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American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

To celebrate American Life’s release, Slant Magazine has delved into Madonna’s catalog and reevaluated her key releases.

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American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

One of the most original and innovative artists of the modern era, Madonna has sold 150 million albums worldwide, topped the charts across two decades, created an enormously influential body of work in the music video medium (11 of her original clips are included in Slant Magazine’s 100 Greatest Music Videos, more than any other artist) and has stood at the forefront of popular culture for 20 years. This fall, Warner Bros. Records will commemorate the 20th anniversary of Madonna’s debut album with a comprehensive box set. But that’s not before the superstar releases her 10th studio album, American Life, due April 22nd. To celebrate its release, Slant Magazine has delved into Madonna’s catalog and reevaluated her key releases.

American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Madonna (1983)

Sometime in between disco, punk and new wave, a new genre was born: “dance music.” Heralding the synth-heavy movement was a debut album that sounds just as fresh today as it did two decades ago. Simply titled Madonna, the disc introduced a new pop icon to the world with the soulful “Borderline” and the airy “Holiday.” When Madonna sang “Celebration! Come together in every nation,” global harmony never sounded so simple. The album also spawned Madonna’s first Top 5 hit, “Lucky Star,” which unknowingly prefaced her recent foray into the glittery halls of electronic-pop. “Everybody” is as durable a dance track as it was when it was released as Madonna’s very first single in 1982. Tracks like the edgy, punk-infused “Burning Up” incorporated electric guitars along with the most state-of-the-art synthesizers. And as an added bonus, Madonna even handily rings a cowbell, previewing a seemingly bottomless arsenal of talents that would emerge over the next 20 years.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Like a Virgin (1984)

Like a Virgin, the record that launched Madonna into unearthly super-stardom and went on to sell over 10 million copies domestically, defined a generation with hits like “Material Girl” and the now-classic title track. Though not as innovative as her debut, the album stands as one of the most definitive pop artifacts from the indulgent Reagan Era. The mid-tempo ballad “Shoo-Bee-Doo” and a soulful cover of Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” proved Madonna could churn out more than just novelty hits, while the sugary “Angel” and the irresistible “Dress You Up” contributed to the singer’s record-breaking list of consecutive Top 5 hits (16 in all). The retro-infused “Stay” and the percussive “Over and Over” are the album’s hidden gems; a frenetic remix of the latter resurfaced on the 1987 compilation You Can Dance.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

True Blue (1986)

With four extremely varied #1 singles, Madonna’s third album, True Blue, was the supreme archetype for late 80s and early 90s pop music. With songs like “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna made the transition from pop tart to consummate artist, joining the ranks of 80s icons like Michael Jackson and Prince. The songs were undeniably more mature than “Material Girl,” dashing some critics’ assertions that she was just another flash in the pop pan. The striking “Live to Tell” was not only a brave first single, but a statement in and of itself. The ballad rewrote the rules of what a pop song was supposed to sound like and spoke volumes about Madonna’s unwavering drive for fame and mass-acceptance: “If I ran away, I’d never have the strength to go very far.” True Blue includes some of Madonna’s greatest, most influential hits (the robust “Open Your Heart” and the timeless “La Isla Bonita”), but it’s also home to some of her biggest clunkers. Like much of Like a Virgin, the title track is an authentic throw-back to the girl-group-era pop that was an admitted influence on the singer, but the effect seems significantly more contrived on “Jimmy Jimmy” and the obligatory save-the-world anthem “Love Makes the World Go Round.” Time stamped with ’80s-era keyboard and drum synths, True Blue, though chock-full of hits, is the most dated of Madonna’s albums.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Like a Prayer (1989)

In 1989, Madonna released what has been called her greatest and most personal record to date. Like a Prayer found the pop singer coming-of-age with a collection of pop confections layered with live instrumentation, sophisticated arrangements, deeply felt lyrics, and a stronger, more assured vocal. The album begins with a clamoring guitar riff that erupts and ebbs to the first chords of the title track, a church organ quietly setting the stage for the song’s dramatic crescendo. “Like a Prayer” climbs to heights like no other pop song before it—or after. Like most of the songs on the album, the track’s glossy production gives way to a power beyond studio sonics. Madonna pays homage to the Beatles (on the magical, Sgt. Pepper-esque “Dear Jessie”), Simon & Garfunkel (the haunting “Oh Father”) and Sly and the Family Stone (“Keep It Together,” which evokes “Family Affair” without the use of samples or artless imitation). Another Sly & The Family Stone-inspired tune, “Express Yourself,” turned Madonna’s “Material Girl” image on its head, denouncing material things for a little r-e-s-p-e-c-t. The track is easily the most soulful performance of Madonna’s career. Like a Prayer also found the pop star at her most emotionally bare: the autobiographical “Till Death Do Us Part” addressed Madonna’s tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn, delivering punch (“You’re not in love with someone else/You don’t even love yourself”) after punch (“He starts the fight, she starts the lie/But what is truth when something dies?”); the heart-wrenching piano-ballad “Promise To Try” touched on the death of her mother; and the powerful “Spanish Eyes” bravely (and elegantly) confronted the issue of AIDS. While her vocal isn’t perfect on these songs, her interpretations are flawless because of her brutal honesty. Never before had Madonna been so emotionally candid. By this time, Madonna had become a savvy songwriter, constructing lyrics in layers so that each song could be accessible on multiple levels. In the grand pop scheme, songs like “Cherish,” which invokes the sunshine pop of the ’60s, and “Love Song,” a daring and unconventional duet with Prince, pale only in comparison to their glorious counterparts, making Like a Prayer one of the quintessential pop albums of all time.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

I’m Breathless (1990)

With I’m Breathless, Madonna went whole-hog, creating a concept album of Big-Band numbers inspired by Breathless Mahoney, her character from the 1990 film Dick Tracy. Three songs were pulled directly from the film, including the torchy “Sooner Or Later,” which won composer Stephen Sondheim an Oscar, and the ironic “More,” which seemed tailor-made for the former Material Girl: “Once you have it all…There’s one thing you miss/And that’s more!” Madonna steps up to bat—Sondheim’s clever wordplay and melodies are often sophisticated by pop music standards—and knocks them right out of the park. From playful and sultry (“He’s a Man”) to kittenish (the Latin-flavored “I’m Going Bananas”), she displays a remarkable vocal range throughout the album. Songs like the cheeky “Hanky Panky” and the ardent “Something to Remember,” a seemingly personal meditation on self-love, touched on themes she would go on to explore more explicitly later in the 90s. Madonna could never be satisfied with just a 40s Big-Band concept album, of course; “Now I’m Following You,” a duet with co-star Warren Beatty, segues into a dance remix that includes a Socrates quote (“An unexamined life is not worth living”) that, in typical Madonna fashion, she twists to fit her own post-modern interpretation. The album’s final track, the hugely influential “Vogue,” at first seems grossly out of place, but with its homage to old Hollywood, the track is ultimately a more than fitting finale to a daring album. Preceding Evita and, hell, even Chicago, I’m Breathless proves that Madonna is a true renaissance woman who has literally done it all.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Erotica (1992)

Self-absorbed, deeply flawed and hugely under-appreciated, Madonna’s Erotica, the album MTV’s Kurt Loder likened to an “iceberg,” is considered by many to be the singer’s rock-bottom. Madonna, under the guise of 1930s actress Dita Parlo, presides over the mess with whip in hand, tongue planted firmly in cheek and a knowing wink in her eye. Erotica’s title track is pure sadomasochism in the form of song (“Only the one that hurts you can make you feel better”), while “Where Life Begins” waxes erotic on the perks and pleasures of oral sex (“You can eat all you want and you don’t get fat”). But that’s not to say there aren’t any pop-friendly moments. With its of-the-moment house beats, swirling keyboard synths and flamenco guitar, “Deeper and Deeper” is both a product of its time and a timeless Madonna classic. Her sonorous vocal harmonies glide atop the frosty beats and skyward drone of the gorgeous “Rain,” while the dance track “Words” is both inventive and sleek. Though she enlisted “Vogue” producer Shep Pettibone for most of the album, Madonna could have more successfully achieved her gritty, raw sound had she handed the reigns over to Andre Betts, who produced just three tracks here. While Pettibone’s often-suffocating productions now sound dated, Betts’ jazzy piano parts and hip-hop beats were way ahead of their time. Long before her rap on “American Life,” Erotica’s “Waiting,” a veritable sequel to the steely, in-your-face spoken-word of “Justify My Love,” found the singer sharpening her questionable rhyming skills. The album’s most personal, revealing moment comes in the unexpected acid jazz/drum n’ bass closer “Secret Garden,” in which Madonna pines for an unborn child: “I just wish I knew the color of my hair/I know the answer’s hiding somewhere.” While two socially conscious tracks, the reggae-infused “Why’s It So Hard” and the icy AIDS ballad “In This Life,” seem to break the flow, Erotica’s irrefutable unsexiness probably says more about the sex=death mentality of the early ’90s than any other musical statement of its time. And whatever words one chooses to label the album with—cold, artificial, self-absorbed—Madonna embraces those qualities and makes it part of the message. It was also around this time that Madonna’s famous beauty mark fell off her face.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Bedtime Stories (1994)

When Madonna declared, “Only the one who inflicts the pain can take it away,” on 1992’s “Erotica,” she wasn’t kidding. Following the funk of the Erotica album and her notorious Sex book, Madonna provided the creamy balm of Bedtime Stories, a fluffy-pillowed concept album that unfolds like a musical fairy tale. The album’s first single, “Secret,” is perhaps the most naked performance of her career. Acoustic guitars, expertly sweetened vocals and producer Dallas Austin’s signature R&B beats soulfully transport the listener into Madonna’s troubled yet soothing world. For years, Madonna spoke in metaphors, fantasies and blatant shock tactics, but the performer indignantly struck back at her critics on “Human Nature.” She didn’t just hold up a mirror, she became the mirror: “Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex/I musta been crazy…I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about you.” But whether it’s the poetic ballad “Love Tried to Welcome Me,” which was inspired by a stripper Madonna met in a club, or the enchanting “Sanctuary,” in which she quotes Walt Whitman’s “Vocalism,” Madonna seemed more interested in literature and human psychology than sexual biology. The album’s mix of sorrow and romance (she compares rejection to an aphrodisiac on “Forbidden Love” and equates death and desire on “Sanctuary”) exposes a woman who might have been in need of some serious therapy. Despite the album’s multiple producers and genre jerkiness, it’s this theme of yearning that holds it all together. Working with superstar producers is a rarity for the singer, so Babyface, who penned and produced “Take A Bow,” was in scarce company. The ballad is at once syrupy and bittersweet, calling on the words of one William Shakespeare to help recount the tale’s dramatic conclusion: “All the world is a stage/And everyone has their part…But how was I to know you’d break my heart?” “Take a Bow” became Madonna’s longest-running chart-topper, but it’s the Björk-penned “Bedtime Story,” perhaps the single with the most unfulfilled hit potential in Madonna’s 20-year career, that could have been the next “Vogue.” “Let’s get unconscious, honey,” she sings hypnotically over pulsating beats and electronic gurgles courtesy of Nellee Hooper and Marius DeVries. The song was the germ that would later inspire Madonna to seek out and conquer electronica with the likes of William Orbit and Mirwais.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Ray of Light (1998)

Ray of Light, Madonna’s first studio album in four years, marked the singer’s return to pop music after a detour that took her from Argentina to motherhood to spiritual reawakening. After reuniting with longtime songwriting partner Patrick Leonard (who played a key role in many of Madonna’s greatest songs and whose contributions to this, her eighth album, are often overlooked), Madonna called on U.K. electronica whiz William Orbit to assemble a batch of songs that nimbly married electronic music with pop. With “Frozen,” the album’s first single, Madonna, Leonard and Orbit crafted what can only be described as one of the great pop masterpieces of the 90s. Its lyrics are uncomplicated but its statement is grand: “You only see what your eyes want to see/How can life be what you want it to be?” The song’s bewitching melody and cinematic string arrangement is pumped up with Orbit’s expressive drum fills and pulsating electronic effects. Tracks like the frenetic “Skin” and “Shanti/Ashtangi,” a Yoga techno prayer only Madonna could pull off, are similarly lacquered with a bubbly electronic sheen. But for all the studio gimmicks, there’s a healthy spoonful of live guitars and percussion thrown into the mix. Orbit’s cycles of analog synths and electric guitar licks perfectly supplement the elasticity of Madonna’s then-newly-trained vocal chords. Like no other Madonna hit in recent memory, the title track found the singer in a celebratory tech-frenzy. Whether it was an epiphany of the spiritual or sonic kind (Ray of Light marked a dance-rooted homecoming for the pop star), her elation was unmistakable: “Quicker than a ray of light, I’m flying…And I feel like I just got home!” Though she’s made an entire career out of revealing herself, Madonna hadn’t been this emotionally candid since Like a Prayer. Layered with vocal samples and buoyant drum n’ bass beats, “Drowned World,” the title of which was inspired by J. G. Ballard’s apocalyptic novel of the same name, sums up much of Madonna’s personal tribulations with fame: “I got exactly what I asked for/Running, rushing back for more…And now I find, I’ve changed my mind.” “Mer Girl,” the album’s final, spooky offering, is a surreal meditation on mortality and the death of the newly-dubbed Ethereal Girl’s mother: “The earth took me in her arms/Leaves covered my face/Ants marched across my back.” But while time has yet to leave its mark on Ray of Light the way it has True Blue and Erotica, it’s difficult to tell how the album will hold up in years to come.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

Music (2000)

Madonna once told producer Shep Pettibone that an artist should never do the same thing twice, and two new collaborations with Ray of Light’s William Orbit, “Runaway Lover” and “Amazing,” prove that when you do, it will probably be completely uninteresting. Orbit may not have had enough tricks up his sleeve for an entire new album and perhaps Madonna knew that. As such, she enlisted French electronica guru Mirwais for most of 2000’s Music, which seems more like a collection of songs than a cohesive album, and was an unexpected answer to the Grammy-winning Ray of Light. But strangely, in an attempt to make a “fun,” less-introspective album, Madonna revealed more of herself than ever. No longer shrouded with pedantic spirituality, she became even more human, exposing her fears on tracks like “Nobody’s Perfect” and “Paradise (Not for Me)” and revealing her joys on “Impressive Instant” and the massive hit “Music.” With its stop-and-go guitar riffs, atypical structure and peculiar lyrics (“Tell the bed not to lay/Like the open mouth of a grave/Not to stare up at me/Like a calf down on its knees”), the soulful “Don’t Tell Me” was an unlikely hit, but its fusion of stuttering electronic beats and acoustic guitars seemed to be striving to define the sound of the new millenium. Two tracks took a striking folk direction. “I Deserve It” found Madonna singing in a warm yet detached tone, but her vocals were completely untouched by effects. “Gone,” another collaboration with Orbit, ends the album and is possibly one of Madonna’s best performances. In the vein of “Live to Tell,” the song seems to sum up everything Madonna has tried to tell us about being the most famous woman in the world. It is also, perhaps, the most human she has ever been. Self-deprecation and vulnerability have never been Madonna’s strong-suits, but the way she sings “I’m not very smart” could make you wonder.


American Idol: 20 Years of Madonna

American Life (2003)

Having made a career out of taking us by surprise, Madonna curiously chose to shack up with French producer Mirwais a second time for her tenth studio album, American Life. Back are the oscillating filters, clunky beats, stuttering guitars and irksome Auto-Tuned vocals, but while 2000’s Music was all over the place musically, American Life is more consistent, and this time M+M have perfected the experimental guitar/synth sound they christened with “Don’t Tell Me.” Much like Music’s aptly-titled “Impressive Instant,” “Nobody Knows Me” is the album’s most immediately gratifying tune. The track has a patently retro quality (think Stacey Q on acid) that bridges the synth-happy gap between “Material Girl” and “Music.” While Madonna’s attempt at rapping on the title track is cheeky at best (the song also finds Mirwais regurgitating his signature beats and grinding synth sounds), her digitally spliced rhymes on “Mother and Father” are starling and inventive. The album’s best tunes, though, mostly abandon the techno-rap ether and dive headlong into folk-rock territory. With several songs stacking layers of sophisticated vocal harmonies on top of sparse acoustic guitars, the influence of Joni Mitchell, an early Madonna favorite, seems to be finally floating to the surface. If it’s true that rock stars make their worst music when they’re happy, then Madonna must be faking it. She may appear to be head-over-heels in love with someone (her husband and/or son on “Love Profusion” and “Intervention,” respectively) or something (God on the Gospel-flavored “Nothing Fails”), but it seems like Madonna’s in the throes of a full-fledged midlife crisis. Where she used to rage against the machine in deeds (or misdeeds), Madonna now bites back more directly with her lyrics. Her vocals hark back to songs like “Burning Up” on the guitar-driven “I’m So Stupid,” a track with a decidedly punk-rock sensibility: “Please don’t try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won’t protect me.” After years of flip-flopping between sub-genres and finally finding a comfortable niche in electronica, then teasing us with her electric guitar-wielding rock goddess persona during 2001’s Drowned World Tour, and now showing promise as a folk-rock songstress, the only thing left for Madonna to do is plug in and make a full-blown rock album.


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Pacino’s Way

This talented, hard-working thespian’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision.

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Pacino’s Way
Photo: Paramount Pictures

When he was a young man, Al Pacino, a dreadfully handsome troublemaker and high school dropout, was often homeless. He sometimes slept on the stage at HB Studio, where he was studying and performing. The aspiring actor had ambitions but not many means. He took work as a busboy, a switchboard operator, and a mailroom clerk for Commentary Magazine. He was cheerful and hard-working, with an unbridled energy and, despite his circumstances, a pertinacious optimism. “I didn’t walk to work,” he once told James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, “I leapt to work.”

Born in East Harlem and raised by his mother and maternal grandparents in the south Bronx (his grandparents were, funny enough, from a Sicilian town called Corleone), he went by the nickname Sonny, and was called “The Actor” by friends and family due to his penchant for performing scenes from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which he saw when he was five. “Borderline shy,” by his own admission, Pacino lived in his imagination, seeking solace in the darkness of the cinema. (Before he pursued a career in acting, he wanted to be a baseball player, a natural inclination when one grows up in the Bronx.) When Pacino was two, his father abandoned him and his mother, and one feels this absence lingering over his most famous performances like an unanswered question. He regularly plays solitary men, professionals dedicated to their work, men whose family lives are a shambles, or whose families are their life. Think of Frank Serpico, twitchy-eyed and bushy bearded, uttering, “If I could just work alone, if I could just work alone…”

In Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II, maybe the great father-son film of the New Hollywood era, Pacino plays Michael Corleone, the good son who turns into a vindictive gangster, to his father’s immense disappointment. When he takes over the family business, Michael exudes a ruthlessness that his old man disavowed. Freud talked of men wanting to kill their fathers to become them, but Michael breaks his father’s heart and becomes someone else, someone increasingly craven, a man slowly slipping into evil. He loses his soul in his search for power. Watch Pacino, hair shellacked and slick, as black as crude oil, as he grabs his brother, Fredo (played by John Cazale), and notice the vehemence in his eyes as he says, “You broke my heart.” He looks as though he could tear Fredo’s face off right there.

Though Marlon Brando was the ostensible star of the first Godfather—it’s his sullen and sapiential face that adorns the poster, and he who took home an Oscar—the trilogy really belongs to Pacino’s Michael. It’s the story of a man whose potential for greatness transmogrified into evil, slowly and heartbreakingly—of the college boy, the war hero, following not in his father’s footsteps, but in a disfigured image of his shadow. Cinematographer Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting throws upon Michael a visual dichotomy, half basked in golden light and half shrouded in shadows. As The Godfather progresses, he veers increasingly into darkness until he emerges, alone, into an autumn afternoon, left to ponder his iniquitous decisions.

Despite the composed, sometimes phlegmatic demeanor of Michael Corleone, that simmering indolence and careful elocution, something seethes behind his eyes: a sufferance for violence. All of Pacino’s great characters have the potential to hurt or maim or kill, usually out of necessity or a particular sense of pragmatism—a rarefied dangerousness. Pacino has a tragic air about him. One feels it in his stare: an overcompensation for some unuttered anxiety or self-doubt in all that shouting that typifies much of his raspy-voiced later work. There’s a protean quality to Pacino’s acting. Like his great characters, these unrelenting professionals, he isn’t unwilling to do what’s necessary: to explode when his instincts command him to, to recede into placidity when the scene calls for it. Bespoke or bedraggled, garbed in elegant suits or a leather vest, he emanates a peculiar masculinity, a kind of vulnerability.

From 1971 to 1976, Pacino had a run of performances that boggles the mind—in Jerry Schatzberg’s A Panic in Needle Park, the two Godfather films, and Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Each performance has become enshrined in the American cinema canon. In these roles, one finds a man mining the depths of masculine fragility, finding ways to express pain, desperation, and egomania that didn’t adhere to the cinematic image of the drug addict, the criminal, and the gangster. In Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, from 1973, Pacino finds not only the juvenility in a former sailor, but a kind of heartbreak disguised as juvenility. The actor’s Francis is a man of tenuous mental and emotional stability, who suffers tragedy, has a mental breakdown, and lapses into catatonia. There’s nothing gimcrack or stereotypical about Pacino’s embodiment of mental illness; it’s empathetic and earnest.

In the ’80s, Pacino did more controversial fair, notably as a cop infiltrating New York’s gay leather scene in William Friedkin’s salacious and invidious Cruising, and as the bombastic, cocaine-huffing megalomaniac Tony Montana, a sort of Michael Corleone type without the discipline, in Brian De Palma’s Scarface. While Scarface has become embedded in the pop-culture lexicon for its riotous ending and the way Pacino holds that grenade launcher as if it were a lover, Cruising, chopped up by Friedkin in post-production to avoid an X rating, remains the more fascinating, epochal piece of lurid pulp. It’s with great empathy and curiosity that Pacino approaches the role of an undercover cop, slowly slipping into the faux-identity that’s been created for him.

In the ’90s, Pacio began to craft his own caricature, though he didn’t succumb to it. He extrapolated all that incendiary indignation, that despair and loneliness, into something resembling a stark-raving lunatic, men of profound desperation. This is the Pacino most often parodied, and most unfairly maligned. In Michael Mann’s almost-three-hour opus Heat, he married his contemplative sadness and his proclivity for erupting into voluble paroxysms. “Cause she’s got a great ass!” bellows his Vincent Hanna, an L.A.P.D. lieutenant, to a loose-lipped police officer who, after finding out he let slip sensitive information, wants to know how he got mixed up with a duplicitous phone sex worker. Hanna’s eyes go wide, his mouth like a great hungry O. His hands cup the hypothetical hindquarters. It brings to mind Whitman’s phrase “a barbaric yawp.” Then, he adds, “Ferocious, aren’t I?” as an aside, as if the other cops in the room are the audience to his Looney Tunes act.

That scene, in all its histrionics, is the apogee of Pacino’s shouting period, which began around the time of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, in which he played a corporeal cartoon character, Big Boy Caprice, and reached a fever pitch when he played John Milton, the head of a chthonic law firm in Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate. But whereas those two outlandish roles presented Pacino with the opportunity to chew scenery with wanton relish, to go full-on hammy villain, his turn in Heat is, for all its ferocity, a deeply sad performance, an ongoing act of contrition. His eyes are wreathed by bags, sunken in from so many sleepless nights. There’s an ashen languor to his face. Vociferous and volatile, with that underlying hint of fragility, his Hanna is one of those cops who’s dedicated to his job, whose life revolves around his vocation. He carries his badge as Sisyphus does his boulder. (Pacino admitted, two decades later, that Hanna has a cocaine habit, which helps explain why he’s so labile, so clamorous. He needs the spark, the rousing scintilla, of each line setting his brain on fire, to keep him going.)

Later in Mann’s film, during a moment of tender resignation, Pacino’s character elucidates on why he harbors so much pain, why he keeps his work so close. “I gotta hold on to my angst. I preserve it because I need it. It keeps me sharp”—he snaps his fingers—“on the edge”—snap—“where I gotta be.” The timing and rhythm of this delivery is precise, as exact and measured as any stratagem crafted by the career criminals he’s chasing, yet Pacino exudes a certain fluidity, a certain malaise, as if the words are just seeping out of him.

Heat earned pre-release notoriety for featuring the first shared screen time between Pacino and Robert De Niro, and the ire of some fans who were disappointed by the reticent badinage that comprises their much-hyped meeting. “My life’s a disaster zone,” Hanna confides to De Niro’s Neil McCauley, “because I spend all my time chasing guys like you around the block. That’s my life.” The scene represents the most low-key acting either performer had done in some time—just two professionals tersely chatting, making small talk that is, they know, infused with ominous warnings, like milk into coffee. “Brother,” Hanna says, calm and assured, “you are going down.”

For his second collaboration with Mann, 1999’s The Insider, Pacino dialed it back down and returned to a recurring theme of his work: struggling with the moral quandaries of professional men trying to do the job. There’s Frank Serpico and Vincent Hanna, Michael Corleone, Steve Burns in Cruising, the burned-out—but still, in his way, quite suave—detective Frank Keller in Harold Becker’s Sea of Love from 1989, and Will Dormer trying to navigate the sunlit brume in Christopher Nolan’s 2002 film Insomnia. Even Dog Day Afternoon’s Sonny Wortzik, a despairing, broken-faced man driven to extremes, fits into this pattern, though his motivation is one of love, not professionalism.

What, then, to make of the last two decades of Pacino’s career—that period during which he made an appearance in Martin Brest’s legendarily bad Gigli, starred in a bevy of police procedural detritus, and gave a surreal performance as an ersatz version of himself in the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill? As the pathetic, last-gasp salesman Shelley in a 2012 Broadway revival of David Mamet’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross, Pacino acted with what Ben Brantley called “the exaggerated pantomiming of a boozy player in a late-night charades game,” which is to say he wasn’t great. Yet, when he appeared in Mamet’s film version, in 1992, he earned an Oscar nod for his sleazy Ricky Roma, a chicanerous smooth-talker.

It’s not that he’s lost the ability to act: Despite potential “comeback” roles as the eloquently flustered Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack and as an aging actor struggling with dementia in the Philip Roth adaptation The Humbling, both directed by Barry Levinson, and as a lonely keymaker in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, he’s been relegated to VOD titles like Misconduct and Hangman. No, Pacino still has the chops; he just doesn’t appear in films that deserve them. Pacino’s is one of the great, flummoxing careers of American actors. He’s a profoundly talented, hard-working thespian whose ungrudging sense of explosiveness sometimes deviates into empty grandstanding, and who’s feeling for tumult is matched by his feeling for concision. In the final moments of Heat, as De Niro’s robber lays slain before Hanna, the thief manages, for his final words, “I told you I’m never going back.” Hanna, exhausted, victorious but not triumphant, intones, simply, “Yeah.”

Pacino’s Way runs at the Quad from March 14—29.

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The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered

Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema.

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The Right Stuff: Harry Dean Stanton Remembered
Photo: Adopt Films

Willowy and wise, with a down-home voice abraded by a lifelong affinity for smoking, Harry Dean Stanton was the great supporting actor of American cinema. As cowboys, detectives, bar-stool sages, scruffy-faced wage slaves, he was a man comfortable dwelling in silence, whose presence and unfussy utterances commanded, without begging for, your attention. He had the air of a proletarian flaneur, a dusty wanderer with a landscape for a face, carved with wrinkles. As prolific as he was consistent, he appeared, by his own estimations, in over 200 films and television shows, and he never gave a bad performance. He didn’t seem to even be giving a performance. He simply existed. Like Robert Mitchum, he under-acted his parts, buttressing a film, augmenting its other performances, with authentic behavior and natural reactions. “You look at me when I talk to you,” he spits to Alan Ladd in 1958’s The Proud Rebel. “I’m looking but I don’t see anything,” Ladd retorts.

One gets the sense that Stanton didn’t love being a “character actor,” and he expressed vexation over the dearth of leading roles offered to him. But he helped to legitimize the importance of supporting actors, a vocation often considered a prerequisite to bigger roles. Especially in the second half of his career, he epitomized what a supporting actor should do. As the bereaved father in 1986’s Pretty in Pink, swaddled in the agony of loneliness, he brings to the film an aching knowingness that its younger stars had yet to experience. And as the estranged brother in David Lynch’s The Straight Story, he makes crying feel like the most painful, meaningful thing a man can do.

Stanton died, at the age of 91, just weeks after the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return aired. Though he worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, John Carpenter, and had a labile friendship with Marlon Brando (begot by insults, and conducted mostly through phone calls when the corpulent Brando was in his twilight years), it was in David Lynch that he found his greatest consort. The filmmaker, also an American Spirits aficionado, cast Stanton in five projects, beginning with Wild at Heart in 1990. Watching animals tear a chunk of meat on television, his lips pulled back in a macabre smile, Stanton puts a demented spin on the detective archetype he’d played so many times throughout his career. An agitated F.B.I. agent in The Godfather Part II, a corrupt L.A.P.D. detective in Farewell, My Lovely, an intervening good cop in Slam Dance, an astute detective in Christine—he imbued all of these roles with tonal and emotional variations, finding in their broad generalizations the details that make a character memorable.

Before he played cops, Stanton killed them. He began his career playing criminals, creeps, and ballbusters. “I was a classic cop killer,” he told The Washington Post in 1985. “That’s what started me off.” The first film to really make sincere use of his dramatic gifts was Monte Hellman’s 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind, written by and starring Jack Nicholson, for whom Stanton had been best man at his 1962 wedding. Nicholson explained to his friend, “I want you to just play yourself.” Nicholson, three years from his breakout role in Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, saw in the insouciance and composure of Stanton’s acting style something that others had overlooked, and rather than cast him against type, he cast the role of the murderous gang leader, the kind of role that would normally have gone to someone intimidating and a little unhinged, a Lee Marvin or Jack Palance, against actor type. Eventually, Stanton decided to hang his guns up: “I wanted to play lovers,” he said.

Though he didn’t often, if ever, play romantic roles, he found in his collaborations with David Lynch a painful romanticism, a sense that life, however cruel, would, eventually, offer solace, something in the way of love. Joaquin Phoenix, in his recent New York Times Style Magazine profile, says that great performances are the result of great direction. Lynch isn’t known for coaxing subtle or naturalistic performances from actors, but he brought out the best in Stanton. As Carl Rodd, the coffee-swilling proprietor of the Fat Trout trailer park, introduced in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Stanton tapped into the malaise of age. He’s initially a torpid-eyed grump, staring off like a somnambulist; he makes the best goddamn cup of “Good Morning, America” and wears flannel on flannel. He isn’t ambitious.

Twenty-five years later, in The Return, Carl, now calmer, kinder, a man who’s appalled that one of his tenants is selling his own blood to pay the rent, is still in the same place. He says, “Not much I got to look forward to at my age…except the hammer slamming down.” Sitting on a park bench, staring at the trees rustle in the breeze, he witnesses the hit-and-run death of a child. Carl watches the boy’s essence rise in a luminous golden orb. As the passersby stop and gawk, bray, react with varying histrionics, Carl slowly approaches and comforts the mother. The scene vacillates between the absurd and the tragic, but Stanton, the most reliable of American actors, provides a brief sense of stability. In this tragic moment, Carl performs a minor miracle, consoling the inconsolable. He shows that Twin Peaks still has good people in it.

Lynch’s direction of actors is rarely discussed, but he placed palpable trust in Stanton, allowing him to act against the hysterical happenings surrounding him. In a series that showcases career-best performances from most of its cast, the actor remains compelling because he represents the average guy, the citizen often forgotten in the cursed vicinage of Twin Peaks, whose more eccentric characters and striking oddities garner the most attention. Stanton, as always, augments the film enfolding him. As a supporting actor, his artistry was unparalleled: Method actors are often heralded for “disappearing into roles,” but Stanton disappeared into his work.

In a later episode, Carl strums his guitar, singing the western folk song “Red River Valley,” the prophetic words pouring sinuously from him. Around him is violence, chaos. The image acts almost as an elegy for Stanton’s enduring appeal. Even on the cusp of 90 (The Return was filmed in 2015), he seems, if tired, still committed, his body sagging, the words coming slower, but his heart is still in it. Some of cinema’s most luminary A-listers, like Pacino and De Niro and Brando, gave way to mawkish caricature in later years, taking roles for paychecks. Stanton, denied leading-man status for most of his career, never slipped into self-parody. His persona only grew more sagacious.

In an interview included with the Repo Man DVD, he’s asked, “Does the way you look at the world influence the way you act? In a film?” After a moment of silence, he says, “Obviously.” He was born in West Irvine, Kentucky, in 1926. His father was a tobacco farmer. In high school, he sang in a barbershop quartet and was in the glee club, and served in the Navy during WWII, surviving the 82-day Battle of Okinawa, an experience that hardened him, left him thankful to be alive but with a detachment that seems to have manifest in emotional diffidence in interviews, his low-key deliveries in films. After his home was robbed in 1996 and he was tied up and had a gun pressed against his face, he mused to reporters, “I think I’m blessed with a pretty tough psyche.”

He was reluctant to disclose much of his personal life. In Sophie Huber’s 2013 documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, he croons “Blue Moon” in response to the question, “Do you think you give something away by talking about yourself?” He turns Americana into a koan. His placidity earned him the nickname “Harry Zen Stanton.” His penchant for ontological musings and belief in predestiny, a word he said “scares people shitless,” didn’t extend to sincere supernatural beliefs. He wasn’t religious in a conventional sense. He could quote Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the Book of Revelations at length but preferred the “more human” Jesus of The Gnostic Gospels. He also did a series of quotidian exercises called the Five Rites, a Tibetan practice to “stimulate your chakras” that predates yoga. He thought, he hoped, that after life there would be nothing. His turn as the mendacious, self-professed prophet with 14 wives on Big Love has a skeptical quality to it, the performance of a man who didn’t believe the bullshit his character posited. “I’m big into Eastern concepts,” he says in Partly Fiction. “The horror of life, the love of children, the whole phantasmagoria—it’s all meaningless.”

Reticent, even cryptic, he spoke with terse, exacting language, with an acerbic wit, but sometimes he just spoke his mind. While recording a podcast in 2013, Jen Kirkman asked Stanton what he thought about the guy Molly Ringwald ends up with in Pretty in Pink. He said, without missing a beat, “I don’t give a fuck.” When Kirkman pressed, irksomely asking how he would feel if he had a hypothetical daughter, she correctly predicted he would, again, not give a fuck.

Singing, Stanton’s first passion, seemed preferable to speaking, and he wasn’t shy to flaunt his chops. In 1962, on a forgotten show called Checkmate, Stanton first showed off his vocal prowess, tinged with a self-aware ennui. With a guitar slung over his leather jacket, he belts, “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!” His musical talents were used more prominently a few years later, in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke; he gazes off, a thousand-yard stare, a death-row stare, cooing a hymn of futile hope. The camera zooms in on that great, lissome face, toward those wispy lips, beads of sweat clinging to his stubble.

A suspicion of fatalism suffuses his performances. In Ridley Scott’s Alien, he plays Brett, the engineering technician on the commercial spacecraft Nostromo. Stanton, who didn’t like horror or monster movies, plays the role the way he played all his others: with an authentic nonchalance, a middle-class denizen grinding away, waiting for his paycheck—which is to say, “right.” While looking for the cat, which he let escape, Brett becomes the first of the crew to meet the fully grown alien. Looking up at the creature, a hulking black something that looms over him like inevitable judgement, he has the same nonplussed face as the cat. How else should one react to the unfathomable?

Because Stanton was already middle-aged by the time he appeared in Alien, most moviegoers never knew him to be young; he seemed to have drifted into popular culture like a piece of space debris, or maybe a tumbleweed from one of his early, generic western films. The ’80s turned out to be Stanton’s decade. There was an acidic quality to many of his films, the corrosive remnants of halcyon memories and bad decisions lingering, scarring. He seeped into the mainstream while etching out his own niche in smaller, odder films.

On the cusp of 60, with nearly three decades of credits to his name, Stanton finally got the leading role he’d wanted, in Wim Wenders’s Palme d’Or-winning Paris, Texas. Moviegoers remember the red baseball cap, vibrant against a beige expanse, an image that circulated social media after the news of Stanton’s death, but the devastating beauty of the film stems from the raggedy sapience of the performance. Travis, who remains mute for much of the film, is a cipher whose identity, whose anguish, is slowly revealed, in drips, culminating in a Sam Shepard-penned story about a dissolving relationship. After so much silence, the unflustered, epiphanic delivery is deafening. A peepshow, a two-way mirror, a phone call with the mother of his missing son. The camera goes back and forth between Travis and Jane, who doesn’t know with whom she’s talking. His voice doesn’t give him away; the story does. A man, in love, plunges into alcoholism, into mental degradation. His life falls apart, his family leaves, his house catches fire. He’s not performing a recital but recalling a moment lodged in time, in stasis. It’s a realization. “Now he got really crazy.” It’s a story of paranoia, of anger—and eventually, he finds penance. He’ll end up alone, of course, but he’ll find serenity.

Like Mitchum, Stanton often uses passivity, a kind of pensive ennui, to tell an internal story that defies words; unlike Mitchum, normally languid but capable of volatility and biblical violence (most notable in Charles Laughton’s 1955 classic The Night of the Hunter), a man who had a Sisyphean desperation to him, Stanton remains devastatingly unperturbed. His most famous role is one of self-realization, sacrifice, one that doesn’t erupt but, at the right time, fades into the horizon. The performance is daring in its subtlety. Given the chance to finally lead a film, Stanton lets the landscape out-act him.

That same year, in Alex Cox’s Repo Man, he played the garrulous mentor to Emilio Estevez’s punk. “Look at those assholes,” he snaps. “Ordinary fuckin’ people. I hate ’em.” Stanton, who had played working-class washouts for over 20 years, was ready to move on. His star had risen. David Letterman called him “the world’s greatest character actor.” Roger Ebert said that no film featuring Stanton could be altogether bad. He hosted Saturday Night Live. Then he went back to playing supporting roles. And American cinema was better for it.

Also Starring Harry Dean Stantaon runs at the Quad from September 23—30.

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The Doors: A Retro Perspective

As long as drugs, sex, rock n’ roll, and war continue to drive the human race, though, there will always be a place for the Doors.

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The Doors: A Retro Perspective

On March 27th, the Warner Bros. specialty label Rhino Entertainment, bastion of archival reissues galore, released enhanced 40th-anniversary versions of the Doors’s six studio albums, previously only available as part of last fall’s Perception box set. All of the CDs have been remixed by original engineer Bruce Botnick, which will present somewhat of a quandary for hardcore fans: The albums haven’t just been remastered—they’ve been tinkered with, to varying degrees. Original lyrics have been restored; vocal, guitar, and keyboard parts have been added; gratuitous studio chatter has been included at the beginning and end of songs. The Doors have experienced many resurgences of popularity over the years, particularly in the ’80s and again in the early ’90s (thanks, in part, to Oliver Stone’s The Doors), and these aren’t the versions multiple generations have grown up listening to.

The bonus material is a mixed bag: the debut includes early recordings of “Moonlight Drive” and “Indian Summer,” but the latter sounds almost identical to the version officially released several years later; you have to wade through over 45 drunken minutes of “Roadhouse Blues” at the end of Morrison Hotel to get to the cool jazz version of “Queen of the Highway”; and previously released B-sides like “Who Scared You,” “Whiskey, Mystics and Men,” and “Orange County Suite” are a treat for fans who haven’t picked up every single compilation or box set the band’s label has released over the years. One bit of info gleaned from the expanded versions is that the late Paul Rothchild was a really obnoxious producer. Granted, he had to deal with Morrison, whose unending search for pleasure in a fucked-up world led to his death at 27. As long as drugs, sex, rock n’ roll, and war continue to drive the human race, though, there will always be a place for The Doors—regardless of how they’re repackaged.

The Doors (1967)

Apparently we’ve been listening to the wrong album for decades. At least that’s what engineer Bruce Botnick says in the liner notes of the expanded 40th-anniversary release of the Doors’s self-titled debut. Aside from the fact that the original LP and all subsequent CD reissues were reproduced at a slower rate (and therefore at a barely discernable flat pitch), two songs now include their original lyrics. The new “Break on Through (To the Other Side)” finds Jim Morrison singing “She gets high” several times in a row, as was originally intended; being that the song was the band’s first single, Elektra Records censored it to meet radio airplay standards. But there’s a fine line between preserving what was intended and maintaining what, simply, was. Arguably, the “real” version is the one people have been listening to for the past 40 years. Anyway you slice, restore, or remix it (as it has been by Botnick himself), The Doors is still one of the best debuts in rock history.


Strange Days (1967)

Traditionally, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones duke it out for the tenuous title of Greatest. Band. Ever. Occasionally, the Beach Boys or Led Zeppelin are mentioned in the same discussion, but rarely, if ever, are the Doors seriously considered. The band’s ringleader, Jim Morrison, was too much of a pinup—and, eventually, too much of a drunk—for their music to be taken seriously. Had the Doors began a few years earlier (that is, had they not emerged from inside the drug revolution of the late ’60s), they may have had the chance to mature and hone their skills as a band before transposing their music to the world of psychedelic rock the way The Beatles had done so successfully around the same time. But if the Beatles had Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club and the Beach Boys had Pet Sounds, then the Doors’ answer was Strange Days. The liner notes of the 40th-anniversary edition of the album details how, in a pre-online-leak world, engineer Bruce Botnick snagged an early copy of Sgt. Pepper’s and played it for The Doors, inspiring the band, along with producer Paul Rothchild, to invent new methods of studio recording. This experimentation can be heard in the very first notes of the title track, as Ray Manzarek’s spacey keyboards set the tone for Morrison’s eerie, distorted warning, “Strange days have found us.” It’s the perfect introduction to a perfectly strange album.


Waiting for the Sun (1968)

By the Doors’s third LP, the recording of which commenced less than a year after the release of their debut, the band had run out of songs and Jim Morrison was often drunk or absent from the studio. Three songs were composed solely by guitarist Robby Krieger (who had penned the Doors’s biggest hit, “Light My Fire”), and, like their sophomore effort, other tracks were leftovers from previous sessions. You can instantly recognize Krieger’s contributions due to their unabashed romanticism and the absence of Morrison’s cynicism (“Wintertime winds blow cold this season/Fallin’ in love I’m hopin’ to be!” goes the impossibly gushy first line of “Wintertime Love”), while “We Could Be So Good Together” is categorically pre-fame Morrison (“The time you wait subtracts from joy” is the kind of hippie idealism he’d long given up on). With the radio-friendly “Hello, I Love You” as its first single (another song mined from the band’s catalogue of unreleased songs), Waiting for the Sun appeared to many as the Doors’s attempt to regain the success they’d enjoyed prior to the remarkable but difficult Strange Days. Despite its trippy undertones and frenzied climax (heightened further by Morrison’s previously unheard screams on the newly expanded version of the CD), the song was innocuous enough to score the band its second—and last—#1 single, as well as their only chart-topping LP.


The Soft Parade (1969)

In a short period of 24 months, Jim Morrison went from shirtless sex symbol to pudgy, bearded public outlaw. Conscious or not, it was the kind of destructive, outward rejection of fame and success that wouldn’t be seen again from a rock star until Kurt Cobain a quarter of a century later. Morrison had also run out of material to draw from for the Doors’s fourth LP and the band was forced to start writing in the studio. The resulting album, 1969’s critically reviled The Soft Parade, was a rather disjointed collection of songs—half written by Morrison and the other half by guitarist Robby Krieger—that displayed a significant decline in quality from the band’s first three releases. If Strange Days was the spiritual cousin to the Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s, Soft Parade tracks like “Tell All the People,” with its swells of strings and brass, were more literal sonic nods to the hugely influential Beatles record. The title track is a nine-minute “A Day in the Life”-style suite that begins with a spoken word intro (“You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!” Morrison preaches like an evangelist) and a lovely, forlorn refrain accompanied by a stately harpsichord melody before settling into a familiar and comfortable Doors groove with spry guitar and bluesy organ work.


Morrison Hotel (1970)

Jim Morrison fancied himself a blues singer. “I’ve been singing the blues ever since the world began,” he sings on “Maggie M’Gill,” the final song on the Doors’s 1970 LP Morrison Hotel. With a voice as ravaged as it is on songs like that one and “You Make Me Real,” he had no choice but to sing the blues, howling and crooning like never before. The album is divided into two separately titled sides, Hard Rock Cafe and Morrison Hotel (named after Morrison’s favorite bars, located on opposite sides of L.A.), but there’s another, less obvious schism: the record is split between old, previously unheard Doors songs and newly written ones, creating an inconsistency in tone. (“Indian Summer” and “Waiting for the Sun” were originally written—and presumably recorded—for the Doors’s first and third albums, respectively; Morrison’s vocals are cleaner and clearer and Robbie Krieger’s psychedelic guitar sounds like something he would have done a few years earlier.) Still, Morrison Hotel is an easier listen than 1969’s The Soft Parade, which, though nowhere near as bad as rock history would have us believe, truly divided critics and fans alike and didn’t particularly sound like the Doors. The politically charged “Peace Frog” is the album’s best track—and one of the Doors’s greatest. Lyrics referencing the violent 1968 Democratic Convention and partly inspired by Morrison’s poem “Abortion Stories” are set to a funky Stax-style sound, the band’s signature polyrhythms pausing briefly for the singer’s famous spoken verse: “Indians scattered on dawn’s highway, bleeding/Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind.” The story would eventually be heard in full on Morrison’s posthumous spoken-word album, An American Prayer, and, of course, immortalized on celluloid in Oliver Stone’s 1991 biopic. But nothing embodied the electric blues The Doors strived for here more than the album’s opening track “Roadhouse Blues,” which features harmonica by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian and finds Morrison reveling in the prospect of a drunken orgy in the back of the bar—because, well, “the future’s uncertain and the end is always near.” Nearer than he knew.


L.A. Woman (1971)

My mixed feelings about the Doors’s final album are probably best summed up in my review of Marianne Faithfull’s Before the Poison: L.A. Woman might be one of the best swan songs ever, but Jim Morrison’s raspy, drug-, cigarette-, and alcohol-ravaged voice is a symbol of impending doom, promises unfulfilled, and death in a bathtub. While claims that Faithfull was among those who discovered Morrison’s body in that infamous Parisian tub might be the stuff of rock folklore, she had more than a few things in common with the self-proclaimed Lizard King. Had he survived, perhaps Morrison’s voice, like Faithfull’s, would have aged to achieve the kind of lived-in elegance and wisdom only time and atonement can provide. L.A. Woman, along with Morrison’s view of himself as a poet above all else (exemplified by 1978’s An American Prayer), was an indication that his work was indeed maturing; though not exactly refined, the album is a more thoughtful, sober (figuratively and literally—he reportedly wasn’t drunk this time around), and slightly less masturbatory work.


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