Category Archives: TV

Two Western series, rewatched in full

KUNG FU‘s ratings slipped during S2 which gives me the feeling the show-runners were putting some extra effort into S3 (though it didn’t help). We have several episodes set entirely in China (Besieged and The Devil’s Champion) and some where Caine’s facing unambiguously supernatural forces (The Devil’s Champion again, one that absolutely fascinated me as a kid). There’s also the introduction of a running foe, a cult of Chinese assassins dedicated to hunting Caine down for killing the emperor’s son.Most importantly, we get the resolution to Caine’s quest as he tracks down his brother Danny (and Danny’s son), and gets embroiled in that ne’er do well’s feud with gambling czar Leslie Nielsen (the kind of serious role he was known for before Police Squad! established him as a comedian). I felt a little disappointed Caine just left his family behind to go on wandering, though it’s not out of character (as the episode Thief of Chendo shows, being a wandering defender of the helpless was what he dreamed of as a kid in the monastery. A good finish to a good series (unless, as I’ve noted before, you find the yellowface aspect a dealbreaker); followed by a good movie in 1986 (I plan to rewatch that one eventually) and a forgettable present day-set series, Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. “Both roads, the right and the left, must have an end — and when you reach that end, you will know your destiny.”

The fourth and final season of WILD, WILD WEST picks up from the disappointing S3, though it still isn’t up to the first two years. The good episodes are really good, including Night of the Avaricious Actuary, the Phantom of the Opera riff Night of the Diva and the very Sherlockian Night of the Bleak Island but there’s way too many bland episodes as well. There are, as usual, some good guest villains, including Harold Gould in Avaricious Actuay and Jo Van Fleet in Night of the Tycoons.

There’s not much Artemus: Ross Martin had a heart attack midway through shooting (there was serious fear he’d die or be too weak to keep performing) so the show fills in with several Artemus substitutes, most frequently Charles Aidman as Jeremy Pike. They only show that Ross Martin brought something to the role that his pinch-hitters didn’t have (my favorite is probably Alan Hale Jr. in Night of the Sabatini Death, which ends with a Gilligan’s Island joke). There’s only one Michael Dunn appearance, in The Night of Miguelito’s Revenge. I suspect Tycho, the mastermind in Night of the Raven was a possible replacement if the series had gotten to S5 (super-genius, world-beating ambitions, physically peculiar — in his case, a giant head stuffed with brains).

Minor changes include that Jim smokes cigars frequently (I don’t remember that as much in earlier seasons) and there are a lot more black faces — minor roles, but it seems like a lot more episodes than previous seasons have black bartenders, dance-hall girls or government messengers. One change that had me scratching my head is that they de-emphasize the eye candy aspect, which has been part of the series since the sexist first season (and was normal for most action/adventure shows back in those days). Some episodes (e.g. Night of the Janus) have no pretty girl at all — not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a surprising choice.

This show had two sequels that were also pilots for a reboot series, More Wild, Wild West and Wild, Wild, West Revisited. As my DVD set of the series includes them, I’ll have them for review soon. And I shall probably watch the widely panned big-screen version with Will Smith, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Brannagh soon enough.

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The women of early Star Trek

A few weeks back I started doing something I’ve wanted to do for a while: rewatch the original Star Trek series. It was very much a part of my teen years as I watched episodes over and over in syndication, but it’s been years since I caught any of the episodes, except in passing when TYG was rewatching them. When I began, I discovered Netflix’s run includes the original pilot episode The Cage preceding the first episode, Man Trap. The difference between them was interesting.

Gene Roddenberry has rightfully taken crap for a vision of the future in which women, even though qualified to serve on a space ship, are primarily eye candy. The Cage is a step up from that. The ship’s first officer, Number One (Majel Barrett) is competent; Captain Pike’s female yeoman, Colt (Laurel Goodwin) is much more tomboyish in demeanor than ST: OS’ Yeoman Rand; the show emphasizes that having a female yeoman on the bridge is a novel thing.

The show does make it clear that the woman are attracted to Pike, so who knows how they’d have been written if the original pilot went to series. But having a woman as first officer, and clearly competent, is still striking, particularly in that era.

A little too striking for the network, which told Rodenberry to either dump Number One or get rid of Spock; he opted to keep Spock, believing viewers needed to see an alien on board. Colt got replaced by Rand.

The opening episodes of the regular series do feel much more sexist. Yeoman Rand is mostly there to be pretty and smile and run errands (watching as a teenager, I thought “yeoman” must be something like a valet). Uhura flirts quite a bit with Spock. It’s disappointing to compare.

But then we get to the second episode, Charlie X. This gives the Enterprise it’s first encounter with a cosmically powerful foe, a teenage boy raised by disembodied intelligences who taught him their ability to transform matter. It’s apparently a limitless power, and Charlie’s a teenager, full of raging hormones and completely unused to dealing with other humans. He reacts viciously to slights or hurts and winds up a lot like Billy Mumy’s demigod on It’s a Good Life.

He also looks like the embodiment of the #metoo villain. Once he meets Yeoman Rand she’s all he can think about, and he can’t tolerate being told no. She tries introducing Charlie to a girl his own age; he treats the girl like dirt. His feelings, his needs, are all that he cares about; he thinks he loves Yeoman Rand but she’s just a means to an end, the end being his own satisfaction.

Watching in my teens, I knew he was out of line, but I saw him mostly as a tragic figure, screwed up by his own lack of experience dealing with people. Now I see him as much creepier.

I don’t think I’ll have more to say about the series until I finish S1, but you never know.

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The Twilight Zone, a tree and the Incredibles: TV and movies

With S3 of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, the bloom is definitely off the rose with way more flops than in previous seasons. E.g., Cavender is Coming, The Shelter, The Passerby, Still Valley, Dead Man’s Shoes, Four o’Clock and Showdown With Rance McGrew. Some are preachy and heavy-handed, some are unfunny comedies, some just fill a half-hour of TV and accomplish nothing more.

That said, the season also had some terrific episodes. Elizabeth Montgomery and Charles Bronson give solid performances as post-WW III survivors in Two, which opens the season. Donald Pleasance gives a moving performance as an aging teacher in the final S3 episode, Changing of the Guard. In between we have It’s a Good Life, the anti-Nazi drama Death’s Head Revisited, Five Characters in Search of an Exit and Person or Persons Unknown. It’s worth sitting through the mediocre to get to the good stuff. I’m not sure I’ll feel that way about S4, the notoriously unsuccessful switch to hour-long episodes (I think mediocre-to-bad episodes are the majority) but I won’t turn back before I finish the whole run (are you impressed at my heroism?).

CHARISMA (1999) is a confusing Korean thriller in which a cop is put on mandatory leave after a botched hostage crisis, travels to a small village and winds up obsessing over a mysterious tree in the arae. I’d assume my utter lack of interest in this (I checked out after about 40 minutes) was due to a culture gap if I hadn’t watched and enjoyed so many Korean films for the time-travel book.

THE INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) picks up immediately where the first film wrapped up, as the family’s battle against Undermind creates so much wreckage it looks like superheroes will stay on everyone’s shit list. A billionaire superhero comes up with a solution, using Elastigirl to fight crime on camera so that viewers will see how much good they do; Mr. Incredible, being overly prone to collateral damage, has to become the stay-at-home parent. But a villain named Screenslaver has a plot that may destroy the family for good … This was a lot of fun, and I give them credit for showing Mr. Incredible as a competent parent rather than a complete inability to handle the kids. Jack-Jack isn’t as cute as they think, but overall this makes me hope for Incredibles 3 some day. “Let’s not go testing the ‘insurance will pay for everything’ idea all at once, okay?”

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A superhero, a melancholy Dane and Netflix cartoons: movies and TV viewed

Michelle Yeoh is SILVER HAWK (2004) a millionaire martial-artist riding a motorcycle against crime. A kidnapping turns out to be Step One in a cyborg mad scientist’s plan to turn cell phones into mind control devices; can Silver Hawk stop him even with her childhood best friend now a cop assigned to bring her in. Yeoh, as always, radiates star quality, and the movie is a blast. “My boss is correct — it really does take you four hours to get dressed.”

David Tennant gives a spectacular performance as HAMLET (2009), a Royal Shakespeare Company production shot at Elsinore Castle (not the first film to do that) and one of the more unstable melancholy Danes; in his early scenes with Ophelia, his madness does seem more like he’s snapping than him putting on an act. With Patrick Stewart as Claudius, this is a solid modern-dress production (though the gimmick of having some scenes apparently caught on security cameras brings nothing to the table); Ophelia’s madness feels very out of the blue, though, and as usual I find Gertrude under-written. “Though Hercules himself do what he may/The cat will mew and dog will have his day.”

S2 of SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER alternates between the Princess Alliance working on ways to take back the territory the Horde have occupied and Katra, Skorpia and Entrapta working on ways to advance Hordak’s end-game. The imprisoned Shadow Weaver, however, has plans of her own … This was an excellent season, culminating in revealing Bow’s secret origin (raised by pacifist academics, he’s been hiding the truth about joining the resistance). Katra, meanwhile, worries her achievement in becoming force commander is rapidly eroding, bringing all her insecurities to the surface. My only complaint is that seven episodes was too short — I hope we got back to 13, or at least 10, next season. “ “All the Horde ghost stories are about evil dead princesses — I can’t believe I never noticed that!”

I also finished the first season of AGGRETSUKO,a Netflix series loosely based on some Japanese anime shorts. Retsuko, the protagonist, is a corporate drone working under a bullying sexist boss in accounting and relieving her feelings by blasting out heavy metal karaoke after work. Can she find love? Or the courage to tell her boss off? Or will she stay stuck in her current mode forever? This was no She-Ra but it was fun, and fits with some of the stories my corporate-employed friends tell about work. “Even a high school boy has better sense than that!”

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A double agent, a rocker and a regicide: movies and TV

The last two seasons of BLIND SPOT both left me frustrated with the story arc’s finish. This year, not a problem.

The season opened with Jane (Jaimie Alexander) having had a memory glitch due to the drugs in her system, leaving her convinced she’s still an agent for the Sandstorm terrorist network. She doesn’t quite remember how she infiltrated an FBI strike force, but she’s ready to destroy them from within. Meanwhile new big bad Madeline Burke (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio) launches a mysterious scheme of her own, using former team member Zapata (Audrey Esparza) as her chief enforcer.

Normally the master villain’s plan is a let down; this time they pulled it off as Burke takes over the FBI, the entire team is forced on the run and Jane sees everyone apparently blown to bits by a drone strike (the solution to that detail is pretty obvious). With next season the finish, it looks like they’ll be pulling out all the stops. “We wouldn’t be in this boat if you hadn’t married a terrorist.”

I wound up using SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) as a talking lamp, partly because of time constraints, partly because Jack Black’s character starts out as such a selfish, entitled jerk I couldn’t really stomach him. Neither can his rock band, who kick him out in an early scene; frustrated, Black uses his best friend’s name to become a substitute teacher (he needs the cash), turns his elementary school class into a new band for an upcoming contest, then slowly begins to see them and uptight principal Joan Cusack as more than just means to an end. So not without its charms, but I still found Black too hard to take; it doesn’t help that when Sarah Silverman (the best friend’s girlfriend) suggests Black actually pay rent for crashing on their couch, she’s the one we’re supposed to hate (a good example of the woman as buzzkill cliche). “Excuse me, excuse me, I’ve just been informed that all your children are missing.”

MACBETH (1971) was Roman Polanski’s adaptation of The Scottish Play with Jon Finch as the Scottish nobleman who would be king, Francesca Annis as his ambitious wife (she mentions in one of the special features that this is the only time she’s been completely nude on screen) and Martin Shaw as the doomed Banquo. Polanski is a rapist and possibly a serial rapist, but he’s an excellent filmmaker. This is good-looking, well-acted, vividly violent and with some striking scenes; when the soldiers arrive to kill MacDuff’s family, they take the time to relish their power.

The special features are interesting if you want more background detail, though none are particularly stand-out. It is striking, however, how much the murder of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family came up repeatedly (one interviewee says an extra bludgeoned to death in a fight scene was a dead ringer for Manson). Though discussions in a 2014 documentary of how people can now watch the film without Polanski’s personal life shaping their reaction felt like they were ducking the elephant in the room.. “Be bloody, bold and resolute — for none of woman born may harm Macbeth!”

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From the Wild West to Ireland and Beyond: Movies and TV

The third season of WILD WILD WEST dropped in quality from S2, probably due to the death of series creator and producer Michael Garrison. Without him, this really seemed to lack spark, with too many episodes that weren’t much beyond a stock Western (it doesn’t help that health issues kept Michael Dunn from making more than one appearance).  The show still boasted some good episodes, including the strange, elaborate trap in The Night of the Death-Masks, the horror episode Night of the Undead and Night of the Simian Terror and Ed Asner’s understated turn as a mass murderer in Night of the Amnesiac. Overall, though, not up to the first two years.

THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE (2009) is an excellent indie drama alternating between Robin Wright Penn, who’s cracking from her role as Alan Arkin’s Perfect Wife and younger self Blake Lively who runs wild after fleeing her speed-freak mother Maria Bello. The cast includes Julianne Moore as a kinkster, Winona Ryder as Penn’s bestie, Monica Belluci as Arkin’s ex and Keanu Reaves as the younger man who sparks something in Penn; I’d suggest doubling with All That Heaven Allows for another film about a woman falling for a younger man as she pushes back against her staid existence. “You’ve been burying me for years — I can feel the dirt in my mouth.”

Brendan Gleeson is THE GUARD (2011), a foulmouthed, sharp-tongued cop investigating a murder in Ireland’s Gaeltach when he finds himself reluctantly forced to ally with FBI agent Don Cheadle, who’s crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of the drug-dealers now operating out of Gleeson’s patch. A mix of character study and buddy cop film, very well played by the leads. “You’re just reeling off movie titles with numbers in them — I could do that!”

Reading Hollywood’s Copyright Wars got me interested in checking out SCORPIO RISING (1964), which was an inspiration to Martin Scorsese and others. The avant-garde half-hour short shows a couple of bikers getting ready for a wild night, using clips of comic books and background music built of copyrighted songs. This convinced Scorsese that “fair use” allowed for much more music than he’d thought, something that influenced his own films — even though it wasn’t true, the director having paid for the rights to all the music. Other than historical interest, this didn’t do anything for me.

I’ve never really cared for THE INCREDIBLES (2004) as a superhero spoof, mostly because the “clever” ideas (how do superhero suits work? Superheroes getting sued! What happens to ordinary people in superhero battles?) were the kind of thing Marvel was doing four decades earlier. As a somewhat oddball superhero adventure, though, it holds up well as mild-mannered claims adjuster (Craig Nelson) and his stay-at-home wife (Holly Hunter) find themselves forced back into the game by former wannabe sidekick Syndrome (Jason Lee) who claims to represent the triumph of the ordinary person (as one acquaintance put it, it’s hard to see such a Luthor-class genius as “ordinary”).

The film also got some flack because it was seen as a kind of Ayn Randian endorsement of the elite, exceptional individual not to be dragged down by society’s rules — why should the Incredible family have to pretend to be ordinary? I always thought it was more “why try to fit in when you were born to stand out?” (in the words of What A Girl Wants), the time-honored movie message that you should never be afraid to be yourself. Though that said, Dash at the end winning a race with superpowers raised my eyebrows (is that fair when no ordinary human has a chance against him?). Overall, though, fun. “These bad guys aren’t like the ones on those shows you watch Saturday mornings.”

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The most sensational news you’ll read today! Or at least in this post.

So McFarland, which publishes my four movie books and dozens of others, is having a 40th anniversary sale. Everything 25 percent off, including my four movie books. It’s a great opportunity to buy one, two or collect the entire set! It’s always cool to have the entire set, right?

My books are:

Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan, a book on made for TV specfic films of the 20th century.

The Wizard of Oz Catalog, an encyclopedic look at Oz books, movies, TV shows, radio shows and stage plays. A lot of oddball material such as a 1930s women’s college film and a sales-training video, The Wizard of Sales.

Screen Enemies of the American Way looks at American fears of the enemy within — subversion by Nazis, Japanese, Commies, pod people, Stepford Wives and extraterrestrials.

Now And Then We Time Travel lists and reviews time-travel television and film stories from around the world.

The sale runs through the end of the month. I’ll be buying a couple of books (maybe more) myself, though I haven’t completely settled on which ones yet. Prime contenders are one on The Saint in his many fictional forms and a book on witches in films and TV, Bell, Book and Camera.

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Superheroes on big and small screens (with spoilers)

I finally found the time to catch AVENGERS: End-Game (2019) and while I think it could have been trimmed from its three hour length (and I don’t know it’s worth the big box office take), I don’t think it actually sagged at any point. We open with the Avengers and Captain Marvel hunting down Thanos only to discover he’s destroyed the Infinity Stones to secure his triumph. Five years later, however, Ant-Man emerges from the quantum realm where time flows differently — while they can’t change the past, could they take the stones temporarily from various points in time, then use them to restore all the dead?

This is a better concept than just using the timestone to fix things, which a lot of people expected (unfortunately we never get an answer for why Dr. Strange gave Thanos the stone in Infinity War) and it allows us a last look at several characters (Ancient One, Peggy Carter, Howard Stark, Happy Hogan). Good, though not flawless (e.g., Jim C. Hines’ thoughts on Thor’s character arc). “It’s never been personal for me, but destroying your infuriating little mudball — I’m going to take pleasure in it.”

UMBRELLA ACADEMY is Netflix’s adaptation of Gerard Way’s bizarro superhero series, as the dysfunctional foster children of a British eccentric reunite after years apart when their father dies. And the timing is good because the apocalypse is looming — but can the combined talents of Spaceboy, Seance, Kraken, Rumor and Number Five turn the tide? Not as weird as the comic book series, but gloriously weird even so, with some excellent performances, particularly Ellen Page as the tragic violinist Vanya (though the climax of her arc did get a little too Dark Phoenix). “If the benchmark is ‘extraordinary,’ what do you do when you’re not?”

The fourth season of DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW had a disappointing finish — a bit too comedic, and too much mutie-hating (or a reasonable facsimile). That said, it was overall a gloriously oddball season as the Legends join forces with John Constantine, battle the Fairy Godmother of Salem and Gary’s hypnotic nipple and Sarah and Ava work out their relationship in the Ikea store of the damned.  Not to mention the mid-season cliffhanger, which gave us multiple alt.versions of the team (Ava, Gideon and Sarah as the Sirens of Space Time!). Uneven but still worth the time.

I had no particular interest in the CHARMED reboot on the CW but when I gave it a try, I found it still worked, and improved as it went along. This time the sisters are Latinas Maggie and Mel Vaughn (Mel is a lesbian, happy and out) and their half-sister Macy, who’s black. Their adventures are much in the urban fantasy vein of the original, but with some flashes of feminism (the demon in the opener is a sexually harassing professor) and a season finish that went in different directions than I expected. Looks like I’ve added another series to my Keep Watching list. “I need this job — it’s not like being a necromancer pays the bills, you know.”

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Doctor Who again: the (first female) Doctor is in!

I’m delighted the thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who is a woman, and I’m also impressed the showrunners took a gamble that guaranteed lots of blowback. I’ve seen plenty of articles arguing this is just plain wrong (some good discussion of that here); if the new Doctor hadn’t gone over well (and not everyone likes every Doctor), the blowback would have gotten worse.

Happily, we got Jodie Whittaker, and she’s terrific. I wasn’t sure during the first episode, in which see seemed to be imitating Capaldi, but the first episode after regeneration is not a good guide what they’ll be like. She soon firmed up into her own Doctor, talking like a scatterbrained but thinking like well, the Doctor.

The first episode, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, introduces her new set of companions: Graham (fiftysomething bus driver), his step son Ryan, a young black man with dyspraxia (I gather it’s like dyslexia but physical), and Yaz, a Pakistani police woman who’s an old friend of Ryan’s. Ryan’s mum appears, but dies at the end of the first episode. All of them come from Sheffield, which has a bigger role in the background than most real-world settings — the Doctor loses her sonic screwdriver, so she cobbles together a new one out of Sheffield steel, for instance.

The season doesn’t have an overall story arc or a season long big bad, though the same alien killer shows up in the first and last episodes (I am not impressed with him, so I’m glad he wasn’t the archfoe of the season). However, some of the discussion at Camestros Felapton’s blog suggested that the running theme is humanity as the real monster. A white supremacist in Rosa (about Rosa Parks); a politically ambitious millionaire in Arachnids in the UK; the designers who set a doomsday bomb as a failsafe in The Tsurunga Conundrum; the religious hostilities during the India/Pakistan partition (Demons of the Punjab); and the anti-tech activist in Kerblam!

The stories were uneven. Arachnids was the weakest, a classic monster story with too many mixed elements that never gelled together. I think I’m in a minority, but I didn’t much fancy The Witchfinders, partly just because I know too much about the subject (the “witchfinder general” did not outrank other witchfinders). Kerblam! was much better, but suffered from a muddled moral and an AI I was supposed to sympathize with but didn’t (it kills one character just to make a point).

Demons of the Punjab was a good look at a conflict that looms large in Yaz’s family history; It Takes You Away was an interesting story about a strange parallel universe; and the New Year’s (rather than Christmas) special Resolution was really great. I suspect it’s broadening the background cast for next season, which annoyingly won’t be until 2020.

As far as I’m concerned, the thirteenth Doctor (please note I am not taking the number thirteen as set up for a joke) is a solid success.

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Piranhas and Prospero, Dad’s Army and Darlene Love: movies and TV

The smash success of Jaws lead to countless killer-sea creature knockoffs such as Mako, Orca, Tentacles and Jaws 2 (to say nothing of Jaws 3D) but the best was far and away PIRANHA (1978). Bradford Dillman and Heather Menzies are hunting two disappeared (and eaten) teens when they unwittingly stumble on Operation Razorteeth, Kevin McCarthy’s leftover Vietnam War-era experiment in breeding piranhas that can adapt to cold water (they’d have been dumped in North Vietnam’s rivers but the war ended first). Now the piranhas are heading downstream and there’s a summer camp and a resort in their line of biting …

According to the DVD commentary by director Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison, they were convinced this was a turkey of epic proportions. Instead, it’s a winner, which I think is partly because John Sayles’ script makes it less about a Jaws-style killer animal and more in the school of a 1950s monster movie (“If they reach the ocean, they can attack every river system in America!”) though with more gore — I’d forgotten kids actually get eaten in this one. It’s more generally a good script with better characterization and humor than a low-budget knockoff has the right to expect, and good direction by Dante. With Barbara Steele as a sinister scientist, Bruce Gordon as a general, Paul Bartel as an officious summer-camp counselor and Richard Deacon in a cameo.  “People eat fish — fish don’t eat people.”

Julie Taymor’s THE TEMPEST (2010) lacks any of the magic she brought to Titus, despite the presence of Helen Mirren as Prospera, conniving to destroy her enemies and regain her dukedom with the help of Caliban (Djimon Hounsou) and Ariel (Ben Whishaw). The cast are good but the film spends too much time indulging in special effects. And I think Hounsou’s casting raises problems — for example his lusting for Felicity Jones’ Miranda evokes old racist tropes (for me anyway) about blacks hungry for white women. “As wicked a dew as ‘ere my mother brushed with raven’s feather from unwholesome fen, drop on you both!”

As a kid I caught glimpses of DAD’S ARMY on British TV, which made me curious to catch it when I found it on Netflix. It turns out to be a sitcom about the British Home Guard preparing for a possible German invasion during WW II, focusing on one small town where the defenders are, shall we say, not the A-list (pompous squad leader, conniving wheeler-dealer, elderly veteran, etc.). Very funny (it’s ranked as one of the Great British Sitcoms). “I was going to bring it up but then the girl started taking off her clothes.”

20 FEET FROM STARDOM (2013) is a documentary on backup singers, their contributions to famous songs and acts, the appeal of their subordinate role and the challenges of breaking out into an act of your own, which some have tried with varying levels of success. Darlene Love (pictured) gets a spotlight as someone stifled by Phil Spector so she found solo success much later than she deserved.). Like so many professions, the interviewees express concern their field may be fading in the 21st century due to tech alternatives and indy acts getting by on the cheap (“They just use their family as backup singers.”). Very interesting. “The record companies figured they already had Aretha, so they didn’t need her. That was just how they thought.”

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