Monday, April 22, 2019

play review: Four Chords and a Gun



Written by: John Ross Bowie
Directed by: Richard Ouzounian


ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

Let me be upfront: I'm a Ramones fan, which is why ChinoKino is making an exception and reviewing this play. And yes, it's a play, not a musical. Four Chords and a Gun examines the fateful collaboration between punk rock pioneers, The Ramones, and legendary, but batshit-crazy record producer Phil Spector. In 1979, Spector produced the Ramones' fourth album, End of the Century. They came together because, frankly, both were desperate for a hit.

If you know the Ramones, then you know the dynamics at work here. Sensitive, nice-guy singer Joey Ramone clashes with mean, tyrannical leader Johnny Ramone, culminating in Johnny stealing Joey's girlfriend, Linda. This betrayal forever breaks Joey's heart. Bassist Dee Dee is a junkie. And drummer Marky is an alcoholic, but is also grounded enough to act as the play's narrator. All characters supply comic relief. The focus, however, lies on the Joey-Linda-Johnny triangle, overlaid by Spector who acts as a catalyst for change in the recording studio and without.

Legend tells us that the lunatic Spector ordered the Ramones to record in the studio at gunpoint, which is the centerpiece of this play. The Ramones were rock 'n' roll purists, churning out primal two-minute, four-on-four rock tunes while Spector was renown for his multilayered production techniques dubbed the Wall of Sound that demanded hundreds of takes. Hard-nosed Johnny confronted Spector the most, and those two butted heads over and over.

The play does a decent job of dramatizing the gun legend (though Marky has denied it ever happened). Spector drove Johnny nuts with endless takes and by adding strings to Ramones songs. The play also does a fine job of painting the triangle. Cyrus Lane pulls no punches portraying hard-nosed Johnny, and Ron Pederson rescues Spector from being a cartoon, while Paolo Santalucia paints some nuances to Dee Dee, a secondary character. Vanessa Smythe truly shines as Linda, both as caregiver and confidante to both Joey and Johnny, but strong enough to stand up to Johnny when his ego gets the best of him (and it often does).

However, Joey's heartbreak is slightly underplayed, and the play's ending is a little flat after a long build-up. Overall, Ramones' fans will be pleased with this production, as will fans of rock and pop culture.

Now, if you're expecting a musical, you won't find it here. This is a straight drama punctuating about five dysfunctional, creative souls. However, a tribute band (above) plays a blistering 20-minute set immediately after the 90-minute play, so definitely stay for them.

Four Chords and a Gun plays at the Fleck Dance Theatre - Harbourfront Centre, 207 Queens Quay West until April 28.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

VOD review: Jack of All Trades



Directed by: Harvey Glazer, Stuart Stone


ChinoKino score: B+

Review by Allan Tong

What are your old baseball cards worth?

That's the question behind the documentary, Jack of All Trades, where Toronto actor Stuart Stone searches for the answer, which in turns triggers a quest to find his estranged father who once ran a sports card empire.

Stone's adventure starts in his mother's condo where he rescues a few unopened boxes of vintage baseball cards from his childhood in the late-1980s. At that time there were 10,000 shops across North America, and the industry was worth $1.2 billion by 1991. Stuart's old man, Jack, was running 11 Sluggers shops and raking in the cash. A quiet hobby that began in the 1950's exploded in the 1980s.


Excited, Stuart (with his older sister, Karie, as moral support) takes his old cards to a card collecting show, but is crushed to learn they're worthless. What happened?


Stone uncovers the answer as he questions card retailers, big-time collectors, retired baseball star Jose Canseco, Topps (the last big card-maker) and a sports journalist. The market peaked when elite card producer, Upper Deck, oversupplied the market with its treasured 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card. Before Upper Deck, sports cards were homely looking products where stale, dry bubblegum stuck to the backs of cards. Upper Deck elevated baseball cards from the minor to the major leagues with classy, slick and elegant designs. They were beautiful. (Disclosure: I collected baseball and hockey cards as a kid, though retired before the Upper Deck era.)

Unfortunately, Upper Deck also pumped out an oversupply of that Griffey rookie card to meet greedy demand. Speculation went mad. Ultimately, supply became distorted and reduced the value of that and other cards.

Baseball cards are supposed to surprise you. You open a pack and pray that an all-star lies inside. That's the fun. That creates scarcity. Scarcity drove up demand of the pre-1980s cards, so what happens when there's an abundance?

The bubble burst just as Stone's father abandoned his family for another woman. The movie takes a risk interweaving Stone's personal story with the card one, though overall it pays off. At times, Stone's story intrudes on the card one as the narrative switches uneasily from one to the next. Which story is this film telling?

It's telling both, of course, and the ending ties them together in heartfelt fashion. It helps that Stone is a mensch, who candidly reveals the painful secrets of his past. Sister Karie offers a steadying perspective that is detached yet intimate. (The film's title doesn't work, though.)

Baseball fans will love this film, but Jack of All Trades is more than a sports story. It's about dysfunctional families and broken childhoods. It's about reconciling before the game is over.