All About The Hamiltons

March 9, 2015

About fifteen minutes into the performance, the hairs on my arms and neck started to tingle. I looked around at the stage, the theater. I wanted a really good mental picture of this place and time, because I knew I was amid something amazing, and so did the cast and crew who were performing it. By the end of the first act, I still had the same unreal fervor. Now it almost felt like guilt, that I was watching something so transgressive that I shouldn’t even be there. As we filed out at show’s end, I realized I’d been clenching my body for the inevitable breaking of the spell, which always, always happens, even to the most promising Act I hopes.

Nope. Not this time. I had just witnessed the most rule-breaking, game-changing, crowd-thrilling piece of theater since the original Broadway production of HAIR — which was realized by this same Public Theater. In other words, HAMILTON punched me harder than anything in nearly fifty years. As we were walking out, Linda said, “I’d go back in there and see it again right now,” and that goes double for me. The last time I felt that way was GATZ, also at this selfsame Public.

th-2More than one friend of mine had been skeptical after the word of mouth and then the reviews were all unrealistically fervid. HAMILTON was the hottest ticket in New York before it even opened. Hey, we sneered, nothing’s that good. Besides, our murky understanding was that this was some kind of “hip-hop musical,” and by me you can keep most hip-hop music: I’m too old and too Caucasian. (I think Eminem’s “Stan” is a compact noir masterpiece, but to me it’s the exception that proves the rule.) Still, knowledgeable people were falling all over themselves trying to explain how miraculous this thing is. Now I’ve seen it, and it’s my turn to try.

After the Tony-winning success of IN THE HEIGHTS (we were lucky enough to attend the ceremony the night Lin-Manuel Miranda won the biggest award, Best Musical), the writer-composer read Ron Chernow’s biography ALEXANDER HAMILTON and made the indelible connections that brought his story to the stage. Here was an illegitimate child, an abandoned orphan, a Caribbean immigrant to whom Revolutionary-era British-American society was as alien as was the slaves’ native Africa to their owners, a guy who pulled himself up by the bootstraps and through courage, smarts and sheer chutzpah insinuated himself into the snobby cabal of the Founding Fathers. Hamilton was no saint — he was hard-headed, loose-lipped and lustily robust; a lurid sex scandal probably prevented any serious run at the Presidency — and one of the great strengths of this piece is that he is presented candidly: at some points you sympathize with his opponents and wish the title character would just shut the hell up.

hamiltonAs for the music, there’s far more variety than I expected. There are ballads, traditional belters, musical winks and nods ranging from Gilbert & Sullivan to Led Zeppelin. But, yes, the beating heart of HAMILTON is that relentless hip-hop groove, an instant behind James Brown’s “the One,” which the best rhymers can cram with truth: here boasting, there spitting with rage. You don’t have to know a thing about Alexander Hamilton when you sit down. All those biographical facts and much more will be taught you with self-asserting lyrics that tear away all anachronism and make the historical characters as relevant as a smartphone.

In a program note, the Public’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, compares the sound of hip-hop to Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter, and I couldn’t shake that feeling. Whenever I sit down for a Shakespeare play, there’s an initial period in which I have to get used to the ornate 16th-century language. After five minutes or so I can “sync in,” relax and enjoy the Bard’s beat. Here, we’re held by the hand as the opening number introduces the hip-hop cadence softly, clearly, the beat defined only by snapping fingers. (The orchestra is silent while we “sync in.”) Hamilton’s pre-Revolutionary backstory is presented as a group of song lyrics — the show is “sung through,” meaning there’s no dialogue — which lets us teach ourselves how to listen. As the orchestration later grows more complex (a superb sound mix never allows it to overpower the lyrics), we retain that comfort level, and even though rhymes will soon be flying by as fast as we can register them, we still feel comfortable within the form because of that early tutelage.

hamilton_public-theaterThis has all been tried before; HAMILTON is simply the most successful at it. BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, billed as an “emo” show, also depicted classic events through a contemporary filter. So did RENT, and even though Jonathan Larson’s songs were a high point of Nineties musical theater, we still got the feeling that the characters were Lower East Side dilettantes roaming through the milieu of LA BOHEME, that they were interpreting Puccini in the light of their own experiences: wow, we’re just like those bohemians. HAMILTON takes things a crucial step farther. Its players inhabit the historical characters. We’re not just like these immigrants, these outcasts mishandled by the plutocrats of their own empire: we ARE them.

HAMILTON is (very nicely) costumed for the period, as was ANDREW JACKSON. The set depends on vaguely period-specific carpentry and director Thomas Kail’s continually clever use of a turntable, which can make the stage appear for dramatic purposes many times larger than it is: 360-degree “camera moves”; a pedestrian approaching from afar, walking past, and disappearing in the distance, etc. What rocks us is the people inside the costumes: they’re all of African, Hispanic, Asian descent. The immigrants have busted open the American creation myth! That Thomas Jefferson…he’s…a black man! (And in Act I, he played Lafayette!) Public Theater founder Joe Papp championed race-(even gender-)neutral casting fifty years ago, which opened the Shakespeare canon to a new generation of actors. HAMILTON says, this isn’t a stunt: the Founding Fathers had more in common with us than you were taught. Then, while we’re busy pondering all that heavy ethnic stuff, a white man walks onstage. Wearing a crown.

thWe were lucky enough to see Brian d’Arcy James on his last day as King George. (Jonathan Groff, of HAIR and SPRING AWAKENING, took over, so the role is in good hands.) Mr. Miranda has given the British king only three appearances, but they each rock the house so hard — in imperious taunting style until late in the piece, when George joins the hip-hopping others in celebrating the fact that Hamilton will never become president — that we want more of that British royal crimson among HAMILTON’s other colors. The snarky monarch will go down in theater lore as an all-time coveted part when HAMILTON finally descends to community and educational venues.

So much is illuminated through this strange prism. As might be familiar to any follower of Maker Studios’ hilarious Web series EPIC RAP BATTLES OF HISTORY, the fierce debates between Jefferson and Hamilton over our republic’s financial system are presented as hip-hop battles, complete with dropped-microphone swagger. Throughout, it’s amazing how much actual historical info these beats are beating into our minds. (On this issue, Hamilton won: the little orphan bastard devised America’s monetary system as Secretary of the Treasury, battling Jefferson all the way.)

Duels. Hamilton was slain by his career-long rival Aaron Burr in a duel, every schoolchild knows that. There are actually three duels staged in HAMILTON, and the first one gives us the “ten rules” atop a whirring turntable. By the time the climactic Burr-Hamilton shootout arrives, we know how to watch, and as we walk out of the Public’s Newman Theater in pistol range between two life-sized statues of the combatants, they mean much more to us than they did when we entered three hours before.

Nothing’s perfect, of course, and HAMILTON could have benefited from more solid realization of its few female characters: right now, they’re largely window dressing and the higher voices on some pretty duets. But an intricately choreographed chorus of singer/dancers, evenly divided by gender, keep the stage flashing and insert themselves into the story where needed. Don’t stare too hard, though: you need to keep sharp and pay attention.

hamilton-21To my retrospective sorrow, I have not seen IN THE HEIGHTS. (At the Tony afterparty, I literally ran into a still-walking-on-air Mr. Miranda down a long, thin corridor to the restroom: “Sorry.” “Nice going!” “Thanks, man!”) I hate that because I think HAMILTON might be remembered as a keystone in the reinstatement of live theatre to its rightful place as a vital part of popular culture, much the role HAIR served in the late Sixties. (And, in fairness, RENT in the Nineties.) Now I wish I had taken the effort to see its progenitor. HAIR, that Medicare-aged pioneer, really doesn’t date all that well. I saw the recent revival and had tears streaming down my face, but they were chasing the beauty of the melodies, not any particular symbolism that survives. It’s a period piece, nostalgia, even a tad corny by now. But those songs — and on Broadway, no less! By contrast, HAMILTON forces reconsideration of history. It’s not a contemporary record: it’s a bridge between cultures, the first one to span this particular pathway.

I saw HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, THE 25th ANNUAL PUTNAM COUNTY SPELLING BEE, HAIR, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON, HAMILTON and others in their original “downtown” (or Central Park) engagements. Few (HEDWIG, HAIR) really prospered after their transition to larger Broadway houses. HAMILTON will try its luck when it begins Broadway performances on July 13. I have no idea how the piece will translate to a bigger room, but I’ll tell you this much: when we saw the NYTimes ad, we hustled to find Broadway dates. Yes, we’re clawing for tickets — and homes, we’ve already seen it.

3/10/15: Thanks to my friend David Morgan of CBS for telling me about the great piece CBS SUNDAY MORNING did on the show last Sunday.


The State Of Late

February 13, 2015

Everybody’s talking about tv this week, which makes it pretty much like every other week of the year, only right now they’re talking less about what’s on it, more about who’s on it. On Tuesday morning, Brian Williams, the jovial but “trusted” face of ratings-leading NBC News, was suspended without pay for six months over a bit of erroneous reporting about his own experiences during the Iraq war. Then, late that same afternoon, Jon Stewart announced at a taping of THE DAILY SHOW that he intended to leave his job of 16 years within the next few months. By Tuesday night, the two men’s roles had shifted. Brian Williams was revealed as a serial resume-fluffing showboat, and Jon Stewart, a former stand-up comic, was now arguably, if only temporarily, the most trusted name in tv news, by virtue of abdication.

Brian Williams.

Brian Williams.

I feel for Williams. He seems to be a nice guy who was blessed with the looks and the voice, and also with the rare ability to poke fun at his own profession without disrespecting it. These qualities made him, and they may also break him. The first time I was ever aware of him was at a 2004 preview screening of ANCHORMAN at which Will Ferrell was interviewed in character afterward. Ferrell’s SNL castmates turned out in force to whoop and holler and sat in the rows just in front of and behind us: Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Jimmy Fallon, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Chris Parnell, etc., probably some writers too. Somebody pointed out this tall, distinguished guy who looked like a Hollywood casting director’s idea of an anchorman, being escorted down to a very close seat. “That’s Brian Williams…he just took over for Tom Brokaw.” They even made a crack about him from the stage, but time has erased the details. A jolly occasion. (I met Tim Robbins, who has a cameo, in the lobby…he’s basketball tall.)

The fullness of time instructs that it’s probably right and proper that I first beheld Williams at a movie-studio event featuring a parody of a newscaster. He has always wanted to straddle the news and entertainment divisions. After all, his idol Brokaw graduated from light (THE TODAY SHOW) to heavy (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS), but those were the days when NBC News supervised both shows; TODAY is now so louche that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that’s not true any more. Williams himself went further. He became The Coolest Anchorman Ever, chatting with Letterman, sparring with Stewart, slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, even hosting an episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: not since Ron Nessen had SNL strayed so far into the real world that you and I inhabit. The most amazing fact I learned out of this whole kerfuffle was that when it looked like Jay Leno was leaving for sure, Williams raised his hand: he seriously wanted to be considered for the TONIGHT SHOW hosting gig. That, I didn’t know about him.

What could turn a King Of The World, aware enough to be a self-deprecator, into a craven self-aggrandizer? After all, he got the facts right when he first reported about the Iraq choppers at the time. (The one ahead of his was hit by an RPG, not the one he was in. Still admittedly very scary, but not the same, as the vets who were with him kept pointing out and pointing out and pointing out.) You might as well ask O.J. or Tiger or Nixon why they risked their earthly royalty with, let’s just say, ill-considered behavior. And exactly how rare is this phenomenon? Haven’t you exaggerated something in your past to make yourself look better? I know I have, and before you righteously peg me as an aberration, I must point out that this is common enough to be a sitcom trope: hubby is happily pontificating, and the wife jabs him with the pinprick of truth that deflates him, har har har. Also, keep repeating the same harmless fabrication in public for years and years and years and even you may come to believe it. My uninformed guess is, that’s exactly what happened to Brian Williams.

As this was “breaking” over the weekend, somebody asked me, “Do you think he’ll lose his job over this?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you think he should?” I said, “Yes.” That’s cold, turkey, especially because I still like the guy. But if I’m his boss, I have to cut him away. (The question was asked at the point when Williams had decided on his own to take some time off. NBC News, shamefully, had not yet officially weighed in.) I replied, “Look at what he does for a living.” He has to stare into a camera and tell people, this is what happened today, I swear it is, forget about that Iraq stuff, I’m rehabilitated now. Most thoughtful people will look at him askance. Viewers of the verbal geek-shows on Fox News won’t even be that kind. NBC has no choice but to find another way forward. I’ve read that Williams is “shattered,” and that hurts me too. But news is news and trust is trust, and that’s precisely how NBC has marketed him, for cryin out loud. On the other hand, let’s not forget that NBC NIGHTLY NEWS is on top in the ratings right now because of Brian Williams, and if there’s any possible way to weasel out of this and preserve that advantage, perhaps by cloning an Iraq-fudging-free duplicate, the NBC suits will be on it like white on rice. Whatever brings the eyeballs.

Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart.

Time was displaced weirdly on that strange day. At the top of his show Tuesday night, Jon Stewart said he had some business to get to, that you (we, the tv viewers) probably know something the studio audience (the ones who had stood outside shivering in the cold) did not, but we’d take care of that later. This is because THE DAILY SHOW rolls tape in the late afternoon: I think around 4, maybe 5. (I was there once, but the weather was much better.) So anybody who was physically in the studio with him (and, to be fair, the publicity department, painfully aware of all this too) had heard Jon’s announcement by, say, 6pm at the latest, in time to tweet all their friends/bosses. By the time the episode aired at 11pm, the whole country already knew Jon was resigning. At air, the studio audience, trapped in late-afternoon real-time, was actually the last to know. Calling Christopher Nolan!

As he fought away tears, the finest thing Jon told his audience was: “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.” What were we to make of the fact that Jon took summer 2013 off to direct (evidently rather credibly; I’ve not seen it yet) a movie? Or that he tapped John Oliver to fill in for him? (One of the all-time greatest DAILY SHOW episodes ever was Oliver’s first, when the whole “correspondent” infrastructure seemed to break down over petty jealousy. Every joke topped the previous one. Classic.) What you, I, Glenn Beck, everybody, has to take away is that Jon Stewart has skin in THE DAILY SHOW. It’s not a berth, as with Hannity or O’Reilly. To him, it’s a lifestyle. The Times ran a piece Wednesday on how politicians are crying alligator tears upon seeing Jon go. I can tell you that book publicists are crying real tears. We can only hope that Colbert finds a way to open 11:35 to more books, as he’s hinted he might. The Stewart-Colbert hour was the last stand for authors who deserved tv time in a culture that doesn’t seem to care. You could tell when Jon had been really rocked by a book, not just pro-forma politeness, and that earnest look to camera could make a TBR bestseller.

John Oliver.

John Oliver.

Could John Oliver take over now? The conventional wisdom was that he’d been a victim of poor timing: he got his weekly HBO show before Colbert split for CBS, otherwise he would have been a shoo-in for the 11:30 spot. (Remember: Colbert battled the monologues of Jay, Jimmy and Dave among younger viewers, and, over time, stared them all down.) But now Oliver’s a hit, and can afford to tell Comedy Central that he doesn’t care to host a four-night-a-week clambake. What he and his writers on LAST WEEK TONIGHT have managed to do is to stretch out the DAILY SHOW format and, after the monologue and such, air a ten-minute, meticulously researched piece each week on a single topic. FIFA. Beauty pageants. The India election. Etc. LAST WEEK TONIGHT blurs satire and journalism in a way the others can’t — plus, the host gets to vent his spleen unbleeped. I can’t imagine him going back to basic cable.

Larry Wilmore.

Larry Wilmore.

In the Colbert slot is Larry Wilmore, and after less than a month behind the desk, he’s already proven that he can carry a show. I’m glad the title changed from THE MINORITY REPORT to THE NIGHTLY SHOW, because the former monicker seemed to marginalize the show too severely. (Although it’s great that black culture has its own comedy show once again — Larry was one of the writers on IN LIVING COLOR — and who else would be able to hone in so hard on the Bill Cosby scandal?) Improving on LAST WEEK’s lead, THE NIGHTLY SHOW usually sticks to one topic for the full half hour. It’s still grasping toward its format: the four-person panel segments feel too rushed, albeit while introducing us to a bunch of bright under-the-radar comics, and the “Keep It 100” segment, in which the host asks absurd what-if questions to his guests, may wear out its welcome sooner than intended. But the show is current as hell: the last moment each night is a Tweeted question to the host, one that he sees for the first time on the spot. On Wednesday, the surprise question was, “Would you go back to host THE DAILY SHOW?” (He said no.)

Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert.

Of course, the big question mark in all this ruckus is Stephen Colbert. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at the demise of THE COLBERT REPORT wasn’t over a fear of losing this great improvisational master; we’ll actually see more of him as he does a whole hour on CBS, five nights a week. It was about losing the character he played, the right-wing buffoon who poked holes in the conservative mass media by pretending to be one of them. This near-decade-long bit of performance art fooled everyone at first, especially whoever booked Colbert for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006 (early reports were that he bombed and people walked out. Then we noticed that the reports were all coming from Bushies, and when we actually saw the speech, it was brave and hilarious). Colbert’s right-wing gasbag character was able to speak truth to power in a new, visceral way, which we’ll all miss. But just as David Letterman deconstructed the talk show format, maybe an out-of-character Colbert and his very fine writers will be able to do the same.

James Corden.

James Corden.

And then there’s the guy nobody’s talking about, the man who will take over for the departing Colin Ferguson in CBS late-late-night land: British actor James Corden, whose lightning-fast improv skills are no secret to anyone who saw him in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS — as I did. So much change in such a short time. Think about it: by the end of this year, the senior guy in late-night will be…Jimmy Kimmel.

By now, THE DAILY SHOW is as much a format as THE TONIGHT SHOW, which has survived the loss of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Most of the people just named have come up as possible replacements for Jon Stewart in the past few days, along with a chorus of feminists who think it’s past time for a Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer to be sitting behind one of those desks. If the show were on NBC, I’d even throw Brian Williams’s name into the hat. The show won’t be the same. It can’t be. But somebody will step up, and there’s no reason this franchise can’t survive for a good long time, unless powerful people suddenly stop doing and saying stupid things. Ya think?

2/17/15: HBO has moved quickly. Today they picked up LAST WEEK TONIGHT for two more seasons, through 2017, taking John Oliver out of the DAILY SHOW replacement sweepstakes. I think LAST WEEK is a better gig for him, and evidently he agrees.

2/25/15: And now we’re enjoying a little dustup involving Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Seems this bilious gasbag was nowhere near the Falkland Islands when he “covered” the war for CBS News per his frequent and loud boasting. Unlike Brian Williams, though, this actually works in O’Reilly’s favor. He’s no longer a newsman. He’s long since become a one-sided pundit: nobody particularly trusts him on anything at all. Not only won’t O’Reilly lose his job for serial lying, he’ll be able to paint it as one more example of continuing persecution by the “haters” of the “liberal media.” He’s already begun that defensive campaign in his trademark boorish, bullying style.


My Sundance 2015

February 7, 2015

thThis year we nearly didn’t make to our annual movie-binge-orgy at Sundance. We’ve had some close calls and hastily rebooked flights before — after all, it is the dead of winter — but now the entire trip was in jeopardy. A storm-of-the-century Nor’easter threatened to dump an all-time record helping of snow onto New York City, so Mayor de Blasio and city officials decided to hunker down. As the blizzard began on Monday, basically all NYC transportation ceased and we were told to stay indoors and batten down against some seriously howling winds. Hold up a tick, weather gods: I got some flicks to watch! Fortunately, the brunt of the storm passed Manhattan by, and on Tuesday the same bloviating idiots who’d castigated Mayor Bloomberg for under-preparedness after a 2010 snowplop were all over the current mayor for freaking out when it wasn’t needed (this wisdom only evident in hindsight, which is any bloviator’s warm security blanket). Man, I’ll take over-prepared over the alternative any ole time. But still: movies!

So, with winter conditions temporarily at bay, our Wednesday morning flight took off on sked. It was much warmer when we got to Park City, and judging from the mountains on the way up from Salt Lake, I guess the snow must have skedaddled back east. For a ski resort in late January (they’ve permanently moved the festival so it will never again conflict with the Martin Luther King holiday, a huge three-day skiing weekend too often made redundant when all the pasty North-Faced Hollywood suits are hogging the hotel rooms and eatery tables), Park City was downright balmy. But the Lord works in mysterious ways: the snow was nice and puffy and white on the ski runs themselves, even if the rest of the mountain looked brownish. Getting it to snow only where you need it: that’s Harvey Weinstein pull!

It was warmer inside as well. This, our twelfth Sundance, was the most artistically cheerful slate we’ve yet encountered. Yes, it partially depends on the luck of the draw — you can peep as hard as you like for ten solid days (I had 4 1/2) and still not come close to seeing everything — but you can also infer a festival sense beyond what you yourself witness by talking to others waiting in line or sitting next to you just before a screening. The typical Sundance movie has become stereotypical: hardscrabble this dealing with opposing that, colorless gray or hospital-green filters, “brave” performances, etc. But today’s indie creative palette is much broader, and I attribute the growth both to a generational handoff and to the stripped-down digital technology that makes damn near all things possible, even on a budget. “Serious” movies are more playful. Homage now extends to films many of us remember fondly without a trace of irony.

Is it all getting too commercial? Gee, I dunno. Before I got there, Warner Bros. inexplicably hosted a surprise screening of the Wachowskis’ JUPITER ASCENDING at the venerable Egyptian Theater on Main Street, 3-D glasses and all. I read that the iconic Park City venue wasn’t even full, but if I’d been there, I’d have been there, if you know what I mean. Still, what were you Warnerians thinking? You abandoned indie budgets TEN YEARS AGO, so how could you possibly expect the parkascenti to give a shit about your new $175 million plaything?

Just before our final screening, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, we had the good fortune to stand in line behind Sundance juror (World Dramatic; they chose SLOW WEST; see below) Col Needham. Col is the founder, and still CEO, of IMDb (the Internet Movie Database, as if you didn’t already know), and I tried to bow down as low as you all would have done in my place. I also found out some stuff about the Sundance jury process which I can’t reveal, since it involves a few eldritch incantations that would burn up your screen if I invoked them. Since he’s a Brit, I assumed Col would know all about my mates at the Four Word Film Review — same country, right? — and he seemed mildly (actually politely) aware. As we were filing in, he challenged me: “OK then, give me a four-word film review after you see this.” I summoned all my skills, and while the credits were rolling I came up with one. It made Col and his lady both laugh, thank goodness. It was… <message me for the answer>

Here are my knee-jerk capsule thoughts, written for remembrance as much as for reportage, on the twenty flicks I saw this year, in order of screening, rated on a five-star scale:

th-3DON VERDEAN*** (World Premiere) This one was eagerly anticipated by the Utah crowd, since it’s by Salt Lake’s (and LDS’s) own Jared Hess, maker of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE, and was filmed in the state. Mr. Verdean of the title (Sam Rockwell) is a Biblical archaeologist who makes his living by selling books and DVDs of his many travels. He gets on the radar of a rich evangelist (Danny McBride) who offers to bankroll ever greater expeditions: Verdean comes up with the remains of Lot’s petrified wife and claims to know the location of the Holy Grail. This is potentially interesting farcical stuff, but Hess’s tone is much too polite. Not even Will Forte as Verdean’s former-Satanist arch-enemy can pull this one out of the quicksand. For that we need Hess veteran Jemaine Clement (the tall one in FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS), who steals every scene he’s in as Verdean’s Middle East co-conspirator, who blackmails his way back to America and bumbles into their biggest looming score. Great potential is wasted here; it’s as if LIFE OF BRIAN had had all its teeth removed. Some funny moments, mostly from Forte and especially Clement (who could probably play Sacha Baron Cohen in a biopic), but in general a letdown.

th-2TIG***** (World Premiere) Tig Notaro is a supremely confident stand-up comedian, has a nice career, a little “alternative,” but coming on strong, a real comic’s comic. Then in a mere four months, she suffers one existential blow after another: her beloved mother dies, she goes through an agonizing breakup, and it’s all bookended by two life-threatening diagnoses. After the second one, as she’s leaving her oncologist’s office with the devastating news, the owner of L.A.’s Largo club idly texts to make sure she’ll be doing her scheduled set the next night. In that 2012 gig, Tig makes comedy history by coming out on stage and saying, “Good evening, I have cancer,” surprising everyone who knows her, and then proceeds to do 30 minutes of comedy on the subject. Comics like Louis C.K., who was present, were open-mouthed. This world-beating documentary takes on all that, with plenty of onstage footage to nail Tig’s comedy persona, and adds yet another drama, her sole and single attempt — she won’t get another try — to have a biological child through a surrogate. It is nearly impossible to describe how brave and resilient this woman is: any one of her trials would scar most people, any two of them would be really tough to take, but four? And the baby too? We even get to hear part of the legendary Largo set (club policy forbids any recording because the comics are working out their material, but before she came out Tig quietly asked the audio engineer to get this down) and we watch as, amazingly, that performance begins a process by which she pulls her life back together, one shitstorm at a time. Do not miss. I got to shake Tig’s hand and say thanks after the screening, for probably my favorite 2015 moment. (Meeting Col was #2.)

UnknownTRUE STORY*** (World Premiere) I didn’t realize this actually was a true story until some end-title cards revealed the principals’ fates, but it is. New York Times Magazine writer Mike Finkel gets caught fudging some details in a printed cover story. The paper has to cut him away and he’s instantly unhireable, sending him into a deep depression. Meanwhile, a man accused of murdering his family is arrested in Mexico; he’s been posing as “Mike Finkel of the New York Times.” Finkel goes to meet the defendant, Christian Longo (turns out he’s a fan), who offers to give him exclusive access if he promises not to publish anything until after the trial. Longo claims he’s protecting the real guilty party, and Finkel senses a huge true-crime book with an exclusive revelation, not to mention a path toward recovery of his sputtering career. The bulk of the movie is jailhouse interviews between Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Longo (a superb James Franco). Is he guilty or not? How much of this exercise is journalism, and how much is celebrity? Has Finkel sold his soul to the devil, or will his carefully cultivated friendship produce a truthful inside look at an accused murderer? Franco keeps us guessing: one minute he’s Hannibal Lecter, the next he’s Andy Dufresne, and he’s constantly wrong-footing us like a pro boxer. It’s fairly talky, but Franco earns our ticket money.

th-4ADVANTAGEOUS*** (U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision) In the near future, Gwen Koh is the spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company that can transfer a client‘s personality and memories into a new body. When the Center tells Gwen they want to replace her with someone younger, she volunteers for the procedure herself. That’s all the premise writer-director Jennifer Phang needs for this soft, thoughtful meditation on relationships and family values. The science-fictional aspects are understated; we can see an occasional air-car whiz by and the procedure itself is a soothing visual impression in light blue, but this is almost completely a human-level story. A wonderful cast is led by co-writer Jacqueline Kim as the older Gwen and Freya Adams as “Gwen 2.0,” struggling to re-establish her relationship with a daughter who can no longer recognize her. This is a quiet festival-type film, sedate and haunting, which has precious few explosions (yes, there are some), but will reward patient attentive viewing.

western-ross-brothersWESTERN**** (U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Verite Filmmaking) A gorgeous, profound, instructive, ultimately heartbreaking documentary on the border towns of Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Mexico. The only thing that separates them is the Rio Grande. For years the sister cities have been living together in peaceful symbiosis: cattle are raised in Mexico and brought to market in America. Citizens of the two towns know each other, party together, have parades and celebrations together. Longtime Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster sets the tone: he speaks fluent Spanish and presides over the harmony and happiness that he helps instill and preserve. Martin Wall is a fifth-generation cattleman who agrees that they’re living next door to paradise. Then wolves appear at that door, as Mexican drug cartels begin a vicious turf war and the unthinkable happens: ordinary citizens, not just rival dealers, are murdered, and the carnage moves ever closer. Before long a border fence goes up, USDA inspectors are warned not to venture into Mexico to do their jobs, thus halting the cattle trade, and the sister cities’ idyllic existence moves ever closer to ruin. Directors Bill and Turner Ross make films about places, showing us what it feels like to live there. Although interviewees have plenty of opinions (Mayor Foster notes the obvious fact that you can simply walk around any fence that doesn’t cover the entire border), the Ross brothers remain apolitical and let their subjects speak for themselves. At the q&a afterward, they steadfastly resisted being goaded into expressing a political opinion, but it’s obvious that they encourage audience members to make up their own minds. I wish certain particular members of Congress could be forced to watch this beauty. Thing is, another viewer might agree with me, but pick entirely different members.

the-forbidden-roomTHE FORBIDDEN ROOM*** (World Premiere) As one of the most revered auteurs in avant-garde cinema, Guy Maddin is an acquired taste. He specializes in kneading and shifting the film form, as did the great first wave of underground filmmakers in the Sixties: Emshwiller, Mekas, Brakhage and the like. He is particularly fascinated with the silent and early sound eras of film and works their tropes into his features and art installations. This film, shown in Sundance’s “New Frontier” program as a kind of warning, tells a group of nested stories: for example, some men trapped in a submarine are interrupted by a woodsman(!) who has his own tale, etc. The film stock is sometimes black and white, sometimes color, sometimes distressed, sometimes crisp. In a scene with two characters, one of them might use silent-film title cards while the other speaks in sync sound. It’s like looking at a constantly moving kaleidoscope fashioned around 1930. Each of the credit cards at the top is presented twice, in the style of old movies: the card might resemble GONE WITH THE WIND, then the same info as if seen in MRS. MINIVER. The film opens with a deadpan bit of absurd instruction on how to take a bath, and a great deal of humor flies by: for instance, a group of apprentice woodsmen are only yet “saplingjacks.” To say this isn’t for everyone would be the understatement of the year. At 2:08 it’s far too long, but by then about a quarter of the audience at my screening had already walked out. Those who remained, the true Maddinheads, clapped their hands off. Among Maddin’s actors are Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine Chaplin, and Udo Kier.

cq5dam.web.1280.1280I AM MICHAEL*** (World Premiere) Michael Glatze was a gay-rights activist and founder of Young Gay America when he startled the movement in 2007 by announcing that he no longer identified as homosexual. A health scare had shocked him into reexamining his faith and his sexuality, and he became a Christian pastor, renouncing his former life. This dramatization of Michael’s journey, clearly made by people who believe he had come to deny himself, is nonetheless careful not to point fingers or make fun, and that is its main strength. James Franco (again!) does a terrific job of eliciting sympathy for Michael, even as his life’s contradictions are tearing him apart and he flails for something to believe in: Buddhism, anything. The first few minutes, confined to Michael’s activist group, are the weakest: the men seem to be mouthing talking points that we’ve all heard before. But as Michael’s quest becomes more complicated, even to the point of attracting sweet young Emma Roberts at a Bible college, the issues are less black and white — except to his former boyfriend, nicely played by Zachary Quinto. Writer-director Justin Kelly deserves a hand for leaving the issue open to the viewer’s own conclusions, and delivers a nifty final shot that can be taken two ways as well.

th-6WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?***** (World Premiere) A great documentary by Sundance veteran Liz Garbus on jazz and blues legend Nina Simone. A classically trained pianist destined for the concert hall, she found her way into vocals out of necessity, playing dingy clubs to make ends meet. She became incredibly popular, known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” but her genius had its downside. She could be sullen to audiences, the female Miles Davis; after watching this film, I believe she felt she deserved the same type of silent attention that is given to classical artists, and resented being treated otherwise. She lived through the civil rights movement in America, and racism made her so angry that she began to speak out and sing out; she wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” one of the most searing songs of the era, and gave no thought to how her activism might affect her career. (She once told Martin Luther King, “I am not nonviolent.”) This beautifully researched film gives us plenty of concert footage, some of it newly unearthed, and an unvarnished look at her mercurial personality from Simone herself and from the people closest to her, including her daughter. Even viewers familiar with her work will learn something about Nina Simone; those to whom her name is new may well be flabbergasted. This movie was co-produced by Netflix (of particular help in obtaining the many music clearances needed), which will stream it beginning in June after a token, Academy-qualifying theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles.

th-7GLASSLAND* (World Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting: Jack Reynor) I saw this movie and I’m still not sure what happened in it. This kid drives a taxi in Dublin. His mother is drinking herself to death. That is all I’m positive about. I don’t know what’s in the mysterious package he delivers in an early scene. I’m not sure who his customers are, but I think they may be pimps. I don’t know how he got the money to send his mom to an expensive dry-out clinic. I don’t know who called him to drive to a mysterious house, or why. I don’t understand what was resolved in the end. Jack Reynor won an award for acting, and Toni Collette gave it everything as his mom. Will Poulter, he of the eyebrows, is also in it. Beyond that, I just do not know.

grandma1GRANDMA**** (World Premiere, Festival Closing Night) A very good dramedy by the dependable Paul Weitz that I predict will earn Lily Tomlin an Academy Award nomination next year. She plays Elle Reid, a misanthropic grandmother who has just broken up with her girlfriend of four months (Judy Greer), herself a rebound after the death of Elle’s lifelong love. But there’s no time to mope, because Sage, her 18-year-old granddaughter, shows up with a ticking-clock emergency. They’ll have to drive all over town, stopping in on various pieces of Elle’s past. Marcia Gay Harden shines as Sage’s distracted tycoon of a mother, and Sam Elliott makes the most of a ten-minute appearance, but Lily Tomlin is in every single scene, growling out the wisecracks one minute and suffering through pain and loss the next, a very human being that we’re glad to have met.

lilaandeveLILA & EVE*** (World Premiere) THELMA & LOUISE meet RAMBO. After her son’s horrifying drive-by murder, a grieving mother joins a support group. There she meets a friend who is also frustrated by the police’s inability to provide justice, and together they determine to find and punish the killers, no matter what it takes. You’ve seen it all before, even down to a critical plot point (I can’t identify the movie without giving it away). But Viola Davis, in the lead, is spectacular, registering all the colors of grief and determination, never veering into self-parody. Jennifer Lopez keeps up as the hotheaded partner who eggs her on, but this is Davis’s movie and it’s a master class in performance.

th-8PEOPLE, PLACES, THINGS**** Jemaine Clement again, but this time he gets to carry a picture as the leading man. The knowing script by writer-director Jim Strouse is funny and wistful too, as a cartoonist and father of adorable twin girls must put his life back together after breaking up with the girls’ mother. In his natural New Zealand accent, Clement offers droll commentary (to a woman who judges his country beautiful because she saw the HOBBIT movies, he replies, “So you know our ways.”) and charming gangly unease as a solitary artist and teacher with a heart of gold; you’d love him as a friend or a father. THE DAILY SHOW’s Jessica Williams is great as one of his students at New York’s School of Visual Art, and it’s fun to sit in on his classes, especially as he deconstructs the medium of panel art (it’s straight out of Scott McCloud’s UNDERSTANDING COMICS, including some illustrations). We made sure to see this one because Jemaine Clement had the lead; I hope more and more people will develop the same preference and Jemaine becomes a household name, as has already happened to Steve Carell.

th-9THE OVERNIGHT*** A mildly amusing trifle about a couple new to Los Angeles who are invited to the neighbors’ for a get-to-know-you pizza dinner. Once the kids are put to bed, the hosting couple gradually reveal themselves to be farther and farther and farther out there. Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling are the “normal” couple and the audience’s proxies. The main reason to see this movie is Jason Schwartzman, who revels in his increasingly bizarre role: he’s next to nuts, but it’s a lovable kind of nuts, the charming-rogue type a la Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray. Warning to prudes: the same kind of special makeup effect used toward the end of BOOGIE NIGHTS is seen here too. In fact, I counted two of ‘em.

th-10RACING EXTINCTION*** Before we saw it, I kept calling this “COVE II,” after one of my favorite films of the 2009 festival. Louie Psihoyos is one of the world’s greatest nature photographers, and when he turned to polemical filmmaking against savage dolphin hunting with the Oscar-winning THE COVE, I was riveted. Now the subject is the wanton extinction of species, far beyond the rate allowed by natural selection; we could lose half of all species within a century. This is perhaps the greatest obscenity perpetuated by those who refuse to lift a finger against climate change, simply because it is in many cases revokable. However, though indisputably gorgeous, this film is far less powerful than THE COVE. There, we were limited to a specific crime against nature, not to mention the deflatingly banal end result, the amusement of humans. Here, the subject is so huge that we are forced to dart around too much. The last bird of its species sings for a female who will never answer: that’s poetic, Shakespearean. But then we are pulled back into the illegal sale of whale meat in a restaurant (exposed by a COVEian sting which helps shutter the joint), or the harvesting of manta rays to be used in Eastern folk remedies, or the communicative powers of whalesong, or the unsustainability of exotic fare like shark-fin soup, or the dangers of depending upon animal protein for nourishment (livestock damage the worldwide atmosphere more than all forms of transportation combined). Then there are unintended consequences to consider: I wanted to know what the filmmakers would do with the people in the manta-ray village whose sole livelihood had now been cut off. We heard some muttering about “tourism,” but nothing concrete. The finale looses a tricked-out Tesla with state-of-the-art gear that can project video images onto the sides of buildings for a few multimedia joyrides in New York City, culminating with a spectacular show at the United Nations complex. (Not too green, maybe, but what the heck.) This film should be required viewing in schools everywhere — after all, it’s school-age kids who will have to live with our filth — and producing it was a fine service, but as a work of art it pales next to its predecessor.

brooklynBROOKLYN**** (World Premiere) Money in the bank, mates: a sumptuous period piece that’s largely set in 1950s New York. A young Irish girl (Saoirse Roman) decamps for a more promising life in Brooklyn. Her deep homesickness is only alleviated when she meets a young Italian lad. But even though she’s romantically attached, a family emergency forces her back to Ireland, where a divergent potential life awaits. John Crowley directs an adaptation by Nick Hornby, and is it ever beautiful. Each period detail is perfectly rendered, and Yves Belanger’s drop-dead-gorgeous cinematography, on both sides of the Atlantic, is thrilling in its ability to nail a place with just a couple of setups. Ms. Roman is splendid: her early sad-sack face morphs into radiance once she finds her footing in New York and then surrenders to a love affair: the production design and particularly the costumes mirror her burgeoning emotional maturity, and by the time she goes back to Ireland, she’s become a rather sophisticated colleen, both in dress and manner. Too girly? Not by me, and I don’t watch most of that BBC stuff. It’s an exemplary job, well written, acted, and shot. I predict great things.

th-1ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL***** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Dramatic; Audience Award, U.S. Dramatic) It starts as a knowing movie about “the real high school,” but that’s just to gird your grid for some serious stuff to come. Greg (Thomas Mann, who will also show up in THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, below) assiduously avoids becoming a member of any clique, only close enough to fist-bump them all. He makes wise-ass movie parodies with his childhood friend Earl. You get to see a few clips from these beauties: my favorite was A SOCKWORK ORANGE, using sock puppets against Purcell’s now-iconic Queen Mary Funeral music. His mother (Connie Britton) forces girl-shy Greg to spend some time with classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is dying of leukemia. Those are the basics. Now the movie spreads its wings far beyond the expected. Part of the enjoyment is how director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon realizes a brilliant script by Jesse Andrews that upends your smug knowingness at every turn. It all comes down to a bravura ten minutes at the end that raises you up and down on the emotional scale through sight and sound alone, because the camera’s locked. Bring hankies. I’m not sure how this may be received commercially, but we loved it. This movie exudes great respect not only for its fully-drawn characters, but also for cinema in general. Watch and hear what’s playing on tv in the background. If you’ve seen THE 400 BLOWS, you’ll receive something even deeper. This is the third straight year that the audience and the jury have agreed on the U.S. Dramatic winner: PRECIOUS, WHIPLASH, and now this one.

Unknown-1SLOW WEST**** (Grand Jury Prize, World Dramatic) Remember how strange the Western vistas used to look in those classic Sergio Leone movies? Just like the craggy mugs shown so close-up that you could see facial pores, the background off-kilter, as alien as those long dusters that billowed in the wind. That’s because we were actually rolling film half a world away from John Ford’s Monument Valley: we were in Spain, amigo. This very fine movie gives the production globe another twirl, to the wide-open spaces of New Zealand, d/b/a the American West. A lovestruck teenage Scot travels to America to find his former squeeze. He is nearly killed along the way but is saved by a highwayman (excuse me, a bounty hunter), played to perfection by Michael Fassbender. (Is there anything he can’t do?) The scofflaw offers to escort the lad for a fee, but he has a darker reason, and thereby hangs a tale. Now we are down to stunning vistas and superb closeup eye candy from writer/director John Maclean and DP Robbie Ryan. This is an old-fashioned Western quest in many ways, but it possesses an arch attitude that renders it contemporary. G’day to my favorite Aussie character actor, Ben Mendelsohn, who joined the canon here at Sundance with ANIMAL KINGDOM, and to Rory McCann, the Hound of GAME OF THRONES, who gets a sympathetic part. It was wonderful to see a terrific frontier film at a time when I thought they’d all gone away.

Unknown-2THE WOLFPACK*** (Grand Jury Prize, U.S. Documentary) I dimly remember reading about the Angulo family in the New York Times, probably in a report on the start of production on this film. Six brothers (and one sister, who barely appears) live with their parents on the Lower East Side. They have been home-schooled by their state-accredited mom and are quite articulate, but they have been largely kept insulated from society by their monomaniacal father, who ruled everything when his kids were younger and rarely let them leave the house for fear of contamination by the evils outside. Instructed to fear everything beyond the front door, they are culturally feral — or would be if it weren’t for the movies. They watch tapes and disks ravenously and produce their own homages (not unlike ME AND EARL, only these boys are serious, and several of them are fairly good mimics) by painstakingly copying down dialogue and faking the production design. But now they’re adolescents, and their worthless, alcoholic father suddenly looms less large. One boy breaks the ultimate rule, then everybody else wants to go outside too. We watch as they attend their first film in a real theater, head over to Coney Island, and enjoy a day in the park, making connections to scenes or locations in their favorite movies. You tend to feel for these boys and want a case worker over tout de suite, but this way-alternative lifestyle is a very strange and slippery form of child abuse: one or two of the brothers might even contest that description if you confronted them. They adore their mother, who has been complicit at the very least, but the household is full of blankness rather than authenticity, and it’s thus as dank and depressing as a Poe story. For these boys, “you need to get out more” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s a life-or-death diagnosis. We fear for them, and we hope they can find the necessary courage before it’s too late.

_80675246_dream-with-jan-and-brian-crDARK HORSE**** (Audience Award, World Cinema Documentary) ANIMAL HOUSE meets SEABISCUIT. The remarkable story of a racehorse owned by a ragtag syndicate of pub denizens in a tiny Welsh village. In 2000, barmaid Jan Vokes decides to breed a contender and enlists locals to, um, pony up 10 pounds a week. The mare and stud fees are both on a tight budget; not an auspicious start. What emerges is a goofy foal, all spindly legs whose coloration looks like it has donned two pair of white kneesocks. But the village’s new beast — named “Dream Alliance” to represent his unusual ownership — has heart and a street-scrappiness which will take it far past hobbydom, to everyone else’s amazement and delight. The fun is in watching these yobbos and yobbettes gradually assert themselves as owners in the overly snooty world of racing: it’s the slobs versus the snobs, thanks to the determination of Ms. Vokes and a tight circle of people who actually know what they’re doing. The filmmaking carries us along with thunderous coverage of some big events, announced within the first few seconds (while watching I felt it a mistake to begin with The Big Race and interrupt to tell the backstory, but I was wrong, as the full tale reveals). These scenes are interspersed with contemporary footage of principals, all looking back now, which allows you to meet, know, and love them. And then there is “Dream,” a natural who follows his own trail, even galloping past a near-death experience. It’s all just adorable: as uplifting, in its own way, as is SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN.

Stanford.Prison.Experiment.Sundance1THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT***** (Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize) A chilling dramatization of the notorious 1971 experiment in group psychology and situational ethics, which was conducted just as I was leaving college for graduate school; I was pretty much the same age as the Stanford students who agreed (for a fee) to populate and administer a “prison” setting for two weeks. The roles of “prisoners” and “guards” were assigned randomly. The hypothesis was that even simulated authority could attain actual dominance when wielded in psychological isolation. “I’d rather be a prisoner,” one prospect blithely muses at his pre-screening session. “Wouldn’t have so much to do.” You really haven’t thought this through, kid. As with most “true stories,” we have no idea if it actually went down this way, but here it takes no time at all for the “guards” — who may not strike or otherwise physically harm their prisoners, but can use any psychological means of control necessary — to channel their inner sadists. Just as remarkably, the “prisoners” also revert to stages of pathetic subordination or scheming. Tim Talbott’s award-winning script is tight as a drum, and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez keeps it so sweaty and claustrophobic that you can feel the temperature change whenever we have to leave the “prison” to watch the watchers. The film depicts mastermind Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup, as a bit of a mad scientist, which may be a tad too harsh. But a troupe of terrific young actors laps up these roles like pudding, especially an incendiary Michael Angarano as a “guard” who decides his template will be Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE, shitkicker accent and all. At the screening I attended, you could hear a pin drop whenever we were in “prison”; you may well find this film too intense to “enjoy,” so consider yourself warned. I had to keep in mind that it was only a movie about only an experiment, for it’s as armrest-clenching as any thriller. When I read about the Stanford prison experiment at the time, I thought the takeaway was that a uniform changed everything, made it possible for you to follow any crazy-ass order you received. (Another Sundance feature which I missed, EXPERIMENTER, dramatized the equally notorious 1961 Milgram experiment, which set out to prove exactly that.) But as the Stanford kids found out, the uniform can affect behavior in the wearer as well as the beholder. It was a surprise only because until now, they’d never been to prison.

WISH I’D SEEN: BEST OF ENEMIES, CALL ME LUCKY, THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, DOPE, DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD, THE END OF THE TOUR, EXPERIMENTER, GOING CLEAR (it’ll be on HBO next month), MISERY LOVES COMEDY, THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER, THE WITCH, Z FOR ZACHARIAH

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Synchin’ ‘n’ The Reign

January 13, 2015
John Epperson at work.

John Epperson at work.

We went downtown to see the final performance of THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD, a show that we just couldn’t miss for two reasons. One, I met the co-star, Steve Cuiffo, last summer at Ricky Jay’s magic immersion weekend. Steve mentioned this piece from the stage and I made the mental note to see it next chance I got, because he then called out the second reason by name-checking the star, an old friend of mine from Mississippi theater days, John Epperson. John’s better known now by another name, as audience after audience screams with laughter and delight at the antics of his alter ego: the fabulous Lypsinka.

Calling Lypsinka a drag act is like calling Segovia a guitar player: it’s technically correct, but man, are you missing the point. What Lypsinka brings onstage tests the limits of a theatrical tradition and then explodes them. John Epperson isn’t just the best at what he does, he has no serious competition. That’s how five, six, ten years can pass between New York Lypsinka shows and her many fans, both gay and straight, will still be clamoring for tickets. Lypsinka rules, like the grande dame she is.

Drag itself is a venerable art form, and not only in gay-oriented places. For many years, “female impersonators” like Jim Bailey have been perfectly welcome in mainstream venues, including big Vegas rooms, the Sunday-night Ed Sullivan Show, even Carnegie Hall. I remember watching Bailey impersonate Garland, Streisand, or Phyllis Diller on Sullivan from my home in Jackson, Mississippi. About thirty miles away in a town called Hazlehurst, perhaps tuned to the same tv station, John Epperson was doing his best to cope.

John Epperson in mufti.

John Epperson in mufti.

John is years younger than I — discretion forbids the exact figure — and for his higher education he moved to Jackson and Belhaven College. I’d long since graduated from Millsaps College, two or three miles away. For years afterward, I used to tell people I had a “conservative-arts” education, bada-boom, but I kid Millsaps College. To a Mississippi just barely emerging from its Klan-ruled era, Millsaps (Methodist) looked, and felt, like Berkeley. Today it features MBAs and its own Phi Beta Kappa chapter. John’s Belhaven (Presbyterian), on the other hand, was the real deal: mandatory chapel, all of that. Not exactly the prime breeding spot for future underground musical comedy stars.

Because of the age difference, I didn’t meet John until after college, when I returned from Georgia and both of us hung around a troupe of local players at Jackson’s New Stage Theatre. I well remember a solo show John put up in the Hewes Room, a small performance space at the Jackson Little Theater. Just him and a piano. It must have been an early stab at what eventually became JOHN EPPERSON: SHOW TRASH (1), the makeup-free portion of LYPSINKA! THE TRILOGY, in which three of his already-established shows recently ran “in rep” for two months in New York. The other day, we saw THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD (2), to which I’ll return in a moment. The third piece was a full-blown Lypsinka show called LYPSINKA! THE BOXED SET (3). My favorite of such amazements is a long-ago production called I COULD GO ON LIP-SYNCHING! This is the uncut stuff that has made Lypsinka (like Cher, she’s fabulous enough to need only one name, but she is actually a scion of the Von Rasputinas) literally world-famous.

Every Lypsinka show requires its creator to produce not just one single miracle, but three of them. The first miraculous step is the prerecorded audio track. John assembles this personally, with an engineer (here, Alex Noyes). A typical Lypsinka piece employs hundreds of cues from radio, movies, tv, records, interviews, anything, all mashed into a bizarre lickety-split throughline that makes sense only in the performance. It’s far beyond simply lip-synching songs; a Lypsinka track is composed of tightly-cued bits of speech that play like music. About half of the CRAWFORD show reproduces the notorious interview conducted at New York’s Town Hall by public relations man John Springer on April 8, 1973, only weeks after Marlon Brando had sent a faux Indian to the stage to decline his Oscar for THE GODFATHER. While generational change is all around her, La Crawford is still living in the Forties, the obsequious audience applauds every mention of any past screen luminary, and this mindless adoration gets ever funnier as it continues. Then we have some shorter audio pieces, such as Miss Crawford reading the cloying but briefly trendy “Desiderata” on a tv appearance. Finally we descend into a major fantasia, with pantomimed telephones alternately ringing into her left and right ears to introduce lurid Crawford snippets wrenched out of potboilers ranging from classics to STRAIGHT JACKET to TROG. This last surreal section is a full-throttle Lypsinka sound assembly, so artfully devised that it might kill all by itself just coming out of an iPod. But then you wouldn’t know where to look.

The second miracle is memorization. I would love to be a fly on the wall at rehearsals for a new Lypsinka piece, especially this one, which uniquely requires TWO lip-synching actors. Last summer at the Ricky Jay weekend, Steve Cuiffo — who plays Springer, every other interrogator, and even that classic announcer Dick Tufeld Speaking — discussed this show in that very sense. He described how lip-synching demands a radically different form of preparation than for a more traditional role. Here, timing is everything and the cues are instinctive. I imagine they must sound something like music, but without the reassurance of countable rhythm. Anybody can learn a play’s worth of dialogue, trust me. But there has to be a certain natural awareness by which John and Steve can memorize the pauses too. For many years John’s day job was as rehearsal pianist for American Ballet Theatre; you can see him in this capacity in a crucial scene in Darren Aronofsky’s film BLACK SWAN. Imagine the innate timekeeping ability required to support a classical dancer’s precision; he has to be more on-the-nose than most drummers. Maybe that’s how he’s managed to limber up that split-second timing. Steve was responsible for queries and pauses for perhaps two-thirds of one show. John performed all thirds of that same show, plus a full-length solo piece requiring the same unflagging concentration, not to mention SHOW TRASH as himself, and all of it in random order as the two-month “rep” engagement continued. No more complaining from any other actors struggling to get off book!

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

Steve Cuiffo (l.) and Lypsinka performing THE PASSION OF THE CRAWFORD.

The miraculous trinity is completed in the visual performance. With classic-era diva makeup slathered on, Lypsinka is able to amplify the recorded track with movements so minute and dead-on that it’s possible to occasionally forget she isn’t actually speaking. For CRAWFORD, I was sitting in the stage-right front row, no more than ten feet from the two performers, and I noticed only five, maybe six slight “sync” errors during the entire hour-plus piece. (Those came at points where there was really no way to anticipate the cue, and each time the actors recovered instantly.) That’s all the imperfection I could see, and I was right on top of them! Lypsinka’s addenda are her eyes, lips, coiffure, diva-esque turns, and occasional drop-dead gazes at her interlocutor. Clothes hang nicely on John’s model-thin frame; Lypsinka is born to fashion (and has actually graced some famous runways), not some dragette stuffing himself into a costume. Sitting very close for the first time at a Lypsinka performance, I expected the show to be aimed beyond me, like some Broadway actors will do (Jason Robards Jr., for example, was an inveterate spitter, and some of his downstage histrionics could actually reach the front row). But I noticed some very subtle things between the two actors which might not even have projected. Or maybe I’m wrong about that: the reason you wear makeup on stage in the first place is so the folks in the back row can see your features plainly. Lypsinka’s makeup looks good up close in a maturing-diva sense (in other words, this Crawford’s no longer young enough to try to appear natural), but you can see every overly dramatic lip-tremble from the back row too. You can probably see it from the frickin International Space Station.

After the show, John came out for a very rare curtain talk: I’d never before seen him appear on stage out of character. It was the last night of the run, the final CRAWFORD, and in two hours he would end the entire engagement with a late-show performance of SHOW TRASH. As he thanked us, the soft-spoken Hazlehurst accent appeared, unamplified, and he seemed to lose an inch or two in height, in clear contrast to the over-the-top boisterous razzle-dazzle he’d just presented. Then a sly grin. “If we decided to do this again, maybe in a year or so, would you tell your friends…and come back?” Of course, the place went nuts. What a wonderful body of performance art this talented actor has created. Whenever you’re ready, just say (or sync) the word, man, and you can count on me.

P.S. It’ll take a little longer, because a year from now John is already booked, as we learned in the New York Times.


John & Janis

December 29, 2014

UnknownWhat was it like to be Janis Joplin’s road manager, back in the day? Now you can find out for yourself. ON THE ROAD WITH JANIS JOPLIN is an illuminating, heartbreaking, educating, palpitating, emancipating tome, a new book you just have to read if you care at all about the preternaturally gifted bluesy chick from Port Arthur, Texas and the times that first embraced her and then, let’s face it, erased her.

Other talented authors have also written compellingly about seminal vectors in rock & roll history, but unlike the Greil Marcuses and Peter Guralnicks of the rock world, John Byrne Cooke isn’t so much a reporter as he is a storyteller, a novelist. So you get that journalistic eye and ear for detail, but it flickers through a sense of relaxed pace, rhythmic inevitability, narrative motion that feels more like an ambling river canoe float than the unrelenting, determined freight train of bald historical recitative. (In a typically charming choice of words, the author and a friend “bushwhack“ toward the Pacific coast in their rental car.) Mr. Cooke draws you alongside him, and that warm relationship continually renders this book less about me and more about us. But unlike us, Mr. Cooke was present for some world-shaking events.

cv_smlNow it’s time for full disclosure. Mr. Cooke is a former author of mine — I edited his historical novel THE COMMITTEE OF VIGILANCE, which dramatizes an infamous tumult in his beloved San Francisco — and he remains a personal friend. Among his other works, I particularly commend to you his masterful THE SNOWBLIND MOON, a first novel so fine that it persuaded the grizzled pros of the Western Writers of America to bestow not only their “Medicine Pipe Bearer” award for best debut, but also the prestigious Spur Award for best novel period, a remarkable double honor. So — trust me on this — dude be good. But, as with every other author I’ve had either the privilege (mostly) or the burden (don’t ask) to serve as editor, I would never lie, either to him or for him. What I say below is my unvarnished opinion; I’ll pick a nit or two, but as veteran readers may have already noticed, if I didn’t genuinely like a book, I wouldn’t bring it up in the first place. Vita’s too brevis, y’all.

Further disclosure. Years ago, I got down on my metaphorical knees and begged Mr. Cooke to write his musical memoir. He demurred. I don’t know what finally brought it forth so much later, but I’m not complaining. Even if I didn’t get to publish, I did finally get to read, and it’s a great comfort to know this unique perspective was eventually set down for the rest of us. Do not pass it by. It took me an unusually long time to finish this book, because stray comments kept compelling me to set the thing down and listen again to some primal music I thought I already knew inside and out. That same tug had produced similar revelations with the Beatles before, but this time my emotional stake went as far as the bloody road manager. Get close to the come-hither spell of this book and yours will too.

Mr. Cooke first describes the long and winding road that leads to her door. Like most real-life adventures, his journey hangs on the dual hinges of ability and luck. He’s a New England blueblood who, smitten by the Harvard-area folk scene — you had to be there, man — winds up in a bluegrass band, twanging out the real American songbook. The author’s Charles River Valley Boys (despite the group’s shitkickery-sounding name, the Charles runs by Boston, as any Standells-digging frat boy can tell you) have not only recorded for big-shot label Elektra, but were also debut-produced by the soon-to-be-legendary Paul A. Rothchild, who will figure in later. One thing leads to another, which might as well be the motto of this book, and the author’s music connections deposit him into the office of filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker, who is planning to shoot the upcoming Monterey Pop Festival. “Penny” specializes in what they call cinema verite, meaning the product looks like it was simply caught on the fly. Not true, as we learn through the eyes of the guy who runs Nagra sound for Penny at Monterey — and there catches his first glimpse of the amazing Janis Joplin. The Boston folk scene and Penny had already led the author through Bob Dylan (via Penny’s DON’T LOOK BACK) to the Bearsville digs of his manager, Albert Grossman. Then, over dinner one night, Grossman offers Mr. Cooke the job of road manager for his newest client, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Shep Gordon, longtime manager of such acts as Alice Cooper, cogently reveals a manager’s main mission in Mike Myers’s entertaining new documentary SUPERMENSCH: ”one, get the money; two, always remember to get the money; and three, never forget to always remember to get the money.” A road manager, now, has much more on his mind (certainly not to belittle Shep’s Big Three, you understand), and Mr. Cooke does a wonderful job of describing how one corrals, sweet-talks and disciplines a bunch of less-than-punctual musicians as they go careering from one gig to the next. He is the authority, the responsible adult on tour, and he works for the band but establishes lines of demarcation immediately: I’m not your valet, you carry your own guitars. Only then can he begin to relate to Big Brother personally.

Mr. Cooke is a natural yarn-spinner who respects, even marvels at, the great historical tradition: after a cross-country airplane flight he muses, “In five hours I’ve covered what it took the emigrants of the nineteenth century’s great westward migration months of peril to travel.” Now he’s with a new group of pioneers, bringing the bluesy side of the “San Francisco sound” to an America that’s only now learning about the Haight-Ashbury district, itself already starting to find tourists underfoot. From 1967 on, absent one short break, Mr. Cooke manages the tours of Big Brother, the Kozmic Blues Band, and Full Tilt Boogie: he is with Janis on the road until her death.

As a result, we are able to experience her brief but meteoric career at a legato pace that resembles the speed of real life. For example, we see the making of Big Brother’s first major-label record, CHEAP THRILLS, as the debilitating slog it was. Producer John Simon (whose other work I greatly respect) didn’t click with the band and turned out to be an impediment. The resulting album — still my favorite of Janis’s recordings — was basically saved in the studio by co-producer Elliott Mazer’s clever editing and mixing, which gave the aural impression of a live performance. Mr. Cooke’s musical background gives him valuable perspective and some luscious personal moments. The 1970 “Festival Express” train on its cross-country tour of Canada was a “rolling hootenanny” stuffed with musicians who never quit jamming, and after trading Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers songs with The Band’s Rick Danko one night, the author gets an informal back-slap from Bandmate Richard Manuel: “Hey, man, you can’t sing like that. You’re a road manager.” It’s delightful to sit with Janis in the bar of a Holiday Inn in Austin as a lounge singer “with an electric guitar and a rhythm machine” strikes up “Me and Bobby McGee.” She’s astonished: at this point, the best-known version is on a Roger Miller album, but by coincidence Janis is planning to sing the song tonight at a private birthday party. She leaves the lounge unimpressed.

JBC-WebsiteHeadshotMr. Cooke can’t help but become personally attached, so the reader does as well. It hurts us to watch the dissolution of Janis’s first two bands. The reasons are varied, but the pain feels vindicated when she hits her stride with Full Tilt Boogie, the unit that records the exuberant PEARL (Janis’s private, personal nickname) with that same Paul Rothchild on the faders. The band and its singer are each at the very top of their games when an overdose — Janis almost certainly misjudged the potency of the heroin that killed her — ends everything. Our loss is of a pop icon. The author’s is of a close friend.

I love the tone and feel of the story, but if I were still Mr. Cooke’s editor, I’d suggest he watch the abrupt changes from present tense (it sounds more immediate) to past tense (it sounds more reportorial) and back again; they observe some kind of inner logic that isn’t readily apparent to the reader, sometimes occurring within a single sentence. I would also have corrected the repeated misspelling of Hugh Masekela’s name: a simple mistake by the author but very embarrassing for the copyeditor, who presumably understood pop music of the period but also managed to muff Ritchie Valens, a name easier to spell correctly. Also, John, James Gurley wrenches five guitar notes before the “Handelian silence” on “Ball and Chain,” not four, but that’s beyond the typical copyeditor’s powers: you’d have to luck into a CHEAP THRILLS nerd like me to correct that.

As I hoped and suspected all those years ago, this is a document we’re lucky to have. Nobody else could have told this story this intimately, because it requires unusual talent in both seeing and hearing. And besides taking us way backstage into the life of a glorious talent, John Byrne Cooke’s wonderful narrative also pays tribute in the best way possible: it encourages us to go back and reclaim the music, to honor what was  while we continue to luxuriate in what is.

2/17/15: Today we learned that Sam Andrew has passed away. Say hi to Janis, man.


Cuba, Si! Castro, Meh.

December 19, 2014

cubaIt’s amazing, the things you can do when you no longer have to be concerned about winning elections in Florida. President Obama’s efforts to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba are historic not because they’re so surprising, but because the only guy who can get the ball rolling is a lame duck who will never have to run again.

In most of the country, all but the most virulent knee-jerk Commie-haters (or black-President haters) understand that our fifty-year trade embargo has done nothing to harm the Castro regime — it’s still there, after all — and everything to isolate innocent working-class people by denying them access to the world’s richest market, and, perhaps significantly, vice versa. The overwhelming view is that the embargo is a failed Cold War relic whose time has long past.

That’s most of the country. It’s different in South Florida.

This region is stocked with refugees old enough to vividly remember the brutality of Fidel Castro’s “revolution,” who consider it treasonous even to recognize the regime which split proud families into resentful diaspora, much less do business with it. They are a shrinking minority, but they are vocal and potent beyond their numbers. Younger Cuban-Americans tend to agree that the embargo has outlived its usefulness, but their parents and especially their grandparents are far more fervent and thus far more likely to vote. It is political dynamite for a Florida politician to suggest any relaxation of our rust-covered Cuba policy, which is why Presidential prospects like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are leading the outcries against the president (along with usual-suspect Obamaphobes like Lindsey Graham, that Ebola-shrieker who still yells “Benghazi!” whenever he can).

Some right-wing babblers have found themselves twisted into knots, praising the release of detained U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, then denouncing the President in the same sentence. But the general response to President Obama’s action — he was covertly assisted by Canada and the Pope! — has been sensible and supportive. Talk of withholding funds for creating a U.S. embassy in Havana is just that: talk. Here’s one thing nearly everybody can agree on, like the fact that our gun laws are too lax and our military budget is too bloated. But to actually propose a solution? After you, Senator.

So American tourists will be able to legally bring back some of those ass-kicking Cohibas (Cuban cigars are strong, mate — uh, I mean, that’s what I’ve heard), unless those rumors are true and Fidel’s so mean that he plans to flood the U.S. market with cheap counterfeits once we normalize. (Gang, Raul‘s in charge.) This Cuba deal’s such a no-brainer that it might actually get done. And as a new tourist spot for Caribbean-bound Americans, this beautiful island’s image might finally change. Imagine the marketing possibilities: “Cuba. It’s not just for torture anymore.


The River Of Retail

November 24, 2014

th-1I’ve just traveled back in time, to a more innocent age. I did it by reading a book about Amazon.com. “By the time you read this book,” opines business writer Robert Spector in the finale of his AMAZON.COM: GET BIG FAST, “Amazon.com will have changed in some profound way.” Man, did he get that right – because HarperBusiness published this tome way back in 2000, when Jeff Bezos’s website was just five years old and nobody’d ever heard of an “Internet bubble.” By the time I read this book, Amazon (the by-now-anachronistic “.com” was quietly dropped in March 2012) was barely recognizable.

Business books like this one are churned out mainly for eager MBA candidates and execs on the make who are busy taking notes or marking up the pages; Mr. Shelton helpfully provides summational “takeaways” at the end of each chapter so readers don’t even have to uncap their pens. The writing won’t win any awards – the market calls for simple, straightforward, didactic prose – and the book is poorly (hurriedly?) edited and proofed: dropped connectors, “baited breath,” “technocolor,” multiple introductions of the same event. But you do get a look at Amazon.com just as it was becoming an actual power, from a reporter who is still marveling at this new Internets thing.“The real winners,” writes Mr. Spector from 2000, “will be the so-called ‘clicks-and-mortar’ retailers that combine a physical presence with a virtual presence…the future belongs to these multichannel operations.” “One day,” he predicts, “we will even see Amazon.com in the physical world, either with stores or kiosks,” and in New York City, for the 2014 holiday season, his farfetched Hail-Mary concoction will have actually come true.

th-2Mr. Spector is much better at describing what has already taken place: the famed creation story in which Bezos quits his cushy job at D. E. Shaw & Co. – he’s flat-out brilliant – and, entranced with the mind-reeling growth of the Internet, uses Spocklike logic to choose an entry-point product (books) and a city from which to base his startup (Seattle). We watch as Bezos assembles a team of equally smart people who know nothing about retailing, yet build a crude infrastructure and go live on July 16, 1995. In a time period so compressed that it ate people up (you had to be young and driven to work there), Amazon.com became a constant exercise in scaling out, in keeping up with an unprecedented growth rate, in whacking the largest moles anybody had ever seen. The Amazonians fill more and more warehouse space and toss away their initial plan to be a store that is only virtual. They go public and charm investors by admitting they plan to lose money as far out as the eye can see, throwing every penny into getting big fast. They enter Britain and Germany by buying existing e-sellers and giving them an Amazon storefront. They add music and video to the mix and start a website buying spree. They hire executives from Wal-Mart and other retailers for adult supervision over the distribution chain. Within five years, they’ve survived their first soul-searing holiday rush and built one of the most famous brands in the world. In January 2000, they change their logo to the famous “smile arrow” that connects A to Z in the company name: we intend, they announce, to sell everything (except firearms, living creatures, pornography or tobacco). When Bezos holds up an unusual food product at a press conference, Mr. Spector is obviously getting his first look at what he calls an “edible (presumably)” turducken. And that’s where this book leaves them.

The author basically lionizes Jeff Bezos, who is named Time’s Man of the Year for 1999. Although Mr. Spector does note some early missteps – charging publishers for favorable placement on the site, just like Barnes & Noble and Borders had for years, only failing to tell customers about the sponsorships; Purchase Circles, which could let you see what others at your company are buying, which was TMI for outraged corporations like IBM; an unflattering fight with a lesbian bookstore in Minneapolis which had been using the name Amazon since 1970; and selling English-language copies of MEIN KAMPF from the US site to customers in Germany, where the book is banned – and reports some groaning from afar about working conditions, we never get a fully rounded view. For that we need thirteen more years to pass, and the publication of a very different book.

thTHE EVERYTHING STORE by Brad Stone isn’t written for business students: it’s a more major piece of narrative nonfiction. Mr. Stone has the benefit of the ensuing years in which Amazon has grown into a global colossus, large enough to push around his own publisher, Hachette (proprietor of this book’s Little, Brown imprint) and agitate for a larger piece of the pie, delaying or denying shipment of Hachette titles in the process. The dustup has only recently been resolved; click on the book cover to see how much Amazon has relented since I wrote this. I bought my copy, during the standoff, from Powell’s Books. (Fun fact: both Larry Kirshbaum, who ran an in-house publishing program at Amazon, and David Naggar, who presided over its settlement with Hachette, are former executives at the Warner Communications books group, which morphed into this particular member of the Big Five publishers.)

Amazon’s not a cute startup any more. But this is no Hachette job (sorry): though he does not talk to Bezos in person specifically for this book (as a business journalist he’s had the pleasure more than once), Mr. Stone does acknowledge the founder’s help in giving the go-ahead for “innumerable interviews with his friends, family and employees.” Bezos’s hesitation seems to be that he feels it’s still too soon to tell Amazon’s story comprehensively (I do not believe it has anything to do with the identity of the publisher), and the company is indeed a quickly rolling stone; it won’t be much longer before this book too is out of date.

Meanwhile, though, we get a ripping yarn about a scarily intelligent, scarily ambitious, scarily obsessed man who saw the face of the future back when everybody thought he was just a bookseller. Jeff Bezos reminds us naturally of Steve Jobs: the same driven personality, the same steely mind, the same screaming impatience with anything short of perfection, even the same “reality distortion field” that worked its will on every aspect of the innovative companies they built. They were both adopted by loving foster parents, and each man grew rich and famous without their biological fathers being aware of their relationship. It is clear from reading his story that Amazon as we know it wouldn’t exist without Jeff Bezos — the same existential importance as Steve Jobs had to Apple.

We inevitably go over some of the same territory as does Mr. Spector, but THE EVERYTHING STORE has caught up barely a quarter of the way in. Bezos’s vision was 20-20 even when he seemed to be the only guy with eyesight, back when the new company was called Cadabra (it sounded like “cadaver” to people on the phone. Another candidate was a little too on-the-nose: type in “Relentless.com” and, to this day, you’ll go straight to Amazon). You can’t succeed without having the guts to fail, and Bezos suffered some spectacular flops, primarily during Amazon’s big buildout during the dot-com boom, when the company wasted most of $2.2 billion in bond offerings in buying up smaller players that didn’t pan out. Its share price peaked on March 10, 2000, a few months after Jeff had been named Time magazine’s Man Of The Year, and Job One suddenly became simple survival.

th-3Amazon benefited both from Jeff’s foresight and the naiveté of others, to whom online commerce was viewed as a novelty, a technological fad that would eventually go away. Rather than do the hard, expensive work themselves, companies like Toys ‘R’ Us engaged Amazon to run their online presences. Later Circuit City, Borders and Target all entered into similar partnerships, but all they were doing was ceding advantage to Amazon. (About half of the in-person Borders stores were actually quite profitable when the company entered bankruptcy, but they were locked into too many pricey 15- and 20-year leases, more cannon fodder for Amazon’s lean, lithe business model.)

For anybody who is still surprised at the ruthlessness with which Amazon opposed Hachette (price wars are commonplace among other retailers but anathema to the cozy book industry, which sells its product on consignment and financially continues to press its historic advantage as the gatekeeper separating author and audience), one need only look back to 2002. Amazon’s contract with the United Parcel Service was up, but the shipper was facing union negotiations and felt it had no wiggle room. Amazon had already cultivated a relationship with Federal Express and that, coupled with driving its own trucks directly to the U.S. Postal Service, gave the retailer the necessary leverage. Amazon’s Jeff Wilke called supply-chain manager Bruce Jones and said, “Bruce, turn them off.” Within hours, unnoticeable by Amazon customers, its business with UPS simply dried up. A couple days later, Amazon received a bulk discount at UPS and taught the company “an enduring lesson about the power of scale and the reality of Darwinian survival in the world of big business,” writes Mr. Stone.

The flip side of that, of course, is that Amazon created a new revenue stream for the book industry by refining its desultory tentative steps into electronic documents. E-readers existed before Amazon’s Kindle debuted in 2007, but they were oriented toward the publishers, clunky and expensive. Amazon upended the industry by continuing to think about the customer (purchase of a Kindle book is even simpler than buying a paper copy on the Amazon site), and now it has a two-thirds share of the e-book market, which is not quite one third of all books sold in the US, a percentage which is likely to grow.

Much of this commotion seems intuitive, but only in hindsight. The fact is that Jeff Bezos is continuing to play a chess game against his competition — which is not only other retailers but also other technology firms — by thinking many moves in advance. The placement of Fulfillment Centers (i.e., warehouses) across the country is customer-centric, but not just for what Amazon sells today. These vast units are not tucked in the middle of nowhere: they’re near large cities, which will help Bezos achieve same-day service and gain the ability to deliver perishable groceries to most of the nation. Those infamous Amazon drones that Jeff proudly showed to 60 MINUTES sound crazy right now. But once so did Kindle, free shipping with a paid subscription, streaming audio and video as part of that same package, renting out server capacity, and a long, long list of other realities Jeff has basically willed into being. The notion of Amazon itself was judged to be nuts many, many times by graybeards who are still eating their words.

Mr. Stone concludes his book with a charming, lyrical bit of reporting. He tracked down and befriended Jeff’s biological father, 69-year-old Ted Jorgensen, who is the well-liked proprietor of the Roadrunner Bike Center in Glendale, Arizona. Mr. Stone explained who Jeff grew up to be, and Jorgensen’s eyes “filled with emotion and disbelief.” He sent letters via mail and e-mail to Jeff and his mother, and after a few months, the founder replied graciously and kindly. “He wrote,” reports Mr. Stone, “that he empathized with the impossibly difficult choices that his teenage parents were forced to make…he said that he harbors no ill will…and then he wished his long-lost biological father the very best.” There simply wasn’t room in Bezos’s makeup to waste time sifting through the past. It takes all his formidable skill to try his best to keep up with the future.


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