The Buy Guy’s Top Five Movie Books/Top Five Movie Songs

Editor’s Note:: Kudos to Steve for his trifecta coverage: Books, Movies AND Music. Well done, sir. ~kd

I used to be a big movie buff, and then I had kids.  Then the kids grew up; now I’m a movie buff again!  I occasionally like to read about movies, and have added on a few favorite songs written for the movies.  

Here’s a list of my favorite books about the movies:

1.  5001 Nights at the Movies, Pauline Kael—I have all of the collections of Kael’s reviews, from I Lost it at the Movies to Movie Love, but I most often grab this compilation of excerpts from the longer reviews to get a dose of Kael’s irreverent, cross-cultural opinions.  Giant is “an example of commercial filmmaking straining for prestige, and the performers can’t blink an eye without announcing that they’re acting.” Jaws “may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made.”  I don’t always agree with her, but I always enjoy her.  A new bio of her just came out; I’m curious, but I’m a little afraid to find out too much.

2.  Hitchcock/Truffaut, Francois Truffaut — Great French director interviews the even greater British/American director.  They go movie by movie through every film Hitch made.  If you’re a fan, you have to have this book.

3.  Fellini’s Faces, Christian Stritch — This coffee-table book features pages and pages of black and white photos: “More than 400 pictures from Fellini’s photo archives.”  I hadn’t thumbed through the book in years, but I remembered a remarkable number of these faces from Fellini’s movies (even though I can’t remember where I set my coffee down), which is testament to Fellini’s eye for memorable faces.

4.  When the Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins, Ralph Rosenblum— This book could make the list for its title alone, but it’s a fascinating look at movies through the eyes of a top-shelf editor.  The experienced author (who edited Goodbye, Columbus, Mel Brooks’ The Producers, and quite a few Woody Allen movies) makes a great case for movie editors being the most-important-while-least-heralded part of the moviemaking process.

5.  Have You Seen…, David Thomson—Critic Thomson’s book of over 1,000 one-page movie reviews is not a front-to-back book; it’s a pick-it-up-and-read-a-few-entries book.  And that’s how I got through it.  He’s about as outspoken and irreverent as Pauline Kael, and as insightful, too.

Top Five favorite songs written for movies:

  1. “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” by Jon Brion.  The title tune of the 2004 movie is eerie and dreamy, setting the perfect tone.
  2. “Smile” by Charles Chaplin.  A rare instance of a great movie, Modern Times, directed by the same person who composed the soundtrack music.  Charles Chaplin wrote the music for the song which, with added lyrics, would become a hit for Nat “King” Cole and many others.
  3. “Philadelphia” by Neil Young.  Although the song The Boss wrote for Philadelphia won the Oscar, I preferred Neil’s.  Like much of the best Neil Young, the song is simple and touching.
  4. “Opening Theme” from North by Northwest by Bernard Herrmann.  To play while reading Hitchcock/Truffaut: the music of a favorite soundtrack composer who often worked with a favorite director, Alfred Hitchcock.
  5. “La Dolce Vita” by Nino Rota.  To accompany Fellini’s Faces: the music of another favorite soundtrack composer, who often accompanied another favorite director, Federico Fellini.

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What are your favorite movie books and movie songs?

— Steve, the Buy Guy 

Staff Picks: Top Ten Music Biographies

I own a lotta books. It’s a wonderful sickness (and I’m not as sick as my wife, who owns about five times as many as I do).  A pretty good number of my books are books about music.

Here’s a list of my 10 favorite music biographies, along with a playlist below:

Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow (1946)–This autobiography of minor jazz player and major hepcat Mezz Mezzrow was written entirely in hep lingo and is a real trip to read. Mezz was white but “went black” in the thirties, immersing himself in the culture and jamming with and dealing pot to some of the great jazzmen of the era.

Favorite Song: “Really the Blues”— This is the song that gave the book its name.  Mezz Mezzrow joins the great clarinetist Sidney Bechet in solos on the Tommy Ladnier & His Orchestra recording.

Last Train to Memphis (1994), Careless Love (1999) by Peter Guralnick–This two-volume bio of The King is a great story even if you aren’t an Elvis fan, because Peter Guralnick is the best music biographer out there.  (Also check out his bio of Sam Cooke, Dream Boogie.)  The books are chock full of improbable success and failure, obsession, and some really weird behavior.

Favorite Song: “Don’t Be Cruel”— Everyone (except Elvis haters) has their own King faves.  This is the one that first got me interested in music.

Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus (1971)–A third-person autobiography?  Yes, indeed.  The great jazz composer Charles Mingus takes us for a bumpy ride along his stream-of-consciousness.

Favorite Song: “Goodbye, Porkpie Hat”— Mingus is best enjoyed in the long form.  His album Mingus, Ah-Um, which features the best version of this song, is great from start to finish.  Another high point is “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.”

Bessie by Chris Albertson (1972)–What was it about Bessie Smith that makes us keep listening to her songs eighty years after they were recorded?  Who cares?  Just listen to the songs!  But to go further with it, this book is a respectful but no-holds-barred look at the blues queen’s troubled life.

Favorite Song: “My Sweetie Went Away”— You can’t go wrong with Bessie Smith.  This one I like slightly more than all of her others.

Lush Life by David Hajdu (1996)–This is the story of the unique songwriter Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s right-hand man, told by the author who went on to write the tale of Dylan and Baez’s early days, Positively 4th Street.  Out of all the music bios I’ve ever read, this one probably had the least in the way of lurid, low-life livin’, because its subject was such a nice, gentle, and much-loved guy.

Favorite Song: “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing”— Ellington’s trusty muse Billy Strayhorn wrote several of the most gorgeous songs of all time, including this one.  Any version that features Johnny Hodges, such as the one on Caravan by the Johnny Hodges All-Stars, is divine.  Or try the version by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Shakey by Jimmy McDonough (2002)–Here’s everything you always wanted to know about Neil Young.  OK, so maybe you really didn’t care to know anything about him.  The book was written by a cohort, often relating first-hand accounts.  A scene about recording On the Beach in a pitch-dark studio with a tripping Rusty Kershaw is a high point, so to speak.

Favorite Song: “Pocahontas”— Of the many Neil Young songs I revere, this one, from Rust Never Sleeps, is the one that always gets to me.

Hellfire by Nick Tosches (1982)–Here’s one with a wild and irreverent subject (Jerry Lee Lewis, with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart in a supporting—if not supportive—role), told by a wild and irreverent writer.

Favorite Song: “Breathless”— The Killer’s third hit is another sentimental favorite—one of the first 45s I owned.  It sounded superb on my little portable record player, but it sounds pretty good on an MP3 player, too.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D. G. Kelley (2009)–I have several bios of my main music hero, and couldn’t decide which was best, until this comprehensive and sensitive page-turner came along.  Nothing else needed.

Favorite Song: “Locomotive”— Monk’s my song god, so it’s so hard to choose.  But the single recording I’ve listened to more than any other is this one, from the 1967 album Straight, No Chaser.

The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White (1994)–This is my favorite version of the story of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson’s wanderings, and his place in sixties West-Coast pop culture.

Favorite Song: “Wonderful”– Every version I’ve heard of this strange Brian Wilson song is mysterious and beautiful, but I’m currently most thrilled by the version on the soundtrack album for the documentary I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.

Bound for Glory by Woody Guthrie (1943)–The down-home autobiography of the All-American rabble-rousing troubadour is a classic.  Read it aloud with a Okie twang for best effect.

Favorite Song: “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”— Billy Bragg and Wilco set some of Woody Guthrie’s lyrics to music for the album Mermaid Avenue in 1998.  This one was Bragg’s and he did Woody proud.

Here’s a playlist to give you inspiration as you read:

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— Steve L., aka The Buy Guy