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'In the Valley of Elah,' Where Despair Lives

Fresh Air's film critic reviews Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, which stars Tommy Lee Jones as a former military MP — and the father of a young soldier who's gone AWOL after returning from active duty in Iraq.



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Other segments from the episode on September 14, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 2007: Interview with Joe Henry; Interview with Elvis Costello; Review of the film "In the Valley of Elah."


DATE September 14, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Singer, songwriter, producer Joe Henry on his CD "I
Believe to My Soul"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Joe Henry is a singer/songwriter who has recorded a dozen albums of his own,
but also is a sought-after record producer for albums recorded by other
artists. One of those artists is Elvis Costello, and we'll hear from him
later on today's show.

Joe Henry's first album, "Talk of Heaven," came out in 1986. Twenty-one years
later he's just released his latest CD called "Civilians." Here's the title

(Soundbite of "Civilians")

Mr. JOE HENRY: (Singing) The carriage horses stamp and fume
Until all color's gone
They leave the streets in black and white
Bringing evening on
(Unintelligible)...out of gloves,
Out of shoes and...(unintelligible)...
The driver pulls his blanket high
Pretends to look beyond

Pray for you, pray for me
Sing it like a song
Life is short, but
by the grace of God
the night is long

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Joe Henry's recent credits as a record producer include CDs by Amy
Mann, Betty LaVette, and Solomon Burke. Henry also teamed with Loudon
Wainwright III to compose the music for this year's film comedy "Knocked Up."
Terry spoke with Joe Henry last year about his collection "I Believe to My
Soul." It featured performances by Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Billy
Preston, Mavis Staples and Ann Peebles.


The Ann Peebles song I want to play is not a song that you would associate
with a soul singer. It's a country-flavored song written by Bob Dylan,
"Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You." How did you come up with this as a
selection for her? Or did she choose it herself?

Mr. HENRY: You know, there's so much classic soul music from the '60s that
has a lot in common with the great country music of the '60s as well. And I
think the structure of the songs, you know, wildly similar. And I don't know
why it occurred to me that it was just such a beautiful song and it had such a
melancholy spirit that I thought suited Ann. You know, and it was awhile I
think, you know, I think when she went back and heard Bob's version, I don't
think she heard it as a song for her to sing, but because I pushed her a bit,
and she's a very accommodating person, she sat down at the piano one day and
kind of worked out an arrangement where it sounded like a song she could have
written, you know, and I think she heard it once she sat down and started
playing with it a little bit.

GROSS: It's interesting that you kept your confidence even when she told you
it was wrong for her.

Mr. HENRY: I had to do that a lot, Terry. Not with her specifically, but,
you know, all the artists that I worked with I had ideas on their behalf, you
know. I mean, I came out of the blue for most of these people. I don't think
any of them had any idea who I was when I first got in touch. So, you know, I
was, you know, having to adopt a posture of, you know, a certain amount of,
you know, cheeky confidence, you know, just to start having a conversation.
And I started having ideas on behalf of these artists as I started thinking
about, you know, wanting to work with them.

GROSS: Well, I think this sounds terrific. Let's hear Ann Peebles singing
the Bob Dylan song, "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You."

(Soundbite of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here with You")

Ms. ANN PEEBLES: (Singing) Throw my ticket out the window,
Throw my suitcase out there, too
Throw my troubles out the door,
I don't need them anymore
Because tonight I'll be staying here with you

I should have left this town this morning,
But it was more than I could do
Oh, your love come on so strong,
I've waited all day long
Because tonight I'll be staying here with you.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Joe, do you feel like you learned things about singing working with
these incredible soul singers?

Mr. HENRY: Well, of course, you do, I mean--and I think one thing that all
these singers have in common that I worked with is none of them are the, you
know, the flashy type of singer. I mean, many of them have incredible chops
as singers, but that's not their orientation. I mean, there's a real
understated quality to their songwriting, you know, those that are writers,
and to their vocal delivery. And that's something that I'm really seduced by.
I mean, I don't really care anything about, you know, vocal acrobatics. It
just doesn't mean anything to me any more than, you know, someone playing
guitar that way. It just goes right past me. But someone who is evocative in
a very contained, very intimate way, I find that, you know, really compelling.
And I think all these singers, you know, have that gift. So, you know, that's
something that, you know, for myself, I'm always trying to do.

GROSS: As a singer yourself, did you try to, like, measure your singing
against theirs? Or did their singing affect you in any way? I mean, your
style of singing's really different than...

Mr. HENRY: That's a polite way of putting it, Terry.

GROSS: ...the soul singers that...

Mr. HENRY: My style of singing is "very different," you know. You know, as
a singer, I'm a character actor. You know, I'm like the Burt Young of, you
know, of singing compared to anybody I was in a room with. But, yeah, of
course, you know, I hear them and I think about trying to find ways to be
evocative on my own terms in the way that I think they're evocative as
singers. That's probably the closest I can come to, you know, taking an
inspiration from them directly as a singer myself.

GROSS: Well, you know, what you said is interesting, as a singer you're a
character actor? Because as a songwriter, you're a character writer. I mean,
you're often writing in the voice of different characters as opposed to
writing, you know, confessional true first-person kind of songs.

Mr. HENRY: Oh, sure. I can't stand that, Terry.

GROSS: Well, does the character writing come from feeling that you're a
character actor as a singer? Like, which came first, that approach to writing
or that approach to singing?

Mr. HENRY: Well, I think when I started out--when I was a young, you know,
10 or 11, when I was listening to singers and songwriters that I found, you
know, significant and I still do, some of the same ones, I think even when I
was 11 and I heard Randy Newman, I knew he wasn't writing about himself, and
it never occurred to me that he should be. I thought a songwriter should have
the same license that a filmmaker or a novelist has. And to that end, I've
been just as influenced by great short story writers, as an example, as any
other songwriters. I think it's really limiting to talk about songwriting
only in terms of other songwriting.

GROSS: In an article that you once wrote, you talked about the impact of
hearing, when you were young, Ray Charles singing the McCartney-Lennon song
"Yesterday" and Lorne Greene singing "Ringo," and you talked about how these
songs really hit you in the gut because they were both about mortality and
that, even though you were maybe six, you realized that. So I'm interested in
hearing a little more about how lyrics spoke to you when you were young,
particularly those kind of songs about mortality. When I remember one or two
songs like that in my own life, they really scared me, but I was drawn to them
because of that.

Mr. HENRY: Well, same with me. When I heard Ray on the radio, and I can
still remember it, I mean, it would have been 1967, I think, so I would have
been six and I lived in Atlanta at the time. And I was absolutely terrified
by this--laying in the dark of a room and hearing Ray sing that song. And I
knew that he was talking about, you know, about his ultimate death one day. I
mean, it really did terrify me, but I was completely enthralled by it. I
mean, I find him, you know, probably the greatest, you know, singer, you know,
of my lifetime because I believe everything that comes out of his mouth, you
know. I swear to God, when Ray was, you know, out there, you know, shilling
for Pepsi, you know, I still thought it was pretty funky and I didn't really
have a problem with it.

GROSS: Now, I want to play another track that you recorded, and this is for
an album that you produced by the singer Solomon Burke. And he's a great soul
singer who was probably...

Mr. HENRY: He is.

GROSS: known in the '60s. This was an assignment. You were asked to
produce him. But once you were given that assignment, what did you--what was
your approach to working with him, and how did you try to work with him in
choosing material?

Mr. HENRY: Well, the first idea, working with Solomon was, again, like--not
to make a record he'd ever made before. So, you know, I had an idea to make a
record that was, for him, very stripped down and pretty rootsy, you know, kind
of folksy in its nature, you know. But, you know, I told him at the time
that, you know, I wanted him to be a, you know, a band leader as a singer, you
know, like Sinatra was. I said, `We're going to find some songs for you to
sing and we're going to put a band together that knows how to follow you, you
know. You know, emotionally, wherever you go with the songs, that's what the
arrangements will feel like.' And it was all new to him to go into a studio
with a band who didn't have arrangements written for them.

You know, when he was making records with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic in the
'60s, I think he came in and there was a band sitting there with charts, and
they would run through it a couple of times. And once they had read the
charts pretty well and he'd gotten a good vocal take, they went on to the next
song. But the idea of kind of discovering the character of the song with tape
rolling, which is the only way I know how to work really, he'd never made a
record like that before. But he had, you know, bought into the idea, or at
least he'd embraced the idea that he was going to let me work the way I wanted
to work whether, you know, it made any sense to him or not.

So I tried to find songs that I just thought he could embody. And I--you
know, I say I always take the coward's way out and, you know, hire only great
musicians. Because, you know, if you get people who know how to listen, you
know, who are song oriented in a room, it's really not hard to come up with
something that's musical.

(Soundbite of "Don't Give Up on Me")

Mr. SOLOMON BURKE: (Singing) Please don't give up on me,
Oh, please don't give up on me,
I know it's late
Late in the game,
But my feelings, my true feelings
Haven't changed
Here in my heart
I know--I know I was wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.
I'd like to make amends
For the love that I never, ever, ever, ever shown
Just don't give up on me
Every word is true
I'll give you my everything
All of my love, all of my love,
All of my love, love, love, love, love to you
Just don't give up on me,
Oh, please, please, please don't give up on me,
I don't want you to,
I know it's late
But wait, please, please, please, please don't give up on me,
Promise, will you promise me?
Will you promise me, please don't give up on me...

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: That's Solomon Burke. More with Joe Henry after a break. This is


BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2006 interview with singer, songwriter
and record producer Joe Henry.

GROSS: I want to play a song that you wrote, and we're going to hear it two
different ways. You wrote it; we'll hear your version. Then we're going to
hear the version Madonna recorded of the same song, and I want to play these
back to back, because I think it's so instructive about the flexibility of a
song to hear her version and your version. You do it completely differently,
and if you weren't listening carefully to the lyrics, you might not even know
it was the same song.

Mr. HENRY: Well, that's happened many times, you know. I've got good
friends who knew both versions of the song, and it never occurred to them that
it was the same words going by, you know. It's been a really good lesson for
me as a songwriter, because I'm very lyric-oriented. But I--you know, I
realized, you know, when that song kind of happened for her--I mean, she had a
big hit with it--that, you know, it really doesn't matter what you're saying,
you know, if the groove is convincing, you know. I don't know why it took me,
you know, to be 40 years of age, you know, whatever I was when it came out.
It took me that long to finally figure out that, you know, the groove is
everything, you know.

GROSS: Well, your version is a tango, and hers is more of a groove.

Mr. HENRY: That's right, and I thought--you know, I thought tango's what the
kids wanted, you know.

GROSS: Oh, and how right you were.

Mr. HENRY: Yeah. Still have my finger on the pulse of the...

GROSS: Of young America.

Mr. HENRY: ...the nation's young people.

GROSS: Yeah. So talk a little bit about writing the song, you know,
lyrically and musically, and then we'll hear it.

Mr. HENRY: Oh, you know, it's always the way. I thought the song was a
complete throwaway, you know. I had just moved and set up a new studio at the
guest house at my home, and was looking to just record anything, just to see
if all of my things were working, and I needed something to record. So I
wrote that song in about 25 minutes or something just to give myself something
to do. And I was kind of embarrassed by it, to be honest. I thought it was a
little bit--starts off a little bit `spoon in June,' you know. It kind of
takes a cryptic turn there towards the end, but, you know, I just thought it
was, you know, a trifle. But, you know, in the right hands, clearly, you
know, a trifle is turned into some very handsome shoes that I'm wearing right
now. Wish you could see them.

GROSS: Well, I like your version a lot, so let's hear your version and
Madonna's version back to back, and this is the Joe Henry song, "Stop."

(Soundbites of "Stop")

Mr. HENRY: (Singing) Tell the bed not to lay
Like the mouth of a grave
Not to stare up at me
Like a calf on its knees
Tell me love isn't true
It's just something we do
Tell me everything I'm not
But don't tell me to stop

Tell me everything I'm not
But don't tell me to stop
Don't tell me to stop
Don't tell me to stop

MADONNA: (Singing) Tell the leaves not to turn
But don't ever tell me I'll learn, no, no
Take the black off a crow
But don't tell me to go
Tell the bed not to lay
Like the mouth of a grave, yeah,
Not to stare up at me
Like a calf down on its knees

Tell me love isn't true
It's just something that we do
Tell me everything I'm not
But don't ever tell me to stop
Don't you ever...
Tell me everything I'm not

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Madonna, back to back with Joe Henry, performing Joe Henry's
song, "Stop." Now people might be wondering, how did Madonna get a hold of Joe
Henry's song?

And there's an interesting story behind that that starts with the fact that
she's your sister-in-law.

Mr. HENRY: That's pretty much the whole story, yeah. She is. I mean, I've
known her since I was 15 and she was 17. We went to high school together.
And my...

GROSS: And were you dating your wife when you were that young?

Mr. HENRY: No, no, I was not. My wife would have been about 14 or something
at the time...


Mr. HENRY: ...thirteen. I didn't know her yet. But I became close with
that whole family. It was a big, kind of sprawling family. We were all
living north of Detroit, and I became very close with my wife a few years down
the road, and, you know, here we are.

GROSS: So from what I've read, it was her idea to send your song to her
sister. You were reluctant to do it.

Mr. HENRY: I was very reluctant. I mean, that's just a line I don't cross.
I mean--or hadn't crossed. I mean, I have a very good relationship with my
sister-in-law, and I attribute that at least in part to the fact that, you
know, I don't need anything from her, and, you know, she always returns my
phone calls because I'm not trying to pitch anything to her. So I wrote the
song and played it for my wife, and she said, `I think you should send it to
Madonna,' you know. `She's making a new record. I think she could sing this.
It'd be great.' I said, well, you know, `If I was going to pitch something it
wouldn't be this, you know. I maybe could come up with something, but it
wouldn't be this.' So she said, `Well, make me a copy and I'll send it to
her.' So she did, and I heard from my sister-in-law about 36 hours later, and
she said, `What are you going to do with this?' And I said, `That's just
another song on the pile,' you know. And, you know, she had her way with it.
And it--you know, I think it's fantastic.

GROSS: So what was the experience like of having, you know, a hit record on a
Madonna album? I mean, the whole sense of like royalties from songwriting,
was that something really new to you, having a hit with...

Mr. HENRY: Well...

GROSS: ...having a hit with somebody else's version of your song? One that
really pays...

Mr. HENRY: Oh, I know what you're trying to say, Terry. I know what you're
trying to say.

GROSS: (Unintelligible).

Mr. HENRY: Yeah, it was new to me, of course. It had been a complete
abstraction to me to see back end on anything, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HENRY: You know, I'd never--I mean, I'd never gotten a significant
royalty check in my life, you know. I live from, you know record or
publishing advances. But it was a complete abstraction to think about myself
being recouped with my publisher and getting, you know, big checks in the
mail. But I find I'm very adaptable. I got used to that very quickly.

BIANCULLI: Joe Henry, speaking to Terry Gross last year. His new CD as a
singer/songwriter, "Civilians," has just been released. I'm David Bianculli,
and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: David Edelstein on the new film "In the Valley of Elah"

In 2004, Paul Haggis wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-winning Clint Eastwood
movie "Million Dollar Baby" and wrote and directed the Oscar-winning film
"Crash." Several years ago, Haggis read a Playboy article about the
disappearance of a young enlisted Army soldier just home from Iraq who was
stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. For Haggis, the article served as the
inspiration for his new film, "In the Valley of Elah," which stars Tommy Lee
Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. Film critic David Edelstein has a


Tommy Lee Jones is in nearly every frame of Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of
Elah." His eyes are liquid and melancholy. His face is so pitted and riven
with scowl lines, it's almost porous. He plays Hank Deerfield, a retired
career Army man who drives his pickup to a base in the US to investigate the
disappearance of his son, Mike, back only days from Iraq.

Hank was once a military policeman, and for the first half of the movie he's
on his own. The local cops, among them a harried detective played by Charlize
Theron, say it's an Army matter. The Army doesn't have a clue. Mike's
buddies say they think he's holed up with a hot babe. It gradually occurs to
Hank that these people don't want to know the truth, and the question arises,
does he? His devastated wife, movingly played by Susan Sarandan, blurts out
that, in their family, a son who didn't fight wouldn't have been a man, and
down deep, Hank knows a father who couldn't face up to his son's fate wouldn't
be a man, either.

Haggis is not the subtlest storyteller. The first scene of his Oscar-winning
film "Crash" made the point that racism is a very bad thing. So did the
second, third, fourth and every one that followed. I couldn't agree more, but
the film was so ham-handed that the people seemed like puppets.

"In the Valley of Elah" is relatively restrained, but as a narrative, it's
clunky. As a whodunit, third rate. And as the drama of a closed-down man's
awakening, predictable. It's riveting anyway. You can't take your eyes off
Tommy Lee Jones, and Haggis does justice to a great subject: the devastation
of Americans coming home from a war in which their moral compass has been
upended. Haggis' color palette is cold, gray, khaki, faded military green,
and everything and everyone seems far away, a little stuporous. The vistas
are empty. The soldiers are robotic, their language, canned. But as Hank
sits in his pickup, talking to one of Mike's mates, Gordon Bonner, played by
Jake McLaughlin, something real and scary seeps through.

(Soundbite of "In the Valley of Elah")

Mr. TOMMY LEE JONES: (As Hank Deerfield) How you adjusting?

Mr. JAKE McLAUGHLIN: (As Gordon Bonner) Being back?

Mr. JONES: (As Hank Deerfield) Mm.

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: (As Gordon Bonner) It hasn't been that long.

Mr. JONES: (As Hank Deerfield) Call your parents?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: (As Gordon Bonner) My mom. My dad and I aren't close. Did
you guys talk much?

Mr. JONES: (As Hank Deerfield) Sure. We could have talked more. Did he
ever say anything to you that I should know?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: (As Gordon Bonner) No, sir. I mean, you see a lot
of...(word censored by station)... over there you don't want to talk about
it, even with your buddies.

Mr. JONES: (As Hank Deerfield) Yeah. But he did all right, Mike?

Mr. McLAUGHLIN: (As Gordon Bonner) He was a first-class soldier. You know
Mike. He loved the Army. Couldn't wait to get over there and save the good
guys and hurt the bad guys. They shouldn't send heroes to places like Iraq.
Everything there's...(word censored by station)...up. Before I went, I'd
never say this, but you ask me now, they should just nuke it and watch it all
turn back to dust.

(End of soundbite)

EDELSTEIN: This is Jake McLaughlin's film debut. He was a gunner in Iraq for
real, but his character is an enigma, and so are the other soldiers.
Something isn't right. What we see of their war is via fragmented videos on
Mike's PDA, which Hank steals from his son's quarters. The device was
damaged, and the techie who's recovering the videos is busy and can only
restore and e-mail them one at a time. So each piece of the puzzle arrives on
cue, at a strategic moment in the story.

The PDA gimmick seems contrived, but the hazy images on Hank's computer screen
are chilling. They echo what was shown in documentaries like "The War Tapes,"
composed of videos taken by reservists and accounts from places like Haditha,
where soldiers stand accused of murdering civilians. Some commentators and
movie goers have asked, `Why spotlight only the crimes of Americans?' For
Haggis, it's a way of raising a different kind of flag.

The movie's biggest puzzler is that title, which refers to the place where
David took on Goliath. Haggis has said that the American soldiers are in the
position of David going up against Goliath with only a slingshot, but that's
bizarre. The US is the mightier power, and David won. But I forgive Haggis
for overreaching. He must have thought he needed to invoke the Old Testament
to convey what he sees as a tragedy of biblical proportions.

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


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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