Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Scott Walker, seen in reflection in the recording studio

 

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

 

 

29 May

 

The Rite of Spring premieres, 1913

On this day in 1913, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s orchestral ballet The Rite of Spring premiered at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, France, as part of a season of performances by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The reaction to it was instant and violent, with laughter greeting the opening bars of the introduction. This grew into a “terrific uproar”, according to Stravinsky’s autobiography. He also detailed how he watched from the wings as the choreographer, Nijinsky, was forced to shout out the step numbers to the dancers, who couldn’t hear the music. People in the audience began throwing things but the orchestra played on, managing to make themselves heard, though a commotion continued through the entire performance. Whether the disturbance was aimed at the rhythmic music or the often pagan movements of the dancers, or whether it was more the outbreak of hostilities between the more conservative and bohemian elements in the audience remains a moot point. The next day in the papers, the critics were split, Le Figaro calling The Rite of Spring “puerile barbarity” while the theatrical magazine Comoedia described it as superb. Others again thought the music wonderful and the dancing appalling. Stravinsky’s autobiography records that after the performance Stravinsky, Nijinsky and Diaghilev went for a celebratory dinner with Jean Cocteau.

 

 

 

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006, dir: Stephen Kijak)

The British-based American expatriate Scott Walker was a pop idol in the 1960s. Thanks to his good looks and baritone voice he had a string of hits with the Walker Brothers – named after him, though his real surname is in fact Engel. Then he went solo, making a number of critically hailed and artistically influential solo albums inspired to large extent by the chanson tradition of the likes of Jacques Brel. These were followed by a series of increasingly minimal and doomy avant garde albums. Both the Brel-flavoured and avant garde music made an indelible impression on David Bowie in the 1970s, who borrowed much of Walker’s angularity and swagger. When Stephen Kijak caught up with him for the making of this documentary, Walker had just released his first proper album, The Drift, for over ten years. Whether you buy into the idea of Walker as towering avant garde genius or not, there is something to see here. If you do it’s the sight of a man often described as a recluse being surprisingly open, honest, chatty and happy – human. If you don’t, then it’s his unusual attitude – an artist who makes absolutely no claims for the value of what he does. According to Walker, he does what he does because he enjoys doing it, that’s all. This unexpected and simple credo is one of the most refreshing things about a film that looked, from the title, like it was going to be all hagiography. There’s the personal stuff too, Walker’s fairly frank admission that “the imbibing”, as he describes the years of drinking too much, got in the way of his work. And some backstory – the early years of pop adulation, the attempts to keep the Walker Brothers going, their eventual demise in the 1970s after a botched comeback, the infighting.
Let’s not get carried away though, there are plenty of what you might call the usual suspects – Johnny Marr, Damon Albarn, Bowie (who is named as executive producer), Johnny Greenwood, Brian Eno – bending the knee in front of one of avant garde pop’s totemic figures, revered in Britain, largely ignored back home. Scattered between the we’re-not-worthies are insights into the way Walker works. These are fascinating too: the way he buries the melodic line of a song so the musicians and even the producer can’t find it, for instance. Or punches a hanging animal carcase to get the right percussive sound. Stravinsky, Ligetti and Gorecki can all be heard in the resulting opus – pop musicians are often not quite as “avant” as they are billed – but Walker undoubtedly has had an influence on how popular music is written and consumed.
For his part, Kijak clearly knows a thing or two about working in the language of film – the pacing of his shots and his editing are deliberately intended to create a hypnotic effect. This too is unusual in a documentary about a musician, which tend to take the backstage/onstage route. Do we in the end get to know much more about this man, still looking boyish as he goes into his seventh decade? Not particularly. But we do get to know a bit more about his music, and in any film about any artist what you really is to learn about the work, isn’t it?

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A hypnotically constructed film
  • Walker’s engaging personality
  • The talking head endorsements
  • The strange, ethereal music

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!

Yauch, Horovitz, Diamond: The Beastie Boys

 

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

 

 

4 May

 

Adam Yauch dies, 2012

On this day in 2012, Adam Yauch, one of the Beastie Boys, died, aged 47.

He had formed the Beastie Boys in high school in 1981. The band was originally a punk band but, losing two members, original members Yauch and Adam Horovitz gained a third, Michael Diamond, and switched to hip hop in 1984, taking on hip hop names en route – MCA, Ad-Rock and Mike D respectively.

A string of singles followed, then came a tour with Madonna, before the band released their debut album Licensed to Ill, which was a monster hit and continues to sell well to this day. As a result of the success of this album, and seven subsequent albums which went platinum, at least, the Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2012, though they were more a mainstream arthouse band than anything, like The Residents with a Top 20 presence.

A month later, Yauch was dead of salivary gland cancer, which he’d first had diagnosed in 2009.

 

 

 

Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That! (2006, dir: Adam Yauch)

Not many films have a semi-colon in their title, or a “fuckin’” for that matter. But then the Beastie Boys tend to do things differently. And a band that was always experimenting, with musical forms from hip hop to punk to jazz funk to sampled esoterica to country, and were early and large into the internet, did something different with this “concert” documentary.

They gave out 50 cameras to members of the audience at a gig in New York’s Madison Square Garden in October 2004, then took the footage and edited it together. Adam Yauch edited it together, in fact, and he must get some kind of award for saintliness, considering the amount of footage there must have been.

Of course, it’s a bit of a cheat, making a virtue of the “unauthored” nature of the film and then having someone essentially author it in the edit suite. Plus there’s a handy camera stuck on the mixing desk (by Yauch?) which provides a still place around which the ping-ponging, pogoing, moshing footage of the other cameras can be grouped.

But, you know what, it works. The fizzing, swinging points of view capture the essence of being there, certainly a lot better than the old standby at gigs – the all-seeing robot camera gliding over the heads of the audience with no real feel for the sound and energy of the event.

Apparently, there are a few other cameras being operated by professionals too, but Yauch also incorporates that footage without losing the overall sweaty, partying vibe. It really helps that the band are on form, performing their hits, working the crowd, slipping out of hip hop Adidas into tuxes for their mid-section jazz-funk workout, before heading back to the stabby rock that they started out playing.

People dance, they bounce, one guy even goes to the toilet, taking his camera along with him. And Yauch leaves it in, showing the Beastie philosophy of playfulness is alive and kicking. This is the first Wiki-gig on film.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • An unusual way to film a gig
  • Because the Beasties with this line-up don’t exist any more
  • Its “you are there” atmosphere
  • Fan fiction from the blog generation

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That – at Amazon

Awesome; I… Shot That – at Amazon – Amazon also sell this coy relabel for those who don’t drop the f-bomb

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.

Tommy Rettig in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T

 

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

 

 

2 March

 

 

Dr Seuss born, 1904

On this day in 1904, Theodor Geisel, author and illustrator, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. He started to sign himself Seuss (his mother’s maiden name) while at Dartmouth College, where he was editor of the humour magazine Jack-O-Lantern. He’d been found guilty of the sin of drinking gin and in order to keep working on the mag after being barred from this extra-curricular activity started using a pseudonym. Having completed his Ivy League education he went to Oxford, in the UK, where he intended to study English. But he gave it up to concentrate on cartoons, which he pursued further after moving back first to Springfield and then to New York. He became successful working as a cartoonist drawing adverts – for Standard Oil, General Electric, NBC, among others – and published his first book, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street – after much rejection, in 1937. During the Second World War he produced propaganda for the government, as a captain in the First Motion Picture Unit. His documentary on Japan, Design for Death, won an Oscar, as did his Gerald McBoing-Boing, for best animated short. His most successful period as a children’s author followed – Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Though always pronounced “Syoos” by other people, the man himself pronounce his name “Zoice” to rhyme with “voice”.

 

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T (1953, dir: Roy Rowland)

As with the work of Roald Dahl, there’s a terrible tendency by the committees who produce movies to take out the more troubling stuff – the stuff that lends distinction. With Dahl it’s the dark humour; with Seuss it’s the fizzing surreal imagination. This 1953 film gets Geisel better than most – no, let’s not talk about Mike Meyers and the Cat in the Hat movie. It’s a surreal story about a kid who falls asleep while practising the piano and the dreams he has of being held prisoner by Doctor Terwilliker, the man who wrote the piano instruction manual that first sent him into the realm of Morpheus. After the bizarre storyline, the most notable aspect of the film is the brilliant production design by Rudolph Sternad, of the Terwilliker Institute, the Freudian nightmare piano-teaching prison where this poor fatherless boy is taunted by the sight of his mother setting up house with Dr T, the nightmare avatar of his own real-life tormentor. Just to pile on a bit more depth, Seuss and fellow scenarist Allan Scott invoke the the disorientation of Kafka, the guilt of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the expressionist camera angles of Fritz Lang and the chaos of the Mark brothers, to name but a few – anything that will add to the heady mix of unhinged tumult. The film marks some kind of high point for the fetishisation of psychoanalysis – Hollywood had been mad for it since the 1930s – and is also a rebuff to those who say that 1950s Hollywood was always conformist and conservative. Talking of which, there’s also the distinctly leftish, class-critiquing message tucked away in there too, which might explain why the film is not seen very often.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A starring role for Tommy Rettig – usually underdog to Lassie
  • Hans Conried as the dastardly Dr Terwilliker
  • Rudolph Sternad’s fabulous production design
  • The closest movies have ever got to capturing Dr Seuss

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

Ice-T talks to Dr Dre in Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap

 

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

 

 

10 February

 

 

Kanye West releases debut album, 2004

On this day in 2004, multi-instrumentalist, singer and rapper Kanye West released his debut album, The College Dropout, which is precisely what West was, having junked art school after one semester in favour of a career in music. The career in music went well, with West rapidly becoming a sought-after producer – Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Ludacris – and beatmaker, all the while working on his own solo album, whose release got pushed further and further into the future as West spent his time making music for other people. His sample-based singles Through the Wire (Chaka Khan’s Through the Fire) and Slow Jamz (Luther Vandross’s A House Is Not a Home) were indicative of the material on College Dropout – soulful, eclectic, bragging, lyrically smart – which instantly made Kanye West an international name and gained him ten Grammy nominations.

 

 

 

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012, dir: Ice-T, Andy Baybutt)

Ice-T’s The Art of Rap is the best film about rap ever made. “This film isn’t about the money, the cars, the jewellery, the girls…” says the man himself as the film kicks off, “this film is about the craft.” It is that focus on the actual practitioners talking about their work that makes this survey of the horizons of the form such a winner – even if your knowledge of rap is a ropy as mine. Ice-T brings to the party an insider’s enthusiasm, a lot of knowledge, his connections to almost everyone who has ever been anyone in the biz – from Melle Mel and Big Daddy Kane to Eminem, Kanye West and Dr Dre – plus a formidable interviewing technique. To Eminem he says, “You write complicated. Do they come complicated or do you complicate them?” A brilliant question, stabbed out in rapping metre. And Eminem looks at him, kind of nods, chuckles, and then answers. Doug E Fresh reworks other people’s raps for him, to emphasise how closely they resemble poetic forms (sonnets, quite often). As the film jumps from person to person, some themes start to assert themselves – the rapper’s almost chivalric code of honour (“your respect is built in combat” says Ice-T); that rap is a folk art not a pop art; on rap’s failure to win the respect accorded to other genres – jazz, for instance. Another motif is Ice-T’s throwdown at the end of every mini-interview, asking whoever he’s been quizzing to perform an impromptu rap – and I know these guys do this sort of thing for a living, but it’s easy to forget, with all the scowling and attitude, the sort of talent required to just verbalise this well. Best of all is the sight of men (Cheryl “Salt” James is the sole female) doing what they love doing that shines through, even when it’s someone like Rakim, whose rheumy eyes suggest an over-indulgence in 1980s recreational activities. And there’s the odd amusing tale, like Ice-T revealing how he busks through sticky stage moments when he dries – pretending the mike has gone, using a fan who knows all the words at the front of a gig as an unwitting human teleprompter, and so on. Of course, down at bottom the film is an entirely partisan plea for respectability. But there’s nothing wrong with that when it’s done with this much style, charm and humour. And there’s enough access to prime source material to make about five fairly decent documentaries. Ice-T is spoiling us.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The full interviews on the DVD extras
  • Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Common, KRS-One, all here
  • Revelatory, fascinating, intelligent
  • To wonder why no sign of Jay-Z, 50 Cent or LL Cool J

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Bamboozled

Savion Glover and Tyheesha Collins in Bamboozled

 

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

 

 

6 February

 

 

The first minstrel show, 1843

On this day in 1843, the Virginia Minstrels led by Dan Emmett became the first full-length black minstrel show in the USA.

They’d tested and previewed the show at other venues but it was on 6 February that the show opened at the Bowery Amphitheater New York.

The show had a three-act structure – four guys sitting in a semi-circle, singing songs, telling jokes and just generally being entertaining; followed by a front-of-curtain variety segment; finishing off with a spoof/skit/satire piece.

Minstrelsy goes back as far as you care to look – to the medieval bards of Europe or the griots of West Africa at least – though the American version is complicated by the fact that it was white people performing in blackface who seem to have originated the first shows, before black people in blackface took over.

The first genuinely American form of theatrical entertainment, it was wildly popular both at home and abroad, with all classes of people, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Theatre chains opened catering specifically to minstrel shows.

Slavery was always in there somewhere, overtly or covertly, especially as abolitionism and later Civil War were dividing the country. Minstrel shows are often criticised now as offering little more than unthinkingly buffoonish, non-threatening, compliant black stereotypes – Sambo, Uncle Tom, Mammy etc – but the same criticisms were being made back then, along with another familiar complaint: that the songs, speech and entertainment on display lacked real authenticity.

However, for the performers concerned, some of whom did what they could to advance the cause of freedom and equality with the tools they had to hand, the minstrel shows meant a living wage, and it undoubtedly opened the door to mainstream showbiz for African Americans, as it also opened American entertainment, in a mostly pre-movie age, up to the world.

 

 

 

Bamboozled (2000, dir: Spike Lee)

Spike Lee charges in where nobody else dared go, in what is one of his best films, a bizarre comedy about black TV executive Pierre Delacroix (an excellent Damon Wayans) who, frustrated by the constant rejection of his ideas (they’re “too white”), decides not to quit but instead get himself sacked – the severance package beckons.

So he comes up with the most outrageous idea he can think of. It’s a “coon show”, his words, called Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show.

It will star two homeless black guys he passes on the street every morning, now renamed Mantan and Sleep’n Eat, and it’ll be set in a watermelon patch in Old Alabamy.

But, in a twist borrowed from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Delacroix’s minstrel show is a hit and he now has to serve up extreme racist material as entertainment week in, week out.

Bamboozled isn’t the sort of film that floats every boat – it isn’t subtle, for a start, and its message has been diluted slightly by time. But it does make its point – that for all our holier-than-yesterday posturing, black people are still working the old minstrel stereotypes, appearing on TV and movies in comedies but rarely fronting serious dramas, and playing up to the negative image of the gangsta rap video, or so says Spike Lee in no uncertain terms.

Why it works is because it is so fearless and feels as if it’s been composed of the sort of outraged stories black performers share when they’re in a bitching mood. In fact it’s falling over itself with anger at times, and towards the end the whole thing does start to collapse into melodrama.

Up until then though it’s been a series of “can he say that?” remarks spun together to make the point that black people are so tied up in knots by political correctness, black consciousness, history, racism and the constant demands for positive representation that they’ve no idea how to do the right thing (to borrow a phrase).

They’re bamboozled, in fact, a word Lee has possibly borrowed from a Malcolm X speech (which also turned up in Lee’s own film of the man).

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A film that really takes no prisoners
  • Lee shoots it all on digital, giving it that authentic Sunset Beach TV look
  • The talented cast includes Jada Pinkett Smith, Mos Def and Michael Rapaport
  • Pungent cameos from Al Sharpton, Mira Sorvino and Matthew Modine

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Bamboozled – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

 

 

 

Buena Vista Social Club

Compay Segundo on stage with the Buena Vista Social Club

 

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

 

 

3 January

 

 

US severs diplomatic ties with Cuba, 1961

On this day in 1961, the United States formally cut diplomatic ties with Cuba. It had been building its position within the island since Cuba had gained independence from Spain and had long considered the eventual annexation of Cuba as a done deal. “The most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States,” is how Thomas Jefferson described the island which had been a part of the Spanish empire almost since the day the Americas were “discovered” by Christopher Columbus. Cuba fought two wars of independence against Spain, at which point US president William McKinley offered to buy the troublesome island off Spain for $300 million. No deal. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, Spain renounced all claim to Cuba and American influence in the island grew. Under the Teller Amendment, the US agreed not to annex Cuba, the quid pro quo being the Cuban-American Treaty, which leased land to the US for naval bases, including the southern part of Guantanamo Bay. In spite of its “no interference” agreement, the US intervened militarily in Cuba six times between 1898 and 1922. The rise of General Batista in the 1930s (he was officially president between 1940 and 44, and again between 1952 and 59) led to close co-operation between Cuba and the USA. However, when the Cuban revolution broke out, the US crucially decided not to sell rifles to Batista, thus ensuring the success of Fidel Castro. Once in power, Castro set about reducing the influence of the USA, whose ambassador had been “the second most important man” in the country “sometimes even more important than the Cuban president,” as former ambassador Earl T Smith later told the US Senate. Castro nationalised many US-owned companies, insisted on reductions in the size of the US embassy in Havana, which he said was full of spies. The US retaliated by stopping buying Cuban sugar and refusing to export oil to the country. Quietly, President Eisenhower, who had been quick to recognise Castro, set about plotting his downfall. A trading tit for tat developed, with the US increasingly imposing sanctions and the Cubans responding by increasing trade relations with the USSR. Eventually the Cubans threw two diplomats out of the country, accusing them of arms smuggling and encouraging terrorism and sedition. The US responded by closing its embassy.

 

 

 

Buena Vista Social Club (1999, dir: Wim Wenders)

There are two Wim Wenders. One makes “difficult” arthouse fare – The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, Beyond the Clouds. The other is an unashamed fan who makes promo videos for artists such as U2 and Willie Nelson, directs operas, and who lionised the dancer Pina Bausch in his film Pina. One of his more successful mainstream projects was Paris, Texas, which was soaked with the music of Ry Cooder. Cooder is in evidence again in Buena Vista Social Club, a nakedly adoring documentary about the ageing Cuban singers “rediscovered” by Cooder, who produced the eponymous album which provided the background to many a dinner party in the late 1990s. This is the filmic version of the story told in a thousand newspaper features of the time – who these old guys  (and Omara Portuondo, the scarce woman) are, what they’ve been doing all the years since they found themselves “retired”, thanks to changing tastes in the domestic market and the closure of foreign markets, which, unbeknown to them, are ever hungry for new old talent. We meet Ibrahim Ferrer, a “Cuban Nat King Cole” and until recently a shoeshine boy (at 70something). We meet Compay Segundo, guitarist, nonegenarian, former cigar-roller, now a cigar-smoker, a father of six with a twinkle in his eye that suggests he’s not lying when he says he wants one more. And we meet Ruben Gonzalez, the group’s keyboard man, as elegant as a cuneiform figure. Around these three spin the other band members, none of them young, all of them energised by their rescue from obscurity, and we watch as they play the mambos, cha-chas and boleros of their youth. And remember that in Segundo at least, we have someone who was playing these songs when the styles first became popular, in the 1920s. The music is, quite simply, hypnotic, but it’s the look on the faces of these old timers, whether wandering the streets of Havana talking about the old days or gazing up in wonder at the skyscrapers of Manhattan, that makes this film a must-see. Next to that Wenders’ interspersed footage from the concerts – one in Amsterdam, the other in New York – great though it is, struggles to compete.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The music
  • Wenders admits he was winging it. It worked
  • A powerful advertisement for the energising power of music
  • We will not see their like again

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Buena Vista Social Club – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Nadia Tolokkonikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyokhina of Pussy Riot

 

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

 

 

26 December

 

 

USSR formally dissolved, 1991

And suddenly, on this day in 1991, the Soviet Union suddenly simply ceased to exist. No nuclear bombing by the USA, no internal revolutionary rupture, it just shut up shop. The previous day President Mikhail Gorbachev had unfussily declared his office extinct and handed over the launch codes of the USSR’s nuclear weapons to Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia. It was the logical final step of the process of glasnost (literally: openness) and perestroika (restructuring) initiated by Gorbachev in 1985, which had led to the increase of nationalist movements in Warsaw Pact states. This led to the revolutions of 1989 and finally declarations of independence of states incorporated into the USSR, starting with Estonia in 1990. The leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus had met secretly on 8 December 1991 and signed the Belavezha Accords, which were an agreement to dissolve the USSR and replace it with a Commonwealth (the CIS). Within two weeks eight of the remaining nine of the USSR states had agreed to join the CIS. At which point the Soviet Union was effectively in existence in name only. Russia became the inheritor state of the USSR. The Cold War officially ended.

 

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013, dir: Mike Lerner, Maxim Pozdorovkin)

This documentary tells the story of the Pussy Riot women, who were sent to prison for making a noise in church. The noise they made was a punk song, with lyrics which denounced the connections that the established Russian Orthodox Church had with the state, and in particular Vladimir Putin. And the church they made the noise in was the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, a building which had been razed to the ground by Stalin, and whose rebuilding was seen, especially by believers, as one of the signs of the return of freedom to the former USSR. “They walked into Russia and took a shit,” says one angry babushka, protesting against the actions of the Rioters, whom this documentary clearly supports. Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin go into the story of the three who were caught and arrested, most notably of Nadia Tolokonnikova, the situationist artist who we see, at one art event, naked, pregnant and being fucked from behind. If this sort of thing raises the suggestion that the Rioters are getting some silly juvenile urges out of their system, the glimpses we see of them behind bars, eloquently stating their case in court, and refusing to repent, even though they know that it means prison, redresses the balance. Whether their protest was ultimately effective, or possibly even damaged the cause of liberalism in the former USSR is another question that co-directors Lerner and Pozdorovkin tackle with some skill. These young women, who yoked Spice Girls’ exuberance with deeply held misgivings about the way their country was going, are the product of the new era that Gorbachev hustled in – the youngest, Nadia, was born as the Iron Curtain came down. For a snapshot of a country trying to come to terms with what that epoch-changing event meant, and still not sure just how much it wants to embrace the West, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer makes a useful primer.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Meet the Pussy Rioters
  • A brief history of Russia since the USSR ended
  • It’s not afraid to tell the other side of the story
  • It has access to the people who matter

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Nowhere Boy

Aaron Taylor and Anne-Marie Duff in Nowhere Boy

 

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

 

 

8 December

 

 

John Lennon murdered, 1980

On this day in 1980, John Lennon was murdered by Mark Chapman outside the south entrance of the Dakota building, where Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, had had an apartment since 1973. Chapman shot Lennon four times in the back and Lennon probably died immediately. He was certainly dead by the time medics at the Roosevelt Hospital saw him. Lennon and Yoko Ono had been out for the evening, mixing a track from their forthcoming album. Lennon had the final mix of the track, Walking on Thin Ice, appropriately, in his hand when he was approached by Chapman for the second time that day. On the first occasion, as Lennon and Ono had gone out earlier, Lennon had obligingly signed a copy of Double Fantasy, his most recent album, for a silent Chapman, and asked him “is this all you want?” It wasn’t all Chapman wanted: he had been planning on killing Lennon for months, and later claimed it was Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, along with his songs Imagine and God, that had prompted him to do it. But considering that Lennon had made the “Jesus” remark in 1966, and released God and Imagine at the beginning of the 1970s, it seems likely that Chapman was looking for a rationale. The death was so shocking not just because Lennon had been among the most well known people on the planet, but because assassination was the sort of thing that happened to politicians, not pop stars. Lennon’s death inaugurated the era of celebrity stalking.

 

 

 

Nowhere Boy (2009, dir: Sam Taylor-Johnson)

Kicking off with the opening chord from A Hard Day’s Night, this film telling the Beatles origins story as a biopic of John Lennon marks the directorial debut of Sam Taylor-Wood, as she was then, and stars her future husband, Aaron Johnson, as John Lennon. Like fellow conceptual artist Steve McQueen, Taylor-Johnson shows herself to be a natural film-maker, and builds a film carefully and in an unshowy fashion, relying on well drawn characters and a solid script. She has a wealth of British acting talent to help her – Kristin Scott Thomas as Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, strict, socially aspiring and hard to like but a woman who loves her sister’s boy deeply; Anne-Marie Duff as his wayward mother Julia; and Johnson himself who is the best Lennon since Ian Hart had a go in 1994’s Backbeat. Catching the snap of Liverpudlian banter brilliantly, the film is equally good on Lennon’s charisma and his bullying, wheedling sarcasm. As the insolent rebel growing up in an age of deference, Johnson’s Lennon is sold as the embodiment of rock and roll, the new spirit blowing away the make-do-and-mend of the Second World War. The screenplay is by Matt Greenhalgh who’d done similar rock’n’roll duty two years earlier on Control, the Joy Division/New Order origins story as biopic of singer Ian Curtis. He’s as keen to examine the slightly incestuous feelings Lennon had for his mother (that line “Mother you had me, but I never had you” from the song Mother sounds like a bell when it plays on the soundtrack) as he is to burnish the legend. “Genius is pain” Lennon once said, by which he meant his own genius, and it is to the film’s credit that it takes that pain on but isn’t overwhelmed by it. This is no hagiography.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Aaron Johnson’s first lead role
  • The Goldfrapp soundtrack
  • 50 Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Wood’s directorial debut
  • The Beatles are not mentioned even once

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Nowhere Boy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Full Monty

The full monty moment approaches in The Full Monty

 

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

 

 

24 October

 

 

World’s first football club formed, 1857

On this day in 1857, Sheffield Football Club was founded, in Yorkshire, UK, as an offshoot of a local cricket club. It is now considered to be the oldest still existing football club in the world. Over the years there have been competing claims from different clubs and from different forms of football – though we’re talking here about a football club not the game itself (American football goes back to the 1860s though rugby, on which it is based, goes back centuries before that; Australian rules football goes back to the 1860s). Sheffield FC played according to its own “Sheffield Rules” (which have since become the basis for all soccer) and was originally a “wandering” team, playing games wherever it could, there being a distinct lack of football grounds, obviously, and cricket grounds being reluctant to allow 22 marauding players wreck their turf. Later, Sheffield FC played periodically at Sheffield United Cricket Club (United because it was home to six cricket clubs), though relations with a management more interested in cricket were never good and in 1875 the club vacated the ground for good. Moving on to various grounds over the years – including recently the Don Valley Stadium – it eventually moved to the Coach and Horses pub in neighbouring Dronfield in 2001, where it was finally the owner of its own ground. The ground has a capacity of 2,089 and is unassumingly named “The Home of Football” Stadium. Apart from having, in essence, created the modern game of football, Sheffield FC have not troubled the record books in any other significant way. Their last appearance in the FA Cup competition (open to all UK teams from professional Premier League clubs down to amateur village teams) was in the 1880s.

 

 

The Full Monty (1997, dir: Peter Cattaneo)

Written by Peter Beaufoy, a Yorkshire man who knew whereof he spoke, The Full Monty follows a gang of Sheffield guys, once employed in the town’s now dead steel industry, as they seek to take a leaf from the Chippendales and start a male stripping act – except our gang are prepared to go “the full monty” rather than leave the exact nature of their sexual endowment down to the imagination of watching females (our guys having nowhere to hide without the padded budgie smugglers). Robert Carlyle, still fresh in the memory as the suicidally aggressive Begbie from Trainspotting, is the affable ring leader, Tom Wilkinson is the former foreman to whom Carlyle (and fellow recruits Hugo Speer, Steve Huison, Paul Barber and Mark Addy) turn to for dance lessons. If you haven’t seen The Full Monty, and it is a really charming heartwarmer, you have certainly seen a film like it. Riding on the tail of Brassed Off and borrowing a touch from the lighter end of Ken Loach (see Raining Stones), and adding a dash of Ealing comedy, The Full Monty was part of a run of British comedies in which down-at-heel working class types would find renewed self-worth via the application of a wonder ingredient (brass bands in Brassed Off; gardening in Greenfingers; cannabis in Saving Grace; musicals in Lucky Break; posing naked in Calendar Girls; electricity pylons in Among Giants – hey, it takes all sorts). The formula wore thin, wore out, but no one cranking out the films seemed to notice. And a film like The Full Monty, tarred with the same brush as the wannabes, but essentially a Bruce Springsteen song made visual (socially aware, potentially maudlin, a great kick in the tail) has suffered as a result. It doesn’t deserve it.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Tom Wilkinson dancing
  • Feelgood that isn’t sickening
  • Great sight gags
  • C’mon, you’ve seen it

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Full Monty – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Sid and Nancy

Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy

 

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

 

 

12 October

 

 

Sid Vicious arrested, 1978

On this day in 1978, Sid Vicious, the former bassist with the punk rock band The Sex Pistols, was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. The two of them had been staying at the Chelsea Hotel. Vicious had woken up, groggy from a night of heroin-taking, to find his girlfriend dead from a knife wound. “I stabbed her but I never meant to kill her,” he later told police, though he also claimed that she had fallen onto the knife. Vicious, born John Simon Ritchie, was 21 and just over three months later he was dead himself, from a heroin overdose from drugs procured by his mother (and possibly administered by her too). Vicious wasn’t much of a bass player – in fact he’d not really played on the Sex Pistols’ album, Never Mind the Bollocks – but he was a fast learner (he picked up the bass one speed-fuelled night, using a Ramones album as tutor). And he had punk charisma. Until Spungen’s death he had been building a solo career, playing with members of The Clash, The Damned and the New York Dolls. Who knows whether he could have parlayed what he had into a durable career. Would he even have wanted to? He’d told a newspaper in 1977 “I’ll probably die by the time I reach 25. But I’ll have lived the way I wanted to.” If punk, according to the Sniffin’ Glue fanzine, “died the day the Clash signed to CBS” (25 January 1977), then Vicious’s death was the final nail in its coffin.

 

 

Sid and Nancy (1986, dir: Alex Cox)

A kind of punk Bonnie and Clyde, Sid and Nancy was director Alex Cox’s highly anticipated follow-up to his cult item Repo Man. It also marked the arrival of another cult item – Gary Oldman, playing Sid Vicious, all loose limbs and dangling sneer. As the title suggests, it focuses on the relationship between the doomed pair, using them as a key to understanding the whole punk thing. Lack of affect being one of its key hallmarks. No Future and No Feelings. This makes anything using punk as a springboard a hard sell, to be honest, and the big question to ask about Cox’s film is: just how much of a fan of punk was he? Does he see it as a moment of intense energy that was necessary and deliberately unlikeable? Or as a project that never really seized its moment? The same questions can be asked about Vicious – holy fool, or just fool? If Oldman is going for the former, Cox is skewing towards the latter, the director’s Vicious being a scenester more interested in the rock lifestyle than rock music. So when a groupie with a bag of heroin and an already developed habit turns up (Chloe Webb, whine turned up to 11, face set to bulldog), he’s hook, line and sinker. A punk film about punk characters, Sid and Nancy eschews heroism, romanticism, Hollywood boosting, it’s dark (cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins), bleak and probably overdoes the junk-injecting scenes. But it’s no advert for the drug lifestyle. In fact it’s probably as good a recruiting sergeant for the nine-to-five as there’s been in recent decades. They did it their way.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Gary Oldman in the first of his great roles
  • The great Roger Deakins is cinematographer
  • A soundtrack including the Clash, Pogues, Black Sabbath, Beethoven and KC and the Sunshine Band
  • Look out for Slash, Courtney Love, Iggy Pop

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

Sid and Nancy – at Amazon