New “Muppet Movie” for children of all ages; grouches need not attend

Folks – you know, those people who determine pop culture – will say that the best moment of “The Muppets” is when Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper breaks out into rap, sort of like that moment when Tom Cruise, playing nasty studio exec Les Grossman, begins rapping in “Tropic Thunder.”

But there were two better and more important moments for me when I saw it Saturday evening in a theatre full of parents and kids – and one grumpy couple.

One, near the movie’s end, was when Kermit sat in a sliver of moon and began singing my favorite song . . .

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows
and what’s on the other side? . . .

I couldn’t believe the lump that rose in my throat as I listened to a song that was more than three decades old.

“Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
and rainbows have nothing to hide.”

I had gone to see the movie for the same reason that I had dragged my daughter to “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King” and “Finding Nemo” – because I love fantasy and magic and the color of rainbows – even if she just tolerated them.

“So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.
I know they’re wrong, wait and see.”

I wanted to connect her with the beauty of escape and to feel what I did as I’ve gone to the movies for so long: Film can take you anywhere you want to be and some places you didn’t even know you wanted to do.

“Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”

The great Paul Williams and Kenny Asher co-wrote the “The Rainbow Connection” for the first “Muppet Movie.” It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1979 for Best Song. Williams later spoke with great reverence about the song, which opened and closed the film:

“It’s one of two favorite songs I’ve written in my life, and oddly, they’re both from The Muppet Movie. (The other is “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday.”) When we started working on the film, Kenny and I and Jim (Henson) and Jerry Juhl (the late Muppets head writer) all agreed that we had to establish Kermit’s soul from the very beginning. And to do that, he has to ponder some big questions. Kenny and I began to write this song — the song addresses that inner voice that tells Kermit he can try to do these big things. Then Jerry Juhl did this great thing in the script at the end, when the stage explodes and the end of the rainbow appears — the actual “rainbow connection.” That’s the proof of the whole Muppet philosophy.”

There is a Muppet philosophy, one that is endearing and has stood the test of time since Jim Henson created the puppets to delight children with the simplicity of niceness. Jason Segel, the 31-year-old “How I Met Your Mother” actor led the revival of the Muppets franchise, which lay dormant since the last film 12 years ago. He gets it.

“I wanted … this movie to bring them back where they belonged, back to the forefront of comedy,” he said in news reports. “They should have been making movies this whole time — grand, song and dance films with numbers like they had in the old MGM musicals.”

The movie’s premise is simple and won’t be revealed here. Something happens. The Muppets have to fix it. Mayhem ensues. All is well in the end.

Which brings me to that other great moment Saturday night: At movie’s end, after the songs and dancing and laughter and adult inside-jokes, in a theater filled with teary-eyed parents and happy children, the grumpy couple stood, and the guy, a tall-white haired version of Orson Bean with glasses, pronounced quite loudly: “That was the worst movie ever.”

Within seconds, a beautiful little brunette who appeared to be eight, or nine years old and who had been sitting one row in front of him, took him on. The little one, who had spent an afternoon reveling in magic and rainbows, turned around and said: That was the best movie ever!”

I was so proud of her. I wanted to give her a hug, but I didn’t want to be arrested. I wanted to give him a shake, but I didn’t want to be arrested.

It took everything in me not to ask him why he’d come to a feel-good movie for people who want to feel good and try to ruin it for everyone else.

It took everything in me not to chastise him (while walking away quickly), and say, “Shame on you for doing that!”

But then I realized that he probably wouldn’t get it. And most of the children – and their parents ignored him. They had just sung along with Kermit and a roomful of people. They had participated in a moment that has been happening for 30 years.

They had experienced joy.

That grouch will have to wait – and I hope it doesn’t come too late – to hear and feel the magic for himself. The children in the theater, all of them, of all ages, did:

“Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices?
I’ve heard them calling my name.

“Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors.
The voice might be one and the same.

“I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it.
It’s something that I’m supposed to be.

“Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection.
The lovers, the dreamers and me.”

Thank you, Jim – and Kermit and Miss Piggy and Animal and Camilla the Chicken and Fozzie and Gonzo and Oscar and Scooter and the newest Muppet, Walter, and everyone else.

Opening Pandora’s Box

So I’m at Textures Hair Spa yesterday, having my locks re-twisted and talking with an old friend, Denise and the rest of the clients, about the current state of affairs in Detroit.

Suddenly, as if the universe had spoken to us simultaneously, we all realized we wanted, needed, to talk about something else. So I asked about the wonderful Brazilian music that was flowing from the speakers’ all around the spa.

“It’s Pandora!” Nefertiti said.

Dang. I knew this was one of those moments that would embarrass my daughter, but I asked anyway.

“What’s Pandora? I’ve heard the word, but I’m not sure what it is, some kind of music site, right?”

No, it’s not just a music site.

Pandora is an infinite internet radio station. You don’t buy. You just listen. You plug in what kind of music you like, and it finds song after joy after revelation for you to listen to.

For free.

(No, I do not work for Pandora. They’d be embarrassed that I just joined the club. But then I only began using Facebook three and a half years ago.  So there.)

I opened an account and typed in my favorite music, Parliament/Funkadelic. And my mouth fell open. I hadn’t heard “Get Up on the Down Stroke” since I was a kid. And then “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” from War. A day later, it’s playing Prince’s “Lady Cab Driver.”

It doesn’t find just a single artist’s music: It imagines what music you might like if you like that artist.

I’m typing in James Taylor and Gladys Knight right now, and I know I’ll be happy all day long.

TEENA MARIE: Not Bad for a White Girl? Nah. How about brilliant in any color?

It was among the things that led to the phrase “You lying!”

Growing up, every time someone said Teena Marie was white, that was the response.  Every time someone said she could sing her butt off, even enemies and racists agreed.

That Teena Marie, one of a handful of white performers to understand and successfully interpret rhythm-and-blues, died Sunday was a shame.

But the response to news reports that she died of natural causes?

“You lying!”

There is nothing natural about the music world losing that voice and an age when many singers are beginning their second acts.

She began her career at Motown. Years earlier, Berry Gordy set the standard for interracial recruiting by signing the white rock band Rare Earth to the Motown family (Motown and Tamla Records). But it was the Sound of Young America – the Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations – that defined Motown and led it to create music that became iconic.

Still, early Motown happened when we were children, and Motown was Mama and Daddy and ‘em’s music that we loved anyway.

But when Rick James arrived at Motown, full of jheri curls and vinegar, it led to a whole new Motown. Rick jammed a prom or a house party full of kids whose parents were driving around the neighborhood looking for them.

And when Motown signed Teena, the company began breaking all the rules. And so did Teena and Rick, beginning an onstage and off-stage affair that angered black women and reminded America that even in the music industry, racial tensions rule. Another successful black man chose a white woman: who did he think he was? He thought he was free.

For her first album in 1979, Motown wanted Teena to pass for black. There was no recognition of her background, her face, her beginnings. (The great irony was that so many black artists and groups had to do this in the industry’s early years.)

Teena passed, ruling black radio stations and remaining colorless until the following year, when it was her face that graced the cover of her second album, Lady T.

Four years ago, she told a National Public Radio interviewer that: “I still have people coming up to me 26 years later and looking at me and all of a sudden going, ‘I didn’t know you were white!’ ”

The rash of obituaries following her death all included a mention of her lawsuit against Motown, which wouldn’t release her from her contract, but wouldn’t let her release records – a prison no artist should endure. She won, and the Brockert Initiative (Her real name was Mary Christine Brockert.) eventually changed the lives of many artists.

Beginning with Teena.

She left Motown for Epic and soared higher than she ever had. She released “Lovergirl,” her biggest seller ever – after she left Motown.

Soon thought, like many women, she began to focus more on motherhood than the. But a decade later, she faced off against Alicia Keys for a 2005 Grammy. Keys won, but Teena was back.

Teena Marie once said: “I’m a black artist with white skin. At the end of the day you have to sing what’s in your own soul.”

At least she admits it.

But her dying at 54? There is nothing natural about that. There is only a great sense of loss at what she still had in her soul.