Monday 27 September 2010

"There's A Whole Lot of Heaven" by Iris DeMent

My favourite thing that anyone's ever said about Iris DeMent's singing is a comment by a reviewer from Folk Roots magazine, who noted that "her voice cuts like a knife, takes you apart, and then kisses it better." A new DeMent song is pretty much like gold dust these days, but "There's A Whole Lot of Heaven" (featured here in a performance from Series Three of the great Transatlantic Sessions) is a beauty. I wish these guys would come and play in my living room someday.   

Friday 24 September 2010

"Siren" by Tori Amos

"Almost brave, almost pregnant...": a superb "Siren."

The Rivals (Richmond Theatre)

It’s hard to imagine a safer, more traditional take on Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s comic warhorse The Rivals (1775) than Peter Hall’s new, Bath-originated production, which is currently at Richmond Theatre prior to a West End run later this year. But Hall’s conventional approach to Sheridan’s trifle of plots and proposals and spectacular verbal faux pas proves rather endearing; there's no distracting gimmickry here. A principal attraction of the production (for those of A Certain Age, at least) is its re-teaming of Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles, reunited for the first time since the popular BBC sitcom To the Manor Born thirty years ago, and interacting enjoyably here as Mrs. Malaprop and Sir Anthony Absolute. It’s a measure of the affection in which the pair is held that their first appearance on stage earned a round of applause from members of last night’s audience.

Hall’s production doesn’t reach the comic heights scaled earlier this year by Nicholas Hytner’s cheekier take on London Assurance at the National but it’s a classy, consistently amusing evening nonetheless, in which Simon Higlett's attractive set evokes Bath's public and private spaces with economical elegance. Keith and Bowles are good value, she adding a nice touch of dignity and, finally, poignancy to the character, along with sovereign comedic skills. The younger cast members, including newcomer Robyn Addison as Lydia, Tam Williams as Jack and Annabel Scholey as Julia, also acquit themselves well (Williams and Scholey both featured in Hall’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre in Kingston earlier this year), and there's colourful support from Keiron Self as Bob Acres and  Gerard Murphy as Sir Lucius O'Trigger. “He will penetrate my mystery,” declares Keith’s divine Mrs. M of the latter. There’s no mystery in Hall’s production, and no quirks or idiosyncrasies, either. But this is a solid Rivals that consistently satisfies and sometimes delights.

After Richmond, and prior to its West End residency,  the production is at Theatre Royal Norwich (Sept 17–Oct 2); Cambridge Arts Theatre (Oct 4–9); Theatre Royal Nottingham (Oct 12–16); Malvern Festival Theatre (Oct 25–30); and Chichester Festival Theatre (Nov 1–6).

Friday 17 September 2010

Thoughts on Theatre


In an interview with Carole Zucker, Fiona Shaw suggests that the stage actor has “an incredible throwaway relationship to eternity.”  In the theatre, Shaw says, “you give your life’s blood to concentrating and perfecting events that pass in a second, and only live in the memories of those people who are watching them.” Harriet Walter puts a similar point a bit more positively in her book on acting Other People’s Shoes:

“The theatre feels like one of the most ephemeral of art forms when you are taking part. You can see your telly and film career on your video shelf, but all you have left of a theatre piece is the programme, some photos and perhaps some reviews. Yet for all this, of all the remarks that come my way I hear, “I will never forget that play” or, “I can still see that moment when…” far more often than I hear, “I will never forget that film/TV show.” I think that is because, at its best, live theatre involves the audience at a different level than anything recorded. When we sit in the audience we don’t just watch a fait accompli, we are part of the event. We remember the play as a personal memory. It is something that happened to us.” (Other People’s Shoes, 227)

Shaw’s and Walter’s comments got me thinking about the transience (or otherwise) of theatre as an art-form and inspired me to reflect upon some of the productions that have meant the most to me in the last decade. I’ve been going to plays fairly consistently in the last ten years, and it's certainly true that the best experiences I’ve had do live on as "personal memories" as both Walter and Shaw suggest. I don't share Walter's view that live theatre, by default,  "involves the audience at a different level than anything recorded" (check out those audience members slumbering in theatres across the land for evidence to the contrary) and certainly the form could never surpass film in my own affections. In fact, theatre played almost no part in my cultural life until I was 20. Though I'd always enjoyed the experience of reading and studying plays, this never translated into a desire to see them live. In fact, I had all kinds of predictable prejudices about theatre, which struck me as an entirely out-dated art-form: old-fashioned, elitist, a little bit embarrassing.

In the end, though, it was film that helped me to change my mind about theatre. Sam Mendes’s American Beauty, seen at the beginning of 2000, entranced me so much that it led me to investigate his work at the Donmar Warehouse where he was Artistic Director at the time. The tiny Donmar is recognised as the "bridge" into theatre for many a film actor and so it proved for this audience member. The first production I saw there, in June of the same year, was Orpheus Descending which had some reassuringly film-associated names attached to it (Helen Mirren, Nicholas Hytner, Tennesee Williams). I was pretty much enthralled by it, and got quite hooked on theatre for a while. I’m less hooked these days, but still occasionally see something that blows me away, performances at which, as Zucker puts it, "you feel that you've witnessed something fresh, important, and even heroic."   Below I've listed ten of the productions that I've enjoyed the most in the last ten years; it goes without saying that there are many, many more.

                                         1. Orpheus Descending, Donmar Warehouse, 2000

Few would describe Orpheus Descending as one of Tennessee Williams’s greatest plays; in fact, in its film incarnation, The Fugitive Kind (1959), the piece comes off as rather ludicrous. Williams’s Orpheus is a guitar-wielding, snakeskin-jacketed drifter named Val, who encounters his middle-aged Eurydice, Lady Torrance, in a hellish Southern town where she works in her husband’s store. But in the confines of the Donmar Warehouse, in a sensitive, sometimes scary production by Nicholas Hytner, the play seemed a blazing masterpiece. “It did feel as if, done intimately, the intensity between Val and Lady would crackle quite a bit,” Hytner said. And crackle it did, with stunning performances from Helen Mirren and Stuart Townsend in the lead roles, great work from the supporting cast, and an atmosphere of oppressive rot, in which the struggle of Williams’s characters “to be not defeated” achieved tremendous poignancy. Ten years on I recall moments in this production with as much clarity as if I’d seen them yesterday. Very special.

2. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Lyric Theatre, 2000

It’s been a delight to have the chance to see one of my favourite actresses, Jessica Lange, on stage twice, and in two of the American theatre’s very best roles. Despite strong work from Charles Dance, Paul Rudd and Paul Nichols, Lange’s Mary Tyrone dominated Robin Phillips's haunting  production of Long Day's Journey Into Night  from her first appearance to her closing monologue, and her unsentimental yet intensely sympathetic performance took the breath away. Lange's work here, and as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (in 2007), adds up to as rich and memorable a pair of performances as I’ve seen in the theatre this decade.

                                                    3. All My Sons, National Theatre, 2001

Howard Davies’s nerve-shreddingly intense production of Arthur Miller’s 1947 drama remains my favourite production of all time. Transferred from the Cottesloe to the Lytletton, the play took on an epic grandeur without losing any of its intimacy, as Miller anatomises post-WW2 US society through a depiction of the Keller family’s losses, lies, sacrifices and crimes. Tight structure, an amazingly realistic back-porch set, superb performances from James Hazeldine, Laurie Metcalf, Ben Daniels and Madeline Potter, and an extraordinary, Ibsen-esque emotional impact. Coincidentally enough, the production is on again in the West End right now, recast, but somehow I’m not tempted to revisit it. The play is inextricably tied to this group of actors to me, and to this moment in time. But if you haven’t seen it then go, go, go, go, go.

 4. A Streetcar Named Desire, National Theatre, 2002

Trevor Nunn’s production wasn’t perfect, tending, at times, towards the overly grandiose. But it was still an excellent account of this most powerful and poetic of plays. Iain Glen and Essie Davis gave memorable accounts of Stanley and Stella, and if Glenn Close, as Blanche, seemed a little too strident initially, the performance deepened from “Don’t hang back with the brutes” to become extremely involving and distressing. I will never forget the final half hour of this production. At least a month after seeing it I woke up moved and shaken by its final moments.

                            5 & 6. Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, Donmar Warehouse, 2002

Enough of those pesky Americans! Sam Mendes’s Donmar swansongs proved predictably stunning, a bona fide cultural Event. The decision to use the same crew and cast across both productions enabled a wealth of unexpected similarities to emerge from the plays, and the Donmar space allowed for a piercing, intense intimacy and immediacy. Although the Vanya production was ever so slightly hobbled by Brian Friels’s uneven “adaptation,” Twelfth Night was everything you could wish for: elegant, hilarious, sexy, sad, utterly magical. A perfect ensemble included a commanding Mark Strong, a captivating Helen McCrory, the peerless David Bradley, and Simon Russell Beale, who created two unforgettable studies of two deeply wounded, deeply lonely men, his Vanya as rumpled and crumpled as his Malvolio was prissy and neat.

7. Jumpers, National Theatre, 2003

Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers irritated the hell out me at first but I was drawn back to see it a few times and ended up falling in love with David Leveaux’s production, in which there was always something fresh to discover.  Lines that zing and resonate, farce, philosophy, vaudeville, a marriage in crisis, the moon. The immortal question: "Are God?" Leveaux's direction gave the play pace and pizzazz; Simon Russell Beale and Essie Davis's performances gave it heart and soul.

           8. The Lady from the Sea, Almeida, 2003 

Trevor Nunn’s production exposed the gripping family dynamics underpinning one of Ibsen’s most expressionistic plays without sacrificing any of the oddity and poetry. All of the cast were superb, but the production was dominated by Natasha Richardson’s performance. As Ellida struggled with and confronted, finally, the choice between danger and fantasy represented by the “Stranger” and the compromises of her marriage, Richardson’s vocal and physical resemblance to her mother Vanessa Redgrave added an extra layer of depth and mystery to a performance of both blazing emotional intensity and subtle nuance. What a terrible loss.

9. Caroline, or Change, Eugene O'Neill Theatre, 2004; NT, 2006 

I stumbled into Caroline, or Change on a trip to New York without really knowing much about it at all. I emerged stunned and exhilarated and deeply moved by what I think is far and away the most accomplished, profound piece of musical theatre produced this decade. Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s soulful, rich and humane people’s opera, about an African-American maid’s relationship with the Jewish boy whose family’s home she cleans, explores big themes - money, race, loneliness, loss - with depth, insight and wit. A gorgeous, stunning score and Tonya Pinkins’s tour de force performance captivated the theatre. I was grateful to have the chance to see it again, in its transfer to the National Theatre in 2006-7. But this is a show that I could happily watch once a week, at least.

10. Coram Boy, National Theatre, 2005

A gorgeous, expressionist staging by Melly Still of Jamila Gavin’s Dickensian children’s novel. Thrilling, moving, inspirational.

And, what the hell, five more...

Humble Boy, Gielgud Theatre, 2002
Strange Orchestra, Orange Tree, 2003
The History Boys, National Theatre, 2004 
Street Scene, Young Vic, 2007 
The Year of Magical Thinking, National Theatre, 2008


A Little Light Linkage

Links to some of my favourite recent dispatches from the Blogosphere.

Michał offers superb reviews of Blank City (2009) and Winter's Bone (2010) at Last Seat on the Right.

Jason at Popsublime gets in-depth on the music of Gregg Alexander .

Burning Reels indulges in some great auteur-related speculations.

Preparing to relocate, Wild Celtic delivers a lovely post on airports as sites of coincidence and synchronicity.

Mike Lippert ponders film criticism and subjectivity in a brilliant post at You Talking To Me?

Ian at There Ought to Be Clowns reviews Les Miserables at the Barbican and Sondheim's Passion at the Donmar.

"End of the Summer" by Dar Williams

“It’s just that time of year when we push ourselves ahead…” A track to reach for right about now. There are so many details and images that I love here, but most of all I like the song’s evocation of the courage that this time of year tends to require from us in many different ways.

Monday 13 September 2010

The Beaches of Agnés (2008)

Agnés Varda’s idiosyncratic cine-autobiography The Beaches of Agnés (Les Plages d’Agnés) (2008) is a total pleasure. I’ve admired and enjoyed the few fiction films by Varda that I’ve seen - Cleo de 5 a 7 (1961), in particular - but her documentaries, from Jacquot de Nantes (1990) about her husband, Jacques Demy, to the entrancing The Gleaners and I (2000) have a special delight and fascination. Aged 80 now, Varda continues to make movies with what can only be described as unfettered glee. The new film ranges over episodes from her childhood in Brussels to the present-day, and its collage structure is somewhat reminiscent of Jacquot's, with Varda using a mixture of clips, interviews, tableaux and stylised recreations to re-construct her life-story. But the new film is ultimately a much more digressive, experimental work than was Jacquot de Nantes. If I tell you that it features director Chris Marker in the guise of an animated cat, well, then you get an idea of the eccentricity of Varda’s methods here.

“I’m playing the role of a little old lady,” Varda announces early on and “play” is clearly central to her concept of cinema. Yet the array of stylistic tricks that she employs throughout The Beaches of Agnés never become wearisome. There’s a marvellous lightness of touch to her approach throughout, and the movie can suddenly turn lyrical, poignant and profound. I loved her recollections of being in the US in the 1960s - where she made a film about the Black Panthers and encountered Jim Morrison - and her musing on Demy’s death is very moving. This could feel like a solipsistic exercise, and yet it’s one of the movie’s great paradoxes that, by focusing so closely on herself, Varda has created a bracingly inclusive film. The Beaches of Agnés is a meditation on memory, on art, on collaboration, on life itself. Like much of Varda’s work, it sharpens the viewer’s perception of the world, heightening awareness of what can be noticed, appreciated and - ultimately - loved within it.

Note: The Beaches of Agnés also has the distinction of being the most innocuous film in history to have an 18 certificate slapped on it, due to a brief shot of an erect penis in a sequence in which a Magritte painting is recreated. What madness!

Sunday 12 September 2010

Claude Chabrol (1930-2010)

Triste nouvelle. Favourite Chabrol films? I vote La Femme infidèle (1969), Madame Bovary (1991) and, above all, the great Rendell adaptation, La Cérémonie (1995).

Venice Film Festival...And The Winners Are...

Wins for Sofia Coppola (Somewhere), Vincent Gallo (in Skolimowski's Essential Killing), Alex de la Iglesia (A Sad Trumpet Ballad) and Richard J. Lewis's Barney’s Version amongst others at the Venice Film Festival.

Friday 10 September 2010

Simon Callow @ Masterclass (9/09/2010)

Simon Callow gave an excellent Masterclass at Theatre Royal Haymarket yesterday. Currently starring as Shakespeare (no less) in the one-man show he’s devised with Jonathan Bate, The Man From Stratford (“I intend to perform this for a very long time,” he noted), the gracious and erudite actor didn’t attempt a potted career overview;  instead he focused his opening talk upon how he came to acting through a love of story-telling generally and Shakespeare’s plays specifically. Callow spoke with passion about his discovery of and immersion in the Bard’s work (from his encounter with a radio version of Macbeth at age six to his witnessing of Olivier’s interpretations in the 1960s and his own performance of all of the sonnets, from memory, at the National Theatre in the 1970s), and was convincing (should anyone still need convincing) in his argument that Shakespeare still gives “the best account of what it is to be a human being” available in literature. Opening up to questions, Callow was asked about his most challenging stage roles, about playing Pozzo alongside Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart and Ronald Pickup in Godot last year, about industry changes since he first started out, and about his foray into film directing with The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991), on which he battled an uncooperative Rod Steiger and an even more uncooperative DP. 

Callow responded to the questions in detail and with great insight and humour. I was particularly interested in his criticisms of naturalism in theatre performance, his contention that stage acting often needs to be grander, more poetic and daring, and his identification of actors who continue to scale those dizzy heights, Mark Rylance and Vanessa Redgrave being two examples. (“The theatre doesn’t just hold a mirror up to life; its more like a painting, an expressionist painting …”). Callow also offered a brilliant impersonation of Milos Forman (explaining why he wouldn’t be cast as Mozart in the film of Amadeus). But the afternoon’s most hilarious moment came when he was asked about his attitude to critics. “I am aware that there are people out there who don’t like my acting,” Callow acknowledged, before adding, with pitch-perfect timing that brought the house down: “And I feel sorry for them.”

The Thunderbolt, Orange Tree Theatre

Sam Walters’s fine production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s seldom performed play The Thunderbolt (1908) opened last week at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, the first production of the venue’s Autumn season. Pinero’s drama focuses upon a Midlands family, the Mortimers, squabbling over the estate of the oldest brother Edward who has died without, apparently, leaving a will. Walters’s crystal clear, beautifully modulated and thoroughly involving production is alert to the quick shifts of tone in Pinero’s writing, the sharp humour and the underlying poignancy. Satiric elements here are balanced by a deep compassion. And the ensemble cast couldn’t be bettered. Stuart Fox and Natalie Ogle stand out as the most sympathetic of the family’s members who find themselves unfortunately immersed in a moral quagmire, and Gráinne Keenan (returning to the OT after a great  stage debut in Susan Glaspell’s Allison’s House last year) gives a superb performance as Edward’s  illegitimate daughter Helen, whose arrival stirs things up in unexpected ways. As well as their solid track-record with new work, the Orange Tree can always be relied upon to unearth unsung gems from the British theatrical canon and, with The Thunderbolt, the theatre has uncovered another example. This is a gripping production of a droll and moving play. Catch it until the 2nd October.

Monday 6 September 2010

Richard Shindell @ Twickfolk (5/09/2010)


I’ve been posting Richard Shindell songs on-and-off for the past year or so, and was delighted to have the opportunity to see him perform live last night at Twickfolk, just a short distance from where I live. It was a terrific, inspiring gig. This was Shindell’s third appearance at the venue and, given the enthusiastic audience response, he’s clearly built a solid following around these parts. Deservedly so: Shindell is, I firmly believe, one of the best folk singer/songwriters of all-time, and his extraordinary compositions stilll deserve to be much more widely known.

Shindell was accompanied by Marc Shulman on electric guitar for this tour. He explained that they’ve only been performing together for a few months but that Shulman is now “indispensable.” Their palpable rapport bore out that assessment, with Shulman’s excellent contributions adding fresh, dramatic textures to Shindell’s more familiar material. Two men, two guitars but the room was soon full of other presences: the Civil War widow and soldiers in “Reunion Hill,” the INS officer and Mexican immigrant in “Fishing,” the under-pressure power-broker in “Confession,” the cab driver surveying post 9/11 New York in “The Last Fare of the Day,” the family man regretting a lost love in “A Summer Wind, A Cotton Dress,” the Confederate drummer-boy in “Arrowhead,” even a depressed Argentinean cow in “Stray Cow Blues.”

The excellent set-list thus spanned the range of Shindell’s output, up to a fascinating new song “Satellites” - which starts out as a depiction of a stand-off between police and protestors in Buenos Aires and then “goes orbital,” in Shindell’s terms. Cover versions of Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” were well judged, but it was Shindell's own material that shone the brightest. In great voice, Shindell brought tension and suspense to his narratives, effortlessly drawing the listener into the lives and dilemmas of his protagonists. His longest songs "Transit" and "There Goes Mavis" were particularly sublime, while "Wisteria" was haunting in its loveliness.  

Like the best folk artists, Shindell sublimates his personality into the stories of his varied characters, and yet he’s a subtly charismatic performer, with a wry sense of humour and an easy-going charm between songs. (His love of language shone through as he discussed the vagaries of British pronunciation and his preferred English words and expressions; “Bob’s your uncle” is his favourite.) He's a literary song-writer in the best sense, a composer in whose work every single word and detail counts, and who knows when a more direct approach proves as effective as an oblique metaphor. “I’m clearly made happy by miserable dirges,” he quipped at one point. Few would apply such a reductive description to Shindell's amazing work. But it's true that his songs - evocative, complex, poignant and spell-binding - certainly made this audience very, very happy indeed.  

Sunday 5 September 2010

Laws of Illusion (2010) by Sarah McLachlan

2010 has proved to be an uncharacteristically productive year for Sarah McLachlan. Not only has this summer seen the unexpected revival of Lilith Fair, the female-artist-only concert tour that she founded to great success in the late 1990s, but McLachlan has finally released a new studio album, her first collection of all-new material since 2003’s Afterglow. That’s not to say that the Canadian singer/songwriter has been entirely absent from the music scene over the last seven years: in fact, she’s put out a steady stream of compilations and reissues in the meantime, plus the Christmas album Wintersong (2006) and last year’s enjoyable, well-sequenced Best Of collection, Closer. Among McLachlan’s fans, hopes have been fairly high for Laws of Illusion, which charts the emotional fall-out of the singer’s divorce from drummer Ashwin Sood. The truth is, though, that while the new album is a respectable, proficient offering, it doesn’t, as might have been expected, find McLachlan venturing into new sonic territory. Rather, it’s a work that seems content to coast, to rake over some familiar ground.

It’s a critical commonplace to describe the trajectory of McLachlan’s career as one of ever-encroaching blandness, and that’s not a stance that Laws of Illusion does much to refute. The line between hauntingly beautiful and simply soporific that her music has often walked has rarely seemed so fine. She’s in good voice throughout the album, but the prevailing mood suggests a collaboration between Dido and Enya. That being said, there are some memorable moments. The album opens in fine style with “Awakenings,” a track whose shifting rhythms and dramatic electric guitar flourishes promise much. “Illusions of Bliss” slides elegantly into the kind of slinky, catchy chorus of which McLachlan is a proven master. “Forgiveness,” with delicate piano and guitar building to a swooping bridge, is poised and graceful, while the spare “Rivers of Love” sustains a jazzy, late-night ambience. The album’s most spiritual, redemptive moment is a cover of Susan Enan’s “Bring on the Wonder,” rendered here as a stirring incantation.

Elsewhere, though, Pierre Marchand’s glossy, polished production robs some of Laws of Illusion’s songs of personality and drive. The percussive jauntiness of “Loving You Is Easy” seems out of place, while “Don’t Give Up On Us” and “U Want Me 2” (both featured on Closer) still fail to stir much interest in this context. At times, there’s the sense that McLachlan and her musicians are simply going through the motions; it’s particularly frustrating that crack drummer Matt Chamberlain (replacing Sood) is never really let off the leash. The album tends to touch on difficult emotions without ever fully embodying them. Anger, regret and self-abasement have rarely sounded so decorous; as a break-up album, Blood on the Tracks (1975) or Boys For Pele (1996) this ain’t.

It should be noted that, song for song, Laws of Illusion is no duller than, say, the last Antony and the Johnsons album. But it suffers from a similar problem: it’s a little too exquisite for its own good. In an era of crude overstatement, the restraint and tastefulness of McLachlan’s approach undoubtedly has its appeal. She’s the kind of artist that a reviewer feels kindly disposed towards and Laws of Illusion is a classy, competent piece of work. But some further forays outside the comfort zone wouldn’t go amiss.

Friday 3 September 2010

Certified Copy (2010)

Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (Copie Conforme) (2010) comes off a little like an intellectual’s idea of a romantic comedy, but it’s no less enjoyable for that. Indeed, despite a strand of obtuseness that will doubtless irritate some viewers, it’s a relatively accessible offering from the Iranian auteur, who, with recent meta-cinematic outings such as 10 on Ten (2004) and Shirin (2009), has sadly seemed in danger of disappearing up his own rectum. Certified Copy tethers its philosophical speculations to a narrative, even as it unpicks the stability of its premise throughout. The film focuses on a few hours spent between two characters in Italy: a British author (William Shimmell), who’s publicising his new book about originality in art, and a French antique shop owner (Juliette Binoche) who drives him into the Tuscan hills. As the day progresses, it becomes apparent that these two protagonists may not be strangers to each other, and may in fact have a complex shared history.

Binoche has described Certified Copy as “a hymn to love,” and Rosselini's Journey to Italy (1954) and Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) are among the film's most obvious intertexts. In some ways, though, its more of a hymn to Binoche herself: Kiarostami clearly relishes filming her and she responds with a subtle, varied and thoroughly compelling performance. Shimmell, an opera singer whose first film role this is, also acquits himself well. The nuances that both actors find in their roles help to carry the viewer through some rather hoary clichés about What Men and Women Want that appear in Kiarostami’s screenplay, and turn the film into a memorable duet. At times the pontificating on art, on the value of originals over copies, grows irksome, but then there are startling moments in which a scene suddenly becomes flooded with intense emotion. Needless to say, it’s a gorgeous film to look at, too, with the unobtrusively filmed Tuscan landscapes competing with the actors’ faces for expressiveness, and Kiarostami’s assured sense of composition and pace creating a seductive flow. Not a film for everyone, then, but Certified Copy casts its own singular spell. It’s enigmatic and obvious, exasperating and beguiling, heavy-handed and understated, witty and poignant, all at once.

Letter To Heaven (2010) by Dolly Parton

From dyed-in-the-wool classics like The Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real (1960) to strong contemporary examples such as Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book (2004) and Iris DeMent’s Lifeline (2004), the gospel album has been, and remains, a staple of country music. In 1971, a productive year that saw her release two other albums (Joshua and Coat of Many Colors), Dolly Parton made her first foray into the genre with a record entitled Golden Streets of Glory. Letter To Heaven: Songs of Faith and Inspiration is a re-issue of that release, supplemented by an album outtake and a selection of appropriate singles, including Parton’s 1975 hit “The Seeker.” It’s an appealing work that serves, alongside the recent re-issues of Parton’s classic late 196s0/early-1970s albums, as a further reminder of just how vital and fundamentally traditional the pre-pop-crossover Parton really was.

With the cream of 1970s Nashville session players on hand to contribute pedal steel, fiddle, guitar, piano, organ and heavenly harmonies the sound of Letter to Heaven is archetypal early 1970s country: professional and slick yet heartfelt and soulful, and, by today‘s mainstream country standards, firmly rooted in tradition. Spirituals and hymns such as “I Believe,” “How Great Thou Art”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (reworked as “Comin’ For To Carry Me Home”) and “Wings of A Dove” get tasteful, subtly inventive treatments and mesh well with Parton’s original material, of which the spirited “The Master’s Hand” the lovely “Golden Streets of Glory”, the previously unreleased “Would You Know Him (If You Saw Him),” and the great Porter Wagoner duet “Daddy Was An Old Time Preacher Man” are among the highlights. A notable characteristic of Parton’s own compositions is that they often seem keener to celebrate manifestations of the divine here on earth rather than rhapsodise about the hereafter.

Of course Parton, the grand-daughter of the fiddle-playing preacher-man to whom the above-cited song is a tribute, has never lacked for conviction when it comes to writing and interpreting this kind of material. Her formative singing experiences (recalled here on the track “Sacred Memories”) occurred in her local church where, as she has recalled “our services would be mostly music … the old hymns. They were just about the biggest thing we did recreation-wise.” A sense of tradition and of Parton’s deep roots in this music shines through ever note she sings on this album. That’s not to say that it’s all great: “I See God” is simply a schmaltzier variant on the Louvins’ sublime “He Can Be Found” while the title track - about a little girl’s swiftly-fulfilled wish to join her momma in heaven - is more horrifying than consoling.

But overall, and thanks in no small part to the always appealing delicacy and twang of Parton’s unmistakeable vocals, there’s a sweetness and sincerity to Letter To Heaven that endows the record much more than just kitsch appeal. This is a lovely, thoughtfully compiled release, and one that Parton fans are sure to welcome.

Review published at