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'Boardwalk' Bet: A High-Stakes Saga From HBO

The new series is set in Atlantic City in the 1920s -- where corruption and organized crime run as freely as the banned booze. Critic David Bianculli is impressed by the cast, which includes Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald, and says the emotionally intense drama is worth adding to your must-see list this fall.


Other segments from the episode on September 17, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 17, 2010: Interview with Theo Bleckmann; Review of the film "Catfish"; Review of the television show "Boardwalk Empire."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Composer Theo Bleckmann Dwells In Possibility


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

Not a lot of people love show tunes and avant-garde music. Fewer still can
perform both well. But today's guest, Theo Bleckmann, is full of vocal
surprises. He's been a part of the New York downtown music scene for more than
15 years.

He's performed with Meredith Monk, John Zorn, Laurie Anderson and the Bang On a
Can All-Stars. He's been a soloist with the Estonian Radio Choir, Merce
Cunningham Dance Company, and the Mark Morris Dance Group.

His new CD, "I Dwell in Possibility," is a meticulous recording, using no
processing whatsoever. It features Bleckmann performing vocal solos while
accompanied by music boxes, autoharp, water, and various toys with which he
amplifies and gently distorts his voice.

Writing about Bleckmann and his new album in The Village Voice, jazz critic
Francis Davis calls him the most startlingly original male vocalist since Bobby
McFerrin. This is Bleckmann's version of a standard, "Comes Love."

(Soundbite of song, "Comes Love")

Mr. THEO BLECKMANN (Singer): (Singing) Come a rain storm, put your rubbers on
your feet. Comes a snow storm, you can get a little heat. Comes love, nothing
can be done.

Comes a fire, then you know just what to do. Blow a tire, you can buy another
shoe. Comes love, nothing can be done.

Don't try hiding 'cause there isn't any use. You'll start sliding when your
heart turns on the juice. Comes a headache, you can lose it in a day. Comes a
toothache, see your dentist right away. Comes love, nothing, nothing can be

BIANCULLI: Theo Bleckmann moved to New York in 1989 from his native Germany. In
2008, he released a CD saluting his homeland called "Berlin: Songs of Love and
War, Peace and Exile." That's when Terry Gross spoke with him. The album
features songs by Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler and others. On this
track, Theo Bleckmann sings "Surabaya-Johnny" from the Brecht-Weill musical
"Happy End."

(Soundbite of song, "Surabaya-Johnny")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing in German)


Theo Bleckmann, welcome to FRESH AIR. That's such a really good version of
"Surabaya-Johnny." Would you talk about what the lyric means?

Mr. BLECKMANN: The lyric is a love song, pining for somebody that no longer
loves him and was abusive. And that is the gist, the core of the song.

Of course it's usually sung by a woman, but in this case I'm singing it as a
man, from a man to a man.

GROSS: So you're out as a singer.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes, out as a singer, out as a person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. Now, I particularly like the spoken part in that song. It's like
you're acting the song. So maybe you could talk a little bit about doing that
kind of (German spoken). What's the Brechtian word for it?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah, it's called (German spoken).

GROSS: Yeah, where it's part-spoken, part-sung.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Exactly. It's sort of that in-between place, where there's no
pitch, but you're still somewhat singing the phrases. It's a very strange

Yeah, I feel very connected to that lyric because I have been in a relationship
like that, not with physical abuse but, you know, abusive otherwise, and so it
felt very close to my heart.

I didn't have to really search that long to really find a place that I could
connect to in this case.

GROSS: Now, most of the songs on your CD "Berlin" are songs with lyrics by
Bertolt Brecht. You grew up in Germany.


GROSS: What did Brecht's songs mean to you in Germany when you were living

Mr. BLECKMANN: Nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Glad I asked. Really? So did you not know them until you moved to

Mr. BLECKMANN: I did know them but from a far distance, and I wouldn't have
touched them. But when I came here - you know, I work a lot in music that has
no words. And I work a lot in music that has English lyrics, and most of all
sometimes very abstract lyrics.

So for me to sing this material was a far stretch at first, and then when I
realized how close I actually felt, how closely related I felt to them, it was
actually quite overwhelming because it's part of my history and it's also part
of the history of this country right now in terms of the political context that
these songs on this record especially have. So it was sort of a homecoming for

GROSS: We heard "Surabaya-Johnny," which is a song about someone whose lover is
- has been abusing them. I'm going to change the tone a little bit and play
another track, and this is a song by - with a lyric by Bertolt Brecht and music
by Hanns Eisler. And I'll ask you to pronounce it, but it's "Als ich in meinem
Lieb trug."

Mr. BLECKMANN: "Als ich dich in meinem Lieb trug."

GROSS: Yeah, that's what I meant to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is a much more, like, march-like and in some parts dissonant
song. Tell us what it means in English and why you chose to sing it.

Mr. BLECKMANN: This is one song of a little suite that we actually took apart
on the record, but it's four songs of a working mother's song to her unborn
child in which she tells the child that you are coming into a very difficult
and sad world and that they're already planning victories with your little

But there's a little bit of hope in those songs too, in saying that I hope you
will stand up against tanks and generals and fight against them. So that's sort
of the gist of these four songs, and that's one of them.

GROSS: And that explains the march-like beat.


GROSS: So this is Theo Bleckmann from his latest CD, "Berlin: Songs of Love and
War, Peace and Exile"

(Soundbite of song, "Als ich dich in meinem Lieb trug")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing in German)

GROSS: That's singer Theo Bleckmann, from his CD "Berlin," and the song we just
heard was written by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht.

We established that growing up in Germany you weren't paying a lot of attention
to the music of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. What were you listening to?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I was listening to American musicals. I was listening to a lot
of jazz as I got older and into my teens, and that really took over. I was
listening to jazz music and then very, very contemporary classical music,
Stockhausen (unintelligible) John Cage.

GROSS: Were American musicals popular in Germany, or was it unusual for someone
young like you to be listening to them?

Mr. BLECKMANN: They were – they were on TV, and I would – I would darken the
living room and forbid everyone to walk through the living room when a musical
was on because it was my private time with the TV.

And then I would find the records for it. At that time you had to order the
records in a record store and it would take six weeks for them to get there. I
grew up in a small town. So – but it was a big, exciting day when the record
arrived, and I would listen to it until the next one came.

GROSS: So when you saw American musicals on TV, were they in English?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: They were dubbed in German and then they broke out into English
songs. It was the weirdest thing, and you wouldn't question it at all, that all
of a sudden they're singing in a different voice with English words, except for
"My Fair Lady," which was overdubbed with German singers.

GROSS: I see.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Overdubbed, the text and the dialogue overdubbed in German.

GROSS: How strange. So did it help you – like I assume you were singing along
in English. Did you already know English?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah, you learn it in school.

GROSS: (Unintelligible)

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, I just - most of it I didn't understand. I always thought in
"The Wizard of Oz" that Judy Garland sang I wish I were a porno star and wake
up where the clouds are far...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: I thought why would she wish that? That is so weird.

GROSS: Did you really think that?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I really thought that, yeah.

GROSS: That's great.

BIANCULLI: Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with vocalist Theo
Bleckmann. His new CD is called "I Dwell in Possibility."

GROSS: You were born in 1966. So you were born, you know, a couple of decades
after the war. Did the war have any impact on you when you were growing up, or
did that seem like something that was way over?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, no, no, it was very present in my family. My parents were
children. My father actually went into the war. He lost a limb in the war. He
lost his leg in the Second World War.

My parents were quite old when they adopted me. So they were part of that whole
generation - of course my grandmother too. So there was a lot of history about
that in our family.

My grandfather, who I never met, but he, from my mother's side, he was a big
opponent of the war and of the Nazis, and he got into some trouble in our
little town, but - and my mother had to go to another school because she didn't
want to join the Hitler Youth. So there was a lot of impact, and there are
still stories that I get from my mother to this day that are about that time.

GROSS: Did your father want to fight, or was he forced to fight?

Mr. BLECKMANN: He was forced to fight, yeah, and he went to the Russian front
and came back, you know, crippled.

GROSS: And do you know the story behind your adoption?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I know very little. I tried to find my birth mother. When I
turned 30, I got this bee in my bonnet that I would want to do that, especially
fueled by all these reunification stories that you see on TV.

And so I wrote to the adoption agency, through which this process had to be
facilitated, and they sent my letter to my birth mother, which they had found,
and then she sent a letter back through the agency to me saying that she didn't
want to meet me, didn't want to get to know me.

This went on for two more letters, I think, and me saying, you know, I just
want to meet you, there's no financial impact, or I'm not a crazy person. But
she just didn't want to meet me. So that was the end of that, and I didn't
pursue it any more after that.

GROSS: Do you feel bad about that?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, it was a second adoption, really. It was being adopted
for, you know, given up a second time. Maybe my hopes were too high, but it was
difficult, I have to say. It was difficult. But it's done, closed chapter.

GROSS: My guest is singer Theo Bleckmann.

You know, we talked about how much you loved show tunes growing up in Germany,
and an earlier CD that you did a couple of years ago, called "Las Vegas
Rhapsody," has a lot of, like, show tunes and American pop tunes in it. Are any
of the songs on that album songs that had personal significance from your

Mr. BLECKMANN: Particularly "Out of My Dreams" and "We Kiss in a Shadow" meant
a lot to me, because those were two of the songs that were on records that I
had bought and listened to over and over and over again. I think I got those
lyrics right, hopefully.

GROSS: Those are actually my two favorite tracks on the album.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And I thought we'd play "We Kiss in the Shadows," and this is from the
Rodgers & Hammerstein musical "The King and I." Is that one of the musicals
that you watched a lot?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes, when they would come on TV. There was no VCR or anything,
so maybe once a year.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is "We Kiss in the Shadows," and Fumio Yasuda
is accompanying you at the piano, and this is from Theo Bleckmann's album "Las
Vegas Rhapsody."

(Soundbite of song, "We Kiss in a Shadow")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) We kiss in a shadow. We hide from the moon. Our
meetings are few and over too soon. We speak in a whisper afraid to be heard.
When people are near, we speak not a word.

Alone in our secret, together we sigh for one smiling day to be free, to kiss
in the sunlight and say to the sky, behold and believe what you see, behold how
my lover loves me.

GROSS: That's Theo Bleckmann, from his album "Las Vegas Rhapsody," and his CD
"Berlin" features German songs, mostly songs with lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, and
Theo Bleckmann grew up in Germany.

How old were you when you moved to the United States?

Mr. BLECKMANN: I was 23.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned your dream was to be a painter. I had read that you
were an ice dancer in Germany.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Is that wrong?

Mr. BLECKMANN: That's correct.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes, during my voice break, I needed something else to do, so I
went into figure skating. And you know, after my voice came back, that took

GROSS: So what kind of music did you dance to as a figure skater?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Oh, of course show tunes, Gershwin. One of the routines we did
was to a "Sweet Charity" medley, and Gershwin, I always thought it would be so
kooky to use a Weber and string quartet or something completely atonal and
crazy. But of course, so many people have fingers in their pie of what
decisions are being made, including costumes and music. So that was never an

GROSS: What's the greatest costume you wore?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Spandex, of course, and lots of glitter on it.

GROSS: Now, when you talk about your voice break - because you were singing as
a boy, and you had to wait out the break in your voice - it sounds like, well,
you know, taking a little hiatus while my voice breaks. But it must have been
kind of scary for you when your voice broke, to not know how it would come

Mr. BLECKMANN: Oh my God, yes, especially when your identity as a musician, as
a child, was so closely linked to that. I remember being in the recording
studio and doing a recording at that time, and I thought that licorice would
help it go away. So I just kept eating licorice, bag after bag after bag, and
it would help.

You know, it goes up and down in the beginning. So I thought, oh, this is
really working. But of course it didn't. Yeah, it's scary.

BIANCULLI: Singer Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. His new CD
is called "I Dwell in Possibility." We'll hear more of their conversation in
the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back
with more of Terry's interview with singer Theo Bleckmann. He's a singer as
comfortable with show tunes as he is with avant-garde music. His 2006 album,
"Las Vegas Rhapsody," featured show tunes and pop songs. His 2008 album,
"Berlin: Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile," featured German songs from
the theater and elsewhere. And his new album, "I Dwell in Possibility," is all
about vocal and musical experimentation, the very subject he and Terry
discussed two years ago.

GROSS: I'd like our listeners to hear your more contemporary or experimental,
whatever you want to call it, that side of you.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Is there something you'd like us to play?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, maybe "Norwegian Wood," which sort of brings together both
of those elements.

GROSS: Song and adventure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm. That's nicely put.

GROSS: You do something in the break of this that sounds kind of like Tuvan
throat singing.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm, which it is. Yeah. I worked on my overtone singing some
while back and see if I could refine it on my own and work on which overtones I
get when and sort of that part entered this arrangement.

GROSS: Is there a way - would you be willing to just like demonstrate what it
is that you do? Like how it sounds and how do you get there?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, the easiest way to start overtone singing is to go into
your bathroom, if you have a, you know, especially reverberant bathroom, and
start singing...

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. BLECKMANN: your mid to low range on the word bird and stay on the ir,
especially easy for Americans, especially from Texas.

(Soundbite of Tuvan throat singing exercise)

Mr. BLECKMANN: And play around with the position of the tongue and move it back
and forth very slowly and listen to what's coming out.

GROSS: Is it the lips too that you're moving?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Not so much the lips but the inside of your mouth. The cavities
are changing, mostly the tongue. It's the tongue position.

GROSS: But when you sing in overtones it sounds like you're singing several
notes at one time.

Mr. BLECKMANN: They just swing along. They just ring along with what I'm
singing because they're present. It's like a color spectrum, each color has
other colors in it. The color white has all the colors in it, so I just - by
just, changing the shape of my mouth I emphasize red and blue and yellow and
purple in this spectrum.

GROSS: Okay, so let's hear what you do with "Norwegian Wood," singing it and
doing a little throat singing - overtone singing in there.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And this is from an album that you made with the guitarist Ben Monder
and the CD is called "At Night."

(Soundbite of song, "Norwegian Wood")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine. We
talked until two, and then she said it's time for bed. She told me she worked
in the morning and started to laugh. I told her I didn't, and crawled off to
sleep in the bath.

GROSS: That's singer Theo Bleckmann with Ben Monder on guitar from their album
"At Night."

Because you have such range and flexibility and tonal variety with your voice,
I think you've also done some like movie special effects?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm. Yes. I've done...

GROSS: Yeah. Tell us what you've done?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, I got a call some years ago from a friend of mine who was
engineering a sound improv session for a movie and he asked me to read this
dialogue in the voice of an alien. And I read through this and it was this
person whose head opens and then this alien comes out of the head and then this
person falls into a plate of pierogies. And so I was supposed to read this but
pretend I was an alien. And I thought, this is the worst movie script I've ever
seen in my life. It was just two pages. Just this one scene. And so I kept, you
know, doing one take. And he said okay, now do it in another way and I did
another take and this goes on and on. And after six takes, we're like okay,
done. I said who directs this? This is not even a B movie. This is like an F
movie. And he said this is a Steven Spielberg production called "Men in Black."

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: "Men in Black."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well, that was one of them.

GROSS: That little movie. Yeah.


GROSS: So, we'll hear the scene. But tell us what you did vocally.

Mr. BLECKMANN: I just improvised what to me could be alien language and, you
know, they asked for it to be lip sync-able, so not too crazy so that people
could learn it. I think what ultimately happened in this session was that it
was too complicated for them or I don't know what happened, but usually, my
biggest pet peeve with these alien voices is that they all have this strange
reverb on them, if you've noticed. So there's so much effect on this alien in
the movie that I can't even tell if it's my voice or somebody else's voice.

GROSS: Oh, because it's so processed?

Mr. BLECKMANN: It's so processed. It's so strange, like aliens come to this
world with a complete reverb chamber and EQ system that surrounds them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Hey, they have better technology on other planets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So since we won't be able to tell it's you on the film, do you want to
just do what you did?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Well I did something like...

(Soundbite of alien voice)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Perhaps something like that.

GROSS: It almost sounds like it was processed in some parts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: If you put enough reverb on it, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with vocalist Theo
Bleckmann. His new CD is called "I Dwell in Possibility."

GROSS: So when you moved to America you were 23.


GROSS: Were you already out in Germany when you moved to the States?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No. No I still had a girlfriend when I moved here. And the way I
was outted in Germany was I was reviewed in a gay magazine for a record that I
did, saying that I was gay and I thought my life would end. I thought this is
it, my life is over. I will have no career and everybody will hate me. I might
as well just, you know, pack it up. And first of all, nobody cares. Nobody
reads the thing, first of all, and then secondly, nobody cares. That's the most
amazing thing. Nobody cares.

GROSS: So what year is this?

Mr. BLECKMANN: This was 1991.

GROSS: So this was a German gay magazine.


GROSS: So did nobody care because nobody cared about you or did nobody care
because the atmosphere was that open that nobody cared that you were gay?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yeah. Exactly. And most people...

GROSS: Open? Open?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Open, and most people will say oh, we already knew. Hello, you
were ice skating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You were ice skating to show tunes.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Glitter costumes. Yes. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you still skate?

Mr. BLECKMANN: No. I - the last time I went skating was with a good friend of
mine, Maria Schneider, who used to be a figure skater herself.

GROSS: She's a jazz composer, an arranger.


GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. And we went figure skating in Central Park when the Christo
installation was up, and that was really fun. But after an hour I can't even
stand it anymore because my feet start to hurt so much in my old skating boots
that I just have to stop.

GROSS: Right. Okay.

Mr. BLECKMANN: And it's kind of depressing. You can do one trick and that's it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: You know, one little pirouette or one lame little jump. This is
not - it's no fun anymore.

GROSS: You've work with like sound distortion and manipulation and electronic
music and stuff.

Mr. BLECKMANN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And the German group Kraftwerk was some of the first groups to bring
like the pop version of electronic music.


GROSS: And, you know, they had big hits. So did they have any influence on you
when you were younger?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Absolutely. I actually perform one of their songs...

GROSS: No, really?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: ...with a little Casio keyboard.

GROSS: Not the "Autobahn?"

Mr. BLECKMANN: No, it's called "The Model" - "Das Modell." I love them. I think
they're absolutely genius. I can't say enough about them. Yeah. I tried to get
tickets to their concert last time they were in New York but it was impossible.
I just - I worship at their feet. They're amazing.

GROSS: So what's the song that you do, "The Model?"

Mr. BLECKMANN: It's called "The Model." She's a model and she's looking good,
is the first line of the lyric.

GROSS: Can you sing a couple of bars of it?

(Soundbite of song, "The Model")

Mr. BLECKMANN: (Singing) (Foreign language spoken)

That's the song.

GROSS: That's like African clicking that you're doing as you hum, yeah?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Yes. I'm trying to be my own Casio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Have you studied a lot of world singing techniques?

Mr. BLECKMANN: Not really. I think a lot of this stuff is self-evident when you
start exploring. I've done a lot of just recording myself, exploring, seeing
what I can do. Let's say I would go through the alphabet. I'd start with the
letter A and I come up with every sound that I can on the vowel A. And then I
take the first one and I make three variations on the first one, etcetera, so
it becomes this tree of variations. And then...

GROSS: Show me what you mean.

Mr. BLECKMANN: So let's say I have A...

(Soundbite of demonstrating A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Ahhhhhh. Try to get a buzz in there a little bit.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Then I make a variation on that one.

(Soundbite of demonstrating variation of A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Put a vibrato in it.

(Soundbite of vibrato A)


(Soundbite of staccato A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: To a staccato. Then I do another gravelly ah on maybe on the

(Soundbite of gravelly A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Etcetera. And then I do, you know, other ahs, other sounds with
ah that have different variations. So I write them down and meticulously lay it
out and see if I can combine them. So that's where the click comes in, where I
have, maybe I have a...

(Soundbite of clicking A)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Etcetera. You know, it's endless. It's an endless game of just
trying to find sounds and see what you can do. Sort of like a painter changing
- taking their colors and putting them together and mixing them to different
degrees and seeing if this one works next to that one and let's put, you know,
more white into that and more this and more that, so it's very simple. But
then, and this goes back to Meredith, then the hardest part is what does it
mean? What is this about? Is this just a cool effect or what am I trying to say
here? And this is what I'm constantly struggling with and working on is why?
Why this sound? Why that sound? What does it mean to me? And that's when the
work starts to - I think to jam and get more into a deeper place for me.

GROSS: Well, Theo Bleckmann, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank
you for demonstrating some of the things that you can do with your voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLECKMANN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Singer Theo Bleckmann, speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. His new CD
is called, "I Dwell in Possibility."
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Catfish': A Great Story Of Isolation And Connection


A hit at last year's Sundance Film Festival, the documentary called "Catfish,"
opens in many cities this week. Dubbed a reality thriller by Universal, its
distributor, the film tracks an increasingly intense online relationship
between the brother of one of the New York filmmakers and a family in Michigan.

Film critic David Edelstein has this carefully spoiler-free review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: There have been rumors that the documentary "Catfish" isn't on
the up-and-up. I mention this for a couple of reasons. The first is, I'm gun-
shy these days about narrative nonfiction. Apart from all the literary memoirs
that have turned out to be fake, there are documentaries like, "Tarnation,"
"Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop" and recently, "I'm Still Here," in which
you can't completely trust what's onscreen.

It's true documentaries should always be approached cautiously, since it's easy
to manipulate reality, even when a filmmaker takes a passive, fly-on-the-wall
approach. But, more than ever, the video-diary format lends itself to subjects
who are acting instead of being.

The second reason I mention these charges is that even if parts of the movie
are, let's say, engineered, "Catfish" works as a great story of isolation,
deception and finally connection in our strange new Internet-oriented world.

One other thing that's so strange and new is that, thanks to high-def video,
making a movie can be almost as easy as breathing. It was hard and expensive to
pick up a 16-millimeter camera and shoot hundreds of hours, but you can keep a
video diary of anything. You don't have to know where it will lead, which is
the foundation of "Catfish."

Here's the scene. Two New York filmmakers, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, who
usually make dance documentaries, get interested in something happening to
Schulman's younger brother, Tanev(ph) — or Nev. He's a photographer, and has
published in a magazine a striking photo of a female dancer lifted high by a
male. On Facebook, Nev has been contacted by an 8-year-old girl from rural
Michigan named Abby. She wants to send him a painting she did of his photo, and
when it arrives, it's better than good: It captures the energy in the dancer's
limbs, the sense of transcendence in their flight.

Abby sends more paintings. She's a prodigy. And through Facebook, Nev makes
contact with her older sister, Megan, who's very attractive in photos, and
clearly has the hots for him. It's no wonder, since Nev, with his dark hair and
eyes and boyish diffidence, might as well be called Mr. Adorable. And he's just
as excited about Megan.

The first phone conversation between the two is charming and awkward, like old-
fashioned young lovers a-courting.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Catfish")

Ms. MEGAN FACCIO: (as Herself) Hello?

Mr. NEV SCHULMAN (Photographer): (as Himself) Hey, Megan?

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) Yeah?

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) Hey, it's Nev.

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) Hi, how are you?

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) Your voice is not at all what I expected.

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) I'm sorry.

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) No. Not. No, it's - it's really, it's a terrific
voice. I just, I don't know. I guess you never really think of a voice when you
only know somebody in a certain way. I happen to think my voice is sort of

Ms. FACCIO: (as Herself) Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHULMAN: (as Himself) Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EDELSTEIN: I can't talk in too much detail about "Catfish" without giving away
its winding and suspenseful trajectory. Obviously, this wouldn't be much of a
story if Abby and Megan and their mother, Angela, were entirely as they present
themselves. But what and who are they? The trio of guys finally use Google Maps
and a GPS, and head off to Michigan in search of answers, and there are moments
when "Catfish" develops a "Blair Witch Project"-like vibe: Maybe Facebook will
claim three victims. Indeed, the studio's marketing plays up the mystery-
thriller aspect, with dark, empty houses in the woods and details that don't
add up.

And here I must stop, except to say the emotions the movie kicks up run the
gamut from anxiety to contempt to curiosity to compassion. One of the
characters turns out to have unimagined depth, and by the end, I was fighting
off tears.

As for that charge that "Catfish" is faked, I don't believe it. Certain scenes
do feel less authentic than others, as if they're being played up for the sake
of drama, for example Nev's starry-eyed responses to Megan's emails. But there
is, underneath, a true sense of adventure. The film gets at the magic-carpet
aspect of this new medium, which whisks you into other people's lives so
quickly and intensely.

Although there are dangers, although you can't fully trust what you read
online, there's always the potential for revelatory encounters. In this new
realm, people compulsively hide and expose themselves in fascinating and
unpredictable ways - ways that can draw you more deeply into their inner lives
than face-to-face interactions. Every person in "Catfish" comes out feeling
more alive. And so does the audience.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed
"Catfish," the new documentary about a computerized social networking site.

FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado just returned from the Toronto International
Film Festival, where she saw 22 movies in six says. You can read all about her
experience and see her photos from the festival on FRESH AIR's Tumblr at And tumblr is spelled without an E - T-u-m-b-l-r.

Coming up, I'll review the new HBO crime drama, "Boardwalk Empire."

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
'Boardwalk' Bet: A High-Stakes Saga From HBO


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli.

"Boardwalk Empire," the new organized crime drama series from HBO, begins
Sunday. Yes, the network that gave us "The Sopranos" is hoping to prove again
that crime does pay, at least so far as subject matter for a weekly series.

"Boardwalk Empire" is set in Atlantic City in the 1920s. It starts just before
Prohibition, with city movers and shakers holding a huge party and literally
counting down the seconds until the new law banning alcohol will make them even

(Soundbite of TV show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Unidentified Actors: (as characters) 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

(Soundbite of door)

(Soundbite of song, "Taps")

Unidentified Actor: (as character) Prohibition.

(Soundbite of cheering)

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: When you hear HBO is presenting another drama series about the mob,
the initial reaction is that the network is ripping off "The Sopranos" and the
many crime films of Martin Scorsese. Except that "Boardwalk Empire" is created
by Terence Winter, who produced and wrote or co-wrote dozens of episodes of
"The Sopranos" — including the classic "Pine Barrens" episode. And the pilot of
"Boardwalk Empire" is directed by Martin Scorsese himself, who's also an
executive producer. So if anyone has earned the right to explore more of this
territory, it's these guys.

Based on Nelson Johnson's nonfiction book about the colorful history of
Atlantic City, "Boardwalk Empire" begins as Prohibition made the sale of
alcohol illegal. One of the characters poised to profit immediately is Nucky
Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi and based on a real-life Atlantic City
powerbroker named Nucky Johnson. "Boardwalk Empire," like the book and movie
"Ragtime," mixes actual historical characters with invented ones, so we get a
young, cocky Al Capone, but we also get a wholly invented young thug named
Jimmy Darmody, a World War I veteran played by Michael Pitt. Jimmy has returned
from the frontlines with an itchy trigger finger, and Nucky, who up to now has
made his fortune without spilling blood, isn't happy about his employee's
violent streak.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Mr. MICHAEL PITT (Actor): (as Jimmy Darmody) Nucky. Nuck.

Mr. STEVE BUSCEMI (Actor): (as Nucky Johnson) I take you back.

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Nucky.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) I give you a job.

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Listen.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) And this is how you (bleep) pay me?

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Last night was not supposed to happen like that,

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) Well, make sure you mention that to Rothstein
as he's cutting your (bleep) off.

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) It's all going to get straighten out, Nuck. I

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) Are you that stupid? Have you no (bleep) idea
how in over your head you are?

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) I know it's a lot but...

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) Did I not tell you to slow down? I tried to
give you money. I tried to help...

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) I'm trying to tell you, I'm not a kid anymore.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) And killing. And (bleep) larceny. That makes
you a man?

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) No.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) You got brains, kid. You got a future.

Mr. PITT: (as Jimmy Darmody) Look, I still got a future. We both do. The war,

BIANCULLI: That's the side of Steve Buscemi we expect to see - the frustrated
hothead who has been so entertaining in supporting roles in "Fargo," "The Big
Lebowski" and, yes, "The Sopranos." But Nucky is the starring role, and Buscemi
makes the most of it. Lording over Atlantic City from his suite of rooms at the
Ritz-Carlton, he barks orders, ridicules underlings and confronts powerful

Yet he's not all business: He has a dumb but spirited mistress, played with all
kinds of entertaining zeal by Paz de la Huerta. And very quickly, he develops a
soft spot for Margaret, a poor pregnant woman who comes to see him after her
husband has lost all their money gambling. Margaret is played by Kelly
Macdonald, and in this new crime series, she's the biggest thief of all,
because she positively steals every scene she's in.

You may have been impressed by this young actress in the past - I have, when
she starred opposite Bill Nighy in "The Girl in the Cafe" and co-starred in the
original miniseries version of "State of Play." But here Kelly Macdonald, like
Steve Buscemi, vaults herself to a new level.

Here they are together in a scene when Margaret first visits Nucky in his
lavish office.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Boardwalk Empire")

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) Please, have a seat.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) May I offer you tea?

Ms. KELLY MACDONALD (Actor): (as Margaret) Thank you, I'm fine.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) No, it's no trouble. Have you eaten?

Ms. MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Thank you, no. I mean, I have. Yes. I've eaten,
but I...

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) Okay. Relax. Please. No more appointments.

(Soundbite of door closing)

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) Is that a bit of the old country I hear in your

Ms. MACDONALD: (as Margaret) My husband says I sound like an immigrant.

Mr. BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Johnson) Ah. But we're all immigrants, are we not?

BIANCULLI: It takes several episodes - I've seen the first six - for their
relationship to evolve into something different, and something potentially
dangerous. All of "Boardwalk Empire" is like that. Think of it as a chess game,
where the opening moves establish the positions of various pieces. It takes
patience to develop strategies and spring traps, but there's a major payoff. By
the third hour, you really care about these people, and that makes the stakes,
and the violence, more intense.

In fact, there are scenes in "Boardwalk Empire" that are unforgettably violent.
Not over the top, like a carnage-obsessed video game, but unforgettable for
their emotional intensity - like when Roman Polanski sliced Jack Nicholson's
nostril in "Chinatown." It's Atlantic City, Jake, and it's just as powerful.

"Boardwalk Empire," without question, is better than any new series the
broadcast networks are serving up this fall. It's the only new show worth
adding to your weekly must-see list. And with its visual majesty and period
music, it's like nothing else on TV this year. Unlike most things in Atlantic
City, "Boardwalk Empire" is a very good bet.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(Soundbite of song, "Some of These Days")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Some of these days, you'll miss me, honey. Some
of these days, you're gonna be so lonely. You'll miss my huggin'. You're gonna
my kissin'. You're gonna miss me honey when I'm far away. I feel so lonely, for
you only. 'Cause you know...

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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