Revisiting Good Times and 3614 Jackson Highway

Good-timesI totally missed this when it happened in 2017, but there's been a re-release of the movie Good Times. My friend Dave alerted me to the situation while we were in Amoeba Records in Los Angeles this spring. It's quite amazing and has me rethinking the movie.

It's extras include an interesting interview with William Friedkin describing how he came to the project and how it all came together. Friedkin talks about their guerrilla film-making (they had no permits) and how they filmed skits first in studio. Afterwards, they only had 45 minutes of film, so they padded it.

There's also a fabulous commentary track across the movie with film historian Lee Gambin who highlights things you’ve never noticed (or at least I never noticed): Friedkin’s mark on the movie, for instance with the chaotic edit of the wrestling scene, typical angles and shots, and subversive low shots. He comments on George Saunder’s "faustian" performance.

He categorizes all 1960s films into dark films, Elvis films, avant guard cinema and rock docs. He feels Good Times is very meta.

He references the western skit to the spaghetti western Ringo movies of 1965, A Pistol for Ringo and The Return of Ringo. He labels Friedken as a  documentary realist at that time, who dabbled in fantasy (The Exorcist). Sonny liked the hard edge of Friedkin and shared his sense of humor (note the Los Angeles parking signs on the Western street). He notes the crane work and says that, in fact, Good Times went crane happy.

He notes the "incredible dancing" in the western musical, saying the choreographer (who's name I couldn't catch: Andre T?) was one of the sharks in West Side Story. I like how they keep the whole body of the dancer in frame and long shots of the whole dance, which was the unfortunate issues with dances in Burlesque.

Gambin says the movie got a few good reviews. The LA Times said there were moments of Woody Allen brilliance and The Hollywood Reporter said it was the best directorial debut since Coppola. It might shock fans to hear that.

Gambin calls it a fun tributes to genre movies, full of beautiful colors. He said originally a Sonny & Cher fan was to write initial script but that took too long.

He describes he movie as a tension between artistic integrity vs. commerce, turning artists into commodities which is exactly what they don’t want to become. Cher is trying to get control of her own trajectory. S&C are reclaiming their turf. They are decidedly here not a rags to riches story, although I think it's curious that their variety show would recycle a rags to riches mythology for its “behind the scenes” fake documentary reels and skits.

Gambin relates the movie to the backstage musical similar to Vincent Minnelli's The Bandwagon, a genre about The Hollywood Machine. As always, Gambin insists that Cher owns her own presentation. He also doesn't deny the camp sensibility of the "It's the Little Things" video reel, and use of Batman iconography.

He also loves the studio lot scene where Sonny & Cher discuss their dilemma with the big studio and play with backstage costumes and props. Gambin calls this a place "where costumes have lost their meaning." The Hollywood Tzar, the studio wants to fix them." Note the part where they tell Sonny, “This nose will have to go” and remember the ongoing teasing Sonny gave Cher's nose on their variety show four years later. Interestingly, Gambin says that women in clown garb is rare. Is this true?

He equates the S&C script scene here with the one in The Exorcist.

Jungle Geno is Mikey Dolenz. I always wondered about that. Gambin notes that all Tarzan movies always had a “boy” who was young and athletic. So their elderly son is a joke on that convention. Animal trainer Ray Halfaster was used and Gambin says he was better than some (I'm assuming he means regarding abuse of his animals). Gambin reminds us that Saunders' role in this skit is a nod to the Great White Hunter and his coldness and malevolence. He notes the moving camera work in the chase scene.

He notes Sonny's interesting phrasing and chord progression in his favorite musical number, "Don’t Talk to Strangers."

Gambin says the detective story is a nod to Film Noir and was also the seed of Cher's Vamp. He likes the texture palette in this skit.

He says some Friedkin fans feel the songs in this movie drag on the momentum. But Gambin feels they give film time to breathe and are like soliloquy moments. They give the characters space to grow.

Overall, Gambin notes Cher's fiery acting performances in strong female roles (Jimmy Dean, Moonstruck, Silkwood, Mask) and says she is underappreciated as both a vocalist and an actress, having worked with many greats including Friedkin, Altman, Nichols, Bogdanovich, and Jewison. He says, "Cher songs are institutions" about race relations, the occult and people on the fringe.

After this, Gambin says, Sonny & Cher were hired to do the Speedway movie, but were replaced by Elvis and Nancy Sinatra.

I also noticed two things in rewatching this movie. First, how their LA house (in Encino) is surrounded by undeveloped land! Second, this is another movie with Cher playing herself and showing a disinterest in show business. What an amazing foreshadowing of the Cher story, as if her life were scripted. Gambin talks about how she later reinvented herself as a multi-medium business woman decades later.

20190612_144147There's also a new release of 3614 Jackson Highway on purple vinyl.

The same Ward Lamb essay from the CD re-release booklet years ago is also included in the vinyl release. 

 


Revisiting Cher's Catalog & Rock Status

Cher60s2

Cher has a pretty big musical catalog, with over 30 studio albums alone, forget about soundtracks, live albums, rare bootlegs. Recently reviewers have been taking a look back.

Rolling Stone did a light but nice tribute story on Cher's endurance.

Christopher Muther at The Boston Globe recently did a fabulous piece revisiting her best covers. I have to quote a lot of it because it was so surprising and mind-blowing:

He starts by asking, "Did you ever associate the pop goddess with Bob Dylan, the Kinks or James Brown? Bruce Springsteen, Bee Gees…"

And then he goes through some less-than-successful covers, including the album Dancing Queen which he feels was rushed karaoke music, except "Fernando" (the only track produced by ABBA's own Benny Andersson) which he says “almost rivals the rebellious spirit of the original.”

Here are other songs he liked:

  • Eddie Floyd's Knock on Wood: “shockingly good disco-funk interpretation of Eddie Floyd…seriously sensuous swagger."

  • Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe: "the dangerous side of Cher. Can deliver the drama on film and through the song."

  • Marc Cohn's Walking in Memphis: "soulful take on Cohn’s milquetoast song….sings rings around the choir and makes a rather mediocre song memorable."

  • Loving Spoonful's Do You Believe in Magic: "delicate and funky take on the bubblegum original….her vocals lazily stretch out over the chorus…a witchy spell."

  • Donovan's Catch the Wind: "imbues it with urgency and power." Cher76

  • Michael Bolton's I Found Someone: "sexy cougar anthem"

  • James Brown's It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World: "a pleasant shocker. Cher flips the script on Brown’s chauvinistic slow cooker…you know the sexist proclamations are ridiculous…because they’re coming from Cher."

  • Judy Garland's The Man That Got Away: "Cher’s bluesy interpretation offers a cheeky 1970s take on Garland’s impassioned version."

  • The Walker Brothers' The Sun Aint Gonna Shine Anymore: "hitting the chorus full-throttle, and then crumpling back to despondency when she cuts to the line…'lonely, without you, baby'"

  • Buffalo Springfield's For What It’s Worth and the 3614 Jackson Highway album: "filled with gems….criminally overlooked."

  • Bob Dylan's All I Really Want to Do: "approached like a Phil Spector, Wall of Sound spectacular. The Byrds come off as detached storytellers, Cher’s version has true heart."

It's interesting to me how much music critics love Jackson Highway and how fans always love on Stars more or Backstage.

And then last month, Sirius Radio had about a two-week Cher channel that my friend Julie hooked me up with. More on that later because I wrote down all the songs they played for 7 days and it's pretty interesting what made it in and what was left out. Coming soon. I'm dong real scholarship on it...with like a spreadsheet an all. Nerd alert.

RockFinally, over Christmas I was given the book Women Who Rock, an encyclopedia of 100 women artists edited by Ed Evelyn McDonnel. 

It's also interesting to see who made it in the book's list and who has fallen by the wayside. It includes gospel, blues, country, folk, pop, Latino, Caribbean, rap, Motown, SoCal, Experimental, New Wave, Punk, R&B and rock artists and includes Darlene Love, Carol Kaye and June Millington (which is great) but not Pat Benetar or the Indigo Girls. 

The intro essay says the book focused on "game changers" and leaders vs. geniuses and survivors in the wake of rape, bad contracts, sexual exploitation, anorexia, bad management, Svengalis, addiction, suicide and murder. For instance, they couldn't put in every singer-songwriter (like Carly Simon, who didn't make it in either).

The Cher essay was written by Lucretia Tye Jasmine, who summarized Cher as a "singer, actor, comedian and business woman" and calls Cher "woefully underrepresented and unappreciated in the canon, that she "kicked down doors and painted flags" in music, feminism, fashion and social justice. 

She smartly picks up on this very important angle regarding Cher being cast as a Vamp: "sex was a joke but she was not the butt of it." She says Cher made theater of social issues with "Half Breed," "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves," songs about outcast and the condemned. 

With her "crooked teeth and low voice" she was always "strong, in narrative control" with an "elaborate self-presentation" that signaled "a trust in one's own experiences." Honestly, I'm not sure what that last phrase means, but she calls it a "panache of glitter" and says she "commands the stage." 

She admires Cher's decision in the "Turn Back Time" video to use a Navy ship, "the bastion of masculinity." Most importantly she had the "ability to withstand and transcend critics."

Jasmine also elaborates on Cher's musical record breaking stats: only artist with a #1 single in decades from the 1960s-2010s, oldest female artist with a #1 US Billboard song, only three artists of five with a US#1 hit single and an Academy Award. Plus a Grammy, Emmy, Golden Globe awards, an Icon Award and a Razzie. 

Rock2

 


My Essay: Cher and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Tour2I’ve never been sure to have such a personal response to Cher. It’s probably in there somewhere. I’ve been a fan since I was 4 or 5 and I’m now 50 so...psychologically speaking...

Recently an interviewer asked me what I’ve learned personally from Cher. This was hard for me to answer. I tend to think about Cher in terms of the stuff, or more recently in terms of her impact on culture. I struggled to find something to say, like maybe a lesson about letting small things go, (from Cher’s mother’s edict: “If it doesn’t matter in five years, it doesn’t matter”) or that you should always stay friends with your exes. (If Cher can do it…) Oh, and how to fluff my hair by flipping it upside down. Yes...that I did learn from the Cher show. But that’s it.

And when I think about any Cher essay (something for formal than a blog post), it always wraps around the idea of Cher lacking proper respect in pop culture. And maybe that’s personal in some way, like maybe I had two 70s-rock-loving older brothers who disparaged my taste in Cher or all those years being self-conscious about liking the things I like. This digs to the very concept about what rock and roll is, of which the Hall of Fame in Cleveland is but a part. Whether or not Cher is in the Hall is secondary, symptomatic. She’s not part of the insider’s club and that’s the issue, Chronically snubbed. The perpetual underdog. And this has been the case for much longer than the Hall of Fame has existed.

Cher is bigger than her sequins and Cher impersonations often fail for the lack of Cher’s personality embodied in them. You can slap a gowns on very talented boys and girls, but no dice. Cher is not, as previously claimed (over the last half a century), merely a clothes horse, a hanger, a shallow tower of sequins. She embodies those things and makes meaning of them. But shallow people do not look very deep. And they see shallowness everywhere.

What gives someone rock and roll credibility? Is it an outfit? Tight pants? A scarf? A stance? Is it creation of material? Is it hit-making? Is it breaking Billboard records? Is it a greatest hits compilations? Is it longevity with live shows and ticket sales? Is it respect from critics? Is it longevity across mediums and genres? Some would say it is this idea of authenticity. But can that be possible when so much of rock and roll is a pose and a cliché, a posture of coolness, a sales job.  

To me the idea of "authenticity" is a code for the real judgement: is it "cool."

Sonny & Cher weren’t accepted as authentically folk, authentically hippies, or authentically rock and roll. Maybe Sonny wasn’t but Cher was. Sonny wasn’t even considered to be a legitimate Hollywood mogul and now, ironically, Cher is considered powerful in Hollywood. What that really means though is they were uncool.

And who determines cool? Is it popular audiences, critics, cult followings? Is it a roundtable of select few who decide?

Cher has had Billboard hits in give decades, arena shows in multiple decades AND a cult, gay following, records sold, popularization of a music style (the controversial auto-tune), hits that have bled into our mainstream idioms ("the beat goes on"), a subversive influence in fashion, both in the 60s (flares and furs), the 70s (long, straight hair that thousands of young girls took to emulating with hair ironed on real ironing boards), red carpet fashion, her big circus shows are now imitated by younger pop stars, her tattoos are now ubiquitous on the ass of America...and so on.

But to me what makes Cher really cool is her otherness, her inclusion of various underrepresented cultures all in her one self. Not only did Sonny & Cher bring people of color and international cultures to their 70s television show, but Cher embodied those identities in her performances, and she did so with dignity and power.

She’s also a living example of a single woman taking control of her career in show business and having the audacity to survive and tell the story. She’s a survivor, making no apologies for any of it, crossing genres, moving from glitz to the realism (in shows and in movies). And that very realism that works in her movies is the same authenticity working in her music videos and in her live performances.

So can we stop with the authenticity thing?

Over the years my interest has gravitated to figuring out the gap between what Cher means and how she’s perceived by the rock-and-roll-establishment. Cher says it best herself: “Singers don’t think I’m a singer. Actors don’t think I’m an actor.”

Arguably there are fewer women at the top of the music business. Thus,  Brook Marine points out women make up only 13% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There should be more.

It’s been rumored there is this issue of Sonny at play: Cher might be resisting nomination herself, preferring to be inducted as Sonny & Cher. I don’t know if this is true, but she does reference Sonny & Cher whenever she’s confronted with the lack of a nomination. It would seem a likely holdup. Cher has always felt Sonny was entirely responsible for her career. “There would be no Cher without Sonny” has been Cher’s mantra since the mid-1980s.  And they didn’t call him a Svengali for nothing. He had ideas about their inception and architecture, he created their act, as well as writing some of their music.

But Cher brought things to the table, too. She had ideas about their look that Sonny was game to pursue.

Cher also had the budding charisma, the sex appeal and that “special something.”

But arguably Sonny not only discovered Cher but set her up to thrive for five decades. Can you get into the HoF for that? Orchestrating a Cher?

They were a recording team and his influence was life changing (as Cher illustrates in her Broadway musical) and life-testing (you could argue Sonny was her drug).

Cher loves rock and roll. Elvis is an obvious influence. (Someone recently called her Chelvis;  but I prefer to think of her as the female Fonz.) Imagine how easy it would be for Cher to stand over Sonny’s grave and say, “Hey, I tried. They wouldn’t let you in. But hey, I got in!”

As my grandfather used to say, “she’s got the courage of her convictions” if she is, in fact, holding out for Sonny in the face of the prime accolade of one’s pop recording career. To take a stand against the defining group exercising power over the rock canon and Meriam-Webster defines establishment as “an institution or group in a society exercising power and influence over policy or taste.” The Hall of Fame as it sits in Cleveland is by definition a rock-and-roll establishment.

Yeah, she knows you don’t like Sonny & Cher even if you might begrudgingly like Cher. Standing her ground as a Sonny & Cher inductee could be showing all of her integrity and authenticity and, you could argue, an almost heroic love against the pressures of the in-crowd. To stand up for someone you love, particularly someone not many others appreciate, takes monster balls and a big middle finger to the powers that be. And even if Sonny & Cher aren't the issue and Cher is simply suffering the eternal, hypocritical debates around authenticity, to stand up for your sequins, to be apologetically who you are...if that isn’t rock and roll, I don’t know WTF we’re talking out.


Cher Scholarship in the Wild

Cher-2019-tour

This is a photo of Cher's latest arena tour, fifty years into her concert career.

It’s curious how many essays there were last year’s about Cher. Women and gay men have been writing stories about how Cher helped them be more assertive or survive hard times. But now we're seeing a surge of people writing about Cher as a phenomenon. There have been a few reviewing a song here or there, some reviewing her entire oeuvre, some quite-personal essay about how Cher influenced them in some way, or about how they never thought about Cher much until recently and are discovering things about her they find profoundly misunderstood or inspiring.

No one can even get at what she’s doing, really. She’s flinty and strong, hard and soft, but can we really parse the craft of it? The mystery of the mechanics of Cher? Writers are trying to figure out what Cher means.

Recently a friend of mine found a local course on Cher from a catalog called Oasis.

OasisOasis offers programs for senior citizens. I’m was very bummed that I missed it, but the offering, you bet I am going to cajole one of my 55+ friends into sneaking me into it. This teacher runs courses on multiple acts including Neil Diamond, Harry Belafonte, Cole Porter, Dinah Washington, Oscar Levant, Carly Simon, Bobby Darin, Sting, Tina Turner, Hank Williams (called the Hillbilly Shakespeare), and on categories like showtunes, African American music history, music and the holocaust, among other interesting topics. In the class description, she calls Cher out as a super-diva activist and philanthropist who has sold over 110 million records and has had a #1 single in each decade.

The evolution of Cher” by Justin Elizabeth Sayre had great commentary around authenticity and bling.

“I’ve never disliked Cher or thought of her as anything other than a dynamic and talented performer. But I have long taken Cher for granted. I simply assumed that many artists have had multiple hits in multiple decades, won Oscars and Grammys and been cultural icons clad in Bob Mackie for over 40 years. Cher was just one person of note on a short but powerful list….But the truth is that there is no list. There is only Cher."

Things Sayre singled out for what makes Cher particularly authentic, her immediate sense of presence: 

"Even on film, this woman was the real thing, the genuine article, poised, gorgeous, talented, brilliant — all things that mean Cher."

This is an important point because Cher has always been accused of being a false front, a clothes hanger, a fake hippie, a false singer, a false folk act and that her bling has been used simply to hide the falseness.

Sayre claims it was Cher’s authenticity that actually saved scenes of the movie Burlesque for him:

“The scenes with Stanley Tucci, who plays just the sort of gay men I like, were all funny and touching. The relationship between two friends who are deeply committed to each other, slightly in love, trying to keep a part of the world for themselves, was so genuine that my friend choked up. For the rest of the movie, Cher became a life preserver. I relaxed when she was onscreen, knowing full well that I would no longer drown in a sea of the average. It wasn’t camp, but it was good. Camp needs more of a threat.  It’s always about the push and the pull; it has the frenetic energy of failure mixed with the knowing achievement of beautiful destruction. In a way, Cher can’t do camp. That may be a strange thing to say, seeing how much camp is inspired by her, but I think it’s true. There is such a sense of authority in her performing (she’s Cher, dammit!), but there is also her undeniable sense of truth. In Burlesque, the song may be outlandish, the setting bizarre, but she somehow comes off present and honest in the eye of this glittery storm...Things that would appear garish or over-the-top on a host of other divas seem absolutely appropriate on Cher, even demanded. Cher deserves lighting. And glitter. This is how her world should be. And there in that dream, Cher sits down and sings to you about the joys and sorrows of life that you both share. She’s just like you, even with all that surrounds her.  And you believe it, because Cher is something real.”

At first this is what I thought might the the problem with all Cher impersonations and (before I saw it) the Broadway show: glitter without Cher just doesn't fulfill the Cherness. Gitter doesn’t hold you up even if you’re adept at doing all the Cher ticks. Because the glitter is an add-on and not the architecture.

And for those who say authenticity is impossible to apply to a career involving auto-tune or plastic surgery, Sayre has a message for you too:

“Now, of course, there will be some who say that this is not an accurate assessment of Cher: How can you call someone “real” who has had that amount of plastic surgery, or used auto-tuning as she’s done? To that I would reply, “Who told you about those things? Cher did.” Cher has never denied having plastic surgery. She’s been upfront and honest about her “work.” She’s also been forthcoming about a desire to look good. And we love her for it, so why should we be upset when she does things to make herself look and feel great? As for the auto-tuning, she used it as an effect, not as a crutch. It was a sound, a look, almost, that turned “Believe” into a huge hit. The pipes are still there, trust.”

Anna Swanson did a movie survey with some great commentary, too.

“Cher’s work on the silver screen has reached across a wide variety of genres, from musicals and fantasy films to serious dramas. She’s worked with some of the most iconic directors in the industry, often portraying women who are difficult to pin down. Her roles frequently simultaneously play up her larger than life public persona and react against it, rendering it impossible to easily define her characters or to put them in a box.”

About Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean:

“The film, which also stars Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates, has been frequently praised for its feminist themes and for its empathetic depiction of the character Joanne (Karen Black), a trans woman….Not only is Cher’s performance integral to the film, she also received acclaim for it and was nominated for a Golden Globe ”

About Silkwood:

In Silkwood she is stripped down and her performance is grounded in realism. In playing a lesbian character, Cher’s portrayal of Dolly offers an incredibly humane and nuanced look at the experiences of a marginalized woman.”

About Mask:

“Though the film is at times a touch schmaltzy, Cher’s performance is once again grounded and nuanced.”

About Moonstruck:

"In addition to being a romantic masterpiece, director Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck is a vehicle for Cher’s best screen performance to date, and the one that won her an Oscar. ...Cher has heartfelt and witty material to work with and she knocks it out of the park….Moonstruck, though it has just the right amount of melodrama, is also honest and unpretentious, especially in scenes with Olympia Dukakis as Loretta’s mother. Between Jewison’s direction, Shanley’s script, and the performances, Moonstruck is pitch perfect. Simply put, they don’t make rom-coms like this anymore, and that is a goddamn shame.”

About Witches of Eastwick:

“What makes this film most memorable is the relationship between the three women. Just as Miller would famously go on to do with Mad Max: Fury Road, here he foregrounds these complex women and the strength of their bonds. The women have their struggles, but it’s never doubted that they are at their strongest and their best when they are committed to helping each other.”

Matthew Jacobs takes another tour through her movies...

“Of all the pop stars who have attempted to act, Cher’s track record is arguably the best…As her post-Sonny & Cher solo career waxed and waned in the ’80s and early ’90s, Cher’s movie career flourished ― a true achievement, given the ostentatious displays that had made her a walking glitter bomb since the mid-’60s.”

He breaks her acting career into eras, the beginning (1967-1985), the gold (1987), the wobble (1991-1999), the redemption (2000). 

About Chastity:

Chastity, released in June 1969, tried to be a gritty derivative of the French New Wave, packing big ideas ― Bono apparently said it was about society’s sudden “lack of manhood” and “the independence women have acquired but don’t necessarily want” ― into a whiplash-inducing downer involving a lesbian romance and childhood molestation...But bad movies can be testaments to good actors’ skills. Cher is at ease in front of the camera, never letting her fame announce itself before she opens her mouth. The same qualities accenting all her best film work — a scrappy confidence that reads as a proverbial middle finger to anyone who crosses her — become the highlight of “Chastity.””

About Mask:

Mask proved her acting was bankable…. The role earned her a third Golden Globe nomination and the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious best-actress prize, but she was snubbed by the Oscars...At the Academy Awards, she donned her infamous midriff-bearing Bob Mackie getup, complete with a cape and a spiky headdress. The look was more punk rock than Tinseltown elegance ― an oversized fuck-you to the fusty Academy and an ebullient reminder that she wouldn’t tidy up her image to appeal to Reagan-era conservatism.”

About Witches of Eastwick:

“In 1987, at the critical age of 41, Cher landed a troika of commercial hits in which she was the centerpiece, starting with the delicious lark The Witches of Eastwick,...she held her own against Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer and Jack Nicholson.”

He calls her Moonstruck performance “career-defining.”

Of the [Witches, Suspect, Moonstruck 1987] trifectata:

“In each, Cher captured a quotidian version of American life ― and what’s more transformative than Cher pretending to be quotidian?”

All the while, Jacobs reminds us, Cher was making pop-rock hits like “I Found Someone,” “We All Sleep Alone,” and “Turn Back Time,” hits that would “place her in the same league as Madonna, Paula Abdul and Whitney Houston.”

About post-Mermaids work:

“She was too decadent to disappear into the same down-home movie roles, and Hollywood no longer saw her as a profitable actress. Cher played along with the joke, though, portraying exaggerated versions of herself (see: The Player, Will & Grace, Stuck on You) even when she wasn’t actually playing herself (see: Burlesque).

The Redemption Jacobs considers as her appearance on Will and Grace:

“There’s no movie-star move more powerful than playing yourself with an ironic wink, and Will & Grace, like The Player before it, let Cher poke fun at herself in a refreshing way. She is treated as an empire, at once pointedly self-aware and deliciously aloof ― a perfect way to master her own narrative without being beholden to it.”

He concludes,

“If pop stars are meant to be mythological and actors are meant to be aspirational, Cher has mastered both domains. She did so by never shying away from how the world metabolized her iconography, and by forever laughing at the absurdity of fame.”

Abby Aguirre in Elle Magazine wrote a very good interview piece (actually a long one) with Cher in November and I thought this exchange was very indicative of Cher's attitude about achieving this level of notoriety after so many lean spells:

“Before I leave, I ask Cher why she thinks following fun and acting on instinct has, in her case, produced so many pivotal moments. “It doesn’t always,” she says. “Look, I’ve had huge failures in my life. Huge dips and ‘Oh, you’re over. You’re over.’ This one guy once said, ‘You’re over,’ every year for I don’t know how many years. And I just said to him, ‘You know what? I will be here when you’re not doing what you do anymore.’ I had no idea if I was right or wrong. I was just tired of hearing him say it.””

 


Mixed Bag of Honors and Accomplishments


Moony2First of all Cher's Believe album will be out on vinyl in December.  

In Music

A few weeks ago Cher's album Dancing Queen made its debut on the Billboard album chart at #3. This felt disappointing as Cher and the fans were aiming for #2. Although the album did hit #1 in the list for Top Album Sales. And the song "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" reached #5 on the Dance Club Play chart. And the Gimme remixes were recently released

So it felt a bit short at the time but my Billboard guru friend tells me I was off my meds to think this way: Sos

"For me, I am super impressed with her position on the chart. The year is three-quarters done, so for her to have the largest week of sales for an album in 2018 by a female pop artist is a major achievement.  It means she sold more albums in her debut week than 20-something Ariana Grande, who is the hottest female pop star in the U.S. currently, when she released Sweetener a few months ago. It means that the only female in any genre to post a larger one week tally this year is Cardi B. Were this released four years ago, before they started incorporating streaming into chart calculations, she would have debuted at #1 on the Top 200 chart, rather than #3 (and #1 on the sales chart).  The last female pop artist to exceed this level of sales in a single week was none other than 20-something Taylor Swift who remains the biggest U.S. female artist of the last ten years.  Not shabby company to keep. The fact that it is a sales sum that has only been surpassed by one other pop artist this year (Justin Timberlake) is truly remarkable. 

Mary, please think of it this way--over 50,000 albums across genres are released in the U.S. each year and our 72-year-old beloved can in 2018 sell more in a single week than literally any other pop artist on Earth except one, and more than any other female artist on Earth except one.  That is stupendous."

So that perspective was great. But then in week two the album feel from #3 to #43. 

In Movies

Anyway, there was another Billboard list that made me feel better again: Billboards list of 100 top musician performances in movies. Cher ranks #1. J. Lynch has this to say:

Cher’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1987 romcom Moonstruck remains the standard by which you mentally check all others. Cher brings that mixture of reluctance and romantic recklessness to the screen with a self-effacing realism and millisecond-sharp comedic timing. Few performances are this irresistible, hysterical and believably low-key -- and the fact that it came from one of the 20th century’s biggest pop stars leaves us unable to snap out of loving Cher in her deservedly Oscar-winning performance more than 30 years later."

The Kennedy Honor

And then there's the incredible Kennedy Honor. Maybe not in and of itself but for the fact that fans and Cher-watchers have been lobbying so long for Cher's simple induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To be beset with yet a larger honor was fully unexpected. And a bit disorienting quite frankly. But what a big deal. As my friend Christopher described it, “the government's highest form of recognition for artists...its official intention is to identify and honor artists for their lifetime contribution to the culture of the United States. That is no small potatoes.”

Especially since nobody's been noticing Cher's lifetime contribution to the culture of the United States. 

The awards will be televised on December 26 on CBS at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Some articles about the honor:

Here is the 2016 batch with some unsmiling Eagles (I take that back, 2/3 unsmiling Eagles), James Taylor, Martha Argerich, Mavis Staples, and the incomparable Al Pacino. 

Last-year


Cher Conquers Music Again

Cherlove_dancingqueen_002Before we get into the new album, it should be mentioned Cher’s placement on Billboards Top Female Artists of All Time list. 

My Billboard sensei, Christopher, sent me this explication of the list’s meaning:

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Hot 100, Billboard posted the list of the Top 60 Female Artists of all time on the Hot 100.  You will be glad to see Cher ensconced all the way up at #16, (and right beside P!nk, which I thought was a nice, appropriate coincidence). It's for real; no opinions factored in.  The ranking was calculated based on how many weeks each hit spent on the chart and at which positions.  It's a cumulative inverse point system. So, if you have a song at #23 on the chart, it is awarded 77 points for that week.  If the following week it climbs to #19, for that week it earns an additional 81 points, and so on and so on. This system thereby rewards both longevity and ascension.  It is the same system they use when determining the year-end charts.

The Dancing Queen Album

So this all happened really fast. Mid-year, we found out Cher was recording a new album of ABBA songs and by September, here it was. 

Full disclosure: everyone has their own ideas about music they like. Methods are either cold and mathematical (example above) or infinitely subjective. There seems to be no in between. Even Cher fans have different inclinations. My personal favorite albums are: With Love (1967), Backstage (1968), All I Ever Need is You (1971 and for highly sentimental reasons), Stars (1975), Take Me Home (1979), It’s a Man’s World (1996), Believe (1999) and Living Proof (2001). I could go into my predilections for melody or unity but blah-blah-blah, who cares.

Cher’s last album, Closer to the Truth, was good but not great. It charted high (on the backs of concert ticket sales) and a few songs played on adult contemporary radio ("I Hope You Find It") but there was not a breakout hit. I'm liking this album much better. But I'm finding it hard to say why. Could it be outside cultural influences are working on me, (although don't we all feel like we loved Stars in a vacuum?). For sure, the advanced interest in this album was very high. Even Billboard predicts another high-chart debut, again possibly on the backs of merch and concert tickets sales.

On the other hand, you can’t really miss recording these ABBA songs. Are some arrangements are more original than others? Sure. Are some critics going to accuse Cher of being an opportunist,? Yes. But it would seem hard to sing ABBA songs (as Cher herself has admitted), so here is where the effort sits in my mind: in the stretch to do it. Cher could have picked easier opportunism.

What’s interesting to me, reading all the reviews, is how trends are showing up around who likes which songs. Dance clubs are already springing to the beats of “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” other fans are gravitating to Cher's more original take on “Chiquitta. ” I also love the novelty of hearing Cher sing “The Winner Takes it All.” Not everybody does. Boys seem to like the “SOS” track. “One of Us” consistently stands out as a critical favorite. Trends like this show this album has gems on it. I don’t remember any similar consensus around “Closer to the Truth.”

And the critical reviews are mostly favorable, which is an odd thing to experience with a Cher album. I tend to want to deconstruct those things. Why is it happening? Is this really Cher’s best album of all time? You’d think so by the reviews. I break it down to three aspects of the current Cher phenomenon: (1) old white reviewers are all retired or dead and women and gay men are in positions of reviewing albums, (2) Cher has been canonized lately (a sub-phenomenon we can't get into right now), (3) the concept of this album is so juicy, it’s immediately lovable, (4) the album has one producer for the most part and feels very unified, and (5) during these political times, we crave "the happy, happy."

But what do I know? I do know this: Believe was a very good album with a magical-single attached to it and Entertainment Weekly still dissed it. Music critics were not inclined to like Cher circa 1999. And that means everything because reviews are perceptions always based on the trends of a larger culture or sub-culture (which makes decoding "good" all but impossible). Culture is arbitrary, capriciously suggestible and apropos of nothing true. I can both hide behind that convenient fact, as a much maligned Cher fan, but it also makes my many rationalizations about it meaningless. Ah, what fun.

So the good reviews feel amazing, no doubt. But they’re so packed with so much unrelated, Cher love going on right now, it’s hard to know how good the new album really is. Do I overthink it? Yes, but that’s what cultural study is. You can make the claim that these songs are just cotton candy to give us a respite of happiness, (a point made in many Mama Mia 2 reviews)but I hate to think that way. It short-shrifts the album and our human capacity to deal with bad political times. 

I love that Cher dedicated the album to her mom. I love that she thanked her bffs and her long-time assistant. And I dearly love “Chiquita.”

I have three ABBA greatest hits collections: one double LP, one cassette tape, one compact disc) and I still missed all the visual ABBA references in the “SOS” video and on the album cover. I had to read about video references in articles about the video and Mr. Cher Scholar pointed out the album cover similarity as we looked at a CD prominently displayed at Target last week.  

The album is predicted to debut at #2 on Billboard's album chart. “Gimme Gimme Gimme” is now at #8 on the dance chart. “Fernando” (the Mama Mia 2 version with Andy Garcia) made it to #22 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

More Chart News:

As I said, the announcement of this album was big news, the track listing was big news, the single releases were news:

Cher-cover-dqMore on this later, but Cher has also done general interviews for The Today Show, The New York Times and the L.A. TimesAll the songs have attracted a bee swarm of re-mixes. Search album song titles on YouTube and you'll find some, including a fabulous Madonna mashup with "Gimme Gimme Gimmie."

Gimmie News:

The mashup guy even got his own interview. One funny quote about the mashup from a fan, “This mashup has cured my diseases, watered my crop and saved my soul. This mashup has turned me 200% gay.”

And then the “SOS” video made news:

Here's the original ABBA video to compare to the Cher version. A good scholarship project would be to do screen-capture comparisons. No time for that right now but someday. Cher also performed the song on Ellen. And Cher is performing "Waterloo," "SOS" and "Fernando" in her latest New Zealand and Australia shows.

The following are excerpts from the reviews so far.

Continue reading "Cher Conquers Music Again" »


What Now My Love

WhatnowThis is my go-to Cher song when I’m feeling sadsack. I was supremely bored by the song when I was a kid, but experience has given me sympathy for this dirge to dependency.

While I was researching this diatribe on Cher's "Carousel Man," I came across the original French version of the song “What Now My Love,” which was recorded as “Et Maintenant” by Gilbert Bécaud in 1961. I really like that version. Maybe better. 

Here are the French lyrics, followed by the more literal English translation.

 

Et Maintenant

Et maintenant que vais-je faire
e tout ce temps que sera ma vie
De tous ces gens qui m'indiffèrent
Maintenant que tu es partie
Toutes ces nuits, pourquoi pour qui
Et ce matin qui revient pour rien
Ce c oeur qui bat, pour qui, pourquoi
Qui bat trop fort, trop fort

Et maintenant que vais-je faire
Vers quel néant glissera ma vie
Tu m'as laissé la terre entière
Mais la terre sans toi c'est petit
Vous, mes amis, soyez gentils
Vous savez bien que l'on n'y peut rien
Même Paris crève d'ennui
Toutes ses rues me tuent

Gilbert-becaud-et-maintenantEt maintenant que vais-je faire
Je vais en rire pour ne plus pleurer
Je vais brûler des nuits entières
Au matin je te haïrai
Et puis un soir dans mon miroir
Je verrai bien la fin du chemin
Pas une fleur et pas de pleurs
Au moment de l'adieu
Je n'ai vraiment plus rien à faire
Je n'ai vraiment plus rien

What Now My Love

And now what am I going to do
All this time that will be my life
Of all those people who cared about me
Now that you're gone
All these nights, why for who
And this morning that comes back for nothing
This heart beats, for whom, why
Who beats too loud, too loud
And now what am I going to do
Toward which nil will slip my life
You left me the whole world
But the land without you is small
You, my friends, be kind
You know that nothing can be done
Even Paris is dying of boredom
All its streets kill me
And now what am I going to do
I'm going to laugh at not crying anymore
I will burn whole nights
In the morning I will hate you
And then one evening in my mirror
I'll see the end of the road
Not a flower and no crying
At the time of farewell
I really do not have anything to do
I really do not have anything

Songwriters: Gilbert Francois Leopold Becaud / Pierre Delanoe

The lyrics and title in the official English version were written by Carl Sigman. The recurring musical motif in the background is Ravel's "Bolero."

You can see this is a very different song in French and English. The English is more sad and depressed. The French more angry, almost vicious.

Sonny-and-cher-what-now-my-love-et-maintenant-atcoThe French version was a number one hit in 1961. Bécaud recorded the “What Now My Love” translation in 1962 but it was Shirley Bassey’s version that became a #5 hit in the U.K. It’s considered one of Sonny & Cher’s greatest hits, although they only reached #14 with in in the U.S. It’s been covered a lot more than I had previously assumed: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Et_maintenant

And currently the song is still popular on the French singing competition shows, the most arresting being this version by Dominique Magloire: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UoDl1duwUOE

And I also found this: Becaud singing the English with Nina Simone. Wait for it. Becaud he does the French first: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkKQb6izVGQ

As I'm looking for these, I'm getting YouTube ads for Mama Mia 2 and it's confusing me. What was I searching for again? Cher on YouTube: c'est un trou de lapin!

Sonny & Cher live performances of "What Now My Love"


Cher Summer 2018

JcMama Mia 2

The new release date I’m seeing for Mama Mia 2 is July 20 here in the U.S. I'm afraid I’m going to have to wing it because I doubt I’ll find time to watch Mama Mia, the first. She's started to promote the movie.

Entertainment Tongiht: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3RSiR6Enovk

James Corden: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z1I8IJ4PLlI - What charmers they are; this show caused a slew of media stories about Cher eating cow's tongue instead of saying something nice about Donald Trump. Note: Cher swallows. James doesn't.

Cher was also on Graham Norton. Here are some clips:

- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABG5GOoU_lQ

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gR9hI0lbWU 

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x6mjfge (full show, but backwards)

Mama Mia 2 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MammaMiaMovie/

Cher’s version of Fernado was released and she sang the song live at Cinemacon. Article about it: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/cher-performs-mamma-mia-here-we-go-again-song-at-cinemacon-1105788

Cher Singing Fernando

Cher talks to Entertainment Tonight about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AK5QX2am-M

People Magazine: http://people.com/movies/new-mamma-mia-2-new-trailer-cher/

GnOn Graham Norton, Cher has confirmed she's working on a new album for the Australian tour. Rumors are it might be a full ABBA album.

Interviews from Australia

The Andrew Denton Australian interview was particularly good but it's hard to find online. How old fashioned of them. Good way to keep people from watching your good interviewing. See the trailer in any case: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=StiKQPwTymY 

Another Australian piece: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-5720905/Cher-71-speaks-candidly-getting-older.html 

Cher Concerts:

Cher’s Vegas show continued to see news this spring and she scheduled dates for an Australian tour:

  1. Keyboardist D. Laurent Smith (Broadway World)
  2. Perth Show news
  3. Cher on iTunes Chart
  4. Tour Announcement

Cher in People Magazine

My friend Christopher sent me this happy Cher news. In his own words:

Mary--

You will be thrilled to know that in People's new "100 Reasons to Love America" issue, timed in celebration with the 4th of July, Cher finds herself ensconced on the list at #57 [reason:  "A living legend"]. It's worth pointing out that Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Madonna and Aretha Franklin did not make the cut; nor even Dolly Parton and Betty White (glaring omissions both)!  Then again, to keep things in perspective, #58 is "Lawn Flamingos" and other entries include "As Seen on TV Gadgets" [#31], Target's Opalhouse home decor line [#39] and Cardi B's catchphrase "Okuurt" ("'Okay' when spoken like a cold pigeon"--whatever the hell that means) [#88].  I, however, will choose to associate Cher's inclusion with the more luminous choices, such as 60 Minutes [#17], the National Spelling Bee [#41], the Liberty Bell [#43], the Rescue Dog movement [#71], Crayola Crayons [#79], the Parkland High School student activists [#82], and the best ice cream in the world [#100].   

Congratulations, Cher!!!

Christopher


Cher Sings Fernando (and Carousel Man)

Fern

So we found out Cher’s featured number in Mama Mia 2 is the ABBA song “Fernando.” You can buy it on Amazon. Go do that.

I’ve always loved ABBA. I may be one of the few people on the planet who doesn’t think “Dancing Queen” is overplayed. I actually found the song hard-to-come by on 80s radio. It was one of those songs I sang for years without having my own copy. My favorite songs change over the decades, but "Fernando" was definitely a childhood favorite so it’s a treat to hear Cher’s version.

It’s also always a thrill to hear Cher sing the place names of my home state. This probably suggests something disturbing about the degree of my celebrity obsession (that it can arise from the singing of a place name) but what can I say?

For those who don’t yet know, (you’d be surprised), New Mexico is a U.S. state and has been once since 1912. I was once getting electrolysis on my bikini area when I lived in Pennsylvania and the technician there, (who was in her 40s), asked me about my vacation and I said I was traveling to New Mexico. She exclaimed, "Oh, you’ll be by the beach!" I said, "Oh no, you’re thinking of the country Mexico" like maybe I hadn't enunciated properly. "I’m talking about the state between Arizona and Texas." She looked at me confused and asked, “Is there an Old Mexico?”

When I left LA, I tried to keep my bank in Los Angeles and I called them to see if they had any partnerships with a local New Mexico bank. They transferred me to International Accounts. Talk to New Mexicans and they all have stories like this.

In fact, when the Kardashians visited Santa Fe, the media were making fun over their lack of knowledge about U.S. states and where New Mexico was, my co-worker commented hilariously,  “get those bitches out of my country.”

Anyway, when Cher sings, “the frightful night we crossed the Rio Grande,” it’s lovely. LOVELY!

I was just as thrilled when Cher sang “one night in Santa Fe” in the middle of the song “Carousel Man.” CmI first learned that song when I was six or seven and like all of Cher's story songs, I loved it. I eventually grew up and started to worry that the song’s writer, John Durrill, himself didn’t know the difference between Mexico and New Mexico. I tried to rationalize that maybe the story in the song occurred before the state was ceded from Mexico in 1848 but that was ridiculous because our leading lady in the song wears blue jeans and the traveling show follow "county lines," which sort of indicates a rural U.S. environment. Here are the lyrics as Cher sings them (listen along):

I had a taste of bitter life
at sweet sixteen.
I was growing up too fast
if you know what I mean.
Met an older man
who taught me his own way to live.
And all I had to do to keep him
was to give and give

[Chorus] The carousel man
kept me going around and round.
The carousel man always knowing
I'd stay around.
The carousel man
wouldn't let me off his merry-go-round.

I followed him around in traveling shows
along the main county lines.
Watched him drinking his mind away,
not ever knowing my name at times.
Each night when the show closed down
he used to tell me of his dreams.
He was wearing new French suits
while I mended my torn work jeans.

[Chorus]

Then one night in Santa Fe,
the horses stopped going around.
There he was my poor rich man
lying on the Mexico ground.
All the sad music of his life
is still spinning in my mind.
The carousel starts up again
and I found my place in line.

[Chorus]

The lyrics online clearly say Mexico [forget the grammatical issue of Mexico vs. Mexican]. And why her producer Snuff Garrett, (from Texas no less; he was even a DJ in nearby Lubbock!) didn’t catch this is beyond me. You can kind of convince yourself that Cher is singing “New Mexico ground” instead of “the Mexico” ground. But I know. She isn’t. It’s a mistake.

Sante Fe hasn’t been part of Mexico since 1848. And back then there were no torn jeans or carousels visiting Santa Fe along county lines. It’s hard to look around that. I mean, obviously, most people can.  

But the pleasure of hearing Cher sing “one night Santa Fe” is now is compromised by the fact that this historic town is considered part of Mexico in all the minds of everyone writing, producing and singing the song and that makes me sad a little bit every time. A little thrilled and then a little sad. Every time.


The Cher Show Hits Chicago

Robbie-chicago-showThe prospect of a Cher Broadway show has never much filled my heart with glee. I think this is because Cher's not in it, which always takes the rest of pop culture in the universe down a notch for me. So talking about it last year felt kind of obligatory. But now that I've read about the actual details of the show, I feel a sense of new excitement about it. Because this is scholarship in action. This show is trying to make meaning of her life story. This isn't The Beat Goes On movie, part deux. Broadway artists are working on strategies to try to conceptualize Cher, structurally in a story and aesthetically with visuals and sounds. It's a cool thing for a Cher nerd after all.

The show opened a few weeks ago and there haven't been many reviews, mostly because this is a soft opening to a work in progress. A try out. Some Chicago papers have been doing feature stories on the show, like the Chicago Sun Times. Some interesting excerpts:

"...producer Jeffrey Seller, who is also the producer of “Hamilton” (playing a few blocks away at the CIBC Theatre), which tells the tale of, well, another iconic American. 'Who ever thought you could put Hamilton and Cher in the same sentence,' Seller said amid hearty laughter. 'America would not be the same were it not for Alexander Hamilton and Cher. And that is inarguably true. … People who are tenacious often are people who change the world. Alexander Hamilton unquestionably changed the world, and I think Cher, over the past 50-plus years, has absolutely changed the world"

Cast"'The idea of presenting Cher as a girl group was fascinating to me as a writer,' Elice said. 'You could have one of them argue with the other two, take sides against someone else, show how the three of them could support each other and evolve together over the course of the show. So, it’s not the cinema’s solution of here’s the young one, here’s the middle one, here’s the old one. They’re on all the time together so that we see sort of a refracted image of a personality onstage, which struck me as being a great way into a life that is so varied.'”

“'[The young ‘Babe’ Cher] is fearless but yet vulnerable and optimistic,' Block said of Elice’s unique character concept. '[Midlife ‘Star’ Cher] is confidence and poise. And I’m [as Lady] the wisdom of it all. I think the audience will really be taken aback that it’s not the young one who passes the torch to Lady who passes the torch to Star. We kind of liken it to a Russian nesting doll: There is the one doll, and then you open up and there’s the second and then the third. But yet when you put them all together it makes a complete Cher. And we’re hoping the audience really grasps and takes a hold of that because it’s not only theatrical but it’s very special and moving. … It’s this gorgeous, theatrical Cher therapy session.'”

There have also been interesting articles about the cast (ew.com and Playbill and CBS Local), the promo, Ru Paul's Drag Race put on an unauthorized Cher Rusical that was very smart and politically aware. Carol Burnett attended the opening show to support Bob Mackie.  We saw behind the scenes photos. 

I haven’t seen many official reviews yet (see one at the end of this article) but both Cher fans and theater fans have written some very good commentary on the show’s highlights and drawbacks.

Because these is long, I'm creating a post break for you.

Continue reading "The Cher Show Hits Chicago" »