paul la rosa

I watched the Fyre Festival documentaries on Hulu and Netflix…

by , on
Jan 20, 2019

By Paul La Rosa [@paullarosa]

You may have heard something about the Fyre Festival, the disastrous music non-event held in April 2018 on the island of Grand Exuma in the Bahamas. I did but wasn’t paying all that much attention until this weekend when Hulu and Netflix each released their own documentaries on the fiasco.

A quick refresher. Sometimes soon after President Trump was elected, a millennial “innovator”/scam artist named Billy McFarland got it in his head that he would cheer everyone up by holding a gigantic music festival in the Bahamas that would rival Coachcella.

It wasn’t a terrible idea but Billy M. began by shooting the video for the event before finding a suitable location. It is evident in both docs that Billy is quite the bullshit artist and he convinced some of the world’s top models and a very slick marketing agency to help him shoot that sumptuous video. The video, mainly featured in the Netflix doc, is total eye candy with gorgeous models swimming, riding jet skis and frolicking with pigs (in case you haven’t heard…swimming with pigs is the thing to do in Grand Exmuma).

Billy even lined up some famous bands, picked a date and began flooding Instagram with news of the event. Many many tickets were sold before Billy had a suitable location and, by suitable, I mean before he and other organizers realized that you need electricity, plumbing and bathrooms to host a festival, no matter how many cute models you have on hand.

A single Instagram post by Kendall Jenner, for which she was paid $250,000, made Fyre Festival THE event to attend. Because of poor planning, no music was played and the event became a legendary fiasco with rich millennials and so-called influencers trapped on an island eating cheese sandwiches with nowhere to go to the bathroom except the sea.

Enter Hulu and Netflix and their mad dash for content. Simultaneously, they produced two slick documentaries that are each well-produced but very different.

To a storyteller like myself, it’s fascinating to see the differences and the similarities because, as we all know, there are many ways to tell the same story.

The Netflix doc tells the story of the festival in chronological order while the Hulu doc starts at the end and backs into the story. I found the Netflix approach more compelling; I was on the edge of my seat to see how the event would play out. The Hulu doc gives you a lot of that at the very beginning.

One big difference is that Hulu was able to interview the event’s villain, Billy McFarland who is now serving a six year prison stretch for his fraud. Hulu reportedly paid Billy in the six figures for the interview but doesn’t pull any punches. The producers ask him very tough questions to which Billy either stares blank-faced or says “I can’t comment.”

The Hulu doc is much more about Billy for better and for worse. I was craving more about him after watching the Netflix doc which I viewed first. I got all I wanted and more from the Hulu doc. It’s much tougher on Billy the BS artist but also features his loyal model girlfriend and that’s a problem. No one wants to see Billy rewarded in any way, least of all with the love of a beautiful woman.

Overall, the Hulu doc takes a larger view of society and the influencer culture that opened the door for a scam artist like Billy who, by the way, continued his fraudulent ways while he was out on bail for the original charges. It’s hard, after seeing Billy exposed this way, to believe anyone would invest another dime with this guy. The jury’s out on that.

The Hulu producers made a wise choice when they picked New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino to provide context and commentary. Her original voice and keen insights carry the heavy lifting of explanation.

As for the Netflix doc, it’s more about the festival and doesn’t stop to consider the context of what was going on in our society to allow such a colossal flop. But that choice doesn’t hurt it; it fact, by taking a limited view, the Netflix documentary moves faster.

The Hulu documentary forces you to think but loses steam after its first incredible 20 minutes. It’s still quite good (who can resist seeing Billy squirm in the chair even if he is wearing expensive black jeans?) but, if you only want to watch one, Netflix is probably for you.

It’s also the one to watch if you’re thinking right about now, “Why should I watch either one; I hate these rich punks!” Good point but Netflix humanizes those who truly suffered–the hardworking men and women of Grand Exuma who worked day and night and mostly were not paid. You can’t help feeling bad for cook Maryann Rolle who tears up when she thinks of the $50,000 she lost paying for all that food. (Some started a fund-raising campaign that has raised $123,000 as of this writing.)

I would make the case that you should watch both. Yes, there are many of the same characters and much of the same footage but the devil’s in the differences. Characters who seem important pop up in one doc but are completely absent in the other. And there is a killer anecdote about water and a blowjob you’ll only see in the Netflix production.

So watch both, especially if you’re snowed in or it’s a dreary rainy winter’s day. If nothing else, the water and the models help offset a cold winter’s day.

John Lennon: petulant genius, marginal human

by , on
Dec 26, 2018

After reading Being John Lennon by longtime Beatles chronicler Ray Connolly, one can’t but help think that John Lennon simply never grew up. Murdered at age 40, he was, to the end of his life, a petulant genius, capable of writing great songs and administering great cruelty to those who knew him.

Toward the end of this encyclopedic biography, Connolly, who interviewed Lennon countless times, sums it up this way: “Though millions who didn’t know him loved him, sometimes those who knew him well didn’t always like him. A natural leader, who could so easily be led and who saw himself as a chameleon, he was at various times a clever, witty, angry, funny, sharp-tongued, far-sighted, impetuous, talented, guilt-laden, preaching, sardonic, exaggerating, gullible, aggressive, unfaithful, obsessive, self-absorbed, outspoken, jealous, sometimes cruel but often generous man. He was certainly no saint, but, to his friends, he was hard not to like. Above all, he was absolutely a one-off.”

Because Lennon died so young, he seems never to have achieved perspective on his life. It must have been hard for any Beatle. Famous in their early twenties, they were showered with lavish praise worldwide, especially Lennon and McCartney. It’s a minor miracle that Paul and Ringo are seemingly as normal as they appear but they have the benefit of having lived a long, full life.

Lennon didn’t have that.

Connolly makes it clear that Lennon was still being buffeted by events rather than choosing them. Yeah, he started the Beatles but Paul broke them up. Lennon never even lived alone, going from Paul and onetime wife Cynthia to Yoko to girlfriend May Pang and then back to Yoko again.

Lennon famously did not suffer fools but, as Connolly points out, it was relatively easy for Yoko to make a fool of him. She simply stalked him until he gave in to her avant-garde personality and, as Lennon once said, “Avant-garde is French for bullshit.” If only he’d listened to himself.

There is an untold number of books on the Beatles but at least Connolly actually knew the boys. That counts. In probably his most famous moment, Lennon handed the author one of the biggest scoops in the world at that point, the revelation that Lennon was going to quit the Beatles. Later, when Paul beat him to the punch, Lennon cornered Connolly. It’s one of Connolly’s best stories:

“Why didn’t you write it when I told you in Canada at Christmas,” he asked me that day.

“You asked me not to,” I replied.

“You’re the journalist, Connelly, not me,” he stabbed back.

The problem here is similar—Connolly waited too long to write this book. He may have intimate knowledge of the lads but Lennon was right—Connolly is too slow for his own good. The idea that he waited 38 years since Lennon’s murder to write this bio is astonishing. Talk about sitting on a story!

The sad truth is that, by now, there’s nearly nothing left to squeeze from the life of the Beatles. Any Beatles fan can recite all the touchstone moments off the top of his head—the day John met Paul, the day Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Star, the trips to Germany, the achievement of Sgt. Pepper, the day John met Yoko, the recording of the White Album, the rooftop concert and, the worst day of all, when Lennon was murdered.

This bio does add detail to those moments but it’s not enough. Yes, it is interesting that Connolly was set to interview Lennon a day or two after the murder but only for a moment.

At this point—more than 50 years since the boys appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show—the best books about the Beatles come from interesting analyses like Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield or straight up fiction. The best of the recent fiction about Lennon in particular comes from Tom Barbash who wrote the recently published The Dakota Winters that tells the story of a family who lived in The Dakota apartments in the months leading up to Lennon’s murder. An earlier novel titled Get Back, Imagine Saving John Lennon by Donovan Day also had its fun moments.

This is not to say that Connelly’s book is anything less than comprehensive. It is but, in writing about Lennon’s life, it’s not enough to go through all the obvious signposts. Lennon was an amazing songwriter and singer, probably an average musician, but his legend needs a breather. We loved him but his life story may be as played out as the 10,000th playing of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Sometimes, one needs to listen to new music and find fresh legends.

(Originally published in The New York Journal of Book. )

Sometimes we all need beauty in our lives…

by , on
Oct 28, 2018

Sometimes, the world is butt ugly. Eleven members of a synagogue dead in Pittsburgh while attending a bris, two African-Americans killed while grocery shopping in a Kroger’s, suspicious packages sent to politicians who disagree with the President.

Even before any of these events took place, I was feeling the oppression of living in New York City which, yeah, can be great but can also be an ugly, coarse place. I was working on a story at Criminal Court, a monolithic monument to all that is wrong with New York. Long security lines, frightened and nervous suspects and jurors unsure what’s in store for them, and burly court officers trying to make the best of a bad situation weighed down by bulletproof vests and a well-earned sardonic outlook on life.

These days, the streets around this gray building–which by the way is connected by skybridge to a jail called The Tombs (get the picture?)–is swimming in construction. I’m not even going to mention the subway system that got me there. Even on its best days, the subway is an ugly parade with peeling paint, moldy, water-streaked walls and commuters right out of a Diane Arbus photo. No one looks very happy.

Having said all this, I’m an optimist by nature so, when I feel overwhelmed by the only city I’ve ever lived in, I know what I need–I need beauty. Sometimes, it’s getting out the city and seeing nature and sometimes, it’s Paris! But last week, I chose to visit the Guggenheim Museum where I’d not been for ages.

Someone on Twitter had posted something about the museum’s current exhibition–wildly designed abstract paintings by Hilma Klint created at the turn of the 20th century. They were so arresting and colorful, so utterly different than my sad surroundings, that I went.

Klint was a Swedish feminist artist who took her art very seriously. She believed there was a world beyond this one and attended seances regularly. She believed in mediums and a lot of her art, she wrote in meticulous journals, was inspired by spiritualism.

Her greatest work “The Paintings for the Temple”–created around 1906–is breathtaking in color and design and way ahead of its time. You can read the above link which will tell you much more about Klint than I could. All I can say is that the exhibition did the trick. It showed me some beauty and art in a world sorely in need of it at the moment.

Klint lived in a different country and time but, standing in front of her art, I felt as though she was speaking to me from the beyond. I connected with her work–inspired by the unseen world and so far out of my day to day realm. If an artist can create works of this magnitude, all is not lost. Believe it.

Book review: Sally Field was a victim of Hollywood’s casting couch long before Weinstein….

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Oct 7, 2018

Somewhere in the middle of this revelatory and emotionally powerful memoir by Sally Field, she unpacks a story that is a case study in what Hollywood’s casting couch was like, even for an actress who had already starred in two network series—Gidget and The Flying Nun.

Field’s career was in a lull after those two shows so she was incredulous and delighted to find herself auditioning (it was her first audition ever) for the part of a sexpot in Bob Rafelson’s film Stay Hungry. At that point, director Rafelson was a hot ’70s new wave director, and his resume included the landmark film Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicolson.

Field got the audition for Stay Hungry because of a female casting director who believed in her, but Rafelson wanted no part of her. Still, he had to admit that she read for the part better than anyone else. As Field writes, “He had a hard time owning the idea that he’d be hiring the Flying Nun . . . and it was driving him crazy.”

Rafelson asked for one more meeting at his house. A housekeeper led Sally to his bedroom and was dismissed. He sat on the bed and “he told me to take my top off so he could see my breasts, saying since there was a nude scene in the film, he needed to figure out how to shoot me.”

[continue reading…..]

Latest book review: “Small Fry” by Lisa Brennan-Jobs….

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Sep 24, 2018

After reading this memoir about life with her famous father Steve Jobs, one comes away feeling that author Lisa Brennan-Jobs must be the most even-tempered woman on earth. That’s what a bastard Jobs is, and that word does not begin to describe him.

But Brennan-Jobs is nothing if not understanding. Even in the title, she takes it easy on Jobs. She could easily have called this “The Cruelest Man in the World” and it’s doubtful anyone would have argued.

Steve Jobs may have been a visionary but, as has been well-documented elsewhere, he could be a son of a bitch and was an eccentric of the first order. And his first child Lisa seems to have taken the brunt of it. The story is different and powerful when it’s from the point of view of a child.

There’s nothing like primary sources. For all the books written about Jobs, this one means more because it’s so intimate. Brennan-Jobs lived in Job’s house and got nearly a daily primer on how cruel and nutty he could be—although there were moments of humor and love sprinkled here and there.

As the book makes clear, there were special moments and eventual love between father and daughter. Jobs wasn’t a total jerk 100% of the time but he was capable of so many emotionally cruel moments that there are almost too many to catalog. [Continue reading….]

In Lisbon, remembering those who came before….

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Jul 23, 2018

Recently, I visited Lisbon and as I was walking through one of the oldest parts of town–a neighborhood called the Mouraria–I spotted plaques attached to the walls of the ancient buildings that featured senior residents of the block. The plaques are brilliant–stylized photographs designed to remember longtime residents who were there before the shops and restaurants.

One of the plaques at the end of the block explained what the project was all about. It’s called “The Tribute” and it’s a street exhibit by photographer/artist Camilla Watson from Britain designed as “a tribute to the elderly who live here. They walk this beco daily and their spirit makes this corner of Mouraria special.”

Doing a bit more research, I discovered Watson’s reason for undertaking the project in an article from the Evening Standard:

“When I began this project, the old part of Lisbon had not been renovated for at least 200 years,” says Watson. “The walls were full of holes and cracks – and the area had a high density of elderly so for me the old people were ageing together with the old buildings. They were one and the same. So I imagined their faces as part of walls in the streets. And I set myself the challenge of printing them onto the walls themselves.”

What a great idea! And it occurred to me that, since this exhibit is years old, at least some of these seniors must be dead and yet their images live on….on the very street where they spent decades. Watson has since expanded her project to other parts of the old city as she describes on her website:

“I am interested in people, communities and their history. How can we keep a communities history alive? How can we hold onto their memories in rapidly changing environments? I want to bring the past into the present in a way that is visual, creative and accessible to all; especially in historic neighbourhoods and in areas in a process of change.”

It struck me that this would be a great project for New York but with a slightly different angle. Too often, New York neighborhoods undergo changes due to gentrification that make it seem like people and businesses that existed on our streets just a year or two ago are part of prehistoric history. Wouldn’t it be great to do something along the lines of this project to help remember them? Of course the best thing would be to enact laws that prevent them from being forced out but, seeing how that’s not going to happen anytime soon, let’s at least remember them and not ignore our past.

Camilla, if you read this, maybe you can visit and make this a reality.

Book Review: “Reporter” by Seymour M. Hersh

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Jun 5, 2018

[Note: A few years back, Ted Sturtz, a former investment banker and lover of books, was dismayed by all the newspapers dropping their book review sections. Feeling there was a place online for thoughtful book reviews, he created the website New York Journal of Books and somewhere along the line asked me to participate which I was happy to do. Here’s my latest review for them. I hope you take a look at the website; there are a lot of great reviews and books featured. Thanks!]

This memoir is filled with the type of jaw-dropping anecdotes one might expect from a purebred reporter such as Sy Hersh but one story stands out, precisely because it demonstrates how deeply society has changed over the past 40 years.

The year was 1974 and Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency. Seymour Hersh, then working for the New York Times, got a tip that Nixon’s wife Pat had been taken to an emergency room with serious injuries. A tipster connected with the hospital called Hersh—who was known to do anything to run down a good story—and told him that Pat had informed the ER doctor that Nixon had hit her.

“I had no idea what to do with this information, if anything,” writes Hersh in his autobiography, “but I went along with the old adage from the City News Bureau, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’”

Hersh called John Erlichman, who had been one of Nixon’s most trusted lieutenants. Erlichman matter-of-factly told Hersh that he knew of two other incidents when Nixon beat his wife, once when he was president. [continue reading]

Who is this other Paul La Rosa anyway?

by , on
May 17, 2018

I know you Google yourself because, let’s face it, everyone does.

(Here’s the other guy above and me to the right in case you were having trouble telling us apart.)

I hadn’t Googled myself in a while and, when I did recently, I noticed this other Paul La Rosa horning in on my search results. In fact, this other guy is now the top Paul La Rosa. I’m, like, third! Hmmm….

The other Paul La Rosa is a Juilliard-trained baritone opera singer. He’s a good looking guy and we both have good singing voices. The big difference is his penchant for posing with his shirt off so he can show off his larger than life abs. He apparently does this so often that it’s become something of a thing.

Check out this headline and story about the other guy. I swear this is a real story. Well, it’s on the internet so who knows how real it is but you can look it up and Google it yourself. It’s on an opera blog called “Barihunks” and the headline and first graph are as follows:

“Paul La Rosa’s Hot Chest and Big Balls”

“There is nothing that we love more than a barihunk who likes to show off some skin, especially when they look like Paul LaRosa. Here he his showing off his hot chest and big balls. Impressive, eh?”

Well, it is impressive I guess. But I don’t want anyone to confuse us although, to be honest, that’s already happened. Because I’ve cornered the market on everything Paul La Rosa–on gmail, Twitter, Instagram etc–I sometimes get emails meant for this other guy. My favorite was the itinerary to sing in Vienna. I nearly accepted just to see if anyone could tell us apart.

I don’t think that’s possible, do you?

[P.S. My blog has a new look and I’m still getting the hang of it…hope you like it.]

 

The island of New York’s unclaimed dead….

by , on
Jan 21, 2017

Back in the 1980’s, when I was a young reporter at the New York Daily News, an excited fisherman called the city desk one day to report on a mysterious island he’d come across up near the Bronx. There was no one living on the island, the man said. All he could see were wooden coffins. It was unreal and, if I were interested, he’d take me over.

The next day was drab and dreary. Rain threatened but I met this guy in the Bronx and we shoved off in his little boat for this island I was sure he’d imagined. He mentioned something about the tide being high and we had better make sure to get back in time or we’d be stuck there for nightfall.

If what he was saying was true, this was the last place I’d want to be stuck for the night. I already had a sense of foreboding since the island seemed so cold and lifeless.

But we set off anyway to explore the interior and I quickly saw that everything he said was true. I felt I had stumbled into a real life horror movie. There were long open trenches half filled with wooden coffins. Hundreds of other coffins were piled high next to the trench awaiting their ultimate fate.

A silent bulldozer stood idle, as did dozens of shovels. Looming above us was a giant cross and all around were abandoned buildings, some with no roofs, others missing walls. We were all alone. What was this place?

I looked at the papers stapled to sides of nearly every coffins. There were descriptions of the bodies–many of them babies–and dates and hospital names. I later learned I had stumbled across New York’s Potter’s Field. It was called Hart Island and it’s where the unclaimed dead go to be buried.

Burials then and now are done by a crew of inmates from Rikers Island, weather permitting. It is considered a perk because the inmates get a boat ride and a trip off their own island.

There were restricted signs all over the island that I ignored as I went around doing my research. Believe me, I kept one eye on the tide so we were not get stranded there overnight.

With some checking back at the office, I discovered that two city agencies were fighting over the burials and they were backing up. Hundreds of coffins were left out in the open air and half filled trenches remained unopened.

Not a lot has changed on Hart Island in the past 30 years. Two public agencies are still fighting over the island and the wooden coffins are still placed in trenches by inmates from Rikers Island.

What I didn’t know then is that no one is allowed to visit the island although a lawsuit resulted in the city being forced to allow some family to visit irregularly. (For the curious, it seems some family members have been able to track down loved ones well after the fact and do want to spend a few moments with their remains.)

“It seems so 19th century,” Councilman Brad Lander, told the NY Times this week. “It’s ghoulish to think of Rikers inmates being trucked over to bury infants who have been abandoned.”

That’s a pretty good way of describing the island that some think would be better used as a park although that sounds like a different horror flick. If you want to know more, be sure to visit this site run by filmmaker Melissa Hunt who has been trying for along time to allow the public to have more open access to the island. The eerie images and music remind me of the day I set foot there.

No one was there when I visited all those years ago. If someone is posted there to stand guard now, well, all I know is that’s a job I would not want.

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