Once upon a time in the golden period of films known as the 1970s, Mel Brooks was, along with Woody Allen, the biggest directing name in comedy. Both had been on the legendary writing staff of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the '50s (along with Neil Simon and Carl Reiner) and both brought a distinctly Jewish tone to their slapstick. While Allen represented the Manhattan highbrow, Brooks’s style lurked more in the offensively low end Borscht Belt style. By the '80s, when Allen's status raised to the level of genius, Brooks’s comedy had already become passe and completely juvenile, working in the obvious (Spaceballs, Dracula: Dead and Loving It, etc.). But his early string of comedies, from The Producers through High Anxiety, created a lot of laughs, peaking in 1974 with two comic masterpieces: Young Frankenstein and, maybe even better, the bawdy western spoof Blazing Saddles.
The western spoof is almost as old as the western itself—you had Laurel & Hardy in Way Out West, The Marx Brothers in Go West, Mae West and W.C. Fields did My Little Chickadee, and Bob Hope had The Paleface and then Son of Paleface, not to mention Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich (which Blazing Saddles actually directly spoofs). The '60s saw an examining of the western most directly through the Italian spaghetti westerns and American western comedies such as Cat Ballou and Support Your Local Sheriff! In the '70s, the reexamining went to the extreme as the western was turned in on itself and poked at by post-modernists with films as broad as Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Altman&rs...
Lady Sings the Blues
The most celebrated singer-turned-actor performance ever might be Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity. It revived his career and was a turning point in his legacy as he moved from a teenybopper idol to the more mature crooner he is best remembered for today (and he followed it shortly with another important performance in The Man with The Golden Arm). But Sinatra had been acting in musical films for years (On The Town). In terms of degree of difficulty, for a first major role Bjork’s performance in the torture-fest sorta-musical Dancer in the Dark is certainly impressive and many singers have gone on to have their film careers eclipse their singing success (Cher, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, and to some extent Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand). But the most audacious acting debut from a mega-star singer has to be Diana Ross taking on the role of troubled iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. Directed by journeyman director Sidney J. Furie (The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C) and based on Holiday’s own (said to be mostly fictional) autobiography, Ross throws herself into the role with aplomb, having to go to emotional depths that would challenge even the most veteran thespian. The film also made a kinda-star of her leading man, Billy Dee Williams, and helped establish a movie career for stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. Executive produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr, it was the first flick made under the Motown banner and it would also prove to be the apex of the the historic record company’s forays into filmmaking.
Lady Sings the Blues is a mostly typical music bio in that it's one of those classic “rags-to-riches-to-total self destruction” stories. No matter how many times I’ve seen this kind of tale, if the lead performance is dynamite, I’ll buy in. I don’t know how much of it is actually true but it’s still a doozy of a rollercoaster ride. After being raped as a girl, Billie took the only jobs that seemed to be available for a young black woman during The Depression: a cleaning woman and a prostitute. She eventually talked her way into singing in a little smokey nightclub where she meets her dream man, Louis (Williams), and catches the attention of a couple of white musicians who take her on the road to build up her name and also turn her on to drugs. The film seems to be more fascinated with Billie’s messy and ugly personal life than her voice, which most experts rate as one of the most seminal and important of the twentieth century. As Billie climbs the stardom ladder she is met with racism and humiliation, with her devoted but frustrated husband Louis lending support. (Though he comes off as Mr Wonderful here, it’s been reported that in real life Billie’s husband was just as much of a creep as the other men who exploited her. Ironically he was a technical advisor for the film, which may explain the whitewash.) Billie continues to sing her way to the top, but she falls deeper and deeper into heroine addiction. Her only friend appears to be her piano player (real life junkie Pryor, excellent here in a supporting role). Of course Pryor would reveal his own special kind of genius later with his two landmark concert films, Richard Pryor Live in Concert and Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip. Hospital stays, arrests and even true love aren’t enough to end the torture for Billie. Though she does have a triumphant Carnagie Hall comeback show, it’s still a story of another legend dying young.Continue Reading
Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip
It’s a given that Richard Pryor is one of the most influential stand-up comedians ever (along with Lenny Bruce or George Carlin or Mort Sahl or whoever you want to put on a short list). His feature length performance film, Richard Pryor Live On The Sunset Strip, along with Richard Pryor Live in Concert a few years earlier, are still the benchmarks for stand-up comedy films. Sunset Strip may be slightly stronger because of the incredible autobiographical detail and honesty. He might have been a train wreck in real life, but on stage he was completely self-assured - without being cocky - and utterly honest about his own shortcomings, not to mention his takes on sex and race. Besides being hilarious, this film stand as a documentary about the mind of Richard Pryor and the unique way he interprets the world.
Like Bruce and Carlin, Pryor started off a TV-friendly, joke man who evolved when he found himself, got dangerous, got dirty, and embraced the counterculture. On The Sunset Strip is almost like an autobiographical one-man show; he talks about growing up in a brothel, how going to Africa changes him, working for the mob, but, most revealing, his cocaine abuse. In an almost too honest moment he discusses his famous "blowing himself up" incident. At the same time he still hits some great standards like the differences between men and women and black and white people. He also does his down & out character of Mudbone, for what he claims, thankfully, is the last time.Continue Reading
The train movie has always been a favorite genre of mine (Horror Express, Runaway Train, Narrow Margin, Emperor of the North Pole, etc). Going back to the silents (The Great Train Robbery) the train trip has been used famously as a murder mystery setting (Murder on the Orient Express, The Lady Vanishes), a place for romance (North by Northwest), action (The Cassandra Crossing, Breakheart Pass), comedy (The General), and horror (Terror Train). In 1976 director Arthur Hiller wasn’t exactly sure what genre he wanted - romance, action, comedy. Though sometimes messy, his Silver Streak did mange to breathe some life into the train picture and it ended up being a perfect piece of genre-bending entertainment.
With a screenplay by Colin Higgins, who had written the cult flick Harold and Maude and would go on to write and direct another solid romantic-action-comedy, Foul Play with Chevy Chase, Silver Streak stars Gene Wilder. As one of the era’s most unique comic talents, the role feels very un-Wilder-like. Mater of fact it could have been Chase, Elliott Gould, George Segal, Burt Reynolds or any leading man of the mid '70s. It’s not until just over the half way mark when Richard Pryor enters and infuses the film with a fresh energy, bringing out the more manic Wilder that audiences had grown to love. After getting a co-screenwriting credit on the Wilder flick Blazing Saddles, but nixed as an actor, Silver Streak would mark Pryor and Wilder’s first onscreen comedy together. They would follow it with the sometimes hilarious Stir Crazy and then the mostly terrible Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But Silver Streak is the film that really best showcases the yin and yang of their different comic styles.Continue Reading