Category Archives: Behind the Music

I never sang for my father: Rocketman (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 22, 2019)

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So…Baz Luhrmann, Ken Russell, and Bob Fosse walk into a bar. Out pops Rocketman, an unabashedly over-the-top biopic about an unabashedly over-the-top superstar. And considering that it’s been unabashedly executive produced by said over-the-top superstar, it is surprisingly not so much a vanity piece as it is a self-abasing confessional.

With lots of singing, dancing, and jazz hands.

The eponymous astro-powered gentleman is Reginald Kenneth Dwight, aka Sir Elton Hercules John…pianist, singer-songwriter, balladeer, glam-rocker, pop star, composer, and a man prone (at times in his life) to drug-alcohol-sex-food and/or shopping addiction.

It is the latter iteration (a walking gestalt of coked-out, fucked-silly, booze-soaked, self-absorbed and over-pampered rock star excess) that the director Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody) and screenwriter Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) present as the film opens.

In case we don’t glean that this troubled, troubled man is about to face his inner demons by going full confessional at an addict recovery meeting, Elton (Taron Egerton) makes a grand entrance with a world-weary plod down a long hallway, bedecked in a devil costume that recalls Tim Curry’s Mephistophelian creature in Legend. He looks…unwell.

The support group device is a launch pad; a flashback-generator enabling rocket man to blast off into inner space, access his drug-addled memory banks and reassess his life as a mashup of kitchen sink drama, lurid soap, Fosse musical and MTV video (fasten your seat belts, check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…it’s gonna be a bumpy night).

Rocket man’s earliest recollections roil through his psyche. We observe young Reggie (Matthew Illesley) constantly vying for attention from his mother (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father (Steven Mackintosh). But alas, it is for naught; Dad is cold and distant as the moon and Mum is vain and self-absorbed (in one telling scene, Reggie is traumatized when he stumbles upon Mum and future stepdad having a shag in the back seat of a car).

In fact, it is his Gran (Gemma Jones) who becomes his nurturer (in real life, John was raised by his maternal grandparents). She is the one who encourages her daughter to invest in piano lessons for Reggie when he begins to demonstrate a natural ear for music early on (his Dad, despite being a trumpet player and a jazz fanatic, is oddly ambivalent).

[SFX: phonograph needle ripping across vinyl] A quick note, before I proceed. If you are a stickler for linear timelines, 100% historical accuracy, and such-abort this mission now. As I noted in my review of Fletcher (and Bryan Singer’s) biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody:

Now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll historian. I’m not claiming to be a “scholar”, mind you…but I’m cognizant enough to conclude that for beauty of language, I would read Lester Bangs, and for interpretation of fact…I would read Richard Meltzer.

I am also a film critic (allegedly). So, when I settle down to review a rock ‘n’ roll biopic like Bryan Singer’s long-anticipated “Bohemian Rhapsody”, I start to feel a little schizoid. My mission as a film critic is to appraise a film based on its cinematic merits; e.g. how well is it directed, written, and acted? Does it have a cohesive narrative? Do I care about the characters? How about the cinematography, and the editing? Are you not entertained?

However, my inner rock ‘n’ roll historian also rears its head, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it’s only a movie, thereby releasing the kraken of pedantic angst. So, I’ll endeavor to tread lightly…otherwise I’ll be at risk of pleasing neither of my two readers.

And so, I was fully prepared, and therefore did not flinch (okay maybe I did twitch once or twice) when, for example, pre- “Elton” Reginald and his band launched into “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” a decade before he and Bernie Taupin actually co-wrote it.

Steel yourself for these anachronisms; a good portion of the songs are chosen to fit the scene, rather than the actual historical timeline. That said, since we’re (largely) talking the Elton John/Bernie Taupin catalog here…one could do worse for a movie soundtrack.

This turns out to be an effective device. For example, in my favorite music vignette, wherein Elton debuts the finished version of “Your Song” for writing partner Bernie (Jamie Bell), it lends a completely new and emotionally resonant subtext to a familiar tune. While I’ve heard the song 100s of times over the years, I’ve never considered the possibility (as the scene infers) that it’s Bernie’s way of telling Elton he loves him, but “just not like that” (which Bernie says to Elton, whilst gently deflecting a romantic pass).

My gift is my song
And this one’s for you

(Elton’s 2019 net worth is $500 million…a loving “gift” indeed, in the fullness of time).

In case you were wondering, not all of Elton’s romantic overtures are deflected; the film is open and honest regarding his sexuality. There is no “straight-washing” (which was a bone of contention regarding Fletcher and Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody). So, if Aunt Mabel is an Elton fan but maybe a little conservative, just a caveat that she is going to get the truth, the whole truth, and…oh fuck it. There’s gay sex, alright? Bring her-she’ll deal.

The film is fueled by Egerton’s knockout performance, which obfuscates a few “backstage drama” clichés. He’s also a terrific singer. He doesn’t mimic Elton’s voice, but does capture his essence (most of the songs are truncated or reconstructed anyway). Ultimately, it’s more musical fantasy than biopic. For just the facts, ma’am…read the Wiki entry. But if you’re up for singing, dancing and jazz hands…you’ll dig Rocketman.

SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Few artists are as synonymous with “cool” as innovative musician-arranger-band leader Miles Davis. That’s not to say he didn’t encounter some sour notes during his ascent to the pantheon of jazz (like unresolved issues from growing up in the shadow of domestic violence, and traumatic run-ins with racism-even at the height of fame). Sadly, as you learn while watching Stanley Nelson’s slick and engrossing documentary, much of the dissonance in Davis’ life journey was of his own making (substance abuse, his mercurial nature). Such is the dichotomy of genius.

SIFF 2019: Enormous: The Gorge Story (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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The Gorge is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the mall, but that’s just peanuts to the Gorge (with apologies to Douglas Adams). I refer to Washington State’s Columbia Gorge, 140 miles from Seattle. For music fans, the Gorge has become synonymous with memorable concert experiences. This amiable doc traces its transformation from a homemade stage built in the 80s to accommodate a wine-tasting to a now legendary music mecca. Employees, fans and artists (Dave Matthews, Mike McCready, Steve Miller, John Oates, Jason Mraz, et. al.) share favorite memories.

SIFF 2019: Who Let the Dogs Out? (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Who let the dogs out? Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn, because I have hated that tuneless ear worm since I first heard it in 2000. That said, my opinion holds no sway in the grand scheme, because it remains one of the most ubiquitous anthems of the last 20 years.

For me, the biggest question is: “Why?” However, for “cultural curator” Ben Sisto the nagging question is “Who?” …as in, who actually wrote the song? Triggered by a “sloppy” Wikipedia entry regarding authorship of the Baha Men’s one-hit-wonder, Sisto went on an 8-year quest to solve the mystery. As Sisto runs the chalk backwards, the story becomes curiouser and curiouser; both Roshomon-style mystery and treatise on the objective psyche.

SIFF 2019: David Crosby: Remember My Name (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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David Crosby marvels aloud in A.J. Eaton’s film that he’s still above ground …as do we. Cameron Crowe produced this doc, edited from several days of candid interviews he conducted with the 77 year-old music legend. Crosby relays all: the sights, the sounds, the smells of six decades of rock ‘n’ roll excess. I was left contemplating this bittersweet line from Almost Famous: “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”

SIFF 2019: Wild Rose (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Yes, it’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. Bonus…there’s a cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!

In the lap of the gods: Bohemian Rhapsody (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 10, 2018)

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One of my favorite scenes in the BBC-TV series I Claudius takes place in a library, where aspiring historian Claudius encounters two scholars whom he admires. When Claudius diplomatically says they are the “two greatest” historians, it gets awkward fast:

(excerpted from the teleplay by Jack Pulman)

Pollio: Well, there can’t be two greatest. That’s just shilly-shallying, apart from being an abuse of the Roman tongue. So, you will have to choose. Which one of us would you rather read?

 Livy: Oh come Pollio, that’s not fair.

 Pollio: Nonsense. The lad’s obviously intelligent. So, speak up, boy. Which of us would you rather read?

 Claudius: Well, it d-d-depends, sir.

 Pollio: Ah, intelligent, but cowardly.

 Claudius: No. I mean, it depends on what I’m reading for. For b-beauty of language I would read L-Livy, and for interpretation of fact I would read P-P-Pollio.

 Livy: [indignantly] Now you please neither of us and that’s always a mistake!

Now, I like to fancy myself a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll historian. I’m not claiming to be a “scholar”, mind you…but I’m cognizant enough to conclude that for beauty of language, I would read Lester Bangs, and for interpretation of fact…I would read Richard Meltzer.

I am also a film critic (allegedly). So when I settle down to review a rock ‘n’ roll biopic like Bryan Singer’s long-anticipated Bohemian Rhapsody, I start to feel a little schizoid. My mission as a film critic is to appraise a film based on its cinematic merits; e.g. how well is it directed, written, and acted? Does it have a cohesive narrative? Do I care about the characters? How about the cinematography, and the editing? Are you not entertained?

However, my inner rock ‘n’ roll historian also rears its head, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge it’s only a movie, thereby releasing the kraken of pedantic angst. So I’ll endeavor to tread lightly…otherwise I’ll be at risk of pleasing neither of my two readers.

In the remote case you are unaware, the film dramatizes the story of Queen, one of the most successful rock acts of all time. The film’s title is taken from one of their most recognizable songs, guaranteed to be playing soon on your local classic rock FM station (tune in-it will play within an hour or so, or it will be sampled in a station sweeper mandated by law to include “Money” by Pink Floyd and “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin).

You are likely aware that there has been a kerfuffle or two regarding this film. Sacha Baron Cohen was originally cast as lead singer Freddie Mercury but walked out over creative differences with producers. Credited director Singer was booted off the project by the studio while it was still in production (he was replaced by uncredited Dexter Fletcher). Then there was social media outcry in wake of the teaser trailer, which some members of the LBGTQ community felt “straight-washed” Mercury’s sexual orientation.

Talk about performance pressure.

The film opens with a Scorsese-style tracking shot following Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) as he energetically works his way from backstage to enter the mainstage at London’s Wembley Stadium where an excited throng of humanity awaits. It’s July of 1985, and Queen is about to deliver their now-legendary performance as part of Bob Geldof’s massive Live-Aid benefit concert to raise money for Ethiopian famine victims.

Adhering to the Golden Rules of Rock ‘n’ Roll Biopics, this is but a framing device-and a cue to abruptly cut away from this moment of triumph to embark on a 2-hour flashback showing How We Got Here (spoiler alert-the time loop eventually reconnects with 1985).

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay proceeds from there in a fairly standard by-the-numbers fashion, beginning in early ‘70s London, which is when and where baggage handler, rock superfan and later-to-be-christened “Freddie Mercury” (née Farrokh Bulsara) joins his favorite band Smile after their bassist/lead vocalist quits. With Farrokh, new bass player John Deacon (Joseph Mazzelo), guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) now in place, Smile is all set to morph into the classic Queen lineup.

Theirs was not an overnight success; it wasn’t until 1973 that they found themselves in a position to record their first proper album. The film depicts the band scrambling to find their voice in these first forays in the recording studio; working out the basic rudiments of what would eventually become the band’s signature formula of proggy neo-classical melodies meets heavy metal riffing, topped off by intricate harmony vocal arrangements.

The band’s 1974 sophomore album Queen II and its follow-up Sheer Heart Attack (same year!) were actually more significant in terms of sales and career-building, but the filmmakers curiously skip over this crucial transition period of substantive creative progression and jump into the sessions for 1975’s international hit A Night at the Opera.

It’s in these scenes, where the band becomes ensconced in the studios that the film really came alive for me; then again, I’m a sucker for fly-on-the-wall peeks at creative process.

Unfortunately, the film falls flat whenever it takes soap-opera excursions into Freddie Mercury’s personal life. I don’t fault the actors; Lucy Boynton and Aaron McCusker each give it their best shot as Mercury’s longtime girlfriend Mary Austin and male lover Jim Hutton, respectively and Malek’s completely committed portrayal never falters (although I was initially distracted by his uncanny resemblance to Mick Jagger early in the film).

In case you were wondering, they do address his sexuality (as well as the AIDS that took him from us; although they inexplicably alter the timeline as to when he was diagnosed).

To millions of fans, Queen “was” Freddie Mercury; and indeed, he was the embodiment of a Rock Star-a flamboyant, dynamic, iconoclastic front man with fabulous pipes and charisma to spare. I get that. Yet Mercury was one-quarter of a unit where the others brought their own monster musicianship, angelic harmonies and songwriting skills to the table.

When I was a 17-year-old longhair stoner rocking out to “Liar”, “Modern Times Rock and Roll” and “Keep Yourself Alive” while dancing around my room wearing comically over-sized Koss headphones, I don’t recall giving one infinitesimal fuck whether the singer was gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual or asexual. I just dug the music.

Bottom line, if you go in expecting a Freddie Mercury biopic replete with all the juicy details of his love life and recreations of his legendary bacchanals, you will be disappointed. If you go in expecting a Queen biopic that neatly distills the essence of the band and its music, and you’re not overly bothered by fudging on the facts for the sake of some dramatic license, I think you will come out of the theater with Bic lighter held aloft.

# # #

Special note: The showing of Bohemian Rhapsody that I attended was presented in a format hitherto unknown to me called “Screen X”. While I did balk at the $18 price tag (for a goddam matinee?!) I figured it was my duty to check out this newfangled technology.

Screen X requires a three-screen configuration. The center is your standard movie screen image, matted the same as any theater, cable or home video presentation. Additional footage is projected on the left and right wall panels immediately adjacent. This affords what is billed as a “270-degree” field of view (what am I…a fuckin’ owl?).

These side images are composed, filmed, and edited at the same time as the standard theatrical material; the intended effect is to fill your peripheral vision. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, only “selected scenes” were given the full effect (mostly used for the live concert scenes).

It’s being compared to IMAX, but I found it reminiscent of Cinerama (I’m showing my age). Truth be told, it didn’t enhance my movie experience. I found it distracting. Meh. Now, if they could figure a way to add quadrophonic sound…

Torn, torn, torn – Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 14, 2018)

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punk (noun)

[mass noun] A loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s. ‘punk had turned pop music and its attendant culture on its head’

1.1 [count noun] An admirer or player of punk rock, typically characterized by coloured spiked hair and clothing decorated with safety pins or zips. ‘punks fought Teds on the Kings Road on Saturday afternoons’

– from The Oxford Living Dictionary

So what does ‘punk’ really mean? I suppose it depends on who you ask. Tony James of Generation X likened it to “…my childhood, the glorious, very exciting naivete of rock n’ roll.” Kurt Cobain defined it as “…musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.” David Byrne surmised that ‘punk’ was “…defined by an attitude rather than a musical style.” To Lester Bangs, it was “…a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it…and do something good besides.”

Seminal punk provocateur Malcolm McLaren explained it thus (in an interview taken from Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk) … “I was just this strange guy with this mad dream. I was trying to do with the Sex Pistols what I failed at with the New York Dolls. I was taking the nuances of Richard Hell, the faggy [sic] pop side of the New York Dolls, the politics of boredom and mashing it all together to make a statement, maybe the final statement I would ever make. And piss off this rock ‘n’ roll scene.” Well, he certainly succeeded on that last part; but he also shook up the status quo. That said…he didn’t do it alone, despite his braggadocio.

Specifically, it’s possible that Mr. McLaren would have lived a life of quiet desperation sans acclaim or notoriety, had he never crossed paths with a Vivienne Westwood. Their longtime relationship was complicated; briefly romantic and fitfully platonic at best. Ultimately, they settled for pragmatic, as it was their creative partnership that fueled the U.K. punk scene-with McLaren on the music end, and Westwood covering the fashion front. The couple co-founded “SEX” in the mid-70s, the King’s Road boutique where future members of the Sex Pistols famously hung out. This was where Westwood fully realized her knack for couture, putting her on the map as a key architect of punk fashion.

Unfortunately, this fascinating chapter of Westwood’s life is largely glossed over in Lorna Tucker’s slickly produced yet curiously uninspired documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist. Granted, the feisty and still-punky Westwood appears quite reticent to reminisce on-camera about the Sex Pistols era; but frankly, that is why most people would be intrigued to see this film in the first place (that’s my theory…I could be wrong).

Westwood herself is entertaining; as is her current husband/creative partner Andreas (he’s a trip…and so spooky close to Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Bruno” character that I can’t help speculating if he was the inspiration). I did come away admiring Westwood’s dedication to various causes. However, I didn’t feel I learned much about who she really is or what makes her tick (e.g. there is very little regarding her life pre-McLaren). Still, if you’re attracted to the world of overblown couture and underfed models (I’m afraid I am not) then you might find this sketchy hagiography  more engaging.

 

SIFF 2018: Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally published on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s documentary where his subject, Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, after much experimentation with various “found” sounds, finally gets the “perfect” tonality for one single note of a work in progress. “It’s strangely bright,” he observes, with the delighted face of a child on Christmas morning, “but also…melancholic.” One could say the same about Schible’s film; it’s strangely bright, but also melancholic. You could also say it is but a series of such Zen moments; a deeply reflective and meditative glimpse at the most intimate workings of the creative process. It’s also a document of Sakamoto’s quiet fortitude, as he returns to the studio after taking a hiatus to engage in anti-nuke activism and to battle his cancer. A truly remarkable film.

SIFF 2018: My Name is Not Rueben Blades ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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Abner Benaim’s intimate portrait of polymath Rueben Blades is full of surprises. For example, you wouldn’t think an accomplished singer-songwriter-musician, actor, Harvard-educated lawyer, politician and social activist would find time to geek out over his sizable comic book and memorabilia collection. “You’re the first ones to film in here. I don’t let anyone in here,” he tells the filmmakers, leading them into this sanctum sanctorum within his Chelsea, NY apartment, wistfully adding, “You’re the first and the last.” Wistful, perhaps because he is now voluntarily closing a major chapter of his life (touring and performing) to focus his energy into running for President of Panama (as one does). An inspiring film.