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Sachal Jazz, Manhattan Magic

Last night radiated the sort of Manhattan magic that makes great change seem not only possible but inevitable, and it reminded me why I still love New York (as if I ever need reminding). My friend Rowena, with whom I recently connected and with whom I immediately re-experienced that bright snuggly feeling you get with members of your soul family, joined me for a special screening at the Crosby Street Hotel of the jazz documentary “Songs of Lahore.” I’m so glad we beat back our Daylight Saving Time stupor to go. Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, it is about classical Pakistani musicians who formed a collective in an effort to survive the artist-averse Sharia law, and it offers brilliant testament to how much art can help us transcend.

After years of releasing traditional albums with only limited success, the group marshalled their improvisational abilities and, calling themselves the Sachal Jazz Ensemble, recorded a rendition of “Take Five” that went internationally viral. It attracted the attention of the legendary Wynton Marsalis, who brought them to New York to perform with his group at Lincoln Center. An homage to cultural cross-pollination, the film offers significant dramatic tension as so much rode on the concert for the poverty-stricken, persecuted Sachal players, and Marsalis does not mess. (He fired their sitarist after the first rehearsal.) When it worked out—and lordy-lordy did it ever!—the audience at Lincoln Center spontaneously burst into ecstatic cheers. So did I. Actually, I was crying, too. This music was whole and rich and layered with not one but two ancestral traditions of joyous, tenacious grace, and I felt lucky to witness its whirling-dervish, big-bottomed glory.

As the credits rolled, the featured Pakistani musicians appeared on the hotel stage for a bow and everyone went bananas. We knew from the film exactly how much they had undergone to be with us, and were so glad to see them. Downstairs we all trooped for wine and schmoozing.

I tend to avoid NY film-related parties—same faces, same conversations, same big black glasses—but nothing about last night was usual. I ran into Ahmad Razvi, another long-lost friend whom I’d met at the 2006 Roger Ebert film festival when he was starring in the astounding film “Man Push Cart.” Ahmed introduced me to his “family,” the pack of instrumentalists who had just wowed us, and a minute later we all were giggling at each other’s happy silliness. “You like my music; you are my friend!” said percussionist Najaf Ali, waggling his eyebrows. “Well, exactly!” I said, flashing my crazy teeth.

The group sat on the floor with their flute and drums and guitar and violin and sitar, and Rowena and I kneeled with them as they launched into some of the most astounding improvisation I’ve ever heard in person. All around me the normally stitched-up crowd was laid open and lit up—moving and nodding hello-hi-how-are-you at the huge thing happening in that room. Even Meryl Streep, who was hosting the affair, was swaying like a college girl at a be-in rather than a movie star with a bunch of gold boys in her closet.

It was a magical night, pure magic, and one way I know is I forgot to take any pictures and Rowena’s phone disappeared into thin air after she took a bunch. When the energy frequency is that high, electronics can never keep up.

(Note: These photographs were taken with other people’s cameras.)

The Truth About ‘Truth’

“Truth,” like everything connected to former CBS news producer Mary Mapes these days, has been awash in controversy since its release. About the notorious “60 Minutes II” segment on President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, it focuses on the accusations of document forgeries that resulted in Mapes’s termination and longtime news anchor Dan Rather’s resignation. Adapted from Mapes’s memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Powerthe film takes the firm stance that the news team (all of whom got the sack in one way or another) were unfairly scapegoated by the rabid right and a television network desperately trying to protect its own corporate interests. But as waggish New Yorker critic Anthony Lane wrote, “Call a movie ‘Truth,’ and you’re asking for trouble.”

Even some members of the allegedly liberal media have taken issue with the film’s unwavering conviction in the reporting of the “60 Minutes II” team. “This is one of the worst films about journalism (and there have been plenty of bad ones) to come down the pike in a long while,” fumed Christopher Orr in The Atlantic. “It loudly, hectoringly stresses the importance of always ‘asking questions’ … yet celebrates in its protagonist that she never questions whether her reporting might have been wrong.” The few positive reviews are studies in faint praise. “On its own terms,” wrote New York Magazines David Edelstein, “‘Truth’ works fine … But having a feeling and having proof are different things.” Other critics (like myself) have bigger problems with the ham-handedness – with how characters speechify rather than speak, as if they’re cogs in an especially ardent position paper. (You stop asking questions, that’s when the American people lose!)

Lost in this fervor is the fact that “Truth” may be the most feminist mainstream film of 2015. Continue Reading →

Why Hollywood Loves Boston

Last month, “Black Mass,” the biopic starring a blue-eyed Johnny Depp as the notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, hit theaters to mixed acclaim. “Black Mass” is not to be confused with “The Departed,” Martin Scorsese’s 2003 cops-and-robbers opus loosely based on Whitey. Nor is it to be confused with “Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger,” the Whitey Bulger doc that came out last year, nor the other Whitey Bulger biopic that Ben Affleck was reportedly going to make after he finished the movie he’s adapted from the novel Live by Night by Boston screenwriter/author Dennis Lehane that is also about Boston gangsters. Then there’s “Spotlight,” the Michael Keaton vehicle about The Boston Globe‘s investigation of the Catholic Church cover-up scandal, which opens in wide release next month and has already generated serious Oscar buzz. In other words, Boston is all over the multiplexes, business as usual.

But why is this business as usual, especially since very few Hollywood actors can pull off that curious mix of dropped Rs and wide As that comprises an authentic Boston accent? (Lord knows Michael Keaton can’t.) Continue Reading →

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy