Saturday, April 26, 2014

A Crooked Hymn

    When I'm in a certain mood, filled with longing, all I have to do is listen to Vince Guaraldi's Great Pumpkin Waltz and I'm instantly transported back to another time. It has always maintained a prominent listing on the soundtrack of my life. Even though it's a fallacy, things were simpler then and they will never be the same.

Spike Lee's Crooklyn (1994) joins that distinguished pantheon of coming of age films centered around a filmmaker's romantic semblance of things past. Fellini's Amarcord (1973) and Woody Allen's Radio Days (1984) are similar entries in this field. Time has embellished places and things, and healed all wounds, but there is a distinct sting of bittersweetness to the proceedings.

Some tragic moment usually unfolds in order for the young protagonist (a stand in for the writer/director) to shed their first skin of childhood. In Radio Days, there's the death of a young girl that enthralls a mournful Country over the air waves; in Amarcord and Crooklyn, it's the death of the family matriarch. These films do more than center on the evocation of an era. Their primary focus is to sustain a mood, or a certain vibe.



Music is the central ingredient to this goal in all three cases. Fellini's usual composer Nino Rota breathes actual life into the foggy streets of the fictional seaside Rimini, much like the carefully chosen standards and big band numbers that connect one anecdote to the next in Allen's return to the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens during the Second World War. For Lee, it's a song score of equal if not greater resonance.

Lee (like Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, 1993) uses songs that are still very much a living component of our collective memories. Sadly, not many of us can recall a time when Glenn Miller was played habitually on the radio, but we can make an instant connection with Sly and the Family Stone. Lee's Brooklyn (here renamed Crooklyn) was still a home to crazies and glue-sniffing dope fiends then, just as it is now, but the drug addicts in his fanciful reinvention take on an almost cartoon-like quality (like many of Fellini and Allen's dramatis personae).


I still remember seeing Crooklyn on the big screen at Westview Cinema on Route 40 back in the day (before it was bulldozed into fond memories). The Westview was a grand old art deco movie palace leftover from the Sixties. By the mid '90s they were showing many art house films. '94 was the same year Pulp Fiction and Léon (The Professional) came out, which I also saw at the Westview. It was a magical time.


Crooklyn may very well be the best film that Spike Lee has ever made -- even if Malcolm X (1992) and Do the Right Thing (1989) are both more iconic and ambitious. It even invokes a little bit of Mean Streets (1973) from Martin Scorsese's formative days. Scorsese has often said that Mean Streets was his first real film after mentor John Cassavetes challenged him to make a film about something personal. Lee and Scorsese's two films even share an idiosyncratic use of the same dolly shot.


What really links Scorsese's Little Italy to Lee's titular borough is the same fairytale magic filtered through years of reflection. There's a scene in Crooklyn when Troy (the female protagonist) is covertly watching The Partridge Family on TV with her brood of male siblings to the consternation of their parents. When she is sent South to stay with relatives, Lee abruptly distorts the aspect ratio to make his audience feel just as topsy-turvy as Troy does in the suburbs. He's locked us in.

Likewise, when she finally realizes her mother has passed away (days after the fact). It's a profoundly moving scene. In short, what all these amazing films do is stir memories of our own childhoods, as a little bit of theirs rubs off on us in the process. Like all great films have a power of doing, they infiltrate our subconscious where (like memories of our own) they live forever.

Things were such simpler then and they will never be the same. It's still a nice fallacy.


Crooklyn soundtrack

Respect Yourself - The Staple Singers
Everyday People - Sly & the Family Stone
Pusherman - Curtis Mayfield
Thin Line Between Love and Hate - The Persuaders
Pito (I'll Never Go Back to Georgia) - Joe Cuba
ABC - The Jackson 5
Oh Girl - The Chi-Lites
Mighty Love - The Spinners
Mr. Big Stuff - Jean Knight
O-o-h Child - The Five Stairsteps
Pass the Peas - The J.B.'s
Time Has Come Today - The Chambers Brothers
People Make the World Go Round - The Stylistics
Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours - Stevie Wonder
Bra - Cymande
I'm Stone in Love with You - The Stylistics
Everybody Is a Star - Sly & the Family Stone
Never Can Say Goodbye - The Jackson 5
Soul Power - James Brown
Soul Makossa - Manu Dibango
La-La (Means I Love You) - The Delfonics
I'll Take You There - The Staple Singers
Puerto Rico - Eddie Palmieri
Theme from Shaft - Isaac Hayes
Tears of a Clown - Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
I Can See Clearly Now - Johnny Nash

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