Thriving with Cancer

Recent reports that cancer has returned in Olivia Newton-John for the third time are unfortunate. But I know that Olivia, who turns 70 this month and whose mother and sister died of cancer, intends on thriving, as against merely surviving, as she once told me during one of our interviews.

The singer, whose work I’ve long covered and admired, released a statement that she is currently undergoing treatment, emphasizing her use of natural healing methods and cannabis oil for the pain. Olivia founded the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Australia.

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So, letting her own idea of “love and light” guide her, Olivia continues to live large, brave and graceful by example. And I continue to draw from her strength, encouragement and balanced, peaceful reality checks, in her appearances, statements, movies, performances and music. When one in my own family was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer, I turned to Olivia Newton-John’s positive-themed 2008 duets album, A Celebration in Song, as both a source of clarity and as a gift for the loved one. The impact and gratitude for her album is now a cherished memory.

A Celebration in Song, as well as ONJ’s other softer, more personal albums since the height of her popularity, inspires. I listen to and appreciate every tune, though I consider “Courageous” the perfect song for summoning one’s innermost abilities to thrive in the face of hardship.

I first met and interviewed ONJ nearly 20 years ago and mine was her premier Las Vegas headliner show’s first review. I would love to meet Olivia again for an interview to discuss the publication for her forthcoming memoir. Once again, I wish Olivia a speedy recovery and the best of everything…with love for this phenomenal woman.

Related Links

Official Olivia Newton-John Web site

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre

Exclusive Concert Review: Olivia Newton-John in Las Vegas

Music Review: ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Music Review: ‘This Christmas’ by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

Exclusive Interview: Brett Goldsmith on ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Movie Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Dabbling in what made the 2008 original enjoyable, this summer’s sequel to Mamma Mia! is another welcome exercise in gaiety and lightness. With players draped in loose-fitting cotton, gathering in the sun-kissed Greek isles on the premise that the individual of any age can and ought to “do something radical and wonderful”, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again‘s as carefree as the original ten years ago.

Amanda Seyfried (Cosette in Les Miserables and Letters to Juliet) returns, as do most of the original cast, as Sophie, daughter of free spirit Donna (Meryl Streep) who has died. Sophie plans to re-open the boutique hotel her late mother had created in the Greek islands. This is the plot. Sophie’s husband Sky (Dominic Cooper), who married Sophie in the original with the spirit of a pagan festival, is on a work assignment in New York City pondering a job offer. All of this is built again around ABBA’s rich, melodic pop songs.

Andy Garcia, Cher and Meryl Streep appear in small roles or cameos that feel like afterthoughts and, while they do not add to the movie, they do not detract or distract from it, either. The rest of the cast — including Stellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth as Sophie’s three fathers — is terrific, though Lily James (Darkest Hour, Baby Driver, Cinderella) continues to impress as an actress, portraying Sophie’s mother in her youth. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again begins and ends as a kind of musical postcard, teeming with life. English writer and director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) takes over directing from Phyllida Lloyd (The Iron Lady) with fine results.

Imaginatively filming island bicycling, traipsing and singing while dancing with clever transitions, and keeping godawful singer Pierce Brosnan in line, Parker unfolds the movie’s grief recovery theme in flashbacks. As young Donna, Sophie’s mother, Lily James is perfectly winsome, embracing youth with an unorthodox valedictory speech at Oxford, seducing gorgeous young men in Paris and the Mediterranean and starting her career as an entrepreneur whose voice is as “sweet as sugar cane”.

Contrasting the persevering single mother with a daughter who integrates her parents’ (including each of her three dads) best qualities and, of course, songs which invite you to think twice as you swoon along, so is Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

Reviews: ‘A Star is Born’

This year’s forthcoming new version of A Star is Born, judging by the trailer, appeals to me for various reasons.

First, it’s based on a great story first created, written and dramatized in motion pictures by William Wellman (Wings). Second, its leading man and director, Bradley Cooper (New Year’s Eve, Silver Linings Playbook, Aloha), strikes me as a potentially great actor and movie star; he delivered one of the most remarkable screen performances in 2014’s best movie, Clint Eastwood’s outstanding American Sniper, and he demonstrates skill in choosing movies with strong themes about man as essentially self-made, which could prove to be crucial in the new adaptation’s success. Third, the new movie co-stars the pop music singer known as Lady Gaga as the leading lady. Like Gaga’s predecessors in the role of the main female character, Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, this woman is extremely talented, as she’s proven time and again with her songwriting and musical performances, which have also been controversial. Apparently, Gaga has written at least some of the new movie’s songs. Gaga and Cooper come packed with talent and look like a good screen couple.

The theme for A Star is Born is both universal and newly relevant. I had never seen any of the movie versions, though I’d caught parts of the Judy Garland film, which I think is chiefly how the pictures are known and remembered, and I did not have any desire to see them for a long time. This spring, I attended a film festival and I noticed that the original picture was directed by Wellman, whose movies are generally very good and whose silent Wings is breathtaking. So, I was newly motivated to see his original version, which I came to understand was, like Wings, co-created by William Wellman. I attended the festival screening at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian movie palace and saw the original A Star is Born for the first time. I was astonished at its quality. I was deeply moved by its depiction of a fading movie star’s intersection with a starlet whom he discovers, coaches and loves (read my review of the 1937 movie here).

Self-interest drives A Star is Born. Recent movies, such as 2012’s best film, The Artist, and 2016’s best film, La La Land, also put the pursuit of happiness in show business at the center of the story. They both recall the original’s splendor, romanticism and glamor, yet also integrate life’s anguish, realism and hardship. In this sense, because it depicts (or attempts to depict) redemption in the wake of an epic downfall, the central theme of A Star is Born radiates. Strictly speaking of the original, thanks to the performance of its leading man, Frederic March, as Norman Maine, it accomplishes this effect with a graceful balance of logic and clarity. The film’s final conflict resolution hinges this balance on an unforgettable act of free will. The result is cautionary, poignant and, ultimately, resilient. In other words, it’s what civilization needs now.

Wellman brought this passionate contrast of agony and ecstasy to his similarly heart-wrenching Wings. Subsequent Star is Born remakes, however, fail to recapture the 1937 movie’s transcendent vigor. They do so by failing to appreciate the original’s delicate and vulnerable portrayal of movie star Norman Maine. Both remakes recast the female star as the focal point (they also recast her as a musical, not a dramatic, star, which permits each remake to showcase the talents of its leading ladies). But what imbues the movies’ title with meaning is that the birthing comes as a byproduct of a union. The 1954 adaptation relies too heavily on its overburdened star, Judy Garland (read my review here). The 1976 version also overplays its leading lady, Barbra Streisand (read my review here). Both do so at the expense of the male character, whose complexity is critical to closing the successful climactic arc.

This is why I wish Bradley Cooper success with his new version, set to debut in movie theaters this fall. This delicate, romantic story of idealism, despair and rebirth comes in an ominous and I think potentially cataclysmic time of alienation, disintegration and loss of privacy, rights, rational discourse, unity and sanctity of life. What makes A Star is Born so penetrating a portrait is its multiple layers of psychologically complex and interesting artists who love life. See the helplessness of the one whom everyone assumes has all the power and privilege in the world. Watch what happens to the one upon whom everyone confers sympathy, adulation and praise. Let the bliss of romance cast its glow over the industry that promises to elevate the best to light up the world, yet observe that, if maligned and ignored, the best when it’s sinking and needs life support can be crushed — and think about the role of the collective and the supremacy of the one.

A Star is Born 2018,  if it recreates, preserves and protects why A Star is Born 1937 urges the audience to worship man at his best, especially when it means tending to him at his temporary worst, can fire up a torch in this spiraling, darkening world.

Referenced Links

Three Summer Movies

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One of my favorite summer movie experiences was seeing Grease when I was a kid in 1978. I think the Paramount film was my first major theatrical motion picture musical. I’d seen movie musicals on television. But Grease, which cast two major 1970s stars, a pop star whose songs I enjoyed on radio and a TV sitcom star, unleashed its sexual energy in a lush, bright but somewhat raunchy, colorful movie musical. It was extremely entertaining and not merely in a frivolous or mindless way. I write about why in a new, in-depth analysis of the 40-year-old film (read the article here).

Besides spring’s Love, Simon, which is still the year’s best movie I’ve seen, documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? merits 2018’s best movie consideration. The film impresses with an intelligent and poignant approach to its subject, the late Pittsburgh children’s television host Fred Rogers. His family and associates grant the moviemaker unprecedented access in what amounts to a timely, relevant and important, not flawless, non-fictional movie. Read my extensive new review of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? here.

Pixar’s satisfactory sequel, The Incredibles 2, also entertains, if by a lower standard than the forementioned movie. With a brief appearance by the designer character Edna Mode, who’s a kind of Q from the James Bond pictures in terms of gearing up the superhero, a role reversal and a subtle dig at Hollywood’s dogma du jour, this mostly manic, action-packed followup to a hit movie released 14 years ago fits the bill. Read my thoughts on The Incredibles 2, which opens this weekend, here.

TV Preview: Elton John Tribute on CBS

Some of my favorite recording artists will sing songs by Elton John in a tribute show to air on CBS next month. The program, Elton John: I’m Still Standing–a Grammy Salute, is scheduled to be broadcast for two hours at 9pm Pacific Time on Tuesday, April 10. The Grammys announced that tunes originally written, performed and made famous by Elton John, who recently announced details for a final tour, will include the classics co-written with his legendary writing partner Bernie Taupin.

Judging by the guest appearance list, a slew of CBS personalities, players and stars will be shoehorned into the tribute. But the concert will also feature extremely talented artists such as Sam Smith, Lady Gaga, John Legend, and Ed Sheeran covering the Elton John catalog. Other artists, such as Miranda Lambert, Shawn Mendes, Miley Cyrus, Little Big Town and Chris Martin, will also perform. Look for Kesha, SZA and Maren Morris, too. Christopher Jackson and Valerie Simpson will perform a duet for “Border Song”. Miley Cyrus will belt out “The Bitch is Back”, Gaga sings “Your Song”, Ed Sheeran performs “Candle in the Wind” and Sam Smith will do the ballad of “Daniel”. John Legend (La La Land) is slated for “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”. Little Big Town will play “Rocket Man”.

According to CBS, the set list features new performances by Elton John of his hits “Bennie and The Jets”, “Philadelphia Freedom” and his Eighties pop hit “I’m Still Standing”, which will be performed with an ensemble. Elton John: I’m Still Standing–a Grammy Salute is scheduled for broadcast on the CBS Television Network.


Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

For a flash of lush, bright and melodic, poetic pop romanticism, nix the season’s Star Wars mumbo jumbo and opt for entertaining escapism stocked with good-looking idealists singing, dancing and performing in Fox’s gorgeous and spectacular The Greatest Showman. This is the season’s tonic of cheerful optimism to offset the dark, mediocre, macabre movies this fall and winter.

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The songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, 2016’s best movie, La La Land), whose songwriting gets better with every project, power and occasionally outshine the story with percussive, propulsive music. Strong melodies, more meaningful and memorable than the songs in Coco and Moana, serve the material, though the smooth staging takes getting used to. So, it’s best to arrive early, sit back and go with it. This is a simple story about a man who wants to put on a show and make audiences happy, so don’t expect religion, ghosts, monsters and hardship, loss and misery lurking beneath the surface.

It’s neither as polished and tight as La La Land nor as brilliant as the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, such as Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, though philosophically The Greatest Showman, written by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks, is as unabashedly romantic as Oklahoma! This alone makes the movie a remarkable achievement in today’s rotten culture. It’s enough to make you want to forgive the fast-moving film its artificiality, flaws and lack of characterization. Circus performers, animal acts and other plot details get short shrift. Someone in the circus sings a reference to a clown but I didn’t see a single clown in the show.

But what a show. The screen bursts with color, light and striking visual scenes of song, dance and action. This idealized version of P.T. Barnum’s life is a marvelous depiction of early 20th century America and, like a repudiation of The Shape of Water, Americanism. Director Michael Gracey has a grand, lavish and cinematic sensibility. His filming of Michelle Williams as Mrs. Barnum is a wonder from every angle. The same goes for his scenes of Zendaya’s acrobatic tease of love interest Zac Efron (New Year’s EveHigh School Musical, Charlie St. Cloud) in an interracial romantic subplot, which works despite an obvious age gap. Efron’s return to the musical is both a departure from his glut of dumb hunk movie roles and something of a reminder of his natural song and dance talent. His duet with leading man Hugh Jackman (Prisoners) as Barnum, “The Other Side”, is magnificent.

“Comfort is the enemy of progress,” Barnum counters Efron’s wealthy producer character, persuading him to trade as a partner in the burgeoning circus and The Greatest Showman‘s assets include an affirmative pairing of same sex business partners, for a change, leading to one of the film’s most emotional moments. The portrayal of the entrepreneur as an undaunted artist and businessman, i.e., the showman, is a throwback to Hollywood’s classic self-made man and the movie’s shockingly innocent, savvy and realistic in this regard.

For example, Barnum’s collection of circus performers, who invite the audience to get their freak on, climaxing in the Best Song-ready anthem “This Is Me”, rally to remind the audience of the risks of facing the muckraking media and the mob. The terrific ensemble, with its bearded lady, tattooed muscleman, dwarf and other “oddities”, also demonstrates the downsides of Barnum’s publicity campaigns. With this much gritty urban conflict, as New York City’s nasty early 20th century types object to Barnum’s self-proclaimed American museum, a euphemism for the movie’s and Barnum’s assimilationism, The Greatest Showman recalls Rent by Chris Columbus, minus Rent‘s anti-capitalist digs.

Yet this Bohemian-spirited The Greatest Showman is no misanthrope and the movie showcases more, giving the audience romanticized trains, cityscapes, opera houses, ballroom dancing, if not nearly enough tightrope walking, horses, lions and elephants. See Barnum come to visit Queen Victoria. See the young lovers roll in the sawdust. See the wife and kids in soft, subdued pink and blue lament of the circus life. When a play for respectability nearly derails Barnum’s goals, themed to the lovely (if not operatic) “Never Enough”, constant inner conflict becomes universal for anyone who’s never been good enough or who never stops wanting more of the good.

The show must go on, goes the cliche. In this dazzling, fabulous and flawed musical, the show stays centered and shines. I can’t stop humming the songs and seeing this movie makes me want to see The Greatest Showman one more time. That’s, as the saying goes, entertainment. Strictly for the closet romantics who’ve ever dreamed of running away to join the show and master and experience the joy of showmanship.