Saturday, August 08, 2009

Noted in passing

John Hughes: A talented writer-director who will forever be remembered for capturing the experience of coming of age in the 80's, John Hughes passed suddenly on Thursday while taking a morning walk in Manhattan where he was visiting family. He was 59.

Hughes was born in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in the Chicago area, where many of his films were set. He dropped out of college to write advertising copy, eventually moving into comedy writing. This led to a job with National Lampoon, and his first big success writing the screenplay of National Lampoon's Vacation. His first triumph as a director came in 1984 with Sixteen Candles, which led to a string of successful films that summarize the 80's teen experience for posterity: The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off. In the later 80's he would branch out with more mature fare such as Planes, Trains, And Automobiles and She's Having A Baby. 1990's Home Alone turned out to be his biggest commercial success. By the mid-90's, though, he escaped the Hollywood spotlight and retired to the rural Midwest, operating a farm in northern Illinois at the time of his death.

The word I would use to describe John Hughes' output is "cute". Maybe I was a bit too old to truly relate to his teen flicks. The one film that transcended the formula was The Breakfast Club, where five kids from different cliques are thrown together in Saturday detention and form a bond that overcomes the high school stereotypes. My next favorite is Planes, Trains, And Automobiles, due to the comedic talents of Steve Martin and John Candy. For many I know who are a few years younger than me, the 80's teen movies were the story of their lives, and John Hughes captured that experience so well that he has to rate in the all-time top rank of Hollywood writers and directors.

Among Hughes' talents was his imaginative use of the era's music in his films; Randy Raley compiles some great examples.

Willy DeVille: Soulful singer Willy DeVille died Thursday in Manhattan of pancreatic cancer at age 58. DeVille was one of those guys who never quite made it in the marketplace, and probably deserved a better fate than he received.

DeVille was born William Borsey in Stamford, Connecticut. He dropped out of school at age 16 and started hanging out in Greenwich Village, where he expanded his interest in blues and R&B, especially admiring the work of John Hammond Jr. He made trips to London and San Francisco in the early 70's. Out on the West Coast he formed a band, Mink DeVille, that he brought back to New York with him.

Mink DeVille were featured regularly at CBGB's during the venue's 70's heyday, causing the group to get lumped in with other NYC punk/new wave mainstays like The Ramones, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and Television. Their tastes, however, ran more to 60's era Phil Spector/Brill Building pop and R&B, brought to the fore by legendary producer Jack Nitzsche who produced Mink DeVille's first two albums. Their retro stylings were of no interest to late-70's US listeners weaned on arena rock, but the band found an audience in the UK and Europe, where DeVille would remain popular until his death. "Spanish Stroll" became a Top 20 UK hit.

Mink DeVille broke up in 1980, with Willy embarking upon a long and varied solo career, but the pattern had been set. He was well respected by his peers, and worked with venerable R&B songwriter Doc Pomus, Mark Knopfler, and Allan Toussaint, among others. He released a string of blues/R&B based albums that sold respectably overseas, but were barely noticed in the US. In 1988 he moved to New Orleans, and incorporated elements of Cajun music into his sound. He also recorded frequently in Los Angeles, often working with the city's Latino musicians. His 1992 album Backstreets Of Desire, recorded in LA, is considered by many to be his finest hour. The disc includes a mariachi version of the standard "Hey Joe" that reached #1 in much of Europe.

Still, he was a performer who fell through the cracks; I don't think I've heard more than three Willy DeVille songs in my life, and don't really remember any of them. We had some of his albums at KMUW, but frankly, I thought the guy looked like a phony - probably a good reason to not judge albums by their cover. He left without ever receiving his due, and now the rest of us get to catch up.