Category Archives: Behind the Music

Tribeca 2022: Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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Flying saucer, take me away. In 1971, the year before Bowie brought Ziggy Stardust to Earth, T. Rex landed the glam rock mother ship with their breakthrough album Electric Warrior. Originally formed as the duo Tyrannosaurus Rex in 1967, songwriter-vocalist-guitarist Marc Bolan and percussionist/obvious Tolkien fan Steve Peregrin Took (aka Steve Porter) put out several albums of psychedelia-tinged folk before splitting in 1970. Mickey Finn replaced Took, and Bolan recruited additional personnel and shortened the name to T. Rex in 1970.

Bolan’s coupling of power chord boogie with pan-sexual stage attire turned heads, making him the poster boy for what came to be labeled “glam-rock” (although, to my ears Bolan’s songs are rooted in traditional Chuck Berry riffs and straight-ahead blues-rock…albeit with enigmatic and absurdist lyrics). Tragically, Bolan died in a car accident in 1977 at 29. An amazingly prolific songwriter, he left behind a substantial catalogue and a legion of fans.

Ethan Silverman’s film traces Bolan’s career, weaving in footage from the sessions for the 2020 multi-artist tribute album Angelheaded Hipster: The Songs of Marc Bolan and T. Rex (Silverman was also involved in the production of the album). In addition to archival Bolan interviews and T. Rex performances (much of the latter taken from Ringo Starr’s 1973 Born to Boogie doc), tribute album participants like U2, Nick Cave Joan Jett, and Rolan Bolan weigh in. There are also comments (some archival) from Gloria Jones, Elton John, David Bowie, Billy Idol, Tony Visconti, Ringo and Cameron Crowe.  While it may not be a definitive portrait, it’s a heartfelt nod to a rock icon whose lasting influence cannot be overstated.

Tribeca 2022: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2022)

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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.

Tribeca 2022: The Lost Weekend: A Love Story ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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As a lifetime Beatle fan, I like to think that everything I don’t know about the Fabs wouldn’t fill a flea’s codpiece…but I’ll confess that I learned a new thing or two about John Lennon’s infamous mid-life crisis in this engrossing documentary, directed by Eve Brandstein, Richard Kaufman, and Stuart Samuels.

This “lost weekend” (coined as such by Lennon himself) lasted approximately a year and a half, from 1973 into 1974, and was precipitated by a rocky period in his storied marriage with Yoko Ono. According to the mythology, Yoko gave John “permission” to sow his wild oats for a spell.

She had a caveat…the couple’s devoted personal assistant May Pang was to accompany John as his “girlfriend”. No matter how you look at it, this was an unconventional separation. It’s no secret that Lennon and Pang became a very public item. History has not always been kind to Ms. Pang, who was arguably caught in the middle of a marital power struggle between her employers.

With this film, Pang finally gets a chance to tell her story…and it’s a real eye-opener. Her entrée into the rarefied air of the Beatles’ inner circle by the tender age of 19 plays like a fairy tale, especially considering her modest beginnings growing up in Spanish Harlem. Her parents were Chinese immigrants; a rocky relationship with her dismissive father drove her to seek solace in rock and roll music (and of course, to discover the Beatles).

The expected anecdotes associated with “the lost weekend” are here-Lennon’s purloined bacchanal with “The Hollywood Vampires”, the wild studio sessions with Phil Spector, et.al. (and a few you may not have previously heard). But the real heart of the film is the story of how Pang’s relationship with Lennon developed (more organically than has been generally assumed). Julian Lennon is also on hand to offer his perspective. A lovely and affecting memoir by Pang, and a treat for Beatle fans.

You’re nice people you are: Box of Rain (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2022)

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“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass writer trots out that old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Anyway, whoever did say it originally, probably can’t remember if they were in fact the person who said it first…so it’s moot.

Here’s the good news. While the ethos that informs Lonnie Frazier’s Box of Rain has inescapable, foundational roots in 60s counterculture, I’m happy to report her documentary about the “Deadhead” community features minimal archival footage of antiwar demonstrations and love-ins, and “Fortunate Son” is nowhere to be heard. Nor will you even hear any Dead songs…which I assume is due to a licensing issue.

That said, Frazier’s film isn’t so much about the Dead …or their music per se, as it is about a multi-generational community of devoted fans blissfully nonplussed by ever-shifting musical trends (the band’s final studio album was 1989’s Built to Last ). As Jerry Garcia once observed “We didn’t invent the Grateful Dead, the crowd invented the Grateful Dead. We were just in line to see what was going to happen.”

This uniquely symbiotic relationship between the Dead (arguably the first “D.I.Y.” band) and their fans was the impetus for their famously mercurial live performances-which could run 1 hour…or 5 hours, depending on the vibe between audience and artist:

The [1972] Bickershaw Festival [in the UK] brought together a number of West Coast American acts such as Country Joe McDonald, the New Riders, and the Dead with some of the big British names, including Donovan and The Kinks. The Dead played on the last day of the three-day festival. And by the time they came out, the crowd had been drenched and muddy for the entire time. Not had it rained throughout at the flood-prone site, but the organizers had emptied a pool used for a high-dive act – there were various circus-type performances – right in front of the stage. But none of this dampened the Dead’s playing or the crowd’s enthusiasm for it. Reportedly, Elvis Costello – just an eighteen-year-old unknown pub singer – stood in awe throughout the [nearly 5-hour] set and convinced him he should start a band.

Now that’s dedication. Or something. Whatever “it” is, it enables thousands to feel “at home” hippie-dancing in the mud for 5 hours (creating a psychedelic maelstrom of paisley and tie-dye you could see from space). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as everybody had a good year, everybody let their hair down, and nobody got hurt. And if “home” is (as they say) where the heart is, then the heart of Frazier’s film is about how she found a home away from home as a Deadhead.

In the intro, Frazier intones “Most dictionaries define ‘home’ as the place where one lives permanently, as the member of a family. Home is a place where you feel safe, loved, accepted, and where you feel like you belong. But what if the family you’re born into doesn’t offer you these things? When the house you live in looks perfect from the outside…but feels quite the opposite behind closed doors?” She then recounts a traumatic experience that plunged her into a suicidal depression at age 17.

I know what you’re thinking. “Isn’t this supposed to be about peace, love, and good vibes?” Patience, grasshopper. Fortunately, a free ticket to a Dead show proved to be a deus ex machina that placed her on a path to healing and happiness. Frazier looks up the two friends who hooked her up with the ticket and retraces the road trip the three women took in 1985 to see the Dead perform at Red Rocks in Colorado.

However, this isn’t solely a stroll down memory lane, but a Whitman’s sampler of the fan culture, direct from the mouths of beatific Deadheads. I know we live in a cynical age and all, but these folks seem so genuinely…nice, and the interviews do convey a lovely sense of “family” within the Deadhead community. It’s a breezy enough 72 minutes, even if I found the road stories and “favorite concert” minutiae less than gripping; but hey, man-I’m only a casual fan who never felt compelled to go see the Dead live, so you can take my opinion with a grain of salt …and a touch of grey.

“Box of Rain” is streaming now on various digital platforms.

SIFF 2022: Nothing Compares (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 23, 2022)

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Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary is a beautifully constructed profile of singer Sinéad O’Connor. Arguably, O’Connor is more well-known for making her polarizing anti-Vatican remarks on SNL than for her music catalog-but history has proven not only the prescience of that stance, but how her refusal to “just shut up and sing” has inspired female artists and activists who followed in her footsteps to speak truth to power (“They tried to bury me, but didn’t realize they’d planted a seed,” she says). A superb portrait of an artist with true integrity. It’s a Showtime production, so if you’re a subscriber, keep your eyes peeled for it.

Existence is elusive: Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 29, 2022)

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Black is beautiful
White is alright
Your half-caste child
Do you wanna fight
Do you wanna fight
Black girl carries
Her flick knife
Will she cut me up
For being half white

The national front
Are after me
I’m infiltrating
Can’t you see

“Half-Caste”, unpublished poem by Poly Styrene (1957-2011)

I was leafing through my dog-eared copy of George Gimark’s exhaustive Punk Diary 1970-1979 (currently out-of-print) and came across this entry under September 14, 1977:

X-Ray Spex have just been signed by Virgin Records. The group is fronted by a mulatto Brixton youth calling herself Poly Styrene. She’s no stranger to the recording world and had a single out under her real name Marion Elliot last year. Since seeing the Pistols play, she’s become a regular around the Roxy Club, resplendent in her dayglo vinyl, psychedelic kilt and full set of dental braces. They’ll be releasing X-Ray Spex’s debut single on the 30th. This is not X-Ray Spex’s first appearance on vinyl though. You remember they were included on the “Roxy” album singing “Oh Bondage Up Yours,” the same song they will re-record for Virgin in the next few weeks. Other members of the group include Jak Airport on guitar, Paul Dean on bass, B.P. Hurding on drums, and Laura Logic on saxophone. They’ve been playing together since January, and now are prepared to hit the big time, invading the male-dominated punk world.

I reckon very few artists consciously set out to be “groundbreaking” or “influential”, but whether it was by accident or design, 19-year-old Poly Styrene came out of the gate flying in the face of fashion. She was not only “invading the male-dominated punk world” of the late 1970s (which, despite its imminent association with an anti-racist, anti-fascist ethos, was still an overtly “laddish” club), but was doing 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 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 an absorbing new documentary called Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (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.

Bell (Styrene’s daughter) confides her mother “…always said she’d never considered herself a ‘punk’…that it was just a label, coined by journalists. At the same time, she recognized that the scene was a perfect vehicle for her own creative transformation.” That’s one of many unexpected twists in an artist’s journey that begins in working-class Brixton, makes a life-changing whistle stop in the Bowery, and ends in one of India’s most sacred rivers.

By the time Bell was born in the 80s, her mother’s initial fame as a punk-rocker had waned; Bell’s earliest childhood memories stem from a period when the pair lived in George Harrison’s Hare Krishna commune in Hertfordshire (they would later resettle in Brixton). Upon Styrene’s death from breast cancer in 2011, Bell became custodian of her mother’s artistic estate. Bell’s access to those archives provided impetus for the film.

Sadly, Styrene struggled with a bi-polar disorder throughout her life (initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia). Bell navigates this aspect with the sensitivity and compassion as only a close family member could, and it is genuinely moving.

Fame, in and of itself, can do a number on someone’s head; especially for women in a business where appearance is (right or wrong) …everything. As Bell explains, “When mum was young, she was pretty confident about the way she looked. She’d never been short of admirers. But the experience of being famous made her insecure; the public scrutiny over the way she looked started to grate on her. She felt like journalists were celebrating her by insinuating that she was unattractive and overweight-totally not getting what she was trying to achieve choosing not to expose her voluptuous form on stage.”

A perfect illustration of this maddening double-standard comes in a recollection of one incident. After a humiliating experience wherein a member of the Sex Pistols played a cruel prank on her at a party, Poly disappeared into the bathroom for a spell. Upon re-emerging, she sported a shaved head. The timing was unfortunate, as X-Ray Spex was on the bill for the now-historic Rock Against Racism event the next day. The 1978 rally/music festival (headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band) was held in London’s Victoria Park, and attended by an estimated 100,000 people.

To her band mates’ relief, she showed up to the gig with a woolen scarf on her head. While performing the song “Identity”, she slowly unraveled the scarf to reveal a bald pate. There were audible gasps from the crowd, but giggles from her band mates. Obviously, she was not expressing solidarity with the racist National Front skinheads (AWK-ward!). She had once told her band mates she never wanted to be a sex symbol, and joked if she ever were to become one, she’d shave her head. Always fearless; and hopefully, thanks to this lovely portrait of a troubled but inspiring artist, never forgotten.

“Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché” premieres On Demand February 4th.

A cellar full of goys: The Beatles: Get Back (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)

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We went to see those movies with Elvis. They’d all scream when he came on screen. So we thought “That’s a good job!” – John Lennon, from a television interview.

By the time the Beatles “debuted” on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964, they already had a rich 7-year history. The four polished pros in slick suits didn’t simply pop out of Liverpool fully formed; they had paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints (including the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period” from 1960-1962). But for fans here in the colonies, they descended like gods from the heavens.

People of “a certain age” reflexively say they “remember” watching the Beatles perform on Sullivan nearly 57 years ago (whether they did or not). For me that “memory” is fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was 7 years old; too young to grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad labeled any rock ’n’ roll song he heard wafting from my room throughout my formative years).

Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet). And weekly programs like Sullivan were broadcast anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks later than they aired in the Lower 48. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles “live” on Sullivan…on a slight tape delay.

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In the Summer of 1967, I discovered two things that changed my life. As much as I would like to be able to tell you that it was body painting and tripping on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains much to long-time readers).

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The second thing was record collecting. I scored my first-ever haul of vinyl, blowing three months’ allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I bought two LPs (at $3.98 a pop), and a 45. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever”. That was my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.

Flash-forward 35 years. I was enjoying my first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. At the Beatles exhibit, I happened upon a glass case that contained some weathered pieces of paper with hand-written lyrics. I lingered over one, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the scribbled-out words and such:

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But you know I know when it’s a bean? Huh? It still wasn’t registering as to what I was looking at. However, when I got to: I think I know I mean-er-yes, but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree I realized that I was “this” close to John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. My mind was blown. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of genius.

Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to look at it? Should I turn my face away, so it wouldn’t melt like the Nazis’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Belloq lifts the lid of the Sacred Object? “Don’t look at it, Marion!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. At any rate, I was overcome; there was something profoundly moving about the experience.

[Intermission]

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By 1969, the Beatles had done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?

Hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through the 1970 documentary, Let it Be? Filmed in 1969 and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the movie was originally intended to be a TV special but ended up documenting the “making of” the eponymous album (there were also snippets of the band working on several songs that ended up on Abbey Road).

Sadly, the film has since weathered a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. Granted, there is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where an uncharacteristically riled-up George reaches the end of his tether with Paul’s fussiness).

Still, signs of a deeply rooted musical camaraderie remain in that outdoor mini concert filmed on a London rooftop. If you look closely, the boys are exchanging glances that telegraph they’re having a grand time jamming out; an affirmation that this is what this band of brothers were put on this earth to do, and what the hell …it’s only rock ’n’ roll.

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The Let it Be movie doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how tumultuous 1969 was for the band. As Ian MacDonald notes in his excellent 1994 assessment of the Beatles’ catalog, Revolution in the Head:

The day after the rooftop concert, the band recorded three songs unsuited to recital in a moderate gale [“Two of Us”, “Let it Be”, and “The Long and Winding Road”] before winding the [recording sessions for the “Let it Be” album] up in some relief. An ignominious failure which shook their faith in their collective judgement, it had pushed them to the verge of collapse. […]

[soon after the “Let it Be” sessions wrapped] a fatal rift in the group’s relationships opened when Lennon, Harrison, and Starr asked the Rolling Stones’ American manager Allen Klein to take over the Beatles’ affairs. McCartney, who favoured Linda Eastman’s family firm of management consultants, immediately opened a court battle which long outlasted the remainder of the Beatles’ career.

The dream was over. Or so it seemed. The boys were not about to go out on a sour note (at least in a creative sense). As Bob Spitz writes in his exhaustive band bio, The Beatles:

The tapes from earlier in the year that would eventually become “Let it Be” languished in the can, abandoned, a victim of haste and sloppy execution. “[They] were so lousy and so bad,” according to John – “twenty-nine hours of tape …twenty takes of everything – that “none of us would go near them …None of us could face remixing them; it was [a] terrifying [prospect].” “It was laying [sic] dormant and so we decided ‘Let’s make a good album again,’” George recalled.

That “good album” turned out to be Abbey Road (which I expounded on further here).

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One drawback with the Let it Be film (aside from the fact it’s been out of circulation for decades and unavailable on home video outside of the odd bootleg) was its relatively short running time. Considering director Lindsay-Hogg had 60 hours of footage at his disposal, the original 81-minute theatrical cut feels stingy; leaving little room for nuance or providing context to the on-camera bickering the 1970 film is chiefly remembered for.

Perhaps predictably in this age of Tweet-length attention spans, there has been much lamentation and rending of garments regarding the decidedly less stingy running time of Peter Jackson’s nearly 8-hour long Get Back, his oft delayed and long-awaited re-edit, sifted from Lindsay-Hogg’s trove of footage (now streaming on Disney+ as a 3-part series). All I can say to those folks is I’ve got no time for you right now, don’t bother me.

The beauty of Jackson’s film is that his extended cut allows room for nuance and context around those storied studio spats, which in fact did not “cause” the break-up of the Beatles; rather they were symptoms of a longtime creative partnership that was literally “aging out”. Three-quarters of the band (John Paul, and George) had been collaborating since they were in their mid-teens; now they were all in their late 20s.

Like any other human being, as each member of the band matured, their individual priorities (as people and as creative artists) diverged. This was evidenced by the release of solo albums from all four members in 1970, the same year Let It Be saw its belated release: Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues and Sentimental Journey, Paul’s McCartney, John’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and George’s epic triple album All Things Must Pass.

In fact, one of the film’s greatest delights is catching snippets of songs (still in their infancy) that would end up on later solo albums. John sings “On the Road to Marakesh/Child of Nature” which would turn up in 1971’s Imagine (with different lyrics) as “Jealous Guy” and works on refining a few lines of verse for “Gimme Some Truth” (also destined for Imagine).

George runs a song by the lads that he’s “been working on” called “All Things Must Pass” (it’s already well-formed at that stage). Paul noodles out a recognizable bit of “Another Day” on the piano, which would be his first solo single hit in 1971, and the gorgeous intro to “Backseat of My Car” (a highlight of 1971’s Ram).

Get Back apes the basic structure of Lindsay-Hogg’s Let it Be; the shoot (initially intended to end up as a TV documentary) begins with fitful and half-hearted rehearsals on a sound stage in the drafty (and acoustically-challenged) Twickenham Film Studios. Paul tries to play cheerleader to his cranky band mates (leading to some of the on-camera “bickering”, although it mostly manifests as passive-aggressive asides).

Director Lindsay-Hogg comes off a bit fitful and half-hearted himself; obviously self-aware that precious shooting days are passing by with relatively no narrative to hang his hat on, he prattles on through most of the first third soliciting ideas to spruce up the planned live performance that the film will culminate with.

At one point, Lindsay-Hogg has a brainstorm to film the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, with the audience shipped in from England on the QE2, but the lads won’t have it (I assume this vignette inspired the “Stonehenge” bit in This Is Spinal Tap). Interestingly, the 1972 Pink Floyd documentary Live at Pompeii included a live performance filmed at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy (interspersed with footage of the band working on Dark Side of the Moon in the studio, à la Let it Be).

Once the action moves to the basement of the Beatles’ Apple Corps offices, where a makeshift recording studio has been assembled, the band (and the film) begins to perk up considerably. With the deadline pressure of the now discarded TV special off the table, the band focuses on laying down some tracks, enlisting Glyn Johns as producer (George Martin is seen popping in and out of the sessions on occasion, but for the first time, he was not invited to be at the helm …which in hindsight was an unfortunate decision).

But it’s not until keyboard maestro Billy Preston joins the sessions that the band really begins to bring their “A” game. Ironically, Preston would have never been part of the equation had George not (temporarily) walked out of the project (“See you ‘round the clubs,” he deadpans to his stunned band mates before storming out of frame).

While on his hiatus, George hooked up with his pal Eric Clapton and attended a Ray Charles gig in London. Preston (who the Beatles had originally met on a 1962 tour with Little Richard) was playing organ in Charles’ band.

George invited Preston to hang out at the studio, and he ended up playing keys on several songs (most notably, “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down”), as well as sitting in on the rooftop set. At one point in the film, Paul asks Preston “Has anyone asked you yet if you mind coming in every day?” Preston beams like a beatific Buddha (as if someone is going to say “Fuck you…pay me” to an invitation to sit in with the Beatles!).

I was fascinated by the presence of gentle giant Mal Evans. An enigmatic member of the Beatles’ inner circle, Evans was their Man Friday; bodyguard, road manager, roadie, P.A., and apparently (as evidenced in one scene) an occasional co-lyricist.

In another scene, Evans registers childlike delight as he “plays” the hammer and anvil on an early run-through of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Evans was the person who “discovered” Badfinger and brought them to the Beatles’ attention-which got them signed to Apple. Sadly, in 1976 he was shot dead in his home by LAPD officers, who mistook his air rifle for a real weapon (Evans had been struggling with depression).

Spoiler alert: Jackson saves the iconic rooftop performance for the finale (as Lindsay-Hogg did in Let it Be…but how else could you end it?). Granted, it’s a long and winding road of “fly on the wall” observation to get there, but it makes the payoff of finally seeing the band perform several classic numbers in their entirety sound that much sweeter. For some, spending a day in the life with the Fabs may ultimately feel like it’s all too much …. but do you want to know a secret? I watched Get Back and thought:

That’s a good job.”

The End

In tune with yourself: Fire Music (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 18, 2021)

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You must surrender whatever preconceptions you have about music if you’re really interested in it.

Cecil Taylor

The Oxford Dictionary defines “harmonious” thusly:

har·mo·ni·ous

/härˈmōnēəs/

adjective

tuneful; not discordant.

“harmonious music”

That sounds nice. So what is this “discordant” you speak of?

dis·cord·ant

/disˈkôrd(ə)nt/

adjective

1. disagreeing or incongruous.

2. (of sounds) harsh and jarring because of a lack of harmony.

Well, that sounds unpleasant. But here’s the funny thing about music. There may be rules defining what constitutes “harmony” …but there no rules defining what constitutes “music”. What’s “discordant” to you might be “harmonious” to my ears (and vice-versa).

In a piece I did in honor of International Jazz Day, I wrote:

Miles Davis is considered a “jazz” artist, but first and foremost he was an artist; one who defied categorization throughout his career. The influence of his 1970 2-LP set Bitches Brew on what came to be called “fusion” cannot be overstated. But be warned: this is not an album you put on as background; it is challenging music that demands your full attention (depending on your mood that day, it will sound either bold and exhilarating, or discordant and unnerving).

I was somewhat taken aback to learn the other day that that a scant 6 years before he recorded Bitches Brew, Miles Davis made this comment about pioneering “free jazz” multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy (taken from a Down Beat interview published in 1964):

Nobody else could sound as bad as Eric Dolphy. Next time I see him I’m going to step on his foot. You print that. I think he’s ridiculous. He’s a sad motherfucker.”

Ouch.

That’s one of the tidbits I picked up from Fire Music, writer-director Tom Surgal’s retrospective on the free jazz movement that flourished from the late 50s to the early 70s.

Call it “free jazz”, “avant-garde” or “free-form” …it’s been known to empty a room faster than you can say “polytonal”. After giving your ears a moment to adjust, Surgal and co-writer John Northrup do yeoman’s work unraveling a Gordian knot of roots, influences, and cosmic coincidences that sparked this amazingly rich and creative period.

Mixing vintage performance clips, archival interviews, and present-day ruminations by veterans of the scene with a dusting of academic commentary, the filmmakers illustrate how it fell together somewhat organically, flourished briefly, then faded away (Lao Tzu’s oft quoted “The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long” comes to mind here).

After a nod to Be-bop, the film delves into the work of pioneers like saxophonist Ornette Coleman (his 1960 album Free Jazz gave the category-defying genre a handle) and pianist Cecil Taylor. While artists like Coleman, Taylor (and Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, et.al.) are now considered jazz greats, their boundary-pushing explorations were not universally embraced by critics (or audiences) at the time.

In fact, it wasn’t until saxophonist John Coltrane (“the most high and mighty” as one veteran player reverently intones in the film) released his 1966 album Ascension, that the movement received validation. Coltrane had been paying close attention to the revolutionary sounds coming out of the clubs, and Ascension indicated he had embraced the movement (although it certainly threw many of his fans for a loop).

As a musicologist points out in the film, it might have been easy for critics and the jazz establishment to look down their noses (or plug their ears) and dismiss players like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and their unconventional tonalities as amateurish noodling…but no one could say John Coltrane was an amateur (at least not with a straight face).

The film examines the regional scenes that sprang up, and (most fascinatingly) associated collectives that formed, like The Jazz Composer’s Guild in New York, The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, and The Black Artist’s Group in St. Louis (this was “D.I.Y.” long before Punk). The European scene (primarily in the UK, Germany, and Holland) that was inspired by the American free jazz movement is also chronicled.

Sadly, the filmmakers suggest a collective amnesia has set in over the ensuing decades that essentially has erased the contributions of these artists from jazz history. Here’s hoping enough people see this enlightening documentary to reverse that trend.

Charlie is our darling: A tribute

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 24, 2021)

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Well, it sucked to rub my sleepy eyes and see this circulating on social media today:

https://pbs.twimg.com/media/E9kgKKnXEAY64PX?format=jpg&name=mediumStalwart to the end, Charlie Watts was the “rock” in rock ‘n’ roll. Solid, reliable, resolute. He sat Sphinx-like behind his kit for over 50 years, laying down a steady beat while remaining seemingly impassive to all the madness and mayhem that came with the job of being a Rolling Stone. He was cool as a cucumber, as impeccably tailored and enigmatic as Reynolds Woodcock. “Reynolds Who?” As I wrote in my 2018 review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread:

As I watched [Daniel] Day-Lewis’ elegantly measured characterization unfold, I kept flashing on the lyrics from an old Queen song. Reynolds Woodcock is well versed in etiquette, insatiable in appetite, fastidious and precise-and guaranteed to blow your mind.

This is one weird cat; which is to say, a typical Anderson study. Handsome, charismatic and exquisitely tailored, Woodcock easily charms any woman in his proximity, yet…something about him is cold and distant as the moon.

He may even be on the spectrum, with his intense focus and single-mindedness about his work (or perhaps that’s the definition of genius, in any profession?).

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I’m not suggesting Charlie was on the spectrum (not that there would be anything wrong with that), but the intense focus was visible; the genius evident. The fascinating thing about his drumming was that you couldn’t always “hear” it, but his contribution was just as essential to the Stones’ gestalt as Keith’s open ‘G’ riffs or Mick’s “rooster on acid” stagecraft. He wasn’t all about Baker flash, Bonzo bash or Moonie thrash…he was, as Liz Phair distilled it so beautifully today-a “master of elegant simplicity”.

Smiling faces I can see
But not for me
I sit and watch
As tears go by

Rest in rhythm, Mr. Watts.

(The following piece was originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  March 26, 2016)

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“I think that, finally, the times are changing. No?”-Mick Jagger, addressing 450,000 fans at the 2016 Havana concert

It’s been quite a groundbreaking week for Cuba, kicking off with the first official U.S. presidential visit since 1928, and closing out with last night’s free Rolling Stones concert at the Ciudad Deportiva stadium in Havana. While it marked the first Cuba appearance for the Stones, the boys have seen many moons since their first-ever gig, 54 years ago (!) at London’s Marquee Club.

The fledgling band wore their influences on their sleeves that night (July 12, 1962) with a covers-only set that included songs by Chuck Berry, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. And despite the odd foray into chamber pop, psychedelia, country-rock and disco over time, they haven’t really strayed too awfully far from those roots. They simply remain…The Stones (it’s only rock ’n’ roll).

In honor of their contribution to helping thaw out the last vestiges of the Cold War, here are my top 5 picks of films featuring the Rolling Stones (in alphabetical order, as usual).

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Charlie is My Darling – The Rolling Stones did a few dates in Ireland in 1965, and filmmaker Peter Whitehead tagged along, resulting in this somewhat short (60 minute) but historically vital cinema verite-style documentary. We see a ridiculously young Stones at a time when they were still feeling their way through their own version of Beatlemania (although it’s interesting to note that it’s primarily the lads in the audience who are seen crying hysterically and rushing the stage!).

In a hotel room scene, Jagger and Richards work out lyrics and chord changes for the song “Sittin’ on a Fence” (which wouldn’t appear until a couple years later on the Flowers album). The concert footage captures the band in all of its early career “rave up” glory (including a wild onstage riot). The film recalls P.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (filmed the same year), which similarly followed Bob Dylan around while he was in London to perform several shows.

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Gimme Shelter – I sincerely hope that the Stones’ historic 2016 free concert at the Havana sports stadium went much smoother than their infamous 1969 free concert at the Altamont Speedway in California, where a man near the front of the stage was stabbed to death in full view of horrified fellow concertgoers by members of the Hell’s Angels (who were providing “security” for the show).

It’s unfortunate that Albert and David Maysles’ 1970 film is chiefly “known” for its inclusion of (unwittingly captured) footage of the incident, because those scant seconds of its running time have forever tainted what is otherwise (rightfully) hailed as one of the finest “rockumentaries” ever made. One of the (less morbid) highlights of the film is footage of the Stones putting down the basic tracks for “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Studios.

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Let’s Spend the Night Together– By the time I finally had an opportunity to catch the Stones live back in October of 1981 at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, Brian Jones was 12 years in the grave and the band was already being called “dinosaurs”. Still, it was one those “bucket list” items that I felt obliged to fulfill (it turns out there was really no rush…who knew that Mick would still be prancing around in front of massive crowds like a rooster on acid 35 years later…and counting?).

At any rate, the late great Hal Ashby directed this 1983 concert film, documenting performances from that very same 1981 North American tour. Unadorned by cinematic glitz, but that’s a good thing, as Ashby wisely steps back to let the performances shine through (unlike the distracting flash-cutting and vertigo-inducing, perpetual motion camera work that made Martin Scorsese’s Shine a Light downright unwatchable for me). The set list spans their career, from “Time Is on My Side” to the 1981 hit “Start Me Up”.

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The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus– Originally intended to air as a TV special, this 1968 film was shelved and “lost” for nearly 30 years, until its belated restoration and home video release in the mid-90s. Presaging “mini concert” programs like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert that would flourish in the 70s, the idea was to assemble a sort of “dream bill” of artists performing in an intimate, small theater setting.

Since it was their idea, the Stones were the headliners (of course!), with an impressive lineup of opening acts including The Who, John & Yoko, Jethro Tull, Taj Mahal and Marianne Faithfull. The “circus” theme (and the arrhythmic hippie dancing by the audience members) haven’t dated so well, but the performances are fabulous.

Jagger’s alleged reason for keeping the show on ice was that the Stones were displeased by their own performance; the whispered truth over the years is that Mick felt upstaged by the Who (they do a rousing rendition of “A Quick One”). Actually the Stones are good; highlighted by a punky version of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and a great “No Expectations” (featuring lovely embellishments from Brian Jones on slide guitar and Nicky Hopkins on piano).

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Sympathy for the Devil – Relatively unseen prior to home video release, this 1968 film (aka One plus One) tends to loom at bit larger as a legend in the minds of those who have name-checked it over the years than as a true “classic”.

Director Jean-Luc Godard was given permission to film the Stones working on their Beggar’s Banquet sessions. He inter-cuts with footage featuring Black Panthers expounding on The Revolution, a man reciting passages from Mein Kampf, and awkwardly executed “guerilla theater” vignettes (it was the 60s, man).

While I think we “get” the analogy between the Stones building the layers of the eponymous song in the studio and the seeds of change being sown in the streets, the rhetoric becomes grating. Still, it’s a fascinating curio, and the intimate, beautifully shot footage of the Stones offers a rare “fly on the wall” peek at their creative process.

Tribeca 2021: Creation Stories (**)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19, 2021)

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Nick Moran’s manic, hyper-kinetic biopic about Creation Records founder Alan McGee (who spearheaded the Britpop explosion of the 1990s) plays like a mashup of 24-Hour Party People and Trainspotting. This is not surprising considering the screenplay is co-written by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh (with Dean Cavanagh). The narrative is framed by McGee (Ewen Bremner) telling his life story to a journalist. Cue the flashbacks, starting with McGee’s modest early successes in the 80s with acts like The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine and culminating with his mentorship of Oasis in the mid-90s.

The film moves too quickly for its own good, giving you no real sense of who McGee is (apart from establishing that he is an “outsider”). Another major hurdle is Bremner, who remains the most unintelligible actor in the English-speaking world (even for a Scotsman). Subtitles really would have helped. As much as I dug Moran’s 2009 Joe Meek biopic Telstar, I am afraid this one is a letdown.