Sunday, November 21, 2010

Music To Their Ears

"Genius" is a term that gets used today with surprising inaccuracy. Much like the word "diva," its broad applications have cheapened its meaning.
  • Someone who can tie his shoelaces is cynically referred to as a genius.
  • It's not uncommon to hear someone ask "What genius came up with that idea?"
While someone with a high IQ may be labeled a genius (or nicknamed "Einstein"), the genius label takes on new meaning when applied to a person's creativity.
  • Some people, who desire to be recognized for their creative prowess, may only be wannabe geniuses (people who are far more ordinary than they wish to believe).
  • Some people, lacking genius of their own, have managed to carve out careers on the backs of true geniuses by showcasing or recreating the work of major artists whose output has often been described as being touched by genius.
  • Then, of course, there are the people -- few and far between -- who are true geniuses. 
These three types of artistic genius don't always hang out together. By examining how they are depicted, it's possible to get a better handle on what constitutes real genius.

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An Indian film that was recently shown at the Eighth Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, Bollywood and BeyondGandu (asshole) is the story of a young man living in Kolkata who thinks he's a genius. Rest assured, he's not.

Gandu (a Bengali slang word meaning "loser") is little more than an angry 20-year-old slacker who hates his life, hates his prostitute mother, hates work, hates Indian society, and prefers to spend his days masturbating. His only friend is a rickshaw driver who is obsessed with martial artist Bruce Lee.

Meanwhile, his appetite for hard drugs is underwritten by pathetic attempts at purchasing a winning lottery ticket and Gandu's childlike ability to crawl on hands and knees past the bed where his mother is having sex with her boyfriend, Dasbabu (the proprietor of a local Internet café), and steal money from the man's wallet.

Gandu and Rickshaw Boy

The one talent Gandu can lay claim to is his ability to write and perform scathing Bengali rap lyrics which express his rage at the world around him. As the filmmaker explains:
"Gandu is a rapper. The average Bengali has probably never come across rap. This is the land of melody. Gandu hates melody. He finds extreme words that are shunned by the mainstream, and crafts songs with them. He plays the lottery, losing regularly, and he roams the city aimlessly. Inside a cyber café, he downloads porn and rap, clocking a girl who Skypes endlessly with her boyfriend somewhere far away.
The rickshawala is a young guy, a wicked rider of the rickshaw. His body plays to a rhythm that is one with the streets he moves on. His rickshaw is a shrine of Bruce Lee. Gandu watches him from a distance. They become friends in a weird manner. Gandu begins to pour out his desires. He talks about rap, he talks about hate, he talks about society, and he talks about anger. The rickshaw puller shows him smack. Together, they dive into the shadows, into a dark space where fantasy is the only reality.
Throughout the film, we get the feeling that Gandu is curious about the dark Goddess, Kali. Kali is a Goddess of the night, a pagan icon. She dwells in crematoriums and is celebrated by outlaws. Blood is her symbol, and she is also hailed as the ultimate dark sexual force. 
His friend takes him off to some strange space. They find themselves in a temple, they are given some strange drug by a Sadhu, they wake up under a mammoth tree, and a poet tells them that Gandu is, in fact, the hero of a film. Reality and fiction, surreal and bizarre come together as Gandu hurtles towards a wild finale. He wins the lottery, he finds himself in bed with an alien sex kitten, he decides to cut a demo, and performs as a star. But are these dreams, or are they really happening? Will Gandu be a victim of his own nightmare?"

At a certain point, it becomes difficult to tell if the audience is watching Gandu's story, the filmmaker's story, or the visions of a heroin-addled mind. There are scenes of Gandu having fairly intense sex with a woman as well as shots of a disbelieving Gandu actually winning the lottery.

Shot primarily in beautiful black-and-white, there are many parts of Gandu that evoke surprising memories of John Greyson's 2009 film opera, Fig Trees. The most fascinating sequences in Gandu are the music videos in which this angry young man (with no future except what he can conjure up in his drug-induced delusions) pours out his rage and bile to the camera.

Gandu feels very much like a filmmaker's early attempts to stretch his artistic muscles. While the protagonist and whatever story line can be found in the film may seem distasteful to some audiences, there is no avoiding the fact that the director, Quashik Mukherjee (who prefers to be known as "Q"), knows what he's doing with a camera. Here's the trailer:

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Down in San MateoBroadway By the Bay closed out its season with one of Scott Siegel's Broadway By The Year evenings imported from New York. The presentation was split between two years (1930 for the first act, and 1964 for the second). However, poor sound engineering amplified each singer's vocal weaknesses more than their assets.

Music director, Ross Patterson also made some surprisingly misguided choices. Why would anyone choose to end "Sunrise, Sunset" (from Fiddler on the Roof) on a major chord? Who in their right mind would ask a big, brassy belter like Mary Testa to sing a love song from an operetta by Sigmund Romberg?

It boggles the mind.

In Act I, George and Ira Gershwin stood front and center with selections from Girl Crazy (I Got Rhythm, Embraceable You) as well as the title song from Strike Up The Band. Songs from Cole Porter's revue, The New Yorkers, included Love For Sale  and "Take Me Back To Manhattan."

"My First Love, My Last Love: from Nina Rosa proved to be a charmer as well as a song from Three's A Crowd (written by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz) entitled Body and Soul. Versatile singer/tap dancer Noah Racey added quite a bit of zest to the first act with his dancing.

The second act's focus on 1964 (one of the best years for musicals on Broadway) had some surprising choices (five songs from Fiddler). Marc Kudisch took a crack at If I Were A Rich Man and teamed up with Mary Testa for "Do You Love Me?"

Scott Coulter sang "Miracle of Miracles" preceded by one of the songs that had been cut from the show during its out-of-town tryout in Detroit. In what was -- at least for me -- the highlight of the evening, "The Richest Man in the World" demonstrated what made Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick such an incredibly sensitive songwriting team.

Scott Coulter scored strongly with his rendition of the title song from Stephen Sondheim's big flop (Anyone Can Whistle). While brief mention was made of What Makes Sammy Run? (which had music and lyrics by Ervin Drake), no one bothered to sing Steve Lawrence's big hit, "A Room Without Windows."

1964 was a banner year for composer Jule Styne, who had two big (and troubled) musicals open that spring. Funny Girl premiered on March 26 at the Winter Garden, rocketing Barbra Streisand to stardom. Carole J. Bufford opened the second act with "Don't Rain On My Parade" (which was followed a bit later by Mary Testa belting out Styne's raucous "Cornet Man").

Marc Kudisch sang "My Fortune Is My Face" from Fade Out, Fade In (which opened exactly two months later at the Mark Hellinger Theatre with Carol Burnett as its star). How I wish the program had included either "The Usher From the Mezzanine" or Burnett's Act II big torch song, "Go Home, Train."

Jerry Herman's first big hit show (Hello, Dolly!) was represented by "Before the Parade Passes By" and "It Only Takes A Moment." While Hello, Dolly! was playing to sold-out audiences at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street, a musicalization of 1937's play by Clifford OdetsGolden Boy (with music by Charles Strouse and lyrics by Lee Adams), was playing across the street at the Majestic. I was surprised that Siegel chose a rather lackluster song instead of "While the City Sleeps," "I Want To Be With You," or the rousing "Don't Forget 127th Street."

Sadly, there were no songs offered from High Spirits, which boasts the great "Home Sweet Heaven" (music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray). Much to my surprise, Noah Racey sang "I Got Everything I Want" (with music and lyrics by Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman) from the ill-fated Buddy Hackett vehicle, I Had A Ball. A much better choice would have been the show's rousing title song (which, to my knowledge, is the only title song of a Broadway musical that featured a belly dancer).

The following clip from the Ed Sullivan Show features Broadway belter Karen Morrow (with a voice that could rival Ethel Merman) singing the hell out of the title song from I Had A Ball. Although the sound is out of sync with the video, Morrow's clarion voice never ceases to thrill.

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Born in Toronto on September 25, 1932, Glenn Gould was hailed by many as a child prodigy. As he grew older, his eccentricities became almost as famous as his music making. Directed by Michele Hozer and Peter Raymont, a new documentary entitled Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould examines the life of a man whose multiple talents were undeniable, but whose personality resisted the traditional career path of a concert pianist.

Under the guidance of his teacher, Alberto Guerrero, Gould developed a striking technique (known as finger tapping). In addition to singing or humming whenever he played, he used a chair that placed him in a very different physical relationship with the keyboard than typical pianists.

A replica of Glenn Gould's chair

Blessed with a tremendous amount of archival footage, this documentary includes clips showing Gould during his triumphant tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 as well as in rehearsal studios and concert stages across North America. A musician whose innate intelligence in some ways prevented him from falling into the trap of becoming a classical freak show, Gould shocked the classical music world when he abandoned the concert stage at the age of 31.

Like Barbra Streisand, Gould loved to make music but dreaded having to live up to the expectations of a live audience (he was much more at home in a recording studio). His feelings on the subject became so intense that he developed an acronym, GPAADAK, which stood for the "Gould Plan for the Abolition of Applause and Demonstrations of All Kinds."

A talented composer, orchestrator, broadcaster, and conductor, Gould continually sent shock waves through the classical music industry. To get a sense of how radical some of  his musical interpretations seemed to his colleagues, just listen to this speech given by Leonard Bernstein prior to a performance of the Brahms piano concerto No. 1 in D minor with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould also examines Gould's private life (he had a long affair with Cornelia Foss, the wife of Lukas Foss) and his subsequent work as a radio documentarian for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. By the time Cornelia left him in 1972 to return to her husband, Gould was relying heavily on antidepressants and showing increased symptoms of paranoia. By the time Gould died on October 4, 1982 at the age of 50, he was a shell of the promising young man who had taken the world by storm.

Glenn Gould at the keyboard

What I find so fascinating about Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould is how richly it fills in gaps in Gould's life that have eluded the general public's knowledge of this fascinating musician. Particularly moving are the interviews with Cornelia Foss's grown children (who were too young to understand what was happening when their parents separated and when Cornelia left Gould to return to her husband).  This is a complex documentary about an incredibly complex man that will challenge you, entertain you, and occasionally take your breath away with its beauty. Here's the trailer:

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