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What 'Boardwalk Empire' really does right: American pop's salad days

September 21, 2010 |  2:11 pm

Boardwalkempire23 I love the golden age of appointment television. I was a lifelong surfer, jumping between cooking shows and "Law and Order"  reruns in a vain attempt to avoid being told what probiotic to buy, until our DVR made it possible for me to select the few, the proud, the Emmy-nominated shows that feel like serial films for the jaded, over-educated consumer. "Mad Men"!  "True Blood"! "Glee"! And now there's "Boardwalk Empire," HBO's latest attempt to give Netflix a run for its money with high production values, big names, and an addictive storyline.

Sunday I tuned in to the first episode of this bank-busting journey back to the days of bathtub gin and Ziegfeld girls. I agree with my esteemed colleague Robert Lloyd that the pilot was not the perfect H&H bagel --  toothsome surface plus chewy center, a substantial narrative meal -- but more of a pre-sliced La Brea Bakery loaf. Still, one thing stood out, beyond the classic Scorsese montages and the pleasure of watching Steve Buscemi wrinkle his brow.

The music!

"Boardwalk Empire" is blessed with one of the great music supervisors: Randall Poster, who worked with Todd Haynes on my favorite music film of all time, the glamtastic Velvet Goldmine, one highlight on a stunning resume that also includes "School of Rock," "Rushmore," "I'm Not There," "The Aviator" and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." Poster has described working on "Boardwalk Empire" as musical archaeology, as he and his team of archivists and musicians dig up and sometimes re-create the sound of the period's nickelodeons, vaudeville stars and hot jazz bands.

The pilot included hits from some major stars of the era, like Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor (the man known as "banjo eyes" was portrayed, performing in whiteface, by Stephen DeRosa). The gangster Big Jim Colosimo was floridly murdered as a recording by Enrico Caruso, the tenor who was arguably the first international recording star, played on his gramophone. And of course, the unavoidable Al Jolson got his moment: his (relatively) wistful "Avalon" played in the background as Buscemi's Nucky contemplated his future as reflected in a fortune-teller's window.

Then there's the less easily identifiable stuff, which, given the lack of a Glee-style instant iTunes anthology (or even a song list on the Boardwalk Empire homepage) calls for a good old-fashioned archival dig. I've been trolling the Internet since Sunday, trying to figure out just what string quartet played while Nucky and the gangster elite had their first big summit, and which rags got the partygoers jumping in the casino scenes. Mere Google searches didn't offer much beyond talk of the music used in the trailer -- cuts from Jack White and Allison Mosshart's band the Dead Weather and the semi-legendary psych-rock outfit the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

So I reached out to some of my pals who've made an avocation of burying their heads in pop's dustiest crates. Crack gumshoes, they came through with a few ID's. The writer and early recording aficionado Jody Rosen pointed me toward Tucker's 1915 cylinder recording of "Some of These Days" and to the slide-whistling "Whispering," by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, from 1920. The composer and sax player Andrew Raffo Dewar called out the "Fascination" waltz, a song with a long international history. Barry Mazor, author of a great book on Jimmie Rodgers, was the one who reminded me that Eddie Cantor often performed in whiteface.

Allen Lowe, the man behind several exhaustive, amazing anthologies of early pop and jazz, reminded me that the Archeophone label and Sony's Art Deco series are good places to start exploring music from this period. The musician, writer and philosophy prof Franklin Bruno pointed me toward a few online resources, including UC Santa Barbara's cylinder preservation and digitization project, and a more homespun one run by collector Jim Lavelle.

Bruno also performs some of this vintage music with his lovely companion Bree Benton -- their material is, as he writes, "more on the pathetic ballad/parlor song side." "Poor Baby Bree" is a very funny heartstring puller, and her ouevre will likely pop up on "Boardwalk Empire" as the subplot involving the abused and now widowed immigrant Margaret Schroeder picks up steam.

I'm hoping that "Boardwalk Empire" will inspire a rash of musical treasure hunts, leading viewers back to the insanely rich musical milieu at the dawn of the recording age. It's not always easy for contemporary ears to absorb the broad singing style of superstars like Tucker and Jolson, but once your ears get acclimated, you'll realize that this material is not just a novelty -- it's the foundation for pop as it's evolved over the next century, as sexy and funny and dazzlingly musical as anything you have on your MP3 player right now.

"Boardwalk Empire" might or might not become the riveting gangster drama that "Sopranos" fans want it to be, but merely by opening up this musical world to an unsuspecting public, it's contributed more than most appointment television can offer. Let's hope that as we move deeper into the Jazz Age, the show gives us more of that sweet, hot, surprisingly risky stuff.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Paz de la Huerta. Credit: Abbot Genser / HBO

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