Life and Lyrics

Ashley Walters in Life and Lyrics

 

Ashley Walters first became well known as Asher D in the London garage/grime outfit So Solid Crew. Since it was a gigantic collective of competing egos two things were on the cards – the band was unlikely to produce enough revenue to support all 19+ members, or it was going to fall apart spectacularly. Either way spelt trouble. Luckily for Walters, he had a second line of work, having been acting even before the band became well known with their single 21 Seconds. Its success got Walters better job offers on TV and he gradually progressed from bit parts to leading roles, usually playing the streetwise London youth you probably didn’t want to be on the wrong side of. Life and Lyrics reinforces the trend established by 2004’s Bullet Boy, with Walters as the DJ of a South London rap crew who falls for a girl in a rival outfit, to the sound of much sucking of teeth.

It’s a very familiar plot – see Romeo and Juliet – though not a bad film, with street slang (I watched it with the subtitles on, I admit) and, generally speaking, an attention to realism that papers over a few of the dramatic cracks. This is best brought home by the various crews antagonistically rapping at each other, in club scenes heavy with an atmosphere that suddenly breaks when someone comes up with something genuinely funny. It’s done for real, surely? Wordplay aside, the guns, the bling and the bragging don’t tip the scales much towards originality, and at times even some of the actors look a bit dubious about what they’re expected to do and say – qualms about “keeping it real” perhaps – though the fact that Walters’ lot, the Motion Crew, are multi-ethnic at least points to the reality of modern London. And the fact that his Juliet, Carmen in fact (Louise Rose), is a trainee barrister is also a welcome acknowledgement that black people, too, might want to be middle class. In movies, usually, they don’t. Though admittedly Carmen’s personal ambition doesn’t seem that high on the film’s political agenda.

So, a bit this and a bit that – gauche and funny, clichéd yet fast paced, held together muscularly by Walters and soundtracked by a very mid-noughties roster of artists, Sway and Estelle, Deep Varacouzo and loads more I’ve never heard of.

It’s not for me. Of course it’s not. But I enjoyed its swagger. Maybe if you were the target demographic you’d give it an extra star. Or knock one off.

 

Life and Lyrics – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

To Write Love on Her Arms

Kat Dennings in To Write Love on Her Arms

 

 

Is there anything more life-sapping than listening to a druggie talking about drugs? Yes, a film about one, and it’s not less boring but more if it also offers a redemptive ta-daa. To Write Love on Her Arms is a film about one such, a young woman, played twixt K-Stewart sulk and ScarJo pout by Kat Dennings, an actor with a face straight from Babylonian antiquity and a career trajectory which surely guarantees she won’t be paddling in these waters again too soon.

 

And, having had these thoughts, and affronted by what felt like an assault by the god squad for the long 118 minutes of this melodrama, I felt such a heel when the real Jamie Tworkowski popped up at the end, with a personal advertisement for the TWLOHA Foundation, which “still responds to every message” from young addicts and self-harmers and which, through the story of Renee Yohe (Dennings), this film is about.

 

Yohe is a real person too, a young woman who is introduced clumsily in opening scenes by a mother figure encouraging her to take her bipolar meds. A couple of standard-issue plot jumps later and Yohe is out of high school, well into the sex and drugs and given to waking dreams, if not visions. A signifier of how low she has sunk is that she is living with a Native American, who treats her roughly.

 

She has become a crack fiend, and is self-harming as she goes until a crisis throws her into the orbit of David McKenna, a former addict and music producer who encourages her into rehab. But thanks to its puritanical Catch 22 modus operandi, the local rehab centre won’t take her in until she’s clean. So she heads off to stay with… you’re ahead of me.

 

The fact that McKenna is played by Rupert Friend, after Starred Up another Mother Teresa role (I say “after” though this film was made before Starred Up, in 2011), and that he’s a good-looking young man, suggests we’re heading for romance. But to this film’s credit it sticks with the facts, and introduces Chad Michael Murray as Jamie Tworkowski, the roommate of McKenna who will eventually write up Yohe’s obscene-to-clean story and launch a foundation (and YA phenomenon) off the back of it.

 

Here the film simultaneously becomes unbearable and interesting. Unbearably right is Murray’s playing of Tworkowski as the sort of do-gooder who wears slackerish clothes and whose facial hair and dude-ish hat betoken a man who is clearly protesting too much. He also stays up really late! He uses slang!

 

Interesting, yet dropped almost as soon as it’s picked up, is the notion that Yohe might not be entirely happy with Tworkowski’s use of her as the poster girl for abuse and recovery. For a brief moment the film becomes a critique of glib self-help rehab dramas and of the Tworkowskis of the world, dairymen specialising in the milk of human kindness.

 

And then, interesting wobble over, it goes back to the usual rehab shtick, the arc completing when Yohe is able to heal someone close to her who has fallen off the wagon. No spoilers.

 

Too much of the film is platitudinous (“wherever you go, you’re always there” kind of thing), too much of it relies on tired visual clichés (Yohe and friends lying on the bonnet of a car parked at the end of an airport runway and woo-hooing as planes scream overhead – the exhilaration of the simple stuff, huh) and it really hasn’t the faintest idea how to incorporate into its story Yohe’s old high school friends (played by Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy) with her new rehab companions. Yet there is a touching sincerity to the entire enterprise, its lumpiness coming from a desire not to make things up, and if you can put away your cynicism, which I clearly am struggling with, the acting might win you over too.

 

Just don’t include me on any mailing list.

 

 

 

 

To Write Love on Her Arms – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man

Leonard Coen and U2

 

 

For decades Cohen’s music has been misrepresented as the soundtrack to suicide. In fact the old (now 73) groaner is something of a comedian, though his wit is so dry it’s taken non-aficionados decades to catch on. He’s also something of a master of self-mythology, the sort of performer who seems to back into the spotlight rather than seek it out. His albums have titles such as Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), Songs from a Room (1969) and Recent Songs (2001), this austerity matched in real life by his decision to become a Buddhist and the subsequent five years he spent in seclusion from 1994 to 1999. In fact Cohen’s recent higher profile and workrate seems to be more down to necessity – his manager ran off with his pension – than a desire for the spotlight.

So much for the mythology. Lian Lunson’s documentary doesn’t mention Cohen’s financial woes, and is to some extent a missed opportunity to get an inside glimpse at the man himself. What we get instead is a lot of cool cats – Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson, Beth Orton – singing Cohen songs and eulogising him, interspersed with an interview with the hipster’s hipster that again doesn’t want to go too far beyond fanboy idolatry. However, Mr Cohen is a an old hand, and gives good interview, even when it’s not asked of him. So he tells a series of stories that are as dry and impish as his songs. Of the real Suzanne, immortalised in his song of the same name, how she was the wife of a friend and how she did indeed feed him tea and oranges but no, he didn’t touch her perfect body with his mind.

Lunson keeps the camera discreet as various Wainwrights, Thompsons and McGarrigles line up to perform, and offers the visual equivalent of their interpretations. Nick Cave gets the lion’s share – his balladeering growl a good match for Cohen’s laments – while surprises include Rufus Wainwright and Antony (of the Johnsons fame), whose more operatic swoops you wouldn’t naturally expect to be a match at all.

It’s left to U2 to close the show, duetting Tower of Song with Mr C himself – who effortlessly outcools them – before he brings the curtain down with I’m Your Man.

All in all a respectful rather than revelatory tribute. Nothing wrong with that. Leonard Cohen wears it well.

 

I’m Your Man – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in front of a version of the Stars and Stripes

 

 

Professional musician and amateur situationist John Lennon has always been an easy target for anyone wanting to level a charge of hypocrisy. “Imagine no possessions,” he sang, and the fingers started pointing at his lavish lifestyle – insert your own version of the story about the fur coats kept in a refrigerated room in the Dakota Building. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary will provide fuel for both the haters and the idolisers, it being the story of how the US authorities revoked the chippiest man in rock’s Green Card in the 1970s, in an attempt to get this dangerous dissident out of the country.

Well, that’s ostensibly what it’s about. In fact for a good while the film acts as a primer on Lennon’s pre- and post-Beatles life. Though gradually the pattern of political, media-focused “eventism” starts to take shape. More than most, Lennon understood how the media operated – that if they don’t get something they’ll just make it up. And so he gave them something. Often it was pranks, this being Lennon’s lifelong default – saying, while still in the Beatles, that the band was “more popular than Jesus” being one of the occasions when he couldn’t resist giving the dog a bone. So, in The US Vs John Lennon, we get the bed-ins, the bagism and the politically motivated concerts, notably the one for marijuana activist John Sinclair, who had been jailed for ten years for the possession of two joints. The concert was instantly successful in getting Sinclair’s conviction overturned but it made Lennon a target for FBI phone-taps and street surveillance, and encouraged the White House to ready plans to deport him. At this point Lennon did what all rich men do – he put a lawyer on the case and stonewalled until the political climate changed (which it did once Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon as President).

Made for VH1, and with the co-operation of Yoko Ono, the film goes no further than it has to in terms of revelation and analysis, though there is some interesting stuff in here for the Beatles completist. Not just the music. For instance, the footage from Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous bed-in (a jokey perversion of the hippie “be in”) at the Amsterdam Hilton is more complete than we’re used to, and includes Lennon’s defence of what the pair were doing as a protest against the Vietnam War. For once, seen in full and in their own words, the couple seem rational, earnest and politically engaged rather than sensation-seeking, dilettantish and rich to the point of foolishness. And it clearly details the moment when Lennon was later invited to put his money where his mouth was and take part in an anti-Nixon, anti-War concert outside the Republican convention in 1972. He declined. This marked the end of John Lennon’s political moment. Had his pranksterism burnt out, or self-preservation kicked in? Or was he just sick of being co-opted? The film has nothing to offer.

 

 

 

The US Vs John Lennon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Page Turner

Catherine Frot and Déborah François in The Page Turner

 

 

It’s often forgotten how much genre output the French make, and how well they do it. This icy thriller in a Chabrolesque mould has two brilliant performances at its centre. On the one side we have Déborah François as Mélanie, a young girl from a poor family whose ambition to become a pianist is ruined at an audition which goes so badly that she gives up playing for good. And on the other side we have Catherine Frot as the reason it went so badly, as Ariane, the famous pianist who is so blithely unaware of what the audition means for Mélanie that she signs an autograph for an adoring fan halfway through, thus shattering Mélanie’s hard-won composure. Years later the two women meet again, though Ariane doesn’t know the history of the young woman who is now her nanny, and who just happens to read music, and, yes, would be delighted to be her page turner at an upcoming comeback concert. Has Mélanie spent years working to get herself “accidentally” into this position? Well, this is a film, so the betting is that she has. But this matters very little because once Ariane has wandered into the trap set by history and an icy Mélanie, the game is on and we can only hang back and watch, and remember to breathe.

Director Denis Dercourt has a musical background (as a concert viola player) and brings an understanding of the neuroses that high-level playing foster. But the skills he shows in weaving a tense thriller with an overtone of All About Eve go well beyond familiarity: this is real expertise. Realising that less is more, he gives us barely an indication of the true workings of Mélanie’s possibly pathological mind-set, keeps us pretty much in the dark about Ariane too – was her autograph faux pas a moment of thoughtlessness or the product of aloofness borne of class contempt? And he weaves a magical, sexual spell between the two women, as Mélanie beguiles and seduces her employer (and, separately, her employer’s son, who she is also enticing along a path to we know not where).

And all this in the most exquisite style, Jérome Peyrebrune’s camera elegantly swinging through Antoine Platteau’s production design, which seems concerned with reminding us of the enormous influence of the style anglais on the moneyed BCBG set in France. The women, meanwhile, all legs and dress sense, maintain a poker-face about their true feelings – is the pianist falling for her page turner; is her page turner softening as her employer’s vulnerabilities become more obvious? Add in the obvious class element, seesawing against the older/younger woman dynamic, and things seem set for something tasteful but explosive. In fact the finale comes as a bit of a “wha…?” and is one of the film’s few disappointments. But Dercourt gets us there in high style, and in a remarkably short 81 minutes. You can hold your breath for 81 minutes?

The Page Turner – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Jimi: All Is by My Side

André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in All Is by My Side

 

Here’s a problem for anyone about to make a film about Jimi Hendrix, genius guitarist, 1960s icon, member of the 27 Club of rock’s premature expirers – how do you get inside a character who was private, taciturn, shy and elliptically cool? With a voiceover? A confidant? Newsreel footage? It’s a question that writer/director John Ridley answers with a shrug in this inert biopic which fails to locate Hendrix in his time.

There’s another problem too. Hendrix died a long time ago now. Hell, even Kurt Cobain died a long time ago now, so Ridley needs to make a film that tells an audience who might know next to nothing about Hendrix why and how he was the world’s greatest guitarist.

I say “the world’s greatest guitarist” because I’m of an age to know almost all of his music note for note. Growing up, we even had records in our house made by Hendrix before he was famous, when he was a jobbing musician with Curtis Knight and the Squires (I think – it was a while ago).

And that’s where the film picks up Hendrix (André Benjamin of Outkast), in 1966, in a backing band playing tasty guitar licks of a fairly unambitious sort in a New York club. In the scant crowd was Linda Keith (played by Imogen Poots), a former girlfriend of Keith Richards with a rich daddy, an eye for talent and a fair bit of time on her hands. Ridley’s film then follows Hendrix for the next year, as Linda Keith introduces Hendrix to the world of rock she knew, connects him up with Chas Chandler (an outstanding Andrew Buckley), the Animals’ bassist who became Hendrix’s manger. And it leaves him just as Jimi is about to play the 1967 Monterey Festival, where Jimi (and his Ronsonol-doused guitar) caught fire.

This is your “Star Is Born” story, in other words, though here it’s Hendrix’s enormous luck in meeting Linda Keith rather than his enormous talent that gets him the shot at stardom.

If Ridley doesn’t get his man, he does get his music and the film’s standout moments all occur on stage. First when Keith sees Hendrix in New York, then when Hendrix almost forces himself on stage to jam with the Cream, and so frightens guitarist Eric Clapton (known at the time simply as God) with his prowess that Clapton dashes from the stage. And finally when his band The Jimi Hendrix Experience plays at the Saville Theatre, where the Beatles are in the audience, and cheekily opens with the first track off their new Sergeant Pepper album, released only a couple of days before.

Much has been made of the fact that no actual Hendrix music – ie songs written by Hendrix – was used in the film. But it doesn’t matter a bit. For a start Hendrix did plenty of covers – Hey Joe, All Along the Watchtower, Red House, Johnny B Goode among them – and the backroom team (guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar, drummer Kenny Aronoff) have enough talent and confidence not to make this a note-for-note recreation of the records. But never mind who or how or why, the music satisfies the ultimate arbiter – the hairs on the back of the neck.

As for the rest of it, it’s a competent and routine rock biopic – getting the band together, the girlfriend, backstage, frontstage, with Ridley occasionally remembering it was the 1960s and throwing in a couple of seconds of psychedelic montage.

Probably the third question you’d ask going into the film, if you knew it was Ridley in the driving seat, is how is the writer of 12 Years a Slave going to handle the race thing? In two eminently cuttable scenes he answers it – first as Hendrix is hectored and belittled by a trio of loutish coppers, who are ostensibly angry that he’s wearing a British military jacket in a disrespectful fashion. Second in a scene between Hendrix and Michael X, Britain’s embarrassing counterpart of the US’s Malcolm X, in which the revolutionary mini-me encourages Hendrix to be, in short, more black. Hendrix responds with something about the power of love beating the love of power, in that maddening drawl beloved of rockers to this day, but which marks Hendrix out as being in the vanguard of post-racial politics, and music.

As for the dolly birds, they really do get the rough end of the pineapple. Poots as the well heeled Linda Keith getting almost reverential treatment as the girl who made it all possible but was absolutely definitely and quite categorically not a groupie. Hayley Atwell plays a blinder as the girl who steals Hendrix off Linda Keith – a heart of gold, a body of honey, talons of dripping venom (see Coronation Street’s 1960s siren Elsie Tanner for where at least 75% of her remarkable performance comes from). As for the rest of the women, they gabble and caw at the edge of the frame like a ravening mob of low-rent courtesans. Adherents of the “class, race, gender” school of film criticism, sharpen your tools.

Which brings us to André Benjamin as Hendrix, who is as good as Jimi as Jamie Foxx was as Ray Charles in Ray, convincing entirely from the first second he appears that he’s the real thing. I certainly never doubted, never saw the performance, from the way Hendrix dipped his head while he talked, to the skinny-cool aura he gave off, Benjamin has it all down. But Benjamin can’t give us something that’s not in the writing and Ridley seems uninterested in filling out who this man is – and isn’t that the point of a biopic? This leads to the film’s potentially most upsetting moment – an outbreak of violence by Hendrix – leading to head scratching rather than shock.

The brilliant character actor Burn Gorman turns up for a couple of minutes, as Hendrix’s co-manager Michael Jeffery, one of those spivvy wheeler-dealers who actually made the 1960s happen, and the screen crackles into life with mendacity, greed and lust. And suddenly there’s a hint of the film that this might have been, a glimpse of a moment when talented young people were ushered into stardom by managerial geniuses who generally stole their money and didn’t give a stuff about the counter culture. Instead we have a disappointing almost-biography which goes only album-cover deep in its explanation of what the 1960s were about and how its brightest star, Jimi Hendrix, fitted into it all.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 Jimi: All Is by My Side – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival

The Isle of Wight Festival, 1970

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

17 August

 

Woodstock ends, 1969

On this day in 1969, the Woodstock Music & Art Fair ended. Billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music” it was held at a dairy farm near White Lake, New York. 32 acts had played to 400,000 people who had paid $18 in advance ($24 at the gate). Richie Havens had been the first act on and Jimi Hendrix was the last act, playing a two hour set that included his version of the Star Spangled Banner – shocking both to those who didn’t want to hear it desecrated and to those who didn’t want to hear anything so patriotic played. In fact Hendrix was playing from 9am to 11am on the morning of 18 August – overruns and flexible scheduling being at least partly what the festival was about. The entire event had originally grown from the notion that Woodstock might be a festival mostly featuring musicians who lived or worked in area, the promoters particularly keen to get Bob Dylan and The Band on board. This was not to be. On the day the festival started Dylan had embarked on the Queen Elizabeth 2 to sail for the UK and the Isle of Wight festival. Woodstock did OK without him.

 

 

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival (1997, dir: Murray Lerner)

Murray Lerner’s film was a long time coming. Thanks a to a legal wrangle over who owed what money to whom, the film didn’t see the light of day until 1997. And how fitting that it was money that caused the delay. Because in among the performances by Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Hendrix, the Who and the Doors, are moments that catch the irony at the heart of the hippie ideal – it’s the straights who make hippiedom possible. But first some details: held a year after Woodstock on a small island off the coast of the United Kingdom, it was the biggest countercultural/music event of its time, with estimates of attendance ranging from 600,000 to 700,000. Along with those already mentioned, Sly and the Family Stone, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Free, Jethro Tull and Miles Davis took part. Not a bad bunch of headliners.
If the Woodstock film catches a festival full of optimism and some complacency, Message to Love catches rock culture just as it moves from being a fun ad hoc arrangement into the new establishment. There is tension everywhere, between those outside who want the fences torn down so the festival can be free, and those inside who want everyone involved to get paid. Breadheads versus dopeheads. While performers are talking about peace and love on stage, their managers are engaged in full-bore argument backstage trying to make sure their man (or woman, in Joan Baez’s notable case) gets his/her due.
Lerner had already made a film about the Newport Folk Festival, so he knew what he was doing and what’s notable about Message to Love is how well shot and put together it is. For sure, Lerner plays up the tension – the locals, the police, the crowd, the performers are all shown at their worst (Joni Mitchell calling the crowd “tourists”; she means “peasants”), and funniest. He has an eye for a performance too. Not that Hendrix or the Doors were that incendiary – and both Hendrix and Jim Morrison would be dead within a year so it’s a shame – but Lerner’s beady eye catches exactly what it’s like to be watching an iconic performer at the wrong time of day (the Doors were on at something like 3am), with inadequate sound, bad weather and a grumpy lead singer. Actually, considering, the Doors are not at all bad.
So, the walls do eventually come down and the paying ticket holders (60,000 or so) are joined by the other 500,000 or so who haven’t paid. Making the best of a bad thing, the organisers decide to declare the Isle of Wight a “free festival”. It’s clear a lot of musicians aren’t going to get their money and that the organisers are heading for bankruptcy. Lerner catches it all in painful detail.
The festival has gone down in history as a desperate financial failure, but the film is a resounding success. Murray has it all as it goes rotten in front of his lens. It’s a good story, a great one in fact. And it’s a great film about the death of the 1960s ideal – funny how many of those there are. And it’s Hendrix, king of the era, whose song provides the film’s ironic title.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A brilliant story, well told
  • Iconic footage
  • Great music
  • Big artistic egos losing their temper

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Our Beloved Month of August

Fábio Oliveira and Sónia Bandeira

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 August

 

Battle of Aljubarrota, 1385

On this day in 1385, the battle of Aljubarrota ended Spanish designs on Portugal and confirmed an independent throne in Portugal, under King John I. The battle was waged between John I of Portugal and his English allies on one side and King John I of Castile and his Aragonese, Italian and French allies on the other side. The situation had come about after the previous king of Portugal, Ferdinand I, had died without male issue and had declared that the crown would pass to his daughter, Beatrice, and her intended, Juan I of Castile. This would have seen the throne pass into Spanish hands, a situation the Portuguese nobility and merchant class were unwilling to accept. It fell to John, the bastard child of Ferdinand I’s father, Peter I, to seize the moment and begin hostilities against the Castilians. John appealed both to Portugal’s English allies and to the Church to recognise his claim and support him. England did and, honouring the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373, it sent troops hardened by the Hundred Years War to help John, now recognised inside Portugal as John I. The battle was defensive, with the Portuguese choosing the site – Sao Jorge near Aljubarrota – and waiting there for the Castilians to arrive, which they duly did. The Portuguese had the advantage of English bowmen and they dug pits and ditches to disrupt the Castilian cavalry. They also had the advantage of a clear view over the battlefield. When the fighting eventually started, around 6pm, the French and Castilian cavalry were soon in disarray, thanks to the Portuguese tactics, which led to a bloody pitch battle at close quarters. Before sunset the Castilians were on the run.

 

 

 

Our Beloved Month of August (2008, dir: Miguel Gomes)

Films that start as one thing and end as another tend to be irritating to but they do happen – the spoof superhero film that really wants to get its cape on and be a real superhero film being the most common. But how about a film that starts as a documentary and ends as a love story? That’s what This Dear Month/Our Beloved Month of August does – its title varies with region. We appear to be watching a traditional travelogue set in Portugal, which is extolling the virtues of this beautifully simple village, full of pious people who carry statues in the local religious parades. We hear about the local tradition of jumping off the bridge into the river at carnival and meet a local oddball who has hurt his ankle doing just that. Boom mics are in evidence, a documentary is clearly being made. And then we overhear two villagers discussing their “roles”. Hang on. Aren’t they “real” people? Are they having a joke about being in a film, daaahhling? Then we’re off again, taking in a lot of music by local MOR dance bands, the sort you get in the cosy restaurants of the Portuguese diaspora wherever they’ve made their home. It’s only later on that we realise that these bands form the bridge between the general travelogue and the specific story this clever and atmospheric film tells, about a female singer, her boyfriend and the girl’s jealous (and possibly incestuous) father.
This relationship might provide the bridge but the film is really about the slide from one genre to another, the feelings it stirs up in the viewer, this viewer anyway, as he goes from watching what he takes to be true (documentary), to what he challenges as true (the “staged reality” sequences beloved of shows such as Jersey Shore and The Only Way Is Essex), to what he can comfortably sit back and watch as “proper” fiction. It doesn’t stop there, either. Right at the end director Miguel Gomes pushes the film once more, into the fantastical, just a nudge, just enough to let the audience know that it’s being dicked about with again.
The entire effect is remarkable, making the film like no other I’ve ever seen, not even like the director’s follow-up, Tabu, which is another remarkable film about the expectations that genres set up. You might expect the feeling that Gomes engenders to be bewilderment, but in fact, because there’s something so perfect about the way Gomes has pulled it off, it’s more like elation.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Miguel Gomes announces himself as a great film-maker
  • Rui Poças’s cinematography
  • The sound design of Vasco Pimentel
  • Sónia Bandeira as Tânia

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Our Beloved Month of August – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Song Remains the Same

Robert Plant in The Song Remains the Same

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

 

 

13 July

 

 

 

Live Aid, 1985

On this day in 1985, some of the world’s most popular music acts got together at Wembley Stadium, London, UK, and John F Kennedy Stadium, Philadelphia, USA. Live Aid was a spin-off from the single Do They Know It’s Christmas, a song co-written by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure after Geldof had seen footage of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. Expected to make around £70,000, the single in fact made around £8 million. The shows, in summer the following year, were designed to capitalise on what seemed to be the public’s happiness to dig deep if asked to by a large collection of their favourite pop artists. In London, the Coldstream Guards kicked off the day with God Save the Queen, and were followed by Status Quo. In Philadelphia Joan Baez opened, followed by the Hooters (“Who the fuck are the Hooters?” Geldof is reported to have asked). At Wembley proceedings were brought to a conclusion ten hours later by Paul McCartney, followed by an ensemble performance of Do They Know It’s Christmas, whereas in the USA the trio of Bob Dylan, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood were followed by a massed-artiste rendition of We Are the World, rounding off a 14 hour show. No African musicians took part at either venue, unless you include Sade (born: Nigeria), Freddie Mercury (Zanzibar) and impromptu Led Zeppelin member Paul Martinez (Morocco).

 

 

 

 

 

The Song Remains the Same (1976, dir: Peter Clifton, Joe Massot)

Led Zeppelin were still the biggest rock band in the world when this film debuted. Made when rock bands amassed huge amounts of money from record sales, lived like modern medieval monarchs and existed pretty much below the publicity radar (computer game billionaires have a similar existence today), the film is the high point of rock before punk kicked its legs away, and the high point of a sort of lifestyle that welded a fey hippie dandyism to bohemian entitlement.
Don’t bother looking it up if you’re expecting to see definitive Zep performances. One half of the film is a slog through Zeppelin’s show at Madison Square Gardens, in support of their Houses of the Holy album. The rest, intercut, is a series of fantasy sequences intended to give us an insight into the lives of our heroes (bassist John Paul Jones reading to his kids, drummer John Bonham drag racing, guitarist Jimmy Page as a hermit on some fanciful quest, vocalist Robert Plant on horseback, manager Peter Grant as a gun-toting mobster) plus peeks backstage.
The fantasy stuff is the funniest, with band members frequently looking like bad-haired hobbits as they wander through a backlit Middle Earth. On the other hand the music stuff, the gig, is not funny at all – Page’s playing is frequently meaningless noodling and he looks raddled, Robert Plant’s voice is failing on the top notes, bass and drums are frequently struggling to drag Page back to the beat.
It’s a film inadvertently about that moment when a band or an entire scene goes bad, in other words.
Original director Joe Massot had shot more than enough raw footage of the gig, both out front and backstage, but he fell apart trying to edit it all together. So Zeppelin called in Peter Clifton to edit and finish the film. Clifton’s solution to the poor syncing of visual and sound – re-record the band at Shepperton.
So the film isn’t just a record of a bad gig and the band’s idiot fantasies played out for the camera, it’s also highly dishonest. And it still doesn’t sound good. There are exceptions – Since I Been Lovin’ You, Black Dog and The Rain Song all sound like the band mean it and can hear each other. But for all the many negatives, if you want a record of Zep in their pomp (and the word applies to them more than any other band), and an insight into a lost world of the rock squireocracy, before things went more democratic – and stayed that way – in 1976, then this is the historical document for you.

 

 

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • It’s Led Zeppelin, man
  • Play “spot the recreated live footage”
  • When they’re good, they’re very very good
  • Hippie nonsense at its most hilarious

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

The Song Remains the Same – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac and cat in Inside Llewyn Davis

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

30 June

 

Dave Van Ronk born, 1936

On this day in 1936, one of the great nearly men of popular music was born, in Brooklyn, New York, USA, into a Catholic family who identified as Irish. Dave Van Ronk was singing in a barbershop quartet by the age of 13 but left school early to play music, hang around in Manhattan and, eventually, ship out with the Merchant Marine. He played jazz before straying upon blues, and built up a small following as one of the few white men working in the genre. And from there broadened out into folk. As the folk revival of the late 1950s gathered pace, Dave almost became part of a folk trio, which would have been called Peter, Dave and Mary. But the gig instead went to Noel Paul Stookey, and so Peter, Paul and Mary it was. Instead Dave wrote songs and sang in Greenwich Village; he became the figurehead of the scene, his syncopated finger-picking style and big bearish personality gaining him many admirers. Dave “was king of the street, he reigned supreme” as Bob Dylan later put it. However, in spite of 20 albums and five decades of performing, few people outside of the aficionados ever got to hear of Dave Van Ronk. This was partly because he wouldn’t fly, couldn’t drive, disliked leaving Greenwich Village. But it was also simple bad luck – he did a beautiful, crack-voiced version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, which should have been a hit, except that Judy Collins beat him to it. And then, suddenly, the folk moment was over and the Tom Paxtons and Ralph McTells and Dave Van Ronks had to content themselves with driving on the back roads of success. Well at least he had talent, and did it his way.

 

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, dir: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen)

The Coen brothers borrow the title of the 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk to tell the story of another nearly man, the fictional Llewyn Davis. Davis is not Van Ronk, and it’s pointless drawing comparisons between the two. Because Llewyn Davis is so clearly a Coen man. In other words, someone who’s doing what he thinks is his best but it isn’t really working for him. “Everything you touch turns to shit. Like King Midas’s idiot brother,” says Davis’s ex squeeze (Carey Mulligan, all over that Joan Baez look and attitude). We’re in Greenwich Village, early 1960s, folk music riding high, the clubs full of nice middle class kids in chunky sweaters, either on the stage or in the audience, while out in the wider world of music Llewyn Davis is trying to make a go of it.
The cat. We have to mention the cat, which Davis accidentally lets out of the apartment of the people he’s staying at, then chases down the road, then catches, then takes home to look after for a few days, because he can’t get back into the apartment now that the door has clicked shut behind him. And by “home” he means the couch of another long-suffering “friend”.

The strength of this film comes from its highly charged individual scenes – Davis abusing the hospitality of the Upper East Siders who have been bending over backwards to help the struggling artist; Davis being refused an advance by his ancient agent; on the road with a derisive heroin-addicted jazzman (John Goodman, nice); being told at the famous Gate of Horn club that he hasn’t got what it takes (and after singing his heart out too). And on it goes, heartbreak in instalments, to a lovely soundtrack, in venues that look lifted straight off the cover of Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album.

The Coens have introduced us to Davis just as he’s obviously run out of time, credit at the goodwill bank of his various friends, couches to kip on. Something has to give. The songs Oscar Isaac tenderly sings are Dave Van Ronk’s. And they’re beautiful songs, though not quite “hooky” enough to make it. Davis isn’t “hooky” enough either, is chasing fame (or even just a living) the way he’s chasing the cat – elusive, indifferent – which actually turns out to be the wrong cat entirely.

As to whether the Coens are offering an explanation for Davis’s status as a nearly man, I’m not sure they are. There are suggestions that maybe Davis wants the prize for the wrong reason – money, rather than art – but only the vaguest hints. Instead the Coens seem intent on building a sustained mood piece in a minor key, highly polished, terribly sad. They are unusually fair to the music, make no snide digs at well brought up Americans singing in odd approximations of British folk accents, or of white kids who want to be black. And at the end, as Davis packs up his guitar having sung yet another night at the club he’s inhabited like a bad smell, and as he wanders outside into the back alley, the next act is announced. It’s Bob Dylan, we hear. But we don’t see. Success is not what Inside Llewyn Davis is about.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Oscar Isaac’s haunted performance
  • The music, including Dave Van Ronk’s songs
  • So many great performances – including Carey Mulligan, F Murray Abraham,
  • Bruno Delbonnel’s era-evoking cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Inside Llewyn Davis – Watch it now at Amazon