By BRUCE DENNILL
The below music, literature, film, TV and theatre may not have been created or originally released during 2015, but it was only at some point during this year that I was able to see it, hear it or read it.
In all cases, I count myself lucky to have been in the venue, opened the book or slipped the DVD into the player. Herewith then, the really good stuff from the past year.
Best Song: Before This World/Jolly Springtime by James Taylor
For some musicians, equalling or bettering the heights of yesteryear is simply no longer possible – voices crack on the high notes now, or stubborn fingers won’t pick the patterns you want them to. For James Taylor, the heights of yesteryear are about as lofty as it’s possible to get (and the man is 67 now), so expectations of his latest album Before This World being as good as his peak – 30, even 40 years ago – were realistically slim. Happily, those expectations were also wrong. Taylor’s never been short of A-list collaborators, and on this occasion he pulls in Sting for some harmony vocals that sound like they were laid down after having the requirements explained once (raw, slightly imperfect and beautifully judged by a masterful musician) and Yo Yo Ma for some deep, warm cello tone that, once you hear it, patently couldn’t be provided for anyone else. There are harmonies here as good as those in Shed A Little Light, and the joining of two different songs in one track means you feel like you get a bonus every time you press “play”. Genius.
* Honourable mention: Hitman by Jeremy Messersmith
He’s done a lot of work with Dan Wilson and perhaps some of his colleague’s songwriting fairy dust settled in Messersmith’s brain, as Hitman is a majestic quiet-loud ballad that thrills as it amuses with sardonic wit, taking the traditional love song sob story and subverting it. “I need a hitman for my heart, someone to bump it off a balcony, nonchalantly leave the scene, I need a hitman for my heart.”
Best Album: Heart Murmurs by Jeremy Messersmith
Capable of combining first-rate songwriting with pop nous, Jeremy Messersmith’s fifth release is packed to the gills with quirks and hooks. A formula that involves the mixing together of a sharp, intelligent wit with creative arrangements and point-perfect production makes for a listening experience that’s deeply satisfying – as well as consistently entertaining – from beginning to end.
* Honourable mention: Great Divide by Twin Atlantic
This Scottish outfit make dependably ebullient music that demands that you listen to it at high volume, preferably with all nearby windows open as you sing along with throat-shredding intensity. That’s not to say that it’s aggressive music; more that it the songs have the kind of tunes that carry you and that the band – capable at times of sensitivity and introspection – seem, most of the time, to take unfettered joy in performing their compositions.
Best Live Music: Jason Mraz & Raining Jane at the Teatro, Fourways, Johannesburg
Jason Mraz is just so nice that a suspicion that his concerts might be saccharine hug-fests seems reasonable but put a guitar in his hand, or place him in front of a piano, and the fedora-wearing, farm-aiding troubadour shows off a musicality and stagecraft that any performer on the planet will either covet or, at the very least, respect. Include multi-instrumentalist, all-girl backing band Raining Jane – as talented as the Dixie Chicks – and you have a live performance package that lacks for nothing at all.
* Honourable mention: Bob Fox – An Evening With The Warhorse Songman at Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg
One of the last great old-fashioned folkies, Bob Fox was the best thing about the stage production of War Horse that toured South Africa, which is saying something. Solo, as a raconteur with just his guitar and a microphone – plus a mammoth catalogue of fascinating stories – he is arguably even more effective, and the atmosphere of intimacy he creates with his rapt audience requires that a bubble be burst on the way out of the theatre, with whatever you’re going home to unlikely to seem as interesting…
Best Film: Danny Collins, directed by Dan Fogelman
A profound examination of the impact of fame, this film’s script is laden with heart and, perhaps more importantly, it also contains endless encouragement for its cast to actually act, as opposed to the glossy joining the dots that’s involved in most mainstream releases. That the cast includes Al Pacino, Christopher Plummer, Annette Bening and Bobby Cannavale is then a major bonus, and the inclusion of wonderful music and a supremely unlikely true story as the film’s foundation give Danny Collins more emotional impact than a dozen big-budget romances and dramas combined.
* Honourable mention: The Judge, directed by David Dobkin
Another formidable cast, including Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton and the underrated Dax Shepard, deals with a family drama of the most distressing sort. A judge (Duvall) is accused of murder and his estranged son (Downey Jr) must return to a town he had good reasons to leave in order to defend him. it’s a compelling set-up, ably supported by some monumental talents.
Best TV: Inside No. 9, Directed by David Kerr
The television equivalent of those deliciously dark short stories that the likes of Roald Dahl and Neil Gaiman write, the six episodes of Inside No. 9 introduce viewers to a range of scenarios that could (for the most part; one Gothic horror example doesn’t fit) ostensibly take place in an average day in an average home or workplace. Black humour and often vicious twists mean that you won’t know how each story will end, or if you’ll be laughing or disturbed when they do.
* Honourable mention: The Newsroom: The Complete Third Season, created by Aaron Sorkin
It’s Sorkin, so there’s whip-smart dialogue delivered at frenetic pace and an idealistic, revisionist spin on a complex but otherwise familiar scenario. In this case it’s a 24-hour TV news channel where integrity is more important that ratings and therefore the business aspect is a continuous struggle. If you’ve seen the show, you’ll be dismayed that this is the final season. Jeff Daniels, as station anchor Will McAvoy, is unlikely to ever get a better role and the scene in which Sloan Sabbith (Olivia Munn) intellectually eviscerates a gossip-mongering colleague on air is possibly up there in the top ten scenes in TV – ever.
Johannesburg author JT Lawrence’s writing is original, innovative and acerbic, so this futuristic thriller is a cut above its competition to begin with. But perhaps its standout feature is the immersive nature of its setting. Lawrence has imagined a South Africa a few years into the future that is completely believable and, as such, more than a little disturbing. The book is self-published; with the marketing might of an international publishing house behind it, it’d be unstoppable.
* Honourable mention: My Grandmother Sends Her Regards And Apologises by Fredrik Backman
In the follow-up to the equally brilliant A Man Called Ove, Fredrik Backman continues to reveal the power of small stories; focusing on eccentric but meaningful individuals whose actions have a massive impact on those around them. His great achievement here is to, via a number of cleverly interwoven threads, highlight the importance of telling stories: in order to grieve; in order to learn; and in order to move forward.
Best Theatre: I’m Playing Your Song, directed by Alan Swerdlow
Two South Africans – director Alan Swerdlow and star Jonathan Roxmouth – have written an American story so brilliantly structured and performed that it deserves a long, influential run on (or off) Broadway. It is the story, told via drama, exquisite comedy and phenomenal music, of the life of songwriter Marvin Hamlisch, composer of tunes that took, among others, Barbra Streisand and Carly Simon to the top of the charts. Behind every onstage success is fantastic writing: everything hits the mark.
* Honourable mention: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, directed by Steven Stead
In a superb personal 2015, Jonathan Roxmouth also featured in a compact but compelling production of Stephen Sondheim’s dark masterpiece. Producer Pieter Torien and director Steven Stead are a formidable team when it comes to the so-called “bonsai musicals”, and Sweeney Todd is arguably a bigger triumph than past successes in this area because making its dark subject matter and challenging soundtrack accessible is that much more of a test.