TV Music: Burl Ives’ Eclectic 1968 Bob Dylan Recording Is the Sour Cherry on Top of the “Poker Face” Sundae
I’m probably late, but I’ve just finished the best new series of this TV season, “Poker Face,” from “Knives Out” director Rian Johnson.
A sort of nod to “Columbo” mashed up with “The Fugitive” and “Murder She Wrote,” this series stars Natasha Lyonne in what will be her Emmy winning performance come September. Lyonne plays Charlie Cale, a fast talking husky accented tough girl with a heart of gold on the run from mobsters. From week to week, there are no full time recurring characters. It’s all guest stars with the exception of Ron Perlman, Benjamin Bratt, and Simon Helberg, who turn up occasionally.
But that’s the genius of the show. It’s witty, and very well written by Johnson and co. It’s also well cast with lots of A list guest stars including Clea Duvall, Chloe Sevigny, Judith Light. Nick Nolte, Cherry Jones, and new Oscar nominee Stephanie Hsu. In the end, though, it’s all Lyonne with her beautiful big eyes and her lack of hesitance to do anything she’s asked to, from getting completely messed up to slinking around like a mob moll.
Aside from the acting and directing, my favorite part of the show is the music. In the 10th and final episode, called “The Hook,” we do get a joltingly hip, ironic surprise: Bob Dylan;s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Only, it’s not sung by Dylan. I;m not sure if his recording was too expensive to license, or the showrunners thought this was just weirder. But this version is sung by Burl Ives.
No young person knows the name Burl Ives. Their only reference to him might be from the 1964 animated cartoon shown annually called “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” He sang “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Otherwise, Burl Ives is a memory from the 1950s and 60s. He was a folk singer and he was never, ever hip. In fact, his contemporaries loathed him for singing to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. To escape Blacklisting he named names of other entertainers suspected of being Communists. It got Ives, literally, off the Hook.
And there he is, in “Poker Face,” warbling Bob Dylan. Ives released his cover in 1968 on album that he thought would make him hip. It included five Dylan tracks as well as songs by Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, Tim Hardin, John Hartford, Charlie Daniels and Johnny Cash. In an era of long haired hippies, if you were into older fat men wearing cardigans, Ives’ “The Times They Are a Changin'” album would have been a hit. Most music fans were listening to the Beatles, the Stones, and Sly and the Family Stone. Or even the Monkees.
So there’s the tribute to Burl Ives, just another piece of the sharp edged jigsaw puzzle called “Poker Face,” easily the Best TV Drama of 2023.