Tag: Alexander Hamilton

REVIEW: Aretha Franklin’s Soul-Stirring “Amazing Grace” Documentary Soars Into the Divine

by Lori Lakin Hutcherson (@lakinhutcherson)

Before reading, please understand the deep degree to which I am an Aretha Franklin fan. I have been in rapture since I was a teen grooving to “Jump To It,”  “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” “Think,” and, of course, “Respect.” My devotion to her voice and musicianship only intensified when I gained full access to her catalog when I DJ’d for my college radio station. I went all the way in, past her Arista recordings, back and through her Chess, Columbia and Atlantic LPs, and never came back out.

I played her records over and over, never singing along, so as not to disrespect or sully the divinity I was taking in. Back then, during this time of discovery of the breadth of Aretha’s genius, it would have been as rude as chatting during a sermon. I could go on – there is so much more Aretha stanning in my history including the full day spent watching every hour, minute and second of her funeral – but it’s enough to get the picture.

I am in, down, and for all things Aretha.

So a few years ago when I heard about film footage existing of Aretha recording her 1972 gospel masterpiece “Amazing Grace” in Los Angeles at Reverend James Cleveland‘s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church with the Southern California Community Choir, shot over two nights by Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie,” “The Way We Were,” “The Firm”), I was ecstatic.

It didn’t get released in conjunction with the album’s 1972 release as originally planned by Warner Bros. because the film’s recording was mishandled. Pollack, who died in 2008, did not use clapper boards, a crucial tool in matching sound with filmed images in the pre-digital era. There were 20 hours of raw footage shot by five 16-millimeter cameras to sync, so the project got shelved, until the footage was re-discovered over three decades later.

The movie was then set to screen at several prominent film festivals, but Franklin herself sued to stop it from being released. So I checked my thirst out of loyalty and stood by the Queen’s side, even if it meant never seeing what I was sure would be a Technicolor feast of mind-blowing artistry.

I brightened when I heard Aretha’s beef with the project was not about its content – she reportedly loved the content – it was about the money. Okay, cool – Aretha wanted her coins as well as her respect. I hoped it would all settle quickly, because as much as a person can be in love with her recordings, watching Aretha live, doing her thing, has always been where it’s at.

Not long after her passing, producer Alan Elliott screened “Amazing Grace” for Franklin’s family and got the family’s approval for release. It was picked up by NEON Studios for North American distribution and is slated to be in theaters in the early part of this year. But when I got a chance to see the film Thursday in Los Angeles on Opening Night of the 27th Annual Pan African Film Festival (#PAFF), I jumped to it.

Even though I saw it with an audience so fully there for it, and even with my freely admitted pre-disposition towards loving it, viewing “Amazing Grace” is a sensorial experience that exceeds all expectations. This “making of” documentary is a pure, raw American musical treasure that should go down, like Aretha, as the greatest of its ilk.

In case you’ve never heard the “Amazing Grace” double album or perhaps only know Aretha from Inaugural Hat or “Great Gowns, Beautiful Gowns” Taylor Swift memes, in 1972, Aretha Franklin is 29 and at the absolute height of her recording success, fame and vocal prowess.

As Tirrell D. Whittley, another of the film’s producers, put it during the Q&A that followed its #PAFF screening, Aretha was “it” back then, the Beyoncé of her time. And while at that height, Aretha decided to honor and commune with the roots from which her unparalleled artistry grew – church music.

Listening to the “Amazing Grace” LP (still the best-selling gospel album of all time), I always imagined it was a packed Sunday morning service where Aretha was singing with a fully-robed choir joyfully bouncing in step behind her. But what the film shows you instead is nighttime, a handful of white guys with mics, wires and cameras running around, and maybe 80-90 audience members, several of them likely not even New Temple congregants (Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones are there one night, as are gospel great Clara Ward and her mother, Mother Ward).

Aretha Franklin from the film “Amazing Grace”

The backing choir, directed with great aptitude and verve by the lively Alexander Hamilton, does not wear church robes but all-black clothing underneath Vegas-style sparkly silver vests. They look more like they are at a local talent competition than a service, and they stay seated during most of the recording. Aretha alone is robed – the first night in a long, white, bejeweled caftan and the second in a beautiful chartreuse paisley one.

It is clear from her commanding sashays down the church aisle as she enters upon introduction from Rev. Cleveland, that Aretha is not only in church, but there to put in work. On the second night Aretha enters in one of her signature fur coats. Her walk, steps, bearing are those of a queen, unashamedly in charge and full of femininity. She touches outreached hands but intentionally keeps moving at her own pace.

While Cleveland plays host with avuncular affability as he encourages the crowd from the pulpit and piano, and Aretha’s father Rev. C.L. Franklin is solicited to offer remarks, Aretha herself barely talks during either session – seemingly conserving her voice between songs. When she does talk it’s brief and at whisper level.

I think it’s both the truth of what happened those nights as well as a great dramatic device – Aretha’s singing literally speaks for her. She has such sharp focus on what she is doing and trying to achieve – Aretha comes across not as a guileless prodigy, but as a hard-working, brilliant young woman who fully knows what she is capable of and what it takes to tap into and employ her superlative gift. She is also connected enough to know when to give in to it and allow a higher power work through her.

Aretha Franklin in “Amazing Grace”

Seeing the process with your own eyes makes it all the more impactful and palpable. When Aretha sits down at the piano and starts in on “Wholy Holy,” there is nothing to do but watch in awe. And at a certain point, song after great song, it hits you – as you take in the old-school microphones, the physical dynamics of the space and people in it, that the sound is, in a word, superb. I don’t know if it’s from remastering with present-day technology or because that audio was recorded so well back in 1972, but the depth and clarity of the music and the vocal responses to it are an aural delicacy.

The prosaic nature of the church space itself sits in humble, human contrast to the sublimeness occurring inside it. The church is not so much majestic as it is makeshift – and in the best way. The mural of Jesus on the wall behind the pulpit – let’s just say it’s barely a notch above paint-by-numbers. But looking at that amateur effort behind the woman who is evocatively singing “How I Got Over” and “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” in His name – it’s almost as if Mural Jesus sags in admission that no one could have painted an image to match the artistry and meditation of Aretha.

This is most evident during Aretha’s performance of the title track “Amazing Grace” – as she reaches higher and higher, the shouting and clapping from the audience rises and rises – people literally stand, fall, cry, and scream. Rev. Cleveland himself is so overcome by the power and beauty of what Aretha is delivering that he stops playing the piano so he can collect himself.

It’s such an incredible moment to watch – even the man running the show, a seasoned church pro – is overwhelmed and touched, all his pomp crumbling down under literal amazing grace. Many of us know that moment – when you witness something so superlative and divine, you can do nothing more than be in its presence and be thankful you exist to receive it.

The other indelible highlight in the film is Aretha’s delivery/deliverance of/during “Never Grow Old.” I have watched countless clips of Aretha performing live, at all ages and stages of her career. She is always professional and on point, but when she herself catches the spirit? There! Is! Nothing! Like! It!

Aretha is at the piano during “Never Grow Old” as you see it happening. She is so channelled and so in it that the spirit takes over the tempo, the piano, the choir, and several people in the audience. There is spirit dancing – Mother Ward falls out – an actual white towel is thrown in!

And as the towel comes towards camera, the audience watching the movie burst into laughter as did I, because it is perfect punctuation to what we were all feeling at that moment. We were in thrall and surrender to the power, the genius, the spirit, the joy that is flowing through Aretha Louise Franklin.

Even as you feel the heat, the light, the literal sweat on her brow coming at you through the screen, Aretha’s voice makes you shiver down to your bones.

“Amazing Grace” LP cover

The only song that doesn’t come across as powerful on film as it does on the record is “Mary Don’t You Weep.” According to producer Elliott, they did not have full visual coverage of “Mary” in the church, so they could not match it to the audio from the LP. What we do hear of “Mary” is still worthy of our time, suffering mainly from comparison to the oomph and punch so many of the other visually-realized songs have, including lesser-known songs such as “Climbing Higher Mountains” and “Precious Memories.”

But all in all, after dwelling for over 45 years in obscurity, the fact that the general public will finally get to see the best singer in the world recording the best gospel album of all time while communing in the most prolific and sustaining pillar of African-American society – the church – is the real blessing that needs to be recognized.

Even if you don’t know or revere Franklin’s work like I do but love any powerhouse singer from last 50 years, or just love music, you should see this film. For it proves without a doubt that since the sixties, all roads to enthralling, singular vocal ability, agility, facility and feeling lead back to one root, one person, one singer – Aretha. And her preternatural gift is never in finer form and potency than it is in “Amazing Grace.”

RISE UP: Why “Hamilton: An American Musical” is Still a Must-See

Cast of "Hamilton" (
Cast of “Hamilton: An American Musical” performing “My Shot” (photo via nytimes.com)
by Julie Bibb Davis
by Julie Bibb Davis

The first song I heard from the Hamilton soundtrack was “My Shot.”  This song, the third one in the first act, serves the important role of introducing the ten-dollar-founding-father-without-a-father Alexander Hamilton: his burning ambition, his sophisticated oratory, his commitment to revolution.  But the verse that hit me the hardest, that immediately told me that something exceptional was going on with this show, was this one, sung by young abolitionist John Laurens (played by Anthony Ramos):

 

Rise Up!

When you’re living on your knees, you rise up

Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up

Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up

This verse — in the show an exhortation to the 18th century colonists to revolt against the British government — is universal and timely enough to be a rallying cry for any recent social justice movement.  As soon as I heard it, I knew Hamilton was trying to do something special.  Without being didactic or preachy, Hamilton was telling people to stand up for their rights, take a seat at the table, and participate in America.  

Much ink has been spilled about Hamilton: about its innovative hip-hop structure, its diverse cast, its best-selling cast album (including time at No.1 on the Billboard Rap charts), its unprecedented popularity on Broadway, its brilliant and social media-savvy creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, its eleven Tony awards.  But despite its runaway popular success, and its seemingly universal appeal, Hamilton feels to me — and I suspect to many fans — deeply personal.  As a mixed-race person, a lawyer who attended the same college as Hamilton, a federal government employee, and a life-long musical theatre nerd, the combination of the music, the lyrics, and the cast feels urgent and relevant.  

Jessica Davis (l), Tony Ramos (m), Julie Bibb Davis (r) [photo courtesy Julie Bibb Davis]
Jessica Davis (l), “Hamilton” cast member Anthony Ramos (c) and Julie Bibb Davis (r) [photo courtesy Julie Bibb Davis]
For my teenage children, who follow the charismatic and thoughtful cast on Instagram and Snapchat, it has made American history feel applicable to their daily lives in a way their school classes never have.  And when we were fortunate enough to see the show on Broadway, watching the diverse cast play the (white) American founders, and seeing how Miranda has also worked to make what has usually been understood as being primarily a story of men include the contributions of women, had an impact that cannot be overstated.

Hamilton shows the influence of American musical theatre traditions that range from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Sondheim to Disney.  The show is most solidly rooted, however, in black musical traditions.  Hamilton’s hip-hop and rap songs have garnered the most attention, but that only scratches the surface.  “What’d I Miss” is a wonderful homage to Cab Calloway, with elements of ragtime and even funk.  

“The Schuyler Sisters” echoes groups like Destiny’s Child, “Wait for It” starts with a dancehall reggae beat, and “Say No To This” is an R&B slow jam straight out of the 90s.  In addition, most of the original main case is black, including Okieriete Onadowan (Mulligan/Madison), Tony nominee Chris Jackson (Washington), and Tony winners Leslie Odom, Jr. (Burr), Renee-Elise Goldsberry (Anjelica), and Daveed Diggs (Lafayette/Jefferson).   Continue reading “RISE UP: Why “Hamilton: An American Musical” is Still a Must-See”

“Hamilton” Breaks Tonys Record with 16 Nominations

Shortly after the news broke that “Hamilton” had landed 16 Tony Award nominations, the musical’s director, Thomas Kail, sent a text to choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and others on the show’s creative team. “I just woke up. What happened?” Kail asked facetiously.

What happened, as it turned out, was one for the Broadway record books.

“Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical about America’s founding fathers, wrote its own piece of history Tuesday morning. After selling out theaters and becoming a cultural sensation since it opened on Broadway last summer, the show has now broken the record of 15 Tony nominations previously held by “The Producers” (2001) and “Billy Elliot” (2009).

In the top category of best musical, “Hamilton” will compete, nominally, against Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “School of Rock,” the small-town charmer “Waitress,” the Appalachian bluegrass piece “Bright Star” and the race-themed meta-tale “Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.”

But those other shows may consider it an honor just to be nominated. “Hamilton” is considered by nearly all experts to be a shoo-in to win for best musical, and it will aim for the record of 12 Tony wins (set by “The Producers”) when theater’s biggest night kicks off June 12 on CBS from New York’s Beacon Theatre.

“Hamilton” was boosted by multiple nominations in acting categories, including lead actor (Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr., the latter a front-runner) and featured actor (Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson and Jonathan Groff). “Hamilton” also will compete for score, choreography and direction of a musical, among others.

The nominations continue a magic-carpet ride that began with a Miranda performance of a “Hamilton Mixtape” at the White House in 2009, continued with an august run at downtown’s Public Theater in early 2015 and then a building juggernaut after opening at the Richard Rodgers in the summer.

The record set Tuesday is an industry capper of sorts on what had become the most unlikely of phenomena: a Broadway musical, often regarded as the narrowest of cultural niches, becoming a crossover hit and a gateway to a larger discussion about history and race.

“Someone asked me today if this is all old hat,” the newly minted Tony nominee Blankenbuehler recalled from the North Carolina set of “Dirty Dancing,” where, in part thanks to the success of “Hamilton” he is choreographing the new ABC reboot. “And I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’m still like a kid in a candy store.’ We all are.”

Miranda, at 36 already one of the theater world’s most influential creators, offered his own valedictory, noting in a statement that “for ‘Hamilton’ to receive a record-breaking number of nominations is an honor so humbling it’s so far been beyond my comprehension.”

To read more, go to: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-tony-nominations-20160502-snap-story.html

Harriet Tubman Officially Chosen as New Face of $20 Bill, Replacing Andrew Jackson

article by Samantha Masunaga via latimes.com

Harriet Tubman will replace President Andrew Jackson on the front of the $20 bill, a Treasury Department official said Wednesday.

The official did not give a timetable for the change, saying only that the department is looking to make it as quickly as possible without compromising security.

The news deviates from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s original plan, which was unveiled last summer. Lew’s plan involved changing the $10 bill, not the $20; the department planned to put a woman on the $10 bill by 2020, in time for the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

The $10 bill currently features Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury secretary. In June, Lew said that either Hamilton would share the bill with a woman or the Treasury would release two different bills.

The Treasury Department official did not comment Wednesday morning on any planned changes for the $10 bill.

Lew’s original plan to change the $10 suffered backlash from several directions. Many who objected said the only woman on the nation’s paper currency should be featured alone on the bill, rather than sharing space with a man. Some said the $20 bill should be changed instead, as its ubiquity in ATMs gives it a much higher profile than the $10.

Some objected to the plan because of the historical figures involved: Hamilton played key roles in founding the nation and establishing the Treasury, whereas Jackson was a slave owner whose policies led to the deaths of countless Native Americans, and he opposed having a U.S. central bank. And Hamilton’s popularity has grown in the past year with the success of “Hamilton,” the blockbuster Broadway musical chronicling his life.

To read more, go to: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-harriet-tubman-20-bill-20160420-story.html

“Hamilton” Documentary to Air on PBS this Fall

Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in the musical “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theater.
Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in the musical “Hamilton” at the Richard Rodgers Theater. (Photo Credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times)

The hit musical “Hamilton” will be the subject of a documentary film scheduled to air on PBS this fall.

The public broadcasting network announced Monday that it would air “Hamilton’s America” as part of its Great Performances series this fall.

The documentary is being produced by RadicalMedia, which previously made a documentary about “In the Heights,” a musical composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who also created “Hamilton.” The film company has a long relationship with Mr. Miranda and with Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer of “Hamilton.” RadicalMedia also previously filmed Freestyle Love Supreme, a hip-hop-improv group with which Mr. Miranda performs, as well as the final Broadway performance of “Rent,” a musical that was co-produced by Mr. Seller.

The filmmakers started shooting the documentary in 2013, two years before the show arrived on Broadway, and have footage of visits by the creative team to historic sites associated with Alexander Hamilton, whose life is the basis of the musical. The film will also feature scenes from the show, and a look at the life of Hamilton, according to Dave Sirulnick, one of RadicalMedia’s executives.

The making of “Hamilton” has been heavily chronicled in print and on television, and Mr. Miranda is now wrapping up a book about the show, but Mr. Sirulnick said that in the documentary “the storytelling is going to be very fresh” and will offer a close-up view of the creative team at work.

article by Michael Paulson via nytimes.com

THEATER: Broadway Newbie Anthony Ramos Rips Up the Rules in ‘Hamilton’

“Hamilton” star Anthony Ramos (Photo: Courtesy of Anthony Ramos)

With ticket prices upwards of $1,500 and advanced sales of $57 million last November, “Hamilton” is an official Broadway juggernaut. Helmed by certified genius Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical mixes rap, R&B and pop to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton’s ascent from penniless orphan to chief architect of the American financial system. The twist, if you haven’t heard, is that a person of color plays nearly every major character—including Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

Miranda, who plays Alexander Hamilton, has said that “Hamilton” is “a story about America then, told by America now.” By casting people of color as the founders of our nation, “Hamilton” forces audiences to engage with bodies and voices that would have been categorically marginalized in colonial times.

“Hamilton” also sheds light on lesser-known figures of colonial America, including proto-abolitionist John Laurens. Laurens is played by Anthony Ramos, a 24-year-old Puerto Rican actor and singer from Brooklyn, New York. Ramos also plays Philip Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s eldest son. Here, in this edited and condensed interview, Ramos talks  about making his Broadway debut in a blockbuster show and his journey from the tough Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick to The Great White Way.

What’s the significance of having performers of color tell the story of the Founding Fathers? 

You ever look at a painting like, “Wow, that’s so good, but I really can’t wrap my brain around why this thing that is so obscure feels so right?” “Hamilton” is that kind of painting. No one’s ever seen anything like it, and I think it’s one of the boldest pieces of art ever to hit. It’s also honest because “Hamilton looks like how we look like now.

Can you explain more?

Lin could have written a show and had the Founding Fathers be all White men, but at the same time, the show’s about Alexander Hamilton. A lot of people didn’t know whether or not Hamilton, who grew up in the British West Indies, was half [Black]. They had no idea. So it’s only right to have the rest of the cast embody that. Daveed Diggs, who plays Thomas Jefferson, is half Jewish and half Black. Phillipa Soo,* who plays Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, is Irish and Chinese. Lin and I are Puerto Rican. Having men of color play the Founding Fathers shows that anyone could have done what they did. This is showing our public what it would have looked like if things were different.

Continue reading “THEATER: Broadway Newbie Anthony Ramos Rips Up the Rules in ‘Hamilton’”

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