ATLFF Review: Standing By: THE WITNESS Confronts the Controversial Circumstances of Kitty Genovese’s Murder

Posted on: Apr 7th, 2016 By:
KItty Genovese.

KItty Genovese.

THE WITNESS (2016); DIR. James D. Solomon; Documentary; Atlanta Film Festival; Website here. ATLRetro’s Festival Guide here.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

If you saw a person in need of emergency help, what would you do? Most of us would probably say we’d call 911, but would we really? Those trained in first aid know that the best strategy in an emergency is not to scream for somebody to call for an ambulance, but to choose a specific person and tell them to make the call. Otherwise, maybe nobody calls at all.

You may or may not know the name Kitty Genovese, but you’re certainly familiar with the cultural impact caused by her 1964 death in New York City. Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager, was murdered on the street, half a block from her home, randomly chosen by a man in the midst of a crime spree. Two weeks after her murder, the New York Times published an article detailing the unsettling circumstances of her death. It’s quite possible that Genovese’s life could have been saved, the story goes, if only the 38 witnesses who watched the attack had bothered to call the police. Although her screams ripped through the neighborhood, although she begged for aid, no help came because no help was called. The tragedy became an example of the ways that New York City—and perhaps even America itself—had lost touch with its values of community and compassion. How could Kitty Genovese bleed to death while her neighbors watched? How could so many witnesses produce no action? The case was a major impetus in the creation and marketing of 911 as a national emergency number, and became a centerpiece of a sociological theory of the “bystander effect,” in which the larger the group of people, the less likely any individual is to act in an emergency, due in part to the belief that surely somebody else will be the one.

The story is so well known, in fact, that one might be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, remains to be explored. THE WITNESS, a new documentary that screened Wednesday at the Atlanta Film Festival, spends its first section failing to make this case for itself. The film introduces Bill Genovese (younger brother to Kitty, and an executive producer on the film) who, after struggling with five decades of emotional trauma, finally decides to track down the 38 witnesses and ask them why they let his sister die. There’s a hint of redundancy around his quest. The news show 20/20 tried the same in the 1970s with poor results, and many of the witnesses, elderly even at the time, have long since passed. If this was all the film had up its sleeve, there would seem to be little reason for it to exist at all. But, as it turns out, THE WITNESS has many, many cards to play.

Bill Genovese

Bill Genovese in THE WITNESS. Used with permission.

Very soon after Bill Genovese begins his quixotic quest, inconsistencies appear. With the sight lines from the apartment building, it wouldn’t be possible for all 38 people to watch Kitty die. Some would have only heard her scream and seen nothing. Only five witnesses were called at trial, so who are the other 33? And what of the woman who raced to Kitty’s side and held her as she died? Why was she absent from the official news story? As the discrepancies pile up, Bill Genovese begins to question the canon, which is no small transition. Genovese, you see, enlisted in Vietnam in the years following his sister’s death, and suffered catastrophic injury, primarily because he refused to be like those people who ignored Kitty, the “silent witnesses” who let tragedy unfold without acting. Was it possible that his choice, and the trajectory of his life, had been based on a lie?

THE WITNESS is an engrossing exploration of the repercussions of trauma. Bill Genovese suffered not only the loss of his sister, but of his own future, and he’s not the only one. Through the careful reveal of information, the film probes how the official story shook the Genovese family, the supposed witnesses, and even the family the murderer, Winston Moseley (who coincidentally died this week in prison, putting the case back into the news), left behind on his way into prison. An astonishing meeting late in the film reveals the fear that the Moseleys have lived with for five decades and reminds us that murders often have more victims than we expect.

10294346_10153376281298424_3819900343571644880_nThe center of the film, however, remains Bill Genovese, who narrates and drives the action as he pieces together the truth, which is not so simple a thing as the ‘facts.’ He doesn’t only want to know what happened, but why, and even how. Confined to a wheelchair due to his war injuries, Genovese is a nonetheless imposing figure as he confronts reporters, lawyers, and even the aging witnesses in an attempt to set the record straight in his mind. (He has a journalist’s tenacity, often asking witnesses if they ever spoke to the police, and then regardless of their answer, revealing that he has their police statement right in front of him.) He is the witness of the film’s title, not present at the event itself, but willing to stand for his sister, to shine light on her vibrant and rich existence (and, in a particularly moving section of the film, her secrets) to reclaim her from the cold register of history and return her, in some way, to life.

If there is a complaint to be found, it’s in the final minutes, in which the filmmakers execute a macabre event that fails to do much more than provide a punchy ending for their film. But this is ultimately a minor complaint in what remains a compelling and complex exploration of the ramifications of “facts.” The Genovese family cannot bring Kitty back, but perhaps it is enough to remind the world that we are not so alone as we thought.

THE WITNESS opens in theaters in New York later this year before rolling out to additional cities. Further information can be found at http://www.thewitness-film.com/ and the filmmakers’ twitter account is @thewitnessfilm.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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KOOL KAT OF THE WEEK: Tromaville in L5P: Nick Arapoglou Radiates as the First Superhero from New Jersey in Horizon Theatre’s THE TOXIC AVENGER

Posted on: Feb 17th, 2016 By:
Kool Kat of the Week Nick Arapaglou as Toxie in Horizon Theatre's production of THE TOXIC AVENGER. Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

Kool Kat of the Week Nick Arapaglou as Toxie in Horizon Theatre’s production of THE TOXIC AVENGER. Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

By Geoff Slade
Contributing Writer

Horizon Theatre’s production of THE TOXIC AVENGER (Wed-Sun., through March 13) is a musical comedy based on the cult 1984 Troma film.  If that means anything at all to you, it is likely the best news you’ve heard all day. The plot will be familiar to fans, and I don’t want to spoil anything for the rest of you. All you need to know about the show itself, depending on how seriously you want to take it, is to expect social commentary on pollution, corrupt politicians and a deft satire of the superhero genre. And a seven-foot tall mutant with superhuman strength and a heart of gold. The original stage production opened in New Jersey in 2008, followed by a successful Off-Broadway run in 2009.

Local actor Nick Arapoglou plays the lead. Nick, originally from Huntington, NY, went to high school in Atlanta and moved back here after college. He has been acting professionally for about a decade, notably as Princeton (for which he learned puppetry!) in all three local productions (at three different venues) of AVENUE Q, and he won 2011’s Suzi Bass Award for Lead Actor in a Musical. Other roles during the past few years include Asher Lev in MY NAME IS ASHER LEV (Theatrical Outfit), Romeo in ROMEO AND JULIET (Shakespeare Tavern) and Bobby Strong in URINETOWN (Fabrefaction Theatre). “Of course, I also enjoyed THE GIFTS OF THE MAGI at Theatrical Outfit, because my wife played opposite me in that show for three years straight!” Nick said.

In addition to a diverse stage career, the actor has done lots of on-camera work . Look for him later this year in the films TABLE 19 (with Anna Kendrick, Lisa Kudrow and Craig Robinson), THE ACCOUNTANT (Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick), THE BOSS (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell), and CONFIRMATION (Kerry Washington).

Needless to say, those are some fantastic credits, but yeah, we admit we made Nick Kool Kat of the Week now because we think he’s in the role of a lifetime. And we’re absolutely troma-tized that he took time from his trashy schedule to talk Toxie with ATLRetro.

Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

Not funny! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

First of all, what’s it like to portray a pop culture icon? (and make no mistake…)

Ha! I think when you are playing a role where there are those kinds of expectations, you have to make sure there are moments when you give a tip of the hat to the fans. We certainly have those moments placed within the show. But putting on a big green suit and kicking ass with a mop is about as awesome as you think it is!

Were you a fan of the films?

I’m going to be honest—I still haven’t seen them. I know that might make some people gasp! But there’s a reason why I didn’t once I accepted the role. There are very few new shows and musicals that hit the stage in Atlanta. They’ve usually been done in New York first. So it’s always important to me to try to bring my own take on the role and do a recycled impression of an impression of someone else’s take. That’s a huge trap in musicals especially. People listen to the CD so much and that colors their performance. So, the point is, I didn’t want to see the film and then have my performance be shaped by someone else’s. I did watch the trailer though and laughed hysterically—so you can bet once we close this thing that’s the first thing in my queue.

Had you seen or were you aware of any of the previous productions before this one came along?

Yes, we were aware especially of the award-winning Off-Broadway performance in NYC. I listened to the score a few times to get a sense of the music, but then stopped before it got in my head too much!

How did you end up cast in the lead?

Well, this is the same creative team that was behind AVENUE Q. Our excellent director Heidi McKerley (who won the Suzi Award for Best Director for AVE Q) and I have now done 11 or 12 productions together. She was one of the first people to cast me years ago and we have developed quite the resume of kickass musicals at this point. Also the music director Renee Clark (Suzi Award for Best Music Direction for AVE Q) and I have also worked together for years and years. She is an unbelievable talent, and every show she works on is better because of her presence. So I’m sure the working relationships I have with both those two fierce ladies led to their trust in casting me as the lead in this show.

dont-drop-him_24148250873_o

Don’t drop him! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

You’re two weeks into a scheduled six-week run. How have audiences responded so far? Gotten any feedback from Troma fans yet?

I know I’m supposed to say this, but audiences love the show. No matter if the theater is sold out completely or we have maybe a smaller crowd on a Wednesday, they jump to their feet by the end of the show. I mean jump to their feet. It’s happened every night. We are really proud of what we are doing. The cast is a firestorm of musical theatre rock talent. Don’t believe me? Come watch, you’ll see!

We have definitely gotten some Troma fan feedback. It’s been awesome. They are always satisfied and super happy to take pictures at the end of the night with Big Green Freak.

How would you describe the show to (warn?) fans of musical theater that don’t recognize the title?

Nothing to warn about really. Because it’s a musical, obviously the gore factor has to be toned way down for audiences. But that doesn’t take away from the story and the fun at all, believe me. I think this show is rated PG-13, but a hilarious PG-13. It’s a train. It’s campy, and ridiculous, and hilarious. Everyone leaves smiling. If you don’t leave that way, you were trying not to like it, and in that case, I feel bad for you.

toxie-comes-alive_24148251913_o

Toxie comes alive! Photo credit: Greg Mooney.

The movies feature absurd, disgusting, hilarious violence. Any chance you rip some punk’s arm off onstage?

Some punk’s arm? How about multiple punks’ arms.

The musical was written by New Jersey natives Joe DiPietro and David Bryan. Their last collaboration, MEMPHIS, won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Musical. Bryan wrote the music (and co-wrote the lyrics with DiPietro) during downtime from his day job, keyboardist for another ’80s Jersey juggernaut, Bon Jovi. So is it safe to say the score rocks?

The music is just fun. We have a kicking band. You’ll hear some sick guitar distortion solos and bass, hot keyboard play and insane drum solos.

And this cast can sing. Make no mistake—it rocks.

THE TOXIC AVENGER runs through March 13 at the Horizon Theatre. Showtimes are Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8:30pm, and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets start at $25. www.horizontheatre.com or 404-548-7450 for tickets and info.

The play contains adult language and content, and even though they’d love it, is not recommended for children.

All photos provided by Horizon Theatre and used with permission.

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Retro Review: PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT: A Passionate Ode to a Remarkable Woman Who Changed the Face of Modern Art

Posted on: Nov 25th, 2015 By:

peggy_guggenheim_art_addictPEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT (2015); DIR. Lisa Immordino Vreeland; Documentary; Opens Wed. Nov. 27; Landmark Midtown Arts Cinema; Trailer here.

By Claudia Dafrico
Contributing Writer

The name “Guggenheim” is synonymous with the art world. The ludicrously affluent Guggenheim family dominated the worlds of both industry and high society, and the influence they had on the early part of the 20th century will not likely be soon forgotten. They also had their fair share of family drama and quite a few “black sheep,” the most famous of whom is the subject of Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s latest documentary, PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT. Vreeland maps Guggenheim’s colorful life from her beginnings as a flighty heiress embracing bohemia to her later years as a famed art collector desperate to relive her past. With insightful commentary from Guggenheim’s old friends and relatives, and even excerpts from the last interview featuring Guggenheim herself, this film is truly introspective and should not be missed.

Peggy was born in 1898 to Benjamin Guggenheim, the brother of American businessman/art collector/philanthropist Solomon Guggenheim, and Florette Seligman, the daughter of a lesser known high society family. She found herself surrounded by both oddity and tragedy at a young age. Many of her family members ranged from mildly eclectic to highly unstable, and Peggy absorbed it all. When her father died in the sinking of the Titanic, she felt isolated within her own family.

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Peggy left for Paris in 1920 at the age of 22 and became enamored with the free-spirited nature of the bohemian community. She took many lovers, and became close with some of the most innovative artists of the time, including Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp. She married her first husband and had two children in Paris, and quickly divorced once his infidelity came to light. Undeterred, Peggy had affairs with multiple married men and continued her avant-garde lifestyle. She moved to London and opened her first gallery, Guggenheim June, where she promoted the art of her colleagues, most of which were either Surrealist or abstract in nature. With Europe entering a time of unrest, Peggy packed up her collection and headed back to New York.

One of the most compelling portions of PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT is the narrative of her years in New York City. It became clear to Peggy that the artists she had come to love would be in imminent danger were they to stay in Europe. So she arranged to have both creator and creations moved to the states, and bought many of their works to feature in her new gallery. The museum, appropriately titled Art of This Century, was a haven for up-and-coming artistic movements, such as Abstract Expressionism, as well as one of the first well-known galleries to feature exhibits consisting solely of the works of female artists.

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Peggy continued to discover new artists, including the then little-known Jackson Pollock, and promote them to mainstream success. She also continued her liberated lifestyle by sleeping with many of her peers, a habit she felt no shame over. She had wed one of the artists she had brought from Europe, the famed Max Ernst, but the marriage proved to be a failure and she divorced a second time. That separation proved to be a catalyst of change, and Guggenheim closed Art of This Century and headed back to Europe, this time making her place in a Venetian Palace.

This palace would soon become home to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, one of the most visited art museums in Europe. Peggy lived with her collection in Venice and entertained many guests, both artists and members of high society. Robert De Niro, being the son of artists Guggenheim had promoted, was one of Guggenheim’s many visitors. In the film, he recalls his time spent with the collector in her palace.

But while Peggy seemed to be socially thriving, her life was proving to be remarkably lonely. Her son, Sindbad Vail, who spent his childhood with her first husband, rejected the art world, and her daughter, Pegeen, was highly unstable. Pegeen lived with Peggy in Venice and was prone to “fits” that Peggy could not learn to control. She committed suicide in 1967, and Peggy was left alone in her massive palace with only her art and her dogs by her side.

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

Courtesy of the Peggy Gugggenheim Collection Archives, Venice

The film does a wonderful job of illustrating Peggy’s desire to return to the past, with bits from her last interview expressing the despair she felt as she aged. After spending her life promoting others, it seemed as if no one was left to promote her well-being when she needed it the most.

Guggenheim passed in 1979, leaving behind both a legacy of sordid tales and a massive collection of art. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection still attracts visitors from around the world and proves to be a testament of Peggy’s keen eye for art of the most fantastic and enduring nature. PEGGY GUGGENHEIM: ART ADDICT proves to be a passionate ode to one of the most overlooked roles in the art world – that of the sponsor – and the vital role these individuals play in the beginning of a sensation. Peggy Guggenheim is the sponsor we should all look up to, and her legacy is lovingly brought to life in this fabulous documentary.

All images are for review purposes only and used with permission.

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Who You Gonna Call? GHOSTBUSTERS! Landmark Midtown Art Cinema Gets Some Frightfully Funny Midnight Madness Fri. Aug 2 and Sat. Aug 3

Posted on: Jul 31st, 2013 By:

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984); Dir. Ivan Reitman; Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis and Annie Potts; August 2 & 3 @ Midnight; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Midnight Madness has descended upon the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema! This time, they’re bringing you one of the greatest comedies of the 1980s, the spook-stravaganza, GHOSTBUSTERS!

Sometimes you need a film that challenges your belief system. Sometimes you need a film that will rouse you to action. Sometimes you need a film that makes you ask tough questions about the world we live in.

And sometimes you just need a film that’s only out to entertain you in the biggest possible way. Few films accomplish this like GHOSTBUSTERS.

Three New York City parapsychologists—Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)—after being kicked out of their tony Columbia University gigs, decide to monetize their research by setting up a “ghost extermination” service out of an old firehouse. Business is slow, but a successful capture at the Sedgewick Hotel leads to huge demand for their services and rock-star status in the city. Meanwhile, they are hired by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose apartment is being haunted by a entity known as Zuul. Her neighbor, Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), becomes possessed by Zuul’s companion demigod, Vinz Clortho. That would be bad enough, but the arrival of these two beings on this plane, along with the rise in supernatural phenomena, signals the coming destruction of this planet at the hands of Sumerian deity Gozer the Gozerian. Assisted by new hire Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), the team must try to find a way to stop the apocalyptic plans of Gozer and round up the hordes of suddenly-freed spirits plaguing NYC.

Yeah, I know. It reads as incredibly complicated and far-fetched, and peppered with names that sound ripped from some late-night Dungeons & Dragons campaign. But frankly, none of this matters because all this mythological-sounding hoosafudge is just there to be in service to the kind of inspired, wacky comedy that was the stock-in-trade of Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Bill Murray at the time. Sure, it’s a movie about ghosts, but there’s no sentimentality in their treatment of them (unlike, say, Peter Jackson’s similarly-themed THE FRIGHTENERS) and not even any real fright involved in their treatment. The ghosts on parade are rarely even remotely spooky: they’re just neon-green-colored pranksters for the most part. And even the agent of the ultimate destruction of humankind gets played for laughs at the very end. It’s the direct spawn of Bob Hope’s 1942 comedy THE GHOST BREAKERS and the Bowery Boys’ 1946 farce SPOOK BUSTERS.

GHOSTBUSTERS sports one of the great comic screenplays. Tightly constructed, it never spins wildly out of control the way that Aykroyd’s THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980) does, but his flights of fancy elevate the reality-based comedy that his co-writer Harold Ramis frequently deals in. Ramis grounds Aykroyd, while Aykroyd provides Ramis with an excuse to play in a more fantastic milieu. And the entire process is aided by Murray’s keen sense of improvisational skills in performance. Tonally speaking, the movie is probably closest to director Ivan Reitman’s previous collaboration with Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, STRIPES (1981). Like that film, GHOSTBUSTERS is primarily centered on the semi-improvised performance of Murray and the comic chemistry of the team around him.

Bill Murray examines a possessed Sigourney Weaver in GHOSTBUSTERS (Columbia Pictures, 1984).

The downside to this approach is that brilliant comic actors like Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd get overshadowed by Murray’s dominating presence (Ramis, as the deadpan Egon, makes a more lasting impression than Aykroyd), but they work solidly as a team in support of—and providing the necessary “straight man” grounding for—Murray’s performance. And without their sense of camaraderie, the whole film would likely fall apart. Standing out and holding their own against Murray, though, are Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver. Moranis deftly works his nebbish character (honed in his days at SCTV and given a more sympathetic treatment in 1986’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS) against type as Louis becomes possessed by Vinz Clortho, and makes it seem just through the physicality of his acting as if his tiny frame is an ill-fitting suit for some huge and monstrous beast. Sigourney Weaver likewise plays dual roles strongly—both as the independent musician who is simultaneously repelled and attracted by Peter Venkman’s overtures, and as possessed by the…erm…extremely sexually agressive Zuul.

Visually, the movie is BIG. There are great practical, animation and optical effects on display throughout. The sets are amazing, ranging from the humble firehouse location to the climactic skyscraper rooftop extravaganza designed for Gozer’s arrival. Miniature work and puppetry are handled expertly. The cinematography by László Kovács (veteran of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND [1977] and THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES [1964]) is gorgeous.

A haunted supersized Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man terrorizes Manhattan in GHOSTBUSTERS (Columbia Pictures, 1984).

And then, we have to mention the soundtrack. Not only is the score by Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN [1960], TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD [1962]) among his best, Ray Parker, Jr.’s title song has proven to be as endlessly quotable as the movie itself. Even if you’ve never seen the movie (and I’m speaking to all 12 of you who haven’t), you likely recognize “Who you gonna call?” and “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts!” instantly.

What I’m trying to say, people, is that this is one of those nearly perfect comedies. The whole thing works like, well, gangbusters. It’s constantly fun, consistently hilarious and incredibly engaging. There’s not a down moment in the movie, not a minute where it lags. If it’s not a Grand Statement by one of cinema’s great auteurs, it’s a masterfully-crafted piece of pop entertainment.

And sometimes, that’s all that’s called for.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: HARLEY LOCO Takes Readers Back to a Darker Side of New York’s Lower East Side inthe Experimental ’80s

Posted on: Apr 25th, 2013 By:

HARLEY LOCO: A MEMOIR OF HARD LIVING, HAIR AND POST-PUNK, FROM THE MIDDLE EAST TO THE LOWER EAST SIDE 
By Rayya Elias
Viking Penguin

By Clare McBride
Contributing Writer

I adore the ’80s—the colors, the androgyny, the everything. This is mostly due to watching VH1‘s I LOVE THE ’80s ad nauseum at a formative age, which also means that my vision of the ’80s is a particularly sanitized one. I didn’t realize that until I was watching PARIS IS BURNING (1990), the documentary about queer New York’s drag ball culture in the late ‘80s, and saw, briefly, the old Times Square. As much as I love the ’80s, there’s still much to learn, and that’s when HARLEY LOCO popped up on NetGalley for me. A memoir by a queer woman of color-cutting hair and struggling with drug addiction in New York in the ’80s? Sometimes the universe is kind.

HARLEY LOCO is the story of Rayya Elias. In the ’60s, when Elias was a little girl, her family fled the political strife in Syria for the (relative) safety of Detroit, where she grew up. Struggling with the conflict between the American culture she desperately wanted to fit into, her own sexuality, and her traditional family, she fell into drug and alcohol use at a young age. After high school, she began working in a salon and working on her own music, two occupations that eventually brought her to New York. Things were looking up—a girlfriend, a record deal—until Elias’ drug use got the better of her and she spiraled into addiction. It robbed her of her friends, her family, and her dignity, and her struggles to overcome her addiction were herculean.

This memoir opens with an introduction from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of EAT, PRAY, LOVE, praising both close friend Elias herself and Elias’ writing style to high heaven. I’ll be honest, it made me a little nervous. I’ve not read any Gilbert at all, but it did feel a little like someone quite popular assuring everyone that their friend was totally cool. It struck me as slightly nepotistic, which is sort of a poor way to start with a book. But, soon enough, we’re with Elias herself and, as promised by Gilbert, her writing style does feel natural and unforced, straightforward and human. This does mean that there’s very rarely moments of sparkling wordplay; my commonplace entry for this book is quite sparse (but, it must be said, present, which I can’t say for every book I read). But the plainness of the style makes way for Elias’ life.

And what a life! It’s absolutely stuffed with material—dealing with one’s sexuality in the ’70s, being a successful hair stylist in the let’s-call-it experimental ’80s, being a moderately successful music act at the same time in New York, negotiating two cultures, her jail time, struggling with toxic relationship after toxic relationship, and, of course, the all-consuming drug addiction and her multiple lapses.

Unfortunately, Elias’ jam-packed life doesn’t quite all fit into HARLEY LOCO. Her plain, natural style keeping out of the way of the content is admirable, but it also means it feels like a Cliffs Notes version of her life. Her relationship with the polyamorous Lana is examined in great detail, but the succeeding women in her life are written about in less and less detail, until she opens a chapter mentioning a girl she’d been getting serious with. Everything is touched on, but precious little is examined—she praises her own music without getting too far into the creative process beyond “magical” (a similar thing occurs with hairstyling), she glosses over returning to Syria in the midst of a seven-year struggle to get sober, and she doesn’t even go into enough detail about the fact that she shared a bathroom with Quentin Crisp. She’s got a fantastic handle on why she turned to drugs—there’s a passage where she compares walking into the hotel lobby of a nice hotel with her sister while she’s disgusting after spending weeks homeless and high to her experience in high school. It’s fear-based. Getting high is the only way Elias could relax. There’s a staggering moment when Elias gives you the number of years she spent strung-out versus years sober, and you realize she’s including her childhood. But this reflection doesn’t extend to the rest of the memoir, which ends with her final wake-up call and doesn’t examine the process of putting her life back together again. Given the rich material here, it’s frustrating.

On a much, much lighter note, it definitely served its function as a means of ’80s voyeurism. Elias finds her people among new wave and dark wave freaks, all intriguingly dressed, but it’s the Lower East Side you really get a feel for. Late in the memoir, Elias maps her own journey to get clean against how the neighborhood was cleaned up, and it’s a particularly rich and beloved background. Her style means that you don’t get too much into it, but you can catch the taste of it.

Elias mentions her music in the memoir, for obvious reasons (and in increasingly glowing terms), and you can listen to a few of her songs at her Website. Five of the songs are, although begun at different points in her life, completed fairly recently, but “Nothing Matters” is an actual track from circa 1985/1986. It’s a fascinating window into Elias’ life at the time; I recommend giving it a listen.

Bottom line: An interesting life is hurt by the author’s plain style in HARLEY LOCO—everything is so interesting, but there’s little actual reflection. An interesting portrait of the Lower East Side in the ‘80s, but other than that, I’d give it a pass.

This article was originally published on The Literary Omnivore and is reprinted with permission.

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More Than Still Standing: Melba Moore Talks About Growing Up in Jazz, the Summer of Love, and Living the Dream Again in GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY

Posted on: Feb 16th, 2013 By:

Melba Moore, 1985. Photo credit: James Mitchell.

Legendary R&B vocalist Melba Moore stars as the bombastic director of a Southern church choir in Lolita Snipes‘ gospel musical GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, playing Feb. 14-24 at 14th Street Playhouse. A hilarious behind-the-scenes look inside a southern African-American church faced with a vibrant new pastor from New York, the play marks a bit of irony in that Melba is a born-and-bred New Yorker herself.

Because Melba is best known for a string of ’70s and ’80s Billboard hits starting with “I Got Love,” it’s easy to forget that her first big break came on Broadway when she replaced Diane Keaton in HAIR. She went on to win a Tony Award for playing Lultiebelle in PURLIE and appeared with Eartha Kitt in TIMBUKTU. Then her recording career took off, she started touring, and would not return to the theater until after a painful break-up with her husband. She used her remarkable life story as the backdrop for a one-woman play, I’M STILL STANDING, and soon was back on Broadway as Fantine in LES MISERABLES. Since then she has continued her comeback, including appearing with Beyonce and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS (2003) and recording a new CD entitled FOREVER MOORE on her own label, A’Moore Music.

ATLRetro recently had the pleasure of interviewing Melba, and we couldn’t resist not just asking about her role but also her own Retro experiences growing up in a musical family in New York in one of the most exciting jazz music eras, the summer of love, working with Eartha Kitt, and much more. The conversation turned into a who’s who history lesson of some of the top names in recording which we couldn’t be happier to share.

How did you first get involved with GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY?

Lolita Snipes, the producer and writer of GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, and her partner and husband, Jerome [Snipes],  got in touch with my manager and myself. We met in New York, and she said she had been watching me for quite a long time and knew I would be prefect for the role. I was a little surprised because though I do have a Tony Award for a comedy performance, I haven’t done a lot of comedy. She said the main reason she wanted me for the role was the music. She wanted the Melba Moore sound. She also wanted to make sure born-again Christians were involved in the play, and she wanted me because I had a reputation of being amenable, in harmony with the person in charge. She wanted to make sure that it was a real Christian play with the real Christian spirit, which is love.

You aren’t from the south but you certainly have a lot of experience with New York City having grown up there. Is there anything particular which resonates to you about this story personally?

It’s great in terms of a family culture because pretty much all of us originated from the south because we came here as slaves. We were farmers and eventually moved to the north, and we still have cultural clashes between north and south. Northerners are often considered educated and uppity by Southerners. These cultural clashes are nice food for comedy.

My mother was a professional singer and away all the time so I was raised in New York by a nanny who never learned to read or write, but came from a family of tobacco growers and sharecroppers. She was trying to get off the farm and get a job that was not so hard even if it was as a domestic or nanny. The thing that set many African-American families free was our music and the music industry, so my family was typical of that combination.

Tell us about your part and did you do anything in particular to prepare for it.

THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS. Look at the role that LaTanya Richardson – she’s the wife of Samuel L Jackson – played in that. She was feisty, bossy; she runs everybody. She doesn’t care who you are, she’s the boss. She will bring you down to size all the time. She’s a very selfish, mean-spirited ogre. That’s my part.

But it’s not dark or brutal. This is a Christian musical, so we don’t want to tell the bad news. She is not mean or evil. That’s one of the things that sets apart gospel plays or musicals. You’re not telling a negative story nor sympathizing with the bad guy.

This musical just sounds like a lot of fun. Is there a favorite part that you’d like to share?

It’s going to be so much fun. First of all, gospel comedies are the funniest type of comedy, and maybe one of the reasons they are is they don’t pander to the lowest elements of people. They don’t resort to cursing or really poking fun at people. They don’t have to be deep, but really have to be funny. They have to be joyful, really lift your spirits. That’s the point of it.

You grew up in a musical family. Your mother was a singer, your father a saxophonist and your stepfather a jazz pianist. Can you talk a little bit about growing up with jazz in the golden age of the 1940s and 1950s, maybe share a favorite memory?

My stepfather [Clement Moorman] is 97 years old. He still plays the piano and keeps his art. He plays better than ever before. My mother, though, has passed away. I grew up in an environment with a passionate love for music, and in an age when African-American artists had to be 10 times better because of racism. I grew up meeting Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. I thought I was going to be a piano player. I thought I’d be the next Horace Silver. I knew I was not going to be the next Oscar Peterson. My brother and I learned how to play these piano solos because we were so passionately enmeshed in this music. We were equally impassioned by classical music so also Leontyne Price or Marian Anderson. As I look back, it’s not just nostalgia, it just was truly a golden age. I majored in music in high school. I didn’t know if I had enough talent but I knew it was going to be my life’s work. I didn’t know if I would be a musician or singer, but I grew up listening also to Miles Davis and Nancy Wilson. I was totally enmeshed and absorbed in their recording.

Who was your favorite jazz performer in those early days and why? Outside of your family, of course.

They kept changing. Bill Evans and Horace Silver were two of our favorites. We’d sing all the solos. The Adderley Brothers, Nat Adderley, and the sax player Art Farmer. I can’t remember them all. There was just a plethora. I also loved Melba Liston because she had my name. And Ella Fitzgerald. I can sing her solos now, but I couldn’t then.

What was it like spending the summer of love in New York City and ending up cast in HAIR?

It was very unexpected. I was teaching music from kindergarten thru age 12 of high school in northern New Jersey, and I quit because I felt like if I stayed in teaching, I never was going to find out if I had enough talent to be a singing artist. My father took me to New York, where I met Valerie Simpson, who got me involved in overdub singing, At one of the recording sessions, Galt MacDermott, who wrote the music for HAIR, asked us all if we could come and sing for the director, choreographer and producer because they were still looking for strong voices. I was the only one who said yes. It was like I can’t even describe it – moving to another planet.

What was it like working with Eartha Kitt in TIMBUKTU?

She definitely was an icon and an artiste and her own self-person. She was intimidating in a sense. She was so strong and so confident and so good, and my personality was totally opposite. I was just starting to get some confidence now, but I have a gentle body language. We’re both petite women but total opposites. She was a cat and I was a kitty.

You started acting in musical theater in your twenties in HAIR and then winning the Tony for PURLIE, but then concentrated on your music career. How did you end up coming back to Broadway in 1995 to play Fantine in LES MISERABLES?

After TIMBUKTU, I went on tour and had my first hit record. I did 10 to 15 years of recording and touring. Then my marriage to my husband, who had been responsible for my success, disintegrated. During that time, I was trying to stay alive, much less stay in the industry. I did a one-woman play [SWEET SONGS OF THE SOUL, later renamed I’M STILL STANDING], and I began to climb back up the mountain. Richard Jay-Alexander, the casting director for LES MISERABLES on Broadway, saw me in Florida in my own play. He said he came in to see the play., but what he saw different sides of Melba Moore that he had never known. He had only seen me in PURLIE. He didn’t know I had a classical voice, or the other aspects of personality. It was thanks to I’M STILL STANDING that Lolita and Jerome found me, too. It was a wonderful audition piece for me.

You were the first African-American to play Fantine, the role that Anne Hathaway is favored for an Oscar this year. Can you talk a little about that experience?

I was just trying to survive, and then someone takes me and puts me into that role. When I got into it and realized what it was about, I thought, God put me here. How do you go from nothing to a lead role in LES MIZ? It showed me this is my destiny, where my good luck will happen. It was so much more than just playing a role and was a natural one to me.

It seems like certain songs play special roles at different times in one’s life. You have a long repertoire. Is there one song from it that means more now than it ever before, and if yes, why?

There are two songs. One is “I Got Love” from PURLIE, and the other is “Lean on Me,” written by Van McCoy. The longer I sing it, the more that I see that the song is my life. It’s always relevant, and the longer I sing it, because it is about your life going the right way, the more powerful it is again. It doesn’t depend on any age, any gender gap. It’s about people coming together, and the place that unites us is that magic of music which unites us. Some things pass away. With GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, this play, I am beginning again at a fresh point. All those things that are retro and nostalgic have a fresh life again. That’s what music can be. In pop culture, we try to make things old and passing away, but that’s not what art is. Art lives.

Purchase tickets for GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY here or at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office.

 

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Wanna Date? Let Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre Set You Up With FRANKENHOOKER!

Posted on: Feb 8th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema presents FRANKENHOOKER (1990); Dir. Frank Henenlotter; Starring Patty Mullen and James Lorinz; Tuesday, Feb. 12 @ 9:30 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

“If you only see one movie this year, it should be FRANKENHOOKER.” – Bill Murray

And just who do you think you are to argue with Bill Murray? Thankfully, Splatter Cinema and Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre have joined forces to make this easy for you. Heck, the Splatter folks even filmed an exclusive interview with star Patty Mullen at last weekend’s Days of the Dead convention to sweeten the deal.

Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), lowly employee at New Jersey Electric and erstwhile mad scientist, has a problem. His beloved fiancée Elizabeth (Patty Mullen) has just been dismembered in a freak lawnmower accident, and he was only able to retrieve the head. He’s got the means to bring her back, but since her body is missing, why not spring for some upgrades? Armed with an explosive batch of crack, he starts to collect choice parts from NYC’s hookers, but what happens when Elizabeth wakes up and starts looking for tricks on 42nd Avenue? Can Jeffrey win back his blushing bride-to-be?

Few people on this planet are as devoted to the form and function of the grindhouse era as director Frank Henenlotter. Beyond capturing and preserving the pre-Disneyfication of Times Square in the classic BASKET CASE, he has long been associated with Something Weird Video, rescuing classic exploitation films from destruction and presenting many of them in the “Frank Henenlotter’s Sexy Shockers” series. In FRANKENHOOKER, he returns to the seedy side of New York City, but this time sees it being decimated by the crack epidemic.

Not that FRANKENHOOKER is some preachy vehicle, mind you. Like in Henenlotter’s previous film BRAIN DAMAGE, the subtext of drug abuse is present and slyly addressed, but this time—as opposed to the more serious-minded BRAIN DAMAGE— the emphasis is fully on sleaze and gore so over-the-top as to be hilarious. And as always, that’s why we love Frank.

Patty Mullen walks Times Square as FRANKENHOOKER (1990).

Now, a lot can be said for Henenlotter’s visual style, which he has always managed to pull off without the benefit of any kind of real budget. For instance, his use of lighting and color is consistently well-thought-out and effective, and his ability to shoot effects that both maximize their impact and mask their cheapness is almost unmatched. The fact that FRANKENHOOKER was a larger-budgeted film didn’t lead to him getting lazy on this shoot; it only makes the film look that much more expensive than it was. But his real talent has always been his ability to pull unexpectedly great performances out of unlikely suspects. In BASKET CASE, it’s Kevin Van Hentenryck as Duane Bradley. In FRANKENHOOKER, it’s former Penthouse Pet of the Year Patty Mullen. Previously only seen in the abysmal DOOM ASYLUM and a couple of bit parts on TV, Mullen turns in a brilliant comedic performance as the undead patchwork prostitute. She’s completely believable as the sweet Elizabeth (pre-lawnmower death) and her shift into the gratingly aggressive “Frankenhooker” persona, accompanied by completely insane facial mugging, is something of a triumph for someone who is essentially a non-actor. It’s a shame that this is her final film to date, as she’s just an incredibly likeable presence throughout. Co-star James Lorinz has always been a weak link for me in this movie, coming across as a poor man’s Andrew McCarthy, but in recent years I’ve warmed up to his overacting, twitchy presence and incessant ad-libbing. It’s not that he’s bad; he’s just completely overshadowed by Mullen.

Henenlotter has peppered the film with familiar faces as well. Louise Lasser (MARY HARTMAN, MARY HARTMAN) appears as Jeffrey’s mom, pioneering TV horror host Zacherley shows up as a weatherman, and cameos also go to Henenlotter regular Beverly Bonner and the legendary Shirley Stoler (THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, THE DEER HUNTER, SEVEN BEAUTIES, PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE).

The screenplay by Frank and FANGORIA founding editor Bob Martin (who wrote the novelization of BRAIN DAMAGE) is constantly amusing, mixing references to FRANKENSTEIN and THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE with clever spoofs of local news and late-night talk shows. It’s quite probably the best screenplay that Henenlotter has ever had to work with. BRAIN DAMAGE is a more cerebral work (pun intended), but FRANKENHOOKER is more flat-out entertaining.

So join Splatter Cinema in sharing Frank Henenlotter’s love for grindhouse cinema in the only surviving theater in Atlanta that once served as a grindhouse: the Plaza.

Bill Murray demands it.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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