In Tribute to Cinematic Giant, Sidney Poitier

Sidney Poitier was an iconic cinematic legend and artistic giant. In a career which spanned over 60 years, Poitier found success in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Defiant Ones (1958), Porgy and Bess (1959), A Raisin in the Sun (1961), To Sir, with Love (1967), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), and winning an Oscar for his work in the 1963 film, Lilies of the Field. Poitier was a versatile actor who brought a regal majesty to his roles, imbuing a stylish dignity to the parts; but he also had a sly sense of humor which he was able to bring to his lighter work. In the 1960s, whilst cities across the USA were seeing protests, rebellions, and tumult, Poitier was enjoying his greatest success, becoming a major box office draw. Along with his career as an actor and director, Poitier used his celebrity to draw attention to important causes, the Civil Rights in particular. At the height of his fame, he was an outspoken advocate for racial equality and he was one of the few widely popular film stars of Hollywood during the 1960s.

The cover of Sidney Poitier’s memoir
Sidney Poitier: The Measure of a Man- A Memoir
(Harper San Francisco, 2000)

Though his screen persona and inherent elegance would sometimes limit him to roles that relied on his sleek looks and gravitas, he was able to transcend even the most idealized roles by giving them more depth, humanity, and tone than the scripts would have; Poitier was in an unenviable position: as being one of the few Black film superstars, he was saddled with a responsibility to be everything to everyone. It was unfair. White audiences didn’t want him to be a three-dimensional human being and Hollywood wanted him to be an emblem (and would treat him as a token at times), but Poitier overcame these constricts and created a filmography that is rich and varied.

Top 10 The Highlights of Sidney Poitier

Blackboard Jungle (1955) – an explosive and then-innovative film that looked to urban blight and racial tensions that arise in an inner-city high school in 1950s New York City. Much of the film’s legacy is wrapped in its unflinching look at the various struggles of city public schools; Blackboard Jungle is also known for its use of rock and roll on its soundtrack. As with most films that look to chronicle the various struggles that befall on the inner-city, Blackboard Jungle is rife with issues, namely a white savior narrative as well as exploitation of trauma. Poitier – in an early performance – plays a troubled teen who starts off as a rough antagonist to the film’s protagonist (Glenn Ford), before eventually growing and developing a truce and an allegiance. As with a lot of his roles, Poitier does deep, empathetic work.

Blackboard Jungle [DVD] [1955]
Blackboard Jungle
(dir. Richard Brooks) MGM, 1955

Edge of the City (1957) – an early part of Poitier’s career, Edge of the City is a moving drama that is at-once profound and, yet still has issues that date it. The film is an important of the construction of Poitier’s screen persona – particularly, the perception of his nobility. Edge of the City talks about race and friendship as well as violence and cruelty. The script – written by Robert Alan Arthur – makes Poitier’s character a combination of ideals and norms and is typical of the “issue films” of the 1950s. Director Martin Ritt, a veteran of FDR’s WPA, and an artist who was caught up in the Hollywood Red Scare, put together a film that ticked the boxes of white liberal popular cinematic art of the mid-century. Even though Edge of the City would have a hand in some of Poitier’s casting issues later on, he gives a complex performance, doing wonderful work.

Edge of the City
Edge of the City
(dir. Martin Ritt) MGM, 1957

Porgy and Bess (1959) – The tragic musical – composed by George and Ira Gershwin – was brought to the screen by Otto Preminger. The film is an important, if curious, entry in Poitier’s oeuvre, as it wasn’t initially successful and subsequently, it failed to find a home viewing audience as well (substandard copies of the film are available). The script – written by N. Richard Nash, based on the libretto by DuBose Heyward – has a troubled story that includes difficult topics, including rape, poverty, murder, and drug addiction. Though by 1959, the movie musical was about to enter a difficult period in the genre’s history, the stark tragedy of the opera made for a difficult subject for a Hollywood musical. Poitier gives an impassioned performance (despite being dubbed by Met opera star Robert McFerrin) and is matched with the luminous, yet tragic Dorothy Dandridge.

Porgy And Bess (1959) (Region 2)
Porgy and Bess
(dir. Otto Preminger)
Columbia Pictures, 1959

A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark stage drama was made into this important film that featured a searing, explosive performance as the troubled and complex Walter Lee Younger. The play is a pointed look at housing discrimination, economic and racial prejudice, and the importance of human dignity. Hansberry’s work remains a seminal piece of art that shines a much-needed spotlight social conditions that affirm racial and economic inequities. Poitier’s performance is truly magnificent in this film and he does personable work with his costars, Ruby Dee (as his wife, Ruth) and a truly towering Claudia McNeil (as the Younger matriarch, Lena). A Raisin in the Sun poses questions about the choices people are forced to make when they are desperate and in difficult situations and Hansberry refuses to offer pat, easy answers.

A Raisin In The Sun [DVD] [1961] [2003]
A Raisin in the Sun
(dir. Daniel Petrie)
Columbia Pictures, 1961

Lilies of the Field (1963) – This film won Poitier the Oscar for Best Actor in 1963. The Ralph Nelson film – based on William Edmund Barrett’s novella – is a sentimental story about a young man, Homer Smith (Poitier) who finds himself working with a group of nuns, helping them to build a new chapel. A wary, complicated friendship develops, particularly with Homer and Mother Maria (Lilia Skala), who believes Homer has been sent by God to help. Poitier deserves the Oscar for his performance, which is warm, funny, and deeply humane. Unfortunately, after 60 years, it’s clear that the role is somewhat one-note and reinforces the idea of Black people being dropped on this earth to help and serve others, particularly whites. Homer breezes into the nuns’ lives and because his empathy (as well as pride) is manipulated by the strong-willed Mother Maria, he sticks around to help the group, and then, just as quickly, he disappears after being of use. Lilies of the Field is engaging, mainly because Poitier’s warmth and multi-layered performance.

LILIES OF THE FIELD
Lilies of the Field
(dir. Ralph Nelson) United Artists, 1963

A Patch of Blue (1965) – like a lot of Poitier’s films, A Patch of Blue is another ‘issue’ film that tackles a topic and does so with a lot drama (though maybe this film can tip a bit into melodrama). Like many of his other roles, Poitier’s Gordon Ralfe is a kind, upstanding individual tasked to help save someone: this time a young, blind woman who is an abuse victim, nearly pushed to prostitution by her monster of a mother. The actor brings an intelligence to the role and though Guy Green’s script packs a lot of bathos to the proceedings, Poitier doesn’t let his work get buried by the seemingly dramatic plot. But what makes A Patch of Blue is the sensitive way in which Green tells this story of interracial friendship, maybe love, and Poitier gives a beautiful performance.

A Patch of Blue by Warner Home Video by Guy Green
A Patch of Blue (dir. Guy Green) MGM, 1965

To Sir, with Love (1967) – One of the best high school movies ever, Poitier seems to have closed a loop of sorts, playing a student in a troubled American high school in Blackboard Jungle and in middle age, he plays a teacher at an East London school in To Sir, with Love. It’s not a perfect film – it does dip into sentimentality at times, and there are some predictable beats – but again, Poitier elevates the material with his graceful work. Because of Poitier’s popularity and star power, the film is considered a popular classic and a big hit, one of his most successful movies of his career.

To Sir, with Love
To Sir, with Love
(dir. James Clavell) Columbia, 1967

In the Heat of the Night (1967) – Norman Jewison’s atmospheric, tense, and taught drama that has political and social relevance still today, particularly when we look at the relationships between criminal justice, the police, and Black Americans. Poitier is Virgil Tibbs, a talented police officer who is racially profiled in Sparta, Mississippi, but agrees to stay in the town to help the local racist police chief (Rod Steiger in an Oscar-winning performance) solve a murder. Jewison captures a simmering, terrifying Mississippi in which Tibbs is tasked to do his work in a hostile environment, continuously reminded of the town’s antipathy for his presence. It’s a great film that doesn’t aim to show redemption or happy answers about race – instead, it’s a suspenseful thriller that works as a backdrop to social commentary about the corrosive effects of racism and bigotry.

In the Heat of the Night (The Criterion Collection)
In the Heat of the Night
(dir. Norman Jewison)
United Artists, 1967

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – Director Stanley Kramer was known for his social critique films. For Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Kramer looked to interracial marriage (it’s important to note that during the film’s production, interracial marriage was illegal in 17 states). The film is a solid comedy that is notable for being the final pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn (who won an Oscar for her work). Poitier is very good in this film – though to be honest, his role is somewhat thin. He was posited as the ideal man with little-to-no flaws, so Poitier has to work hard to make his character interesting and stand out – which he does with some charming aplomb. More so than any other performance of his career, this role relies almost exclusively on his star power and movie star charisma.

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? [DVD]
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
(dir. Stanley Kramer)
Columbia Pictures, 1967

For Love Ivy (1968) – Sidney Poitier put together this story and worked with Robert Alan Arthur, with whom he worked on Edge of the City for this romantic comedy that paired him with jazz virtuoso, Abbey Lincoln. The film was another popular hit for Poitier and it was a charming film, far lighter than most of much of his work during the 1960s. It showed that the actor as funny and very appealing; he’s a breath of fresh air.

For Love of Ivy [DVD] [US Import]
For Love of Ivy
(dir. Daniel Mann) Palomar Pictures

The prodigal daughter shines: Wynonna Judd’s debut album made her a country legend

Wynonna

On 31 March 1992, a 28 year-old Wynonna Judd released her debut album, Wynonna, and she was already a veteran of country music, recording hits for almost 10 years with her mother Naomi, as the superstar duo, the Judds. Together, the Judds had 20 top 10 country hits, 14 of them going to number one and they notched 6 platinum albums. They projected the image of a devoted mother-daughter team, which masked a complex and complicated relationship, one that is fraught with love, resentment, and a clash of outsized personalities.

The story of the Judds has become country mythology has been retold many times: Naomi Judd, the more extroverted one, was the business savvy, media-friendly Judd. Though she had a good voice and a solid songwriting prowess, she was the more ambitious drive behind the group’s success. If we’re looking for prodigious talent, though, we look to Wynonna, the shy, wildly gifted Judd, who possesses a once-in-a-lifetime boom of a voice.

That voice.

It’s a growl. It’s a roar. It’s a belt. It spans country, rock, gospel, and soul. It’s Patsy. It’s Bonnie. It’s Tina. It’s Aretha. It’s Elvis. The Judds’ biggest hits were genteel, 80s-flecked country-pop, and yet, Wynonna’s voice muscled its way past the slick, sentimental gloss with a shocking honesty and power. Few country singers possessed pipes like Wynonna Judd.

In 1990, Naomi announced she was quitting music, citing her Hepatitis C diagnosis. They went out with a bang, a gigantic stadium tour that bid farewell to the Judds but also introducing audiences to Wynonna.

The sweet elegance of the Judds always seemed a touch girly for Wynonna. Though a dyed-in-the-wool country singer, she also was a rocker. To set the stage, Wynonna opens with the Tina Turner-esque “What It Takes.” The song starts with a creeping organ and a sassy electric guitar and Wynonna’s voice, a snarl. The lyrics of the strutting song has our diva assert herself. It’s a profound – yet saucy – way of declaring her independence. Wynonna’s a very good guitarist but she’s leaving the playing to top shelf pros, “What It Takes” sports some bluesy, rock guitar licks by George Marinelli, a guy who backed icons like Bonnie Raitt, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Reba, and Bruce Hornsby.

Another high-octane moment on Wynonna is “No One Else on Earth” which would become one of the diva’s biggest hits, spending 4 weeks at number 1 on the country charts, even charting on the pop charts, too. It’s a good-natured tune, leaning into Wynonna’s brassiness. It’s a strutting funk-rock song (which became a favorite among country drag queens – it’s easy to hear why). Country legend Marty Stuart pens another driving number, “A Little Bit of Love (Goes a Long, Long Way)” that sports a runaway electric guitar. The is an expert blend of rockabilly, 70s AOR, with the sheen of 90s country-pop.

Though Wynonna’s image as a solo star relied heavily on a flaming, flamboyance, the quieter moments on Wynonna both show the singer’s versatility as well as her deep, stunning voice. Whilst the rockier songs showed off Wynonna’s ability to sell a fun barroom persona, the ballads are a great way for listeners to luxuriate in that gigantic boom of a voice. And though we got used to sassy Wynonna, the sensitive Wynonna is just as captivating.

Dave Loggins’ “She Is His Only Need” tells the story of a devoted couple. It’s a poignant story song with lilting swing. And mother Naomi wrote the stirring “My Strongest Weakness” the most straightforward pop song on Wynonna that makes the case for Wy as a top 40 balladeer. And Mama Naomi appears on “When I Reach the Place I’m Goin'” providing heavenly harmony vocals with her daughter, reminding listeners of the riveting chemistry the two share. And “All of That Love from Here” is a slow dance number with ethereal mandolin work by bluegrass legend Sam Bush.

Much of Wynonna’s public image is one that is reared in the church. Her alluring voice is one that sounds enriched and steeped in gospel. The album ends with “Live with Jesus” a bluesy, spare song that pays tribute to faith in the face adversity. A lot of Wynonna can feel somewhat busy with lush or glossy production, so having Wynonna’s voice raw and impassioned as she professes her spirituality. It’s an interesting and gutsy way to end a record that works overtime to present Wynonna as an all-encompassing, radio-friendly country superstar.

When Wynonna was released it was a huge hit, selling over 5 million copies and setting the stage for a successful career that includes more top 10 hits, platinum and gold-selling albums. As with many country singers, Wynonna also had personal travails and struggles – much of it informing her work. If there was any question of whether Wynonna would be able to forge a career away from the comfortable confines of the Judds, this excellent debut record answered them with a resounding yes.

The 35 greatest Madonna singles

The Complete Studio Albums [1983-2008]

As Madonna celebrates her birthday today, I have compiled her greatest single moments from the past forty years of hitmaking. As a performer, Madonna has enjoyed unprecedented success, selling out stadiums, and scoring hits on pop charts for decades. She has also changed the rules of what it means to be a woman in the entertainment industry. She is a singer with an uncommon grasp and control of her image and sound and has looked to underground cultures for inspiration for her next musical guise.

Below is a look at her greatest moments – at her best, Madonna was an indestructible pop tunesmith, who knew just what radio needed at that moment. As important as her music was, her visuals were equally part of her art, as were her public performances, interviews, and talk show appearances. She is a pop star but she is also a walking work of performance art. She is the natural and logical progression of what Andy Warhol envisioned when looking at the facility of popular culture – except she turned the notion of “fifteen minutes of fame” on its head.

There will be disagreements on the placement of some of the songs as well as inclusions/omissions. Please feel free to include in the comments moments when you thought Madonna redefined radio.

  1. “Vogue” (1990) – Madonna did not invent voguing. For many mainstream audiences, she was the originator of the dance, but in reality, it existed in the Black and Latinx queer clubs throughout the USA, particularly New York. Madonna was reared in the queer culture of New York City was a regular witness to the ball culture and as is her want, she swiped from Black and Latinx queer culture to craft this paean to the power of dance in the gay community. Arguably Madonna’s greatest single moment, it also contains Madonna’s best songwriting – the kind of empathetic, humane lyrics that reach her audiences. The song has elements of house and post-disco dance music, but have just enough pop sheen to make it mainstream.
  2. “Like a Prayer” (1989) – the song starts off with a rapid fire gunshot of an electric guitar riff, before a choir and an organ moves in, setting up the stage of the sacred and the secular. Madonna’s voice starts in with the verse, “Life is a mystery, every one must stand alone, I hear you call my name, and it feels like home.” Then the song shifts again, from a hushed ballad to a midtempo pop song, unusually devoid of synths. For a five-minute pop song, it’s quite complex, shifting tempos from churchy balladeering to funky dance. The song peaks with the glorious chants and testifying of the Andraé Crouch Choir. The song’s video set off more controversy as it contained provocative imagery such as burning crosses, stigmata, and Madonna making out with a saint in a church. The controversy caused Pepsi -a  major sponsor of Madonna’s tour – to pull out of a collaboration, airing their commercial once before never playing it again. “Like a Prayer” made the case of Madonna as an important artist.
  3. “Frozen” (1998) – the lead single for her brilliant classic album Ray of Light, it’s arguably Madonna’s greatest ballad moment. Written with William Orbit, it’s a kaleidoscope of sound – snare drums, studio bleeps and blips, stirring and epic strings – with an incredibly strong vocal performance by Madonna (whose voice was strengthened and plumed up by her vocal work for Evita) The song’s sound is chilly and icy, reflecting the song’s title, and it’s a forbidding sound, though Madonna injects warmth and humanity into the song. There are moments of heartbreak and yearning in the lyrics as well as references to New Age philosophy, but it all feels urgent and grounded through Madonna’s vocals.
  4. “Ray of Light” (1998) – the title track of Ray of Light is a winner that has Madonna roar through a swirling, twirling mess of studio trickery. William Orbit’s production sounds overstuffed and fussy – it sounds like he was pushing all of the buttons in front of him at the studio, seeing what noise comes out – but there are lots of fantastic moments in the song, as Madonna, feeling her oats, plays the part of the world’s coolest clubber. The song is a pop song dusted with electronic and techno sounds and push the singer’s sound to its most adventurous, but it maintains an excellence and is one of her most exhilarating songs.
  5. “Music” (2000) – for her second album of electronica, Madonna turned to French DJ Mirwais Ahmadzaï who had a more  urban, funk-based take on techno-pop and electronica. On the title track of her eight studio album, Madonna and Ahmadzaï put together a raunchy, squelching dance pop song that harks back to sounds of disco, 80s funk, eletronica, and house. Madonna is so confident in her new sound that her vocal input on the record is minimal and Ahmadzaï contorts and chops up her voice to make it one of many instruments that make up this smorgasbord of sound. It’s trashy, fun, and camp, and showed listeners that despite entering her third decade in music, she was still capable of turning it out.
  6. “Hung Up” (2005) – for her tenth studio release, Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madonna decided to release her inner Donna Summer and make a disco record. Working with Stuart Price, Madonna yet again looked to the past to make a dance record of the future. This time she found inspiration in ABBA, whose single “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” served as the basis of this hit single. Stealing the arpeggio from the ABBA song, Price and Madonna craft a neo-disco classic that has a persistent chugging beat and a catchy chorus. She’s not reinventing the wheel here, but what she is doing is successfully adapting her brand of dance-pop music to what club culture was listening to in the early naughts.
  7. “Take a Bow” (1994) – Babyface was a ubiquitous presence in pop and urban radio, and so it was only a matter of time before he hooked up with Madonna. Though he was far more mainstream than the producers she normally worked with – she aligned herself more with remixers and DJs – they found a fantastic connection with each other. Both performers have an innate, almost bionic, ability to create radio-friendly pop songs. “Take a Bow” is a lush, silky ballad that is elegant, gorgeous, and compelling. Babyface himself appears on the song, haunting the song with his soulful croon.
  8. “Like a Virgin” (1984) – when Madonna released her debut album, she made a splash on the dance charts and made a big splash. With her second album, Like a Virgin, she became a phenomenon. It makes complete sense that a dance-savvy pop diva like Madonna would hook up with legendary Chic member Nile Rodgers who produced a number of her big hits, including this boozy number that established Madonna’s madonna-whore image. Written by 80s songwriting juggernauts Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, Madonna hiccuped and vamped through the poppy ditty.
  9. “Secret” (1994) – Dallas Austin, known for his work with TLC, Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, collaborates with Madonna on this sexy, moody, midtempo ballad with seductive Spanish guitar and a funky, wah-wah guitar that evokes 70s soul-disco. Though punk and New Wave is a huge part of Madonna’ sound, R&B has also been integral to her sound and “Secret” is a funky, gorgeous allusion to that influence.
  10. “Live to Tell” (1986) – it’s a shame that Madonna never really hit her stride as an actress, because as heard on this dark, epic ballad, she can be quite dramatic. With ostentatious, cutting synths, a skipping, strumming guitar and powerful drumming, “Live to Tell” is a cinematic affair with Madonna investing the song in a then-new strength and power in her vocals. It’s a classic 80s pop ballad – icy and austere with its synthesizers, but Madonna’s passion manages to melt through that chill.
  11. “Into the Groove” (1985) – Easily one of Madonna’s best songs, and one of the best dance songs of the 1980s, the lyrics celebrate the liberating power of dancing and music. Positing herself as a dance-pop preacher, Madonna gives a passionate performance as she belts  over Stephen Bray’s New York disco beat. The song’s influence has been felt and heard in practically every dance diva’s album ever since.
  12. “Express Yourself” (1989) – Madonna’s homage to Sly & the Family Stone is a funky affair that has some of the singer’s most feminist and empowering lyrics. Keeping the theme of a more organic sound from the song’s album, Like a Prayer, the song is a soulful affair. Her singing, beefed up from True Blue takes on a loud, ferocious roar. Unlike “Material Girl,” “Express Yourself” isn’t ironic or funny, but impassioned and sincere. Madonna’s created a one-woman sexual and feminist revolution, and “Express Yourself” is its anthem.
  13. “Holiday” (1983) – Madonna hit it big as a megastar with this joyful song. One of the few big hits that she didn’t have a hand in writing, this has nonetheless become an anthem of hers – especially as she burnished her image as an overachieving workaholic. There are stuttering guitars, squealing synths, congas, even a cowbell, and Madonna reaching back to the R&B vocalizing that she listened to as a kid in Detroit, Michigan.
  14. “Bedtime Story” (1995) – Though her Bedtime Stories was largely comprised of soulful pop ballads, this was an innovative and unique song produced by Massive Attack’s Nellee Hooper and co-written by Björk, it would predict Madonna’s obsession with electronic music. Hooper creates a thick and swirling, multi-textured soundscape that has organs, sampled loops, and underground club beats, while Madonna’s thin vocals glide over the music. The lyrics are cryptic, ponderous, and inscrutable, requiring multiple listens to figure out what she’s singing about.
  15. “Oh Father” (1989) – Madonna never had the easiest childhood, but for the most part, her music has been largely collection of dance songs and love ballads. For “Oh Father” Madonna looks to her troubled childhood in this bruised ballad about childhood abuse. It’s a lush ballad that has sampled violins, tinny to suggest a gramophone or maybe a music box, harking back to childhood. On Like a Prayer, Madonna sings songs of regret and sadness. “Oh Father” is a response to a lifetime of abuse and neglect, but there’s a coda in which Madonna finds space for empathy and sympathy for her father, acknowledging the cycle of abuse. It’s one of Madonna’s most mature efforts.
  16. “Material Girl” (1985) – Madonna reportedly hated what this song did to her career as it became a reductive nickname for the singer. The title is ironic and drenched in 80s Me decade decadence all kinds of flashy synths and studio-distorted vocals. Like a lot of Madonna’s own penned hits, “Material Girl” approaches its subject: greed, money, gold digging – with a heavy dose of humor, something that Madonna had in spades.
  17. “Justify My Love” (1990) – This single was arguably Madonna’s most controversial moment in her career. A rumbling single, with deep bass that played with sounds of acid jazz and trip-hop, the song was a dark and moody affair. Madonna sings a little bit, but for the most part, she purrs in a gravelly voice, about her deep, dark fantasies. As with a lot of her other work, its biggest impact was visual: the music video was so shocking MTV banned it, prompting Madonna to release it as a video single which went quadruple platinum.
  18. “Papa Don’t Preach” (1986) – Madonna courted controversy early in her career, and tackled a potentially thorny subject with “Papa Don’t Preach” a dance song about teenage pregnancy. Its message found ire from conservatives and liberals, who misunderstood and hijacked the singer’s message (an interesting quandary since she didn’t write the song) Starting off with a brisk, classical-style riff with violins, before the song switches into the expected dance-pop arrangement. As with the other songs on the True Blue album, Madonna’s vocals have found a supple range, and though she doesn’t necessarily convince as a frightened pregnant teen, she does carry the song’s touchy themes well.
  19. “Crazy for You” (1985) – Madonna was known primarily for her dance hits and is underrated as a balladeer. From the film Vision Quest, this swinging, torchy number is an impressive showcase for Madonna’s growing strength as a singer.
  20. “Open Your Heart” (1986) – a strident, strutting number, with penning lyrics with her collaborators about a lover expressing her sexual needs and desires. Originally meant for Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and kindred spirit Patrick Leonard gave the 80s midtempo pop number a dance-pop makeover. The song’s narrator is assertive and aggressive, a novelty for dance-pop girl singers of the 1980s, affirming just how forward-thinking and innovative Madonna was.
  21. “Borderline” (1984) – Reggie Lucas, an early collaborator, wrote this swirling, shimmery song about unrequited love and gifted it to Madonna. Despite its funky, gay disco production (courtesy of Jellybean Benitez), it’s a yearning song with an appealing – and raw – performance by Madonna.
  22. “This Used to Be My Playground” (1992) – the theme from one of the few films in which Madonna performed well, “This Used to Be My Playground” is an elegant ballad that played at the end credits of A League of Her Own, a Penny Marshall film about women baseball players during WWII. Written with renown DJ and remixer Shep Pettibone (with whom she collaborated on her Erotica album), the mournful ballad is all about looking back at one’s past with some tinges of regret and wistful feelings of nostalgia and longing. Madonna’s singing is restrained and sad, and it’s one of her most heartbreaking moments in her career.
  23. “Who’s That Girl” (1987) – Madonna’s relationship with Latin-pop music has always been cynical and somewhat transparent. Now it would be rightly called cultural appropriation (something the singer would do her whole career), but back in the 80s, white singers often would look to trendy world music influences to tart up their music. The title them to a terrible screwball comedy she starred in, the song is one of Madonna’s catchiest early hits. It has a haunting chorus, and a somewhat-dated Latino-flecked dance production but that stirring refrain makes it a classic.
  24. “Lucky Star” (1983) – With hits like “Lucky Star” Madonna established early in her career that she was a formidable pop singer-songwriter with a great ear for canny pop hooks. Sung in a nasal, high register, the song – and its video – established Madonna’s early image as a funky, streetwise dance urchin.
  25. “Deeper and Deeper” (1992) – Though Madonna is a firmly mainstream pop singer, she will sometimes submerge those radio-friendly hooks for something a little more challenging, especially when she’s looking to club culture. “Deeper and Deeper” is an homage to her time as a club denizen as well as a tribute to Studio 54 disco. At this point in Madonna’s career, she has established herself as such an integral part of dance culture, she even samples herself, including riffs of “Vogue” in the song.
  26. “Burning Up” (1983) – Though Madonna is known as a dance-pop singer, her versatile roots and influences lie in new wave and punk. This lean, dance rock song recalls Madonna’s days drumming and performing in a series of punk bands before becoming a superstar.
  27. “Everybody” (1982) – Madonna’s debut single is a crackerjack of an introduction to the greatest dance-pop singer of the 20th century. A R&B-influenced post-disco number, it sounds almost-primitive compared to the more lushly-produced singles Madonna. Written by Madonna and produced by New York DJ Mark Kamins, the song started the theme in the diva’s work of extolling the escapist virtue of a dance club.
  28. “True Blue” (1986) – Madonna is an original artist, often imitated. But she’s also a product of her influences. As a post-modern 80s artist, she is a collage of pop culture of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. A fan of the girl group sound of the 1960s, Madonna idolized Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, Diana Ross, and “True Blue” is a clever pastiche of 60s girl group, scrubbed with a thick, 80s sheen.
  29. “Cherish” (1989) – This song -a light and sprightly affair with a smart, shuffling swing – has always been overshadowed by the more ambitious songs of Like a Prayer as well as by the erotic Herb Ritts-directed music video. It’s one of the singer’s most underrated singles, a sweet recall of 70s soul-pop.
  30. “Dear Jessie” (1989) – For most of Madonna’s career she’s developed a hard-lacquered, platinum armor. Her image was that of a sexy libertine, wholly liberated and assertive in her sexuality. For “Dear Jessie” an obscure single from Like a Prayer, Madonna looks to fairy tales, Disney, and the Beatles for a lilting baroque pop song that works as a lullaby for songwriter Patrick Leonard’s daughter. Imagery of “pink elephants and lemonade” and “candy kisses” are inspired by childhood dreams and imaginations. Madonna sings the song with a knowing, maternal performance, possibly predicting her mother-inspired music from Ray of Light.
  31. “Erotica” (1992) – an unofficial sequel to “Justify My Love” and the lead single to her most misunderstood and underrated studio album, Erotia, this track is also one of Madonna’s sexiest and wittiest. Produced by Shep Pettibone, it’s a loud and messy club track, with samples from Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Booty” as well as chants from Lebanese singer Fairuz. Madonna performs the song as Dita, her alter-ego, as she murmurs seductively about her BDSM fantasies.
  32. “I’ll Remember” (1994) – Madonna found success in the mid 1990s as a ballad singer. Though the pop charts were ruled by leather-lunged divas like Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, or Whitney Houston, Madonna maintained her commercial dominance by remaking herself (yet again) as a A/C chanteuse. “I’ll Remember” is the theme from With Honors, a dramedy directed by Truth or Date director Alek Keshishian. Working again with Patrick Leonard, the song is a pretty pop ballad with plucked synths. Though the song was a huge hit for the singer (going all the way to Number 2), it is often unfairly dismissed as one of her minor releases.
  33. “Living for Love” (2014) by the time Madonna released her thirteenth studio album Rebel Heart, she had seen her position as Queen of Pop usurped by the likes of Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, Adele, and Taylor Swift. Instead of making hit records, she seemed to have stalled into a grande dame/legend rut. “Living for Love” is a great punch in the arm of those who thought she had become complacent. Turning back to her house roots, this EDM song has some of Madonna’s best qualities: inspirational lyrics, empowering themes, a joyful gospel choir, and soulful vocals. It’s one of her most queerest records and a lovely valentine to her most dedicated and loyal fan base.
  34. “Human Nature” (1995) – Madonna’s work has always been reduced to sex. And obviously, it’s a double-standard as critics like to take a swipe at Madonna, accusing her of using sex to sell her music (implying that she does that to compensate for a lack of talent) Though Prince uses sex as much in his music, he never gets the critical drubbing as the pop diva. When making Erotica, Madonna was assailed by the press and the media, slut-shamed and dismissed as a talentless one-hit wonder. With “Human Nature” Madonna responds to her critics with a giant F-U. Highlighting the hypocrisy that follows her work, the song is a smart and funny retort to sexism. Dave Hall gives Madonna a solid New Jill Swing sound and the she responds with a funny and sarcastic performance.
  35. “Beautiful Stranger” (1999) – the theme song of the comedy Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, William Orbit and Madonna display an unerring chemistry that created one of her most fabulous singles. Taking a cue from 60s lounge pop, the song has penny whistles and elements of psychedelic pop and baroque pop, but Orbit dips it into his techno batter, which pulls the song from the 60s and places it firmly into the late 1990s.

‘Cancelling’ ‘Gone with the Wind’

HBO Max recently announced that it’s temporarily shelving Gone with the Wind in light of a renewed public reckoning of America’s past with slavery, in light of the protests inspired by the murder of George Floyd – an unarmed Black man who was killed by police officers.

Gone with the Wind is just one of many cultural artifacts that have been reevaluated in response to the justified outrage by activists. Statues have been pulled. Magazine editors have been forced to acknowledge their complicity in maintaining white supremacy in the publishing industry. And companies are declaring their side on this debate.

In the midst of all this, Gone with the Wind has been temporarily pulled (coincidentally, this happened around the time of the anniversary of GWTW star Hattie McDaniel’s birthday) with a disclaimer being planned for its return.

As expected this move has prompted debate among film lovers – especially those who adore the 1939 classic film. For many, this move is simply a way to rub out a part of film history. Others have had indifferent reactions to the move, declaring the film outdated, overrated, and irrelevant.

Before I go on, I have to say that Gone with the Wind is one of my favorite movies. I find it wildly entertaining. As Scarlet O’Hara, Vivian Leigh is genius. In one of the greatest performances captured on film, she perfectly embodies the privileged, spoiled, insouciance of Margaret Mitchell’s creation.

And yet, I agree with HBO’s move.

Gone with the Wind is not history. It’s not a film one looks to for a strong, nuanced look at the Civil War, America’s history with slavery, or the relationship white people had with Black people. The film – based on Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel – is a fantasy piece that works as propaganda to engender sympathy for the Confederates’ role in the Civil War, as well as, to ameliorate the horrors of slavery. It’s an unrealistic depiction of slavery, one that is scrubbed clean, and gives a distorted view of the relationship between slave owners and enslaved Black people.

The film’s plot has Scarlet O’Hara living a privileged, lush life in Tara, her plantation outside of Atlanta, Georgia. In the context of the south just before the Civil War, Scarlet sets her sights on the dashing Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), who is married to the docile, lamb-like Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Though Scarlet is in love with Ashley, Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a rich blockade runner for the Confederacy, finds her irresistible, and the two spend their time battling wits.

The script shows how the patriotic Confederates, proud of their Southern heritage, were willing and enthusiastic to go to war against the North. The crux of the fervor is couched in terms of pride of land and a desire for self-determination. Slavery was a minor detail in the film and the question of slavery in the reasons behind the war aren’t explored.

And the treatment of slavery in Gone with the Wind is why I’m fine with HBO Max pulling the film. Enslaved Black people in the film make up pivotal supporting characters in the film, but Sidney Howard’s script doesn’t explore the tragedy of American slavery. Instead, the Enslaved Black people in the film are treated with warm condescension and respect. Scarlet is mothered by Mammy (Oscar-winning Hattie McDaneil), and in the diegesis of film, she occupies a space of privilege and limited power in Tara. Despite being a slave, Mammy marches through the film, castigating and scolding Scarlet, acting as an authority figure, of sorts. Once married to Scarlet, Rhett also works to endear himself to Mammy, intent on winning her approval. Never to do we get Mammy’s story outside of how she relates to the O’Hara family. She’s unfailingly loyal to her family and we don’t get any of her backstory – did she have children? Were they ripped away from her and sold to other plantations?

The other Black character of note is Prissy (Butterfly McQueen), a slave whose defined by her laziness, dimness, and mendacity. Prissy has been immortalized in film history with her line, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” This line was shrieked in response to being put in charge of Melanie’s troubled labor after Prissy had boasted to everyone that she was an expert in childbirth. Though McQueen did a solid job in the film, her character was a crude punchline, her whine of a voice and scattered manner, exposing a gross stereotype of the indolent, dimwitted slave.

Along with Mammy and Prissy, we get some minor Black characters, Big Sam and Pork, both of whom, like Prissy and Mammy, profess their loyalty to the O’Haras. Slavery is depicted as a way to protect Black people, who cannot take care of themselves. The script goes out of its way to insist that the O’Haras have a responsibility to treat their slaves with respect and benevolence. During the ruinous war, with Tara in smoldering tatters, Scarlet is castigated by her father for her rough treatment of the slaves. “You must be firm with inferiors,” Gerald O’Hara lectures to his daughter. “But you must be gentle with them. Especially darkies.” Gerald O’Hara’s paternalistic view of the South is one in which white slave owners rule the land but with a kind, benevolent hand. The raw truth of slavery – the brutality of the whippings, rape, and killing – is not shown. It’s a scrubbed version of slavery in which the enslaved Black people in the film occupy a space of their own in the society.

For this reason, HBO Max should pull the film and add the film back with a disclaimer of sorts. Reach out to a Black film scholar whose specialty lies in films like Gone with the Wind, and have that person write/record a disclaimer of sorts before the film. Akin to an introduction to a book, this disclaimer would act as a necessary preface to the film, to give viewers context.

Removing Gone with the Wind will do little to right the social inequities that Black Lives Matter works to fix. It’s a small thing, one that will impact few people. It’s also something that should have been done earlier. It’s a film that is erroneously looked at by many as a history and many of its devoted fans consume the film uncritically, either seduced by the grandeur of the film, or by fetishizing the indestructible spirit of Scarlet O’Hara. It’s a great film, one that is effective in its way of telling a good, old-fashioned yarn. But it’s absolutely key to approach the film with the knowledge of Margaret Mitchell’s pointed agenda. One cannot look at the film as simply a great work of art, but also as a cynical work that is telling a skewed and ahistorical point of view. It’s a rewarding experience to watch the film, but one that should be undertaken with an understanding that we’re not watching history but a fantasy.

A tribute to the great and wonderful Nora Ephron: Our Jane Austen

Nora Ephron once wrote “I don’t think any day is worth living without thinking about what you’re going to eat at all times.” This quote perfectly encapsulates her charm and appeal. The best of her work was about living life to the fullest.

Nora Ephron was responsible for some of the funniest moments in film in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. She wrote, directed, and produced fantastic films, some romantic-comedy classics including When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), and Julie & Julia (2009). Her films were witty, sophisticated comedies that depicted classy, beautiful people who were funny, smart, and knew how to tell the best one-liners. Her films had a love of New York City and she treated the city like a great, beautiful starlet, deserving of the best lighting and filming. It’s a cliche to write that a city is a character in a work of fiction, but New York City is as integral to When Harry Met Sally as is Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal.

The Nora Ephron heroine was embodied by Meg Ryan. The Nora Ephron heroine was tough, funny, but vulnerable. Men and women both adored her because she disarmed people with her charm. The Nora Ephron heroine was a city slicker, a sophisticated, elegant urban dweller, but never snobby or full of herself. She was a mass of engaging and adorable idiosyncrasies and was gifted with the wit of Nora Ephron.

As a writer, Nora Ephron excavated culture to expose hypocrisies, stupidity, and general dumbness, but she did it in a way that made us laugh. She wrote often about the foibles of being an American woman in the late 20th century. She wrote about the expectations placed on professional women and how she often chafed under these expectations. She wrote about beauty standards. She wrote about work. She wrote about food.

Oh, Nora Ephron was a brilliant food writer. I’ve never wanted to eat a pastrami sandwich more than when I read her wonderful 19 August 2002 New Yorker piece, “A Sandwich” about Langer’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles. When she writes of Langer’s pastrami sandwich, she uses language like Van Gogh used a paint brush. Like Chopin used a piano. The pastrami “is an exquisite combination of textures and tastes. It’s soft but crispy, tender but chewy, peppery but sour, smoky but tangy. It’s a symphony orchestra, different instruments brought together to play one perfect cord. It costs eight-fifty and is, in short, a work of art.” As I read this two things happen: 1) I hear the strains of Gerswhin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in my head and 2) I want a pastrami sandwich, bad, and I don’t even like pastrami.

After she died, her work was compiled in an omnibus, The Most of Nora Ephron, which should be required for everyone in the whole world (at least those who have a funny bone). It’s not “everything” by Nora Ephron because there’d be just too much to fit in between two covers of a book. She was incredibly prolific, writing scripts, screenplays, essays, books, speeches. She was a director. She was an actress. She was a raconteur. She was a comedy god to many of us comedy nerds who looked up to her.

I always wanted to live in Nora Ephron’s fictional universe. One in which people dressed smartly and rambled through Central Park when the leaves change in the Fall. I wanted to live in a world in which everything I said was hilarious and sometimes profound. I wanted to live in a world in which my closest friend was played by Ephron’s comedic peer Carrie Fisher. I wanted to live in a world, scored to soothing jazz.

Part of the appeal of Nora Ephron’s comedy is that combined smarts, with humanity. It wasn’t mean. She was biting and sarcastic, but she also wore her big heart on her sleeve. She was funny – sometimes at others expense – but she wasn’t cruel. My favorite Nora Ephron quote is one that came after she was asked to read a letter from Mayor Bloomberg at an event. The organizer, a close friend, had asked Ephron as a favor to read Bloomberg’s letter to the attendants.

Her response? “How could I ever say no to you? And yet, I have.” Classic Ephron.

 

Season 1’s Leslie Knope is unrecognizable

The cast of Parks and Recreation recently reunited for a special episode in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a sweet, well-received episode that reminded viewers of just how lovely the denizens of the fictional Pawnee, Indiana really are. Parks and Recreation ran for seven seasons on NBC, and though few people actually watched the show, it amassed a devoted fan base. At the center of the show was Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), the intrepid government worker whose main goal in life was to do good work. Leslie became synonymous with competence and intelligence. She overwhelmed her friends with her great passion for her work and though they respected and loved her, her love of her work could be a challenge.

What’s so interesting about the character is that in its first season, Parks and Recreation had a different view of Leslie Knope, particularly in the pilot. Because its original concept was supposed to be an Office spin-off and because Office vets Mike Schur and Greg Daniels wrote the pilot, there are striking similarities between Parks and The Office. Namely in that both were working place sitcoms that featured an incompetent and goofy manager with contemptuous coworkers.

And so the original concept for Leslie was that she was more like Michael Scott. She was a well-meaning but hopelessly inept middle-manager who invested much more importance to her title that it really held. The Leslie of the pilot is nearly unrecognizable as she’s the butt of the jokes that the writers craft and she’s somewhat unsympathetic.

The plot of the pilot sets the stage for the show’s first arc and it introduces the characters we would grow to love. Along with Leslie, we have Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari), Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), and Mark Brandanawicz (Paul Schneider). They work in the Pawnee parks department and do so with mixture of hostility and apathy – probably a poke at the stereotypically burned-out city worker. Like Leslie, the other characters also seem different – Tom is initially presented as a straight man, Parks version of Jim Halpert, whilst Ron’s libertarian hero seems strangely subdued. The only character that retains any of her traits beyond the first show is April, whose deadpan demeanor (inspired by Plaza’s own mordant comedic persona) is carried over to the rest of the show’s run (though as the show progressed, there are beautiful shades to April’s character) And Mark is interesting to look at because he’s a character that lasts only two seasons on the show before being written out and never mentioned again. Like Tom, Mark is presented as the only normal guy – the everyman who is defined by his lack of idiosyncrasies.

We’re also introduced to Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones) and Andy Dwyer (future superstar Chris Pratt) who are dating in the first season. Ann is a nurse who meets Leslie at a townhall meeting to discuss a disgusting it outside her home. The townhall scene is one of the hallmarks of the show, and thankfully, it’s a recurring sequence – goofy, crackpots and weirdos waste time by either complaining about stupid matters or by offering ridiculous suggestions. Some of the show’s most memorable moments occur during these scenes.

Spurred on by Ann’s confrontations, Leslie vows to fill up the pit and build a park. I wish I could say a friendship is born, but not yet. In fact, Ann seems wary of Leslie’s peppy demeanor. She calls her “sweet, but doofy” and it’s not love at first sight between the two. There are no metaphors to Ann’s great beauty yet. One of the hallmarks of the show is how much Ann and Leslie love each other, and it’s strange and slightly off-putting to see Ann being so distant to Leslie’s genial – if over the top – overtures.

The script is also quite mean to Leslie. One of Leslie’s traits – and this is probably spurred on by Poehler’s physical comedy prowess – is her tendency to get herself into outlandish, oft-slapstick binds, like for example, when she powered through her immobilizing flu to make it to an important meeting, only to stagger through the room, thinking it’s actually flipped. Or inspired by her love of Pawnee (and JJ’s waffles), she threw down with a nemesis from rival town Eagleton on a pile of garbage.

In the pilot, Leslie falls into the pit, tumbling. There are pictures taken and Tom and April gleefully share them, laughing at them, one of the pics even being an upskirt shot. After watching the subsequent seasons, this scene is almost shocking in the casual cruelty displayed by the two characters. Later on, Tom and April would become Leslie’s closest friends – April, especially would take on the role of Leslie’s best friend when Ann moved away.

The other thing that made Leslie so inspiring was her ability to problem solve. In the pilot, Leslie is pretty hapless. When she wants to head the project of transforming the pit into a park, she has to beg Ron, who refuses, but changes his mind when Mark intervenes. It’s revealed that he and Leslie had a one-night stand, something that meant more to Leslie than Mark, who initially couldn’t remember their tryst, until he thought for a moment. Leslie, meanwhile, imbued the exchange with far much more meaning, and therefore, she thought she could leverage their past to her gain. But Mark doesn’t remember – thereby, creating a lopsided dynamic in which he has the upper hand. And Mark – through a combination of pity and empathy – steps in and convinces Ron, cashing in an unspoken favor.

Though Leslie would be saved by other characters in the show – one of the show’s most touching moments is when the gang jump in to become her campaign team when she runs for city council – her situation is never one of her being pathetic or humiliated. When characters move to help Leslie it’s because they genuinely love and and because whatever goal she’s trying to reach is thought to be lofty and worthy.

In the final episode of Parks and Recreation, the plot zips through time, zig-zagging back and forth, showing us the futures of our characters. Leslie’s rise is spectacular, and by the end of her arc, she’s receiving an honorary doctorate from Indiana University and learns that the university has named its library in her honor (to her chagrin). In her acceptance speech, she encapsulates the thesis of the show, of doing good. She mentions her two terms as governor of Indiana, and alludes to an even greater challenge – maybe president?

To compare that Leslie with the silly Leslie who jams some leaves in her mouth that turn out to be toxic is quite jarring. Thankfully, Schur and company took the critics’ drubbing seriously and by the second season, the show retconned much of the first season and reset Leslie’s character as one to be admired, not pitied. As she grew she became even better – more political, more intelligent and intellectual. And that’s the Leslie we all fell in love with.

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