Two Masterpieces?


Since we know our tastes have changed, every so often we go to YouTube to check out stuff we used to like.

Well the other afternoon we decided to listen to Porgy and Bess…. a few seconds in we looked at each other, “uh, oh….”

It was a movie with flaming red Technicolor skies, well fed big blacks happily haulin’ cotton, and hot black jazz bars with free-flowing cocaine.  But Porgy was written back in the 30’s when stereotypes which would get you busted today were still OK, so we let that pass….

What we couldn’t ignore was the music, and actually we didn’t get much past “Summertime”.  In our memories that was a peak, a musical Everest, but now the song struck us as lame and predictable.  True it went impressively high, but the words were more than a little syrupy.

Of course it isn’t fair to damn a tune by the way it sounds in a silly movie, at least not before comparing a few other versions.  But when we did, they too left us dissatisfied.  Janis was the most obvious failure, she couldn’t hit the notes and had no choice but to scream.  Sarah Vaughn who could in fact sing the piece, came across as self-satisfied and lazy.  Ella’s rendition was boring.  And even Billy couldn’t put feeling into it like she does when she’s serious.

So we had our answer, the problem was the song itself had no magic.  Skill and artistry couldn’t hide it had been put together by following a formula, had been crafted by the mind not sung from the heart.

…. At that point we’d been on YouTube for more than an hour, but there was time left and we didn’t want to quit feeling so disappointed.

OK, so maybe Gershwin was commercial and dated, but how about Bernstein (we were checking out musicals that day….)

So we typed in West Side Story.  As we remembered it, the dancing had been awesome.

But it wasn’t.  It was much too polite, way too classical.  There was nothing down and dirty.  Lines of professional dancers cutting loose synchronized kicks.  It didn’t ring true, didn’t conjure the slums.  Of course what’s a choreographer to do with a score by a rich ultimately successful Harvard guy, a composer who couldn’t possibly feel what it’s like to be a futureless gang member.

The music needed to be tough and edgy, but what Bernstein wrote swung between hysteria and schmaltz.

“Tonight” was just as disappointing as “Summertime”.  The same unconvincing ecstasy in the high highs, the same sort of bland underlying musical shape.  If we squinted our ears, they even sounded the same.

Porgy and Bess and West Side Story, two acknowledged masterpieces by “great” composers, and neither made the cut.  Exotic locales weren’t enough to make them work.  A few borrowed ethnic motifs couldn’t make up for their lack of inspiration.


But we didn’t want to give up and move to dinner in such a down state, so we figured we’d give it just one more try.

This time since the greats hadn’t done it, we picked something more humble, typed in “Saturday Night Fever”….

… and Bamm!!!  There we were in the sweet summer city!  The New York streets were sweaty alive.  The wagging butts Travolta twisted to stare at were worth twisting for…

…. and the music was awesome.  The Bee Gees weren’t pretending to be anything except what they were, three together guys who could sing.  They weren’t showing off their operatic highs, they weren’t trying to be impressive.  They were just doing their job, laying down a soundtrack for being young and hot and horny in the city.  It was completely irresistible.

Later the movie and the music lost some steam, but at least the first 5 minutes were brilliant.  Gershwin and Bernstein, two certified geniuses, couldn’t compete.

It’s enough to start you thinking….


The Emperor Has No Clothes
Music and Magic