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Who’s Got Talent? Michael Grimm, Fighting Gravity, Jackie Evancho and Prince Poppycock!

September 10, 2010

Rick: Had to weigh in on this one while it’s still timely. Next week sees the final two nights of this year’s America’s Got Talent competition on NBC, and after this week’s narrowing down from the ten semi-finalists to the final four, I’m pleased to say that at this point it’s exactly where I predicted it would be weeks ago. While a small number of other acts would fit right in during a Vegas variety show, only these four have been virtually flawless in every one of their performances, and exude the star quality you would want in a million dollar winner. Here are some thoughts on each of the four, along with a bit of retrospection on some other acts that came and went.

MICHAEL GRIMM

Watching his audition at the beginning of June, my jaw dropped right along with those of judges Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne and Howie Mandel within moments after this 30-year-old Mississippi native began to sing. Michael Grimm’s rendition of “You Don’t Know Me” conjured up memories of another Michael (Bolton), with a hint of Joe Cocker (whose “You Can Leave Your Hat On” was appropriately chosen for his third performance in the competition). With an ability to take even a weak song like “Let’s Stay Together” and make it compelling, his singing is authentically soulful without the all-over-the-scale caterwauling that’s become typical of that genre. The bluesy songs he’s chosen have worked well with his personality-filled voice, and although I’d be curious to hear him do one of the songs that he himself has written, he’s wise to keep his repertoire familiar for now, if only to show that he has a strong enough presence to make anyone else’s song his own.

So will Michael Grimm win America’s Got Talent? During his audition I thought, They might as well end this competition right now; here’s your winner. But three others have also also come along who would make worthy headliners, and they round out the top four:

FIGHTING GRAVITY

Maybe it stems from my own childhood penchant for black lights and Glo-Juice (a brand of luminous paint, not a strange form of Kool-Aid).  Fighting Gravity has been a top contender in my book from their first appearance. These thirteen Virginia Tech students who postponed their education to give it their all have become the frontrunners in a new brand of performance art, combining illusion, dance and mime with a twist of sci-fi. Even when you kind of know how they do it, it’s still pretty doggone dazzling, and they get more creative each time you see them. Their slick sense of showmanship and surprise is Las Vegas-style entertainment all the way, possibly moreso than any of the others in the top four. You could watch these guys for a full-length show and not start to look at your watch. (Well, it would be too dark, for one thing.)

JACKIE EVANCHO

She’s ten years old, has the polish and poise of a soprano three times her age and is booked at Carnegie Hall this December.   Her 2009 CD Prelude to a Dream debuted at #2 on Billboard’s Classical Albums chart.  In addition to singing Italian opera, she also plays piano and violin.  Talk about a child prodigy; there is no doubt that Jackie Evancho is destined to be a superstar. I do have to wonder if she would be getting so much attention if she was thirty years old instead of ten. For that reason she could almost be considered a novelty act. While she’s absolutely deserving of top honors on America’s Got Talent, I will be surprised if she wins for two reasons: 1) Her material is pure opera, which isn’t typically what Vegas showgoers are looking for (not that she should change gears and perform Mariah Carey). 2) If she did win America’s Got Talent, it would be a bit awkward for the producers to know just what to do with a 10-year-old headliner. Unbelievable talent or not, it would set an awkward precedent for future seasons of AGT. Her career’s already fully in motion; she’ll do great no matter what.

PRINCE POPPYCOCK

You either love him or you hate him. Although there’s a third option, that of being rendered numb and speechless. Ironically, like Jackie Evancho, he introduced himself to us via opera numbers from the likes of The Barber of Seville, adorned in colorful costumes and geisha makeup. After the initial shock, something registered with the masses and the oddest formerly known as John Quayle became an instant hit. In each successive appearance Prince Poppycock has ‘stepped it up’ (as Howie likes to say) and become even more outrageous, raising the bar with outlandish sets and an over-the-top persona that also gets bigger each time he performs. One brilliant move was tackling the music of Queen, perfect for his image and which he commanded with ease. Not since Liberace in the 50s or Elton John in the 70s has someone projected so much, um, rainbowness on stage.  He has taken flamboyance to a colorful new level.

That said, his pseudo-bravado voice lends itself perfectly to operatic pieces, and he would be wise to stick to that specialty rather than venture too far into other areas like his patriotic medley this week. It worked for sure, but there is an increasing element in his overall demeanor, an I’m-so-cute affectation that makes it all one big parody of a parody, which of course is the plan.  If he’s not careful though, he will come off as too full of himself and half his fans will get over him quickly. I can only say that if he puts on hot pants and sings Judy Garland next week, I’m outta here.

But as far as America’s Got Talent goes, I do think it’s between him and Fighting Gravity. Michael G is awesome and so is Jackie E. But there is nothing like Poppycock or FG to be found anywhere else on TV, and it’s new and exciting for everyone whose living room votes now hold the key.

I’ll share some tidbits about other contestants a bit later, but for now you tell me: Who is your favorite?  And who do you think will win?

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Singers with Raspy Voices

August 23, 2010

Not everybody can croon a silky-smooth ballad like Frank Sinatra or Diana Krall.  Truth is, some of pop music’s biggest hits belong to singers with voices full of gravel.  In  their case, what might be considered a vocal liability didn’t affect their ability to top the charts.  The uniqueness of their sound only contributed to their appeal.  While some were one hit wonders, others are still performing, decades down the road.

Not surprisingly, most of the singers in our video tribute below were heavy  smokers (Louis Armstong was a spokesperson for Camel cigarettes) and at least one, Bonnie Tyler, got her sound from talking too soon after throat surgery.  At the very least, years of performing in smoke-filled night clubs can’t be good for your vocal cords.

By the same token,  many other vocalists who smoke don’t get husky voices.  We know singers who took up smoking in hopes of acquiring that edgy sound, but merely wound up with a wheeze when they laugh.

Regardless of how they developed their distinctive delivery, here ‘s Rick & Ron’s video tribute to raspy-voiced singers.  Anyone care for a cough drop?

Did we include your favorite raspy singer?  Who did we forget?

Tales of Hoffman (Dustin, that is)

August 15, 2010

Starting his acting career on TV episodes of Naked City and The Defenders in the early 60s,  Dustin Hoffman would soon rise to stardom on the silver screen thanks to his portrayal of college-graduate-at-the-crossroads Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. From there, his brilliant takes on street rat Ratso Rizzo (Midnight Cowboy) and a century-old survivor of Custer’s Last Stand (Little Big Man) left no doubt that Hoffman’s career would become a long and versatile one.  Today his contribution to film alone spans 53 years.

In January Hoffman will co-star with Paul Giamatti in Barney’s Version (you may remember a previous pairing of the two in 2003’s Confidence).   There is also talk that although December’s Meet the Fockers sequel has completed filming without Hoffman, they may reshoot to include him after all.  And next year Hoffman teams up with Anthony Hopkins for The Song of Names.

In this video retrospective, Rick & Ron pay tribute to the many faces of Dustin Hoffman.

Happy Birthday Steve Martin!

August 14, 2010

A remarkably funny comedian and actor, Steve Martin is also a deep and thoughtful screenwriter and author. You would think the man has two brains. It’s complicated.  Happy 65th, you wild and crazy guy.

Coming up this weekend: a video tribute to Dustin Hoffman, who turned 73 last week and will soon co-star in a drama with Anthony Hopkins. Who would you guess is older?  Hoffman or Hopkins?  You may be surprised.

The Secret of Movie Popcorn

August 3, 2010

Rick: Everyone who’s ever seen a movie with me knows what a popcorn fiend I am. Even if we’ve just had dinner, the buttery aroma of theatre popcorn is just too good to resist. Sometimes I’ve gone into the cinema just to get a bucket to take home instead of KFC.

Microwave popcorn has its place, especially the “Movie Theatre Butter” flavor offered by some brands. But it always seems to have an aftertaste that is uniquely ‘microwave’. So after years of research and experimentation, I’m eager to share with you the secret of making popcorn at home, the results of which are so comparable to the real thing that I actually find myself able to skip it on occasion, since I enjoy it at home on a very regular basis.

Start with the best popping corn you can find. Orville Redenbacher and Pop Secret are good choices. Store brands will do the trick but with name brands you’ll end up with fewer ‘old maids’, or unpopped kernels. That said, I should mention that Kroger does manage to make a very decent popping corn  (I’m impressed with most Kroger products, for that matter).

The first real secret to making good movie popcorn at home is the oil you pop it in. You will get excellent, authentic results with coconut oil. It’s thick and orange and very bad for you. For that reason, I typically do a mixture of coconut oil and a healthier choice, such as olive oil. (BTW you’ll find coconut oil in the specialty cooking oil section of your grocery store, not by the popcorn.)  A  number of popcorn connoisseurs insist on peanut oil, but just be certain that none of your partakers are allergic to peanuts.

At this point, I must recommend a wonderful invention, the Whirley-Pop. This brilliant device does an amazing job, is fun to use and also makes a great gift for the popcorn lovers in your life (I know this because mine was a gift, and I love it). Alternately, you can use a regular pot with a lid but the Whirley-Pop allows you to keep the kernels in motion, which discourages any scorching.

To begin, turn your stove burner somewhere between medium and high (depending on the efficiency of your burner) and put three or four tablespoons of oil in the Whirley-Pop, along with several kernels of corn.  Close the lid and in a few minutes you’ll hear the kernels pop.

Now you’re ready for the secret weapon: Flavacol. Flavacol is the magic ingredient that transforms home-popped blandness into the realm of true movie-goer’s paradise. You’re not likely to find Flavacol at your neighborhood store, but you can order it online in quantity here. (You’ll go through a lot of it, and you’ll be sharing it with your friends too.)

Open the lid, add a tablespoon of this specially formulated powder, pour in 1/3 to 1/2 a cup of popcorn kernels and close the lid. You can start turning the handle of your Whirley-Pop at this point, combining all of the ingredients.

When things get hot enough again, you’ll hear kernels start to pop. Keep turning; slowly is fine, or if you get excited by the sound of popping corn like I do, you may find yourself speeding up. When the popping becomes constant, reduce the heat to half and keep turning. Within a couple of minutes the popping will slow to about every second or two. Turn off your burner and pour the contents of your Whirley-Pop into a big bowl. You’ll be impressed by how this fluffy yellow food of the gods looks and smells as good as the $5 bucket from your local cineplex.

As a finishing touch you might add Orville Redenbacher’s Buttery Topping, melted butter and/or popcorn salt, or other specialty popcorn powders if desired. Personally, I find Flavacol popcorn to be quite flavorful just like it is.

You can of course do variations of this with other equipment, including the fancier popping machines used in some home theatres. But these are the ingredients you want to go with. Experiment with different quantities to suit your taste; it’s your popcorn. You can make it exactly the way you want it, and now you can have it at home anytime you like. Enjoy!

The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner

July 31, 2010

The award-winning team of Alan Jay Lerner and his composing partner Frederick Loewe gave us some of Broadway and film’s most beloved musicals (the most successful are represented in our video).  Along with crafting memorable lyrics, Lerner also wrote some of the shows as well.

In later years, after Loewe’s retirement from the theatre, Lerner collaborated with other composers including Burton Lane, with whom he created On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.   Shortly before his death, Lerner had begun to write lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s production of Phantom of the Opera, but had to bow out after managing one piece called Masquerade.

Lerner shares his colorful story of life on the stage in the fascinating autobiography, On the Street Where I Live.

Siskel & Ebert & The Long Legacy of Movie Review Shows

July 25, 2010

Chicago was the birthplace of what we now know as movie review shows, when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, two columnists writing for competing newspapers, began hosting a weekly show on local public television in the mid-seventies.  Originally called Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You (later Sneak Previews), the program was eventually picked up nationally for syndication and retitled Siskel & Ebert & The Movies, capitalizing on the hosts’ popularity and name recognition.  Their ‘thumbs-up, thumbs-down’ reviews led to  the phrase “Two Thumbs Up”, for which they themselves acquired the trademark.

Because of their frequent and passionate disagreements over the films they reviewed, Siskel & Ebert were generally perceived as disliking one another, but their on-camera camaraderie which began as mutual respect eventually did develop into a close friendship.

Following Siskel’s death to cancer in 1999,
a series of guest hosts joined Ebert until fellow Chicago columnist Richard Roeper became permanent co-host, an alliance that lasted until 2008.

When Ebert’s own health issues with cancer surfaced, both he and Roeper left the show, which soon evolved into At the Movies, hosted by Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz.  The familiar ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ judgments were replaced by ‘see it/skip it/rent it’.  Ironically, the show found itself  in direct competition with Reel Talk, a syndicated TV show hosted by Ben Lyons’ own dad, film critic Jeffrey Lyons.

In August of 2009 A.O. Scott of the New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune took the helm in a format that revived certain elements of the show’s earlier heritage and achieved an effective chemistry between its hosts.  Additionally, a new segment called “Over/Under” spotlighted films that Scott and Phillips considered overrated or underrated.

Sadly, this 35-year tradition comes to an end on August 14th when ReelzChannel airs the final episode of At the Movies.  For those of us who enjoy seeing movies, hearing about movies and talking about movies, this creates a genuine void in the entertainment landscape.  As Rick & Ron attempt to do our part to contribute lively and friendly discussion about films as well as other aspects of pop culture, we can only tip our hats to the masters who started it all.

Thanks, Gene.  Thanks Roger.  And everyone else who invited us to join them At the Movies.