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A Holiday Gift Guide For The Jazz Lover

Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead picks CDs, books and a DVD for the jazz lover on your list this holiday season. His selections include a book of Sonny Rollins photographs and music from the first season of the HBO series Treme.

07:03

Other segments from the episode on December 3, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 3, 2010: Interview with Dave Brubeck; Review of jazz books, CDs and DVDs for the holiday season; Review of the film "Black Swan."

Transcript

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Celebrating Jazz Pianist Dave Brubeck's 90th Birthday

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

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

On December 6, Dave Brubeck will celebrate his 90th birthday. Fifty-six
years ago, polls in the two leading jazz magazines, Metronome and
Downbeat, selected Dave Brubeck's group as the best instrumental group
of the year.

That same year, Brubeck himself was the second jazz musician ever to be
featured on the cover of Time magazine. The first was Louis Armstrong.
And last year, Brubeck was saluted as an honoree by the Kennedy Center
for the Performing Arts.

Though Dave Brubeck no longer performs internationally, he still tours
regularly across the United States. This week, he was at the Blue Note
in New York City, and on Monday, Turner Classic Movies will premiere
Clint Eastwood's documentary "In His Own Sweet Way," which chronicles
Brubeck's life in music.

Terry Gross spoke with Dave Brubeck in 1999, when several of his classic
recordings were re-released on CD. To set the mood, let's listen to his
composition "Three to Get Ready," From the classic "Time Out" album, an
album that illustrated the group's approach to counterpoint and
eccentric rhythms. Paul Desmond is featured on alto saxophone, Eugene
Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums.

(Soundbite of song, "Three to Get Ready")

TERRY GROSS, host:

Dave Brubeck, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. DAVE BRUBECK (Musician): Thank you.

GROSS: Now, you grew up in Concord, California. Your mother was a
classical piano teacher. Did she give you lessons?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah, I had two older brothers, Henry and Howard, that also
took lessons from my mother, and half the community, the people
interested in piano, studied with her.

GROSS: Was it hard to study with your mother?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah. It wasn't so bad for my brothers, but I kind of
rebelled.

GROSS: How and why?

Mr. BRUBECK: How and why? I wanted to be like my father, who was a
cattle man and a rodeo roper. And that was – he was my hero, and I
wanted to be more like him. So my mother allowed me to stop taking
lessons when I was 11.

And we moved to a 45,000-acre cattle ranch, where I spent my last year
in grammar school and my high school years, and all summer I worked with
my father. Then I went off to college to study veterinary medicine.

GROSS: In the hope that you'd be a help on the ranch?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yes so that – I had to go to college, according to my
mother, like my brothers. I didn't ever want to leave my dad or my dad's
ranch.

My dad was the manager at the 45,000-acre ranch, but he owned his own
1,200-acre ranch, and I owned four cattle that he gave to me when I
graduated from grammar school, from the eighth grade. And those cows
multiplied, and he kept track of them for years for me. And that was my
herd.

GROSS: You know, I'm used to seeing you behind the piano. It's hard for
me to imagine you as a cowboy.

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, I could send you pictures.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: And there even are some, what we call movies in those days,
some of the very first kind of home movies, where I'm with my dad,
lassoing and branding and big round-up. So it is documented.

GROSS: Did you sing cowboy songs?

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, all of them, yeah. When they were real cowboy songs
like "Strawberry Roan" and "Little Joe the Wrangler," tunes that people
don't sing anymore. I loved those songs. The words can still make me
cry, and I used to make my kids cry by singing: Joe You Take My Saddle;
Bill, you take my bed; Jim you take my pistol after I am dead. And think
of me, please, kindly, when you look upon them all, for I'll not see my
mother when the work's all done next fall. Now, that's a cowboy tune.

GROSS: Did you like singing?

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, yeah. I used to sing that and play my ukulele.

GROSS: Ukulele? No, wow.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: Some of my friends played guitar, cowboy songs, yeah.

GROSS: Let me get back to what we were talking about, which was life on
the cattle ranch. And there were two cattle ranches in your life, the
one that your father owned, and the larger one that he managed. Did you
have really strong arms and hands from the work? And do you think that
that helped you as a piano player?

Mr. BRUBECK: It didn't hurt. My mother would not allow my dad to have me
rope anything larger than a yearling because she didn't want my fingers
to become hurt. And my uncle, who was also a rodeo roper, got his finger
caught between the saddle horn and the rope, and it took his finger
right off. And he used to kid the other cowboys and said: I would've
been a great pianist like my nephew, Dave, had I not lost this finger.

GROSS: Was your mother convinced that you were going to become a
pianist, or she was just worried about your fingers on general
principles?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, she thought that I had a certain amount of talent
that I was not developing. And so after my first year as a veterinary
pre-med, I switched to the music department, which was across the lawn.
And that was at the advice of my zoology teacher, Dr. Arnold(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: He said: Brubeck, your mind is not here with these frogs in
the formaldehyde. Your mind is across the lawn at the conservatory. Will
you please go over there next year?

GROSS: How did he know?

Mr. BRUBECK: He – I guess he'd just seen me become kind of blank and be
listening to everybody practicing and the music, and drifting away from
what he was trying to teach me.

GROSS: Now, I think in spite of the fact that you studied piano with
your mother as a boy, you weren't very good at reading music. How well
could you read when you started majoring in music in college?

Mr. BRUBECK: I couldn't read, and that caused a lot of trouble in the
conservatory. So I hid it until I was a senior by not taking piano. I'd
take - the other instruments were cello and clarinet. So I was just
playing scales and getting by and doing the subjects I had to pass in.

But in my senior year, they said you have to take piano. And the piano
teacher in five minutes ran downstairs to the dean and said: Brubeck
can't read at all. So the dean said, you know, you're a disgrace to the
conservatory, and we can't graduate you.

And when some of the younger teachers heard this, they went to the dean,
and they said you're making a big mistake because he writes the best
counterpoint that I've ever had, said Dr. Brown(ph). And Dr. Bodley(ph)
went in and said, you know, you're wrong. You know, this guy is
talented.

So they convinced the dean to let me graduate if I – and the dean said
you can graduate if you promise never to teach and embarrass the
conservatory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: So that's the way I graduated, and that's the way I've
gotten through life is having to substitute other things for not being
able to read well. But I can write, which is something very few people
understand.

GROSS: Well, you know, I thought we might pause here and listen to
another recently re-released recording, and this features you with the
great singer Jimmy Rushing. Now, you haven't done a lot of work with
singers over the years, at least not that I'm aware of. Tell me how you
managed to do this session with Jimmy Rushing, who had sung with Basie.
And he's considered a great blues singer, but he's also a great singer
of swing tunes and standards.

Mr. BRUBECK: I was on tour with Jimmy in England, and we had to take the
train together to the next city. So we were riding in the train for
about three hours. And he said: Dave, I want to do an album with you.

And I said: I don't think I'm the right group for you, Jimmy. And he
said: I know you're the right group. I've been listening to you for
years. And I'm going to set this up at Columbia Records as soon as we
get back.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear you and Jimmy Rushing doing "There'll be
Some Changes Made."

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh.

GROSS: You like that?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, so do I. And this is from the recently re-issued 1960
recording "Brubeck & Rushing," The Dave Brubeck Quartet featuring Jimmy
Rushing.

(Soundbite of song, "There'll Be Some Changes Made")

Mr. JIMMY RUSHING (Singer): (Singing) There's a change in the weather,
change in the sea. From now on there'll be a change in me. Walk will be
different, my talk and my name. Nothing about me's going be the same.

Change my long tall for a little short fat. Change my number where I'm
stopping at. Nobody wants you when you're old and gray. There'll be some
changes made today. There'll be some changes made.

Change in the weather, change in the sea. From now on there'll be a
change in me. Walk will be different, my talk and my name. Nothing about
me's going to be the same.

Change my long tall for a little short fat. Change my number where I'm
stopping at. Nobody wants you when you're old and gray. There'll be some
changes made today. There'll be some changes, oh, some changes made. Oh
baby, there'll be some changes made.

BIANCULLI: The Dave Brubeck Quartet with Jimmy Rushing. We'll continue
Dave Brubeck's conversation with Terry Gross after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1999 interview with jazz pianist
and composer Dave Brubeck. He turns 90 years old on Monday.

GROSS: Moving along with this story of your life, you were in the Army,
I think, toward the end of World War II. Did you see combat?

Mr. BRUBECK: I saw it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK, didn't participate, huh?

Mr. BRUBECK: I avoided participation. But, you know, I was in the Battle
of the Bulge, and I was on the wrong side of the lines. I was in German
territory and...

GROSS: How did you end up in German territory?

Mr. BRUBECK: We didn't know where we were, and everything was going
wrong. And so the truck driver just took the wrong turn. And I was up
there to play a show for the frontline troops with my band, which were
all infantry guys who had been wounded. When I say all, most of the guys
in my band had been wounded, and when they'd come back behind the lines,
if they were musicians, the doctors would send them to me or who was
ever interviewing them.

So I had a good band and a band that was very accepted at the frontline
because if you wore your Purple Heart - the frontline guys are hard to
reach. The USO people usually didn't go up that close, and also, they
would have trouble reaching guys that, in the morning, were going to
face a terrible kind of life.

But my guys could reach them because they'd been there since D-Day. Some
of them had been three months at the front. And so it made it a lot
easier for the soldiers to accept my band.

GROSS: After the war was over, you went back to college on the GI Bill,
and I think it was then that you studied with the French composer Darius
Milhaud. Had you known Milhaud's work very well?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, my brother was his assistant, Howard.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. BRUBECK: And just before I went into the Army, I went to see Milhaud
and ask him if, when I got out, I could come back and study with him.
And he said I could. So that's exactly what I did on the GI Bill. I went
directly after I got out of the Army back to Mills College and studied
with him.

GROSS: And were you expecting then to write classical music?

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah, and he would tell me don't give up jazz. He said you
can do that so well. Why do you want to give it up and become a
classical composer?

And so we'd discuss that a lot, and then he said: Look, if you're going
to compose, you have to use the jazz idiom, or you won't represent this
country. And he said: My favorite composers are Duke Ellington and
George Gershwin.

And this really surprised me because you wouldn't have heard that at
probably any other conservatory in the country. But, you see, Milhaud
was the first guy, first European composer, to use the jazz idiom in
classical music, a piece called "The Creation of the World," a ballet.

So he would say: Don't ever give up jazz. You're free. You can go any
place in the world where there's a piano, and you can play, and you can
make a living. And you don't have to teach or do some of the things that
other composers have to do in order to survive.

And he said: And the worst thing you want to get out of are faculty
meetings. And I think that's a good reason not to become a teacher in a
university or college.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So it sounds like he gave you some good advice.

Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, yeah. He said: Travel the world. Keep your ears open.
Bring back everything you hear. Put it in the jazz idiom. And that's
what I did. I still follow his advice.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a 1956 recording, and this is your recording
of "The Duke," which you've described as your tribute to both Duke
Ellington and Darius Milhaud.

Mr. BRUBECK: Right.

GROSS: And Ellington also, you know, was wonderful at connecting
classical form and jazz. Do you want to say anything else about this
composition before we hear it?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, it is one of my favorite compositions, and the second
theme is where I use Milhaud kind of influences with polytonality, which
wasn't being done too much in early jazz. It was being done some, but
Milhaud was a master of that.

And then the first part is just kind of my impression of Duke's
wonderful band.

GROSS: Let's hear it. This is "The Duke," composed and performed by my
guest, Dave Brubeck.

(Soundbite of song, "The Duke")

BIANCULLI: That's Dave Brubeck, playing his composition "The Duke." He
spoke with Terry Gross in 1999. Brubeck will celebrate his 90th birthday
on Monday, the same day Turner Classic Movies presents a new documentary
about him produced by Clint Eastwood. We'll hear more of Dave Brubeck's
conversation with Terry 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.
We're continuing our salute to jazz pianist and composer Dave Brubeck,
who turns 90 years old Monday. Terry spoke with Brubeck in 1999, when
Columbia Records was reissuing several of his classic albums on CD to
honor his 50th anniversary as a performing artist. That was 11 years
ago.

He's still performing. He played three nights this week at the Blue Note
in New York City. And on his birthday, Turner Classic Movies will
present a new documentary about him produced by Clint Eastwood.

Before we rejoin Terry's conversation with Dave Brubeck, let's listen to
another track. From the 1955 album "Brubeck Time," this song was
composed by Brubeck and alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. It's called
"Audrey."

(Soundbite of song, "Audrey")

GROSS: The recording we just heard was released 45 years ago, which was
the same year that you were on the cover of Time magazine. What was the
impact of this recording, "Brubeck Time," on your career?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, it's a wonderful time in my life, because we had been
struggling for years to get to be more known. And as you mentioned, the
cover of Time magazine was really something that helped us a lot. But
when you mentioned "Audrey," it was Audrey Hepburn that we had in mind,
and we never realized that she ever had heard this tune. There was no
communication like that. And because she was so important at the United
Nations for the work she did with children, when they did a memorial
service for her there, her husband asked that they play what you just
played. And they said that she usually played it every night or put it
on her headphones as she walked through her garden in Switzerland. So it
was wonderful to hear that. I wish Paul Desmond had been around to know
that she listened to it and liked it.

GROSS: Now, how is the recording "Brubeck Time" different from your
previous recordings?

Mr. BRUBECK: Well, at that time, I was starting to do different time
signatures, but the record companies were kind of leery of getting out
of the usual dance tempos that were mostly 4/4, and an occasional waltz.
So eventually, after "Brubeck Time," we did "Time Out," which had "Take
Five," and "Blue Rondo" and "Three to Get Ready." And again, the record
companies were a little afraid of it. But against their wishes, I forced
them to put "Time Out" out, and it became the biggest seller they ever
had in jazz.

GROSS: Now, your first record that I think really made an impression on
the record-buying public - I mean, it got bought a lot – was "Jazz Goes
to College."

Mr. BRUBECK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it was sessions recorded at three different colleges.

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, there's a picture of you on it, and you're wearing
your glasses. And those glasses are really such a part of your image.
And I think in part because that record was "Jazz Goes to College" and
part because of those kind of thick, plastic glasses, you maybe had the
image of being what was known in those days as an egghead?

Mr. BRUBECK: I wish I had. I'm not that smart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: But people forget that at the same time, we had a huge
following at places like the Apollo Theater...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRUBECK: ...the Howard Theatre in Washington and the universities
that they used to call black universities - Afro American universities.
We played the so-called black clubs all through the South, where there
were - no white people came in. And in some of the black clubs, we were
the only white group that came in. This is what I wish people would
remember.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRUBECK: And we integrated many, many universities in this country,
and those are important things to remember. It wasn't just Ivy League
places. We were really doing some work that people seem to forget how
hard it was to do, where you had to have a police escort to the concert,
the president of the college refusing to let you go on and the students
demanding you go on. I could tell you a lot of stories about that.

GROSS: The problem was that you were white, or that one of the musicians
in the band was black?

Mr. BRUBECK: Eugene Wright was black. Yeah.

GROSS: So that was a problem?

Mr. BRUBECK: And we couldn't do some television shows, because in those
days, you couldn't have black and white together. One show I had to turn
down, Duke Ellington took because he, at the moment, he had an all-black
band. Sometimes Duke would have a white drummer like Louie Bellson, and
that would maybe give him problems. They just didn't want mixed groups
on television.

GROSS: Let me play what might be the most famous of the Brubeck Quartet
recordings, and that's "Take Five," which you recorded in 1959. Would
you talk about this composition? It's a Desmond composition, but I think
you worked with him on it.

Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah. Paul has - done a radio show in Canada before he
died, where he said I'm so fortunate that Dave assigned to me to do the
section in 5/4, because that was the one track I wanted Paul to do as a
solo for my percussionist, the great drummer Joe Morello, because Joe
would often play in 5/4 time backstage, which is a time signature that
was very rarely, if ever used in jazz. So I would hear Paul start to
improvise over Joe playing on a drum pad before he'd go on stage. And so
I said just write some of the melodies, the ideas that you're doing, and
bring it to rehearsal in a few days. So that's what happened.

He came and he had some ideas that I thought were great. The first thing
he said, I can't write anything in 5/4. I've tried and tried. I said let
me see what you've got. So he showed me what he had, and I said I can
put this together and it'll be great. And I put the - what he had
together as theme one, theme two, and that's how the thing was born. And
I named it "Take Five," and he objected to that name. And I said why,
Paul? And he said, nobody knows what take five means. What does it mean?
I said everybody knows but you, Paul Desmond, what take five means. So I
argued with him and I kept that title, which I think is a great title.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRUBECK: Then, of course, I later wrote the words to it. So I had a
little bit to do with this tune.

GROSS: Well, before we hear it, I want to thank you very much for
talking with us about your early career. It's really been a pleasure.
Thank you so much.

Mr. BRUBECK: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And this is "Take Five," the Dave Brubeck Quartet, recorded in
1959.

(Soundbite of song, "Take Five")

BIANCULLI: That's the Dave Brubeck Quartet playing "Take Five." He spoke
with Terry Gross in 1999. Brubeck turns 90 years old on Monday, and we
send him warm birthday greetings. On his birthday, Turner Classic Movies
will present Clint Eastwood's new documentary about Brubeck.

Coming up, more jazz. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has some suggested
gifts for the holidays.

This is FRESH AIR.
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A Holiday Gift Guide For The Jazz Lover

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

For the jazz lover on your gift list, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has
some ideas, which includes CDs, books and a DVD.

(Soundbite of song, "TV is the Thing This Year")

Ms. DINAH WASHINGTON (Jazz Artist): (Singing) If you want to have fun,
come home with me. You can stay all night and play with my TV. TV is a
thing this year, this year. TV is the thing this year. Radio was great,
now it's out of date. TV is the thing this year. Last night...

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Dinah Washington, 1953, when bongos were also a thing.
The gospel-trained singer doesn't have the cachet of her contemporaries
Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, but Washington's records had an
earthier, scrappier feel. Her emotional delivery and ironic detachment
influenced singers as diverse as Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson.

Washington could sing anything with conviction, and her producers made
her prove it, chasing hits in every niche market they could think of. On
the new four-CD set, "The Fabulous Miss D! The Keynote, Decca and
Mercury Singles 1943 to 1953," she sings about bawdy encounters with her
TV repairman and dentist, and does ballads with strings, slick big-band
blues, early rock and roll, a calypso in Jamaican dialect, "Silent
Night" and a little Hank Williams.

(Soundbite of song, "Cold, Cold Heart")

Ms. WASHINGTON: (Singing) In anger, unkind words are said that make the
teardrops start. Why can't I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold,
cold heart?

WHITEHEAD: There aren't so many blockbuster jazz reissues this season,
but there are a couple of worthy coffee table books to give a jazz fan,
or ask for yourself. The esteemed, recently deceased photographer Herman
Leonard's book, simply called "Jazz," showcases his sharply focused,
high-contrast black-and-white pictures. They include iconic images of
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Ella Fitzgerald, Chet
Baker and the young and older Miles Davis, all crisply reproduced. In an
interview, Leonard talks about the technical problems of shooting dark-
skinned musicians in dim, smoky rooms, and also how much of his success
relied on gaining musicians' trust.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Photographer John Abbott has developed that kind of rapport
with Sonny Rollins since the early '90s. The book, "Saxophone Colossus:
A Portrait of Sonny Rollins," spotlights Abbott's bright color
photographs of the saxophonist as white-bearded patriarch. But it's
worth having just for Rollins-ologist Bob Blumenthal's extended essay,
which looks at the 1956 LP "Saxophone Colossus" as a microcosm of
Sonny's career. The text and images, surveying Rollins in two time
periods, create a kind of musical counterpoint. Sonny's playing in the
'50s was a marvel of brash authority and pithy wit. To give a curious
listener a quick intro, try this year's double CD, "The Definitive Sonny
Rollins on Prestige, Riverside and Contemporary." This is "Blues 7."

(Soundbite of song, "Blues 7")

WHITEHEAD: If you know a young drummer who needs a push in a creative
direction, there's the DVD, "Billy Martin's Life on Drums" where
Medeski, Martin and Wood's percussionist talks less about specific
techniques than how to think about the drums as an instrument and part
of an ensemble. The DVD's method is part of a message: Talking with his
teacher Allen Herman, Martin demonstrates how to take time to develop
your main themes and how you've got to listen and leave room. There's a
winning moment when he catches himself hogging the conversation. And
Martin's solos contain a wealth of good ideas and visual information.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: In the first episode of HBO's "Treme," a character rails
against yet another New Orleans music anthology that's just like all the
others. That set the bar a little higher for "Treme's" own satisfying,
shaggy soundtrack CD. There's some music by actors performing in
character, Mardi Gras Indians singing on the street and songs by local
luminaries, from Louis Prima to Kermit Ruffins. New Orleans brass bands
are where diverse musical strains really flow together. The post-Katrina
Free Agents Brass Band brings together marches, jazz, R&B, gospel and
more.

(Soundbite of music)

POST-KATRINA FREE AGENTS BRASS BRAND: (Singing) Take me that water. Take
me that water. That muddy, muddy water. That muddy, muddy water. Take me
that water.

(Rapping) Hey, Jack, let's make some music right here.

(Singing) That muddy, muddy water. That muddy, muddy water.

(Rapping) How bad how they had us on that bridge? Told us get it how we
live, why we did what we did. When I lost my city, almost lost my mind,
in and out of hotels, feeling like I'm doing time. Please, Mr. Officer,
don't shoot, 'cause 98(ph) days I was stuck up on that roof. Ain't
trying to make an excuse, but they running from the truth. We know they
blew those levees, man, but we ain't got no proof. Wherever they...

WHITEHEAD: On the "Treme" soundtrack, as in New Orleans music generally,
you can trace the roots of American vernaculars way back to West Africa
and old Europe. The city's contemporary music speaks to the universal
siblinghood of humanity, and the power of faith in new beginnings. And
aren't those the messages we need to hear this time of year?

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com.

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new ballet thriller
"Black Swan." This is FRESH AIR.
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'Black Swan': A Largely Empty Sensation

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Director Darren Aronofsky's fifth feature, "Black Swan," is set in the
world of a New York City ballet company. Natalie Portman stars as an up-
and-coming dancer struggling to master her first leading role in "Swan
Lake."

Our film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: In "Black Swan," Natalie Portman's young ballerina,
Nina, is a candidate to dance the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky's "Swan
Lake," but her company's artistic director, Thomas, played by Vincent
Cassel, maintains she's only suited for half the double role. She's the
very embodiment, he says, of the innocent White Swan. But for the dark,
demonic twin, she's too childlike, repressed. Like a method acting guru,
Thomas exhorts her to lose control, surrender to her sexuality -
preferably with him.

(Soundbite of movie, "Black Swan")

Mr. VINCENT CASSEL (Actor): (as Thomas Leroy) In four years, every time
you dance, I see you obsess, getting each and every move perfectly
right, but I never see you lose yourself, ever. All the discipline, for
what?

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (as Nina Sayers) I just want to be perfect.

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) You what?

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I want to be perfect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) Perfection is not just about control. It's
also about letting go, surprise yourself so you can surprise the
audience, transcendence - and very few have it in them.

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I think I do have it in me.

(Soundbite of a shout)

Mr. CASSEL: (as Thomas Leroy) You bit me? I can't believe you, you bit
me.

Ms. PORTMAN: (as Nina Sayers) I'm sorry.

EDELSTEIN: Nina bit his lip, and you'd think that would put the kibosh
on her chances of playing the Swan Queen. But no, Thomas likes this
biting, blood-drawing Nina, and he casts her in the role. But his
challenge lingers. Can this sexually immature young woman who lives with
an infantilizing mother in a pink bedroom surrounded by stuffed animals
become the Black Swan?

The writer and director Darren Aronofsky dramatizes - vividly,
feverishly, expressionistically - Nina's transformation into a more
sexualized creature, and the visions that accompany that transformation.
The camera follows about a foot behind her slender neck as the locations
change and doppelgangers pop up left and right. Reflections of Nina in
mirrors take on a life of their own. Icky, feathery things sprout from
her flesh. There are bloody assaults that might or might not be real.

"Black Swan" is a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, a tour de force - and
also, I think, a camp classic, like "Showgirls" remade by Roman
Polanski. You could have a great time laughing at it and its goofy,
Freudian method acting cliches, if it weren't so bludgeoning.

Aronofsky's aesthetic can be easily stated: He wants to give you a drug
experience. In his terrific first feature, "Pi," the protagonist became
obsessed with a mathematical equation, and his mental convolutions were
right there in the camerawork and cutting. While in his "Requiem for a
Dream," pills and heroin dictated the fractured syntax. In "The
Wrestler," Aronofsky crafted an ode to male masochism, to the notion
that a man is only truly, ecstatically alive on the brink of self-
obliteration. "Black Swan is "The Wrestler's" female-masochistic
counterpoint, and on its own terms, the film is perfectly worked out.
But like most drug experiences, it's largely empty sensation. It leaves
little behind but a hangover.

Portman gives the kind of performance that wins awards, largely because
you're so aware of her sacrifices to play the part. She lost a ton of
weight, and for an actress, dances well - although not brilliantly or
distinctively enough to convince you that the company director would
single her out. When she finally becomes the Black Swan, she does have a
great, glittery-eyed demonic look, and Aronofsky brings her bony face
with its black-rimmed eyes into the camera, like a close-up of a
shrunken head. It is, as Count Floyd on "SCTV" used to say: Ooh, scary,
kids, and a lot of critics and festival audiences have been wowed,
dazzled, freaked out. When the movie is over, it takes a long time to
purge Tchaikovsky from your brain.

But if you're a dance lover, I don't think you'll love "Black Swan."
Although Nina tells Thomas that her goal is perfection, she doesn't
really mean artistic perfection. I've never seen a dance movie with so
little appreciation for the art of dance. Early on, even before Nina
loses it, the camera seems to be shuddering in horror with every spin,
and the dancers are all scary-looking, angry, emaciated women with dark
hair severely pulled back, twisting and cracking their limbs - puppets
of Thomas, that tyrannical male deity.

But I left thinking the tyrannical male deity was Aronofsky, and that
his vision, in the end, is no more complex or enlivening than a cheap
hack-'em-up director's, treating your head in the manner of another
Tchaikovsky title character: "The Nutcracker."

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

You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair. And
you can download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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