Friday, April 15, 2011

80's Obscure - When Music Videos Had Impact, Featuring Bronksi Beat's 'Smalltown Boy' & Toto's 'Africa'

A still from 'Smalltown Boy' by Bronski Beat
'No, you never cried to them, just to your soul...'

The first time I saw 'Smalltown Boy' is an experience I'll never forget because it made me cry. I felt enormous empathy for the protagonist and really didn't know why. I was young and I didn't actually know what it meant for someone to be gay. I only saw that he was terribly alienated and it seemed so real and incredibly sad that it tore me up. 

The song itself is very moving, even without any visual representation - but this was the first time I realized a music video can have great emotional impact. In fact, there is more power and gravitas in the video for 'Smalltown Boy' than in an alarming number of feature-length films. Another video that attempts a similar storytelling angle is Pat Benatar's 'Love Is A Battlefield', but hers is over-the-top and unintentionally kitschy. "Smalltown Boy' manages to tell one of the most poignant stories I've ever seen in just five minutes. I still get terribly choked up when I watch it now. Given the recent, long-overdue attention to the issue of bullying, it also feels quite current.

Watch it for yourself here...
But 80's videos that have an impact are not necessarily sad ones. For the most part, they have simple but unique visual qualities that are no longer present in music videos.
A still from 'Africa' by Toto
Toto's video for 'Africa' is not as emotionally moving but its impact lies in a unique aesthetic quality that makes for a satisfying experience. This video made me want to travel to 'Africa' and it just feels warm and inviting somehow. Again, that is a great visual representation of how the song, itself, sounds and feels - which lends to its cohesion. It appears they didn't have much to work with (and were on a tight budget) but they still managed to create the right feeling. 

Check out 'Africa' below...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Olivia Newton-John in 1978 (Totally Hot Tour)

In 1978, fresh off her iconic turn as Sandy, the goody-goody who becomes hot in 'Grease', with the tight black spandex-clad vision of the blond beauty fresh in people's minds, Olivia Newton-John capitalized on Sandy's transformation with one of her own. She embarked on her Totally Hot Tour to support her album (aptly named 'Totally Hot' of course.)
Before 'Grease', ONJ was essentially a wholesome country singer - albeit an Aussie one - who typified a squeaky clean image. What came after 'Grease' was an exploration of the theme of her own transformation into a sparkling, shining vixen. This period of ONJ's career could have been called 'Totally Pink'... because she wore a lot of it. (In these tour photos, her outfit looks lavender - but it was actually very pink.) She still maintained her clean image, whatever she did and wore. Because despite any effort to play up a sexy image, who she is within shines through and takes that to another level of a more goddess-like appeal. Not many people can rock pink spandex with a sparkly pink top and look like an exquisite Barbie doll (in the most authentic sense.) Of course, many have tried and failed. 

As a side, and jumping forward a few years to her heyday in the 80's, my first recollection of seeing Olivia Newton-John was when she performed her song 'Make A Move On Me' on a Solid Gold. That image of her bounding around the stage with her high-watt smile in a pirate outfit (her pirate stint was short-lived, but memorable) recalls for me the first moment in my childhood when I thought, 'That's something I might want to do...!' This appearance found itself an indelible place within my psyche and I never forgot it. Incredibly, someone uploaded that performance on YouTube, so here it is...
I did perform quite a lot in my youth, on stage in some instances. And as an adult, it turned out I could sing in a 'pure soprano' according to a seasoned Broadway coach who insisted on hearing me do scales (I was inadvertently watching his class.) I can sing any of her songs on key and even auditioned to play Sandy once in New York... and made it through a couple of rounds. Although being a performer was not what I wanted to pursue, a (brunette) ONJ is the closest thing to what I might have become, had I chosen to make it my life's work and was touched by some level of fate to do so. Despite any number of differences, our birthdays happen to be very close and we have similar dispositions. 
So when I watch an ONJ performance circa 1978, I marvel at what it might have been like to be her - at that specific point in time, just before she 'peaked' - while being acutely aware there's never been anyone quite like her since.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Two From One Time: 1979 ('Breaking Away', 'All That Jazz')

I watched 'Breaking Away' (again) recently, one of my film inspirations. In terms of storytelling, it has the perfect blend of a bubbly confection and poignancy that is difficult to achieve (it won the Best Screenplay Oscar for 1979, for good reason.) This is a film you can smile through the entire time, while simultaneously being moved by the proceedings. There is neither pretension to the story, nor in its characters. How can anyone not adore 'The Cutters' (or 'townies'), a group of friends who feel like they are neither here nor there? But then, even those collegiate brats they feel so belittled by aren't exactly jerks, either - as becomes obvious in several scenes with the group's greatest preppy nemesis, particularly when he succumbs to appreciating The Cutters' great achievement in the final act. He cracks a smile for their deserved win, never mind that he and his friends lost. The Cutters and the people in this Indiana town are ones you can care about and that is what I love in a film. This one is a rare film I can 'file away' in that place in my mind of having learned something great - in this case, it is about what one can do with storytelling, something so vital to entertainment but lacking in too many of our more contemporary movies.

And far on the other side of the spectrum in 1979 there was also 'All That Jazz'. I saw this film recently, as well, and was completely blown away. Not so much because of the content, although I'm impressed by what is there - but the fact that this was Fosse. Bob Fosse is also a huge inspiration for me, second only to Stanley Donen as a dancer-choreographer turned filmmaker. The editing in the film is impeccable and garnered an Academy Award (again, very deserved.) This is rhythm incarnate - however manic. And the mania of this masterful man is something to behold. I am forever in Fosse's court of admirers, although I would never want to emulate the man, himself, or his life choices. His stamina was indeed a thing of fascination, but drug-induced, and that is where my admiration becomes finite. All in all, I've got mad, mad respect for Bob Fosse and 'All That Jazz' which plays as a capsule of his freakishly fantastic existence. Really, I have no words for this one when you get down to it - as I'm fairly awestruck from discovering the whirlwind energy of Fosse.
To take us out, here are two of my own video montages that made ample use of "Breaking Away' and 'All That Jazz', respectively...