When we think of Jackson Browne and benefits, giant, arena-sized shows during the “No Nukes” era come to mind. But these days, he’s curating an annual Academy Awards week benefit concert on the opposite end of the intimacy and/or protest-song scale. Saturday night he served as the driving force behind an Oscars-eve “Songs from the Cinema” show in Hollywood that had Adam Sandler, T Bone Burnett, Rufus Wainwright, and others performing movie theme songs at a tiny club in Hollywood.
For Browne, the occasion represented a chance to be as socially conscious as ever — the show was a benefit for Artists for Peace and Justice, which funds educational institutions in Haiti — and to be thematically duty-bound to sing the song that everyone wants to hear even more than “Lives in the Balance”: “Somebody’s Baby,” the song that was absolutely robbed of an Oscar after it debuted in 1982’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
Sandler appeared in the penultimate position in the show, befitting his superstar Hollywood status, but he was in a precarious position for a non-musician after two hours of performances by musicians as legendary as the guitarist Bill Frisell. He was the first to acknowledge that: “I agree, I shouldn’t be here,” the actor said as his opening remark. “Everybody’s been amazing. I really feel bad. This is a big, big mistake.” Sandler mentioned that he’d grown up with the dream of making it as a guitarist, then “went to college, saw everyone else playing, and I decided to be a comedian.”
So how does Sandler fare on the scale of famous-actors-as-musicians, which ranges from Steve Martin turning out to be one of America’s great banjo players on one end, to Johnny Depp jumping on stage with his guitar not necessarily plugged in on the other? Surprisingly, perhaps, given his multiple mea culpas, more toward the creditable end of the spectrum, actually. Singing and playing lead guitar on “Breakdown,” for somebody whose primary skill was never as an impressionist, Sandler did a pretty decent job of sounding just like Tom Petty and Mike Campbell. He sounded a little less like Mick in next taking on “Beast of Burden” but still did the Stones’ classic more than reasonable justice.
For anyone wondering where exactly those two rock songs fit into the pantheon of famous movie music, Sandler was the first to concede that he was playing fast and loose with the rules for the evening. Of “Breakdown,” he said, “It’s legal. It was in a movie. Did you see ‘Cherish’?” he said to Browne, who shook his head no. Sandler, neither, “but I heard it was the highlight of the movie.” Moving on to the Stones’ tune, he deadpanned, “This is from a great, great movie, ‘Christine.’ It was a scary movie, and then ‘Beast of Burden’ came on. Oh yeah, (it was in) ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ and four or five others. The Stones just needed some cash.”
Burnett, who has rarely performed since veering into producer mode, was an unannounced surprise guest, singing Bob Dylan’s Oscar winner of 17 years ago, “Things Have Changed” (from “Wonder Boys”). Since the song has, in characteristic Dylan style, four very wordy verses, Burnett had the help of lyrics on a music stand for his recitation of what is still the only non-balladic rock song ever to win an Academy Award. Burnett could have performed his own Oscar-winning song, if he’d wanted (he won nine years ago for co-writing a song from “Crazy Heart). But Burnett wisely chose his pal’s tune, which, with lyrics like “People are crazy and times are strange,” is in no danger of becoming dated.
Wainwright turned in one of the bravura performances of the show, following “Paper Moon” with “Alfie.” Following a mention of how he’d tried to get the latter song’s composer, Burt Bacharach, to come join him at the show (“He said, ‘Rufus, hold on, I’ve got Elvis Costello on the other line’ — some things never change”), the now salt-and-pepper-bearded singer turned his attention to the president, whom he didn’t call out by name, following the lead of others during the evening.
“I like tonight how we’re not mentioning the asshole in the room — of the world — a lot, and that’s good,” said Wainwright. “But I do feel in singing this song, this could actually be about you-know-who, in a strange way. And I think that that person kind of thinks he’s living in this movie, basically. He thinks he’s Alfie. Think about it. Or don’t think about it at all. Erase that mind from your thought.” The singer then proceeded through a lovely, straightforward version of the ballad (which lost the Oscar in 1966)… except for the moment in which he followed the line “Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie” by mimicking the sound of a bomb exploding.
Current politics may have also played a part in the choice of Petra Haden and Bill Frisell to sing David Bowie’s “This is Not America” — or “When You Wish Upon a Star,” for that matter — although, if so, they left it unmentioned.
Similarly, Browne did not mention any elephants in the room before possibly subtweeting the administration by singing the immigration-themed “Across the Borderline,” written by Ry Cooder and John Hiatt for the increasingly relevant 1982 Jack Nicholson vehicle, “The Border.”
The socially or racially conscious side of the Academy’s choices was emphasized when the African-American singers Sharlotte Gibson, Alethea Mills, and Chavonne Stewart stirringly teamed up for this year’s nominee “Mighty River,” originally sung and co-written by Mary J. Blige, and the Oscar winner of three years ago, “Glory,” joined by Khamal Iwuanyanwu on the latter to recreate Common’s award-winning rap.
A few selections didn’t let words get in the way at all: Guitarist Blake Mills did a soulful instrumental take on Santo & Johnny’s 1959 “Sleep Walk” (deemed eligible here by its inclusion decades later in “La Bamba”). Impressively, Haden wailed on Nino Rota’s vocally oriented but wordless “Carlotta’s Gallop,” from “8½” (which she’d recorded for an entire album of film themes, “Petra Goes to the Movies”).
The first spontaneous standing ovation of the night belonged to a young woman who’s been described as “the world’s greatest whistler,” Molly Lewis, who masterfully blew her way through Ennio Morricone’s “For a Few Dollars More” theme, then Bernard Hermann’s “Twisted Nerve,” best known for its appropriation decades later in “Kill Bill.”
Other selections in the all-standouts show included “The Rainbow Connection” by ex-“Dallas” actress Deborah Rennard, who offered a shout-out to ex-husband Paul Haggis (the recently resigned founder of Artists for Peace and Justice) for “his vision” in starting the org; Simone Baker, the 12-year-old “Gook” star, doing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (pictured below); Z Berg channeling gamine Audrey Hepburn for “Moon River”; a pair of unknown, virtuoso stand-up bassists Browne found through the Monk Institute, Carlitos del Puerto and Benjamin Shepherd, to play double-bass lead on Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” (as heard over the end credits in Robert Altman’s “Kansas City”); Browne accompanying Leslie Mendelson on his own very early “These Days” (eligible as a movie song via the Nico cover on the “Fabulous Tenenbaums” soundtrack); frequent Browne backer Val McCallum, reprising his Beau Shit character from the country sendup band Jackshit, crooning “Blazing Saddles” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky”; and a closing sing-along of “The Harder They Come,” which appropriately ended a benefit for Haiti with an actual star from that country, Paul Beaubrun. (The six-piece Hot Club of Los Angeles did all the backing, as adept at reggae, hard rock, and Tex-Mex as doing their signature Django swing.)
The evening was introduced by APJ board members Susan Sarandon and Olivia Wilde (joined in the audience by husband Jason Sudeikis). Haitian actor and “Heroes” star Jimmy Jean-Louis took over much of the hosting, pausing as he strained not to refer to the American president’s name while alluding to recent remarks about the hole-ishness of his native country. A video presentation about the work APJ is doing with a high school and an artists’ institute in Haiti made the case that, image and recent calamity aside, Haiti is a country that merits being thought of in first-world terms.
Organizers of “Songs of the Cinema,” now in its second year, have asked the media to refrain from mentioning the venue for the event, having the good problem of already having too many people who want to get in. Donors who got their significant money’s worth at this year’s show could hardly be blamed for wanting to keep it in an intimate space in years to come. There’s also a case to be made that, with Jackson Browne turning out to be the curator of any film-music geek’s dreams, a show this delightful merits being seen by a Largo- or even Royce Hall-sized audience.