Here’s what the NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour crew was paying attention to — and what you should check out this weekend.
Switched on Pop episode about SZA
The cover of SZA’s latest album SOS. Daniel Sannwald/TDE/RCA Records
A couple of months ago, we did an episode on SZA’s new album SOS. and since then, I have been listening to it basically nonstop and just investing in everything that she’s done and talked about. One thing I do want to recommend for those who, like me, are still on this SZA high and this abundance of riches is to listen to Switched on Pop, which is produced by one of our dear friends of the show Reanna Cruz. In this episode, they go deep on SZA’s melodic phrasing, how it stands out, how it’s different from other current pop stars and how she pulls from hip-hop and even Wagner. If you’ve ever wondered why SZA feels different or why you can’t remember all the lyrics to her songs — which is something I have a problem doing — because it’s just like all over the place, this is a great deep dive that picks apart the way SZA crafts her melodies and lyrics.
— Aisha Harris
Julianne Moore and Justice Smith in Sharper. Apple TV+
I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Sharper. It seemed like your basic streaming movie. I really enjoyed it. I love a con artist. It has a really impressive cast, including Julianne Moore, Sebastian Stan, Briana Middleton and Justice Smith. When I saw Justice Smith as the lead in The Get Down on Netflix a few years ago, my reaction was that this kid is a huge, huge star, and it hasn’t happened as much as I thought it would. But what has happened is that now, every time I see him, I’m so psyched, and he’s lovely in this.
This is one of these con artist puzzle boxes where the story is constantly shifting and being undermined. Who can you trust and what is going on really, as opposed to what people say is going on? Did I see all of its twists coming? Absolutely not. Did I see some of its twists coming? Sure. Of course, by the time you get to the end of a film like this, you are anticipating that nothing is what it seems. That makes it harder and harder for them to pull the rug out from under you.
But I did really like this kind of moody, grown-up drama. It is a fun, grown-up thriller, and it just gave me exactly what I wanted. I think if you want to go check out the film in theaters this weekend, that’s great. It will also make a great couch watch.
— Linda Holmes
Remembering Burt Bacharach
I do want to acknowledge the incredible recorded legacy of composer Burt Bacharach, who died of natural causes on Wednesday. He was 94 and was really considered one of the most important composers of 20th century popular music into the 21st century. His hit songs included standards like “I Say a Little Prayer,” “Walk on By,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” – songs that feel like they’ve always been there. It’s like they weren’t written so much as they were part of the elemental fabric of the universe. Bacharach won multiple Grammys and Oscars as well as an Emmy.
It’s really hard to sum up Burt Bacharach’s legacy in just a few words. Not very many artists provide a creative bridge from Perry Como all the way to Dr. Dre. But somehow Bacharach worked across that many eras, that many genres, that many voices, and that many sounds with that deep, keen, melodic sense that really belonged only to him. He, among other things, was a fantastic collaborator. … He wrote with the great Hal David, he wrote for Dionne Warwick, he wrote with Elvis Costello.
If you look at the list of people who covered the song “Walk on By,” you get a sense of just how much reach he had as a songwriter. That song was covered by Cyndi Lauper. That song was covered by Isaac Hayes. That song was covered by different people in different genres, and the melody remained intact.
— Stephen Thompson
Lord of the Rings at Radio City Music Hall or seeing a movie with a good score
Howard Shore’s The Lord of the Rings score was presented live at Radio City Music Hall by the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine this week. Radio City Music Hall is pictured above on July 13, 2019. Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images
I took a little jaunt up to a city called New York to see the 21st anniversary screening of The Lord of the Rings presented in concert with the orchestra doing the full score. It was incredible. I was with my people. There was so much cheering. There was so much joy. I did, of course, weep the second the music began. How could one not? And while I am not suggesting everyone go directly to Radio City Music Hall to see this performance as it was in the past, I do highly recommend, if you have the chance, to go see a film that you love and know the music to and feel good about. It’s so fun, it’s so moving, and it really just was like a bangin’ time. Even though I did say “noted flop Boromir” when everyone cheered at Sean Bean’s appearance, it was still worth it.
— Christina Tucker
The MCU may be all over the map these days, but the DC Extended Universe is no slouch in the “Wait, what?” department either. It’s recently been taken over by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, which suggests a move away from Snyderian gloom (yay!) but augurs a drift toward cynical glibness (resigned sigh). But I’m greatly encouraged by his stated fondness for Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, a recent comic by writer Tom King and artist Bilquis Evely now collected in trade paperback. It’s a vastly different take that relocates Superman’s cousin to a faraway planet and turns her into a fantasy/sci-fi version of True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn. A big swing, but it works.
I gave up on Elden Ring after a few months of dying, er, trying. I loved roaming the vast landscapes, but hated all the boss battles, with their rote memorization of attack patterns that only let you chip away at the bad guy’s health in depressingly wee increments before having to endlessly lather, rinse and repeat. It sent me scurrying back to the warm embrace of my old standby, the Assassin’s Creed series. I’d beaten Valhalla a month after it came out, but it was therapeutic to return to those familiar shores in such an overpowered capacity, making mincemeat out of anyone foolish to cross my path as I amassed all the gold, armor and weapons I didn’t have time to collect before. It was so satisfying to scour the map clean of all its previously overlooked glowing dots of treasure, like some kind of cartographical Viking Roomba. I’d skipped Valhalla‘s precursor, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but I just downloaded it and have started to sail the wine-dark seas of Ancient Greece while flirting with hot locals. Heaven. Or, more precisely, Elysium.
Our pal Chloe Veltman had a terrific piece on Morning Edition about how performing arts groups are being forced to change how they work – and how they think.
Bill Nighy’s up for a best actor Oscar for Living, and he’s quite good in it, which made me remember some of his previous performances, big and small. One I’d forgotten about completely was his uncredited cameo at the end of the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor,” in which he’s an art curator called to explain the legacy of Vincent Van Gogh to … an incredulous Van Gogh himself. That Who episode was one of the first things I’d talked about on the first episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour 13 years ago now. And while I maintain that the episode’s Monster of the Week (a giant invisible space-turkey) is hilarious, I’d forgotten how much gravitas Nighy brought to a tiny role, which made the ending of a mostly very silly episode land with the power it needed to.
NPR’s Teresa Xie adapted the Pop Culture Happy Hour segment “What’s Making Us Happy” into a digital page. If you like these suggestions, consider signing up for our newsletter to get recommendations every week. And listen to Pop Culture Happy Hour on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.