Preview: Performing Arts Technology Seminar: DJ Carl Craig

PREVIEW MUSIC

DJ Carl Craig

DJ Carl Craig will give a talk at the Walgreen Drama Center, Stamps Auditorium.

This Wednesday Carl Craig, Detroit-based producer of techno music and one of the most influential members of the second generation of Detroit techno artists, will give a talk at the Walgreen Drama Center, Stamps Auditorium on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. He founded the Planet E Communications label and, through this, has provided support for many young techno artists from Detroit and beyond. Craig's talk promises to be a free-flowing perspective, in a Q&A setting, touching on techno’s past, present, and future.


Anne Drozd is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.


Craig's talk begins at 7:30 pm at the Walgreen Drama Center, Stamps Auditorium, University of Michigan North campus, 1226 Murfin Ave. Free - no tickets required.

Preview: Matthew Dear at the Blind Pig

PREVIEW MUSIC

Matthew Dear

Matthew Dear is back in Michigan.

In the past year or so, Matthew Dear has returned home in many ways. He's got serious Ann Arbor roots, as the first artist to sign to Ghostly International in 1999, and the Blind Pig is a familiar place for him. He grew up in Texas, but moved to Michigan to pursue a degree at the University of Michigan, where he met Ghostly’s founder, Sam Valenti. For me, as a local and an employee of the label, it’s wonderful to see him back in the town where his musical career began to take off.

Matthew Dear has left an indelible imprint on the fabric of popular music history that Ann Arbor has woven. He has been a part of the newer breed of musicians building a career after getting their feet wet in this college town that’s always been supportive of musicians who are a bit left of center, like Commander Cody, Mayer Hawthorne, the Chenille Sisters, Iggy Pop, Pity Sex, Scott Morgan, Andrew W.K., and Wolf Eyes, among others.

Since leaving town, Dear's been busy. He's made moves to Detroit and New York, gotten married, started a family, toured with Depeche Mode, performed both as a solo artist and with a band and as a DJ, performed a seemingly endless string of live dates, and now, Dear has actually moved back to the Ann Arbor area. This show may be a bit of a homecoming of sorts, an expansion and translation of the sets he DJ’d for parties while attending school, honed by nearly 20 years of experience on the road, soundtracking delightful evenings for his fans.

I’m hoping you’re as excited to see his blend of experimental and front-forward dance music as I am. It's been ages since I've seen Matt perform, and I’m just as giddy about his return to The Blind Pig's familiar stage as I was to hear him play at the first Ghostly show I attended, years and years ago.


Jeremy Peters is Music Publishing Director for Ghostly International and Ghostly Songs, and Co-Founder of Quite Scientific.


Matthew Dear will perform at the Blind Pig on Saturday, January 23, 2016, doors at 9 pm.

Review: Juggernaut Jug Band takes us through a musical wormhole and back again

REVIEW MUSIC

The Juggernaut Jug Band (jug included)

The Juggernaut Jug Band (jug included).

I’ve lived in Arbor for three and a half years now, and for someone who calls himself a “small music” fan, I haven’t gotten out often enough to visit all the great venues we have in and around town. The Green Wood Coffee House has been on my must-go list for some time now, and Friday night I walked in. Located at the United Methodist Church on Green Road, it’s an Ann Arbor institution of great live folk, roots, and Americana music, and the performance by the Juggernaut Jug Band did nothing but burnish that reputation.

I’d never heard of “JJB” or their music before last night, though I confess to being a lapsed practitioner of the washtub bass (it was a high school thing). There was no washtub there, but JJB frontman Stu “Roscoe P. Goose” Helm had at his disposal more than a dozen jug band instruments, most of them clamped to a red 4-foot step ladder. The star of the rhythm assortment was Roscoe’s ancient-looking crockery jug – a gallon-sized model – equipped with a 21st century wireless mic. This video provides a nice intro to JJB.

Louisville, Kentucky is considered the birthplace of jug band music: a goulash of Dixieland, honky-tonk, blues, jazz, minstrel, and swing that first bubbled up in the late 1800s. JJB’s primary calling is to preserve the jug band tradition and to expand the envelope of this sub-genre with modern musical infusions. Channeling past jug band ghosts like the Dixieland Jug Blowers, Whistler’s Jug Band, the Mud Gutters, and Ballad Chefs, JJB covers the best of traditional jug music, complete with washboard, cowbells, tin cans and nose flute.

But wait… there’s more! In addition to those original sounds, JJB samples modern rock in a jug band format that has the audience’s senses and sensibilities reeling – in a good way. Consider "Pinball Wizard"… played to the tune of "Folsom Prison Blues". Or a Led Zeppelin medley of "Heartbreaker", "Kashmir", and "Stairway to Heaven". These guys know how to turn a genre on its head, whether it’s theirs or any other. If you’ve not heard a jug band cover of "People Are Strange" by Jim Morrison and The Doors, you must seek this out immediately.

Before you write off JJB as a bells-and-whistles novelty group, you need to know that these guys are accomplished and talented multi-instrumentalists. Roscoe Goose surprised me by setting aside his washboard thimbles for a song and pulling out a muted silver trumpet in mid-set. Greg “Frankie” Lentz displayed his fretboard skills on an electrified Fender dreadnaught. Pat “Slim Chance” Lentz (Greg’s brother) strummed and picked a masterful electric jazz guitar of his own making – and alternated with a Dixieland banjo, while the newest member of the group, James “Jug Band Jimmy” Brown anchored the group with his stand-up bass. Members of the band have changed since its inception in the early 1960s, but the tradition, original sound, and corny jokes carry on. Roscoe Goose has been raking the washboard for JJB for more than 50 years.

What I absolutely did not expect from this group was the level of vocal skill and harmony-making reminiscent of good barbershop groups. Roscoe possesses a sweetly natural lead voice, and ranges easily down to the bass notes required for the jug. All of JJB’s members join in often for the choruses, and the lead singing role is occasionally thrown to “Slim”.

Catch Juggernaut Jug Band on their next trip through town (they promised), since no studio recording quite captures the look on Roscoe P. Goose’s face when he’s playing the nose flute on "Stairway to Heaven". Visit this Spotify link to sample their stuff. If you like it, BUY their music at the Juggernaut website. And thank you, Juggernaut Jug Band… for keeping musical history alive… and kicking!


Don Alles is a marketing consultant, journalist, house concert host, and musical wannabee living in and loving his recently adopted home, Ann Arbor.

Review: Carol - Classic Film Buffs, Prepare to Fall in Love

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Cate Blanchett portrays the title character in director Todd Haynes' latest film.

Cate Blanchett portrays the title character in director Todd Haynes' latest film.

The newly released film Carol by director Todd Haynes (Mildred Pierce, Far From Heaven) is quickly gaining praise for its remarkable cinematography and powerful acting performances.

The film is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (later re-published under the title Carol) about a romance between two women in 1950s New York. The book details a love affair between the young and lonely Therese, and Carol, a married woman facing divorce. Therese and Carol meet in a department store, quickly become attached to each other, and then travel cross-country to escape Carol’s familial stresses. Their situation grows increasingly complicated (no spoilers here, I promise, but there are moments of true surprise and devastation). In the end, love prevails.

I found the film to be stirring, evocative, and full of emotions that are all-at-once restrained and dynamic. Leading actresses Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese) demonstrate real ability, as they both perform their roles with careful and controlled intensity. The dialogue is sparse, so each spoken word carries weight. Therese and Carol often meet in public places, such as city cafés and sleepy small-town diners, where strangers don’t suspect the real intimacy of their relationship. As they speak guardedly, their true feelings towards each other are only revealed through their facial expressions. The film provides subjective shots of both women, close-up shots that frame their faces and highlight the blazing intensity in their eyes. This is how the audience too learns how these women feel about each other.

Some of the subjective close-ups reveal easily legible emotions. And as a viewer, it is satisfying to witness them so closely. Many of the shots, however, are composed in ways that disrupt the intelligibility of the women’s faces. Carol and Therese are often framed through windows. The effect is beautiful. Reflections become the foreground of the image, and their facial expressions recede. These images are richly layered, revealing colors and textures that provide substantive depth.

In an interview with Variety, the film’s cinematographer Edward Lachman said, “In a film there’s kind of a silence and moments of suspension. And this layering of images becomes kind of a subtext for their emotional states. They’re encapsulated in these cars where we see them from the outside and the reflection on the cars are what’s – let’ s say what the forces are outside of them.”

The layering complicates the images, making them more difficult to decipher. I appreciated these moments most! My eyes searched the images, looking to read facial expressions, but often paused to admire the grainy textures and washes of color.

The lush cinematography carries the film’s narrative, which moves slowly. Shot on Super-16mm film, with a muted color palette of greens, reds, and brown, the film evokes a period of time with visual accuracy, but also with the feeling of a dream. I recommend this film for those who appreciate classic love stories and period dramas. Carol offers stirring emotional experience – expect to see it nominated for several awards in the upcoming award season!


Elizabeth Wodzinski is a Desk Clerk at the Ann Arbor District Library and she would love to try on Cate Blanchett’s hats.



Carol is currently screening locally at the Michigan Theater.

Sometimes Pointless Things are Worth It: Pointless Brewery Opens in A2

REVIEW THEATER & DANCE

The Pointless Brewery opened on Packard in Ann Arbor.

The Pointless Brewery opened in December, and it's so easy to make a pun about it that it almost feels poin--USELESS. Useless.

The pointless dreams of husband and wife team Jason and Tori Tomalia came true in mid-December as their Pointless Brewery & Theatre opened on Packard in Ann Arbor. The idea that had been brewing for over a decade came to fruition after Tori was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and they were asking themselves what the point of everything was.

The answer: sketch comedy and beer.

The brewery and theater offers a delightful combination of improv and craft beer made by the owner, and from my experience both were worth the ticket. The sketch comedy is provided by three different improv groups each night, including their resident group — The League of Pointless Improvisers. It is definitely more of a bar in a theater than a theater in a bar, as the long-form improv performances are the focus. The small space may have a small stage and a small bar but it has a giant heart – which creates a welcoming and relaxed environment for theater-goers. Owner and brewer Jason Tomalia is quick to tell you that if you feel like grabbing a beer or one of their made-in-Michigan snacks in the middle of the show, go right ahead.


Amanda Schott is a Library Technician at AADL and sometimes snorts when she laughs at improv comedy.



Improv Shows are Fridays at 8 pm, and Saturdays at 8 pm and 10:30 pm. For the kids there’s Little Peeps every Saturday morning at 10:30 am. It is part performance, part drama activities, and part crafts. And Sundays at 7 pm is open stage night where you can sign up to show off your own talents such as music, improv, poetry, etc. The theater also offers improv classes on site.

Review: Mittenfest X – Night One

REVIEW MUSIC

Mittenfest X was December 29, 2015 to January 2, 2016

Mittenfest X was December 29, 2015 to January 2, 2016.

Midway through Mittenfest X’s opening night on Tuesday, December 29 at Bona Sera Café, singer-songwriter Fred Thomas asked how many of the evening’s attendees had also been present for the original Mittenfest nine years ago. Those who raised their hands were in the minority (this writer not among them, although he has been present for several Mittenfests since). But the number of original Mittenfest attendees was significant, and it contributed to a remarkable sense of reunion as Mittenfest kicked off for the year.

Of course, the annual music festival and fundraiser for 826michigan always feels like something of a reunion in the first place. Year after year, it’s become the biggest annual gathering of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti bands (Ypsi’s wild and woolly Totally Awesome Fest is also a local band extravaganza, but the underground nature of that house-show-based event makes it smaller by necessity). This year’s Mittenfest featured 35 local bands before it wrapped up on January 2. Attendees of the original Mittenfest may have been a significant minority in Tuesday’s audience, but not onstage: opening night for Mittenfest X exclusively featured artists who also played Mittenfest’s inaugural one-day event in 2006.

And in so doing, it was difficult not to observe just how far some of them have come in the intervening near-decade. Thomas, a longtime Ypsi and Ann Arbor resident who recently moved to Montreal, called attention to that evolution most blatantly by repeating the exact same set he performed at the original Mittenfest. Thomas’ music has become both musically and lyrically more complex since 2006, as is clearly evident on his excellent recent release “All Are Saved,” but he took the stage alone with a single acoustic guitar. Although Thomas has certainly improved with age, the old stuff still worked and many in the audience sang along fervently.

Frontier Ruckus

Frontier Ruckus / Photo by Sean O'Kane

Several of the bands who returned to perform Tuesday night have grown their ranks–and their fanbases–considerably since the original Mittenfest. Ypsilanti folksinger Misty Lyn Bergeron, who played the original event simply as “Misty Lyn” with three accompanying musicians, appeared with her four-piece band The Big Beautiful. A 2006 826michigan blog post about the first Mittenfest noted that the “up-and-coming” Detroit “bluegrass” trio Frontier Ruckus “blew everyone away”; that group returned to Mittenfest X as a nationally recognized quartet whose sound has expanded far beyond basic bluegrass. Ypsilanti songwriter Matt Jones has made perhaps the most dramatic transformation since his first Mittenfest, when he performed with just violinist Carol Gray and cellist Colette Alexander. Gray and Alexander are now part of Jones’ seven-piece ensemble, The Reconstruction, which performed tunes from their lushly orchestrated, critically acclaimed 2014 album “The Deep Enders.”

If one particular element stood out Tuesday night among all the diverse groups who performed, it was incredibly disciplined musicianship. Ypsi expat Emily Jane Powers found a tight groove with backing musicians Alec Jensen, Eric Brummitt, and Christopher Gilbert, jamming on some lively instrumental breakdowns that required rather nimble work from the entire group. Jones, Gray, and Bergeron’s voices intertwined gorgeously as always in varying configurations with The Reconstruction and The Big Beautiful. And Frontier Ruckus proved just how well their group has jelled since the early days, with David Jones pulling off some particularly graceful banjo solos while Zach Nichols juggled a trumpet, melodica, euphonium, and musical saw.

The evening was not without its hitches. Powers blanked on the words to one of her songs, a Mittenfest banner fell down on Jones while he was drumming with Ypsi band Loose Teeth, and Bergeron was confined to a chair throughout her performance due to her ongoing recovery from a car accident. But personality and professionalism shone through. Powers picked up her tune, Jones grinned while keeping the beat with rope and pennants draped across his wrists, and Bergeron came across as strongly as ever.

Overall, there was a sense of quiet triumph to the night, a sense of modest celebration of how far all of these performers have come since they got Mittenfest started nine years ago. Mittenfest celebrates Michigan-made music–and when you look at the 28 bands performing over four days, the scope and talent of the local scene is remarkable. Of the 19 newcomers among this year’s lineup, it’s intriguing to wonder who might be present for a reunion show at Mittenfest XX–and just how far those groups might have come by that point. If anyone asks that year how many audience members were present for Mittenfest X, this writer will be proud to raise his hand.


Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He can be heard most Friday mornings at 8:40 am on the Martin Bandyke morning program on Ann Arbor's 107one.


Mittenfest X was December 29, 2015 through January 2, 2016 at Bona Sera Café and is an annual music festival that serves as a fundraiser for 826michigan.

Review: Civic Theatre Cast Brings out Their Best for 'Company'

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

The Civic Theatre cast brings out their best for 'Company'

Two's company, but seven is...also Company.

Intimate relationships are complicated, contradictory, and baffling.

Company is a musically and lyrically intense exploration of love and marriage, at times rueful, funny, bitter and hopeful. The musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by George Furth, is musically challenging, lyrically intricate, and emotionally draining. The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre has taken on the challenge with an outstanding ensemble who seem to relish the rich variety and tonal changes of Sondheim's music.

Director Rachel Francisco notes in the program that the play has an odd structure. The center of attention is Bobby, an aging man-about-town who has reached his 35th birthday without settling into a serious relationship. He is surrounded by married friends who both envy and worry about him. Bobby visits these couples and struggles with who he is and who he is supposed to be. Francisco notes that the action seems to play out in Bobby's head, a meditation on life, ending with a desperate affirmation.

Company is well named as the play provides spotlight moments for many in the cast, each song keying in on some aspect of love and marriage. Francisco and musical director Jennifer Goltz keep it fluid, moving easily from moments of slapstick humor to quiet introspection. Sondheim draws on jazz, the blues, and musical theater models. His multi-voiced settings, complex lyrics at breakneck speed, and his shifts in style are a challenge. Goltz gets the best from the singers and leads a small combo in a solid musical accompaniment.

At the center is Robby Griswold as Bobby. He is our guide through this mid-life crisis. He is charming, boyish, but also visibly aching for something else...or is he? Griswold is the glue that binds everything with his nuanced performance and his rich, intelligent singing. He wonders about the limits of intimacy in the reflective "Marry Me a Little." His rendition of "Being Alive" is strong, sad but triumphant.

But, of course, Bobby is not alone. He is surrounded and sometimes smothered by the affection of his friends.

Harry and Sarah seem happily married, even as they engage in a little karate. Jodi-Renee Giron's Sarah is tough and funny. Harry may not be all that happy as he sings "Sorry-Grateful," one of the most mature reflections on marriage. Paul Clark as Harry has a strong voice that captures the rueful mood.

Marta, a bohemian girl, is one of three people with whom Bobby has off-and-on relations. Kate Papachristou has a voice that seems to rise above the others. Her Marta offers one explanation for Bobby's reluctance to get involved, the teeming, stimulating, maddening city of New York, in the frantic song, "Another Hundred People."

Another frantic song is from a bride in panic as the ceremony nears. Marci Rosenberg is hilarious as Amy, a woman in a longterm lesbian relationship who feels too much pressure to get married. Sondheim's "Getting Married Today," is a rapid fire musical stand-up routine that Rosenberg blazes through, while flailing across the stage hilariously. Her sweet-tempered, kind intended, Paula, is well played by Amanda Bynum.

April is another of Bobby's tentative love relationships. She's a stewardess, more noted for her beauty than her intellect, a definite bad mark from Bobby's female friends. Kimberly Elliott is funny and a little goofy as April and she and Griswold do a nice comic duet on "Barcelona".

A knock-out moment in Company is always Joanne's bitter observations on "The Ladies Who Lunch." Joanne and her third husband are a bit older than the crowd. As played by Amy Bogetto-Weinraub, she is a bit of a cougar, always on the hunt but more than a little sad about her situation. Her performance on "The Ladies" builds slowly to a savage, emotionally draining declaration that is more about self-loathing than gossip.

Others of note are Trisha Fountain as the square Jenny, Chris Joseph as the bisexual Bobby's sometimes boyfriend Kevin, and in the musical quartet, Greg Simon on trumpet and flugel.


Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.


Company continues Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Arthur Miller.Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's website, by calling the A2CT office at 734-971-2228, or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting the theater's website.

R.J. Fox Turned His Life into Art and Wants to Teach You to do the Same

PREVIEW WRITTEN WORD

R.J. Fox will discuss how to craft a memoir at the Ann Arbor District Library

R.J. Fox will discuss how to craft a memoir at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Once upon a time, an aspiring writer/filmmaker named R.J. Fox traveled to Hollywood, California to attend a series of screenwriting workshops. During a cold and rainy day off, he decided to visit Universal Studios. And that was where he first met Katya from Ukraine. They became pen pals and several months later—on a whim and without telling another living soul—he purchased an engagement ring and traveled halfway around the world to propose. Fox’s adventures in Ukraine are documented in his new book Love & Vodka: My Surreal Adventures in Ukraine.

This humorous, poignant, and memorable expedition centered on life in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine—the former center of Cold War Soviet missile production and a city that, until the mid-1980s, was closed to foreign visitors—is punctuated by a colorful cast of characters, adventures, and cultural mishaps and misunderstandings, from irate babushka women to hard-drinking uncles. He talks about the experience in more detail and reads from his book in his December appearance on Michigan Radio’s Stateside with Cynthia Canty.

As Ann Arbor native Davy Rothbart, author of My Heart is an Idiot and founder of FOUND Magazine , says, "Love & Vodka is an honest, funny, and deeply heartfelt story about a young man who drops everything to pursue an epic romance. If you’ve ever done something crazy in the name of love, R.J. Fox’s adventures in Ukraine will strike a chord. This book is a delight!”

Fox, currently an English and media teacher at Huron High School, is also the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, and fifteen feature-length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood.

On Monday, January 11 at 6:30 pm, Fox will teach a memoir-writing workshop at the Downtown Library, where participants can learn to mold their own stories using topics like story structure, dialogue, character development/arc, and how to infuse your writing with literary elements traditionally associated with fiction. Participants will apply the skills taught during the workshop through various prompts and activities designed to spark creativity, with the aim of mining material that can later be developed into various forms of memoir and creative non-fiction, from short essays to long-form works. Copies of Love & Vodka will be available for purchase and signing.


Patty Smith is a desk clerk at the Ann Arbor District Library.

R.J. Fox's talk, Memoir Writing:Turning Your Life into Art (Or is it the Other Way Around?) will be presented in the Multi-Purpose Room in the Lower Level of the Downtown Library at 343 S. Fifth Avenue on Monday, January 11 from 6:30-8:30 pm.

Preview: Company, Ann Arbor Civic Theatre

PREVIEW THEATER & DANCE

Robby Griswold will be in good company as he stars in Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production of Company

Robby Griswold will be in good company as he stars in Ann Arbor Civic Theater's production of Company.

Ann Arbor Civic Theater will open the New Year with a sparkling new production of the beloved musical Company, which is, according to its seasoned AACT director Rachel Francisco, “about relationships…interactions between spouses and the deep feelings that underlie many marriages.”

The plot centers on Bobby (Robby Griswold), who on the eve of his 35th birthday, questions his bachelor status. Married friends surround him, full of advice about relationships. But is marriage the best option? Will it lead to happiness? His current and former lovers (Kimmy Elliott, Chris Joseph, and Kate Papachristou) make his choice even more difficult.

When Company opened in 1970, it was a landmark in Broadway musical history. A “concept” musical composed of short vignettes, it was the first collaboration between two theater legends: composer Stephen Sondheim and director/producer Hal Prince.

Nominated for 14 Tony Awards, the production won six, including Best Musical. Sondheim’s music for the show (including “Being Alive,” “Another Hundred People,” and the Elaine Stritch showstopper “Ladies Who Lunch”) was sublime. New York Times critic Vincent Canby, reviewing the 1995 Broadway revival, raved that Company contained the most “dazzling and bittersweet show tunes Mr. Sondheim has ever written.”

Jennifer Goltz is the Music Director for this first show of the 2016 year and choreography is by Rachel Francisco and Emily Olson.


Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.


Company runs Thursday through Sunday, January 7 - 10 at the University of Michigan’s Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin Ave, 48109. Tickets are available online at Ann Arbor Civic Theater's website, by calling the A2CT office at 734-971-2228, or at the door. Additional information is available by visiting the theater's website.

Local Woman Sees Star Wars: The Force Awakens

REVIEW FILM & VIDEO

Local Woman Sees Star Wars

The Hairy Space-Bear and The Guy Who Wears The Leather Jacket were both in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Two weeks ago, the long-awaited Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, hit theaters like a ton of space-bricks. Hordes of people of all different ages, all kinds of backgrounds, and varying levels of nerdiness flooded theaters on December 17th to see what this latest installment had to offer. They showed up to theaters two hours before the movie. They stood in lines that stretched out the door, around the corner, and possibly into the street. They ate popcorn by the bucketful and shouted over each other to answer the theater staff’s trivia questions and win free movie tickets (most likely for return trips to see this exact same movie). And, lucky me, I was one of the many, standing in line at 9 pm with my ticket in hand, waiting for the theater doors to open. There was really only one thing separating me from the eager crowd of fans humming with excitement around me:

I had never in my life seen a Star Wars movie.

I know. Suddenly my “space-bricks” comment makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? I know exactly zero things about Star Wars, so for all I know space-bricks are totally relevant to this fandom.

I am fully aware that every person in the world has seen Star Wars. I’m pretty sure they screen it for newborn babies in the maternity wards at hospitals. It’s been around for almost 40 years, but somehow I had managed to stumble through life without ever seeing it. I never accidentally watched one while at a friend's house or in a waiting room or settled on one while flipping through channels—you know, back in 2008 when people still had cable.

So when the new movie came out, and friends invited me along, I decided, “Yeah, ok. That could work. How important is it REALLY to have seen the other movies? I mean, I know stuff about Star Wars.”

This line of thinking was pure folly. A group of Star Wars-loving co-workers showed me just how wrong I was with an informal, pre-movie interview. Here are the things I “knew” about Star Wars before seeing the movie - spoilers ahead, but only for people as Star Wars-sheltered as me:

[begin embarrassing transcript]
So, what are you pretty sure you already know about Star Wars?
Luke and Darth Vader are related.

They sometimes fly around in ships and shoot at things, like giant desert rats.

One of the planets is, like, a desert planet.

Han Solo shot first. The internet was pretty adamant about that one.

Yoda talks funny and is green and small and…him and Luke were buds?

Jar Jar Binks is a gold robot. No, wait, he's the guy with the weird face!

There's a scene where there's deserts! Or planets.

Ok, what do you know about the general plot of Star Wars? Give us a summary.
Luke Skywalker is the Chosen One of some kind. He lives on a planet that is not Earth and fights some dudes. Not really sure about his motivation. He hangs out with Yoda and Han Solo and they teach him how to use a lightsaber. He goes to fight Darth Vader because no one likes that guy. They go to the Death Star, which is round and has a dent in it. Darth Vader wants to kill him for... reasons? Then there are storm troopers and they wear white and there are other kinds of storm troopers that look similar but are different. And they fight them? And they win? And Darth Vader dies? But first he says "Luke, I am your father." And that's all I know.

Who is Jabba the Hutt?
He's a fat guy who has Leia in a gold bikini. I know that because of Friends. Wait, is that guy blue?

What do you know about Boba Fett?
I don't remember. Is he an alien? He's not a person. Not as crazy looking as Jar Jar Binks. Is he a robot?

What about Obi-Wan Kenobi?
I used to think Harrison Ford was Obi-Wan Kenobi. But actually, he's Han Solo. I just assume they are both Harrison Ford.

How do you think the ewoks enter into this?
Oh. Yeah. Is Chewbacca an ewok? They are some sort of space animal…that are either Chewbacca or…I'm imagining them smaller? Like the footstool in Beauty and the Beast. You know that little dog?

Who is Anakin Skywalker?
That one I know! That guy is Darth Vader. He was a nice guy once and then his face got jacked up. So under his mask he has a jacked up face. What's his motivation? What's that guy up to? Is he trying to take over the universe? People are always trying to do that.

Who's the Emperor?
Is that different than Darth Vader?

Who is Lando Calrissian?
He is from across the Narrow Sea and has dragons and wants the Iron Throne?

Who does Natalie Portman play?
She was Princess Leia, right?

No.
Really!? Wow. I was like 80% sure she was Princess Leia.

What is the Force?
It's like chi? Energy. You use it for... fighting? With lightsabers? You should use it. I know you use it. And also that sometimes it is with you. Can it be good or bad? I think it's good.

What's a Jedi?
Oh, a Jedi is like an auror in Harry Potter. They fight crime and stuff and they wear brown robes. Also like Harry Potter! Wait, lightsaber color is important. I don't know why I know that. Do they have different powers? Do people have powers in this movie? Um, I know Jedis can return. They went somewhere and came back. Is Jedi plural? I think it's a job.

[end embarrassing transcript]

Yup. So, clearly I was starting on a solid foundation of very correct facts. I’m pretty sure by the end of the conversation, I was just directly quoting from movie titles. I am still not totally sure how wrong my information was, but I could kind of gauge it by how horrified my co-workers looked after each answer.

And so, armed with all of this very factual knowledge, I went to see the seventh Star Wars movie. I waited in line for two hours with a horde of die-hard Star Wars fans wearing quippy t-shirts. Some were dressed up as That One Character Who Wears Gray, or That Person With the Brown Clothes, or Princess Leia (nailed it). And lots of them were toting around what I thought at the time was some kind of zany orange and white space-hat (but was apparently a robot called BB-8). I watched my Star Wars-obsessed friends answer trivia questions and yell at a guy who dared to wear a shirt with a Star Trek font. I ate two pretzels.

And then it was finally time for the movie. We flooded into the theater, the lights went out, and the magic began.

Considering that I barely knew who anyone was or what was going on, the movie kept me completely hooked from beginning to end--aside from a very brief couple of seconds when I fell asleep because, well, it was almost midnight and I was basically full of pretzel cheese.

I thought the movie was funny, exciting, and incredibly realistic for a space opera. Spaceship chases? Yes, please! Lightsaber fights? Bring 'em on! But there were also real feelings, real relationships, and real stakes in this movie. Who'd have thought?

The main characters were just impossible not to root for. Finn, the stormtrooper who's been trained to kill for the dark side, but decides run off and fight for the Resistance; Rey, the clever, solitary junkyard girl who accidentally gets swept into this epic battle between good and evil; and BB-8, the world's most adorable space-hat, who is being hunted by the Republic.

Now, I'm not sure if a stormtrooper turning his back on the dark side and running away to fight for good is something that has ever happened in the Star Wars universe. If I'm honest, before Finn pulled off his helmet in the movie I didn't even realize stormtroopers were people. If I'm really, really honest, I didn't even know stormtrooper was one word. But the revelation that stormtroopers could have feelings and weren't all just soulless killing robots felt like a pretty new and exciting leap in character development to me--and a pretty cool introduction to the universe. All my preconceived notions, few though they were, were just blown to bits and suddenly it felt like anything could happen. If stormtroopers could be good maybe C-3PO would pull off his face to reveal that he's the Emperor. The possibilities were endless!

Rey was a joy to watch as she went from impoverished junkyard scavenger to lightsaber-wielding, butt-kicking fighter for the Resistance, and her chemistry and banter with Han Solo was so much fun. Kylo Ren, with his motivations and backstory left intentionally foggy, managed to seem well-rounded, and the relationships that were hinted at gave his character some great depth. As far as I can tell, Star Wars isn't known for making two-dimensional villains, and they certainly haven't started with Kylo Ren.

These allusions to histories and relationships between the movie's characters felt like completely new revelations, not old references that I just wasn't getting. But it was interesting how easy it was to pick up on the things that were old inside jokes. I didn't get any of them, of course, but I could tell when some classic Star Wars thing had happened because suddenly the camera would pan around to a nondescript, decrepit spaceship and everyone would start screaming and cheering. Or Han Solo would stop and say something completely unremarkable and the entire theater would explode into laughter and applause.

The combination of old references and new information made something incredibly clear, though. While I could probably say that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a good movie--I enjoyed seeing it and only fell asleep the one time--it would be impossible for me to say just how good it was without having seen the other beloved (and less-beloved) films in the series. Are these ideas, these characters, these plot lines original and revolutionary and surprising, or are they overdone tropes? Are they carefully planned and well-thought-out tie-ins to plot lines from the previous movies or have they kicked the old plot lines to the curb? Is this the continuation of one great big, epic story or an entirely new story with some familiar faces tacked on?

On a great big list of "Things I Don't Know About Star Wars," these questions have all risen to the top. Right below the biggest question of all: Was Star Wars: The Force Awakens really a good movie?

I think so. But I can't know for sure until I've seen the rest. And so, with the next movie in the franchise looming on the horizon, it might be time to give in to the gravitational pull of the Star Wars universe and just…watch the movies already.


Nicole Williams is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library and if she had to rename The Force Awakens, she would call it Star Wars: Stormtroopers Have Feelings Too. Or maybe, Star Wars: Everyone In Space Has Daddy Issues.



Star Wars: The Force Awakens is in theaters everywhere, all the time.