If, like Bruno Ganz's character in Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire
, Frank Sinatra
happened to magically return to life this summer, the Chairman of the Board would not only have a cup of coffee with a cigarette, he would enthusiastically charter a committee of jazz fans to search the world over for the earthly delights that were/are his idea of real excitement and entertainment. "Just to be very clear on this," he'd say, "I want to hear a singer who can really swing. Someone with a little sophistication who can turn a phrase on a dime and make the lyric tell a story. I want to laugh. I want to cry."
"You want to see a soundie, Frank?" I'd ask.
"Yeah, sure kiddo," he'd say.
To which I would cheerfully explain that I had discovered a new soundie last July 26th, when I ducked into the air-conditioned darkness of the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theaters in West Hollywood... and that contrary to popular theory, excitement and entertainment are still alive in 2009.
Screen #1 at the L.A. Shorts Fest (which has now grown to be the largest short-film festival in the world, with over 300 screenings) had attracted appearances by fledgling directors Scarlett Johansson, Courteney Cox and Demi Moore (accompanied by daughter Rumer Willis and husband Ashton Kutcher) along with veteran screenwriter Kirsten Smith, to see films starring Olympia Dukakis, Sir Derek Jacobi, Elizabeth Perkins, Isabella Rosselini, Linda Hunt and R.E.M.
's Michael Stipe.
And lyricist/jazz singer Lorraine Feather
, possibly the most talented name on the marquee.
She and animator George Griffin have collaborated on You're Outa Here (a neo-soundie)
, a short film produced by Feather as visual theater to accompany the hilarity of "You're Outa Here," a whirlwind stride-time adaptation of Fats Waller
's "A Minor Drag" that she wrote for her 2001 album New York City Drag
was the 1930s-1940s version of a music video, a three-minute selection from the popular music of the dayjazz. Anyone in a tavern or bus station with a few coins to drop into a film-projecting jukebox, called a Panoram, could behold and hear the wonders of the music world. Everyone from bandleader Duke Ellington
and singer Dorothy Dandridge to drummer Gene Krupa
and trumpeter Louis Armstrong
did them. Logically enough, 60-plus years later, the same art form, digitally updated and revitalized in every way by the team of Feather and Griffin, is called a neo-soundie
. Just the summer tonic Ol' Blue Eyes and the rest of the world needs.
Featuring a cast that includes renowned animator Max Fleischer's Krazy Kat, a dancing dog and a piranha-toothed goldfish, this short tale stars the always animated Feather as a heroically modern damsel reminiscent of Betty Boop, and follows her adventures as she gives her clueless boyfriend a well-deserved heave ho. The Toontown musical revue blows along on a hurricane of Feather's razor-sharp lyrics that she sings to Waller's infectiously frenetic tune, a rollicking stride performed by long-time Feather collaborator, pianist Dick Hyman
(who has a live-action cameo, styling in a slouch Fedora) with Richard Drexler on bass and John Jenkins
Griffin's Neo-Deco animation (complete with a pair of neon pink-and-blue rotoscoped dancers) is wedded so effectively to Feather's sophisticated vocal stylings (which are, themselves, so seamlessly woven now into Waller's music) that future listenings will always conjure his kaleidoscopic, jitterbug imagery.
Griffin told Jeremie Noyer of Animated Views that when he first heard Feather's recording, "I retained about a quarter of the meaning. It was so fast and so clever that my first reaction was, 'did she really say that?' Her voice enunciated every syllable perfectly and the personality that came through was so self-possessed that a character just seemed to jump out of the song into the frame."
Feather, who has made several of her own music videos, said, "Producing the film was just a joy. George couldn't have been more simpatico; I love what he did, his musical as well as visual sense." Of Griffin's astonishment at her rapido
delivery, she says, "As far as my enunciation goes . . .singing is hard, but singing fast is no harder! I don't have a lot of power but I can spit those words out; it comes naturally for some reason. I do practice of course, over and over and over. The phrasing has probably been helped over the years by being married to a drummer. [Tony Morales]"
When Feather's image bounces into the opening frames and struts straight toward the "camera lens" on the off beat, her syncopated footsteps form the backdrop for her characteristic sense of humor as she begins with a spoken line, a drolly sighing "You're more than a minor drag..." delivered with Jean Harlow's weariness, Greta Garbo's aloofness and Mae West's arch humor.