Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bill Murray Channels Bing & Frank for a Very Merry Christmas

There's no doubt: My Christmas spirits have been sagging. There is so very much pain in the world, it has taken my blogging voice away.

And then. I finally watched A Very Murray Christmas on Netfilx, and it woke me up, just in time. It spoke to my DNA, and with that connection I realized that I can't help the world at large. But I can be "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knows or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Thanks Bill.

A Very Murray Christmas is a touchstone to my childhood. I know what he's doing with his 57 minutes, and it is not self-indulgent, the word I saw most often in reviews.

In the Beginning, There was Bing Crosby
Yes, I am a Bill Murray fan, from Caddyshack on. And I was weened on 1940s movies. When Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn was on WOR, Channel 9 in the 1970s, my father--a lifelong Crosby fan--said, "this is important you need to watch this." And I found it stunning. The towering talents of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, set against the glamour of NY nightclub life with those glittering white Christmas trees, was intoxicating. In high school I made my friends sit and watch it with me, and they were glad. High schoolers. In the 1970s.

Fast forward some decades: When I finally watched A Very Murray Christmas, I was immediately connected back to my Crosby heritage, which of course included every Crosby Christmas special from the early 1970s until his death, and his famous Christmas songs. No stretch there, since Murray used the most famous Crosby album graphic directly. (Although I think Bill looks oddly like Derek Jacobi here.)

But the Crosby specials aren't the most direct connection for me: instead it was to a special episode of Frank Sinatra's short-lived The Frank Sinatra Show, for Bulova, called Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank. The premise is that Bing Crosby is dropping by Frank's very chic apartment with some gifts.  The banter is scripted. Sometimes awkward (sound familiar?) while sometimes it's cool:

Crosby "Hey this must be in your key."
Sinatra:  "Well it's my ballpark."

They drink from a Wassail bowl in a visual quote of "Did You Evah" from The Philadelphia Story, and become inebriated enough to see Ye Old Merrie England outside the high-rise door. And they both enter this alternate universe (sound familiar?) in Dickensian costume to join in with the carolers. (To see Crosby wear a Dickensian top hat atilt is alone worth the price of admission.)

1957 friends get together; 1957 friends enter alternate reality.

2015 friends get together; 2015 friends enter an alternate reality.

Frank and Bing then return to 1957, and Bing thinks he needs to leave because Sinatra's table is set for an intimate dinner for two, which then Frank says is for him! (Not a date!).

This allows the duo to continue to sing Christmas songs solo and in duet, until Frank graciously gives the Bing the closing spotlight for "White Christmas." It's a lovely reminder that Sinatra idolized Crosby, even though he was to surpass him in cultural relevance. For sensibilities that love that classic singing, the 27-minute special is sublime.

Bill and His Friends
Many critics found Murray's special lazy at best, self-indulgent at the least. But the vision of combining famous friends playing themselves with others playing characters is neither. It's creative.

The premise of the live show is right out of the Mitch Glazer/Murray collaboration of Scrooge. It continues Murray's homage to the early days of live TV, something that Clooney is also interested in, bringing the 1962 film Fail-Safe live to CBS in 2000, as well as being in the live ER episode "Ambush" in 1997. There is no sense of parody here for Murray, it is a tip of the hat to TV's past.

Bill Murray, both the actor/singer and the "character," would not have the same kind of 1950s polish that we see in Crosby and Sinatra. That's not who he is. But I think he brought his own A game: his echoes of Nick Ocean lounge singer & Lost in Translation's Bob Harris, with some redeemed Frank Cross. So the tone is mixed but always genuine. That is part of its charm.

Murray and Glazer & Sofia Coppola capture the ersatz exuberance of "the Christmas special of Christmases past" beautifully with the chic sparkling white set and snow and cute chorus girl costumes. George "you shook Sinatra's hand" Clooney is the perfect friend to be in the dream sequence. He also has enormous respect and nostalgia for old Hollywood and early TV, which can be easy to mock.

Quick Music Nit-Pick Interlude
Paul Shaffer, musician extraordinaire, allowed two goofs on his watch:

•Jenny Lewis starts "Good King Wenceslas" and commits the age-old error of reading the 3 syllables of his name as though he "last" did something.

It's "Good King Wen-ce-las looked out."  NOT "Good King Wence-las LAST looked out."

•Having Miley Cyrus sing 2 verses of "Silent Night" and then sing the first verse AGAIN instead of the exquisite third verse is a gaff. She did a beautiful job.

One funny thing in 1957. They altered the words of the 2nd verse of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" so that they did not have to say "a Virgin's womb."

CHRIST, by highest Heav'n ador'd; CHRIST, the Everlasting Lord; Late in Time behold him come; Offspring of a Virgin's Womb the favored one.

Big Finish: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Bill wakes up from his glorious blackout to find himself on the couch, in his robe, with faithful Paul at the piano and Dimitri Dimitrov on call. He sings "We wish you a Merry Christmas" in his alcohol-wrecked voice. Then looks out the window to wish the greeting to all New York in a poignant, sad, grey shot.

Bing and Frank end their tableau sitting down to a festive dinner together as the camera pans back to a window with snow a-swirling, a shot right out of Holiday Inn.

Big difference between 1957 and 2015. In part, perhaps, because men, and I do mean the male gender, are now free to show their fears in a way Crosby and Sinatra would never have dreamed of.  And 2015 does not have the post-war optimism that the 1950s saw.

But what is most important is that we can still enjoy Bing & Frank's talent, and if you're in more of a Joni Mitchell "River" mood, pop into Bill's Very Murray Christmas. So many riches. God bless us, every one.

Happy Holidays With Bing and Frank (Classic) from Dill Bates on Vimeo.