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Five for Friday - June 4, 2021

Bo Burnham – Inside: Burnham is developing into one of the most interesting comedic talents of our times, and this Netflix special demonstrates why. Made over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, it isn’t so much a standup set as it is a musical and an art film that reminded me at times of Weird Al, Laurie Anderson, and Tim Minchin. The songs are bangers. All satirical. All incisive. And some go in directions you don’t expect, such as one about white women on Instagram that becomes oddly empathetic. The genius that animates all of this is obvious. What is less clear is how much of this is real vulnerability or just performance. It may be both. Regardless, it is one of the most affecting and inspiring works to come out of this plague year.

Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers – Abominable Snowman in the Market: Last weekend, I made an exhausting effort to catalog and save some songs from my better half’s old computer. Discovering this among them was like reuniting with an old friend. Richman is often referred to as rock music’s greatest case of arrested development. But even in early material like Roadrunner, there was a child-like enthusiasm on display. He leaned into it in songs about being an airplane, welcoming Martians, and the joy of double chocolate malteds. But there was always a depth of perception and empathy in his work that took it into the realm of the profound. And that’s true here in what is probably the most unlikely plea for tolerance and understanding you’ll ever hear.

Opening credits of Shaft: The film, leaving the Criterion Channel at the end of the month, has not aged well in some regards. But the title sequence remains electrifying. A camera pans along the streets of New York, as if looking for the title character, finally stops at a subway entrance, where he emerges. Then, Isaac Hayes’ history-making Academy Award-winning theme song kicks in. And in that moment, Shaft became iconic. A kind of superhero. Which I guess is why Hollywood keeps trying to bring him back to life.

1971: The Year Music Changed Everything: I’m probably too biased to comment on this. I didn’t make it through David Hepworth’s book, the inspiration for this docuseries about how music shaped the world that year. I tapped out seven episodes in. It has too much to say and can’t thread its many themes. It invests in developments (the filming of An American Family, the recording of Exile on Main Street) that would not impact society or culture that year. It ignores or glosses over several major developments in music that year—Yes popularizing prog rock, Led Zep’s groundbreaking IV. It delves into news items without examining their lasting impacts or outcomes. It relies heavily on archival footage to the point where it feels like rummaging through a thrift shop. It has oral commentary from a wide range of people who were there without making clear who is still among us and who isn’t. Effectively, time becomes a flat circle you place on a turntable and relive. The episodes where the focus is on Black social movements and musicians suggest there is a much better and coherent docuseries to be made about this material. But if you just want to spend a few hours in 1971, this will do.

Observation of the week: If there is a god, I think it spent entirely too much time on insects.


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