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Posted by on Jun 1, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

Movie Review: Elton John Musical Biopic “Rocketman” Crashes and Burns

 

"Rocketman"

 

Elton John’s preeminence as a flamboyant rock n’ roll troubadour is deeply grooved into our vinyl consciousness.

His mesmerizing 1970’s songbook is arguably the most astounding output of any solo artist over the past 50 years.  While his gold records revolved at 33 rpm, his fame spiraled at 78 speed.  His eccentricities, outlandish stage costumes, a sham marriage when he tried to play it straight, and hypersexuality were fodder for ceaseless gossip and scandal.

His musical career soared to extraordinary highs, packed sports stadiums, and survived craterous lows.  His celebrity remains indisputably global, gender neutral, cross-generational, and yet all of his music is crassly commercial.  To millions of fans and even those who aren’t, but can’t help but hum the harmonies to his hit songs, Elton John isn’t just a stylish trendsetter.  He’s painfully honest, wallowed in imperfection.

“I have taken every drug; I have fucked everything that moves,” Elton John once told a startled interviewer.

So given these realities, a well-documented public life, combined with Elton’s John’s unapologetic openness about his private ordeals, how is Rocketman, the purported collaborative movie biography, such a misfire?

There’s no excuse for this.  None.  I should have loved Rocketman.  Ostensibly,  I’m the target audience.  This movie was custom-made for devoted fans who grew up with his music.  Consider Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John’s 1973 double album masterpiece, was one of the first records I ever purchased with allowance money.  I recall the excitement, hastily unwrapping the new album jacket encased in cellophane, the smell of the record, carefully placing vinyl discs upon the family turntable so as not to scratch it, hoisting the needle, sprawling myself across the shag carpet, and then following along with liner notes penned by lyricist Bernie Taupin as Elton John’s music took me to imaginary places that seemed otherworldly.

How could they possibly blow this?

There are so many things annoying about this movie, I don’t know where to begin.  So, let’s start at the beginning.

In the opening scene, Elton John enters rehab.  He’s been on a steady decline for a decade.  He joins a group therapy session at what looks to be an AA meeting.  Inexplicably, he’s dressed in full stage regalia — looking something like a giant insect that swallowed a court jester.  Yet no one in the group seems to think it’s a big deal that Elton John, one of the most famous people in the world at the time, is sitting there, about to tell us his life story.  Are these people alive?  The rest of the addicts just sit there the whole time like they’re listening to Joe the Plumber apologize about drinking way too many beers at the company picnic.

So, the next two hours of therapy are utterly dominated by this self-centered superstar obsessing about his life, causing me to wonder — hey, what about the other poor souls who have their own addiction problems?  Don’t they get some talk time?  Do they have to sit here for two hours and listen to this guy babble?  I guess so  — because it’s Elton John.

Snippets of Elton John’s many hits appear throughout the film, although he sings none of them.  More on that creative oddity in just a moment.  Most of us will recognize every song.  There’s no filler, nor experimentation here.  We get a predictable stream of best sellers.  The movie soundtrack has all the originality of a “Greatest Hits” compilation.

The songs intend to stitch together some hopelessly disjoined biographical timeline when none actually exists.  To illustrate the awkward misuse of music, when Elton John launches into his lengthy confessional by reminiscing about his early childhood growing up as Reginald Dwight (his real name), a flashback transposes us into a 1950s street dance overlapped with The Bitch is Back, off the 1974 album Caribou.  How did this scene make it past the first draft?  Why is a 7-year-old boy from Middlesex barking out The Bitch is Back?  That was the first instant I leaned forward in my theater seat and went — “huh?”

That bizarre opener pretty much obliterated any appreciation of artistic expression.  Elton John’s hits are recklessly scattered all over the storyline.  Wherever any lyric might coincidentally connect to a real event in his life, it’s exploited to the max, though in no way reflected what was going on at the time.  For instance, we hear the early songs, mostly composed when Elton John had no discernable demons nor any destructive bad habits, which are misused contextually so as to imply that each song was a cry for help, the emotional intensity magnified by the succession of each album.  Moreover, Elton John’s song lyrics — so often sweltering in pain and loss — was almost entirely the creation of collaborative co-writer Bernie Taupin, who for the most part escaped his songwriting partner’s voyage aboard the paparazzi parade branded the Titanic.  Taupin may indeed have projected some emotions onto Elton John, the performer.  But the film’s quilting of music and narrative is disingenuous.

To the film’s credit, all songs were re-recorded and sung by Taron Egerton, who does quite an admirable job playing Elton John.  Egerton, not widely known before taking this role, was a bold casting decision and he delivers both commanding vocals and convincing performance.  Egerton’s challenges cannot be understated.  Other rockstar movie bios usually miss the target, often embarrassingly so, which is tough to hit when the superstar is as prominent a public figure as Elton John.  However, Egerton nails both the incomparable musical demands and the swaggering persona.  Even more impressive, the actor gives a credible performance transforming into the self-destructive rock icon over the span of a decade, meandering back and forth between a joyously contrived onstage performer juxtaposed against the miserable misanthrope left alone in hotel suites with a bottle of vodka and spoon piled with cocaine.

Way too much of the movie focuses on Elton John’s continuous slide into addiction — with drugs, alcohol, and sex.  It’s an all-too-familiar story we’ve seen before.  There’s nothing new here.  While Elton John’s personal problems do make for an empathetic confessional, I’d have preferred greater insight into his songwriting and the creative collaboration between John and Taupin.  The movie cheapens what must have been a grueling artistic process — releasing ten gold albums in just six years — grossly oversimplifying the effort it took to create so many memorable pop songs.  Artistic revelation is reduced to the pianist taking a sheet of paper with lyrics scribbled by Taubin and then composing a near perfect melody within 15 seconds.  Frankly, it’s ridiculous.

Audiences may have some difficulty commensurating with Elton John’s problems.  By the mid-1970s, the rock icon was reportedly pulling in $85 million a year.  He had everything going his direction — prodigal talent, fame, riches, and the creative freedom to do anything he wanted.  Yet, Rocketman crashes and burns.  Yes, this did happen.  Just don’t expect me to be sympathetic.

The film goes to painstaking lengths to convince us Elton John’s emotional breakdown was borne out of a childhood void of love.  His parents, who divorced, are reduced to cruel caricatures.  Neither are appreciative of his talent or success.  In real life, Elton John has spoken affectionately about his parents, especially his mother.  A 2013 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross on NPR provided the revelation that even when young and confused about his sexual orientation, Elton John’s mother was emotionally supportive.  So, either Elton John was lying then in the interview or the filmmakers now have taken their artistic license and run off a cliff.

Rocketman does manage to take its touchiest subject and portray it in a manner so as to be both true to the subject matter while not ruffling feathers of the conventional mainstream.  Portraying homosexual acts on film does pose a serious dilemma for filmmakers.  Whether we’ll admit it or not, that remains taboo in cinema.  Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, which somehow managed to brush the gay Freddie Mercury completely under the rug, this film portrays Elton John’s steady romances and flings with credibility, without the exploitation and sensationalism.  Straight men won’t wince.

Rocketman has received mostly positive reviews.  Perhaps this speaks to the evergreen nature of Elton John’s immense musical catalog.  Or maybe, critics rightly perceive this film biography as honest to its subject matter.  Then, there’s Taron Egerton’s magnificent performance.  There are things to like about Rocketman. 

Unfortunately, this marvelous musical journey is marred by unnecessary distractions and way too many voids.  By the final scene where Elton John enters the MTV age and performs what turns out to be the self-prophetic I’m Still Standing, a catchy ripoff of Gloria Gayner’s mega-hit I Will Survive, we’ve gained no added insight as to the man behind the glittery glasses nor his music.  Never mind that I’m Still Standing was written years before Elton John entered rehab in 1990 and had nothing all to do with the recovery process.   Like more than a dozen annoyances in this film, the truth isn’t bent.  It’s broken.

Perhaps the gravest falsehood in the film is an early scene when Elton John is asked by music publisher Dick James what stage name he’ll take for his first record.  On a whim, the young pianist says “Elton”……and then “John” as his eyes wander and fixate on a photograph of John Lennon hanging in James’ London office.  Fact is, Elton John actually took his stage name from London bluesman Long John Baldry.  So, why lie?

Quoting Elton John, the appropriate description of Rocketman is indeed a sad situation:

It’s sad, so sad
It’s a sad, sad situation
And it’s getting more and more absurd.
It’s sad, so sad
Why can’t we talk it over?
Oh, it seems to me
That sorry seems to be the hardest word.

MY RATING:  I give Rocketman 3 stars out of 1o.  This film is a pass, even if you’re a big fan of Elton John’s music.

 

Image result for rocketman movie poster

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Posted by on May 16, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

100 Candles….and Counting: Liberace’s Las Vegas Legend Lives On

 

 

I don’t give concerts.  I put on a show.

— Liberace

 

Last Sunday afternoon at 2 pm, the Windmill Library in Las Vegas offered a free musical performance and verbal retrospective in remembrance of Liberace, the late flamboyant showman-pianist, who died 32 years ago.

I suspect most of us who attended expected perhaps only a few dozen locals might show up.  After all, Liberace disappeared from the Las Vegas stage a very long time ago.  An outdated museum dedicated to his life shuttered in 2010.  So, I wondered with some justification — who remembers Liberace?

Remarkably, “Liberace Lives!” — a celebration of the master showman’s life and music — attracted more than 500 attendees!  About 50 people or so had to be turned away at the door at the performance center.  Come to learn, an identical performance held at another library during the previous day also drew a packed house and an overflow crowd.

For Liberace?

What magic spell is still cast by this campy entertainer who never sang, didn’t compose any significant music, couldn’t dance, never used a light show or had an orchestra and whose entire stage show pretty much consisted of a pudgy aging man with a bouffant hair dew dressed in some absurd costume straight out of the Renaissance while sitting at a piano for what would seem to be an excruciating 90 minutes?

That’s the great mystery I shall attempt to solve in today’s article.

Indeed, the timing is perfect.  Today, Liberace would have been 100-years-old.  He was born Wladziu Valentino Liberace in West Allis, WI on May 16, 1919.  The son of Polish and Italian immigrants, Liberace was known as “Lee” to his friends, and “Walter” to his family.  But later, the performer became better known to millions by the singular name, Liberace, the first American entertainer to establish a popular trend later copied by Madonna, Prince, Pink, and countless icons.

The remembrance held at the library taught me many remarkable things about Liberace.  So, I thought I’d share them now with you.  Here are a dozen facts you probably didn’t know about Liberace:

[1]  During the mid-1950s, Liberace was the highest-paid entertainer in the United States, and perhaps the entire world.  He had a successful nationally-television variety show.  He also earned a whopping $50,000 a week at the Riviera for one Las Vegas’ first extended residencies.  That’s equal to about a million dollars per month in today’s money.

[2]  A decade later, Liberace moved his act over to the more spacious The International showroom (later the Las Vegas Hilton, now the Westgate).  Every one of his shows sold out.  For a time, his opening act was a young female singer named Barbra Streisand.

[3]  Liberace was vilified by critics for his piano playing style and unapologetic showmanship.  He was often accused of being way too glitzy with little musical substance.  Critics noted that he didn’t compose any original music.  Liberace’s counterargument was he brought classical music and old American standards to millions of new listeners.  He’s often credited with demystifying the greatest classical compositions for much broader audiences.  He was one of the first stage performers to completely obliterate siloed musical tastes.  In fact, Liberace included nearly every genre of music in his Las Vegas stage show.

[4]  Liberace had hundreds of fan clubs throughout the world, 200 at one point during the height of his popularity.  Later in his career, his most loyal fans consisted of older women, with whom he had established the oddest of connections.

[5]  Liberace stories are the stuff of legend.  While rehearsing one afternoon for his temporary residency at The New Frontier around 1953, an unknown man observed the virtuoso from the wings offstage.  Liberace wasn’t at all pleased with the lighting and asked the tall man to help with repositioning a few spotlights.  The man silently complied with the pianist’s request.  That man turned out to be Howard Hughes.

[6]  Before morphing into a legend, Elvis Presley was mostly known as a teen idol during the 1950s.  While playing a few shows in Las Vegas, during one night off Elvis attended Liberace’s performance at the Riviera.  He saw the pianist wearing a glittery jacket that was so flashy it completely dominated the showroom.  Elvis was so impressed with the spectacle that he too began wearing sequined jackets in his act and later adopted the flashy jumpsuits that Liberace pioneered as a Las Vegas performer, years earlier.

[7]  Liberace’s stage show became increasingly over the top nearly to the point of self-parody and camp.  He overtly displayed his wealth, fawned over royalty and other celebrities, and even wore heavy fur coats while onstage, despite the bright lights and oppressive Las Vegas heat.  He drove into the showroom while chauffered in the back of a mirrored Rolls Royce (driven by his live-in lover, the boyish Scott Thorson).  Liberace doddered across the stage adorned in a full white mink stole with a tail more than 20 feet long.  As he paraded near the front row of worshippers, Liberace’s stock stage line was “go ahead, have a feel, there’s enough fur there for all of you.”

[8]  Liberace is credited with the famous line, “I laughed all the way to the bank.”  When critics ripped his act and he was asked for a reaction, Liberace frequently slung the revengeful reply.  Later, during an appearance on The Tonight Show in an interview with Johnny Carson, Liberace really stuck it to his critics.  He snapped: “I don’t cry all the way to the bank anymore – I bought the bank!”

[9]  Liberace won a multi-billion dollar defamation suit against a British tabloid after the magazine claimed the pianist was gay in the 50s.  Incredibly, Liberace denied the claim and ultimately won his lawsuit, despite the obvious fact the allegation was true.  While Liberace couldn’t “come out” given the restrictive times and repressive norms of the day, and certainly would never have enjoyed vast success had his homosexuality been widely known, his adoring fans never seemed to care.  Nonetheless, to this day, Liberace remains controversial among gay activists.  He never acknowledged being gay, despite actor Rock Hudson being the far braver as the first Hollywood legend to announce his sexuality months prior to dying of AIDS.  Liberace died in a similar vein, 18 months after Hudson, but still denied being gay until his last dying breath.

[10]  In life and even in death, Liberace was the ultimate contradiction.  He was a flamboyant showman, who lived just as extravagantly while offstage.  Yet, he was devoutly religious and remained a practicing Catholic throughout his entire life.  Liberace was very conservative politically.

[11]  After Liberace’s death, his wealth funded thousands of college scholarships for students interested in pursuing careers in music.  His estate bestowed millions, much of the money going to students in the performing arts at UNLV.  His generous endowment continues to support students and musical programs.

[12]  Liberace’s stage shows often concluded with the most unusual fanfare possible.  He didn’t simply disappear backstage and then leave, as is normal custom.  Rather, after performing his final song, he invited his audience up onto the stage to touch his clothes, sit at his grand piano, and even try on his flashy jewelry.  He posed for tens of thousands of photos with his fans, often with handshakes, hugs, and kisses.

Liberace remains a Las Vegas legend.  He’s a musical icon.  He’s well worth remembering today, on the centennial of his birth.

 

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Posted by on Feb 10, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

Matt Lessinger’s Annual Grammy Awards Analysis and Forecast [2019]

 

 

If you’re a regular reader and not yet up to speed on Matt Lessinger and his expertise on awards shows and analysis, then I’m not sure what else to say.

He’s been introduced here before.  Get with the program.

Let’s skip the usual preamble and get straight to Matt’s thoughts on tonight’s Grammy Awards.  For the record, I know nothing about this year’s music or ceremony, which will air tonight.  The Grammy Awards typically warbles between mesmerizingly great and train wreck awful.  I expect more of the same, tonight.

For those who appreciate the science of handicapping and value great analysis, I urge you to read his thoughts here, which should be valued as a terrific handicapping outlier.   You need not be knowledgable of the music nor interested in the Grammy’s to value the high level of this work — which is why I’m eager to share Matt’s contribution here at my site.

Matt’s e-mail to me reads as follows:

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Hi Nolan:
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Sadly, I’ve looked at the Grammy odds on three different sites, and the best odds were on Bovada each time.  You know the offshore sites are getting worse when Bovada has the best lines!  That’s unfortunate because they are only allowing a max bet of $125. on each category, and I have no idea how they came up with that number, but they are standing firm on that max.  I don’t have the time or the resources to scour for a site with potentially better odds and/or maximums, but if anyone can find one and they are willing to share that information, it would be most appreciated.  In the meantime, the odds listed here can all be found on Bovada at the time of this writeup.
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The most obvious difference from years past is that there are now eight nominees in each category instead of five.  That makes our job a little harder, but there’s still value to be found and money to be made.  The other difference is that the nominees lean way more in the direction of hip hop than in years past. If I had been forced to bet on who this year’s nominees would be, admittedly I would have gotten slaughtered.  For example, if you look at the category for Best Pop Vocal Album, which has six nominees (Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Shawn Mendes), I would have said that each of those albums could easily have landed in the Album of the Year category. Instead, NONE of them were nominated!  For Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande to not have been nominated in an eight-horse field for Album of the Year is downright shocking.  It may signal that the Grammys are going in a new direction.  However, until they prove that they are willing to change the way they hand out the actual winners trophies, we have to assume for betting purposes that they are still the same old Grammys.
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I’m going to list the categories in order of confidence, going from least to most.
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Let’s begin:
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SONG OF THE YEAR
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“Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper is the -300 favorite and will almost certainly win.  There are going to be two themes that repeat themselves throughout the categories.  The first is that there are no standout nominees in any category.  In my humble opinion, “Shallow” is not even a particularly good song, but it may be the best one in this weak field.  The second recurring theme is that we will summarily dismiss any hip-hop nominees, even though there are more than usual this year, until it is shown that they can win the open categories on a more regular basis.  With regard to this category, that eliminates half the field.  Out of the ones that are left, Lady Gaga is the only one with a winning Grammy track record, having won six of them in the past.  “Shallow” is the logical choice, but at -300 it is unplayable.  I’m going to take a complete flyer for a token wager on the longest shot in the field, “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris.  Bombs away!  My simple logic is that it is the only other song in the field that would be considered pop.  On the one hand, the fact that none of the Best Pop Albums were nominated for Album of the Year signals a move away from pop music.  On the other hand, Grammys have always rewarded pop musicians in the open categories, most notably Taylor Swift and Adele in recent years.  “The Middle” might be the only upbeat song in the entire field, and it wouldn’t shock me if some voters gravitate to it just because it sounds uplifting in a sea of comparatively depressing music.
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My play: “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris at 33-1, for a very small wager.  But if you’re willing to lay the heavy wood, you’ll probably win with “Shallow” at -300.
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BEST NEW ARTIST
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When the nominees were announced, my initial reaction was that Dua Lipa would be the odds-on favorite.  Instead, H.E.R. is the -110 favorite and Dua Lipa is +180, and it’s far back to the rest of the field.  Anecdotally speaking, H.E.R. is from Vallejo, CA which is a half hour away from me, and I listen to R&B music, and I had never heard any of her songs before.  Once I listened to her, I had to admit I liked her music quite a bit, and she has a recognizable talent such that she could certainly win.  But her resume doesn’t match up to Dua Lipa, who has already had a #1 song (New Rules) and international radio airplay.  At the given prices, Dua Lipa is definitely the better value play.  It’s hard to summarily dismiss the longshots – someone like Luke Combs or Margo Price could certainly be bombs away at 22-1 – but the problem in this category is that it’s hard to predict which longshot the voters would gravitate towards, so it’s easier to just stick with the proven commodity.
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My play: Dua Lipa at +180
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ALBUM OF THE YEAR
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Disclaimer: As much as I try to keep my personal musical opinions out of this process and stick to cold, hard analysis, sometimes that’s just not possible. This is one of those times.
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Kacey Musgraves is the +120 favorite. I am quite sure a country artist has never been favored in this category for as long as I’ve been following Grammy betting.  To me that signals the weakness with the other nominees more than it signals the strength of her album.  She could certainly win, but there’s no value there.  The 2nd and 3rd choices are the Black Panther album, which is essentially Kendrick Lamar, and then Drake.  Both are hip-hop artists, and so I’ll say the same thing I’ve said every year for the past 15 years: the hip-hop artists who have previously won Album of the Year are Outkast and Lauryn Hill.  That’s it, that’s the list.  If one of them becomes the third member of that list, more power to them, but at +250 and +350 they’re unplayable.  Cardi B and Post Malone are two more hip-hop artists that can even more easily be dismissed.  Brandi Carlile and H.E.R. are the two longest shots on the board, and justifiably so.  Out of the last four nominees I listed, Carlile is the only one who should have any shot at winning due to her career longevity, which is often rewarded in the AOTY category, but sometimes just being nominated is the reward, which is what this feels like.
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That leaves Janelle Monae, who is listed at 6-1 on Bovada, but I’ve seen her as low as 3-1 elsewhere.  Being completely honest, this is more of a hunch play than anything else.  It simply feels like it should be her time.  She is an R&B artist, which has historically been more successful in the open categories than either hip-hop or country.  She has had a musical career spanning almost 15 years, which is more than most of this field can claim.  Prince was an uncredited collaborator on the album, and assuming the voters are aware of that, his recent passing will certainly carry some weight. It was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year.  And finally, inserting my own two cents, this album deserves to win. At 6-1 the value is there.
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My play: Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae at 6-1.
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RECORD OF THE YEAR
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Despite the constant insistence that Song of the Year and Record of the Year are two distinct categories, the same song wins in both categories way too often to be a coincidence. “Shallow” is the -300 favorite for SOTY and will probably win.  So why is it the +160 second choice in this category, and “This is America” by Childish Gambino is the -150 favorite?  I tried to find a logical reason and couldn’t come up with one.  This is the best bet on the board.  I’ll include another token wager on “The Middle” in case it sweeps both categories, but it’s far more likely that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper will get the scoop.
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My play (Best bet): “Shallow” at +160
Token wager: “The Middle” at 22-1
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Good luck to everyone this year!
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Cheers,
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Matt L
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Posted by on Jan 30, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas, Music and Concert Reviews | 2 comments

Going Ga Ga Over Lady GaGa

 

 

Lady Gaga arrives in Las Vegas at the perfect moment for both the city and its newest star.  Let’s hope she shakes things up.

 

Lady Gaga seems intent on being all things to all people, and if her previous track record of success is an indication, she might very well have the gravitas to pull off what would be impossible for anyone lesser.

No singer-songwriter-performer-actress-influencer-icon on the planet is hotter at the moment.  So, it came as quite a shock to find out Lady Gaga is making Las Vegas her temporary residency.  Let’s be honest here — the Las Vegas Strip isn’t the usual first choice for a performer who could sell out any football stadium in the world within mere hours.

Indeed, casino showrooms have typically been the last whistle-stop before being tossed into the heap of the CD bin at the discount dollar store.  It’s where once-great but now-old performers go to die; it’s where one-hit wonders come to make one last fat paycheck before retiring and fading off into artistic oblivion.  Sure, most headliners make Las Vegas a mandatory concert stop on any national tour.  But the prospect of doing dozens, perhaps even hundreds of nightly shows isn’t just excruciatingly repetitive for cutting edge performers.  It’s always been a dead end.  For just about everyone here who’s turned into Wayne Newton, it’s been a set of golden handcuffs — lots of sweet guaranteed money, but with a heavy price.  Las Vegas has always been a creative graveyard.

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