On Yolanda Adams

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Here is what I have to write about Yolanda Adams’s tribute to Anita Baker during the 2018 BET Awards show :

Yolanda practiced; she rehearsed. I’m not talking about the week before scheduled rehearsals for the show–no. I refer to practice and rehearsal the day after she accepted the invitation to give the tribute. I’m talking about listening to the song over and over until it becomes a kind of muscle memory; writing the lyrics on paper with pencil to engrave them on the mind; parsing out the meaning; and, then, practicing bit by bit and piece by piece until the song made friends with her vocal chords as well as her personality. “You Bring Me Joy” became Yolanda Adams’s song as only she could deliver it. That’s downright Holy!

She honored the voice/performance process to such an extent that she could let it go and allow the song to breathe. As a vocalist who has been a student of voice off and on since I was 14 years old (and currently under the coaching talents of Alicia Opoku), I saw, felt, and heard every single technique she used to make this performance flawless (i.e., posture, resonance, breath control, diaphragm support; voice and note placement [head, chest]; mouth, and jaw placement; tonality, diction, et al). She was grounded and she stood tall so as to allow her breath to easily travel throughout her body. She and her vocals were as one; in sync. She did not try to show up Anita Baker but she made it possible for her own talent to soar. She gave “You Bring Me Joy” its own due. As a result, the cosmic forces anointed her performance. This anointing is the answered prayer of every vocalist but it only comes to those who are serious about his/her work. Believe me: It is a spiritual experience.

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Vox Lux @ The Ross

 

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Written and Directed by Brady Corbet and narrated by Wilhelm Dafoe, Vox Lux is a riveting commentary on fame and celebrity culture in the 21st century. Natalie Portman stars as Celeste, a high school student who is thrust into stardom after singing at a memorial for her classmates who were shot and killed by another student named Cullen Active, played by Logan Riley Bruner. Celeste and her song-writer sister Eleanor, played by Stacy Martin, and her manager-with-no-name, played by an unrecognizable Jude Law, navigate the waters of the music industry as they ride the waves of drugs and alcohol and other means of self-abuse.

Watching Vox Lux is like treading on razor blades; so many scenes I wished for … no longed for Wilhelm Dafoe’s narration to relieve me of the cinematic cuts and bruises. Corbet, however, refused to alleviate my discomfort. Julia Heyman’s art direction adds salt to the wounds as she splashes scenes in hues of blue grey haze, midnight blue, black, white, sepia, and purple and teal laced with silver.

Celeste moves through the film like a marionette whose puppeteer had too many whiskey shots but still thinks he can manipulate the strings. She is so thin so fragile so fractured that you view in fear at some point her head is going to drop off and roll down the street into traffic or one of her limbs is going to break off and land somewhere along the way.

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There is more. Corbet frames Vox Lux within the context of gun violence and terrorism. We see, for instance, the bodies of slain students on the floor and slumped against the wall as young Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy, bears witness to the murder of her classmates. Wait.

There is even more. You will feel the sound effect of each bullet as it travels through the barrel of the gun to reach its intended victim. No one will escape the trauma of this heart break.

For all of its nail-biting drama, Vox Lux loses itself somewhere out there, but the loss has to be noted. Corbet explores in Vox Lux the strain of memories. How does a witness to trauma bear up under the strain when she has survived? Celeste gains fame and celebrity after her performance at the memorial of her slain classmates; this experience has to have had a psychological impact. How does that fact translate the next day and the next and the next?

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 6.30.01 PMVox Lux plays through Thursday, January 31th at the Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

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Ben Is Back @ The Ross

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Holly (Julia Roberts) and Ben (Lucas Hedges)

Julia Roberts plays Holly Burns, a suburban housewife whose nineteen-year-old son Ben, played by Lucas Hedges, unexpectedly returns home on Christmas Eve morning from rehab for his treatment of opioid addiction. Much to the angst of her daughter, Ivy, played by Kathryn Newton and her husband, Neal, played by Courtney B. Vance, Holly is determined to prove that Ben is worth every ounce of her love and belief in him, even though she doesn’t trust him any farther than she can throw him.

Roberts is a gem in this movie as she strikes at the heart of every mother’s fear. She plays Holly with grit and depth, and we feel her frustration that she just may not be able to control everything in her universe since Ben is back. Written and directed by Peter Hedges, the film opens in Sloatsburg Village, a suburb of New York. The drama begins Christmas Eve night when the home is broken into and, even worse, the dog, Ponce, is taken by drug dealers. Ben laments his coming back has put the family in danger.

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Holly listens as Neal shares his concern now that Ben is back

The abduction of Ponce is cause for grave concern, and Holly curries patience as she tries to ally the fears of the smallest children, Lacey and Liam, played by Mia Fowler and Jakari Fraser respectively. Holly and Ben, then, embark on a twilight trek through their neighborhood in search of Ponce. On the ride, Ben points out a house he robbed, one where he and his male history teacher had an arrangement of sorts in exchange for drugs, and a seedy part of town where Ben once frequented.

Ben is Back joins Hollywood’s attention to suburban white teenagers and their problems with drug addiction. The camera romanticizes these teenagers; families are dramatized as fighting momma and papa bears who will stop at nothing to save the addicted child. Law enforcement is nowhere in sight, unless momma bear calls on them as does Holly in the police precinct. Even then, when she bangs on the window and wails in sheer desperation and pleads for them to arrest Ben because he has stolen her car, the police tell her to calm down and to wait her turn. Dickon Hinchliffe’s music score ensures the pull of the heartstring for wayward Ben. He’s just a teenager who went down the wrong path, and with a mother’s love and care, he will be alright. In addition, Hedges makes known and makes known clearly drug addiction affects not just the abuser but everyone within the home and those within the community. Fear and distrust find a comfortable residence not only in every space of the house but in the psyches of family members. We learn a young woman to whom he dealt drugs died of an overdose, and throughout the film, Hedges shrouds Ben in mystery.

Roberts shines in Ben is Back. She inhabits the stress of Holly’s try to control circumstances. The disappointment in the movie is Courtney B. Vance. The film underuses his talents in favor of Roberts; it’s just that obvious. His performance is an actor’s push to bring some value to a half-baked script that undoubtedly failed to meet up with his skill; it is painful to watch. When he tells Holly to come home, she says, “you take care of our children, and I’ll take care of mine.” Hedges, however, does not hesitate to ask, “Weren’t the class privilege, the breadth of love Ben received from his family and siblings, and the financial sacrifices made for him … enough?”

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