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Albert Brooks is Lost in America

by Dave Gourdoux

Dropping out of society
"Out on the road today I saw a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac ..."
                                                                       - Don Henley

To the casual, mainstream film-goer, the name Albert Brooks probably doesn't mean a lot. If they recognize the name at all, odds are they're remembering him as a role player in such films as Broadcast News or Private Benjamin. Odds are they won't identify him as a comic genius, or a skilled writer, director, and star of some of the best comedies of the past forty years. But Brooks is all of these things, and more.

Brooks grew up in Hollywood.  His father was a radio comedian who died when Brooks was quite young, but not before naming his son Albert Einstein. With a name like Albert Einstein, he had to be smart and funny. As a teenager, he became close friends with Rob Reiner and Richard Dreyfuss. Before he changed his name to Brooks, Reiner's father, Carl Reiner, told Johnny Carson that the funniest person in the world was a kid named Albert Einstein.

Brooks started as a young stand-up comic in the late '60s. At the time, most stand-up comedians were of the Shecky Green/Buddy Hackett variety, opening up for Sinatra type singers and telling ex-wife jokes that conformed to a predictable set-up/punch line rhythm. Brooks was one of the first comedians to play against the standard joke/punch line format. His humor was conceptual and self-aware; he used the stereotypical show business archetypes and turned them on their head. He was intelligent, and assumed his audience was intelligent enough to understand the quiet iconoclasm at the root of his humor.

The first time I saw Brooks, I was eleven or twelve years old. It was on "The Flip Wilson Show" (anybody else remember Flip Wilson?) when he came on to do his ventriloquist routine. The only thing was, Brooks played his part as being so unskilled, nervous and inept so well that it was beyond belief. There wasn't a punchline to be found, yet it was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen, even though I had trouble explaining why it was so funny. He took all of the conventions of the ventriloquist routines, and, knowing that his audience was as familiar with them as he was, he found an angle to exploit: what if the ventriloquist not only had no skill, but was incredibly nervous? It was exactly the type of conceptual routine that Andy Kaufman would make famous several years later.

It was about this time that Brooks became a frequent guest on the Johnny Carson show. One night I was watching when he came out, sat in a chair, seemingly depressed, and openly confessed that he was out of material. He then proceeded to do the things he could do that just weren't him, including dropping his pants, smashing a pie in his face, spraying himself with seltzer water, all the while proclaiming "This isn't me."  You could feel the audience going exactly where he wanted it to go. A couple of years later, Steve Martin would achieve super stardom with his "wild and crazy"guy routine, with an arrow in his head and balloons and not a punch line to be found.

A direct line can be traced from Brooks to Kaufman and Martin. They had in common conceptual humor and intelligence (even when doing stupid things - they trusted the audience enough to recognize and laugh at the stupidity) and a desire to break through the wall between performer and audience.

Brooks went to Hollywood, making six short films in 1975 for the first year of Saturday Night Live. He had a supporting part in Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, Taxi Driver, and in 1979, wrote, directed, and starred in his first feature film, Real Life.

Real Life again shows Brooks ahead of his time. The premise, to follow around a typical American family with a camera, foresaw the recent reality television craze. The film, like most of Brooks' projects, was self aware, with Brooks playing the part of the director, a guy named Albert Brooks, who just so happens to share all of the comic sensibilities and traits of the real Albert Brooks (or at least of the comic persona he'd developed), including his neurosis, his con-man desperation, and his need to manipulate and control. And, of course, just like his ventriloquist act, things go horribly and hysterically bad, culminating in a last ditch attempt to to inject some drama and save the movie, with Brooks setting fire to the family's home.

His second film, 1981's Modern Romance, is a more conventionally told tale of a neurotic Hollywood film editor (Brooks) trying to navigate the obstacle course of love. Again, Brooks can't resist gentle inside nudges at show business, as we get to see him at work, editing a comically low budget sci-fi film. But most of the humor is gentler and more subtle than in Real Life. Like Real Life, Modern Romance was moderately successful; both films drawing a small but devoted audience, both films efficiently made and revealing a rare intelligence. Brooks' apprenticeship as a comedian and filmmaker was over. He was, artistically ready for the big time, even if his work was too subtle and layered for mass consumption.

His next film, 1985's Lost in America, was the breakthrough, the work where he realized his potential. Released smack dab in the middle of the Reagan decade, it captures the essence, the conflicted soul of the country that emerged from the rubble of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, inflation and recession. It's about the transformation of baby boomers from Hippie to Yuppie. If anyone wants to understand what the '80s was like, Lost in America is a pretty damned good place to start.

The film opens with Brooks playing David Howard, an upwardly mobile executive in a Los Angeles advertising firm who doesn't get the promotion he thought he was promised and is instead asked to relocate to the firm's New York office. Enraged, Brooks loses it, and gets himself fired.

Brooks then decides to shuck it all in. He convinces his wife (Julie Hagerty), a manager at a department store, to quit her job, and the two of them will drop out of society and take to the road just like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper do in Howard's favorite film, Easy Rider. On the road, they aim to find America. The fact that the Howards, unlike Fonda and Hopper, take to the road in an enormous Winnebago RV, and that they have a "nest egg" of over one hundred thousand dollars to fall back on, doesn't seem to register with Brooks. It's the '80s, and the '60s still cast a long and romantic shadow on the upwardly mobile and ambitious beings that the hippies had become.

Things take a disastrous turn for the worse when, on their first night "on the road," they stop in a Las Vegas casino. (Spolier alert  --> ) Let's just say that while Brooks is sleeping in their hotel room, Hagerty (in a very funny scene that reveals what a gifted comedienne she is) has a bit of a losing streak at the roulette table, emptying the nest egg.

Without the nest egg to fall back on, Brooks is suddenly terrified. In one of the funniest scenes, using the nervous con man/salesman persona we were already familiar with from previous films and acts, he meets with the owner of the casino (played by Garry Marshall) and attempts to talk him into giving the nest egg back.

Without the nest egg, they get as far as Hoover Dam before they discover the real America isn't the romantic vision of Kerouac or Easy Rider; rather, it's a place populated by trailer parks and menial service-level jobs. They've found America, and can't wait to get out of it and return to their roles in Yuppieland.

Lost in America works as a biting satire of the shallowness of the time, and as social commentary on how the baby boomer activists of the '60s became the materialistic capitalists of the '80s. It's Brooks' growth as an artist in that he is able to recognize the same traits in his comic persona were shared by his generation, and instead of turning inward and mining these traits for laughs, he looked his audience, his generation, in the face and saw the same insecurities and contradictions. There are plenty of laughs in Lost in America, but with Brooks' usual soft and gentle touch, there is room also for sad recognition of the truths he's uncovered.

Brooks has continued to make funny and intelligent films (like his follow up to Lost In America, 1991's brilliant and hilarious Defending Your Life), never achieving the super stardom that always seemed within his reach but that he doesn't seem interested in, and that is just fine. Those of us who are familiar with his work recognize the world as a funnier and more nuanced place for it.


"Everybody Loves Bluegrass; Many Just Don't Realize It Yet"

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

I had the wonderful opportunity to spend a week in a cabin in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee last summer, and when I started to work on this article, that experience kept coming back to me. Not only because of the connection between that region of the US and bluegrass music, but because of the feeling I had when I'd step out on the cabin's balcony, surrounded by treetops and looking right at the misty Smokies as the morning haze started to dissipate or dusk softened the landscape. Like those almost surreal moments in the mountains, there’s something about the music below that just reverberates within. I may know next to nothing about bluegrass as a genre, but I know when something (pardon the pun) strikes a chord. And like the quote that I used for the title, I had no idea how much I liked bluegrass until I discovered the artists that I'm about to talk about. Give them a listen; you never know what realizations are waiting around the bend.

Sara Watkins

I can’t remember how I found the video for Sara Watkins’ song “You and Me,” but it wasn’t one that took a few listens to grow on me. I became enamored with it immediately, and spent the next few days hitting the “replay” option. There was a quiet earnestness in her voice, the lyrics did one of the things that I like best in a song—set me down in the middle of a little story—and then there was the lovely, low sound of the fiddle, which Watkins was playing. Thank goodness for the handy suggestions of other songs in the sidebar, because I started seeking out more of her songs—and still liked what I was hearing.

As a founding member of Nickel Creek, Watkins got her start in music when she was just a little girl. Initially made up of Watkins, her brother Sean, and mandolin player Chris Thile, Nickel Creek is a bluegrass group that released six albums (and won a Grammy) before taking a hiatus in 2007. (Last year they announced that they’ll be releasing a new album and touring again.) During this hiatus, Watkins pursued solo projects, including the release of two solo albums, and working on a third that she hopes to release in the early part of 2016.

She’s worked with a bevy of well-known music-world names, including Jackson Browne and John Paul Jones (former bassist for Led Zeppelin), as she’s embarked on her solo career, and Watkins has done anything but pigeonhole herself or keep from being adventurous in her music-making. On her album Sun Midnight Sun, she collaborated with Fiona Apple on a re-imagined version of the Everly Brothers’ “You’re the One I Love.” Another song, “The Foothills” has a Celtic feel. Then there’s the stand-alone song she wrote with Switchfoot frontman Jon Forman called “Miss My Kisses”; the fiddle gives it a bluegrass flavor, but it has a catchy pop sound to it too. I could imagine it playing on Top 40 radio.

Lucky for me, being so new to Watkins’ music, there’s a vast catalog of work for me to go back to. Besides Sun Midnight Sun and the upcoming album she plans to release, there’s also her 2009 self-titled album to discover, not to mention all of the music she made as part of Nickel Creek. The BBC said that “Watkins’ time in the spotlight is a triumph, with her agile playing and the kind of voice that gives your goose bumps the shivers.” After all that I’ve heard so far, I agree, and encourage you to check out www.sarawatkins.com so that you can experience those shivery goose bumps yourself.

Della Mae

Watching a video of the women in Della Mae performing at a bluegrass festival, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how fast the bows flied while they fiddled and their fingers flew on the frets of their guitars and mandolin; it was truly impressive. With all of the members of the group playing instruments like that's more or less what they'd been born to do and contributing vocals on so many tracks, the result is a multi-layered, abounding sound that hits you with emotion; sometimes joyful, sometimes wistful, or maybe even a little bit of both.   

Originally from Boston but now based in Nashville, the group formed in 2009.  All of the women in the band play an instrument: Celia Woodsmith plays guitar, Kimber Ludiker plays the fiddle (and is the fifth generation in her family to do so), Jenni Lyn Gardner plays the mandolin, Courtney Hartman plays both the guitar and banjo, and Zoe Guigueno plays double bass. Although they usually all contribute background vocals and sometimes take turns stepping in front of the mic for certain songs, it’s often Celia who’s lead vocalist.

Their 2013 album, This World Oft Can Be, was Grammy-nominated, and they just released a new, self-titled album in May. (Their first studio album is I Built This Heart.) In addition to touring nationally, I was intrigued to find out that the group has also participated in the U.S. State Department’s “American Music Abroad” program. Traveling to places like Pakistan, Brazil, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia (they wound up visiting fifteen countries last year), they played for locals, participated in music education programs for children, and collaborated with local musicians. Talking about the experience, Woodsmith said, “It’s really opened our eyes as people and as musicians, and hopefully it’s had the same effect on the people we’ve met on those trips. It’s strengthened our camaraderie, and it’s helped us become a better band…we came home feeling totally inspired, and wanting to create those kinds of connections with people in our own country as well.”

And I don’t see how someone could listen to Della Mae and not make some kind of connection; alternating between songs that make you want to jump up and dance, slower songs that strike a chord in your heart, and even occasional covers with a little Della Mae twist. Even though I’m pretty brand new to their music, I definitely plan to play catch up as I seek out more of their work. To find out more about the dynamic Della Mae, visit www.dellamae.com.

Alison Krauss

Until recently, Alison Krauss was on my periphery; I knew the name, but not much of her music. Then one day while I was listening to an online radio station that plays music based on your preferences, a song that I didn’t know popped up. It sounded like an old gospel song, sang by a delicate, almost ethereal voice, with subtle background vocals that allowed the lead vocalist to really shine through. It turns out that it was the version of “Down in the River to Pray” that Krauss had recorded for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Krauss has had an impressive career, spanning at least twenty-five years, and she doesn’t show any signs of slowing her momentum. A fiddle player with that gorgeous voice that I mentioned above, she’s most often singing with her band, Union Station, comprised of Dan Tyminski (guitar and mandolin), Jerry Douglas (Dobro and lap steel), Ron Block (banjo and guitar), and Barry Bales (bass). With all of these instruments and the vocals that the band lends, the tapestry of sounds weaves together to create a rich background for Krauss' voice. That's not to say that "the boys" are always in the wings though; Krauss is more than happy to share the stage and let each of them, who are successful musicians in their own right, step up and into the spotlight too.

When Krauss isn’t with Union Station, she can also be found collaborating with other artists. She’s done duets with Brad Paisley (“Whiskey Lullaby”), James Taylor (“How’s the World Treating You”, “The Boxer”), Robert Plant, Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers, and many more. In 2013, Krauss even joined other musicians on stage to share the vocals with Vince Gill and Taylor Swift on Swift’s song “Red” during the Country Music Awards.

Krauss is quoted as saying, “The only thing you can do is record things that move you—that have a connection with you—and to represent yourself truthfully. Things have to be true that I sing or I can’t do it. Whether I write them or not, they have to be true for me to say it, and for the guys (Union Station) to play it. The only recipe is if it feels true, and true may be incredibly sad. But that’s the part that feels good, because it’s truthful. It might not be true for anybody else, but it is for us.” That sums up beautifully the instant connection I made that day when a plaintive voice came through the speakers, singing a Gospel song from well over a hundred years ago. There’s a genuineness in Krauss’ work that speaks to universal truths in anyone’s life. As with Sara Watkins and Della Mae, it’s fun to be standing on the threshold of discovering more of her music. If you’d like to join in, a good starting place is www.alisonkrauss.com.

So, readers, we'd love to know: has there been a genre of music that you stumbled upon that was new to you, but you quickly became a fan of? If so, please share in the comments.


Top 5 Reasons to Love High Fidelity

by Jav Rivera
Cusack and team channel The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"
for the cover of the album and poster.

Growing up in the '80s, I became very familiar with John Cusack's face. Whether seeing him in a tiny role in 16 Candles or as a leading man in the oddball comedy Better Off Dead, Cusack became like a close friend. He was a buddy I could rely on to give great performances and be that relatable "every man." Well, not quite "every man," since most of his characters were outcasts. But they were characters that I understood, and for me they were more normal than the jocks or preppy boys who dominated the movies in the 1980s. Cusack rarely played the popular student, and instead found a niche playing unusual, maybe even socially unacceptable, characters. And even though his characters were usually outsiders, his was the point of view that felt proper. And it became easy to get on board with his characters' ideas.

Before his 2000 film High Fidelity came out, I had last seen him in the critically acclaimed, and financially successful, film Grosse Point Blank, which is another one of Cusack's best. So when High Fidelity arrived in theatres, I was excited to support my buddy.

It also helped that High Fidelity was set in a record store and relied heavily on discussions about music. As a music lover and a Cusack fan, this was going to be an easy film to love. And after watching it for the first time, it was clear that this would be a hidden gem for years to come, perhaps even a classic.

Below are my top five reasons to love High Fidelity.

John Cusack (Rob Gordon) and Jack Black (Barry)
#5 - The Shirts of Barry

Let's start of with a goofy reason. Barry, played by Jack Black, can be found wearing some of the ugliest shirts. Sometimes it's an Aloha (Hawaiian) shirt, sometimes it's a horrific color, and sometimes it's a band shirt that he's clearly wearing ironically (i.e. Yanni). Whatever he's wearing, it's a fun element to the film.

#4 - The Music

This one's kind of a no-brainer. The soundtrack to the film has been acclaimed many times over, and with good reason. It's a great mixture of indie rock artists (Sheila Nicholls, The Beta Band, and Stereolab) and legendary musicians, including Stevie Wonder, The Velvet Underground, and Bob Dylan. Though most of the soundtrack is composed of pop music, there's a nice variety in musical styles.

Iben Hjejle (Laura) and Cusack
#3 - The Cast

This is easily one of John Cusack's best performances. Cusack plays Rob, a record shop owner. His character may be charming, but he's also layered with many unflattering traits. Cusack walks a fine line between being a nearly-faithful boyfriend and loser. He's not exactly a good person but there's an honest effort to do the best he can based on his previous relationships.

Cusack's supporting cast couldn't be more fitting. Rob's two employees, Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso), have just as much passion for music as him, which can be unfortunate for Rob at times since they don't know when to shut up. Rob's girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle) is successful and confident. She's the opposite of Rob, which often creates power struggles between the couple. Hjejle plays Laura with underlying strength. She's not an over-the-top feminist but she's not the weak girlfriend either. For a character like Rob who loves to be the leader, Laura keeps him grounded. Laura's best friend Liz (Joan Cusack), on the other hand, is a bit more fierce. Instead of using reason like Laura, Liz instead prefers anger, be it shouting or passive aggressive behavior.

Even though the film mostly follows Cusack, there are great performances from other smaller roles. At one point in the film Rob lists his top five worst breakups. He later revisits these women, allowing great moments for some great actresses to shine, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Joelle Carter. Even smaller roles like Tim Robbins' "Ian" character and Lisa Bonet's "Marie De Salle" character are delivered with such great performances that their parts feel bigger than they are. All in all, it's a terrific cast with a nice variety in characters. Oh...and Bruce Springsteen even shows up, briefly, as himself. It's a cool cameo and quite fitting to the story and Cusack's character.

Rob takes grief from Liz (played by Cusack's real-life sister, Joan).
#2 - The Story

High Fidelity disguises itself as a romantic comedy, but at its core it's a story about music and its effect on life. There's even a moment in the film where Cusack's characters asks the audience:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

In relation to the story, that could be the most meaningful statement in the film. Since a very early age, music has been an important factor in my life. And still, I'm not sure I can answer the question either. I know that when I'm down I prefer depressing music, and when I'm happy I choose more upbeat music. But does the sad music make me sadder? Many years ago a coworker told me I should listen to happy music when I'm down, but it never felt right. Could it be that music and feelings are supposed to compliment each other? Whatever the answers are to those questions, Cusack's statement is genius. And if you keep music as a key element to the story while watching High Fidelity, you may find a much deeper meaning to the film.

Another element to the story are the Top 5 lists. Throughout the film, Rob and the gang create situations where a Top 5 list helps illustrate a moment. For example: a Top 5 list of songs to play at a funeral. At first it comes across as a simple conversation between music lovers, but the symbolism these lists create make the scenes even better.

L-R: Alex Désert, John Cusack, Todd Louiso, and Jack Black
#1 - The Authenticity

The characters and their lives are all about music. Whether they're wannabe musicians or wannabe music critics, Rob, Barry, and Dick all share a bit of arrogance. They have no doubt that they're authorities in the field of music, and look down at anyone who isn't as informed as they are. Having worked in film and music industries, I can say first-hand that this is most certainly a realistic depiction of many movie and music buffs.

Unfortunately, I'm also familiar with several of the failed relationships that Rob has had. Those, too, come across as very real. His insecurities, his suspicions, and even his misguided reactions to break-ups all seem legitimate. This was one of the first films where I could relate so closely to the main character's depiction of dating. And I'm sure most of this authenticity is thanks to the film's source material, Nick Hornby's book of the same title. (Hornby also authored "About A Boy" which was later adapted into a film starring Hugh Grant.)

With a film like High Fidelity, it's easy to find reasons to love it. And whether or not you're a music buff, the story speaks to anyone who's dated. Presented in a very original way, Cusack and company produced a fun film with strong performances.

For more information visit the film's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0146882

TRIVIA: Nick Hornby's book is set in London, but the producers changed it to Chicago because the area was more familiar to them. John Cusack, an Illinois native, also found it easy to relocate his character in the Chicago area. Additionally, it has been stated that Chicago's alternative music scene can be compared to that of north London's.