Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

CHAPEL STREET - Chapter 12 - The Harbor


Here's another sample chapter of my upcoming book Chapel Street.  Keep checking back for more!


Chapter 12

The Harbor



When I stepped outside I found Bob already waiting for me in his Chevrolet Malibu.

I think Bob enjoyed our lunches the best. His responsibilities as a father gave him little opportunity to socialize with his old friends in the evenings or on weekends. I rarely went to his home anymore. Not because his wife Barbara didn’t like me, per se. She simply didn’t know what to do with me. After my breakup with Gina, she tried to fix me up with single friends four times to no avail. To her, an unmarried man approaching forty posed a threat to the natural order of things. As a result, I only found myself invited to their suburban house for large parties, but not the more intimate gatherings where my third wheel status would be more glaring.

We were only about fifteen minutes away from the Baltimore Inner Harbor, where, in theory, Mike was getting a table for us at the Cheesecake Factory in Harborplace. Bob was worried since Mike hadn’t returned any calls or texts since ten in the morning. That didn’t concern me. Mike was easily distracted. So distracted that I was surprised his fifteen-year marriage to Holly still survived. No woman escaped his notice: Tall, short, fat, skinny, beautiful or ordinary. It didn’t matter. He lusted after them all. It was a situation made even more absurd because Mike was the head of human resources at his company. He knew the rules governing sexual harassment. Still, I never thought he would ever cheat on Holly. As ladies men went, Mike didn’t rate much higher than me. He was lucky to get Holly and he knew it. 

When we arrived, we found Mike sitting at a table outside overlooking the water just as I expected. He liked going to the Cheesecake Factory because it was close to work for him, but I knew the truth. He liked to sit outside during the summer months and watch the tourists walking along the waterfront promenade in their skimpy summer outfits. He was always the horn dog.

Usually our lunches were light affairs, dominated by recounting our nerdy glories spoken in our own coded language of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Everquest references, with occasional nods toward the Coen Brothers’ classics The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. We could spend a whole afternoon riffing on Nicholas Cage films alone. Today, however, was not going to be our typical stress-free gathering. I caught a few worried glances between Bob and Mike. I knew what was up. They were building up the courage to tell me the bad news. I decided to let them off the hook.

“Hey, you’re not going to believe this, but Gina’s getting married,” I said matter-of-factly.

They both seemed shocked that I knew. “How’d you find out?” Bob asked.

“She called me yesterday and told me.”

“You guys still talk?” Mike asked.

“Sure, we’re still friends,” I replied, adding a little smile to sell it.

Mike and Bob exchanged a relieved glance. “Man, I thought we’d be breaking the news to you, Ricky,” Bob said.

“She’s all over Facebook showing off her new ring,” Mike added.

“Can I see it?” I asked.

Mike and Bob shared a quick little glance before Mike took out his cellphone and produced the photograph. He handed it to me. The picture was taken in a jewelry store. It wasn’t a selfie. From the angle, it looked like the jeweler took it. Gina and Chuck were standing happily with their arms around each other. Gina held up her hand with her big ring in front of herself.

Gina looked great, as usual. The warmth of her smile brought one to my lips. I remembered when I could elicit a similar response in her. Aware of Bob and Mike’s eyes, I tried not to reveal any unhealthy emotion as I took a look at Chuck. This was the first time I had seen a photograph of him. Good-looking guy. He seemed more athletic than me, but I had more hair. That was some consolation I suppose. My eyes drifted down from the photo to the comments. They were all squeals of congratulations and delight. I recognized most of the names. I was not surprised to see that my sister Janet was among the chorus. They still talked, too.

I handed the phone back to Mike. “She looks good.”

“Yeah,” Mike said. “I’d do her.”

“Holly might object,” I warned.

“One question,” Bob said.

We both turned to him. “When she called you,” he continued. “Did she ask you for one last quick one?”

“Don’t you mean one last short one?” Mike asked as they both exploded into laughter. There was nothing like a small penis joke to break the ice. Guys are guys are guys.

My eyes drifted toward the water. They were drawn past the tourists to an older woman standing at the very edge of the concrete pier. She turned away from me just as I caught sight of her, but I saw enough of her face to notice her resemblance to my late mother. Even from behind, she looked like her. She was the same height, five-five, and she had the same mix of red and gray in her hair. Even her dress looked familiar. I was about to comment on her to Bob and Mike, when she suddenly stepped forward off the pier and dropped out of sight with a loud splash.

“No!” I shouted as I jumped up from my seat. 

I started running. I jumped down from the raised patio of the restaurant and past through the pedestrians walking along the brick promenade. They turned to me, startled and confused. I was appalled. Why were they looking at me? Why weren’t they helping that poor woman? I plowed my way through them without hesitation, gaining speed with every step. As I neared the edge of the pier, I didn’t see any disturbance in the water but I took a deep gulp of air and dived in anyway.

My eyes were closed when I hit the water. I had my arms fully extended in front of me out of fear I’d hit the bottom since I had no idea how deep the water was. When I opened my eyes, I could detect some light trying to push through the greenish, brown murk, but I didn’t see the old woman as I drifted lower. I wondered what happened to her, and I also began to wonder, fearfully, how deep was the water. It seemed to go on forever.

My lungs were aching when I finally saw the woman coming up toward me from the depths. I saw her hands first, reaching up toward me. Then her face slowly came into view. It was indeed my mother, but she looked younger than the time of her death. Her reddish brown hair swirling in the murky water hadn’t turned gray yet. But she was still dead. Her freckles stood out like small pox against the deathly white pallor of her skin. Her eyes were wide open and angry. I had never seen her look at me with such undisguised rage while she was still alive.

She opened her mouth in a breathless scream. I screamed too, expelling the last of my oxygen, as I protectively put my hands ahead of me. She grabbed them, knitting her fingers together with mine. She started dragging me downwards. I struggled for a moment, but I lost my strength when I lost my last breath. As I drifted out of consciousness, I wondered how far down she would take me.

Would it be all the way to hell?

While you're waiting for the next chapter of Chapel Street, feel free to read my memoir. It's a story of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined.


Follow me on Twitter:  SeanPaulMurphy
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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

CHAPEL STREET - Chapter 11 - Suspended


Here's another sample chapter of my upcoming book Chapel Street.  Keep checking back for more!


Chapter 11

Suspended


Monday.

The alarm clock buzzed at seven o’clock as usual. I didn’t hit the snooze. Instead I slowly inched my head up and looked around my bedroom. Under the bright morning sunlight pouring in through my windows, the events of the previous night seemed utterly implausible. 

Maybe I dreamt it all. A wave of relief swept through my mind and body with that thought, but I quickly pushed it aside. No. Lenny, or whoever he was, was right. Even if everything I had experienced was only a dream, it was a dangerous dream that hinted at mental illness. And I knew I wasn’t mentally ill. I was completely sane, only my circumstances were insane. For some reason, a dead woman wanted to kill me, or, more precisely, wanted me to kill myself. I had to keep my guard up regardless of how implausible the situation seemed.

Work proved reassuringly ordinary. I found my job repetitive and boring, but today I reveled in its normalcy. The smiles and nods from my co-workers as I walked toward my desk were so soothing, as was the constant ringing of the telephones. This was heaven compared to what I experienced over the weekend. My first goal that morning was to log onto Resting Place and delete the Kostek memorial, but instead I allowed myself to be lulled into complacency by the warm camaraderie of the office. 

I got a call from Bob Burgess, one of my oldest friends. He wanted to set up a lunch with Mike Phelan, another one of our old schoolmates, and me. Mike recommended the Cheesecake Factory in Harborplace, Baltimore’s touristy waterfront Inner Harbor marketplace, which was near his office in the World Trade Center. Bob, a buyer for a supermarket chain, said he’d pick me up on his way downtown. That was great. I wouldn’t even have to pay for parking. The call kept the battle out of my mind completely until I got a text message from Teri. It read: “Your Kostek memorial is getting some hate.”

I cringed. I never wanted her to see that memorial.

I didn’t respond immediately. I needed to see what she was talking about. I went to the website, but the landing page looked different. I had been logged out. I quickly typed in my username and password and hit return. A pop up window appeared saying my account had been suspended for a Terms of Service violation.

WTF?

I couldn’t believe it. I went to my personal email account and found a message from Resting Place. The form email said my account was suspended pending a Terms of Service investigation resulting from complaints concerning the Kostek memorial. I turned back to the Resting Place website. You didn’t need an account to access the database. I typed Elisabetta Kostek’s name in the search engine and her memorial appeared. I was shocked by the response it was receiving.

Resting Place lets users leave digital “flowers” on memorials, usually accompanied by messages of condolence. Flowers flooded the memorials of famous individuals. The memorials of veterans, particularly those killed in action, were sought out and honored. The memorials for police officers and fire fighters were equally recognized. Generally, however, the vast majority of online memorials received no such recognition. That’s why I was shocked by what I saw on the Kostek memorial. In less than two full days, she had received fourteen flowers, which was more than any of my other memorials.

Even more surprising than the number of flowers were the accompanying messages. They were all negative. People called the memorial “an abomination,” and pleaded with me to “take her down” because “she’s evil.” I was dumbfounded. I had never seen negative comments about a deceased person on the website before. They were a violation of the Terms of Service. Resting Place did not allow people to speak ill of the dead, but the messages soothed me on one level. They proved that I wasn’t alone. The photograph of Elisabetta Kostek adversely affected everyone who saw it.

I picked up my phone. I decided to call rather than text Teri. She didn’t pick up. I got her answering machine instead. I left a quick message: “Hey, this is Rick. Thanks for the heads-up, Teri. I think I’m just going to delete the memorial. Call me later. Bye.”

Now, more than ever, I knew I had to delete the Kostek memorial. I went back and looked at the Resting Place email. It had been sent at 10:23pm EST. That meant if I had deleted her memorial as soon as I got to work, my account would have never been suspended. But I got distracted. She had beaten me again. 

“I’m playing checkers, and you’re playing chess,” I said softly with disgust.

This was nuts. Over the course of a single weekend, I had gone from being a perfectly happy rationalist to not only believing in ghosts but even believing that a ghost could manipulate a website in order to stop me from deleting her memorial. Come on. Even if you acknowledged the possibility of her ghostly existence, why the hell would she even care about some stupid website? The flowers at her grave showed she was already getting more than her share of attention at the cemetery. 

My cellphone rang. It was Teri. As I answered, I stepped away from the prying ears around my desk.

“Hi Teri, it’s me,” I said, wincing at both my informality and the functionality of my words. We weren’t dating, but I still wished I could have come up with something wittier or more sophisticated.

“Sorry I couldn’t answer when you called, but I was giving an exam,” she replied.

“In June?”

“We’re making up for some snow days. We have the girls imprisoned until Thursday,” she answered before continuing: “Did you delete that memorial?”

“No, I couldn’t. My account has been suspended.”

“Why?”

“Because of complaints about the Kostek memorial.”

“No offense, but I can see why,” she paused for a long time. “There’s something wrong with it. Really wrong with it.”

“I know. I want to delete it but I can’t. It’s like something always stops me.” I hated hearing those words come out of my mouth. I was venturing a little too close to the border of Crazy Land.

Silence. 

“I had the worst nightmare last night,” she said finally.

“Did you dream about someone who died?” I asked. I had no idea why. I wasn’t normally an intrusive person, but the words just tumbled out of my mouth on their own volition.

“Yeah, my uncle Hank,” she replied quietly.

“Did he kill himself?” I asked again, cringing at my lack of discretion.

“Yes,” she said after some hesitation. “Why did you ask?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “But I’ve been having these really vivid dreams about my brother Lenny since I first saw that picture. He killed himself, too.”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“I’m sorry about your uncle.”

Silence. Then she added, “Hey, I’ve got to go, but we’ve got to talk again later. Okay?’

“Okay,” I replied.

I hung up and looked at the clock. It was almost time to meet Bob on the street outside my building. Good. I needed some fresh air.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?


Blogger E. Stephen Burnett recently posed the question: Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?

Since I have some experience in the field, I will answer the question. However, before I do, I want to say that the question is inherently unfair.

Bad movies are not the sole domain of the Christian filmmakers. I also have experience in the horror genre as well. Trust me, for every bad Christian film, you will find thirty bad horror films and the filmmakers are equally, if not more, deluded. Go to any horror convention and you will find dozens of filmmakers sitting at their little tables selling five, maybe ten, of their low-budget, self-produced films. More often than not, said producer will also be the star of the film and he will be happy to sign the DVDs for no additional cost. Today only: Three discs for ten dollars!

Do those filmmakers think their films are bad? No, of course not! They might concede that they made some sacrifices due to budget considerations, but that's about it. They are making great films. They're sure of that. How do they know? Because they are surrounded by a group of sycophants who constantly praise them and stroke their egos. As sure as the motion of the earth, anyone who can consistently find the money to make feature films will be swamped by wannabe cast and crew members with a desire to bask in the reflected glory. These would-be auteurs live in an echo chamber where their skills are always touted. Until they can't make movies anymore. Then the circus moves to the next genius.

This is also true of filmmakers who produce more serious indie "mumblecore" movies. I remember watching an award-winning film by a highly-touted independent auteur with a fellow filmmaker. After about twenty minutes my friend jumped out of his seat and refused to watch anymore. Incensed, he complained that the director was making no effort at all to entertain. I had to concede his point.  It was almost as if the director felt any attempt to entertain would fatally compromise his aesthetic.

Bad Christian filmmakers are not alone. They are part of a long, inordinately-proud tradition. Singling them out is a bit unfair. But, since Burnett asked the question, I would like to answer with a very firm yes and no.

In the original blog, Burnett discusses a podcast interview Kevin McCreary, the accountability partner no one asked for, did with the faith-based film giant Alex Kendrick, of the Flywheel, Facing The Giants, Fireproof, Courageous and The War Room fame. During the podcast, Kendrick admits that his films had flaws and expressed his desire to grow as a filmmaker.  Bravo!

Here's Alex Kendrick talking with Kevin about his first film:


I also admire Dallas Jenkins, director of Hometown LegendWhat if..., and The Resurrection of Gavin Stone. When he finished his first film, he sent it to a well-known Hollywood director. After viewing the film, the director asked Dallas if he wanted the truth. Dallas said yes, and, boy, he got it. Since then, Dallas has been schooling himself in all aspects of the craft. And it paid off. Although it was a disappointment at the box office, I thought The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, written by the mighty Andrea Nasfell, was a great leap forward for independent, contemporary Christian films. A nice romantic, faith-based comedy that wasn't too preachy. I can't wait to see his upcoming series about the life of Christ called The Chosen.

Here's the trailer:



There are many other faith-based filmmakers I respect, but there are others that I do not. Please forgive me if I don't name names. The world of faith-based film making is very small. I know everyone, or have friends or colleagues in common with them. And many of these people, who are making bad films, do not realize they are doing so.

Why? Here's a couple of reasons.

Lack of objectivity. Most Christian filmmakers are non-professionals. For them, stringing a coherent series of scenes together is an amazing accomplishment in and of itself regardless of the quality. They look at their films the same way a father watches his eight-year-old daughter playing at her first piano recital. He doesn't hear the muffed notes and awkward pauses. He's not comparing her to Sergei Prokofiev and finding her wanting. No, not at all. For him, every note is heavenly. And just as the piano playing daughter will be applauded, the filmmaker will be equally applauded by his friends and family and the people at his church. Sadly, that's not all the validation he needs. He'll want the rest of us to see the film too.

Faith.  Practically every Christian filmmaker will tell you he was led by the Lord to make his film. Therefore, it can't be bad because it is what the Lord willed.  His hand was in it. So it's good!

Who am I to doubt that? Maybe the Lord did want them to make a film. However, I doubt very much the Lord wanted them to throw together a script, buy a cheap camera, gather up a few friends from church and make a movie. Come on. Be real. If the Lord told you he wanted you to be a doctor, you wouldn't buy a scalpel and start operating on people the next day. You'd realize you have to go to medical school first. The fact that people feel they can make a film without any training or education shows how little respect they have for the craft. No wonder they make bad movies. Saying it's God's will is no justification for bad filmmaking. But people do it all the time.

Ego. Few genres are plagued with as many "One Man Bands" as Christian films. I suppose the most charitable explanation is that these folks feel they were given a specific vision from the Lord that only they can fulfill. (I will give the less charitable explanation in an upcoming blog called One Man Bands.) Unfortunately, when one person writes, produces, directs and stars in a film, cinematic disaster is the most likely outcome. Film is, thankfully, a collaborative business. Making a film is an expensive and time-consuming process. If you really care about the end result, you should want to be surrounded by skilled professionals in key jobs who can enhance your project and prevent you from making terrible mistakes. A wise filmmaker wants older, more experienced people around. Also, performing all of those jobs raises the stakes, ego-wise. If you become so intertwined with every aspect of the production, you will take any criticism way too personally. Therefore, to protect your ego, you have to reject all criticism. Then you never learn.

Self-Righteousness.  I know Christian filmmakers who actually take a perverse pride in bad reviews. They are quick to quote John 15:18: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first." To them, bad reviews are a sign that they are following in the path of Christ! I have made enough faith-based films to know that certain people are going to hate them no matter how well they are done. However, that doesn't mean that anyone who points out plot holes, bad acting or hackneyed writing is exhibiting the spirit of antichrist. Sometimes they're just telling the truth. Wrapping the cloak of Christ around your film doesn't elevate the filmmaking.

The One Soul Rule.  A Christian film cannot be bad if it reaches one soul. That's a trope you hear Christian producers, directors and stars trot out every time they are interviewed. They always say that all the time, money and effort needed to make the film was worth it if it only reaches one soul.

I'm not going to argue with that. Each soul is priceless, and worth all the effort necessary to bring them to salvation. That said, I would make the counter-argument that your movie may have reached ten thousand souls, instead of one, if it was better....

The Biggest Excuse....

Lack of Budget. One thing that always infuriates me is when filmmakers say their movies aren't good because they didn't have a big enough budget. Hey, if you chose to tell a story that you didn't have the money to adequately tell, it's not a budget problem. It is an error in judgement by the producer. Period! I didn't hear the directors of The Blair Witch Project crying about their budget. I didn't hear Kevin Smith crying about the budget of Clerks. Or Jim Jarmusch about Stranger Than Paradise. Or Whit Stillman about Metropolitan. Or Robert Rodriguez about El Mariachi. One of my favorite sci-fi films is Primer. Shooting budget: $7,000. Those filmmakers made up for their lack of budget with talent and imagination. I don't think it's too much to ask Christian filmmakers to do the same.


I could go on and on, but I think the Burnett ignored a more important question: Does Quality matter in Christian films?

Does Quality Matter?

The answer is no.  The core audience doesn't reward films for their artistic quality. In faith-based genre, the message always trumps the filmmaking. The Kendrick brothers have been wildly successful because churches all around the country rent out theaters to support their films. Pastors know they can expect a solid message from them that will resonate immediately in the lives of their congregants. They are not going to the movie for the cinematography, direction, acting, editing or score. Or even the story. They are going for the message.

And Christian filmmakers know that.  Let me tell you a story.

My third produced faith-based film was an anti-abortion drama starring the Grammy-Award-winning gospel singer Rebecca St. James. My writing partner Tim Ratajczak and I were assigned to write the script. PureFlix gave us two weeks to come up with the first draft (which is a time frame not normally associated with quality!) The shoot seemed to go fine. However, the edit took forever. The production company finally gave us the film only a few weeks before the scheduled release. It was terrible. Really terrible. I believe only one of the partners at PureFlix actually managed to force himself to watch the film all the way through. Tim and I were appalled because this film was important to us. It wasn't just a product.

But PureFlix was going to release it as is.

Why?  It was a simple business decision. I can't remember who explained it to me, but here's what they said. "It's a pro-life movie starring Rebecca St. James. The same number of people are going to buy it whether it's good or bad." Therefore, they weren't going to spend any more money fixing it.

Fortunately, I work as a film editor in my day job. I convinced them to let me re-edit it. They agreed, provided I could do it in one week for what I normally charged for one day of work. I agreed, and I re-edited the film. It may not be perfect, but it is no longer embarrassing.


Let me tell you another story from just a couple of days ago.

A colleague called to tell me she just watched a film by one of my fellow Kairos Prize winners. She said it was really good. I was glad to hear that. Then she added that a bad performance from one of the supporting actors didn't hurt it much. Then she brought up another problem. Then another. And another. Finally, I had to say, "Whoa, you've stopped reviewing the film and started apologizing for it."

And that's exactly what most fans of Christian films do. They apologize for the films. They make excuses.

The main reason why there are so many bad Christian films is because the core audience doesn't demand quality filmmaking. Only a reassuring message. If we want good movies, we have to stop supporting the bad ones, regardless of how well-meaning they are. It's that simple. Really.

The future of Christian films is in your hands, dear viewer!

Okay, okay. I've been dishing it out pretty hard. Can I stand the heat? I wrote twelve produced faith based films. Were they any good? I am honestly proud of a few of them. However, I will admit that all of them are flawed one way or another.  Some of them feature great performances, but almost all of them feature weak performances as well. Some are well directed, some, well, not so much. And, yes, sometimes the script could have used another polish or, better yet, less polishing by people who didn't have a feel for the material.

Sufficient to say, none of my films can compete on the same filmmaking level as, say, a blockbuster Marvel superhero movie. But is that comparison fair? You better believe it is. PureFlix opened their Biblical superhero film Samson directly against Marvel's superhero film Black Panther. What were the numbers on the opening weekend? Samson:  $1,943.569.  Black Panther: $202.003,951. Same ticket prices. Same theaters. So yes, the two films were in direct competition. Be honest: Which one did you see that weekend? (My wife and I actually saw Samson.)


I am not making this comparison to denigrate Samson, which was admirably ambitious. More power to them. (None of my films ever got such a wide release!) I am just trying to illustrate that we do not operate in a vacuum. Christian films have to compete in the marketplace with mainstream films. People do not have the time or money to see everything they want to see. They have to make a choice. If the purpose of Christian films is to spread the good news, we need to tell great stories that even non-believers will be excited enough to choose instead of the latest Hollywood release.

The question is: Are we, as a filmmaking community, up to the task?

I hope so. We do not need two hundred million dollar budgets to compete with Hollywood. Just honest, compelling stories well played and executed. And there are some. I was really encouraged by I Can Only Imagine. That film was released during the fifth week of Black Panther's impressive box office reign. Black Panther beat it handily $26,650,690 to $17,108,914 that weekend. However, on a per screen average, I Can Only Imagine beat it $10,503 to $6,951. Not bad. We just need to make sure films like that become the rule rather than the exception.

Otherwise we will just keep preaching to the choir.


Other Faith Based Writing Blogs:
Building The Faith Based Ghetto
Do Christian Creators Know When Their Movies Are Bad?
God Told Me To Write It
Enter The Haters
Zach Lawrence and the End Times Quandary
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

BTW, don't you think it's time to read my memoir of first love and first faith and how the two became almost fatally intertwined? If you liked my movies, you'll love the book.


Here are some sample chapters of The Promise:

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Lafayettes Interviewed on TV Free Baltimore


TV Free Baltimore just did a great interview with some of the members of The Lafayettes, a Baltimore, Maryland, based group that recorded for RCA/Victor records. Their song, "Life's Too Short,' was a hit all around the country, and massively popular abroad. The song was featured in the film Tin Men by Barry Levinson and Hairspray by John Waters.

Although they are not frequently discussed today, they developed an appreciative fan base including Marshall Crenshaw, Brian Eno, Robert Plant and The Beatles. The Lafayettes are mentioned in Mark Levinsohn's great book The Beatles: All These Years. Tune In:

"The Beatles' intense drive to stay one step ahead of every rival (and they were already at least fifty clear) was taken to extremes by Paul in July/August 1962 when sleuthing songs unknown or unconsidered by others. A good find was "Nobody But You," a B-side by a group from Towson, Maryland, called the Lafayettes. Beyond a mawkish introduction, this was a strong call-and-response number in the style of Kansas City. “

Being covered by the Beatles.  Not bad.

The songs "Life's Too Short" and "Nobody Like You" were both co-written by my friend Lee Bonner, who also co-wrote and directed my first feature 21 Eyes. I am glad to see him and the other guys getting a little well-deserved recognition!

Here's the interview:


Here's some of their songs:



Monday, January 28, 2019

My 5 Favorite Rolling Stones Albums


I've already written blogs about Bob Dylan and The Beatles, it is time to fill out the musical trinity of the 1960's rock and roll with a blog about The Rolling Stones.

I am not saying the following records are the best Rolling Stones albums. Anyone can compile a list of their most critically acclaimed albums. It's been done before and the choices are obvious. This is a list of my favorites. Albums that speak to me for one reason ore another. This is more a feel list, than a quality list. My choices are more about who I was and what I was doing at the time when I first heard them. As a result, these are the ones I am most likely to throw into the CD player. (Yes, I still have CDs!)


5.  BRIDGES TO BABYLON, 1997

Each summer when "legacy" bands hit the road for their tours, you have to ask yourself whether the group is still the old band whose music you loved. The Doors without Jim Morrison? Queen without Freddy Mercury? The Who without Keith Moon? And John Entwhistle? How about the two versions of Yes on the road? Which one is legitimate?

I essentially stopped listening to The Rolling Stones after Bill Wyman left the band. I was way too young to be bothered by the transition from Brian Jones to Mick Taylor.  Granted, Brian Jones had a wider range as a musician, but you can't argue with Mick Taylor's playing. I didn't mind the transition from Mick Taylor to Ron Wood. Ron Wood was certainly no Mick Taylor, but his playing meshed excellently with Keith Richards. But I drew the line with Bill Wyman. To me, the Stones were always about Keith playing against the rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, while Mick Jagger pouted and postured. To me, the thrill was gone when Wyman left.

I didn't get this album when it was first released.  I picked it up over a decade later and I was surprised by how much I liked it. One of my complaints about the Stones was that they remained very superficial and juvenile, refusing to grow up with their audience, as Elvis, Dylan and John Lennon had. I mean, geez, they were still using sex as a car analogies on their previous album Voodoo Lounge. This album, probably as a result of Richards' brush with death, showed some surprising, if defiant, maturity.

On the negative side, the music isn't driven as much by the familiar sound of the twin guitars of Wood and Richards. And it had more credited bass players than their were songs..... Bill, where are you?


4. STEEL WHEELS, 1989

If you were a Rolling Stones fan at the time, you must have been caught up in the excitement surrounding the release of this album. The band seemed dead.  It had been three years since their previous album -- the mean-spirited and underwhelming Dirty Work. For a while, it looked like all we were going to get were lame Mick Jagger solo albums....

I had no mixed emotions when this album came out. It was a taut, well-produced album. The songs seemed well thought out and constructed. 98 Rock, my local AOR radio station, went very deep on the album. Better yet, the band went on a massive tour to promote it. I saw them in Washington, D.C. I'm glad I did. Bill Wyman would leave the band soon afterwards, and it would be another five years before they released another album.


3. STICKY FINGERS, 1971

I really didn't get into this album until I learned to play the guitar, and it is the guitar playing that brings me back to it again and again. Powered by the band's most politically incorrect single, Brown Sugar, and one of their most sensitive ballads, Wild Horses, this album is a rich sonic experience. This was Mick Taylor's first complete album with the band, and his country blues playing propels it, interlacing beautifully with Keith's own playing.  Despite the presence of a few rockers, this is mainly a mellow album. Druggy, some might say. Forgot some, it's what most people say. Questioned endlessly about the drug references, Keith complained that people were reading too much into it. "It's not the Bible," he said.


2. SOME GIRLS, 1978

In 1978, The Rolling Stones needed a hit. Their previous three albums, Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n Roll and Black and Blue all featured some good tracks, but the albums themselves failed to set the world on fire. Mick Taylor was gone and replaced by Ron Wood, who, while not a standout guitar player, meshed beautifully with Keith Richards. In the general marketplace, rock was losing ground to disco, and acts from the sixties were being ridiculed by the punks. So what could a poor boy do?

Everything was on the line and the Stones delivered a lively and entertaining disco tinged album. The former street fighting men moved into the nightclubs powered by their massive, danceable hit Miss You.  This song proved to be their last Number One hit in the United States.

The tracks don't have the weight or gravitas of some of their edgier material, but the quality remains consistently high, as opposed to other albums where the lyrics to the filler tracks often have a "first thing to come to mind" feel. The lyrics also display a sense of humor often absent from their work. This is one of the few albums I never find myself tempted to hit the skip button on.


1. LET IT BLEED, 1969

To me, the early Stones have always been a strange mish-mash. On one hand, the band positioned themselves as a white boy blues/R&B combo but they would alternate that material with openly poppy songs like Get Off My Cloud. Don't get me wrong, their poppy material was pretty good and inventive, but it led to some inconsistent albums.

Some people opine that the Stones didn't find their own specific voice until the Beatles began disintegrating. I disagree. I would credit their more consistent voice to the rise of "rock" in the late sixties, as opposed to the more chart oriented rock 'n roll. They found their natural voice in the what would be defined as the AOR format, and this album hit that bulls-eye. It was hard rock that tipped a hat to all of their influences, like the Chicago blues of Midnight Rambler, and the country blues of Love in Vain. Plus, the album features their best song: Gimme Shelter.

I topped my list of my twenty favorite Beatles songs with A Day In The Life. I called that song rock 'n roll's apocalypse. Gimme Shelter, the Stones' moodiest and most foreboding song, captures the dark side of 'sixties and might have surpassed A Day In The Life, if the last verse didn't back away from the darkness....

Great album. Every song is a classic.


Honorable Mention:

EXILE ON MAIN STREET, 1972. I know the critics love this album. I understand why, too. However, I find the vocals and mix too murky for sustained listening. I traded my CD of this album to my brother Mark for Frampton Comes Alive and never looked back. EMOTIONAL RESCUE, 1980. This one is not a critical darling, but it is a sentimental favorite. Back when I was in Amway, we listened to this album constantly while we were driving up and down the East Coast for events. (Other big Amway driving albums were The Blues Brothers Soundtrack, John Cougar Mellencamp's Uh-huh, and, strangely, Wham! Make It Big.)  BEGGARS BANQUET, 1968. Lots of classic tracks. Perhaps my favorite of their 'sixties albums after Let It Bleed. It would make my Top 10. Maybe my Top 6.  DIRTY WORK, 1986. A sentimental favorite because I remember driving around with a friend of mine listening to it the day it came out. Hard to listen to now. Angry and mean-spirited even by Rolling Stones standards. TATTOO YOU, 1981. The album seemed like a return to rocking form after Emotional Rescue, but we later learned most of the songs were simply ones that didn't make the cut on previous albums. BLUE & LONESOME, 2016. I really admire that the Stones did this back to their roots album that covers many classic blues songs. When they covered songs like this early in their career, they always seemed like they were posing. Now, however, it feels completely authentic.

Check out some videos I edited here:
FD Automatic: Red Shoes
Crack The Sky: Mr. President
Greg Kihn: Horror Show
Nils Lofgren: Alone

Other Lists:
Top 10 Comedies of the 1990s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1980s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1970s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1960s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1950s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2010s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2000s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1990s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1960s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1950s
Top 15 Horror Films of the 1930s and 1940s
7 Guy Films
My 5 Favorite Westerns
20 Films, or Confessions of a Misspent Youth
Beatles Albums Ranked
My 20 Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Least Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Favorite Rolling Stones Albums
My 5 Favorite Dylan Albums
Halloween Recommends

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Top 10 Comedies of the 1950s

Who doesn't love to laugh? I know I do. I grew up during in a great time, when the television was filled daily with Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy shorts, and there was always a Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields film playing somewhere. And let's not forget Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis, Ma & Pa Kettle and, of course, Francis The Talking Mule. Comedy was king. As a youth, I started collecting silent comedies on Super 8mm and discovered the comic trinity of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.

The biggest problem with making a list of comedies is deciding what actually is a comedy. How many laughs are needed to turn a drama into a comedy? What about funny musicals? Or funny horror films? It calls for some very subjective judgments.

I am not going to handcuff myself with as many self-imposed restrictions as I did when I made my lists of horror films. My decision concerning what is a comedy will be decided on the basis of the individual film. However, I will try to restrain myself from flooding a decade with the work of a single comic visionary. For example, I am not going to put six Marx Brothers films on my Top 10 Comedies of the 1930s list. I will only pick one of their films as representative of their work during the period.

Also, I am going to try to rate the films in the context of their times. Therefore, expect to see some films on the lists which would be considered politically incorrect today. I will, however, discuss the controversy concerning some of those films when it seems appropriate.

So here we are in the 1950s. Let me just say that this was a dismal decade for comedy. I suppose the general middle class striving for conformity during the Eisenhower years, coupled with the underlying tensions of the Cold War, didn't inspire general hilarity. I nearly combined this decade with the 1940s in order to find ten true comedy classics. However, I felt that would be a disservice to that decade. The 1940s weren't a ground-breaking decade for comedy, particularly during our involvement in World War II, but they had a better array of comedies than the 1950s.

With apologies, here's the list:

10. MY FAVORITE SPY, 1951
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Screenplay by Edmund L. Hartman and Jack Sher
Additional dialogue by Hal Kanter
Story and Adaptation by Edmund Beloin and Lou Breslow

Bob Hope plays a comic who is recruited to impersonate a spy and gets mixed up with Hedy Lamarr.

I mainly remember the aged Bob Hope of his late television specials, telling one-liners holding a golf club while leering suggestively at the buxom young starlet of the moment.  Once upon a time, however, he was a movie star and he made some pretty good movies, both on his own and teamed with Bing Crosby. Hope's comic film persona was interesting because he usually played a coward, which was unique at the time. Woody Allen claims his on screen persona was based on Hope's.

I liked his movies of the 1940s and 1950s. They were mostly solid -- his movie work in the 1960s was a different story. I'm not saying My Favorite Spy was the best of the lot. I essentially drew this title out of a hat. To me, they were all pretty much the same.



Directed by Walter Lang
Screenplay by Lamar Trotti

Based on the life of the true Frank B. Gilbreth, Sr., (Clifton Webb), a pioneering efficiency expert, who puts his theories to work raising his large family often to humorous or embarrassing results.

The arch sense of superiority personified in Clifton Webb will no doubt alarm today's Patriarchy Police, but fear not, wife Myrna Loy, is no push-over, and perfectly capable of taking over the large brood on her own. However, there are times when it looks like she'd happily slip into her Nora Charles persona and have a nice stiff martini. A fine, sentimental family film set in 1920. Sort of a poor man's Life With Father.

Remade in 2003 with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt in the leads.


8. HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, 1956
Directed by Frank Tashlin
Screenplay by Erna Lazarus

A broke singer, Dean Martin, teams up with a star-struck goofball, Jerry Lewis, and his Great Dane, on a cross-country trip to Hollywood.

Martin & Lewis were the cutting edge of comedy in the 1950s, whether in the movies, on television or in the nightclubs. I liked them quite a bit when I was younger, but they do not hold the same appeal to me now. Generally, I like the Martin & Lewis films better than the solo Lewis efforts. I think Dean Martin gave the films a solid grounding. Plus, he's Dean Martin. You'd have to step up to Frank Sinatra to find someone cooler at the time.



Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay by Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett
Novel by Albert Streeter

Spencer Tracy must deal with the emotional difficulties and organizational challenges of giving away his beloved daughter, Elizabeth Taylor, in marriage.

This is a solid, likable traditional comedy. It is well-written and well-played and currently serves as an insightful look into social and matrimonial mores of the time. Still, if you look at my lists of the upcoming decades, this is exactly the type of Hollywood product I have been excluding in favor of edgier comedies. Unfortunately, there weren't many edgy comedies in the 1950s. So this film stays.


PILLOW TALK, 1959
Directed by Michael Gordon
Screenplay by Stanley Shapiro and Maurice Richlin
Story by Russell Rouse and Clarence Green

Composer/Womanizer Rock Hudson and Interior Designer/Prude Doris Day find themselves sharing a party line and take an instant dislike to each other. As a practical joke, Hudson pretends to be a Texas millionaire to seduce her, but, you guessed it, true love ultimately ensues.

This film is typical of the mid-brow Hollywood naughty sex farces popular at the time, which featured very little naughtiness and no sex. This film was huge success and resulted in a number of pairings of Rock Hudson and Doris Day in similarly themed films. Hudson and Day reportedly got along very well and exhibited a likable onscreen chemistry. (Of course, one watches their films today with a bemused cynicism now that we know Hudson's preferences lay elsewhere.) The two are ably assisted by Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter. An enjoyable film boosted up a few extra notches on the list because the director, Michael Gordon, was born in my native Baltimore, Maryland!


5. MISTER ROBERTS, 1955
Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Joshua Logan
Based on the play by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan
Based on the novel by Thomas Heggen

As the war in the Pacific winds down, LT J.G. Douglas Roberts (Henry Fonda) longs to be transferred from his cargo ship to a war ship, but the Captain (James Cagney) refuses to let him go.

I debated quite a bit about whether this film truly fit in the comedy genre. In a stronger decade, I would have left it off the list, especially after listening to the DVD commentary track by Jack Lemmon. According to Lemmon, this film was a true passion project for Henry Fonda, who originated the role on Broadway, and he resented and resisted the comedy director John Ford was adding. That said, the film was very funny. It's hard to resist a film where William Powell, Mr. Nick Charles himself, creates a bottle of scotch from simple ingredients on the ship. (This was Powell's last film. He was one of my favorite actors of the period and I was glad to see him go out in style!) Still, the film is probably more of a drama than a comedy.

BTW, John Ford fell ill during the production and Mervyn LeRoy was forced to take the helm. Joshua Logan also apparently directed some scenes.


4. ROMAN HOLIDAY, 1953
Directed by William Wyler
Screenplay by Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton
Originally Uncredited: Story and Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo

A romance blossoms between a bored princess, Audrey Hepburn, and an American newspaperman, Gregory Peck, in Rome.

Like Mister Roberts, I only reluctantly place this film on this list. It's a great movie, don't get me wrong, but I always considered it more of a romance than a comedy. Audrey Hepburn, essentially an unknown in America at the time, gives an Academy Award winning performance that made her a star. Gregory Peck knew she was good during the shoot, and insisted that the studio put her name above the title. The film is also enhanced by the Italian locations.

The writing credits are a little sketchy. Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, wasn't credited for the story or the script initially. Ian Hunter was apparently acting as his front, but I don't know whether Hunter or Dighton actually contributed to the final screenplay.


Directed by Jack Arnold
Screenplay by Roger MacDougall & Stanley Mann
Based on the novel by Leonard Wibberley

An impoverished postage-stamp-sized European country declares war on the United States with the hope of getting Marshall Plan-style assistance after their defeat. However, their inept military commander inadvertently wins the war when he captures an American scientist and his super weapon.

What's up with Jack Arnold? Not many directors can shift effortlessly from sci-fi classics like Creature From The Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man to a smart satirical comedy like this, and later transition to low brow television fare like Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch. Amazing. Well, one way or another, he hit a home run with this satirical film. Of course, it didn't hurt to have Peter Sellers playing three different roles (a feat he would soon repeat in the mighty Dr. Strangelove.)  This is a great little film that keeps the comedy up front and the message in the background.


2. SOME LIKE IT HOT, 1959
Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Suggested by a story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan

Two desperate musicians, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, pretend to be women in order to join an All Girl Band to escape from Chicago after witnessing a gangland murder. Complications arise when Curtis falls for the singer, played by Marilyn Monroe.

Billy Wilder is one of the true geniuses of American cinema, but, sadly, he doesn't get the same recognition as John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks or even Cecile B. DeMille. I think it might be because of his wide range of styles and subject matters, united only by sharp writing, crisp direction and knowing cynicism. This film is perhaps Wilder at his most light-hearted, and most daring. I am surprised they managed to get away with Joe E. Brown's famous last line of the film.

Wilder was aided by an excellent cast. I think this is easily Tony Curtis' best performance. Jack Lemmon, a rare actor who could play comedy and drama equally well, was at top form here. However, Marilyn Monroe provides the heart of the film. Wilder famously found dealing with her extremely frustrating, but he got her best performance out of her. She achieved maximum Monroe in this film.

Yes, I like it hot!


Directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly
Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green

A conceited movie star, Gene Kelly, half of a romantic duo with Jean Hagan, falls in love with a budding actress Debbie Reynolds, as they make the transition from silent films to talkies.

This is arguably the greatest film ever made. It is definitely the best musical, and the comedy is equally strong. It is funny and joyful and always a pleasure to watch. The songs are great. The script is fantastic. The performances are all wonderful, especially newcomer Debbie Reynolds who manages to hold her own with old pros Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor. This is the film I recommend to people who tell me that they don't like musicals.

Interestingly, no one involved thought much of this film. Gene Kelly had just come off An American in Paris, which, in the opinion of everyone, was the truly important film. That's where Kelly, and MGM, thought the musical genre was headed. They hemmed in the Broadway Melody dream sequence into this film to give it some of that An American in Paris gravitas. That sequence, though tolerable, was the only wrong tonal note in this entire film.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that the screenwriting team, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, were nominated over their career for two Academy Awards.  What is surprising is that they weren't nominated for this film! (They were nominated for their scripts for The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather.) Fortunately, the Writers Guild of America gave them an award for the script.  Writers know.

This is a must-see!


Honorable Mention:

LIMELIGHT, 1952. This is one of my favorite Chaplin features, but it's a drama not a comedy.  Chaplin's 1957 film A KING IN NEW YORK didn't make the list because it was more bitter than funny (not that Chaplin wasn't entitled to a little bitterness!)  SABRINA, 1954. A romantic comedy starring Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn told through the cynical eyes of Billy Wilder. PAT AND MIKE, 1952,  Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn starred in a series of battle of the sexes style comedies during the decade, but, sociological benefits notwithstanding, I don't think they are funny enough anymore to make the list. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO GO TO MARS, 1953. Abbott and Costello were the top comics of the 1940s, but were pretty much a spent force by the 1950s. HAVE ROCKET -- WILL TRAVEL, 1959. I really love that The Three Stooges managed to score a second career in features after their shorts started playing on television. But their late features are all strictly kid stuff. MA AND PA KETTLE GO TO TOWN, 1950. I enjoyed Ma and Pa Kettle back in the day, but they don't rise to the classic level. Ditto FRANCIS, 1950, and the other films about that Talking Mule. Speaking of talking animals, I always had a soft spot for the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film HARVEY, where he has an invisible six-foot rabbit as a best friend. Keeping the animal trend alive, there's 1951's BEDTIME FOR BONZO. This film, about a professor raising a chimp like a child, was viewed as the nadir of Ronald Reagan's acting career. When he was first running for President, the Democrats showed it before their convention hoping to humiliate Reagan only to discover it wasn't that bad. But it's not good enough for this list either!  Speaking of apes, there's MONKEY BUSINESS, 1952, featuring Cary Grant as a scientist whose chimpanzee discovers the fountain of youth. With direction by Howard Hawks and a script by Ben Hecht, it is one of the last of the original screwball comedies, and, as a bonus, it also features Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps I should have put this in the Top 10, but it's no Bringing Up Baby.

Other Lists:
Top 10 Comedies of the 1990s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1980s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1970s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1960s
Top 10 Comedies of the 1950s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2010s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 2000s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1990s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1970s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1960s
Top 10 Horror Films of the 1950s
Top 15 Horror Films of the 1930s and 1940s
7 Guy Films
My 5 Favorite Westerns
20 Films, or Confessions of a Misspent Youth
Beatles Albums Ranked
My 20 Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Least Favorite Beatles Songs
My 5 Favorite Rolling Stones Albums
My 5 Favorite Dylan Albums
Halloween Recommends

Check out my book:



Follow me on Twitter:  SeanPaulMurphy