FEATURE: The HALF CLOTH Guide to Christmas – Part 2
by Chad Jewett
Welcome to Part Two of our three-part Half Cloth Guide to Christmas. You can check out Part One here, along with a bit of our thoughts on the Holiday Season and our inspirations for the list. Once you’re all caught up, enjoy more of our favorite records, films, and Christmas specials.
Bright Eyes A Christmas Album (2002)
Released ahead of the magnum opus that is Lifted, A Christmas Album is a remarkably complex, gentle, and adventurous collection of Christmas songs. It makes incredible driving music (especially if you’re home for the holidays and battling all those mixed emotions of nostalgia) and manages a thesis on earnestly investing in the holiday season, even if that means a little bit of sadness. As a dispatch from Conor Oberst’s career, A Christmas Album is also remarkable for the way in which it operates as a triptych of Bright Eyes’ various iterations, from the glitch folk of Letting Off The Happiness (“Away In A Manger”) to the Seasonal-Adjustment-Disorder pensiveness of Fevers and Mirrors (“Silent Night”), the apocalypse country of Lifted and Cassadaga (“God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”) through the rustic charm of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (“Blue Christmas,” “White Christmas”), and the electronic rust of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and The People’s Key (“Little Drummer Boy,” “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem”). It’s a fascinating glimpse at Oberst and Mike Mogis’ arrangement process as well as an interesting example of Bright Eyes’ theme-driven modality. Call it a gift that keeps on giving, the whole year.
Various Artists, A Motown Christmas (1973)
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Temptations, The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder. That should be enough. If not, think of it this way: Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You operated as a can’t-miss chance to see how well his Wall-of-Sound machine could run on a high-octane fuel like Christmas pop. Well, this is a compilation of Motown artists at their absolute peak, singing over the Motown house band, The Funk Brothers, the only in-studio team to ever top Phil Spector’s stable, recording in the late 60s and early 70s – you know, when they weren’t busy making What’s Going On, Wish It Would Rain, Cloud Nine, and Music Of My Mind. Smokey Robinson serves up “Christmas Everyday,” a grooved-out doo wop just as harmony-thick and concept-heavy (dude loves extended metaphors) as “My Girl” or “Tears of a Clown.” The Supremes go headphone-album huge on “White Christmas.” A Motown Christmas is ostensibly the pop soul version of those YouTube compilations of DeAndre Jordan dunks. Not convinced? Here, let me direct you to a certain Stevie Wonder song that should settle this.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
There are a lot of takes on Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella. Heck, I’ll end up having three on this list. But, even with all the super-expensive, super deluxe renditions out there, I have a soft spot for the 1999, made-for-TNT version starring Patrick Stewart. While the Alaistar Sim-starring 1951 take on A Christmas Carol nails the coal-fog gloom of certain portions of the story, and the 1984 adaptation, with George C. Scott as Scrooge, is admirable in its attempts at definitive-rendition, the somewhat more humble, and thus more charming 1999 film seems to get the tone better than all the others. Stewart plays Scrooge the way he would Hamlet or Macbeth, making sure his early scenes of embittered greed and flinty indignation are always barely covering a core of regret and emotional turmoil. The film also has a great feeling for Victorian England, and is at its best when showing off the Christmas traditions of Scrooge’s charming, indefatigable nephew Fred (played by Nucky from The Wire, for extra points). A Christmas Carol is a killer ghost story, and the TNT production nails that eerie, wintry aura, but its also about the comforts of home at holiday time, an oft-overlooked facet that this rendition digs into with relish.
Co-written by Michael O’Donoghue, the ace dark-humorist of SNL’s early years, and starring an especially acerbic Bill Murray (who approaches Bugs Bunny levels of wise-assery), Scrooged is the more bitter, bloodthirsty brother of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Set around Bill Murray’s ruthless Scrooge-analog TV executive and his efforts to stage a cynical, innocuous rendition of A Christmas Carol (Scrooged was the first thing I thought of when I heard NBC was doing a live remake of The Sound of Music with Carrie Underwood), Scrooged feels very Saturday Night Live, especially with it’s “Christmas Past” flashbacks to the mid-70s, and its inclusion of people like Karen Allen, David Johansen, and Brian Doyle-Murray, all folks you associate with the hip, New York-Hollywood axis of SNL’s golden age. There are a ton of jokes, and, ironically, the film manages one of the more heartfelt takes on Scrooge’s redemption, if only because Bill Murray’s take on Dickens’ miser (here named Frank Cross) is just that loathsome at the film’s beginning.
Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
If Scrooged is pitch-black in its take on A Christmas Carol, then the 1983 Disney short feature, Mickey’s Christmas Carol is it’s polar opposite — a tooth-ache sweet Christmas cookie of a movie. But that sweetness, while at times overwhelming, is never cloying, and the animation is beautifully warm and inviting. Featuring Scrooge McDuck (truly one of the great Disney characters) as Ebenezer, part of the fun of Mickey’s Christmas Carol is spotting all of the Golden Age Disney characters tasked with filling parts in the Dickens’ adaptation. It’s almost like seeing an imagined community put on a show as Goofy inhabits an especially clumsy Jacob Marley, Mickey Mouse stars as Bob Crachit and the classic Disney cartoon heel, Pete, enters in an almost noir-ish version of the Ghost of Christmas Future; the background characters essentially constitute a trivia game (“Is Fezzywig Mister Toad?”, “Where do I recognize that horse from?”). While Disney Studios were adrift between the late Golden Age successes of The Jungle Book and The Aristocrats and the renaissance hits of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Mickey’s Christmas Carol actually ends up being a seriously poignant Christmas Card to generations raised on these characters, as well as a heartfelt take on the Dickens classic.