CultureJew: From Carole King to Bernie Madoff, New York Jews Dominate TV

The musical “Beautiful” has been on Broadway for ages now, so Carole King may be known to younger generations than the elderly boomers who were her original fans, but she’s inextricably tied to the nineteen sixties and seventies and the music of that era, at least in my mind. King is the subject of PBS’s “American Masters” series on Friday, February 19 (a clear indication of her age) and the program, while not as entertaining as a recent one on Mike Nichols, includes a lot of information that was new to me and features many of King’s great songs, most of them written for others to sing. That in itself is a reason to watch.

The quintessential nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, King was born Carole Klein. Learning to play the piano at home, she had a band in high school and knew she wanted to be a songwriter early on. In those days, professional songwriters wrote to order. The filmmakers don’t mention what her family thought of that ambition; most middle-class Jewish parents would have had other hopes for their daughters. Hooking up with Gerry Goffin–personally and professionally–King began to write the music (he wrote the lyrics) for songs for some of the most successful performers of the era–Aretha Franklin, the Drifters, the Shirelles, the Monkees, Herman’s Hermits, and more. Many of those songs are immortal: at a recent Kennedy Center event honoring King, Aretha brought the house down singing “Natural Woman.” That’s a tribute to the song as well as the singer.

King and Goffin married when she became pregnant and moved to West Orange. Another famous songwriting team, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, get a lot of screen time, sharing impressions of what kept the couple together and eventually drove them apart. Goffin and King divorced soon after they moved to Los Angeles, and she began her solo songwriting/performing career. Her second album “Tapestry” was a huge success;it seemed almost everyone in 1971 owned it. It has sold about 25 millions copies worldwide since then.

King’s later life was not as familiar to me. She became involved with several other men, one of whom abused her, and she moved to Idaho. She got rid of the guy but kept the house. In addition to performing regularly, she is now an environmental activist supporting the northern Rockies.  The “American Masters” series doesn’t take a lot of chances, but it reliably provides a solid viewing experience, especially when the subject is interesting, as she is here.

Rabin: The Last Day

The 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin achieved its goal: it turned Israel away from the Oslo Accords and ushered in a right-leaning government with no interest in making deals with the Palestinians. Amos Gitai’s docudrama “Rabin: The Last Day” purportedly traces the actions of the security services and the killer on that day in November, but really it is an impassioned excoriation of the settler movement and its influence on the country. The film is a sometimes confusing amalgam of newsreel footage, interviews with living people such as Shimon Peres and Leah Rabin, and dramatized recreations of the shadowy network of yeshiva students, settler rabbis, religious nationalists, and others who nurtured and supported the assassin, Yigal Amir. Lurking behind all of them, like a grim overlord, is Netanyahu, who in Gitai’s view, encouraged and benefited from the murder.

The film is not easy to understand for those unfamiliar with Israeli politics, and at times feels ungainly in its mixture of real and recreated scenes. But no one can miss Gitai’s sense of outrage and loss, and it’s difficult to disagree with his conclusions, considering what has happened since then.

Another Jewish Leader

ABC presented a four-hour version of the huge financial fraud perpetrated by Bernie Madoff this week and managed an equally astonishing feat: the show and Richard Dreyfuss’s wonderful performance turned the despised financier into an almost sympathetic character. The excellent script by Ben Robbins doesn’t argue that Madoff is a good guy by any means, but against the backdrop of the excesses of the 1980s and the crash of 2008, Madoff’s ponzi scheme does not seem that extraordinary. Was it that much worse than banks giving huge mortgages to people without jobs or income? The show depicts Madoff’s victims as pleading to be fleeced. He always played hard to get and never asked anyone for money, he boasts in the voiceover commentary. They wanted to believe that he could make them rich without risk, and he did just that for years, until he couldn’t anymore.

By letting Bernie tell the story, Robbins makes the audience identify with him in a way, and we admire the clever machinations of his mostly working class co-conspirators, the people who produced the fake records that backed up his claims. The show is far more critical of the regulatory agencies, such as the SEC, and the financial press, which seemed to ignore all the signs that something fishy was going on.

Blythe Danner’s Ruth Madoff is a weirdly ditsy woman, planning house renovations and beachfront brunches for the family. The most tortured characters are the two sons, who the script effectively exonerates of blame. Director Raymond de Felitta keeps it humming along, turning a convoluted and decades-long fraud into an intelligible and gripping story.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.
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