Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Found: Soul in the Hamptons

Aretha Franklin gets a little respect in East Hampton. Photo by Cesar Vera/Ross.

By Mary Lyn Maiscott

I am staring into Christie Brinkley’s baby-blue eyes. This does not look like someone who has just gone through an ugly divorce, someone whose exploding private life has been splattered all over the tabloids. Her face beams; her gleaming blonde hair falls, on one side, behind a small ear; her nose, too, is very small—indeed, there’s something rather touching about it. She has a childlike quality, and I suddenly remember her singing “The Good Ship Lollipop,” Shirley Temple-style, during a Barbara Walters interview years ago. I’ve asked her what song she hopes Aretha Franklin will do—that’s why we’re all in this auditorium on the Upper Campus of the Ross School, in East Hampton, on a gorgeous summer night; we’re waiting for the Queen of Soul to get down and dirty in a building called the Center for Well-Being.

Of course Christie (I feel I can now call her Christie, as you would too if she had flashed that dazzling smile at you—just forget Julia Roberts altogether) mentions “Respect,” but she then says something totally disarming: “And what’s that one that Candice Bergen sang?” Huh? “You know,” she continues, “after Murphy Brown has the baby?”

“‘Natural Woman’?” I ask, though I didn’t know I knew that.

“Yes!” she says, this Uptown Girl, this inspiration for Billy Joel’s “A Matter of Trust.” She will not, as it turns out, be disappointed. (I will; I wanted “Until You Come Back to Me,” a sly song that instantly slows your heartbeat down to a sexy, insinuating rhythm).

Emotional girl: Christie Brinkley just wants some peace. Photo by Robert Rosen © 2008.

Indeed, less than 15 minutes later, only two songs into her set, Aretha Franklin—super-singer to Christie’s supermodel—launches into “Natural Woman,” the pearls forming her pink gown’s halter strap bouncing away, the brass section swaying. At the end, Aretha holds back just a little before hitting the stratosphere with that final “wo-ma-an.” I can’t see Brinkley through the crowd but I’m guessing that she, in a low-cut but tasteful purple dress, is standing, jumping, and hollering with the rest of us.

Which includes actress Rosie Perez, View host Joy Behar, producer Darren Starr, and the writer Terry McMillan, whom Aretha introduces from the stage. McMillan, chic in a white sarong-type skirt, flounces and waves when Aretha praises her “magnificence and savoir faire”; the singer then adds, “The next book can be How Aretha Got Her Groove Back—she lost some weight!”

Of course, as she rips through such hits as “Higher,” “The House That Jack Built,” and “Think,” it’s clear that Aretha never lost her groove and never will. When she wraps her lungs around the glorious aria “Nessum Dorma”—which brought down the house at the 1998 Grammys, when Franklin took over at the last minute for Pavarotti—you feel she has joined spirituality with funkiness in a way to make even the angels moan.

Tonight, she is donating her formidable services as a benefit for the school—founded by Courtney Ross, the widow of Time Warner’s Steve Ross—which she’s also endowed with a scholarship for performing-arts study. Perhaps as a nod to the importance of education, this most instinctive of performers says while introducing her band (her son Teddy White is on guitar), “There is nothing a singer likes better than having her music played correctly.” All the better for bringing an audience to fever pitch with “Freeway of Love,” announcing that she too is “feelin’ pretty good right now,” and leaving us spent, fulfilled, and yet wanting more.

To wean us off the music, a Latin combo begins to play under a tent adjoining the building. I walk that way, red wine in hand, Franklin voice ringing in my ears, and spot Christie, still smiling and luminescing among the crowd. (Brinkley also funds a scholarship, centering on the environment, for the school, which her daughter Alexa attended and son, Jack, currently attends.)

Later, as I sit outside the center on a boulder (perfectly appointed, as everything seems to be at this tony school set in the woods) and wait for a cab, I watch the many band members carry their instruments to vans and limos. Finally, the Queen herself emerges, a tall gentleman at each elbow escorting her. She has changed into street clothes and looks smaller between the men, her pumps (too big because of her weight loss?) making me think of Minnie Mouse. Her entire lower face and neck are enwrapped in a white muffler—paparazzi-proofing perhaps, but more likely protection for that golden throat against the cool night air. My companion, on the boulder beside me, begins to clap when he sees her, and Aretha turns and gives us, yes, a regal nod.

Sock it to me.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rocking and Rolling with Alan Rickman

Alan Rickman in Randall Miller’s film, Bottle Shock.

By Victoria Looseleaf

Just a few hours after an earthquake hit the City of Angels, your faithful reporter sauntered into the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, adjacent to my abode, to shoot the breeze with British thespian Alan Rickman. Granted, the temblor was only a 5.4 and situated miles away in Chino Hills, near a huge prison, where I once played the harp in a former life. But Rickman had been on the 14th floor doing TV interviews for his latest film, Bottle Shock, when the building began swaying.

Trouper that he is, Rickman, who’d also been in our fair city in ’94, when the so-called big one hit and thus making him an old hand at quakes, was perfectly poised to promote the Randall Miller film about fine wines. Check out what he has to say in a series of three mini-interviews
(click on “Sausage, Cheese and Red Wine,” “Glass Half Full,” or Judged By Your Accent”) I did for Spotlight on the Arts on KUSC-FM radio, and have a drink of California pinot for both of us.

P.S. For those interested, I had been at my computer—naturally—when the quivering began, and almost welcomed the disturbance. Cruel as it may sound, I believe it’s time for a seismic cleansing: With Los Angeles’ population getting way out of hand, we don’t need any more actor/writer/director wannabes heading West, while those living here in fear of Mother Nature should pack their bags and, well, get out of Dodge.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Jew on a Camel

By Victoria Looseleaf (we shortened it from ‘Looseleafkowitz’)

After much ballyhooing and back-and-forthing between a battery of New York publicists and this ink-stained wretch, it came to pass that I was able to both celebrate my father
s 84th birthday in West Palm Beach and then jet onward to Abu Dhabi, the richest city in the world. There I would be reporting on the Fifth Annual Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival for KUSC-FM radio, my debut for the station as an international arts journalist.

What is not covered in my Middle Eastern radio musings—but will be part of my book, Dance, Drink, Whatever…One Woman’s Pursuit of Art and Pleasure Around the Globe—I thought I’d give brief mention here.

Arriving in Abu Dhabi (taking planes to D.C., Doha—the capital of Qatar—followed by a puddle jumper to Abu), was a feat in itself, and at the stroke of midnight in a godforsaken Persian Gulf airport, I was met by a sweet driver who promptly took me to the wrong hotel.

After getting our bearings straight (and believe me, nothing is straight when it comes to the Emirates or the Emiratis, for that matter, save for the millions of dollars’ worth of oil gushing by the minute from beneath their sandy soils), I made it to the Millennium. In spite of my jet lag, I was immediately struck by the parade of high-end hookers and hooch available on the premises. As both prostitution and alcohol are forbidden in Islamic culture, I realized I’d arrived in the land of the apocalyptically hypocritical.

This is not meant to be a screed against the UAE, but merely an observation. Admittedly, the Arab society is a closed one, and certainly not one I was able to penetrate in a mere 10 days, this non-penetration thing rampant on other counts, as well, but nothing I'll, er, get into here.

What I did want, though, was a bottle of booze for my room. Having been told I could buy alcohol at a grocery store, early the next morning I proceeded through the late March, 90-degree heat and was led to a counter with alcohol.

Too bad it was rubbing alcohol.

The soukhs—marketplaces where rugs, gold, spices and other kinds of Middle Eastern exotica were sold in days of yore—also proved non-existent. It’s all malls now, all the time, the bigger the better—with the insane amounts of construction taking place ruining the environment (and the region allegedly running out of concrete).

But not running out of camels. Wanting to see the legendary camel races, including a 5 million Durham dromedary, I beseeched my Egyptian driver, Wa-El, to take me to the outskirts of town for a little Lawrence of Arabia action. But arriving at 11 a.m., we were privy only to the camels in cool-down mode.

Alas, the races were over, but, after some multi-culti confabbing, I was invited to ride one. With a lot of help from the help, I took to the hump, this Jew on a camel hanging on for dear life.

And loved it. As I loved much about the Middle East. In fact, I plan on returning for next year's festival—should there be one—as well as to explore the real desert, far from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the cigarette-smoking, cell-phone toting locals dressed in abayas and designer shades, driving Hummers and Mercedes on gridlocked highways, the a/c cranked up in the blazing mid-day sun, as they make their way to prayer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Debt in Venice

Gondolas at the Rialto Bridge. Photos © Victoria Looseleaf, 2008

By Victoria Looseleaf

It’s been a while since your devoted scribe has posted, but she has been on a series of—as always—remarkable journeys. My most recent excursion was to Venice, Italy, where I covered the Dance Biennale for Dance Magazine.

Yeah, I know. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it!

Here, then, are a few mentions that didn’t make it into my review: I stayed in the most wonderful place, the famed Fenice de les Artistes, which is next door to the even more famous Fenice Opera House and where I was fortunate enough to see Britten’s “Death in Venice;” I met some amazing people, Venetians included, as the city is quickly losing many of its 60,0000 residents; and do feel especially blessed just to have been able to travel there during these precarious times.

And while my trip should be dubbed, “Debt In Venice,” not just because I was stricken with the flu and had to have a doctor come to my hotel (an allergist, no less, in a pristine designer suit, who charged me 200 Euros to stick a thermometer under my arm and write a few scripts for antibiotics and painkillers in a Tennessee Williams-like scenario), but that the sinking dollar in this already water-logged burg made ordinary purchases (water, Prosecco and my newest addiciton, Orange Fanta), astronomical.

Igor Stravinsky’s grave, San Michele, Italy.

Still, there was beauty at every turn and even though I didn’t have an affair with a gondolier or some gigolo a la Katharine Hepburn in “Summertime” (nor did I fall into the Grand Canal like she did in the film), I did go to the graves of Russian impresario, Sergei Diaghilev and composer Igor Stravinsky; I happily attended some incredible dance performances which you’ll hopefully read about; and, finally, I rode around on the vaporetto (water bus) breathing in the glorious sea air of the Adriatic while being transported back in history to the times of Casanova, Mozart and Mariano Fortuny, a magnificent designer whose last name seems to say it all.

Would I return to this magical, mysterious, shell-shockingly expensive place? In an Italian heartbeat, which is a lot different—and much more magnificent, I might add—than a New York minute.