Review: ‘Weird: The Al Yankovic Story,’ starring Daniel Radcliffe

November 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Spencer Treat Clark, Tommy O’Brien, Daniel Radcliffe and Rainn Wilson in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” (Photo courtesy of The Roku Channel)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”

Directed by Eric Appel

Culture Representation: Taking place from the late 1960s to 1985, mostly in California, the comedy film “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Nerdy misfit Al Yankovic becomes world-famous for his parodies of pop music hits, but his fame, an inflated ego and an ill-fated romance with Madonna cause problems in his life. 

Culture Audience: “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” will appeal primarily to fans of “Weird Al” Yankovic, star Daniel Radcliffe and movies that spoof celebrity biopics.

Evan Rachel Wood and Daniel Radcliffe in “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” (Photo courtesy of The Roku Channel)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” isn’t a straightforward biopic but it’s more like a biopic parody, which is fitting, considering the movie is about music parody king “Weird Al” Yankovic. Daniel Radcliffe fully commits to an off-the-wall performance as Yankovic. Some parts of the movie get distracted by trying to be too bizarre, but this well-cast movie overall can bring plenty of laughs. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Eric Appel (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Yankovic), “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” even has a parody biopic voiceover, with Diedrich Bader as an unseen and unidentified narrator saying things in a deep voice and overly serious tone. The movie has the expected childhood flashbacks, which are moderately amusing. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t really pick up steam until it gets to depicting the adult Yankovic. (For the purposes of this review, the real Yankovic will be referred to by his last name, while the Al Yankovic character in the movie will be referred to as Al.)

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” begins in the mid-1980s, by showing the adult Al in his 20s (played by Radcliffe) being rushed into a hospital emergency room, where he is attended to by a doctor (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). The voiceover narrator says solemnly: “Life is like a parody of your favorite song. Just when you think you know all the words … surprise! You don’t know anything.” Why is Al in a hospital emergency room? The movie circles back to this scene later, to explain why.

After this scene in the hospital emergency room, the movie flashes back to Al’s childhood with Al (played by Richard Aaron Anderson), at about 9 or 10 years old, who considered himself to be a misfit in his own household. Born in 1959, Al grew up as an only child in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood, California. Al’s cranky father Nick (played by Toby Huss) works in a factory, and he expects Al to also become a factory worker when Al is an adult. Al’s loving mother Mary (played by Julianne Nicholson) is somewhat supportive of Al’s artistic interests, but she lives in fear of Nick, who has a nasty temper.

Nick openly mocks Al’s dreams to be a songwriter. One day during a meal at the family’s dining room table, Al’s parents listen to Al change the words of the gospel hymn “Amazing Grace” to “Amazing Grapes.” Nick is infuriated and says that this song parody is “blasphemy.” Mary tells Al that he should stop being himself. Feeling misunderstood, Al takes comfort in listening to his favorite radio shows, including those by his idol Dr. Demento.

Something happens that changes the course of Al’s life: An accordion salesman (played by Thomas Lennon) comes knocking on the Yankovic family’s door. Nick isn’t home at the time, but Al and Mary are there. Al is immediately dazzled by the accordion for sale, which is actually not shiny and new, but rather previously owned and worn-out. Al feels an instant connection to the music that comes out of this unusual instrument.

Al begs his mother to buy the accordion for him. Mary usually goes along with whatever Nick wants. (Nick wants Al to give up any dreams of being a musician.) But this time, Mary goes against what her husband wishes, and she secretly buys the accordion for Al. However, Mary has a condition for buying this accordion: Al must hide the accordion and only play the accordion when Nick isn’t there. Al agrees to this rule and becomes a skilled accordion player.

As a teenager, Al (played by David Bloom) is considered nerdy but likeable. His outlook on life begins to change when he plays the accordion at a house party full of kids from his high school. The response he gets is enthusiastic and full of praise. It’s the first time that Al feels outside validation for his accordion playing, and it gives him the confidence to decide that he will definitely be a musician and songwriter. Things turn sour at home though, when Nick finds out about the accordion and destroys it in a fit of anger.

After graduating from high school, Al moves to Los Angeles, where he lives with three guys who are close to his age: Jim (played by Jack Lancaster), Steve (played by Spencer Treat Clark) and Bermuda (played by Tommy O’Brien), whose interests are mainly dating women and partying. Al’s roommates encourage him to pursue his dreams, even though Al is constantly being rejected when he auditions for rock bands that have no interest in having an accordion player. (The movie has some comedic montages of these rejections.)

Al’s roommates aren’t fully aware of his talent for parodies until Al does an impromptu parody of The Knack’s 1979 hit “My Sharona” and turns it into his parody song “My Balogna” when he looks at some bologna in the kitchen. The roommates are so impressed that they volunteer to be his band members and encourage Al to make a recording demo that he can send to record companies, with the hope that he can get a record deal.

Al’s demo tape finds its way to brothers Tony Scotti (played by the real Yankovic) and Ben Scotti (played by Will Forte), who own Scotti Bros. Records. Tony and younger brother Ben (who are portrayed as shallow and mean-spirited music executives) are very dismissive of Al at first and don’t think a song like “My Balogna” could be a hit. Even though “My Balogna” has been getting some local radio airplay (including be a big hit on Southern California radio’s “The Captain Buffoon Show”), Tony and his “yes man” brother Ben don’t think there’s demand on a national level for albums from an accordion-playing, parody singer/songwriter.

But then, Al meets his idol Doctor Demento (played by Rainn Wilson, in perfect casting), who thinks Al is very talented and offers to become Al’s mentor. Dr. Demento suggests that Al change his stage name to “Weird Al” Yankovic. Al gets live performance gigs, sometimes as the opening act for Dr. Demento in the early 1980s.

Al also does a recording called “I Love Rocky Road” (referring to Rocky Road ice cream), a parody of “I Love Rock’n’Roll,” a song originally recorded by The Arrows in 1976, and was made into a chart-topping hit by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in 1981. “I Love Rocky Road” gets some airplay on local radio (including Dr. Demento’s show), and it becomes a popular song requested by audiences. Suddenly, the Scotti Brothers are interested in signing Al to their record label.

One of the best scenes in the movie is early in Al’s career, before he was famous, when he’s invited to a house party at Dr. Demento’s place. The party guests are a “who’s who” of eccentric celebrities, including Andy Warhol (played by Conan O’Brien), Alice Cooper (played by Akiva Schaffer), Salvador Dalí (played by Emo Phillips), Divine (played by Nina West), Tiny Tim (played by Demetri Martin), Gallagher (played by Paul F. Tompkins) and Pee Wee Herman (played by Jorma Taccone). Observant viewers will also notice uncredited actors portraying Elvira, Frank Zappa and Grace Jones at the party.

At this party, radio/TV personality Wolfman Jack (played by Jack Black, in a hilarious cameo) is skeptical of Al’s talent, and he tries to humiliate Al, by challenging Al to do an impromptu parody of Queen’s 1980 hit “Another One Bites the Dust.” Queen bassist John Deacon (played by David Dastmalchian), who wrote “Another One Bites the Dust,” is also at the party and wants to see how this aspiring artist will rework one of Queen’s biggest hits. Al rises to the challenge and comes up with the parody “Another One Rides the Bus,” which tells comedic tale about the frustrations of riding a bus. Al the earns the respect of Wolfman Jack, Deacon and other skeptics at the party. Other well-known comedians who make cameos in the movie include Quinta Brunson as Oprah Winfrey, Patton Oswalt as an unnamed heckler, Michael McKean as a nightclub emcee, Arturo Castro as Pablo Escobar and Seth Green as a radio DJ.

The rest of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” is a wild and wacky ride that shows Al’s ascent in the music business, but he succumbs to some of the pitfalls of fame. “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” adds a lot of fiction about Yankovic’s life when the movie starts going into its more unusual tangents. For example, in real life, Yankovic had one of his biggest hits in 1984 with “Eat It,” a parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” But the movie puts a cheeky and offbeat twist on this part of Yankovic’s personal history, by making Al as the one to write the song first, and Michael Jackson “copied” the song by recording “Beat It,” without giving Al any songwriting credit.

Al’s dysfunctional romance with Madonna (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is also fabricated for the movie. (In real life, Yankovic says that he and Madonna never knew each other at all.) In the movie, Madonna and Al first meet sometime in 1983, when he’s a bigger star than she is, because she recently signed a deal to release her first album. Madonna is portrayed as an ambitious manipulator who had her sights set on Al after she found out that sales increase significantly for artists whose songs are parodied by Al.

Madonna and Al immediately begin a hot-and-heavy affair based mostly on lust. Madonna encourages Al to start abusing alcohol and acting like a difficult rock star. Al starts to alienate his bandmates/friends when he does things like show up late for rehearsals and act like an insufferable egomaniac. Madonna knows it’s easier to manipulate Al when he’s drunk, so she keeps him supplied with enough alcoholic drinks to keep him intoxicated.

It’s all part of Madonna’s plan to get Al to do a parody of one of her songs, so that her music sales can increase. (ln real life, Yankovic’s 1986 song “Like a Surgeon” was a parody of Madonna’s 1984 hit “Like a Virgin.”) But what Madonna, the Scotti Brothers and many other people didn’t expect was Al deciding that he was going to stop doing parodies and release an album of his own original songs. Al makes this decision after he accidentally takes LSD given to him by Dr. Demento, and Al has an epiphany that he has more to say to the world as a writer of his own original songs.

The movie has several moments that parody how superficial the entertainment industry can be, with the Madonna character being an obvious example of a showbiz leech. The Scotti Brothers characters are the epitome of greedy and fickle music executives who think they always know more than the artists signed to their record label. Al is portrayed as someone who enjoys his fame but also feels overwhelmed by it.

Even when with his fame and fortune, Al still craves the approval of his parents, who don’t really express that they are proud of him. At the height of Al’s success, he remained somewhat estranged from his parents. It’s a bittersweet part of the story that gives some emotional gravitas to this otherwise intentionally zany movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a scene in the movie where Al, who has won Grammys and is a headliner of sold-out arena shows, calls his mother Mary to tell her about some of his accomplishments, but her response is the equivalent of someone saying, “That’s nice, dear,” and not being very interested.

Radcliffe (who is much shorter in height than the real Yankovic) makes up for not having a physical resemblance to Yankovic by bringing his own character interpretation of the real person. It’s not an impersonation but more like a re-imagining of what Yankovic is in this often-fabricated cinematic version of his life. Wood also turns in a memorable performance as Madonna, which might remind people more of Madonna’s chewing-gum-smacking movie character Susan from 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan” than the real Madonna.

“Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the music. The movie has some entertaining concert scenes and gives some insight into Yankovic’s songwriting and recording experiences. If the movie has any flaws, it’s the Madonna storyline, which becomes a one-note joke and drags on for a little too long. And because the movie ends in 1985, it doesn’t include Yankovic’s post-1985 forays into starring in movies and TV shows, directing music videos for other artists, and becoming a children’s book author. However, the movie cheats a little in the timeline, because it includes Yankovic’s 1996 song “Amish Paradise,” which is a parody of Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

The last scene of “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” might be a little too abrupt or off-putting for some viewers. But it’s an example of how this movie doesn’t want to be a conventional biopic. Yankovic’s original song “Now You Know,” which was recorded for the movie and plays during the end credits, makes a lot of meta references to the movie that are an example of this comedy film’s quirky tone. Even with all the oddball antics in the movie, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” succeeds in its message that good things can happen to people who aren’t afraid to be themselves.

The Roku Channel will premiere “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story” on November 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Tick, Tick…Boom!,’ starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesús, Joshua Henry, Judith Light and Vanessa Hudgens

November 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Andrew Garfield and Alexandra Shipp in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (Photo by Macall Polay/Netflix) 

“Tick, Tick…Boom!”

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 1990 in New York City, the musical biopic “Tick, Tick…Boom!” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Latino and multiracial) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Aspiring playwright/composer Jonathan Larson, who’s frustrated that he hasn’t reached his goals by the age of 30, struggles to complete his first musical, which he hopes will end up on Broadway.

Culture Audience: “Tick, Tick…Boom!” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of movie musicals, Broadway musicals, Lin-Manuel Miranda and star Andrew Garfield.

Robin de Jesús, Mj Rodriguez and Ben Levi Ross in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (Photo by Macall Polay/Netflix)

It’s very fitting that Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway musical mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with an emotionally stirring and ambitious musical celebrating another Pulitzer prize-winning Broadway musical mastermind: “Rent” creator Jonathan Larson. In 1996, Larson tragically and unexpectedly died at the age 35 of an aortic dissection. A brief period of Larson’s life (mostly in 1990) is recreated with a winning blend of exuberance and gravitas in the Miranda-directed musical “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” based on Larson’s solo artist show that featured a book and biographical original songs written by Larson. After Larson’s death, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” was reworked as a three-actor show and premiered off-Broadway in 1996. For a while, Miranda portrayed Larson during the off-Broadway stint of “Tick, Tick…Boom!”

In the “Tick, Tick…Boom!” movie role of Larson, Andrew Garfield gives a stunning and heartfelt performance that perfectly captures the highs, lows and everything in between of what it means to be a passionate but struggling artist. Miranda and “Tick, Tick…Boom!” screenwriter Steven Levenson crafted a story that does cinematic justice to the musical genre, with elements that combine gritty drama with whimsical fantasy. This blend mostly works well, although some viewers who are unfamiliar with Larson’s story might be confused by the timeline jumping in the movie. Most other people will simply be enthralled by the journey.

Larson was born in White Plains, New York, on February 4, 1960. In the beginning of the “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” Jonathan is living in New York City and is a few days away from turning 30. And he’s not happy about it. Why?

Jonathan, who writes and performs pop/rock music, hasn’t achieved his goal of writing a musical that’s gone to Broadway. He’s beginning to question if he made the right decision to be a playwriter/composer. He’s so financially broke, he hasn’t been paying his utility bills. And he’s worried that eviction from his apartment might be in his future.

Things aren’t completely bleak for Jonathan. He and his girlfriend Susan (played by Alexandra Shipp) are in love. She is completely supportive of his goals, even if it means Jonathan gets so immersed in these goals that he doesn’t pay enough attention to her. Jonathan is also proud and supportive of Susan’s chosen career. Susan contemplated being a doctor, but she chose instead to have a career in modern dance, and she overcame a setback of fracturing her ankle. She’s been more successful than Jonathan in actually getting paid as a professional artist, although Jonathan is quick to point on in a movie voiceover that Susan doesn’t care about becoming rich and famous.

Jonathan also has three other special people in his life, who are all close friends of his: Michael (played by Robin de Jesús), his opinionated gay best friend from childhood; Carolyn (played by Mj Rodriguez, also known as Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), a sassy co-worker at the Moondance Diner, where she and Jonathan work as servers; and sweet-natured Freddy (played by Ben Levi Ross), who’s also a Moondance Diner server. Michael used to be a struggling actor and Jonathan’s roommate, but he gave up this lifestyle to have a steady income as an advertising agency executive.

Jonathan has been working on a musical called “Superbia,” which he describes as an “original dystopian musical that I’ve been writing and rewriting.” It’s the “rewriting” part that has got Jonathan anxious, because he currently has writer’s block in finishing the musical. Another problem is that Jonathan has a hard time describing the plot of the musical, because he doesn’t quite know where the plot is going.

Jonathan throws a 30th birthday party for himself at his apartment. Michael, who is more financially practical than Jonathan, gently chides Jonathan for spending money on the party when Jonathan hasn’t been paying his bills. Jonathan and Susan still have romantic sparks between them, but something has shifted in their relationship: Jonathan turning 30 has given him a new restlessness and insecurity about his career goals, while Susan wants a sign that Jonathan is ready to make a more solid commitment to her.

Susan and Jonathan don’t live together, and they’re not in a rush to get married. However, Susan wants to eventually live with Jonathan, who doesn’t really want to commit to a “yes” or “no” answer in contemplating taking their relationship to the “live-in partner” level. Jonathan and Susan’s relationship is tested in a big way when Susan gets a job offer to be a dancer and dance instructor in the Berkshires, a rural part of Massachusetts.

The news about this job offer comes around the same time that Jonathan gets a big opportunity for his musical theater dreams: He’s been asked to present “Superbia” as a workshop at Playwright Horizons. The director of Playwright Horizons is Ira Weitzman (played by Jonathan Marc Sherman), an experienced, middle-aged theater benefactor who is encouraging to Jonathan but is skeptical that Jonathan can be focused enough to finish “Superbia.”

Invitations have gone out for the “Superbia” workshop, but few people have responded so far. Still, Jonathan is under immense pressure to finish his musical by the deadline. He’s too embarrassed to tell Ira the biggest problem: He hasn’t written a single song for the musical yet.

“Tick, Tick…Boom!” has two parallel countdowns: (1) The more explicitly stated countdown to Jonathan finishing his “Superbia” musical on time, and (2) Jonathan’s own internal and implicit countdown to write a musical that ends up on Broadway before he thinks he’s too old. The title of “Tick, Tick…Boom!” comes from Jonathan’s description of how he feels like his life is a ticking time bomb where his dreams will explode into disappointment if he doesn’t reach his career goals by the deadlines that he sets for himself.

During these intense scenes of Jonathan rushing to finish “Superbia” on time, he encounters some other problems: Susan is pressuring Jonathan to set aside time to talk with her about the decision she’ll make on whether or not she’ll take the dance job in the Berkshires. He avoids Susan because he wants to work on “Superbia.” Jonathan, who uses a computer for writing the musical’s book, experiences a major setback when his electricity is suddenly turned off the night before the workshop, and he still hasn’t finished the musical.

Jonathan’s fast-talking agent Rosa Stevens (played by Judith Light) does the best she can to get him work, but she’s blunt in telling him that it’s difficult when he hasn’t had any work produced on Broadway. At this point in time, Jonathan’s best shot of getting investors for “Superbia” is through this upcoming workshop, which could lead to “Superbia” going to Broadway, if everything goes according to Jonathan’s plan. As far as he’s concerned, this workshop for “Superbia” is a “make it or break it” moment in his career.

But now for the moments in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” that might turn off or confuse some viewers: This entire tension-filled story telling what happened to Jonathan and his race to finish “Superbia” on time is told within a flashback context where Jonathan is describing this part of his life in a solo-artist rock concert musical called “Tick, Tick…Boom!” During this concert, he sings and narrates the story (often while playing piano), while he’s backed up by a band and two other singers who sing lead vocals the songs: Karessa (played by Vanessa Hudgens) and Roger (played by Joshua Henry).

In real life, Larson began performing “Tick, Tick…Boom!” (originally titled “Boho Days”) in an off-Broadway show, beginning in 1990, just a few years before completing “Rent.” “Tick, Tick…Boom!” essentially keeps the same premise as the stage version, except that Larson’s flashback storytelling is acted out in scenes on screen. What happened to “Superbia”? That’s revealed in “Tick, Tick…Boom!,” which has plenty of vibrant musical numbers, although some of the narrative aspects of the screenplay are a little clunky.

For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Jonathan, while performing his “Tick, Tick…Boom!” show on stage, has a flashback to several years earlier, when he met legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (played by Bradley Whitford) at a musical theater workshop. At the time, Jonathan was presenting an unnamed project that ultimately never made it to Broadway and possibly never even got produced.

Jonathan describes this workshop for aspiring playwrights and composers as having a rotating number of guest panelists who evaluate each musical presented. The panelists are usually professional Broadway writers. Stephen was one of the two panelists evaluating Jonathan’s musical. It’s an amusing scene where Stephen and a fictional character named Walter Bloom (played by Richard Kind) is the other panelist.

After Jonathan presents songs from his musical, Walter immediately gives an insulting rant, including saying that the musical has no identity. Walter also says that the musical style doesn’t know if it wants to be more like rock music or more like Broadway show tune music. Meanwhile, Stephen (who’s the most famous person in the room) gives a positive review: He says the musical knows exactly what it is, but the songs need more work. Walter, who is clearly intimidated by Stephen’s clout, quickly changes his mind and agrees with everything that Stephen says.

At one point, Stephen praises one of the songs as having “first-rate lyric and tune.” In a voiceover, Jonathan says, with awe still in his voice, that those words from one of his theater idols gave Jonathan the type of encouragement that he carried for years. As part of this flashback, Jonathan and Stephen are then shown having a one-on-one evaluation session, where Stephen gives Jonathan some more helpful advice.

This flashback scene, although very well-acted, is one of the drawbacks to the movie’s back-and-forth timeline structure. If viewers aren’t paying attention, they can mistake the scene of Jonathan meeting Stephen for the first time as something that took place in or close to 1990, not years earlier, as Jonathan quickly mentions in describing this flashback.

At any rate, even though Jonathan and Stephen have not been in contact for years, Stephen is one of the people whom Jonathan invites (by leaving a message with Stephen’s manager) to Jonathan’s “Superbia” workshop. There’s a scene where Jonathan somewhat desperately calls several people in an attempt to boost attendance at his workshop just a few days before it takes place.

Most of the criticism that “Tick, Tick…Boom!” might get is how it packs in a lot of issues within what’s supposed to be a very short timeline. There’s a point in the movie where Jonathan literally has less than 12 hours before the workshop and he still hasn’t written most of the “Suburbia” songs and he’s still struggling with the book for the musical. Whether someone is familiar with musical theater or not, the movie still has a timeline that’s kind of messy.

For example, it’s not adequately explained how Jonathan could be doing such a last-minute scramble to finish the musical’s songs the night before the workshop rehearsals. Certain scenes muddle the timeline on how much he needs to get done before the actual workshop. Certain parts of the movie go to great lengths to repeat that Jonathan hasn’t finished any songs for “Superbia” yet. And then, he talks about the one last song he really needs to finish is a pivotal song for the musical’s second act. But these deadline worries aren’t really shown in chronological order.

That’s why the workshop rehearsal scenes seem a little off-kilter. These brief rehearsals are hastily explained in the movie by having Jonathan showing up with sheet music for songs that might or might not be half-finished. Everyone in the group is expected to magically start playing and singing, as if they can easily learn this music and act like within minutes, they already know this music by heart. It’s a big leap and stretch of the imagination for the movie’s audience to take.

Instead of showing how he crafted these songs, the movie goes on a path of subplots and other tangents. You still won’t really know what “Superbia” is about by the end of the movie. If Jonathan doesn’t care enough about “Superbia” for it to be ready for the workshop, why should this movie’s viewers care? And maybe that’s the point, because the subplots are context to what ended up inspiring “Rent,” the real-life Larson’s best-known work.

One of the biggest themes in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is the decisions that aspiring artists have to make between pursuing their artistic passion when it pays little or nothing, or giving it up to work full-time at a job that pays a steady income. Many artists who haven’t “made it” find a way to compromise, by having a day job to pay the bills and pursuing their artistic passion in their free time.

Jonathan is in that “in-between” zone, but he wonders out loud how much of a loser he might be if he keeps being a restaurant server well into his 30s. He likes his co-workers, but he knows the job doesn’t pay enough to get him out of his financial hole. However, working at the Moondance Diner is one of the few jobs he can get with the flexibility of work hours that can give him the time to work on his musicals.

Michael has already made his own decision on how he’s going to make living, and he’s at peace with giving up acting, because he considered himself to be a mediocre actor. Michael makes enough money at his ad agency job to move into an upscale apartment building and buy a BMW. Jonathan thinks Michael is being a sellout, because he thinks Michael gave up his real passion: being an actor.

Meanwhile, Michael thinks Jonathan should not give up his passion to be a musical theater writer because Michael thinks that Jonathan has extraordinary talent that should not be squandered. However, Michael thinks Jonathan needs to stop having a self-righteous attitude about being a starving artist and find a way to make more money so that Jonathan can be more financially responsible in paying basic bills. Jonathan and Michael have an argument about it, because in their own separate ways, Michael and Jonathan feel like the other one is being somewhat of a hypocrite in their career decisions.

In the “race against time” aspect of the “Superbia” workshop, Jonathan finds out that Ira won’t pay for the number of band musicians that Jonathan says he needs for the “Superbia” workshop. And so, there are scenes where Jonathan has to rush to find a way to come up with the money. As a last resort, he accepts Michael’s offer to be part of a paid focus group for the ad agency.

Jonathan’s participation in the focus group is one of the movie’s funnier scenes. He’s only in this focus group for the money. Jonathan has a deeply cynical attitude toward ad agencies, which he thinks are in the business of lying to “sell shit to people that they don’t need.” Laura Benanti portrays Judy, the ad agency’s slightly uptight leader of the focus group. Utkarsh Ambudkar has a comedic cameo as Todd, one of the gullible focus group participants. (In real life, Ambudkar and Miranda are two of the members of the performance group Freestyle Love Supreme.)

There are other issues in Jonathan’s life. He’s terrified of being considered a failure. Jonathan’s parents Nan (played by Judy Kuhn) and Al (played by Danny Burstein), who appear briefly in the movie, are emotionally supportive and not far from his mind, because he doesn’t want to be a disappointment to them. (In real life, Larson had a sister named Julie, but she’s not mentioned in the movie.) And then, certain people in the story have a health crisis that deeply affects many people.

It’s a lot to pack in a movie that’s a musical within a musical. Despite having a timeline that could’ve been been presented better, “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is able to rise above its flaws, thanks to stellar performances from the cast members. Garfield is the obvious standout. He’s able to convey genuine emotions without falling into the musical actor trap of over-emoting.

Shipp, Hudgens and de Jesus also have moments where they shine in the film. “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is not one of those musicals where only the musical numbers are the highlights. There are plenty of spoken-word-only dramatic moments that are among the best in the movie, particularly those that involve the friendship between Jonathan and Michael. As Jonathan’s jaded agent Rosa Stevens, Light plays her role for laughs, and it comes very close to being a parody of real-life agents.

And because “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” creator Miranda is considered Broadway royalty, it’s no surprise that several Broadway stars signed up for cameos in Miranda’s feature-film directorial debut. The most memorable, star-studded scene in “Tick, Tick…Boom!” is for the tune “Sunday,” which takes place at the Moondance Diner. It’s a fantasy sequence where Jonathan lifts up his hands, the front of the diner’s walls fall away, and the diner’s customers join in song.

And what a bunch of customers they are. It’s like a who’s who of Broadway: Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Joel Grey, Phylicia Rashad, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Bebe Neuwirth, André Robin De Shields, Beth Malone and Howard McGillin. Also in this scene are “Hamilton” co-stars Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo, as well as original “Rent” Broadway co-stars Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. Miranda has a cameo in this scene as a Moondance Diner cook.

An early highlight of the film is “No More,” performed by Garfield and de Jesús in an energetic song-and-dance duet about Jonathan and Michael expressing how they don’t want to be struggling artists anymore. Another standout is a cast rendition of “Boho Days,” performed at Jonathan’s birthday party and with Garfield on lead vocals. Shipp and Hudgens have their best moment in “Come to Your Senses” a powerful timeline-jumping duet that shows the characters of Susan and Karessa trading off lines of the song. And de Jesús will probably bring some viewers to tears with Michael’s heartbreaking performance of “Real Life.”

Other songs written or co-written by Larson that make it into the movie include “30/90,” “Out of My Dreams,” “Green Green Dress,” “Sugar,” “LCD Readout,” “Swimming,” Johnny Can’t Decide,” “Sextet,” “Therapy,” “Ever After,” “Debtor Club,” “Why,” “Come to Your Senses,” “Louder Than Words” and “Only Takes a Few.” “Play Game” is presented in the style of 1990s-styled rap video clip, with real-life rapper Tariq Trotter as the fictional rapper H.A.W.K. Smooth. The screenplay could have benefited from an improved structuring of its narrative, but the movie’s songs, performances and direction combine to create an enjoyable experience where the movie’s two-hour running time seems to fly by effortlessly.

Netflix released “Tick, Tick…Boom!” in select U.S. cinemas on November 12, 2021. The move premiered on Netflix on November 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised),’ starring Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Sly and the Family Stone, Jesse Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone

July 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)”

Directed by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some Latinos and white people) discussing the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which took place over six non-consecutive days in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and was attended by an estimated 300,000 people.

Culture Clash: Even though the Harlem Cultural Festival had superstar music artists and was filmed (some people called it Black Woodstock), TV networks and movie distributors at the time refused to be associated with the event, which celebrated ethnic pride for black people and Latino people.

Culture Audience: “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” will appeal primarily to people interested in music and culture from the late 1960s, particularly as related to civil rights and ethnic heritage for people of color in the United States.

Nina Simone in “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

In the summer of 1969, there was a free music festival that took place in New York state, was attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and featured performances by several hitmaking artists. There was no outbreak of violence, no unsafe overcrowding, and no one died during the event. There wasn’t a food shortage, there were no weather problems, and there was no difficulty getting to the concert site. In other words, this event wasn’t Woodstock. It was the Harlem Cultural Festival, an event that was filmed but largely ignored for decades by mainstream media because it was a festival that had mostly African Americans performing at and attending the event.

The excellent documentary “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” shines a well-deserved spotlight on this important part of American cultural and music history. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (who’s best known as a DJ, the drummer for the Roots, and as the band leader for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon”) makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Summer of Soul,” which has a plethora of previously unreleased Harlem Cultural Festival footage and insightful commentary from a variety of people. “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

The Harlem Cultural Festival took place at Mount Morris Park (now known as Marcus Garvey Park) in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, over six days: June 29, July 13, July 20, July 27, August 17 and August 24, 1969. The event featured a “who’s who” of mostly African American artists, including Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, the Staples Singers, Professor Herman Stevens & the Voices of Faith, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, the Chambers Brothers, former Temptations singer David Ruffin and the Edwin Hawkins Singers featuring Dorothy Morrison.

Other celebrities who performed at the event included interracial funk band Sly and the Family Stone, South African singer Hugh Maskela, Puerto Rican band leader Ray Barretto, Jewish jazz musician Herbie Mann, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría and Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Non-musical celebrities who appeared on stage included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedian Moms Mabley and ventriloquist act Willie Tyler and Lester. “Summer of Soul” has electrifying performance footage of all of the above artists and celebrities. And there’s not a bad performance in the bunch.

The Harlem Cultural Festival was such a big deal that an estimated 300,000 people attended over the six days. And after the Woodstock Music Festival (attended by an estimated 400,000 people) happened from August 15 to August 18, 1969, on a farm in upstate Bethel, New York, some people gave the Harlem Cultural Festival the nickname Black Woodstock. (This documentary was originally titled “Black Woodstock.”) Both festivals had superstar acts on the bill, but Woodstock got most of the media attention and praise for being a groundbreaking festival in 1969.

The Woodstock Music Festival, which had a lineup of predominantly white hitmaking artists, went on to be celebrated as a major event for the “counterculture/hippie generation” of the 1960s. Woodstock got massive media coverage, including the Oscar-winning “Woodstock” documentary. The Woodstock Music Festival has also been hailed as the most influential music festival of all time, despite the event’s many problems, such as lack of food, shelter, medical facilities, sanitation and other safety issues. Woodstock was originally a paid ticketed event but quickly became free after too many people showed up. The overcrowding caused big problems with safety and traffic jams, to the point where the governor of New York state was monitoring the festival and was ready to call in the National Guard military force if the situation got really out of control.

Meanwhile, the Harlem Cultural Festival, which had no major safety problems, was filmed for a potential documentary, but the event was mostly ignored by national and international media. Most of the media coverage was limited to local news outlets in New York City. Movie companies and national TV networks turned down pitches for years to have a documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival. And so, according to a prologue in “Summer of Soul,” the Harlem Cultural Festival footage just “sat in a basement for 50 years.”

“Summer of Soul” doesn’t waste a lot of time complaining about the obvious reason why the media and entertainment industries treated the Woodstock Music Festival differently from the Harlem Cultural Festival. It isn’t until toward end of “Summer of Soul” that it’s mentioned how a proposed documentary on the Harlem Cultural Festival was rejected for years by all companies that were pitched on this documentary. “Summer of Soul” shows why the Harlem Cultural Festival was so important by being the documentary this event deserves.

Longtime TV director/producer Hal Tulchin directed the footage that was filmed of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Before he died in 2017, at the age of 90, Tulchin signed over the rights to the footage to “Summer of Soul” producers Robert Fyvolent and David Dinerstein. “Summer of Soul” director Thompson was Fyvolent and Dinerstein’s first choice to direct the film because of his “encyclopedic knowledge of film” and because he’s someone “who understood music and its history,” according to what Fyvolent and Dinerstein say in the “Summer of Soul” production notes.

The people interviewed in the film—many who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival and some who did not—all have something substantial to say about the cultural context in which the festival took place, as well as the lasting impact on those who understand the importance of this event. This isn’t a documentary with a constant stream of talking heads over-glamorizing what the festival was, because the movie addresses the realities of civil unrest, poverty and other social issues going on for people of color in America at that time. It was a different kind of “peace and love” at this festival, which had the tone of ethnic pride and cautious optimism for the future.

“Summer of Soul” begins and ends with testimonial from Musa Jackson, a longtime Harlem resident who attended the Harlem Cultural Festival when he was 4 years old. Jackson, who has worked as a fashion model and a filmmaker, is now considered an unofficial ambassador of Harlem. He says what impacted him the most about the Harlem Cultural Festival—aside from his admitted big crush on Fifth Dimension singer Marilyn McCoo—was that he had never seen so many black people in one place at the same time and having fun. Musa Jackson remembers, “This was the first time I saw so many of us … It was like seeing royalty.” It was quite a different image from what was constantly shown in the media that black people only gathered in large numbers to protest racism.

Contrary to racist beliefs that large numbers of black people gathered in one place automatically means crime and violence, the Harlem Cultural Festival was a peaceful event where people had a good time. The festival had the support of then-New York City mayor John Lindsay, who attended and was introduced on stage to cheers from the audience. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton, who’s interviewed in the documentary, describes Lindsay as a “liberal Republican” who felt comfortable being around black people and who supported the civil rights movement.

Not all of New York’s public servants were supportive of the Harlem Cultural Festival though. Most of the New York City Police Department refused to work at the event, so the Black Panthers provided security for the festival. In the end, there was no violence and no one died because they were there. The same can’t be said of the Woodstock Music Festival.

Also in contrast to Woodstock, at the Harlem Cultural Festival, people weren’t stranded with a lack of food or lack of sanitation on the premises. It was so easy to enter and leave the festival site, that many of the Harlem Cultural Festival attendees could walk or take the subway there in just 30 minutes or less from their nearby neighborhoods. And although the attendees had to deal with sweltering summer heat, there were luckily no rain storms that caused dangerous lightning, wind gusts or widespread mud.

In 1969, the civil rights movement was hurting over the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. the previous year. Protests over racial injustice and the Vietnam War led to violence in many cities. Sharpton says of the political and social climate in 1969: “People were afraid of the anger and rage spilling over.” Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Darryl Lewis comments: “So, the goal of the festival may very well have been to keep black folks from burning up the city in ’69.”

The Harlem Cultural Festival was the brainchild of promoter Tony Lawrence, who was also a nightclub singer. Through sheer persistence and showbiz hustling, he was able to get a lineup that was one of the best to showcase contemporary R&B music and other music with roots in black or Latino culture. The festival was funded by sponsors, most notably Maxwell House Coffee. Lawrence was the festival’s charismatic (and often flamboyantly dressed) host who introduced people on stage.

Allen Zerkin (a former assistant to Lawrence) and Margot Edman (a festival production assistant) are interviewed in the documentary. Edman describes Lawrence as an “ebullient guy,” “always on the move” and “very positive.” Lawrence wasn’t the type to lose his temper easily, but he had the gift of persuasive sales skills. Zerkin says, “Tony talked a big game, and he delivered.”

In an archival interview, Tulchin remembers the challenges he had to direct film footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival: “There was no budget, no money, no lights. So, the stage had to face west because I had to use the sun.”

Because the performances took place before nightfall, the artists on stage could have a better view of the audience. Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers says in an audio interview for the documentary: “I saw so many black people, and they were having a good time. And I started celebrating with them.”

While the Woodstock Music Festival had a very male-dominated lineup of artists, female artists had much more of a presence at the Harlem Cultural Festival. Because gospel music was a big part of the festival, many of the acts on stage were a solid mixture of men and women. Charylane Hunter-Gault, formerly of The New York Times, comments on the importance of gospel to African American culture: “Gospel is part of our DNA. It’s deep in the recesses of my consciousness.”

And anyone who sees “Summer of Soul” will probably say that the women lead singers are many of the performance highlights. Among the most noteworthy are Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson (especially her duet with Mavis Staples on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”) and Gladys Knight of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who are shown performing the group’s 1967 hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Simone performs “Backlash Blues,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “Are You Ready?” like an iconic artist in full command of the stage and her craft. Sharpton comments on Simone’s performance: “You can hear in her voice our pain and our defiance.”

After Mahalia Jackson performs “Lord, Search My Heart,” Jesse Jackson goes on stage to give a poignant speech about the last time he saw his civil rights mentor King. “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” was one of King’s favorite songs. Staples says of performing this gospel classic with Mahalia Jackson: “That is still my biggest honor: to sing on the same microphone as Sister Mahalia Jackson.”

Sly and the Family Stone performed at the Harlem Cultural Festival and at the Woodstock Music Festival—and they were standouts at both events. In “Summer of Soul,” Sly and the Family Stone are seen performing their hits “Sing a Simple Song,” “Everyday People” and “I Want to Take You Higher.” At the time, they were considered a highly unusual band because the musicians consisted of black men, black women and white men. Sly and the Family Stone also defied musical genres by blending R&B, rock, pop and some jazz, thereby helping pioneer a hybrid musical genre called funk.

With today’s successful bands, not much has changed in terms of how bands are still mostly segregated by race and/or gender. Looking at today’s current hitmakers, it’s still very rare to see a chart-topping band with the type of racial and gender diversity that Sly and the Family Stone had. The exceptions might be vocal groups, but not a full-fledged band that plays instruments.

Greg Errico, former drummer of Sly and the Family Stone, comments in the documentary: “Sly [Stone] wanted to address everybody and everything. Music was the common denominator. Everybody wanted to do their own thing. And we did.” Writer/journalist Greg Tate observes: “Sly and the Family Stone was a game changer on so many levels.”

Breaking down racial stereotyping was one of the reasons why it was important for the Fifth Dimension to perform at the Harlem Cultural Festival, say former Fifth Dimension singers McCoo and her husband Billy Davis Jr. in the documentary. At the time, many people thought that because the Fifth Dimension performed pop music, the group was “too white” for black audiences and “too black” for white audiences. “Back then, music was segregated,” says Davis. “We were caught in the middle.” The documentary includes the Fifth Dimension performing “Don’t Cha Hear Me Callin’ to Ya” and “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” the group’s biggest hit.

McCoo and Davis are shown reacting with joy and nostalgia when they watch the long-lost footage of the Fifth Dimension performing at the Harlem Cultural Festival. McCoo gets teary-eyed and emotional when she says, “How do you color a sound? That was one of the reasons why performing in Harlem was so important to us, because we wanted our people to know what we were about, and we were hoping they would receive us. We were so happy to be there.”

Knight, who is also interviewed in the documentary, also remembers the feeling she had being at this very unique event: “When I stepped on stage, I was totally taken aback because I didn’t expect a crowd like that.” As writer/journalist Tate says in the documentary: “At the Harlem Cultural Festival, you got an audience that was radicalized.”

The documentary includes news footage of the civil rights protests that were affecting life for people of color in the United States. “Summer of Soul” also doesn’t gloss over the problems facing disenfranchised people of color, besides racial injustice. Drug addiction (especially addiction to heroin) was an epidemic in Harlem. Harlem Cultural Festival attendee Roger Parris, who describes heroin as a “plague on the black community,” says in the documentary that he was a heroin addict for 16 years who lost everything—including his home, his marriage and his family—because of his drug addiction.

Poverty was also very much on people’s minds. There’s some news footage from 1969 showing black people in Harlem being asked what they think about NASA’s historic Apollo 11 voyage that had the first man to walk on the moon. The interviewees say that Apollo 11 didn’t matter much to them because they think the government should have used the money to help poor people instead. It’s a very different perspective than the usual praise of NASA and Apollo 11 that gets shown in documentaries about 1969.

“Summer of Soul” even discusses the changing fashion for African Americans in 1969, when the Black Power movement was starting to gain momentum. Jim McFarland, a former tailor at Orlies Custom Tailoring, comments on how more black people started to wear Afros and dashikis at that time. Hiphuggers were popular. And it was also in style for men to wear vests without shirts.

Wearing dashikis and Afros were part of a larger cultural movement of African Americans expressing pride in their African roots. Hugh Maskela’s son Selema “Sal” Masekela comments, “My father realized that there was this real hunger for black Americans to feel and see and taste what it would be like to be African.” It was around this time in the late 1960s when people began to re-examine what was being taught in American history classes and how the contributions of people of color were being wrongfully erased. There was a movement for school classrooms, the media and the government to give more recognition to African and African American culture and historical contributions made by people of African/African American heritage.

African Americans were the majority of artists and attendees at the Harlem Cultural Festival, but the event was also embraced by people in the Latino community. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wasn’t even born when the festival happened, nevertheless weighs in with this comment in the documentary: “The power of music is to tell our own stories. We had a mirror to ourselves. We write the music that comes from inside us. And then other people say, ‘That’s me too!'” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s father Luis Miranda adds: “The festival is a political statement to black and brown communities.”

Grammy-winning legend Wonder (whose performances of “It’s Your Thing” and “Shoo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo-Da-Day” are in the documentary) remembers what it was like to be alive in 1969: “I had a feeling that the world was wanting a change.” Wonder was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. Actor/comedian Chris Rock, who grew up in New York City and was 4 years old in 1969, says in the documentary that it would have been easy for Wonder to rest on his laurels and just be a pop star, but Wonder took the riskier path of speaking out and doing something about social issues.

Other people interviewed in “Summer of Soul” include music executive Alan Leeds, musician Sheila E., Black Panther Party member Chris “Bullwhip” Innis Jr., former Edwins Hawkins Singers member Adrienne Kryor, Young Lords co-founder Denise Oliver-Velez, Max Roach’s son Raoul Roach, Operation Breadbasket Orchestra band leader Ben Branch and Harlem Cultural Festival attendees Dorinda Drake, Ethel Beatty-Barnes and Barbara Bland-Acosta.

“Summer of Soul” is an apt title because its a very soul-stirring film. Rather than just show the concert footage and sticking to talking about the music, the documentary does an exemplary job of putting everything in a cultural context that can be taken to heart by people of any generation. The film editing sometimes veers a little off track when people who weren’t at the festival talk about their lives, but it’s not so off-topic that it becomes an annoying distraction.

The sound mixing for the concert footage is done so well, it feels like you’re almost transported back to the festival. The documentary feels more inclusive and relatable to more people by adding in the perspectives of people who weren’t at the festival but who understand its relevance to social issues. On another level, “Summer of Soul” is also a time capsule of a bygone era when it was more possible for a relatively unknown, independent promoter to create this type of all-star festival.

And the filmmakers cared about details, such as putting the artists’ names and song titles on screen during each performance. Many concert documentaries don’t list song titles until the end credits. Anyone who watches “Summer of Soul” should experience it on the biggest screen possible. It’s the type of documentary that will inspire meaningful discussions and repeat viewings.

Searchlight Pictures released “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”) in select U.S. cinemas on June 25, 2021. The movie expanded to more U.S. cinemas and premiered on Hulu on July 2, 2021.

Review: ‘In the Heights,’ starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jimmy Smits

May 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera (center) in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“In the Heights” 

Directed by Jon M. Chu

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood, this movie version of the Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” features a predominantly Hispanic group of characters (with some African Americans and white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A young Dominican American man living in New York City’s Washington Heights is torn between staying in the neghborhood or moving to his family’s native Dominican Republic to re-open his late father’s tiki bar.

Culture Audience: “In the Heights” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in Broadway musicals with contemporary music and movies about Hispanic American culture.

Corey Hawkins and Melissa Grace in “In the Heights” (Photo by Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning musical “In the Heights” brings a cinematic vibrancy that makes it a joy to watch on screen and an instant crowd-pleaser. The movie keeps the main storyline and themes intact from the Broadway show but adds some memorable set designs, eye-popping choreography and impressive visual effects that couldn’t be done in a theater stage production. And this well-cast movie also has standout performances that will be sure to charm fans of the Broadway show as well as win over new fans. The “In the Heights” movie is set to have its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Directed by Jon M. Chu, “In the Heights” has an adapted screenplay written by Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for Broadway’s “In the Heights,” which takes place in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The movie version of “In the Heights” keeps the same songs from the stage musical, whose music and lyrics were written by Miranda. The movie is updated to include more social-awareness themes related to Dreamers, the nickname for undocumented children of undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

The “In the Heights” movie, just like the stage musical, combines several character storylines in a tale that ultimately adds up to love in many different forms. There’s the love that 29-year-old protagonist/bodega owner Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos) has for his family, his Washington Heights neighborhood and his family’s native Dominican Republic. During the course of the story, he also falls in love with aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (played by Melissa Barrera), who also lives in Washington Heights. Usnavi is somewhat shy around assertive Vanessa, who plays hard to get, but eventually Vanessa falls for Usnavi too.

Romance is also in the air for car dispatch operator Benny (played by Corey Hawkins) and college student Nina Rosario (played by Leslie Grace), who has come home to Washington Heights while on a break from her studies at California’s Stanford University. Benny is easygoing and respectful, while Nina is intelligent and compassionate. Nina’s strong-willed and doting father also happens to be Benny’s boss: Rosario’s Car Service owner Kevin Rosario (played by Jimmy Smits), who is immensely proud that his daughter is a Stanford student, and he will do what it takes to pay her university tuition.

The beloved “grandmother” of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia (played by Olga Merediz), who doesn’t have kids of her own, but she has a nuturing, maternal attitude toward many people in Washington Heights. Claudia is particularly close to Usnavi, whose parents are deceased. Usnavi, who is an only child, moved to the U.S. with his parents when he was 8 years old. And since his parents’ death, Usnavi has become even closer to Claudia. Meanwhile, Usnavi has also known Nina for several years, and he treats Nina like she’s his younger sister.

Usnavi is a mentor to his smart and wisecracking teenage cousin Sonny (played by Gregory Diaz IV), who works part-time in Usnavi’s bodega. Sonny needs a mentor because he has an alcoholic father named Gapo (played by Marc Anthony), who is the brother of Usnavi’s father. A local attorney named Alejandro (played by Mateo Gomez) plays a key role in facilitating what becomes Usnavi’s dream: to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open a beachfront tiki bar called El Suenito that used to be owned by Usnavi’s late father.

Rounding out the story’s main characters are “The Salon Ladies,” a trio of sassy and opinionated beauty salon workers: Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is the salon’s owner; Carla (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who is Daniela’s much-younger live-in lover; and Cuca (played by Dascha Polanco), who is their loyal sidekick friend. Vanessa works in the salon too, but she’d rather be a fashion designer. A graffiti artist named Graffiti Pete (played by Noah Catala) is one of Usnavi’s friends. There’s also a character named Pike Phillips (played by Patrick Page), who owns a dry cleaning business next door to Rosario’s Car Service, and he plays a role that affects the fate of a few of the characters’ fortunes.

“In the Heights” creator Miranda has a small role in the movie as a sarcastic street vendor named Piragüero, who sells piragua/shaved ice. Keep watching through the movie’s ending credits to see a comical scene of Miranda’s Piragüero getting into a spat with a Mr. Softee ice cream truck driver, played by Christopher Jackson, who is Miranda’s best friend and longtime Broadway co-star. It’s an example of the touches of humor in an otherwise dramatic story.

The movie begins with Usnavi in a tropical beach setting, telling four kids (about 4 to 6 years old) the story about his life in Washington Heights. The four children are Iris (played by Olivia Perez), Rosa (played by Analia Gomez), Sedo (played by Dean Vazquez) and Migo (played by Mason Vazquez). The kids are very attentive and adorable. But it’s clear that Iris is the most intelligent and inquisitive out of all of them.

Usnavi’s story is about the sweltering summer when he decided he was going to move back to the Dominican Republic and re-open El Suenito. What follows is an immersive, rollercoaster ride of a story, with plenty of joy, heartbreak, fear and love. It begins with various cast members performing “In the Heights,” in an epic sequence where viewers are introduced to Usnavi’s life in Washington Heights and all the people he’s close to in the neighborhood.

Other tunes performed by cast members in the movie are “Benny’s Dispatch,” “Breathe,” “You’ll Be Back” “No Me Diga,” “It Won’t Be Long Now,” “Cuando Llega el Tren,” “96,000,” “Piragua,” “Always,” “When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout,” “Paciencia Y Fe,” “Carnaval Del Barrio,” “Alabanza,” “Champagne,” “When the Sun Goes Down,” “Home All Summer” and “Finale.” Some of set designs for “In the Heights” are a visual treat and enhance these musical numbers. Two examples that are highlights are the massive synchronized swimming scene in a public swimming pool for “96,000,” and when Benny and Nina (with the help of visual effects) duet on “When You’re Home” with some gymnast-like moves on the side of an apartment building.

An electrical blackout happens in the middle of this summer heatwave. The movie has a timetable of events before and after the blackout. It’s a blackout that changes the lives of the characters, some more dramatically than others.

“In the Heights” is rich with Hispanic culture and doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America are celebrated in some way in the movie. And Usnavi’s desire to move back to the Dominican Republic is indicative of not only honoring his family but also reconnecting with his Dominican roots.

Nina represents the experience of people from Hispanic families who are the first to get a chance to graduate from a prestigious university in the United States. On the one hand, Nina is considered an exalted role model for the community and has all the pressures that come with it. On the other hand, Nina describes the pain of racism and not feeling like she fits in a privileged, predominantly white setting such as Stanford.

During a few of the movie’s more poignant scenes, Nina describes how her Stanford experience isn’t as glamorous as people in Washington Heights might think it is. Nina talks about how she was wrongfully accused of theft by her white Stanford roommate. And on another occasion, Nina attended a diversity dinner at Stanford, and someone wrongfully assumed that she was one of the servers.

All of the cast members are admirable in their roles, but the standouts are Ramos, Grace and Merediz, whose characters go through the biggest emotional arcs in the movie. Merediz’s performance of “Paciencia Y Fe” will simply give people chills. It’s the type of scene that will have audiences moved to applaud and cheer loudly. Grace is also a very talented singer/actress who can convincingly portray feelings without over-emoting like someone performing on a theater stage.

And as the story’s protagonist/narrator Usnavi, Ramos carries the movie with charm and vulnerability. He’s not super-confident when courting Vanessa, and he’s often teased about his insecurities by his observant cousin Sonny. For the two big romances in the movie (Usnavi and Vanessa; Benny and Nina), it isn’t about whether or not these two couples will get together. It’s more about if they can stay together, considering that they have long-distance issues that could wreck their relationships.

Whether or not people got a chance to see “In the Heights” on stage, the movie is a lively celebration in its own right. It’s a story with universal and relevant themes that can be understood by people of any generation. And the movie brings new dimensions and nuances to the story that will inspire people to see it multiple times, preferably on the biggest screen possible.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “In the Heights” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on June 10, 2021. The release date was moved up from June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,’ starring Rita Moreno

February 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rita Moreno in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and American Masters Films)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera

Culture Representation: The documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” features a group of predominantly Hispanic people (and a few white people and black people), discussing Rita Moreno, the only Latina entertainer who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award, also known as being an EGOT winner.

Culture Clash: Moreno talks about racism and sexism that caused problems for her.

Culture Audience: “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographical stories about celebrities with long careers who broke barriers, as well as frank discussions about what it’s like to be of Hispanic ethnicity in the predominantly white American entertainment industry.

A photo of Rita Moreno on the set of 1961’s “West Side Story” in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of MGM Studios)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” doesn’t reveal anything new and significant that Rita Moreno didn’t already reveal in her 2013 self-titled memoir. However, this laudatory documentary, which includes Moreno’s participation, is still inspirational and will be very informative to people who know very little about Moreno’s story before seeing this movie. Breezily directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” follows a pleasant but not groundbreaking celebrity documentary formula of flattering commentaries from other celebrities and pundits; archival footage and exclusive documentary footage; and candid but selective confessions from the celebrity. “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie opens with a scene of Moreno preparing for her 87th birthday party in 2018. But she’s not being fussed over by an entourage of people. She’s in her house’s kitchen laying out the silverware and the decorations, with some help from assistants. Moreno is all too aware that people watching this scene will be surprised that she’s doing the kind of work a personal assistant or event planner would do.

Moreno quips, “You can tell I’m not a real star because somebody else would be doing this. Show business: That’s why you must never really believe anything about your fame and all that kind of bullshit. Yeah, it goes up and down. Right now, it’s up.”

The documentary includes footage of the party (which has a Cuban costume theme, because Moreno says she likes hosting themed costume parties), where an energetic and lively Moreno dances happily with guests. She’s charismatic, humorous and has a very obvious zest for life. It’s that mixture of self-deprecation and self-confidence that Moreno has on display throughout the entire documentary.

And these personality traits have helped Moreno (who was born Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano in 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico) sustain a career for longer than a lot of people end up living. But, of course, she didn’t get to where she is so easily. And the documentary rightfully gives Moreno a lot of screen time to tell her story: the good, the bad and the ugly.

She recounts that from an early age, she knew she wanted to be an entertainer: “Being a natural performer, I think I was born that way, I was wired that way. I wanted to be a movie star since the time I saw my first picture.”

Moreno’s mother Rosa María, who was a seamstress, left behind Moreno’s father Francisco and Moreno’s brother Francisco Jr. in Puerto Rico to move with Moreno to New York City in 1936. Moreno vividly remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking that the statue represented the president of the United States. It might have been a future indicator that Moreno would go on to support feminism and other progressive issues when she became a social activist in the 1960s.

The documentary could have used some insight from Moreno about how leaving behind her father and brother impacted her life and if she ever kept in touch with them. It’s unclear if the filmmakers didn’t ask her those questions, or if they did ask but Moreno didn’t want to talk about it on camera. At any rate, she doesn’t mention her family left behind in Puerto Rico for the rest of the documentary.

Nor does there seem to be any attempt by the filmmakers who find anyone who knew Moreno from her childhood or her teenage years, to verify some of her stories of what life was like for her before she became famous. It’s an omission that’s an example of how this documentary is certainly good about rehashing information that Moreno has already talked about in several interviews and in her memoir, but the documentary doesn’t really dig beneath the celebrity veneer in a way that is entirely revealing, even if it might make the celebrity uncomfortable.

Moreno says that her mother fully supported her showbiz aspirations from a very young age, because Rosa María would often dress her daughter up like a doll and encourage her to perform wherever she could. By the age of 15, Moreno dropped out of high school because she was busy working as an entertainer. By the age of 16, she was supporting her family with her income.

But that doesn’t mean that her entry into showbiz went smoothly. Moreno remembers that as a child living in New York City, which was very racially segregated at the time, she had insecurities because she was treated as inferior because of her race. And as she became a young woman, she says she was often the target of stereotypes of being a “spicy” or “sexpot” Latina whose only worth was in her physical appearance.

A fateful meeting with Louis B. Mayer (the co-founder of MGM Studios) led to Moreno’s first big break in the movies. She went with her mother for an appointment to see Mayer at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Mayer was staying in the penthouse. Moreno’s first major role model as a movie star was Elizabeth Taylor. And so, for this important meeting with Mayer, Moreno says in the documentary that she deliberately made herself look like Elizabeth Taylor as much as possible. The tactic worked, and Mayer decided on the spot to give Moreno a contract at MGM, because he said that she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.”

Moreno says in the documentary that this big break is an example of how one person can change the course of someone’s career in a matter of minutes, in ways that years of hard work cannot do. Moreno had a contract with MGM, but it came with strict limitations, because it was back in the days when movie studios controlled and dictated whom their rising young stars could date and how they would appear in public. And because of her racial identity, Moreno was always typecast as the “ethnic girl” where she usually played supporting characters who were written as subservient and/or intellectually inferior to white people.

It’s fairly well-known that Moreno’s most famous movie role was in the 1961 movie musical “West Side Story.” Nothing new about her “West Side Story” experience is revealed in this documentary that she hasn’t already talked about elsewhere. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in “West Side Story,” making her the first entertainer of Hispanic ethnicity to win an Oscar. She still jokes about how her speech was short because she was so shocked that she won, and she’s been making up for that short speech ever since.

Moreno is also in director Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, which is due out in December 2021. Details about her role in the movie have not yet been revealed as of this writing, but she plays a character named Valentina. The documentary has brief footage of her walking onto the set of the “West Side Story” remake, with Spielberg making a quick cameo.

Moreno’s traumatic experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment aren’t glossed over in the documentary. Just like she’s done in other interviews and in her memoir, she talks about being raped in her 20s by her agent at the time. (Moreno does not name him.) She says she continued to work with him because he was the only agent she knew at the time who would represent a Latina performer. Moreno says that rape experience also fueled a lot of realistic anger when her “West Side Story” character Anita successfully fought off a gang of male attackers.

Moreno also shares the experience of being sexually demeaned at an industry party in Beverly Hills when she was in her early 30s. The perpetrators were not only a powerful party guest but also the party host, according to Moreno. She describes being told by party guest Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia Pictures at the time: “You know, I’d like to fuck you.” She says that, at the time, she laughed off this sexual aggression to his face, because she was afraid of the backlash she would get if she got visibly angry.

And later, when the party host (whom she does not name but she describes as a well-known distillery mogul) asked her to dance, he sexually grinded on her without her consent. During this assault, he said to her, “You’re a sexy little bitch, aren’t you?” Moreno says she was so mortified and scared that she asked the Mexican gardeners at the party to take her home, and they willingly obliged because they could sense that she had been violated in some way.

Moreno mentions that these gardeners were the “classiest people at the party.” And it’s clear that she tells this story to serve as an example of why people shouldn’t be dazzled by money and fame as a reason to think that someone is “better” than someone else. Money and fame don’t buy class. And being rich or famous doesn’t mean someone is incapable of heinous acts.

Moreno’s story is also an example of how winning an Oscar isn’t an automatic guarantee of getting bigger and better opportunities. After winning an Oscar, she says was only offered roles where she played the type of character that was a lot like Anita in “West Side Story.” Because she didn’t want to be typecast, Morena says in the documentary she turned down roles and that she didn’t do movies for another seven years after she won the Oscar for “West Side Story.” She says that instead, she worked in TV and theater.

This is where this documentary’s filmmakers show some carelessness. A quick look at Moreno’s filmography shows that she in fact did appear in several movies during the seven years (1962-1969) that she says that she didn’t. But she was correct in saying that she also worked in television during that time period. Her inaccuracy doesn’t mean that she deliberately lied, but it’s very possible her memory of that time period isn’t as accurate as it should be. It’s why celebrity documentaries aren’t always reliable if the celebrity controls too much of the narrative and the filmmakers don’t really care to fact check.

Moreno also talks about her torturous romance with Marlon Brando, whom she says she dated off and on for seven or eight years from the mid-1950s the early 1960s. It’s clear that she’s still conflicted about him all these years later. She bitterly describes him as an “anathema in my life,” but she also says that he loved her. And she has some therapy-speak when she declares, “He was the daddy I couldn’t please. I think about [him] now. What was there to love?”

She describes Brando as brilliant but also very selfish and controlling. Just as she did in her memoir, Moreno talks about how she got pregnant with Brando’s baby and secretly hoped that he would marry her. Instead, she found out he didn’t want to be her husband or the father of her child, and she had an abortion, which was illegal at the time. She had medical complications after the abortion that were traumatic for her.

Moreno also talks about how she was so distraught over the relationship with Brando that she attempted suicide. This is information that Moreno revealed several years ago. After they ended their relationship, Moreno and Brando co-starred in the 1969 movie “The Night of the Following Day,” where they have an argument scene and she slaps him in the face. She says that it didn’t take much acting on her part because she channeled her real-life rage at Brando into the scene.

If there’s any good that came out of her relationship with Brando, she says it was that he helped awaken her social consciousness during the 1960s. She became involved in the civil rights movement and feminist causes before it was “trendy” to do so. She says of her progressive political activism: “For the first time, I felt useful.” The movie includes video footage of her giving speeches and attending political marches and rallies, such as the 1963 March on Washington, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In one scene in the movie, Moreno is shown in her “One Day at a Time” dressing room, watching on TV the 2018 U.S. Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by Donald Trump for the Supreme Court. Moreno watches Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a former schoolmate of Kavanaugh’s from high school, testify that he sexually assaulted Ford in 1982, when they were teenagers. Moreno comments that she believes Ford, and that some of the testimony about sexual assault is triggering for her.

Moreno also describes her relationship with her husband Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist who later became her manager. They were married from 1965 until his death in 2010, at the age of 90. She recalls how she was charmed during their early courtship because he wasn’t aware that she was famous when they first started talking to each other. Moreno also said one of the best things about their relationship was that he had a knack for making her laugh.

But she’s also candid about admitting that toward the end of their marriage, she basically fell out of love with him, but they never got divorced because he loved her more than she loved him. Moreno also says that she and her husband had terrible fights and had a very dysfunctional marriage. However, Moreno confesses that they were skilled at hiding their marriage problems from the world, including their daughter (and only child), Fernanda Gordon Fisher, who is interviewed in the documentary. Gordon Fisher says that her parents had a good marriage with normal disagreements that weren’t too serious.

That’s not the way her mother describes it. Moreno says that Gordon was a “control freak” who didn’t like the “raucous and loud” side of her. She says, “When Lenny died, I gave that little Rosita [referring to herself] permission to leave.” She also admits she felt relieved when he died because “I didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore.”

Moreno has mixed feelings about her late husband, but there’s no doubt that she and her daughter adore each other. It’s mentioned that when Moreno’s daughter was in her 20s, she toured with Moreno and was Moreno’s backup singer/dancer. The documentary shows how Moreno and her daughter are still very close. Moreno also talks lovingly of her two grandsons (Cameron and Justin Fisher), who are briefly shown in the documentary.

The movie chronicles several of Moreno’s career highlights, including winning a Grammy for the 1972 cast recording album of children’s TV series “The Electric Company”; a Tony Award in 1975 for her featured performance in “The Ritz”; and two Emmys in 1977 and 1978, for guest-starring on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” She was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.

As for the title of this movie, it’s inspired by slogan on a T-shirt that Moreno wore when she received a career achievement award at a Television Critics Association event in 2018. Footage of her getting ready for the event and her acceptance speech is included in the documentary. “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is a saying that sums up her persona perfectly: gutsy, vibrant and never forgetting her humble beginnings.

Most of the people who provide commentary for the documentary are other famous entertainers. Their remarks about Moreno are all positive, while some of the Latina actresses (such as Eva Longoria and Karen Olivo) expound on the specific barriers that Hispanic female entertainers often face in showbiz. Other people interviewed in the documentary include some actors who’ve co-starred with Moreno over the years, including George Chakiris (“West Side Story”), Morgan Freeman (“The Electric Company”), Héctor Elizondo (“Cane”) and Justina Machado (“One Day at a Time”).

Also weighing in with their thoughts are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg (another EGOT winner), Mitzi Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, “One Day at a Time” executive producer Norman Lear, “Life Without Makeup” director Tony Taccone, “Oz” creator Tom Fontana and Moreno’s longtime manager John Ferguson, who breaks down in tears when he remembers how Moreno found her will to live after her suicide attempt. (Miranda and Lear are two of the executive producers of this documentary.) And some academics provide their perspectives on Moreno and her impact on pop culture, such as Columbia University artist/scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, The New School cultural historian Julia Foulkes and Columbia University film historian/author Annette Insdorf.

The documentary uses some whimsical animation at times to illustrate some parts of Moreno’s storytelling. But this added creative flair and all the celebrities who gush about her in the movie are all just icing on the cake. Moreno has more than enough charisma and has lived such a full life that her story could be a miniseries, not just a documentary film.

UPDATE: Roadside Attractions will release “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021. PBS’s “American Masters” series will premiere the movie on October 5, 2021.

Review: ‘We Are Freestyle Love Supreme,’ starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, Anthony Veneziale, Christopher Jackson, Thomas Kail, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Bill Sherman and Chris Sullivan

July 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chris Sullivan, Anthony Veneziale, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Andrew Bancroft, Bill Sherman, Christopher Jackson and Arthur Lewis in “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

“We Are Freestyle Love Supreme”

Directed by Andrew Fried

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and partially in the United Kingdom, the documentary “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” tells the story of the multiracial musical improvisational group Freestyle Love Supreme, whose most famous member is Tony-winning star Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Culture Clash: The members of Freestyle Love Supreme struggled for years to make a living from their craft, and then the group’s loyalty and work schedules were tested after Miranda and musical director Thomas Kail went on to mega-success with the Tony-winning musicals “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.”

Culture Audience: “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Lin-Manuel Miranda and musical theater that includes hip-hop.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, Christopher Jackson and Anthony Veneziale in the mid-2000s in “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

The feel-good documentary “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” shows what can happen when several tight-knit friends in a musical improvisational group manage to keep the group going for several years, despite the members’ individual careers and personal lives going on divergent paths. Directed by Andrew Fried, who began filming footage for the documentary in 2005, “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” is a breezy ride through the group’s story, even if it it feels like a lot of inevitable behind-the-scenes turmoil was deliberately left out of the film. The documentary includes exclusive interviews (everyone in the group is interviewed separately), as well as archival on-stage and off-stage footage, spanning from the mid-2000s to the group’s stint on Broadway in 2019.

Freestyle Love Supreme’s most famous member is Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Tony-winning star/creator of the stage musicals “In the Heights” and “Hamilton.” Miranda (whose nickname in the group is Lin-Man) is an original member of Freestyle Love Supreme, which was formed in New York City in 2004. But the documentary shows that the origins of Freestyle Love Supreme really began in 1999, during a road trip taken by group co-founder Anthony Veneziale (also known as Two-Touch) and Thomas “Tommy” Kail, the group’s musical director who went on to direct the original Broadway productions of “In the Heights” and “Hamilton,” as well as most of Freestyle Love Supreme’s stage shows.

According to what Kail says in the documentary, he and Veneziale (who met when they were students at Wesleyan University) went on a road trip from New York City to Iowa, to help a friend make an independent film. During the trip, the only way they could stay awake was by listening to the B-side of the Daft Punk song “Around the World.”

“Anthony freestyled for four straight hours,” says Kail of that road trip. “That, in some way, was the seed for Freestyle Love Supreme.” Freestyle Love Supreme then became a collective of friends who would get together at the Drama Book Shop, which was their creative “lab,” according to Kail. Although Kail isn’t an on-stage performer for Freestyle Love Supreme, he is credited with being the behind-the-scenes architect of the group’s career.

Freestyle Love Supreme then honed their improvisational skills so that their on-stage act became randomly choosing words volunteered by the show’s audience, and then making up hip-hop-infused, often-comedic stories about those words right there on the spot. Veneziale (who also co-founded the improv FLS Academy) is the group’s emcee, who interviews audience members during the show and brings some audience members on stage. This highly interactive format makes every Freestyle Love Supreme show truly unique, which is in contrast to the traditional theater format of doing the same show for every performance.

The other original members of Freestyle Love Supreme are Christopher Jackson (also known as C-Jack); Bill Sherman (also known as King Sherman); Chris Sullivan (also known as Shockwave); and Arthur Lewis (also known as Arthur the Geniuses). Miranda and Kail went on to collaborate on “In the Heights” (which went to Broadway in 2008) and “Hamilton” (which made its Broadway debut in 2015), with both musicals including Jackson (who is Miranda’s best friend) as a co-star.

After the success of “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” made Miranda, Jackson and Kail too busy for Freestyle Love Supreme on a regular basis, Freestyle Love Supreme added new members to the group. The documentary does a very good job of putting a spotlight on each member, so that people can know what their unique contributions are to Freestyle Love Supreme. (Freestyle Love Supreme has also had numerous guest performers, including Daveed Diggs and Wayne Brady.)

Miranda, who is a self-described “theater geek,” is shown to be an energetic optimist but also a perfectionist who can be very hard on himself. Jackson, who is more laid-back than Miranda, is described as the “dad” of the group, since he’s the oldest member and the first member of Freestyle Love Supreme to get married and have children.

Sherman, who plays keyboards and has a goofy sense of humor, used to be Kail’s roommate and remains very close to Kail. Sullivan, who does most of Freestyle Love Supreme’s beatboxing, is the “actual musical heartbeat of the group,” says Kail. Lewis, who plays keyboards, is described as the group’s most intellectually gifted member and “the ethereal one” of Freestyle Love Supreme, according to Kail.

Freestyle Love Supreme’s newer members are also given a spotlight: Utkarsh Ambudkar (also known as UTK The INC) is described by Miranda as “the best nuts-to-bolts rapper in the group.” James Monroe Iglehart (also known as J-Soul) is praised by multiple people as being the best singer in the group. Andrew Bancroft (also known as Jelly Donut) seems to be in awe of his group mates and says he still can’t believe that he’s in Freestyle Love Supreme.

And by the time that Freestyle Love Supreme began headlining on Broadway, the group had added its first permanent female member: Aneesa Folds (also known as Young Nees), who expresses how star-struck and honored she is to be in Freestyle Love Supreme. Why did it take so long to add a woman to the group? Probably because after the #MeToo movement happened, Freestyle Love Supreme wanted deflect any criticism that this group deliberately excludes people who aren’t of the male gender.

It probably never crossed their minds to invite women into their group before, because it’s clear from the archival footage that Freestyle Love Supreme operated very much like a fraternity, but not in a mean-spirited way. However, because of heightened awareness of how gender discrimination against people who aren’t cisgender males has been an ongoing problem in the entertainment industry (and society in general), it no doubt prompted Freestyle Love Supreme to take a hard look at their own decision making in whom they were inviting to be a part of their exclusive club.

The documentary doesn’t call attention to why Freestyle Love Supreme was a male-only group for about 15 years, probably because the male members of the group don’t want to address this issue on camera. Instead, the movie puts an emphasis on all the camaraderie they have—perhaps a little too much emphasis, to the point where it looks sugarcoated. There’s a lot of screen time devoted to soundbites where the members of Freestyle Love Supreme praise themselves and each other.

Jackson comments on how Freestyle Love Supreme is a privilege of being able to work with his closest friends: “If more people had this experience, truly, the world would be a better place.” Ambudkar says that he felt an instant connection to the members of Freestyle Love Supreme: “Whatever Freestyle was doing, it fit me like a well-worn hoodie.”

Miranda says that in the group’s early days, there was a real struggle to build a fan base, but the audience grew when the show improved and because Freestyle Love Supreme didn’t give up: “We had to work hard [for an audience]. The show worked.”

Some of the documentary’s best archival footage is of a pivotal point in the early career of Freestyle Love Supreme, when the group was invited to perform at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. No one knew at the time that Miranda was three years away from finding Broadway fame and acclaim with “In the Heights.” But during this trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the members of Freestyle Love Supreme considered it to be the highlight of their careers so far.

There’s a real infectious joy in this footage that shows their youthful optimism, as they roam the streets of Edinburgh and soak up Scottish culture. The documentary also includes footage of the group reading their first negative review together. And even that moment of the group getting some scathing criticism has a lot of humor and shows how closely bonded the group members are.

A present-day Miranda looks back on that time with a lot of fondness in the documentary. He says that even though all of the members of Freestyle Love Supreme were financially broke at the time, and their futures were uncertain, it was one of the happiest times of his life. “Everything was happening, but nothing was happening,” Miranda quips.

Some other great archival footage is of Miranda and Kail walking through New York City’s Times Square, not long before “In the Heights” was scheduled to begin previews on Broadway. Kail and Miranda look up in awe and excitement at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, which had the “In the Heights” billboard and marquee already prepared.

In this archival footage, Kail and Miranda joke about how people in Times Square might or might not recognize them. Kail, who resembles former “American Idol” finalist Justin Guarini, says that people probably think he’s “that guy from ‘American Idol.'” Kail also jokes that people will probably think that Miranda looks like a “Mexican Bud Bundy,” referring to Miranda’s slight resemblance to actor David Faustino, who had the role of bratty son Bud Bundy in the sitcom “Married With Children.” (Miranda’s heritage is actually Puerto Rican, not Mexican.)

All joking aside, a group of people working together this long can’t be immune to jealousies, rivalries and conflicts. Although the documentary acknowledges that Miranda is the most famous member of Freestyle Love Supreme (after his Broadway success, he became a star and a producer in movies and television), the other group members who talk about it for the documentary only express happiness for Miranda. If they have any envy that Miranda’s career has skyrocketed, compared to the careers of other group members, it’s not shown in this movie.

However, there is some acknowledgement that Freestyle Love Supreme did go through a less-than-smooth adjustment period when it became obvious that in order for the group to keep going, certain group members (namely Miranda, Jackson and Kail) would not be as available as they once were, due to their busy Broadway careers. Another big shift in the group’s dynamics occurred when Veneziale moved to San Francisco (because of his wife’s graduate studies) and started a family there.

As a result of that relocation to the other side of the United States, Veneziale and Kail, who used to be best friends, say they became estranged from each other, and their relationship hasn’t really been the same since. Veneziale describes Kail in the early days of Freestyle Love Supreme: “He was my co-conspirator in making things.” Kail says that Veneziale is the “guts and blood” and the “engine” of Freestyle Love Supreme. However, it’s obvious that there’s still tension between Kail and Veneziale, because they choose their words very carefully when talking about each other, while expressing regret that they aren’t close friends anymore.

The documentary doesn’t bring up personal problems in Freestyle Love Supreme until the last third of the movie. Ambudkar opens up about his alcoholism and how it affected him and his role in the group. Ambudkar says that the success of “Hamilton,” which made Miranda even less available to Freestyle Love Supreme than ever before, forced Ambudkar to take a hard look at where his life was headed, and it motivated Ambudkar to get clean and sober.

The clips of Freestyle Love Supreme performing on stage, especially on Broadway, are absolutely electric and elevate this documentary, which plays it very safe overall. “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” gives the impression that it doesn’t want to divulge a lot of the realistic behind-the-scenes ego clashes in the group, for fear that it would mess up the “lovefest” vibe that the documentary is trying to convey. It’s why viewers of this movie get a lot of effusively upbeat soundbites that are a lot like this one from Ambudkar when he describes Freestyle Love Supreme: “It’s truly about embracing and celebrating the human experience.”

Hulu premiered “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” on July 17, 2020.

Review: ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado,’ starring Walter Mercado

July 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Walter Mercado in “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” 

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Puerto Rico and Miami, the documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” interviews a predominantly Latino group group of people about famous astrologer Walter Mercado, including Mercado, his relatives, colleagues and fans.

Culture Clash: Mercado, who died in 2019, experienced homophobia and devastating lawsuits in his life.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of Mercado’s fans, “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” will appeal primarily to people who like documentaries about larger-than-life personalities.

A photo of Walter Mercado in the 1980s in “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Famous astrologer Walter Mercado had a public persona of being effusive and upbeat in his long life (he died in 2019, at the age of 87), and that’s also the emotional tone of the documentary “Much Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.” This biographical film, which has Mercado’s participation, definitely takes a “fan” perspective, without going overboard on being sycophantic worship, but also without any probing investigations either.

Directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, “Much Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” doesn’t uncover much about Mercado that hasn’t already been reported elsewhere. However, the documentary is a fascinating look into the last months of his life, when he came out of seclusion after a decade out of the public spotlight.

Mercado is an icon to Latinos, but he also became world-famous in other cultures, thanks to his TV shows and psychic hotlines that gave him an international empire worth millions in the 1980s and 1990s. He dressed like Liberace and had a hairstyle like Joan Rivers, but his uplifting way of entertaining and motivational speaking was all his own.

Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on March 9, 1932 (that would make him a Pisces in Western astrology), Walter Mercado Salinas was one of three children of José María Mercado and Aída Salinas, who was a native of Spain. Mercado grew up in a rural area of Puerto Rico. And, as he says in the documentary, he knew he was “different” from an early age.

“I was a dreamer,” Mercado remembers. He also tells a story about how when he was a child, he helped heal a wounded bird and then began to have a reputation as a child prodigy who was a spiritual guru. He says that people came from all over Puerto Rico to visit him, and he was given the name “Walter of the Miracles.”

It’s unknown if all of that is really true or perhaps exaggerated, since this documentary’s filmmakers didn’t seem to make any attempt to verify Mercado’s stories about his childhood. However, several of Mercado’s nieces are interviewed in the documentary: Ivonne Benet Mercado, Betty Benet Mercado, Dannette Benet Mercado, Bibi Benet Mercado, Carmen Mercado and Charita Mercado. Not surprisingly, they all praise their uncle Walter, but none of the nieces really comments on what their parents told them about how Walter was in his childhood.

Walter, who describes himself as a mama’s boy, says that his mother was overprotective but very loving and supportive of her unique son. He remembers that his mother liked to tell him: “To be different is a gift.” At the University of Puerto Rico, he studied pedagogy, psychology and pharmacy, but he ended up having a career as an entertainer, first as a dancer and actor and later as a TV personality/astrologer.

Walter had been making a living doing stage plays and TV appearances (including lots of telenovelas) when he made a guest appearance on Elín Ortíz’s Telemundo show in 1969. Walter was on the show to promote his starring role in the stage play “Triptico Del Amor, Del Dolor y De La Muerte.” During a segment, Walter ad-libbed some horoscopes, and the response from the TV audience was so immediate and positive, that he ended up getting his own astrology show on Telemundo called “Walter, the Stars and You.”

He later starred in the TV series “Walter y Las Estrellas” (which is Spanish for “Walter and the Stars”) and had his own radio show that was syndicated around the world. His radio and TV empire eventually expanded to psychic hotlines, which had their peak popularity in the 1980s and 1990s.

Walter describes his type of horoscope predictions as a combination of astrology and various religious philosophies: “I realize that all religions have a point of convergence. I call it interfaith religion.”

Guillermo “Bill” Bakula, who was Walter’s manager during the height of Walter’s career, comments in the documentary about his role in Walter’s life: “I was the coach for one single purpose: Walter’s message to get out to as many people as possible.”

However, the documentary makes it clear that greed eventually became the driving force behind Bakula’s motivations. Through his company Bart Enterprises International, Bakula had Walter sign over the rights to the Walter Mercado name, as well as past, present and future rights to Walter’s work, in perpetuity. Walter claims that he was duped into signing the contract.

Walter severed ties with Bakula and Bart Enterprises in 2006, the last year that Walter starred in a TV series. The lawsuits and countersuits weren’t resolved until 2012. The final outcome of the lawsuits was covered in the media and is mentioned in the documentary, but won’t be revealed in this review, in case people want to see the documentary to find out what happened. Two days after the lawsuits were resolved, Walter had a heart attack.

Walter’s former publicist Jody Vialy explains what went wrong in the relationship between Walter and former manager Bakula: “Walter was not about business … Walter expected good things and ran into a world of trouble that he never saw coming.”

Vialy adds, “Bill almost became like a son to him … I do believe that Bill broke his heart. I do believe that in the beginning, Bill was his angel. And towards the end, Bill was his devil.”

In the documentary, Bakula has this to say about what happened: “I’ve never regretted anything in my life.” His arrogant and dismissive tone don’t make him look sympathetic at all. And, with pain and heartbreak still etched on his face, Walter describes the falling out with Bakula and subsequent lawsuits as “a nightmare.”

Bakula comments on Walter: “He never says anything negative. That’s probably the key ingredient to his success and his ability to communicate.” And true to that positive nature, Walter doesn’t have anything bad to say in this documentary about anyone who might have hurt him. All he will say in the documentary is: “I’ve had very, very difficult problems. I suffered a lot. I lost a lot.”

Some of the interviewees in the documentary hint that Walter’s people-pleasing ways made him too nice—almost to a fault. Univision’s “Primer Impacto” creator Maria Lopez Alvarez comments: “I don’t ever remember hearing Walter say no. He’s not that type of personality. Inside, he’s a little boy that wants to be loved and respected.”

And this documentary shows that Walter got an abundance of love and respect in return, since he gets no criticism or unflattering stories in this film. Some of the praise he gets is a little over-the-top: LGBTQ activist Karlo Karlo calls Walter a “superhero,” while singer Nydia Caro calls Walter a “warrior.” But considering that Walter was so nice—not just for the cameras, but in real life—it’s not surprising that he was so beloved and people only have good things to say about him.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” (which gets its title from Walter’s signature signoff) also prominently features Walter’s longtime personal assistant Willie Acosta, who is definitely the person who is closest to Walter. Acosta is sassy, funny and a joy to watch when he and Walter are together. It’s kind of sad to think about how lost Acosta must feel now that Walter is gone, but this documentary shows how vibrant Walter was and how special his relationship was with Acosta.

The documentary also mentions but doesn’t pry too much into Walter’s sexuality and love life, which he always avoided talking about in public. Because of his flamboyant and androgynous physical appearance, Walter (who never married and did not have children) was widely presumed to be somewhere on the “not heterosexual” spectrum. However, he never publicly confirmed or denied his sexual orientation. Some people have speculated that he was not “queer” but asexual.

When asked about his love life, Walter says coyly in the documentary: “I have sex with life.” If Walter had any past lovers, they have never gone public. As for Acosta, he says in the documentary that he knows that people assume that he’s Walter’s lover, but Acosta insists that he and Walter have a strictly platonic relationship that’s “like family.” Walter’s nieces don’t have much insight, except to say that they don’t really know the full truth of Walter’s love life because that’s the way he wanted it.

Regardless of what his true sexuality was, LGBTQ activist Karlo says that Mercado was a role model for queer people: “Growing up as a queer boy and watching Walter Mercado gave me hope … He broke barriers. It goes beyond coming out.”

Mercado’s flamboyant persona was parodied by many comedians (including Eugenio Derbez, who’s interviewed in the documentary), and many of those imitations were homophobic and hurt his feelings, say his confidants. “He was embraced and ‘othered’ at the same time,” Mireya Lacio, a self-described “witch” who’s a Walter Mercado fan, says of those parodies. But because Walter never declared his sexuality in a public manner, he wasn’t fully shunned by the Latino community, especially during the years when the Catholic Church had more restrictive policies about homosexuality than it does now.

As for his plastic surgery, Walter is also vague and coy, saying that he’s had “a little arrangement” and that he’s had “Botox, like Nicole Kidman.” He admits that looking glamorous and youthful has been an obsession for him, which is why he jokes, “I’m just like Dorian Gray.” (It’s no surprise then that Walter has a portrait of “Dorian Gray” author Oscar Wilde in his home, like one would display a portrait of a family member.)

The documentary, which has several interviews of Walter in his home, also has Walter giving a grand tour of his extensive wardrobe and memorabilia collection. Acosta opens up the kitchen cupboards to show all the vitamins that Walter takes. Walter also explains that his background as a dancer has helped him keep active and fit.

One of the highlights of the documentary is when Lin-Manuel Miranda goes with his father Luis Miranda to meet Walter. The mutual admiration between these two celebrities is very sweet and endearing to watch. And their meeting shows how someone as famous as Lin-Manuel Miranda can get star-struck.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s been a Walter Mercado fan since childhood, is shown commenting at the beginning of the documentary: “Growing up with Walter Mercado, I remember thinking how dramatic he was, how fabulous he was. I can’t think of an English-language astrologer who could command the attention of millions of households … I think he’s this positive force.”

Other people interviewed in the documentary include radio producer Tony Hernandez; TV host Mauricio Zeilic; Wilma Torres (Walter’s secretary); Carlos Velazquez (Walter’s former attorney); and actor/influencer/fan Curly Velasquez.

And to demonstrate how Walter has permeated into pop culture, the documentary interviews Matt Kascher, owner of Stephen’s Deli in Hialeah, Florida, where the stalls in the ladies’ room are decorated with Walter Mercado images. Kascher says that sometimes male customers have to  be stopped from going into the ladies room because the men want to see the Walter Mercado decorations. Bobby Gilardi, the beverage director for Ariete Hospitality Group in Miami, says that they’ve crated a Walter Mercado drink that has a “smoky, floral note.”

The documentary culminates with Walter attending the 2019 opening of HistoryMiami Museum’s retrospective exhibit tribute to him. It’s a testament to his far-reaching popularity that a diverse group of fans attended the event. His entrance is every bit the over-the-top spectacle that you would expect it to be.

“Mucho Mucho Amor” might not have any surprises for longtime fans of Walter Mercado. And for people who know very little or nothing about him before seeing this film will come away with an appreciation for what kind of entertainer he was, in this day and age when nasty celebrity feuds on social media have become too common. The documentary is a true reflection of its subject, by accomplishing the intended goal of making people feel uplifted and entertained.

Netflix premiered “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado” on July 8, 2020.

2018 Kennedy Center Honors: Cher, Reba McEntire, Philip Glass, Wayne Shorter, ‘Hamilton’ creators are the honorees

July 25, 2018

The following is a press release from the Kennedy Center:

The Kennedy Center Honors announced today that its honorees for 2018 will be actress Cher, composer and pianist Philip Glass, country music entertainer Reba McEntire and jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. Additionally, the co-creators of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Hamilton” – writer and actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire – will receive a unique Kennedy Center Honors as trailblazing creators of a transformative work that defies category. These artists will receive tributes during THE 41st ANNUAL KENNEDY CENTER HONORS, to be broadcast Wednesday, Dec. 26 (8:00-10:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. CBS has broadcast the special each year since its debut 41 years ago.

“The Kennedy Center Honors recognizes exceptional artists who have made enduring and indelible marks on our culture,” stated Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein. “Cher is the consummate star, wowing generations of fans with her distinctive voice, blockbuster albums and glittering on-screen presence; Philip Glass is a modern-day Mozart whose works across opera, symphony, chamber music and film define contemporary music and simply transfix us; country songstress Reba McEntire has inspired us over five decades with her powerhouse voice and music that conveys heartfelt, heartwarming honesty; Wayne Shorter is a seminal artist, defying categorization while carrying forward the mantle of jazz; and the creators of ‘Hamilton’ have literally and figuratively changed the face of American culture with daringly original, breathtakingly relevant work.”

“The world looks to America for its creative instincts and artistic courage. This year’s slate of Honorees represents the pinnacle of our nation’s originality and the rich mosaic of diverse perspectives and art forms that have come to define who we are as a people,” said Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter.

“As the national cultural center, the Kennedy Center is guided by its artistic mission to pay tribute to the past, to offer a platform for artists making transformative impact in the present, and to shepherd creative innovators as we look toward the future,” Ms. Rutter continued. “Historically, the Kennedy Center Honors have celebrated lifetime achievement. In recognizing ‘Hamilton’ and its co-creators, the Kennedy Center is making an unprecedented statement about an unprecedented work – a work that transcends cultural boundaries and tells America’s story in a powerful and contemporary way.”

In a star-studded celebration on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage on Dec. 2, the 2018 Honorees will be saluted by today’s leading performers from New York, Hollywood and the arts capitals of the world, accepting the recognition and gratitude of their peers through performances and tributes.

The Honors recipients are recognized for their lifetime contributions to American culture through the performing arts – whether in dance, music, theater, opera, motion pictures or television – and are confirmed by the executive committee of the Center’s board of trustees. The primary criterion in the selection process is excellence. The Honors are not designated by art form or category of artistic achievement; over the years, the selection process has produced a balance among the various arts and artistic disciplines.

Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment will executive produce the special for the fourth consecutive year. Also, Weiss returns as director. The Kennedy Center Honors founding producer is George Stevens, Jr.

ABOUT THE HONOREES

Cher (Singer, Actress)

A worldwide superstar and household name for more than 50 years, Cher has conquered more challenges than a handful of other talents put together – recording, concerts, film and Broadway acting, television and directing. Along the way, she has been richly rewarded with an Academy Award®, a GRAMMY®, an Emmy®, three Golden Globes, a Cannes Film Festival Award and a People’s Choice Award.

Beginning as a studio backing singer in the 1960s, Cher met fledgling producer Sonny Bono, and they quickly became pop sensations with the worldwide smash “I Got You Babe.” Their attention-grabbing hair and clothes were an early hint of Cher’s subsequent profound influence on the world of fashion. The couple’s popularity peaked with “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” television series until they split up in the mid-1970s. In 1982, Cher took a huge gamble to appear on Broadway in “Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.” It worked, however, and prompted a hugely successful acting career, which included “Mask,” “Silkwood” and “Mermaids” and culminated in an Academy Award® for Best Actress in “Moonstruck.”

Cher stunned the music world with a complete musical reinvention in the mid-1980s, highlighted by her controversial hit video for “If I Could Turn Back Time.” But it would be her venture into the world of dance music with the GRAMMY® Award-winning “Believe” in 1998 that eclipsed it all. “Believe” made Cher the oldest woman (at 52) to have a #1 hit in the Hot 100 rock era. It made her the only female artist to have top 10 hits in every decade from the 1960s to 2000s. The subsequent three-year “Farewell Tour” played to more than three million fans, was captured in an Emmy®Award-winning TV special and is one of the most successful tours in history.

Cher remains very active as a stage performer, actress and recording artist with a starring role in the current movie “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” a new album scheduled for September release, and a stage musical about her life debuting on Broadway in December.

Philip Glass (Composer, Pianist)

Born in Baltimore, Md., Philip Glass is a graduate of the University of Chicago and the Juilliard School. In the early 1960s, Glass spent two years of intensive study in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and, while there, earned money by transcribing Ravi Shankar’s Indian music into Western notation. By 1974, Glass had a number of innovative projects creating a large collection of new music for the Philip Glass Ensemble and for the Mabou Mines Theater Company. This period culminated in Music in Twelve Parts and the landmark opera “Einstein on the Beach,” for which he collaborated with Robert Wilson. Since then, Glass has expanded his repertoire to include music for opera, dance, theater, chamber ensemble, orchestra and film. His scores have received Academy Award nominations (“Kundun,” “The Hours,” “Notes on a Scandal”) and a Golden Globe (“The Truman Show”). In the past few years, several new works were unveiled, including an opera on the death of Walt Disney, “The Perfect American” (co-commissioned by Teatro Real, Madrid and the English National Opera); a new touring production of “Einstein”; the publication of Glass’ memoir, Words Without Music, by Liveright Books; and the premiere of the revised version of Glass’ opera “Appomattox,” in collaboration with librettist Christopher Hampton, at the Washington National Opera in November 2015.

Glass celebrated his 80th birthday on Jan. 31, 2017 with the world premiere of “Symphony No. 11” at Carnegie Hall. His 80th birthday season featured curated programming around the globe, including the U.S. premieres of operas “The Trial” and “The Perfect American,” and world premieres of several new works, including “Piano Concerto No. 3,” “String Quartet No. 8” and his first “Piano Quintet.”

Other recent accolades include the U.S. National Medal of the Arts, presented to Glass by President Barack Obama in 2015. In 2016, Glass was named the 11th recipient of the Glenn Gould Prize, a lifetime achievement award given to prominent musicians. Also, he was honored to hold Carnegie Hall’s Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair throughout the 2017-2018 season.

On Jan. 10, 2019, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will present the world premiere of Glass’ “Symphony No. 12,” based on David Bowie’s album Lodger, and a completion of three symphonies based on Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy. Glass continues to perform solo piano evenings, chamber music evenings with world renowned musicians and regularly appears with the Philip Glass Ensemble.

Reba McEntire (Country Music Entertainer)

Multi-media entertainment mogul Reba McEntire has become a household name through a flourishing career that spans music, television, film, theater and retail. Her album Sing It Now: Songs of Faith & Hope topped both the Billboard Country and Christian/Gospel charts, bolstering McEntire’s successful record of 35 #1 singles and over 56 million albums sold worldwide across four decades. The double-disc collection earned McEntire her third GRAMMY®Award and first GMA Dove Award. The Country Music Hall of Fame, Grand Ole Opry and Hollywood Bowl member has also won 16 ACM Awards, 15 American Music Awards, nine People’s Choice Awards and six CMA Awards. Her leadership and philanthropic endeavors have been recognized with the Andrea Bocelli Foundation Humanitarian Award, Leadership Music Dale Franklin Award, the Music Biz Chairman’s Award, the National Artistic Achievement Award from the U.S. Congress, and joining the Horatio Alger Association.

McEntire returned for the 15th time to host the ACM Awards in April 2018 and led the 2017 ratings-high CMA Country Christmas television special. In 2005 she partnered with Dillard’s to launch her own lifestyle brand, and launched the REBA by Justin™ collection at select retailers nationwide for holiday 2017. The Oklahoma native is an acclaimed actress with 11 movie credits to her name, a lead on Broadway in “Annie Get Your Gun,” and starred in the six-season television sitcom “Reba.” As part of the longest-running country act in the Colosseum’s history, she will join with superstar pals for another round of “REBA, BROOKS & DUNN: Together in Vegas at Caesars.”

Wayne Shorter (Jazz Saxophonist, Composer)

Wayne Shorter has been called a genius, a trailblazer, a visionary and one of the world’s greatest composers. Born in Newark, N.J. in 1933, he grew up poring through comic books and imagining adventures in undiscovered universes. He studied music at New York University, and upon graduating, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

In 1959 Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers as a saxophonist, eventually composing for the group and becoming its music director. After four years, Miles Davis invited him to join his second historical quintet, with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter. This marked the beginning of Shorter’s exploration of uncharted territories that led him to form, with pianist Joe Zawinul, the world’s first fusion band, Weather Report.

Over the next decade, Short produced a succession of jazz albums for the Columbia label. During this period, he became known for collaborations with greats across genres, including Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Carlos Santana and Don Henley. In 1996 he released High Life, which received the GRAMMY® for best contemporary jazz album. Two years later, he reunited with longtime friend Herbie Hancock for an intimate duet recording entitled “1+1,” winning another GRAMMYfor their collaboration. In 2000 he formed his first acoustic group under his name, the Wayne Shorter Quartet, featuring Danilo Shorter, John Patitucci and Brian Blade, which still performs today. At the same time, Shorter began exploring the world of classical music. He paired with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw, and the BBC Chamber Orchestra, unveiling his new symphonic repertoire.

Shorter is the recipient of the NEA Jazz Masters Award (1998), the GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award (2015) and, most recently, the prestigious Polar Music Prize (2017). With a total of 11 GRAMMY Awards under his belt, Shorter refuses to slow down. Currently, in collaboration with Esperanza Spalding, he is composing his first opera, “Iphigenia,” his ultimate expression honoring the nobility of humanity – to awaken one’s inherent power. Wayne Shorter believes that there are no limits: “To me, jazz means: I dare you.”

The Co-Creators of “Hamilton”

Lin-Manuel Miranda (Writer and Actor)

Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Pulitzer Prize, GRAMMY®, Emmy® and Tony® Award-winning composer, lyricist and actor. He is the creator and original star of Broadway’s Tony Award-winning shows “Hamilton” and “In the Heights.” Additionally, his Broadway credits include “Bring It On: The Musical” (co-composer/co-lyricist, Tony nomination for Best Musical) and “West Side Story” (2009, Spanish translations). A 2015 MacArthur Foundation Award recipient, Miranda composed songs for Disney’s “Moana” (2017 Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Best Original Song). He has actively supported the relief efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in September 2017, creating the benefit single “Almost Like Praying.” TV/film credits include “Saturday Night Live” (2017 Emmy nomination, Guest Actor), “Sesame Street,” “The Electric Company,” “House,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “DuckTales,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “200 Cartas,” “The Odd Life of Timothy Green” and the upcoming 2018 holiday movie “Mary Poppins Returns.” In addition to his work as an artist, Miranda has worked with the Hispanic Federation since Hurricane Maria to support the rebuilding of Puerto Rico, and most recently he announced the launch of the Flamboyan Arts Fund to provide grants for artists, cultural institutions and programs on the island. Miranda received his B.A. from Wesleyan University in 2002. He lives with his family in New York City.

Thomas Kail (Director)

Thomas Kail received the 2016 Tony Award® for his direction of the Broadway production of “Hamilton.” He received a Tony nomination for his direction of “In the Heights.” Additional Broadway credits include the new plays “Lombardi” and “Magic/Bird.” Other credits include the world premiere of “Hamilton,” “Kings,” “Tiny Beautiful Things” and “Dry Powder” at the Public Theater; the world premiere of “In the Heights,” “Broke-ology” and the world premiere of “When I Come to Die” at Lincoln Center Theater; the world premiere of “Daphne’s Dive” at the Signature Theatre; Randy Newman’s “Faust,” as well as “The Wiz” at New York City Center; the world premiere of “The Tutors” at Second Stage Uptown; the world premiere of “Broke-ology” at Williamstown Theater Festival; the world premiere of A.R. Gurney’s “Family Furniture” at The Flea; and the national tour of “In the Heights.” Kail is the co-creator and director of the Hip Hop improv group Freestyle Love Supreme. He won the 2016 Emmy® for his direction of “Grease Live.” Also, Kail is the recipient of a Drama Desk Award, an Obie, a Callaway Award, the Lucille Lortel Award and the Martin E. Segal Award from Lincoln Center. He is a graduate of Wesleyan University.

Andy Blankenbuehler (Choreographer)

Andy Blankenbuehler is a proud three-time Tony Award® winner for his choreography in the Broadway productions of “Hamilton,” “Bandstand” and “In The Heights.” The recent production of “Bandstand” (director/choreographer) also received the Drama Desk and Chita Rivera Award for Best Choreography. Additional Broadway credits include “Bring It On” (Tony nomination), “9 to 5” (Tony nomination), “The People in the Picture,” “The Apple Tree,” “Annie,” and the recent revival of “CATS.” Other theatrical work includes “Desperately Seeking Susan” (West End), the world premiere of the new musical “FLY” (Dallas Theatre Center), “The Wiz” (City Center Encores), “A Little Princess” (Andrew Lippa), and the recent international tour of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Upcoming projects include the new musical “Only Gold” with British singer/songwriter Kate Nash.

On television, Mr. Blankenbuehler’s work has appeared on “Dirty Dancing,” “America’s Got Talent,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “The Sopranos,” MTV, “Sesame Street” featuring Janelle Monae, and many commercials. He has staged concert work for both Elton John and Bette Midler, and he conceived, directed and choreographed the hit Caesars Palace production “Nights on Broadway.” His work will be seen on the big screen next year in a yet-to-be-titled film with writer/director Adam McKay, starring Christian Bale and Steve Carell.

As a performer, Mr. Blankenbuehler danced on Broadway in “Fosse,” “Contact,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Saturday Night Fever,” “Steel Pier,” “Big” and “Guys and Dolls.” Originally from Cincinnati, Mr. Blankenbuehler resides in New York City with his wife, Elly, and two children, Luca and Sofia. He is a recipient of a special 2015 Drama Desk Award for his achievement in the theater.

Alex Lacamoire (Music Supervisor/Orchestrator/Co-Arranger)

Alex Lacamoire is a three-time Tony Award® and three-time GRAMMY® winner for his work on the Broadway musicals “Hamilton,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “In The Heights.” His film credits include “The Greatest Showman” (executive music producer) and “Incredibles 2” (arranger/orchestrator). As music director, arranger and/or orchestrator on Broadway, he has worked on “Annie” (2011 Broadway revival), “Bring It On,” “The People In The Picture,” “9 to 5” (Drama Desk and Grammy nominations), “Legally Blonde,” “High Fidelity” and “Wicked.” Other theatrical credits include “Bat Boy: The Musical,” “Godspell” (2001 National Tour), orchestrations for the Rockettes and the Academy Awards. He is an Emmy-nominated composer for “Sesame Street.”

Hollywood Walk of Fame announces 2018 star recipients

June 22. 2017

The following is a press release from the Hollywood Walk of Fame:

A new group of entertainment professionals in the categories of Motion Pictures, Television, Live Theatre/Live Performance, Radio and Recording have been selected to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it was announced today, Thursday, June 22, 2017 by the Walk of Fame Selection Committee of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. These honorees were chosen from among hundreds of nominations to the committee at a meeting held in June and ratified by the Hollywood Chamber’s Board of Directors. Television Producer and Walk of Famer Vin Di Bona, Chair of the Walk of Fame Selection Committee for 2017, announced the new honorees with Leron Gubler, President & CEO for the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce who is also the emcee of the Walk of Fame ceremonies.

The new selections were revealed to the world via live stream exclusively on the official website www.walkoffame.com. The live stream began at 2:15 p.m. PDT and was held at the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce offices.

“The Walk of Fame Selection Committee is pleased to announce our newest honorees to the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Committee looked carefully at each nominee and we feel that we have selected an eclectic group of talent that will appeal to the tastes of many fans around the world,” said Di Bona. “As a Walk of Famer myself, I know these honorees will remember the dedication of their stars with great memories and will be proud that they are part of Hollywood’s history now and forever. We look forward to their big day as the Walk of Fame Class of 2018 becomes cemented one by one on the most famous sidewalk in the world!”

The Hollywood Walk of Fame Class of 2018 are:

In the category of MOTION PICTURES:   Jack Black, Kirsten Dunst, Jeff Goldblum, F. Gary Gray, Mark Hamill, Jennifer Lawrence, Gina Lollobrigida, Minnie Mouse, Nick Nolte and Zoe Saldana

In the category of TELEVISION:   Anthony Anderson, Gillian Anderson, Lynda Carter, Simon Cowell, RuPaul Charles, Taraji P. Henson, Eric McCormack, Ryan Murphy, Niecy Nash, Mandy Patinkin, Shonda Rhimes, and posthumous Steve Irwin

In the category of RECORDING:  Mary J. Blige, Sir Richard Branson, Petula Clark, Harry Connick, Jr., Ice T, Snoop Dogg, Carrie Underwood and “Weird Al” Yankovic

In the category of RADIO:   Steve Jones

In the category of LIVE THEATRE/LIVE PERFORMANCE:   Charles Aznavour, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and posthumous Bernie Mac

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce and its Walk of Fame Selection Committee congratulate all the honorees. Dates have not been scheduled for these star ceremonies. Recipients have two years to schedule star ceremonies from the date of selection before they expire. Upcoming star ceremonies are usually announced ten days prior to dedication on the official website www.walkoffame.com.

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