Movie Appreciation: Amadeus

I guess I’m kind of revealing my own personal Internet secret here, but for over two years now, I’ve had a tumblr that I use expressly for my pop culture obsessions. It started as a home for pictures of New York and the Beatles but morphed into something more when I started caring about movies. I didn’t want to put my name on it and a 49ers game was on TV when I decided to make it, so I threw “harbaugh” in the username, and added 71 because 7/1 is my birthday.

The posts are mostly expressions of whatever’s in my head, an overflow of the moments and quotes and scenes that fill my mind. Looking at the first page of my tumblr this morning, I thought the three most recent posts were an especially good representation of three movies that have lately had an affect on me: Silver Linings Playbook (I’m pretty much always watching that movie but I went to Philadelphia yesterday and had it playing in my mind all day), Amadeus, and Some Like it Hot. And because it’s Sunday and I want nothing more than to sit on my bed with a cup of coffee and write while looking out my window across a sunny New York City, I’m just going to start writing appreciations of those three movies. First, Amadeus.

Amadeus floated to the top of my mind because it was just added to Netflix. When I wanted to watch it for the first time a couple months ago, I ended up buying it on iTunes because, to my knowledge, it wasn’t streamable or rentable. But somehow watching a movie on Netflix seems easier and more accessible than watching a movie I already own.

It quickly became one of those easy-to-watch movies for me, where you just know and love it so well that you can pick up at any place, have it on in the background while doing other stuff and not miss anything (actually, Silver Linings Playbook and Some Like it Hot are like that for me, too, which is probably why I feel the urge to write about them).

I started retracing my steps to remember how I decided to watch it in the first place. It started in January, when I re-watched The Grand Budapest Hotel in preparation for awards season. I like that movie a lot, and who doesn’t love Ralph Fiennes, but the whole beginning part, set in the 60s with Jude Law as the young author, is my favorite part. And I’d forgotten that the whole movie is basically presented as a story told by F. Murray Abraham’s character.

He doesn’t have much screen time, but there was something I liked about Abraham in the film, so I went down my usual Google/IMDb rabbit trail and found that he had won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1985 for his performance in Amadeus. At that point, the only way I knew about Amadeus was from a 30 Rock joke – when Tracy briefly lives with Liz and she gets mad at him for charging pay-per-view adult movies to her cable bill, she asks about a movie called “I’ma Do Us” and Tracy replies, “It’s a pun on Amadeus, dummy!” I knew that was a movie and I guess I assumed it was about Mozart, but truly – that was the only way Amadeus ever entered my consciousness before a couple months ago.

[SIDE NOTE: I just Googled “30 Rock Amadeus” to confirm that line, and learned there is AN ENTIRE AMADEUS SUBPLOT in the episode “Succession,” from season 2. So of course I just sat here and watched the whole episode. Fitting for a Tracy and Frank storyline, it again involves adult films, with Tracy as Mozart and Frank as Salieri as they attempt to create a pornographic video game. I’d never watched that episode with the context of Amadeus, so obviously the parody was completely lost on me until now. Just another layer of that show’s brilliance.]

Where was I? Oh, the actual movie. I watched it after learning F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his performance, and I loved it right away. It was totally different from what I expected, and totally unlike anything else I’d seen. I assumed it was a boring biography movie. I wasn’t expecting Mozart to be portrayed as a disruptive, punk-ish revolutionary who wore pink wigs and had a ridiculous laugh.

But that’s what I love about it. In this movie, Mozart is the Beatles, basically. No one knows what to do with him, or how to accept this totally revolutionary force. He doesn’t act like anyone else and he doesn’t make music like anyone else. He is completely original and effortlessly brilliant.(Roger Ebert named this to his “Great Movies” list, and the Jordan-to-Barkley, Kennedy-to-Nixon comparisons he makes with Mozart and Salieri really helped me understand Mozart’s creative power.)

I think this scene, from early in the film, is a perfect illustration:

 

I didn’t really think much of it in my first viewing, but I’ve been watching pieces on Netflix over the last couple days and am now head-over-heels in love with the colorful wigs. Mozart’s, of course:

mozart pink wig

But also Constanze, his wife, who – and maybe it’s just the way it looks with her outfit – wears a colorful look of her own.

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.04.54 PM

F. Murray Abraham won the Oscar, and I wholeheartedly think he deserved it, but Tom Hulce was nominated as Mozart, and his performance is probably my favorite of the two. Well, actually, it’s probably more that Mozart is my favorite character. They’re both insane performances. Watching Amadeus is probably the first time I’d consciously realized that the film was great because the performances were great. With any other actors, it would have been different, and…less great.

At the height of my obsession with the film, I watched a feature called “The Making of Amadeus.” Typical DVD bonus stuff, like behind-the-scenes photos, interviews with Milos Forman, the actors, etc. The most interesting part is the discussion of casting, especially when Forman talks about casting the smaller roles, and how it was important for all those actors to be distinct. He said it drove him crazy when you couldn’t tell minor characters apart in a film. I totally agree. (Other best part of that feature: Forman talking about his decision to shoot in Prague, saying it was perfect because the city still looked exactly the way it did in Mozart’s time thanks to “communist inefficiency.”)

One other major thing I love about this movie is how the characters speak in totally modern, Americanized English, using contractions and phrases like “they shit marble.” Of course they didn’t actually speak like that, but who cares? It’s the best way to convey the essence of the characters and their time.

There are a million other aspects to this movie I adore, but a lot of them are subtleties in performance that are hard to put into words. It should also go without saying that the music is fantastic, too. The whole thing is big, colorful, perfectly acted, and a pure joy to watch.

“You went to New York for the first time? So did I.”

I thought I was over talking about the Beatles for awhile, after spending Sunday fully submerged in Ed Sullivan Show anniversary madness, but today I read an oral history of another Beatles event celebrating its 50th anniversary: Their concert at the Washington Coliseum on February 11, 1964. The Washington Post published the story, which culled anecdotes from concertgoers, photographers, hotel managers and a former Beatle to create a delightful read, full of stories and insights I’d never known.

There are so many stories bubbling under the surface of commonplace events, just waiting to boil over. Well, I guess the Beatles playing D.C. wasn’t necessarily “commonplace.” But it’s not one of the major moments that spring to mind when thinking about the Beatles in America – you spend those thoughts on the Ed Sullivan Show and Shea Stadium.

Every story in this oral history is fascinating, but these were my favorites:

John B. Lynn, son of the Washington Coliseum’s owner: “It was such an unusual event and it was a windfall. He [his dad, the owner] took the profit and used it to buy my mother a new Lincoln Continental convertible for her birthday. We came home from school and he said, ‘The Beatles concert bought that for your mother.'”

I can just picture a dad pointing to the awesome new car in the driveway, shrugging and thanking the Beatles for a new car.

Linda Binns Liles, who was nine years old that day and rode the train from New York to Washington in the same car as the Beatles:  “I introduced myself to Ringo Starr and promptly sat down and started talking with him. ‘You went to New York for the first time? So did I.’ We had a normal conversation. I was sure he was interested in my fourth-grade teacher as much as I was interested in what he was doing. Paul McCartney, who had me calling him Uncle Paul, asked me if I was coming to their D.C. concert, and I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to go to school tomorrow.’ I was perfectly serious.”

I love how this captures the newness and thrill of America for the Beatles. “You went to New York for the first time? So did I.” Ringo could not have said anything more perfect. Liles’ story brings the spectacular train scene from A Hard Day’s Night to mind.

I also loved a quote from Paul, still dripping with that Hard Day’s Night cynicism when remarking on the tone of press conferences the band did in the United States: “The press conferences were quite funny. It was always: ‘Hey, Beatles, is that hair real, or is it a wig?’ Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it? How dumb are you? But we didn’t mind it at all. We expected it. It was a completely different world. It’s not like now where you’ll find all these kids writing for the Internet. It was elderly, balding gentlemen who smoked a lot — grown-ups looking disapprovingly at the children having too much fun. We knew it wasn’t hard to beat that kind of cynicism. It was like a chess game. And the great thing was, being four of us, one of us could always come up with a smart-ass answer.”

America enthralled the Beatles, but they still knew what they were going to get. They were in on the joke, and they played along, giving us so many wonderful stories to remember in the process.

February 9, 1964

Fifty years ago today, the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and music in America changed forever.

black and white beatles ed sullivan

That day seems so magical to me. Part of the reason I love it is because it happened on February 9. What ever happens on February 9? It’s the dead of winter, and in 1964, the country was still reeling from JFK’s death. Some of the sadness was lifted when that British band took the stage on American TV. In his introduction of the band, Ed Sullivan said it best: “…this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.”

The Beatles were different, and that gigantic television audience knew it. I think the root of my love for the band is that they were wholly different. They didn’t come along and play better versions of the same kind of music that had been around for years. They played music no one had ever thought was possible. No one had even imagined that kind of music existing. The Beatles created it, and everything was different afterwards.

Looking at February 9, 1964 from my vantage point in 2014, what really fascinates me about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan show appearance is that nothing like it could happen today. No one band, person, movie or television show could capture our collective attention anymore. Sixty percent of the American TV audience watched the Beatles’ performance. Today, you wouldn’t get 60 percent of people to tune in for live coverage of an alien invasion.

I was thinking about this earlier in the week after reading a fantastic New York magazine interview with Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. Discussing the differences between how SNL did comedy in the 70s and how it does comedy now, he noted:

At that point, you had a complete unity generationally—in music, movies, politics, and sports. It’s much more fragmented now, so half the people watching Drake’s show, maybe 60 to 70 percent, didn’t know him. Even news is fragmented now. There used to be much more cohesion—everyone saw the helicopter take the people out of Saigon. I don’t know whether people know what’s going on in Fallujah right now.

We don’t have the same cultural touchstones anymore, but I don’t necessarily bemoan that. We have a wealth of amazing media options. I’ll watch my obscure TV show, you watch yours. Everyone’s happy. But with our fragmented media world, nothing will bring us together in the same way. You have to wonder if a band like the Beatles would break through with the same force in 2014, but it’s hard to put their music in today’s context because today’s music wouldn’t be here without them.

I’m kicking myself for not taking advantage of more NYC-based Beatles events leading up to this 50th anniversary, but I am definitely going to visit the Beatles exhibit at the New York Public Library before it closes in May. The Beatles popped up all over the place on TV this past week, though, including a segment on NBC Nightly News (it doesn’t get more perfect than Brian Williams talking about the Beatles) and David Letterman’s awesome week-long tribute to the band. Letterman’s show, of course, tapes in the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Beatles actually played on February 9, 1964. When Paul McCartney visited his show in 2009, he talked at length about the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan appearance:

This week, Letterman had all his music guests play Beatles songs. Lenny Kravitz’s “Get Back” was pretty great:

Fifty years later, the Beatles are still a cultural force, and their first Ed Sullivan appearance is still a television milestone. February 9, 1964 was quite the day.

Weekend Goodness: The Beatles in the USA and SNL’s Wes Anderson horror movie

*Random thoughts from the weekend about the Beatles and television, because why not.

Crazy fun fact I learned this week: The first time a Tamla/Motown song was ever played on British radio, the Beatles were playing it.

This knowledge comes from a Paley Center event I went to Friday evening, a talk with Beatles scholar Mark Lewisohn, who just released the first of a comprehensive three-volume set on the band, titled “Tune In.”

Lewisohn was talking specifically about the American music that influenced the Beatles, and about the band’s 1964 visit to the United States. I had some familiarity with the topic thanks to the Beatles class I took in college, but this added so much depth to my understanding.

Rather than simply rattling off some of the Beatles’ influences, Lewisohn talked about how these American acts specifically influenced the band. It wasn’t just “they listened to Elvis, they listened to Carl Perkins.” He went into why the Beatles were drawn to certain acts, and what particular elements of the early performers’ styles they tried to emulate. One point I found particularly interesting was about the different ways Elvis and Buddy Holly influenced the group. Elvis, they worshipped because of his onstage persona. (“Elvis was absolutely God to the Beatles,” Lewisohn said. “Well, they weren’t yet the Beatles. But he was God.”) They knew right away Elvis wasn’t a very good guitar player, but they wanted to move and perform like him. Buddy Holly, on the other hand, didn’t have Elvis’ moves, but they wanted to play the guitar as well as he did.

Talking about the Beatles’ first visit to the US, he went beyond the Ed Sullivan Show and talked about major differences the Beatles noticed between the United States and Britain, particularly with regards to television. They just could not get over the in-your-face nature of US TV ads – how even the broadcasters themselves delivered commercial messages. Lewisohn said they found that hilarious. Albert Maysles, a documentarian who followed the Beatles during the 1964 trip, joined this portion of the talk, and a clip from his film was shown, of Paul explaining to a group of people the difference in TV advertisements. I didn’t write it down word-for-word, nor can I find the precise clip online, but he did a great newsman impression, something like “The situation in China is very bad, and did you know, you should be drinking…” as he holds up a bottle of something. It was charming, of course.

(Another great Paul moment – because what Paul moment isn’t great – was also from the Maysles documentary, when New York radio host Murray the K had each of the Beatles announce his station call letters, WINS, on the air. They all attached some joke to it, but Paul’s was the best: “W-I-N-S Winston Churchill.”)

Oh, and about the Motown-on-British-radio fun fact…isn’t that nuts? I can’t remember the exact date, but the Beatles’ rendition of “Please Mr. Postman” was the first Tamla/Motown tune to play on British radio.

Completely unrelated, but another wonderful moment of culture from this weekend…

Saturday Night Live‘s spot-on parody of what a Wes Anderson horror movie might look like.

Despite my nagging Royal Tenenbaums obsession, I’m not a Wes Anderson buff. I think I’m just intrigued with the way he carries so many of the same elements through each film…Bill Murray, Futura, made-up book titles…plus, his movies are so nice to look at.

This SNL trailer parody was just perfect. I mean, it captures everything Wes Anderson is known/loved/hated for (although now that I think about it, where’s Bill Murray?) and has the most wonderfully pretentious title: “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.”

What I love about this:

  • Alec Baldwin as the Narrator – Alec Baldwin was onstage during Edward Norton’s monologue, but I didn’t connect the dots until my roommate pointed it out during the clip. Duh, Alec Baldwin was narrating a Wes Anderson movie.
  • “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard” as the music, because it’s the soundtrack to my favorite part of The Royal Tenenbaums.
  • Edward Norton’s excellent Eli Cash impression: “Hey hun, I think we’re about to get murdered.”
  • “The New York Times calls it, ‘You had me at Wes Anderson.'”

The rest of the episode was solid, but this was a gem. That is all.

I Saw Paul McCartney in Real Life Today.

File the above sentence under “words I never thought I’d write today.”

Around noon, I was doing my usual Twitter troll and noticed this tweet from Paul McCartney’s account:

WHAT?

After investigating, I decided this was legit: Not just Paul recording at some studio near Times Square. Not just a video of Paul airing in Times Square. Actual, living, breathing Paul McCartney was going to play real, live music. I looked at the clock and gauged my workload. This was doable. My co-workers, who know more than they’d like to about my Beatles fandom, encouraged me to go. As did my boss. So, my cubemate Emily and I hopped on the 1 train to Times Square (two stops from our office) and were watching Sir Beatle and Music Revolutionary Paul McCartney half an hour later.

*Disclaimer: This was not my first time seeing Paul McCartney live, but I had known about the first concert in advance. My dad took me to see him at the Rose Garden in Portland in November 2005. He opened with Magical Mystery Tour. My dad bought me an exorbitantly expensive commemorative t-shirt that I will keep forever. We left early so I could get to sleep at a reasonable hour before the state cross-country meet the next day. The concert was still awesome.

It’s a weird feeling, seeing celebrities in person – and in this case, a celebrity I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing over. Like, that’s him. The nature of the concert – impromptu, brief, in the middle of a busy public space – had me thinking about the Beatles’ rooftop concert in 1969. The rooftop concert is one of my primary obsessions within my Beatles obsession (Sub-obsession? That sounds kind of pathetic.), for everything from the songs they played to the way George wore green pants and the way it turned London on its head, even if only for a few minutes. A couple songs in to today’s show, it hit me: The same person who performed in the rooftop concert is performing in front of my eyes, this very minute. He wrote “Yesterday.” He gave an interview for the definitive documentary about his band while piloting a boat. He witnessed everything from the clubs in Hamburg to the Cavern Club to the Abbey Road studios. And for this awesome, unexpected moment, he wasn’t in Hamburg or London or any number of other places: He was here!

Paul and his band played out of the back of a flatbed truck stretched across 46th St. in Times Square. When we got off the subway at 42nd, we couldn’t see a huge crowd forming or hear any noise, but as we walked toward the open public spaces nearby, we saw what was obviously the concert crowd. We were in place around 12:50, and pleasantly surprised at how close we got to be.

Here are a few snippets of the show, taken on my iPhone and clumsily uploaded to YouTube:

“Well this is something else, isn’t it? Let’s stay here all day!”

“We’re only allowed 15 minutes up here! Mr. Andy Warhol predicted I would get 15 minutes of fame. This is it.”

“Welcome to Times Square…thank you to the NYPD for looking after us…”

The set consisted of a handful of songs from his forthcoming album “New,” which will be released Tuesday. I knew the title track, but wasn’t familiar with any of the other songs. While part of me wishes he broke into a rousing “Hey Jude” chorus, I kind of love that he played exclusively new stuff. One thing I love about Paul is how he hasn’t retired to some remote island and closed off his talent. He would be totally entitled to do so, of course, but he still wants to be out there – creating new music that fans will grow to love, and indulging them in the hits he knows they already adore. Today, it felt like he was saying, “I’m Paul McCartney. I changed music forever so I can basically do whatever I want. And I have a new album that I want to promote the heck out of.”

As everyone filed out, a guy nearby us perfectly summed up how we all felt: “I’ve never been so happy to be at a concert and not know any of the words.”

Missed My Stop

Tonight, I had dinner with friends after work in Manhattan, then hopped on the 7 train back into Queens. My apartment is half a block from a local 7 stop (the 7 runs some express trains from Manhattan to Queens during evening rush hours). Maybe this train switched from local to express in the middle of the ride without my knowledge. Maybe it did make the local stops and I just didn’t notice. But when I looked up, we were well past the one I needed.

All because of a chapter in my current book, “As Time Goes By” by Derek Taylor, who served two stints as press officer for the Beatles. (Yes, I’m back on a Beatles kick after the Beatles class I took last spring term. Well, actually, I was never really off the Beatles kick. Now it’s just spread to books.) A couple months ago, I landed on Derek Taylor’s Wikipedia page, which said he wrote an informal memoir in 1973. It was an Amazon impulse buy. I wasn’t really sure what to read after “Yours In Truth,” and this seemed like something easy to pick up off the shelf.

If I try too hard to summarize the chapter that kept me on the train, I’ll talk it to death and ruin the story. But it was beautiful. At least if you love the Beatles.

Each chapter relays a short, specific anecdote from Taylor’s wild career in the 60s, working as a publicist for bands like the Beatles, the Byrds and the Beach Boys, and for individuals like Mae West. (The subtitle of the book, if it gives you any idea what a crazy decade Derek Taylor had: “Living in the Sixties with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, Allen Klein, Mae West, Brian Wilson, The Byrds, Danny Kaye, The Beach Boys, one wife and six children in London, Los Angeles, New York City and On the Road.”)

This particular chapter was titled, “England, 1968.”

In England, 1968, Derek and Paul McCartney go up to a town in the northern part of the country so Paul can work on arranging some pieces with a brass band. I think a few other people are there to make up some kind of entourage, but Paul is the only Beatle.

Derek decides (albeit while under the influence of what he calls the “dreaded heaven-and-hell drug”) that on their way back to London, they should detour to some small town called Harrold, just for kicks.

He proceeds to describe their night in Harrold. They check in to an inn. They gamble and drink at the bar. News spreads that Paul McCartney is in town. They meet the town dentist, who invites them to eat at his home. “Welcome to Harrold, Paul,” he says. “I can hardly believe it, in fact I think I’m dreaming.”

The dentist’s wife prepares a meal for them with food that had been reserved for an upcoming special occasion. The dentist’s daughter hands Paul a guitar (it’s right-handed but he plays it anyway) and he plays “the song he had written that week and which he said went ‘Hey Jude, don’t make it bad, take a sad song and make it better.'”

It comes time to go back to the inn, which has closed, “but a winged messenger came to say that as this was the night of nights, never to return, the inn was to be reopened. ‘In your honor, Paul.'”

Paul played piano at the local pub until three o’clock in the morning. “The pub was absolutely full. The whole village was here . . . and then I went and sat in the little garden and cried for joy that we had come to Harrold,” Derek recalls.

Isn’t that delightful? A dash of cynicism mixed in with a retelling of a magical evening. Harrold was supposed to be a detour into untouched obscurity, but even there, they knew the Beatles. Paul McCartney, one night only, and you didn’t even know he was going to be there. And then I realized I missed my stop.

From Birthday Cakes to Press Box Views: A Lot to Love

Exactly two weeks ago, I was sitting at a PDX gate, waiting to board a JFK-bound red-eye.

Now, I am sitting in my Queens apartment, wondering why we didn’t position our futon closer to the air conditioner.

In the span of two weeks, I’ve basically changed everything about my life (at least the kind of stuff you change on your Facebook “About Me” section and Twitter profile; new city, new workplace, etc.). And while I still want to write about that change (but not in a sappy, emotional play-by-play style), what currently strikes me is how much there is to love about where I am right this second. Here’s my list of the moment:

I love…

…that it’s after midnight and I’m watching a Mariners game, live on MLB.com. (I love this for two reasons: 1) Late night baseball rocks and 2) I’m not geographically blacked out from watching the M’s via MLB.com At Bat apps.)

…that for my birthday on Sunday, my friend bought one of the most delicious cakes I’ve ever tasted:

…that I get to write a short piece for the next installment of Mets Magazine.

…that Newsweek published a special edition about the Beatles (and it only caused my love for Paul to grow).

…that I can sit on our fire escape and look out into a courtyard at the center of a few apartment buildings (inevitably leading me to dream up a Rear Window-type scenario in which I innocently spy on interesting neighbors, then realize that’s only endearing when Jimmy Stewart does it).

…that this is my standard view for New York Mets games:

…that sometimes it gets so hot, I find myself sprawled on the futon, moaning like George Bluth, Sr. when he installed a hot tub in his attic. (Okay, I don’t actually love the heat. But I do a pretty good “Mikey, my eyes!” impression. And this was mostly an excuse to insert an Arrested Development clip.)

…that my roommate and I share an “organized chaos” mindset when it comes to apartment cleanliness: Livable, but with a few dirty dishes in the sink.

…that my sister came to visit on Saturday before heading up to West Point for summer training.

…that earlier tonight, I became the Foursquare mayor of my favorite neighborhood Chinese takeout spot (after only two check-ins!).

…that I live so close to Starbucks, my computer thinks Starbucks’ Wi-Fi network is the default.

…that I get to live, work and play with awesome people who have helped ease my transition from one coast to another.

In New York, this list could be endless. Whether you’re in NYC or not, I’d love to know what’s making your day.

P.S. – You may notice my blog URL is now paigelandsem.com. That’s right: I graduated to the big kids’ world of legitimate domain names. You can still access the site via theopinionpaige.wordpress.com, but it’ll automatically redirect to https://paigelandsem.com/.