Thursday, October 29, 2009

This Is It Movie Review

By Chris Richards
Thursday, October 29, 2009

"This Is It," the new Michael Jackson concert film, has been billed as a rare glimpse into the creative psyche that defined pop music's shape and trajectory. But this isn't a concert film. It's a rehearsal film -- and one that will leave Jackson's most zealous fans waiting for goose bumps that never arrive.
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MOVIE REVIEW: 'This Is It' doesn't do justice to M.J.'s magic

Filmed at the Staples Center in Los Angeles between March and June, "This Is It" captures the King of Pop prepping for a 50-night run at London's O2 Arena. But after the singer's death shocked the planet on June 25, the extensive rehearsal footage -- intended for Jackson's personal archive -- was quickly cobbled into a feature-length documentary that landed in theaters on Wednesday.

Must the show really go on? At best, "This Is It" is a mere sketch of what Jackson seemed capable of delivering in London, with the King of Pop only half-singing, half-dancing through his most rousing hits. Stiff and frail, he paces the stage, during "Wanna Be Starting Something," as if mulling things over in his mind. At times, he appears almost lost inside himself.

And so it goes for nearly two hours. Jackson emerges from a mechanical spider during "Thriller," he rides a cherry picker during "Beat It," he hustles through a medley of Jackson 5 tunes including "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There." As the latter song fades, he cracks a rare smile, basking in phantom adulation.

Dramatic pauses abound during rehearsal (imagine roaring fans here, here and here), but when the singer flicks his wrist, his band best not miss it. Jackson tut-tuts over a few missed cues, but otherwise his direction is fussy and inarticulate.

During "The Way You Make Me Feel," he softly chides his musicians for not letting the intro "simmer." You can almost see the question marks materializing over their heads.

Not the case with Kenny Ortega -- his noggin seems to produce only exclamation points of agreement. He's the director of both the concert and the film, and he shepherds Jackson through these rehearsals with a true yes-man's adulation. ("I agree, Michael," he declares after Jackson quasi-resolves things with "The Way You Make Me Feel.")

Along with Ortega's generous screen time, there's plenty of other inconsequential footage: tech dudes grunting as they schlep gear; costume designers explaining which sequins are shiniest; a guitarist who says how excited she is to work with Michael Jackson, followed by a second guitarist who says how excited he is to work with Michael Jackson.

And the poor dancers. You'd really hope to see Jackson enjoy a spontaneous moment with these incredible talents as they pop and lock around their idol, but all they get is a hand-holding circle where the singer speaks in fuzzy platitudes about adventure and love and saving the planet.

The film's one undeniably human moment comes during "I Just Can't Stop Loving You," with Jackson finally allowing himself to be swept into the music, singing full throttle. But despite the crew's excitement (and ours), he cuts it short: "I have to save my voice."

For a man who so desperately wanted to show us perfection -- or at least project the illusion of it -- Jackson would never, ever want us to see this film.

This Is It (111 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for suggestive choreography and scary images.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Review of Maxwell Performance Washington Post

Suddenly, It's Again Maxwell's House
Neo-Soul Singer Rides A Surprise Comeback

Maxwell charmed fans in Richmond on Wednesday, just one stop on his biggest tour ever.
Maxwell charmed fans in Richmond on Wednesday, just one stop on his biggest tour ever. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)

On the heels of hit album "BLACKsummers'night," Maxwell woos the Richmond crowd on Wednesday night. He plays Verizon Center on Friday.
On the heels of hit album "BLACKsummers'night," Maxwell woos the Richmond crowd on Wednesday night. He plays Verizon Center on Friday. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

RICHMOND -- Wednesday afternoon. Six hours till showtime. Maxwell is lounging in the cheap seats of the Richmond Coliseum, watching his road crew assemble the stage as if it were giant, real-life game of Tetris.

Just a year ago, the resurgent superstar would have been able to attend a concert here -- even sit in this very seat -- without garnering a squeal, a smile or a second glance. But when the lights go down later in the night, a packed house will greet the singer with grown-woman shrieks usually reserved for the likes of Al Green.

Call it a comeback that no one saw coming -- including Maxwell. His latest album, "BLACKsummers'night," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart in July, officially ending a multiyear hiatus from the stage, the radio and the ever-bourgeoning blogosphere. Now the prodigiously gifted, intensely private 36-year-old is enjoying the biggest tour of his career.

"BLACKsummers'night" has sold 779,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan -- 55,000 of which were snatched up in Washington. The singer says the District is his strongest market -- a fact evidenced by lead single "Pretty Wings," which has taken up permanent residence on local airwaves since early summer. It's a resplendent slow jam adorned with haunting gamelan chimes -- and he'll surely be crooning it when the BLACKsummers'night Tour lands at Verizon Center on Friday night. (Remaining tickets are expected to sell out before showtime, according to a Verizon Center spokesperson.)

So where's he been? Maxwell smiles at the question and says his exile was entirely self-imposed -- an attempt to reclaim his anonymity and the regular-dude love life that went with it. He recounts his time away in fond tones and a sandpapery rasp that belies his gravity-defying falsetto.

"I think by taking that break and living a life and meeting girls who actually didn't know who I was, where I didn't have to rest on those laurels and actually had to work for it instead of just having it fall in my lap -- that actually made ["BLACKsummers'night"] appealing to the masses," he says. "It made them sort of believe me more."

It also reaffirmed the faith of older fans who had been following Maxwell since the glory days of neo-soul -- the late-'90s movement that adopted a heady, old-school ethos in hopes of vanquishing the bling-encrusted hip-hop of the day.

Some of neo-soul's biggest stars were venerated too fast, too soon, and disappeared into the shadows of their own success. After watching Lauryn Hill and D'Angelo derail, fans wondered if Maxwell's premature exit was something beyond his control.

"I think people just assumed something had to be wrong," he says. "'Why wouldn't he want to be famous?'"

Well, why?

"Fame . . . it kind of kills the humanity and the humility of music for some reason," he says. "You're like this product all of a sudden and you have to stay in this Superman costume with people telling you that if you cut your hair, your career is over."

The iconic, blown-out Afro that he's referring to wasn't the only thing that made Maxwell famous -- but it helped. He first emerged in 1996 with "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite" -- a stunning debut album that would eventually go double platinum. His reputation grew through 1998's "Embrya" and 2001's "Now," and his myth solidified when he vanished soon after. When the world finally tugged him back toward music, he heard the call coming from the speakers of a drug store.

"I'd be going into Duane Reade to get, like, Palmer's Cocoa Butter or get my girl tampons or whatever, and there's some song playing that I wrote five years ago," says Maxwell, remembering the little moments that eventually motivated him to start writing again.

By 2008, he had started work on a trio of albums that would share the title "BLACKSUMMERS'NIGHT." (The gospel-centric "BlackSUMMERS'-night" lands in 2010; a quiet-storming "Blacksummers'-NIGHT" is promised in 2011.)

When the first installment dropped in July, it felt sly and subversive, boasting a live band with a delicate touch. The recording has all the hallmarks of a throwback soul album: hot horns, skittery drums, bass lines that lurk before they pounce. But beneath that vintage facade lies an ocean of sonic detail that doesn't really sound like a product of its time -- or any before it.

Maxwell is quick to cite the unexpected influence of indie artists Arcade Fire and Fleet Foxes. "It's funny how much more rock I listen to," he says. "R&B and soul -- it's so computerized now. . . . I knew that 'BLACKsummers'night' needed to sound live. That was the only way it was gonna sound different to people on the radio."

Now, headlining bigger venues than ever before, the singer faces the challenge of delivering that sound and all its nuances to the deepest nosebleeds.

"I want everyone," he says, tracing a crazy shape in the air with his index finger. "I want them to all to know that I feel them."

In Richmond on Wednesday night, they certainly felt him. The singer took the stage in a crisply tailored suit straight out of Motown and strutted down a Y-shaped runway, women grasping at his shiny black loafers.

The performance pushed two hours and included the ever-charming "Sumthin' Sumthin'," a cover of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful," the famously lithe version of Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" and a sublime finale of "Pretty Wings."

Soaring, roaring and panting in all the right places, his delivery put him on the doorstep of a pantheon inhabited by Marvin Gaye and Prince -- those superhuman singers who protect their incredible gifts with a fierce sense of privacy.

The balance hasn't been lost on Maxwell. "All of the greats -- there was something about them. And you knew just enough, and hopefully it just circulates around the music," he says. "Now, it's so difficult to have mystique."

He shakes his head, purses his lips, soaks up the fan's-eye-view before the final pieces of the stage lock into place.

"I'm one of these people -- I don't wanna know how the magic trick is done."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Review of Maxwell's new album

Not Enough Heart in Maxwell's Soul
By Allison Stewart
Special to The Washington Post

Back in the mid-'90s, Maxwell was on the leading edge of the retro-soul movement that also birthed Erykah Badu and D'Angelo. He was like Prince mixed with Marvin Gaye mixed with a lot of lesser artists who sounded like Prince and Marvin Gaye. He was the thinking woman's lover man, author of an amazing debut, 1996's "Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite," and two lesser, stranger follow-ups. And then he disappeared.

"BLACKsummers'night," Maxwell's first disc since 2001, is the first of an intended series of three studio albums in three years, each with a nominally different sound. Meant to be the most straightforward soul disc of the trilogy, it's a bluesy, dark-minded album with a lived-in feel.

Maxwell was always more of an eccentric than he seemed (his sophomore disc, 1998's "Embrya," lingered so long at the intersection of sex and spiritualism it might as well have been titled "Let's Get Metaphysical"). Neo-soul was less a revolution than a spectacular retreat, a return to the warmth and the stateliness of classic R&B with a few contemporary flourishes. Maxwell did the old thing well, at a time when nobody else was doing it at all. These days, everyone's doing it. He's tilling much the same soil as Alicia Keys and John Legend, and "BLACKsummers'night" has the peculiar misfortune of being a respectable, often charming retro-soul record at a time when respectable, often charming retro-soul records are not uncommon. It bears little trace of even the modest weirdness for which Maxwell (who famously recorded a song titled "I'm You: You Are Me and We Are You [Pt. Me & You]") used to be known. It's sophisticated and impeccable, but its mildness might be terminal. It's . . . nice.

In the service of these solid, often indistinguishable tracks, Maxwell deploys all the tools in an old-school soul singer's arsenal: horns, hand claps, stirring, gospel-y backing vocals, his much-missed keening falsetto. Sometimes he employs all at once, as on the fine and leisurely first single, "Pretty Wings." The rest fall into three categories: love songs, often regretful (such as "Playing Possum," a flamenco- and folk-inspired guitar ballad); let's-go-to-bed songs (the steamy, familiar "Stop the World"); the-world-is-going-to-hell songs ("Help Somebody," with its atypically lively, golden-age-of-soul feel).

Maxwell is not what anyone would consider a born lyricist, and these tracks are notable more for their slippery grooves than for anything they might actually say about Maxwell. Only the piano ballad "Love You" hints at something deeper. Its revealing first verse is the closest he ever gets to mentioning his extended absence ("You come out from nowhere / Disappear and reappear / Houdini would be very proud / I can speculate your fears / Wonder on your tears / But I just wanna hear the sound").

"BLACKsummers'night" is otherwise cerebral but impersonal, an album that never quite breaks free of its self-imposed restraints, that never swings when it can glide.

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