These are the people who (sometimes) turn music into magic

What does a record producer do? Well, sometimes Phil Spector would be a commanding general, creating his "wall of sound" ... or Linda Perry would be trying to convince Christina Aguilera that raw-and-simple is best. Sometimes George Martin would let the Beatles blast; and sometimes he'd let them toy around for days.

It's all part of the producing world, featured in a new PBS series.At a couple Television Critics Association sessions, the music masters talked about it; here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

Sure, it seems like
everyone wants to be a rock star. But many people – including rock
stars – want to be something else ... a record producer.

“Being in a
studio, making records, is about the coolest place you can be,”
said Don Was, one of the people featured in PBS' sprawling
“Soundbreaking” series.

Peter Asher agreed:
“The first time I went into the studio, .... I knew this is what I
wanted to do.”

That was around 1963
and the studio (later renamed Abbey Road) only had four-track tapes.
But to teenaged Asher (then half of Peter and Gordon) it was
“super-high-tech .... The fact that you could hire musicians much
better than yourself and tell them what to do -- I thought that was
unbelievably cool.”

And at the core was
a distinguished-looking producer. “I would see shots of George
Martin,” Linda Perry recalled. “I didn't know who he was, but for
some reason, I knew that was an important guy.”

Martin produced for
the Beatles and others. He had 23 No. 1 singles in the U.S., 30 in
England. And he helped launch work on the “Soundbreaking” series,
almost a decade ago.

“It's not going to
be boring,” Martin told the Television Critics Association in 2008.
“It's going to be entertaining. It's going to be fun; PBS is like

He died in April, at
90. Four months later, producers talked about the series. They've
molded music for Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones
(Was); James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Cher (Asher); Pink, Christina
Aguilera and Gwen Stefani (Perry); and Public Enemy (Hank Shocklee).

Yes, styles differ.
At one extreme, said series director Jeff Dupre, are the auteurs:
“Someone like Phil Spector has this dictatorial vision .... There
are some artists like Joni Mitchell who's like, 'I'm producing
myself.' There's a story that she hired David Crosby just to stay at
the door, to tell people to go away.”

But those are
exceptions, Was said. “The beauty of making records ... lies in the
collaborative nature.”

Especially if it's a
collaboration of opposites. Johnny Cash thrived when he linked with
rock producer Rick Rubin; Public Enemy soared with Shocklee. “I
grew up on jazz,” he said. “Having that background allowed the
hip-hop producton ... staking it from various Motown records or even
doing some arrangements that were from the George Martin and Beatles

And the Beatles
themselves benefitted from a mismatch. “George Martin, with his
classical background .... They needed that,” Perry said.

Martin had spent
three years in music school, where he was a fan of Ravel, Rachmaninov
and Cole Porter. He contrasted with Paul McCartney, who couldn't read

Still, he told the
TCA, they all got along. “We respected each other. We worked as a
team .... Working with John and Paul and Ringo and George was
challenging, because they were four such strong individual
characters. We had a wonderful time.”

That approach
transformed, Asher said. “George Martin started when they made
their first album in a day, He was totally in charge, ran the whole
session – do a few takes, thank you very much, next song.”

the men often worked separately, trying studio tricks. To get an odd
sound in “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Martin said he had 16 loops on
eight playback machines. “George felt the best thing to do was to
leave them alone ... and see if it worked,” Asher said. “That was
part of his genius.”

Still, that can go
too far. “Sergeant Pepper” and “Pet Sounds” were great, Was
said, but then “a whole bunch of people (made) records that relied
on technology and were void of any emotional value.”

simple is best. Perry recalls Aguilera's first “Beautiful” take.
“I heard the vulnerability; I heard this whole thing happening. And
I was like, 'That's it.' .... Seven months, (she) tried to redo

And then that first,
simple take – lots of soul, little studio – became a classic.

-- “Soundbreaking:
Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music”

-- 10 p.m. weekdays,
PBS; Nov. 14-18, 21-23


Escaping the election (intermittently)

In this political season, we're happy when anyone even partially keeps a promise. That's what the Weather Channel is doing today (Election Day), until midnight ET,.

The channel promised a "election escape"; for nine hours, it would have nothing but pretty nature pictures and soft music.

Well, sort of, It still has the "local on the 8's" weather reports... and packs lots of commercials around that. But the rest of the time does, indeed, having nothing but soothing sights and sounds. As this nasty election ends, we really need that.


Election Day -- a cheery thought

It's Election Day now, a time for optimism to return and a cloud of campaign rage to fade. My own spirits were boosted on Friday, when I cast my absentee ballot.

Sitting in the spot next to me was a woman who is 99-and-a-half years old. I don't know how she voted, but I do know this: During the first 4 years of her life, women didn't have the right to vote; now she had a ballot in front of her that included a woman as a major-party candidate for president.

What I do know is that the person at the township clerk's office asked her, as required, if she is 60 or older. She seemed quite pleased with the question; also, it was the first time in a while that she's been required to show some ID.



Silenced? What doesn't kill you makes this "Stronger"

By Mike Hughes

Fate suddenly
introduced Jasmine Spiess to the notion of silence.

That's not her
natural state. Still, she said it helped her acting. “It makes you
a better listener.”

Proof of that comes
with “Stronger,” a beautifully acted short at the East Lansing
Film Festival. One actress (Juliet O'Brien) talks furiously, the
other (Spiess) says nothing; both project passionately.

Actors often fall
into two extremes – quick and personable or quiet and inward.
Spiess clearly is the former, as she demonstrated at a film-festival

She grew up in a
small Wisconsin town near Janesville and tried a musical-theater
career. “Then New York just happened to me,” she said.

And the music? “I
still sing,” she said. “I do a lot of opera; I do Venezuelan folk
songs – don't ask.” Twice, she was even in a group singing David
Letterman's top-10.

Then vocal surgery
left her with two weeks of silence ... which could have complicated
her acting-class exercises. A classmate, Juliet O'Brien, suggestes
“The Stronger,” a one-scene play.

That was written in
1889 by August Strindberg. (“So you know it's going to be a
feel-good story,” Spiess jokes.) Accidentally meeting at a cafe are
two women who have had a past and a romance in common. One ranges
from charm to rage; the other has increasingly pained silence.

The story has become
an opera, several filmed shorts and a portion of Ingmar Bergman's
“Persona.” And after the class went well, the actresses decided
to film it again.

Victor Kaufold, a
playwright married to O'Brien, created the 12-minute adaptaton; Chris
Coats directed skillfully. The actresses returned to their extreme
characters. “Between scenes, I would be talking all the time,”
Spiess said. “She was the opposite, very quiet.”

Well, it's a taxing
role, leaving you wondering which character is really the stronger.

-- “Stronger,”
one of eight shorts shown at 9 p.m. Monday (Nov. 7) at Studio C in

-- Another package
of eight shorts is at 4 p.m. Monday.

-- This is the
second showing for both at the East Lansing Film Festival, which
continues through Thursday; see previous blog for more details and a
glance at documentaries




Want a good yarn? Try "Yarn" or "Obit" or more

By Mike Hughes

I don't really go to
many Icelandic movies. Or movies about knitting, Maybe that's a
personal flaw.

But there I was at
“Yarn,” an Icelandic film about knitting. There were only three
other men there, along with lots of women, some of them knitting
while they waited. And I enjoyed myself.

That was at the East
Lansing Film Festival, which now goes into its second phase. One
portion (campus screenings at Michigan State University) is done, but
another (at the Studio C theaters in Okemos, plus an extra screening
in East Lansing) continues through Sept. 10. I'll include the key
info at the end of this blog.

The festival is
strong on documentaries, founder Susan Woods said at the filmmaker
forum, and they're not like ones in the old days. “They used to
have a lot of talking heads – and they were dull.”

Not any more. Two
films that particularly impressed me – and will be shown again --

-- “Yarn,” which
travels to five countries to see knitting at its extreme. We see a
“yarn graffiti artist,” a pop-up protest gallery, a giant knitted
play structure; we even see a knitted mermaid suit go underwater in
shark territory. Mixed in are gorgeous pictures, Icelandic music,
catchy animation, beautiful closing titles and author Barbara
Kingsolver's elegant essay on knitting.

-- “Obit,” which
has less visual flair, but great content. It's a fascinationg look at
the people who brilliantly mold the New York Times obituaries when
someone dies ... and, often, prepare preliminary versions long before
that. One such advance was done for a daring, 18-year-old stunt
pilot, when people were sure she would die; she did ... 78 years

There have been lots
of other documentaries at the festival. During the forum, Woods
chatted with three regional filmmakers:

-- Jordan Mederich,
whose feature-length “Church of Felons” looks at my home state's
leadership: “Wisconsin is the most addicted state in the country,”
he said. His film ranged from alcoholism to a meth raid. “They told
me, 'Just stand behind somebody in body armor.'”

-- Troy Hale, an MSU
faculty member who made the 22-minute “Missing Moon Rocks.” It
all started, he said, when he learned that many of the rocks simply
disappeared. “One ended up in a landfill.”

-- John Otterbacher,
whose “Officially Limited” started as a look at movie posters and
expanded to a look at copyrights and more. Along the way, he decided
that a strictly journalistic approach isn't what a documentary film
is about. “It's about perspective; it's about character arc.”

What's left at the

-- Studio C, $10.50,
$8 for seniors and matinees, $5 for college students.

-- “Yarn” is 4
p.m. Tuesday (election day, Nov. 8); “Obit” is 4 p.m. Thursday.

-- Other
documentaries: “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise,” 4 p.m. Sunday
(Nov. 6) and 6:30 p.m. Tuesday; “Harry & Snowman,” 6:30 p.m.
Sunday and Wednesday”; “House Without Snakes” and “Why Can't
I Be a Sushi?” 2 p.m. Sunday; “Jackson,” 4 p.m. Wednesday;
“Equal Means Equal,” 9 p.m. Wednesday; “The Last Laugh,” 9
p.m. Thursday.

-- And a few
scripted films: The splendid “Call Me Crazy,” 9 p.m. Sunday; the
Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent,” 6:30 p.m. Monday;
“Ceresia,” 9 p.m. Tuesday; and “A Man Called Ove,” 6:30 p.m.,

ALSO: One screening
has been added, at an alternate site. The involving documentary “Walk
With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith” was sold out as the festival
opener; now it will be repeated at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Hannah
Community Center, 819 Abbott Road, East Lansing. Tickets -- $8, $5
for students and seniors – go on sale at 6.