Sunday, December 25, 2016

George Michael - RIP

2016 can't even give us a reprieve on Christmas Day, as it was sadly announced that pop singer George Michael has died from an unknown cause. He was 53 years old.

Real name Georgios Panayiotou, Michael grew up in London and had a fateful meeting with Andrew Ridgeley at one of his schools. The two formed the group Wham! in 1981 and released their first album Fantastic in 1983. The album and its singles were only popular in their native England, drawing the band a fervent teenage fanbase.

It wasn't until a year later when they achieved global fame with the blunt titled Make It Big. They broke through with their first single "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go", which went to #1 here in the States due its ear-wormy musical direction and its infamous music video. The video in question chiefly featured Michael jumping and jiving in a baggy "CHOOSE LIFE" embroidered t-shirt before switching to luminously colored shirt with matching short-shorts and gloves.

The two had further #1 hits with the dark pop song "Everything She Wants" and the slow jam classic "Careless Whisper". The latter single prove to be a huge omen of things to come, as it was marketed as being sung by either Wham! featuring George Michael or just George Michael. Michael's profile continued to overshadow Ridgeley due to him being the sole writer and composer of Make It Big and his major contribution to the British charity song "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

Wham!'s third album "Music From The Edge Of Heaven", released in 1986, ended up being their last. The rousing "I'm Your Man" and the future Christmas staple "Last Christmas" were the very big hits spawned from it. Michael and Ridgeley seemingly broke up on good terms, with Michael looking to move beyond the teenage market and become treated more as a serious singer. He really didn't need to, as proven by his immense charisma and musical prowess, but what came from these aspirations prove to be a major change in pop culture.

Michael started off his solo career in 1987 by teaming with one of his idols, Aretha Franklin, on the glowing duet "I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)". It went straight to #1 and was a prelude for what he was about to unleash upon the world. The first appetizer off his new album, "I Want Your Sex", premiered on radio and MTV in June to coincide with the release of the film Beverly Hills Cop II, where it was included on the soundtrack. The song proved to be highly controversial, especially considering this was still the height of the AIDS epidemic and paranoia. Many radio stations banned it and MTV only allowed its music video to be aired late at night. Michael had to speak out about the song's message and film a new PSA-like intro in order to calm the commotion. Regardless of everything, the controversy helped as the song went to #2.

In late October, Faith was released to the public. The title track, which begins with some organ playing before switching to rock-n-roll, drew raves and quickly shot up to #1. Once again, the art of music videos helped its promotion, thanks to the sight of a masculine Michael flashing a leather jacket, sunglasses and tight Levi jeans, as he swings his guitar near a jukebox. His next three singles all went to #1: the gospel-infused "Father Figure, the slow romantic ballad "One More Try", and odd synthpop ditty "Monkey". He closed out his singles with the underrated jazz tune "Kissing a Fool", the sole song on the album not completely written and composed by Michael himself. With six singles all ending up in the Top Five, eventually earning Diamond certification from the RIAA for over 10 million album sales, massive critical acclaim, and the Grammy for Album of the Year, Faith let everybody in the world know that George Michael was king.

Unfortunately, Michael didn't want to wear the crown. Exhausted by a world tour and all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding his first solo album, Michael went against the wishes of Sony and outright refused to do any promotion for his next album. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 was released in late 1990. The cover art of it outright shows his disgust at his image at the time, as it is just a photo of a crowd with no identification of the artist or album. The first single "Praying For Time", intended to show off his maturity as an artist and songwriter, went to #1 mainly due to the still popularity of Michael. Its music video continued the anti-promotion, as it features the lyrics in blue text over a black background. His following singles only suffered in sales and the charts from Michael's lack of visual exposure, save for "Freedom '90". This song is now immortalized thanks to its artful music video, directed by David Fincher. The video featured several big named supermodels, including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Tatjana Patitz and Christy Turlington, lip-synching to the song all the while items representing George Michael's past fame, namely his leather jacket, guitar and jukebox, are destroyed. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1 ultimately sold 2 million copies and was widely seen as a massive disappointment off the heels of Faith. Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 2 was canceled amid the infighting between Michael and Sony; the three tunes produced during its development, most notably "Too Funky", were released and their royalties went to various charities.

Regardless of 1990 being a tumultuous time in his life, George Michael could still command a stage and have the world listen to his beautiful crooning. In 1991, he went on a global tour dubbed "Cover to Cover", where he spent more time on singing his renditions of his favorite songs instead of his own tracks. One of such favorites was "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", made famous by Elton John. At his concert at Wembley Stadium, Michael surprised the audience by bringing in John to sing it with him. The duet was recorded and released as a single, where it went to #1. Michael had another hit with a cover the next year, when he teamed up with the remaining members of Queen to belt out "Somebody To Love" at the Freddy Mercury Memorial Concert.

Michael began to lay low from the public eye. His musical career laid dormant, save for the song "Jesus to a Child" in 1994, until 1996 with the release of Older. A big hit in his native England, the album however was lukewarm at best in America and earned Platinum certification. The success came mainly from its sole charting single "Fastlove", a futuristic take on "friends with benefits" with the added touch of the chorus from Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots".

For a man who often sung songs about freedom, it wasn't until 1998 when George Michael could live truly as himself albeit through humiliating circumstances. Michael was arrested by an undercover cop for lewd activities in a bathroom at the Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. The arrest revealed what many believed: George Michael was gay. Michael took the arrest in stride, pleading no contest to the charge, and began to be more open about his sexuality and his current relationships. He greatly showed this, while also throwing a dig at the LAPD, with the controversial music video for his new song "Outside". The tune was the lead-off single for his greatest hits album Ladies and Gentlemen: The Best of George Michael.

From then on, Michael spent more time performing and being in the public eye than in the studio. His last major album Patience came out in 2004, which he surprisingly recorded it with his former nemesis Sony. He ran into some trouble due to his politics, several drug charges and another case of cruising but Michael continued to draw crowds and make major contributions to many charities.

George Michael's death is another stinging blow for myself. I grew up with the music video for "Freedom '90". I absolutely adore his covers of "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", "Somebody To Love" and "I Can't Make You Love Me". And finally, I listen to tracks from Faith every time I need a pick-em-up or to sooth the soul.

He will sorely be missed.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Sing - Review

Ambitious koala Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) seeks to keep his theater in operation by launching a singing competition with a huge cash prize. He gets a huge pool of amateurs looking to sing their lungs out, all with their own stakes in the game, but Buster's money woes, including a significant increase in the winning purse via a printing error, keeps him on his toes. SING wishes to be a monumental feel-good event of 2016, only to come out at the very end of the year and be undercut on nearly every front by its animated competition. The animal characters and their urban environment are better realized in ZOOTOPIA and the mixture of current and original pop songs is better handled in TROLLS. Even if you don't compare it to other animated works, the movie ends up being just a serviceable jukebox musical filled with a couple roaring tunes and a thin script despite a near two hour running time. Like a desperate stage director hiding in the wings, writer/director Garth Jennings, who cut his teeth making visually inventive music videos as part of the directing duo Hammer & Tongs, stretches out the proceedings beyond belief just to arrive at the predictable declarations of "feel the rhythm" or "listen to your heart" right before the Judy & Mickey-approved "let's put on a show!" finale. One of the most likely reasons for the slow plot progression is the noticeable lack of singing. Yes, the film called SING doesn't have a lot of people doing just that once the auditions are done. Because the story is designed to be a battle royale of belters, the makers realized that audiences might not be in the mood to sit through each and every competitor rehearsing their one and only song over and over again. So, they responded by leaving the long middle section of the movie bare of performed tunes and put more focus on Buster's search for more money. Hooray?! The all-star cast all do well with what they were barely given; only Scarlett Johansson as a porcupine rocker and Seth MacFarlane as a hustling, croon-singing mouse really get to shine and justify their vocal appearances. I'm a bit perturbed by this star-laden company, however, not due to my distaste of Hollywood's casting process of animated films but for the sheer fact that resident voice actress Tara Strong goes uncredited as a significant character yet Jennifer Hudson gets a prime slot despite being a very brief cameo in the film's very first scene. If you need a little pick-me-up and like to hear some fun songs, you could do a whole lot worst this holiday season than SING. But honestly, if you have experienced any of its commercials and trailers that bombarded the market this year, you've practically seen everything it offers and will not be surprised.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One - Review

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is rescued for an Imperial prison planet in order to be a tool for the latest plan devised by the Rebel Alliance. She's to lead officer/assassin Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his reprogrammed snarky android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) to her former father figure turned violent extremist Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), who holds the knowledge to the Galactic Empire's newest pet project and the location of its creator, Jyn's father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen). ROGUE ONE begins as a satisfactory sci-fi romp only to ramp up considerable and deliver a thrilling final act. For the first time in a very long time, not since RETURN OF THE JEDI in fact, we finally get to see the real horrors of war in the STAR WARS realm. The pathetic prequels were slathered with the toyetic aspirations of George Lucas, filled with lifeless CGI creations pew-pewing each other on galactic battlefields so as to sell more action figures and video games. THE FORCE AWAKENS was more focused on recapturing the spirit of the original film, peppering in a few flakes of spaceship exchanges among its healthy broth of bickering saboteurs engaging in adventurous trips around the galaxy. This film, on the other hand, really gets into the down and dirty aspects of the war between the Rebels and the Empire. People die, scream out in pain, suffer horrible injuries, mourn over the fallen amid gunfire, betray others and ultimately sacrifice themselves to help out their friends or for the greater good of their blood-soaked cause. Even up until its final moments, soldiers are risking it all simply for "hope". The story may be dark but not everything in the script is pure gold. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy do not bequeath much characterization to the main cast, even including main heroine Jyn who's a bit flat when she's not brooding or crying for papa. Riz Ahmed's Imperial turncoat and Donnie Yen's blind preacher of the Force are the sole exceptions, each possessing a great character arc and often stealing the show from the supposed stars of the pic. Further hampering matters, most likely due to the corporate mandate of Disney, director Gareth Edwards doesn't get to spin a lot of personal artistic touches to the film. However, he does get a few chances to shine, most of which involve some fantastic uses of playing with shadows. I could pursue my critical analysis and delve into the random fan service, the CGI surprises, or the awesomeness that is the "Hammerhead" scene but I wish to only end this review by tip-toeing around the film's coda. It is both one of the best and worst endings of the year. I was floored its audacity and its willingness to show that war marches on and heavy losses come and go. But the audience and myself were also left utterly perplexed by the sudden slam on the brakes and quick cut to the traditional ending credits. Nevertheless, ROGUE ONE is a worthy blockbuster and a nice reminder to the kiddies that war is hell.