(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Margo Price, is a country music singer and songwriter based in Nashville. She has a beautiful voice and is going to perform some of her music for us. Her latest album, called "All American Made," was described in Rolling Stone as one of the most political country records in years - a declarative honky-tonk manifesto of small-town farmer populism and working-class feminism. Meanwhile, in her Twitter bio, Price describes herself as a songbird, Thunderbird and jailbird.
In her song "Weekender," Price sings about the weekend she spent behind bars after she was arrested for driving under the influence. That song is on her debut album, "Midwest Farmer's Daughter." Price has performed on "Saturday Night Live," "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" and "The Daily Show." Her roots in the American Midwest are an essential part of her music, as you can hear on this track from "All American Made." The song "Heart Of America" is about her parents losing the family farm when she was 2.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEART OF AMERICA")
MARGO PRICE: (Singing) Some time back in '86, when big banks took the throne, they asked that every local farmer try to dry his own corn. But the men in suits had a bigger plan than to let it be our own. When the crops came in that spring, they were blown. And Neil and Willie tried so hard. And battles they have gone. But that was still long after the much bigger war had been won. No one was there to save the wheat and the cattle at my home. They took every field my family owned. No one moves away with no money. They just do what they can to live in the heart of America, getting by on their own two hands. You can pray to anybody's Jesus and be a hardworking man. But at the end of the day, if the rain, it don't rain, if the bank, it don't break, we just do what we can.
GROSS: That's "Heart Of America" from Margo Price's new album "All American Made." Margo Price, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for coming to our show and for bringing your guitar with you. I really appreciate that. So...
PRICE: Yes, thank you for having me.
GROSS: My pleasure. When you started writing songs, did you think you'd be writing about anything as personal, as autobiographical as losing the family farm?
PRICE: You know, I think from the time that I was really young, I was always trying to, you know, express what was going on in my life and inside me. And a lot of times, that came out through song. I feel like I've been trying to write "Heart Of America" and "Hands Of Time" - I feel like I've been trying to write those songs my whole life.
GROSS: You were - according to your songs, you were 2 when your family lost the farm. So you probably have, like, no memory of actually living on the farm. Can I ask what the circumstances were that led to your family losing the farm?
PRICE: Yeah. I was about 2 or 3, and I do have a couple kind of vague memories of my grandparents packing up all their things in their home and getting rid of their dogs that they loved so much and all their animals. So there is a little bit of a memory there, just knowing the gravity of it all, just how much it affected everybody.
But, you know, there was a combination of a lot of things. Of course, it was - big farming was coming in. And the banks weren't very generous in helping out the family after a hard year. So they had been told to install these grain bins that dried their corn, which - typically, I guess, they would ship off and have that done. So they had invested in a lot of farming equipment that was very expensive. And then a drought came. And the combination of those two things - then the bank just kind of swept it out from under them and sold it to a large corporation. But it's very complicated. And I never know if I'm getting all the details exactly right no matter how many times I ask.
GROSS: So on your first album, there's a song called "Hands Of Time," which is about, you know, leaving your home and hitting the road and, you know, launching a music career. It seems very connected to the first song that we heard. Can you play - can you perform some of that for us?
PRICE: Yeah, yeah. Well, I wrote this song actually sitting down at the piano. And I'd had the words for a really long time and could not find the right chords or the right tempo or melody. And I just kept working on it and working on it. And one day, I went down and used the piano to figure out what was going on. So, yeah, here's a little piece of it.
(Singing, playing guitar) (Singing) When I rolled out of town on the unpaved road, I was $57 from being broke. Kissed my mama and my sisters, and I said goodbye. And with my suitcase packed, I wiped the tears from my eyes. Times - they were tough growing up at home. My daddy lost the farm when I was 2 years old. Took a job at the prison, working second shift. That's the last time I'll let them take what should be his. 'Cause all I want to do is make a little cash 'cause I've worked all the bad jobs, busting my ass. I want to buy back the farm. Bring my mama home some wine. And turn back the clock on the cruel hands of time. (Playing guitar).
It was kind of strange 'cause when I wrote that, and I showed my husband, he said, I don't know if that key change works or whatever kind of modulation you're doing there. Just, I don't know. I just kept playing it over and over. I said, yeah, it does.
PRICE: And then later, everyone said it was genius. But right off the bat (laughter), it was - felt a little strange.
GROSS: So the song that you just did, "Hands Of Time," refers to your father after the farm was taken away, working a job at the prison. And so - is that the job that he took?
PRICE: Yeah, it was. I think it's a hard job for anyone who has it, you know? Nobody wants to be in a - working in a prison. But he did what he had to do to put food on the table. And him and my mom worked very hard, very modest jobs to make sure that we were never without.
GROSS: Your great-uncle is a songwriter. And I don't know that I know any of his songs, but he is a songwriter who went to Nashville and kind of made his way there. Did that open up any doors for you, at least a door in your mind - thinking, someone from my family did this, so maybe I can do it, too?
PRICE: For sure. We would come down for family vacation and stay with my uncle Bob (ph) and my aunt Helen (ph) for a couple days. And, you know, he had gold records hanging on his wall. He's written hundreds and hundreds of songs. He wrote for George Jones a song called "Writing On The Wall." You know, he wrote for Reba. He wrote for Charley Pride and Tanya Tucker and so many people.
And he had a, you know, just a regular job. And he was living in Iowa. And his wife was supportive enough when he said, I want to go to Nashville. I want to be a songwriter - that they picked up everything and moved down here. And it did seem to be this impossible dream that he had conquered.
But, you know, I do think that, probably, my mother thought that he could open all the right doors for me, and there would be a nice, smooth transition. And I came to his house. He lives in Green Hills. And I played him some songs, like, the first week I was here. And he sat there real quiet and didn't say anything. And I said, well, what - you know, what do you think? And he gave me the best advice that he could.
He said, you know, go home, throw away your TV. Throw away your computer. Just sit there and just keep writing. And it hurt my feelings, but I needed that tough love, you know, to tell myself I did need to keep working at playing and hearing other people's songs and seeing what made a good song. So I started going out to lots of open mics and listening to everybody and cut my teeth.
GROSS: I'm going to ask you to play a song from your new album. And this is called "All American Made." It's the title song. Would you introduce it for us and play a little bit of it?
PRICE: Yeah. So you have this song my husband and I co-wrote. And it's been around for a minute. You know, it's funny how songs kind of change their meaning as the world seems to change them for you.
GROSS: How has the meaning of the song changed?
PRICE: I think there's just more weight in it than at the time that I wrote it. And, you know, we wrote it during the Obama years. And I feel like I've always been one to question the people in charge. I enjoy playing the devil's advocate and being the protagonist. And so, you know, when I wrote the song, you know, I was still upset with things that were going on. But I think, you know, America is just in such a divided, heavy place right now. And I love my country so much. I - you know, I don't want to leave. I just day-to-day wake up and read the news and feel confused. And so this song has helped on some gray mornings.
GROSS: The song has a lot of verses. Do you want to choose a couple of your favorite (laughter) and play them?
PRICE: Yeah. Starting after the lead, about halfway through the song is where my favorite one starts.
(Singing, playing guitar) 1987, and I didn't know it then. Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran. But it won't be the first time, baby, and it won't be the end. They were all American made. But I was just a child, unaware of the effects, raised on sports and Jesus and all the usual suspects. So tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next? That's all American made.
GROSS: That was Margo Price performing for us the title track of her new album, "All American Made." Tom Petty slips in there (laughter).
GROSS: This was when he was still alive that you wrote the song. Why are you asking him a question?
PRICE: Well, I think there's nothing more American than Tom Petty. And so when I started writing those later verses there, I thought he'd be the person who'd know what actually is all American made. I'll just ask him. And, of course, I thought maybe if I asked him a question, he would answer me, and then I'd get to meet him.
PRICE: Yeah. I mean, because the album came out on his birthday, you know, what would have been his birthday. That was just a really hard time, I think, for people on both sides of the battle right now. Everybody loves Tom Petty.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So, you know, in terms of, like, moving to Nashville to, like, launch your performing career there and try to get known as a performer and a songwriter - in one of your songs, you talk about, you know, starting to sing in the bars and running with the men. When you got to Nashville, was it like a real, like, guy scene that you became part of?
PRICE: I think, typically, you know, there's a lot of men out there doing it. You know, that line was - it was kind of a double meaning with - you know, it kind of meant, you know, just hanging out with the guys in the bars and the songwriters and whatever, but it was also just about infidelity. And, you know, it's - it was a weighted sentence.
GROSS: Notice how I didn't even pick up on that because I'm that naive (laughter).
PRICE: No, not at all. I don't think I've ever said that to anyone, so now the secret's out.
GROSS: Yeah, and you also write, you know, not only about singing in the bars but drinking a lot. And I was wondering, in terms of the other meaning of running with the men or just hanging out with men, was - I was wondering if there was a period where you felt like you almost had to drink more because women are - I think sometimes women are supposed to show they can, like - they can hold their liquor.
PRICE: Oh, yeah. Well, I think there's a problem with alcohol in America, and it's advertised in a way that's - you know, you see it, and you're like, oh, that's going to make me sexy, and that's going to make me cool. And it's - the opposite is true. But I think, you know, when I first was let loose from - I had pretty protective parents, and they liked to keep a short leash on me. So when I first moved to college, you know, there was a lot of binge drinking there. That was just what a lot of people were doing.
And I was definitely known to be able to hold my liquor. You know, then I kind of stepped away from that, and I started smoking grass, which just felt like I was more productive and happier. And then, you know, when I moved back to Nashville - and a lot of people refer to Nashville as a drinking city with a music problem.
PRICE: And saying - you know, the bottle is talked about a lot in country music. And I, you know, moved here when I was 20, and I started working in a bar. So yeah, it's always been a slippery slope. And, of course, I medicated pretty heavily with booze after I lost my son.
GROSS: This is your...
PRICE: It was not the way to handle things, yeah.
GROSS: This is your twin baby. You had two twin sons, and one of them died at two weeks. And I just - I want to say, I know this was about seven years ago or so, but I want to say how sorry I am. I imagine that kind of grief never leaves.
PRICE: Yeah, it's been a tough one. You know, I feel much healthier now than when it first happened, and I've done a lot of personal work to try to move past it. But there's not a day that goes by that I wouldn't trade, you know, all my career and everything just to have him back. It's not easy.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Margo Price. She has a new album called "All American Made." And we're going to take a short break and be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Margo Price. She's a country music singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her new album is called "All American Made." So you write a lot of songs with your husband, Jeremy Ivey, who's also a musician, who's featured on your album playing bass, guitar, harmonica. How did you start writing songs together? Like, which came first, having a relationship or writing songs?
PRICE: Well, we met through music. We met at a Belmont College party, where neither of us were going to school. We were just hanging out with all these hip musicians, and I had wanted to go there but couldn't really afford the tuition. And so we were hanging out, and we met, and he was coming out of a divorce and really didn't want a relationship.
But yeah, the first night we hung out, we both played a song for each other, and then the relationship kind of grew out of our love for music. And he sold me this eight-track digital recorder. And so I would call him all the time to figure - I didn't really know how to work all the buttons on it, and I would call him and be like, oh, I got the reverb stuck on this, I can't get it off. And then we started playing together.
I actually started backing him up first. And I would - I was playing drums in a band of his. It was called River Bottom. And then I kind of - I broke up that band. I - there were problems going on in there, and I called it out. And so then the two of us just kind of started writing together and singing together and playing together and haven't stopped yet.
GROSS: So when you're writing songs with your husband, how is the process different from when you're writing a song by yourself?
PRICE: Well, you know, a lot of times, we'll bring ideas to each other that we can't finish. Or other times, we will just sit down and start writing a song together from the get-go. It's always different. But it's really nice to be able to write with someone where you just talk things out in the room. And, you know, we just have this kind of communication where I feel like - sometimes, when I'm talking out loud, I don't know if I'm saying it to him.
We just share - we share a brain at this point. We've been together for about 14 years, and so it just feels kind of like we're talking through things, talking the song out. And if an idea is dumb, then we are very quick to tell the other person, and if it's great, then, you know, we nourish it and encourage it. So yeah, it's always different.
GROSS: My guest is Margo Price. Her latest album is called "All American Made." She'll play more music, and we'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE FAST")
PRICE: (Singing) Well, I've been traveling so long that I can't go back because I'm too far in. I got my ticket, and my bags are packed. And I miss my child. Lord, I miss my friends, but even they quit calling me on the phone, asking me how I've been. Maybe I'm to blame for the shape that I'm in. Maybe I'm insane, but I'm leaving you again. Living in the present, trying to forget the past, I'm going nowhere fast.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with country music singer and songwriter Margo Price, who brought her guitar to play some of her songs. Her latest album is called "All American Made."
As you mention, there are so many drinking songs in country music - not like there's any shortage of them in rock, but (laughter)...
GROSS: But country - I mean, it's just, like, a whole genre unto itself - the drinking song. You have a great drinking song that I want you to sing for us. It's called "Since You Put Me Down." And you co-wrote this with your husband, Jeremy Ivey.
PRICE: I did.
GROSS: Would you introduce the song for us and play a little bit of it?
PRICE: Yeah. This song kind of talks about the duality and the good and the evil that we have inside of everybody. Yeah. "Since You Put Me Down."
(Singing, playing guitar) Since you put me down, I've been drinking just to drown. I've been lying through the cracks of my teeth. I've been waltzing with my sin. He's an ugly, evil twin. He's a double-crossing, backstabbing thief. I killed the angel on my shoulder with a fifth of Evan Williams when I found out you were never coming home. I killed the angel on my shoulder since you left me for another. Trying to turn this broken heart to stone.
GROSS: That's a great song.
PRICE: Thank you.
GROSS: I really love your voice. What was the first music you sang? Was it country music? Did you sing in church, in school musicals?
PRICE: I did a little bit of all that. I grew up singing in church, for sure. I was in choir. And my mom heard me singing one day. I think I was just singing a Christmas song or something. And she was washing dishes, and her and my grandmother walked in. And they were shocked that I could sing the way that I could. And after that, my mom really nourished my love of singing. And she would drive me an hour away to get voice lessons from the best voice teacher that was around. Her name was Sue Clark. And so I was singing mezzo-soprano Italian songs when I was even 11 or 12. And I still find myself, you know, trying to utilize that technique of breathing and phrasing. But it is a little early for me to be singing right now. I think my voice always warms up after 8 p.m.
GROSS: Sure. I know it's that way with a lot of singers, but you sound great today, even though...
PRICE: I'm nocturnal (laughter).
GROSS: We're recording this in the afternoon, but I think you sound great.
PRICE: Thank you.
GROSS: Share with us something that you learned from your voice teacher that you otherwise might never have known.
PRICE: Sue Clark - she's - you know, I found out she's not around now. I tried to look her up, so I could get back in touch with her and thank her. She taught me to try not to clear my throat and not to cough because it can damage your vocal cords. You know, one thing she always told me not to do was belt things and switch over into my head voice. But after I started getting into, like, Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin, I wanted to, you know, blow my voice out. So it's been a learning experience to, you know, use that classical training but then also try to figure out ways to make my voice sound edgier or louder or just more rock 'n' roll at times.
GROSS: One of the songs that you co-wrote with your husband that's on the new album, "All American Made," is called "Learning To Lose." And that's a duet with you and Willie Nelson. You were lucky enough (laughter) to have him sing with you on the album. So of all the songs you could have chosen to say, sing this one with me, why was it that song?
PRICE: Well, when we were writing that song, we were listening to a lot of Willie Nelson records. So yeah, that song we wrote in our bedroom. I had a cup of coffee. I was wearing my robe. We just barely woke up. And Jeremy grabbed the guitar. And we just sat there. And it came out so quickly. Right when we finished it, we started thinking and saying to each other, wouldn't it be amazing if we can get Willie Nelson to sing on this song?
GROSS: Why don't we hear that song with you and Willie Nelson? This is "Learning To Lose." And it's from my guest Margo Price's new album, "All American Made."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEARNING TO LOSE")
WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) And the only devil I've ever seen was in the mirror. And the only enemy I know is in my mind.
MARGO PRICE AND WILLIE NELSON: (Singing) Won't you tell me, how long must I pay off these dues? Won't you tell me, is winning learning to lose? You said it, oh, but say that it's not true. Is winning really learning to lose?
GROSS: That's Margo Price and Willie Nelson duetting on a song she co-wrote with her husband Jeremy Ivey. The song is called "Learning To Lose," and it's from her new album, "All American Made." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARGO PRICE SONG, "FOUR YEARS OF CHANCES")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Margo Price. She's a singer-songwriter, guitarist with a new album called "All American Made." And her songs - they're country songs, and they're very much Margo Price songs. I don't know what to say (laughter).
PRICE: I'll take that - my own genre.
GROSS: Yeah (laughter). So, you know, in terms of, like, moving to Nashville to, like, launch your performing career there, one of the kind of central stories about your early career was how you and your husband sold the car and pawned your wedding ring so that you'd have enough money to pay for the studio time to make your first album.
PRICE: Yeah, we kind of put all our eggs in one basket. And it was really scary. He just came into the kitchen one morning. And he's like, that's it. We're never going to be able to save up enough money to make the record that you need. And so I'm just going to sell the car. And I tried to talk him out of it, but he went down to Gallatin Road and sold it to Carmax. (Laughter) And he came home, and then we booked the studio time the very next day.
GROSS: And your ring too - you pawned that?
PRICE: Yeah. We went - I went to about three different pawn shops. And none of them wanted to give me very much because there was a crack in it. And it's missing one of the little diamonds on the side. But they were going to give me 300 bucks. And we just agreed to get rid of anything that didn't suit us. And we did sell some music equipment, too. But, you know, the ring - it did kind of hit home. And my husband said, it's just a material possession. It doesn't matter. And while I agreed with him, I still liked my wedding ring with the chip in it. And so he eventually went back and got it out of the hock for me.
GROSS: And you have it now?
PRICE: I do. I'm actually looking at it. It's still got a crack. And it's still missing one of the diamonds.
PRICE: Haven't even went to go get it fixed.
GROSS: OK. So I had asked you before you came on the show if you'd be willing to play a song that seemed very out of character for you because I love to do that to musicians, to have them play something that we wouldn't - either we wouldn't think that they liked or that you wouldn't associate with them in some way. And you communicated through email offering to do a Kendrick Lamar song, which surprised me.
PRICE: I know. I don't know if I can do it. I know. I really don't. I could probably talk about it more than I could do it, but I have been trying.
GROSS: No, no, no, no. You committed, and now you have to do it (laughter).
PRICE: No. I know. I've been trying to figure it out where I can make it work, and I just can't - I don't know if I can do it. But, I mean, that's been the album that I have played more than anything this year. And I feel like I do want to figure that out.
GROSS: You want to do like a few - like a tiny, little portion?
PRICE: Let me see if I can. (Playing guitar). Let me see if I can figure it out. I've been trying to figure it out for - you know, I sit around and play it and joke with my bandmates that we're going to do a full band version.
(Singing, playing guitar) Bitch, sit down. Bitch, be humble. Bitch, sit down. Be humble.
PRICE: Oh, my God.
GROSS: I have to say that's hilarious.
PRICE: It's really funny.
GROSS: Like a heartfelt version of...
PRICE: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: What do you like so much about Kendrick Lamar, considering his music is so different than yours?
PRICE: You know, I think that "DNA" is one of my favorite songs off of his last album. And I've written about the same things, where people have such contradictory elements inside of them and, like, weakness. You know, I talk about that in "Since You Put Me Down," where it's the devil and the angel on each shoulder. You know, you kind of are arguing with yourself.
But I fell in love with "To Pimp A Butterfly" and just his overall outlook on things. And he's - you know, he's not afraid to speak out and speak the truth and - even when it's hard, and people criticize him. I really admire him.
GROSS: So you've said that your parents were afraid that - they weren't sure how it would finally work out. So it's working out really good, but they didn't know that at the time. You have a song called "Weekender," which is about spending the weekend in the county jail. Did that happen to you?
PRICE: It did. Yeah, that was one of the lowest points. I - you know, I feel like I'd been running wild for quite some time, and it was really only a matter of time before it was all going to catch up with me. And came home one night after staying at a friend's - and I had tried to call a cab, and the cab didn't come. It was kind of before Uber and Lyft were really in cities.
And I just made some bad - I shouldn't have driven. I thought I was fine. I - you know, I gave it time. I ate some food. I waited a long time, but I ended up hitting a telephone pole in front of a couple police officers and then thought about outrunning them for a little bit. And then I realized that wasn't possible, so I finally pulled over and walked the line.
And yeah, I got a good lawyer, but I've still - still had to go do this weekend in jail. And he had told me - he's like, oh, it's just - it's a white-collar thing. It's not going to be a big deal. It's really not going to be scary. And when I showed up at the Davidson County jail, I realized that I was in there with, you know, people who had murdered people and done some really bad things.
And just being in there was a eye-opening experience in more than one ways, more than just, you know, for self-motivation to get better and never end up back there again. But it was also - it was just sad to see women who were in that situation and whose lives had taken them there.
GROSS: Can you do, like, a verse of "Weekender"?
PRICE: Yeah, yeah.
(Playing guitar). Let's see.
(Singing, playing guitar) Well, I went down to the county jail, turned myself in, spending all my weekends here, far from my good-timing friends. Things went bad. Things went worse. I guess you know the end. The only thing I know for sure is I ain't going back again. They took me down to cell block B after stripping off my clothes, put me in a monkey suit and threw me in the throes like a rat in a maze, a cow in a herd or a sparrow with broken wing. Now I know the reason why the caged bird has to sing because I'm just a weekender in the Davidson County jail. My old man ain't got the cash to even go my bail. Should've listened to my mamma, maybe quit my life of sin before I went backsliding again.
This one is - this one might be my favorite. (Singing, playing guitar)
Now, the bed is hard, and the room is cold. My cellmate's got a cough. She takes her meds and sleeps all day, got six more weeks untl she's off. She said she beat her boyfriend up while high on crack cocaine. Now she sits and watches her young life go down the drain because she's just a weekender in the Davidson County jail, and her old man ain't got the cash to even go her bail. Should've listened to her mamma, maybe her quit her life of sin before she went backsliding again.
GROSS: Thanks for singing that. That song, "Weekender," is on Margo Price's first album, which is called "Midwest Farmer's Daughter." Her new album is called "All American Made." I was wondering if you'd like to maybe preview a new song for us that you have not yet recorded.
PRICE: Yes, I would love to. This is a song that I wrote just pretty recently here. And it's kind of about a - seeing the billboard on the side of the road that says 1-800-JESUS. And you want to call him because you've got to ask him questions. But, you know, you don't know if he's actually going to answer because, sometimes, it feels like you're talking to no one when things are going wrong. So here it is - hello, operator, "1-800-JESUS."
(Singing, playing guitar) Lock me up all by myself. Throw away the key. I can't stand to read the news or turn on my TV. Carnivores, religious wars, and they do it for the money. Rich folks eating four-course meals while welfare kids grow hungry. Hello, operator, could you get me on the phone? Like to speak with Jesus sometime if he's ever home. Heard that I could call him up most any time I want. But every time I ring him, well, he never picks it up. So I went out to the diners, the dance halls and the bars. Hanging out with the hippies, wondering where you are. Down every stretch of highway, I'm looking for my home. Call 1-800-JESUS from the billboard on the road. (Playing guitar).
I'll save the third verse as a surprise here for the future.
GROSS: You'll probably record that at some point.
PRICE: I think so.
GROSS: Margo Price, thank you so much, and thank you for being so generous and singing and playing for us. It was really just wonderful. Thank you very much.
PRICE: Yes, thank you.
GROSS: My interview with Margo Price was recorded last November. Her latest album is called "All American Made." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Wes Anderson is known for writing and directing such films as "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "Moonrise Kingdom," "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and the animated feature "Fantastic Mr. Fox." His new film - his second animated feature - is called "Isle Of Dogs," and it's set in Japan in the near future. The voices are supplied by a large cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Greta Gerwig. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Wes Anderson's movies are gorgeous hodgepodges, but there's no podge so hodge as his stop-motion animated feature "Isle Of Dogs." It has so many different elements borrowed from so many different places but as transformed by Anderson's off-symmetrical compositions, pop-out colors and dry wit. It all magically comes together.
It's an allegorical painterly Kabuki comedy that makes you laugh as you're gasping at the visual brilliance, each frame a new surprise while moved by the plight of canine exiles on an island garbage dump off the coast of Japan. That's the premise, that in a purportedly democratic but authoritarian Japanese city called Megasaki, Mayor Kobayashi has banished all the dogs, most of them sick with a mysterious flu, to an island where the filthy canines fight over scraps. They lament their state in colloquial American English, as opposed to most of the human characters, who talk in Japanese without subtitles. The effect is amazingly witty.
In an early scene, a surly stray voiced by Bryan Cranston teams up with dogs played by Edward Norton in his peppy scout leader mode, Bill Murray and Jeff Goldblum. The battle over a garbage bag with a rival pack is preceded by a ritualistic faceoff.
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BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Chief, growling).
EDWARD NORTON: (As Rex) Wait a second. Before we attack each other and tear ourselves to shreds like a pack of maniacs, let's just open the sack first and see what's actually in it. It might not even be worth the trouble.
NORTON: (As Rex) A rancid apple core, two worm-eaten banana peels, a moldy rice cake, a dried up pickle, a tin of sardine bones, a pile of broken egg shells, an old smushed-up rotten gizzard with maggots all over it.
CRANSTON: (As Chief) OK, it's worth it.
EDELSTEIN: The story proper kicks off with the crash landing of a mini plane carrying a boy named Atari, dubbed by the dogs The Little Pilot. He happens to be the ward of Mayor Kobayashi and is searching for his own dog, Spots, not - and this turns out to be important spot - Spot. Bryan Cranston's street dog, Chief, being by nature a biter, wants no part of the kid. But his new house-trained pet pals drag him along on the twisty odyssey. Anderson shaped the story with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura but wrote the screenplay himself. Its one-liners are clever. I love Chief's command - stop licking your wounds. But they also resonate with an exile's lonely sense of incomprehension in his halting courtship with a beauteous show dog voiced by Scarlett Johansson. Chief admits he's a stray but adds, we're all a stray.
What's foremost - this being a Wes Anderson film - is the design. Each frame is its own universe. The classroom where a human American exchange student with a blonde afro voiced by Greta Gerwig is a study in yellow. A sea of silver grass gives this sunless world an eerie luster. Anderson's panels can seem finicky in live action, but here, he is both saluting and goosing Japanese formality. And the stop-motion animation gives the action the slight artificiality it needs.
This is a sort of Kabuki, which throws the emphasis on archetypal gestures. Watch the way the dogs, even while spouting their one-liners, listen, stretch or sneeze in a way that seems the essence of dog-like existence. There's another element here, political, that's hinted in the score. We get several Japanese-inflected renderings of Prokofiev's very Russian "Lieutenant Kije" suite. Is Kobayashi, who poisons his foes, a stand-in for Vladimir Putin? I think he's meant to be. But the movie works as a critique of authoritarianism even if he's just a mayor and the dogs are just dogs.
Animation is a good form for Anderson, who in his last especially twee films, has reduced multi-dimensional actors to puppets. Better he should infuse puppets with multi-dimensionality. But I know that sounds churlish when the best response to a film like "Isle Of Dogs" is a howl of joy. The director's worshippers might consider this Anderson-lite, but just because it's so ingratiating doesn't mean it's not philosophically rich. Underneath the disjointed surface is the characters' deep longing for harmony, a harmony finally represented by the movie itself, which is a triumph of alchemy.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, should corporations be regarded as people in the eyes of the law? Our guest will be Adam Winkler, whose new book "We The Corporations" reviews business efforts in the courts to establish corporate personhood going back 200 years. He says the Citizens United decision is best seen as the latest manifestation of a long-overlooked corporate rights movement. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media as Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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