Category Archives: Behind the Music

I’m Not There: Notes from Tribeca 2020

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 25, 2020)

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Like other film festivals that have had to cancel their “real world” event due to the pandemic, Tribeca is keeping the spirit and mission of their programming alive by devising inventive “virtual” solutions for carrying on. They are offering quarantined film fans access to select programming curated for online viewing through April 26. From the Festival’s April 3rd press release:

…we wanted to move as fast as possible to bring some of our programming from the festival to audiences worldwide. Tribeca Immersive’s audience-facing Cinema360 (in partnership with Oculus) features 15 VR films, curated into four 30-40 minute programs. The public will be able to access Cinema360 via Oculus TV, for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. The millions of people who own Oculus headsets will be able to participate in this unique programming from home. Tribeca is one of the first and only festivals to introduce this curated immersive experience to consumers.

[…] “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “While we cannot gather in person to lock arms, laugh, and cry, it’s important for us to stay socially and spiritually connected. Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”

In support of the filmmakers, Tribeca has also provided accredited press access to some of this year’s festival selections. I’m happy to report I was granted access, so I’m sharing some festival highlights with you…even though I’m not really “there” (and frankly I haven’t been “all there” for years anyway…but longtime readers already know that). Hopefully, these films will be coming soon to a theater (or streaming platform) near you!

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Ainu Mosir (***) – This drama from writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga offers a rare glimpse into Japan’s Ainu culture (historically marginalized, the Ainu people were not officially acknowledged as “indigenous” by that country’s government until it passed a bipartisan, non-binding resolution in 2008 that also urged an end to discrimination against the group).

14-year-old Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) lives with his mother in an Ainu village with a tourist-based economy. Kanto’s mother encourages him to take counsel from a long-time friend of his late father who strongly believes in passing on the cultural traditions of the Ainu to its young people. When the family friend invites the teen to join him in clandestine preparations for a sacrificial ceremony certain to stir up discord within the community, Kanto must navigate a way to embrace his heritage and honor his father’s memory while reconciling with modern mores. Sensitively directed and acted.

Related reviews: Birds of Passage, Angry Inuk, Tibet in Song

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Banksy Most Wanted (**½)– Almost everybody knows what internationally celebrated guerilla street artist Banksy does, but despite years of investigative journalism, amateur-to-professional sleuthing and “outings”…nobody but he/she/themselves knows who the real McCoy(s) is/are. Co-directors Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley give it a whirl in their slickly made but ultimately frustrating documentary. Promising leads are followed, but no Big Reveals. The best parts of this globe-trotting quest are the glimpses at Banksy’s brilliant work, which continues to defy logic as to how he/she/they manage to pull it off while cunningly remaining hidden in plain sight. To be fair, the directors had a tough act to follow: Banksy’s own meta-documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).

Related reviews: Art and Craft, My Kid Could Paint That

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Call Your Mother (**½)– Why are some people inherently “funny”? Funny, as in-other people will pay to watch them crack wise in front of a brick wall? Where does a “sense of humor” come from…nature or nurture? In this breezy (if lightweight) documentary, co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady suggest it is …your mom. And they mean that in a nice way-as demonstrated by comics Louie Anderson, Tig Notaro, Kristen Schaal, Bobby Lee, Judy Gold, David Spade, Rachel Feinstein, et.al. who share anecdotes about (in some cases, camera time with) their moms. Initially fun and even endearing, but ultimately eschews any real insight for seeking 50 ways to say “My mom is such a card!”

Related reviews: When Comedy Went to School, Can We Take a Joke?

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Love Spreads (***½) – I’m a sucker for stories about the creative process, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s what separates us from the animals (even if my “inner Douglas Adams” persists in raising the possibility that “there’s an infinite number of monkeys outside who want to talk to us about this script for Hamlet they’ve worked out.”). Welsh writer-director Jamie Adams’ dramedy is right in that wheelhouse.

“Glass Heart” is an all-female rock band who have holed up Led Zep style in an isolated country cottage to record a follow-up to their well-received debut album. Everyone is raring to go, the record company is bankrolling the sessions, and the only thing missing is…some new songs. The pressure has fallen on lead singer and primary songwriter Kelly (Alia Shawcat) to cough them up, pronto. Unfortunately, the dreaded “sophomore curse” has landed squarely on her shoulders, and she is completely blocked. The inevitable tensions and ego clashes arise as her three band mates and manager struggle to stay sane as Kelly awaits the Muse. It’s a little bit Spinal Tap, with a dash of Love and Mercy-bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and catchy original songs (in the power-pop vein).

Related reviews: Love and Mercy, The Runaways, Tokyo Pop, God Help the Girl, We Are the Best, The Gits, Top 11 Rock Musicals

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Pacified (***½) – The impoverished, densely populated favelas of Rio and the volatile political climate of contemporary Brazil provide a compelling backdrop for writer- director Paxton Winters’ crime drama. Sort of a cross between The King of New York and City of God, the story takes place during the height of the strong-arm “pacification” measures conducted by the government to “clean up” the favelas in preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The narrative centers on the relationship between 13-year old Tati (Cassia Gil), her single (and drug-addicted) mother Andrea (Débora Nascimento), and Jaca (Bukassa Kabengele), the former “godfather” of the neighborhood who has just been released from prison. Jaca, who has mellowed while in the joint, is nonetheless chagrined to learn that the young protégé he left in charge has essentially declared himself boss, become a neighborhood terror and now views Jaca as a threat to his regime. Tight direction, excellent performances and gorgeous cinematography by Laura Merians.

Related reviews: The Edge of Democracy

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P.S. Burn This Letter Please (***) – Can we dish? I admit that going into this documentary, what I knew about the history of the 50’s drag scene in New York City wouldn’t have filled a flea’s codpiece. But some 100-odd minutes and several fabulously accessorized costume changes later…my codpiece was full. That did not come out sounding right. Suffice it to say Michael Seilgman and Jennifer Tiexiera’s Ken Burns-style documentary is an eye-opener. Inspired by a box of letters found in an abandoned storage unit, the film is an intimate history of a unique art form that managed to persevere and thrive during an era not too long ago when the LGBTQ community was relentlessly persecuted and forced to live in the shadows.

Related reviews: Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Stonewall Uprising

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Somebody Up There Likes Me (***) – This glossy portrait of Ronnie Wood from Eagle Rock Films looks back on the venerable British rocker’s career and catches up with his current life and interests. Viable and animated as ever, the seemingly indestructible Wood sits down with director Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday, The Browning Version, Leaving Las Vegas) and chats about everything from his 45 years with the Stones, early days with his first band The Birds, his creative association with Rod Stewart (in both the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces) to his “second career” as an artist and his longtime struggle with drugs and drink.

The amiable Wood is quite the raconteur and comes off as a fun bloke to hang out with. I would have loved more footage of the Jeff Beck Group and The Faces, but that is a personal problem. Also, on hand: Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Wood’s wife Sally. This film is catnip for classic rock aficionados.

Related reviews: Too Rolling Stoned: A Top 5 List, Muscle Shoals, David Crosby: Remember My Name, Gimme Danger

For more info check out the Tribeca Film Festival website.

The Virtual International Film Festival: Week 2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 18, 2020)

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Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

I’ve covered the Seattle International Film Festival for Hullabaloo since 2006. Over that 14 year period I’ve reviewed over 200 SIFF films. So I thought I’d comb my archives and curate a “Best of SIFF” festival that doesn’t require leaving the safety of your abode.

So welcome to Week 2 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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Bad Black (Amazon Prime Video, tubi) – Some films defy description. This is one of them. Yet…a guilty pleasure. Written, directed, filmed, and edited by Ugandan action movie auteur Nabwana I.G.G.at his self-proclaimed “Wakaliwood studios” (essentially his house in the slums of Wakaliga), it’s best described as Kill Bill meets Slumdog Millionaire, with a kick-ass heroine bent on revenge. Despite a low budget and a high body count, it’s winningly ebullient and self-referential, with a surprising amount of social realism regarding slum life packed into its 68 minutes. The Citizen Kane of African commando vengeance flicks. (Full review)

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Becoming Who I Was (Amazon Prime Video) – Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu.

Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness. (Full review)

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Amazon Prime Video) – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a musical anomaly in their hometown of Memphis, which was only the first of many hurdles this talented band was to face during their brief, tumultuous career. Now considered one of the seminal influences on the genre, the band was largely ignored by record buyers during their heyday (despite critical acclaim from the likes of Rolling Stone).

Then, in the mid-1980s, a cult following steadily began to build around the long-defunct outfit after college radio darlings like R.E.M., the Dbs and the Replacements began lauding them as an inspiration. In this fine rockumentary, director Drew DeNicola also tracks the lives of the four members beyond the 1974 breakup, which is the most riveting (and heart wrenching) part of the tale. Pure nirvana for power-pop aficionados. (Full review)

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Endless Poetry (Amazon Prime Video) – Ever since his 1970 Leone-meets-Fellini “western” El Topo redefined the meaning of “WTF?”, Chilean film maker/poet/actor/composer/comic book creator Alejandro Jodorowsky has continued to push the creative envelope.

Endless Poetry, the second part of a “proposed pentalogy of memoirs”, follows young Alejandro (played by the director’s son Adan, who also composed the soundtrack) as he comes into his own as a poet. Defying his nay-saying father, he flees to Santiago and ingratiates himself with the local bohemians. He caterwauls into a tempestuous relationship with a redheaded force of nature named Stella. What ensues is the most gloriously over-the-top biopic since Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers. This audacious work of art not only confirms that its creator has the soul of a poet, but stands as an almost tactile evocation of poetry itself. (Full review)

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Home Care (Amazon Prime Video, iTunes) – The “Kubler-Ross Model” postulates that there are five distinct emotional stages humans experience when brought face-to-face with mortality: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. All five are served up with a side of compassion, a dash of low-key anarchy and a large orange soda in this touching dramedy from Czech director Slavek Horak.

An empathic, sunny-side-up Moravian home care nurse (Alena Mihulova) is so oriented to taking care of others that when the time comes to deal with her own health crisis, she’s stymied. A deft blend of family melodrama and gentle social satire. Mihulova and Boleslav Polivka (as her husband) are an endearing screen couple. The stories we’ve been hearing about the selflessness of health care workers who are on the front lines of the current Covid-19 pandemic adds a new level of poignancy to Horak’s film. (Full review)

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Mekko (Amazon Prime Video) – Director Sterlin Harjo’s tough, lean, neorealist character study takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Rod Rondeaux (Meek’s Cutoff) is outstanding as the eponymous character, a Muscogee Indian who gets out of jail after 19 years of hard time. Bereft of funds and family support, he finds tenuous shelter among the rough-and-tumble “street chief” community of homeless Native Americans as he sorts out how he’s going to get back on his feet. Harjo coaxes naturalistic performances from his entire cast. There’s more going on here than initially meets the eye; namely, a deeper examination of Native American identity, assimilation and spirituality in the modern world. (Full review)

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Polisse (YouTube, iTunes) – A docudrama-style police procedural in the tradition of Jules Dassin’s Naked City. You do have to pay very close attention, however, because it seems like there are about 8 million stories (and just as many characters) crammed into the 127 minutes of French director Maiwenn’s complex film.

Using a clever “hall of mirrors” device, the director casts herself in the role of a “fly on the wall” photojournalist, and it is through this character’s lens that we observe the dedicated men and women who work in the Child Protective Unit arm of the French police. As you can imagine, these folks are dealing with the absolute lowest of the already lowest criminal element of society, day in and day out, and it does take its psychic toll on them.

Still, there’s a surprising amount of levity sprinkled throughout Maiwenn’s dense screenplay (co-written by Emmanuelle Bercot), which helps temper the heartbreak of seeing children in situations that they would never have to suffer through in a just world. The film fizzles a bit at the end, and keeping track of all the story lines is challenging, but it’s worthwhile, with remarkable performances from the ensemble (it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011). (Full review)

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The Rocket (Amazon Prime Video) – Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt tells the story of Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe, in a remarkable performance), a 10-year old Laotian boy who can’t catch a break. In rapid succession, a member of his family dies in a freak accident and then the surviving members are forced to relocate after their village gets earmarked for razing to make way for a hydroelectric project. Ahlo’s dour grandma labels him as a “bad luck charm”. Determined to redeem his standing, Ahlo sets out to win an annual Rocket Competition. Mourdaunt has a Terrence Malick-like penchant for gorgeous “magic hour” composition; perfectly capturing the dichotomy of UXBs and battle-scarred ruins as they contrast with Laos’ lush, rugged natural beauty. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (iTunes) – 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. (Full review)

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This May Be the Last Time (Amazon Prime Video) –Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises.

This is two films in one; both family memoir and academic study. Harjo investigates a story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inspires the second layer of Harjo’s film.

Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, Harjo traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey. (Full review)

…one more thing

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Good news-You can catch first-run indie films from home… via SIFF’s virtual cinema:

Due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding COVID-19, our Cinemas are temporarily closed and the 46th annual Seattle International Film Festival has been canceled. SIFF will be on hiatus for the next few months while a small team takes care of SIFF’s assets and plans for the eventual reopening of SIFF.

In the meantime, we’re pleased to be working with distributors to bring you virtual screenings of new independent films. Stay home, stay healthy, and support SIFF with Virtual SIFF Cinema!

On each film detail page, you’ll find a link to the distributor’s screening portal where you’ll be able to rent the film and begin watching. As part of the revenue goes directly back to SIFF, this is a great way to support us during this time and see new films!

…and this just in!

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Another cancelled 2020 film festival that has devised “virtual” solutions for carrying on is Tribeca. While the physical event has been scrapped (for obvious reasons), the organizers are keeping the spirit and mission of the annual event alive by offering film fans worldwide access to select programming specially curated for online viewing, from April 17 through April 26. From the Festival’s April 3rd press release:

…we wanted to move as fast as possible to bring some of our programming from the festival to audiences worldwide. Tribeca Immersive’s audience-facing Cinema360 (in partnership with Oculus) features 15 VR films, curated into four 30-40 minute programs. The public will be able to access Cinema360 via Oculus TV, for Oculus Go and Oculus Quest. The millions of people who own Oculus headsets will be able to participate in this unique programming from home. Tribeca is one of the first and only festivals to introduce this curated immersive experience to consumers.

[…] “As human beings, we are navigating uncharted waters,” said Tribeca Enterprises and Tribeca Film Festival Co-Founder and CEO Jane Rosenthal. “While we cannot gather in person to lock arms, laugh, and cry, it’s important for us to stay socially and spiritually connected. Tribeca is about resiliency, and we fiercely believe in the power of artists to bring us together. We were founded after the devastation of 9/11 and it’s in our DNA to bring communities together through the arts.”

Want to dive in now? A Short Film a Day Keeps Anxiety Away is a fun place to start!

In support of the filmmakers, Tribeca is also providing accredited press access to some of this year’s selections (features and shorts). I’m happy to report I have been granted access, so starting next Saturday, I’ll be sharing some reviews of new films to keep an eye out for in the near future. In the meantime, check out the Tribeca Film Festival website for more info.

Virtual International Film Festival: Week 1

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 11, 2020)

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So movie theaters are shuttered, the balcony is closed, and film festivals are right out.

Normally, right about now I would be submitting for my press credentials to cover one of the largest film festivals in the country. But as you are aware, these are not normal times.

No worries. I’ve been covering the annual Seattle International Film Festival for Digby’s Hullabaloo since 2006. Over the 14 years, I’ve reviewed over 200 festival selections. So I thought I’d comb the archives and curate a sort of Best of the Festival Festival (since the acronym for that is BOFF-for the sake of decorum, I felt I ought not to use it as a header).

So welcome to Week 1 of VIFF! These 10 fine selections are all available via streaming:

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Another Earth (Amazon Prime Video) – Writer-director Mike Cahill’s auspicious narrative feature debut concerns an M.I.T.-bound young woman (co-scripter Brit Marling) who makes a fateful decision to get behind the wheel after a few belts. The resultant tragedy kills two people, and leaves the life of the survivor, a music composer (William Mapother) in shambles. After serving prison time, the guilt-wracked young woman, determined to do penance, ingratiates herself into the widower’s life (he doesn’t realize who she is). Complications ensue.

Another Earth is a “sci-fi” film mostly in the academic sense; don’t expect to see CGI aliens in 3-D. Orbiting somewhere in proximity of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, its concerns are more metaphysical than astrophysical. And not unlike a Tarkovsky film, it demands your full and undivided attention. Prepare to have your mind blown. (Full review)

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Kurt Cobain: About a Son (YouTube, iTunes) – A.J. Schnack’s documentary is a unique, impressionistic portrait of musician Kurt Cobain’s short life. There are none of the usual talking head interviews or performance clips here; there’s nary a photo image of Cobain or Nirvana displayed until a good hour into the film. Schnack was given access to a series of frank and intimate audio interviews that Cobain recorded at his Seattle home circa 1992-1993. Schnack marries up Cobain’s childhood and teenage recollections with beautifully shot footage of Cobain’s hometown of Aberdeen and its environs.

The combination of Cobain’s narration with the visuals is eerie; you feel that you are inside Cobain’s temporal memories-kicking aimlessly around the cultural vacuum of a blue collar logging town, walking the halls of his high school, sleeping under a railroad bridge, sitting on a mattress on a crash pad floor and practicing guitar for hours on end.

The film is an antithesis to Nick Broomfield’s comparatively sensationalist rock doc Kurt and Courtney. Whereas Broomfield set out with a backhoe to dig up as much dirt as quickly as possible in attempting to uncover Cobain’s story, Schnack opts for a more carefully controlled excavation, gently brushing the dirt aside to expose the real artifact. (Full review)

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Life of Reilly (Amazon Prime Video) – One interesting thing I learned watching this filmed performance of Charles Nelson Reilly’s entertaining one-man show Save it for the Stage is that he was classically trained as a stage actor. Yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly, perhaps best known for his constant presence on the talk show/game show circuit from the late 60s onward. Reilly (who passed away in 2007) once wryly predicted his obits would contain the phrase “game show fixture”.

Reilly runs the theatrical gamut, segueing from hilarious anecdote to moving soliloquy without missing a beat. He begins with a series of wonderful vignettes about growing up in the Bronx. After a promising start in “Miss (Uta) Hagen’s $3 Tuesday afternoon acting class” in NYC in the early 50s, he hits a brick wall when he auditions for an NBC talent scout, only to be bluntly informed “They don’t let queers (sic) on television.”

Reilly got the last laugh; he recalls poring over TV Guide at the peak of his saturation on the tube, to play a game wherein he would count how many times his name would appear (including reruns). “I know I was once told I wasn’t allowed on TV,” he quips, “…but now I found myself thinking: Who do I fuck to get off?!” Funny, moving and inspiring. (Full review)

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Mid-August Lunch (Amazon Prime Video) – This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorrah). Light in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. Complications ensue.

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring. (Full review)

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Monkey Warfare (iTunes) – Written and directed by Reginald Harkema, Monkey Warfare is a nice little cinematic bong hit of low-key political anarchy. The film stars Don McKellar and Tracy Wright (the Hepburn and Tracy of quirky Canadian cinema) as a longtime couple who are former lefty radical activists-turned “off the grid” Toronto slackers.

When McKellar loans the couple’s free-spirited young pot dealer and budding anarchist (Nadia Litz) his treasured “mint copy” of a book about the Baader-Meinhof Gang, he unintentionally triggers a chain of events that will reawaken long dormant passions between the couple (amorous and political) and profoundly affect the lives of all three protagonists.

Monkey Warfare is not exactly a comedy, but Harkema’s script is awash in trenchant humor. If you liked Jeremy Kagan’s 1978 dramedy The Big Fix and/or Sidney Lumet’s 1988 drama Running on Empty, I think this film should be right in your wheelhouse. (Full review)

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Nowhere Boy (Netflix, iTunes, Showtime) – There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story focuses on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood. (Full review)

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Poppy Shakespeare (tubi, Amazon Prime Video) – Anna Maxwell Martin breaks down the fourth wall and tears up the screen as “N”, a mentally troubled young woman who has grown up as a ward of the state, shuffled about from foster care to government subsidized mental health providers for most of her life. She collects a “mad money” pension from the government, and spends most of her waking hours at a London “day hospital” (where many of the patients participate on a voluntary basis and are free to go home at night).

While there are some amusing moments, I need to warn you that this is pretty bleak fare. That being said, it is well written (Sarah Williams adapted from Clare Allan’s novel) and directed (by Benjamin Ross, who also helmed The Young Poisoner’s Handbook). The jabs at England’s health care system remind me of Lindsay Anderson’s “institutional” satires (Britannia Hospital in particular).

Naomie Harris is very affecting as the eponymous character, a fellow patient who befriends “N”, but it is Martin who commands your attention throughout. She has a Glenda Jackson quality about her that tells me she will likely be around for a while. She’s better than good. She’s crazy good. (Full review)

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Queen of the Sun (Amazon Prime Video) – I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us. (Full review)

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Telstar (YouTube, iTunes) – This biopic recounts the life of legendary, innovative and tragically doomed music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967). Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time).

The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his original stage role as Meek). (Full review)

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Trollhunter (tubi, Amazon Prime Video) – Like previous entries in the “found footage” sub-genre,  Trollhunter features an unremarkable, no-name cast; but then again you don’t really require the services of an Olivier when most of the dialog is along the lines of “Where ARE you!?”, “Jesus, look at the size of that fucking thing!”, “RUN!!!” or the ever popular “AieEEE!”.

Seriously, though- what I like about Andre Ovredal’s film (aside from the surprisingly convincing monsters) is the way he cleverly weaves wry commentary on religion and politics into his narrative. The story concerns three Norwegian film students who initially set off to do an expose on illegal bear poaching, but become embroiled with a clandestine government program to rid Norway of some nasty trolls who have been terrorizing the remote areas of the country (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief as to how the government has been able to “cover up” 200 foot tall monsters rampaging about). The “trollhunter” himself is quite a character. Not your typical creature feature! (Full review)

…one more thing

In case you are still bereft of ideas for movie night, film programmer and writer Kathleen Geier has posted a comprehensive guide aimed at housebound cinephiles jonesing for a deep catalog dive via online streaming. Her eclectic recommendations run the gamut, from classic Hollywood to indie, art house and world cinema.

Blu-ray reissue: Stardust (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 14, 2019)

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Stardust – Studio Canal (Region “B” Blu-ray)

Michael Apted directed this 1974 sequel to Claude Whatham’s 1973 film That’ll Be the Day. David Essex reprises his role as restless seeker Jim MacLaine, who has finally found his true passion: music.

The first third traces MacLaine’s  Beatle-like rise to fame with his beat combo “The Stray Cats” (it’s a safe bet Brian Setzer and band mates saw this film back in the day and “re-appropriated” the name).

With massive success comes the inevitable backstage squabbles and jealousies; eventually MacLaine is surrounded by music company weasels and yes-men whispering in his ear to dump his “backup” band and pursue a solo career as a rock god (who can say “no” to that?). Then comes the inevitable decline: too much drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll excess.

One of the best (and most realistic) films ever made about the music business. Clever casting of a number of veteran UK rockers like Adam Faith, Dave Edmunds, Keith Moon, Marty Wylde and Paul Nicholas adds greatly to the authenticity.

It feels like a squandered opportunity that Studio Canal didn’t just go ahead and package the film with That’ll Be the Day as a “two-fer”, but that’s a personal quibble. I’ll get over it. I’m just happy to finally have copies of both films with high-quality image and audio.

Where the deer and The Meat Puppets play: Desolation Center (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 21, 2019)

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“If people stand in a circle long enough, they’ll eventually begin to dance.”

– George Carlin

From sacrificed spearheads to Burning Man, the one constant for humankind is the need for ritual. Ceremonies, whether somber or exultant, reinforce our sense of group identity.

In short, you gotta fight for your right to party. Even if it’s in the middle of the desert:

The promoter of an event set up around the “Storm Area 51” internet craze in the remote Nevada desert pulled the plug due to low attendance, but the host of a festival for several thousand people in the tiny town of Rachel said her show would go on.

“Area 51 Basecamp” organizer Keith Wright said that after drawing just 500 attendees at a Friday event planned for 5,000 at the Alien Research Center souvenir shop in Hiko, he had to pull the plug.

“We put on a safe event for the people that showed up,” Wright said. “But we had to make the decision today because it costs tens of thousands of dollars to staff each day.

“It was a gamble financially. We lost.”

Several dozen campers still at the site could stay until Sunday, he added.

In Rachel, Little A’Le’Inn owner Connie West said she was sad to hear the Hiko festival didn’t succeed. In a voice hoarse from stress and lack of sleep, she said a noon-to-midnight slate of “Alienstock” event musical entertainment would continue for the several thousand revelers camping on her property and nearby federal land.

“This is the most fabulous time,” West said. “I’m just so grateful that people came. This is their event as much as it is mine.”

Lincoln county sheriff Kerry Lee said it was “pretty calm” early on Saturday in Rachel and Hiko. In Nye county, Sheriff Sharon Wehrly said no one showed up at a main entrance and an auxiliary gate at the once-secret Area 51 US air force facility.

Wehrly revised to 100 each the number of people who appeared at each of those gates early on Friday near Amargosa Valley, a 90-minute drive west of Las Vegas.

Lee, about a two-hour drive north of Las Vegas, said revelers gathered until about 4am at two gates between Hiko and Rachel, and said about 20 people broke from among revelers and “acted like they were going to storm but stopped short”.

Lee and Wright reported one arrest, for disorderly conduct, at the “Area 51 Basecamp” event.

Earlier, officials reported five arrests, including one man treated for dehydration by festival medics in Rachel.

Lee said a man reported missing on Friday morning after heading Thursday from a festival campground in Hiko toward an Area 51 gate was found safe in the evening.

The mood among the assembled remained mostly harmless. While costumed space aliens were a common and sometimes hilarious sight in events that began on Thursday, no one had reported seeing actual extraterrestrials or UFOs.

“Mostly harmless”. LOL. Somewhere out there in the ether, Douglas Adams is spinning.

The “Storm Area 51” meme may have fired the imaginations of millions earlier this week, but by Friday night it fizzled into several hundred disappointed people, standing in a circle somewhere in the middle of the Nevada desert…who eventually began to dance.

I only bring this up because I watched a documentary Friday night that oddly mirrors the Area 51 gathering. While there’s naught to do with UFOs or government cover-ups, Stuart Swezey’s Desolation Center does involve rituals, desert gatherings…and dancing.

Swezey, a scenester in the early 80s L.A. punk explosion, founded “Desolation Center”, a performance venue with no fixed geographical address. Desolation Center was an umbrella Swezey used for a series of guerilla music and art performances he organized in warehouses, lofts, and rehearsal spaces (think of it as a pre-internet “flash mob” concept).

According to one of the interviewees in the film, one of the main “inspirations” for the clandestine events was notoriously fascistic Chief of the L.A.P.D. Daryl Gates. Gates was no friend to the burgeoning punk scene; he deployed his officers to shut down club shows and generally harass punk fans whenever possible (never mind that despite the “in your face” posturing of the music and fashion, most of the kids were just having harmless fun).

Eventually, Swezey got the bright idea that if he staged his events out of town…like way out of town where Jesus lost his shoes, the performers and the audience would be free, free to ride without getting hassled by The Man. So it was that in April of 1983, he approached the LA band Savage Republic about doing a show in a dry lake bed near Joshua Tree. They were in. Once he talked The Minutemen into coming aboard, “The Mojave Exodus” was on. Swezey hand-crafted 250 cardboard tickets ($12.50 admission).

He distributed the tickets to record stores around LA; to his surprise they sold out. Using the money, he rented 3 school buses, a PA and a generator. In the film, Mariska Leyssius (a member of the band Psi Com) recalls how she assisted Swezey in organizing the event, as well as helpfully advising ticket holders to “keep your drugs and liquor below the line of the window” of the bus, in case they ran into cops during the road trip to the event site.

The event was a smashing success for all concerned, even if it failed to set the world on fire. The film documents The Mojave Exodus, as well as its follow-up, “The Mojave Auszug”, which took place in an isolated spot near Mecca, California in March of 1984.

The German influence was the result of a sabbatical Swezey had taken to explore the scene in Berlin, where he befriended the experimental industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, who ended up headlining that second event. In addition to musicians, a small group of performance artists known collectively as Survival Research Lab also appeared. Aptly named, their act included blowing up refrigerators and shooting objects with a Gatling gun (have I mentioned none of these desert events involved obtaining a permit?).

The recollections by participants are alternately hilarious and harrowing (let’s just say there was some acid involved). My eyes did start to glaze over when the anecdotes became tantamount to getting cornered Monday morning by a co-worker who insists on sharing details of how fucked-up he got at that party Saturday night, but for the most part it’s a fascinating look at a little-known chapter in alternative culture history. The film also connects the dots between these obscure little desert bacchanals and the massive like-minded festivals we have nowadays like Burning Man, Lollapalooza, and Coachella.

The singer not the song: Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 14, 2019)

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It always gave me a chuckle that singer-songwriter Barry Manilow did not write his hit “I Write the Songs”, which zipped to #1 in 1976. The song was in fact composed by ex-Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who wrote it for David Cassidy. Here’s where it gets interesting.

While Cassidy released it as a single in 1975, it was originally recorded by Captain and Tennille for their 1975 album Love Will Keep Us Together (but never a single). Alas, Cassidy’s version went nowhere fast, despite his pop idol status at the time.

David Cassidy and Captain and Tennille were highly popular acts in the mid-70s. So what gives…why did Manilow’s rendition win out in popularity? Speaking in purely technical terms, is Barry Manilow a “better” singer than David Cassidy or Toni Tennille?

Must be that elusive “x factor”.

There’s a venerable “chicken/egg” conundrum regarding this sort of thing. It goes something like this: What’s more important, the singer, or the song? Given that this is all subjective to begin with…it depends.

For example, the Beatles were not only superb songwriters, but singers as well; I prefer their original versions of their own material. I even love their covers of songs by Buddy Holly, Burt Bacharach, etc. Bob Dylan is a superb songwriter, but I’d much rather listen to the Turtles’ hit version of “It Ain’t Me Babe”, since Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman manage to sing it, oh, you know-on key?

Which brings us to one of the most successful singers of the last 50 years, Linda Ronstadt…who didn’t write her own hits either. Reminds me of a funny story. In preface to singing “Desperado” at a 2016 tribute concert to Ronstadt, Don Henley had this to say:

The song I’m about to do for you didn’t get much love or attention when it was released on [The Eagles’] second album in April of 1973. In fact, the executives at the record label freaked out… [feigning shock] “Oh god, they’ve made a fucking cowboy album!” And then Linda Ronstadt recorded the song [knowing laughter from audience] and put it on her album “Don’t Cry Now” that came out in September of 1973…and everything was different after that.

In the case of Linda Ronstadt, sounds like it’s the singer, not the song… n’est-ce pas?

Ronstadt (and that truly wondrous voice) is the subject of an intimate documentary portrait by directing tag team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl, Lovelace). Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice is narrated by Ronstadt herself (archival footage aside, she only appears on camera briefly at the end of the film).

Bad news first (this is a matter of public record, so not a spoiler). While Ms. Ronstadt herself is still very much with us, sadly “that wondrous voice” is not. In 2012 she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (she mentions in the film that it runs in her family), which has profoundly affected her ability to sing. That said, she remains sharp as a tack; in turns deeply thoughtful and charmingly self-effacing as she reflects on her life and career.

For those of us “of a certain age”, Ronstadt’s songbook is so ingrained in our neurons that we rarely stop to consider what an impressive achievement it was for her to traverse so much varied musical terrain-and to conquer it so effortlessly at each turn.

Name a genre, she’s likely mastered it and moved on: rock, pop, folk, country, country-rock, hard rock, soft-rock, new wave, torch, Latin pop, mariachi, light opera. Not to mention the 10 Grammy Awards, 3 American Music Awards, 2 Academy of Country Music Awards, etc.

What struck me most is her humility in the wake of prodigious achievement. I don’t get an impression the eclecticism stems from calculated careerism, but rather from a genuine drive for artistic exploration.

For example, when Ronstadt shares memories of growing up in Arizona singing Mexican canciones with her family, her decision to make an all-Spanish language album in 1987 makes perfect sense (record company execs fretted it was tantamount to career suicide, but when it went on to become the biggest-selling non-English language album in U.S. music history, I’m guessing they sang…a different tune).

Ronstadt is candid about her “rock chick” image, particularly in context of the music business environs of the 1970s, when it was considered “uncool” among many male musicians to play backup for a female singer. She notes that since she didn’t really have any role models, she had to carve her own way in dealing with “the boys in the band”, as well as the inevitable performance pressures that arise from playing packed arenas night after night, weeks on end. She certainly learned how to hold her own, but it wasn’t easy.

Despite her health condition, there’s no self-pity; Ronstadt comes across as pragmatic, forward-thinking and impressively resilient. There is a moment where the filmmakers gently coax her to appear on camera, while she is visiting with family in Mexico. She sings a traditional Spanish-language song with two of her relatives.

At one point, she stops and asks they start again; she isn’t happy with her harmony (ever the pro). She takes pains to insist what she is doing is “not singing”, because she feels she has lost control of her instrument (not to my ears). They complete the number, and it is beautiful. It’s a bittersweet coda for the film, but I’d wager Linda Ronstadt’s song is far from over.

Blu-ray reissue: Backbeat (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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Backbeat – Shout! Factory Blu-ray

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 their slick suits didn’t just pop out of Liverpool fully formed as such; they had already paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints. The most formative (and tumultuous) time for the band was the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period”, a series of gigs in Germany from 1960-1962.

Iain Softley’s 1994 drama is set during this period and lasers in on the close, volatile friendship between John Lennon (Ian Hart) and original Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliff (Stephen Dorff). The film also delves into Sutcliff’s star-crossed relationship with a beautiful German hipster named Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), who is credited for inspiring the band’s signature “mop top” haircuts. Kircherr also encouraged Sutcliff to pursue his painting (he was much more accomplished as an artist than as a musician). Absorbing take on a fascinating and bittersweet chapter of the band’s history, with sensitive acting and direction.

Shout! Factory’s 2K transfer is sharp and audio is dynamic. Extras include commentary track by Iain Softley, Ian Hart, and Stephen Dorff.

The Byrds and the beads: Echo in the Canyon *** & Model Shop (1969) ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2019)

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[The Beatles’ “She Said She Said” is] another psychedelic gem written by John, which in this case was literally inspired by psychedelics, because he came up with the idea for the song in the aftermath of an acid trip he took in 1965, while partying with The Byrds in L.A. (and you know that those space cowboys had the good shit, probably Sandoz). At any rate, the story goes that John got freaked out by Peter Fonda, who kept cornering him and whispering in his ear: “I know what it’s like to be dead.” Obviously, this unsettling mantra stuck with Lennon, who modified the final lyric, so that it became “she” said…I know what it’s like to be dead…

 – from my 2016 essay on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Revolver

“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.).

Interviews with the likes of Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, Brian Wilson, Eric Clapton, the late Tom Petty and producer Lou Adler are interspersed with performances from a 2015 tribute concert featuring Jakob Dylan and some of his contemporaries like Cat Power, Beck, Norah Jones and Fiona Apple covering their favorite 60s songs by the artists who are profiled (director Slater helped organize the event). Dylan also conducts the interviews and serves as a tour guide.

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?)

Still, it’s fun to be a fly on the wall as Dylan and his cohorts lay down tracks at vintage L.A. recording studios, or just to watch the late Tom Petty noodle around on a 12-string electric Rickenbacker to demonstrate the rudiments of the 60s California folk-rock sound.

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 (too bad for poor George that the publishers of the Chiffon’s 1963 hit “He’s So Fine” didn’t receive his melodic lift for his 1970 smash “My Sweet Lord” in the same spirit-they promptly sued him for plagiarism).

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.”

By odd coincidence, the day I previewed the film, a Rolling Stone obit caught my eye: 

Elliot Roberts, who managed the careers of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Tom Petty and many classic-rock legends, died Friday at the age of 76. A cause of death has not been revealed.

“It is with a heavy heart that we can confirm the passing of Elliot Roberts. No further details are available at this time,” a rep for Young wrote in a statement on behalf of Roberts’ Lookout Management.” Roberts, among the most respected and beloved music industry figures of all time, leaves an indelible footprint as a pioneer and leader in the business of artist representation. His uncanny intellect, unmatched, sharp wit, larger-than-life charisma along with his keen understanding of the music industry will remain unparalleled. Truly one of a kind, he will be missed always and by many.”

With his former colleague David Geffen, Roberts was one of the pivotal figures in the rise of the Southern California and Laurel Canyon music scenes of the Sixties and Seventies. Known equally for his business savvy and sense of humor, Roberts landed record deals for Young and Mitchell, co-managed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, conceived the idea of Petty and the Heartbreakers backing Bob Dylan in the 1980s and helped launch the careers of Tracy Chapman and the Cars. […]

Born Elliot Rabinowitz on February 25th, 1943, Roberts was raised in the Bronx, ran with gangs and, after flirting with the idea of becoming an athlete given his basketball chops, opted for show business. He wound up in the mail room at the William Morris Agency, where he would meet fellow would-be mover and shaker David Geffen.

After he and Geffen rose up the ladder, Roberts heard a tape of Mitchell and soon became her manager, forming Lookout Management. At Mitchell’s urging, Roberts, then only 23, also began managing Young (following the breakup of Buffalo Springfield) and, soon after, Crosby, Stills & Nash. While trying to land the trio a record deal, Roberts realized he needed someone with more record company contacts. Alongside Geffen, he formed the powerful Geffen-Roberts Company. The management firm soon came to represent not just Mitchell (until 1985) but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, America and many others. When Geffen started Asylum Records, its acts, including the Eagles and Jackson Browne, were also managed by Geffen-Roberts.

I believe I just heard an echo of The Bryds singing: “To everything (turn, turn, turn) …”

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Speaking of odd coincidences, there is a scene in Echo in the Canyon where director Andrew Slater mentions that one of the inspirations for his joint tribute concert/documentary project was Jacques Demy’s relatively obscure 1969 drama Model Shop (Slater weaves in snippets of Demy’s film throughout Echo in the Canyon).

Suddenly, a little bell went off in my head (talk about echoes…lots of space in that empty noggin), and I realized that I had a copy of that very film archived in my DVR (it recently aired on TCM). So, I figured-what the hell…sounds like a perfect double-bill.

While I am familiar with Demy’s work (mostly due to having Criterion’s excellent 6-film box set in my collection), Model Shop has somehow eluded me. The film represents a period in the late 60s when Demy and his wife, filmmaker Agnes Varda took a hiatus from their native France to explore America’s counterculture scene (speaking of which- Criterion’s 3-film “Agnes Varda in California” box is another great set I recommend).

Like many films of its era, Model Shop is a leisurely, episodic character study. It’s about a restless, late-twenty something Los Angelino named George (Gary Lockwood) who is experiencing possibly both the worst and best day of his life. His morning doesn’t start well; he and his girlfriend are awakened from their slumber by a repo man who is there to seize George’s beloved MG convertible. George manages to beg a 1-day reprieve, based on his promise to make an in-person payment of $100 to his bank by end of business day.

George’s girlfriend (Alexandra Hay) is chagrined over witnessing a scenario she has experienced once too many times. This is obviously not their first fight over money; and it looks like the relationship is just shy of going “kaput”. George is an architect by trade; but has recently quit in a fit of pique (existential crisis?). George flees the escalating spat in his MG as he brainstorms how he’s going to scare up that $100 by 6pm.

George’s day (and the film) turns a 180 when he visits a pal who runs an auto repair shop and espies a lovely woman (Anouk Aimee) who is there to pick up her car. On impulse, he decides to follow her in his MG (yes, it’s a bit on the stalking side). He follows her high up into the hills over L.A., and then seems to lose interest. He stops and takes in a commanding view of the city and the valley beyond, deeply lost in thought.

In my favorite scene, he drives up into (Laurel Canyon?) to visit a friend who’s a musician in an up-and-coming band. George’s pal turns out to be Jay Ferguson, keyboardist and lead singer of the band Spirit (and later, Jo Jo Gunne). Ferguson (playing himself) introduces George to his band mates, who are just wrapping a rehearsal. Sure enough, the boys in the band are Ed Cassidy, Randy California, and Matthew Andes-which is the classic lineup for Spirit! The band also provided the soundtrack for the film.

After the band splits, Jay plays a lovely piano piece for George; a song he’s “working on”. After some small talk, George sheepishly hits Jay up for a loan. No problem, man. Jay’s got him covered. George delivers this short, eloquent soliloquy about Los Angeles:

I was driving down Sunset and I turned on one of those roads that leads into the hills, and I stopped at this place that overlooks the whole city; it was fantastic. I suddenly felt exhilarated. I was really moved by the geometry of the place…its harmony. To think that some people claim that it’s an ugly city, when it’s really pure poetry…it just kills me. I wanted to build something right then; create something. It’s a fabulous city.

When George calls his parents to hit them up for money, he gets some dark news from mom. He has just received something he’s been dreading…a draft notice, and he is required to report for processing in just a few days (Vietnam hangs heavily over the film).

By pure chance, he once again spots the woman he had followed earlier. This time, he is determined to meet her. He tails her around Santa Monica, where she eventually disappears into a “models for rent” studio, where clientele pay to take pictures of women in various stages of undress. Undeterred, George pays for a session with the woman he is apparently becoming obsessed with. Their first conversation is as awkward as you would imagine; however, it turns out that George’s interest in her is more heartfelt than prurient.

What ensues is a “one-night-stand” tale that is bittersweet and affecting. The film is a unique entry in Demy’s oeuvre. Interestingly, it is both very much of its time, and ahead of its time; a precursor to films exploring modern love in the City of Angels like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and (especially) Alan Rudolph’s Welcome to L.A. Like those films, this is a gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.

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.