’re always so exhausted?”

If the novel has the “tell, don’t show” feel of a screenplay, it’s probably because author Greg Taylor was a screenwriter before he started writing novels.   This is his second.   His first, Killer Pizza, is being made into a movie for 2013 release by Italian producer Raffaella De Laurentis (The Forbidden Kingdom, The Last Legion, Dragonheart: A New Beginning).   And according to the publisher, De Laurentis has optioned the film rights to The Girl Who Became a Beatle, too.

If you’re a YA reader who favors light, fast-paced, feel-good fantasies, don’t wait for the move version.   You’ll like The Girl Who Became a Beatle.   Especially if you’ve ever dreamed of any kind of stardom.

Recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell Steffen

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Girl Who Became a Beatle was released on February 15, 2011.

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Everything Lovely

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel by first-time author Jenny Hollowell will be released by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. on June 8, 2010.   Here is a preview look including a synopsis of the novel, blurbs from other authors and an excerpt from its opening pages.

Synopsis

A young woman caught at the turning point between success and failure hopes fame and fortune will finally let her leave her old life – and her old self – behind.   Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.   At twenty-two, she sets off to do just that.   Walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents, she leaves behind her small-town, part-time life and gets on a bus to Los Angeles.

Quotes

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe introduces a strong new voice, poised and sharp, beautifully suited to both the satiric task of dismantling Hollywood, and the empathetic one of rendering a young actress’s grinding struggle for stardom.”   – Jennifer Egan

“There’s some Joan Didion here, some Lorrie Moore, some Nathanael West, but really, it’s all Jenny Hollowell, a new name to remember.”   – Christopher Tilghman

“Jenny Hollowell’s writing is gorgeous and edgy, lyrical and in-your-face.”   – Sheri Reynolds

Excerpt

Prologue

Ask Birdie how she got here and she’ll pretend she doesn’t remember.   “Honestly,” she’ll say, “it all blends together.”   She doesn’t want to talk about the past.   It’s only cocktail talk, but still everyone wants a story.   That’s Los Angeles for you.   Everything’s a pitch.   Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.

The truth is rarely filmic.   Lies are better.   Once she’d told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately was sleeping with her:  My whole family is dead.   We were in a car accident together.   My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor.   What did he say?   “What an amazing story,” which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.

Semantics, anyway.   There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.

Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass.   Two things she’s good at:  drinking and keeping secrets.   In the melting cubes she sees the past…

At her agent’s insistence her bio contains the basics:  1979, Powhatan, Virginia.   Even that doesn’t matter.   Redmond changed it to 1983.   “Whoever said thirty is the new twenty-two wasn’t trying to get you work.”   Proof positive: no one really wants the truth…

Going West and the Rest, 2001.   In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:

To Judah and My Parents,

I don’t know if you will be surprised to find this note.   I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that.   But you have to know I have no other choice.   I have been a liar and a hypocrite.   I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not.   Every day, I am full of doubt.   I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of.   Let’s hope God understands my decision.   I’m sorry.

Love, Birdie.

PS – Don’t try to find me.   I’m safe, but I’m going somewhere far away.

The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes.   For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy-faced, waiting to take her back.   But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real.   Nothing is familiar – the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs.   Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled.   She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react – her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.      

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Everybody Is A Star

Seeing Stars by Diane Hammond

“The thing about Hollywood is, it’s no different from heroin or gambling or crack cocaine, except in Hollywood the high is adrenaline.   …And, at any given moment there are ten thousand stunned and hopeful actors driving around the LA freeways, and every one of them is believing that the big break is coming just as surely as sunrise.”

Anne Lamott’s recently released novel Imperfect Birds is a nearly perfectly written story of a loving family in crisis.   In Birds, the love emotes with tension as three family members try to minimize the mistakes they inevitably make in their relationship.   Birds is both tiring – in the sense that it requires the reader’s full attention – and uplifting.

Now Diane Hammond arrives with another lovingly told family novel, Seeing Stars.   Stars is the tale of several families of acting children and their stage mothers who are seeking the fame and fortune that only Hollywood can provide.   Is the pot of gold they’re seeking real or just an illusion?   In part, it’s both.

This is primarily the story of one Ruth Rabinowitz who is almost completely sure that her daughter Bethany is destined to be one of the stars in the Hollywood night.   But Hollywood pushes back by telling Ruth that her daughter is, at best, a character actor.   Then there’s Ruth’s husband, Hugh, left behind in Seattle with his 20-year-old dental practice.  

Hugh supports his wife and daughter but honestly feels they are chasing a dream that will never come true – and the cost of maintaining an extra household in L.A. (not to mention the cost of acting lessons) is eating up all of his earnings.   Does Hugh make Ruth and Bethany return home or let them experience failure?   Will his wife and daughter prove him to be wrong?

The Rabinowitz’s story is the main one but there are several associated ones in Stars.   There’s Bethany’s sometime friend Allison Addison.   Allison is beautiful and knows it.   She also knows that her time to secure a big-time leading role is quickly running out.   Her aggressiveness hides her loneliness.

Allison is quasi-adopted by the shrewd and tough talent agent Mimi Rogers.   Mimi is tougher (“…like an old cat in the night”) than 90% of those in the business but even she must eventually meet her match.

There’s Quinn Reilly, another find of Mimi’s, who is a young James Dean.   Like Dean, he simmers with obvious talent but isn’t much with the social skills.   Will directors use him or figure it’s not worth the cost and aggravation?

Finally there’s Laurel Buehl who is talented enough to make commercials but may be lacking the personality to take the next step.   Her mother Angie has had to battle and survive cancer to be at her side.

Hammond puts all this together with charm and style.   This is an easy – and thus surprisingly fast – read because she so well cushions tension with humor.   In a sense, Hammond’s writing is like Anne Lamott or Anna Quindlen with blinders on.   That’s OK, sometimes we need a bit of a break from the harsh light of reality.

It all ends stunningly and smoothly – and must be experienced by the reader rather than explained here or elsewhere.   At the end of Seeing Stars, all of our protagonists both win and lose.   They all – each and every one of them – learn to take what they need out of life and to leave the rest.

Highly recommended.

A review copy was provided by Harper Paperbacks.

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