The story is as old as history itself. Artists have never created their art in a vacuum.
Composers routinely took commissions from their kings, writing to-order pieces that we now hold as artistic triumphs -- even if, at the time, they might have reasonably been called "sellouts." Some of these might have been penned specifically with the idea of readying troops for war or encouraging certain emotions in the general populace.
In some instances, even if a composer hadn't intended his work as political in nature, it was appropriated by someone who saw the piece as beneficial to their own political aspirations. Think Adolf Hitler and his love for the bombastic operas of Richard Wagner. (Who, it should be noted, probably wouldn't have been all that upset to learn that Hitler was a fan.)
Similarly, the world of film and cinema has often found itself sucked into the vortex of political upheaval, offering ideological commentary, if not outright propaganda-as-art. War is so often glorified on the silver screen. Slightly less often, its horrors are writ large.
This election season, then, is one in which historical echoes are combining to cacophonous effect. Already, John McCain has irked at least three major popular musicians -- of liberal persuasion, of course -- by appropriating their songs as thematic bunting for his campaign. But the McCain campaign has gotten help from several other big names, including Hank Williams Jr., Gretchen Wilson and John Rich. On the other side of the ideological fence, artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Jay-Z and Sheryl Crow have campaigned vigorously in swing states, hoping to seal the deal for Barack Obama's presidential bid.
Country music has always been a hotbed for this sort of thing. Aaron Tippin recently wrote a paean to Sarah Palin and the quest for domestic oil, christening it "Drill Here, Drill Now." Apparently, the hue and cry surrounding the Dixie Chicks' public dissing of George W. Bush, the mantra of which became "shut up and sing," doesn't apply to country singers of the right-wing variety.
Oliver Stone being Oliver Stone, the new historical fiction epic "W." saw release right smack in the middle of the election season's final gasp.
So here, then, delivered with a light and hopeful heart, is a collection of films and songs we feel capture the crux of the warring ideologies in this year's election. Whichever way the wind blows on Election Day, rest assured that we'll, at the very least, get a few new interesting movies and passionate songs out of it.
-- Jeff Miers
Best Political Movies
By Jeff Simon - Arts Editor
CONSERVATIVE: John Ford's "The Last Hurrah" (1958) starring Spencer Tracy as novelist Edwin O'Connor's fictional version of Boston populist and scalawag Mayor James Curley. The final 10 minutes are a shameless protracted weepathon in sentimental Ford style.
LIBERAL: In "The Best Man" (1964), Gore Vidal's savvy, racy script wanted a fictional variation on Adlai Stevenson (Henry Fonda) even though American voters never wanted the real one.
INDEPENDENT: John Frankenheimer's original adaptation of Richard Condon's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962, a year before John F. Kennedy's assassination) starred Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury and Janet Leigh and remains the wittiest and most stylish nightmare ever made about American politics. When Frankenheimer's candidate Bobby Kennedy was actually assassinated the night of the 1968 California primary, Frankenheimer -- as he once admitted to me in an interview -- had a nervous breakdown that affected his work ever afterward.
GREEN: Has anyone ever stood up for more political purity and honest land use than Jimmy Stewart as Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939)?
LIBERTARIAN: In the hilarious and indeed semi-miraculous "Bulworth" (1998) Warren Beatty plays a rapping white senator who finally decides to do the most radical and singular political thing of all: tell the truth to the American people. When the movie opened, no one in the hierarchy of 20th Century Fox would publicly admit to greenlighting the film.
GREAT POLITICAL MOVIES THAT WENT BY THE WAYSIDE IN THE AESTHETIC PRIMARIES: Also-rans among the great American political movies for sure are: Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent"; Barry Levinson's "Wag the Dog" (whose brother film, "What Just Happened," opens next week); John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln"; Robert Rossen's "All the King's Men"; and Alan Pakula's "All the President's Men."
Note: Only three films on this list of 10 are in color. If politics isn't a dramatic black-and-white subject, nothing is.
Best Political Songs
By Jeff Miers- News Pop Music Critic
CONSERVATIVE: Threat of physical violence? Check. Equation of the notion of "freedom" with the female form? Check. Allusions to both the American eagle and the Liberty bell in the same verse? Check.
Yup, Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" has it all. To wit: "Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list, and the Statue of Liberty started shaking her fist/And the eagle will fly, and there's gonna be hell/When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell!/It's gonna feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you/Brought to you courtesy of the Red, White and Blue!"
LIBERAL: There are thousands of impassioned songs that fall beneath the rather vague "liberal" umbrella, but only one will do for this year's election. "Long Walk Home," by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, covers the bases quite well.
"My father said 'Son, we're lucky in this town, It's a beautiful place to be born/It just wraps its arms around you, nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone/ Your flag flyin' over the courthouse/Means certain things are set in stone -- Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't/... It's gonna be a long walk home"
Springsteen cast a bit of light on the song's creation in a March interview posted on NPR.com. "That guy [in the song] is trying to talk to his son and say, 'Look, there are these things that are supposed to be sacred. And they make us who we are. And they direct us and guide us in what we do.' Those things are important to remember, never more so than when the country is under stress and when times are hard. And that's where we are right now."
INDEPENDENT: I'll go with "The Call-Up," by the Clash. The song reflects the sort of world-weary disgust with the status quo that seems to be in line with the desire to abandon the tenets of a two-party system in this country. Of course, the Clash lived in Britain. But the sentiment is universal, and its distaste for conventional, accepted wisdom both timeless and palpable.
A close second should be awarded to Eddie Vedder's "Society," culled from his stirring soundtrack to Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" film. The song is delivered in the voice of a narrator who has washed his hands of the whole mess and moved off the grid.
GREEN: "This Place," by Joni Mitchell, says exactly what needs to be said regarding the current climate crisis, and suggests some of the reasons for it.
"You see those lovely hills?/They won't be there for long/They're gonna tear 'em down and sell them to California/Here come the toxic spills, miners poking all around/When this place looks like a moonscape, don't say I didn't warn ya.../Money, money, money.../Money makes the trees come down/It makes mountains into molehills/Big money kicks the wide wide world around."
The song ends with a hint of hope, though, and ultimately, it's this that makes it ring true. "Spirit of the water/give us all the courage and the grace/To make genius of this tragedy unfolding/The genius to save this place."
Any song that can so gracefully equate our problems as a species with our inability to find our place in the natural scheme of things should appeal to the greens.
LIBERTARIAN: Ideally, all rock songs would have a hint of the libertarian in them, if we narrow the definition down to a celebration of individualism and a love of freedom -- freedom to do what one wants to do, as long as it hurts no one else.
That's pretty general, yes, but so many great songs celebrate the notion. It's impossible to pick just one, but I'll go with Bob Dylan's "Maggie's Farm."
GREAT POLITICAL SONGS THAT WENT BY THE WAYSIDE IN THE AESTHETIC PRIMARIES: Also-rans among the great political songs: Jackson Browne, "Lives in the Balance"; Don Henley, "Inside Job"; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, "Ohio"; Crosby, Stills and Nash, "Wooden Ships"; Rage Against the Machine, "Guerrilla Radio"; Pearl Jam, "Bushleaguer."
On the Web
Go to the Miers on Music blog at www.buffalonews.com to read about Bruce Springsteen's philosophy on political songwriting.