Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes 1942 - 2008

Now this is going to be pretty hard for me to write about. Isaac Hayes died on Sunday at his home in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 65.

For decades now, a week hasn't passed in my life without me listening to the music of Isaac Hayes. To some people, he is the Oscar-winning composer of the score from Shaft. To others, he will always be South Park's Chef.

To me, he is a giant. One of my very few personal heroes. I've written such a vast amount about my life-long love affair with Shaft - the movies, the books, the music - that you can just mess about in the blog archive here and find reams of stuff about John Shaft and Isaac Hayes. It's one of my enduring obsessions, and today that obsession is tinged with just a little bit more sadness than before.

I've listened to the Theme from Shaft more often than any other piece of music by a massive margin. I never, ever tire of it. And I never, ever cease to get a little tingle of excitement when Isaac Hayes opens his mouth for the first time and the words start rumbling out.

Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?

There will never be another Isaac Hayes. The list of his achievements is dizzying in its breadth and scope. Here's just a teeny, tiny sampling:

He was the Duke in John Carpenter's Escape from New York.

He was Truck Turner.

He was the co-composer (along with David Porter) of Sam & Dave's Soul Man.

He created the Isaac Hayes Foundation to promote literacy and music education around the world.

I've been trying to write about Isaac Hayes for hours, and the words I grab hold of are never the right ones. So I'll let the music speak for me. Here's the moment that I fell in love with Isaac Hayes for the first time. John Shaft strides out of a Times Square subway opening as the guitar kicks in, and I'm losing my heart to a piece of music forever...

Bernie Mac 1957 - 2008

"You don't understand - I ain't scared of you motherfuckers."

If I was a betting man, and someone was running a deadpool on the charming conmen of Ocean's Eleven, I would have picked Carl Reiner as the most likely to kick off first. Maybe Elliott Gould on the outside. But I never, ever would have gone for Bernie Mac as the first to take the Big Dirtnap.

Bernard Jeffery McCullough died from complications due to pneumonia on Saturday morning at the age of 50. I'm gutted.

The first time I discovered Bernie Mac was listening to Prince's Pope and the playful growl sampled here and there in between the percussive funk kicks and the Minneapolian's rudimentary raps. Years passed before I learnt who the owner of that voice was. And what a voice it was.

Propelled to wide fame by Spike Lee's stand-up movie The Original Kings of Comedy, Bernie Mac followed in the footsteps of Richard Pryor, in the sense that both were wickedly funny comics and naturally gifted actors who largely made crappy movies. In Pryor's case, for every Stir Crazy, there was a Bustin' Loose or a Critical Condition.

For the sharp-dressing, goggle-eyed Bernie Mac, the successful roles were buried amongst the junk. As croupier Frank Catton in Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's trilogy, Mac had moments to shine with his ten co-stars in Ocean's Eleven, but was largely hidden in the two sequels as the series progressively turned into the smug George, Brad & Matt Show. And moments of brilliance were eclipsed by the relentless powerhouse performance of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.

It would be kinder not to dwell on things like the teeth-grinding Guess Who or the embarrasment of Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, although Bernie was one of the few things to enjoy in his cameo as used car dealer Bobby Bolivia in the visual headache of Michael Bay's Transformers.

The closest Bernie Mac came to a signature role was the fictionalisation of himself in the sitcom The Bernie Mac Show. Unwillingly raising his drug-addict sister's three kids, "Uncle Bernie" just wanted to sit around the house smoking cigars, hanging with his boys and playing poker. But this wasn't a sacharine contemporary spin on The Cosby Show full of domestic harmony and sentimental life lessons. The show had teeth and balls and jokes. After all, Cliff Huxtable never threatened to bust Theo in the head until the white meat showed...

I usually read fiction with the little casting director in my head slotting actors into roles. I always imagined that Bernie Mac would be ideal casting for the role of Fearless Jones in the period-set Walter Mosley crime series about the bookish, smart and nervous Paris Minton (who I always see as Don Cheadle) and his best friend, the kind-hearted, loyal, womanising, simple soul Fearless Jones, with his beaming smile and devastating fists. But that bit of fantasy casting will remain just a random reflection in my head now.

Farewell, Bernie Mac, and thanks for all the laughs:

"I came from a place where there wasn't a lot of joy. I decided to try to make other people laugh when there wasn't a lot of things to laugh about."