Having a Heart for Africa*

February 20, 2008

By Tracey Hackett, Contributing Editor

U2 lead singer Bono has described her as “one of the heroes” for her response to the African AIDS pandemic.

Agnes Nyamayarwo is the leader of the Mulago Positive Women’s Network, an organization started in January 2004 to address the special needs of HIV-positive women in Uganda.

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DVD Review: Rocking Across the Inspired and Intoxicated Universe*

February 15, 2008

By Andrew William Smith, Editor

Visually intoxicating and emotionally inspired, Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe redefines the rock musical as she retells the story of the 1960s counterculture by reinterpreting classic songs from the Beatles catalog.

Mixing a sappy love story with an incendiary political situation and painting it all with an epic brush across a wildly-costumed, brilliantly-choreographed, and polychromatic palette, ambitious auteur Taymor has achieved the artistically impossible, constructing prophetic nostalgia and seamless narrative in the form of a feature-length music video.

Ignoring her potential detractors, Taymor treads well-traveled byways of familiar cultural motifs with a lyrical levity that ignites our passions without getting lost in the socially complicated implications of her endeavor. The lead characters bear names from Beatles songs like Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Max (Joe Anderson), and Sadie (Dana Fuchs). These overlapping lives light fires of historical significance to warm our jaded memories of a time period that defined a culture war that has lasted for decades since. Every scene and song provide memorable highlights, but some in particular stand out for me.

The already enormous “Let It Be” gets recast as an emotionally-loaded gospel revival against the chilling backdrop of the parallel casualties wrought by the Detroit riots and the Vietnam war. Carol Woods’s wondrous performance haunts with its poignant beauty after repeated viewings and listenings.

An imagined super-group collaboration between Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix comes alive in the relationship between Sadie and Jo Jo (Martin Luther). When Lucy leaves her sheltered suburban reality to discover the urban grit of New York City, she gets the full immersion experience a wickedly rocking version of Sadie’s band performing “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

The rudely claustrophobic rendering of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” transforms the military induction rite of passage with riveting images and dystopian riffs—sort of like the Matrix meets MC Escher. Much to Max’s disdain, when Uncle Sam puts out the call for cannon fodder, even someone who claims to be a “crossdressing homosexual pacifist” will do—as long as he doesn’t have flat feet.

Under the wonderfully fantastic tutelage of Taymor’s wide angle wisdom, each song gets treated like a sacred text to be taught to an audience of acolytes aspiring to be members of the psychedelic clergy. In the cosmically delectable trifecta of “I Am the Walrus,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “Because,” Taymor captures the topsy-turvy and mentally curvy magic of the times.

An unlikely candidate for the day-glo guru giving out shots of electric koolaid, Bono’s brilliant Dr. Robert does creative justice to the merry pranks of Ken Kesey’s kind with the spontaneous poetry of “We’re navigators. We’re aviators. We’re eatin’ taters, masturbating alligators. Bombardiers, we got no fears. We shed no tears. We’re pushing the frontiers of transcendental perception.”

When “Dr. Geary” at the “League of Spiritual Deliverance” refuses to meet with Bono and his band of sisters and brothers, the scene soon switches to the surreal circus tents commandeered by Eddie Izzard’s Mr. Kite. Creating a mood reminiscent of festive scenes like the Bread and Puppet Theater or Burning Man, Taymor takes us down the rabbit hole with a special effects budget and sensibility so savvy that she can recreate the “sixties trip” without any side-effects, legal worries, or mental hangover.

But Taymor doesn’t just employ her keenly kaleidoscopic directorial eye to conjure fantastic communal bliss, she also taps into the terrifying aspects of the times, from jangling with Max through the jungles of ‘nam to watching Jude paint his protest in a stunningly apocalyptic version of “Strawberry Fields” that literally must be seen to be believed.

As Lucy gets swept away by the rhetoric of an increasingly angry anti-war movement and the charismatic magnetism of one of its key organizers, she starts to lose Jude. In a charged scene that reminds us that every battle small and large is really about love, envy, loss, and unresolved emotions, Jude’s heart-wrenching “Revolution” reminds us that the real resolutions for peace must first be made inside the human heart.

Across The Universe is a movie I’ve waited decades for. As a young child with wide eyes, I discovered the fabled genre of the rock musical in the theater and on the widescreen. With a vivid imagination, I starred on the stage of my bedroom and entertained myself with repeated listens to the soundtracks to Hair, Godspell , and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Since those lazy pre-adolescent afternoons in the 1970s, I have sought a cinematic or theatrical feat to feel so alive that I would once again be compelled to dance around my room and sing along without a care. Efforts like Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Wiz, or Rent may have come close. But for my inclinations, no other rock opera has captured that original magic on stage or screen. Until now.

Of course, having Lennon and McCartney score already penned on the ears of eternity, Taymor had a particular advantage. With Across The Universe, Julie Taymor give us an amazing gift for our times, for all time.

Politics/Pop Culture/Current Events: Barack and Roll*

February 4, 2008

By Andrew William Smith, Editor

The lights went dark. A song began to fill the room. Even though the music was prerecorded and being piped through the PA system, it conjured the emotions of the opening song at a rock and roll show. Of course, I knew the song poignantly and painfully well. “City of Blinding Lights” by U2 crammed the airspace and coddled the crowd. Yes, the people went wild as though at a rock show while an idealistic young politician from Illinois took the stage.

The comparisons between Senator Barack Obama and energetic rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and Bono have abounded from the lips of the mainstream pundits during the tumultuous primary contests that have conjured a kind of “February Madness” on the eve of the Super Tuesday contest. No matter what candidate voters ultimately choose, the energy for the primary election this year evokes comparisons to great historical moments of previous epochs. And we have the songs and speeches that seem to keep that spirit alive.

Obama’s not the first politician to pluck a U2 riff for pre-speech posturing. Anthems in general are the kinds of songs that candidates love for prepping another stump speech. The history of rock anthems is highly commercial and appropriately contaminated by images of fans waving fists to a Queen song like “We Are the Champions” being blared at a sporting event. But for me, I love an anthem that holds a spiritual side and socially conscious kernel. Many think Springsteen and Mellencamp. And in the 1980s, these tunes took a page from U2’s playbook and played into the success of bands like The Alarm, Big Country, The Waterboys, and Simple Minds.

Let me be clear: in my journalist’s hat, I’m in no place to endorse any politician, left or right. Moreover, as Little Steven sang in a tune that’s been covered by many including Pearl Jam, “I believe in one party, and it’s name is freedom.” Taking it even further, I believe what the comedian Bill Hicks said, and I am paraphrasing here to keep it clean: “All governments lie.” As much as I love the art of rhetoric fused with the possibility of community self-rule, my personal relationship with democracy has always been tenuous, desiring revolution even as I am more than willing to work for and accept reform. These are problematic terms for even more problematic times.

But all that said, I want to keep it real. After eight frightening years of terror and war, I wonder what in the world I can do. We all face the waxing realization that economic meltdown and icecaps melting might end life as we know it. Something entirely different is required to get us inspired and out of the mire. Tomorrow, we vote. Tomorrow, everyone of us gets to choose.

Many people would rather be post-partisan than bi-partisan, and it’s in this paradigm shift that Senator Obama’s appeal resides. The sincere celebrity comparisons to Kennedy and King percolate online and in print, but these are based in a superficial yet sacred brew, in the sweet rhetorical stance of his speeches and style.

As cynical as some can get about politics, we still have the right to vote, and this is a freedom we can seize. If you have the honor of participating in Super Tuesday, your voice suddenly matters. This election season is unlike any we have experienced, and both the Republican and Democratic primaries have seen unprecedented enthusiasm among the voters. Whether it’s ‘Barack and roll’ or Hillary, whether it’s claiming McCain or sticking with Huckabee, Romney, or Paul, this election is like none other, and even though that tired assertion sounds like hype, it’s true, and it’s ripe.