Something wicked-good this way comes: 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' : Pop Culture Happy Hour The Tragedy of Macbeth adapts Shakespeare's familiar tale of blood and betrayal, dreamlike daggers and stubborn stains. But its stars Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand are significantly older than the leads usually are, which makes the whole thing hit differently. Directed by Joel Coen, the film fuses black-and-white cinematography with a clean, minimalist production design that underscores the story's theatrical roots. It's now streaming on Apple TV+.

Something wicked-good this way comes: 'The Tragedy of Macbeth'

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand star in "The Tragedy Of Macbeth." It's Shakespeare's tale of blood and betrayal, dreamlike daggers and stubborn stains. And it's directed by Joel Coen, who is helming this film on his own, without his brother Ethan, for the very first time.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

This adaptation fuses black-and-white cinematography with a clean, minimalist production design that underscores the story's theatrical roots. It also features two leads who are significantly older than usual, which makes the whole thing hit differently.

I'm Aisha Harris.

WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about (imitating Scottish accent) "The Tragedy Of Macbeth" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. Here with me and Aisha is NPR film critic Bob Mondello.

Welcome back, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Good to be here.

WELDON: And rounding out the panel is film critic and culture journalist Bedatri D Chaudhry.

Hey, Bedatri.

BEDATRI D CHOUDHURY: Hi. It's so good to be back.

WELDON: Great to have you.

So the story of "Macbeth" you likely already know if you went to high school. Macbeth, played here by Denzel Washington, is a soldier who meets three witches. They are played by a very bendy, very creepy Kathryn Hunter. They predict he will eventually become King of all Scotland. When Macbeth informs his wife of this - that's Frances McDormand - she urges him to kill the current king, who is played by Brendan Gleeson. Macbeth does the deed, which leads to more murder and more prophecies, all of which involve Macbeth's friend Banquo, who is played by Bertie Carvel, another nobleman, Macduff, who is played by Corey Hawkins and Ross, a mysterious messenger with his own shifty agenda and fabulous wardrobe, who is played by Alex Hassell. Stephen Root - the great and good Stephen Root - also turns up for some comic relief as a drunk servant.

Now, as we mentioned, you get dramatic lighting and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. But the movie is clearly filmed on soundstages. There's something stark and intentionally artificial, or I should probably say, theatrical, about the look of the film. The two leads also deliver Shakespeare's verse in a conversational style with their natural American dialects. The film is now in theaters. It's also streaming on Apple TV+ starting today.

Now, Bob, in your capacity as a theater critic and a movie critic, you've seen your fair share of Macbeth productions. How's this one stack up?

MONDELLO: Oh, my God. It's genuinely wonderful. I got chills from the very beginning. You know, you come to this for the casting, right? You come to it because Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand. And before either of them had even appeared and you hear Kathryn Hunter's voice as the Witches, they had me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

KATHRYN HUNTER: (As the Witches) Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air.

MONDELLO: I have had so much trouble explaining to people what it is about the, I guess, staging of this that so grabbed me - because when I tried to describe it in my review for All Things Considered, I found myself saying, well, and the Witches turn into ravens. And pretty quickly I realized, wait, that doesn't even sound remarkable to anybody who's seen "Harry Potter," right?

HARRIS: True.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: I mean, because the digital effects of all of that - it would be how they would expect it to happen. And that's not how it happens at all. It's all done in a manner that you can almost imagine happening on stage. And for that reason, it is so much more effective and powerful and strong. And what I love about it is how very dialogue-driven it is. I thought it felt like - I don't know - Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock had done this because it's staged that way. It's just beautiful.

WELDON: Bedatri, what did you think?

CHOUDHURY: I mean, I really liked it, and I, you know, agree with everything, Bob said. But for me, strangely, what I liked about the film is also what I'm a little mixed-ish about, is that you see "Macbeth," the play mostly as written by Shakespeare. It's not Coen's "Macbeth." It's not an adaptation, you know. It's not a retroactive reading to suit the modern times, but the play itself. And it's brilliantly done. And to borrow from Bob's review, it's done with a lot of flourishes. And it's so commendable. But, like, you know, what leaves me a little mixed is thinking about it as like, is this arts for arts' sake? Like, you know, there's so much resources going into this film.

WELDON: (Laughter).

CHOUDHURY: Apple's behind it. A24 is behind it. And it's about power. It's about ambition. And we live in a world where there's, like, a lot of that creating a lot of havoc. So why not make it a little more biting or more indicting of the men and women who get this drunk on ambition and deem it OK to kill people, you know? I loved it. Don't get me wrong. But I was thinking about that. I was like, is this arts for arts' sake?

HARRIS: Well, it's interesting that you said that, Bedatri, because I was also sort of mixed on it. But for me, I liked the fact that it was a little bit more traditional. I think the thing about Shakespeare is that every time it's redone, people feel the need to go in the complete opposite direction and really, really modernize it, update it...

MONDELLO: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Do really, really big things with it. And I appreciated what this "Macbeth"...

CHOUDHURY: Right.

HARRIS: ...Is doing, which is that, yes, it's visually stunning. And you are getting that German expressionism. I think they've mentioned that there were some comparisons to "Night Of The Hunter." I love the way that looks. But then it just comes down to the language and the dialogue.

All of that said, I kind of wanted more from Denzel and Frances McDormand. Something about their chemistry did not work for me. They each have that ambition. But I feel like when they were onscreen together, I didn't feel as though they were necessarily, like, acting on the same wavelength. And I can't quite put my finger on what it was. I just felt a little bit at a remove of all of their scenes together. And I wish I knew why because these are two absolutely fantastic characters. And I think there are so many moments where I really understood what they were doing individually, but together it didn't quite work for me.

MONDELLO: I totally hear you. And I think I can put my finger on what it is. Part of it is that Denzel Washington is playing Macbeth as somebody who is forever pulling away, right? I mean, he's trying not to do the thing that his wife wanted him to do. And to some extent, he's withdrawing from their relationship as he's doing that. And so in the mad scenes where he's running away - and that's probably the place where they engage the most, after they've agreed to do this thing - he's, like, fleeing her, almost. I mean, he runs into the other room. He's chasing the ravens. He's - they're not on the same wavelength. I guess they've decided that they're not supposed to be in a way.

HARRIS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: And you're right that that kind of makes it frustrating when you're watching them. And then, you know, some of the big speeches, they really underplay.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: Right.

MONDELLO: You know, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, descending a staircase, is not how I saw that ever, right (laughter)?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Macbeth) And tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.

WELDON: You're putting your finger on one of the challenges of this play, I think, which is that these two characters engage with their guilt at different times.

MONDELLO: Yeah.

WELDON: Macbeth engages with it in the run-up and the immediate afterwards. Then he becomes a tyrant and gets all shouty. But Lady Macbeth is all steely resolve. And then, much later is when her guilt comes out as she sleeps.

MONDELLO: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH")

FRANCES MCDORMAND: (As Lady Macbeth) Out, damned spot. Out, I say. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie - a soldier and afeard? What need we fear who knows it when none can call our power to account? Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?

WELDON: We're not getting beaten over the head with iambic pentameter here. They've turned the verse into dialogue. There is a naturalism to these performances, which, I think, serves - in my case, anyway - to make the artifice around them, the theatricality around them, kind of stand out in sharper relief. So part of the experience of watching this movie is you get an echo of the theatrical experience, where you're sitting there going, how are they visually or dramaturgically going to do something? How are they going to do the floating dagger? How are they going to do Banquo's ghost?

MONDELLO: Right.

WELDON: How are they going to do Birnam Wood coming to the castle. And when you get it here, the payoff is at once so theatrical...

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...But it lands with such huge force.

MONDELLO: Yeah. Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. And then, to that point, I think it's interesting that the Macbeths here are older than they usually are.

HARRIS: Right.

CHOUDHURY: So you know that idea of sexually seducing your husband to do something is kind of divorced because, like, you see an older couple who've been married for longer, who've perhaps chosen not to have children. And to have that, quote, unquote, "chemistry" that we've seen in, say, the Fassbender-Marion Cotillard film - 2015, I think - that chemistry, that sexual tension of making Macbeth do something that he does not want to do, that weaponizing of sexual passion, is not there. So maybe that's why, because, like, you know, chemistry as we know it - because we're taking away from it. Maybe that's why they don't seem to be on the same wavelength.

WELDON: Making the characters older also does something to the plot, something very basic to the plot.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

WELDON: One other thing that caused them to adjust the script is the fact that both McDormand and Washington are older.

MONDELLO: Right.

WELDON: So this Macbeth is not going to have an heir. And he knows it. Yet he's still with Lady M. And he still does the deed. So the prophecy that Banquo will produce heirs and Macbeth will not, that automatically loses some of its immediacy - right? - some of its urgency. And, yeah, he could hook up with somebody else, I guess. But the sense I got is that they didn't have children because, for one reason or another, they couldn't have children. So this whole thing that's about to take place is only done for the moment, for the grasping for immediate power. Does that make sense?

HARRIS: Yeah.

MONDELLO: Yeah. It not only makes sense, it's really interesting in terms of what they do with Macduff is really interesting because that whole section of the film is really powerful, about the fact that he's lost his heirs, that he's lost his family. He says at one point, all of them - or everyone. And it's devastating. And, I guess, maybe that hits with more force because it's not happening in the main couple.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I do appreciate making them older, in a way, because I think there is something interesting about the idea of, presumably, they're not going to live that much longer, especially in the era that it's set. So the fact that they are still so desperate to get that power so late in life, I think, is a really fascinating thing to ponder. The sexual chemistry, I think, is a great point, Bedatri. To me, that wasn't necessarily what was missing, it was just more, like, the spark of that ambition sort of aligning in those scenes. Like, I mean, it would be cool to see them be sexual. But, like, I didn't necessarily need that either.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah. Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: And another thing - in a lot of adaptations, they show the couple to be wrecked by the grief of losing their child. Like, you know, it's mentioned in the text that they may have lost a child in the past. And a lot of adaptations I've seen, they're just so taken in by that grief. I don't remember which one, but there was an adaptation where it starts with the funeral of the child. So you know - and the grief is so immediate that they lose sight of what is right and what is wrong. And then, the whole narrative of the play rests on that. But it's interesting here because that grief is not there. Like you said, they don't have many years left. So that pursuing of power is so political. And it's - I really like that.

MONDELLO: Can we talk about - just for a second about - I think of him as the guy in the gown.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: Ross.

WELDON: Ross.

MONDELLO: He is really a fascinating character in this. And I don't think I've ever seen him show up before, right? I mean, he's in there.

WELDON: Not to this extent, right?

MONDELLO: Yeah.

WELDON: Yeah. He's the guy who gives everybody bad news, basically - normally. And here, he is an agent of chaos who is following orders for the king, and then following orders for Macbeth, and then following orders - like, he is somebody who you can't quite get a beat on in a really interesting way.

MONDELLO: In a way, he's the most compelling character on screen. And every production I've ever seen of "Macbeth" has ended with you being reminded of Banquo's son - right? - who's out there and who is clearly going to come back, right? And so you're reminded, oh, yeah, there's this figure out there. This one, I was more wondering how this guy was going to adapt next. He's a fascinating figure, really Machiavellian - just whoa.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah, of course, as an agent of chaos. But also, he restores the order of destiny because he saves Banquo's son to the future king. So you know, you can't put a finger on who he's serving. But at the end of it, he's serving time. He's serving destiny.

WELDON: Yeah. Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: It's fascinating.

WELDON: Well, yeah, let's talk about destiny and prophecy as opposed to psychology, because talking about psychology in Shakespeare is always a little tricky. Look; "Macbeth" is my favorite Shakespeare play because I'm basic. I like witches. I like magic.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: When it comes to plot, I like gimmicks. And these prophecies that the witches deliver are misleading. And they come true in clever ways. That's a gimmick. And I am all about that. That is some steel-trap plotting, which, of course, many people have imitated over the years. And any "Macbeth" production, for my money, lives or dies on its magic. You've got to buy it. It's got to be creepy. It's got to be unsettling. It's got to be sinister. We already said it, but Hunter is worth the ticket price...

HARRIS: Yes, absolutely.

CHOUDHURY: Yes.

WELDON: ...Just watching that performance, the physicality of that performance. Now, I also am a middle-aged gay man, and when "Macbeth" has at its center a flinty, ambitious diva grasping for power, I - you know, I don't have any power over that. What am I going to do?

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: But there is something primal and direct in the psychology here that I connect with because we approach Shakespeare with the very modern ideas about character and psychology and interiority, which doesn't exist (laughter) in Shakespeare 'cause they just kind of keep telling us what they're thinking. We've all seen Shakespeare - and this is with Shakespeare comedies more - where you get some truly vicious conflicts, bloody conflicts, that all of a sudden get resolved, get wrapped up all of a sudden, not because of any - what we would now call a believable character development, but because it's a comedy, and everything has to end well. This is plot, plot, plot. And you could turn yourself in knots - are the prophecies agents of change, or are they byproducts of it?

At heart, you have to understand Macbeth's ambition, then you also have to understand his guilt. And this is the push-pull of Shakespeare, I think. And I think this handles it by naturalizing their deliveries, to the extent that it does. So it feels like modern people having these classical conflicts.

HARRIS: Yeah, I think that totally makes sense. And weirdly enough, I'm having flashbacks now to being in my acting classes in college, and we did an entire section on Shakespeare, and part of what we were told to do while we were learning these monologues and learning these scenes was - speak them in the most naturalistic voice first, and start from there. And usually that's kind of how you find your voice. And so, like, I really think that seeing Denzel and Frances McDormand speaking in that way, to me, felt real and still worked for me in many ways. And I kind of like the naturalistic version of it. And I think most of the characters in this movie are playing it naturalistic, maybe not quite as subdued, but I think overall, everyone here seems to be in a similar vein when it comes to how they are speaking the dialogue.

WELDON: Well, that's a question. Bedatri, Bob - did you guys miss the poetry, the musicality of Shakespeare? Because certainly this is getting relatively good reviews all around. The New Yorker did not like it for exactly that reason - horribly missed the poetry of it.

MONDELLO: No, I didn't miss the poetry here (laughter). I mean, listen; it's got visual poetry.

WELDON: It's true.

MONDELLO: You don't really lose the poetry. I mean, it's still there. It isn't being emphasized. To have them behaving in a essentially naturalistic way in front of sets that are not that at all...

WELDON: Right.

MONDELLO: ...Is kind of breathtaking. Part of what makes it feel theatrical is these settings that could not exist on a stage. I mean, that hallway that leads to the dagger I see before me is forever.

CHOUDHURY: Yeah.

MONDELLO: That's, like, three miles long. There's so much in that that is just beautiful to watch that they've pared the script down as much as they could, and then they substituted for those words, I think, all the things that cinema does well. And there are very few shots in there that I didn't think, well, you could frame that and put it on the wall.

WELDON: Sure.

MONDELLO: I mean, just individual frames of this film are so gorgeous - those windows that seem to go up forever. And the battlements - oh, my God, it's just gorgeous. This film, I think, is certainly the most extraordinary Shakespeare I've seen in many years, but it's one of the most extraordinary films I've seen in many years.

CHOUDHURY: I really appreciated everyone talking in their own tongues, as it were, because there's so much abstraction otherwise...

WELDON: True. Good point.

MONDELLO: Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: Like, nothing else in this feels, quote-unquote, "real." I think Joel Coen said about his use of black and white is that - and I think the quote is, using black and white instantly abstracts an image in a way that everyone understands. So when you're using black and white, taking people away from that naturalism-slash-realism of the play, I think using their original or their native accents is a welcome change within a context where everything else is so abstract.

HARRIS: Bob, when you're talking about the visual poetry, I think also the double-double-toil-and-trouble scene is, like, a feat of sound because the way in which Kathryn Hunter's voice as the Witches - there's moments where it echoes in and out because she's one person, but she's still supposed to be portraying three different figures and characters. And so the way they use that very famous speech to make it sound unlike anything you might have ever heard before and then the visual with that of, like, instead of there actually being a cauldron, the entire room just fills up with water at Macbeth's feet - I loved that scene and thought just, like, this is perfect.

MONDELLO: (Laughter).

HARRIS: This is the culmination of, like, the naturalistic with the beautiful, very highly stylized visuals. And that just was, like, the standout moment for me.

WELDON: All right. Excellent point. Tell us what you think about "The Tragedy Of Macbeth." Find us on Facebook at facebook.com/pchh, or tweet us at @pchh. Up next, what's making us happy this week.

Now it's time for our favorite segment of this week and every week - what is making us happy this week. Bedatri, why don't we start with you? What's making you happy this week?

CHOUDHURY: So it's making me happy and cringe and laugh at the same time.

WELDON: (Laughter) OK. Good, good.

CHOUDHURY: There's this Instagram handle called 70s Dinner Party, @70sdinnerparty.

WELDON: Ooh, boy. Yeah.

CHOUDHURY: It looks back at food and dining and hosting trends of the '70s. And they post, you know, pages from old cookbooks and Good Housekeeping-type magazines, where they tell housewives and homemakers how best to entertain hosts. And I just want to read from the last few posts.

(LAUGHTER)

CHOUDHURY: One is a banana gondola, a frozen cheese salad...

WELDON: Oh, boy.

CHOUDHURY: ...A bridal meat doll...

WELDON: Oh, I don't...

CHOUDHURY: ...Where basically, there's a doll, and the dress is made of, like, salami and cold cuts.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: So it's pre-Lady Gaga. Is that where the inspiration came from?

WELDON: Oh, my God.

CHOUDHURY: Yes. Yes, absolutely. And I didn't grow up in this country, but, like, lots and lots of Jell-O salads...

WELDON: Yeah, it's a thing.

CHOUDHURY: ...Which are, like....

WELDON: It was a thing.

CHOUDHURY: ...You know, not to yuck anyone's yum, but they're so gross (laughter). And there's this - my favorite one is called 24-hour vegetable salad, quote-unquote, "a super make-ahead salad." If you're running out of dinner ideas, if you are ever like, oh, I'm so bored by what I eat, this is the Instagram page. And I think they're on Twitter as well - 70s Dinner Party.

WELDON: Oh, I mean, thank you, question mark?

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Yeah. All right. Shake it off. Bob Mondello, what is making you happy this week?

MONDELLO: What is making me happy this week - and it's a very sad thing that prompted it - the death of Dwayne Hickman, who was Dobie Gillis in "The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis" - it basically made me go down this rabbit hole of looking at old video clips of him in shows like "The Bob Cummings Show," which was also called "Love That Bob." Wonder why I liked it, right? So as a 9-year-old, I just thought that was the greatest thing in the world. There was a show called "Love That Bob," and I used to watch it all the time. And I'm realizing as I look back, I mean, he played a teenager on that. He was probably in his mid-20s at that point, but he played a teenager then before he was the teenager in "Dobie Gillis." And to say it takes me back is understating. I mean, I didn't remember the specific episodes, but this was my childhood that was - that I was watching playing out. It was really kind of fascinating. That has been what's making me happy. It's just sort of a return to my youth as we begin 2022.

WELDON: All right. So how would folks partake in what you're talking about here?

MONDELLO: In the case of "The Bob Cummings Show," which is "Love That Bob," there are whole episodes that you can just look at on YouTube.

WELDON: YouTube going to YouTube, Bob. Aisha Harris, what is making you happy this week?

HARRIS: Well, as I'm sure you all know, "Insecure" sadly has left us and ended, I think, on a mostly high note. But we're already seeing sort of the fruits of Issa Rae's labor, and the thing that's making me happy is "Grand Crew," which is a new show on NBC, created by Phil Augusta Jackson, who wrote for "Insecure," as well as shows like "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Key And Peele." And this is a show that is, like "Insecure," set in LA. It's about a group of friends, but this one's a little bit more heavily focused on male friendship. And it has a lot more sort of, like, "Happy Endings," "How I Met Your Mother" vibes in the best way possible. One of the main characters in the show is Noah, who is played by Echo Kellum. He's frequently wants to be in a relationship, is dating, and when he - the relationships end, his whole life falls apart. He is a mess. And so a lot of it is focused on that.

And Nicole Byer plays his sister, who's, like, the one - one of the women within the group, and they just have so much chemistry. It's really fun. The first few episodes have already aired, and I really hope it sticks around because I think it's going to be doing some interesting things with male friendship and, you know, young people in LA living their lives but in a very different way than "Insecure" 'cause it's a lot more zany and less dramatic in that way. So I highly recommend checking out "Grand Crew" on NBC. And it's also streaming on Hulu as well.

WELDON: Thank you very much, Aisha Harris. I follow where Nicole Byer leads. It's just a general rule of life.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Seriously (laughter).

WELDON: What's making me happy this week? "A Swim In A Pond In The Rain: In Which Four Russians Give A Master Class On Writing, Reading And Life" is a book by the great writer George Saunders, about whom I just can't shut up. It's basically a class in the classic short story as a form, so it focuses on the craft of it all - the how and why on a line-by-line basis, you know, how you create and maintain tension, how things like the lengths of your sentences and paragraphs manipulate your reader's mood, what describing something with this kind of imagery versus that kind of imagery does to your reader's imagination and ultimately how you've got a responsibility as an author to anticipate your reader's expectations and then confound them in a way that's still satisfying. He does this by presenting a bunch of short stories by four Russian authors - Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Gogol. So, yeah, on one level, it's a pale male talking about how great these other four pale males are.

HARRIS: (Laughter).

WELDON: But it is a class in the essentials, right? And it's a very hugely impassioned and talented writer basically geeking out about something with a great specificity, a great usefulness. It never comes off as condescending or elitist or entitled because he just - he really wants to share these techniques that these writers employ with you. It is the best part of any writers workshop, basically, which is reading classic stories and then unpacking them. And I recommend the audiobook a lot. He's not a dynamic reader by any stretch of the imagination, but he's a very sincere one, and the actual stories are read by people like Phylicia Rashad, BD Wong, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Glenn Close, Nick Offerman and others.

MONDELLO: Wow.

WELDON: That is "A Swim In A Pond In The Rain" by George Saunders, and that is what's making me happy this week.

One last thing before we go - we are going to be talking about "The Golden Girls" - heard of it? - and we want your questions. You can email us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org. Again, you can send us a voice memo with your question to pchh@npr.org.

And that brings us to the end of our show. You can find all of us on Twitter. You can find me at @ghweldon. You can follow Aisha at @craftingmystyle. You can follow Bedatri at @Bedatri, and you can follow Bob at @Bob_Mondello. You can follow editor Jessica Reedy at @jessica_reedy. You can follow producers Candice Lim at @thecandicelim and Rommel Wood at @blergisphere. You can follow producer Mike Katzif at @mikekatzif. That's K-A-T-Z-I-F. Mike's band, Hello Come In, provides the music you are possibly bobbing your head to right now.

Thanks to all of you for being here.

HARRIS: Thank you.

CHOUDHURY: Thank you so much.

MONDELLO: It was a pleasure.

WELDON: And thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We will see you all next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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