Category Archives: 60’s Counterculture

Blu-ray reissue: Blow-Up ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

Blow-Up – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

You know how the song goes: “England swings like a pendulum do”. And nobody swung the arthouse in the 60s like Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni. Combine the acid-dazed op art splendor of 1966 London with Antonioni’s predilection for enigmatic narrative, and out pops this colorful mindbender. A “mod” photographer (David Hemmings) is wandering around a public park and espies a lovely young woman (Vanessa Redgrave) who is acting a bit erratic. Intrigued, he shoots a series of photos. When he develops them, he realizes that he may have inadvertently documented a crime. What ensues is part mystery-thriller and part youth-ploitation flick. Look for a great scene in a club where The Yardbirds (featuring Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck) rave it up! Also in the cast: Sarah Miles, Jane Birkin, and Verushka.

Incense and liniment: Monterey Pop (****) turns 50

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 1, 2017)

Back in my stand-up comedy days, I once had the pleasure of opening for Eric Burdon and Brian Auger in Fairbanks, Alaska (1991…I think). The promoter was kind enough to take me backstage for a brief meet and greet with Mr. Burdon before the gig. Eric immediately struck me as a warm and sincere individual (only rock star I ever met who gave me the sustained two-handed “bro” handshake with full eye contact combo platter).

This makes me sound like a fucking loon, but it felt like I was shaking hands with The Sixties. I remember thinking that sharing a bill with him placed me only one degree of separation from The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and the other artists he shared the bill with at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Okay, I may have been high. But it was enough to make my ganglia twitch. I mean, it blew my mind, man!

The Byrds and the Airplane did fly
Oh, Ravi Shankar’s music made me cry
The Who exploded into fire and light
Hugh Masekela’s music was black as night
The Grateful Dead blew everybody’s mind
Jimi Hendrix, baby, believe me,
set the world on fire, yeah

–from “Monterey”, by Eric Burdon & The Animals

The three day music festival was the brainchild of longtime Beatles publicist Derek Taylor, John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, record producer Lou Adler, and entrepreneur/Delaney and Bonnie manager Alan Pariser (who figured prominently during early planning stages but ceded control to his higher-profile partners Phillips and Adler). With a stage banner that read “love, flowers, and music”, it was (and remains) the embodiment of the counterculture’s ephemeral yet impactful “Summer of Love” in 1967.

That said, while the festival itself generally went as well or perhaps even better than its organizers could have ever hoped, it wasn’t necessarily all peace, love, and good vibrations during the organizational process. As rock journalist Michael Lydon (who covered music for Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe from the 60s to the 70s) writes in a contemporaneous piece included in his 2003 anthology, Flashbacks:

The Festival was incorporated with a board of governors that included Donovan, Mick Jagger, Andrew Oldham, Paul Simon, Phillips, Smokey Robinson, Roger McGuinn, Brian Wilson, and Paul McCartney. “The Festival hopes to create an atmosphere wherein persons in the popular music field from all parts of the world will congregate, perform, and exchange ideas concerning popular music with each other and with the public at large,” said a release. After paying the entertainers’ expenses, the profits from ticket sales (seats ranged from $3.50 to $6.50; admission to the grounds without a seat was $1) were to go to charities and to fund fellowships in the pop field. […]

This vagueness and the high prices engendered charges of commercialism—“Does anybody really know where these L.A. types are at?” asked one San Francisco rock musician. And when the list of performers was released there was more confusion. Where were the Negro stars, the people who began it all, asked some. Where were The Lovin’ Spoonful, the Stones, the Motown groups; does a pop festival mean anything without Dylan, the Stones, and The Beatles? […]

Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy were enthusiastic about the Festival at first, John Phillips said, “then they never answered the phone. Smokey was completely inactive as a director. I think it might be a Jim Crow thing. A lot of people put Lou Rawls down for appearing. ‘You’re going to a Whitey festival, man,’ was the line. There is tension between the white groups who are getting their own ideas and the Negroes who are just repeating theirs. The tension is lessening all the time, but it did crop up here, I am sure.”

As we now know, any “tension” behind the scenes lessened considerably by the time the gates opened to let the crowds (and the sunshine) in, and the rest, as they say, is History.

Luckily, for those of us who were too young and/or blissfully unaware to attend (or not even born yet), the zeitgeist of the event was captured for posterity by music documentary maestro D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back). His film, simply entitled Monterey Pop, originally opened in 1968; and now, to commemorate the festival’s 50th anniversary this month, it is in limited re-release in theaters (featuring a 4K restoration).

Shot in his signature cinema verite style, Pennebaker’s film distills the 3 days of “love, flowers and music” into a concise 78-minute document of the event. Granted, by its very nature such brevity comes with great sacrifice; not all the artists on the festival’s roster are onscreen. In the director’s statement that prefaces the booklet included with Criterion’s 2002 DVD box set The Complete Monterey Pop Festival, Pennebaker writes:

There is never enough time to just put in everything you want. In fact, that’s what film making is about, making the best stuff count for what you leave out.

 And so it is that The Association, Lou Rawls, The Butterfield Blues Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Byrds, The Steve Miller Band, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, Moby Grape, Al Kooper, Buffalo Springfield, Johnny Rivers and the Grateful Dead are nowhere to be seen. But the performances that made the final cut are, in a word, amazing.

Introduce yourself to Pennebaker’s film. It will feel like shaking hands with The Sixties.

[“Monterey Pop: the Re-release” is now playing in Seattle and other select cities.]

SIFF 2017: Lane 1974 ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

This episodic road movie/coming of age story may be too episodic for some tastes, but for those of a certain age (ahem), it hearkens back to the quietly observant character studies that flourished from the late 60s through the mid-70s  like Scarecrow, The Rain People, and Harry and Tonto. Writer-director SJ Chiro adapted her screenplay from Clane Hayward’s memoir. 13 year-old Lane (Sophia Mitri Schloss), her little brother, and their narcissistic hippie-dippy mom (Ray Donovan’s Katherine Moennig) adopt a vagabond lifestyle after they’re kicked out of a Northern California commune. Schloss delivers a lovely, naturalistic performance as a budding adolescent coming to the sad realization that she is the responsible adult in the family, and that her mother is essentially the self-centered child.

Acid daze: Deconstructing Sgt. Pepper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 4, 2017)

Hard to believe that it was 50 years ago today (well, officially, as of June 1st) that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play around with vari-speeding, track bouncing and ambiophonics. Eh…wot?

Considering the relative limitations of recording technology at the time, the sonic wizardry and hardware MacGyvering that resulted in The Beatles’ groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band continues to amaze and fascinate musicians, studio engineers and music fans. For that matter, I bet any Beatle fan would happily buzz in through the bathroom window to have been a fly on the wall at any Beatles session, for any of their albums. Perhaps that’s not the best analogy.

That imagery aside, there is a “next best thing”, thanks to composer and musicologist Scott Freiman, who has created a series of multimedia and film presentations called Deconstructing the Beatles. His latest exploration focuses on the Sgt. Pepper song cycle. Some engagements are personal appearances; others limited-run film versions of the lecture. My review is based on the filmed version, which ran here in Seattle last weekend (you can find upcoming cities/dates here).

Freiman kicks off with deep background on the February 1967 release of the double ‘A’ sided 45 “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” (although he doesn’t deconstruct the recording sessions as he does for the Sgt. Pepper tracks). I think this is a perfect choice for a launching pad, as those two songs were not only crucial signifiers of the band’s continuing progression from the (seemingly) hard-to-top Revolver, but originally intended to be included as part of Sgt. Pepper.

The remaining three-quarters of the film is a track-by-track journey through the album (in original running order, of course). By playing snippets of isolated audio tracks and subtly stacking them until they transmogrify into their familiar finished form, as well as supplementing with archival photos and flow charts annotating how tracks were reduced and mixed down, Freiman is able to give the viewer a fairly good peek into the unique creative process that went into the Sgt. Pepper sessions. Freiman’s running commentary hits the sweet spot between scholarly and entertaining.

I was a little disappointed that he gives my two favorite cuts, “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” short shrift; especially when compared to the amount of time he spends fixating on three cuts in particular: “She’s Leaving Home”, “Within You, Without You”, and “A Day in the Life”. Not that those aren’t all classics, but you can’t have everything. After all, art is subjective, right?

I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Freiman doing one of his presentations in-person; I imagine it’s more dynamic and engaging than watching what is essentially a filmed lecture (think An Inconvenient Truth). If you’re expecting something along the lines of The Beatles Anthology, this may not be for you. Still, the Fab force is strong in this one, and he obviously holds a genuine affection for the music, which keeps the proceedings from sinking into an academic snooze fest.

Side 2: It was a very good year

While Sgt. Pepper certainly deserves the accolades it has received over the last 5 decades, 1967 was a watershed year for a lot of bands; there was definitely something in the air (or the punch).

Here are 10 more fabulous albums that are blowing out 50 candles this year (goddam, I’m old…).

CreamDisraeli Gears…Clapton’s psych-blues zenith, Bruce and Baker’s dangerous rhythms, Pete Brown’s batshit crazy lyrics, lorded over by producer/future Mountain man Felix Pappalardi. Best cuts: “Sunshine of Your Love”, “Swlabr” (fuck you, Spellcheck), and “Tales of Brave Ulysses”.

The DoorsThe Doors…“He took a face, from the ancient gallery. And he walked on down the hall.” And music would never be the same. Best cuts: All of them.

Jefferson AirplaneSurrealistic Pillow…Luv ‘n’ Haight. Remember, I want you to toss the radio into the bathtub when “White Rabbit” peaks. Get it? Got it? Good! Best cuts: “Somebody to Love”, “White Rabbit”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”.

Jimi Hendrix ExperienceAre You Experienced?…Not necessarily stoned, but beautiful. There ain’t no life, nowhere. And you will never hear surf music, again. Best cuts: “Purple Haze”, “Love or Confusion”, “May This Be Love”, “I Don’t Live Today”, “Third Stone From the Sun”, and “Are You Experienced?”.

The KinksSomething Else by the Kinks…The genius of Ray Davies cannot be overstated. Every song is an immersive picture postcard of the traditional English life. Brilliant. Best cuts: “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lazy Old Sun”, “Death of a Clown”, “David Watts”, “Afternoon Tea”.

The Moody BluesDays of Future Passed…Mellotrons R Us. Symphonic rock before anyone thought it was even possible. A thing of beauty. Best cuts: “Tuesday Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin”.

Pink FloydThe Piper at the Gates of Dawn…Syd Barrett, before the drugs kicked in for keeps. He’s got a bike, you can ride it if you like. Space rock, ominous dirges and proto prog supreme. Best cuts: “Astronomy Domine”, “Flaming”, “Interstellar Overdrive”, and “Bike”.

Procol HarumProcol Harum…Gary Brooker’s distinctive voice, Robin Trower’s peerless fretwork, Matthew Fisher’s signature organ riffs and Keith Reid’s wry and literate lyrics made for a heady, proggy brew that didn’t quite sound like anyone else at the time. Still doesn’t, actually. Best cuts: “Conquistador”, “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence”, and “Repent, Walpurgis”.

The Velvet UndergroundThe Velvet Underground and Nico…In which Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, Nico, and Moe Tucker invited the flower children to attend New York art school. However, no one enrolled until about 10 years later, when it came to be called punk rock. Best cuts: “I’m Waiting For the Man”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Heroin”, and “Femme Fatale”.

The WhoThe Who Sell Out…A kind of warm-up for Tommy, The Who’s concept album was constructed to simulate a pirate radio station, with interstitial spoof ads and station jingles linking the cuts together. A very strong song cycle for Pete Townshend. Best cuts: “Armenia City in the Sky”, “Tattoo”, “I Can See For Miles”, “Our Love Was”, “I Can’t Reach You”, and “Sunrise”.


There were also a lot of memorable hit singles on the pop charts that year. Here’s one of my favorites from the summer of 1967:

Blu-ray reissue: Eight Days a Week ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2016)

Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years – Apple Deluxe Edition Blu-ray

I missed the theatrical run of Ron Howard’s 2016 Beatles documentary because I was sidelined by knee replacement surgery, but happily the powers-that-be have expedited its release to home video just in time for Christmas. As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Howard’s film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened) by what he’s managed to put together here.

The title pretty much says it all; this is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun. The Deluxe Edition is worth the investment for fans; in fact, I found the bonus features more interesting than the main film! The 64-page booklet caps this set off nicely.

She just smiled- Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 12, 2015)

I met a girl who sang the blues                                                                                         And I asked her for some happy news                                                                         But she just smiled and turned away

-from “American Pie”, by Don McLean

“I got treated very badly in Texas.”

-Janis Joplin, on her formative years

Let’s face it. We’ve all been bullied at some point in time (ah…school days!). And we know how humiliated and debased it makes you feel. Thankfully, most people are able to take the philosophical road; dust themselves off, get over it, and move on with their lives. Besides, as Michael Stipe posited: “everybody hurts,” right? Welcome to the human race.

But there are some more sensitive souls who never quite recover from such trauma. At best, they trudge through the rest of their lives plagued with doubts, anxieties, and low self-esteem. At worst, they meltdown at some point and go on a tri-county shooting spree. Happily, there is a middle ground; particularly for those with a creative bent. They tend to gravitate toward the performing arts…becoming comedians, actors, and musicians. That’s because, when you’re on stage (and I speak from personal experience) there’s nothing more redeeming than the sound of applause. And when you’re having a really good night, truly connecting with an audience and “feeling the love”? It’s better than sex.

Of course, the downside is that those moments are ephemeral; you can’t be “on stage” 24/7. As soon as you come down from that high in the spotlight, you’re back to your life…and all those doubts, anxieties and feelings of low self-esteem creep back in. For such souls, that love and adulation acts as a powerful opiate; and when they’re not getting their fix, they scrabble for proxies, and (as Joni Mitchell sings in “Coyote”) “…take their temporary lovers…and their pills and powders, to get them through this passion play.”

“On stage, I make love to twenty-five thousand people; and then I go home alone.”

-Janis Joplin

In Amy Berg’s new documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue, we see a fair amount of “Janis Joplin”, the confident and powerful cosmic blues-rocker; but the primary focus of the film is one Janis Lyn Joplin, the vulnerable and insecure “little girl blue” from Port Arthur, Texas who lived inside her right up until her untimely overdose at age 27 in 1970.

“She” is revealed via excerpts drawn from an apparent treasure trove of private letters, confided in ingratiating fashion by whisky-voiced narrator Chan Marshall (aka “Cat Power”). This is what separates Berg’s film from Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary Janis, which leaned exclusively on archival interviews and performance footage. Berg mines clips from the same vaults, but renders a more intimate portrait, augmented by present-day insights from Joplin’s siblings, close friends, fellow musicians and significant others.

You get a sense of the Janis who never fully healed from the psychic damage incurred from the mean-spirited ridicule she weathered growing up in a small (-minded) Texas burg; shamed for her physicality, unconventional fashion sense, and for harboring aspirations that were atypical from “other chicks”. She once said, “I always wanted to be an ‘artist’, whatever that was, like other chicks want to be stewardesses. I read. I painted. I thought.” We see how she made her breakthrough and found her own “voice” by channeling the soulful essence of her idols Bessie Smith, Leadbelly, Odetta and Aretha.

Despite undercurrents of melancholy and genuine sadness, and considering that we know going in that it is not going to have a Hollywood ending, the film is surprisingly upbeat. Joplin’s intelligence, sense of humor and joie de vivre shine through as well, and Berg celebrates her legacy of empowerment for a generation of female musicians who followed in her wake. On one long dark night of her soul, that “ball and chain” finally got too heavy to manage, but not before she was able to wield it to knock down a few doors.

There once was a note: Lambert & Stamp ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 17, 2015)

The Kinks came up with one of my favorite album titles, Everybody’s in Show Biz. True dat. Everyone wants to be a star; movie star, rock star, top dog, grand vizier, whatever. Of course the reality is that everyone can’t be. And those that do make it to the toppermost of the poppermost rarely get there on raw talent alone. One of the secrets? Good management; particularly evident when one considers the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll.

While The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin were certainly destined to make great music, it’s fun to speculate how differently their careers might have played out had they never hooked up with Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham and Peter Grant (respectively) at the right place and the right time (Tonite: Puppet show and Spinal Tap!).

Which brings us to another iconic rock act, The Who, four gifted but somewhat (initially) rudderless blokes who arguably had the most to gain from bumping into the right handlers at the right time. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp may not be household names like Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but for all intents and purposes, they were (for a crucial formative period) the 5th and 6th members of the Who.

In his cheeky and absorbing documentary, Lambert and Stamp, which slipped in and out of theaters this past summer and is now available on home video, director James Cooper draws from a trove of archival footage, adding latter-day interviews to recount this unique creative partnership which on paper, should not have worked out as well as it did.

The two men could not have been any different in social background and personality makeup. Lambert was gay, cultured, privileged; the son of a famous composer-conductor, he spoke with what the British refer to as a “posh” accent. Stamp, on the other hand, was straight, working class, the son of a tugboat operator, an East Ender replete with Cockney h-dropping. Together, they created a formidable entity; like the Who themselves, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Cooper gets much mileage from that disparate personality quotient; drawing parallels between Lambert and Stamp’s dynamic with that famously volatile “push me-pull you” tension that made The Who…The Who.

A lot of the story is one happy accident after the other, so I won’t spoil it here. It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops; Cooper gives us the ups and the downs. Stamp was still alive when Cooper began working on his film (he died in 2012), so we get the benefit of his latter-day perspective. Stamp’s famous acting sibling Terrence (“Kneel before Zod!”) is also on hand to add a few observations.

Unfortunately, Lambert died in 1981, so he is relegated to archival snippets. This obviously robs him of the luxury to share benefit of hindsight, and entrusts his legacy to the comments of associates like Townshend and Daltrey, who help fill in some of those cracks. While not the best place to start for neophytes, hardcore Who fans will appreciate Cooper’s fresh angle on familiar material.

So Lambert & Stamp may not be for everyone; here are 3 Who flicks no one should miss:

The Kids Are Alright– Director (and super fan) Jeff Stein’s 1979 labor of love is not only the ultimate Who film, but one of the best rockumentaries I have ever seen. It’s a truly amazing compendium, curating every worthwhile archival performance clip extant, from the band’s earliest TV appearances in the U.K, to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, and feature films like Woodstock and Monterey Pop. Stein also folds in a generous helping of archival interview snippets.

There’s no traditional narration; Stein cleverly edits the footage in a manner that essentially enables the Who to tell their own story. His only acquiescence to the tradition of adding “present day” perspective was (in hindsight) a prescient move; a concert staged exclusively for the film in 1977, beautifully shot in 35mm (the band tears it up with rousing renditions of “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”). Sadly, this turned out to be the final filmed performance of the original lineup; Keith Moon died in 1978 (footage of the band’s entire set was restored and released on Blu-ray as The Who at the Kilburn 1977).

Quadrophenia– The Who’s eponymous 1973 double-LP rock opera, Pete Townshend’s musical love letter to the band’s first g-g-generation of most rabid British fans (aka the “Mods”) inspired this memorable 1979 film from director Franc Roddam. With the 1964 “youth riots” that took place at the seaside resort town of Brighton as his catalyst, Roddam fires up a visceral character study in the tradition of the British “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the early 1960s.

Phil Daniels gives a James Dean-worthy performance as teenage “Mod” Jimmy. Bedecked in their trademark designer suits and Parka jackets, Jimmy and his Who-loving compatriots cruise around London on their Vespa and Lambretta scooters, looking for pills to pop, parties to crash and “Rockers” to rumble with. The Rockers are identifiable by their greased-back hair, leathers, motorbikes, and their musical preference for likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent. Look for a very young Ray Winstone (as a Rocker) and Sting (as a Mod bell-boy, no less). Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, super-charged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s music.

Tommy– There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those precise arrangements, but it’s a pretty good bet that watching director Ken Russell’s insane screen adaptation is a close approximation. If you’re not familiar with his work, hang on to your hat (I’ll put it this way-Russell is not known for being subtle).

Luckily, the Who’s music is powerful enough to cut through all the visual clutter, and carries the day. Two band members have roles-Roger Daltrey is charismatic as the deaf dumb and blind Tommy, and Keith Moon has a cameo as wicked Uncle Ernie (Pete Townshend and John Entwistle only appear in music performance). The cast is an interesting cross section of film veterans (Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson) and well-known musicians (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner). Musical highlights include “Pinball Wizard”, “Eyesight to the Blind” “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”. And you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Ann-Margret, covered in baked beans and writhing in ecstasy! Raucous, garish and gross…but never boring.

And we just have enough time left for a quick one…

SIFF 2015: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

If this rote recap of The Black Power Movement feels destined for PBS…it’s because it is. However, that shouldn’t deter you from catching it; it’s an eminently watchable (if not necessarily enlightening) look at an important corollary of the 1960s civil rights movement that, despite its failures and flaws, represents one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings in America. For a fresher perspective, check out The Black Power Mixtape (my review).

Voices leaking from a sad cafe: Inside Llewyn Davis ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2014)

Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend?

A: Homeless.

 -an old joke (author unknown)

 Some years back, while working as a morning radio host in Fairbanks, I was once scheduled to do an on-air interview with a popular Alaskan folk singer named Hobo Jim, who was slated to perform that evening. Unfortunately, he missed the interview window. The exasperated promoter called me after my show, explaining Jim was still on the road. While transportation had been offered, Jim had declined, preferring instead to hitchhike the 360 miles from the previous night’s gig in Anchorage. Oh well…I figured there had to be some reason they called this fellow “Hobo” Jim.

Then of course you’ve got your Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, your Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Steve Martin’s “Ramblin’ Guy”…and now, thanks to the fertile imaginations of the Coen Brothers, your couch-surfin’ Llewyn Davis. “Rambling” and “freewheeling” could describe the tone of Inside Llewyn Davis, a loose (very loose) narrative depicting several days in the life of the eponymous character, a sad sack folk singer (Oscar Isaac).

The year is 1961, and the percolating Greenwich Village coffeehouse music scene provides the backdrop. That Zimmerman kid and some of his contemporaries are starting to make a bit of a splash; Llewyn Davis, not so much. Llewyn is one of those struggling artists perennially mired at the crossroads of “The Big Time” and “Bus Ride Back to Obscurity”.

Llewyn has tons of down time, in between spotty gigs and waiting for (any) news from his comically ineffectual manager, Mel Novikoff (the late Jerry Grayson). He spends most of that time brooding. He has a lot of things to brood over. Like why nearly all the pressings of his first solo album (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) have been returned by the record company and are sitting in unopened boxes in Mel’s office. Or why his former musical partner decided to throw himself off the George Washington Bridge soon after the duo released their only album. Or why Jean (Carey Mulligan) the girlfriend and singing partner of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and with whom he has had a brief fling, is blaming him for a surprise pregnancy and pressing him to pay for an abortion. And then there is the matter of a lost cat, that he finds, but then loses again (don’t ask).

I suppose it wouldn’t be a proper folk singer’s yarn if there wasn’t a bit of that ramblin’, and it arrives in the form of Llewyn’s road trip to Chicago with a misanthropic jazz musician (Coen stalwart John Goodman), a pithy beat poet (Garret Hedlund) and the aforementioned cat (who says nothing). This is the centerpiece of the film, as well as the most recognizably “Coen-esque” sequence (you could say it’s where the rubber meets the road, literally and metaphorically). In fact, how you respond to what transpires therein will determine whether you come away loving or hating the film.

If that sounds nebulous, you don’t know the half of it. Especially once you try to digest the metaphysical conundrum at the end that makes you question how much of what you’ve just seen is, erm, what you’ve just seen. Aw, screw it. It’s the Coens-deal with it. That whole “don’t expect a cohesive narrative” thing aside, the Coens have succeeded in making another one of those films that you find yourself digesting for a couple days afterward.

While I wouldn’t put it up there with one of their certified classics like Blood Simple, Fargo, or No Country for Old Men, it fits in comfortably with chin-stroking character studies like Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. And there are quotable lines; not as numerous as in, let’s say, The Big Lebowski…but I enjoyed genuine belly laughs amid the angst.

As usual, the Coens have assembled a sterling ensemble (F. Murray Abraham is a particular delight in his cameo as a jaded impresario). The musical performances by the actors (produced by T-Bone Burnett) are heartfelt and impressive; especially when stacked against ringers like Timberlake. Attention to period detail adds to the verisimilitude. Inside Llewyn Davis may not answer all the important questions (I still don’t know how many roads a man must walk down, before they call him a man) but it hits all the right notes.

SIFF 2014: Jimi: All is By My Side **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

John Ridley’s biopic focuses on Jimi Hendrix’s formative “London period”, just prior to his super-stardom. Outkast guitarist Andre Benjamin uncannily captures Hendrix’s mannerisms, and the Swinging Sixties are recreated with verisimilitude, but it’s more soap than rock opera. Glaring absence of original Hendrix music is a minus (the filmmakers couldn’t get the rights). Adding to the deficit, the movie feels like an unfinished project,  because it ends rather abruptly. Then again, so did Jimi’s journey.