History has always been a critical component of theater, especially in musicals, where period sets and costumes assist in creating other worlds on stage quite unlike our normal one. But last year, with Hamilton: The Musical, the stage phenomenon which won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and a million other awards), history became a rock star.
Or rather, historical figures, even those with seemingly little contemporary vigor, had the ability to inspire a new generation, if reinterpreted by the right talents.
The musical categories for the 71st Annual Tony Awards, announced on Tuesday, are a bit more competitive this year than last, when Hamilton took home eleven awards. The Best Musical category is an especially diverse cross-section of subjects in terms of time and place — one contemporary tale (Dear Evan Hansen), one from recent history (Come From Away, set right after September 11, 2001), a European historical fable (Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, based on Tolstoy) and, of course, a musical that is literally about not having any history (Groundhog Day, based on the movie).
The new musical War Paint is this year’s musical representative of New York City history, replaying the story of Fifth Avenue’s most famous retail rivalry between cosmetics icons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. While War Paint didn’t make the Best Musical cut, its two main stars (Christine Ebersole as Arden, Patti Lupone as Rubinstein) are competing for Best Performance By An Actress In A Musical. Just as Arden and Rubinstein themselves would have wanted!
Arden, arriving from Canada, and Rubinstein, from Poland by way of Australia, set up their companies in New York in the 1910s. But the musical, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, actually starts in the 1930s with their careers firmly established on Fifth Avenue, their competing salons bustling with society women.
Why skip past their origin stories? War Paint is more of a showcase than a show, designed to do something very rare, providing an opportunity for two great female musical stars to take the stage at the same time. (Quick: Name another musical with two female leads where they are not playing witches.) Because, practically speaking, you want established stars in your musical, the story must start with Arden and Rubinstein already at the top of their game.
The musical escorts the pair through the mid-century — past the changing roles of women in World War II, past the television revolution — as their once-chic brand names struggle to change with the times. On occasion the story pauses to infuse the grand, sweeping narrative with small biographical details.
If you heard our recent podcast on the subject, you’ll know that Arden and Rubinstein never actually met (at least, as the legend goes). This too works to the musical’s benefit, giving each star separate storylines that veer into each other just enough, never letting one upstage the other.
Lupone and Ebersole are tremendous. How could they not be? Lupone playfully transitions Rubinstein from a slinking figure of sophisticated grace to an irascible curmudgeon whose body language aches with history (and several dozen pounds of jewelry). Ebersole, with superbly fading cheer, slowly transformed Arden’s legendary confidence to wistfulness and then — in a fantasy coda where the two women actually do meet — into a graceful humility.
If you want to hear more about the story of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, listen to our podcast The Beauty Bosses of Fifth Avenue. Most of our show takes place before the events of the musical, so consider it a prequel of sorts.
There’s also a bit of New York City history in contention for the Tony Award for Best Play. Joining Oslo, Sweat and A Doll’s House, Part 2 in the category is an intriguing and unconventional transfer from the Off-Broadway stage — Indecent written by Paula Vogel.
This very musical play recounts the drama surrounding the 1923 Broadway production of God of Vengeance, a controversial Yiddish play that had been well received in downtown New York theaters, but scandalized audiences when it moved uptown. Its cast and crew were charged with obscenity — the show features lesbian protagonists — and its playwright Sholem Asch ostracized. (He spends his time cloistered in Staten Island.)
This artful production feels like a graphic novel brought to life, with projected text hovering over a barren stage and its players sometimes disintegrating into dust. (It’s a weird and spooky stage trick.) Despite feeling very abstract and removed from circumstances at times, Indecent makes a point to root God of Vengeance within Broadway history, vibrantly repeating a couple offending scenes from the play.
Below: A letter from the playwright which ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on March 11, 1923
Hopefully the point isn’t lost on its audience; the original production was shut down on a similar stage at the old Apollo Theater (at 223 West 42nd Street), just a few blocks south of the Cort Theatre, Indecent‘s present home. The cast, brilliantly directed by Rebecca Taichman (who scored a Tony nomination for Best Director), flaunts those very moments from Vengeance that proper society once thought offensive.
If you’re in the mood to hear more about scandalous Broadway shows from the 1920s, listen to our podcast Diamond Girl: Mae West — Sex on Broadway. West and the cast of Sex was arrested just a few years after God of Vengeance on similar charges.
It was during one of those terrible February nights — blizzard winds with the streets packed tight with snow — at a jazz club in the East Village named Slug’s Saloon, packed with people haloed in cigarette smoke, that a woman named Helen Morgan walked up to one of the performers, her common-law husband, a rising jazz trumpeter named Lee Morgan, and shot him dead.
This tragedy had entered into jazz music mythology. Lee Morgan was a prodigy Blue Note Records recording star of the late 1950s and ’60s who was very nearly waylaid by heroin addiction. But by the early 1970s he was clean. And that was because of Helen.
So why did she kill him?
The new documentary I Called Him Morgan, directed by Kasper Collin, is a tranquil and lyrical retelling of Morgan’s bright, brief career and the influences that led to his redemption and death. It also shows off a cool, raw backdrop of 1960s New York grit and shadow, rendered not from acres of stock footage (although there is some) but from abstract re-creation and creative editing. The film itself is very much like a tune Lee Morgan himself would have played.
The film’s driving force is a cassette tape. In the 1990s, Helen Morgan, long released from prison, enrolled in an adult education class in Wilmington, NC, where she met jazz aficionado and former radio host Larry Reni Thomas. Familiar with Morgan’s story, he asked if he could interview her and record the session on cassette tape. She died the following month.
A music documentarian could not dream of a better plot device. Helen talks about her life and her first meeting with the young, impressionable jazz star at her apartment on West 53rd Street, near the legendary Birdland jazz club.
They were an unusual pair — she was older and streetwise, he was an adorable ball of energy and creativity — but they clicked, for a time. She even managed to get him back on his feet after a stint with heroin addiction.
Helen exists in the film only in a few fleeting photographs. She hated getting her picture taken, and in those that exist, she never looks thrilled. Lee Morgan, however, comes alive in archival footage and black-and-white photographs. Yet we hear her voice and never his — only through his forceful and vibrant music, sounding as crisp and present in the film as though it were being heard live.
The film’s dreamlike, filtered quality pairs exquisitely with the music, creating a tight-focused look at New York and the Lower East Side in particular. Slug’s Saloon was at 242 East 3rd Street, between Avenue B and C, and the entire street, clogged with snow, is shot with grainy foreboding.
Morgan’s musician friends avoided walking the street after his death; the club closed many months later. This may be a street you’ve lithely walked down many times in the past. After watching I Called Him Morgan, you may feel a sense of gloom the next time you walk past.
I CALLED HIM MORGAN
Directed by Kaspar Collin
In theaters now — Playing at the Metrograph and Lincoln Center in New York City this week
Even if you don’t care about the Academy Awards — or the general self-congratulatory nature of Hollywood during this of year — the short list is an amazing thing for non-fiction film lovers, always filled with small treasures that fly under the radar in comparison to mainstream fiction awards fare like La La Land and Manchester By The Sea.
Better yet, thanks to streaming, most of these films are available for you to watch now. Here’s a survey of a few films on the list that I’ve seen….
The best New York City history film from last year was The Witness, a spellbinding documentary about the murder of Kitty Genovese, a Queens woman whose violent death served as a starting point for criticisms of impersonal urban life. When she was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964, newspapers reported the apparent indifference of neighbors who heard her screams and did nothing. The 1964 New York Times article 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police has set the tone for how many viewed New Yorkers — as an indistinguishable group of self-involved and even cruel bystanders.
James Solomon’s film works to dismantle this theory with a startling detective at its core — Kitty’s brother Bill Genovese who lost both his legs in Vietnam a few years after his sister’s murder. Bill doggedly tracks down the so-called ‘witnesses’ to the crime and pieces together a much different story to the one which was trumpeting in the press in 1964.
The Witness doesn’t merely dismantle an urban legend; it personalizes Kitty in a way I’ve never seen or read before.
HOW TO WATCH IT: It’s streaming on Netflix and makes it PBS debut on Independent Lens on January 23, 10 pm. More information here.
If The Witness unravels its central crime, Tower seeks only to relive the 1966 incident, but in a truly unusual way — abstracting it by its reenactment into animation. The effect is at first jarring, but eventually magnetic. The unique animation style allows the stories of survivors to be told in expressive ways, visualizing their thoughts and fears. Central to the story is the tale of Claire James, a pregnant woman whose boyfriend and unborn baby were killed in the attack.
HOW TO WATCH IT: Available to stream on iTunes or Amazon.
COMMAND AND CONTROL
The inspection of historical American tragedies continues with this nail-biter about the 1980 Damascus Titan missile explosion in Arkansas. If The Witness and Tower depict scenarios that could be ripped from today’s headlines, Command and Control is hopefully one that feels somewhat unusual — a dangerous mistake that potentially could have vaporized a sizable section of the United States.
While a far more conventional documentary than the other two, this brilliantly directed film by Robert Kenner is a true edge-of-your-seat drama thanks to its eyewitness interviews and original footage.
HOW TO WATCH IT: It was featured on PBS’ American Experience last week. You can watch it here.
O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA
This epic-length film is more than a documentary around the OJ Simpson trial. It’s about America in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, about the rise of Simpson as a sports hero who seems at first to stand apart from the strides and set-backs of the civil rights era. Many have already proclaimed this one of the greatest non-fiction historical films about the latter half of the 20th century. I add my own accolades to this list as well. If you love modern history, this is a must-see — all nine hours of it.
In Ava DuVernay’s Oscar nominated Selma, the director managed to tell the story of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in a way that felt intimately linked to our modern situation. In this brilliant documentary, she reverses that process, taking an immediate crisis (American mass incarceration) and digs into its bedrock, finding the historical roots to our current problem.
At the core of this film lies the reason that I love studying history in the first place; knowing what came before and how we got to such a dysfunctional place today brings to light our possible salvation. The clues are in our past if we listen to them.
Here are the other ten films that are shortlisted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Best Documentary Feature. This list will be winnowed down to five nominees on Tuesday, January 24.
Cameraperson — Streaming on iTunes, released as a Criterion Collection DVD on February 7, 2017
The Eagle Huntress — currently in limited release, available for streaming on Amazon on February 7, 2017
The end of the year usually means a higher quality selection at the movie theater– and more films based on historical events, a popular theme for those seeking glory on awards shows.
It always seems each year’s batch accidentally gathers around a certain place or era. Last year it was New York City history of the 1950s with films like Brooklyn, Caroland Bridge of Spies. For 2016, three historical films releases hover around the 1960s but move geographically further south — specifically to Virginia and Washington D.C.
Last night, I saw the riveting film Jackie, directed by the Chilean director Pablo Larraín, an abstract biographical film on the life ofJackie Kennedy, specifically focusing on the days in 1963 following her husband President John F. Kennedy’s tragic assassination in Dallas.
While almost uncomfortably accurate in places, Jackie is by no means a straightforward Lifetime melodrama, but rather a horror film of shifting faces, a speculation on the inner world of Jackie (Natalie Portman), a woman disintegrating, then reassembling before our eyes.
The film spends most of its time in two destinations. A reporter (Billy Crudup) attempts to pluck a magazine profile from a cold and even sinister Jackie out in Hyannis Port. The rest of the film plays out from the various tales spun to the reporter, a few entirely fabricated.
The main set piece of Jackie is, of course, the White House, seen more intimately here than any other film in recent memory. And yet, thanks to the off-kilter score, the hallways feel like those of The Shining, possessed of the weight of history and redecorated with objects that feel absurd and out-of-place.
History is one of the central themes of the film as Jackie attempts to assure her husband’s place in it (not, of course, forgetting her own place there as well). Portman’s Jackie is never played at a single note. Her grief has touches of insanity, her poise entirely self-aware.
This is not a presentation of the actual Jackie Kennedy — she will forever remain an enigma — but rather an accumulation of the pop culture Jackies — the deified saint, the playful mannequin, the calculated intellectual. It’s a stylistic choice that Portman’s Jackie, at least, would have certainly encouraged
On the other end of the historical panorama is the moving and unpretentious film Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols, a straight-forward and unflashy telling of the events surrounding the landmark Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, abolishing laws that prohibit interracial marriages.
Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, both pitch-perfect in their performances) are a kind, soft-spoken pair, compatibly rugged and sweet. When Mildred gets pregnant, the couple decide to get hitched in D.C., where interracial marriages are allowed. But in their Virginia small-town home, such a coupling is illegal, and the pair are quickly thrown in jail by a menacing sheriff (Marton Csokas). Eventually the couple and their child have to move out of the state entirely.
Loving is an especially interesting product for being a successful film about an entirely unfilmable subject. The central pair were not flashy individuals. The case took years to get to the Supreme Court and the Lovings didn’t even go to witness it. The heroes are two young, awkward attorneys — Bernie Cohen (played by Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschknop (played by Jon Bass). There are no fiery speeches. Few words are ever uttered above a polite tone.
Yet, after a somewhat slow start, I found it a quietly engaging and fantastically uplifting experience. In particular, the smile that stretches across Mildred’s face in Cohen’s office as she realizes her love is about to be validated by law is positively life-affirming.
And by the way, it is IMPOSSIBLE to watch either Jackie or Loving without having the modern world seeping in to influence your viewing experience of both.
The third historical film featuring the Virginia/D.C. area in the 1960s is Hidden Figures, about the life of Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), an African-American physicist who assisted in the planning of NASA’s first manned space flights. The film opens in limited release on December 25.
Another American innovator is celebrated in The Founder, about the life of Ray Kroc (played by Michael Keaton), the man behind McDonald’s golden arches.
And finally, for some Prohibition-era escapism — and for those who miss their Boardwalk Empire — there’s Live By Night, based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name. Ben Affleck directs himself in this saucy, boozy thriller.
The article below contains spoilers involving locations used in the movie, but no specific plot spoilers that aren’t already revealed in the trailer.
Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, strictly a fantasy film of course, from the vivid mind of J.K. Rowling, is nonetheless the year’s best historical depiction of New York City. This indulgence of the imagination is even more successful as a celebration of the past.
Sure, its presentation of 1920s New York is filled with physical impossibilities. Its Times Square blazes with the electric insignias of fake Broadway revues and advertisements. Its rows of townhouses are a wee bit too perfect and uniform.
But this story of an English wizard and his mischievous bag of creatures gets the magic of Old New York exactly right. Its a brilliant consideration of the imagined city — shining towers and beautiful architecture, speakeasies and cobblestone streets. The film lovingly unfurls the beauty of steel-beam architecture and old Beaux-Arts mansard roofs with as much loving care as the whimsical beasts of the title.
In a rather unprecedented and creative move, the City of New York has gotten into the movie tie-in game, presenting a fun page of historical photographs with a slider to compare old sites used in the film with today. There’s also an interactive map showing the streets of New York as presented in the film.
And On Location Tours is providing tours crossing many of the main sites of the film.
Even if you’re not a fantasy film buff, I think you’ll be captivated by the art direction and design of this film. Here are a few of my favorite details:
Singer Building — The main character Newt Scamander arrives in New York Harbor and disembarks at Chelsea Piers. The camera pans over a breathtaking shot of downtown New York, its skyline as it would have looked in 1926. Most prominent among its many skyscrapers is the Singer Building.
“For a few short months from 1908 to 1909, the building that stood at 165 Broadway was the tallest in the world: the forty-seven-story Singer Building, the skyscraper trophy built by the head of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Its unusual appearance—a narrow red tower shooting up from a chunky base—was among the most glorious on the young New York skyline. Its interior was festooned with bronze medallions engraved with the images of needle, thread, and bobbin. Because we can’t have nice things, they ripped it apart at the seams and tore it down in 1967. Prior to 2001, it remained the tallest building in the world ever demolished.”
Woolworth Building — The world’s tallest building in 1926 is pivotal to the plot of Fantastic Beasts, the extra-dimensional headquarters for New York’s magicians. By 1926, it would have felt truly magical — if a bit old fashioned. The sudden rise of Art Deco architecture and the installation of zoning laws in New York would have made the Woolworth feel like a unusual treasure of the skyline.
From our book: “Designed by Cass Gilbert for the “five-and-dime” retail king Frank Woolworth, the Woolworth Building was a glowing candle of a skyscraper next to dainty little City Hall. The Woolworth’s intricate facade was adorned with many of the “international races” echoed down at Gilbert’s other big Manhattan building, the U.S. Custom House (1 Bowling Green).
Built three years before the city enacted stricter zoning laws (which, among other things, forced the construction of setbacks that would result in tiered wedding cake–shaped structures), the Woolworth simply zooms straight up into the sky.
Advertisements to fill the office space in the Woolworth Building made use of its unique place in American commerce. Said one ad, “Customers will never overlook your store if it is in the Woolworth Building. The sight and thought of the world’s greatest structure will remind them of you and your store.”
New York Subway Entrances — The unusual but elegant New York subway entrances are marvelously recreated here. The spectacular design of the entrances is inspired by the subway in Budapest (yes, they had a subway before New York), using a kushk or summerhouse design often found in ancient Turkish structures.
Below: A similar entrance from 1940 in Union Square. Photographer Arnold Eagle, courtesy Museum of City of New York.
The Central Park Zoo escape — A specific moment in New York City history is strongly referenced in one exciting sequence in the movie. Or, should I say, an imagined moment in New York City history.
On November 9, 1874, the New York Herald ran a fictitious tale of animals escaping from the Central Park Zoo. “A SHOCKING SABBATH CARNIVAL OF DEATH” ran the headline: “Another Sunday of horror has been added to those already memorable in our city annals. The sad and appalling catastrophe of yesterday is a further illustration of the unforeseen perils to which large communities are exposed.”
Harper’s Weekly recounts the hoax in a article from 1893 here.
City Hall Subway Station — One of the major action set pieces of the film takes place in a New York space that few are rarely allowed to go — the underground City Hall subway station. Built in 1904 for the first subway, it was the most beautiful and the most elaborate, meant to assure the public of the subway’s comfort and safety. It was taken out of regular service in 1945 however it is occasionally reopened for tour groups.
Photo-mechanical postcards were popular during the Gilded Age because they were photographs printed on thick card stock and enhanced with colored inks, turning reality into a Technicolor dreamscape well before the invention of color film.
This also describes the film style of Baz Luhrmann, the Australian director known his flamboyant, indulgent visual technique, seen in Strictly Ballroom, Romeo+ Juliet, and Moulin Rouge. So it might take you a few minutes to adjust to his latest work — the Network television series The Get Down, set in the South Bronx in the 1970s.
Below: The Fantastic Four Plus One
Luhrmann has explored New York City history before — in his radical take on The Great Gatsby, a sparkling, dreamlike drama with its details so heightened that it was offered to movie theaters in a 3-D version.
The South Bronx was a wasteland of urban decay by 1977, with a cash-strapped city government employing planned shrinkage onto a poor and ravaged neighborhood. Hardly suitable for gaily colored musical treatment? Weirdly enough, it works. The Get Down is a reminder of the humanity and creativity that kept the South Bronx alive during this period.
Below: The character Shaolin Fantastic: Treated as a mythical figure (at first)
The Get Down focuses first on the exploits of two young lovers. Mylene (Herizen F. Guardiola) is a preacher’s daughter and a star of the church choir with dreams of disco stardom. She reluctantly falls for Zeke (Justice Smith), an earnest poet who she fears will distract her from fame. In fact Zeke’s budding talents for beautiful rhyme keeps his head above the streets, even as he befriends the graffiti-artist turned deejay Shaolin Fantastic (Shammeik Moore), a young man with connections both to the musical future and to the criminal underworld.
It’s the summer of 1977, and their adventures fall upon a landscape of infinite moral choices. Plots frequently take them to Les Inferno, the hottest disco in the South Bronx (inspired perhaps by the real Disco Fever), owned by queen-pin Fat Annie (played by the terrific Lillias White). They frequently seek the aid of Francisco Cruz (Jimmy Smits playing a role based on real-life political boss Ramon S. Valez), who perhaps has more nefarious reasons for helping out the young lovers.
Below: Cadillac, the flamboyant disco king with an evil side
The Get Down is a very Luhrmann production: Musical numbers, bright colors, operatic cross-editing, earnest intentions. And yet its handling of real Bronx history is assured, confident and innovative. The show (six episodes so far) is able to turn this troubled era into a sort-of disco West Side Story because of its reverence of those who lived here.
Here are some of my favorite historical details from the first six episode. NO big plot spoilers but definitely a revelation of some of the history used on the show:
Below: Mylene, her conflicted mother Lydia and Francisco
1) Political Wars — The Get Down manages to bring our two heroes into New York’s greater political and social context. One character even gets a job at the World Trade Center! The street dramas are balanced nicely with action at the polls, with Abe Beame running in election that year against congressman Ed Koch, played beautifully by Frank Wood.Charlotte Street, one of the Bronx’s most troubled places in the 1970s, is centerpiece for much of the action. (Below: A burned building on Charlotte Street)
“Tear down the competition. Wherever you find it!”
2) Deejay Wars — Even as disco becomes mainstream, a new form of music develops using tricks of the turntable. The musical battles between Grandmaster Flash and DJ Cool Herc are solidified in gang fiefdoms — kings and kingdoms are frequently referenced — while a separate strata of deejays (located mostly in Manhattan) focus on the next disco diva. (Nobody much cares for Brooklyn here; its leading deejay Grandmaster Flowers is laughed away!)
Below: The real Grandmaster Flash
“Above all this? How are we above all this?”
3) Harlem vs the Bronx — Fat Annie is obsessed with Nicky Barnes, the Harlem crime boss threatening to spread his influence into her territory. That summer he appeared on this cover, flaunting his underground power:
4) The Blackout of 1977 — The middle two episodes are set during the infamous blackout with characters, in typical Luhrmann fashion, scattered throughout the borough in various states of drama and distress. This piece of history is brilliantly incorporated into the series, fueling the motivations of the last episodes. In fact, had this been a film instead of a series — and there have been some critics who have suggested that — I imagine it probably would have called The Blackout.
5) Musical Diversity — During the course of six episodes, you’ll find yourself wanting to make comparisons with Glee, Empire and, especially HBO’s failed Vinyl. Indeed, Vinyl traipses through the same musical era and with similar characters. But The Get Down does a better job of encapsulating the excitement, the freshness of new music’s infancy. We see the characters learning to turntable and beatbox; we hear musical genres — gospel, salsa, soul, blues — transform into new sounds — disco, rap, hip hop.
“Another ghetto clown thinks he’s Miles Davis!”
6) Graffiti Kings — It’s impossible to get away from the elevated subway in The Get Down. Pivotal scenes take place beneath it, Les Inferno sits next to it, and the rumbling night train always seems to ambling by in the distance. The trains are coated in graffiti, the embroidery of urban decay for some and symbol of purpose and existence to others (mainly to the kings and their crew). Unfortunately, the plot actually strays anytime it follows Dizzie (Jaden Smith), Zeke’s graffiti artist friend, but the depictions of late-night crews struggling to use spray cans are imaginative. And I loved the unveiling of the “writers bench,” an actual place at the 149th Street subway stop with name artists could meet.
7) Epic use of the Queens PanoramaThe World’s Fair artifact is used as a framing device along with grainy original footage from 1977 (as well as footage made to look like it’s from 1977). Speaking of overarching framing devices, the entire show is in effect a massive flashback. One of our characters grows up to become a major rap sensation, and most episodes begin twenty years later inside a massive arena. (Moulin Rouge and The Great Gatsby have a similar framing device.)
Below: The Studio 54 deejay booth, 1979
“A Latino, Pentecostal, communal Puerto Rican disco hymn record, right?”
8) The Get Down > Vinyl I’m not sure how an Australian filmmaker bested Martin Scorsese, of all people, in depicting a richer, more fuller 1970s music scene, but here it is. The series does journey into the mainstream music scene of Times Square as Mylene attempts to make it big in the world of disco music. We see the typical scenes — executives being grossly casual in business meetings, musicians doing cocaine for inspiration. At the core of this is the excellent Kevin Corrigan as Jackie Moreno, a fading music producer who jus needs one more big hit.
His humiliation at the ‘record pool’ — based on an actual method of distribution for New York’s hottest disco records — could be seen as a commentary on the entire run of Scorsese’s Vinyl (which was cancelled after one season.) And I defy you not to watch his scenes in the Chelsea Hotel — excellently reproduced — without smelling every foul odor that ever wafted down that hallway.
And, even with its faults, that’s the ultimate success of The Get Down — you see history, you hear history and, oh yeah, you smell it.
The Get Down is available for streaming exclusively on Netflix. The first six episodes are available now with the next six coming out in early 2017.
NOTE: This discussion of the film ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ includes minor location spoilers but no specific plot spoilers that not already in the movie trailer.
Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York music philanthropist and society maven of exceeding generosity, was actually a rather fine musician. Unfortunately, her ability to play the instrument in which she excelled — the piano — was taken from her at a young age due to injury, so she took up another passion in which she absolutely did not excel — singing.
The movie Florence Foster Jenkins, with Meryl Streep in the lead role, picks up the real-life story in 1944 when Jenkins decides to stage a magnificent comeback at Carnegie Hall. Nothing has changed of course. She still can’t sing, and she’s surrounded by a gentle society too polite to persuade her otherwise. But she becomes moved by stories of mothers who have lost their sons in the war and feels compelled to do something charitable.
Streep is her comedic best, just perfect casting; after all, she’s as much a part of New York‘s cultural history as Jenkins was. But the film delivers two other great performances. Hugh Grant plays the actor St Clair Bayfield, Jenkins common-law husband, with a generous well of charm. And Simon Helberg (pictured above), who you might know better from The Big Bang Theory, is terrific as Jenkins’ expressive pianist Cosmé McMoon.
Jenkins, of course was a real New York socialite, and the new film, directed by Stephen Frears, takes place in a unique version of New York City; the street life and casual details are certainly on point, but almost none of the sets feel like New York buildings. (The movie was filmed in Liverpool, England.)
Below: Jenkins delights an audience at her home at the Hotel Seymour.
Fortunately the film gets most of the substantive points of the story correct. Here are six details about New York City that you should know before going into the film:
Above: A clip from the New York Evening World, Feb. 4, 1921, featuring Bayfield. He’s not a particularly talented thespian, as the film demonstrates.
THE VERDI CLUB
This music appreciation society was formed by Jenkins in 1917 to enthrall her high-society friends and keep traditional forms of music alive in New York. It was originally started specifically as a fan club of sorts to Giuseppe Verdi. “The Verdi Club, under the direction of its founder, Florence Foster Jenkins,” according to Pearson’s Magazine in 1917, “is going about its propaganda work in the most sensible way imaginable.”
Of course Jenkins had accumulated such good will with the group that she was able to indulge her less-than-sensational singing talents with them. She was so beloved that nobody felt the need to openly criticize her, not even the press. In 1922, the New York Tribune reports that “a group of French songs” were “sung by Florence Foster Jenkins” without waxing on about the performance quality. There are few extant reviews of her performances as Bayfield often paid critics off and it was generally seen as gauche to even talk about it.
THE HOTEL SEYMOUR
Jenkins lived her later years at the Hotel Seymour, located at 50 West 45th Street. (The Sofitel New York sits on that spot today.) As Daytonian In Manhattan mentions in an excellent article from 2012, “Not only did prominent citizens like former United States Senator John P. Jones and socialite Mrs. Jackson Gouraud live here in 1908; but successful entertainers were drawn by the hotel’s proximity to the theater district.”
This is the primary setting for the film; in fact it’s where Jenkins eventually died. You can read her obituary here.
The great music hall of Andrew Carnegie, which opened in 1891, was still very much the center of high cultural affairs by the 1940s. However a certain context is left out of the film which I feel must have driven Jenkins in her love of music. By the 1940s, new forms of music — jazz, big band, swing — had grown in prominence to unseat all others. Jenkins’ operettas, her ballads, even her Verdi, were hopefully outdated. Even at Carnegie Hall.
Indeed, the night before her grand performance at Carnegie Hall (the program is below), a political rally for Franklin D. Roosevelt at the venue featured the hot young vocalist Frank Sinatra, literally the opposite of Jenkins in every way. I can imagine Jenkins felt a bit like a surviving standard bearer, hoping to keep the traditional sounds (and a traditional way of life) alive in New York.
MELOTONE RECORDING STUDIO
This early recording studio for vanity projects is pivotal to the legend of Florence Foster Jenkins and figures prominently in the film. The studio was located at 25 Central Park West. According to authors Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees, “although frequented by amateurs, Melotone also attracted substantial clients. It recorded the Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts as well as those of the New York Philharmonic, whose guest conductor John Barbirolli visited the studio.”
The film features many famous names — Lily Pons, Tallulah Bankhead — but none as esteemed or as well admired in 1944 as Cole Porter, one of the reigning Broadway composers. The Porter seen in Florence Foster Jenkins in late fall 1944 would have frantically been working on a somewhat forgettable musical review called Seven Lively Arts (opening in December of 1944) that nonetheless gave the world the song “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye.”
EARL WILSON of the NEW YORK POST
Wilson was one of the most influential newspaper critics of the 1940s and 1950s, having worked at the New York Post since the ’30s. His columns recounting Broadway’s greatest shows and stars during this period would help define the legends of the day. He was so famous and influential that the Beatles dedicated their performance on the Ed Sullivan Show to him in 1964 — though mostly because he ‘gave in’ and had become a fan by then. See his column below:
And finally, there’s a sort of confounding shot of Brooklyn in the film where one character has an apartment. Can anybody locate the precise whereabouts of where this apartment is supposed to be? Interestingly, the art direction of the shot seems to be inspired by a famous shot of the Manhattan Bridge, but from the Manhattan side (pictured below):
The Bowery Boys Obsessive Guides look very, very closely at a classic movie filmed in New York City, finding buried history, additional context and a few secrets within various scenes and plot points. Filled with film spoilers so read this after you’ve seen the movie — or use it to follow along as you watch it! Check out my previous guides forMiracle on 34th Street, Midnight Cowboy, and The Muppets Take Manhattan.
In 1989 the ghosts returned to New York City streets. Both above and beneath them.
The 1984 blockbuster Ghostbusters holds a unique place in Hollywood cinema, the rare sci-fi comedy to become a genuine classic, due mostly to its terrific cast (Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Dan Ackroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis, Annie Potts, among others) and to the unique alchemy of theme and location.
The characters run through New York City like kids in a haunted house. In 1984, New York’s reputation was still greatly tarnished by the economic and social crises of the previous decade. Ghostbusters plays upon those perceptions, its heroes battling metaphorical ghosts and demons in historic locations.
The 1989 sequel Ghostbusters 2 takes place in the same city but at the end of an era. Ed Koch is in his final year as mayor of New York. He had been unseated in the primaries by David Dinkins who, in November, would then defeat Rudy Giuliani for the office.
Many elements of the city have been ‘cleaned up’ by this time (the once ubiquitous subway graffiti being one casualty) but the high crime rate was still very much the pivotal concern. New Yorkers didn’t need to go to the movies to find terrors in their backyard. The sequel opened less than two months after a jogger was beaten, raped and left for dead in Central Park. According to the New York Daily News, “On a typical day in 1989, New Yorkers reported nine rapes, five murders, 255 robberies and 194 aggravated assaults. Fear wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction; it was a matter of self-preservation. ”
It’s easy to watch Ghostbusters 2 today, disengaged from its historical context. But watch with a close eye and you’ll see bits of a familiar city in the background and hints of the era embedded into the story. Here’s a list of New York historical facts and trivia to watch out for:
CLEARLY THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS. WATCH THIS FILM BEFORE READING OR, BETTER YET, READ ALONG AS YOU’RE WATCHING IT:
1) The opening scene works as a pastiche of New York City life — arguing neighbors, jogger on the sidewalk, a cop giving a parking ticket — along East 77th Street. Dana, played by Weaver, has arrived with a gigantic baby carriage and her bundle of joy Oscar. Her place, at 325 East 77th Street, built in 1940, is your typical co-op of the neighborhood, a far cry from her last home on 55 Central Park West, which became a demonic portal in the last film.
Interestingly, at Dana’s apartment building, Google Map lists one business — Psychic Works — which would have come in handy had it been there in 1989.
2) Baby Oscar is whisked away by a spiritual presence and hurled into traffic at the corner of East 77th Street and First Avenue. While that corner has been much transformed today — note the placement of the diner in the movie, today’s Green Kitchen — one business is exactly the same — the signage for the cleaners on the northwest corner.
3) Why would this particular corner be haunted? Well, we’ll see what lies beneath in a second. But this particular corner would have been part of old Jones Wood, a 90-acre forest which attracted picnickers and day trippers (including many early German immigrants) long before Central Park was invented. It was the sight of early ghost stories as the forest contained crypts of prominent families.
Below: The so-called ‘Smuggler’s Tomb’ located at the spot of today’s First Avenue and 71st Street.
4) Ghost busting has died down in New York City, and our old friends Ray and Winston must demean themselves by entertaining at children’s birthday parties. All the children greet their guests with “I thought it was gonna be He Man!” and a chant “He-Man! He-Man! He-Man!”
The reference in the film is a bit odd. He-Man and the Masters Of the Universe debuted on television in 1983 and had been the subject of a feature film in 1987 starring Dolph Lungren. But the film was a flop, and the animated series had been off the air by then. Perhaps these were young hipsters, already reveling in their childhood past.
“Ungrateful little yuppie larva!”
Incidentally, Ghostbusters 2 did spawn a toy line, albeit less successful than He-Man and might have been greeted by children with similar enthusiasm.
5) Venkman has moved on to his own television chat show called World of the Psychic, broadcast on the fictional WKRR-TV Studio. While this seems like a legitimate television station in the Ghostbusters world, Venkman’s show is very much influenced by ’80s public access television. The zany underground medium started in the early 1970s and reached a sort of ‘golden age‘ by the 1980s. Shows like Telepsychic certainly inspired this. The Saturday Night Live’s send-up of Telepsychic — starring Dan Ackroyd — most certainly did.
Just two years after Ghostbusters 2, Dionne Warwick debuted her Psychic Friends Network.
6) On Venkman’s program, there are two guests who predict the end of the world. The first predicts the end of the world “at the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve.”
Well, New York survived. Here’s the actual stroke of midnight, ringing in 1990 in Times Square. Many would certainly consider this hellish, if not apocalyptic. “Goodbye to the ’80s!”
Venkman’s second guest believes the end of the world will be on February 14, 2016!
“Valentine’s Day, bummer.”
She received the information from an alien at the Paramus, New Jersey, Holiday Inn which is a real place.
7) Ghostbusters New York is still led by Mayor Lenny Clotch (played by David Margulies), an obvious stand-in for Mayor Ed Koch. In Ghostbusters 2, Clotch is running for governor of New York. Koch did indeed attempt that very feat in 1982, but lost in the primary to Mario Cuomo. Sadly, Margulies, a regular on the New York stage, died earlier this year.
8) One of New York’s finest works of architecture appears in Ghostbusters 2 — but moved uptown. The Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House stands in for the Metropolitan Museum of Art who apparently didn’t give them permission to use their facade — or their name. The faux museum is called the Manhattan Museum of Art, and both the Custom House and nearby Bowling Green are magically shifted to Central Park.
The Custom House was renamed for Alexander Hamilton in 1990, a year after the structure’s triumphant and central appearance in Ghostbusters 2.
9) What have the Ghostbusters been up to since business has been down? Well, Ray has his occult book store on St. Mark’s Place, still a place of vibrant counter-culture in 1989. Perhaps this a nod to New York’s most famous occult book store owned by Samuel Weisner which originally opened on ‘Book Row’ at 117 4th Avenue. (By the time of the film, it had moved to 132 East 24th Street. It’s been closed for many years.)
At the right of the screen, you can see Manic Panic, the original boutique which spawned the flamboyant hair-color company. (More information in our St. Mark’s Place podcast.)
10) The Ghostbusters regroup to investigate the mysterious street corner on the Upper East Side. While the daytime scenes are clearly filmed at the corner of First Avenue and 77th, the nighttime scenes — as they’re drilling into the street — are clearly not even in New York City at all. (Note the red subway poles).
Residents of the Upper East Side have become quite familiar with nighttime drilling in the street due to the construction of the Second Avenue Subway. The project began back in the 1970s but had been placed on a (what seemed like a) permanent hold by the 1980s.
Quoting from the September 1989 New York Times: “There are curiously empty spaces in this cluttered city. The Second Avenue Subway tunnel, dug at great expense and never to be finished.”
11) Ah but there is a completed tunnel under the street, now filled with a pink, ghostly ooze — at least in the world of the Ghostbusters. Or, as Ray declares, “It’s the old pneumatic tube tunnel!”
As we spoke about in our recent podcast on Alfred Ely Beach’s Pneumatic Tube, the original tunnel was only carved underground for a single block — near City Hall — in 1870. There were plans to send the pneumatic tube up the entire length of the island (albeit under Madison Avenue, not First Avenue). This is my favorite bit of history from the film and displays a loving nod by the writers to Old New York:
Our gang accidentally takes out some wires which manages to cause a blackout throughout all of New York. The Blackout of 1977 had only occurred a dozen years before, so many audience members might have flinched a bit at that scene.
12) The Ghostbusters are hastily taken to court. Venkman’s defense for the hole in the street: “Well, there are so many holes in First Avenue, we really didn’t think anyone would notice.”
Potholes in the street were a potent symbol for the city’s deterioration and also a way to appease the neighborhood when they were eventually fixed. In 1990, the Times reportedin an article ‘Gaining in the Battle on Potholes: “The Department of Transportation claims that the number of potholes in New York City streets dropped 23 percent this year, and the new Commissioner, Lucius J. Riccio, suggested yesterday that potholes ”might have to be put on the endangered-species list.”
The city even opened a phone line for New Yorkers to call in about potholes. From the article: “The pothole hot line – 212-POT-HOLE – expects its 25,000th call this week. The caller will receive a Highway Bureau T-shirt and the dubious honor of filling the pothole of his or her choice.”
13) The sequel features a new version of the Ray Parker Jr. theme song, this time recorded by New York City icons Run-DMC. The rap trio formed in 1981 in Hollis, Queens, and quickly helped develop the basis for modern hip hop music. In 1989, they were coming off the success of their massive and mainstream Tougher Than Leather album, produced by Rick Rubin (much later to win a Grammy for producing Adele’s 21).
Another song from the film actually became a minor hit — “On Our Own” by Bobby Brown (who makes a terribly awkward appearance in the film).
14) In a montage of scenes demonstrating the Ghostbusters’ return, we see one ghost running around the Central Park reservoir and another haunting Orrefors fine glassware boutique at 58 E. 57th Street. Orrefors is no longer there today, but the building sits next to New York’s tallest residential tower — the infamous ‘needle’ building 432 Park Avenue. To quote Wikipedia here: “The building has been much maligned by many city denizens who find it an eyesore and believe it represents New York’s increasing cost of living and ostentatious wealth.”
15) Look closely during the ‘haunted toaster’ scene and you will see a marvelous and obscure site on the wall — a vintage poster for the Hotel Lincoln, a glamorous midtown destination which opened in 1928. This was the hotel mentioned in our Billie Holiday’s New York podcast as the place she began a (controversial) residency with Artie Shaw in 1938. She was forced to enter through the kitchen as a black woman couldn’t be seen coming in the front door.
16) This has nothing to do with New York City history, but you must read this extraordinary Deadspin article on Norbert Grupe, the actor depicted in the Prince Vigo painting. Keep in mind Venkman’s words while you read it — “Vigo? He’s a bit of a sissy isn’t he?”
17) Venkman wraps little Oscar in one of his prized possessions — a New York Jets sweatshirt, #12. This number, now retired, belonged to Joe Namath, who played with the Jets from 1965 to 1976.
18) Dana and Oscar take shelter in Venkman’s apartment, which just happens to be one of the most glorious apartment buildings north of Houston. Built in 1891 for the Manhattan Savings Institution Bank Building, 644 Broadway formerly featured the Atrium clothing store on the ground floor. (Read more about this lovely building at Daytonian In Manhattan.)
Catch this line: “I’ve got some Laura Antonelli tapes you can watch.” Laura Antonelli was a beautiful Italian sex symbol of the 1970s.
20) The Ghostbusters investigate an abandoned subway track whose “lines have been abandoned for 50 years.” They are immediately beset by ghostly figures of all types, from severed heads on sticks to a phantom stream train, the supposed haunted visage of the “New York Central to Albany” which derailed in 1920, killing hundreds.
That disaster, of course, didn’t exist. However they could have chosen to use another tragedy from around that same time period — and much closer to home. The Malbone Street Wreck in Brooklyn involved two trains colliding underground, killing 93 people.
21) Our heroes are thrown into the Parkview Psychiatric Hospital in order to get them out of the way. This fictional institution is most likely based upon Manhattan Psychiatric Center on Ward’s Island. Timely news the very summer of Ghostbusters 2? New York City’s psychiatric wards were too crowded.
During a thrilling montage of ghost attacks throughout the city, three particular things of historical interest pop out:
22) Massive Ghost in Washington Square Park — The park is notoriously the site of an old potter’s field, and bodies to this day are often discovered during excavations. “Where now are asphalt walks, flowers, fountains, the Washington arch, and aristocratic homes, the poor were once buried by the thousands in nameless graves.” (Kings Handbook of New York, 1893) Read more on Washington Square’s unusual backstory here.
23) Titanic Finally Arrives — The Titanic was originally supposed to have docked at the White Star Pier 59 (parallel to West 18th Street); instead, the survivors of the shipwreck disembarked from the Carpathia at Pier 54. The framework of the pier still existed today (pictured in 1912 below)
The ghostly passengers actually let out at Pier 34 in the film, to the horror of Cheech Marin in a cameo appearance.
24) The Spirit of Fiorello La Guardia (off screen) — The mayor claims he’s been seeing the ghost of the former mayor “and he’s been dead for 40 years.” Since the events of this scene take place on December 31, 1989, La Guardia would have been gone over 42 years. He died in his Bronx home of Riverdale. Here’s how the New York Times broke the announcement.
25) The grand finale features the Statue of Liberty pulling a Stay Puft Marshmallow Men, delivering the Ghostbusters to a goo-covered Custom House, er, I mean art museum and saving the day.
This marks the first time that the entire statue has made it to Manhattan. However her arm spent many, many years in New York, well before it was ever attached to the rest of herself.
From a Bowery Boys 2014 article: “….the arm and torch would be displayed in the northwest corner of Madison Square Park, from 1876 to 1882. On July 4th, 1876, a gigantic painting byJean-Baptiste Lavastre of the completed statue was displayed on a building across the street from the arm.”
J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them is a prequel of sorts to her wildly popular Harry Potter series. At least, it appears the movie is. The book itself was used within the Potter series as the main character’s textbook. The new film version, arriving late this year, seems create a whole new cast of magical folks — and places them in old New York, circa 1926.
In the trailer you can spot a host of reinvented locations, from Broadway (somewhere north of the Woolworth Building) to the Chelsea Piers. A camera zooms over trolley car lines somewhere in Manhattan, and characters appear mysteriously along cobblestone streets and catacombs.
But perhaps the most interesting shot (for history geeks, that is) is the opening shot of New York’s skyline:
For comparison here’s a photograph (courtesy the National Archives) of lower Manhattan in 1926:
The two most recognizable buildings — the Woolworth and the Singer Building — strike the most interesting profiles in both pictures. The Woolworth is the tallest building in the world in 1926, a title once held by the Singer in 1908. The Woolworth is of course still with us but the Singer was torn down in 1968.
What other potential landmarks appear in this trailer?
Thanks to Michael Raisch on Twitter for the post idea!
The music industry is the focus of Martin Scorsese’s new HBO show Vinyljust as the mob-run liquor business was the focus of his last show Boardwalk Empire, but in many ways, the two are pretty much the same.
Richie Finestra (Bobby Cannavale) runs his record label American Century Records out of the Brill Building with the same amount of wild swagger that Nucky Thompson ran his Atlantic City operation. By the end of the first episode, there was even a bloody murder.
My interest, of course, is the history, and Vinyl compacts historical events in vivid, fairly unrealistic but very enjoyable way. (A glacially paced romp through 1970s New York City history wouldn’t make good television.) In the first episode alone, Finestra magically predicts the success of ABBA, stumbles into the first hip hop party in the Bronx, then witness the collapse of the Mercer Arts Centerfrom the inside.
If you happen to be watching live on Sunday nights (9pm EST), follow along with me on Twitter (@boweryboys) where I’ll be watching alongside and throwing out some interesting trivia bits. It’s the 1970s in Times Square so the potential for some scandalous history is high!