Best of the East Bay - People
Vince Neil, Ledisi, Mary Roach, Amani Toomer, Wall-e, Robert Hass...
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Future Star - WALL-E
With the release of every Pixar movie, Hollywood history gets a fresh batch of instant-classic characters. This will surely have been the case with the Emeryville animation giant’s June 27 release, WALL-E. Directed by Andrew Stanton, who helmed Pixar’s biggest box office champion, Finding Nemo, WALL-E is the studio’s first science fiction film.
Set 700 years in the future, WALL-E tells the story of its titular protagonist, a cheerful robot who is sent to clean up trash on an uninhabitable planet Earth. (Guess that whole green movement of the early 2000s was too little, too late.) WALL-E doesn’t use words to communicate. Like Hollywood’s most famous robot, Star Wars’ droid R2-D2, who spoke with beeps and whistles, WALL-E speaks through digitized mechanical grunts and moans.
To create the “voice” of WALL-E, Pixar lassoed legendary sound designer Ben Burtt away from George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound. Burtt was the innovator of R2-D2’s sound effects, and he also created the sound of the light saber and Darth Vader’s deep breathing in the Star Wars movies. For WALL-E, Burtt had ample cutting-edge technology to play with but also used more primitive techniques to get the perfect sounds, as in a scene with a beat-up shopping cart.
“I took my recorder to the store and pretended to shop,” Burtt explains. “I took my 10-year-old daughter around the store and parking lot, banging into poles and running into other shopping carts.” —Jason Jurgens
Singer of Soul - Ledisi
It might seem strange that soul singer Ledisi was nominated for Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards this year, seeing as her first album came out back in 2000 and her second in 2002. But, the Oakland resident isn’t complaining.
“To most people, I’m still new. Most people don’t know who the hell I am,” says Ledisi, laughing. “The nomination exposed me to such a large audience. Plus, I got to go to the party and feel included with all the artists I’ve loved for so long.”
For the record, her first two albums were on independent labels—and Grammys are typically major label releases. It was her 2007 album on Verve Records, Lost and Found, that broke Ledisi into the big time. Since its August release, Lost and Found has sold more than 160,000 copies, and has stayed on the R&B Top 20 charts for months. Meanwhile, those first two albums, Soulsinger and Feeling Orange but Sometimes Blue, have become highly sought after on eBay.
“It’s crazy. My singles have been playing on the radio all over the country,” Ledisi says, adding that her breakthrough record came just in the nick of time. “Two years ago, I was ready to quit music. I had been spending all my money touring with my band for years, wondering if I was going to ever break through.”
The daughter of a New Orleans R&B singer, Ledisi Young (her first name means “to bring forth” in the West African dialect of Yoruba) was singing with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra at age eight. Her family moved to Oakland, and, as a young teen, Ledisi landed the lead role of Dorothy in a production of The Wiz at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center. She was nominated for a Shellie Award in 1990 for lead actress in a musical and performed at the awards show—she notes the standing ovation that followed her performance as one of her early career thrills. She went on to perform for several years in the legendary San Francisco musical comedy Beach Blanket Babylon.
After studying opera and piano in UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program, Ledisi formed a band and honed her act—her style of singing has drawn comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald—at Bay Area venues like Yoshi’s and Café Du Nord.
These days, she’s playing to big crowds across the country and drawing the attention of A-list artists on stage and screen. George Clooney cast her as a lounge singer in the football comedy Leatherheads, which hit theaters this spring. And in April, Prince invited her to sing backup at the massive Coachella festival in Indio, California. “It was like a dream,” Ledisi recalls. “I was just getting past the excitement that I’d just met Prince, one of my childhood idols. Then, I got to go out on stage and perform with him!”
After spending the summer on tour with her band, Ledisi will join the cast of a Los Angeles production of Once on This Island, based on the Hans Christian Andersen fable The Little Mermaid. Ledisi’s role in the musical, which was an off-Broadway smash, will be bigger than life: She’ll be playing Mother Earth. —Peter Crooks
Comic Genius - Adrian Tomine
Cartoonist Adrian Tomine is known for the autobiographical quality of his work. However, given some of the subject matter of his 2007 graphic novel, Shortcomings, readers could forgive him for insisting that not all his work is autobiographical.
Shortcomings, drawn in a style that elicits comparison to that of another realistic East Bay cartoonist, Daniel Clowes, looks at certain aspects of Asian American identity, particularly issues of sexuality. The title is a pun on a physical stereotype of Asian men over which Tomine’s protagonist, Ben Tanaka, obsesses.
“All my stories are based on real experience to varying degrees,” Tomine says. “Shortcomings is probably the most fictional thing I’ve done so far, but it still had its starting point in real life.”
Tomine, a 34-year-old UC Berkeley graduate, began to draw comics early in life and was self-publishing his work when he was in high school in Sacramento. While at Cal, he started to produce a regular comic book series, Optic Nerve, for the publishing company Drawn and Quarterly. Optic Nerve garnered a devoted following, and Tomine also illustrated several covers for the New Yorker, but he reached new levels of acclaim with the publication of Shortcomings. The New York Times named it one of the 100 best books of 2007.
While the honest subject material and raw dialogue are certainly behind the book’s critical acclaim, the authentic feel of the illustrations helps give the story a sense of authority. Much of Shortcomings is set in the East Bay, and many scenes take place in settings that are clearly based on real-life locations, such as the California Theatre in downtown Berkeley, where Ben, a postcollege drifter, works as a manager; Mama’s Royal Café in Oakland, where Ben gets coffee with his best friend, Alice, a Mills College graduate student; and Juan’s Place, a Mexican restaurant in west Berkeley, where Ben takes a woman on a date.
“All those locations are places that are very familiar to me—or had some sort of personal resonance,” says Tomine, who now lives in Brooklyn. “For whatever reason, I found it was easier to write this story if I could imagine the scenes playing out in real locations. An old girlfriend of mine worked at the California Theatre years ago. I went to Mama’s Royal Café for lunch on a weekly basis, and I still make sure to go there with my pals when I’m back in town. I miss all these places, but it’s Juan’s in particular that can’t really be replaced.”
Using familiar locations isn’t necessarily new for Tomine—anyone who knows New York will easily recognize the settings in his New Yorker covers—but tackling the subject of race head-on was something different. The cartoonist had occasionally been criticized for not addressing race in earlier works (he often drew characters with racially indistinct features). Still, though he does address issues of Asian American identity in his latest book, Tomine disavows an overt political agenda.
“I think if I was just trying to placate the critics, I would’ve tackled this material long ago and in a much more uplifting, crowd-pleasing way,” he says. “My hope is that the aspects of Shortcomings that reference ‘Asian American identity’ are actually just concrete examples of more general, intangible things that could apply to a variety of people.” —Justin Goldman