Skip to main content

Donovan To Be Inducted Into Songwriters Hall Of Fame

The singer-songwriter wrote several '60s folk rock hippie anthems, including "Sunshine Superman." He spoke to Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 2004.

12:25

Other segments from the episode on May 23, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 23, 2014: Obituary for Gordon Willis; Preview of Larry Kramer's 1985 play "The Normal Heart"; Interview with Donovan Leitch; Review of the film "The Immigrant".

Transcript

May 23, 2014

Guests: Gordon Willis - Donovan

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of TVWorthWatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross. Gordon Willis, the talented and influential cinematographer who photographed many of the best movies of the 1970s and beyond, died of cancer Sunday. He was 82 years old. Willis was nominated for only two Academy Awards during his career, for Woody Allen's "Zelig" and for "The Godfather: Part III." He didn't win for either, but he was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2009 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 1995.

His string of stunningly photographed movies speaks for itself. Here are scenes from a few of his classic films.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE GODFATHER")

MARLON BRANDO: (as Vito Corleone) If you'd come to me in friendship, then this scum that ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then they would become my enemies. And then they will fear you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN")

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) Mitchell was in control.

ROBERT REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) Wait a minute.

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) There were men working in under Mitchell.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) How many?

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) I don't know how many. But the men working under Mitchell are the ones that received the money from the slush fund.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) OK. Do we know how much money were talking about?

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) Yeah, were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars, and these men are the key to what that money was used for. Boy, that woman was paranoid. At one point I suddenly wondered how high up this thing goes, and her paranoia finally got to me. I thought what we had was so hot that any minute CBS or NBC were going to come in through the windows and take the story away.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) You're both paranoid. She's afraid of John Mitchell, and you're afraid of Walter Cronkite.

HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) Right.

REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) Can we go back...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNIE HALL")

DIANE KEATON: (as Annie Hall) Hi, hi.

WOODY ALLEN: (as Alvy Singer) Oh, hi. Hi.

KEATON: (as Annie Hall) Well, bye.

ALLEN: (as Alvy Singer) You play very well.

KEATON: (as Annie Hall) Oh, yeah? So do you. Oh, God, what a dumb thing to say, right? I mean, you say you play well, then right away I have to say you play well. Oh, oh, God, Annie. Well, oh well. La di da, la di da, la la.

BIANCULLI: In that sequence, we heard Marlon Brando in "The Godfather," Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford in "All the President's Men," and Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in "Annie Hall," three films on which Gordon Willis served as cinematographer. He shot eight Woody Allen movies and the entire Godfather trilogy. His other films include "Klute," "The Parallax View" and "Pennies from Heaven."

In 2002, Terry Gross invited Gordon Willis to talk about some of his films, starting with "The Godfather," which was released in 1972. She began by asking him about the guiding principles behind the look of that film.

GORDON WILLIS: You know, for a while, I really didn't know what to do with that movie. You know, I thought about it for weeks and I finally decided, this should be - this kind of brassy yellow look to it. Don't ask me why, it just felt right, you know? So that was the first thing that I applied in my thinking. And the other part of the thinking was, it should have this kind of New York street look, one-foot-in-the-gutter '40s kind of feeling, a little dirty.

And so I was satisfied with that kind of a feeling in my mind. And then the other thing is, well, I thought, you know, we didn't get the money to go to Sicily until about two-thirds of the way through the movie when Paramount people realized that they had something better than a cheap crime novel on their hands.

So they gave us the money to go to Sicily. So I figured at that point Sicily should look, you know, mythical and sunny and kind of storybook feeling. So that there was a juxtaposition between these two places New York and Sicily. And there was a counterpoint when we went back and forth.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Let me ask you about one of the kind of the most famous scenes in the first Godfather movie, and that's when the studio executive who isn't playing ball with the Corleone family...

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: ...wakes up in his silk sheets, in his satin cover to find that his bed is basically flooded with blood because the decapitated head of his horse is underneath the covers. Can you talk about shooting that scene?

WILLIS: It was very hot that day.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: It was kind of smelly. I think for animal lovers, you have to know this was a real horse's head, by the way, but it was a horse that had already died and one that was, pardon me, in the glue factory already. So they acquired the horse and kept it on ice and, you know, we put it in bed and when we were ready, after we were through lighting, etcetera, and off we went.

But as I say, I preface it by saying it was hot that day, so once you took this horse out of the ice, it got a little gamey. So it was kind of the last thing we did. But it was, it was real, a real horse.

GROSS: And what were your concerns as a cinematographer of that scene?

WILLIS: Well, my concern always is just getting it right. I mean, you know, getting the visualization of the moment, getting that right. That's always my concern.

GROSS: And what did getting it right mean in this situation, where a guy is kind of waking up out of a dream, senses something's wrong, and then realizes this absolutely horrible thing has happened, this absolutely horrible thing is happening in his bed and he's just like screaming?

WILLIS: Well, from my point of view, getting it right means seeing it at the level that you should see it from an audience point of view, perceiving it properly, visually.

GROSS: What are some of the changes you made between the first "Godfather" and "Godfather II" in terms of, for instance, how you shot the interiors because "Godfather II," it's a different decade, it's a different generation.

BIANCULLI: Right. Well, one of the things you have to do, or one of the things that I decided to do, was that since these are sister movies and that they really work together in a sense, is that I maintained the same color structure in the second Godfather.

WILLIS: It was this yellow, kind of yellow that went - however, the content of the structure of the photography I changed because of this turn-of-the-century feeling and the retrospective footage. And then we went from, you know, 1902 up to 1950-something in Lake Tahoe. So, it was tricky because you had New York, then you had Sicily, which had to be different but still in the same time period.

And then, you know, you had Lake Tahoe in the '50s. So when you have an audience watching this kind of film, you don't want to push too much visual information at too many different levels. You want to be able - they should be able to watch the movie, take it in, know they're in a different place and be able to accept that without getting in the way of telling the story.

I mean at one point, Francis said to me: How are we going to know where we are here? Were going from here to there to there to here. I said, look, you know, we get to New York and you say its New York, 19-so-so. When you get to France(ph), say, put it - you know, put a one-liner under it. I said, it's been done for years, its classy, everybody will - and everybody will know where they are and there won't be any problem.

So there were presentation of a story that was that long and that complex, you want to present simply, you know, because simple is the most elegant, you know.

GROSS: What were the streets in New York or the parts of New York that were easiest to transform convincingly to the turn of the century?

WILLIS: Jesus, none of them. It was, you know, we were downtown in the Lower East Side. And what happened was we had one - actually one east to west block, which the art department, Dean Tavoularis, who did a great job, it changed.

Changed means, you know, you redo everything. You redo all the storefronts, the buildings. And the buildings, for the most part, the superstructure of the buildings were about the same. But all the storefronts and everything had to be put back in time.

So it was very complex. And then, of course, you see past that into more contemporary streets at the very end, which I had to block out with big tarps and things that became sort of transfused into the visual. You couldn't see them. It was tough.

GROSS: You had to put tarps over whole buildings?

WILLIS: I put tarps over whole buildings not based on what I just said, but I'd hang them like two blocks away so you couldn't see down. But I had to tarp one whole side of the street.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: People yelling at us. We pulled tarps right up in front of their windows. But because the sun would hit that side of the street and that side of the building and bounce into the street and we didn't - we couldn't do that. You know, we had to have continuity in the visual structure. So that was - there were two reasons for tarps: one to kill sun and one so you couldn't see across town.

BIANCULLI: Cinematographer Gordon Willis, speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with cinematographer Gordon Willis, who died Sunday at age 82. He photographed such classic movies as "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "All The President's Men" and the "Godfather" trilogy.

GROSS: In the "Godfather" films, there are so many great actors...

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: ...different generations of great actors, different types of acting styles. You've got De Niro, Pacino, Brando, Lee Strasberg.

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: What - was there anything that had to change in your approach to shooting them because of their different approaches to acting? I mean, for example, is one of them the kind who wanted to do a scene over and over again and another the kind of actor who believes first take is best take?

WILLIS: Yeah. You've always got a certain amount of that while you're working. Regarding the structure of the movie, they had to do what, you know, we had laid out. And you sort of work in concert to make sure everybody's comfortable, but that's the design of the movie. As far as the way they function, yeah. You know, Al would like to do things in a certain way.

And actually the most definitive actor was Lee Strasberg. He had no problems doing it and doing it well and not doing it a whole lot, you know? Marlon Brando didn't like to do a lot of takes, either. Al - I don't remember him being particularly indulgent, wanting to do too many. But, you know, it depends on how secure an actor is within the structure of the scene and the material and how far he wants to go with it.

But I think Bobby De Niro was kind of the most method actor in the group, and Bob would take a while to get to the place that he thought was good, almost to the point, drive you crazy. You know, how to pick an apple, you know, 25 minutes later he's still trying to pick it up three, four different ways.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: And I mean, you know, and Francis said just pick the apple up and eat it. I mean, you know - so, but everybody has their own way in, you know. And finally, if it works, that's all that matters.

GROSS: I'm sure you realize that, you know, when Brando was in the "Godfather," that everybody would be studying him to see what did he look like? How had he changed? What's his acting like now?

WILLIS: Oh yeah, right.

GROSS: Yeah. So how did that affect how you shot him, knowing that he had to look, you know, pretty iconic in this movie, that he was a much older man than people remembered and that he was no longer going to be like the kind of a sex icon that, you know, that he was?

WILLIS: Yeah, well, of course, all that worked in our favor because just to recap this business about asking about photography on the first movie, this - the thing that happened, or that had to happen, was Marlon said, well, I have this idea, you know, about this makeup and everything. He says but, you know, it has to be photographed. I said sure. I know. So we shot these tests, which are actually those tests that are available on some of the rereleases of the "Godfather" on DVD.

But - so we went into the studio, and he stuffs this stuff in his mouth and he puts on a few things, and he - and to make a long story short, I had to design the lighting from - so that Marlon looked right in the movie when you first see him in the office and when you see him in the rest of the movie.

And the design of that lighting had to work for Marlon, but it also - I had to be able to take it in through the rest of the movie, to be able to apply it everywhere. So actually, it was him and his makeup and his look that actually were responsible for the designing the overall look of the lighting, which was not only carried through one, but it was carried through two, as well.

GROSS: So what was it that you needed to do lighting-wise to get his look right?

WILLIS: Yeah, the bottom line of it is it all had to be overhead lighting because, I mean, there were two things. They didn't really want to see his eyes that well, although I was criticized for it because I didn't want anybody to say, well, you didn't want to quite know what he was thinking all the time, you know.

And in order to make the makeup work, we had to have this sort of overhead lighting to give him this look that he had. And, of course, everybody else had to have - selectively had to be subjected to the same kind of lighting to make the movie hold together visually.

GROSS: There's this great operatic sequence in "Godfather I" that intercuts between a baptismal scene in a church and these Corleone mob murders. And could you talk a little bit about the kind of shooting that you did to give it that operatic look?

WILLIS: What happened was it was Francis' idea to use this counterpoint of taking this baby, this child in the environment of a church and the dialogue that went with it denouncing the devil, et cetera, and at the same time putting the counterpoint of killing everybody against that image. So that idea in itself sort of holds the whole thing together.

So it's the idea - it's the counterpoint that makes this so strong, of a baby renouncing the devil and a baby being christened in the middle of the church, and then the counterpoint of all these people being murdered. So it wouldn't mean much - a lot of people have tried to do that in movies since, by the way, one form or another. But...

GROSS: I noticed.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: Yeah. Who wouldn't? Yeah. But it wouldn't mean much if you, you know, finished that scene, got in the car and drove away then started the other stuff. So it - what means something is the counterpoint of it, you know, of, you know, Richie Castellano shooting somebody in an elevator and then somebody in a machine and somebody else in bed and then somebody getting shot. It's - I don't want to use the word fun, but it's fun to watch that kind of structure. It's definitive, and it works, you know.

GROSS: Let's talk about working on Woody Allen's movies. "Manhattan" is shot in black and white.

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Was that your idea or Woody Allen's idea?

WILLIS: Well, actually, it was Woody's idea because he loves black and white. So do I. It was...

GROSS: Why do you love black and white?

WILLIS: I don't know. I look at New York. It's kind of a black and white city to me. It's, you know, when you work in color, it's a burden. It can be a burden to an audience if you don't use it properly, and it's burden to the people that are working with it because if you don't make the right choices in color, you don't make the right choices in clothes, you don't make the right choices - you know, then it all comes together. It looks good.

Whereas in black and white, you're really working in values, you know, grays, blacks and white. So actually the visual structure in a black-and-white movie can become more difficult in one sense because you have to pay attention to values, you know, separating people from backgrounds, et cetera, et cetera, where - and I just find the content of black-and-white movie sometimes, sometimes can be a lot easier to watch because you don't have this kind of color thing going on, you know.

GROSS: Did Woody Allen ask you to go back and watch a lot of Ingmar Bergman movies before working?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Because Woody Allen's such a Bergman fan, and there's so many Bergman references in his films.

WILLIS: Yeah. Right. No, he never asked me to watch anything. And all, all of his movies are designed from the ground up. I mean - I must say that working with Woody for 10 years was like a vacation. I mean, I had so much fun. And I think I probably like Woody a lot more than he likes me because I'm kind of a carnivore when I'm making movies. You know, I want to get it done. I want to get it done the right way, and I don't, you know, want to fool around.

But from the standpoint of working with a man who's - you know, it's like working with your hands in your pockets when you're working with Woody. It's a very easy, off-the-cuff kind of day. And I don't mean that we don't plan. We do. And the movies are designed to look like they're off-the-cuff, but they're not. But it's just working with him as a personality was a pleasure.

And I also like working with writers, you know, because if something's not working, you know, you take the pencil, you cross it out and throw the page away and you do something else. You know, and it's much faster than working with a director who can't write, who has to get on the phone and talk to the, you know (unintelligible) thing. This way, you know, it's right there. So he tears it out, and then you start again. You know, it's quick.

GROSS: You live in Cape Cod now, which is known...

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Among other things, for its beautiful light.

WILLIS: Right.

GROSS: Is that something that means a lot to you?

WILLIS: Yeah. It means a lot to me not so much from the standpoint that, oh, I, you know, want to rip out a camera. Light means a lot to me in life. You know, I mean I hate to be in rooms that are not - that don't have dimension and beautiful light. And I have the same feeling about living in a place that doesn't have dimension and beautiful light. I mean, I hate Los Angeles. It's like living inside a toaster oven, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIS: I mean, it's awful. The light stinks. The only time I like it there is, really, in winter, when it's a little bit better. But, I love New York light in the winter. Winter light is so beautiful. It's beautiful here in the winter.

GROSS: Can you describe New York light?

WILLIS: I can describe New York light mostly in the winter because it's like - it's like my favorite thing. You move from light to dark. You know, you move from a brilliant splash of sun to kind of like a midnight shadow, you know, and you watch the sun come up in east and go down in the west in New York, and it's like, you know, it just looks like welding sometimes it's so beautiful.

It's stunning mainly because it's moving through all of these buildings, you know, and it bounces through windows and off windows and down into the street. It's - and it's always changing, which is quite wonderful unless you happen to be photographing something, then you want to hurry up so you get it the right way. But it's just as stunning.

BIANCULLI: Cinematographer Gordon Willis speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. The man who shot "Manhattan," "All the President's Men" and "The Godfather," among others, died Sunday at age 82. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. Sunday night, HBO presents a new TV version of "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's 1985 play about the early years of the AIDS crisis. Kramer himself wrote the screenplay adaptation, which stars Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts. Almost 30 years later, the drama is both presented and viewed differently. It almost has to be.

When Larry Kramer's play "The Normal Heart" was presented by New York's Public Theater in 1985, its inside out look at the early history of the spread of the HIV virus and AIDS was both a howl of pain and a call for action and help.

When a new production appeared in 2011, it won the Tony Award for best revival of a play. Now it's back again in a substantially revised made-for-TV movie on HBO. And one of the remarkable things about it is that nearly 30 years after it first was staged, "The Normal Heart" still seems both were a patent relevant.

For HBO, Kramer himself has written the screenplay adaptation. Ryan Murphy, co-creator of TVs "Glee" and "American Horror Story," is the director. Mark Ruffalo stars as Ned Weeks, the character who's sort of a stand-in for the activist writer, Kramer. And the biggest name attached to the movie is that of Julia Roberts, who plays Emma Brookner, the doctor with polio who fights to identify and understand the spreading HIV fires before almost any of her peers. Other co-stars include Jim Parsons of "The Big Bang Theory," who's reprising his role from the 2011 stage revival, and Matt Bomer of "White Collar and the movie, "Magic Mike," as well as Alfred Molina, Taylor Kitsch and Denis O'Hare.

All these actors betray characters in a drama that is about 50 percent true to the play and 50 percent reworked as new for HBO. The new opening, for example, is like a pre-age picture of gay culture, showing Ned Weeks and a bunch of friends and strangers descending upon Fire Island in 1981 for a very festive vacation.

The scene isn't at all gratuitous, though. It establishes the social environment in which HIV would spread so freely, and also alludes to one of Kramer's pre-play novels which was set there. But on the beach, one of the gay men drops suddenly to the sand, an early victim of a disease as mysterious as it was potentially fatal.

Ned, played Mark Ruffalo, visits the office of Dr. Brookner, played by Robert. He's there only to ask questions, but she spins around in her wheelchair, pushes him onto the examination and treats him like any other patient. He likes her directness and pushiness and she likes his even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE NORMAL HEART")

JULIA ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) Who are you?

MARK RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) I'm Ned Weeks. I spoke to you after "The Times" article.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) Come in. Take your clothes off.

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) I only came to ask some questions.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) You are gay, aren't you?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Yes.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) Take your clothes off. Don't be nervous. I've seen more men than you have. To answer all of your questions, I don't know. I've never seen or heard of anything like this. Have you had any of the symptoms?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Most of the (bleep) "The Times" said, amebas, gonorrhea, hepatitis. You know what it's been like since the sexual revolution.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) What make you think I don't? Any fever? Night sweats? Weight loss?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Don't I wish. No.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) And propo(ph) lesions? Open your mouth. It's a cancer. There's a strange reaction in the immune system. It's collapsed. Won't fight. So the diseases most of my patients are coming down with are brought on by terms that wouldn't hurt a baby.

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) I'm ticklish.

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) At least not a baby in New York City anyway. And the immune system is the system we know the least about. Oh, where's this big mouth I hear you got?

RUFFALO: (as Ned Weeks) Big mouth a symptom?

ROBERT: (as Emma Brookner) No. It's a cure.

BIANCULLI: "The Normal Heart" covers only a few years, during which the disease spreads rapidly, yet little is accomplished either medically or politically. Eventually, Jim Parsons, playing one of Ned's friends and activist allies, attends yet another memorial service for a dead, gay friend and vents his anger without once raising his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE NORMAL HEART")

JIM PARSONS: (as Tommy Boatwright) I have this tradition, it's something I do now when a friend dies. I save his Rolodex card. What am I supposed to do? Throw it away in the trash can? I won't do that. No, I won't. It's too final. Last year, I had five cards, now I have 50. A collection of cardboard tombstones bound together with a rubber band.

BIANCULLI: He goes on. And so does "The Normal Heart," watching and acknowledging as one of Ned's friends after another fights AIDS and dies. Many of them fight Ned in the process, unwilling to come out as gay or out others or spread the as yet unproven theory that the disease can be transmitted sexually. Ruffalo modulates his performance very well in channeling both the anger and the fear. And Roberts, in a few key scenes, is so pressure cooker angry that she makes her earlier activist movie role as Erin Brockovich look like a pushover.

A few scenes in this HBO drama are painted too heavily with the author's message brush. But in the best scenes, Murphy lets his camera sit back and record the dramatic action as it builds like a stage play, with each character throwing coal into the same fire. It's a drama studded with sensitive performances. And I don't think it matters at all, other than as some sort of evolutionary pop culture mark of progress - that Murphy and Bomer and Parsons are openly gay - or that Ruffalo is not gay.

Television, like the country, has matured since 1981 when "The Normal Heart" begins. The first depiction of AIDS on primetime dramatic TV came in 1983, when a patient was diagnosed with the HIV virus on NBC's "St. Elsewhere." NBC also did an excellent made-for-TV movie in 1985 called "An Early Frost" with Aidan Quinn as a gay man who, after contracting AIDS, goes home to out himself to his parents.

And HBO has a solid track record of exploring the subject with both documentaries and dramas, including its superb adaptation of the Broadway play, "Angels in America."

It's fair to say that television not only informed viewers about HIV and AIDS, it slowly but surely helped change national attitudes about it. Much too slowly - many would say, but the same could be said of the attitudes and actions dramatized and "The Normal Heart."

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEAR YOUR LOVE LIKE HEAVEN")

DONOVAN: (Singing) Color and sky brush and blue. Scarlet fleece changes you. Crimson ball sinks from view. Wear your love like heaven. Wear your love like heaven. Wear your love like heaven. Wear...

BIANCULLI: Next month, the singer-songwriter Donovan will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He joined the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. Donovan wrote several folk rock hippie anthems of the '60s, such as "Sunshine Superman, "Mellow Yellow," "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven."

After experiencing fame, in the '70s, he retreated to a more secluded life, but continued to record every few years. His latest album, "Shadows of Blue," recorded in Nashville, was released last year.

We're going to hear an excerpt of Donovan's 2004 interview with Terry Gross. Let's start with his very first recording, a 1964 demo version of a song by Buffy Sainte Marie. As this recording demonstrates, during his early performing days, Donovan was often thought of as Britain's answer to Bob Dylan.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CODINE")

DONOVAN: (Singing) An' my belly is craving, I got shakin' in my head. I feel like I'm dyin' an' I wish I were dead. If I lived till tomorrow, it's gonna be a long time. For I'll reel and I'll fall and rise on codine. An' it's real, an' it's real, one more time.

(Singing) When I was a young man, I learned not to care. Wild whiskey, confronted I often did swear. My mother and father said whiskey is a curse. But the fate of their baby is many times worse. An' it's real, an' it's real, one more time.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: That's Donovan, recorded in 1964, a demo recording, his version of a song by Buffy Sainte Marie.

So you were pretty kind of folk oriented at the very start. How did that start to change?

DONOVAN: Well, although I'd begun performing as a folk singer, I was biting into the guitar with my guitar pick. And I didn't realize at first but what I was trying to do was come up with a kind of a Celtic rock, a kind of a fusion where the pop sensibilities and the blues, jazz as well, I could blend into my folk style. At the same time, I was also writing, of course, poetry, an enormous amount of songs started pouring out. And the jazz I was listening to in college, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker and essentially, Billie Holiday from the jazz world and the classical music and The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and when Hendrix came along, listening to Jimi.

The change was not sit down and write "Sunshine Superman," but out of my songs I met a producer called Mickie Most and John Cameron was the arranger and we began to make that album, "Sunshine Superman," which was so eclectic and so experimental and at least a year and a half before "Sgt. Pepper."

GROSS: Well, since you just mentioned "Sunshine Superman," why don't we hear it? And this is your recording from 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUNSHINE SUPERMAN")

DONOVAN: (Singing) Sunshine came softly through my a-window today. Could've tripped out easy a-but I've a-changed my ways. It'll take time, I know it, but in a while you're gonna be mine, I know it, we'll do it in style. 'Cause I made my mind up you're going to be mine.

(Singing) I'll tell you right now. Any trick in the book and now, baby, all that I can find. Superman or Green Lantern ain't got a-nothin' on me. I can make like a turtle...

GROSS: That's Donovan recorded in 1966. I have a very profound question for you and that is, where did you get your clothes in the '60s when you were on TV and radio and touring all the time?

DONOVAN: We used to go down to the vintage, what you call vintage clothes shops and it was Portobello Road. And Brian Jones, who invented The Rolling Stones, was the first to raid the old velvets and the feathered boas and the corduroy jackets and the clothes from a bygone age. But all of us came out of art school so we were very into the image. And so The Who would dress up in pop art with targets and Union Jacks. They'd get their clothes made out of flags. 'Cause what the art students are wearing this year probably a lot of young people will be wearing next year.

GROSS: My guest is Donovan. His hits of the '60s include "Catch the Winds," "Sunshine Superman" and "Wear Your Love Like Heaven." Let's hear one of the songs he recorded in 1966.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MELLOW YELLOW")

DONOVAN: (Singing) I'm just mad about Saffron, Saffron's mad about me. I'm just mad about Saffron. She's just mad about me. They call me mellow yellow. Quite rightly. They call me mellow yellow. Quite rightly. They call me mellow yellow.

(Singing) I'm just mad about 14. Fourteen's mad about me...

GROSS: Now I just apologize in advance for asking you a question you've probably been asked more times than you could care to count. Your song "Mellow Yellow," which was a big hit in 1966, a lot of people assumed that that was about getting high by smoking banana peels.

DONOVAN: The reference to smoking bananas completely shocked us all at the time. Wonder where anybody got that idea? You can't get high smoking banana peels. And then...

GROSS: I guess it's the line the electric banana.

DONOVAN: Well, smoking of the peels, I didn't realize why that had been so is tied with my song until two, three years ago I was in Cleveland in the Rock 'n Roll Museum and I was sitting next to Country Joe McDonald and we started talking. And Joe said to me, hey man, by the way, it was me. I said what do you mean it was you? Mellow Yellow, man. And, you know, the bananas, smoking bananas. I said Joe, I got a feeling that I'm not going to like what you're going to tell me here.

(LAUGHTER)

DONOVAN: Tell me. He said, well, man, in San Francisco 1966 what we thought was we'd put the band on the back of the truck and we'd go down to an old yard I know and it has all these carnival floats that they threw away. And we found this giant banana and we put it on the truck and we started up the band and we drove down through Haight-Ashbury playing the music, advertising a gig.

But just to make sure that people knew we were coming, we announced to the press that you can get high smoking bananas. And he said that would've been the end of it, but that Friday you released the single "Mellow Yellow."

GROSS: A-ha.

DONOVAN: I said, Joe, thanks. Because I've been asked for 35 years why do you say you can get high smoking bananas. Because I guess millions tried it.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to an interview Terry recorded in 2004 with Donovan, who next month will be inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame. He told Terry his most popular song among other musicians was this one.

DONOVAN: "Season of the Witch" seems to have been adopted again and again and again by so many bands because it makes them feel good when they play. And Led Zeppelin used to use my song "Season of the Witch" to warm up every rehearsal before every performance, so Jimmy Page tells me.

GROSS: Interesting. Do you know why?

DONOVAN: It's just too extraordinary chords, A7th and D9th and it's funny - when the...

GROSS: Would you just play those chords so we can hear them?

DONOVAN: Yeah. I can play them. When we first start playing guitar when you're a young musician, you get hooked on a phrase or a musical phrase or a set of chords and this is the set.

(SOUNDBITE OF SET OF CHORDS)

DONOVAN: Now, when you're a young band and you start playing this, then you realize you're still playing this about two hours later, something must be good about these two chords.

(LAUGHTER)

DONOVAN: But it also allows you to play many different things when you're just vamping and jamming on these chords. Americans also have recorded it. Dr. John has recorded it for that movie "Blues Brothers II" and also the Allman Brothers I think did my song "The Mountain." But it was Al Cooper and Stephen Stills...

GROSS: Right.

DONOVAN: ...who recorded it as well.

GROSS: Right.

DONOVAN: But it's a spooky song and it actually spoke about being busted before I was busted - one of those prophetic things. (singing) Oh, no. Must be the season of the witch. Must be the season of the witch. Must be the season of the witch.

GROSS: Now...

DONOVAN: That was "Season of the Witch."

GROSS: Had you heard those two chords together in other songs or did you hear something in those two chords that inspired you to put them together?

DONOVAN: This chord, the D9th...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHORD)

DONOVAN: ...I'd heard from Bert Jansch. Now, it's a very important chord in the world of folk blues and jazz because there's many songs that use it by going...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHORDS)

DONOVAN: ...here's the D9th. So it's part of the traditions of jazz and blues. (singing) There is a house in New Orleans. (speaking) It's in there. It's also in (singing) Hit the road, Jack, don't you come back no more, no more, no - (speaking ) It's in many of the blues progressions. And, hey. So it actually is a very established, emotional chord in many blues, yeah.

GROSS: Well, Donovan, thank you so much for talking with us.

DONOVAN: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Singer-songwriter Donovan speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. Next month, he'll be inducted into the Songwriter's Hall of Fame.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:This is FRESH AIR. Director James Gray has made four features since his first film, 1994's "Little Odessa," and all four have starred Joaquin Phoenix. There was "The Yards," "We Own the Night," and "Two Lovers." And now the actor costars as a shady businessman in Gray's new movie, "The Immigrant." It's a period piece that also features Marion Cotillard as a Polish woman trying to free her sister from the infirmary at Ellis Island. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Marion Cotillard is now the best leading film actress in the world and she's close to her peak in James Gray's "The Immigrant." She plays the title character, a young Polish woman named Eva who arrives at New York's Ellis Island in 1921 alongside her sister Magda. Their entry is a disaster. Magda has a bad cough and gets promptly quarantined.

Then rumors reach officials that Eva is a woman of loose morals who sold her body on the ship. Eva vigorously disputes the charge but from the way she quivers, obviously traumatized, we know that something happened on that voyage. A lifeline of sorts arrives via Joaquin Phoenix as Bruno Weiss, a Jewish businessman in an expensive suit.

He immediately zeroes in on Eva in the queue for deportation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IMMIGRANT")

JOANQUIN PHOENIX: (as Bruno) What about her?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Liable to become public charge. She arrived with her sister who was quarantined for lung disease.

PHOENIX: (as Bruno) Best of luck to you.

MARION COTILLARD: (as Eva) Sir, sir. Can you help me?

PHOENIX: (as Bruno) Ma'am, you are in the exclusion line.

COTILLARD: (as Eva) Yes.

PHOENIX: (as Bruno) Did they explain to you what that meant?

COTILLARD: (as Eva) Yes, yes.

PHOENIX: (as Bruno) They're sending you back.

COTILLARD: (as Eva) No, no, no. I can work. You know these man. You talk to them.

PHOENIX: (as Bruno) You've already been processed. Their decision's been rendered. There's very little I can do.

COTILLARD: (as Eva) Please. Please.

EDELSTEIN: What a courtly fellow Bruno seems to be. But you know from how he overdoes his sympathy he has ulterior motives. After bribing a guard, Bruno leads Eva to New York's Lower East Side, where he keeps a stable of immigrant women for sewing, performing at a racy vaudeville theater, and one other job - three guesses what that is.

He's not so nice a man after all, and Eva is visibly sickened. But selling herself looks to be the only way she'll make enough to free her sister from Ellis Island. "The Immigrant" looks gorgeous. Darius Khondji's sepia-toned cinematography evokes photographs of the period, but if images are suitable for framing, the feel of the movie is messy, modern, psychological.

It's thick with melancholy and moral ambivalence. Mood is what director Gray does best. This is his fifth feature and fourth collaboration with Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who does nothing easy. His Bruno is too conflicted to be a stereotypical Fagin-like operator. He gets righteously indignant when called on his duplicity.

He rages. He snivels. And he's clearly smitten with Eva. Marion Cotillard's performance is more controlled, but her emotions are, if anything, more vivid. Eva is not a passive ingenue. She's angry and harsh, but no matter how much she hardens her features, her mask keeps slipping. You see her sadness in her liquid eyes, in a smile at once superior and forlorn.

Cotillard is brilliant at showing how Eva's drive for self-preservation is at constant odds with her self-disgust. Well into "The Immigrant" we meet a third major figure, a Houdini-esque magician named Orlando, played by Jeremy Renner. He's also smitten with Eva and wastes little time in planning to take her away from her sordid milieu.

It's frankly hard to know what to make of Orlando, whose real name is Emil. He's said to be a reckless gambler and a drunk, but evinces nothing but wholesome admiration. This is the only time the movie spills over into melodrama. The confrontation between Bruno and Emil, who's actually Bruno's cousin, ends on a shocking note that doesn't feel earned.

"The Immigrant" has been the source of a semi-public battle between director Gray and the impresario and distributor Harvey Weinstein, who reportedly pressed for cuts to the nearly two hour running time. The movie is, indeed, slowly paced, but I'm damned if I know what Gray should've cut.

The scenes are meant to be grueling to show Eva fighting Bruno while Bruno fights himself. And the movie doesn't end on the upbeat Oscar-bait note that marks so many of Weinstein's prestige projects. Even when things take a turn, morally speaking, for the better, the aura of hopelessness never fully dissipates.

But some films are evocative enough to be worth the pain and at their best Gray and his alter ego Phoenix evoke Eugene O'Neill's immortal line from "A Long Day's Journey Into Night": Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people. Marion Cotillard, meanwhile, penetrates that fog like a beacon.

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

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

A more moderate Taliban? An Afghan journalist says nothing has changed

Afghan British journalist Najibullah Quraishi has had trouble sleeping for more than two hours a stretch ever since the U.S. withdrew troops from Afghanistan in August and the Taliban came back into power. Quraishi grew up in Afghanistan under Soviet and Taliban rule, and began reporting on the Taliban before the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida attacks and the onset of the U.S. Afghan war. He's currently in Kabul reporting for his upcoming PBS Frontline documentary, Taliban Takeover, (airing Oct. 12) which details life in Afghanistan now.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue