Velvet Goldmine

Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Velvet Goldmine





In 1988 Todd Haynes made Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. In it he used Barbie and Ken dolls instead of actors to play out the tragic story of the singer with the golden voice whose anorexia eventually killed her off. Karen’s brother Richard Carpenter stamped it out of the record books, claiming Haynes didn’t have clearance to use the music. It has since resurfaced as an entry on imdb and pops up on youtube in various shitty resolutions.

Haynes is in pop-music territory again with Velvet Goldmine, moving Ewan McGregor and Jonathan Rhys Meyers into 20th-century-boy poses in a story about a newspaper reporter (Christian Bale) in 1984 doing a story on the high point of glam rock more than ten years before. In particular he’s on the hunt, Citizen Kane-style, for its prettiest star, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). As he digs, Bowie, Bolan, Bryan Ferry, Steve Harley, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed are all excavated from the mound of dicarded tinsel, though Haynes has learnt his lesson and no one is too identifiable – even though the film itself is named after a Bowie song recorded for the Ziggy Stardust sessions and left out of the finished album. It can’t be denied, the film does have its share of naffery, but then so did the 70s. It’s the good bits that make it worthwhile. They succeed in transporting the viewer to the “gorgeous, gorgeous time when we were all living our dreams” as one character puts it. The soundtrack is transportational too, reminding us of the project of so many 1970s glam acts to sound like camp extra-terrestrials – Ferry, Bowie, Eno, they were all at it. The film wasn’t exactly a smash hit on the big screen, probably because the death of dreams doesn’t make most people want to wet themselves with glee. It’s a film that tries hard, perhaps too hard. But at least it dares to try.


© Steve Morrissey 2013




Velvet Goldmine – Buy the book (no film available) it at Amazon 




Cream: Farewell Concert

Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton of Cream



You don’t see films about popular music stars of the 21st century on the big screen too often. Recently Katy Perry and Justin Bieber have managed it, and a few years back there was Dig! – about the rivalry between the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols – which almost qualifies. But the back end of the 1960s saw the beginning of a run of them, from 1969’s Monterey Pop film, then on to the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and Woodstock in 1970, before everyone – Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Led Zeppelin – got in on the act. Director Tony Palmer got in early and used his record of rock supergroup Cream’s last concert, originally conceived as a programme in the BBC’s arts strand Omnibus, to convince the world, in a slightly desperate and unnecessary manner, of the relevance of rock musicians (some of them were classically trained, you know).

Then rock was still new and exciting and frightened people. Now, with rock in the phase where it creatively recycles itself, as jazz does, it is a good time to look back on the moment when blues and psychedelia met and gave birth to the baby we’re still holding today. Then, stylish bassist Jack Bruce and crazed drummer Ginger Baker were every bit as well known as Eric Clapton. Now they’re footnotes and only Eric is remembered (though “White Room”, a Jack Bruce song, will survive long after the band members are all dust.) Consisting of the guys gigging at the Royal Albert Hall in November 1968, intercut with interviews backstage, it’s a direct link to the era when rock gigs were recorded with scant regard for sound quality, though the 2005 remaster does clean things up a lot and adds a few more songs. “Sunshine of Your Love” kicks things off, before the band run through a greatest hits set list including “Politician”, “I’m So Glad” and “Toad”, Baker’s steamtrain of a drum solo. There are only six songs in the original film (ten on the remaster) and from the way the band interact musically – they’re all at full stretch almost throughout, improvising like crazy – you’d never guess that Bruce and Baker in particular really didn’t get on. Connecting the whole thing together is a totally square voiceover by Patrick Allen (who refers to the band as “The Cream” throughout). And as for Palmer’s freak-out psychedelic camerawork – like wow, man.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Cream: Farewell Concert – at Amazon




Almost Famous

Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous



Almost Famous follows teenage Rolling Stone wannabe William Miller (Patrick Fugit) on his trek across America as he tries to get an interview with Stillwater, a band on the verge of making it. Abba: The Movie has the same plot, but it misses out on the groupies, including “band aid” Penny Lane (the perfect Kate Hudson), the drugs (when going out to dinner was a knife, fork and stomach-pump affair), and the passive-aggressive one-upmanship of cool (“So I boned your lady. You don’t own her, maaaan” etc). Given these elements, Almost Famous could easily have been Spinal Tap, but for director Cameron Crowe’s dribbly-nosed affection for the era and its music – Yes, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin – and it comes as no surprise to learn that Crowe himself was once a teenage Rolling Stone wannabe who trekked across America doing things 15 year olds probably aren’t mean to do.

Excellence abounds in this film – it’s probably Crowe’s best film, is certainly Hudson’s, marked a highwater mark for Crudup. And Frances McDormand gets one of those scenes – where as the concerned mother of the wandering scribe she delivers a down-the-wires homily/plea/threat – that regularly comes up on “best phone scenes” lists. They do exist. For those who were there, the evocation of the period is total, bringing onto the screen the age when the black velvet jacket, patchouli oil and Wrangler jeans were de rigueur, and when rock’n’roll bands lived like feudal lords, beneath the radar of tabloid journalists. And for those who weren’t it’s a quiet reminder that U2 are not the best rock’n’roll band in the world.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Almost Famous – at Amazon



The Last of the Blonde Bombshells

Judi Dench and Ian Holm



Fans of Eighties cult 1980s UK TV series The Beiderbecke Affair will know immediately what’s going on here. This ostensible “let’s put the band back together” drama is really just another opportunity for Alan Plater to resurrect the male/female comedy double act he brought to perfection back then with James Bolam and Barbara Flynn. Judi Dench and Ian Holm play the duelling duo this time out, she being the youngest member of a wartime “all-women” swing outfit, he being the drummer who had to cross-dress to keep the fiction alive. Sly old Plater also gets to indulge two other big passions. First, music of a jazzy, swingy sort – Basie and Ellington figure prominently. Second, slaughtering a sacred cow. Here he’s engaging with the boomer notion that sex began in 1963. Look, he says, forget The Beatles, Chuck Berry etc, the sexual big bang that rock’n’roll supposedly delivered actually happened in Britain during the second world war – when the national crisis trumped petty morality, the “hell, we could all be dead tomorrow” attitude wrote the licence and the blackout supplied the opportunity. It was, according to Plater’s screenplay, a sex and booze frenzy. Further joys of this bijou TV movie include getting to see actors doing things they aren’t associated with – Olympia Dukakis playing a trumpet. And Leslie Caron (yes, An American in Paris Leslie Caron) playing the bass. Grandma will love it, but broad church entertainment is what Plater’s all about, so there’s a good chance that the grandkids might too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


The Last of the Blonde Bombshells – at Amazon




Standing in the Shadows of Motown

bakers lg



Thanks to the postmodern turn of our retro-fixated culture, even teenagers today have heard of the great Tamla-Motown label. And playing on nearly every one of the 110 top ten hits coming out of Detroit between 1959 and 1972 were a loose collaboration of crack musicians called the Funk Brothers. They played on The Supremes “Baby Love”, Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, The Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” and Smokey Robinson’s “The Tears Of A Clown”. More hits, according to this film’s preamble, than the Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Elvis combined. And having done all that for Motown and having turned its owner into a very wealthy man, the Funk Brothers were rewarded by Motown boss Berry Gordy by being fired – via a notice pinned to the studio door. What Gordy didn’t realise was that that little note was also the company’s creative death warrant. Of course Motown has had hits since. But Boyz II Men and Erykah Badu? Against the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder? Pardon the snorts. Paul Justman’s fine documentary has two distinct strands – the guys, those still living anyway, remembering how it was back in the day when Motown produced music 22 hours a day and when an orchestra-sized musical unit would cram into an old garage and lay down “the sound of young America”. Then there’s the modern update, with the survivors playing a reunion concert alongside the likes of guest vocalists Montell Jordan, Chaka Khan and Meshell Ndegeocello. The singers are, you know, OK, but it’s that mighty mighty sound that this film’s about. And when the Funk Brothers kick into its opening bars and “What Becomes Of The Broken Hearted” starts boom-cha-booming at you in Dolby Surround, don’t be surprised if the hairs on your neck stand up, lay down, then start a Mexican wave to the beat.

© Steve Morrissey 2007


Standing in the Shadows of Motown – at Amazon




Spike Island

The cast of Spike Island

There is a great film to be made about the whole Madchester/Stone Roses/Acieed moment of the late 1980s but Spike Island isn’t it. Fun but messy might be a fair way to assess it. Fatally flawed might be another.

This is a film clearly going for epic. It wants to be the Apocalypse Now of a particular youthquake, with a basic “journey” structure – four lads in a wannabe band are trying to get to Spike Island, scene of the Stone Roses’ most famous gig, a night that defined/ended an era. Onto this is grafted the story of the band itself, its attempts to record a demo, get it to the Stone Roses, maybe get a record deal. And springing off that we have the story of Tits (Elliott Tittensor), I kid you not, the band’s lead singer/leader, a supposedly charismatic teenager, a gob on a stick. And hanging off that story we have this guy’s coming to terms with the fact that his dad is dying. Plus his attempt to get off with a local hottie, Sally (Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones fame). And his strained relations with his flaky brother. And I didn’t mention the rivalry with a bigger local band (whose lead singer, played by Being Human’s Michael Socha, is clearly aping Liam Gallagher and is very funny).

Emilia Clarke and Elliott Tittensor
Emilia Clarke and Elliott Tittensor

A lorra lorra plot then. Flavour is this film’s real strong suit. It’s got loads of it, and whenever the camera wanders away from the underwritten Unfab Four, things really kick into life. Scenes set in pubs, outside the perimeter fence at Spike Island, among peripheral characters, who have names like Dave Famous, Keith Teeth and Uncle Hairy, all crackle with the sort of electricity that only those who were really there, who still walk with feet at ten to two, can provide.

Most notable of these is a great scene where the lads arrive at the gate to the gig and try to get the bouncers to let them in. It’s fast, it’s funny, it’s full of banter and the two guys who play the Scouse bouncers (Jake Abrahams is one, I think, and if anyone can help with the other…) give a glimpse of what this film could and should have been – lively, lairy, mad for it.

Had Hollywood got hold of this, for sure it would have squeezed some of the juice and swagger out of it, and it probably would have added subtitles for key moments of unintelligible Mancunian banter, but it would also have insisted on a rewrite to correct a severe plot problem. The film keeps telling us that this story’s hero is Tits. In fact it’s the other guy, the band’s songsmith Dodge (Nico Mirallegro), a shy musical obsessive with a secret passion for the lovely Sally. It’s Dodge’s story that this film should be telling. And it looks as if writer Chris Coghill realised it halfway through shooting. Hence that strange scene once everyone is on Spike Island with their heroes still out of reach where Dodge’s hitherto blameless character is besmirched and he is effectively banished from the action. Wha?

It’s tasty, but there’s nothing in the centre of this donut of a movie. For people who were there, who are now more cheese and bics than E’s and whizz, Spike Island will ding a few dongs, raise a few smiles, lift hairs on the arm as the Roses soundtrack takes them trippily back in time. As for everyone else, those great one-liners, delivered in that flat Manc deadpan, probably won’t be quite enough.

Spike Island – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012

Spike Island – at Amazon