Category Archives: Film

A King’s Gotta Do What A King’s Gotta Do – Henry V – A Review


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.’
King Henry V has these thoughts on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt in October, 1415. He leads an English army, depleted by sickness and weary from hard campaigning in France. He wants to march on to Calais and safety but the much larger, better equipped French army has been shadowing him and is shaping for a battle. Henry has told the French herald that he is in no condition for a battle and would prefer to avoid one. But he adds, that if battle is offered by the French, then he will accept the challenge.
The challenge for director, Thea Sharrock and her Henry, Tom Hiddleston, is how to play Henry. This production is the final play in the series The Hollow Crown and many of the actors, including Hiddleston, have been carried over from the two Henry IV plays. So we’ve seen Prince Hal making his bones, shedding his profligate ways and assuming the mantle of kingship. We know he’s canny, shrewd. A prince who feigned at a dissolute character in order to seem all the more appealing when he shows his true colours as king.
For many, the two most well-remembered  portrayals of Henry on film are Laurence Olivier’s war hero (1944) and Kenneth Branagh’s ruling class hooray henry on a day trip to France to see what booty may be had. (1989) Hiddleston chooses a different path. We sense a diffidence about him. His key speeches at both Harfleur and Agincourt are personal, intimate – made to small groups and individuals. Not on a white charger, splendid in golden armour. It’s almost as if this monarch is already wearying of the rhetoric he’s fated to deploy. The gestures, the costumes, the action all seem just a little jaded; ‘I’ve got to do this, you know. Reclaim my birth right. Finish the unfinished business here in France. But it is a bloody business, so it is,’ seems to me to be the sub-text.
I suppose this approach might explain the absence of so many scenes that usually appear in this play; Canterbury’s detailed explanation to Henry of how the French have employed the principles of Salic Law to deny the English claim to the French throne; The plot against Henry at Southampton before embarking for France; The French nobility bragging about their prowess and likely victories on the eve of the battle and, most perplexing of all, the slaughter, by the French, of the English boys guarding the baggage train at Agincourt – particularly as Henry still delivers his ‘I was not angry since I came to France until this instant.’ response. This omission also places a quite different interpretation on Henry’s order to kill the French prisoners, the baggage train incident usually being seen as a justification for a reprisal. But this and the other changes all serve to create the idea of a pragmatic, canny king who is all too aware of his historical obligations and perhaps just the slightest bit contemptuous of them.
I should add that adopting this, I suppose, more cerebral approach, utterly compromises the two scenes which feature Princess Katherine (Mélanie Thierry), the daughter of the French king, Charles VI, to whom Henry becomes engaged. Usually serving as light relief from the bloody business of war and a handy way to reach détente, in this production, these scenes become almost incongruous, charming not sitting easily alongside quotidian but necessary violence.
So, yes, a masculine Henry. But a Henry caught in a time of unease both at home and abroad. A Henry keenly aware of his obligations to history and his country but wary of the weight of those obligations. I liked this Henry. The portrayal is flawed. But I liked it none the less.

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Author’s Note
; The BBC have set down a tentative date of 2016 for screening of the second part of The Hollow Crown, comprising Henry VI, parts I, II and III as well as Richard III, thus completing the full cycle of the ‘history plays’ encompassing The Wars of the Roses. It’s worth noting that the Princess Katherine mentioned above was Katherine de Valois. After Henry’s death, she married Owen Tudor and it was their grandson, Henry Tudor, who defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field and was crowned Henry VII.

War and Honour – Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 – A Review


‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay Him before His day. What need I be so forward with Him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter. Honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism.’

These words are spoken by Sir John Falstaff at the commencement of the Battle Of Shrewsbury. The troubled king, Henry IV (Jeremy Irons), is about to take on the Percys of Northumberland and their allies in the latest rebellion against Plantagenet rule.
Director, Richard Eyre, has constructed an intimate account of the making of a king, Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston), by having him act as the pivot between two contrasting worlds; the royal court at Westminster and The Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap. And everyone we meet seems to have a point of view about honour. Falstaff, Hal’s drinking companion, sees it as a worthless label – ‘a mere scutcheon’. The king is troubled by his own lack of honour, having deposed another king who ruled by divine right. And Hotspur, the rebel, is consumed by the quest for honour – so much so that his judgement is blinded by it at a crucial time. This production has Hal weaving his way through the machinations of his father, the king, the boastful and self-serving posturings of Falstaff and the noble, but rash, actions of his adversary, Hotspur. By the conclusion of Part II, Prince Hal is ready to become Henry V, the product of his own tutorial.
A brilliant cast bring Shakespeare’s play to the screen, making the text – and therefore the ideas – accessible in a way that creates a new standard I believe. Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff brings  a rhythm, a cadence to Falstaff’s lines that open up his character, make him transparent – not only to Hal but us, the audience, as well. The argot of Eastcheap is a hip hop away from rapping in the ‘hood. Shakespeare wrote for the pit and everyone connected to this production plays it that way. I mentioned in my earlier review of Richard II, the first in this series of  The Hollow Crown, the sense of visual narrative allied to a deep knowledge of Shakespeare that had created an organic account of history in the making. This splendid production has built on that fine beginning to bring us an intriguing and satisfying account of the making of a king.


Five Films That Stay With Me


Alan Stuart is a sometime musician, writer and critic who lives in Wellington with his wife, Pat, and George the Wonder Dog. His ramblings and miscellanies may be found at Wise Blood.

There are a bunch of strange ideas going on in The Last Sunset (Robert Aldrich 1961) At least they seemed odd to my 14 year old sensibility. The main character, Brendan O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) crosses the border into Mexico because he’s on the run and wanted for murder in the US.  Now that’s badly wrong for starters. How can Kirk Douglas be wanted for murder? No way.


I mean, look at that face. I was fascinated by the guy. Not tall, Not dark. Not handsome. But the camera loved him and so did I.
Brendan arrives at the ranch of a former lover, Belle (Dorothy Malone) and her husband John (Joseph Cotton) and this is where it starts to get really complicated. The sheriff (Rock Hudson) pursuing Brendan turns up and the two men agree to take a herd of cattle back to Texas, yeah Texas, for the ranchers, whose surname is – wait for it – Breckenridge. They have a daughter. No, not Myra, Melissa (Carol Lynley).  Melissa reminds Brendan of the young Belle and guess what? Yep. They’re soon petting on the front porch. Well, that September/April thing is always a bit iffy but when Belle reveals that ‘Missy’ is Brendan’s daughter, I was unable to get out of my seat to refresh my Kia Ora orange juice. So, it all ends up in a gunfight of course and Kirk deliberately doesn’t load his gun so it’s kinda suicide –  a penance for carrying on like a member of the British aristocracy I suppose.
I was pretty upset by all of this and no one really wanted to talk to me about murder, incest and suicide when I got home –  so it just all kinda sat there. Stayed with me.

I don’t quite know how anybody would ever be able to get Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder 1959) out of their mind. Quite possibly the best comedy ever made and in many top 10s drawn from all genres and languages.


Casting Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as two musicians on the lam from the Chicago mob in prohibition America is inspired. Having them cross-dress in order to join Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators is a stroke of genius we can attribute to Wilder and co-writer, I A L Diamond. The plot will, by now, be familiar to most readers; the ‘boys’ meeting  Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), the train trip to Florida, the French farce romancing, the run in with Spats Colombo (George Raft) and his gangsters, the denouement and Joe E Brown’s best ever pay-off line.
The miracle of this movie, though, is how its central premise of men dressed as women never wanders into anything questionable. There are numerous opportunities where that could happen but sure-footed direction and playing ensure the laughs are never gained cheaply. I saw the movie with my father when it was first released. I’ve never forgotten how the magic sparkled off the screen that night.


In truth, I could select almost any film by Alain Resnais for this article. His ideas about the creative process and the human condition send out grappling hooks that may not be easily dislodged. I have chosen ‘Providence’  because I have only seen it the once, when it was released in 1977, and have been unable to track down a VHS or DVD, so I might lay its ghosts.


There’s been an awful lot printed and said about this film and its influence and significance on what followed. I do have a point of view but that’s not what I’m here for. David Mercer’s script, Miklós Rózsa’s evocative score and Resnais’ direction of his brilliant cast (Dirk Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn, John Gielgud, David Warner and Elaine Stritch) under the swirling lens of Ricardo Aronovich, conspire in space and time to achieve a dizzying treatise for mind and heart. Are those near to us a sort of construct, there to channel our artistic obligations into abstract but parallel creations? Heady stuff. I have to see it again.


‘To our Television Audience: In the aftermath of violence, the distinction between hero and villain is sometimes a matter of interpretation or misinterpretation of facts. “Taxi Driver” suggests that tragic errors can be made’. The Filmmakers.


The disclaimer shown at the conclusion of Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976) when it was shown on US television was unexplained. Maybe John Hinckley Jr provided an explanation when he tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981. Sporting a Mohican haircut and a fixation for Jody Foster, maybe he thought he was Travis Bickle. But he wasn’t. Robert De Niro was Travis Bickle. Is Travis Bickle. And Travis Bickle is Robert De Niro. They are indistinguishable. I cannot tell them apart.
De Niro, like Charon, ferrying his passengers across the Styx and the Acheron into New York’s Hell. Travis, wanting a big rain to come and wash all the scum off the streets. De Niro, sidling up to the Secret Service agent with that crazy, mock self-assurance. Travis telling Sport, ‘Suck on this’. Alienation and suffering. Travis is the American experience. I don’t think he dies in the shoot-out either. He survives; becomes Willard and kills Kurtz in Cambodia. Travis lives. He’s here now.


I’m including a New Zealand film, In Spring One Plants Alone (Vincent Ward 1980) because more than anything I’ve seen, more than Tony Fomison’s paintings perhaps, it opens up a kind of limbic channel into our pre-history.


The true story is of an elderly Tuhoe woman caring for her mentally ill son in the Uruweras. The rituals and small details of their isolated existence provide the narrative. Leon Narbey and Alun Bollinger ask their cameras to be still; to allow their subjects to wander into frame. Jack Body’s spartan music serves only to underscore the loneliness, the tragic beauty of lives far removed from our own. The only one of the five that I will properly describe as haunting.




When Plantagenets Fall Out – Richard II – A Review

The Hollow Crown


For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchise, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!

These lines from Act III of Richard II have been chosen by director, Rupert Goold, to also serve as a prologue to BBC Television’s 2012 production of  William Shakespeare’s play. This production is the first of three TV films under the title, The Hollow Crown, also taking in Henry IV parts I & II as well as Henry V. Richard speaks these words on a Welsh beach as he arrives back from campaigning in Ireland to learn that his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, has returned from exile to reclaim the estates, taken from him earlier by the king.
This beginning, and the style of what follows, evidence an approach that places Richard in a historical flow. He doesn’t just materialise at the beginning of Act I. He’s been king since he was 10 years old. He has ridden out to put down The Peasants Revolt when not yet 16. He has ridden out the attempts of the Lords Appellant to take control of government. And in 1398, in his 32nd year, when the play commences, he is confident in his empowerment by the divine right of kings. Yet the prologue tells us that history, like justice, is blind. It tells us that a king’s divine right may be challenged if that right is not tempered by care and charity. Indeed, the warning is echoed by Richard’s successor, Bolingbroke, as Henry IV, when he reflects, ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’ And he should know.
So Shakespeare understood then that what happened between Richard and Bolingbroke at the conclusion of the 14th century would reverberate on English, British and European history – not just through the ensuing Wars of the Roses –  but far beyond that. And the Bard of Avon is wonderfully well assisted in bringing this least-produced of the ‘history plays’ to the screen by director, Rupert Goold and co-producer, Sam Mendes. Goold’s knowledge and working experience of Shakespeare and Mendes’ feel for visual narrative combine to achieve a compelling, organic account of how history is made by two men – not myths – but men whose very polarity obliges them to collide. Ben Whishaw as Richard, portrays a monarch grown disinterested by his power. When his uncle, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) dies, Richard, already having mocked the dying man, confiscates his estates and possessions to bolster his failing exchequer. Gaunt’s son, Bolingbroke, is banished and disinherited.
What Richard does appear to be concerned with though, is developing a martyrdom complex. He appears frequently in flowing, white robes and makes extravagant gestures to the heavens. His fascination, in an early scene, with a painting of the death of Saint Sebastian, is an eerie augury for his own death. I was struck by a similarity in the way Whishaw plays these scenes and the way Peter O’Toole plays similar scenes in both Lawrence of Arabia and The Ruling Class. I suspect that may be something to do with Sam Mendes – who in turn may have been channelling Ken Russell? In any event, it’s clear that Richard is unfit for the role of king. When he hands over the crown to Henry, he does so as a peevish child.
So. What of Henry Bolingbroke? In the hands of Rory Kinnear, he is at first staunchly loyal to Richard and then incrementally more and more guilty as his quest to restore his name, his honour, transforms into his usurping the throne – almost as if by accident. One fault of the production is that we never get to see the crowds or the armies that  would support a popular uprising and that does detract from the central proposition that the two protagonists are irrevocably bound as opposites. Shakespeare then arranges Richard’s murder to echo the death of Thomas Beckett at the hands of an earlier Henry; Zealous supporters interpreting the king’s words to rid him of a troublesome burden. Probably safer in Tudor times to rationalise regicide that way, than suggest, as historians do now,  that Richard was killed by starvation and neglect, wasting in the dungeons of Pontefract Castle.
A sumptuous production then, filmed mostly on location, with excellent leads and great support from the likes of David Suchet as York and Patrick Stewart as Gaunt.(His ‘scepter’d isle’ monologue delivered as a tragic valedictory is a brilliant thing) This bodes well for the following two films which I hope to view in the next few weeks.



I Did Not Have Sex With That Film! – Movie Review


Performance (Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg 1970) joins ‘The Wizard of Oz’  (Victor Fleming 1939) and ‘Full Metal Jacket’ (Stanley Kubrick 1987) in a select trio that I describe as ‘movies of two halves’. Which, in this case, is appropriate, given the film’s cult status and reputation as ‘the greatest seventies film about identity’.
The first half of the film is a London gangster tale. Chas (James Fox) is an enforcer for Harry Flowers (Johnny Shannon) and goes on the run after shooting a local bookie.
The second part of the film is set in Turner’s (Mick Jagger) Notting Hill house where Chas lies low as he arranges to leave the country. Turner is a whacked-out pop star who has put himself out to grass, so to speak, with two women in a ménage à trois.  This part of the film borders on the experimental, the surreal. The transition from Get Carter to Belle de Jour, if you see what I mean, is uncomfortable and nervous. Roeg’s cinematography is too close to both Richard Lester and Joseph Losey without being its own thing. The interior shots are mostly askance with all of the de rigueur psychedelia in focus; oriental carpets, tapestries, incense – the lot. So what happens is that Cammell and Roeg are busy telling us, telling me, that they’re making a film. Not telling a story. Not really. So they don’t direct their actors with any precision or feel for story telling. It’s all too loose and disconnected. The numerous sex scenes and displays of angst over sexual identity are all servants to the way the movie looks. If one of the principals connected to the production had made a grand statement about trying to transfer Brecht’s theory of alienation from the theatre to a film, I might have tried harder, I suppose. As it was, I just felt excluded most of the time – the one notable exception being when Mick sings ‘Memo from Turner’ on the soundtrack. Isolated intimacy.


Author’s Note
I was encouraged to write an account of ‘Performance’ by Wellington Musician, Mikey Jamieson. He and I go back a ways as friends and musical collaborators and so I was pleased to do the right thing – although I have a feeling that he may well disagree with the sentiments I’ve expressed above. I’d like to just add, for Mikey, and anyone else’s, benefit,  one of my lovely dad’s observations about developments in film during the late 60s; ‘If you get your gear off in a British film, it’s a sex film. If you do it in a French or Italian film, it’s cinematic art.’

Triple Threat – Movie Reviews

In the past week or so, I’ve watched three movies that are all quite different stylistically, but have a common theme. Each story has a central character that dares to take on a power elite and all three characters experience a kind of limited success.


Rob Roy (Michael Caton-Jones 1995) has Liam Neeson as the title character wandering around the early 18th century Scottish highlands in a Mogadon-induced trance trying to save both his honour and a large sum of money  from the clutches of the evil Duke of Montrose (John Hurt) and his despicable henchman, Archie Cunningham (Tim Roth). Neeson was about half way through his ‘Mogadon period’ when he made this movie. He first discovered the value of the powerful hypnotic when playing the role of Oskar Schindler in 1993 when he realised he’d need something to combat Steven Spielberg’s directorial technique and Ralph Fiennes channelling Peter Cook into his character of Untersturmführer Amon Goethe. The addiction was at its peak when Neeson later played the role of Qui-Gon Jinn in ‘Star Wars Episode 1; The Phantom Menace’ (1999). His lines throughout were spoken by a ‘voice double’ as Neeson was barely conscious for the entire shoot.
So despite good turns from Jessica Lange and Brian Cox, the whole thing has the feel of a pedestrian pantomime plodding around  a picturesque backdrop – the ridiculous powdered wigs and brocaded costumes, indeed, only serving to induce the audience to scream , ‘Watch out! Behind you!‘ when Tim Roth scowls his way into frame.



John Grisham has stated that The Rainmaker ( Francis Ford Coppola 1997) is the best adaptation of any of his novels. And I think that there’s ample evidence to agree with him. Matt Damon has the role of a tyro lawyer, Rudy Baylor, desperate for work in Memphis, Tennessee. He accepts a position working as an associate in sleazy  personal injury lawyer, J. Lyman “Bruiser” Stone’s (Mickey Rourke)  ambulance-chasing practice.


What I like about Coppola’s direction is his understanding that the dynamic of ‘smaller’ lives stammering and jerking their course through time and space create a kind of intimate history of America. There are shades and nuances present in Coppola’s stories that allow the characters a subtle voice in the development of a broader plot. As Damon and his streetwise colleague, Deck Shifflet (Danny DeVito), proceed to take on an Insurance Company and their smooth legal team, we see how the quotidian lives of the bit players draw out the mores and motives of the moneyed classes. It made me think that Grisham and Coppola were made for each other.
I cannot complete this review without mentioning Elmer Bernstein’s score which perfectly evokes time and place. As ever, Coppola recognising the importance of both sight and sound in narrative detail.


I really didn’t know anything about The Whistle Blower (Simon Langton 1986) before watching it. Taking anything on trust that stars Michael Caine is always a risky proposition – but straight off – let me say that I both liked and enjoyed his appearance in this British spy thriller set on the cusp of Perestroika.
Caine is Frank Jones, a retired Naval Intelligence officer, now a moderately successful businessman – a widower with an adult son, Robert (Nigel Havers) who he both dotes on and constantly bickers with. Robert is a naïve idealist working as a Russian translator at a British Intelligence listening station. He is also having an affair with a married woman who has a child.
What sets this film apart from many others in the genre is the ordinariness of its protagonist as he struggles to unravel the labyrinthine infrastructure of the neurosis-fuelled spy world when his son dies in suspicious circumstances. Even the name, Frank Jones, is the name of a cypher, a ‘little’ man who’s lived his life, doesn’t want any trouble, any excitement. But Caine, when he’s on form, is expert at conveying stillness, passivity that masks anger – an anger that is intensely alive once released. And he gets to display those skills here, in spades.
As Frank sets about finding the truth, I wondered how he was going to get himself out of the hole that he digs for himself as the Intelligence elite (James Fox, Gordon Jackson and John Gielgud et al) conspire to thwart his efforts. But the writers, John Hale and Julian Bond, have come up with a witty and credible denouement which I will not reveal. Watch the movie for yourself and be as pleasantly surprised as I was.






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



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.



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.




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) .





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



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.



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.




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.




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.







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.







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!’


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.


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.


Rimbaud/Rambo Homophone Blues


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!


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.