Monthly Archives: July 2015

On A Mission From God – Music In Film (Part III)

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Cabaret (Bob Fosse 1972) is a great film and is the vehicle for the defining role of Liza Minnelli’s career. Minnelli is Sally Bowles as she works the stage of the Kit Kat Klub in the Berlin of 1931. The Weimar Republic is shortly to give way to the rising wave of National Socialism but Sally is largely indifferent to all of that. Sally has given her heart to the Kit Kat Klub and her relationships with the audience, her fellow troupers and her lovers have the appearance of warmth, of intimacy – but are only theatrical. She is the film’s decadent heart.

Fosse’s direction of the actors and the action creates a supple ease to accommodate the now familiar juxtaposition of Nazi ‘purity’ and an amoral society. The extraordinary set pieces build to a performance of the title song at the finale which echoes the nihilism and desperation not only of Sally’s soul, but of nations about to experience the most profound tragedy of modern history.
‘Cabaret’ is that most difficult of things; a downbeat musical masterpiece.

 

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9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom 2004) is a plain film. At the time of its release it was considered controversial due to its frequent bouts of unsimulated sex, including an actual male orgasm. It earned the twin signposts of mediocre critique – ‘notorious‘ and ‘pretentious’. It is neither.
The story follows the year-long relationship between a young Brit, Matt, and an American student, Lisa, in and around London. They share a liking for live music and go to gigs at the Brixton Academy and elsewhere where they see bands such as Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Franz Ferdinand.
I could describe Winterbottom’s direction of the sex scenes as being sensitive and I might make a case for them as being somehow metaphorical. But the truth is that, for me at least, such scenes are like a trip to the circus; once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. I’d be more inclined to parley a sort of Benny Hill connection between these scenes and the director’s surname, complete with raised eyebrow and lecherous leer. That would, at least, alleviate a plainness matched only by the Norfolk Broads.

 

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Taking Sides (István Szabó  2001) was always earmarked to be the concluding piece in this series. It is undoubtedly flawed – but it strives to encompass important aspects of the human condition;  moral obligation, both personal and national loyalty and the role of art, and artists. We are asked if the aesthetic should be above the political – so the title is as much an invitation as it is a statement of intent. It’s make your mind up time, folks.
The story, as best as I can tell, is a true one. Wilhelm Furtwangler, played by Stellan Skarsgard,  is the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as WWII begins. He elects to stay in Germany even though he is encouraged by friends to leave and even though other notable musicians, such as Otto Klemperer, have fled. Once the war is over, the Allies establish De-Nazification Tribunals to determine the extent to which prominent German citizens ‘collaborated’ with Hitler’s regime. Furtwangler’s interrogator is Major Steve Arnold, played by Harvey Keitel.
What follows is complex and we may place differing constructions on what we see and hear. Arnold is brutish and unsympathetic toward his prisoner, treating him and his rationalisations with scorn. An angry idiot torturing a genius because of his genius? Or a skilled investigator determined to unravel the dissembling of a closet Nazi? Furtwangler argues that his loyalty was to his music, his orchestra and his nation; that art is always above politics and that he never joined the Nazi Party. Arnold asks him, ‘Why, then , did you play at Hitler’s birthday party?‘ And so on.
There are several junctures in this story where you may feel that you have reached an understanding of the actions and motivations of Furtwangler and slip comfortably into the guise of moral arbiter and reach a decision. But István Szabó has second-guessed you if you have. He produces some newsreel footage at the conclusion of this film which will most likely confound you. Which was probably his purpose all along.

Author’s note  That concludes this series and I do hope that you’ve found something enjoyable, maybe something to take further. I will write about some music documentaries, live concert movies and soundtracks soon. I do appreciate feedback, whatever it is, so feel free to drop a coin in the hat marked Comments below.

Closing Trivia The movie ‘All Night Long’ (Basil Dearden 1962)  was an updated version of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ set in the 60s London Jazz scene. Patrick McGoohan is ambitious drummer, Johnnie Cousin, playing Iago to Paul Harris’ Othello, bandleader, Aurelius Rex.
Patrick McGoohan‘s character, Johnny Cousin,  uses the phrase “Be seeing you” when he says goodbye to the road manager, Berger, towards the end of the movie. This is a commonly heard phrase in The Prisoner (1967), The Prisoner (2009), and was also one of McGoohan’s catchphrases in Danger Man (1960) and Danger Man (1964) .

 

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On a Mission From God – Music In Film (Part II)

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Amadeus (Miloš Forman 1984) was adapted for the screen by Peter Shaffer from his own play. The largely fictional story of a rivalry between Mozart and Vienna court composer, Salieri, takes its inspiration from an 1830 play, Mozart and Salieri, by Pushkin and the subsequent opera of the same name by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The film sets out two principal themes; the process of artistic creation and the excellent being the enemy of the good. Mozart and Salieri are devices to these ends. Moviegoers hoping for accuracy and truth will be disappointed. This is a movie, not a history lesson. Genius is God-given. Nothing to do with the gene pool. Mozart was as much on a mission from God as Jake and Elwood Blues.
I still find Tom Hulce’s turn in the title role to be affecting as it moves between the poles of behaviour. In the final scenes, a dying Mozart dictates the Requiem Mass in D minor to Salieri who transcribes the score. Genius and mediocrity resolved in tragic union. The essence of great cinema, it seems to me.

 

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Song of Summer (Ken Russell/BBC 1968) is a black and white film made for the Omnibus series on BBC television. Its subject is the final 6 years of the life of composer Frederick Delius and his relationship with Eric Fenby, a young composer who offers to transcribe Delius’ work as Delius is blind and partially paralysed.
This film is part of a body of work that Ken Russell did for the BBC in the 60s. He wanted to redefine the biopic – dispense with the clichés, the blandness and create detail and realism. In this he is aided by a brilliant cast, particularly Max Adrian as Delius. Just as ‘Amadeus’ argues the dichotomy of brilliance and mediocrity, so ‘Song of Summer’ argues the conflict between Delius’ lyrical, haunting music and his tyrannical, vexatious nature. (Although some scholars argue that this ‘disposition’ was largely due to Delius being in the tertiary stages of syphilis) In any event, this film stands as an extraordinary testament to Ken Russell’s own genius – which dissipated significantly in his later years.

 

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Round Midnight (Bertrand Tavernier 1986) is set in 50s Paris and tells the story of sax player Dale Turner, played by Dexter Gordon. As with the two movies above, the story concerns itself, primarily, with a relationship –  as Dale is befriended by Francis, a poster designer, who idolises Dale and sets about rescuing him from alcoholism.
Dale’s character in the film is a composite of jazz musicians, Bud Powell and Lester Young. Powell had been befriended, in 50s Paris, by young writer, Francis Paudras,  on whose memoir, ‘Dance of the Infidels’, this film is based. The authentic locations, Herbie Hancock’s score, the appearance of several top jazz musicians, including Hancock, and Gordon’s central performance all combine to create the beautiful fragility of a life played out to a jazz score. A lovely film.

 

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Bound for Glory (Hal Ashby 1976) tells Woody Guthrie’s story as he emerges from Oklahoma into mid-30s depression America and in particular, the  California of the dust bowl refugees. As Woody travels the land, hitching and box car riding, he writes and plays his music.
The movie looks and feels authentic. Ashby’s attention to period detail is winning and Garrett Brown’s Steadicam, the first time his invention was used in a movie, gives David Carradine as Guthrie –  and the ever-present panoramic scapes – real presence. But it’s all very earnest, very calculated. You want Carradine’s rictus to break into a toothy smile. I’m sure Woody had a sense of humour but Carradine plays him as if the sheer weight of becoming the national troubadour was breaking his back. But 70s movies were often a bit like that, I suppose.
When I first saw this film in the 70s, I remember thinking that ‘This Land is Our Land’ would make a much better National Anthem than the ghastly incumbent. I still hold to that view.

Well, I’ll take another break and return with the final part shortly.

Closing Trivia; When he lived in Denmark, Dexter Gordon, star of ‘Round Midnight’ became friends with the family of the future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and subsequently became Lars’s godfather.

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On A Mission From God – Music In Film (Part 1)

I thought I’d write about music in movies, starting with some feature films that use stories about music or musicians. Not necessarily greats or favourites but movies, that for one reason or another, interest me – and hopefully you.
I’ll follow up in further blogs with some documentaries or concert movies. I might also discuss soundtracks as well.

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The Blues Brothers (John Landis 1980) could well be sub-titled ‘Nothing Exceeds Like Excess’. This one is a favourite and always has been. I love its anarchy, its energy, its lack of discrimination and its music. The idea of two habitual criminals on an Arthurian mission to reform their band and, in that cause, destroying a shopping mall, untold numbers of police cars, a tenement building, an Illinois Nazi rally and anything else that comes to hand, is too glorious to miss. I do hope that Landis wilfully overspent the budget rather than simply mismanaged. I like to think that he brought ‘the method’ to direction and his own excesses resonated within the movie. As Richard Corliss wrote in Time; “The Blues Brothers is a demolition symphony that works with the cold efficiency of a Moog synthesizer gone sadistic“.
The music is memorable. I played in a band that did a Blues Brothers night at the Stokes Valley Cosmopolitan Club some years ago. I brought along my pork pie hat and Bill Bass sunnies and we did Time is Tight, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, Boom Boom and the rest. A great gig, everybody up dancing and singing along.
‘Your women. I want to buy your women. The little girl, your daughters… sell them to me. Sell me your children!’

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The Man With The Golden Arm (Otto Preminger 1955) was a landmark film both thematically and historically. The movie’s central character, Frankie Machine, played by Frank Sinatra, is a jazz drummer heroin addict who gets clean doing time but struggles to stay that way when released.
Once completed, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) refused to certificate the film because it portrayed drug addiction and breached the Hollywood Production Code. But Preminger insisted that drug addiction should not be marginalised by the film industry and that such stories, if well told, had artistic merit. He won the day, the Code was changed and the picture granted a certificate, thus paving the way for further examination of other previously taboo subjects such as prostitution and abortion.
Elmer Bernstein wrote the distinctive main theme and it’s played by Shorty Rogers and his Giants – Shelly Manne on drums –  as is the rest of the music.

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Control (Anton Corbijn 2007) is the director’s film debut. He had worked as a photographer with Joy Division and so knew them and the movie’s subject, frontman Ian Curtis. Also involved in the production were Curtis’ widow, Deborah, Tony Wilson, the owner of Factory Records, and band members, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Stephen Morris. The result, I believe, is a moving, accurate portrayal of a unique musician.
This is not the music of my youth, I have to say. But this band, and Ian Curtis in particular, had a lasting effect on my musical sensibility. The power of their search for articulation, the hampered poesy and the instant mythology occasioned by Curtis’ suicide are more than just suggested by this account. ‘Control’ is an intimate study of pain and the creative instinct.

I think that I’ll make this a two-part blog and write about a few more movies in the next couple of days.
Closing trivia; ‘Still Crazy’ (Brian Gibson 1998) is a decent comedy about a fictional 70s band, ‘Strange Fruit’ that reforms some 20 years after its break up. Appearing in the film, tellingly, is Bruce Robinson, director of the legendary ‘Withnail and I’ (1987). There’s not a lot of people know that.

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A Very British Music

What kind of fool am I that sits on a hill?
Well well well, I won’t get fooled again
Shattered as I am, I’ll pick up the pieces
Because I’d like to spend my life
With a girl like you
Lola

Baby please don’t go into the mystic
Baby come back
To your little tin soldier
Your man of the world
Yeah, yeah – walk right back
Alison

I’ve never known a girl like you before
You are so beautiful to me
How do you do what you do to me?
I, who have nothing
But a ticket to ride on the carousel, the roundabout
Ruby Tuesday

I’m a hog for you babe
I’m a gnu, a g-nother gnu
And I love my dog more than I love you
When that albatross flies
All around my hat
Jean genie

Over bridge of sighs
To rest my eyes
With a head full of snow
The L.S. bumble bee and the hurdy gurdy man
Would love to turn you on
Lucy

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Rimbaud/Rambo Homophone Blues

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Gracious son of Pan! Around your forehead
crowned with flowerets
and with laurel, restlessly roll
those precious balls, your eyes.

Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off! It wasn’t my war! You asked me, I didn’t ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn’t let us win! And I come back to the world and I see all those maggots at the airport, protesting me, spitting. Calling me baby killer and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to protest me? Who are they? Unless they’ve been me and been there and know what the hell they’re yelling about!

Spotted with brown lees, your cheeks are hollow.
Your fangs gleam. Your breast is like a lyre,
tinklings circulate through your pale arms.

For you! For me civilian life is nothing! In the field we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there’s nothing

Your heart beats in that belly where sleeps the double sex.
Walk through the night, gently moving that thigh,
that second thigh, and that left leg.

Back there I could fly a gunship, I could drive a tank, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can’t even hold a job parking cars!

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Author’s Note
It occurred to me that we pronounce the names Rimbaud and Rambo pretty much the same way – and I was tickled by the incongruity of the connection. I have folded Rimbaud’s poem ‘Antique’ in with Rambo’s lament from the movie ‘First Blood’ and I found that the synthesis produces an eerie integrity.

Class Act

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I’ve been watching a few movies at home just recently. A bit of a mixed bag but amongst them, ‘Carlito’s Way’.  (Brian De Palma 1993) I like to think that most people would agree that this is a very fine piece of film making. Al Pacino and Sean Penn play the leads, Carlito Brigante and Dave Kleinfeld. The action takes place in New York’s Spanish Harlem during 1975. Brigante has been released from prison after 5 years of a 30 year term because Kleinfeld, his lawyer, has discovered some technical deficiencies in the original case against him. As we are shown the film’s conclusion right at the beginning of the narrative, we are left in no doubt how it will all end for Carlito.

There’s much skill required from the director and scriptwriter to tell a story this way and still keep the audience wholly involved throughout the film – which is nearly 2 and a half hours by the way. And the direction and script are brilliant. But there’s more to it than that.
What Pacino and Penn bring to the screen is a sense of their characters’ history – their ontological existence if you like. Brigante and Kleinfeld existed before you sat down to watch the movie. What is happening to them now has its origins in the past and the way they have led their lives –  the decisions they have made. These actors have to find a way to convey the full extent of that past and how it impacts on the present in order for us, the audience, to agree to the compact with the film’s makers and suspend disbelief while the story unfolds. Pacino and Penn achieve this brilliantly. Their characters are transparent to us. The actors place nothing between themselves and the audience. Nothing is told but all is revealed. There is art but no artifice.
So we are in safe hands here. We can allow our critical faculties to take a break and use them later to engage with what we’ve seen and heard.

When I see acting of this quality, though, it brings into sharp relief, for me at least, the different types – or styles – of contributions that are made up there on the screen. Not everyone’s an actor. Not everyone can act. And quite often it’s not really necessary that they do. Some perform. And some just do impersonations or impressions of the characters they’ve been asked to play.

For instance, I think that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a performer, not an actor. And that’s okay. The films that he makes are vehicles for his particular talents and his on-screen presence. Hard to imagine ‘The Terminator’ being anyone but Arnie, isn’t it? It’s a matter of degree with performing though. Arnie’s right at the top of that list but there are hundreds of performers who tilt their lance at the windmill of acting. Amongst these notables I count Laurence Olivier, who never, in my experience, was able to impart a sense of an inner life to any of his characters. He seemed to me always to be an empty vessel perpetually in character but with no personal stake in the role. The Peter Sellers of tragedians, far exceeded in talent and capability by Gielgud, Richardson and Scofield from that generation.

Then there are the impersonators. Those who have a trick bag full of affectations, ticks, twitches, half-smiles and phony accents to gull the movie-going audience into believing the sincerity of their impersonation of a character. Meryl Streep is top of that list. From Lindy Chamberlain to Margaret Thatcher, Streep has cobbled together a battery of mannerisms and expressions that have made her utterly unwatchable for me since ‘Kramer vs Kramer’. John Malkovich and Philip Seymour Hoffman are equally as annoying and tiresome. All of these simply cannot stop acting. Their presence is eternally informed by their duty to acting. If they say one thing to me it is, ‘Look at me, Look at me. I’m an actor. I’m acting now.’ They make me want to reach for something with Gene Hackman or Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Lange or Brendan Gleeson. Something like ‘Carlito’s Way’.

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I Can’t Believe He Just Said That – A Very Short Story

This story is dedicated to my friend, Colin Coke, the artist and Son of Cornwall, who shares with me a fondness for such confections.

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In late 1701, Archibald Campbell, the recently created 1st Duke of Argyll, was dealing with a rather tricky family problem. Archibald had handily switched allegiance from James II to William of Orange a few years earlier and was now the King’s principal advisor on all things Scottish. He had made a brilliant marriage with Elizabeth Tollemache, daughter of a Baronet, and together they had three children, the eldest of whom, John, was the source of their concern.

John had celebrated his 21st birthday in October 1701 and had set about earning the reputation of a profligate with imagination and vigour. He had become a regular patron of the fashionable gaming tables of Edinburgh and in short order had racked up debts in excess of 10,000 guineas – a small fortune at that time. Most of the markers held against this debt were in the possession of James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton, Scotland’s first peer and a bitter rival of the Argylls. John swore to his father that Hamilton was a practiced card sharp, particularly at Quinze, an early form of ’21’, and produced witnesses to back up his version of events.

This placed Argyll in a cleft stick. He was angry with John but had to support him. But he didn’t want to be indebted to Hamilton who he loathed and with whom he was battling for the favour of the King. What to do? His first recourse was to the powerful Morton family to act as honest brokers and see if a settlement could be negotiated. Hamilton rejected this approach out of hand and let it be known around the court that the Argylls were near bankruptcy and keeping ‘dubious company’. In so doing, Hamilton unwittingly provided his enemy with the inspiration he needed.

The Argyll family had long been rumoured as being adherents to ‘the old religion’ and it was this practice that Hamilton had hinted at. Archibald, seeing an opportunity to resolve both his son’s debt and his rivalry with Hamilton sent his factor, James Donald, to find the woman known locally as Hecate, a disciple of the witch, Jane Wenham, to see what might be done.

A week later Argyll met with Hamilton, ostensibly to negotiate, but quickly left the meeting with a handkerchief he had spirited away from his adversary. The handkerchief was taken by Donald to Hecate. In the weeks that followed, James Hamilton fell into a deep and melancholy malaise and did not venture from his bed. His family talked of visitations each night from ‘demons and faeries’ that railed and shrieked at Hamilton and accused him of ‘corrupting innocent youth’ in the cause of ambition. No treatment or hiding place could halt the spectral appearances. Finally, the rapidly wasting Duke, heeding the advice of his priest, relinquished all debts owing to him, including those owed by John, and miraculously it seemed, began to recover his health.

Of course, the kinsmen, servants and supporters of both the parties would gather in the inns and gossip about these events and the likely causes of James Hamilton’s ‘possession’, epiphany and subsequent recovery. There was much talk, too, of Archibald Campbell’s dalliance with ‘the horned one’ and his use of the black arts to free his son from debt. And that speculation reverberates even today in the Highlands where you may still hear the  adage that ‘Demons are Argyll’s best friend.’

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