This Byrd has flown: RIP David Crosby

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 21, 2023)

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In his Jeff Beck tribute last week, music industry maven Bob Lefsetz observed:

And [Beck’s] death was so sudden. At 78. May sound old to you, but then you’re probably not a baby boomer. I mean the end is always looming, but you always believe it’s at some distant point in the future, when in truth it’s closer than you think.

But it’s even weirder than that. The giants are falling. The building blocks of not only the British Invasion, but classic rock, are passing. The icons and the secondary players. But they were all major players to us, music was everything. Not only was it soul-fulfilling, it told you which way the wind blew. And the hits were not all the same and new ones popped up all the time, it was a veritable smorgasbord of greatness.

Falling like dominoes. To paraphrase The Giant in Twin Peaks: “It is happening again.”

“Difficult and gifted” would be a fitting epitaph. But with Crosby, the “gift” far out-trumped the “difficult”. No matter how bad things got for him, that heavenly, crystalline voice never faltered. In fact, his pipes were so pure and pitch perfect that while I can always isolate Stills, Nash, and Young’s individual parts in those patented harmonies…try as I might, I can never “hear” Crosby. I know he’s in there, somewhere-but I’ll be damned if I can detect his contribution. Yet, I would notice if he were not there.

He was one of the best harmony singers that I have never heard.

Crosby was not only an ideal  “middleman” for facilitating lovely harmonies, but an essential catalyst for several iconic bands that sprang from the Laurel Canyon scene of the 1960’s. In my review of the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon, I wrote:

“The Byrds were great; when [The Beatles] came to L.A. [The Byrds] came and hung out with us. That 12-string sound was great. The voices were great. So, we loved The Byrds. They introduced us to a…hallucinogenic situation, and uh…we had a really good time.”

– Ringo Starr, from the 2019 documentary Echo in the Canyon

Someone once quipped “If you can remember anything about the 60s, you weren’t really there”. Luckily for Ringo and his fellow music vets who appear in Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, they’re only required to “remember” from 1965-1967.

That is the specific time period that Slater, a long-time record company exec, music journalist and album producer chooses to highlight in his directing debut. His film also focuses on a specific location: Laurel Canyon. Nestled in the Hollywood Hills West district of L.A., this relatively cozy and secluded neighborhood (a stone’s throw off the busy Sunset Strip) was once home to a now-legendary, creatively incestuous enclave of influential folk-rockers (The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Mamas and the Papas, et.al.). […]

Frankly, there aren’t many surprises in store; turns out that nearly everybody was (wait for it) excited and influenced by The Beatles, who in turn were excited and influenced by The Byrds and the Beach Boys, who were in turn inspired to greater heights by the resultant exponential creative leaps achieved by the Beatles (echo in the canyon…get it?) […]

One comes away with a sense about the unique creative camaraderie of the era. Roger McGuinn once received a courtesy note from George Harrison that the main riff he used for the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” was based on the Byrds’ “Bells of Rhymney”. Apparently, McGuinn was totally cool with that. […]

According to Stephen Stills, there was so much musical badminton going on at the time that a little unconscious plagiarism now and then was inevitable. In one somewhat awkward scene, Dylan asks Eric Clapton about the suspiciously similar chord changes in Stills’ song “Questions” (by Buffalo Springfield) and Clapton’s “Let it Rain”. After mulling it over for several very long seconds, Clapton shrugs and concurs “I must have copped it.”

Crosby was right there, at the epicenter. As Michael Des Barres noted, he “stuck to his guns”, wearing the ethos of 60s counterculture idealism and political activism on his sleeve until his dying day. From my review of the 2008 documentary Déjà Vu:

Cracks about geriatric rockers aside, it becomes apparent that the one thing that remains ageless is the power of the music, and the commitment from [Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young]. Songs like “Ohio”, “Military Madness”, “For What it’s Worth” and “Chicago” prove to have resilience and retain a topical relevance that does not go unnoticed by younger fans. And anyone who doesn’t tear up listening to the band deliver the solemnly beautiful harmonies of their elegiac live show closer, “Find the Cost of Freedom”, while a photo gallery featuring hundreds of smiling young Americans who died in Iraq scrolls on the big screen behind them, can’t possibly have anything resembling a soul residing within.

Adieu to a musical icon. Here are 10 of my favorite Crosby songs. Feel free to tear up.

What’s Happening?!?! – The Byrds (written by David Crosby; from Fifth Dimension)

Triad – The Byrds (written by David Crosby; from The Notorious Byrd Brothers)

Guinevere – Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby; from Crosby, Stills, & Nash)

Wooden Ships –  Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby, Paul Kantner, and Stephen Stills; from Crosby, Stills, & Nash)

Déjà Vu – Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (written by David Crosby, from Déjà Vu)

Almost Cut My Hair –  Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young (written by David Crosby, from Déjà Vu)

Laughing – David Crosby (written by David Crosby; from If I Could Only Remember My Name)

Have You Seen the Stars Tonight? – The Jefferson Starship (written by Paul Kantner and David Crosby; from Blows Against the Empire)

Whole Cloth – Crosby & Nash (written by David Crosby; from Graham Nash David Crosby)

In My Dreams – Crosby, Stills, & Nash (written by David Crosby; from CSN)

The Fierce Urgency of Now (more than ever)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 15, 2022)

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In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve combed my review archives and curated 10 films that reflect on race relations in America; some that look back at where we’ve been, some that give us a reality check on where we’re at now and maybe even one or two that offer hope for the future. We still may not have quite reached that “promised land” of colorblind equality, but each of us doing whatever we can in our own small way to help keep Dr. King’s legacy alive will surely help light the way-especially in these dark times.

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Black KkKlansman (2018)So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. Lee takes the true story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s and runs with it, in his inimitable fashion.

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. (Full review)

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The Black Power Mixtape (2011)–Historically, the Black Power movement of the mid-60s to mid-70s has been somewhat misrepresented, with a tendency to spotlight its more sensationalist elements. The time is ripe to re-examine the movement, which despite its flaws, represents one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings we’ve had in this country (if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric-dispense with that hoary stereotype now).

Director Goran Olsson was given access to a trove of vintage yet pristine 16mm footage that had been tucked away for years in the basement of Swedish Television; representing a decade of candid interviews with movement leaders, as well as meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities. Olsson presents the clips in a historically chronological timeline, with minimal commentary. While not perfect, it is an essential document, and one of the more eye-opening films I have seen on this subject. (Full review)

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The Boys of Baraka (2005) – Co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady deliver a fresh take on a well-worn cause celebre: the sad, shameful state of America’s inner-city school system. Eschewing the usual hand-wringing about the underfunded, over-crowded, glorified daycare centers that many of these institutions have become for poor, disenfranchised urban youth, the filmmakers chose to showcase one program that strove to make a real difference.

The story follows a group of 12-year-old boys from Baltimore who attended a boarding school in Kenya, staffed by American teachers and social workers. In addition to more personalized tutoring, there was emphasis on conflict resolution through communication, tempered by a “tough love” approach. The events that unfold from this bold social experiment (filmed over a three year period) are alternately inspiring and heartbreaking. (Full review)

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The Force (2017) – Peter Nicks’ documentary examines the rocky relationship between Oakland’s police department and its communities of color. The force has been under federal oversight since 2002, due to myriad misconduct cases. Nicks utilizes the same cinema verite techniques that made his film The Waiting Room so compelling. It’s like a real-life Joseph Wambaugh novel (The Choirboys comes to mind). The film offers no easy answers-but delivers an intimate, insightful glimpse at both sides. (Full review)

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The Girls in the Band (2011)– Contextual to a curiously overlooked component within the annals of American jazz music, it’s tempting to extrapolate on Dr. King’s dream. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a nation where one is not only primarily judged by content of character, but can also be judged on the merits of creativity, or the pure aesthetics of artistic expression, as opposed to being judged solely by the color of one’s skin…or perhaps gender? At the end of the day, what is a “black”, or a “female” jazz musician? Why is it that a Dave Brubeck is never referred to as a “white” or “male” jazz musician?

In her film, director Judy Chaikin chronicles the largely unsung contributions that female jazz musicians (a large portion of them African-American) have made (and continue to make) to this highly influential American art form. Utilizing rare archival footage and interviews with veteran and contemporary players, Chaikin has assembled an absorbing, poignant, and celebratory piece. (Full review)

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I Am Not Your Negro (2016)– The late writer and social observer James Baldwin once said that “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” Sadly, thanks to the emboldening of certain elements within American society that have been drawn from the shadows by the openly racist rhetoric that spouted from the Former Occupant of the White House, truer words have never been spoken.

Indeed, anyone who watches Raoul Peck’s documentary will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of such observations. Both are on display in Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, reading excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House. An excellent and enlightening film. (Full review)

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In the Heat of the Night (1967)–“They call me Mister Tibbs!” In this classic (which won 1967’s Best Picture Oscar) the late Sidney Poitier plays a cosmopolitan police detective from Philly who gets waylaid in a torpid Mississippi backwater, where he is reluctantly recruited into helping the bigoted sheriff (Rod Steiger) solve a local murder. Poitier nails his performance; you can feel Virgil Tibb’s pain as he tries to maintain his professional cool amidst a brace of surly rednecks, who throw up roadblocks at every turn.

While Steiger is outstanding as well, I find it ironic that he won “Best Actor in a leading role”, when Poitier was ostensibly the star of the film (it seems Hollywood didn’t get the film’s message). Sterling Silliphant’s brilliant screenplay (another Oscar) works as a crime thriller and a “fish out of water” story. Director Norman Jewison was nominated but didn’t score a win. Future director Hal Ashby won for Best Editing. Quincy Jones composed the soundtrack, and Ray Charles sings the sultry theme. (Full review)

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The Landlord (1970)–Hal Ashby only directed a relative handful of films, but most, especially his 70’s output, were built to last (Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory, Shampoo, Being There).

In The Landlord, Beau Bridges plays a trustafarian with “liberal views” that his conservative parents find troubling…especially after he buys a run-down inner-city tenement, with intentions to renovate. His subsequent involvement with the various black tenants is played sometimes for laughs, other times for intense drama, but always for real. The social satire and observations about race relations are dead-on, but never preachy or condescending.

Top-notch ensemble work, featuring a young Lou Gossett (with hair!) giving a memorable turn. The lovely Susan Anspach is hilarious as Bridge’s perpetually stoned and bemused sister. A scene featuring Pearl Bailey and Lee Grant getting drunk and bonding over a bottle of “sparkling” wine is a minor classic all on its own. Moses Gunn’s sharp screenplay was adapted from Kristin Hunter’s novel. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore-honest, bold, uncompromising, socially and politically meaningful, yet also entertaining. (Full review)

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Let the Fire Burn (2013)– While obscured in public memory by the (relatively) more “recent” 1993 Branch Davidian siege in Waco, the eerily similar demise of the Philadelphia-based MOVE organization 8 years earlier was no less tragic on a human level, nor any less disconcerting in its ominous sociopolitical implications.

In this compelling documentary, director Jason Osder has parsed a trove of archival “live-at-the-scene” TV reports, deposition videos, law enforcement surveillance footage, and other sundry “found” footage (much of it previously unseen by the general public) and created a tight narrative that plays like an edge-of-your-seat political thriller.

Let the Fire Burn is not only an essential document of an American tragedy, but a cautionary tale and vital reminder of how far we have yet to go to completely purge the vestiges of institutional racism in this country. (Full review)

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The Trials of Muhammad Ali (2013)– There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

Director Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks in his documentary. As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. How it all transpired makes an absorbing watch. (Full review)

Previous posts with related themes:

Judas and the Black Messiah

When They See Us

Rampart

Blood at the Root: An MLK Mixtape

The Trial of the Chicago 7

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

Beds Are Burning: Top 10 Films for Indigenous People’s Day

Now We See the Light: A Mixtape

The Alchemist: RIP Jeff Beck

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 11, 2023)

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Goddam it all, anyway. This one hurts.

The music world has lost one of its greatest vocalists. That is not a typo. Jeff Beck could make a guitar speak, in every sense of the word. He rarely stepped up to the mic during the course of his 60+ year career, but whenever he set his fingers to a fret board, he told you a story; sometimes joyous and life-affirming, sometimes sad and melancholy…but it never meandered into masturbatory self-indulgence. Every note held import, serving a distinct narrative that had a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Like all great artists, he was loathe to dawdle too long in a comfort zone; he never stopped exploring, pushing the boundaries of his instrument ever-further with each performance (whether on stage or in the studio). While he was generally relegated to the “rock” section, he could slide effortlessly from blues, boogie, and metal to funk, R & B, soul, jazz and fusion (more often than not, all within the same number).

He made it appear easy as an oil change, but I’m sure he put in his “10,000 hours” of practice at some point (when he wasn’t tinkering with his cars, which was his “happy place” off stage). I’ve been playing guitar for 50 years, and no matter how closely I’ve studied his fingers in concert videos, I am stymied as to how he wrestled those sounds from his axe. All I know is that it had something to do with the whammy bar, volume knobs, thumb-picking, and a magic ring. It’s some kind of alchemy way beyond my ken.

I saw Beck in L.A. with The Jan Hammer Group, circa 1976 at the Starlight Amphitheater. I was in the nosebleed section, but I. was. mesmerized. A command performance.

You’ve heard the term “musician’s musician”? The Twitter tributes confirm he was.

And how can we forget his Antonioni moment?

Even from somewhere out there in the ether, he’s expressing what I’m feeling right now, as I listen to my favorite Beck instrumental. Rest in peace, maestro. Rave on.

 

2023: A Spliff Odyssey

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 7, 2023)

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Dreadlocks can’t smoke him pipe in peace
Too much informers and too much beast
Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su
Too much watchie watchie watchie, too much su-su su-su su

-from “Tenement Yard”, by Jacob Miller

Happy New Year! How about some good news? Via News Nation/Nexstar:

After voters in several states approved recreational marijuana in 2022, the U.S. heads into the new year with nearly half of states having full legalization.

The biggest changes are in the Northeast, where the legalization of recreational pot is new in several states. Rhode Island and New York kicked off sales in December 2022. Connecticut will allow sales to adults aged 21 and older on Jan. 10, 2023. Maryland is preparing to allow adult use starting July 1.

Missouri also voted to legalize recreational marijuana in November. Dispensaries there are still working to get permitted, so recreational sales aren’t expected to start until February 2023 at the earliest. […]

By the end of 2023, a few more states could be added to the list of green states. Oklahoma will vote on the issue in March. The Ohio state legislature is also considering a bill to legalize the use and sale of recreational weed.

Voters in three states – Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota – rejected legalizing weed in the November election. Medical use is legal in all three states.

Only three states have no public-use marijuana program of any kind (neither medical or recreational) according to the National Conference of State Legislatures: Idaho, Kansas and Nebraska.

Nice to see more states joining the “over-the-counter”-culture, with a new shopping list: Milk, bread, eggs, and ganja. In Washington state, we’ve been smoking our pipes in peace since 2014. Well…relatively peacefully. There are still a few bugs in the system:

(via The Center Square)

According to an unofficial tracker by greater Seattle area cannabis retailer Uncle Ike’s, there have been at least 100 armed robberies of Washington state pot shops in 2022, the most in the past decade.

The 10-year high in armed robberies at Evergreen State marijuana stores comes at a time when a federal banking bill aimed at stopping pot store stick-ups failed to pass the Senate.

The spotlight intensified on the issue earlier this year when one of those armed robberies turned lethal. Twenty-nine-year old employee Jordan Brown of Gig Harbor was shot and killed on March 19 when two teens allegedly robbed the World of Weed dispensary in Tacoma.

“It’s certainly a sobering figure,” Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, said of the increased number of armed robberies at pot shops in Washington. “With crime on the rise and our industry disproportionately affected due to outdated federal banking regulations forcing state-licensed cannabis providers to operate cash heavy businesses, it’s absolutely shameful that another year is passing with Congressional failure to pass the SAFE Banking Act.”

It’s widely accepted that Washington’s marijuana shops are targeted because they are all-cash businesses.

Cannabis is legal in Washington, among other states, but federal law still classifies cannabis – along with heroin and cocaine – as a Schedule 1 drug with a high potential for abuse and little to no medical benefit. That makes it difficult for federally regulated financial institutions to work with state-legal cannabis businesses.

The bipartisan marijuana banking bill known as the Secure and Fair Enforcement, or SAFE, Banking Act would allow marijuana dispensaries to use credit cards, debit cards, and other banking services instead of being cash only.

The bill was supported by Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

In an April op-ed in The Tacoma News Tribune, Inslee and Ferguson said Congress ought to “immediately…pass the SAFE Banking Act which would, at long last, allow cannabis retailers to more easily use common cashless payment options such as credit and debit cards.”

The federal legislation passed the House but stalled in the Senate and was not included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that passed Congress [in late December].

“This threat to public safety and private property would largely be avoidable with some Congressional action,” Smith continued, “and we’re going to keep working on safe and fair banking until we win.”

That means trying again with the incoming Congress.

“We do expect to see the bipartisan SAFE Banking Act reintroduced in the next Congress and hope that both parties can work together to finally resolve this problem by passing the bill,” Smith said. “Support for cannabis reform is growing a lot slower in Congress than it is among the voting public, but it is moving in the right direction.”

Considering recent events in the House …let’s keep those fingers and toes crossed. Oy.

So I thought I would welcome the newest forward-thinking states to our cannabis club by sharing my picks for the top five Rasta movies, in alphabetical order…seen?

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Countryman Writer-director Dickie Jobson’s 1982 low-budget wonder has it all. Adventure. Mysticism. Political intrigue. Martial Arts. And weed. Lots of weed. A pot-smuggling American couple crash land their small plane near a beach and are rescued by our eponymous hero (Edwin Lothan, billed in the credits as “himself”), a fisherman/medicine man/Rasta mystic/philosopher/martial arts expert who lives off the land (Lothan, who passed away in 2016, was a fascinating figure in real life).

Unfortunately, the incident has not gone unnoticed by a corrupt, politically ambitious military colonel, who wants to frame the couple as “CIA operatives” who are trying to disrupt the upcoming elections. But first he has to outwit Countryman, which is no easy task (“No one will find you,” Countryman assures the couple, “You are protected here.” “Protected by who?” the pilot asks warily. “Elements brother, elements,” says Countryman, with an enigmatic chuckle). I love this movie. It’s wholly unique, with a fabulous reggae soundtrack.

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The Harder They Come– While the Jamaican film industry didn’t experience an identifiable “new wave” until the early 80s, Perry Henzel’s 1973 rebel cinema classic laid the foundation. From its opening scene, when wide-eyed country boy Ivan (reggae’s original superstar, Jimmy Cliff) hops off a Jolly Bus in the heart of Kingston to the strains of Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, to a blaze of glory finale, it maintains an ever-forward momentum, pulsating all the while to the heartbeat riddim of an iconic soundtrack. Required viewing!

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Rockers– Admittedly, this island-flavored take on the Robin Hood legend is short on plot, but what it may lack in complexity is more than compensated for by its sheer exuberance (and I have to watch it at least once a year). Grecian writer-director Theodoros Bafaloukos appears to have cast every reggae luminary who was alive at the time in his 1978 film. It’s the tale of a Rasta drummer (Leroy “Horsemouth” Wallace) who has had his beloved motorcycle stolen (customized Lion of Judah emblem and all!) by a crime ring run by a local fat cat.

Needless to say, the mon is vexed. So he rounds up a posse of fellow musicians (Richard “Dirty Harry” Hall, Jacob Miller, Gregory Isaacs, Robbie Shakespeare, Big Youth, Winston Rodney, et. al.) and they set off to relieve this uptown robber baron of his ill-gotten gains and re-appropriate them accordingly. Musical highlights include Miller performing “Tenement Yard”, and Rodney warbling his haunting and hypnotic  Rasta spiritual “Jah No Dead” a cappella.

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Stepping Razor: Red X– Legalize it! Nicholas Campbell’s unflinching portrait of musician Peter Tosh (who co-founded the Wailers with Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer) is not your typical rockumentary. While there is plenty of music, the  focus is on Tosh’s political and spiritual worldview, rendered via archival footage, dramatic reenactments, and excerpts from a personal audio diary in which Tosh expounds on his philosophies and rages against the “Shitstem. “

One interesting avenue Campbell pursues suggests that Tosh was the guiding force behind the  Wailers, and that Marley looked up to Tosh as a mentor in early days (I suspect that it was more of a Lennon/McCartney dynamic). A definite ‘must-see’ for reggae fans.

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Word, Sound, and Power – Jeremiah Stein’s 1980 documentary clocks in at just over an hour but is the best film I’ve seen about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of studio players who were the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew; they backed Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Toots Hibbert (to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.

Bonus tracks!

OK …if you’d rather chill, here’s a mixtape. Headphones and munchies on standby:

 

Getting better all the time (can’t get no worse): A New Year’s Eve mix tape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 31, 2022)

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All is quiet, on New Year’s Day. Except for this mixtape (you may adjust your volume per hangover conditions tomorrow morning). Cheers!

“This Will Be Our Year” – The Zombies – Starting on a positive note. Lovely Beatle-esque number from the Odyssey and Oracle album.

You don’t have to worry
All your worried days are gone
This will be our year
Took a long time to come

At least…we can always hope, right?

“Time”David Bowie – A song as timeless as Bowie himself. Time, he’s waiting in the wings/He speaks of senseless things

1999″ – Prince – Sadly, it’s a perennial question: “Mommy…why does everybody have a bomb?”

“1921” – The WhoGot a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year. OK, back to the drawing board …let’s make ’23 a better one.

“Time” – Oscar Brown, Jr. – A wise and soulful gem…tick, tock.

“New Year’s Day” – U2 – I know… “Bold pick, Captain Obvious!” But it’s still a great song.

 “Year of the Cat” – Al StewartOld Grey Whistle Test clip. Strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre, contemplating a crime

“Reeling in the Years” – Steely Dan – A pop-rock classic with a killer solo by Elliot Randall.

“New Year’s Resolution” – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas – Ace Stax B-side from 1968, with that unmistakable “Memphis sound”. Speaking of which… check out my review of the Stax music doc, Take Me to the River.

Same Old Lang Syne” – Dan Fogelberg – OK, a nod to those who insist on waxing sentimental. A beautiful tune from the late singer-songwriter.

Bonus track!

Not a “New Year’s song” per se, but an evergreen new year’s wish.

And in the end: Revival69: The Concert That Rocked the World (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 24, 2022)

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“After the Plastic Ono Band’s debut in Toronto…John finally brought it to its head. He said, ‘Well, that’s it, lads. Let’s end it. And we all said ‘Yes’.”

-Ringo Starr, from The Beatles Anthology (2000)

In September 1969, scarcely a month after the heady smoke of Woodstock had cleared, another music festival of note took place a little farther up north. While it couldn’t boast a crowd of “half a million strong” (just a scant 20,000) The Toronto Rock and Roll Revival arguably one-upped Woodstock’s stellar roster with its headliner: The Plastic Ono Band.

I say “arguably”, because at the time, no one in the audience had ever heard of The Plastic Ono Band. Hell…even the members of The Plastic Ono Band had never heard of The Plastic Ono Band, because founders John Lennon and Yoko Ono didn’t come up with the name (or the concept) until the day before the group’s debut performance in Toronto. The booking was so last-minute and seat-of-the-pants that their first “rehearsal” occurred (literally) on the fly…while en route to the gig on a chartered jet from England.

Of course, everyone in the audience knew who John Lennon was; the Beatles were still at the height of their success and fame. What the public didn’t know at the time was that the Toronto gig arose at a serendipitous moment, when Lennon found himself at a critical crossroads in his professional life. He was 28 years old. The Beatles had released their swan song Abbey Road earlier that year, and the band was on the verge of disintegrating.

Granted, Lennon had already been quite active outside of the band. He and Yoko had become prominent counterculture figures, known for their political activism and advocacy for peace and social justice. In March 1969, the couple married and held a week-long anti-Vietnam War “Bed-In” protest, garnering much media attention. They released the experimental album “Unfinished Music No. 1: Two Virgins.” Lennon also published his book of poems and drawings In His Own Write, which became a best-seller.

Meanwhile, in private Lennon struggled with depression and addiction; he later admitted to heavy drug use during this time (he and Yoko were both chasing the dragon). Creative differences with his band mates, as well as increasingly bitter stalemates regarding certain business decisions, were undoubtedly adding to Lennon’s tsuris. In short, things within the Beatles organization weren’t getting better (it can’t get no worse). The Toronto concert turned out to be not only the tonic he needed for regaining his confidence as a performer (he hadn’t played for a large crowd since the Beatles had stopped touring in 1966) but fueled his decision to officially leave the Beatles just a scant 7 days afterwards.

Exactly how John & Yoko, along with the hastily assembled Eric Clapton, Alan White, and Klaus Voorman (not too shabby for a pickup band) ended up headlining the event makes for a fascinating backstage tale…and it is recounted with much aplomb in a breezy documentary from Rob Chapman called Revival69: The Concert That Rocked the World.

Archival interviews, private audio recordings, present-day recollections by participants like John Brower (festival organizer), Klaus Voorman, Alice Cooper, Rodney Bingenheimer, Geddy Lee (acid-dazed teenage attendee!), Shep Gordon, Robby Kreiger, Robert Christgau, et.al. and original 16mm concert/backstage footage shot by legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker (much of it previously unreleased) are all combined to great effect.

While The Plastic Ono Band’s appearance is of undeniable historical import, this was an all-day event, and the roster was impressive: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent, Chicago, The Doors, and Alice Cooper are hardly what I’d consider “opening acts”. The Pennebaker footage is priceless, capturing electric performances with beautifully restored picture and sound. Unfortunately, Pennebaker’s original 1971 concert doc Sweet Toronto remains woefully scarce on home video; relegated to the odd unauthorized edition of less-than-stellar quality (paging the Criterion Collection).

Brower recalls how he came up with the idea for the festival while working as a promoter for the Rolling Stones’ 1969 North American tour. As his (at times hair-raising)  narrative unfolds, it appears organizing such an event is easier said than done. At one point, with ticket sales looking dismal and only days to go before the heavily promoted event, he is ready to throw in the towel (at the risk of suffering serious bodily harm from dubious silent partners). However, an unlikely deus ex machina alights in the form of eccentric impresario Kim Fowley, who has a ballsy 11th-hour brainstorm (with 20/20 hindsight, it was a rather brilliant one, actually).

The film is chockablock with fun facts. I had no idea this was the first rock concert where the audience held lit matches aloft (another brainstorm by Fowley, who encouraged the crowd to welcome John & Yoko onstage with their own light show). Alice Cooper and his longtime manager Shep Gordon finally confirm “the truth” behind the infamous “chicken incident” that occurred during his band’s performance (as God is his witness, Alice thought that chickens could fly).

The film is a treat for Lennon completists, and rock and roll fans in general. Currently, the film is only exhibiting in Canada, but hopefully will be distributed in the U.S. (or become available via streaming or physical media) at some point in the near future.

And on behalf of the band here at Hullabaloo…Happy Crimble, and Peace.

Such a clatter: A holiday mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2022)

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I’m guessing you’ve already had it up to “here” with holly jolly Burl Ives and Rudolph with his frigging red nose so bright wafting out of every elevator in sight. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I promise I won’t torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have curated 15 selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts (and a few novelty items) for your Xmas creel.

Happy Crimble, and a Very New Year!

All I Want For Christmas – The Bobs

The Bobs have been stalking me. They formed in the early 80s, in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco in the early 80s; I recall catching them as an opening act for The Plimsouls (I think…or maybe Greg Kihn) at The Keystone in Berkeley. I remember having my mind blown by a cappella renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Helter Skelter”. Later, I resettled in Seattle. Later, they resettled in Seattle. I wish they’d quit following me! This is a lovely number from their 1996 album Too Many Santas.

Ave Maria – Stevie Wonder

There are songs that you do not tackle if you don’t have the pipes (unless you want to be jeered offstage, or out of the ball park). “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind; as does “Nessun dorma”. “Ave Maria” is right up there too. Not only does Stevie nail the vocal, but he whips out the most sublime harmonica solo this side of Toots Thielemans.

Blue Xmas – Bob Dorough w/ the Miles Davis Sextet

The hippest “Bah, humbug!” of all time. “Gimme gimme gimme…”

Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe

Wry and tuneful as ever at 72, veteran pub-rocker/power-popper/balladeer Nick Lowe continues to compose, produce, record and tour. This is from his 2013 Christmas album, Quality Street. I think a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is overdue.

Christmas in Suburbia – The Cleaners From Venus

Despite the fact that he writes hook-laden, Beatle-esque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by cult-ish admirers (of which I am one). But since it is the holidays, I’m feeling magnanimous-so I will share him with you now (you’re welcome).

Christmas Wish – NRBQ

NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for crowd-pleasing live shows. I think they’ve fallen through the cracks because they are tough to pigeonhole; they’re equally at home with power-pop, blues, rock, jazz, R&B, country or goofy covers. This is from their eponymous 2007 album.

I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas – Yogi Yorgesson

I first heard this tune about the “joys” of holiday gatherings on “The Dr. Demento Show” . It always puts me in hysterics, especially: “My mouth tastes like a pickle.”

Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Leo Kottke

In 1969, an LP entitled 6- and 12-String Guitar quietly slid into record stores. The cover had a painting of an armadillo, with “Leo Kottke” emblazoned above. In the 50+ years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists, introducing the world to a gifted player with a unique and expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.

River – Joni Mitchell

Not a jolly “laughing all the way” singalong; but this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Besides, Joni opens with a “Jingle Bells” piano quote, and the lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. Oft-covered, but it doesn’t make a lot of holiday playlists.

Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins

Best Christmas blues ever, by the poet laureate of the Delta.

Now, I happened to see these old people learning the young ones,
Yeah just learning them exactly what to do.
So sweet, it’s so sweet to see these old people,
Learning they old children just what to do.
Mother said a million-year-ago Santa Claus come to me,
Now this year he gone come to you.

My little sister said take your stocking now,
Hang it up on the head of the bed.
Talkin’ to her friend she said take your stocking,
And please hang it up on head of the bed.
And she said know we all God’s saint children,
In the morning Ol’ Santa Claus gone see that we all is fed.

Sleigh Ride– The Ventures

I’ve never personally seen anyone “hang ten” in Puget Sound; nonetheless, one of the greatest surf bands ever hails from Tacoma. This jaunty mashup of a Christmas classic with “Walk, Don’t Run” sports tasty fretwork by Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson (sadly, co-founder and rhythm guitarist Wilson passed away earlier this year at the age of 88).

Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas – Harvey Danger

Ho-ho-ho, here’s your %&#!@ change. We’ve all been there at one time or another. I have a soft spot for this music video (It’s a Wonderful Life meets Clerks) because it features one of my favorite neighborhood theaters here in Seattle-The Grand Illusion.

Stoned Soul Christmas – Binky Griptite

“Man, what’s the matter with you…don’t you know it’s Christmas?!” A funky sleigh ride down to the stoned soul Christmas with guitarist/DJ Binky Griptite (formerly of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s  “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.

A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior

Not a Christmas song per se, but it certainly evokes a cozy holiday scenario:

Ivy tapping on my window, wine and candle glow,
Skies that promise snow have gathered overhead.
Buttered toast and creamy coffee, table laid for two,
Lovely having you to share a smile with me.

A beautiful track from an underappreciated UK prog-rock band.

‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong

The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.

Bonus track!

What begins as a performance of “Everlong” turns into a rousing Christmas medley in this 2017 performance by the Foo Fighters on Saturday Night Live. Good grief!

Marvel-less: Top 10 of 2022

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2022)

It’s time for the obligatory list, culled from the first-run films I reviewed in 2022:

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Day by Day – Felix Herngren’s dramedy (scripted by Tapio Leopold) is a delightful, life-affirming road movie from Sweden about…death. Before a terminally ill man (Sven Wallter) can make his getaway for a solo trip to a Swiss assisted-suicide clinic, several of his longtime friends at the retirement home catch wind of his plans, and it turns into a group outing (much to his chagrin). Lovely European travelogue (nicely photographed by Viktor Davidson). Funny and touching (yes …I laughed, I cried). Sadly, Wallter passed away soon after the film wrapped, adding poignancy to his performance.

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Drunken Birds ­– Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication. (Streaming on Prime Video)

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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song – Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional, and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

A truly great song tends to transcend its composer, taking on a life of its own. The reasons why can be as enigmatic as the act of creation itself. In an archival clip in Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s beautifully constructed documentary, the late Cohen muses, “If I knew where songs came from, I’d go there more often.” Using the backstory of his beloved composition “Hallelujah” as a catalyst, the filmmakers take us “there”, rendering a moving, spiritual portrait of a poet, a singer-songwriter, and a seeker. (Streaming on Prime Video)

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The Integrity of Joseph Chambers – This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance.

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The Man in the Basement (aka L’Homme de la Cave) – There are fifty shades of Chabrol in Philippe Le Guay’s “neighbor from hell” thriller (scripted by Le Guay with Gilles Taurand and Marc Weitzmann).  One of my favorite contemporary French actors, François Cluzet (Tell No One) plays a quiet fellow who buys the unused basement of an upper-crust couple’s Parisian apartment, presumably for storage. With the ink barely dry on the deed, the couple realize too late that he clearly intends to live in the cellar (sans plumbing). It gets worse when they find out that his online persona is every liberal’s nightmare. Always check references!

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Moonage Daydream – David Bowie invented the idea of “re-invention”. It’s also possible that he invented a working time machine because he was always ahead of the curve (or leading the herd). He was the poster boy for “postmodern”. Space rock? Meet Major Tom. Glam rock? Meet Ziggy Stardust. Doom rock? Meet the Diamond Dog. Neo soul? Meet the Thin White Duke. Electronica? Ich bin ein Berliner. New Romantic? We all know Major Tom’s a junkie

Of all his personas, “David Jones” is the most enigmatic; perhaps, as suggested in Brett Morgen’s trippy film, even to Bowie himself. More On the Road than on the records, Morgen’s kaleidoscopic thesis is a globe-trotting odyssey of an artist in search of himself. This is anything but a traditional, linear biography. Morgen doesn’t tell you everything about Bowie’s life, he simply shows you. Even if David Jones remains elusive as credits roll, the journey itself is absorbing and ultimately moving. Think of it as the Koyaanisqatsi of rock docs. (Full review) (Streaming on Amazon Prime)

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My Love Affair With Marriage – It’s a safe bet that the most oft-asked question throughout history (well, after “Where’s the restroom?”) is “What is love?”. Philosophers, poets, writers, psychologists and even scientists have tackled this age-old query, and come up with just as many disparate explanations. This lack of consensus informs the clever conceit behind Latvian animator Signe Baumane’s mixed-media feature.

Baumane’s semi-autobiographical study follows “Zelma” as she navigates the various passages of sexual self-awareness from childhood to adulthood…which then presents her with the complexities of love and relationships. Zelma’s vignettes are interspersed with neuroscience/biochemistry analyses done in the style of high school educational films (remember those?), with the odd musical number thrown in. Funny, touching, and insightful.

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Nude Tuesday – I must warn you: this film (from New Zealand) is complete gibberish. Literally…the dialog is spoken in a made-up language. Frankly, I was fully prepared to find this gimmick annoying, but thankfully a) there are subtitles and b) the film is nonetheless entertaining.

Writer-director Armagan Ballantyne’s off-the wall dramedy concerns middle-aged couple Laura and Bruno (co-screenwriter Jackie van Beek and Damon Harriman), who have hit a roadblock in their marriage. Bruno’s mother browbeats them into attending a couple’s retreat, to rekindle their passion. The resort is lorded over by a free-spirited sex guru (played with aplomb by Jemaine Clement). Vacillating between riotous cringe comedy and surprising sweetness, the film also pokes gentle fun at “self-actualization” culture (reminiscent of Bill Persky’s 1980 satire Serial).

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Sweetheart Deal ­– Dopesick and finding temporary solace from an RV-dwelling man of means by no means dubbed “The Mayor of Aurora Avenue”, four sex workers (Kristine, Sara, Amy, and Tammy) strive to keep life and soul together as they walk an infamous Seattle strip. With surprising twists and turns, Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller’s astonishingly intimate portrait is the most intense, heart-wrenching, and compassionate documentary I have seen about Seattle street life since Streetwise.

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Polystyrene: I Am A Cliché – I reckon few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She not only fearlessly waded into the male-dominated punk world of the late 70s (which, despite its association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was an overtly “laddish” club), but did  so as a woman of color (the Anglo-Somali singer-songwriter is credited as the progenitor of the Riot Grrrl and Afro-Punk movements).

If you’ve ever seen X-Ray Spex’s video for “Oh Bondage Up Yours”, you know that Styrene had a charismatic presence and a unique, powerful voice that belied her diminutive stature. With its “fuck you” lyrics and strident vocal, that song is now a feminist punk anthem; but according to this absorbing documentary (co-directed by narrator Celeste Bell and Paul Sng, with additional narration by Ruth Negga) Styrene never really identified as a feminist or a punk. A lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist. (Full review). (Streaming on Hulu)

Honorable mentions:

A couple of 2022 releases I didn’t initially review, but recommend:

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Kimi– I somehow missed this tight little thriller from Steven Soderbergh when it dropped on HBO Max earlier this year, but stumbled across it recently (so much content, so little time). Zoe Kravitz gives a terrific performance as an agoraphobic tech who works from home for a corporation called Amygdala, monitoring their A-I product “Kimi” (rhymes with “Siri”). When she happens across a digital file that may have captured audio of a woman’s murder, her world gets turned upside down. A clever mash-up of Rear Window, Repulsion, and The Conversation, with a whiff of The Parallax View… updated for the age of pandemic paranoia. David Keopp scripted.

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Confess, Fletch – First, my confession that I’ve always had a soft spot for the first Fletch film with Chevy Chase (never saw Fletch Lives). But I was intrigued to see a resurrection of the franchise 33 years after the previous entry, and pleasantly surprised at how entertaining Greg Mottola’s adaptation of Gregory McDonald’s eponymous 1976 comedy-mystery was. I swear Jon Hamm is channeling Cary Grant throughout, and he is ably supported by a delightful cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden, Kyle MacLachlan, and Roy Wood, Jr. Granted, it’s lightweight fare, but I haven’t laughed this hard at a modern comedy for grown-ups in quite some time.

…and just for giggles

Holy Krampus…have I really been writing reviews here for 16 years?! I was but a child of 50 when I began in November of 2006 (I was much older then, but I’m younger than that now). Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing for Hullabaloo.

(You may want to bookmark this post as a  handy reference for movie night).

[Click on title for full review]

2007

Eastern Promises, The Hoax, In the Shadow of the Moon, Kurt Cobain: About a Son, Michael Clayton, My Best Friend, No Country for Old Men, Pan’s Labyrinth, PaprikaZodiac

2008

Burn After Reading, The Dark Knight, The Gits, Happy Go Lucky, Honeydripper, Man on Wire, Milk, Slumdog Millionaire, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Visitor

2009

The Baader Meinhof Complex, Inglourious Basterds, In the Loop, The Limits of Control, The Messenger, A Serious Man, Sin Nombre, Star Trek, Where the Wild Things Are, The Yes Men Fix the World

2010

Creation, Inside Job, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Little Big Soldier, A Matter of Size, My Dog Tulip, Nowhere Boy, Oceans, The Runaways, Son of Babylon

2011

Another Earth, Certified Copy, The Descendants, Drei, Drive, The First Grader, Midnight in Paris, Summer Wars, Tinker/Tailor/Soldier/Spy, The Trip

2012

Applause, Dark Horse, Killer Joe, The Master, Paul Williams: Still Alive, Rampart, Samsara, Skyfall, The Story of Film: an Odyssey, Your Sister’s Sister

2013

The Act of Killing, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Computer Chess, 56 Up, The Hunt, Mud, The Rocket, The Silence, The Sweeney, Upstream Color

2014

Birdman, Child’s Pose, A Coffee in Berlin, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Kill the Messenger, The Last Days of Vietnam, Life Itself, A Summer’s Tale, The Wind Rises, The Theory of Everything

2015

Chappie, Fassbinder: Love Without Demands, An Italian Name, Liza the Fox Fairy, Love and Mercy, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Song of the Sea, Tangerines, Trumbo, When Marnie Was There

2016

The Curve, Eat That Question, Hail, Caesar!, Home Care, Jackie, Mekko, Older Than Ireland, Snowden, The Tunnel, Weiner

2017

After the Storm, Bad Black, Becoming Who I Was, Blade Runner 2049, A Date for Mad Mary, Endless Poetry, I Am Not Your Negro, Loving Vincent, The Women’s Balcony, Your Name

2018

Big Sonia, BlacKkKlansman, Fahrenheit 11/9, The Guilty, Let the Sunshine In, Little Tito and the Aliens, Outside In, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, Wild Wild Country, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

2019

David Crosby: Remember My Name, Dolemite is My Name, Driveways, The Edge of Democracy, The Irishman, Monos, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Putin’s Witnesses, This is Not Berlin, Wild Rose

2020

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Desert One, Love Spreads, Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, Pacified, 76 Days, Tommaso, The Trial of the Chicago 7, Weathering With You

2021

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road, Fire Music, Heist of the Century, Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time, The Last Film Show, The Paper Tigers, The Pebble and the Boy, Surge, Waikiki, Whelm

Pretty good saplings: Last Flight Home (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 3, 2022)

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Don’t nobody know what I’m talking about
I’ve got my own life to live
I’m the one that’s gonna have to die
When it’s time for me to die
So let me live my life
The way I want to, yeah
Sing on brother
Play on drummer

-Jimi Hendrix, “If 6 was 9”

In February 2017, my dear mother passed away at 86. While she had been weathering a plethora of health issues for years, the final straw (pancreatic cancer) had been diagnosed by her doctor only several weeks prior. When she called to give me the news, I told her I would immediately book a flight to Ohio. “I don’t want you to be here yet,” she told me. I was taken aback; but knowing how headstrong she was, I figured she had her reasons.

Unfortunately, her turn for the worse was so sudden that my flight (prompted by a call from my brother) turned into a grim race; my plane was on final approach to Canton-Akron Airport when she slipped away (I arrived at her bedside an hour after she had died). And yes, that was hard…the one time I wish I had not have listened to my mother.

Since I obviously wasn’t present during (what turned out to be) her last days, I asked my brother if she had any “final words”. At first, he chuckled a little through the tears, recounting that a day or two before, she had turned to him at one point and said “I wish I had some wisdom to impart. But I don’t.” I laughed (Jewish fatalism-it’s a cultural thing).

Then, he remembered something. The hospice room where my mother spent her last week had a picture window facing west, with a view of a field, a pond, a small stand of trees, and an occasional deer sighting. Two days before she was gone, my mother, my father, and my brothers were quietly enjoying this pastoral scene with the bonus of a lovely sunset. My mother broke the silence with just three words: “Trees are important.”

What did she mean? Indeed, trees are important. They are, in a literal sense, the lungs of the Earth. As a metaphor, I must consider the foundational significance that The Tree of Life holds in Judaism. Was she “imparting wisdom” after all? Had she, at the end of her journey, reached what Paddy Chayefsky once called a “cleansing moment of clarity”? It may not be quite as cinematic as, say…“Rosebud,” but it’s a kissin’ cousin to a Zen koan.

A year and-a-half later I was once again on a flight to Ohio in a race to beat the Reaper, hoping to make it to my father’s bedside before he slipped into the abyss. This time I “made it.” He couldn’t move but was still conscious. As I grabbed his hand and leaned in close so he could see me, his eyes noticeably brightened. He said one word: “hug.” I obliged. For the next 24 hours, he slipped in and out of consciousness (like my mother, he had requested “do not resuscitate”) and I was holding his hand when he passed away.

Frankly, having now experienced both scenarios (“just missing it” and getting there “just in time”), I cannot really say one is “better” than the other. It is never easy losing a parent. I suppose I can take solace in the fact that in each case, my mother and father were surrounded by family, and slipped away “peacefully” (whatever that means…at least it appeared to be a“peaceful” transition to me when my father took his last breath).

There are worse ways to go.

Don’t get hot
‘Cause man, you’ve got
Some high times ahead
Take it slow
And Daddy-o
You can live it up and die in bed

­ -from “Cool” (West Side Story), by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein

It was inevitable that I would begin to ruminate about my parents, the importance of trees (and hugs) as I watched Ondi Timoner’s deeply moving documentary Last Flight Home. “I just want peace,” her bedridden 92-year-old father assures his family in the first reel, confirming a decision to end his life with medical assistance.

So begins the countdown of days, hours, and minutes remaining in Eli Timoner’s journey. In the hands of a less compassionate (or personally invested) filmmaker, this would seem a morbid, even macabre exercise…but it is one of the most life-affirming films that I have seen in years.

Speaking of trees, there’s a moment when Ondi’s sister (a rabbi) quotes from the Talmud: “May your saplings be like you.” Ondi says to her father, “You did all right with the ‘saplings’, don’t you think?” Her father quips, “Bunch of saps.” It’s those “laughter through the tears” moments that keep you engaged, despite the very heavy undercurrents.

Eli Timoner’s life was a roller-coaster of triumph and tragedy. A wildly successful entrepreneur and philanthropist (he founded Air Florida in the 1970s), he counted movers and shakers like Joe Biden among his friends.

Then, in 1982 (at age 53) he suffered a stroke that caused debilitating health issues for the remainder of his life. By 1984, Air Florida was in bankruptcy (the company had begun a downward slide following the 1982 crash of an Air Florida jet into the Potomac River in Washington D.C.). He lost millions.

The director doesn’t dwell too long on her father’s biography, but uses masterful intercutting of archival news stories, family home movies, and the task at hand to illustrate how it was the constants of Eli’s makeup as a human being…his compassion for others, unwavering love and devotion to family, and infectious joie de vivre that got him though thick and thin in both his professional and personal life (you get what you give).

In fact, the nonagenarian Eli is so sharp, so sound of mind, and surrounded by so much love and support it begs a question: Why end it? If the primary consideration is physical debilitation, how about (for sake of argument) someone like Stephen Hawking? His physiological life was far from a picnic; but what he was able to achieve and contribute to the world right up until the end of his life with just his sheer thinking power boggles the mind.

Of course, Timoner is under no obligation to make her film a polemic on aid-in-dying laws or a treatise of the ethics involved. Rather, her film is an act of love, of sharing something so intimate that at times you feel like you’re intruding on this family’s privacy. But as  she obviously made her film with full consent of all involved, there is nothing exploitative or sensationalist about its execution. As my mother said, “trees are important” and Last Flight Home left me with an assuring feeling that my loving parents did all right with the saplings.

Stick a fork in it: Top 10 foodie films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 26, 2022)

https://i0.wp.com/cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/Goj-x4tv6yg4KzQOyHv3qFN84pU=/0x0:1332x697/fit-in/1200x630/cdn3.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/7403783/tampopo_28880id_043.jpg?resize=474%2C248&ssl=1 Since it’s Thanksgiving weekend, that most venerable of American holidays which enables families to gather once a year to count their blessings, stuff their faces, and endeavor mightily to not bring politics into the conversation, I thought I might mosey on over to the movie pantry and hand-select my top 10 food films. Dig in!https://i0.wp.com/eatablefilms.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Big-Night-still-2.jpg?resize=474%2C256

Big Night– I have repeatedly foisted this film on friends and relatives, because after all, it’s important to “…take a bite out of the ass of life!” (as one of the characters demonstrates with voracious aplomb). Two brothers, enterprising businessman Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who also co-wrote and co-directed) and his older sibling Primo (Tony Shalhoub), a gifted chef, open an Italian restaurant but quickly run into financial trouble.

Possible salvation arrives via a dubious proposal from a more successful competitor (played by a hammy Ian Holm). The fate of their business hinges on Primo’s ability to conjure up the ultimate feast. And what a meal he prepares-especially the timpano (you’d better have  pasta and ragu handy-or your appestat will be writing checks your duodenum will not be able to cash, if you know what I’m saying).

The wonderful cast includes Isabella Rossellini, Minnie Driver, Liev Schreiber, Allison Janney, Campbell Scott (who co-directed with Tucci), and look for Latin pop superstar Marc Anthony as the prep cook.

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Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio DJ (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve, throwing him into existential crisis and causing him to take urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he yearns to produce something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity lands him a hot scoop-a brewing “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies.

The film is chockablock with Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy, wry one-liners and subtle visual gags. As a former morning DJ, I can attest the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” running his show are authentic (a rarity on the screen). One warning: it might take several days for you to purge that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover– A gamey, visceral and perverse fable about food, as it relates to love, sex, violence, revenge, and Thatcherism from writer-director Peter Greenaway (who I like to call “the thinking person’s Ken Russell”).

Michael Gambon chews up the scenery as a vile and vituperative British underworld kingpin who holds nightly court at a gourmet eatery. When his bored trophy wife (Helen Mirren) becomes attracted to one of the regular diners, an unassuming bookish fellow (Alan Howard), the wheels are set in motion for a twisty tale, culminating in one of the most memorable scenes of “just desserts” ever served up on film (not for the squeamish).

The opulent set design and cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s extraordinary use of color lend the film a rich Jacobean texture. Richard Bohringer is “the cook”, and look for the late pub rocker Ian Dury as one of Gambon’s associates. It’s unique…if not for all tastes.

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Diner– This slice-of-life dramedy marked writer-director Barry Levinson’s debut in 1982, and remains his best. A group of 20-something pals converge for Christmas week in 1959 Baltimore. One is recently married, another is about to get hitched, and the rest playing the field and deciding what to do with their lives as they slog fitfully toward adulthood.

The most entertaining scenes are at the group’s favorite diner, where the comfort food of choice is French fries with gravy. Levinson has a knack for writing sharp dialog, and it’s the little details that make the difference; like a cranky appliance store customer who will settle for nothing less than a B&W Emerson (he refuses to upgrade to color TV because he saw Bonanza in color at a friend’s house, and thought “…the Ponderosa looked fake”).

This film was more influential than it gets credit for; Tarantino owes a debt, as do the creators of Seinfeld. It’s hard to believe that Kevin Bacon, Mickey Rourke, Ellen Barkin, Daniel Stern, Timothy Daly, Steve Guttenberg and Paul Reiser were all relative unknowns at the time!

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Eat Drink Man Woman– Or as I call it: “I Never Stir-Fried for My Father”. This was director Ang Lee’s follow-up to his surprise hit The Wedding Banquet (another good food flick). It’s a well-acted dramedy about traditional Chinese values clashing with the mores of modern society. An aging master chef (losing his sense of taste) fastidiously prepares an elaborate weekly meal which he requires his three adult, single daughters to attend. As the narrative unfolds, Lee subtly reveals something we’ve suspected all along: when it comes to family dysfunction, we are a world without borders.

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My Dinner with Andre– This one is a tough sell for the uninitiated. “An entire film that nearly all takes place at one restaurant table, with two self-absorbed New York intellectuals pontificating for the entire running time of the film-this is entertaining?!” Yes, it is. Director Louis Malle took a chance that pays off in spades. Although essentially a work of fiction, the two stars, theater director Andre Gregory and actor-playwright Wallace Shawn are playing themselves (they co-wrote the screenplay). A rumination on art, life, love, the universe and everything, the film is not so much about dinner, as a love letter to the lost art of erudite dinner conversation.

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Pulp Fiction– Although the universal popularity of this Quentin Tarantino opus is owed chiefly to its hyper-stylized mayhem and the iambic pentameter of its salty dialogue, I think it is underappreciated as a foodie film. The hell you say? Think about it.

The opening and closing scenes take place in a diner, with characters having lively discussions over heaping plates of food. In Mia and Vincent’s scene at the theme restaurant, the camera zooms to fetishistic close-ups of the “Douglas Sirk steak, and a vanilla coke.”. Mia offers Jules a sip of her 5 Dollar Milkshake.

Vincent and Jules ponder why the French refer to Big Macs as “Royales with cheese” and why the Dutch insist on drowning their French fries in mayonnaise. Jules voraciously hijacks the doomed Brett’s “Big Kahuna” burger, then precedes to wash it down with a sip of his “tasty beverage”. Pouty Fabienne pines wistfully for blueberry pancakes.

Even super-efficient Mr. Wolfe takes a couple seconds out of his precisely mapped schedule to reflect on the pleasures of a hot, fresh-brewed cup of coffee. And “Don’t you just love it when you come back from the bathroom and find your food waiting for you?”

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Tampopo– Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the title character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Shane), Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

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The Trip– Pared down into feature film length from the BBC series of the same name, Michael Winterbottom’s film is essentially a highlight reel of that show-which is not to denigrate; as it is the most genuinely hilarious comedy I’ve seen in many a moon. The levity is due in no small part to Winterbottom’s two stars-Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, basically playing themselves in this mashup of Sideways and My Dinner with Andre.

Coogan is asked by a British newspaper to take a “restaurant tour” of England’s bucolic Lake District, and review the eateries. He initially plans to take his girlfriend along, but since their relationship is going through a rocky period, he asks his pal, fellow actor Brydon, to accompany him.

This simple setup is an excuse to sit back and enjoy Coogan and Brydon’s brilliant comic riffing (much of it improvised) on everything from relationships to the “proper” way to do Michael Caine impressions. There’s some unexpected poignancy-but for the most part, it’s pure comedy gold. It was followed by three equally entertaining sequels, The Trip to Italy (2014), The Trip to Spain (2017), and The Trip to Greece (2020).

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Tom Jones– The film that made the late Albert Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety.

The film earns its spot on this list for a brief but iconic (and very tactile) eating scene involving Finney and the wonderful Joyce Redman (see below).

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

Bon Appétit!