Somebody sent me this 1987 interview that I conducted for WNTN, the Newton, Mass, radio station where Howard Stern got his start. In the clip, my best friend and I talk with now-defunct Boston postpunk band Soothing Sounds for Baby. We are all so freaking earnest, deploying such terms as “facism” and “cogs in society” with audibly straight faces. Which does not prevent me from giggling obligingly at a girlygirl high pitch whenever the boys make a stab at humor. Even funnier: one of the members of the band (the lad pictured above right) subsequently established himself as my first true love—serenades at my bedroom window, shared pieces of gum, broken hearts, XTC mixtapes, and all. The best friend is still a best friend, now the mother of two girls who are my goddaughters. And the boy and I forged permanent memories together, only to part ways just as permanently. Tis strange, tis wondrous strange, that our first meeting was preserved in this time capsule. How ever were we that young?
It’s no surprise that it took an American who cut his teeth on TV to successfully film a Shakespearean comedy. TV, unlike movies, has always been about the writing, and though the rise of premium cable has changed that to some degree (the lush visuals of Mad Men, including Jon Hamm himself, would have been inconceivable even a decade ago), TV remains more writing-focused than nearly all films that come down the pike.
Still, the sheer pleasure of Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing does surprise, if only because a really terrific film always comes as the nicest of surprises. Shot against a modern Southern Californian backdrop in a stylish rather than showy black and white, it looks just good enough to prove undistracting. And peopled with an equally unshowy cast of TV actors rather than movie stars, this Much Ado About Nothing has the good grace to duck an ado about anything. Except the language, which soars here, unadorned by the smoke and mirrors dooming all too many cinematic adaptations of the Bard’s work.
Like TV programs, Shakespeare’s works are truly populist—not so much by throwing a few crumbs to the groundlings as by casting a spell that enchants the largest of human common denominators and raises us all up in the process. There’s a reason his works established the templates upon which nearly all subsequent stories are based. In his plays Shakespeare lays out the most universal, the most timeless, the most glorious messes we humans ever make for ourselves—triangles and intrigues built upon paranoia, greed, lust, envy, self-hatred, tribalism—and then gently coaxes us into revelation by virtue of the words, the words, the words.
The assumption that bumperstickerese and monosyllables are required to reach the “little people” has always been wrongheaded. People from all walks of life comprehend the King James Bible, thous and begats and all, and the same can be said for the diction of Willy Shakes (as is the Bard’s handle on, of all things, Twitter) when it’s allowed to speak for itself. Yet film directors forget that too often, either drowning their adaptations in pomp and circumstance (here’s looking at you, Branagh) or sidestepping the breadth of the verse. Not Joss, though. He who fed strong (and sometimes queer) women to the American viewing public without inciting a major backlash has made a Much Ado both gimmick- and fancy-free. He circumvents the intricate Italian politics that have always plagued this story by updating Leonato and crew as big businessmen. The inobtrusive wardrobe, hair, music, and set here harken back to the 90s, that most stylistically innocuous of decades (and Whedon’s TV hey day, don’t ya know). And it goes without saying that the plot and verse endure very few embellishments.
All the better to lay bare those screwballs, which actually do get rawther sexy. (Shakespeare always does.) Behold Nathan Fillion, who plays Dogberry as a menschy beat cop long resigned to buffoonery. Behold that ultimate TV actor Clark Gregg, who plays patriarch Leonato with gleaming eyes and toothless smile. Best, behold the ever-flashing Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Deniso), who (prat)fall over themselves again and again in their efforts not to be laid bare. In sooth, the fleetfooted wit and eroticism of this production is steeped in just enough pop. It sparkles. It stirs. It does not shake.
It all begins with a silent panoramic view of New York City and its bridges. And then, as the first bars of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” begin to thump, the camera zooms in on a 23-year-old John Travolta as Tony Manero strutting down a bustling working-class Brooklyn street. Decked out in an incongruous uniform of black leather jacket, open-collared crimson shirt, black flared trousers, and elevator shoes, he’s loose-limbed and square-shouldered, with a jive roll pimping out his step, a nod at every pretty girl who sashays by him and a bucket of paint bobbing at his side. And he’s moving so rhythmically to the music that it takes you a second before you realize the song isn’t actually playing on the street. It’s playing in his head and it’s what keeps him going. It’s how he sees himself: the king of the clubs, a player with a plan, rather than an aimless nobody hastening back to his job at the local hardware store. It’s how he keeps Saturday Night Fever in his everyday life. …
For more of my essay about why music, movies and New York are a ménage à trois made in heaven, check out my Red Bull Music Academy edification, dear Sirenaders.