By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Category: Culture Page 1 of 13

‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ should be a call to generosity

I’m late to this, so you may have seen it already. I finally got around to watching “The Greatest Night in Pop” (here’s the trailer) on Netflix, and it’s terrific. It’s about the making of “We Are the World,” the 1985 song and video with an all-star cast that raised more than $60 million for famine relief in Africa.

If you always thought the song was a bit treacly, well, blame Stevie Wonder. He was supposed to be involved in writing it, but no one could find him, leaving songwriting duties to Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie. And as you may have heard, there’s a scene of Stevie showing Bob Dylan how to sing his part — employing a dead-on Dylan imitation — that has to be seen to be appreciated.

The interviews with Ritchie, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Sheila E. and Huey Lewis are especially insightful. That the entire project came together in one night is a testament to the professionalism of everyone involved, especially Ritchie and Quincy Jones, who was involved from the start and oversaw the whole thing. Well worth your time.

Famine in Africa continues — in Sudan and in Gaza, which is right at the nexus of Africa and the Middle East. “The Greatest Night in Pop” shouldn’t be just an exercise in nostalgia. It should be a call to generosity.

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On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a reminder of the long road that is still in front of us

Photo (cc) 2023 by Dan Kennedy

My daughter, Becky, and I had intended to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis last August the day after a trip to Graceland. A massive thunderstorm knocked out power to many thousands of customers, though, and the museum was shut down. Still, you could walk around the outside of the Lorraine Motel where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. It was and is a somber reminder of the racism and violence that shook our country 55 years ago, and that are with us still.

Today we mark Dr. King’s 95th birthday, and it’s hard to know what he would think if he were still with us. Ten years ago, Barack Obama was beginning his second term, and we smugly told ourselves that the worst was receding into history. Now it seems like we’re moving backwards, with Donald Trump, an authoritarian and a white nationalist, possibly on the verge of returning to power. King’s hope for a more just and equitable society remains just that — a hope. What can we do to turn that hope into reality?

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When jazz’s greatest musicians lived in Queens

Dizzy Gillespie in 1947. Photo (cc) 2010 by Ky.

The best story I’m likely to read all day appears, oddly enough, in The New York Times’ Sunday real estate section. It’s about Corona, a neighborhood in Queens where I’ve never been that was home to some of the finest jazz musicians of the bebop era. In the middle of all this was Dizzy Gillespie, who bought a home there in 1953. Louis Armstrong, whose peak years predated Gillespie’s, lived there as well, and his song “What a Wonderful World” was a tribute to that neighborhood.

The story, by Mia Jackson, is a great read. But if you do nothing else, click and look at the photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Gillespie performing in 1947, and especially Gillespie’s face, a tremendously moving combination of love and reverence (same thing, I suppose). It’s because of that photo that I’m posting a free link.

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Marc Myers takes on a McCartney landmark

My Northeastern classmate and 1970s Northeastern News stalwart Marc Myers has written a wonderful essay for The Wall Street Journal about Paul McCartney’s album “Band on the Run,” which came out 50 years ago in December. I always thought of it as the last Beatles album, and the second best of the band’s solo albums after George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” This is a free link.

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It’s a Mickey Mouse kind of New Year’s Day

Happy New Year! Today is the day that a number of creative works enter the public domain — including “Steamboat Willie,” the first film starring Mickey Mouse. Enjoy!

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Happy birthday, Keith!

Common fallacy here by Josh Marshall about Keith Richards, who turns 80 today. While it may be true that Keith can’t play like Mick Taylor, it’s also true that Taylor can’t play like Richards. Nor can anyone else. Taylor is a very good blues guitarist, but there are hundreds just like him. Richards literally invented modern rock guitar, building on Chuck Berry to create something entirely unique. Happy birthday, Keith! Here’s “Take It So Hard,” maybe the best song of Richards’ abbreviated solo career.

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Heather Cox Richardson offers some optimism during a dark time in our history

Heather Cox Richardson interviews President Biden in 2022. Photo by the White House.

Earlier this week I finished the audio version of Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, “Democracy Awakening: Notes on the State of America.” Like her Substack newsletter, “Letters from an American,” “Democracy Awakening” is well-written, civil, and dedicated to engendering some optimism during the dark time we’re living through. Bonus: Richardson narrates the book herself.

Richardson is more optimistic than I am about the future of the country, but, as she reminds us over and over again, we’ve been here before — in the 1850s, when the slaveholding minority captured all the levers of government power (let’s hope we can avoid a civil war this time); in the 1930s, when Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal were threatened by a homegrown fascist movement; and at several points in between.

Reviewing an audio book is always difficult since it’s not really possible to take notes, but this review in The Guardian by Charles Kaiser will give you a taste:

Richardson’s latest book shares all the intelligence of her newsletter. It doesn’t have the news value of her internet contributions but it is an excellent primer for anyone who needs the important facts of the last 150 years of American history — and how they got us to the sorry place we inhabit today.

“Democracy Awakening,” thankfully, is no marathon. At a brisk eight and a half hours, you can listen to it on a few long walks or drives. If you’re a fan of “Letters from an American,” the most popular newsletter on Substack, then no doubt you’ll be inspired by “Democracy Awakening” as well.

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Jazz at the MFA

From left: George W. Russell Jr., singer Lydia Harrell, drummer Sean Skeete, saxophonist Walter Smith III and bassist Wes Wirth.

Absolutely fantastic concert Thursday evening in the MFA courtyard by George W. Russell Jr. and his band. The music ranged from Ellington and Coltrane to Russell’s own compositions and showed impressive range and depth. The musicians were all first-rate; bassist Wes Wirth was particularly impressive. All except Wirth are on the faculty at the Berklee Colege of Music. And what a great venue for music.

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Looking back — way, way back — at the life and times of Cleopatra

“The Banquet of Cleopatra,” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1743-’44)

What do you know about Cleopatra? I didn’t know much. When some people started complaining a few months ago that a Black actress was portraying the Egyptian queen in a Netflix film, I was surprised: I assumed she really was Black, or at least non-white.

Now I know more. Recently I listened to the audio version of Stacy Schiff’s acclaimed 2010 book “Cleopatra: A Life.” And no, Cleopatra wasn’t Black. For about 300 years, Egypt had been ruled by the Ptolemy family, who were Greeks from Macedonia. One of the qualities that made Cleopatra a more successful ruler than most of her Ptolemaic predecessors was that she actually immersed herself in Egyptian culture, which helped boost her popularity.

Schiff warns us toward the beginning that we don’t actually know that much about Cleopatra. But she brilliantly writes around those gaps, telling us about the political and social milieu of that time and offering informed speculation from various points of view. She also goes into great detail about the Roman wars that defined that time — how Julius Caesar came to power and then, after his assassination, how his nephew Octavian prevailed over Mark Antony. If you’re hazy on all this, as I was, you’ll learn a lot.

One aspect of that period that really stands out is the sheer brutality. Every few minutes (or pages), it seems, someone is being assassinated or executed, usually by beheading. The Ptolemaic dynasty was defined by brothers marrying sisters, which only seems to have worsened the homicidal palace intrigue. Schiff tells us that, far from wallowing in the tragedy of Cleopatra’s suicide, we should appreciate the fact that she was one of the few royals of her day who had the luxury of exiting the stage on her own terms.

A few tidbits I found interesting was that Cleopatra was not considered a great beauty — that reputation was invented several centuries later. She was, according to the sources Schiff consulted, conventionally attractive and highly intelligent. But to illustrate Schiff’s point, Octavian attempted to lure Mark Antony away from Cleopatra’s side by marrying him off to his sister Octavia, who apparently really was a ravishing beauty.

Also: In legend, Cleopatra committed suicide through an asp bite. But Schiff finds that she most likely used poison, a subject to which she devoted quite a bit of research, experimenting on hapless prisoners.

More broadly, Schiff reminds us that, in Cleopatra’s time, Egypt was an ancient civilization that had seen better days. Indeed, in another book I recommend, “1177 B.C.,” an exploration of the end of the Bronze Age by Eric H. Cline, Egypt is portrayed even then as decadent and decaying in comparison with its previous glories.

So there are two recommendations for your long car rides or walks. You really can’t go wrong with either.

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How ‘Freaks’ helped normalize people with disabilities: An excerpt from ‘Little People’

Nicolas Rapold has a fascinating essay in The New York Times (free link) about “Freaks,” a rarely seen 1932 horror movie directed by Tod Browning and  starring a troupe of sideshow performers — people with dwarfism, microcephaly, missing limbs and other conditions. As Rapold writes, “Freaks” has been embraced by some disability activists, as it conveys a “sense of both community and agency among the characters.” It’s also become such a cult classic that a friend of ours shows it at his birthday party every year.

In my 2003 book about dwarfism, “Little People,” I wrote about several artistic depictions of dwarfism, from “Freaks” to an Argentine film called “De eso no se habla” to “CSI.” Unfortunately, “The Station Agent,” starring the soon-to-be-well-known actor Peter Dinklage, was not released until shortly after the book was published, and that remains the gold standard in depiciting someone with dwarfism.

Here’s an excerpt from “Little People” in which I discuss “Freaks.”


For anyone who’s part of what the sociologist Erving Goffman calls a “stigmatized group,” identity as part of that group can all too easily take precedence over individual identity. Our changing attitudes toward dwarfism can be seen through artistic representations. Mini-Me and the late Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf aside, these representations are considerably more enlightened than they used to be. But the individual within is rarely shown, and even when he is, it is strictly within the confines of a group context.

Not long ago I rented the 1932 film “Freaks,” directed by the horror-movie pioneer Tod Browning. “Freaks” is a monumentally bad movie, and it was considered so offensive in its day that it was virtually impossible to see for many decades, excoriated in the United States and actually banned in Britain. Yet what fascinated me most was not its exploitive nature, which I had expected, but Browning’s apparent good intentions. At the beginning of the film, we are told that “freaks” — that is, the disabled freak-show actors who made up much of the cast — are as human as anyone else. And in fact, the first two-thirds of the movie consists of such folks as proportionate dwarfs, an achondroplastic dwarf, mentally retarded* microcephalics (“pinheads,” as they were known; think of Bill Griffith’s cartoon strip “Zippy the Pinhead”), and people without any limbs, all of them going about their business as normally as possible. It’s voyeuristic yet progressive at the same time.

Later, though, the movie transforms itself into the nightmarish vision of disability that the earlier images seem designed to counteract. When the average-size trapeze artist and her strongman boyfriend attempt to poison the dwarf she had married for his inheritance, the “freaks” murder the boyfriend and mutilate the bride, turning her into a monster that is part-woman, part-chicken. (Like I said, it’s a bad movie.) As the critic Joan Hawkins observes, the dénouement “directly contradicts the argument for tolerance that we are given at the beginning of the film. Having been initially reminded by the barker that physical difference is an ‘accident of birth,’ not the visible sign of some inner monstrosity, we are ultimately presented with a woman who has been turned into a freak as punishment for her immorality and greed.” Browning tells us that difference is morally neutral; then he shows us that it’s anything but.

One night when Becky was still a baby, we rented an Argentine film called “De eso no se habla” (“I Don’t Want to Talk About It”), a 1994 movie directed by Maria Luisa Bemberg. One of the stars is an achondroplastic woman named Alejandra Podesta, who marries a mysterious stranger played by Marcello Mastraoianni. We’d heard good things about it, and for the most part we were rewarded with a well-rounded coming-of-age portrait of a young woman with dwarfism. At the end, though, she runs away from the carefully constructed life that her overbearing mother (Luisiana Brando) has built for her so that she can discover her own individuality — which she accomplishes by joining the circus. We see her being greeted by a circus dwarf as she embarks on her new life. The message is muddled but unmistakable: despite being well-educated, happily married, and apparently accepted by her community, she can’t truly discover herself except by being with her own kind.

The modern version of this attitude was portrayed on television not too long ago, on the popular CBS show “CSI.” A murder has taken place at a Little People of America conference, and the crime-scene investigators have been called in to solve it. In the course of the next hour, we are treated to an earnest, politically correct, if not entirely accurate, seminar on the world of dwarfs and dwarfism. The dwarf actors themselves play characters who come across as capable and competent, yes, but also as prickly, defensive, bitter, even angry at their lot in life. The murderer turns out to be a dwarf who didn’t want his average-size daughter to marry a dwarf man — a rather nasty bit of self-hatred that was so predictable I’m surprised it made the final cut.

I don’t mean to be overly critical. The “CSI” episode stood out in many ways because of how good it was. We’ve certainly come a long way since “Freaks.” But I was struck by how even the most well-intentioned scriptwriters manage to fall into the trap of portraying dwarfs as associating mainly with other dwarfs (the LPA conference setting, after all, was an artistic decision, not a necessity) and as profoundly damaged by the mere fact of their dwarfism.

The one dwarf who might have been able to assert his individuality was the man who had been carrying on an affair with an average-size woman. And he was dead before the opening credits had finished rolling.

The group identity portrayed in “CSI” is clearly more progressive than that in “Freaks,” or even in “De eso no se habla.” But true individual identity is reserved for the average-size people who direct the dwarfs’ lives. For the most part, the dwarfs are not actors; they are acted upon. And when they do act, it is in negative, even horrifying ways: to kill and mutilate, to join the circus, to plan and carry out a complicated murder in a twisted effort to negate one’s own dwarfism.

* In 2003, the word “retarded” was not considered an offensive description for people with developmental disabilities; that came later. In fact, I also go into quite a bit of detail in “Little People” of how the word “midget” morphed from an accepted term for someone with proportionate dwarfism to an epithet on par with the n-word. Times change.


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