Documentary/Music Special Review: ‘Great Voices Sing John Denver’

Placido Domingo (left) and Placido Domingo Jr. perform Perhaps Love in a segment of Kenneth Shapiro’s Great Voices Sing John Denver. (C) 2013 Great Voices Film Company and CDK Films

Great Voices Sing John Denver (2013)

Written and Directed by: Kenneth R. Shapiro

Produced by: Elisa Justice, Milton Okun, Rosemary Okun, Peter Primont, Kenneth R. Shapiro, Mark Shimmel

Music Arranged and Directed by: Lee Holdridge

Music and Lyrics: John Denver

Starring: Danielle de Niesse, Placido Domingo, Placido Domingo Jr., Rodney Gilfry, Denyce Graves, Nathan Gunn, Thomas Hampson, Daniel Montenegro, Barbara Padilla, René Pape, Matthew Polenzani, Patricia Racette, Shenyang, Stuart Skelton, Dolora Zajick

Great Voices Sing John Denver, a film written and directed by Kenneth R. Shapiro, premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on October 13, 2013.  Produced by Elisa Justice, Milton Okun, Rosemary Okun, Peter Primont, Kenneth Shapiro, and Mark Shimmel, this award-winning documentary about the making of the eponymous CD album in which 15 stars of the opera world pay tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter, actor, humanitarian, and environmental activist John Denver.

The poster for the award-winning film Great Voices Sing John Denver. (C) 2013 Great Voices Film Company and CDK Films

Shapiro’s film, which followed the “dropping” by MPE Music of the Great Voices Sing John Denver album by four months, is a combination of interviews with the artists corralled by the late and great Milt Okun, who not only had produced many of Denver’s albums and Placido Domingo’s first foray into the pop music world, Perhaps Love, in which the Spanish tenor not only sang Annie’s Song, but also performed the title song as a chart-busting duet with John Denver.

A publicity clip posted to YouTube by Great Voices Sing John Denver.

John Denver and opera fans alike have something to look forward to as we go behind the scenes of the creation of the new CD called ‘Great Voices Sing John Denver’. Legendary music producer Milton Okun, along with arranger and conductor Lee Holdridge, bring some of the most famous names in opera to sing John Denver’s famous hit songs. Featured artists include Placido Domingo, Danielle de Niese, Matthew Polenzani (singing in English and Italian) Patricia Racette, Rene Pape, Nathan Gunn, Dolora Zajick, Thomas Hampson, Rod Gilfry, Denyce Graves, Shenyang (singing in English and Mandarin) Daniel Montenegro, Placido Domingo Jr., Stuart Skelton and Barbara Padilla. Each artist got to select the song they wanted and share with us their reasons. – Publicity blurb on the Blu-ray packaging, Great Voices Sing John Denver

In this award-winning film (it won the Spirit of the Independents Award at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in 2013, and Milt Okun, his wife Rosemary, Elisa Justice, and director Shapiro shared the Best Producer of a Documentary award at that year’s Madrid International Film Festival in Spain) Shapiro presents the artists in 15 interview/performance vignettes that combines each singer’s recollection of how and why the songs were chosen with a full presentation of the song. All of the songs in the Great Voices Sing John Denver album are performed in the 90-minutes-long movie, albeit not in the same order as in the recording.

The main film is divided as follows:

  • Perhaps Love (Placido Domingo & Placido Domingo Jr.)
  • This Old Guitar (Rod Gilfry)
  • Rhymes and Reasons (Daniele de Niese)
  • For You  (Matthew Polenzani)
  • Goodbye Again  (Daniel Montenegro)
  • Like a Sad Song (Dolora Zajick)
  • Fly Away (Stuart Skelton & Barbara Padilla)
  • Calypso (Nathan Gunn)
  • Sweet Surrender (Thomas Hampson)
  • The Eagle and the Hawk (Dolora Zajick, Daniel Montenegro, Rod Gilfry)
  • Sunshine on My Shoulders (Denyce Graves)
  • Follow Me (Rene Pape)
  • Shanghai Breezes (Shenyang)
  • Leaving On a Jet Plane (Patricia Racette)
  • Annie’s Song (All Artists)
  • Credits

As I mentioned earlier, the songs in the film version of Great Voices Sing John Denver are the same ones in the album, with arrangements by composer/arranger Holdridge, who had collaborated with the late John Denver in various projects, including serving as arranger in some of Denver’s best known albums, as well as directing the ensembles that performed the orchestral backing in 1981’s Perhaps Love. The only differences, besides the audio/visual format, are the track order and the placement of the Italian- and Chinese-language covers of For You and Shanghai Breezes in the Extra Features section of the home media edition of the film.

Extra Features:

  • Shenyang’s performance of Shanghai Breezes in Mandarin
  • Matthew Polenzani’s performance of Per Te (For You) in Italian
  • Six Featurettes
  • Trailer
  • English subtitles (main feature only) 

My Take

I first heard the Great Voices Sing John Denver when it was “suggested” to me by my Amazon Music app last fall; I had just purchased The Essential John Denver on CD and added the free digital “AutoRip” copy to my collection of digital albums. As part of my Amazon Prime membership, the app was allowing me to listen to the tribute album gratis (for a limited time, naturally), so out of curiosity, I added Great Voices Sing John Denver to my playlist.

Now, I’m not a big opera aficionado. Although I am an avid listener of classical music and have listened to many overtures, incidental themes, and famous arias (Nessun Dorma and Ride of the Valkyries come to mind), I have only seen one of the classic operas in toto, and that one is Bizet’s Carmen. It’s not that I hate opera; I don’t. I just have not taken the time to immerse myself fully in that genre.

But because I do like the songs of John Denver, and because I appreciate great voices when I hear them, I found myself loving the album more each time that I listened to it. As a result, when the “free listen” period (which I guess was 90 days) ended, I decided to purchase the digital edition (Amazon didn’t have the physical disc for sale) and add it to my permanent music library.

I was so taken by the album, which I believe was one of Milt Okun’s final recordings before he died in 2016, that I also purchased the film in three different formats: Blu-ray, digital (on Amazon Prime Video), and DVD.

Before I watched Great Voices Sing John Denver for the first time in January, I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be merely a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the album with video clips featuring short excerpts from the songs as they were recorded? Or would it be an “old” MTV-like  collection of full-on performances mixed with excerpts from interviews with the singers and the producers?

Based on the information on the Great Voices Sing John Denver website, I was more or less convinced that that Shapiro’s film would be more of a complement to the album rather than a collection of music videos filmed during the recording sessions. I mean, nowhere in the film’s promotional blurb does it say, “watch complete performances of John Denver’s great songs in our movie.”  

A video of the original 1981 recording of Perhaps Love, featuring John Denver and Placido Domingo.

At best, I figured we’d get a full version of Perhaps Love, which is the best-known song done in this “opera singer meets pop” style in the Great Voices album. (As Lee Holdridge says in the film, the song and eponymous album kicked off the “popera” genre; after Perhaps Love became a best-selling album, it ushered in other acts that featured classical opera singers singing non-opera music or mixing pop songs with operatic arias. If not for Milt Okun’s alchemy with Perhaps Love, listeners probably would never have been introduced to The Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli, or Josh Groban.)

To my relief, it turns out that the film Great Voices Sing John Denver showcases full performances of the 15 English language tracks heard in the MPE Music album (Shenyang’s Mandarin cover of Shanghai Breezes and Matthew Polenzani’s Italian-language rendition of For You/Per Te have been relegated, inexplicably, to the Extra Features portion of the DVD/Blu-ray).

Official trailer for Great Voices Sing John Denver.

The film, like the album, features a We Are the World-style rendition of Annie’s Song. Technically, this is a collage of separate individual performances edited to sound like one single recording. This is because by this point in the film’s shooting schedule, the featured singers were scattered throughout the world due to their commitments to concerts or opera performances on their professional schedules.   It is not just a beautiful climax to the film, but also a correction to the snub given to John when the We Are the World video was made. (Denver had sent word to producer Quincy Jones that he would like to be included; the request was denied because the singer was considered to be not “pop music” enough for an invite.)

You don’t have to be a devotee of opera or an avid John Denver fan to enjoy this film or the album that inspired it. When I was a kid growing up in Miami in the 1970s and early ‘80s, Denver was at the zenith of his career, so I was familiar with (and liked) many of his songs. I wasn’t a huge fan then; some of my friends were, but even though I had an eight-track tape of Denver’s 1976 Greatest Hits compilation album, I was too musically immature to appreciate how talented the man was. (And in an inexplicable lapse of good musical taste, when my eight-track deck finally wore out after the format had gone out of vogue, I never replaced that Greatest Hits tape either with a cassette or compact disc reissue.)

It’s only recently that I “rediscovered” John Denver’s songs and musical artistry, and since late summer of 2019 I have purchased The Essential John Denver and two other albums on compact disc. I also have, in addition to Great Voices Sing John Denver, two live concert DVDs, 1995’s The Wildlife Concert and a later release of one of Denver’s late 1970s concerts in Japan.

I love them all, but I have to admit that Kenneth Shapiro’s film about the making of the 2013 tribute album is the one I watch most often. Not only is the presentation technically well-done, but the interviews with each of the singers are both fascinating and revealing.

For instance, we learn that the acclaimed Metropolitan Opera singer Dolora Zajick has sung some of the opera repertoire’s most famous roles but had never sung a pop song as a professional vocal artist. Germany’s Rene Pape grew up in the Communist eastern half of the then-divided nation during the Cold War. As a result, he was not exposed to John Denver’s songs until German reunification in 1991. And Barbara Padilla admits that when she was six, she bought the album Perhaps Love for her mom as a Mother’s Day gift, but she was the one who listened to it most.

I recommend this award-winning film to anyone who enjoys great music. Yes, it will appeal a great deal to either fans of John Denver or are familiar with the artists recruited by Milt and Rosemary Okun, Elisa Justice, and Lee Holdridge. But, honestly, Denver’s music and lyrics are appealing to wider audiences, a fact that Holdridge alludes to when he reminisces about telling Denver that his songs were, in essence, great folk songs in the vein of Stephen Foster. “Americana,” as Holdridge says.

I heartily agree with that assessment.

Fiction Break: Excerpt from ‘The Best Years of Our Lives…Supposedly’

Illustration: Pixabay

In August 2018, a few weeks after I self-published Reunion: A Story via Amazon in paperback and Kindle e-book editions, I flirted with the notion of writing a sequel in which the main character (and narrator) of that story is confronting some of the challenges that many fifty-somethings face as they go through middle age and deal with relationships, career ups and downs, and the deaths of their elderly parents,

For about 10 days or so during that hot Florida summer, I imagined how my literary alter ego would deal with the loss of his beloved mother and – as in Reunion – some of the experiences that I went through in high school. I didn’t have a plot outline or a grand plan, really; I wanted to let the story reveal itself to me as I wrote it, which (in a nutshell) is how Stephen King says he writes his stories, too.

I was making good progress, I thought, until I made the mistake of telling The Girlfriend what I was writing and asked her what she thought of my concept.

Now, with other folks, including my late mother and my older half-sister (from whom I am now estranged), whenever I sought feedback (even if it wasn’t what I wanted to hear), nine times out of ten the responses would be:

Hey, that sounds like a great idea, Alex! Go for it!”

“I really like your concept. Go ahead and do a first draft. When you finish it, then we’ll see if it works.”

“Interesting. Can’t wait to read the story when you finish it.”

My significant other is not like that. Not one bit. Her reaction?

“No, Alex, that’s too depressing. Nobody wants to read such a sad story.”

Well, I gotta tell you. That took the wind out of my sails, figuratively speaking. I was so disappointed by the shocking lack of enthusiasm from The Girlfriend that I simply saved what I had as a .doc file on Microsoft Word and set it aside. I didn’t even consider plugging away at the story anyway – which is what I would have done when I was younger and a bit more cocky about my writing and storytelling abilities.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

Anyway, I still have that .doc file in my hard drive, so I thought that for today’s post I’d share the beginning of The Best Years of Our Lives…Supposedly with you. It’s still a rough draft, mind you, and I’m not quite sure where the story was heading; all I remember about the story possibilities is that I considered following the template from Reunion, i.e., a story-within-a-story. It worked for me when I wrote my tale of unrequited love and lost opportunities; it might have worked with the continuing saga of Jim Garraty and his circle of friends.

Okay. Here goes. And remember: if you like this, or if you don’t, let me know in the Comments section below.

Photo by Octoptimist on

August 2016

There’s almost nothing sadder, I think, than standing in the middle of an empty two-story  townhouse that has been stripped bare of its furnishings, decorations, even carpeting. In fact, right now I can only think of two other things that are more depressing – at least for me. One is the end of a relationship you think would last forever but was actually built upon a sandy foundation. That’s something I’ve gone through twice in my 51 years on Earth – once at 16, when I was a sophomore at South Miami Senior High and broke up with Kathy Bennett, my first serious girlfriend, after I found out she was interested in another guy. It happened again sixteen years later, when my then-wife Carrie Tellado-Garraty said to me matter-of-factly over a dinner of Chinese take-out from Sichuan Hot Pot Cuisine – one of our favorite restaurants in Manhattan – “Jim, you know, you’re a sweet, sweet guy, but I’m just not in love with you anymore. I want a divorce.”   

The other item on The-Absolutely-Worst-Things-That-Can-Happen-to-Anyone list is watching helplessly as Alzheimer’s Disease steals a beloved parent’s memories and ability to think, speak, read, even remember her own beloved son, and eventually her life. It took a little over five years for this, the most common type of dementia, to take Mary Ann Garraty, nee Gallagher, my 86-year-old mother to the grave, but not before inflicting a thousand indignities upon a once-beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, and fiercely independent woman. Before Mom’s long Via Dolorosa marked by a progression of calamities that included a long bout of depression;  a lazy 30-something home health aide named Violeta who never stayed with Mom the full six-hour shift on Sundays; and a nasty fall from a wheelchair that resulted in a  fractured right ankle which frightened my mother so badly that she never voluntarily got out of her sickbed, I had thought that my dad’s death in Vietnam at age 46 – he was an Army helicopter pilot whose luck ran out during the Tet Offensive in 1968 – had been the worst instance of bad fortune that could have afflicted our small family. Mom’s final years convinced me otherwise.

As a one-time Army brat and, later, a restless young man who earned a scholarship to Harvard University, I’m somewhat accustomed to moving from one place to another. Before Dad’s Huey was shot down over a far-off place called Ban Me Thuot a week before my third birthday, the Garraty family had already moved twice, the last time being in October of 1966 when my father got orders to report to Fort Benning in Georgia for refresher training before being sent to South Vietnam. After his death and burial at Arlington National Cemetery in the spring of 1968, Mom decided to move to South Miami to live close to Maw-Maw Gallagher, who had tired of snowy and icy New England winters and moved to Florida in 1960. Mom stayed put in her house near Southwest 56th Street – better known to us as Miller Road – until her passing; I did not. Since June of 1983, I’ve lived, studied, and worked in Boston, Washington, D.C., and, finally,  New York City.

Nevertheless, just because I have moved around a few times, that doesn’t mean I like it. I didn’t like it in 1968, when the movers “accidentally” lost a box full of my late father’s personal belongings, including his beloved baseball pitcher’s glove and a scuffed ball signed in 1954 by Jackie Robinson and Hank Bauer of Dad’s equally beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. I also didn’t like it when I moved to the Boston area in ’83; I had had to leave most of my stuff at home in South Florida because the cheap one-bedroom apartment I found in Charlestown was relatively small. It was not much larger than some of the double rooms I’ve stayed in at cheap motels at various times in my life, and Mom convinced me that my books – an assortment of novels, a 1966 green-and-beige set of the World Book Encyclopedia  (plus the annual Year Book supplement volumes) that Dad had bought with my education in mind, and all of my non-fiction tomes about World War II  (including Cornelius Ryan’s The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far) – was more of a necessity for a history major than, say, my modest but cherished collection of Kenner Star Wars action figures and vehicles. I wasn’t thrilled with that assessment; I’d started collecting almost as soon as Kenner released them in 1978 and had gotten my hands on all but a handful of the figures which were available at the time of my graduation from South Miami Senior High that summer.  But the apartment was small, and after taking a few minutes to think about it, I reluctantly agreed to leave them at home. (A few years later, when I was able to afford a larger apartment in the same neighborhood, I drove down to Florida from Massachusetts to get more of my things, including my Star Wars figures. Much to my dismay, I found out that Mom, who wasn’t aware of the sentimental value those figures had for me, had decided to donate the whole kit and caboodle to the nearby Goodwill store.)

So, no. I’m not terribly fond of the moving process. Not in the best of times – and far less in the worst of times.


My mother died in her sleep at 5:15 in the morning of July 19, 2015. She went to what William Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveler returns” according to her oft expressed wishes: at home, in her own bedroom, surrounded by her personal belongings and in the company of loved ones. My cousin Cristina – my mom’s youngest and favorite niece – had come to South Miami all the way from Seattle to be with her Aunt Mary Ann. My best friend since fifth grade, Mark Adams Prieto, sat on a chair we’d brought into Mom’s bedroom from the living room; his eyes were puffy, red, and brimming with tears for the woman he’s called his “second mom” since we were both eleven years old. Kate, a 40-year-old registered nurse from Catholic Services’ hospice clad in clean, wrinkle-free navy-blue scrubs, hovered near my mother’s deathbed; her stethoscope hung down over her chest, oscillating gently from side to side as she gently covered Mom’s face with a faded blue-white bedsheet. Father Garcia from Catholic Services stood off quietly in the far corner of the room; he’d given Mom the last rites – the Anointing of the Sick, the Penance, and the Viaticum – per her wishes, which we had often talked about long before her last illness. He looked tired; the nurse had called him on her smartphone around midnight, when  it was painfully obvious that Mom was fading away. He’d given her the final Sacraments then, but Cristina, who is usually an extremely calm and collected person, became distraught and Father Garcia’s quiet and soothing grandfatherly manner was the only means to calm her down.

As for me?  I was there, too, standing at the foot of the bed and feeling a cold tide of sadness and loss unlike any other that I’d felt before.

I don’t know, even now, how long I stood at that spot, looking down at the dark brown carpet of my mom’s small bedroom. It was old, and although it was about as clean as the home health aides and I could keep it, there were spots where the tufts of brown yarn were no longer there, and you could see the grey-beige underlay – what is known in the carpet business as “padding” – that separated the carpet from the gray concrete floor of the room. In the past – the long-gone days of Ago – Mom would have fretted over what she called “bald spots” on the carpet of the room that she had once designated as the guest room. Now, of course, if Mary Ann Garraty was complaining about the carpet or that she had died in the guest room rather than in the larger master bedroom on the second floor of the house (a move that was forced upon her by her primary care physician when she could no longer walk up and down the 14-step staircase that led upstairs), she was doing so in Saint Peter’s reception area, Valhalla, or wherever it is that we go to when we die.

Surprisingly enough, as incredibly sad as I was inside, outwardly I was as calm and collected as if I were standing in front of my WOH-3010 (History of World War II, 1939-1945) students at my university in New York City. Mom was not particularly fond of excessive emotional displays; in her later years, especially, she was somewhat reserved, almost stoic. Outward displays of grief – such as my cousin Cristina’s quiet but seemingly uncontrollable sobbing – made Mom extremely uncomfortable when she was alive. I don’t know why; my maternal grandparents had been boisterous and voluble even in their last years, and they had not raised Mom with the notion that Gallaghers never cried. The one time that I’d asked her why she was so stoic – especially at funerals and other sad occasions – she said, “Because, Jimmy, I don’t like the drama of it all.” She said it calmly, quietly, in the same tone of voice you’d probably use to say, “I like the color blue,” or “The Earth is round, not flat.”

 I don’t like the drama of it all. I’d always – well, almost always – heeded my mom’s wishes as best as I could. So even though I was suddenly faced with the reality that I was – at the age of 50 years and two months – an orphan, I would honor my mother – whose small, frail, white-haired remains lay only a hand’s-breadth away, her face mercifully covered by a faded bedsheet – by keeping my emotions in rein.  

“Professor Garraty?” I heard someone say, and I snapped out of my reverie. It was Nurse Kate, the RN from the hospice service. She looked at me with a mixture of sympathy, expectancy, and weariness that reflected the sixteen hours that had passed since Mom had slipped into a semiconscious state between this world and the next. “It’s time to call  the funeral home so they can pick your mother up. Do you wish me to do it for you?”

I tried to open my mouth and say, “No, I’ll do it,” but the words would not come. Instead I nodded like an automaton. I must have looked pathetically helpless, but Kate just gave me a look that conveyed, Don’t worry, I’ve got this. Pulling her Samsung Galaxy smartphone out of one of her scrub top’s pockets, the nurse in the navy-blue wrinkle-free uniform walked past me and out of Mom’s bedroom, no doubt calling the hospice center on speed dial as she walked out into the living room and out of earshot to call for the ambulance that would take my mom on her last ride out of the house she’d called home for 47 years.

Father Garcia, whose patient endeavors to soothe my distraught cousin had finally borne results – Cristina now sat on one of the chairs in the room, staring silently at the popcorn ceiling as if trying to see Mom’s unfettered soul ascending to Heaven – shuffled  slowly toward me, shook my right hand firmly, and uttered an understandably hasty “God bless you, Professor Garraty. Rest assured that we all think you did the best you could for your mother during her last years, and that her soul is now at rest, in the company of Our Lord and with all those who have gone on before us, including your father.” With that, he made a sign of the Cross with his right hand – “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” – said a few more pleasantries, and shuffled off, hopefully heading to his rectory for a well-deserved rest after a long and tiring night and early morning.

    I looked over at the chair where Mark, my best friend since we were fifth graders at Kinloch Park Elementary School back in the Seventies, sat, slumped down as if he, too, were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. His well-manicured hands covered his face; I don’t know if he didn’t want to see Mom’s bedsheet-shrouded corpse or if he was trying to hide his tear-streaked face.  From where I stood, I noticed, perhaps for the first time, that Mark’s once dark brown hair was beginning to turn gray, and that a dime-sized bald spot had appeared just off the center of his head. Life’s a bitch, we used to say jokingly as we walked in the crowded halls of our alma mater, South Miami Senior High School, and then you die. Looking at the scene before me – my beloved mother lying dead in her bed and covered up with one of her faded blue-and-white bedsheets; my cousin Cristina staring into space like a character in a Grade-Z movie; and my childhood bestie slumped down on his chair, his clothes rumpled – as mine surely were – from the long day’s journey into this sad and terrible mid-July night – that old saying echoed endlessly in my mind, albeit with a new twist:

Life’s a bitch, takes your loved ones away from you in horrible, painful ways, and then you die.


Two hours later, two men from the transportation company that serves the Van Ordsel Family Funeral Chapels and Crematory arrived at the house to take my mother’s body away. The sun had risen at 6:40 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, but it hid behind a dark-grey curtain of cumulus and stratocumulus clouds heavily laden with rain. Father Garcia was long gone and was probably now asleep in his bed at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church’s rectory. But Kate, the registered nurse from Catholic Services’ hospice unit, had stayed behind, keeping watch over my mother’s mortal remains and offering whatever comfort she had to give to those of us who were grieving. It was Kate who let the guys from Van Ordsel – a thickset, grey-haired Cuban named Alfonso and a slimmer but still formidable “anglo” guy with thinning black hair and a hangdog expression that seemed to have been on his face since the day he was born – in through the front door. They wore uniforms very much like those of your average ambulance driver and entered the house pushing a gurney on which they would take Mom from her deathbed and off to the funeral home. They didn’t rush – they made the passage from the foyer to my mother’s bedroom slowly, pushing the gurney carefully so it would not crash into any of the furniture or bang against the walls in the narrow hall that led from the living room, past the downstairs bathroom, and into what I now thought of as that room. Not Mom’s room, not the “future guest room,” and certainly not “the room where Mom died.”  I looked at Alfonso and was about to offer – however halfheartedly – whatever assistance that I could, but the man simply shook his head. “Don’t worry, sir,” he said with a slight but still noticeable Cuban accent, “we’ll take care of your mom for you.”

 Alfonso and his co-worker disappeared into the now silent bedroom where Mom’s body lay in deathly repose. Mark, Cristina, and I stood in a ragged row in front of the living room sofa, looking for all the world like a trio of shell-shocked GIs after a firefight in the bocage country of Normandy in the summer of 1944. Kate, her navy-blue scrubs still miraculously wrinkle-free, stood alone by the open front door and watched as the first raindrops of a mid-July rainstorm began to fall outside.


The next few days were hot, humid, and – typically for South Florida – alternated between periods of bright sunshine in the morning and torrential downpours punctuated by frequent lightning strikes and loud BOOMS of thunder that could be heard for many miles away from where the bolts of electricity struck the rain-soaked ground. In between the inevitable flurry of signing documents and filing reams of official and non-official paperwork and the sad but necessary rituals that follow a loved one’s death came the inevitable bouts of anger, sadness, anxiety over the future, and a heightened sense of my own mortality.

And like most adult children who take care of an ill elderly parent knowing that Mom or Dad is not going to get better, I felt a sickening mix of relief and remorse: the former because I didn’t have to fret about making sure that the home health aides were turning Mom in bed every two hours to avoid the development of bedsores, or deal with the minutiae of meal planning, dispensing of medications, or fight the waves of anger and sadness that washed over me every time that Mom confused me for my long-dead father or kept me awake for long hours because she refused to take her nighttime pills. (“You’re trying to poison me, Jim! I already took my sleeping pills an hour ago!” Mom shouted at me – on more than one occasion – so loudly that I thought the next-door neighbors would hear and call 911.) The latter? After a parent dies under circumstances like my mom did – at home, with a son or daughter who is the primary caregiver, there is a natural tendency for one to look back at the past and obsessively examine and re-examine every decision one made during the past few years. Did I hire the right home health agency? Did I request a sabbatical from my teaching position in New York at the right time? Did I make sure that Mom ate enough nutritious food to keep her health from declining prematurely? Did I spend enough time with her before her dementia robbed her mind so thoroughly that she barely knew who I was? Had I been too impatient, too harshly judgmental with her when she forgot to use the Kindle e-reader that I bought her for Christmas in 2009, just a few months before her physical and mental health went down the proverbial tubes? Those questions nagged at me for far too many hours at night – and even during the day – in those first few days after Mom died. They still haunt me now, though not as often as in that hot, muggy, and stormy July of 2015.   

Review of YouTube Short “Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss” (Denise Longrie)

This is a review of “Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss,” a film that I wrote last year and was filmed by Juan Carlos Hernandez early in 2020.

Reviews of Old and New Stories. Mostly Old


This amusing and enjoyable short depicts the fireworks that erupt when the Ronderos’ son Jerry (Anthony James Hernandez) comes home from college for a visit. Mom Veronica (“Ronnie”), played by Adria K. Woomer-Hernandez, lays down the law to her husband Guillermo (Juan Carlos Hernandez): no talking, not even whispering, about politics.

…Which means, of course, there will be a knock-down, drag-out fight, and among this Cuban-American family, that requires be a rehashing of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Guille describes how the “cabrón Kennedy” blew the whole thing. Jerry isn’t so sure Kennedy’s actions made much difference, that it was doomed from the beginning.


However, this film examination is not facile. These people love each other. Despite their differences, they still care for one another. Jerry brings home treats for his folks, items that delight them. He’s greeted with, “How’s school? Are you eating enough?”

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Blu-ray Review: ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ (Multi-Screen Edition)

Official Disney Movies Trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Digital and Blu-ray Release

On Tuesday, March 31, Buena Vista Home Entertainment (BVHE) and Lucasfilm officially released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on two Blu-ray formats, 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) and the older High Definition (HD) Blu-ray discs (BD) in several combinations, including a Multi-Screen Edition with two HD BDs and an insert with a Movies Anywhere digital code for download or streaming. (Other editions include the 4K UHD/HD BD three-disc combination and the exclusive-to-Best Buy Limited Edition Steelbook, which is essentially the 4K UHD/HD Blu-ray set packaged in a metal case with slightly different artwork on the front and reverse covers.)

Promotional photo of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Multi-Screen Edition 2-disc set. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The physical disc release came two weeks after The Walt Disney Company, corporate parent to both BVHE (which is Disney’s home media distribution arm) and Lucasfilm, issued director J.J. Abrams’ 2019 film, which not only concludes the Sequel Trilogy that includes Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), but also completes the nine-film Skywalker Saga.

Lucasfilm and director J.J. Abrams join forces once again to take viewers on an epic journey to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the riveting conclusion of the seminal Skywalker saga, where new legends will be born and the final battle for freedom is yet to come. – Back cover blurb, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Blu-ray.

Like BVHE’s other Star Wars Multi-Screen Edition HD Blu-ray releases since 2018, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker dispenses with a DVD Standard Definition disc. (As far as I know, the last Star Wars film released in a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which made its home media debut in March 2017.)  Thus, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a two-disc set that includes:

  • Disc One: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Feature Film)
  • Disc Two: Bonus Features
  • Digital Code Insert (Redeemable at Movies Anywhere)

Disc One contains the feature film directed by J.J. Abrams and written by Abrams with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (based on a screen story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Abrams, and Terrio). With an approximate runtime of 142 minutes (the second longest in the overall franchise), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is presented in 1080p high definition widescreen format, with four language tracks (English 7.1 DTS-HDMA and 2.0 Descriptive Audio, plus Spanish and French 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks), and subtitles in English (for the deaf and hard-of-hearing), Spanish, and French.

Disc Two contains the Bonus Features, which include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • The Skywalker Legacy, a feature-length documentary that gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the final film of the nine-part Skywalker Saga
  • Passana Pursuit: Creating the Speeder Chase
  • D-O: Key to the Past, a featurette about the new counterpart to R2-D2, BB-8, and C-3PO.

There are several other featurettes, including one about actor Warwick Davis, who reprises his Return of the Jedi role of Wicket the Ewok, and his son Harrison, who plays Wicket’s cub in a cameo set on the Endor moon.

 My Take

Overall, Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm make a good team when it comes to home media releases of the 11 (so far) Star Wars features. The art chosen for the slip cover is reminiscent of Drew Struzan’s art for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with a similar Light Side/Dark Side design featuring many of the heroes of the Resistance (including Poe Dameron, Finn, Chewbacca, Lando Calrissian, R2-D2, C-3PO, and BB-8), with Rey and Kylo Ren (the film’s central characters) dominating the central focus point of the cover art.

The audio-visual content in the two discs is digitally mastered for the best home viewing experience. On even a basic home theater system with a five-speaker setup and a 40-inch (or larger) HD TV set, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker looks and sounds great. The film’s dazzling color palette (which is used to good effect to help depict several different worlds with unique Flash Gordon-like environments) comes to the fore in high definition 1080p resolution, while the movie’s John Williams score and sound effects by Skywalker Sound’s Matthew Wood and David Acord combine seamlessly with the stunning visuals by cinematographer Dan Mindel and the special effects crew at Industrial Light & Magic. 

The bonus features are also nicely distributed among a movie-length “making of” documentary and several shorter behind-the-scenes featurettes. The Skywalker Legacy is a solid and often entertaining look at the return of J.J. Abrams to the Star Wars franchise and the creation of The Rise of Skywalker. All of the major cast members are interviewed, and viewers will see how Lucasfilm was able to give General Leia Organa enough screen time to give her a fitting send-off, even though Carrie Fisher died in December of 2016 and thus wasn’t available to participate in the film’s making.

Because Disney-owned Lucasfilm produced the behind-the-scenes material for the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, The Skywalker Legacy avoids such touchy topics as how Fisher’s death adversely affected the development of the final installment of the Sequel Trilogy. There is no mention of the movie’s original writer-director team, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, who had been hired by Lucasfilm in 2014 along with The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson as part of the Sequel Trilogy’s creative dream team. Under circumstances that aren’t quite clear, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy fired the Jurassic World duo, citing creative differences, and asked J.J. Abrams to complete the Trilogy.

So if you’re looking for controversy and backstage drama in The Skywalker Legacy, forget it. Lucasfilm, like any corporate entity (and especially one that is in the entertainment industry), is not going to air out its dirty laundry, and certainly not in a bonus disc that is intended for general audiences.

Personally, I’m fine with this, but I suspect that there are many Star Wars fans (especially the ones that don’t like Kathleen Kennedy) who would have liked a more nuanced account of how Abrams had to be asked to direct a film that had been assigned to another director during the planning phase of the Sequel Trilogy in the wake of George Lucas’s retirement in 2012 and the subsequent sale of Lucasfilm to The Walt Disney Company.

The Best Buy-exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook houses one 4K UHD Blu-ray and two HD (regular) Blu-ray discs, including the feature film and the bonus features disc. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

The only disappointment I have with the extras is the absence of a director’s commentary track by J.J. Abrams in the feature film. Unlike Steven Spielberg, who is a willing participant in behind-the-scenes documentaries but never does director’s commentaries, Abrams has recorded such tracks for other films, including Mission Impossible III and Star Trek. The “basic” edition of Star Wars: The Force Awakens also does not have a commentary track by Abrams, although the more expensive 3D Collector’s Edition does. Thus, Abrams is one of three Star Wars directors (the others are Gareth Edwards of Rogue One and Ron Howard of Solo: A Star Wars Story) who have not given fans more insights about their entries in the Star Wars lore. Contrast this to Star Wars creator George Lucas, Star Wars: The Clone Wars’ Dave Filoni, or even Rian Johnson, all of whom have contributed commentaries to the home media releases of their Star Wars films.

But, in the bigger scheme of that galaxy far, far away, this is a minor gripe on my part. Overall, Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm delivered a fine home media release of the last Skywalker Saga film. To their credit – and perhaps as a way to brighten Star Wars fans’ morale in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic – Disney and Lucasfilm allowed retailers to ship out units of the Blu-ray (4K UHD as well as HD BD) earlier than the March 31 “drop date.” I had my set by the Thursday before the announced release date, and so did many others.

Promotional photo of the exclusive-to-Best Buy Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, a 27-disc Collector’s Set. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

I have three different editions of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, including the 4K UHD version, because I ordered the Limited Edition Steelbook and the Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga box set, both of which are Best Buy exclusives. I can’t review the 4K UHD discs until we set up the UHD TV and compatible Blu-ray player, but at least I’ll have them ready to try out on the day that that is accomplished.  Overkill, it may be, but I feel it’s a good idea to have a few spare copies handy in case a disc gets scratched or lost.

My Growing ‘Star Wars’ Movie Collection

On Wednesday, April 1, UPS delivered my latest addition to my constantly growing Star Wars home media collection, the exclusive-to-Best Buy Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, a 27-disc box set with the 4K Ultra-High Definition (UHD) Blu-ray editions of the nine “Skywalker Saga” Episodes, as well as the “regular” High Definition Blu-rays of Star Wars: Episodes I-IX and nine more Blu-rays containing the bonus features, one for each of the movies set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

Promotional photo showing the contents of the Best Buy exclusive Star Wars; The Skywalker Saga box set. (C) 2020 Best Buy, Inc. and Lucasfilm Ltd.

A few days earlier, the U.S. Postal Service had delivered two different editions of the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker home media release. One is the “basic” Multi-Screen Edition, which consists of two Blu-ray discs (BDs) and an insert with the Movies Anywhere code for a digital copy.

The “Multi-Screen Edition’s slipcover for the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Blu-ray/Digital Code combo. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

The other edition is the Best Buy-exclusive Limited Edition Steelbook, which houses a 4K UHD BD with director J.J. Abrams’ 2019 Sequel Trilogy capper, an HD BD with the same film, and a second HD BD with Bonus Features.

The Best Buy-exclusive three-disc Limited Edition Steelbook contains the 4K UHD and the HD Blu-ray releases of Episode IX, as well as a digital copy code for Movies Anywhere. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

As you probably inferred from this post’s lead, these three new arrivals are just the latest additions to my collection of Star Wars Blu-rays and DVDs.

Previously, in late November of 2019, in advance of the theatrical premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, I bought Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s reissues of Episodes I-VI, which are repackaged and relabeled one-disc Blu-rays with the same content (right down to the menus, language options, and commentaries found in the 2011 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-rays.

Promotional illustration showing the 2019 Multi-Screen Edition reissues of the first eight Skywalker Saga films. I only bought Episodes I-VI. (C) 2019 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

Before that, I acquired the Steelbook Edition of Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi. And before that, I’d bought Multi-Screen Editions of Solo: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a film for which I also bought a Steelbook Edition.)

Prior to 2016, which saw me move from my hometown of Miami to another city in Florida, I had already every Blu-ray edition offered by 20th Century Fox, including the 2015 Limited Edition Steelbooks of the Prequel and Original Trilogies, as well as the 2011 and the 2015 Star Wars: The Complete Saga multi-disc Blu-ray box sets.

Promotion for 20th Century Fox’s final reissue of the Star Wars Saga from November 2015, six weeks before Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studio released Disney-owned Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens in theaters. (C) 2015 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd.

I suppose some people might think I’m a little mad, but I’ve done this with all of the pre-BD formats Star Wars films were released in (except for laserdisc, which is the one home media device that I never purchased). When Star Wars was first released on DVD in 2001 in the 2-disc set of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace, I bought each film in individual 2-DVD sets.* And starting with the 2004 Star Wars Trilogy 4-DVD set, I purchased the two 2008 Trilogy sets, mainly because Lucasfilm had updated some of the scenes in The Phantom Menace, but also because I’m a completist when it comes to my favorite movie franchise.

  • I no longer have the individual-film DVDs that I purchased between 2001 and 2006. Some time after my mother got seriously ill in 2010, I decided – stupidly – to give those first six Star Wars DVDs to the then nine-year-old son of one of my mom’s aides. At the time, I reasoned that since I had the 2008 box sets, I could afford to part with my original DVDs. Now I regret doing that, but I thought it was a good idea at the time.

“These Times Try Men Souls…” Life in the COVID-19 Era

These are the times that try men’s souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.Thomas Paine, The American Crisis, December 1776

How will history remember how the United States and its government responded to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the first half of the year 2020? Will we – and the Administration of one Donald John Trump – be remembered as the Americans who faced a serious crisis with unity, determination, and courage? Or will we be consigned to the ash heap of history because we allowed – yes, allowed – ourselves to be so culturally, socially, and politically divided that one half of the nation hated the other half so much that it elected the most inept, unfit, and least effective candidate ever to run for President of the United States to the White House.

Seriously, we are where we are today – a nation of over 300 million men, and women, and children coping with an almost unprecedented public health crisis – as a result of a “perfect storm” that started late last fall in Wuhan, China, where a new strain of coronavirus emerged and made people sick. Like all authoritarian regimes, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) mishandled the situation in an effort to cover the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rear end. It arrested doctors that tried to get the word out about the new and deadly virus. It clamped down on data regarding confirmed cases. Once the cat was out of the bag, Beijing might have even deliberately underreported those confirmed cases and deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the world at large.

Worse yet, the PRC was slow to impose both a travel ban and what we now call a policy of social distancing; as late as December of 2019 and January of 2020, Chinese citizens were still traveling to and from other countries, thus inadvertently helping to spread COVID-19 and turning what should have been a local or national public health incident into a global pandemic.

I do not blame Donald Trump for the existence of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus; he did not conjure it out of the ether or order its creation and release as a bio-weapon against China. But I do think his response to the pandemic has been inept, unenthusiastic, and marked by a lack of preparedness and political maladroitness. As I wrote some time ago in my Blogger blog A Certain Point of View:

See, folks, this is what happens when a large segment of Americans decides to put a preening, buffoonish, self-centered real estate “mogul” into the White House in order to turn back the clock and return the country back to the 1950s. Instead of having a President with leadership skills on par with Franklin D. Roosevelt, we are being pushed off the proverbial cliff by an intellectual midget who doesn’t understand how viruses spread, how hard it is to get a handle on a pandemic, and that you don’t tell a virus, “Hey, COVID-19, we beat you, bro! Now be gone by April 12 so we can get the country going again.”

Again, per the New York Times:

Sitting in the Rose Garden earlier in the day for a Fox News “virtual town hall” on the coronavirus, the president said he was ready to “have the country opened up” by Easter and to ease restrictions he said were responsible for harming a flourishing economy.

“You are going to lose a number of people to the flu, but you are going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Mr. Trump said, misidentifying the virus. “You are going to have suicides by the thousands — you are going to have all sorts of things happen. You are going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”

See, this is why a responsible electorate does not (or rather, should not) allow someone as unprepared, corrupt, and inept as Donald John Trump to get elected as President of the United States of America. Trump, after all, is a businessman, one with a troublesome history of bankrupting businesses (Trump Airlines, several casinos in Atlantic City, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks), shafting contractors, and defrauding people who enrolled in Trump University.

Because Trump is, in my opinion and that of many others, a consummate grifter whose only interest is to enrich himself and his brood, his main “achievement” as President was to be in office during a bull market on Wall Street. Until March 2020, the stock market and the overall economy were doing well, even though there were indications that a “bear market” was in the horizon. For Trump, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the low unemployment rate in the U.S. were the sine qua non proof that his policies (including the infamous Trump tax cut) had resulted in “the greatest economy in American history.”

What Trump and his besotted supporters never mention – because they don’t want to acknowledge this – is that the economy was healthy and robust when President Barack Obama left the White House on January 20, 2017. In their twisted narrative, Obama had handed “the best POTUS of all time” a nation supposedly in ruins, with an empty treasury and a national defense establishment with no ammunition for “a depleted military.” Only Trump, he said during his campaign in 2016, could fix everything.

All of this talk of Trump’s business-centric mentality and his claims that he inherited a nation (and an economy) in decline is relevant to the topic of COVID-19. His emphasis on “his” economy and his stewardship of same lie at the heart of his Administration’s lackluster and uneven response to the pandemic. His concern that calling for what amounts to a total shutdown of the nation to bring down the numbers of new COVID-19 cases and reduce the spread of the virus was based on the knowledge that his house-of-cards economy would collapse when it was implemented.

In other words, much of Trump’s COVID-19 decision-making wasn’t based on medical considerations or advice from experts such as Drs. Anthony Fauci and Dorothy Birx, but from his financial advisors and his fellow billionaires.

Add to this his total disinterest in taking responsibility for his bad decisions (such as closing the National Security Council’s pandemic unit at the behest of John Bolton) and his lack of good leadership, and we have the antithesis to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I do not understand how and why Trump supporters insist, even now, that Donald Trump is the “BEST President EVER.” Until the COVID-19 pandemic, he basically shucked and jived through his term, surviving several political pitfalls solely because the Republican Party, especially its representatives and Senators in Congress, are not willing to let him fall from power lest they, too, fall down with him.

In my history buff’s mind, the pandemic is Trump’s first true test as the nation’s Chief Executive. It’s this Administration’s equivalent to the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941, at least in social impact. And as a taker of a big leagues leadership test, Donald J. Trump is failing, big time.

To borrow (and twist) a now-famous quote from Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX), “I know about Franklin D. Roosevelt. And you, sir, are no FDR.”

Many years ago, when I was helping a friend write a research paper about what makes a good leader for his Public Administration class at Florida International University, I learned that one of the most necessary skills that is needed is getting others to follow your lead, even if your ideas are not popular or easy to carry out.

As Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said in his Masters of Scale podcast some time ago, “Every leader has to create a drumbeat for their company.”

This applies also to political leaders, especially on the head-of-state level. And I fear that Donald Trump is drumming us all into a path that leads to the edge of a seaside cliff.

Trump Wants U.S. ‘Opened Up’ by Easter, Despite Health Officials’ Warnings, by Annie Karni and Donald G. McNeil Jr., New York Times, March 25, 2020. Source:

Coming Soon to “A Certain Point of View, Too”

Coming soon to a galaxy near you….

Hello, there! Welcome to another edition of Bloggin’ On in A Certain Point of View, Too, my new WordPress blog, the best place in the blogsphere to get my latest reviews, essays, and political commentary.  I hope you are staying safe and healthy in these weird and troubled times of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the world can get back to normal in the not-too-distant future.

I don’t have any reviews or essays ready for you today; I spent much of my morning playing Sid Meier’s Civilization IV in offline mode, and after I completed my game with a Space Victory, I spent about an hour writing a blog post about coping with COVID-19 for my original A Certain Point of View on Blogger. Consequently, I don’t have any reviews or news-based posts to share here today. I’m tired, for one thing, and I’m not quite sure if I want to spend another two hours at my desk writing a longish article.

Promotional photo of The Skywalker Saga 4K UHD/HD Blu-ray box set, a Best Buy exclusive. I got mine on Wednesday. (C) 2020 Best Buy, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Rather, I’m going to give you some idea of what I have in store for this blog in the near-future, sort of like a Coming Attractions trailer at the movies.

So, without further ado, here’s what is coming soon to A Certain Point of View, Too:

  • 1917 movie review
  • Star Wars: The Black Series Sith Jet Trooper action figure review
  • Star Wars: Resistance Reborn book review
  • Star Wars toy & collectible review, TBD
  • Great Voices Sing John Denver Blu-ray review
  • The Skywalker Saga Best Buy exclusive 27-disc Collector’s Edition box set
  • Behind-the-scenes looks at A Simple Ad and Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss
Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss

I usually write my blogs in a “seat-of-the-pants” improvisational fashion, so I might not adhere strictly to this list, but this is all on my “to-do” list at the moment.

As James Garner used to say in those old 1970s Polaroid Camera commercials, “Let’s see what develops.”

Book Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Expanded Edition

Cover Art: Andree Wallin. (C) 2020 Random House/Del Rey Books & Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

On March 17, Del Rey Books (an imprint of Random House based in New York) published Rae Carlson’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – Expanded Edition, a novelization of Star Wars: Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker, the last installment of the Skywalker Saga. Published nearly 44 years after Alan Dean Foster’s Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, the novel concludes the story arcs of Rey, the scavenger girl-turned-Jedi trainee and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, the heir to the Skywalker bloodline who was seduced by the Dark Side and is obsessed with finishing what his grandfather, Anakin Skywalker, started when he became the evil Sith Lord Darth Vader.

Set 35 years after the events of the original Star Wars film from 1977 and roughly one year after the Battle of Crait (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker depicts that galaxy far, far away once again embroiled in conflict. As the brief prologue – which is lifted straight from the film’s title crawl written by director J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio – declares:

The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA dispatches secret agents to gather intelligence, while REY, the last hope of the Jedi, trains for battle against the diabolical FIRST ORDER.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader KYLO REN rages in search of the phantom Emperor, determined to destroy any threat to his power….

Like her fellow Sequel Trilogy authors Alan Dean Foster (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) and Jason Fry (Star Wars: The Last Jedi), Carson takes a short detour in the narrative before jumping into the film’s opening. The first chapter is set on the lush jungle moon of Ajan Kloss, where Leia Skywalker Organa is training Rey in the ways of the Force. Here, we learn that this is the place where the Princess of Alderaan trained as a Jedi with her twin brother Luke (who called Ajan Kloss “Nice Dagobah,” in reference to the boggy planet where he’d trained as a Jedi with Jedi Master Yoda over three decades before).

In this first chapter, Carson delves into the thoughts of Leia and Rey as the girl from the desert world Jakku undergoes the rigors of training as a Jedi Knight under the tutelage of someone who ended her formal training as a result of her vision of the future.

As Rey tries – and fails – to connect through the Force with “those who have come before,” she asks Leia about her decision to not follow her brother’s – and her father Anakin’s – footsteps as a fully-trained Jedi Knight:

She didn’t want to admit she was failing, so instead she said, “Why did you stop training with Luke?” Her words came out too harsh, almost as a challenge.

Leia took it in stride. “Another life called to me.”

Eyes still closed, Rey asked, “How did you know?”

“A feeling. Visions. Of serving the galaxy in other ways.”

“But how did you know these visions were true?” Rey pressed.

“I knew.” She heard the smile in Leia’s voice.

Rey didn’t understand how Leia could be so sure. Of anything.

“I treasured each moment I spent with my brother,” Leia added. “The things he taught me…I use them every day. Once you touch the Force, it’s part of which you always. Over the years,I continued to learn, to grow. There were times on the Senate floor when the meditations I’d practiced with Luke were the only thing that kept me from causing a galactic incident.”

Rey frowned. Leia didn’t need patience. She could have made anyone do anything she wanted, with the power of the Force. Surely she’d been tempted?

“Was Luke angry? When you quit?” She hoped Leia noticed that she could talk and float at the same time. That was progress, right?

Leia paused to consider. “He was disappointed. But he understood. I think he held out hope that I’d return to it someday.”

Rey almost laughed. “He should have known better.” Once Leia made a decision, it was for keeps.

“I gave him my lightsaber to convince him otherwise.Told him to pass it on to a promising student someday.” But Leia’s voice had gone tight. Rey sensed she was holding something back.

“Where’s your lightsaber now?”

“No idea. Now stop trying to distract me,” Leia said. “Reach out.”

In this chapter, Carson gives us Rey’s insights and suppositions as to why training with a Master who isn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi or Luke Skywalker – Jedi Masters whose pupils fell to the Dark Side – is an advantage rather than a weakness. She also uses Rey’s growing connection to the Force to show glimpses of a nightmarish notion: something more wicked than either Kylo Ren or his late Master, Supreme Leader Snoke is making its presence known to Rey, calling to the darkness she fears lies inside her. She doesn’t know what it is, but the Force shows her brief images of something monstrous that she can’t quite understand:

The monolith shifted. Became a giant face of stone, cloaked in evil…

No, not a stone at all. A form of something, part human, part machine, with tubes stretching away from it like tentacles, all filled with a strange liquid. Was this creature alive? Or was it –

Flashes of Luke’s face. Then Kylo’s. Han Solo, his hand against Kylo’s cheek. A young woman in a hood. A freighter flying away from Jakku….

Finally, a burning voice in her head, as clear and unbearable as a desert storm: “Exegol.”

It is in Chapter Two of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker that the novel depicts the scene that opens Episode IX: Supreme Leader Kylo Ren and a mixed array of First Order stormtroopers and Kylo’s own Knights of Ren are slaughtering a group of colonists in one of the few “cool” areas of Mustafar – the lava world where a young Darth Vader was maimed by his friend and former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in a fateful lightsaber duel half a century before. Kylo Ren’s grandfather barely survived then, kept alive by Emperor Palpatine’s Sith powers and his strong will to survive. Here, on Mustafar, are the ruins of Vader’s castle – as well as a Sith Wayfinder that will lead the man once known as Ben Solo to Exegol, an uncharted world in the Unknown Regions.

Victorious at last and with the Wayfinder in his grasp, Kylo Ren flies his advanced TIE Whisper (Carson, inexplicably, uses a lower case “w” whenever she names Kylo’s personal fighter in the text.) on a long journey to find “the Phantom Emperor,” who was reportedly killed by none other than Vader himself in his throne room aboard the second Death Star at the Battle of Endor all those years ago,

Much to Kylo’s dismay, the broadcast that shocked the galaxy and all the rumors that Palpatine – the architect of the Jedi Order’s demise and the rise of the Galactic Empire that Kylo’s parents and Uncle Luke helped destroy somehow survived. On Exegol, which is populated by millions of Palpatine loyalists who call themselves the Sith Eternal, Sheev Palpatine, also known as Darth Sidious, informs Kylo that it was he who was behind the creation of the First Order, the existence of Snoke, and Ben Solo’s tumble from the light into darkness. As Palpatine says to a stunned Kylo: “My boy, I have been every voice you have heard inside your head.”

Knowing that Kylo is obsessed by the quest for ultimate control of the galaxy, Palpatine makes a Faustian offer: The Emperor is willing to let the heir to Vader’s legacy rule a new Empire in exchange for one thing: Kylo must kill Rey, the last hope of the Jedi.

Over the next 16 chapters, Rae Carson follows the intertwined paths of Kylo Ren and Rey in a gripping adventure that spans the galaxy and sees heroes from two generations’ worth of stories – including Resistance X-wing ace Poe Dameron, former First Order stormtrooper Finn (FN-2187), Chewbacca the Wookiee, Rose Tico, Leia Organa, Temmin “Snap” Wexley, Maz Kanata, Lando Calrissian, Wedge Antilles, R2-D2, C-3PO, and new allies Jannah, Babu Frik, and Zorii Bliss – joining forces one last time in a do-or-die battle against a reborn Palpatine and his so-called Final Order.

Witness the epic final chapter of the Skywalker saga with the official novelization of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, including expanded scenes and additional content not seen in theaters!

The Resistance has been reborn. The spark of rebellion is rekindling across the galaxy. But although Rey and her fellow heroes are back in the fight, the war against the First Order, now led by Supreme Leader Kylo Ren, is far from over.

Rey, Finn, Poe, and the Resistance must embark on the most perilous adventure they have ever faced. And this time, they’re facing it together. With the help of old friends, new allies, and the mysterious guidance of the Force, the story that began in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and continued in Star Wars: The Last Jedi reaches an astounding conclusion.
– Publisher’s dust jacket blurb

My Take

When George Lucas was in the midst of making Star Wars back in 1976 (it would not be known as Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope until 1981), Lucasfilm Ltd. wasn’t as prominent as it is now.

Most studios, including 20th Century Fox (the studio that financed Star Wars) believed that science fiction and fantasy films had little to no audience appeal.

Based on this premise, Fox executives eagerly signed away the marketing and licensing rights to “The Star Wars Corporation,” which would later be folded into Lucasfilm itself.

Because Fox wasn’t enthusiastically marketing Star Wars, Lucas and Charles Lippincott, then Lucasfilm’s vice president for marketing and media affairs, took matters into their own to create “buzz” for the then-unfinished Star Wars among comic book fans and sci-fi aficionados. In those pre-Internet days, one sure way to do that was to release media tie-ins in advance of an upcoming film. Releasing a novelization several months in advance was one such technique.

In the 1970s, this was not unique to Star Wars. In 1969, Erich Segal turned in a screenplay to Paramount Pictures called Love Story. For some reason or other, the film took longer to make than expected,so the studio asked Segal to adapt his script into a novel. He agreed, and Love Story became a best-selling book long before it became one of the biggest box office hits of 1970.

On a similar vein, when Warner Bros. and Robert Mulligan were making the coming-of-age comedy-drama Summer of ’42, the studio (perhaps looking at the success of Love Story a year before) asked screenwriter Herman Raucher to write a novel that would be published in advance of the film’s release. The book version of Summer of ’42 also became a best-seller, and because it was so faithful to Raucher’s script, many viewers thought the film was a perfect adaptation of a literary work. (It was, of course, the other way ’round, but you know, marketing….)

Naturally, Lucas and Lippincott were aware of this marketing tactic, so they hired a young science fiction writer named Alan Dean Foster to write a novelization based on Lucas’s fourth revised draft script.

Foster was already a known commodity in the science fiction fandom, for in addition to penning his own stories, he had successfully adapted Star Trek: The Animated Series in a string of paperbacks known as the Star Trek: Logs. (Foster also penned the story “In Thy Image” for the never-produced Star Trek: Phase II television series; his basic premise later became the basis for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.)

The hardcover edition of Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. Cover art by John Berkey. (C) 1976 Del Rey Books and 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

If you’re a Star Wars fan of a certain age, you know the rest of the story. Late in 1976, Del Rey Books published Foster’s Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. It was credited to George Lucas, and not only did it faithfully adapt the screenplay (albeit with a few divergences here and there), but it also included a prologue (based on notes given to Foster by Lucas) that is a barebones outline for the Prequel Trilogy and introduces Emperor Palpatine as the catalyst for the Empire’s rise and the destruction of the Jedi Order.

In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, California-born but now Arizona resident Rae Carson is the last of a series of writers who have adapted the 11 live action Star Wars films that have been released so far. By penning the novelization of Episode IX, she will be remembered for concluding not just the Prequel Trilogy’s three-book cycle (to which Alan Dean Foster contributed in 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens) but the Skywalker Saga overall.

Overall, Carson does a good job of adapting the screenplay by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams, which itself was based on the screen story by Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow with adjustments by Abrams and Terrio. In the grand tradition of Star Wars novelizations, the author deftly blends material from early versions the script and the original story treatments with some of her own bits of narrative, most of which (like the excerpt from Chapter One above) serve as exposition that helps fill in “plot holes” in the movie or foreshadow events that do appear on screen.

The quality of the writing is good. Carson is a solid professional and her prose is crisp, clear, and concise. Moreover, the basic story arcs, pacing, tone, and spirit of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker are all present in the novelization. When I read the dialogue spoken by any of the major characters, it’s not an exaggeration on my part when I say that I could hear the voices of Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs, John Boyega, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Keri Russell, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, and Ian McDiarmid.

The only complaint I have beyond Del Rey’s unnecessary labeling this book as an Expanded Edition is that it was released in March of 2020, three months after Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker‘s theatrical premiere.

I understand why The Walt Disney Company asked Del Rey and other publishers to hold off on releasing media tie-ins till after the film opened. In the age of the Internet, there will always be people who will leak spoilers even before Opening Day, thus ruining any viewer’s delight at the new film’s revelations and plot twists. So, yeah. Of course Lucasfilm and Disney have to put these holds on novelizations till after the films have left theaters and hit home media and streaming services.

But just because I understand the reason behind Disney/Lucasfilm’s scheduling of tie-in media releases, it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Overall, the novelization of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable literary roller-coaster ride to that galaxy far, far away, full of heroes, villains, and aliens from a thousand worlds. I enjoyed it, although I wish Lucasfilm would tell the author that Kylo’s starfighter is a TIE Whisper (with a capital “W”).

Movie Review: ‘Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker’

Slipcover art for the Multi-Screen Edition Blu-ray of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (marketed as Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker(2019)

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

Written by: Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams

Story by: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Chris Terrio, and J.J. Abrams. Based on characters and situations created by George Lucas

Starring: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Joonas Suotamo, Keri Russell, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid

The dead speak! The galaxy has heard a mysterious broadcast, a threat of REVENGE in the sinister voice of the late EMPEROR PALPATINE.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA dispatches secret agents to gather intelligence, while REY, the last hope of the Jedi, trains for battle against the diabolical FIRST ORDER.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader KYLO REN rages in search of the phantom Emperor, determined to destroy any threat to his power… – Title crawl from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

On December 20, 2019, 42 years and seven months after the theatrical release of George Lucas’s Star Wars (aka Star Wars: A New Hope), Walt Disney Motion Pictures Studio released Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth and final episode of the Skywalker Saga. Set 35 years after the events of the original film, director J.J. Abrams’ second Star Wars film pits the remnants of General Leia Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) Resistance against the mighty First Order and a shadowy adversary from the past.

Co-written by Abrams with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio and based on a story by Abrams, Terrio, Derek Connolly, and Colin Trevorrow, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker begins on Mustafar, the lava planet where a young Darth Vader was defeated by his former Master Obi-Wan Kenobi and sustained the severe injuries that necessitated the use of his now-iconic cybernetic life-supporting armored suit and breath mask.

On that hellish planet, Vader’s grandson Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is seeking a Sith relic that will lead him to Exegol, an uncharted world from whence a mysterious message from Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) was recently broadcast. Ren, who is consumed by the need to rule the galaxy on his own terms, is desperate to determine if Palpatine, who was believed to have died 31 years earlier when the Empire’s second Death Star was destroyed at the Battle of Endor, is really alive.

Ren, whose birth name is Ben Solo and is the last of the Skywalker line, eventually makes his way to the Unknown Regions and Exegol itself. There, the leader of the Knights of Ren makes an unexpected and most unwelcome discovery:

Emperor Palpatine: At last. Snoke trained you well.

Kylo Ren: I killed Snoke. I’ll kill you.

Emperor Palpatine: My boy, I made Snoke. I have been every voice…

Snoke: have ever heard..

Darth Vader: …inside your head.

Emperor Palpatine: The First Order was just the beginning. I will give you so much more.

Kylo Ren: You’ll die first.

Emperor Palpatine: I’ve died before. The dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be… unnatural.

Kylo Ren: What could you give me?

Emperor Palpatine: Everything. A new empire. The might of the Final Order will soon be ready. It will be yours if you do as I ask. Kill the girl, end the Jedi and become what your grandfather Vader could not. You will rule all the galaxy as the new emperor. But beware. She is not who you think she is.

“I made Snoke…” Screenshot from the Movies Anywhere digital release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (C) Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Meanwhile, Rey is continuing her Jedi training under the tutelage of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in cleverly repurposed footage from Star Wars: The Force Awakens).  In the year since the Battle of Crait, the scavenger girl from Jakku has learned much from Leia, who herself was trained by her brother, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) after the fall of the Empire but stopped her journey along the Jedi path after sensing her son Ben’s ultimate fall to the Dark Side of the Force.

But in an echo of a much younger Luke’s destiny, Rey discovers that all roads lead to Exegol. Her journey – and the final confrontation between good and evil, seduction and redemption – begins when Resistance heroes Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), accompanied by Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) return on the Millennium Falcon with the information provided by a spy within the First Order: Palpatine has indeed returned, and he is amassing a huge fleet to re-establish his regime throughout the galaxy.

Of course, since Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the conclusion of the nine-episode Skywalker Saga, the final outcome is not in doubt. But as the old saying goes, “it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.”

Because Abrams and Terrio (and before them, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow, the original writer-director team for Episode IX before they were replaced by Lucasfilm in 2017) have kept George Lucas’s ethos that each Trilogy in the Star Wars mirrors the themes of the others in different iterations, we see familiar plot points from the Prequels and the Original Trilogy as Rey and Kylo Ren both deal with their inner demons and their shared destiny vis a vis the Force itself.

Rey trains on the lush moon of Ajan Kloss. Screenshot from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (C) 2020 Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd. (LFL)

Obviously, the biggest influence on this last of the sequels is Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Not only do we see that Palpatine somehow survived not only his fall down that long shaft in the second Death Star, but that he did discover a way to cheat death per his “Tragedy of Darth Plageuis” monologue in Star Wars; Revenge of the Sith. The film also takes us to a remnant of the aforementioned Death Star II  that ended up on Kef Bir, an ocean moon in the Endor system, and features several exciting lightsaber duels, thrilling cliffhanger sequences, a climactic space battle, and even a resolution to the conflict between the two central families of this saga: the Skywalkers and the Palpatines.

My Take

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is, for good or ill, the summation of a saga that unfolded over 42 years. It not only has to satisfactorily end a three-film cycle that focuses on Rey’s hero’s journey; it also has to wrap up a nine-part story, told in the style of 1930s matinee serials a la Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.  And even though the story told in The Rise of Skywalker leaves the viewer asking more questions at the end than, say, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, J.J. Abrams and Chris Terrio accomplish both goals…at least to my satisfaction.

Honestly, bringing back Ian McDiarmid as a resurrected Emperor Palpatine and revealing him as the puppetmaster behind Supreme Leader Snoke and the rise of the First Order makes sense. The “Emperor reborn” concept is not exactly a new idea in Star Wars lore;  Tom Veitch’s Dark Empire trilogy for Dark Horse Comics resurrected Palpatine in an eerily similar fashion in the early 1990s. The revelation that Palpatine created Snoke in order to turn Ben Solo into “a new Vader” is both simple and logical; Snoke, in essence, was just an avatar for the galaxy’s most powerful villain and just a “training tool” intended to turn Leia’s son – the last of the Skywalkers – into Palpatine’s final revenge on Anakin, Luke, Leia, and everyone who fought alongside them to end his tyrannical rule three decades before.

Is the film perfect? In some respects, no. It’s a bit more convoluted than I’d have liked, and it leaves it up to ancillary media (such as the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: The Visual Dictionary and Rae Carson’s novelization of the Terrio-Abrams screenplay) to provide answers to some of the questions viewers are left with after the final credits fade to black and the last notes of John Williams’ Finale linger in the air at the movie’s conclusion.

Still, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a fun roller coaster ride to that galaxy far, far away. It captures the thrilling sense of “what’s gonna happen next” that made the original 1977 film so much to watch. As I said before, its beats and themes dovetail nicely with the other Trilogies’ concluding Episodes, even recycling elements from Revenge of the Sith and Return of the Jedi, including cameos from characters seen in those films and, in at least one case, lines of dialogue as well.

Once again, J.J. Abrams (who is a lifelong Star Wars film and is the only other person, besides George Lucas himself, to direct more than one movie in the franchise) gets great performances from his cast, which was slated to be led by Carrie Fisher before she died in late December of 2016. Episode IX was originally set up to be “Leia’s film” when Lucasfilm began making the Sequel Trilogy; Star Wars: The Force Awakens was “Han Solo’s film,”while Star Wars: The Last Jedi was Luke’s.

Addressing Fisher’s death and trying to figure out Leia’s role was the challenge that stymied the Connolly-Trevorrow team; Abrams eventually discovered a way to use unused footage from The Force Awakens and write the scenes with Leia around that material. Thus, the director gets kudos from this writer for successfully blending material shot in 2014 with new material featuring Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and other cast members that was filmed in 2018 and early 2019.

As always, Industrial Light and Magic created beautifully rendered special effects that takes the viewer, at least for The Rise of Skywalker’s 142 minutes’ worth of runtime. Cinematographer Dan Mindel gives us a wide variety of vistas that range from hellish Mustafar to the snowy planet of Kijimi (which is also the Sequel Trilogy’s first reveal of a planet under First Order occupation), and all points in between. And, of course, Maestro John Williams (who has a cameo as a bartender on Kijimi) works his usual musical magic in this, his final Star Wars score.

All in all, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is an enjoyable film experience, as well as a nicely satisfying conclusion to the cornerstone saga in a space-fantasy franchise set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”