Friday, August 19, 2016

Book Review: The World According to Star Wars by Cass R. Sunstein

World renowned Legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein wrote a book on a most unlikely topic for someone in his field: the Star Wars phenomenon.  Sunstein relates how over a year ago he revisited the first Star Wars film A New Hope and got hooked on the saga and became fascinated with how it captured the imagination of the entire world.  A fun read from start to finish.

While many have attempted to explain the enduring success of Star Wars, more than any other writer, Sunstein uses common sense to explain.  In a way, its a nice antidote to the legions of haters against George Lucas.  For Sunstein, Lucas created a work of genius that will endure through the ages.

Each chapter, divided up into episodes, looking at specific aspects of Star Wars ranging from the story's roots in world mythology, parent-child relationships, politics and history, freedom of choice, even constitutional law.  

Why did Star Wars catch on?  Sunstein offers three possibilities.  It just too awesome to be ignored?  Historically, there are many examples of what is now considered great art that was rejected at the time. Or was it a cascading effect, meaning when a bunch of people love a movie, it gets contagious. Then again, many box office hits do not stand the test of time. What was the top grossing film of 1987?  Three Men and a Baby, don't see anyone rushing off to see it now. Or did Star Wars come out at a time when people were ready for it?

All three factors were in play.  Star Wars was an awesome movie, it caught on like a wildfire, and yes the zeitgeist of 1977 played a role as well.  As the book points out, Bob Dylan's classic songs of the 1960s would seem out of place in another decade. Too abrasive and cynical in the 1950s, but out of touch in the 1980s.  

If Star Wars had come out in the 1960s it would've looked goofy and militaristic, while in the 90s it would be too corny.  Timing is a factor.

Sunstein argues that at its heart, Star Wars is about parents and children.  He points out how George Lucas's father ran a stationary store in Modesto, California and expected his son to follow in his footsteps.  Lucas refused after an acrimonious argument, taking a more risky path into film school.  In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke defies his father by not going to the dark side.  Yet in Return of the Jedi, Luke tries to redeem his father and at the moment of truth Darth Vader cannot bear to see his son suffer and saves his life. Even though children will challenge and defy their parents, they also know they will never abandon them.  

Written for fans and non-fans alike, a valuable edition to Star Wars literature.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Book Review: Small Town Talk by Barney Hoskyns

Small Town Talk tells the history of Woodstock, New York, a place famous for the Woodstock Music Festival of August 1969, although it was held 60 miles away from the actual town.  Author Barney Hoskyns documents how the town, a gathering place for artist and bohemians throughout the 20th century, usually in shaky harmony with the locals, transformed rock and roll into an epic art form during the 1960s.  

When Bob Dylan set up shop in Woodstock as a remote haven from New York  City, many other rock icons of the era followed suit including Van Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Todd Rundgren, Levon Helm, and many others.

The best part of the book covers the town's heyday in the 1960s.  Albert Grossman looms large in the book, a key figure in the New York music scene who saw the commercial possibilities of folk music and brought it to the mainstream with acts like Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Later he managed Bob Dylan's career until their dramatic falling out, a conflict addressed on Dylan's John Wesley Harding album. Grossman remains complex figure who left many hard feelings over money and his derisive attitude towards artists. 

Dylan bought a farm in Woodstock and the spent the early years of his marriage there. In 1967 he recorded The Basement Tapes with the Band, music that never got an official release until 1975, but became a major influence on the future of music. According to Hoskyns Dylan rose at Six every day, took his kids to school, and recorded with the Band from Noon till six five days a week. In time Dylan felt less at peace in Woodstock when obsessed fans would congregate in his backyard, he even had a direct phone line to the police station installed in case of trouble.

Eventually Dylan moved back to the city, but many other musicians from both sides of the Atlantic came to Woodstock in search of inspiration. The Band recorded their early albums there, music partly inspired by the atmosphere of the town.  Drummer Levon Helm remained a fixture of the local scene until he passed away in 2012.

After the Woodstock music festival the town was overrun with people trying to make a quick buck by emulating their counter-cultural heroes. Todd Rundgren became the most notable musician to record his music at Woodstock in the 1970s, "a cult hero's, cult hero" to quote Hoskyns.

The genre today known as Americana, a problematic term because since it tends to simplify a wide swath of music, nevertheless originated with The Basement Tapes.  Many ingredients including folk, country, rock, bluegrass, blues coalesced into something unique in the late 1960s and remains a foundation of a certain type of American music. Hoskyns also left a useful playlist in the book's appendix.

Small Town Talk tells the story of a unique place that inspired many artists, unsparing minutia on their personal lives, and the corrosive effect of commerce on creativity.  There's many tales of romantic betrayals, hard feelings, disputes over money, and creative breakthroughs.