A Speedy History of Cocaine … Three Women to Listen For

If you didn’t get your fill of drugs in Traffic , there is now Blow ,

a companion piece that tells another cautionary tale about the high price paid

for the easy fortunes to be made from narcotics. Blow is a more accessible, less confusing personal confessional,

based on the Bruce Porter book about George Jung, the all-American small-town

boy from Massachusetts who, in the 1970’s, worked his way up the ladder from

kidding-around pusher to billionaire liaison between Pablo Escobar’s Colombian

cocaine cartel and the U.S. drug-import industry.

It’s a perfect role for Johnny Depp, who embodies the idea

of the American Dream gone rancid better than anyone else on the screen today.

Pierced and tattooed with hair longer than Pocahontas, and a poster boy for

anarchy, he’s so perfect for the role of a self-made drug trafficker consumed

by greed-and so believable in the part-that some viewers may feel his inevitable

self-destruction lacks the devastating sadness and punch it might have had if

someone as clean-cut as Matt Damon had been cast instead. Still, when the real

George Jung, who is spending the final decades of his wasted life behind bars

(he’s up for parole in the year 2015, when he’s 72), appears in the final frame

of Blow looking even scuzzier, you

know director Ted Demme knew exactly what he was doing. Any way you snort it,

Mr. Depp is a bomb waiting to explode, and Blow

is a film with an undeniable impact.

Like Traffic , the

message here is loud and clear: Drugs destroy lives, and there are no happy

endings. George grew up with a whining, nagging, disillusioned mother (Rachel

Griffiths) and a sweet, old-fashioned, hard-working lug of a father (another fine

performance by the versatile, underrated Ray Liotta) who was always in

financial trouble. Determined from childhood to avoid ending up like his dad,

George headed west with his love beads and Bob Dylan records, eschewed dull

jobs and found easy money almost as soon as he hit the California beaches. If

you’ve wondered whatever happened to Pee-wee Herman, he turns up under his real

name, Paul Reubens, in an accurately observed portrayal of the kind of gay

Hollywood hairdresser who sells joints between perms. Joining forces, the

flamboyant hipster and the ambitious hippie start flying weed to the demanding

East Coast college crowd. In record time, they’re making $30,000 a week from

pot, smuggled from coast to coast by George’s girlfriend, an airline stewardess

whose bags are never X-rayed. The demand so far exceeds the supply that they

start buying wholesale from Mexican farmers, and the risks increase so fast

that George lands in prison, where he learns about an even bigger

scheme-cocaine!

In a fact-based trajectory so carefully detailed that the

movie often has the feel of a documentary, Blow

lays on the details of George Jung’s rise and fall in the cocaine industry with

such business-like nonchalance that he might just as well be marketing powdered

protein supplements for a chain of health-food stores. In the process, George

takes his cellmate on as a new partner, loses his girlfriend to cancer, lucks

into the Colombian drug cartel, marries a wild party girl (Penélope Cruz),

becomes a fabulously wealthy drug czar and ends up hunted by the F.B.I., a

victim of internecine betrayals and double-crosses. He is imprisoned, divorced

and penniless, with his own wife and child facing the same kind of financial

ruin he ran away from as a kid.

Because George is basically a likable person whose main flaw

is his easy seduction by-and fatal addiction to-money (or maybe because Johnny

Depp is a likable actor whose main flaw is that he always looks like he hasn’t

seen a bar of soap in six months), it seems doubly wrenching when he crashes

and burns. As the character sinks deeper into a hole of his own digging, I

found myself reluctantly wanting him to succeed, to win at something, before he

ended up the same kind of honest but broken loser as his father. Of course, the

movie cannot change history, and the script is cautious not to exonerate his

crimes in any way that might be misinterpreted as a thumbs-up for others who

want to emulate him.

The screenplay is co-written by David McKenna and Nick

Cassavetes, the son of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, and a serious and

talented director in his own dominion. They’ve taken a familiar American

tragedy with an overworked backdrop (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) and infused

it with the spirit of the times. Ted Demme has fleshed out the script to show

every angle of the drug smuggler’s world-the lavish homes, the elaborate

money-laundering schemes, the violent executions, even the unspoken connection

between drugs and politics-with riveting authority. And Johnny Depp speaks for

a whole generation of drug-savvy pioneers with the forces of his own human

nature that are dark, dangerous, cynical, funny and sensual. Blow is very good, but not exactly a

revelation. Mr. Depp is both.

Three Women to Listen

For

When it rains it pours, and this week New York is in a

deluge of divas. At Feinstein’s at the Regency, Rosemary Clooney, 72, is not

only moving the furniture, she’s shaking it out to dry. In the countless times

I’ve marveled at her perfect phrasing, warmed to her hearthside humor and snapped

my fingers to her impeccable sense of rhythm, I have never seen or heard her in

better condition. Maybe it’s the swinging big-band accompaniment of a 12-piece

orchestra from Hawaii called Big Kahuna and the Copa Cat Pack that gives her

the added lilt. They came all the way to the Big Apple from the Big

Pineapple-11 guys in flowered shirts like the ones they sell in the gift shop

at the Halekulani and one lady saxophone player-under the direction of Matt

Catingub, a first-rate musician, arranger, singer, bandleader and Honolulu

native, who is also the son of the late and legendary jazz vocalist Mavis

Rivers.

To accommodate a youthful band that needs space to swing in

riffs, Feinstein’s has turned into a theater setting, but even with the

bandstand at one end of the room and the customers at the other, Rosie never

loses intimate contact with her audience. She started out as a band singer with

Tony Pastor when she was 17, and she’s worked with Woody Herman, Duke Ellington

and Count Basie, among others, so it’s a natural transition from her usual

trio. From a cool, gently cooking “Sentimental Journey” to a lazy Nelson Riddle

take on “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”, on which the

trombones make like moss swinging under a bayou moon, she encompasses every

mood with perfect articulation. On “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” she

has the purple sadness of a mature woman who has lost the innocence of youth

but retained its buoyant expectation and joy. And there are several genuine

surprises, including the long-lost “If Swing Goes, I Go Too,” a splashy

production number written and performed by Fred Astaire in MGM’s Ziegfeld Follies that was cut from the

release print. The song has always been a source of curiosity for movie buffs;

the film stock burned in a fire on the MGM backlot in the 1970’s and no footage

survived. Rosie is the only singer who has performed it since Astaire. And why

not? She knows everything.

What a giant. What a band. What an event. Pure butterscotch.

Margaret Whiting is making a rare appearance at Arci’s

Place, the most attractive cabaret room in town (and the one with the most

delectable food), sharing her stage with dashing, talented newcomer Paul

Bernhardt. Besides providing a strong, manly shoulder to lean on, he’s a skilled

jazz singer with a fine sense of timing. When he’s up at bat, he holds

attention with his sensitive phrasing on classic ballads like “Skylark” and

scats with hearty self-assurance on up-tunes like Nat King Cole’s “Straighten

Up and Fly Right.” His killer highlight is a tender, bruised and eloquent

reading of Stephen Sondheim’s “I Remember” that promises great things to come.

Miss Whiting generously

hands him a hearty share of the spotlight and even joins him on several duets.

At 76, her voice has been through its share of potholes, her phrasing is

cautious and some of her famous verve is missing, but this is a gal from the

college of musical knowledge who has already forgotten more than most of

today’s chick singers will ever learn. So her humor, her surprising way of

taking you off-guard with a lyric and her genuine love of the great popular

American songbook all make up for the rough edges. She brings a lot of history

to the microphone on classics like “My Ideal” and “That Old Black Magic,” and

it’s always a treat to share quality time with a valuable artist of her

accomplishment. Mr. Bernhardt, of course, has no history, but I feel certain it

won’t be long before he makes some of his own.

Young enough to be a Clooney or Whiting granddaughter,

Christine Andreas graces the Cafe Carlyle with the same kind of elegance and

sophistication. Billed as a celebration of the great ladies of Broadway, her

polished new act encompasses everything from Mary Martin’s “My Heart Belongs to

Daddy” to Ethel Merman’s “Some People,” but she finds her own unique style on

each selection. Coaxing, cuddling and cunning, she has the training and talent

to mold and shape her voice into myriad characters without imitation. Her

impressive range and gently modulated vibrato could easily be pitched to the

second balcony, but she’s developed an intimacy so stunningly enriched by the

jazzy chords of pianist Lee Musiker that she sounds mellow and soothing even

when she hits high E’s.

The knockout is Jerry Herman’s showstopping “If He Walked

Into My Life.” She doesn’t croon it like Eydie Gorme or perform it the way

Angela Lansbury did in Mame , as an

anthem for an older woman about a child who has outgrown her love. Ms. Andreas

turns it into a first-class torch song, articulating every syllable, tearing it

into little shreds of Kleenex. Lovely to look at, delightful to hear. Dorothy

Fields might even rewrite her own lyric to that famous Jerome Kern song if she

were around today to hear Christine Andreas.