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On the Death and Rebirth of Punk Legends

John Lydon's resurrected Public Image Ltd. performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live recently. The former Johnny Rotten, Lydon has The Late Malcom McLaren in his Sex Pistoling Heydaywithstood a lot of criticism for daring to christen this current ensemble PiL given the pointed absence of original members Keith Levene and Jah Wobble, but as the vocalist himself pointed out to Jimmy Kimmel, there have been 39 members in the band over the years.

Regardless, even with the inclusion of former Damned/Shriekback guitarist Lu Edmonds (who played with PiL circa the Bill Laswell-produced Album album and tour), it's hard to get excited about a PiL "reunion" featuring a rhythm section of unknowns (couldn't John have tried to patch things up with original drummer Martin Atkins?).

In any case, to a gathered throng of what looked like disinterested Nickeblack fans, nu-PiL took the stage (flanked by Bud Light banners). If you're interested, you can see them play "Rise" here and watch Kimmel talk with John here. PiL's Kimmel performance served as an opening salvo of sorts for their impending tour of North America. One wonders if this morning's news of the death of Lydon's former manager/svengali/nemesis, Malcolm McLaren will overshadow proceedings.

The loss of McLaren made for some sad news. Sure, he was dutifully reviled by never-say-die punk purists for allegedly fleecing the Sex Pistols and meticulously choreographing their messy implosion, but how much of that legend is actually genuine? I'll leave that to the rock historians to ponder.

McLaren gets less credit for other contributions like Bow Wow Wow, "Double Dutch" and the Fans album (among other things).

I'd actually seen the man here in New York City a couple of times. Far from the conniving swindler he's usually portrayed as, he usually looked like a dapper fop. The last time I encountered him was as recently as last summer. I was deep in the bowels of Penn Station, rushing to meet my wife and kids as they arrived from a spell in Long Island. As I was descending a flight of stairs to the platform, up came a nattily dressed McLaren.

"Malcolm!" I instinctively (and somewhat presumptuously) exclaimed. He flinched as if I was about to hit him. I felt quite sorry for that, and saluted him as I continued down the steps. I'd imagine Sex Pistols fans have given him a lot of unsolicited grief over the years.

Kevin's Digital Week 19: Carey, Abbott and Costello

Blu-Ray of the Week
An Education
An Education
Lone Scherfig’s
bittersweetly comic drama about a high-school girl’s difficult coming-of-age in pre-Beatles London, 1963, is a brilliant showcase for the scene-stealing lead performance of Carey Mulligan, who should have won Best Actress over Sandra Bullock. Mulligan creates a rare intelligent, headstrong teenage character, painfully exposing her vulnerabilities and fears, hopes and dreams, and joys and harsh realities; it‘s one of the great screen performances of recent years.  An Education also gains immeasurably from Peter Sarsgaard’s portrayal of the girl’s slick but callow suitor, and flawless support by Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, Cara Seymour, Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike. Nick Hornby’s literate script comes from Lynn Barber‘s memoir.

Sony has given An Education a stellar Blu-ray transfer and an assortment of good but unexceptional special features. The commentary by director Scherfig and leads Mulligan and Sarsgaard is worth listening to, and the handful of deleted scenes is a nice bonus, even if it’s easy to see why they were cut.

A short on-set featurette and brief interviews on the red carpet at the film’s premiere round out the extras.

Abbott & Costello
DVD of the Week

The Abbott and Costello Show—The Complete Series
For many, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello need no introduction. Their classic comedy routines and television and movie appearances are legendary. And now, with the release of The Abbott and Costello Show—The Complete Series, new fans can enter the fold. With 52 episodes from the show’s two seasons (1952-3), restored and remastered on nine discs, this set is a must-have for fans of Bud and Lou and classic TV comedy like The Honeymooners or Lucy.

All their best routines are here, from “Who’s on First” and Niagara Falls to Mustard and the Lemon Bit. In addition, there are three hours’ worth of special features, including the Hey Abbott! 1978 TV retrospective hosted by Milton Berle and featuring Steve Allen, Joe Besser and Phil Silvers; a Season One classic routines reel; rare home movies from the Costello family archive; the restored 1948 short film 10,000 Kids and a Cop (documenting the Lou Costello, Jr. Youth Foundation‘s philanthropic work); and interviews with sons Chris and Paddy Costello.

A 44-page commemorative book gives some invaluable series history, and four collectible postcards are included. At a bargain-basement price, this set is a keeper.

Valerie Harper Is a Brilliant Tallulah in "Looped"

Written by Matthew Lombardo
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Starring Valerie Harper, Brian Hutchison, Michael Mulheren

Valerie Harper channels Tallulah Bankhead. Her acting is so on the mark, so mesmerizing, that you would swear that the '30s stage and screen actress had come back to life. Her wit biting and risqué; her intelligence sharp; her vulgarity in your face, her talent opulent make you wish you had lived in her time.

The device of Matthew Lombardo's play is that she's been called to an audio studio to record a bit of film dialogue that got mangled in the screen cut. That's called doing a loop. But Talllulah seems a bit looped herself as she gives editor Danny (Brian Hutchison) a frustrating bout of dealing with the grande dame. Director Rob Ruggiero deserves praise for turning a long moment into a fascinating two hours.

She is better at one-liners than recording the one line. Everything in New York is numbered, she declares. "You get lost in New York, you don't deserve to be found." And, "I introduced a friend of mine as Martini; her name was Olive." She acknowledges that she is bisexual: "Buy me something, I'll be sexual."

In her gaunt face and clingy silk dress, and a trademark wide lip-sticked mouth that seems to be in a permanent grimace, Harper is brilliant as a bit-over-the-hill aging Southern woman who drinks too much and sleeps around too much for that era.

When set designer Adrian W. Jones' recording studio suddenly morphs to reveal the wrought iron balconies and shutters of New Orleans, she is Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Ah, yes! And she played her.

I would have cut out the forced surprise secret past confessional by Danny, which is jarring and unnecessary and seems like a political statement by the playwright rather than part of the Bankhead story.

Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street

New York, NYC
Opened March 14, 2010.

For more by Lucy Komisar:


"The Scottsboro Boys" Is a Chilling Musical

Book by David Thompson; lyrics by Fred Ebb; music by John Kander
Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman
Starring John Cullum, Colman Domingo, Brandon Victor Dixon, Julius Thomas III

The Scottsboro Boys is a stunning, chilling and superbly performed play about racism in the 1930s. Who better to craft a political musical than John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the 1993 classic Kiss of the Spiderwoman, about the movie fantasies of a prisoner tortured by the Argentine dictatorship that brutalized the country nearly half a century ago. And director-choreographer Susan Stroman stages this in a cutting, jazzy minstrel style that takes irony to new levels.

To be able to make such important stories accessible to mainstream theater audiences takes great talent, and Kander and Ebb (who died in 2004) are masters at it. In the context it is odd to want to describe this play as "vibrant" and its numbers as "smashing." This is an important production — though it seems strange to say in the circumstances — a very entertaining one.

It is a fictional play based on real events, the program says. So I thought it important to check out the story against the facts.  Here's what I found.

There's no dispute that a fight started between young black and white men who had jumped a freight train headed for Huntsville, Ala., in 1931. The blacks threw the white youths off the train — or maybe they jumped. The whites contacted authorities about an assault, telling them that two white women remained on board.

At the next stop, the police arrested nine blacks, 12 to 19 years old, for assault and attempted murder for throwing the whites off a moving train. The white women, Ruby Bates, 17, and Victoria Price, in her early early to mid-20s, unemployed millworkers from Huntsville, tried to run away, but were stopped by the stationmaster who asked if they'd been "bothered." Bates said they'd been raped — each by six blacks. Doctors examined them two hours after the alleged attacks and found semen but no signs of violence.

An examining doctor told the judge in private they hadn't been raped, but said he was just out of medical school and couldn't testify for the defense or he would never practice. The judge did not inform the defense. Later, a blacks' lawyer argued that a medical examination of Price showed no living sperm, which would have argued against recent intercourse. A doctor testified to minor scratches and bruises.

Price had been jailed for violating the law on Prohibition and for adultery. During the first trial, the two women — witnesses for the prosecution — were kept in jail, facing possible vagrancy or prostitution charges. Two of the blacks testified that they had seen rapes. Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will, says the rapes were neither proven nor disproved.

The left made a cause célèbre of the case. Ruby Blake recanted, and the Communist Party brought her north. She testified that there hadn't been a rape, that Victoria had told her they might stay in jail if they didn't say so. Blake wrote a note to her boyfriend that the blacks hadn't "jazzed" her, the white boys had.

The black men would endure years of trial, convictions thrown out by higher courts, then more jail, a suicide, and years in prison.

In the Kander and Ebb show, given an astonishing and dazzling staging by Stroman, the story of what happens to the nine black is compressed and artistically portrayed. The jail cell is a collection of piled up metal chairs. The mood is a jazzy operetta. The dramatic vignettes of the story are interspersed with numbers of a minstrel show, which allows you to catch your breath between horrific events and adds the element of satire.

Reversing the blackface on white faces of minstrels, Mr. Bones (Colman Domingo) and Mr. Tambo (Forrest McClendon) are black men who play evil white men. Bones is the attorney general. Tambo is a drunk defense lawyer. John Cullen in a white suit is the white interlocutor. The three are memorable in their roles.

Stroman's musical numbers are eloquent. They include a macabre dance around an electric chair. And a revival song sung when the Supreme Court demands a new trial. Price (Christian Dante White) and Bates (Sean Bradford) do a bit called "Alabama Ladies." In "Never Too Late," Ruby Bates (Bradford) tells the truth.

A New Yorker who replaces a local (unqualified) attorney, turns out to be famed defense lawyer Samuel Liebowitz (McClendon again), who had won 77 acquittals and one hung jury in 78 murder trials. Importantly, in this case, he would raise for the first time the exclusion of blacks from juries, which would get a landmark Supreme Court decision. (White men, and no women, as Brownmiller points out, were allowed on juries.)

McClendon as Liebowitz is very Jewish in a New York accent and black-and-white checked suit — a caricature that the Nazis could have drawn. The satire is sometimes unsettling. Indeed, the Communists had been accused of manipulating the case for propaganda, but Liebowitz was a registered Democrat who would go on to be a judge. Presenting himself and his political commitment, he does an "Al Jolson" on his knees. The prosecutor's ripping song about "Jew money" gives you the shakes.

The most astonishing — and historically accurate — part of the play is that one of the jailed men, Haywood Patterson (Brandon Victor Dixon), stands up to the accusers and refuses to cop a plea.

Dixon is compelling and moving in the role. In fact Patterson, the smartest and most defiant of the group, escaped from prison to Detroit in 1947. He wrote a book, The Scottsboro Boy. The FBI arrested him, but Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams refused extradition to Alabama. He was rearrested in 1950 after a barroom brawl that led to a death, convicted of manslaughter and died of cancer in prison less than two years later. The play's notion that he died in an Alabama prison is wrong.

Why make a point about that? Because the case is too important and too historical to get it wrong, even in a musical.

In February, The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center opened in Scottsboro, Ala., documenting the trial and its aftermath.

The Scottsboro Boy
Vineyard Theatre
108 East 15th Street

Opened  March 10, 2010, closes April 18, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Color photos credit: Carol Rosegg

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