November 23, 2012
Guest: Susie Arioli
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I had been waiting to hear singer Susie Arioli perform in concert for years, ever since I heard her 2002 album of swing songs and standards, "Pennies from Heaven." She's Canadian, and although she has a big following there, she doesn't perform much in the States.
So, tired of waiting, I set up a concert for her on our show. Today we're going to listen back to that performance, which was recorded last August, Susie Arioli made her first album in 2001. One of her albums went gold in Canada, and so did a CD/DVD of one of her concerts. Her FRESH AIR concert was recorded at the CBC in Montreal. Joining her were Jordan Officer, the guitarist she always plays with, and bass player Frederic Grenier.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S ALWAYS YOU")
SUSIE ARIOLI: (Singing) Whenever it's early twilight, I watch till a star breaks through. Funny, it's not a star I see, it's always you. Whenever I roam through roses, and lately I often do, funny it's not a rose I touch, it's always you. If a breeze caresses me, it's really you passing by. If I hear a melody, it's merely the way you sigh. Wherever you are you're near me, you dare me to be untrue. Funny, each time I fall in love, it's always you.
If a breeze caresses me, it's really you passing by. If I hear a melody, it's merely the way you sigh. Wherever you are you're near me, you dare me to be untrue. Funny, each time I fall in love, it's always you.
GROSS: That's Susie Arioli singing for us. I neglected to mention that she's also playing snare, with Jordan Officer on guitar and Fred Grenier bass; a song many of us associate with Chet Baker. Susie, I'm tempted to ask you to actually do a Chet Baker imitation.
ARIOLI: Oh, my God.
GROSS: Just see, like, what was it that you were imitating when you were trying to get what is the essence of Chet Baker.
ARIOLI: Well, one thing he does is he holds his notes super long, like...
(Singing) My funny valentine.
I - sorry, Chet. But that thing, like that's how I was singing it at the beginning, and I was like oh my God, you can't hold a note so long, Susie, you're not Chet Baker. He's got his own brain happening, his own heart, his own way, context. But I guess I had to go through those steps of completely trying to imitate him.
I mean, to me when I was trying to completely imitate him, I sounded cold. I sounded detached from the song. I just didn't sound like me, and it's important to not do that, I think. You might as well sound like yourself, you know?
But I think that's one of the main things is incredible tone, just like his trumpet playing, I found, was almost like an extension, just that tone, and I don't know how he breathed. Maybe he breathed through his ears or something, but, you know, that dude could sing.
GROSS: And the music that you play is, you know, largely standards from maybe the '30s on up with some country, as well. How did you gravitate to that repertoire?
ARIOLI: I found that, like, singing in my life, I remember one time I guess when I was kind of just about to get out of high school, I figured that jazz was available to singers. Do you know what I mean? Like the jazz tome is open to interpretation.
So as a singer, as a musician, we've all got the capacity to look at those jazz songs, whereas if you're doing pop, pop is a bit more associated with every artist who has that song. Do you know what I mean? And I didn't want to - I wasn't writing, and I didn't want to have to imitate completely the pop song, or else it would sound crappy.
You know, like at the time, anyway, I just thought, well, as a singer, not only are the songs incredible in jazz, but that's what I'm supposed to do. I don't know, I just thought it was logical, like incredible music, and it's all about how it's OK for different people to do it.
And so that's what I just thought I - and plus, I don't know, I think that's the main reason, is I just that what I was supposed to do if I loved singing, you know.
GROSS: It makes sense to me. Well, Jordan, I want to hear more about your guitar playing, but first I'd love for you to do another song. So let me recommend one that you also do on your new album, and this is "When Your Lover Has Gone," and you do the verse on this. It's a terrific verse. Susie, do you want to say why you chose this, or Jordan, if you're the one who chose it, explain why?
ARIOLI: I don't know why I chose this song.
JORDAN OFFICER: I think because you liked it.
ARIOLI: Probably because I liked it. That's kind of why people sing songs, Jordan.
GROSS: Oh, that's too simple.
ARIOLI: I hated it, so I figured...
OFFICER: There were many songs that were the first ones that made sense, that kind of defined what this new record was going to be, and that's sort of one of the later ones that we just came upon when we were just going through standards and kind of remembered that song, and, yeah, that's a really beautiful song.
GROSS: So when you say what defined what the record was going to be, what was the definition?
ARIOLI: Well, we kind of were moving away from a - more of a swing idiom, which we love, and we were just - I actually wanted to sound a little more modern. I wanted to try and do more of a modern jazz, not contemporary, of course, but modern.
There's all these people that I admire, and I wasn't - like Chet Baker, I could never really do a Chet Baker in a swing form, you know. It didn't sound at all rational. And I also wanted to play with different musicians because swing music is a bit more hothouse flower, you know, it's very contained, small vocabulary, whereas bebop, a lot more people know that language and can play it.
And I feel like as a musician, I would like to be able to play with other human beings, you know, not just my band. Do you know what I mean? So it kind of opened us, I'm hoping to, and even now, like, we're playing with different musicians like Fred. He's - he ain't no swing guy, and we can communicate on this level, which kind of makes me a happier musician that I can play with different people.
GROSS: OK, so maybe you can do "When Your Lover Has Gone" for us.
ARIOLI: Cool, a real modern song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE")
ARIOLI: (Singing) What good is the dreaming, the planning and scheming that comes with each new love affair? The dreams that we cherish so often may perish like castles in the air.
(Singing) When you're alone, who cares for starlit skies? When you're alone, the magic moonlight dies at break of dawn. There is no sunrise when your lover is gone.
(Singing) What lonely hours the evening shadows bring. What lonely hours with memories lingering like faded flowers. Life can't mean anything when your lover is gone.
GROSS: Nice. That's Susie Arioli on vocals and drum; Jordan Officer, guitar; Fred Grenier, bass. And they're at the CBC in Montreal performing for us, and the first two songs that they did are from their new album, "All The Way."
And Susie, you were talking about how the repertoire of the band is changing, moving more from swing songs to more modern songs. Jordan, what has that meant for you in terms of what you're playing on guitar?
OFFICER: Well, the more swing, like, side approach that we had before fit very easily with my playing because I have a lot of blues and country influence in my playing. And so it was more similar to that kind of swing language than more modern jazz.
But over the years playing with Susie, I've just discovered more and more jazz, becoming more and more a fan of it. I actually, I also studied a couple of years at McGill in the jazz program, and I just got to like all of it more and more. So it was just a great challenge to try to go and get some of that more modern language, like Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery and other guitar players that I really loved but who have less of an obvious influence in my playing.
GROSS: Now early on, your playing was, like, especially influenced by Django Reinhardt. Can you play a little bit of what you learned from listening to him?
OFFICER: Well, there's some obvious things like certain little figures that I like to do, like...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OFFICER: Stuff like that. I really like his tremolo playing. He has a great tremolo, and - but mostly it's kind of - it's his attitude that I really loved. I've never been one of those kind of Django players that plays really that style, but he just has a great attitude, like a crazy monster with a huge heart. And Coleman Hawkins makes me think of that, too. Like, he's got this huge technique and monstrous approach but so much soul and heart and beauty in what he does. So I really like that personality of his.
GROSS: We're listening to a concert and interview with Susie Arioli, along with guitarist Jordan Officer and bass player Fred Grenier. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: We're featuring a performance with jazz singer Susie Arioli; guitarist Jordan Officer; and bass player Fred Grenier. Arioli's latest album is called "All The Way." I asked them to do a song she sang on an earlier album, a song often associated with Ray Charles, "You Don't Know Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T KNOW ME")
ARIOLI: (Singing) You give your hand to me, and then you say hello, and I can hardly speak my heart is beating so. And anyone can tell you think you know me well. Well, you don't know me. No you don't know the one who dreams of you at night and longs to kiss your lips and longs to hold you tight. I'm just a friend, that's all I've ever been 'cause you don't know me.
(Singing) For I never knew the art of making love, though my heart aches with love for you. Afraid and shy, I let my chance go by, a chance that you might love me too. You give your hand to me, and then you say goodbye. I watched you walk away beside that lucky girl. You'll never, ever know the one who loves you so. Well, you don't know me.
GROSS: Oh, that was beautiful.
GROSS: Susie, sometimes you sing just like you're sighing, it's just so, so lovely.
GROSS: So we just heard performing at the CBC in Montreal, that's Susie Arioli on vocal and snare; Jordan Officer on guitar with Fred Grenier, bass. And they did that song on an earlier album, but their new album is called "All The Way." So I have another request and this is something from your next to the last album. And the song is called "Can't We Be Friends."
ARIOLI: Oh, goodie.
GROSS: And before you sing it, tell us how you first learned the song, how you first heard it.
ARIOLI: Hmm. Good question. It's probably a Frankie.
OFFICER: I think so.
ARIOLI: I think it's a Frank, Frank Sinatra. You know, I'm always, there's a lot of songs out there, Terry, and I'm always trying to find the ones that, you know, you try to find the songs that you resonate with at the time or that has words that come out of your mouth well.
I mean I like the sentiment. I like the mood. I like this slyness of "Can't We Be Friends" and the mock, you know, mock sadness and stuff. And it's fun to perform because I get to do googly eyes at people in the audience and it's dramatic. And I mean it's hard to tell, you know, if I like the story, I mean a lot of songs, like they have interesting stories, they're not just, they're not boring. What can I say? I like the story.
GROSS: So Bing Crosby recorded this I think in the 1930s. So the song goes pretty far back. How contemporary do you do it?
ARIOLI: Well, I find that a lot of the jazz songs, like even the modern songs, they were written a long time ago. Like we were almost going to put a song that was sung by Nina Simone - not Nina Simone - Sarah Vaughn, pardon me. And which one was it? It was...
OFFICER: "Say It Isn't So."
ARIOLI: "Say It Isn't So." And the original version of "Say It Isn't So" is so chipper. And then she, I have two versions of her, one of them I guess is earlier and it's a bit chipper, and another one is her just stretching it so dramatically. And you say to yourself, how could it have been done any different. It's incredible, you know? You just have to...
GROSS: That's an old Irving Berlin song.
ARIOLI: Indeed. And it's like (Singing) Say it isn't so. Say it isn't so. (Speaking) And she's like, (Singing) Say it isn't so. (Speaking) She finds an aspect to it and I think that's what's so wonderful about music; you can just, just find something, it doesn't have to be like fabulously unique, but something meaningful and resonating and then as soon as you do it, it's contemporary.
You know what I mean? I think we have to be allowed - I guess - we have to be allowed to sing these beautiful songs and be contemporary with them, you know? Because they're just too good to say, oh well, they're old, they must die now. It's like, really?
ARIOLI: It brings so much happiness to me to sing them, you know, and I would hope that children when they're older would sing them. I mean if somebody stopped singing these songs, it would be pretty sad, I think. Yeah.
GROSS: OK. So do "Can't We Be Friends" for us.
ARIOLI: All right.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T WE BE FRIENDS")
ARIOLI: (Singing) I took each word he said as gospel truth, like any silly child would. I can't excuse it on the grounds of youth, I was no babe in the wild, wild woods. He didn't mean didn't mean it, I should have seen it, but now it's too late.
(Singing) I thought I'd met the man of my dreams, now it seems, this is how the story ends: he's gonna turn me down and say, can't we be friends? I thought for once I couldn't go wrong, not for long, I can see the way this ends: he's gonna turn me down and say, can't we be friends?
(Singing) Why should I care though he showed me the air, why should I cry, heave a sigh, and wonder why, and wonder why? I thought I met a man I could trust, what a bust, I can see the way this ends: he's gonna let me down and say, can't we be just friends?
GROSS: That's great. I'm so glad you do the verse on that because the verse is so like high drama and...
ARIOLI: I know.
GROSS: And the song itself is so, you know, kind of like swinging and jaunty.
ARIOLI: We love those paradoxes.
GROSS: Susie Arioli, along with guitarist Jordan Officer and bass player Frederick Grenier. They joined us for an in-studio concert last August from the CBC in Montreal. We'll hear more in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our concert and conversation with singer Susie Arioli, guitarist Jordan Officer, and bass player Frederic Grenier. They joined us from the CBC in Montreal last August. Arioli and Officer made their first album together in 2001. They perform swing songs and jazz standards, as well as some rock and country songs. Their new album is called "All the Way."
How did you end up, how did you start off playing drums in addition to singing?
ARIOLI: Well, I started playing the snare with my sister when she was writing songs and I was always harmonizing with her because she's a soprano and I would be playing my thigh, you know, and she said, you know, my boyfriend's son has a - I think he has a snare in the closet there and a couple of, you know, very gnarly looking brushes. And when I finally met Jordan and started to play, indeed, we had another drummer, but we wanted to keep it intimate, you know, and we found that if I played the snare it could really control the dynamics a lot and we can get really quiet and really loud and we wouldn't have to be like - it was just easier at the time. Plus for me to just play it, it made the sound a lot more direct and clear. It was nice for me. I love playing the snare. I love having something to do on stage with the other - while the music is happening when I'm not singing, it's very exciting for me. Plus the role that I'm playing tempo-wise and trying to find communion with the bass player is, while the guitar has his own thing going on, is very important to me and it makes me feel really good. I really enjoy it.
GROSS: It's probably hard for a singer on stage when they break and everybody takes a solo - as is so often the case - in jazz concerts. And I think the singer has to stand by the mic looking at solo after solo, like wow, that's the best solo I've ever heard.
SUSIE ARIOLI: I know.
ARIOLI: Indeed, that's true, right? You're not going to stand there looking bored, right? Of course. Even if you're not bored, there would have to be some animation. Anyway, for me personally, I love the fact that I can do that and I recommend it to all singers who can't find a drummer, who are irritated with their drummer...
ARIOLI: ...to just get a snare and do it, you know?
GROSS: So Susie and Jordan, for several years you were a couple in addition to being musical partners, and now you're just musical partners?
GROSS: So has that changed the dynamic of playing together? Like was there a period where you thought, well, if you're not going to be a couple, then you can't play together either? I mean I'm sure glad your music relationship didn't break up.
ARIOLI: Yeah, well, I don't know if we considered not playing together. We kind of have a vocabulary for playing together, which is strong, which may have been the main thing and the couple thing was kind of like, well, you know how sometimes you feel like you should be a couple? Like maybe we weren't even destined to be a couple, we were just in a band, but as is the wont of a singer and guitarist you start hanging out together, but you know, it's an intimate relationship. It's changed some of the things, but I - I think we have a - we've made a bunch of records together and that's pretty solid. What do you think there?
OFFICER: I think the question came up, and when we recorded "Night Lights"...
OFFICER: It just worked and it worked really well and we didn't want to stop, so that confirmed it for us, I think. And the tour went great and we just continued and it's been - it's worked out.
GROSS: So you guys are pretty well-known in Canada and you've had, you know, you've been nominated for Junos, which is the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy. One of your albums went gold in Canada, whereas in the United States you are not very well-known, and I hope to do my part to change that just a little bit.
GROSS: But is it hard for you when you're performing in the States? Like you're used to like sold-out crowds in Canada and you come here and like not that many people know who you are. Is that discouraging?
ARIOLI: Well, what we did to remedy that was find a lovely record label named Jazz Heads and put a record out there. So they were happy to distribute us and actually be our record company in the United States, which I think is what we should - maybe we should have done a long time ago. But obviously we're going to be less known in the States if we're, you know what I mean, if we don't even have a record out there. So I think that was kind of a reason that it was hard and I think hopefully this will make a difference because I mean a big part of my life is stateside. I have family there. I've got a history there.
And I love going there. It's a big country. We have to go there. So we're, I think this is something that we tried to do to make it. I mean we have tons of fans on the Internet. I get these beautiful letters from people in Florida and Pennsylvania and, you know, any old place where people like music. And there's these - there's still jazz shows. So I guess the DJs like us and they play us. And so I'm hoping that we'll get - because of putting the record out there - that we'll have more opportunity just to visit and just have a presence there.
GROSS: Well, let's end with another song. And maybe you could do the title track from your new album "All the Way." And tell us - I mean, Frank Sinatra owns the song. I'm not saying that you don't.
GROSS: I'm just saying, like - I was going to ask you why - how you know the song. Obviously, you must know it through Frank Sinatra. But why did you decide to do it?
ARIOLI: Well, I did love the version of Frank Sinatra, and then I think what made it, clinched it is Harry Connick, Jr. - you know, dreamboat, lovely. And he does a lovely version of it, too. One thing I like to do is if I notice that not very many women are singing a song, I like to do that. I like to give it a different perspective, you know?
It's a different vibe, and I enjoy that little bit of theater that you can put into a song. You know, like, those are basically known male singers, but I don't know. It's such a classic, and I really did want to put some classic jazz songs that everybody knew on this record just to kind of not be so obscure all the time.
And I like to - we also like to find the obscure songs, you know. But it's also nice because, I mean, a lot of the well-known songs are just stunning, you know? And I figured I might be able to do it this time, and I hope that people like it. I guess you like it. So that's good.
GROSS: Yes. All right. So here we go. This is - performing for us in Montreal at the CBC studio there, is Susie Arioli, voice and snare, Jordan Officer, guitar, and Fred Grenier, bass.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE WAY")
ARIOLI: OK. (Singing) When somebody loves you, it's no good unless they love you all the way. Happy to be near you, when you need someone to cheer you all the way. Taller than the tallest trees, that's how it's got to be. Deeper than the deep blue seas, that's how deep it goes if it's real. When somebody needs you, it's no good unless they need you all the way. Through the good or lean years and all the in between years, come what may.
(Singing) Who knows where the road will lead us. Only a fool would say. But if you let me love you, it's for sure I'm going to love you all the way, all the way.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank all of you for performing for us: Susie Arioli, voice and snare, Jordan Officer, guitar, Fred Grenier, bass. Thank you all. I wish you the best, and very generous of you to sing and play for us today.
ARIOLI: Thank you, Terry. It's so wonderful talking to you again, and I really - we really appreciate this. This is wonderful.
GROSS: Well, I love your music. So thank you.
FRED GRENIER: Thanks, Terry.
GROSS: Thank you.
Susie Arioli's latest album, featuring guitarist Jordan Officer, is called "All The Way." They, and bass player Frederic Grenier, joined us from the CBC in Montreal. Our concert was recorded last August.
Coming up, Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new 50th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the classic thriller "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?"
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Robert Aldrich's classic horror film "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?", has been released on Blu-ray. Though it's far from a musical, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says its musical elements are crucial to the film. Here's Lloyd's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE")
BETTE DAVIS: (as Jane) (Singing) I've written a letter to Daddy. His address is Heaven above. I've written Dear Daddy, we miss you and wish you were with us to love. Instead of a stamp...
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Baby Jane Hudson is now 50 years old, or at least the strange and brilliant movie in which she's the main character, just releases as a beautifully re-mastered Blu-ray. Robert Aldrich's grotesque gothic tragedy is a cross between "Gypsy," with its antithetical show-biz kid sisters, and "Sunset Boulevard," with its decade Hollywood glamour.
Baby Jane is a blonde, curly-haired child star, a Shirley Temple wannabe, like Baby June in "Gypsy." She's self-centered and more selfish than her plain sister, Blanche, who in the 1930s becomes a queen of Hollywood melodrama. Then it seems as if Jane - in a sudden fit of drunken jealousy - has rammed her car into her sister and crippled her for life. Years later, the sisters are still living together in a nightmare of mutually destructive codependency.
Director Aldrich is no stranger to movies about Hollywood or the grotesque. His best-known works, including "Kiss Me Deadly," "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Longest Yard," range from film noir and horror, to biblical epic and archetypal action films.
But the reason audiences crowded to see "Baby Jane" was probably not the director, but its two legendary stars: Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in the first and last film they ever made together. There was evidently as little love lost between the actresses as between the sisters.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?")
DAVIS: (as Jane) Don't you think I know everything that goes on in this house?
JOAN CRAWFORD: (as Blanche) You've been spying on me.
DAVIS: (as Jane) What do you think?
CRAWFORD: (as Blanche) You are disgusting. After all I've done for you, you spy on me, when all I'm trying to do is help.
DAVIS: (as Jane) Who are you trying to help, Blanche? What are you planning to do with me when you sell the house? What'd you have in mind? Some nice little place where they could look after me? Better not tire yourself out using the phone anymore. If there are any calls I'll take them downstairs. Eat your lunch, it'll get cold.
SCHWARTZ: Fifty years after its premiere, "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane" still holds up, both for its vivid direction and its fascinating performances. Joan Crawford, as the trapped and suffering Blanche Hudson, is both convincing and quite sympathetic as the victimized sister - a more surprisingly understated performance than I remembered. We don't discover until the very end of the movie what a monster she really is. Bette Davis, of course, has the more bravura role, the child star who wants to make a comeback as an adult, but who's still living in her childhood.
Guilty and tormented because she thinks she's caused her sister's injury, she tortures her sister and even commits a murder. Yet her derangement also allows her to retain her childlike innocence. Part of the movie is a kind of musical. Baby Jane becomes a star singing an awful, sentimental ballad "I've Written A Letter to Daddy; His Address is Heaven Above."
Written by Frank Duval and Bob Merrill who wrote the lyrics for "Funny Girl" and such '50s novelty hits as "If I Knew You Were Coming I'd Have Baked A Cake" and "How Much is that Doggy in the Window?" it's a skilful parody of old music hall songs. Jane sings the song again as a grownup when she's making her pathetic attempt to revive her career. It's a moment both repugnant and perversely comic.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE WRITTEN A LETTER TO DADDY; HIS ADDRESS IS HEAVEN ABOVE")
DAVIS: (As Baby Jane) (singing) I've written a letter to Daddy. His address is heaven above. I've written Dear Daddy, We miss you and wish you were with us to love. Instead of a standby, put kisses. The postman says that's best to do. I've written a letter to Daddy saying I love you.
SCHWARTZ: Finally, Jane learns the truth about what's behind her malignant relationship with her sister. Davis' performance achieves a kind of tragic grandeur a moment before Jane's total retreat from reality of a heartbreaking, almost Oedipal illumination that she and Blanche really didn't have to wreck each other's lives.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?")
DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) All this time we could've been friends.
CRAWFORD: (as Blanche) You were frightened and ran away. I managed to crawl out of the car up to the gates. When they found me they assumed it was your fault. You were so drunk and confused you didn't know any better. You weren't ugly then. I made you that way. I even did that.
DAVIS: (as Baby Jane) There's a place up there that sells things. We like ice cream. I'll get you some.
SCHWARTZ: In the last minutes of the film, Jane is dancing like a child on the beach, surrounded by stunned onlookers - the audience she's craved for so many years. It's one of Bette Davis' great screen moments and she was nominated for an Oscar. Crawford wasn't. But Davis lost to Anne Bancroft in "The Miracle Worker" and Bancroft's Oscar was accepted by none other than Joan Crawford. Ah, Hollywood.
But the weirdest moment on the new Blu Ray is not part of the movie. It's a bonus track of an appearance by Bette Davis on the late Andy Williams TV show singing a rock song called "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"Few horrors in the film itself are as scary as this clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)
DAVIS: (singing) What ever happened to Baby Jane? She could dance. She could sing. Make the biggest theater ring. Jane could do most anything. What ever happened to Baby Jane? What ever happened to Baby Jane? When she walked down the street all the world was lying at her feet. There was no one half as sweet. What ever happened to Baby Jane?
(singing) I see her old movies on TV and they are always a thrill to me. My daddy says I can be just like her. How I wish, I wish, I wish, I wish I were. What ever happened to Baby Jane?
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classic musical editor of The Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the new 50th anniversary Blu Ray edition of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Life of Pi," the new film directed by Ang Lee. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: The new movie "Life of Pi" is adapted from the 2001 bestselling novel by Yann Martel. Told mostly in flashback, it's about an Indian boy who survives a shipwreck and is lost at sea, adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The movie was shot in 3D. The Bengal tiger was created with computer graphics. The movie was directed by Ang Lee. David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Ang Lee has a surprising affinity for the Indian hero of "Life of Pi" - that's his name, Pi, and he's seen at several ages but principally as a 17-year-old boy adrift on a lifeboat in the South Pacific, the lone survivor of a shipwreck that killed the crew, his family and a variety of zoo animals his father was transporting for sale to North America.
Actually, Pi is the lone human survivor. He shares his boat and its dwindling food supplies with a man-eating Bengal tiger. Lee is a director whose works I've admired more than loved. All of his movies - among them "Sense and Sensibility," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Brokeback Mountain," even "Hulk" - center on emotions that bump up against rigid codes of behavior - emotions that can't be suppressed and finally erupt.
Lee's range of genres and settings is impressive, but there's something about his meticulousness that keeps me at a distance. I know that many people loved "Brokeback Mountain," but I got hung up on the mythical cowboy iconography, that forbidden love sanctified by purple mountain majesties. Lee makes movies about giving in to passion - without seeming to let go.
But "Life of Pi is different." Most of the film is a flashback, a tale told to a writer by the middle-aged Pi. And the way Lee depicts it - in a style that's typically fastidious and arty - is astonishingly in sync with his narrator.
That lifeboat in which most of the movie takes place is a wondrous set, not realistic but not fake, either - transcendentally in-between. The water is ultra-ultramarine, the sea a mirror in which clouds above seem to mingle with sharks, dorados, luminous jellyfish, even whales below.
The orange of the tiger burns as bright as in William Blake's immortal poem. The 3-D is brilliantly effective in creating multiple planes of reality, and it also allows Lee to hold shots for longer than any studio would let him if not for that marvelously immersive technology. This isn't just a gorgeous survival story: The search for higher meaning runs all through the movie, as it does through Yann Martel's best-selling novel.
Growing up, Pi was drawn to multiple faiths. He thanks Vishnu for introducing him to Christ while rolling out his prayer mat to honor Allah. The kid subscribes to everything. But on that lifeboat, it seems as if none of his many gods will even acknowledge his existence. He's terribly alone - except, of course, for you-know-who.
And talk about a mismatched buddy picture! Because of a bureaucratic screw-up, the tiger bears the name of the man who caught him - Richard Parker. But despite that human moniker, the beast is never anthropomorphized. For long stretches, Pi stares at the tiger with both awe and dread.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIFE OF PI")
SURAJ SHARMA: (as Pi) I never thought a small piece of shade could bring me so much happiness, that a pile of tools - a bucket, a knife, a pencil - might become my greatest treasures. Or that Richard Parker was here might ever bring me peace. In times like these, I remember that he has as little experience of the real world as I do. We were both raised in a zoo by the same master.
(as Pi) Now we've been orphaned, left to face our ultimate master together. Without Richard Parker I would have died by now. My fear of him keeps me alert. Tending to his needs gives my life purpose.
EDELSTEIN: The young actor Suraj Sharma has a good, wiry presence - he's alert to everything, as he needs to be. Irrfan Khan as the older Pi has the more thankless job, largely just sitting and telling his story to a writer played by Rafe Spall. Those framing scenes are awfully clunky, but against all odds they pay off. The movie has a sting in its tail that puts what you've seen in a startlingly harsh context.
The over-controlled Ang Lee has gone with his strengths and made a movie that's passionately over-controlled. If it seems one step removed from reality, under glass, with twinkles of magic that are obviously computer-generated, well, that penchant for artifice is the key to the film. Like Pi, Lee believes with all his heart in the transformative power of storytelling.
Only one thing about this lovely movie saddens me. Once upon a time, audiences would say wow! How'd they do that? Some people might read about how it was done later; most would never find out. Now you can't get away from the behind-the-scenes documentaries on cable and the Internet. The DVD will have a raft of extras showing Richard Parker and that lifeboat at every stage of its computer generation. I wish we could just say wow and leave it at that.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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