CD REVIEWS – Comedy / Soundtracks

Saturday Night Fever (The 30 Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition)
Paramount Home Entertainment
Release Date: September 18, 2007

Even if it wasn’t for the success of Hairspray this past summer and John Travolta’s return to the musical genre that made him a movie star, Saturday Night Fever (The 30th Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition) would’ve been a special release regardless. This was Travolta’s first feature film that cast him in a lead role (“Tony Manero”), which led him straight to his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. For the three people who have never seen it, this was a low-budget film of a nineteen year-old man desperately trying to escape the confines of his day job (selling paint in a hardware store) in Brooklyn by going to the local disco every Saturday night with his buddies and dancing the night away to some of the best music of that era. The film also examines such themes as sex, drugs, racism and homophobia. It may sound trite on paper (and that’s probably why the budget was so minimal), but Saturday Night Fever and its accompanying soundtrack (which is one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time) became a pop phenomenon… and the rest as they say, is history. This DVD not only captures the era so well, it also has several new features, including new interviews with Bee Gees principals Barry and Robin Gibb. This “30 Anniversary Special Collector’s Edition” chronicling the music and film is extraordinary.

Sandra Bernhard: Everything Bad & Beautiful
Breaking Records
Release Date: June 5, 2007

The Fourth of July represents everything from American independence to roaring bottle rockets and exploding firecrackers. If I had to describe anyone’s personality that epitomizes this holiday, it would be actress/comedian/humanitarian and mother, Sandra Bernhard.

For thirty years (thirty!), Bernhard has been entertaining audiences with her stand-up comedy stints, one-woman shows and her natural ability to pull it all together superbly for whatever role she’s playing. Whether she’s an obsessed stalker in her breakthrough role of “Masha” in Martin Scorsese’s 1983 film The King of Comedy, or a co-worker and resident lesbian friend on Roseanne, Bernhard has been a driving force in the entertainment industry that hasn’t slowed down. Even motherhood to her daughter Cicely (almost nine years old) hasn’t dulled the edge of this intellectual and riotous entertainer.

One of the most interesting characteristics of Bernhard is the fact that audiences have never been able to confine her accessibility to only gays and lesbians – she appeals and repels equally. I have been one of her many supporters since I first became aware of her 25 years ago, and my allegiance has yet to waver. I became completely hooked on her acerbic brilliance when I saw her off-Broadway show, Without You I’m Nothing, back in the summer of ’88, and I played the CD repeatedly when it was released a year later. Last summer, when I saw her at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York City for her one-woman show, Everything Bad & Beautiful, I was thrilled that she has been able to maintain that edge and her precocious knack for detail. Her timing and delivery are impeccable. 

On this audio account of last year’s sold-out show, Bernhard shreds everything and everyone from Broadway to the Bush twins to Britney Spears. The qualities I’ve always admired about Sandra are that she’s able to rip every personality a new one, but is always sharp enough to do it correctly. You’d never see Bernhard being pulled off the airwaves, a la Don Imus, because of crude behavior towards minorities. When Bernhard goes for a right hook, she’s smart enough to know how to deliver the blow without offending the masses. She also weaves through humor and commentary while incorporating popular songs, as she’s done since the beginning of her career.

The CD kicks off with a cover of Christina Aguilera’s anthem “Beautiful,” and the lyrics almost seem as if they were tailor-made for Bernhard as she sings “I am beautiful no matter what they say/words can’t bring me down…” She then launches into the decline of Broadway and how it’s been Disney-ized, and no one is spared as she crucifies Anne Rice for her disastrous Lestat or Julia Roberts’ less-than-stellar star turn in Three Days of Rain

One of the most riotous moments comes when she recreates her accidental encounter with John Kerry just after he was defeated by Bush in the 2004 election. She starts off admiring the man, and ends skewering him in true Bernhard fashion, as she “storms out of the Ambassadors Lounge” at JFK International “grabbing a handful of pretzels.” Trust me, it’s a highlight among highlights on this one-hour non-stop praise-rant-and-rave adventure. Still in political mode, she now pays attention to the “lesbian novel” Sisters, which Lynn Cheney wrote back in 1981, then speaks of her disdain for Laura Bush, who she analyzes and describes as “zombie,” while unfavorably comparing her to Eleanor Roosevelt and Jacqueline Kennedy. She even resorts to The First Lady’s sexually active, drunken twin daughters and the fact that it’s a no-brainer why she can’t control them, considering she couldn’t even rope in her “drunken, coke-whore husband until he was forty years old.” Perhaps what makes this so amusing is that she’s not telling us anything we don’t already know – it’s the WAY she’s tells the story. Don’t think Condoleezza Rice gets off so easy either, as she snips her puppet strings as well.

Bernhard also gets pissed off (as we all are) when discussing the war in Iraq, and completely miffed when the right-wingers resort to calling liberals non-patriotic because we don’t defend the war. She exclaims, “I care about the troops. I care about them enough to say bring them the fuck home!” in that tone that is so Sandra. As fast as she can make you laugh, she also makes you feel. She segues from discussing Bush to meeting Bob Dylan, then seamlessly slips into a cover of “Like A Rolling Stone.” She then dices up Mariah Carey, as she feels “responsible for her breakdown as well her resurgence with The Emancipation of Mimi.” Her segues would make absolutely zero sense in the hands of any other satirist/comedian, but Bernhard manages to cover the spectrum of pop culture, and is able to do it with such ease.

Bernhard also covers familiar territory such as reminiscing about her childhood in Flint, Michigan, as well as holidays like Thanksgiving, but she always has a different story to tell. Yes, her brother is mentioned again, as is her father and their move to the sleepy town of Scottsdale, Arizona, but she never fails to offer up something new in the mix. Hell, she’s such a great storyteller, and the way she draws you in is so unique, that we would even forgive her if she did repeat a few familiar memories.

She possesses a rare gift, and we are lucky enough to enjoy this entire experience on CD. Most comedians don’t come off as well on live recordings, but Bernhard’s delivery and story-telling make you feel as if you are actually in the theatre watching and listening to her up close and in person. Everything Bad & Beautiful is easily one of the best hours of entertainment, whether it’s just for you or for enjoying with friends. There’s something for everybody.

Hairspray: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
New Line Records
Release Date: July 10, 2007

Following in the steps of The Producers, the-film-that-became-a-Broadway-winning-musical-turned film-again, Hairspray is sure to be a smash hit soundtrack. If you’re one of the three people who have never seen the original film, the premise is the same, but the music is far better than the original 1988 production, which starred Johnny Depp, Ricki Lake and the late, great Divine.

This time around we’re treated to the wonderful score that was written for the stage, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The songs that we fell in love with on the Broadway cast recording are further enhanced by the likes of John Travolta, Queen Latifah, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelly, Brittany Snow, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Marsden, Christopher Walken and sensational newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who plays Tracy Turnblad.

Three new songs have been added to the film; “Ladies Choice,” which is handled superbly by Zac Efron, “The New Girl In Town,” performed with the sweet 60’s charm of Brittany Snow, and the new toe-tapping number “Comes So Far (Got So Far To Go)” that plays over the end credits, which Shaiman hopes “will keep people dancing on their way out the door when the film ends.”

Another big plus to the soundtrack is "Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now," sung by all three Tracy Turnblads – Nikki Blonsky, Ricki Lake, from the original film, and Marissa Jaret Winokur, from the original Broadway cast.

If you’re a fan of the 2002 Broadway cast album, this soundtrack and its three new songs plus bonuses should keep a smile on your face and hold a “permanent” position in your CD player for a long time to come. Releasing the soundtrack ten days prior to the film’s opening was the perfect tease. Aw, sorry, the puns were way too easy!

Dirty Dancing: Original Soundtrack & DVD – Legacy Edition
Release Date: May 8, 2007

Exactly twenty years ago this summer, I was taken to a screening of a movie that took place in the summer of 1963. It was a small coming-of-age film and was about to be on the lips of every movie-goer and critic in 1987. I’m speaking of the little film that could – Dirty Dancing. As I left the screening, I couldn’t stop talking about this film. It’s evident now that I was treated to one of the “sleeper hits” of the summer, and of all time. How peerless was Jennifer Grey, and who ever really paid attention to Patrick Swayze before this film? Yes, we had seen glimpses of Grey’s talent in small film roles, most notably as Matthew Broderick’s perturbed sister in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Swayze had made waves, most notably for The Outsiders and on television in the successful mini-series North and South. For those of you who think it was Ghost that shot Swayze to fame, think again. It was undoubtedly his turn three years earlier as the dirty dancing rebel with a heart, “Johnny Castle,” that was his true star turn.  And why oh why didn’t Jennifer Grey become a major star after this vehicle? It’s yet another one of the many mysteries of Hollywood.

On this two-disc 20th anniversary edition, we’re not only treated to a 27-track listing of songs (15 more than the original soundtrack), but the DVD also offers the original film and bonuses galore. Isn’t that what the consumer really puts down their hard earned dollars for? I know I do. Among the 15 additional songs of the era, the highlights include “Big Girls Don’t Cry” by Franki Valli & The Four Seasons, “Some Kind Of Wonderful” from The Drifters, “Wipeout” by the Surfaris, the R&B gem “These Arms of Mine” by the late, great Otis Redding, The Shirelles’ dazzling #1 smash “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” and an alternate instrumental version of the Oscar-winning “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” performed by The John Morris Orchestra.

The DVD bonuses seem to go on and on – which is a good thing. They include five music videos; “She’s Like The Wind” by Patrick Swayze (featuring Wendy Fraser), Merry Clayton’s “Yes,” Eric Carmen’s hit “Hungry Eyes,” “Do You Love Me” from The Contours, and, of course, “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” by Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes. There’s also a dazzling photo gallery to please the most finicky DVD collector. For the fun of it, the disc also includes a Karaoke version of “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” for practicing in the privacy of your own home, or for making a fool out of anybody that cares to participate after too many Margaritas! Extras also include deleted footage, including a great two-minute clip titled “Dirty Dancing” that’s an oversexed version of Swayze and Grey gyrating until the censor’s came-a-calling. Other extras include interviews with Swayze, Grey and choreographer Kenny Ortega. This deluxe package is the perfect summer treat, and to use the “F” word to its fullest, it’s absolutely the most fun & fabulous CD/DVD package to come out of Hollywood in ages. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” And you should take the same advice for this deluxe edition. It’s too good to miss.

© 2007 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.