Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Walk the Line (20th Century Fox, 2005) ------ T-Bone Burnett Scores Again

All the four star reviews are well deserved by Walk the Line, skillfully directed by James Mangold. For those who want something more than the stereotypical celebrity biopic, there's the great love story of Johnny Cash and June Carter, but what really puts this movie over the top is the masterful job T-Bone Burnett did with the music.

Although Johnny Cash had a lengthy and accomplished career and can easily fill a boxed set with his best songs, song selection for a movie like this is hardly easy. Burnett deftly avoids every possible pitfall in his handling of the music in Walk the Line. He left out anything that might seem cliched, including "A Boy Named Sue" which introduced a whole new generation of pop audiences to Cash in the sixties, and "Man in Black" where Johnny explains why he always wore black, just to name two somewhat surprising omissions; even still the song selection is just perfect.

.Reese Witherspoon & Joachin Phoenix

The production of the music is just right too, with the most amazing part being that the two lead actors that are totally credible singing their own parts. Burnett's had a respectable career as a singer songwriter, but he's really disinguished himself as a producer, and since he's extended his production projects to films, his work has been nothing short of genius. Starting with his first album as producer, the excellent Leo Kottke album Time Step (1983), he racked up production credits with Los Lobos, Marshall Crenshaw, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison (the classic Black and White Night video), Bruce Cockburn, including his great Nothing But a Burning Light (1991), Counting Crows, the Wallflowers, Jackson Browne, and the awesome collaboration of k.d. lang and Tony Bennett on What a Wonderful World (2002), just to name a few career highlights.

.T-Bone Burnett

Burnett moved into film soundtrack production in 1985 and now has a list of soundtrack credits almost as long as his music production list. His film work has had a great impact to the point that his soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou (2000) singlehandedly revived the traditional American folk music genre and ultimately paved the way for new audiences to discover many great artists. Burnett worked similar magic on the Cold Mountain (2003) soundtrack. In Walk the Line, the music is an integral part of the story, and from the recreation of Johnny's 1957 audition with Sun Records owner Sam Phillips, to the Folsom Prison concert that bookends the movie, Burnett gets it right in every scene.

.Joachin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon

The degree to which Joachin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon disappear into their roles is uncanny, as is their ability to sing their parts with complete credibility; equal credit for that goes both to the actors and to the many months of rehearsal and coaching by T-Bone Burnett. Phoenix positively channels Johnny Cash, much in the same way that Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles in Ray (2004). Reese Witherspoon has been good in movies before, but here she turns in easily the best piece of acting in her career. Both lead performances are totally Oscar-worthy.

.Reese Witherspoon

Certain elements of the story are prototypical of such biopic stories, the rise to fame, the cheating, the drinking, the pill-popping, etc. but the relationship between Johnny and June easily transcends the stock plot. Since we know that they ultimately had a marriage that lasted for thirty-five years until they both passed away in 2003 within a few months of each other, the lengthy period during which Johnny was married to someone else as they gradually fell for each other, creates suspense not so much for whether they will get together, but more for the when, why and how.

.Robert Patrick and Shelby Lynne

Walk the Line does a good job analyzing the motivations that drove Cash not only to excel at music but to self-destruct at the same time. At the core of Johnny's angst (according to the movie) was the childhood accidental death of his brother and the psychological brutality of his father which continued seemingly all through his life. All the suppressed anger and frustration finds its way out through the music and on stage in his concert performances.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, including Robert Patrick (Terminator 2, 1991 and the television series The X Files, 2000-2002) and singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne as Johnny's parents, and Ginnifer Goodwin, (Mona Lisa Smile, 2003, and the television series Ed, 2001-2004) who turns in a great performance as Johnny's first wife, Vivian. In a nice casting move, Waylon Jennings is played by Jennings' real life son, Shooter Jennings. Dallas Roberts also plays a very believable Sam Phillips. You might think that if you've seen one musical biopic you've seen them all, but you'll rarely see one as well done and as musically satisfying as Walk the Line.

.Ginnifer Goodwin

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Zathura (Columbia TriStar, 2005)

Though normally classified with the childrens' books, Chris Van Allsburg's work (Jumanjiand The Polar Expressare best known for having previously been made into movies) combines a beautifully artistic style of drawing with a level of imagination that is unique among books for any age group. Zathurarevisits the premise of Jumanji, a board game that unexpectedly brings to life fantastic and life-threatening perils, to create a second story along the same lines only this time the game transports the players to outer space, complete with meteor showers, killer robots, killer aliens, and a stranded astronaut, with the only way back being to play the game to its conclusion.

Zathurais beautifully rendered on the big screen, offering an exciting flight of imagination that's not just for kids, in fact some of the scenes might be too scary or intense for the really small ones. The screenplay is well written, the cinematography and special effects are just right to tell this story, neither over the top nor cheesy. The humor is genuine, you might even laugh out loud at times.

The only possible nitpick I could mention is that the brotherly angst between the main character brothers and the transformation of their relationship as a result of playing the game may be just slightly overplayed. The way that the brothers tease and torture each other rings so true however that one might suspect that director Jon Favreau has some serious sibling rivalry issues of his own. Favreau, who successfully transitioned into a director of family comedy with Elf (2003),here expands his range and makes an excellent case for himself as a go-to director for family holiday blockbusters.

The casting is excellent, with unfamiliar faces in most of the roles except for Tim Robbins who is even believable as the divorced dad. Jonah Bobo excels as the six year old younger brother Danny, Josh Hutcherson is similarly good as the older brother Walter, a big ten year old. Kristen Stewart plays the self-absorbed teenage sister Lisa role to the hilt, at least when she's not cryogenically frozen by the game. Dax Shepard is superb as the stranded astronaut who winds up being more than he initially seems to be, and I'm not referring to his occasional resemblance to actor/director Zach Braff.

Although the dangers encountered are extreme, and although the laws of physics are gleefully suspended by Zathura, the pleasures are many and the ride is fun, and Favreau doesn't insult your intelligence. This is the kind of experience that you hope to have every time the lights of the theater dim, but so few movies really deliver; Zathura is first class entertaiment.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

K.T. Tunstall, The Living Room, NYC, 11/09/05

While pretty much unknown on this side of the Atlantic, K.T. Tunstall in 2005 has shifted somewhere north of a half million copies of her debut album Eye to the Telescopewith her record company expecting sales to hit the million mark soon, and that's just within the U.K. Having only just encountered her story a few weeks ago with the news of her being booked to play Hogmanay with Texas on New Year's Eve in Edinburgh Scotland, it seemed like an excellent and soon to be rare opportunity to see a singer with this kind of drawing power play in one of the most intimate venues in New York.

The Living Room is an unlikely place for an industry showcase, between its small size and hour long set blocks, but Virgin Records who will release the album in America early next year, booked the majority of the seats for this show. The crowd scene in the bar before the room opened was highly unusual for this venue but the prevalence of British accents made it all the more interesting.

From the live photos on her website, it would seem that when she plays live in Britain it's a major concert event with full band, lights and sound equipment. Performing solo acoustic, she uses a digital sequencer to multitrack her guitar, vocals, and rhythmic tapping on certain songs, and she refers to the unit as "the little bastard" which she demonstrated on her first song, "Miniature Disasters." She then introduced her next song "Other Side of the World" explaining that the song is about "how long distance relationships are shit."

Next she played "Under the Weather" and a newly written song, "Dirty Water." Introducing "Black Horse and Cherry Tree" she made reference to dressing up for the show saying that the least she could do was "throw a frock on since I came all this bloody way." For her last song, she moved over to the piano with a comment about her parents having paid for piano lessons when she was little, and played "Through the Dark."

The reception by the audience was most enthusiastic, and although the crowd wasn't ready to let her go without an encore, the Living Room put on the house music after the last song most likely due to the fact that the set was already ending 15 minutes past the allotted hour. The songs all sounded good, and K.T.'s performance was impressive. I look forward to the day that we might get to see her songs get the full band treatment here in the states.

On November 5th, The Scotsman ran this excellent article which I am pleased to reprint here.

What KT did next


THE RELEASE of Eye To The Telescope on 10 January ushered in a year like no other for KT Tunstall. And she could hardly be saying farewell to a memorable 2005 in finer style than headlining at the Hogmanay party in Edinburgh. "This is the gig of a lifetime," she says, with undisguised glee. "This Hogmanay party is probably the best-known and best-loved in the world, and I've been here a few times over the years dreaming of being the one entertaining the crowds. Until we're on that stage I won't believe we're allowed on it."

It is unlikely that, come the Bells, Tunstall will be denied access to the stage in Princes Street Gardens, yet it is no surprise that the meteoric nature of her rise to stardom has sometimes left this utterly self-effacing young woman pinching herself. Her success at the Q Awards last month is a good example; when Black Horse and The Cherry Tree was named best single, she was genuinely, absolutely stunned.

"When the album came out it was like attaining the ultimate, so winning the Q and being on the shortlist for the Mercury Prize was mindblowing. I honestly didn't believe we were going to win the Q award." This is fairly evident by her response to the win: "I didn't expect this award at all, so unfortunately I can't think of anything to say or anybody to slag off. But I'm over the moon to be among such great competition." She laughs when reminded of this: "I did say that, but honestly, I'd gone along expecting a free lunch and a good day out. I was in total shock when I realised I'd beaten both U2 and Oasis, both heroes of mine. And the Q awards are notorious for people having a go at each other, so I couldn't resist saying that."

Since her Q win, Tunstall has got used to being described as a new star, but she is certainly no new kid on the musical block; she formed her first band nearly 13 years ago and has been writing and performing ever since. Tunstall occupies a unique position in the area of female singer songwriters, with a very definite personal style, despite crass comparisons to Sheryl Crow and Dido.

She is very much a girl with guitar and has interesting views on the subject, describing how a book by the psychologist Oliver James crystallised these views. "I'm fascinated by this " she explains " The book is called 'They F*** You Up (© P Larkin) and it's looking at the way parents shape their children and how their expectations can change everything about their development. There's a very traditional view about boys being the only ones to be involved in rock music in a creative sense.

"Strangely enough, much of that comes from independence issues - as children, boys were always encouraged to go out on their own and be adventurous, whereas girls were mollycoddled more and encouraged to stay at home, where they would be safe." She points out that "joining a rock band was seen as demanding total independence from your parents and girls didn't go down that route. If girls were involved, all too often it was as groupies, which, come to think of it, isn't safe at all!"

Tunstall recognises how fortunate she was not just to be allowed to follow her musical dreams but was actively encouraged by her parents, physicist David and primary school teacher Rosemary, in her home town of St Andrews. Her first instrument was classical piano, followed by classical flute, until she started writing songs at age 15 and realised the piano was limited - "you can't exactly pick it up and take it with you".

She befriended the guitar teacher at school, borrowed a guitar and that was the beginning of a whole new musical direction. "Joni Mitchell was my teacher," she says. "I taught myself and played a classical guitar to begin with. I discovered Joni Mitchell after two years and found her inspiring - she has a timeless quality to her voice and lyrics; she was so uplifting I knew I'd found the perfect instrument."

By the end of fifth year, she'd had enough of school and wanted a gap year with a difference - so her mother researched possible scholarships and Tunstall duly gained one to Kent School in Connecticut, New England. At 17, she absorbed gigs by The Grateful Dead and 10,000 Maniacs, formed her first band (The Happy Campers) and played a host of informal gigs. She describes the experience as a mind-expanding year which made her realise making music was what she wanted to do.

"Everyone was really friendly and I discovered loads of people as obsessed with music as I was," she recalls. "It was a really fertile ground for me and I started writing my own songs and then formed a band very quickly. It was a completely different culture from what I was used to in terms of creativity. That intensity and interest in music gave me a lot of confidence to try out my own thing and that's when I did my first gigs. During the holidays, I travelled around and saw as much of the country as I could - it was a fantastic experience at such a young age and being so immersed in music made me realise this is what I want to do. No other job could matter as much."

Back in Scotland, Tunstall worked with Kenny Anderson, leading man of the Fence Collective, a loose collection of musicians based around Anstruther in Fife. "They're not interested in big bucks or fame," she says. "They were a huge inspiration to me and helped me realise you can just be a musician and not work in another job. I wanted to turn that into a career with longevity, so the next obvious step had to be London. Time to do my own thing."
Her "own thing" involved a lot of small pubs around the country, but her big break came in a fashion which neatly sums up her guiding philosophy: "Luck is being ready".

US rapper Nas pulled out of a performance on the BBC's Later ... With Jools Holland last autumn and Tunstall was drafted in at the last minute, producing a show-stopping version of the Bo Diddley-style Black Horse And The Cherry Tree. Holland's reputation for bringing the finest bands to public attention was perfectly illustrated by the response - and the buzz built from there. Opportunities have come up and we've been so ready that it's been the perfect time," says Tunstall. "I do honestly believe that luck is being ready and it's worked for us so many times."

When she signed a record deal with Relentless, a division of EMI, Tunstall knew she had moved into a new league. "I was pretty sure that now I wouldn't have to promise people free beer to come and listen to me," she says dryly. Never mind the free beer; fans are now fighting for tickets. The current tour is a sell-out, her new single Under The Weather is due for release on 5 December... and then America beckons once more. Tunstall has performed there this year as part of Tartan Week, at a Bob Dylan tribute concert and she also did two shows in New York in September; 36 hours after her Hogmanay performance, she is heading back to the Big Apple for more gigs.

So can she make the American breakthrough that eludes so many leading UK artists? "I love going there and doing gigs, but I am aware that it takes a lot to make it over there. However, I'm happy to go and play to 1,000 people at a time - although I'm sure my management would prefer it to be 5,000 - and I'm just going to enjoy it. You've got to have faith in yourself and stay true to what you want to do and I hope that's what will get me audiences in the States. That's what worked here so I'm going for the same philosophy."

After the American tour, Tunstall returns to the studio in June to record her second album. "I've learned so much with the first album that it will be great to get back in the studio," she says happily. "I'm hoping to put my experiences over the last year to good use."
The experiences of the last year include establishing her impeccable musical credentials, while somehow remaining refreshingly grounded; she always refers to "we" [herself and the band] rather than "I". Questioned about her Kylie-like reputation for being both approachable and friendly inspires a slightly embarrassed laugh. "I read an interview with Matt Dillon where he said you remain at the mental age you become famous, so I'm glad I was 30 when it all happened. It does mean that I feel I'm approaching my music, the people close to me and fans in the same way as I did when I didn't have success."

She is also adamant that she's going to stay that way. "I find it really unnerving when I meet someone who says: 'Oh you're so normal for a celebrity.' And I think: 'Who have you met and what have they done to you?' "If you put yourself in a position where you are well-known, you have to accept there are some weirdos out there, but you can't treat everyone you meet as if they're like that. There are plenty of people looking out for me, sort of putting themselves between me and any potentially harmful situation, so I have to trust it never gets too much to make me change."

It is well-documented that Tunstall is adopted, which also inspired her wonderful quote that "I grew up knowing I could have had a million different lives. It makes your life mysterious and your imagination go wild" - and seven years ago, she got in touch with her birth mother, which she says enriched both their lives. "I can't say it's any more than that because I already have my parents and my brothers, but I'm glad we've been in touch; we need time to develop that relationship and time is one thing I don't have at the moment."

Her family are very close and delighted with her success, although younger brother Daniel enjoys fame in his own right as an Olympic Deaf Tennis Champion. Her older brother Jo, who first introduced her to non-classical music, works for British Airways and lives near her in London. They catch up as often as she's in town, which at the moment, isn't that often. Tunstall accepts she needs to relax more. "I'm taking a week off before Christmas and heading to the Indian Ocean to sit by the sea and do nothing.

"I was on the dole for years so I'm good at pottering, but I've lost the knack. I went to France for a week in July and was totally hyper, moving garden furniture around and smashing glasses and I'm not normally clumsy. "But I'm going to relax for a week and then I'm back for Hogmanay." Tunstall can barely keep the excitement out of her voice; in a year which has included Glastonbury, T in the Park, 400,000 album sales and three hugely- acclaimed singles, headlining at Edinburgh's Hogmanay Street Party is not just a superb climax to 2005 - it heralds a stunning start to 2006.

KT Tunstall - her story so far...
KATE Tunstall was born in Edinburgh on 23 May, 1975 and grew up in St Andrews.
She began writing songs as a teenager and formed her first band, The Happy Campers, during a gap-year in the United States.
  • While studying on a music course at the Royal Holloway College in London, she beat 11 Goth groups during a local battle of the bands contest, aided only by a mandolin player.
    Returning to St Andrews, Tunstall began exploring the area's growing grass-roots scene, which gave the world The Beta Band and Fence Collective.
  • London beckoned and Tunstall's return to the capital saw her team up with Steve Osborne, a former U2 producer. The result was her debut album, Eye to the Telescope.
    Her career was given a dramatic boost when she performed on BBC2's Later... with Jools Holland in October 2004.
  • Issued on the Relentless label in January, her album has already gone gold four times over, selling more than 400,000 copies in the UK.
  • Tunstall was nominated for the 2005 Mercury Music Prize back in July but was beaten to the top spot by New York-based Antony and the Johnsons
  • Last month, she scooped the Q Award for Best Track with Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.
  • Tunstall will round off a highly successful year by headlining Edinburgh's Hogmanay party, alongside Texas. She said that performing for the 100,000-strong crowd will be a dream come true.
  • Thanks again to Joan McFadden and The Scotsman for this excellent article. Here's one last shot of K.T. from the Living Room.