Richard Nisley

Holiday Cheer
Pop Culture Released - Nov 29, 2015

Looking to liven up the Holidays? Here’s seven possibilities:

1 — WINTERSONG (CD/2006) — No one sings the Christmas classics quite like Sarah McLachlan. She dares to be different which I believe is her secret weapon. I particularly like her moody versions of "O Littler Town of Bethlehem," and "I'll Be Home For Christmas." She sings the newer Christmas tunes with insight and conviction--"Happy X-Mas (War is Over)," "Wintersong," the lovely "Song for a Winter's Night" and my favorite, "River."

2 — WE’RE NO ANGELS (DVD/1955) — Charm and black humor make this an unusual but compelling Christmas movie. Great cast, especially Humphrey Bogart, a young Peter Ustinov, and Aldo Ray as three roguish escapees from Devil’s Island who set out to rob a hapless family only to realize the family is in desperate need of their help. You might say the three rogues are stand-ins for the Three Wise Men who come bearing unusual gifts. The family’s store is deeply in debt and they have nothing to look forward to on Christmas Day except eviction from their home by an arrogant and heartless relative who owns the store. The rogues decorate a makeshift Christmas tree, wrap gifts and prepare a festive holiday dinner for the family (from money they’ve swindled from customers). They out-maneuver and outsmart the evil relative (Basil Rathbone) who makes the fatal mistake of stealing their beloved pet, a poisonous snake. Their work finished, the three wisemen, er, escapees, decide they felt safer in prison and return to Devil’s Island in time for the opening of gifts.

3 — MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER CHRISTMAS (CD/1984) — I bought this album when it first appeared in stores, not knowing anything about it. I was drawn to it by the cover graphics and having sensed this was something different and special. I was not disappointed. The world at large was making the same discovery, as the Mannheim Steamroller franchise was about to take off. A few years later, in Chicago during the Holidays, we saw them in concert performing this very music, plus music from "Fresh Aire." The group, dressed like refugees from Sherwood Forest, lived up to their billing. As the world knows, Mannheim Steamroller's sound is unique, a blending of Renaissance-flavored music and spritely synthesizer, flavored with a variety of non-electric instruments--recorder, flute, oboe, hammered dulcimer, classical guitar, lute, harpsichord, horn, cello, and the like. Coupled with Chip Davis' imaginative arrangements, the result was an enchantingly fresh Christmas sound.

4 — A CHRISTMAS CAROLE (DVD/1984) —The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from mean-spirited miser to chastened benefactor is as much a part of the Christmas tradition as mistletoe and holly. Why purchase George C. Scott's performance in this adaption for television? Winter ambiance: it was filmed in wintry Shrewsbury (with St. Paul's Cathedral superimposed on the background, lest we forget we're in London). We can feel the icy cold embracing the city just as we can feel the icy coldness flowing through Scrooge's pallid blood veins. The movie puts us on the streets of frosty London, inside Scrooge's frigid counting house, in the countryside of Scrooge's youth, in the bustling market place on Christmas morning, and with Bob Cratchit and his family inside their cramped Camden Town dwelling. We get to know these people. We become familiar with where and how they live. It's like spending time with some distant, dysfunctional family that, as the story progresses, is transformed by the midnight visitation of three spirits. Is George C. Scott's Scrooge more convincing than Alastair Sim’s classic account? Who cares? While both movies tell the same story, they are quite different in the telling. Scott and Sim are individually brilliant, if not individually quirky in their approach to extraordinarily complex characterizations.

5 — JAMES TAYLOR AT CHRISTMAS (CD/2006) — It seems like every pop singer eventually gets around to making a Christmas album, yet James Taylor’s is special. In my mind, he was the first singer since Judy Garland to fully capture the pathos of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Taylor's subtle, knowing voice--coupled with Dave Grusin's jazz-tinged arrangements--render the familiar fresh and new. I was particularly taken with "In the Bleak Midwinter" and "Some Children See Him." Indeed, having heard "Some Children See Him" by the likes of Andy Williams and Jack Jones, I was impressed with Taylor’s greater depth of feeling. I was also moved by "Who Comes This Night," composed by Grusin especially for this release. Another standout is “River" (a seasonal favorite composed by Joni Mitchell) which Taylor captures perfectly with his distinctive style.

6 — THE FAMILY STONE (DVD/2005) — Can a tightly wound business executive find happiness spending Christmas with her boyfriend’s free-spirited, anything-goes family? No, not as long as she tries to fit in by pleasing everyone. Set in the fictional town of Thayer, Massachusetts, the story focuses on Meredith Morton (Sarah Jessica Parker), a Manhattan executive, and her boyfriend Everett Stone (Dermot Mulroney) who brings her home for the Christmas Holidays to propose marriage. Only the family takes an instant disliking of her, which they try to hide. Meredith senses something’s wrong and makes matters worse by trying to please them. Desperate, she invites her sister Julie (Claire Danes) to come and join her for support. And wouldn’t you know it? The family takes to Julie as one of their own. On top of that, Everett finds himself falling for Julie. Distraught, Meredith attempts to drive off but crashes the car. Can anything be done to rescue what is fast-becoming a disastrous Christmas Holiday? Yes, Everett’s bohemian brother Ben (Luke Wilson) sees through Meredith’s uptight, button-down demeanor. The two end up at a local bar where Ben tells her to stop trying so hard. “It’s exhausting, trying to keep that lid screwed on so tight,” he tells her. “You have a freak flag. You just don’t let it fly.” The family has other problems it turns out, including one that has been kept a secret. Sybil Stone (Diane Keaton), the family's strong-willed matriarch, has inoperable breast cancer and little time left to live. Also, Everett’s younger sister, Amy (Rachel McAdams), who’s been particularly nasty to Meredith, cannot keep a friend—boy or otherwise. Back at the bar, Meredith meets Amy’s ex-boyfriend Brad (Paul Schneider) and invites him to join the family on Christmas morning. Further complications lay in store, including a madcap kitchen brawl. “The Family Stone” is a comedy-drama that captures an American family during the Holidays, aware of its faults but meaning well. Cast includes Craig T. Nelson as the father, who keeps things from getting too crazy.

7 —THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM (CD/2014) — If you're looking for something grand in Holiday music, "The Christmas Album" by conductor Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic is as grand as it gets. Think red carpet, marble columns and Greek statuary. The music is varied and bright, combining movements from various Baroque Christmas concertos, music associated with the Holidays, and familiar Christmas carols featuring soprano Leontyne Price. Composers include Bach, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Vivaldi. Not all of the tunes are expressly about Christmas but very much inspire a festive Holiday mood. The performances are beautifully performed, glorious in their digital sound reproduction, and as enchanting as a yule log burning on the hearth.

Happy Holidays,

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