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Aniston's New 'Friends' Open Sundance

Jennifer Aniston | Wilson Pickett

Jennifer Aniston's New 'Friends'

The 2006 Sundance Film Festival kicked off last night in Park City, Utah, with a big opening night: Jennifer Aniston in "Friends With Money," a film written and directed by Nicole Holofcener.

The night was made even more star-studded by the appearance of Robert Redford, the festival's founder, who made opening remarks.

There were special guests in the audience, too, like Sting, Trudie Styler, Sally Kirkland and "40 Year-Old Virgin" star Steve Carell, among others.

Aniston was there, too, as promised, along with co-stars Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, Frances McDormand, Greg Germann (of "Ally McBeal" fame) and Simon McBurney.

The result, as expected, was a paparazzi nightmare, with lots of flashbulbs and festival-goers trying to get tickets every which way.

So what of "Friends With Money"? Made for about $6 million by Sony Pictures Classics, this is a well-written character study that is often depressing but never uninteresting.

Aniston plays the only one of four female friends who is not well-married and rich. She's left her teaching job at a private school and is now working as a maid in people's homes. She's also just ended an affair with a married man, and has fallen into a dead-end relationship with a personal trainer (played well by Scott Caan).

Holofcener wanted to explore financial inequalities among close friends, and how someone who didn't have money could keep up in her circle.

I think she wanted to convey the old "money can't buy you love" adage, but frankly, Cusack and McBurney — whose characters are loaded — seem the happiest of all the couples. And in the end, there's a kind of mixed message that maybe money is all you need after all.

These are quibbles, though. "Friends With Money" is an excellent repertory effort for Aniston, who is not required to carry the film and is surrounded by lots of great actors. Keener is just terrific, and Cusack — looking painfully thin — still has her flawless timing.

I will say that McDormand has by now over-perfected the curmudgeonly character she gave birth to in "Almost Famous." She's so good at it that we're starting to think she's not acting.

On the up side, she wears a large bandage on her nose for a big part of the short-ish film, à la Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown." That takes confidence and bravery of the highest magnitude.

Remembering Wilson Pickett

It's with great personal sadness today that I write about the passing of Wilson Pickett.

Wilson had been ill for some time, but when I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago — right after Lou Rawls passed — he sounded stronger and more together than he had in over a year.

I told him there was a rumor going around that he had brain cancer. Wilson responded, "No, Lou Rawls got the brain cancer. I just have pneumonia, and I licked it. I want to get back to work!"

Wilson was an R&B star, not a blues man and not a crooner. His was soul music.

When I asked him once if he liked the blues, he said, without thinking twice: "I don't understand those sad songs."

His music came from the joy of foot-stomping, shouting, sweating church gospel. He was not about "Since my baby left me..." No, Wilson Pickett was about being a force with whom you had to reckon.

To say Wilson was obstreperous is an understatement. He was prone to loud declarations that were always poetic and didn't always make sense. He was quick-witted, which didn't help, and knew how to work a pun. You could not put anything past him. On the other hand, you were always hoping you could.

I met Wilson in May 1999. He'd agreed to be filmed for a documentary I co-produced and wrote with Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker called "Only the Strong Survive." Of the many artists in the film, he was the only one I'd never met.

Harvey Weinstein, who'd produced thousands of music shows prior to his illustrious film career, said he'd make our archival (and money-losing) film about soul stars if we included Pickett. He'd just seen him perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame dinner, and had been blown away.

In quick order, a friend, Valerie Sicignano, put us in touch with the famed producers Eddie Kramer and Jon Tiven, who were putting the finishing touches on what would be Wilson's final album, "It's Harder Now." They invited us to come meet him at a photo shoot for the cover, being photographed by Mick Rock.

Wilson was a handful from the start. On his own dime, he and his lady friend Gail — who would eventually be by his side until he died — took our livery car up Madison Avenue for a shopping spree.

Wilson spent $6,500 that day at Versace on a patterned dress shirt, gray linen slacks and a lemon-colored leather jacket as soft as butter. He talks about it later in the film.

"I'm the best dressed man in music," he said. "No one dresses like me."

A few weeks after the shoot, I saw that Versace had validated his fashion sense when it put the same outfit in its shop window.

Wilson was famous for his bluster. He would say anything, or do anything, to get a reaction. I can only imagine a funeral service at which many different people would recall times Wilson tried to kill them.

There is a famous story about the Isley Brothers locking him in a room, with Wilson shooting his way out of it. He talked the talk and walked the walk.

Honestly, he could try anyone's patience. Knowing that, we made sure to invite a bunch of music celebrities when we screened "Only the Strong Survive" for him prior to its release.

We invited Nik Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Cyndi Lauper and David Byrne, among others. We also made sure that every time he appeared on-screen, one of the guests would praise him for his wit.

Wilson loved the movie, especially his own irreverent comments about Diana Ross.

He gets a big laugh when he says, "Diana Ross? She was the ugliest woman I knew!"

We literally had to add a second of air in the film so that audiences could get over laughing.

Wilson was dubbed the "Wicked Pickett" somewhere along the way in the mid-1960s, and it stuck.

He was Atlantic Records' answer to James Brown, discovered by Jerry Wexler and exported from his hometown of Detroit to Memphis. Wexler recorded him there at Stax, and then at Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama.

The hits they made are an indelible part of the soundtrack of our lives. Not only "In the Midnight Hour," which Wilson wrote, but "Mustang Sally" (written by his former Falcons group mate Mac Rice), "634-5789," "Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You," the blistering "Land of A Thousand Dances," "Don't Knock My Love" and "I Found a Love" were a few of his immortal contributions to pop history.

Unlike James Brown, who had a trademark grunt and yelp, Wilson growled in his songs. It was kind of stunning to see him do it in person. The growl came from the back of his throat, and by the time it found a note to attach itself to, the growl had become a harmonic device.

When we asked him where it came from and and how he got it, he replied, "Cornbread." It was that simple.

He toured a lot, right through 2004, still doing European summer music festivals. Even though American audiences had left soul and moved on to disco, hip-hop and rap, Europe still loves and appreciates real rhythm and blues.

But a persistent gastric problem, coupled with diabetes and a love of alcohol, contributed to his deterioration.

In 2002, he did a knockout performance at the relaunch of the Mohegan Sun Casino with Sam Moore and Bill Clinton, who played saxophone on "Midnight Hour."

The last time I saw him, he'd come in for the DVD release of the film and he was in high spirits despite a serious weight loss. He spent the last 18 months battling to come back, because the stage was where he loved to be.

I will miss Wilson like you can't believe, as will everyone who made the film and knew him subsequently. He was one of a kind, and without his kind the music world is going to be a sorrier place.

As I've said before, this generation of performers is merely sampling Wilson's world, they're not creating anything new.

How could Pickett and all the greats we've lost — Lou Rawls, Ray Charles, Eugene Record, Luther Vandross, Little Milton, Johnny Taylor, Curtis Mayfield, Betty Everett, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Mary Wells, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin — how could they have known they were making what would be the classical music that would last lifetimes and never be eclipsed?

One last thing, only because so many of my friends know this story.

Wilson was not anti-Semitic, but he had a definite take on the relationship between blacks and Jews, no doubt due to early dealings in the record business.

He often said to me,"Roger, you are one funny Jew." He meant it in the best way.

We cut a line out of the movie when I said to him on camera that blacks and Jews always had a good relationship. He said, "They got the dollah and we like to hollah."

That was Wilson, and you could only laugh and love him for it. But it's Friday night, and tonight, Wilson, I will say a Kaddish prayer for you. Rest in peace.

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