Tom Hooper’s 2019 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is bad. Mind-boggingly bad. The kind of bad that is hard to watch. Cats is not destined to be a cult classic. It doesn’t horseshoe from being so bad it becomes good. It doesn’t become camp (though it does try). It won’t be resurrected as a cult classic. It won’t be revisited as an underrated gem. It’s a bad film made with such good intentions that it feels churlish to criticize. So many critics slammed the film, citing its terrible special effects or bad performances as the main reason why the film doesn’t work. And those critics are correct – the rendering of the anthropomorphic cats is gross and disturbing – but the problem isn’t just Hooper’s interpretation of Cats, the problem is the source material. Though Lloyd Webber’s stage musical is a blockbuster, it’s a pretty shoddy show. The plot – if one could call it that – is nonsensical and tedious to follow and the music is repetitive and dull.
As the film opens, we become well acquainted with the film’s major problems immediately. The admittedly catchy score is dated – its sickly synths – introduces the lean score. The visuals feel off. It looks queasily real and animated, a confusing landscape that resembles a video game. As we see a faceless somebody fling a pillowcase into a jumbled alley, we see the true obstacle of the film: it’s the cats. I don’t know what Hooper thought when he allowed for the cats.
In the Broadway musical, the cast members were dressed in Lycra and tights, with tufts of fur and stylized makeup. They didn’t look like real cats, but that wasn’t the point. They looked like an 80s MTV-pop version of what dancing cats should look like: harlequinesque makeup, bushy wigs, fuzzy legwarmers. Costume designer John Napier allowed the costumes to be stylish and abstract with splashes of color and shapes that informed the characters. In Hooper’s version, the actors are CGI’d into anthropomorphic cats and it gets strange and confusing. The human faces look shoddily copy/pasted and because the actors engage in intricate dance sequences, they’re obviously bipedal, but then when they do walk on all fours, they’re on their hands and knees? They have human hands and feet. I mean, it all looks odd and ugly as if Cats is taking place on the Island of Dr Moreau. Also, the film tries to get clever by sizing the cats to scale, but then the CGI seems to get that wrong too because sometimes the cats seem too small. None of it is right.
Some of this could be saved if the performances are good, but unfortunately, the cast – made up of some pros like Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Jennifer Hudson, Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, James Corden, Idris Elba, and Jason Derulo, flounder mightily. Dench is laden down with furs and she seems to be heaving herself around; McKellen is odd and strange (and barely looks like a cat); Wilson and Corden are on hand for some (alleged) comic relief but neither comedian does well. The only decent note is Hudson, who as Grizabella, gets to sing the show’s big hit theme, “Memory” and does so beautifully. She tears into the maudlin pop ballad with a fiery passion that is at odds with how ridiculous she looks. The rest of the cast is made up of stage dancers and singers and the dance sequences are admittedly well done: Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography is good and the dancers, ingenue lead Francesca Hayward in particular, do solid work, despite looking so awful.
Upon its release, Cats bombed mightily. Critics savaged the film and audiences found it bewildering. I watched the film with some perverse curiosity. Could a movie be that bad? Yes it can. It’s a mystery as to how this movie got made and more crucially, how it got released in its current state. If the CGI was junked and the production went back to essentially filming a stage performance, it wouldn’t have been such a gigantic disaster; granted, the actors would still have to sing the terrible music but it would have lent the surreal, absurdist imagery some plausible suspension of belief.
Instead, we’re left with this shambolic mess that takes itself way to seriously to dip into ridiculous camp a la Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Room. Instead, it collapses underneath the weight of its far-reaching pretensions and shoddy, rushed work.
Donna Summer would have been 73 today. The legendary pop diva died almost 10 years ago at the early age of 63 and left behind a tremendous legacy of music. Much of her work in the 1970s defined what popular music meant and she was a pioneer of dance music, creating a dance-pop template followed by great dance divas like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, Britney Spears. She was linked with fellow giants of early dance music including Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, Pete Bellotte, and Bruce Sudano. Her early single “Love to Love You Baby” from 1975 is arguably the most important disco single of the genre. It celebrated the carnal sexuality of the club culture. As Summer’s airy, sensual vocals moaned erotically over the funky beat. The song was a glorious 17 minutes long -a symphonic epic of passion.
“Love to Love You Baby” wasn’t Summer’s first single but it was an explosive introduction to a novel and distinct artist who would change music forever. It hit the US top 10, peaking at number 2, the first of 14 top 10 hit singles. She ruled the pop and dance charts, becoming the gorgeous face of disco music. Though dance music was seen with wary snobbery by rock critics who damned the genre as “inauthentic” or prefabricated, Summer became the voice of a dominant pop music genre that centered the voices of Black and Latino queer people as well as women of color. Disco music was the music of queer culture – a joyous celebration of queer sexuality and queer identity. Gay bars would play dance music and so gay audiences became discerning consumers of the music. As with any sort of subversive, subculture, once the mainstream, moneyed capitalist institutions got their hands on disco music, the music was distorted and white washed, getting the inherent campness wrong and the resultant was the polyestered tackiness.
But artists like Donna Summer continued to make innovative and dynamic music. “I Feel Love,” her 1977 single, was a sonic marvel: a futuristic, space-age banger, scored by a Moog synthesizer. The song is arguably the most influential singles of dance music, its echoes heard in every disco song, dance-pop, New Wave, New Romantic, electronica, house, and techno. After “I Feel Love,” pop music was never the same.
Though Summer personified dance music, she wasn’t content with staying in just one genre: she also looked to rock, soul, gospel, becoming one of the most creative and unique voices of her time. Critics wanted to dismiss disco music as a producer-driven genre (and yes, the producers and songwriters of the disco era were unheralded musical geniuses), but Summer wasn’t a singing mannequin or a cipher. An accomplished songwriter and producer, Summer was integral to the creation of her sound and music. She also had a beautiful and distinct voice, one that was malleable and flexible, able to drift like a cloud over the thick, programmed beats or blast through the productions with a fiery, gospel-hewed fervor.
Because Donna Summer was more than just a gorgeous face fronting dance music, but an actual artist, she was one of the few disco artists who was able to extend her career beyond the 1970s, adapting successfully to the synth-driven dance-pop and urban soul-pop. She started working with other dance producers in the 1980s and 1990s, hooking up with the ubiquitous Stock Aitken Waterman, Quincy Jones, and C+C Music Factory and recorded more excellent dance music that would extend her career into the new millennium, consistently landing in the top 10 on the dance charts.
More than any other singer of the disco genre, Donna Summer possessed a free and exuberant voice that captured, at once, the joy and exhilaration of dance music. Her sound, her music, remains essential when assessing the impact of dance music. She was an original originator, a Founding Mother of dance music, who would become its most important practitioner.
Important Highlights of Donna Summer
Crayons (2008): Summer’s final studio LP released whilst she was alive, this is a solid collection of dance and pop tunes that bear the mark of its time. As always, Summers enlivens everything with that glorious, clear-as-a-bell clarion of a voice (that has not aged). This is a stylish record of contemporary urban-pop, impeccably produced and performed with characteristic zeal.
“Power of Love” (2005): the death of Luther Vandross was a huge blow to the music community. Vandross was an inspired singer-songwriter and producer, lending his gargantuan talents to the likes of legendary divas like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. His voice was incredible – smooth, lyrical, expressive. He was the Mozart of romantic soul. On So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross, Summer reworks Vandross’ midtempo hit “Power of Love” into a hypnotic club tune.
“Love Is the Healer” (1999): an album track from a 1999 live album, this song is prime later-day Donna Summer. Written and produced with Nathan DiGesare and Thunderpuss, “Love Is the Healer” is high-tech house with great sonic accents, including the Gregorian chants (all the rage in the early 90s). Also, Summer laid down some of her best vocals on this dance hit.
“Carry On” (1997): the inaugural winner of the Best Dance Recording Grammy, this early 90s hit that became a dance staple in 1997 due to some fantastic remixes. It showed listeners that despite being in the business for more than two decades, both Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder were still able to make some great, vital dance music that still spoke to current audiences without pandering to current pop trends.
“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)” (1994): the first single off a mid-90s compilation, this house-pop tune joined Summer with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory fame, and it’s no surprise that the union is inspired. Over the strutting, queer dance beat and pounding keyboards, Summer – at seeming vocal peak – joyfully belts over the bouncing percussion. Though her biggest hits were in the 1970s, songs like “Melody of Love” proved that in the 1990s, she was still as creative and vital a performer.
“This Time I Know It’s for Real” (1989): Don’t call it a comeback because Summer wasn’t really gone. By the end of the 1980s, Summer’s impact on pop radio had dwindled, so she turned to the British outfit, Stock Aitken Waterman (arguably the commercial – though not artistic – successors of Giorgio Moroder), who created hits for Kylie Minogue. Summer collaborated with the trio on this sprightly, churning tune, which married SAW’s assembly-line dance-pop production with her distinct and heaven-sent vocals.
“Dinner with Gershwin” (1987): Originally written and recorded by Brenda Russell, “Dinner with Gershwin” is a strange, eccentric tune in which Summer warbles the names of the famous names she’d like to hang out with (i.e. Rembrandt, Curie, Picasso, Earhart, Mahalia Jackson). The production – courtesy of Russell and Richard Perry is somewhat dated now, but the angular, clipped arrangement is exciting to hear and the lyrics are fun and just odd enough to make this a winning highlight of Summer’s 80s output.
“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983): early 80s pop music flirted with proletariat anthems, most notably with Dolly Parton’s paean to the working gal, “9 to 5.” For “She Works Hard for the Money,” Summer joins CCM giant Michael Omartian for this New Wave-inspired rocker about a working-class female worker, toiling away. Summer’s empathetic performance and the high-octane production are high spots on this corker of a tune. It’s an important song in Summer’s oeuvre because it also proved that the stigma of disco wouldn’t have much of an effect on her career.
“Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” (1982): Quincy Jones was the most in-demand producer of the early 1980s due to his iconic work with Michael Jackson. He turned to Donna Summer with this tight, funky tune that boasts some of Jones’ distinct characteristics of his 80s work – lots of gaudy synths, rumbling, mile-wide bass, sassy background vocals, vocoder-vocal samples. There’s also a hot sax solo and a whistle. It’s over the top and somewhat fussy and crowded, but it’s still a great, fun jam.
I’m a Rainbow (recorded in 1981; released in 1996): this record was shelved and in the ensuing years it became a legend among Donna Summer fans. Looking to dance-pop, synth-pop, and New Wave, the album was a concerted effort to move away subtly from her disco roots. Along with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer also works with other top-shelf talent like Harold Faltermeyer, Bruce Sudano, and Silvester Levay, putting together a superb collection of pop songs. The bright, neon-spiked “Melanie” is a major highlight (and should have been a single) and despite it being arguably, one of the worst songs ever written, Summer manages to even make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s garbagey “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” moving and affecting. A shame that this album was shelved.
“The Wanderer” (1980): Once Donna Summer entered the 1980s, she was facing an ever-shifting musical landscape. Though identified by disco, Summer always had designs on pop/rock, so this single is a fantastic indulgence. It’s a New Wave song with some post-punk inflections, crunchy guitars, and a bouncing beat. She affects a curling sneer of a voice when singing the song (there’s also a slightly rockabilly sound to some of Summer’s delivery). Like her other work of the 1980s, it showed a flexibility in her sound and abilities.
On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1979): Arguably one of the best greatest-hits collections released, this 16-track, double-LP compilation is a brilliant encapsulation of the most important artist of the disco ear and one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. The track list has the greatest disco music ever recorded. New tracks added to entice buyers do not sound like last minute additions, but are excellent songs in their own right: the title track is a classic and her duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” is a camp classic.
“On the Radio” (1979): The title track of her greatest hits album, “On the Radio” follows the format of a classic Donna Summer tune: a sweeping ballad that will turn into a booty-shaking jam. The chorus of the song is crazily catchy and belies the tension in the lyrics which are quite moving, despite the discotheque pacing.
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (1979): The pairing of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand is destined to be a camp classic and a kitsch standard. Summer and Streisand were both enjoying unprecedented success in the 1970s, scoring hit singles and selling millions of records. Both divas – icons and queens of gay male fans – were known for their large and expressive voices. A song like this pit the two against each other, culminating in an exciting – yet still hilarious – match. Written by dance great Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, the song is a delicious, over-the-top disco tune that embraces a silliness and queeny queerness.
“Dim All the Lights” (1979): Donna Summer admitted that she originally wrote this song for Rod Stewart but was so in love with it, that she kept it for herself. The song is essentially two-in-one: it starts off as a bluesy ballad (I can hear Stewart singing this bit) before it boogies into a shuffling disco ditty.
“Bad Girls” (1979): One of Donna Summer’s most enduring hits is a sassy, saucy disco number which is a story song about prostitutes. Despite the subject matter, Summer imbues the song with a pointed, wary attitude. The backup vocalists add as much to the song’s appeal as Summer herself; they trade vocal licks with the diva, adding to the fun.
Bad Girls (1979): Arguably Donna Summer’s best studio LP which brings in a lot of her favorite sounds, including disco, rock, soul, and pop. It’s a diverse and wide-ranging record that allows for audiences to see just how masterful Summer is. The ballads show off Summer’s fantastic voice and the album’s innovative use of synthesizers and electronic instruments makes Bad Girls a seminal pop record of the 1970s. Producer Giorgio Moroder perfects 70s guitar-driven pop/rock as well as continue to develop the muscular, sweaty tech-driven dance music.
“Hot Stuff” (1979): Donna Summer’s embrace of rock sounds imply a second side career as a Tina Turner-esque rock goddess. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte create a jumping, jangly disco-rock song that matches Summer’s rock star aspirations. There’s a fantastic undulating synthesizer as well as a crunchy rock guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.
“Last Dance” (1978): Paul Jabara won a well-deserved Oscar for this song which was written for Thank God It’s Friday. The accompanying soundtrack is pretty brilliant with excellent disco tracks. Jabara is a master at writing dance music and captures the wistful, lilting mood of when the last song is called at the end of a night of dancing at a club. It encapsulates that kind of feeling of yearning and want as well as regret that comes up when a night winds down and romantic feelings are still left unspoken and unrequited. Donna Summer performs the song beautifully, finding the tone of Jabara’s lovelorn, reaching words.
“MacArthur Park” (1978): Summer’s cover of Jimmy Webb’s ballad is one of the most bewildering songs ever. Starting off as a slow, swinging, funk ballad with an urgent, piercing vocal performance before she unleashes a sneering laugh, as the strings and disco beat explode. Despite the quixotic lyrics, the production and arrangement adds a fiery earnestness which Summer matches with a passionate, committed performance (her snarling howls are great). The synth work is also brilliantly bonkers.
“I Feel Love” (1977): The mission of “I Feel Love” was straight forward: to change the face of dance music. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the song is a deep, dark, space-age disco sci-fi number. Summer’s voice is a sensual force of a nature. Every dance song, every synth-pop song, every New Wave song owes its sound to “I Feel Love.”
Love to Love You Baby (1975): though the title track is the main draw (a 17-minute opus of funk and sex), the flip side of the album has been unfairly overwhelmed by the success of the song. Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder craft a string of perfect soul-pop songs with spirited vocals by Summer. The gutsy “Pandora’s Box” is a fantastic slice of piano-driven pop and “Need-a-Man Blues” is a whirling, driving tune. The title track is a classic, but the other cuts showcase Summer’s versatility (as well as Moroder’s and Bellotte’s).
“Love to Love You Baby” (1975): One of Donna Summer’s earliest hits, this song is arguably the sexiest song in history. You can hear in its production and writing, the blueprint of Madonna’s “Erotica” and Janet Jackson’s “Throb.” Few mainstream pop songs celebrated female sexuality and “Love to Love You Baby” was at once a feminist manifesto of feminine sensuality and a celebration of the sexy power of dance.
On what is her 75th birthday, A Seat in the Aisle is celebrating the work of rock legend Marianne Faithfull. The word ‘survivor’ is thrown around a lot in pop culture, but the word seems to be tailor-made for Faithfull, a woman who has weathered personal and career travails and obstacles. In the 1960s, her fresh, English rose beauty made her a precious star – she sang pretty folk songs with a lovely, ethereal voice. But life and art got in the way, and with 1979’s Broken English, she staged one of the most impressive comebacks in rock history. The Marianne Faithfull of Broken English was a rough, wary, world-weary songstress, no longer content trilling coffee house fare. Her pretty instrument was replaced by a gorgeously ravaged voice, splintered, blistered, and crumbling, like a ruin.
Marianne Faithfull became rock’s Marlene Dietrich. Rock’s Lotte Lenya. Rock’s Elaine Stritch. She was a singer that applied her destroyed voice to a catalog of songs that matched the ditch-deep voice and hard-won gravitas. She wrote songs that told stories of her storied life, writing from the perspective of a wise sage. She also looked to Brecht, Coward, Weill, creating a repertoire of a brilliant storyteller.
She is an original, one who in her nearly 60-year career still surprises her audiences. In 2021, after decades of music, she returns with an album of spoken-word poetry, proving that she is one of her generation’s greatest performing artists.
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Moments
She Walks in Beauty (2021): Faithfull collaborated with Warren Ellis and recorded a collection of spoken-word poetry, mining the great works of Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Tennyson. Ellis creates a lovely, lilting soundscape for Faithfull’s expressive readings. Recorded during the pandemic, during which Faithfull herself was struck by the disease, She Walks in Beauty is a poignant album – a possible swansong – for a career studded with idiosyncratic turns.
Negative Capability (2018): Faithfull’s talent as a song interpreter is unparalleled but she’s also a strong songwriter, herself. If this is Faithfull’s final album of music, then it’s a tremendous high note. At this point in her career, her voice is wizened and thickened, flecked with a sadness. The original tunes on the record are moving, but the highlight is a revisit of her iconic signature “As Tears Go By” which is immeasurably improved with a regal, tragic elegance.
Horses and High Heels (2011): A fantastic album of covers in which Faithfull gives her inimitable stamp. The best part of the album is Faithfull’s affectionate nod towards her 60s past with her gravely – yet hopeful – take on Carole King’s elegiac “Goin’ Back.”
Easy Come, Easy Go (2008): Faithfull’s a singular artist but when paired with the right duet partner, she can create magic. On this album of covers which includes songs from Dolly Parton, Bessie Smith, Smokey Robinson, and even Leonard Bernstein, Faithfull is able to apply her particular brand of cabaret-rock to rock and pop-era tunes. She’s gives a gutsy take on Parton’s “Down from Dover” and a gloriously camp version of the Motown chestnut “Ooh Baby Baby” with queer rock icon ANOHNI. The album’s strangest but most entrancing moment is a jazzy duet with Jarvis Cocker on the Sondheim classic “Somewhere” from West Side Story.
Before the Poison (2004): PJ Harvey invigorates Faithful in what could be best described as a late-career renaissance in which she collaborates with young, fresh producers and singer-songwriters. Producers Harvey, Nick Cave, Hal Willner, Rob Ellis are able to reacquaint listeners with Faithfull’s inner rock chick by giving her a platter of indie rock and jangly, guitar rock.
Kissin’ Time (2002): With Kissin’ Time, Faithfull sees her brand of rock filtered through thick, glossy, electronic rock. Hooking up with a diverse range of producers including Billy Corgan, Dave Stewart, Jarvis Cocker, and Étienne Daho, Faithfull’s inner New Wave diva is unearthed. Though she’s never sang on tracks as smooth as these, she still manages to pierce through the sheen with her heartache. Her tribute to Nico on “Song for Nico” is warm and lovely; and her homage to 60s Brill Building pop, “Something Good” is nostalgic and fun. The best track is her elegant hymn “I’m on Fire,” a brilliant collaboration with Corgan that is arguably her best song from her later career.
Vagabond Ways (1999): By 1999, Faithfull had dedicated most of her career to theatre hall songs, and this was another comeback for the singer. It’s a fine return-to-form with a collection of solid rock/pop songs that remind listeners that despite her exalted, lofty reputation, she’s still a masterful rock singer. Producer Daniel Lanois, most famous for his work with U2 and Emmylou Harris, brings his atmospheric sound to the record, but is far more restrained, allowing for the sturdy bone structure of the tunes to shine.
20th Century Blues (1996): As great a rock singer as Faithfull is, her strange and eccentric voice is a perfect match for art songs and cabaret. Her affinity for these songs – written by legendary tunesmiths like Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Noël Coward – highlights her chanteuse persona. She’s a clear disciple of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya, using the deep tones and shades in her gritty voice to add new sounds to these classic songs. “Falling in Love” again is a swooning highlight and her take on “Mack the Knife” transports listeners to a piano bar in the Weimar Republic.
A Secret Life (1995): Faithfull is paired with the moody, dense Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his scoring work on Twin Peaks) for a gorgeous, lush album that finds a ponderous beauty in her voice. It’s a cinematic record, one that is large and expansive and includes some of her best singing. Aesthetically, it’s one of her most accessible albums, but there’s still a Gothic darkness to the songs.
Blazing Away (1990): Blazing Away works both as a greatest hits record and a chronicle of Faithfull’s talent as a life performer. Recorded in St Anne’s Cathedral in New York City, Faithfull seems inspired by the grandeur of the venue and imbues her performances with a faded regal queenly elegance. The set list is a testament to Faithfull’s legacy and mythic history. Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s populate the track listing, and Faithfull’s performances are evergreen.
Strange Weather (1987): In a career marked by a series of comebacks, Strange Weather is one of her greatest. An important album in her career as it was the work that gave audiences a fully-realized glimpse at Faithfull’s talents – not only as a rock singer but a genius songstress. The songs on Strange Weather indulge in Faithfull’s love of German art songs, folk songs, and dance hall ballads. The instrumentation on this record is lush and full, supporting Faithfull’s voice (which possesses a surprising power). Though Broken English is the record that reset Marianne Faithfull’s career, Strange Weather is the record that established her genius.
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits (1987): Faithfull’s recording career before Broken English is difficult to sift through – there are some inspired moments, some real songs of beauty, but there are also a lot of cookie-cutter folk-pop songs that feel bland and anonymous. That is why this collection is a great distillation of her 60s work. It includes covers of 60s pop songs like “Yesterday,” “Monday, Monday,” and Brill Building stuff like “Something Better” and “With You in Mind.” Faithfull’s voice is shockingly different for those familiar with raspy machete of a voice. Not all of the tunes are lighter-than air, though: her early version of “As Tears Go By” has a mournful quality and “Sister Morphine” has a spunky power. For Faithfull completists, this is an important entry in her discography.
Broken English (1979): Broken English is Faithfull’s magnum opus and her greatest work. It’s also a record that brought audiences to the ragged, tattered voice that would be a perfect vehicle for her particular brand of brilliance. Though a thoroughly British performer, Broken English‘s smarmy, dirty, 70s disco-rock brought the singer to a pre-Giuliani New York. It’s a punk-pop album with licks of New Wave, dance, and rock. Each song – even the tracks she didn’t have a hand in writing – is personal and Faithfull is able to inhabit the voice of the characters. As a singing actress, she does a dizzying job conveying the desperation and insanity of the titular narrator in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” Despite the studio burnish, the album has an appealingly torn sound. This is an indispensable entry in the singer’s career.
I always said that Liza Minnelli was born in the wrong generation. Had she been a star when her mother, Judy Garland was making movies, from the 1930s to the 1950s, she would have been a much bigger movie star. But she became a movie star in the late 1960s and 1970s, when the New Wave of Hollywood changed the tone and direction of mainstream cinema. Minnelli was an odd fit. She was too sincere. Too enthusiastic. Too much. Stars like Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Estelle Parsons, and Al Pacino brought a gritty reality to cinema and Minnelli’s smiling-through-tears, go-for-broke persona was out of step. Though she made a huge splash early in her career, winning an Oscar for her excellent work in Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical drama Cabaret, the rest of her career was a series of disappointments (tellingly, Minnelli’s star shone brightest on Broadway)
Throughout the 1980s, Minnelli’s film career relied more on her celebrity than her talent. Though 1981’s Arthur (directed by Steve Gordon) was a big hit, star Dudley Moore and Sir John Gielgud benefited most from its success. From there, she made a few cameos before returning to a starring role in the ill-fated 1988 comedy thriller Rent-a-Cop, in which she plays a prostitute opposite Burt Reynolds (that year, she also reunited with Moore for a flopped sequel to Arthur) So during that decade, she starred in only three feature films, whilst focusing on her stage work as a Broadway actress and concert performer.
In 1992, Minnelli starred in what was hoped to be a comeback hit for the performer, 1991’s musical comedy, Stepping Out. Based on the hit West End play written by Richard Harris and directed by Lewis Gilbert (Shirley Valentine and Educating Rita), Stepping Out gave Minnelli the kind of role that could have been mistaken for one like Sally Bowles in Cabaret or Francine Evans in Martin Scorsese’s musical drama New York, New York (1977). Stepping Out was a film that seemingly worked to Minnelli’s strengths: it was a light comedy, with some tender moments, a rousing, climactic end, and musical numbers written by her longtime collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb. Gilbert had a solid track record of making films that were pulled from the stage: the three films he did before Stepping Out (1989’s Shirley Valentine, 1985’s Not Quite Paradise, and 1983’s Educating Rita) were all films that had stage origins. He also proved with Valentine and Rita, that he was an empathetic director when it came to working with plucky, likable leads.
And Minnelli’s role seemed tailor-made for her. Gutsy, sassy, and optimistic with loads of talent, it was the kind of role that was created to allow for Minnelli to show off her gifts and give the audience that ole razzle dazzle. The original play was transformed into a musical and Minnelli’s character – the has-been Broadway hoofer-turned-dancing-teacher, Mavis Turner – was made the focus of the film, with the eccentric supporting players behind.
Along with a good director and an energetic lead, the film also boasted a supporting cast of some great character actors. Film legend and two-time Oscar-winner Shelley Winters appears in what feels like a Shirley MacLaine battleaxe role as Mavis’ friend and pianist, Mrs Fraser; Minnelli’s fellow Broadway baby, Ellen Greene is one of Mavis’ students, as is legendary clown Bill Irwin. Gilbert reunites with his Educating Rita muse, Julie Walters, who plays the wealthy, dithering and self-involved Vera. Canadian film veterans Sheila McCarthy and comedy genius Andrea Martin also are part of the cast. And Carol Woods is the sole actress from the original Broadway production to appear in the film. And future TV funny woman and song-and-dance gal, Jane Krakowski is also featured.
The plot is wafer thin. Mavis is a dancing teacher who is in charge of trying to get a messy group of amateurs to look like something. Each character has a backstory and the dancing class works as an escape. Most of the stakes are pretty mundane, though Andi (Sheila McCarthy) is the victim of domestic violence – a rather jarring plot on an otherwise genteel and fluffy film. Mavis is a frustrated and slightly embittered performer, someone who tried to make it on Broadway but instead ended up teaching in a church basement in Buffalo. To make it more Liza! the script gives Minnelli an opportunity to sing. In a nightclub setting, she croons a jazzy version of the standard “Mean to Me” in a smokey, dingy bar. She also gets a snazzy solo dance number in the film, too. And the finale includes a group performance, with Mavis and her troupe of amateur dancers letting it loose at a talent show, performing to Kander & Ebb’s newly-written title tune.
“Stepping Out” is the centerpiece of the film. The moment when Liza conjures up all of her Liza magic. It’s an odd moment in the film because it’s so old-fashioned in its straight forward depiction. Since the 1970s, musicals often acted in response to the Golden Age of Hollywood. But Stepping Out is simply staged as a musical number without any critique or commentary on the musical film, despite Minnelli’s storied history with the genre. For a rinky dink talent show in Buffalo, New York, Mavis gets a pretty elaborate musical number. It starts off in a bright pink room setting – like something out of a live version of The Simpsons. She’s dressed in pajamas, with pink fuzzy slippers, and a pink terry cloth robe. The song – not Kander & Ebb’s better ones – starts and stops and Minnelli croons, getting flattering closeups. It’s an odd number – one that is meant to reaffirm Mavis’ Minnelli-like talents. As she sings, she struts behind a Chinese screen, doffs off her sleepwear, and then appears, triumphantly, in a glittery top hat and tails ensemble, reminiscent of her look in Cabaret as well as somewhat similar to her mother’s look in “Get Happy” in Summer Stock. She’s joined by her dance troupe, all matching her snazzy outfit. In something out of A Chorus Line, Gilbert frames his dancers simply, capturing their dancing as they work in sync, creating a tableaux in which the characters become indistinct from each other.
When the line breaks up and we get individual performances, we see the theatre backgrounds emerging. Krakowski is easily the best dancer of the bunch and when Irwin joins Minnelli, both performers cease being their characters and are simply two pros doing their thing. Irwin is allowed to do his rubber-limbed clowning bit and Minnelli does her Liza bit. It’s an indulgent sequence in the film – slightly too long – that both highlights the film’s weaknesses as well as its potential. It’s a bit of a messy film in that the Liza Minnelli starry stuff that is shoehorned in the film feels at once intrusive and unsatisfying. She’s energetic in the film, especially in her dancing numbers, but the dramatic bit with the students stalls. Instead, Gilbert should have simply pulled a Fosse and created a musical TV special around his star a la Liza with a Z. As seen in the “Stepping Out” number, Minnelli hadn’t lost any of her star power nor any of her talent or charisma; but she feels ill-served by the dramatic bits of the film.
Part of the problem is that in Stepping Out we’re supposed to buy Liza Minnelli as a down-on-her-luck has-been dancer who cannot catch a break. Minnelli doesn’t have the range to play working class and she cannot seem to shrug off her diva persona. Toiling away in some anonymous church basement, trying to get some bland misfits to learn how to tap seems crazily beneath her. At least with characters like Sally Bowles or Francine Evans, Minnelli was able to bend her extravagant, eccentricity to the script. In Harris’ script, Minnelli is a bit of a drag, her life a humdrum. It’s not that characters in film have to be fabulous, but if it’s Liza Minnelli, yes, her character should be fabulous. That’s the whole point of Liza.
As a comeback vehicle, Stepping Out couldn’t bring Liza Minnelli back to her 70s glory days, but at that point in her career, that wasn’t important anymore. By the 1990s, her concert career essentially became her full time job. As of 2021, she hasn’t been in a starring role in a feature film, instead lending her celebrity to some television projects as well as goofy cameos in 2006’s The Oh in Ohio and most notably as the officiant of a gay wedding in Sex and the City 2, in which she gaily (and gayly) warbled Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”. It wouldn’t revive Minnelli’s film career nor would it revive the movie musical, but that’s fine because Minnelli’s stardom and celebrity was never attached to just one thing that she did: instead, she’s a star who doesn’t need to be in a hit movie. So, in the end, Stepping Out feels superfluous.
On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day.
There are certain parts of pop culture that are so lionized and ubiquitous that it’s difficult to assess its quality. Are these beloved bits of pop culture really great or is it just our memory, tinged with nostalgia? Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is arguably one of the most important popular Christmas recordings of the 20th century. Tracks from the album – most notably Guaraldi’s pensive, shuffling take on the standard, “O Tannenbaum” and the original composition, “Christmas Time Is Here” – are licensed for countless television programs and played on the radio during the holidays.
Guaraldi’s soundtrack to the classic 1965 animated special captures Charles Schulz’s melancholic, somewhat sad take on Christmas. The special is a lovely piece of yuletide storytelling: the titular Charlie Brown is fretting because he’s feeling anxious about the holidays, in particular, whether he’s loved by his friends and whether the holidays have become too commercial. The skimpy, scrawny tree Charlie identifies with is a perfect encapsulation the charm behind A Charlie Brown Christmas. Schulz’s holiday stories are about the underdog hoping to persevere.
The score is perfect. Guaraldi’s soft, quiet work is a wonderful accompaniment to Schulz’s gentle story. It’s an odd album in that it’s a jazz record and a holiday record all at once – and save for some obviously Christmas tunes – it’s a record that isn’t tied to the holidays, and could have been a year-long album, not tied to December, had it not become such a Christmas icon.
Guaraldi takes on piano-playing duties himself and matches the slow, relaxed pace of the Christmas special. The poignancy of A Charlie Brown Christmas is summed up on the moody, thoughtful “O Tannenbaum.” It’s not the raucous, ebullient holiday music we’re normally accustomed to; instead, Guaraldi wants to capture the quiet moments during the holidays: the moments when we stop and sigh, looking at our loved ones in affection, taking in the twinkling loveliness of the Christmas tree. The instrumental take on “Christmas Time Is Here” is equally pensive and lovely. The jazzy “Skating” is set to a gently joyful piano that rolls slowly like a small trickle of water.
Though A Charlie Brown Christmas is a seemingly meek affair, Guaraldi throws in a few moments of spirit. “Christmas Is Coming” shuffles with some nimble piano playing. And of course, the sassy “Linus and Lucy” has transcended mere holiday music and has become legendary on its own merits (we can just picture the Peanuts gang grooving to the tune) And largely an instrumental album, there are a couple of tracks that are spiked with the joyfully tuneless warbling of a children’s choir, their off-key trilling sounding utterly charming and sweet in the genuine joy and fun; these kids’ amateurish approach to chanting the Christmas chestnut “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” is great to listen to because it feels like one has stumbled into a Christmas pageant.
After its release in 1965, the album’s legend grew exponentially as new generations embraced this record. Though many of the album’s tracks were licensed repeatedly their impact was not diminished by the sustained playing of the songs on the radio, on television, and during the holidays at shopping malls and department stores more than 50 years ago. Its sheer beauty lies in its wistful, lilting simplicity.
On the ’12 Days of Christmas’ I’m sharing my favorite Christmas movies, albums, Christmas episodes, specials, one for each day until we get to Christmas Day.
Charity records are often a mixed bags. It’s hard to criticize an album that’s recorded to raise money for a worthy cause and it’s quite churlish to criticize an album that’s been created with good intentions. Thankfully, there’s no problem in embracing A Very Special Christmas (1987), the first of eight holiday albums that bring together contemporary pop, rock, and soul artists to perform popular Christmas standards. The record brings together some huge stars of 1980s top 40 radio including legends u2, the Pretenders, John Cougar Mellencamp, Sting, Run-D.M.C., Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna, among others. The performers bring personal stamps on songs that have been recorded over and over again, and because these stars are so original and dynamic, they bring talent, star power, as well as joyful feelings of Christmas joy.
Curated by Jimmy Iovine, A Very Special Christmas is a great and fun record to listen to – the artists are giving their all, not only to give listeners a wonderful Christmas time, but to raise money for the Special Olympics.
The album opens with the Pointer Sisters’ energetic take on the children’s yuletide classic, “Santa Clause Is Coming to Town.” The production recalls Motown as well as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound (the Pointer Sisters paying homage to the Crystals). The track was recorded during the Pointers’ synth-pop career so it’s a treat to hear something rockier and the sisters are having a ball belting their song.
Speaking of synth-pop, the Pointer Sisters’ track is followed by a New Wave take on “Winter Wonderland” by the Eurythmics. The chugging drum machines, thick, glassy synths and keyboards immediately date this song. Annie Lennox’s soulful wail is subdued but still engages. It’s an interesting choice for Lennox and Dave Stewart to reinvent the Christmas chestnut as a synth song; it still retains the swinging bounce of the original song, though it sounds batter-dipped in 80s synth-dance.
Following the Eurythmics is Whitney Houston’s majestic “Do You Hear What I Hear.” Houston’s voice is unparalleled and despite the smooth-as-glass urban-pop production, her gospel convictions cut through the gloss with a stunning power. It’s an excellent track and it’s a joy to hear the diva finding the spirit of Christmas. Yes, some of the instrumentation feels timestamped, but my lord, that voice is a natural wonder. The song captures Houston at her youthful best, with the singer possessing all of her talents and gifts.
Following Houston is a tough task, but Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band does an ample job with a rollicking rendition of the R&B song “Merry Christmas.” Backed by the E Street Band (Clarence Clemons steals the show with his masterful sax playing), Springsteen does a great job with his inimitable grainy, raspy growl. The live track is a great moment that shows how fantastic Springsteen and the E Street band is in front of an audience, just jamming and being entertaining.
The Pretenders’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” follows. Chrissie Hynde powerful, yearning vocals sound suitably wistful over the atmospheric instrumentation. The song is one of the most depressing Christmas songs ever – and the most famous version is done by Judy Garland, one of the saddest singers of all time. Hynde doesn’t have Garland’s well-deep pathos but she does a solid job in conveying the lilting sense of regret and loss in the song’s poignant lyrics.
John Mellencamp does a rockabilly version of the novelty hit “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” It’s got some traces of Zydeco as well as Mellencamp’s brand of Southern rock. It’s a nothing song with silly lyrics and the Mellencamp doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s not mugging through the goofy words but instead is having a ball (which is a lot of what A Very Special Christmas is about)
Sting’s does predictably idiosyncratic work, chanting “Gabriel’s Message.” The beautiful Basque folk song is a religious song that tells the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she’s destined to be the mother of God. Over a strumming synth, Sting’s layered vocals warble beautifully.
A Very Special Christmas sported an original song, the humorous, Golden Age Hip-Hop song, “Christmas in Hollis” by iconic rap group Run-D.M.C. It’s a fantastic song, the production littered with samples, sleigh bells, and hooks from classic Christmas songs played on synthesizers. The song also boasted a great music video by New York downtown artist, Michael Holman.
Rock gods U2 look to Phil Spector for “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” reining in their area rock sound to ape Spector’s Wall of Sound production of the Darlene Love classic. Bono’s keening croon is an odd fit for the song, as is the guitar work, but it’s fine because the band is rocking on some powerful good will.
Pop superstar Madonna mugs through Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby.” Instead of opting for a dance-heavy production or 80s pop instrumentation, she hews closer to the original sound. She adopts a gun moll diction as she pouts through the song’s materialistic lyrics. At this point in her career, Madonna wasn’t taking herself too seriously and there’s a fun, silly charm to the tune. Like Mellencamp’s entry, this is a filler track, but one that’s very fun to listen to.
Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band take on “The Little Drummer Boy” and to a good job remaking the song as a slick heartland rock song. Seger’s throaty, soulful voice is beautifully matched with a heavenly backup chorus. Like Springsteen or Mellencamp, Seger has an appealing resonance with working-class listeners, and the driving playing and singing give the song a urgency and power not normally associated with the classic tune.
Bryan Adams does another novelty pop song, “Run Rudolph Run,” which was a rock and roll hit for Chuck Berry. Adams is not Chuck Berry and doesn’t really capture the original song’s rootsy rocking power; still, Adams’ performance is good and like with the lighter moments on the record, it scores points because there’s so much fun and joy coming through on the vinyl.
Bon Jovi redoes Clarence Carter’s Christmas funk song “Back Door Santa” as a hard rock song. A shredding electric guitar accompanies lead singer, Jon Bon Jovi’s gusty vocals. Like U2, Bon Jovi’s sound is expansive and huge. But unlike U2, Bon Jovi choice to interpret their track as one of their crashing glam metal-pop head bangers.
Former Yazoo singer Alison Moyet brings her thick, plump soulful vocals to “The Coventry Carol.” Sounding a lot like Annie Lennox, Moyet brings the album down to a more sedate tone after a trio of rock songs. This song, like Sting’s track, is a unique tune, highlighting a great juxtaposition of classic folk carols festooned with 80s synthesizers and drum machines. Alison Moyet is a gorgeous singer and handles the moody harmonies beautifully.
As a closer, rock goddess Stevie Nicks lends her distinct vocals to the Christmas standard “Silent Night.” It’s a great way to end A Very Special Christmas because few performers possess the interpretive skills of Nicks, who has a soulful, mystical voice that captures the spiritual elements of the Christmas carol. I could listen to Stevie Nicks sing anything but her stirring rendition of “Silent Night” is a major highlight of the album (also, the background vocalists are ace).
A Very Special Christmas was followed by other albums that paired contemporary pop singers with Christmas tunes for similarly cool and refreshing interpretations of ubiquitous carols. Similarly to the Red Hot album series, A Very Special Christmas raised money for a worthy cause whilst also offering fresh takes on classic song.