A new generation returns to Roots, Alex Haley's history-making slavery saga.
by Ken Tucker in Entertainment Weekly
Roots 30th Anniversary Edition LeVar Burton, John Amos
Unrated, 573 mins., 1977
(Warner Home Video)
o watch the ABC miniseries Roots 30 years after its initial broadcast is to be moved, impressed, and dismayed. Moved because this six-part, 12-hour production tells stories of American slavery with actors (then newcomer Burton, stalwarts like Amos, Ben Vereen, and Louis Gossett Jr.) who portrayed agony with subtle strength. Impressed because in bringing author Alex Haley's best-selling book to the small screen, the producers took chances with scenes of violence and uses of harsh language that would probably not be permitted on prime-time TV today. And dismayed because too few of the black actors Roots brought to instant prominence continued to find equally serious work -- plus, those now-startling artistic chances I just mentioned suggest that we've gone backward, not forward, in freedom of expression.
Roots follows the story of a West African youth, Kunta Kinte (Burton), captured and sold into American slavery in the 18th-century South. He is brutalized -- whipped and stripped of his African identity, named "Toby" -- but he survives. The adult Kunta Kinte (Amos) marries; his daughter, Kizzy (singer-actress Leslie Uggams), eventually bears a son, known as Chicken George (Vereen). In the concluding moments, Kunta Kinte's great-grandson, Tom (Georg Stanford Brown), joins the Union Army and is ultimately emancipated.
Roots' inital impact seemed enormous. As the DVD set's numerous featurettes and commentaries tell us, it was unprecedented for a mini-series with such a large black cast to garner the huge ratings Roots did, over the course of eight consecutive nights (itself a programming innovation). Much of Roots now seems melodramatic and overwrought. But, boy, if any producer today -- especially a white one like executive producer David L. Wolper -- tried to depict nudity and rape, or to have characters repeatedly use the N-word, all in the name of realism, he or she would probably become an instant pariah. How much more unsophisticated we've become, unwilling to distinguish between well-intentioned moralizing (which Roots did) and exploitation (which it didn't do).
There's not much in the new material included with this four-disc edition that cannot be found on the 25th-anniversary set, with one big exception: a fascinating mini-doc called "Crossing Over: How Roots Captivated an Entire Nation." Here, Haley's own son, William, criticizes Roots for not being "culturally competent" or "as hard-hitting as it could have been." Wolper says sorrowfully that, proud as he is of his effort, he doesn't think Roots changed much in our society or improved the plight of black actors seeking worthy roles. Roots endures as a reminder of challenges thrown down, and of how many more remain. B
The Pop of King
Famed horror novelist (and amateur musician) Stephen King's summer music listening list.
by Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly
o I run into one of my Constant Readers and -- everybody's a critic -- the guy says, "Your column's suckin' out lately, Steve. You're losin' your edge." My first impulse is to tell him I have a cozy place where he can put my column, but since he looks like a recently retired Hell's Angel, I rethink this option. Instead I ask him what he thinks would make a good piece.
"Best rock songs of all time," he says. "That subject always starts arguments, expecially if you don't put 'Stairway' on there."
I realized he was right. Especially since the idea of putting "Stairway to Heaven" on such a list grosses me out. So I decided to take my biker buddy up on his idea. Twenty-four great songs, one for every hour of the day, picked by the Infallible Me.
I began by throwing out most of those Internet lists, because they're full of ballads ("Tears in Heaven" as rock & roll? Oh, really?), soul ("When a Man Loves a Woman" is a great song but it's not rock), and tunes that have been played to death. There's also an amazing number of draggy songs on the lists, like "Hotel California." When would I like to hear that one again? Uh... how does never work for you?
I also eliminated all disco. I love Thelma Houston's "Don't Leave Me This Way" (plus everything by KC and the Sunshine Band, sue me), but it ain't rock & roll.
The stuff that hasn't stood the test of time went out too. When "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" or "Born to Be Wild" comes on my car radio (which is, by the way a NO SUPREMES ZONE), I break my fingers switching the station. These songs have nothing new to say to me. The songs on the list that follows always have something new to say. So, with no further introduction, THE 24 GREATEST ROCK SONGS EVER MADE.
They really are. Trust your Uncle Stevie on this.
24."In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida," Iron Butterfly Only the long version counts. Which you can't get on iTunes, curse them. 23."Dead Flowers," The Rolling Stones Their finest rock-and-country fusion. 22."Needles and Pins," The Searchers The epitome of folk rock. 21."I Get Around," The Beach Boys Pretty white-bread, but unlike the odious "Kokomo," it has stood the test of time. 20."On the Dark Side," John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band Still smokin' after all these years. Simple and cool. 19."You Can Never Tell," Chuck Berry The father of us all. And whoa! The whole story of true love and happy marriage in two and a half minutes? Can't argue with that. 18."I Want to Help You Ann," The Lyres The best stalker rock song ever. Listen to it once and you'll never bother with "Every Breath You Take" again. 17."Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress," The Hollies Should get old, but somehow never does. 16."Don't Be Cruel," Elvis Presley Total bebop testifying. Brian Setzer would sell his soul to do this. 15."Ain't No Fun (Waiting Round to be a Millionaire)," AC/DC The quintessential AC/DC hook... played over... and over... and over. 14."Sixty Minute Man," The Dominoes Basic Dirty boogie boasting, 1950s style. What could be finer? 13."Mass. Ave.," Willie Alexander Rattle-box guitar and the weirdest male falsetto ever laid down; it's Boston punk at its best. 12."The Girl Can't Help It," Little Richard Can you imagine this guy on American Idol? The mind boggles. 11."She Loves You," The Beatles I've said it before and I'll say it again: It's the best Beatles track because it gets in, does its business, and gets back out again. 10."A Big Hunk o'Love," Elvis Presley Almost eclipsed by Elvis' screaming vocal is the rock era's best barrelhouse piano. 9."Bip Bop Boom," Mickey Hawks Under two minutes and still the greatest rockabilly record ever made. 8."Let's Have a Party," Wanda Jackson That raspy, frantic vocal has never been equaled. Ms. Jackson makes Beyoncé look like Britney. 7."New Orleans," Gary U.S. Bonds Terrific recorded-in-a-bathroom reverb, insanely danceable backbeat. Earl Swanson's sax is the Special Bonus Feature. 6."Ramrod," Bruce Springsteen His cleanest, coolest, purest track. To quote Mr. Berry, his guitar rings like a bell. 5."C'Mon Everybody," Eddie Cochran The apocalyptic call of the teenage male: Dude, let's party. And screw the consequences. 4."Stupid Cupid," Connie Francis Don't argue; the vocal is hotter than a pistol, and it's the best clap track ever. Stupid cupid, stop pickin' on me: Ay-men. 3."Mystery Dance," Elvis Costello It's 1:35, but how much angry, frustrated sex can you take? 2."Burning Love," Elvis Presley He saved the best for last. Lawd-a-mighty, I feel my temperature rising. 1."Anarchy in the U.K.," The Sex Pistols This song still sums up what I love about rock & roll: anger and joy and urgency, all compressed into three and a half minutes of drums and buzz-saw guitar. By God, even the name of the group sweats rock & roll.
So that's my list. Got a problem with it, drop me a line at EW.com. I'll be glad to listen to your tale of woe.
(One Year Later) My Real Top 20
ny amateur musicologist can make a top 20 list; I did myself, not so long ago, and I'm still hearing from people who feel that putting Connie Francis' "Stupid Cupid" on a list of the best rock songs ever was an act of insanity. Then it occurred to me that I had a less subjective source for such a list, and that was my very own iTunes library. iTunes is really nothing but a great big computer jukebox, and -- like the jukes that always sat in the coffee shops and soda fountains of my misspent youth, bubbling colored lights and pumping out the beat -- it keeps track of every song it plays. So here's another list, not of songs I claim I like, but ones I actually play when I'm working, pretending to work, or just goofing around. It's your Uncle Stevie's real top 20, in all its naked truth. And you may be relieved to find Connie Francis is not on it. The number in parentheses is the number of plays.
20."Rock Your Baby," George McCrae (19): Divine falsetto, the spirit of '70s soul, and music to have sexy daydreams by. 19."No Place Like the Right Time," Donna the Buffalo (22): The Buffalo is an alt-country group, and here, lead singer Tara Nevins sounds like the second coming of Stevie Nicks. 18."City of the Damned," The Gothic Archies (23): Let's-all-kill-ourselves despair set to a bubblegum beat. How can you not like this? 17."The Bug," Dire Straits (24): A philosophy lesson in four minutes ("Sometimes you think you're the windshield/Sometimes you're the bug"), with Mark Knopfler's snappy -- and often amusing -- licks. 16."La Cienega Just Smiled," Ryan Adams (25): Strange, rich imagery from one of alt-country's most gifted songwriters. 15."Candida," Tony Orlando and Dawn (25): Okay, I hear you sniggering. But before you write me that nasty note you have in mind, give another listen to this pop-calypso confection, which always sounds to me like a lost Jimmy Buffett song. 14."Wave on Wave," Pat Green (26): An exuberant alt-country anthem that suggests that love can sometimes be salvation. Do you want to argue with that? I don't. 13."If You Wanna Get to Heaven," The Ozark Mountain Daredevils (27): With all apologies to Bob Dylan, here's the best rock & roll harmonica ever, and a refrain -- "If you wanna get to heaven/You got to raise a little hell" -- straight from Party Central. 12."Treat Her Right," Los Straightjackets with Mark Lindsay (27): This remake of Roy Head's 1965 soul hit smokes. And Mark Lindsey (once lead vocalist of Paul Revere & the Raiders) sounds so good you just gotta wonder where he was all those years. 11."Too Late To Turn Back Now," Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose (28): With a mellow backbeat and swooping string section, this is one of the prettiest, most heartfelt soul songs ever. I put it in Lisey's Story as the first dance at a wedding reception. 10."Yeah (Pretentious Mix)," LCD Soundsystem (28): Hypnotic. I think that pretty much says it. 9."Wild, Wild West," Escape Club (29): Infectious dance track laced with funny S&M lyrics ("She's so mean, but I don't care"). And a lot of cowbell. 8."California Stars," Billy Bragg & Wilco (30): This is from an album of "rediscovered" Woody Guthrie songs (Mermaid Avenue). Bragg is the album's terrific featured artist, but this song is all about Jeff Tweedy's sweet, slightly weary vocal. 7."Alabama Song," Allison Moorer (33): Every time I hear Ms. Moorer's voice -- almost as pure as Judy Collins' -- I close my eyes for a minute, shut the world out, and just listen. For me, this song is her best. 6"Good Lovin'," The Young Rascals (34): I sometimes think I'll shoot myself if I hear "Groovin'" or "A Beautiful Morning" again, but I never tire of this rave-up. 5."CB Song," Th' Legendary Shack Shakers (35): I first heard a snatch of this on a Geico insurance ad. You could say, "Just a long-haul trucker looking for love." I say, "What a great soundtrack for doing it." 4."Castanets," Alejandro Escovedo (38): I've written about this insanely cool rock song before. Basically, it's "Brown Sugar" for the 21st century. 3."0394413," Beau Jocque & the Zydeco Hi-Rollers (49): This is from the live album Git It, Beau Jocque!, and it's basically the announcement of a winning lottery ticket: extemporaneous lyrics set to a kick-ass beat. Fifty-one seconds long, hilarious, and completely surreal. 2."Going to a Go-Go," Smokey Robinson & the Miracles (51): I downloaded this song after hearing the Stones' cover. It's a great cover, but nothing beats this monster jam with its driving backbeat. 1."Tube Snake Boogie," ZZ Top (59): It's rude, childishly dirty, and simple to the point of stupidity, but I never tire of those tight, fuzzed-out guitars. I could listen all day, and as you see, some days I almost have.
So there's my list of the real top 20. The computer does not lie.