7/05/2013

Meryl Streep and Blue Rodeo Headline My Bluesfest Line-up

Meryl Streep performs with Blue Rodeo in Postcards from the Edge
Bluesfest is underway! The ten-day outdoor music festival, one of the ten biggest in the world, kicked off last night with the Black Keys headlining the main stage. I probably won’t be attending any of the festivities this year (re: $$), but I hope many readers will enjoy the week-and-a-half that lets Ottawa escape its title of being The City that Fun Forgot. I’m tempted to see The Tragically Hip again, or go the day Cold Specks and Neko Case are playing, but recent TIFF budgeting and such makes attending Bluesfest impractical. (Daily admission is more than a TIFF Gala.) It might be one of those years to just stay home, grab a six-pack glass of tap water and listen to a bluesy playlist on the deck.

Anyone making an economically friendly Bluesfest of his or her own must begin with a track from the festival’s resident favourite, Blue Rodeo, who surprisingly isn’t playing this year. The Canadian band is usually an annual staple.

Blue Rodeo bumped up an extra notch on my list during a recent revisit to the 1990 Mike Nichols film Postcards from the Edge. It had been a while since I watched the film and it hadn’t hit me that Blue Rodeo actually makes an appearance in the film. With Meryl Streep no less.

Blue Rodeo performs with Meryl during the final number, “I’m Checkin’ Out,” which closes the film. (See video below.) The song, which was written by Shel Silverstein and nominated for Best Original Song at the Oscars, gives Streep’s Suzanne Vale an encore performance in which she finally gets to step out of the shadows of her movie star mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, and enjoy the spotlight on her own. It’s a much fuller, more soulful performance than Suzanne’s other number in the film, a rendition of “You Don’t Know Me,” which is completely upstaged by her mom. Suzanne’s shaky performance of the Ray Charles ditty might have some viewers thinking that Meryl can’t carry a tune. She belts out “I’m Checking Out” at the end, though, as Suzanne finally comes into her own.

The song is also one of the few moments in the film where Streep allows Suzanne to have fun while performing, which is a recurrent criticism of Suzanne from her onscreen peers. “I’m Checking Out” might help Postcards from the Edge end on a high note—it’s one of Streep’s best performances and films—because Meryl’s voice is actually much better suited to country than it is to poppier numbers. (See “My Minnesota Home” from A Prairie Home Companion for another example.) Streep belts out show tunes just fine in Mamma Mia! (and hopefully the upcoming Into the Woods), but she makes country sound swell. She's that good an actress!

One of my fellow film writers/Oscar watchers once remarked that Suzanne’s character arc offers a fine parallel for the course of Meryl Streep’s career. As good as Streep was in the 1980s—they’re arguably the best years of her career with Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, A Cry in the Dark, etc.—the 1990s brought out her range and versatility. Streep could do serious drama better than anyone else does, and recreate herself with a new accent, mannerisms; however, she became even better post-Postcards because one could see her having fun with acting. (See: The Devil Wears Prada.) It could be the timbre of her voice or that extra bit of soul she brings to a performance, but Meryl bluesy vocals give a turn worthy of the main stage as she/Suzanne reinvents herself with “I’m Checkin’ Out”. Some credit certainly belongs to the band accompanying her, though, as the energy in the performance comes alive through the music.

Perhaps the magnetism of Meryl Streep for me is a lot like appeal of Blue Rodeo for others. Year after year, crowds flock to the festival to listen to the band’s familiar tunes. It’s always extra fun to be at a concert where everyone sings along. Like the crowd watching Suzanne’s performance, the thousands of attendees at Bluesfest tap along to beat and bob their heads to the feel-good vibes. Blue Rodeo gives the festival a night a week in which it isn’t “Bluesfest” in name only, but that’s a conversation for a different blog. It’s also the one night a year where anyone (even me) might admit to enjoying country. I actually wasn’t the world’s biggest Blue Rodeo fan the first time I saw them at Bluesfest, but I’ve come to enjoy Jim Cuddy and his Canadian tuxedo a lot during the four shows I’ve seen the band play. Anyone who accompanies Meryl is a winner in my books.

So Meryl Streep and Blue Rodeo will headline my thrifty Bluesfest playlist this year. Who else should make the cut?

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