I learned most of my Space Race history from The Right Stuff, Philip Kaufman’s excellent epic about the test pilots and first astronauts who propelled us into space. The movie is classic American hagiography, in which a bunch of brave white men risk life and limb for the glory of the flag. It’s mostly accurate, though in adapting Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name, liberties are taken. But even Wolfe’s book, a massive bestseller and over 400 pages long, doesn’t mention the dramatic and important role that Katherine G. Johnson, in particular, had in the success of John Glenn’s historical orbit around the Earth.
Johnson not only made many of the key calculations involved in Glenn’s unprecedented flight (with one done in very dramatic fashion), but she did it as a woman, a black woman and a black woman in 1963. It’s possible Wolfe didn’t know about Johnson. But Margot Lee Shetterly, who wrote Hidden Figures, the book about black women involved in the early space program, has pointed out that Johnson’s role is clearly in the raw records at NASA; it just didn’t make it into either version of The Right Stuff. With the delightful, crowd-pleasing film version of Shetterly’s book, it will be impossible for her to remain hidden in the record.
In the film, Taraji P. Henson plays Katherine G. Johnson, a childhood math prodigy who works in the “colored computer” department at NASA. She carpools with two of her coworkers, Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer and Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monáe. Before everyone owned plastic computers made by IBM or Apple, a “computer” referred to people who did the math. In the early days of NASA, there was a pool of black computers and a pool of white computers. It shouldn’t be surprising that in the early 1960s, the colored computers had limited opportunities for advancement and suffered numerous indignities because of their race and gender.
Katherine is shown to be the meekest and nerdiest of the group, if also the smartest; when Dorothy is asked who of the computers that she supervised (in practice, if not by the title “supervisor”) could handle the math for launch trajectories, she immediately points to Katherine. Dorothy is older, ambitious and constantly fighting for recognition. She’s a little snarky under her breath, but Mary is snarky in full voice. Beautiful and, of course, brilliant, Mary throws out one wise quip after another, but thankfully her smart talk doesn’t get her in too much trouble. Eventually, when she uses her wit carefully, she gets her heart’s desire.
The three women struggle and face set-backs, but except for one brief moment on a blurry black-and-white TV screen, the kind of trouble we’re used to seeing in films like Selma or 12 Years a Slave is wholly absent from Hidden Figures. Numerous injustices and moments of discrimination are shown, but it is the petty humiliation of black women being forced to use separate bathrooms that ends up standing in for the totality of structural racism. This is a PG film after all, and that’s fine: This is a movie about civil rights that you can take your eight-year-old to, and that’s a fantastic thing.
These kids and their parents are lucky, too. Director Theodor Melfi perfectly balances history, humor and sentimentality. Henson, Spencer and Monáe are all wonderful, seamlessly moving from light comedy to deep-and-meaningful drama. This is the bailiwick of both Spencer, who won an Oscar for The Help, and Henson, who was Oscar nominated for The Curious Case of BenjaminButton and has become a star in the high-camp soap opera Empire. Monáe is an R&B star who has only two acting credits (Hidden Figures and Moonlight), but she more than holds her own against her much more experienced co-stars, stealing every scene. Monáe, like Mary, refused to stay hidden.
Directed by Theodore Melfi
Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IX15Le48jLs]“The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” by Tegan and Sara. I heard this on NPR last week in a review of the Christmas song collection Gift Wrapped II: Snowed In. I think the songwas meant to be twee, but Tegan and Sara’s somewhat flat delivery makes it just creepy. Granted, it’s not as creepy or wrong as the entire oeuvre of the Chipmunks.
Most Excellence in Creepy Topical-But-True-ness
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uelHwf8o7_U]“Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem and Rihanna. The 2010 “My Name Is Luka,” “Love the Way You Lie” became the Official Serious Song of the Year by being, yes, insanely catchy and well-made and about domestic violence, but also by having the current most famous victim of domestic violence sing the hook. Rihanna, who thankfully has emerged by her poisonous relationship with Chris Brown as an even bigger and better star, sings that searing, haunting chorus with way too much wink and wisdom. Watching her do it in the extraordinary and oddly hot (heh) video makes it clear she knows exactly what she’s doing and what it all means. Also, Eminem’s rapping on this song is fucking awesome.
Most Excellent Use of the Words “Ohio” and “Bees” in a Lyric
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfySK7CLEEg]“Bloodbuzz Ohio” by The National. “I was carried to Ohio in a swarm of bees” is simply one of the great lyrics ever. I have no idea what this song is about, and the video is just as opaque. Two of the comments on YouTube discuss possibilities: “The director’s instructions appear to have been ‘act like you’re 70 and maybe a little bit drunk.'” And: “Private eye Matt sets out to solve the murder of a wealthy heiress but gets distracted by a lovely park, some booze and a neat song. Finally he’s fired from the case and does a little dance.” “Bloodbuzz Ohio” is my favorite song on The National’s “High Violet,” which came out this year and didn’t do what “Boxer” had a few years ago. It underwhelmed, mostly because, I think, it didn’t take the band anywhere new. It’s good, but it’s not a revelation.
Most Excellence in Autotune for Good
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbZcYy6AAGg]“Umbrella/Singin’ In the Rain” by the Cast of Glee, but mostly Gwyneth Paltrow and Matthew Morrison. Aside from being inconsistent in its quality, and inconsistent in its characterizations, perhaps the biggest complaint about Glee is the extraordinary overuse of autotune to correct the pitch of the majority of the singers and their singing. I assume that this is done mostly because there simply isn’t enough rehearsal time to get these songs right; they’re making a 40-minute musical in 10 days, and that’s hard work. Of course, the seasoned Broadway pros like Lea Michelle, Matthew Morrison, and guest stars like Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel don’t sound like they’ve been altered. They can sing on pitch at will. But not so much Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, and guest stars like Gwyneth Paltrow. Some people loathed Gwyneth’s episode, but I’m with the many who loved it. And I loved what they did with this number. It’s ingenious, even if it is mostly an engineering marvel.
Most Excellence in Using Autotune for Evil
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cn1XTUyzBB0]Taylor Swift. All you need to know about how much of Taylor Swift’s actual voice appears on her recordings can be found in this terrifying live performance, a duet with a clearly astonished Stevie Nicks. I won’t embed an actual Taylor Swift song, because they make my head hurt.
Most Excellence in Not Being But Sounding A Lot Like the Strokes
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qY–Yu4kzz0]“Animal” by Neon Trees. When I first heard this song, I thought that the Strokes had gotten back together and started working with Dr. Luke or something. It’s super poppy but the lead singer sounds like Julian Casablancas and the guitars are soooo New York in 2001. Rockin’.
Most Excellence in Gummy Bears, Whipped Cream, and Snoop Dogg
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F57P9C4SAW4]“California Gurls” by Katy Perry. I loathed Katy Perry, and then this song warmed my heart. Even though it’s pretty clear that the real California is not much of a dream anymore, this insanely joyful, giddy, ridiculous song just makes me happy. And there’s the video. WTF. Dancing gummy bears, whipped cream cone bras, and a pimped out Snoop Dogg make it one of the more ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. I have no idea what the Candyland stuff has to do with California, but whatevs.
Most Excellence in Channeling James Brown
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pwnefUaKCbc]“Tightrope” by Janelle Monae. This is the best dance video in, like, forever. Well, okay, since “Single Ladies,” which really isn’t that long ago. But this is a much more populist video; it’s about dancing for your life and your sanity, while “Single Ladies” is about Beyonce and her backup dancers being amazing. I mean: Dude. Look at them go. You just gotta love Miss Monae. Her album is a schizophrenic wonder-wheel, and this is the best tune by far. What a freaky genius.
Most Excellence in Being a Most Excellent Album
My top five:
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpsTxeYFJrY]Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson: Original Cast Recording by Michael Friedman. Okay, yeah, Michael is one of my best friends, but I’m not one to promote my friends’ work unless it’s damn good. This is rock musical at its best: The show is the most subversive and relevant piece of theater I’ve seen in God-knows-how-long, and Michael’s music and lyrics are hilarious, brainy, catchy, profound, and often much more moving than you could possibly imagine a post-modern comedy about Andrew Jackson could be.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pZkZguPAPs]Gorilla Manor by Local Natives. Exquisite harmonies, melodies, and guitar work. It’s sorta perfect. I heard that our local show, which I missed because it sold out while I was waiting for someone to decided whether to go with me, took a turn for the douche, but I’m not one to refuse love for a band because of its fans.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBhdIcb84Hw]The Lady Killer by Cee Lo Green. Pop/soul deliciousness.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uayey2PSGpA]My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. The lyrics are Allen Ginsburg meets Richard Pryor, and the music is perhaps the apex of post-modern musical pastiche, and the whole thing is some sort of insane, ego-fighting-the-id masterpiece. Also, it’s a party album. Team Kanye.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0L6ZFhZVOx0]The Suburbs by Arcade Fire. I don’t think The Suburbs is better than Arcade Fire’s previous albums Funeral and Neon Bible, but it’s still one of the best albums I’ve heard this year, easily. I don’t think any other band is making big, important, dense, and political albums like Arcade Fire, which is simply the best rock act making records right now. Like Neon Bible, The Suburbs isn’t really fun; it can be a tad depressing, since the subjects of the songs are things like sprawl and ennui. But in its darkness, it’s engrossing and populist and beautiful and mostly superbly crafted, like a Scorsese movie.
Five Most Excellent Honorably Mentioned Albums
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1e0u11rgd9Q]Contra by Vampire Weekend. More of the same — as in awesome, smart, African-beated rock and roll — from my favorite nerds.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCo-U6war6c]Life Is Sweet! Nice to Meet You. by Lightspeed Champion. I think I’m the only person I know who knows who this guy is. Well, me and my brother, who gave me the album. Brit pop-rock (and he’s American!), FTW.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HHv0jW4p_xA]Night Work by Scissor Sisters. Disco! Disco! Disco!
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5gQidrzojU]This Is Happening! by LCD Soundsystem. No one fuses electronica and rock better than James Murphy, and his lyrics are as funny as they are surprisingly poetic.
Most Excellence in Being a Most Excellent Song
My top five, in alphabetical order:
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4306i99LMXo]“Home” by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. It’s hipster folkies embodying Johnny and June Carter Cash. If you don’t love this song, you have no soul.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLJf9qJHR3E]“Little Lion Man” by Mumford & Sons. I like to pretend that this song is about the end of a gay relationship, but it’s probably not. Still, it’s a sing-along, banjo-stomp, folk-rock masterpiece, and it’s made these guys big stars. Yay!
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X23xo0Htl8]“The Saddest Song” by Ben Walker and the cast of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. Even though this is very much a “book” song, it’s searing; if you replaced the historical specifics of the 1830s with some stuff from, say, the last year, the song could be about Obama. And it’s catchy, to say the least. And it has just a dab of Evita-ish rhythms to get at the queen in me.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98WtmW-lfeE][youtube:”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E46BhMIRujI”]“Teenage Dream” by Katy Perry, as performed by both Perry and Darren Criss on “Glee.” I think this is the best pop song of the year. It’s about joy and nostalgia and love. And sex. And when Darren Criss sang it on Glee — brilliantly, and better than Perry, and with an a capella back-up — it became a teen fantasy for every gay kid who ever struggled, alone and dejected, through high school. If only I’d been serenaded by someone like Criss, or, hell, just someone…
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1Fqn9du7xo]“Whataya Want From Me?” by Adam Lambert. Written by Pink and performed by Lambert like the song is eating his soul, it’s the best track on For Your Entertainment and a damn awesome fighting-with-your-lover song.
Five Most Excellent Honorably Mentioned Singles
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xT6cdfP_cM]“Drunk Girls” by LCD Soundsystem. Hilarious.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc0mxOXbWIU]“Fuck You” by Cee Lo. Also hilarious. Not hilarious: The wretched “clean” version of the song where “fuck” is replaced with “forget.” Hideous. Fuck the FCC.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SR6iYWJxHqs]“Grenade” by Bruno Mars. Now that’s love.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ouwCWDbBskU]“POWER” by Kanye West. Gadzooks. Now that’s how to produced a hip-hop song. Insane.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdUvaIV0t7E]“Schizophrenia” by Jukebox the Ghost. Ben Folds on speed. Fabulous. I wholeheartedly agree with the commenter on YouTube who wrote, “Why doesn’t this have a gajillion views already? It’s better than sex.”
A couple people pointed out some stuff that I should have included. I listened, thought, and agreed.
TWO MORE MOST EXCELLENT ALBUMS
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcNo07Xp8aQ]Body Talk by Robyn. Robyn put out three albums this year, Body Talk Part 1, Body Talk Part 2, and Body Talk Part 3, also known simply as Body Talk, and this last one compiles the best stuff from Parts 1 and 2 along with a few new tunes. I was underwhelmed by 1 and 2; there were some great songs, but there was also some filler that bored me. I didn’t know about Part 3 until my friend Allen told me about it after this post went up, and I listened to it yesterday, like, five times, and it doesn’t have problems of 1 and 2. Part 3 is a collection of nearly perfect dance-pop songs. Robyn’s lyrics are veer back and forth from humor to deep pain, and everything is catchier than the flu. “Dancing On My Own,” for example, is already some sort of classic.
[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzWQSabtWLs]Queen of Denmark by John Grant. Well. OMG. A link to this song was left in the Facebook comments about this post, and I was floored. Grant’s voice is utterly haunting, and the songs are in some David Bowie / Elton John / Jens Lekman / Rufus Wainwright land where I want to move and retire. It’s a ridiculously beautiful album.