Here in eastern Iowa, it’s no secret that we are blessed with a bevy of talented artists. At any given time, there is always someone, somewhere nearby making magic. It’s only to be expected that the rest of the country take notice of what we have to offer.
I’d like, here at the year’s end, to celebrate just a few of the musicians, writers, performers and filmmakers we proudly think of as our own, who achieved some national notoriety in 2018. These artists are on top of their game, and it feels good when folks outside our bubble reflect that brilliance back to us.
Congratulations on a great year!
Patrick Du Laney joins the Potterverse
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which won the Tony award for Best Play in 2018, just announced a large-scale recasting for performances beginning March 20. On that new cast list is Patrick Du Laney, a frequent performer at Iowa City’s Riverside Theatre.
Du Laney will be joining the ensemble of the show, which was a somewhat controversial entry to the Harry Potter canon when it premiered in London in 2016. Written by Jack Thorne, based on a story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Thorne, it’s about the children of the original characters in Rowling’s novels. The play is split into two parts, meant to be watched one after the other (at a matinee and then evening performance) or on two consecutive nights (although either can be watched independently).
In the past few years, Du Laney has given Iowa City some of its most iconic stage performances. Particular standouts for this audience member were his Macbeth at the Riverside Lower City Park Festival Stage and, especially, his chilling Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge.
Younger hits the end-of-year Best Of lists again
For the second time in as many albums, Iowa City band Younger has garnered national recognition. In 2015, their debut, self-titled disc was called out by ABC News at number 41 on their 50 Best Albums list for that year. Last week, they topped that when their sophomore record, Night Milk, clocked in at number 26 on the Good Morning America 50 Best of 2018 list, beating out the likes of Neko Case and Florence + the Machine.
Night Milk, recorded at Magic Barn Studios and produced by Pete Becker, is being distributed on vinyl by Little Village. Reviewer Michael Roeder called the album “breathtaking and unique,” while the GMA write up referred to it as “a thrilling, enjoyable gut-punch.”
Kembrew McLeod’s The Downtown Pop Underground explodes on the scene
The positive reviews and list appearances have been pouring in for University of Iowa professor (and frequent Little Village contributor) Kembrew McLeod’s newest book. The Downtown Pop Underground: New York City and the Literary Punks, Renegade Artists, DIY Filmmakers, Mad Playwrights, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Glitter Queens who Revolutionized Culture examines some of the most distinctive aspects of the character of downtown New York — the people and ideas that are woven into its fabric so inextricably that you feel them and know them, even if you never experience them firsthand.
The Downtown Pop Underground showed up in late November in the New York Times Book Review holiday gift guide, which lauds it as “dense and scholarly” (likely a less-than-positive assertion coming from many publications, but certainly not meant as one here).
Other publications followed suit. McLeod’s pop history hit Pitchfork’s “The Best Music Books of 2018” list, where Marc Masters raved, “Somehow, Downtown Pop Underground will leave you thinking 20th-century New York is even more crucial to American culture than already believed.” David Chiu at Brooklyn Based named it to his list of just 12 recent books about music to consider for the gift-giving season.
(I think the takeaway here is that it’s the perfect gift for that music lover in your life — so if anyone feels the need to gift it to me, I’ll understand your impulse.)
Read an excerpt from The Downtown Pop Underground.
Saving Brinton wows the festival circuit
Back in 2016, I wrote an article about a documentary in production from some Iowa City filmmakers that the Iowa Arts Council had decided to take a chance on with a $10,000 grant. That film, Saving Brinton, and its creative team — Northland Films’ and Barn Owl Films’ Andrew Sherburne, Tommy Haines and John Richard — have since gone on to amazing things.
Saving Brinton follows the stories of a retired junior high history teacher, Iowan Mike Zahs, who unearths, recontextualizes and reinvigorates the treasure trove of film history left behind by early 20th century entertainer and inventor W. Frank Brinton. The significant finds included work thought lost from Thomas Edison and Georges Méliès, making this above all a film nerd’s film — and, in many ways, a love letter to the medium.
Film nerds took note. Ann Hornaday at The Washington Post name checked it in her list of “Best movies of 2018,” noting what an amazing year 2018 has been for documentaries, and citing Saving Brinton one of “the very best movies of the year.” The Hollywood Reporter, which called it “a cinephile’s delight,” was even generating some early Oscar buzz for the film. Although it didn’t make the cut, it was clear from the reviews that followed its festival circuit tour that Saving Brinton had won hearts nationwide.
You can catch the film’s national broadcast premiere on PBS’ America Reframed on New Year’s Day — the perfect way to kick off the centennial of Brinton’s death.
(It’s worth noting a few “runners up” in the collision of Iowa and film, because 2018 has been huge in that area. In March, sports biopic The Miracle Season, starring Helen Hunt as Iowa City West High coach Kathy Bresnahan, premiered, telling the tragic and inspiring story of Caroline “Line” Found and the 2011 West High volleyball team. And University of Iowa grads had a phenomenal box office run: Joe Russo (’92) co-directed Avengers: Infinity War, Diablo Cody (’00) wrote and produced Tully and screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (both ’07) hit big with A Quiet Place, one of American Film Institute’s top 10 films of 2018.)
Little Village‘s review of Saving Brinton
John D’Agata gets the Broadway treatment
Coming back full circle to both Broadway and the Potterverse, the original Boy Who Lived himself, Daniel Radcliffe, is currently starring at Studio 54 in Lifespan of a Fact, a play by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell that’s based on the book by University of Iowa professor John D’Agata, director of the UI’s renowned Nonfiction Writing Program, and his fact checker, Jim Fingal.
The story focuses on the tribulations of a young fact checker (Fingal, played by Radcliffe) tasked with examining the tricky work of an essayist who doesn’t quite fit the standard mold (D’Agata, portrayed onstage by Bobby Cannavale). It explores the essential delicate balance between fact and truth in the genre of creative nonfiction.
The Hollywood Reporter raves about the play. “At the first press performance of the crackerjack new Broadway play The Lifespan of a Fact, the laughs seemed especially explosive from copy editors in the audience, along with every writer who has ever dealt with that endangered species,” David Rooney writes. “But the spry humor, rippling tension and provocative reflections of this ingenious adaptation of the sui generis book of the same name will by no means speak exclusively to those of us who make our livings as members of the fourth estate.”
For Sara Holdren at Vulture, the play spawned some philosophical ponderings: “At times, watching The Lifespan of a Fact can feel a bit trippy: There are already so many layers built into the story’s content and background where what’s verifiable rubs up against what’s experiential, speculative, or creative — and now the whole thing is inside yet another box, the necessarily fictionalizing container of theater … I’ve long believed in the [Werner] Herzogian ideal, but as Radcliffe and Cannavale went for each other’s throats, I felt a little queasy, and I wondered: What becomes of the Herzogs and D’Agatas of this world when we’re living under a government that has co-opted and poisoned the spinning of fictions, peddling toxic sludge with their own righteous claims to possession of the deeper truth?”
And next year?
It’s exciting to wonder where 2019 will take Iowans nationally. Iowa Citians are already pre-ordering a book of essays from writer, musician and Englert Theatre executive director Andre Perry that’s sure to get some attention.
The arts scene in Iowa is one of phenomenal diversity and skill, both the bits that get national coverage and the spectacular work that slides under the radar that we get to keep for our very own. It’s an honor to shine a light on it.