November/December 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 6
Springsteen Reignites the folk song
In 1997 the rock god Bruce Springsteen was asked to contribute to an album commemorating the folksinger Pete Seeger. Immersing himself in Seeger’s music, Springsteen decided to take an unconventional approach to the American folk song. He convened a motley ensemble of 17, including a 4-member horn section, an accordionist, 2 fiddlers, and assorted others, and recorded a brace of tunes popularized by Seeger. Over the next few years Springsteen found himself returning again and again to the session tape. “Listening to it was a relief,” he said recently. “It was just people playing. It sounded like fun.” In 2005, and again earlier this year, the singer invited the same group of musicians to his home in Rumson, New Jersey, to cut more tunes, many of them more than a century old and all of them recorded by Seeger. The result,
Springsteen shows that the American folk song is a capacious vessel. Instead of the pick-and-strum acoustic-guitar sound we inevitably associate with folk, this band brims over with different styles. On “Old Dan Tucker” the southern Appalachian strains of the banjo and fiddles encounter the horn section’s big-band sweep and the Hammond organ’s sweet soul music. On the old Negro spiritual “Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep,” keening klezmer violin meets a rousing gospel choir. Amazingly, everything coheres. “We Shall Overcome” sounds to be as much about a couple’s struggle for stability as it is about the quest for social progress. It is a little off-putting to hear a zillionaire like Springsteen sing the old stevedores’ tune “Pay Me My Money Down,” but then again, Springsteen may be making an ironic point about a zillionaire’s singing the song in the first place. This album’s careening, rip-roaring music bears about as much relationship to Seeger’s quiet, almost genteel sound as a Hummer does to a bicycle. Seeger winds up being almost incidental to the project, the conduit through which Springsteen discovered this material.
An important item on Springsteen’s agenda—accomplished—was to capture the feel of music spontaneously coming together, being assembled even as it is being recorded. According to Springsteen’s liner notes, there were no rehearsals; everything, presumably, was put together on the spot. On the accompanying DVD, Springsteen says of these songs: “You get the sound of music being made . There’s an energy to that, when no one knows [the music]. That’s the moment when opportunity and disaster are close at hand. If you can push it to opportunity, you get something really special.”
They did. — Tony Scherman
Brilliance in a Bus
The road movie, from It Happened One Night to Sideways 70 years later, is wholly American—born of an abundance of open space and cheap vehicles, it is our picaresque novel. In recent years it’s become the perfect genre for independent moviemakers with small budgets. The first-time feature filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, producers and directors of numerous music videos, would seem unlikely candidates for a leisurely, nuanced comedy based on character development and satirical kick. But completely unanticipated, Little Miss Sunshine arrives out of the Southwestern desert as the best comedy of 2006.
A family of misfits headed by Greg Kinnear, a failed motivational pitchman, and his exasperated wife (Toni Collette) drive from New Mexico to Southern California so their seven-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Their battered Volkswagen bus must be pushed to restart after each stop, about as funny a metaphor for pop self-help programs as there is. The family includes Alan Arkin, inexplicably and hilariously Jewish as Kinnear’s cokehead father, and Steve Carell as the first gay, suicidal Proust scholar in American film. The pageant itself seems too hideous not to have been inspired by reality.— Allen Barra
The Incomparable Toots
How can a documentary about a Jewish kid from South Philly who ran a saloon in Manhattan be a veritable cutaway view of a city and a time (in this case, New York from World War II to the early 1960s)? How can you watch a film and feel like you’ve just inhaled 90 minutes’ worth of cigarette smoke and downed three Scotch and sodas but still have a clear head?
In Toots Shor: Bigger Than Life , Toots’s granddaughter, Kristi Jacobson, using interviews, film clips, video clips from TV shows, and still photographs, has created an endearing and invigorating portrait of the man whose restaurant defined an era. A salesman could rub elbows with America’s most famous athletes, from Joe DiMaggio to Frank Gifford to Joe Louis, and possibly bump into Frank Sinatra or Ernest Hemingway on the way to the restroom (and maybe have to step over Jackie Gleason to get there). How congenial was the atmosphere at Toots Shor’s on West Fifty-first Street? Frank Costello, the head of the New York mob, could tip a glass across the bar to Chief Justice Earl Warren.
We should have been there and, hearing about it from Mike Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Pete Hamill, and many others, you’ll feel as if you were.— Allen Barra
It’s time to see a movie we couldn’t bear to go to
The British filmmaker Paul Greengrass’s United 93, the best American movie of 2006, is that rarest of achievements, a work about politics that is entirely apolitical. Setting his film in real time, fusing documentary techniques with brilliant interpretive writing, and with a cast that seamlessly blends accomplished supporting players with amateurs, Greengrass imagines the 90-odd minutes in the flight of the airliner that was intended to crash into the U.S. Capitol on September 11, 2001. Many who couldn’t bring themselves to go to a theater for it will discover the brilliance of United 93 on cable and DVD.— Allen Barra
Exploring the Secret Capitol
For years, C-SPAN enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the U.S. Capitol, not only broadcasting gavel-to-gavel congressional proceedings but offering the omnipresent view of the Capitol dome outside its windows during live studio telecasts. Brian Lamb’s dome and the Capitol dome became inseparable.
In recent years, however, rival networks have horned in on the once-exclusive backdrop. So last season, C-SPAN went them one better, taking its HDTV cameras inside and under the iconic dome for an exhaustive, extraordinary, three-day, 10-hour-long national special that aired from November 23 to 25.
The Capitol proved as enthralling a history lesson as TV has ever offered—and a dazzling art and architecture survey into the bargain. Guiding viewers where tourists never tread, C-SPAN paid a dizzying, up-close visit to Constantino Brumidi’s fresco Apotheosis of Washington , high above the Rotunda, then burrowed deep underground for a tour of the long-abandoned Senate Baths. Here were ornate rooms reserved for the rare visits of the President and restored chambers where the Supreme Court once told Dred Scott he had no rights, where Senators Hayne and Webster debated, and where John Quincy Adams died of a stroke. In true C-SPAN fashion, not a corner was overlooked.
Congressional elders—Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, and Dennis Hastert among them —got to show off not only their handsome private offices but their considerable knowledge of the past too. Capitol historians led tours through private corridors and underground passageways, offering memorable anecdotes at every turn. So when Lamb stood high atop an off-limits outdoor balcony, the illuminated city at his back, it came as no surprise that caller after caller expressed awe and appreciation for this behind-the-scenes masterpiece. They were learning, and they were enraptured.
For those who missed one of the great history triumphs of 2006, the complete Mark Farkas–produced broadcast is available in a boxed DVD set from c-span.org . —Harold Holzer