Karina Longworth is overqualified to talk about movies. She holds three degrees in film (the first coming from our own School of the Art Institute of Chicago), co-founded the late, lamented Cinematical web site, and until recently served as chief critic for the venerable LA Weekly. Longworth left that position because, as she told rogerebert.com, she found being forced to have opinions on so many films she didn’t care about was less interesting than researching and asking deeper questions about films she did care about. Today, Longworth is a multiply-published author, a college teacher…and one of the best new podcasters in America with her show You Must Remember This.
A Storytelling Podcast
You Must Remember This stands out from many other movie and pop culture podcasts today, including ones reviewed on our site, by not focusing on interviews, reviews, or hilariously deconstructing terrible and obscure motion pictures. Longworth describes it as “a storytelling podcast” and the moniker is more than apt. In episodes running for 30-40 minutes—perfect for the commuter or CTA rider—Longworth spins a tale, backed by meticulous research, about chapters in Hollywood history that have been forgotten or are open to reinterpretation. Films, records, and TV shows are reviewed, if at all, in the pithiest sentences; You Must Remember This is more concerned with the subjects’ psychology and adventures, closely examining backstories, relationships, private and public life choices, and revealing anecdotes and shaping them into narratives that logically and emotionally flow from beginning to end.
These narratives are well-produced. Every episode fades in with an eerie, faint remix of Dooley Wilson’s vocals and appropriate musical underscoring helps drive the stories along. Movie and interview clips are well chosen, and Los Angeles voice actors provide good, realistic work for extended quotations.
But this is Longworth’s show from beginning to end and she shines in it. Her writing is focused, tight, full of the best and most interesting details, and jointly humorous and empathetic in all the right measures. Her editing all the different pieces together is glitch free. Her voice is the voice of a great and engaging storyteller; she simultaneously sounds professorial and playful, as if she’s talking to us over some wine or whiskey after a long but good day in the classroom. Her reused phrases and vocal quirks make her further likable: the inviting “Join us, won’t you?” at the start of every episode and the half-whispered “good night” that signs us out. (In addition, for what it’s worth, no one I’ve ever heard in my life pronounces “shit” with such joy.)
Sincerity, Feminism, and History
However, what really makes You Must Remember This a must-listen are the themes Longworth explores in her storytelling: themes that are not only relevant to how we absorb and appreciate pop culture but also are applicable to everyday existence. The first episode available off of iTunes (the entire series is free to download from there, except the pilot, which is on the podcast’s tumblr) concerns Longworth’s love of Frank Sinatra’s 1979 album Trilogy, particularly its third disc, “The Future,” a 40-minute free-form suite in which Sinatra, backed by a 100-piece orchestra, rambles about space travel, world peace, technology, and his life and eventual death. “The Future” is a strange listen, but what matters is that Longworth has to confront if she likes it ironically as a giant mess or sincerely as artwork of value. The self-critique (which ends with her deciding for the latter) is a reminder to be unapologetic about the things we enjoy.
The overriding theme of many episodes is an even more welcome feminist message. This is especially apparent in an ongoing series about Howard Hughes and the women in his life. Longworth’s portrait of Hughes is as complex as the man himself was, but the featured subjects—Billie Dove, Ida Lupino, Katharine Hepburn, and Jane Russell thus far—become recognizable and admirable figures through the storytelling. Not shying away from their flaws, Longworth presents their lives as lessons in turning ambition into reality, holding on to your values, equality, and empowerment. Many other excellent episodes deal with these themes further to equal effect. One of the most recent, and best, showcases Longworth’s ability to admire and criticize in equal measure: in a look at Barbra Streisand’s derided but financially lucrative 1976 remake A Star is Born, Longworth praises Streisand’s determination to seize control of her destiny in the entertainment world while lambasing her egocentrism and lack of self-awareness as the detrimental qualities they are.
My favorite episode thus far, and the one I would recommend as a great introduction, is the fourth, “The Printing of the Legend of Frances Farmer.” Using Nirvana’s “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle” as the jumping-off point, Longworth tells two stories: the life of the 1930s actress-turned-icon, and the distortion of her life after her death by many people who used her past to further their own agendas, turning the truth about her into myth. In doing so, Longworth forces us to confront what we accept as fact and history, and how easy it is to enter the realm of inexactitude for our own benefit.
Karina Longworth, who also describes her show as “creative nonfiction,” no doubt expects us to hold her work to the same scrutiny. Thankfully, You Must Remember This never crosses the lines into hyperbole, sensation, or truth-stretching. It is simply an exhaustively-documented program that both greatly entertains and makes us think, and there’s no more we could ask for in a podcast.