Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Zing!

It would be understatement to suppose that I hit a nerve with my most recent post, where I reacted rather strongly to Jackie Evancho’s singing. Clearly, I got under a few people’s skins; and this isn’t my usual tactic.  Neither is coming right back with an instant, knee-jerk response to a comment or two. But, here we are.

So, okay … I’m always open to the possibility that I got it wrong.

And certainly I’ve looked back at some of my posts here and thought, unaided by outside suggestion, “…my God, how self-absorbed did THAT sound??” Very. (On the other hand, if you can’t express your inner egotist in your own blog, where can you?)

Some of the comments in reply to that post have been thoughtful, and caused me to pause and think hard; and you can read them below that post. A handful of others … well, I don’t see the productivity of name-calling, so I didn’t approve those comments for display. “Idiot” I can handle, just as well as I handled it on the playground in third grade; the more crude stuff, well … the English language has hundreds of thousands of words in it, many of which are just as effective but so much more printable.

But, upon reading the occasional gentle epithet coming toward me, I did wonder how much of that sort of thing I really did level at Ms. Evancho, or anyone else, in that piece. Worth a look. So I went back and read the thing again, this time playing the part of someone outside my own head. It’s good for a fella, on occasion.

 

The main questions that I wanted to answer, to my own satisfaction (aside from the question of self-absorption, which I think I already took care of, above), were:

[1] Did I unjustly criticize a young musician? Most of the music teachers with whom I’ve studied have been very good at constructive criticism; and the ones I didn’t care for so much seemed adept at making the criticism cut just a little too close to personal. Therefore I should strive to go for the constructive. It causes my students to want to come back for the next rehearsal.

[2] Did I disguise my opinion as Fact? Any persuasive opinion piece will attempt to prove somehow that “the opinions expressed are those of the author and the author has got it right!”, otherwise it’s not much of an opinion piece. But not always best to assume that one’s word is law; so, again, worth a look.

[3] Did I personally attack Ms. Evancho? Other than commenting on her voice.  And here, I take pains to assure both my middle-school choristers and my church-choir colleagues that the activity of singing is one of the most vulnerable acts a person can achieve. The human voice is an instrument, but if it comes out sounding less than how you’d like it, you can’t exactly tap a valve or re-tune a string or cuss out the reed. Your instrument is YOU. So, it can sound a lot more personal when the critique seems to be of your personal possession rather than your student horn that really needs to be upgraded anyway.

[4] Also, the Golden Rule. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. So perhaps maybe I’ve been equivalently done-unto, except for the aforementioned couple of comments that you won’t read here.

So. Let’s see that blog post again, in slow motion…

 

First salvo: in the direction of PBS, and whether its Performances are always that Great. I’m a PBS/NPR guy and always have been; which in some corners instantly marks me as a cultural elitist, fairly or not. And even a broadcast organization as worthy as PBS will have its off days. But occasionally it will put up onto pedestals some musical performances that are full of sound and fury, signifying not much. They’re big and loud and attract attention, and are sometimes, I would go so far as to say, mediocre at heart. In a culture that increasingly celebrates work that is just not as good as it’s dressed up to look, PBS has the opportunity (some would say the responsibility) to be more discerning than commercial TV networks.

 

Next roundhouse: I seemed to beat on Jackie Evancho’s backup band and set designers pretty good. Okay:

[1] It’s television, so it does need to have a visual component; so if the columns were good enough for the Greeks…!

[2] My apologies to the pianist, if necessary. He didn’t miss a note as long as I watched — which is something I aspire to but will never achieve.

[3] In no way was I denigrating the orchestra members. I’ve played gigs that were “just a gig”, and it didn’t mean I put any less effort into the playing. And for every one of those second violins, there are legions of other violinists who didn’t get the gig, who wish they had, and were probably good enough to challenge for it. (And, for that matter, there are legions of singers out there who also deserve their own PBS specials!)

[4] The conductor was off-the-charts overdoing it. Speaking as someone who has conducted massed choir-and-orchestra works (Vivaldi, Britten, etc.) as well as the occasional marching band show, I can appreciate the effort it takes to hold the hulk together, particularly when distance (from you to the performers) is a factor. This gentleman is probably a good guy; but if your conducting pattern is that large all the time, what happens when you really need to show an accent?

 

But, to the main point: a second look at the treatment of our soloist. Again, the question: did I use a sharp stick on an 11-year-old?

[1] Personal attack is not cool, so I need to make sure I didn’t launch any here. I think I was telling the truth about Ms. Evancho’s interview style – well-spoken, polite; and honestly, when I was 11 could I have given that kind of interview? Even if David Foster had let me get more than a sentence in edgeways? If that’s a true window into what kind of person she is, well, score one for her.

[2] About the possibility of stage parents … I’ve interacted with enough of those to be able to see them coming a mile away.  Of course I don’t KNOW whether Ms. Evancho’s got them! One can, at best, hope not.

So, now, okay: I’ve found my first serious opportunity for rewrite.  [3] Let me re-write this sentence, then: “All I can really comment upon is her performance, and after having researched more of that, I still have just one word for the effect of Ms. Evancho’s voice: Creepy.” And perhaps “creepy” isn’t exactly the right word after all. “Disconcerting,” perhaps. But I can’t help it that my first impression of the singing (which you never get a second chance at) was not so much of wonder, but much more of wondering. It wasn’t an offhand remark, to invoke the voice teachers I know (teaching at all levels, from grade school to college) who might just back me up here. I can think of three right off the top of my head who would probably be very curious to work with Ms. Evancho for half an hour, just to see what was really going on.

[4] Now. The thing that is not fair game for critique is, as they say, “what God gave ya.” If the chromosomes lined up for Ms. Evancho (or Leann Rimes, or Daisy Eagan) in such a way that this is just plain ol’ how she sings, then who am I, who is anyone, to take a hack at her? Certainly not a mean-spirited hack. Charlie Parker played saxophone in a way that no one on earth had, or did, or has since; no reason to accuse him of some sort of artistic fraud. Hell, if the good Lord had decided to grace me with an interplanetary ability to instantly sight-read classical piano music … which He (She?) hasn’t … darn it … I’d be a bit sensitive if someone then said, “this kind of playing shouldn’t be coming out of this person.” Like some kind of law of the universe is being violated.

[5] I brought up Mozart because, well, Mozart was in fact a monumental “aberration, a freak of nature”; and his operas were in fact hailed by many of his contemporaries as Just That Good; only Mozart scholars can tell in a blind taste-test whether they’re listening to Early Mozart or Late Mozart. Sometimes the planets line up, skill sets are assigned, and astonishing heights of artistic ability are achieved by humans; and not just classical music humans either.

I also brought up Mozart because we’re still playing and listening to his stuff, centuries later. We’re still admiring the genius of Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles (talking of people who were brilliant performers as very young children), and Lennon and McCartney, decades later. If Jackie Evancho is singing five or ten years from now, or twenty, or forty!, and we’re still admiring her work, then I’ll happily clap too.

We’ll have to wait and see. But I suspect there are lots and lots of music industry people who are counting on this very young person with, clearly, a voice that deserves to attract attention!, to be their ticket to the big time or to more pledge dollars, right now. American entertainment has seen way too many very youthful performers hit big early and come to sad ends, or at least fade away into obscurity, and to what end? Sometimes only an autobiography that wonders, “what if?” and “if only”.  (Or a “Behind the Music” special.)

So maybe, in some sense, I was “creeped out, plain and simple” on her behalf, after all – and much more creeped out by the environment that probably will swirl around her for the next, well, however many years she’ll be thought of as a big deal. I wish her well, I really do. I hope it works out.

 

POSTSCRIPT: By the way. A note about the comments (many of which I approved for display anyway) which suggest that I could be the Worst! Music Teacher! In the World! for having written mean, callous, heartless things about an 11-year-old girl.

Just because I’m a music teacher doesn’t make my opinions the be-all, end-all authority on subjects like these. As I suggested above, I’ve known many music teachers who are not that good with kids! and I’ve tried desperately to avoid being like them. But, as long as we’re speaking of making assumptions without having proper evidence … before you pass judgment on a teacher, come visit their class for a while, please. I don’t take those comments personally but I do take them professionally. My experiences in this line of work have in fact underscored, to me, the importance of supporting students who pursue music; to make sure that I treat them in a way that is respectful and positive; to provide encouragement, rather than just error-detection and -correction – especially those students for whom a staggering amount of musical talent isn’t something they were born with, but who nonetheless really want to make the effort and participate in an activity they love – whether or not a spotlight ever hits them.

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June 27, 2011 Posted by | blogging, education, media, music, npr, television, writing | 13 Comments

Children and Animals

This past week I stumbled over a musical performance that caused me to react more strongly than perhaps I expected. And not in a good way.

PBS’ “Great Performances” series at one time actually featured great performances but now seems to feature performances by people whom PBS thinks are great enough to inspire viewers to increased pledging. The towering geniuses of musical composition and performance like David Foster; John Tesh; anyone with long hair playing keyboards in the middle of a bunch of Greek temples; Titans Of Doo-Wop Long Past Their Prime … oh, wait, sorry, I was expecting Brubeck, Brahms and Bowie. Sorry. My mistake.

This particular “Great” performance lived up to the standards of epic PBS pledge-drive concert videos: an outdoor amphitheater setting, with Greek columns or the equivalent; a huge stage; an emotionally sensitive accompanist (you can tell just by looking at him) at a very expensive Steinway; a full orchestra full of professionals who play very well while hiding the fact that this is just a gig; and a conductor with technique about as subtle and nuanced as a brick to the forehead (this fellow was flailing so hugely that I expected to see a 767 take notice and land).

And the featured performer of this “Great” show was a youngster – 11 years old, to be precise – by the name of Jackie Evancho. Upon doing a little research, I discovered that Ms. Evancho is a Pittsburgh resident who looks like a fourth-grader but reputedly sings like the second coming of Renee Fleming. She was first introduced to the American pop culture world by her performance on “America’s Got Talent” … which explains why I’d not heard of her before.

Judging by the interviews of Ms. Evancho that I’ve seen, thanks to YouTube, what we seem to have here is a very polite and pleasant child. I don’t have any idea what sort of slammeroo stage mother or father she’s got; she could be doing this all on her own initiative, or she could be the ventriloquist puppet for a set of parents living out their pop culture dreams vicariously. I have no idea. All I can really comment upon is her performance, and after having researched more of that, I still have just one word for Ms. Evancho’s voice:

Creepy.

This is some PBS executive’s idea of culture gold. Little kid, cute, angelic-looking when the right spotlight hits her; opens her mouth and operatic sounds fly out. This will get the dilettantes diving for their cellphones and their checkbooks in quick succession. Who needs to beg the US Congress for funding? We’ve got Jackie.

Better vocal instructors than I could get very specific about what she’s doing with her voice which might jeopardize its future. (I remember hearing a couple of campers at the summer arts program I worked at in the late 1980s, singing with the kind of vibrato that you just knew they’d heard somewhere and therefore were very keen on faking, and I wondered how much damage they were inflicting on themselves for the sake of sounding like more mature singers than they really were at age 14-ish.) Professional singers could render a diagnosis in a heartbeat, a much faster heartbeat than mine. But I don’t get a sense of “genuine” when Ms. Evancho sings. It’s an actual voice, okay; she’s not lip-synching; that’s really her singing. But …

This kind of voice shouldn’t be coming out of an 11-year-old face. If it’s an aberration, a freak of nature, well, okay. This happens every so often. Mozart at age 4, writing grand opera, and all that.

Beyond the vocal production issues … beyond the fact that Ms. Evancho’s voice seems to have no actual power at all (any time I’ve heard her sing, it’s into a microphone connected to an amplification system with enough power to take down the Hoover Dam) … beyond the fact that her voice sounds as if someone turned the treble all the way down and the midrange all the way up (odd, for an 11-year-old – you’d think that this would leave her with no voice whatever, but the effect seems to be a lack of that slight edge that gives a voice definition) … beyond all the technical issues that singing professionals who aren’t TV reality show “talent judges” could read down like a grocery list …

Normal eleven-year-olds don’t sing like this. Quality singers who aren’t in middle school yet don’t sound like that. The human voice, I have been told, doesn’t truly mature until the human it’s attached to graduates from college, at the earliest. You can tell the difference between collegiate a cappella singing and adult a cappella singing; you can assuredly tell the difference between collegiate a cappella singing and high-school a cappella singing, and it’s no knock on any of them. When you see an 11-year-old person and hear a voice that shows even some characteristics of a much older voice, it’s like seeing one of the kids from “The Suite Life On Deck” open his mouth and hearing the voice of Darth Vader come out. Followed by a mental screech of tires.

Amazing voices have come out of unassuming faces before – child stars’, and others’.

In the 10th-anniversary concert version of “Les Miserables”, the song “Castle on a Cloud” was performed by a probably 9-year-old actress named Hannah Chick, and in spite of the fact that she was probably just as well-trained as Ms. Evancho, or more so, she sounded like what she was: a very young singer singing like a very young person. Very well, mind you; but the voice was entirely consistent with what people were looking at: a child singing the role of a child, in a voice that sounded like a very good child’s voice, singing a song that was child-like. (And had the stage presence to not look terrified at all, even while singing for a huge audience, alone on a large stage, lit by a single spotlight… even when a balloon in the rafters that was scheduled to be dropped later that evening POPPED during a very exposed portion of her song. “Crying at all is not *BANG!!* allowed…” In the video, you can see her physically jump but her voice remains rock-solid.)

For that matter, check out the 13-year-old Daisy Eagan, singing “Broadway Baby” during the 1992 Sondheim revue, “Follies”. Stage presence, comic timing, undoubtedly lots of practice, but a pretty darn good middle-school voice.

Britain’s Got Talent”, the British reality TV series upon which “America’s…” was based, revealed to the world both Susan Boyle, the English lady who looked like a Monty Python pepperpot housewife but sang the living heck out of “I Dreamed a Dream”, and Paul Potts, a UK warehouse worker who opened his mouth and tore the house down with an operatic tenor voice that reduced the judges and the audience to open weepage. But they were adult persons.

Even Leann Rimes, who was aged 13 when she sang country music in a manner that reminded lots of people of Patsy Cline, didn’t seem overly weird doing it.

Last week, I listened to Jackie Evancho sing “All I Ask of You” from “Phantom of the Opera”, which might be the most overrated song of the twentieth century. I watched her produce the accompanying hand gestures, while singing, that no 11-year-old on planet Earth naturally brings with her. I read the glowing, fawning reviews of her performance – “ethereal!” “transcendent!” “angelic!” when it may not have been any of the above – by music industry professionals who damn well ought to know better!. And I was beyond wondering what all the fuss was about.

I listened to Jackie Evancho’s performance, … and I was creeped out, plain and simple.

Which could be seen as an odd thing to say for a fellow who has just had his second children’s musical produced. I freely admit this. “You crack on Jackie Evancho for singing in a manner two decades older than her chronological age, but you write grown-up-sounding songs and dialogue for kids grades 4 through 9 to deliver? Hypocrite.”

Fair comment. One of the songs from this most recent show, “Pecking Order”, reminded one of my colleagues of the compositional style of Erik Satie. Zoiks! And my dialogue is heavily influenced by, though not nearly as good as, the snappy patter of the Marx Brothers. So, you might be forgiven for saying, “Et tu, O creator of grownup-sounding things for children to present onstage?”

But here’s at least one of the differences, or at least I hope so: Jackie Evancho sings, and the network executives, amateur music critics and PBS pledge-drive viewers gasp and whisper breathlessly, “isn’t she precious!” The Bellingham Children’s Theater cast sings, and audiences (we hope) smile and think, “those are good singing kids, and they look like they’re having a good time.” And they’re anything but precious, which is just fine, too.

June 27, 2011 Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, media, music | 13 Comments

It’s Not the Years, It’s the Mileage

Thirty years ago tomorrow, Paramount Pictures released a little tiny movie. It somehow became the top grossing film of 1981, and remains one of the highest-grossing movies ever made. This little movie was made to satisfy the yearnings of its producers for movies “like they used to make” … weekly serial adventures about daring swashbucklers and nasty villains and heroines who could deliver a mad right cross, with impossible chase scenes and supernatural happenings and globe-trotting settings.

Raiders of the Lost Ark” might be the perfect adventure movie.

I think a distinction can be drawn between movies (like “Raiders”) and films (documentaries and other cinematic creations that aspire to serious and lofty goals concerning serious and important topics). When you make a movie, you set out to entertain your audience: to force them to suspend their disbelief, to suck them completely into your story, and to make them forget there’s a world outside that movie theater. In fact, to make them forget they’re IN a movie theater. The best movies, for the length of their running time, are the only thing happening in the whole world. They are the whole world.

Raiders” was a Hollywood all-star team. Producer George Lucas, fresh off the success of an unlikely box-office science fiction hit (what was it called again?), and well on his way to being the most powerful independent filmmaker in American history. Director Steven Spielberg, fresh off the success of his summer blockbuster, “Jaws”, and possessing an impressive directorial and creative resume even before “Close Encounters”, “Raiders” and “E.T.” would become American pop-culture touchstones. Composer John Williams wrapping up six years, 1975 through 1981, in which he would add to the list of Tunes That Everybody Knows (and can hum): the “Jaws” shark motif; the opening theme from “Star Wars”; the “Close Encounters” alien five-note contact theme; the fanfare from “Superman”; Darth Vader’s theme; and the Raiders March (no other film composer has had this profound an effect on American pop culture). And Harrison Ford, swinging a bullwhip and delivering terse one-liners, taking his place among the pantheon of Hollywood’s great leading men: Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Paul Newman…

There are plenty of examples of all-star teams that didn’t quite live up to expectations. A friend of mine once described a particular late-night television program’s house band as “less than the sum of its parts”. “Raiders” is considerably more than the sum of its parts. Every time I watch the thing, I’m freshly impressed: there is not a single false note in this movie; not a single line of dialogue you’d like to rewrite; not a single scene in which the actors fail to do their jobs; not a musical cue that is out of place; not a single special effect that causes a viewer to say, “whoops!  Blue screen.  Matte painting.  Miniature model.” – except perhaps when the poor villains get caught up in the Ark of the Covenant’s Biblically violent revenge during the finale – and somehow, even if you know that the melting heads were in fact the product of wax head models, a hair dryer and some time-lapse photography, that makes it all the more fun to watch. (For the DVD release, they even fixed the jump cut that had previously showed Harrison Ford looking through a surveyor’s scope at the desert dig site and then suddenly standing straight up.)

When I think of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, I think of specific moments, big and small, blunt and subtle – creative imagery and fun little quotes (as excerpted from the original screenplay):

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[1] INT. TEMPLE:

Indy reaches the altar. The tiny idol looks both fierce and beautiful. It rests on a pedestal of polished stone. Indy looks the whole set-up over very carefully. From his jacket he takes a small, canvas drawstring bad. He begins filling it with dirt from around the case of the altar. When he has created a weight that he thinks approximates the weight of the idol, he bounces it a couple times in his palm concentrating. It’s clear he wants to replace the idol with the bag as smoothly as possible. His hand seems ready to do that once, when he stops, takes a breath and loosens his shoulder muscles. Now he sets himself again. And makes the switch! The idol is now in his hand, the bag on the pedestal. For a long moment it sits there, then the polished stone beneath the bag drops five inches. This sets off an AURAL CHAIN REACTION of steadily increasing volume as some huge mysterious mechanism rumbles into action deep in the temple.

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[2] EXT. IN THE AIR – DAY

A DC-3 flies west from Nepal to Egypt, skimming around towering cloud formations. Simultaneously, a map appears beneath the plane, and a red arrow extends across it, describing the route of the plane.

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[3] EXT. CAIRO MARKETPLACE

[This scene reportedly was not scripted but rather improvised on location, thanks to Harrison Ford’s rather severe case of dysentery, contracted during weeks of filming in the Tunisian desert. He, um, didn’t want to spend too much time away from easy access to a restroom, so a rather lengthy fight scene was cut and became the movie’s first genuine belly laugh. Interesting how it lines up with another Ford line in another movie: “…there’s no substitute for a good blaster at your side, kid.”]

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[4] INT. TANIS MAP ROOM

The moment has arrived. Even the tension of the circumstances cannot distract Indy from the purity of what he is about to do. All his calculations are adjustments complete, Indy takes the Staff of Ra and places it—CLINK!– in the right depression on the base line. This is as active and exciting a moment as any archeologist can dream of and, at heart, that is exactly what Indy is. The sunlight catches the very top of the headpiece and moves within a fraction of an inch of the tiny hole in its sun. The edge of the sunlight moving across the miniature city is still a good two feet beyond the spot Belloq has settled on. And now that line of light is broken by the shadow of an ornate sun at the top of the staff. Indy’s face reflects his concentration. And then his immense pleasure. He sees what he came for. Out of the miniature city, one small building is being lit by a tiny beam of sunlight in the center of the shadow of the metal sun. And by some trick of ancient artistry, this one building responds to the sunlight like none of the others. The golden light permeates it: it seems to glow. The building is in a direct line with Belloq’s – all the Frenchman’s other calculations were right – but it is a foot and a half beyond it.

[And John Williams’ musical cue for this scene is majesty, mystery, history and Biblical bombast, all in one.]

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[5] INT. WELL OF THE SOULS

Indy drops his torch to the floor of the Well. This is answered by the most horrific HISSING imaginable. WHAT HE SEES: That thick dark carpet is moving. It’s alive. It’s thousands and thousands of deadly poisonous snakes – Egyptian asps. And the only thing that seems capable of avoiding this venomous groundcover is the altar. The snakes ebb and flow near it, but never encroach on it, as though repelled by some invisible force.

SALLAH: Asps. Very dangerous. You go first.

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[6] EXT. AMONG THE TENTS – DAY

Sallah and Marion look at Indy. Belloq and Gobler climb in the back seat of the front car and the caravan [carrying the Ark] pulls out. Indy watches it go, thinking hard.

INDY: I’m going to get that truck. I’ll meet you at Omar’s. Be ready for me.

Sallah nods. Marion looks at him like he’s nuts.

MARION: How are you going to get that truck?

INDY: I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.

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[7] INT. INDY’S CABIN – NIGHT

INDY: (to Marion) It’s not the years, honey; it’s the mileage.

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[8] INT. GOVERNMENT WAREHOUSE

The Ark of the Covenant sits in a wooden crate. A wooden lid comes down and hides it from view. The lid is solidly nailed to the crate as we read the stenciled message on top– “TOP SECRET • ARMY INTEL. #9906753 • DO NOT OPEN!” The hammering is completed and hands shift the heavy crate onto a dolly. THE END CREDITS ROLL AS WE SEE– a Little Old Government Warehouseman begin pushing the crated Ark down as aisle. Soon we see that the aisle is formed by huge stacks or crates. They come in many and sizes, but when it comes right down to it, they all look like the one that holds the Ark. All have markings like the message we’ve just seen. Pretty soon we’re far enough and high enough away from the Little Old Government Warehouseman to see that this is one of the biggest rooms in the world. And it is full. Crates and crates. All looking alike. All gathering dust. And then we notice that the Little Old Government Warehouseman, pushing his new crate ahead of him, has turned into another aisle and disappeared from view. FADE OUT.

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Tip of the iceberg, actually.

I’ve watched “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, and although they’re fun, they’re typical sequels: close, perhaps, but no cigar. I can’t say any of the same things about them that I can say about “Lost Ark” – and in each case, most of the same people were involved. “Lost Ark” is a prime example of right people, right place, right time, right creative environment, right moment in American history, add a lightning strike and you get something very, very special. All the technological improvements in cinematic production in the world probably will still never recreate this 1981 movie’s magic.

June 11, 2011 Posted by | entertainment, film, media, movies, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments