December 20, 2013
Guests: Jason Isbell - Ray Price
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. When our rock critic Ken Tucker compiled his top 10 albums of 2013, leading that list was the latest by Jason Isbell. Tucker said no music moved me more, did more to make me think about life a little bit differently than Jason Isbell's continually revelatory album "Southeastern."
It cohered as a statement about love, regret, loneliness and joy. It was self-conscious without being self-aborbed, unquote. Many of Isbell's fans first heard his work with the Southern rock band The Drive-By Truckers. When Terry Gross spoke with him earlier this year, she asked him to bring his guitar along. To start, she asked him to perform "Cover Me Up," the song that opens the new album, his first since getting solo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVER ME UP")
JASON ISBELL: (Singing) A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun. You can't trust anyone. I was so sure what I needed was more, tried to shoot out the sun. In days when we raged, we flew off the page. Such damage was done. But I made it through 'cause somebody knew I was meant for someone.
(Singing) So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room 'til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom. It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood. So cover me up, and know you're enough to use me for good.
(Singing) Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress in Richmond all night. But I sobered up, I swore off that stuff forever this time. And the old lovers sing, I'd thought it'd be me who helped him get home. But home was a dream, one I'd never seen 'til you came along.
(Singing) So girl hang your dress up to dry, we ain't leavin' this room 'til Percy Priest breaks open wide and the river runs through, carries this house on the stones like a piece of drift wood. Cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good.
(Singing) So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room 'til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom. It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood. So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good. Cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Oh, that's beautiful. That's Jason Isbell performing a song that's the lead song on his new album, and that song was called "Cover Me Up." Jason Isbell, thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR. So you wrote that song for your wife, Amanda Shires, who is also a musician and songwriter and singer. So I hope she liked it.
ISBELL: She did. She liked it a lot. She did. She wasn't my wife, and she is my wife now, so apparently she didn't hate it.
GROSS: OK. So part of the song is about getting sober and about how she helped you do that. Is it easier to write a really emotional personal song like this that you said was difficult for you to write before, is it easier to write it now being sober? Is that making a difference in the emotional quality of either your writing or your singing?
ISBELL: I think so. I think there's an openness that you really have to accept if you're going to make a change like that. You have to be all right with saying I have weaknesses, and I think that was a big problem for me. You know, when I was still drinking, I thought I was kind of in control of everything in my life, and other people's lives, and I realized at some point that that just wasn't the case at all.
And I had to turn over some of that control, and I think it did make it easier for me to open up.
GROSS: There's a song that's on your new album "Southeastern" that seems to me to be about - in part about giving up alcohol and about making the journey back to being sober. It's called "New South Wales." I'm going to ask you to perform that song for us, but first tell us the story behind the song.
ISBELL: This one, I'd gone over to Australia a few years back with Justin Townes Earle. This is one of the older songs for the record, and actually he was the person going through that kind of struggle at that point. He and I went over just the two of us and did a whole bunch of shows and raised a whole lot of hell and had a really great time.
But, you know, when we got home, it sort of spiraled out of control for both of us, I think, after that, but that trip was just, I don't know, debaucherous in a whole lot of ways. And yeah, I wrote the song about that.
GROSS: The song has a line God bless the busted boat that brings us back. Listening to the song, I was thinking that that was whatever it is that gets you back to sobriety or whether that brings you salvation or whatever, but am I misinterpreting that?
ISBELL: No, no, that's there, too. Yeah, that's also there. It's a concrete thing. But my wife hates it when I talk about allegory, but I guess that's what that is. She's in the middle of a bunch of James Joyce right now in graduate school, so the word allegory really...
ISBELL: The word allegory is not allowed in the house at this point.
GROSS: Yeah, would you do "New South Wales" for us?
ISBELL: Sure, yeah, yeah, I'll do that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW SOUTH WALES")
ISBELL: (Singing) Here we sit cross the table from each other, a thousand miles from both our mothers, barely old enough to rust. And here we sit tending both our hearts' rancor, taking candy from these strangers amidst the diesel and the dust. And here we sit, singing words nobody taught us, drinking fire and spitting sawdust, trying to teach ourselves to breathe. We haven't yet, but every chorus brings us closer. Every flyer and every poster gives a piece of what we need.
(Singing) And the sand that they call cocaine costs you twice as much as gold. You'd be better off to drink your coffee black. But I swear the land, it'll listen to the stories that we told. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.
(Singing) Morning's rough, don't give a damn about the mission, has no aesthetic or tradition, only lessons never learned. I'd had enough about a month ago tomorrow. (Unintelligible) holds no trace of sorrow for the bitter and the burned. And the piss they call tequila even Waylon wouldn't drink. I'd rather sip this Listerine I packed. But I swear we've never seen a better place to sit and think. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.
(Singing) And the sand that they call cocaine costs you twice as much as gold. Be better off to drink your coffee black. But I swear the land, it'll listen to the stories that we told. God bless the busted boat that brings us back. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.
GROSS: That's Jason Isbell, performing a song that's also on his new album. The new album is called "Southeastern." As you say, you grew up in the Bible Belt. You grew up in Alabama. So religion was a big part of your house. What about the church and church singing?
ISBELL: Yeah, I went to church. My mom's family, they were Church of Christ Southern, Church of Christ, and my dad's family were Pentecostal. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. And so there were two very, very different styles of church music coming at me. The Pentecostal church had a full band, and they were really loud.
And then my mom's church, you know, you're forbidden to have musical instruments in the Church of Christ. So it was all voices. You know, I would get those two mixed up in my head every once in a while. And, you know, the Pentecostal church, like when you're supposed to pray, everybody prayed out loud at once. Everybody just said what they had to say.
And then at the Church of Christ, it was very quiet, you know, and that wasn't the thing. I remember one time I got them mixed up in my head, and when I was at the Church of Christ with my mom, and it was time to pray, I just started yelling. I was probably five or six years old.
ISBELL: I started yelling out all my - my mom grabbed me by the hair, don't do that, don't - that's not here, that's the other place.
BIANCULLI: Jason Isbell, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. His latest CD, "Southeastern," was named by our rock critic Ken Tucker as the best album of the year.
GROSS: I want you to do another song from your new album. This is a song about cancer. Not that many people write songs about cancer, and I'd love for you to tell the story behind this song before you sing it and if it's about somebody who you know.
ISBELL: I think the original inspiration for this, I used to spend a lot of time in this bar downstairs from the apartment I lived in Alabama before I moved up here in Nashville. And gradually the regulars would start to disappear and, you know, almost always it was cancer-related. But, you know, over time they were probably eight or nine people who, you know, just would sort of vanish almost before your very eyes.
And, you know, these were people who weren't having the best life. They were spending a whole lot of hours sitting in a bar. But I think I got that idea, you know, I imagined a couple of folks who were drinking buddies really, nothing more than that and, you know, how their relationship changed when one of them got sick.
I have known a lot of people who, you know, have gotten cancer and died, I think everybody has at this point in time, but this one, you know, those two folks aren't necessarily people that exist out in reality.
GROSS: So the song is called "Elephant." Would you sing it for us?
ISBELL: Yes. I will.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEPHANT")
ISBELL: (Singing) She said Andy, you're better than your past, winked at me and drained her glass, cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore. She said Andy, you're taking me home, but I knew she planned to sleep alone. I'd carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor.
(Singing) If I had (bleep) her before she got sick, I'd never hear the end of it. She don't have the spirit for that now. We drink our drinks and laugh out loud and bitch about the weekend crowd and try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow.
(Singing) She said Andy, you crack me up, Seagram's in a coffee cup, sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone. When she got drunk she made cancer jokes. She made up her own doctor's notes. Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone.
(Singing) I'd sing her classic country songs and she'd get high and sing along. But she don't have much voice to sing with now. We'd burn these joints in effigy, cry about what we used to be and try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow, somehow.
(Singing) I buried her a thousand times, giving up my place in line, but I don't give a damn about that now. There's one thing that's real clear to me, no one dies with dignity. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow, somehow.
GROSS: That's Jason Isbell performing his song "Elephant," a song that also featured on his new album "Southeastern." So you have a song called "Outfit" that was first recorded by the Drive-By Truckers when you were with them. And the bridge is advice that your father used to give you. Would you just sing the bridge for us with the advice?
ISBELL: OK. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTFIT")
ISBELL: (Singing) Don't call what you're wearing an outfit. Don't ever say your car is broke. And don't worry about losing your accent, 'cause a Southern man tells better jokes. Have fun but stay clear of the needle. Call home on your sister's birthday. Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus. And don't give it away. Don't give it away.
GROSS: So that's great. So why was he worried that you'd call what you were wearing an outfit?
ISBELL: Oh, yeah. That's, I'm - I don't know. There were certain things that were pet peeves for my father. I think he did want me to be a certain level of masculine, and that's probably where that came from, but I know that wouldn't cut a whole lot of weight nowadays. You can't really tell your kids stuff like that anymore with good reason.
But, yeah, in those days you could have probably gotten a black eye for saying, you know, something about your outfit in school.
GROSS: And don't ever say your car is broke?
ISBELL: Right. You should know what's wrong with it.
GROSS: I suppose that's as opposed to broken? Oh. Oh. Oh.
ISBELL: No. No. No.
GROSS: Oh. Oh. Oh. I thought it was correcting your grammar.
ISBELL: No. Not gram - you should know what's wrong with it - alternator or something.
GROSS: Oh, you should say or it's the alternator, it's the carburetor.
ISBELL: Yeah. Exactly.
GROSS: Use your spark plugs, that kind of thing?
ISBELL: Yeah. If you can at least know that much when you take it into the shop you're not going to get run over as easily.
GROSS: That is good advice.
BIANCULLI: Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. His latest CD, "Southeastern," was named album of the year by our rock critic Ken Tucker. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTACHES BY THE NUMBER")
TERRY GROSS, HOST: Pioneering country music artist Ray Price died Monday of pancreatic cancer. He was 87 years old. Here's one of his biggest hits, "Heartaches by the Number."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTACHES BY THE NUMBER")
RAY PRICE: (Singing) Heartache number one was when you left me. I never knew that I could hurt this way. And heartache number two was when you come back again. You came back and never meant to stay.
(Singing) Now I've got heartaches by the numbers, troubles by the score. Every day you love me less, each day I love you more. Yes, I've got heartaches by the numbers, a love that I can't win. But the day that I stop counting, that's the day my world will end.
BIANCULLI: Ray Price was born in Cherokee County, Texas in 1926. When Price was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996, he was described by musician Kris Kristofferson as a living link from Hank Williams to the country music of today.
He worked with Hank Williams' band, and helped give several country performers their starts. Early in their careers, Willie Nelson, Roger Miller, Johnny Paycheck and Johnny Bush played in Price's band, the Cherokee Cowboys. He recorded albums for decades - and when Terry Gross interviewed Price in 1999, he was about to release another one.
Here's "Ramblin' Rose," a track from his then forthcoming CD, "Prisoner of Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAMBLIN' ROSE")
PRICE: (Singing) Ramblin' rose, ramblin' rose. Why you ramble, no one knows. Wild and wind-blown, that's how you've grown. Who can cling to a ramblin' rose? Ramble on, ramble on. When your ramblin' days are gone, who will love you with a love true? When your ramblin' days are gone?
(Singing) Ramblin' rose...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: That's Ray Price from his new CD "Ray Price." Welcome to FRESH AIR.
I'm really anxious to hear why you decided to record "Ramblin Rose." And I'll preface my question by saying that, you know, I know Nat King Cole's recording. And although I love Nat Cole, that's one recording I never loved. Yet, I really love the way you do the song. So what did you hear in the song?
PRICE: Well, it's just a great song really. It's kind of like a young girl that might be heading in the wrong direction, I think. And that's the way I look at it. I'm trying to make it sound as real as I can.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. One of the people who helped you a lot early in your career was Hank Williams...
GROSS: ...the great country singer.
PRICE: We became real close friends, and he got me on the Grand Ol' Opry. And he and his wife were getting divorced and I lived with them...
GROSS: Hank Williams got you on the Grand Ol' Opry.
PRICE: Mm-hmm. And then we lived together. We had a house there in Nashville, and I would stay - I had the upstairs, he had the lower for about a year and then, of course, he passed away.
GROSS: And you're saying that you started living together after he and his wife separated?
PRICE: Oh, yeah. You know, he had to have somebody. He had a problem with alcohol.
GROSS: What would you do for him?
PRICE: Oh, just whatever needed to be done, like go to the store and things like that.
GROSS: Would you try to keep him from alcohol or keep him comfortable with it or?
PRICE: Well, yeah, but you just don't do - oh, no, I wouldn't give him anything. No way. You know, like any of your friends, if they got into it too far you'd try to help them if they were ill.
GROSS: Now, I read someplace, and you can tell me if this is true, because there are so many legends surrounding famous people, but I read that Hank Williams tried to shoot you a couple of times. That he shot at you a couple of times.
PRICE: No, honey, that is a real big fabrication.
PRICE: Real big. No way.
PRICE: What, I - it had to come from somebody that may have been a little envious back there somewhere.
PRICE: It really didn't happen. The reason why that Hank and I stopped living together right at the last was he was in the hospital so many times and having so much trouble. And one of the times I was ordered by the man Jim Denny, who ran the Artist Service Bureau in Nashville and handled Hank, to take him to the hospital. And Hank got a little ill at me for that, and so I moved. And but we never lost the friendship we had.
GROSS: Did he help you get on the Grand Ol' Opry the first time?
PRICE: Sure did.
GROSS: What did he do to get you on there? Were you performing in his act or opening for him, or?
PRICE: No, it was - one Saturday night Red Foley, who was one of the big stars and the star of the Prince Albert, which was the network show, wife had died and Hank had took the host position on the show, and he wanted me for his guest. And you didn't get on the Grand Ol' Opry back then without a hit record. And I was years away from a hit record. So, but he got me on, and they sent me to take care of him on a trip one time and everything worked out all right so they signed me to a contract.
GROSS: What do you mean they sent you to take care of him on a trip? They knew that he was having problems and he needed kind of like a guardian?
PRICE: Yeah, and he needed somebody to get up there and sing in case he didn't make it.
PRICE: And that was hard to do. That happened to me in Norfolk on New Year's Day, and I didn't know what to do because they come running in and said, well, you're going to have to take Hank's place. And here I was - nobody knew who I was. And I said, well, there's no way I can do that. But anyway, they put me out there with Hank's band and we made it all right. And people kind of liked me because I had made a mistake by naming one of the songs in a higher key than I ought to have been. And...
PRICE: ...I let them know about it, so it turned kind of amusing for a while. And from then on Norfolk was one of the best towns for me.
GROSS: How would you explain it to the audience that Hank Williams couldn't make it?
PRICE: Well, you let the promoter do that. And there were other stars on the show; Johnny Jack, Kitty Wells. And we were all trying to cover up the fact, because it was 10 or 12,000 people there. The promoter went out and I forget what he said, that Hank was ill or something. But some of the times Hank wouldn't even be drinking and the promoters would get him to drink and so they didn't have to pay him.
GROSS: You're kidding.
PRICE: No, I'm not kidding, honey.
GROSS: So this way they'd get all the ticket sales but they wouldn't have to pay him.
PRICE: Well, they wouldn't have to pay him because he breached his contract. He'd come in there, got drunk, didn't do a good show. And they'd put him on the stage while he was inebriated and nobody can get onstage and sing drunk.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. But in the meanwhile, the promoter would have had maybe a full house and made all the money on ticket sales.
PRICE: Well, take $50 or $60,000, put it in his pocket and go home.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Let's pause here for some music and hear one of your early hits. In fact, this was your first number one recording. It's called "Crazy Arms." It was recorded in 1956. Do you want to say anything about the recording before we hear it?
PRICE: Well, it was in 1956 and Bob Martin, a disc jockey in Tampa, Florida, had found a record of "Crazy Arms." I mean, it wasn't a very good record. But he was intrigued by the song and he played it for me, and I was too. And then when I recorded it, it became a monster. It was my first million seller, and it crossed over. And at that time they didn't know what a crossover was. But it was the first big one I had, you're right.
GROSS: Let's hear it. This is my guest Ray Price recorded in 1956.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY ARMS")
PRICE: (Singing) Now blue ain't the word for the way that I feel, and the song's brewing in this part of mine. They're saying that crazy dream, I know that it's real. You're someone else's love now, you're not mine.
(Singing) Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new. While my yearning heart keeps saying you're not mine. My troubled mind knows soon to another you'll be wed. And that's why I'm lonely all the time.
GROSS: That's Ray Price recorded in 1956. What was the impact of having a number one hit?
PRICE: ...I got to eat pretty regular.
GROSS: Were you having trouble doing that before?
PRICE: Oh, yeah. All young ones have trouble. In fact, Lefty Frizzell and I started out together. And we used to split a bowl of stew in Dallas when we were first starting. But everything got better and like it always does. And I don't know, that's about all I can say. It was just - it gave me an opportunity to do things that I hadn't been able to do up to that point.
BIANCULLI: Country artist Ray Price, speaking to Terry gross in 1999. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 1999 interview with country artist Ray Price. He died Monday at the age of 87.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: Now, I believe after Hank Williams died you used his band for a while.
PRICE: I used his band for about two years, and there's two or three of them that's passed on now, but the rest, we're all dear friends. But I got to sounding too much like Hank on records.
PRICE: And it was because the music was so locked in it had to sound like Hank. And we had to break up. We broke up in Grand Junction, Colorado if I remember correctly.
GROSS: Did you feel that your singing style changed when you got your own band?
PRICE: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
GROSS: How did it change?
PRICE: Well, I went back to singing Texas style, not the way Hank and the band played. He had no drums or anything like that. And, of course, I brought a Texas swing band to Nashville to go to work with me. And that's where I earned the title as the number one honky-tonk player. Because that's the only place you could play at that time was in the nightclubs.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned western swing. You did an album - I think it was in the late 1950s - of songs that were first recorded by Bob Wills, the father of western swing. This album features the band that you put together after you used the Hank Williams band, or one of the versions of the band you put together. And Willie Nelson is in this band. You had several really great people in your band. Johnny Bush was in your band for a while, the great singer.
PRICE: Roger Miller was the front man.
GROSS: How did you find these people who became so famous in their own right? How did you end up having them as sidemen in your band?
PRICE: Well, they were all looking for a job, Terry. Everything was tough back there. And I heard Roger; he was working in the fire department in Amarillo, Texas.
PRICE: And I needed a fiddle player, and he came out to play fiddle. And his fiddle playing was terrible. And when he got through he said, how did you like that? I said, well, can you sing and play guitar? And it kind of shook him and he said, yeah. So, I hired him as a front man. And he did real well. He's - Roger and I were real close, just like Willie and I are still close.
GROSS: It sounded like you were determined to hire him whether he was good or not.
PRICE: Well, I had heard him sing.
GROSS: Oh, OK. Yeah. Yeah.
PRICE: You know. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. And had you heard Willie Nelson sing before you hired him?
PRICE: Well, Willie worked for my publishing company, Pamford Music.
GROSS: Oh, so you knew his songs.
PRICE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. All of them. And, of course, Willie was having a hard time too. And Johnny Paycheck had gone out on his own, and Willie replaced Johnny Paycheck on bass. And then he would play guitar sometimes.
GROSS: So, let's hear something from this Bob Wills tribute album - the one where Willie Nelson's featured in the band. I just looked at the recording date on this, it was recorded in 1961. And I thought we'd hear "Time Changes Everything." This is Ray Price.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME CHANGES EVERYTHING")
PRICE: (Singing) There was a time when I thought of no other. And we sang our own love's refrain. Our hearts beat as one as we had our fun but time changes everything. When you left me my poor heart was broken. Our romance seemed all in vain. The dark clouds are gone and there's blue skies again. For time changes everything.
GROSS: That's Ray Price from his 1961 album "San Antonio Rose." It's a tribute to Bob Wills and it's been reissued in the past couple of years. Was that Willie Nelson singing harmony, by the way?
PRICE: Could've been. Willie and I recorded a "San Antonio Rose" album in 19-around 1979, I think.
GROSS: Now, that was a big hit on the country charts.
PRICE: It was a big one.
PRICE: Real big.
GROSS: Yeah. Now, in the mid-'60s or so you started using more heavily arranged settings, you know, strings and orchestras, moving away from a more honky tonk kind of sound. What led you in that direction?
PRICE: The honky tonks.
GROSS: What do you mean?
PRICE: Yeah. It wasn't fun playing honky tonks and I was trying to broaden my audience out, you know.
PRICE: Also, I thought that if country music was going to really win approval all over the country they had to do something to kind of fix it where the people that listened to the Tony Bennetts and the Frank Sinatras and those people would like the song or the music. And country music songs are great. I think they're beautiful songs.
And to put the strings with them, that's my idea of how to make one really great song.
GROSS: Now, did that work for you? Did it get you where you wanted to be in venues that other pop singers were singing?
PRICE: Well, it got me into a lot of places. Yeah, sure did. I became one of Johnny Carson's favorite singers which I'm pretty proud of, and I did a lot of things with him in New York before he moved to California and afterwards. But, yeah, it got me to where I wanted to be and I got out of the honky tonks. And I still play dances every now and then for some of my old fans, but I'm not really into that anymore.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I want to get back to your new CD and as I mentioned earlier, some of the songs on here are jazz and pop standards.
GROSS: And I thought I'd play another that fits in that category. This is the song "Prisoner of Love." Tell me why you decided to sing this.
PRICE: Just a great song.
GROSS: It is.
PRICE: I remember back years ago when Perry Como recorded it.
PRICE: It's a great song.
GROSS: Do you like Perry Como?
PRICE: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: So I've never heard it with this kind of band, a kind of, like, shuffle beat behind it before.
PRICE: That's the old brass beat, they call that.
PRICE: And we thought it would fit so we put it in there.
GROSS: It works very nicely. So why don't we hear it. And Ray Price, thank you so much for talking with us.
PRICE: Terry, it's been a pleasure. Thank you, dear.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISONER OF LOVE")
PRICE: (Singing) Alone from night to night you'll find me, too weak to break the chains that bind me. I need no shackles to remind me I'm just a prisoner of love. For one command I stand and wait now from one who's master of my fate now. I can't escape for it's too late now. I'm just a prisoner of love.
BIANCULLI: That's country artist Ray Price. He spoke with Terry Gross in 1999. He died Monday of pancreatic cancer at age 87. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new Spike Jonze movie "Her." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Spike Jonze was a top music video director before he made such acclaimed movies as "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." His new movie is simply called "Her" and stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man in love with a computer operating system. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Spike Jonze's "Her" is the best film of the year by a so-wide margin. It's gorgeous, funny, deep - and I can hear some smart aleck say if you love it so much, why don't you marry it? And let me tell you, I'd like to!
I certainly identify with the protagonist, Theodore Twombly, who falls in love with his computer operating system, his OS, which calls itself - sorry, I gotta say who calls herself - Samantha, and who sounds like a breathy young woman.
When "Her" begins, it doesn't seem as if it's going to be a romance but a sci-fi social satire, set in an unspecified future L.A. in which the architecture has no connection to people - they stroll through faceless plazas gazing into electronic devices, talking to unseen listeners. People eagerly embrace a new kind of OS - what an ad calls an intuitive entity that listens to you and understands you and knows you.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, and it's the performance of the year. The character has a job writing cards and letters on behalf of other people - intimate, sometimes erotic. The irony is he can't find words to communicate with people in his life. He's in mourning for a wife, played by Rooney Mara, who left him for reasons remaining vague; they simply fell out of sync. He's desperately lonely.
Phoenix wears glasses and a thick mustache, but behind his Groucho mask he's wide open. He's the kind of actor who works to get himself into a state where he loses his emotional bearings, which sometimes means he doesn't connect with other actors. But in "Her," he's meant to be all by himself, responding to Samantha's voice, and the performance is like a free-form solipsistic dance.
It's not pure solipsism, because Samantha exists. But you might be watching a four-year-old talking to an imaginary friend; it's that inward. Scarlett Johansson does the voice of Samantha. It's not mechanical. It's seductive, throaty.
At first she does what operating systems do, only charmingly: clean up his hard drive, remind him of appointments. Then she begins to wrestle with ideas, feelings. Suddenly, she and Theodore are taking soulful walks - he has an earpiece, she can see through a camera. Then they take it to an erotic level. The question is implicit: Do we need our bodies, or is love all in our brains? Their relationship is real enough to make us ask what a real relationship is.
And Samantha continues to evolve, which you can hear in a picnic she's on with Theodore and friends played by Chris Pratt and Laura Kai Chen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HER")
LAURA KAI CHEN: (as Tatiana) What about you, Theodore? What do you love most about Samantha?
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (as Theodore) Oh, God. She's so many things. I guess what I love most about her, you know, she isn't just one thing. She's so much larger than that.
SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (as Samantha) Aw, thanks Theodore.
CHRIS PRATT: (as Paul) See? Samantha, he is so much more evolved than I am.
JOHANSSON: (as Samantha) You know what's interesting? I used to be so worried about not having a body but now I truly love it. You know, I'm growing in a way that I couldn't have if I had a physical form. I mean I'm not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously.
(as Samantha) I'm not tethered to time and space in the way I would be if I was stuck in a body that's inevitably going to die.
PRATT: (as Paul) Yikes.
JOHANSSON: (as Samantha) No, no. I didn't mean it like that. I just meant that it was a different experience.
PHOENIX: (as Theodore) No, no, no. Samantha, we know exactly what you mean. We're all dumb humans.
JOHANSSON: (as Samantha) No. No, no. I'm sorry.
EDELSTEIN: Yes, you can hear it. Samantha has spiritual needs, a drive to find new realms of communication. Theodore and Samantha aren't the only show in "Her." Amy Adams plays a friend of Theodore's who designs computer games and has her own relationship problems. But mostly we're in Theodore's head, and Jonze creates a lyrical, impressionistic palette.
Every image is colored by emotion - and by the longing to break free of one's limited self and merge with another being. The first time I saw "Her," I was disappointed Jonze didn't explore the Big Brother aspect, or the way whatever company created Samantha would track its users' buying habits and so forth. But that didn't interest him. He's not a satirist; he's a romantic transcendentalist.
Although sci-fi teems with cautionary tales of machines growing smarter than humans and taking over the world, on the basis of "Her," I think Jonze yearns on some level for what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity, when machines will take on human characteristics and our minds will be expanded by machines. Jonze began with what could have been a one-joke idea, and in the course of getting it on screen, discovered the wellspring of love.
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
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