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Grand Master Flash on the Secret of his Success

DJ and hip-hop forefather Grand Master Flash broke out more than 20 years ago with hits that included "The Message" and "White Lines (Don't Do it)."

Part of his success came out of his "Quick Mix Theory," the process of blending one music break with another.

Rebroadcast from July 8, 2002.

15:01

Other segments from the episode on March 2, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 2, 2007: Interview with Melle Mel; Interview with Grand Master Flash; Interview with Ronnie Spector; Review of the film "Zodiac."

Transcript

DATE March 2, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Mellie Mel of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
discusses recording "The Message" and how he got started in
hip-hop and rap music
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR.

I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for The New York Daily News, sitting in for
Terry Gross. Next week in New York, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will
induct its honorees for 2007. They'll include the hip-hop group Grandmaster
Flash and the Furious Five, and Ronnie Spector of The Ronettes. Today on
FRESH AIR, we'll visit with Grandmaster Flash and one of the Furious Five,
Mellie Mel, and with Ronnie Spector.

Let's start with Mellie Mel and a song called "The Message."

(Soundbite from "The Message")

BIANCULLI: Many people consider "The Message" among the best rap records ever
made, and it's generally acknowledged as the first that offered social
commentary. Before that, most rap records were party boasts. "The Message"
was released by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Mellie Mel did the
rap.

(Soundbite from "The Message")

Mr. MELLIE MEL: (Rapping) It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder
how I keep from going under. It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me
wonder how I keep from going under.

Broken glass everywhere. People pissing on the stairs. You know, they just
don't care. I can't take the smell. I can't take the noise. Got no money to
move out. I guess I got no choice. Rats in the front room, roaches in the
back. Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat. I tried to get away but I
couldn't get far because the man with a tow truck repossessed my car. Don't
push me 'cause I'm close to the edge. I'm trying not to lose my head. Ha,
ha, ha, ha. It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from
going under.

Standing on the front stoop, hanging out the window, watching all the...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Mellie Mel didn't write "The Message." The lyric was written by
Duke Bootee and brought to Mellie Mel by his record company, Sugar Hill.
Terry Gross talked to Mellie Mel about "The Message" in 1992.

Mr. MEL: Our group, like, Flash and the Furious Five, we didn't actually
want to do "The Message," because we was used to doing party raps, you know,
and like boasting about how good we are and all that. And when the record
company brought the record to us to do, we didn't actually want to do it, and
I was the only one that, like, I just caved in. I said, `Listen, if this is
the record we going to do, then I'll just do it, and it's no big thing.' But I
didn't think that it would be--I didn't think that it would be pivotal either
way, you know, like on a good or bad one, I just thought it was going to be
just another record that we would do.

TERRY GROSS, host:

So did you ever try "The Message" at parties before you went into the
recording studio, or would that have been all wrong?

Mr. MEL: No, we never tried it. And as a matter of fact, I was shocked,
because we used to hang out in a club called Disco Fever up in the Bronx,
right? And then they took the records, they was testing like, they tested it
down on a record shop on 125th Street, you know, just putting it, you know,
just letting it play and people outside, you know, listening to it. And then
they tested it in the club where we hung out at, and the people really liked
it. And that was coming right behind "Planet Rock," which was a big, big
record back then. And when they played "The Message" in the club and the
people liked it, I was kind of shocked because I didn't think that, you know,
coming from "Planet Rock" to, you know, a serious record like "The Message," I
didn't think that--I thought it would be like a lapse, you know, in the level
of the crowd, the intensity of the crowd. But it wasn't, so, you know, right
then I knew that the record was going to be more than what I thought it was
going to be.

GROSS: Can I ask you how you started rapping?

Mr. MEL: Well, we started going to parties. There used to be, like, little,
maybe $1 parties, $2 parties, and they had a DJ called "Cool Herc." He
had--well, they was all DJs, but they rapped. They didn't actually rap in
rhythm, but they used to say little phrases, you know, Coke La Rock, Timmy Tim
and Clark Kent, that was the guys' names. And that was the big DJs. They was
like the big DJs back then, and we used to go to their parties. And I just
started rapping, just trying to emulate them, you know, to be like them.
Because they was, like, more or less our heroes back then.

GROSS: What were some of the kinds of rhymes they were using?

Mr. MEL: They wouldn't use rhymes. It's like, if you could imagine, it'd be
like a dark room or a gym, and it's like smoky because everybody was smoking
everything from cigarettes to whatever, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MEL: And they'd be playing the music, and then it'd all be echo
chambered, so they'd be like, `Rock, rock, rock, free, free, free,' you know?
It just...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MEL: It was like, more or less like kind of psychedelic kind of thing,
because everything they said, it was echoes, you know? `And this is why they
called the...(unintelligible)...y'all, y'all, y'all, y'all.' You know, it was
like echoey. You walk in there, you be like dumbfounded because it's like you
just stepped into another world, you know what I mean? And then there's all
these dark figures around and smoke and--you know. It was, like, awesome.
For us, it was like a rush, you know, just stepping in these parties.

GROSS: So what were the early rhymes you were doing?

Mr. MEL: We was doing, like, you know, `I'm Mellie Mel and I rock so well,
from the top of the world to the depths of hell. This is my first rhyme, I
rock with the best with the most for less. I'm taking the top and leaving
what's left.' Like, real simple stuff, you know? Just boasting rhymes, you
know? Nothing real heavy or nothing like that or nothing real technical
because there was no technique. We was just going by our own thing.

GROSS: How did you come up with your name, Mellie Mel?

Mr. MEL: Flash gave me that name. Because that was--my name was just
Melvin, so I don't think that would be, like, a cool name, like all MC Melvin.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MEL: So Flash, you know, he started calling me Mellie Mel and it stuck.

(Soundbite from "The Message")

Mr. MEL: (Rapping) It's like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I
keep from going under. Huh, a-huh, huh, huh.

Unidentified Man #1: Yo, Mel, you see that girl there?

Mr. MEL: Yeah, man.

Man #1: Yo, that sound like Cowboy, man.

COWBOY: Fool.

Man #1: Yo, what's up, money?

COWBOY: Yo.

(Soundbite of high five)

Mr. MEL: In this building right here, man.

COWBOY: Is upstairs cool enough?

Man #1: So what's up for the night, y'all?

COWBOY: Yo, we can go down to...(unintelligible)...man.

Mr. MEL: Check out Junebug, man.

COWBOY: Yo, you know that girl, Betty?

Mr. MEL: Yeah.

COWBOY: My mom got robbed, man.

Man #1: What?

COWBOY: Yeah.

Mr. MEL: Not again, man.

COWBOY: She got hurt bad, man.

Man #1: When this happen? When this happen?

(Soundbite of tires squeeling)

Unidentified Man #2: Everybody freeze! Don't nobody move nothing! Y'all
know what this is. Get 'em up!

Man #1: What?

Man #2: Get 'em up, man!

Mr. MEL: We down with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, man!

Man #1: (Unintelligible)

Man #2: Oh, is that a gang?

Man #1: No!

Man #2: Shut up! I don't want to hear your mouth!

Unidentified Woman: Excuse me, officer, what's the problem?

Man #2: I'll tell you the problem...

Man #1: (Unintelligible)

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Our interview with Mellie Mel was recorded in 1992.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Grandmaster Flash discusses his music and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Now for Grandmaster Flash himself. Flash is one of the pioneer hip-hop DJs.
In the '70s, he developed mixing and scratching techniques that became part of
the basics of hip-hop. He started off DJing records at parties in the South
Bronx. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was one of the first hip-hop
groups to break out of the local scene and become an international success.
Terry spoke with him in 2002 and started with a track from his CD that'd just
been released called "Essential Mix Classic Edition," featuring his mix of
dance hits of the '70s and '80s.

(Soundbite from music)

Mr. JAMES BROWN: (Singing) "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ooh! Ha, ha! Gone! Ha!
Gone! Gone! Gone! Gone! Gone! Ha, ha! Acting like
they...(unintelligible)...for nothing. Baby, give it up. Turn it loose, like
a sex machine. Hit me. Ha, ha. Ha, ha..."

(End of soundbite)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Grandmaster Flash, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: I'm interested in how you started mixing music, how you started using
two turntables or maybe even more than two. Was this something you started
doing at home or in clubs as a DJ?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: My love for vinyl and for the turntables probably came
about when I was old enough to sort of start looking into turntables and stuff
of that nature, and that's probably, you know, although it was a negative
experience--and when I say negative, meaning like I used to just sort of take
apart electrical items in my mother's house, including turntables, just to
figure out how they work and why they work. And my intention was to put it
back together properly, but I just could not do it, but I just had this thing
where I just had to know how the inside of a turntable worked, how the inside
of a radio worked and how my father's stereo. And that's probably where it
really started, just like had this undying interest of...

GROSS: Well, you basically started using turntables as if they were
instruments. What...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you start using turntables to change the music that you were
listening to, as opposed to just playing the music?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, I think coming up, I watched a lot of DJs in my
early teens and watching the DJs of that particular time, they were playing
the music. Like, my influences, although they were great positive
influences--I'm talking about DJ Kool Herc and DJ Jones, these two DJs
inspired me to do what I did. And they would play the music, and I just sort
of felt like I can take the most exciting part of a record, which we call the
break, and sort of extend that. Because a lot of these songs that I was
listening to were, like, obscure funk tunes where the break section was like
maybe 10 seconds long. And from a frustrated point of view, I had this
thought that if I can just come up with a system, a way of just taking
duplicate copies of the record with two turntables and a mixer, I can extend
that five or 10-second part seamlessly and make it 10 minutes if I wanted to.

And that's, you know, my thoughts manifested into creating an art form called
the Quick Mix Theory, which is actually taking a passage of music or two
duplicate copies of vinyl and sort of moving the disc back and forth and
repeating a section of the passage, you know, between duplicate copies of the
record. That's where it started.

GROSS: Because you were putting the needle down on exactly the right part of
the record with the rhythm that you wanted to hear, could you actually--you
know, some people say that you were able to look at the grooves of a vinyl
record and know exactly where the rhythm was that you wanted, that you could
actually see it in the grooves.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, actually, you know, I was pretty decent at it, but
it was my first student that I taught this Quick Mix Theory to, Grand Wizard
Theodore, was probably the best at that, and it was called needle drops. But
what I came up with is what I call the Clock Theory, and the Clock Theory was
where you would place the needles down on both copies of the vinyl, and when
the ending of one was over, you would push in the next fader, but while the
other one was playing, you would sort of spin the record back one or two
revolutions to the top of that break, and then when the other one was over,
you would push in the other, so it was like push, spin back, push, spin back.

So I actually never--you know, this here, this made it an assured way of being
able to get back to the beginning of the break section without actually having
to pull the needle up. And what I would do is I would mark like on the label,
if it was like a record from a--if it was a 12-inch from Atlantic Records.
And if the break began, let's just say, at the top of the A, I would sort of
put like a Magic Marker right there, so that would be my clock of where I had
to bring the record back to, one or two revolutions back to re-arrive at the
top of the break. And I would just sort of do this with two copies of
records, back and forth, back and forth. So picking up the needle, you know,
was no longer an issue because that there wasn't definite. Because once you
picked it up, you know, I could always get close to it, but it was never
really, like, exact, and creating the Clock Theory, which all DJs use today
now, where they mark the album at a certain point, is one of my contributions
to the art of the DJ mix.

BIANCULLI: Grandmaster Flash speaking with Terry Gross in 2002.

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with Grandmaster Flash,
one of hip-hop's turntable pioneers. Grandmaster Flash and his influential
group The Furious Five will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
next week in New York.

GROSS: Now, was scratching something that you invented, or was that invented
by one of the people who influenced you?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, actually, it was called cutting, and the whole thing
was, like I said earlier in the interview, it was called the Quick Mix Theory.
And we called it cutting because it was actually taking a section of the
rhythm and rearranging it. And this is something that I've created over 27
years ago.

GROSS: You must have really been intense.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Well, I probably was more frustrated than anything
because, I mean, there's so much stuff I had to buy. Like, a lot of it was
trial and error, you know. Trying to get my hands on the right needle, you
know, I had to go through countless needles, you know. Trying to find the
right turntable, I had to go through countless turntables. And then finding
the right mixer, but then it didn't have a system where I can pre-hear the
music in my head, so I had to create something called the Peekaboo System, so
I had to, like, actually jury-rig these things, you know. That's why I had to
go into backyards and look for stuff, and sort of, like, go through abandoned
cars or ask people, you know, that might have been throwing away stuff. Just,
you know, it's just so that I can just basically have these things. But at
this point in time, I still didn't know what these internal parts was, so
while I was tearing up all this stuff inside my mother's house and became,
like, public enemy number one with my sisters and stuff, my mother decided to
send me to school.

GROSS: What kind of school?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Samuel Carper's Vocational and Technical High School, and
that's where I started to understand, like, what is a resistor, what is a
capacitor, what is AC vs. DC, what is a transformer, what's a push-pull
circuit, what's a dial rectifier, what's a transistor rise vs. tubes, and
what's an ohm meter and what's an oscilloscope and what's a wave? And, you
know, I started, like, actually understanding as I was not--so now, when I
tore into something, I sort of had somewhat of an idea of what it is or what
it did. So all these things helped me to jury-rig and to put together the
system so that I can start on getting this concept out of my head that just
kept--you know, it just kept staying in my head, so to speak.

GROSS: Why don't we listen to one of your now classic recordings. And this
is "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel."

(Soundbite from "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel")

Mr. SPOONIE GEE: (Rapping) You say, you say, you say, you say, you say
(singing) one for the trouble, two for the time, come on, girls, let's rock
that...

(Soundbite of whistle)

BLONDIE: (Singing) Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's fine. DJ's spinnin'
are savin' my mind. Flash is fast. Flash is fast. Flash is fast. Flash is
cool. Francois sez fas, Flashe' no do.

Mr. GEE: (Rapping) You say one for the trouble, two for the time. Come on
girls, let's rock that...

CHIC: (Singing) Good times.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Grandmaster Flash from the early '80s--one of his classic
recordings--the "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." You
know what I'd like to do? I'd like to hear that again, but this time keep
your microphone on and have you describe what you're doing as we listen to it.
Here we go.

(Soundbite from the "Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel")

Mr. GEE: (Rapping) You say, you say, you say, you say...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch phase. This is Spoonie Gee, "Monster Jam." I let it
go there.

Mr. GEE: (Rapping) ...one for the trouble, two for the time. Come on girls
let's rock that...

(Soundbite of whistle)

BLONDIE: (Singing) Fab Five Freddie told me everybody's high...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Bits of Blondie here.

BLONDIE: (Singing) DJ's spinnin' are saving my mind. Flash is fast, Flash is
fast...

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch phase. Punch phase.

BLONDIE: (Singing) ...flash is fast. Flash is cool. Francois sez fas,
Flashe' no do.

Mr. GEE: (Rapping) You say one for the trouble, two for the time.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Back to Spoonie again.

Mr. GEE: (Rapping) Come on, girls, let's rock that...

CHIC: (Singing) Good times.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Into "Good Times," Chic.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Into "Apache" on a rub.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it up. Cutting it up. Back in again.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Punch phase. Queen, "Another One Bites the Dust." In.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it to rhythm. One (singing) uh, uh, uh, uh.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I'm using "Good Times" to rub the rhythm against Queen.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIC: (Singing) Good times.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: "Good Times" by Chic.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Now that release is so nice the way it synchronizes there.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Thank you. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: That's the whole key to it, you know. That's what my
contribution is. Keeping it on time, that was like the key.

(Soundbite of music)

FREEDOM (Band): (Singing) Grandmaster, cut faster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: It's--I punch bass...

FREEDOM: (Singing) Grandmaster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: ...from Freedom...

FREEDOM: (Singing) Cut faster. Grandmaster, cut, cut, cut faster.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Cutting it up.

FREEDOM: (Singing) Grandmaster, Grandmaster, cut faster.

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: I'm punch phasing "Good Times."

(Soundbite of music)

GRANDMASTER FLASH: Back to "Good Times."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: When we left off in your development as a DJ, you were still working
at home and scavenging audio equipment from junked cars and things like that.
Once you perfected your technique and you started working parties and then
working in clubs, what was it like for you to see the reaction of the crowds
to the thing that you had been doing alone in your home?

GRANDMASTER FLASH: You know, I watch these songs--certain DJs play it from
the beginning, and I knew that at that particular part is where the audience
went wild. So I figured, `Let me just go to the part of these songs and just
do them one behind the other,' but it was just extremely quiet. And it turned
out that the real factor of the matter is, is vocal entertainment was sort of
needed to accompany this new way of DJing. And I made the first attempt, and
I was totally horrible at trying to, like, rap with my mix, and it was really
too much to do at one time because...

GROSS: Sure.

GRANDMASTER FLASH: ...it's constantly--you know, it's a constant, you know,
taking records on, taking them off, putting them on, you know. So I was
horrible at it. Then what I would do is basically put a microphone out on the
other side of the table and anyone that thought that they can verbalize to
this newfound science of mixing, please feel free, you know. Everybody failed
except for this one person who probably was like the savior of my esteem. And
it was Keith Wiggins, he was my first emcee. He went by the name of Cowboy,
you know? Cowboy had a way of--he reminded me of, like, a ringmaster at the
circus, you know, and he had a very commanding voice. And he came up with a
verbalization like, you know, `Throw your hands in the air,' `Say this, ho,
say party,' and this and that. So that was the perfect diversionary tactic to
get people off of looking at me and to look at him and do what he says do
while I go through a series of breaks--you know, just playing one behind
another seamlessly to the beat.

BIANCULLI: Grandmaster Flash speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. Grandmaster
Flash and his influential group The Furious Five will be inducted into the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame next week in New York. It's the first time a
hip-hop act has been honored there.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Freeze, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock, rock,
rock. Aah, aah, aah, aah, aah.

Unidentified Man: Face.

Group: (Singing) Ooh, white. White. Ooh, white. White. Ooh, white.
Black. Ooh, white. White lies...

Man: Visions, dreams of passion.

Group: (Singing) ...flowing through my mind.

Man: And all the while, I think of you.

Group: (Singing) White lies...

Man: A very strange reaction...

(End of soundbite)

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Film critic David Edelstein reviews David Fincher's new
film, "Zodiac"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The unsolved Zodiac murder case of the '60s and '70s became the inspiration
for the modern serial killer genre, but the original still obsesses people,
among them director David Fincher, who made his own Zodiac-like thriller,
"Seven." Fincher's new film, "Zodiac," stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey
Jr. and Mark Ruffalo. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: "Zodiac" centers on the hunt for a California sociopath
who murdered people at random in the '60s and '70s, all the while taunting San
Francisco Bay area police and newspaper editors with threats and bizarre
cryptograms. There was, and is, a lot of evidence pointing to one suspect,
but the man was never tried and is long dead. Consequently, this is a very
unusual serial killer movie. It begins with an attack on a couple, then turns
into a fairly standard police procedural with one more murder set piece and a
lot of discussion among cops and newspapermen. And then, well, where do you
go without the big "Dirty Harry" climax and resolution, or any resolution?
The director, David Fincher, aims to make the lack of closure a source of
creeps, and in the movie's roundabout way, it does get at something
transcendentally icky about the fetish for serial killers that's only grown
more popular.

"Zodiac" is a movie about the allure of grotesque puzzles and about living
with the bogeyman even after the bogeyman in all likelihood no longer lives.
The nominal protagonist isn't a cop or even an investigative reporter, but a
young San Francisco Chronicle editorial cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, played
by Jake Gyllenhaal. It seems like an odd choice, but then Graysmith
eventually gave up editorial cartooning and wrote the two rambling
evidence-packed best-selling books the movie is based on, "Zodiac" and "Zodiac
Unmasked." After the first coded letter comes into the newspaper, he begins to
haunt the desk of the reporter writing the stories, Paul Avery, played by
Robert Downey Jr. Graysmith is the gee-whiz former Eagle Scout, Avery the
cynical alcoholic, but the pair have a lively rapport over drinks and code
books and a copy of the Zodiac's letter.

(Soundbite from "Zodiac")

(Soundbite of "Crystal Blue Persuasion")

Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) In the first cipher...

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY Jr.: (As Paul Avery) You actually carry that around with
you?

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) Why?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Paul Avery) No reason.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) What's the most common double
consonant in the English language?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Paul Avery) Consonant?

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) The double "l."

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Paul Avery) The double "l."

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) And what's the one word that we know
that they'll use in here at least once.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Paul Avery) Kill.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) Right, kill. So...(unintelligible)...
start with a double syllable, which they find here, here and here. Each with
the same two syllables preceding it so now they've got a repeating four-letter
word ending with two syllables that they assume stand for "l."

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Paul Avery) (Unintelligible)...I think the whole word is
kill.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) Well, you've got your "k," you've got
your "i," and you're on your way.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Paul Avery) But how do you go from "a" is 1 to "b" is 2 to
figuring out this whole code?

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) Well, see what I do is go to the
library.

(Soundbite of thumping objects)

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) In this book the author presents a
very simple substitution code in the preface. Eight of the 26 symbols that he
suggests are found in the cipher.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Paul Avery) But they're nonletter symbols because there are
all these medieval ones.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Robert Graysmith) I thought they were medieval, too, but
then I found a code written in the Middle Ages. Guess what it's called? The
Zodiac Alphabet.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Watching these sleuths put this puzzle together is fun, and
there are other lively scenes between Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo, as San
Francisco police inspector Dave Toschi. "Zodiac" is low-key but intense, like
Alan Pakula's journalistic puzzle movie, "All the President's Men," and the
excellent actors talk quickly and play it close to the vest.

But it's the more conventional serial killer stuff that freezes the blood,
like the opening attack on a couple in a parked car at night, with distant
July Fourth fireworks and the sound of Donovan's song "Hurdy Gurdy Man." The
face of the figure that approaches the car from behind, out of a sudden bright
light, is always on the brink of visibility, and the shots when they come
blast right through your head. The second murder set piece is in some ways
the greater and more perverse achievement: in daylight, in the open, the
hooded Zodiac addressing his tied-up and prone targets in almost reassuring
tones.

Still, the movie itself feels like an unfinished puzzle, choppy and diffuse.
Maybe vital connecting material was locked out in the editing room, although
the thing still runs two and a half hours. Or maybe the screenwriter James
Vanderbilt couldn't hack a clear narrative path through Graysmith's books.
Something is missing. Empathy, emotional glue. You're supposed to register
how obsessed Graysmith is becoming to the point where his wife, played by
Chloe Sevigny, decamps with the kids. But Fincher, as he proved in the movie
"Seven," is a cold and rather clinical director. He doesn't seem to share his
protagonist's moral outrage or even his fascination with minutia. He's a mood
ghoul. Even if Fincher were a more empathetic director, though, "Zodiac"
might not have had the emotional kick it would have had 10 or 20 years ago.
Spending one's life in a quest for justice by pouring over forensic files and
exhuming cold cases might once have been considered abnormal behavior. But
today, with thousands of true crime blogs and celebrity forensic scientists,
it's grand escapist entertainment for the masses.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Credits)

BIANCULLI: You can download FRESH AIR as a podcast at our Web site,
freshair.npr.org.

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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