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Three Remakes That Made Real Differences

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
October 14, 2011

On today’s All Things Considered, film critic Bob Mondello takes a contrarian angle on the question of Hollywood remakes, arguing that they’re not always evidence of a lack of imagination. You can listen to that story over here, but we thought it might be fun to ask a few NPR folk to go a little deeper and talk about a few cases — from a punk anthem to an orchestral classic to one of Shakespeare’s late romances — where a second take on something made a serious difference.

A ‘Gloria’ That Still Earns Hosannas

A band never really can predict what will happen to its work once it’s out there. Them, Van Morrison’s ’60s and ’70s outfit, recorded the seminal song “Gloria.” They released it in 1964 as a B-side on a single, and it eventually became one of the better-known garage-rock anthems of the time.

But something pivotal happened in 1975, when Patti Smith released it as the opening track on her debut album, Horses. Smith expanded and morphed the gritty, two-and-a-half-minute song into a stunning six-minute piece with a distinct shape. She made bold additions to the lyrics, too, opening the song with the line “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.” It’s arguably the birth of punk rock.

Smith channeled the intensity of the original, but crossed the bridge from the brashness of garage to the unapologetic disposition of punk, pushing the listener to question gender, sexuality, faith and purpose.

And while rock music has changed a lot over the years, the indelibility of Patti Smith’s guttural exclamations, the sense that she’s taking control of her own destiny and owning every single one of her actions — all that, in one song — is still something we latch onto. — Sarah Ventre

For Musical ‘Pictures,’ A More Vivid Palette Pays Off

Poor Modest Mussorgsky. It seems everyone had to clean up after him.

His fellow composers Rimsky-Korsakov and Shostakovich both retooled his opera Boris Godunov. And the opera Khovanshchina, left incomplete when he died, had to be finished up — again, by Rimsky-Korsakov. (Some fans now consider these re-orchestrations inferior to the originals, but that’s a whole other story.)

And then there’s Pictures at an Exhibition, the big hit Mussorgsky never really had. The original work is a suite of pieces for solo piano he wrote in 1874. It’s a musical evocation of a memorial retrospective of paintings, architectural drawings and stage designs by his friend Viktor Hartmann, who had died the year before.

The piece is notoriously difficult for pianists, which is one reason it never caught fire with either performers or the public. But boy, did fortune change for the piece when Maurice Ravel got hold of it in 1922.

Ravel composed for orchestra with painterly flair. In his hands, the craggy-sounding Pictures suddenly came alive with Technicolor brilliance, and it became (and remains) a staple in the classical symphonic repertoire. In fact, Washingtonians can hear Ravel’s Mussorgsky “remake” later this month when the National Symphony Orchestra performs it at the Kennedy Center. — Tom Huizenga

In ‘Arctic,’ A Wintry Tale Blooms Anew

Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale isn’t exactly on his greatest-hits list. It’s not a terrible play; it’s just hard to get your arms around. (Jealous king, wronged wife, wackadoo ending involving a surprisingly lifelike statue.) I’ve seen directors make a decent case for it, but it ain’t easy.

So it was kind of wonderful, back in 2004, when playwright and TV scripter Craig Wright (Six Feet Under, Dirty Sexy Money and such) delivered an update whose rawness and humanity laid audiences low.

It’s called Melissa Arctic, and instead of playing out in ancient Sicily, it’s set in a contemporary Minnesota. Paranoid King Leontes is now just a barber named Leonard — and where Shakespeare doesn’t give the character much in the way of an internal life, Wright makes him a real tragic figure. He’s scared, under pressure, worried about money. I wrote when I reviewed the play’s world premiere that “Leonard’s breakdown [is] the spiritual withering of an ordinary guy trapped in a world that values success above decency.”

In other words, Wright upped the stakes for a 21st-century American audience — and the stakes, when it comes to storytelling, are everything. Stakes are why The X-Factor has a $5 million prize; they’re why Sophie’s choice involves kids, not pets. Stakes make you care where the story ends.

Melissa Arctic isn’t a perfect play, and unlike Ravel’s “Pictures” and Aretha’s “Respect,” it’s not going to eclipse its inspiration. (Shakespeare’s got the brand thing going on.) But the memory of that 2004 premiere still haunts me — so if you’re looking for evidence that a remake can be a worthy artistic exercise, you can put this one right up there on the list. — Trey Graham

Got A Favorite Of Your Own?

We’ve barely scratched the surface, right? If you’ve got a favorite remake that sheds new light on its inspiration — John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius? Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books? — then hit the comments, and tell us what makes it great. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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