Category Archives: Behind the Music

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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punk (noun)

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

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

– from The Oxford Living Dictionary

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

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

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

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

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

 

SIFF 2018: Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda ****

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

I saw a film today: A top fab 14 list

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2017)

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Here’s a Fab Four fun fact: The original U.K. and U.S. releases of the Beatles LPs prior to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did not contain all the same songs (even when the album titles were the same). This was due to the fact that the U.K. versions had 14 tracks, and the U.S. versions had 12. That’s my perfect excuse to offer up picks for the Top 14 Beatles films. Happily most of them are now available on home video, so maybe this will give you some stocking stuffer ideas. I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know: In addition to documentaries and films where the lads essentially played “themselves”, my criteria includes films where band members worked as actors or composers, and biopics. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical order:

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The Beatles Anthology-Admittedly, this opus is more of a turn-on for obsessive types, but there is certainly very little mystery left once you’ve taken this magical 600 minute tour through the Beatles film archives. Originally presented as a mini-series event on TV, it’s a comprehensive compilation of performance footage, movie clips and interviews (vintage and contemporary). What makes it somewhat unique is that the producers (the surviving Beatles themselves) took the “in their own words” approach, eschewing the usual droning narrator. Nicely done, and a must-see for fans.

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The Compleat Beatles– Prior to the Anthology, this theatrically released documentary stood as the definitive overview of the band’s career. What I like most about director Patrick Montgomery’s approach, is that he delves into the musicology (roots and influences), which the majority of Beatles docs tend to skimp on. George Martin’s candid anecdotes regarding the creativity and innovation that fueled the studio sessions are enlightening. It still stands as a great compilation of performance clips and interviews. Malcolm McDowell narrates. Although you’d think it would be on DVD, it’s still VHS only (I’ve seen laser discs at secondhand stores).

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years– As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Ron Howard’s 2016 film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened).

The title pretty much says it all; this is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, it’s beautifully assembled, and Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun.

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A Hard Day’s Night– This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity. Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and of course, the fab title song.

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Help! – Compared to its predecessor (see above), this is a much fluffier affair, from a narrative standpoint (Ringo is being chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice to their god; hilarity ensues). But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in the mood for it. Luckily, the Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.

Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s script has a few good zingers; but the biggest delights come from director Richard Lester’s flair for visual invention. The main reason to watch this film is for the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (pretty much the blueprint for MTV). And of course, the Beatles’ music was evolving in leaps and bounds by 1965. It has a killer soundtrack; in addition to the classic title song, you’ve got “Ticket to Ride”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before” and “I Need You”, to name a few. Don’t miss the clever end credits!

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand– This modest sleeper was the feature film debut for director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale, the creative tag team who would later collaborate on bigger box office hits like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sort of a cross between American Graffiti and The Bellboy, the story concerns an eventful “day in the life” of six New Jersey teenagers.

Three of them (Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Wendy Jo Sperber) are rabid Beatles fans, the other three (Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure and Susan Kendall Newman) not so much. Regardless, they all end up in a caper to “meet the Beatles” by sneaking into their NYC hotel suite (the story is set on the day that the band makes their 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show). Zany misadventures ensue.

Zemeckis overindulges on the door-slamming screwball slapstick, but the energetic young cast and Gale’s breezy script keeps the story moving along nicely. Allen has a very funny (and very Freudian) scene where she lolls around the Beatles’ hotel suite, taking fetishistic stock of their possessions. The film also benefits from the original Beatles songs (licensing fees must have been a steal before Michael Jackson bought the catalog).

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Let it Be– By 1969, the Beatles had probably 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 ? So, with hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through this 1970 documentary?

Filmed in 1969, the movie was intended to document the “making of” the eponymous album (although interestingly, there is also footage of the band working on several songs that ended up appearing on Abbey Road). There’s also footage of the band rehearsing on the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, and hanging out at the Apple offices.

Sadly, the film has developed a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. There is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where George reaches the end of his rope with Paul’s fussiness). Still, there is that classic mini-concert on the roof, and if you look closely, the boys are actually having a grand old time jamming out; it’s almost as if they know this is the last hurrah, and what the hell, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, after all. I hope this film finally finds its way to a legit DVD release someday (beware of bootlegs).

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The Magic Christian– The original posters for this 1969 romp proclaimed it to be “antiestablishmentarian, antibellum (sic), antitrust, antiseptic, antibiotic, antisocial and antipasto”. Rich and heir-less eccentric Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) stumbles upon a young homeless man sleeping in a public park (Ringo Starr) and decides to adopt him as his son (“Youngman Grand”), and the rest of the film pretty much follows in that same spirit of spontaneity.

Sir Guy sets about imparting a nugget of wisdom to his newly appointed heir: People will do anything for money. Basically, it’s an episodic series of elaborate pranks, setting hooks into the stiff upper lips of the stuffy English aristocracy. Like similar broad counterculture-fueled satires of the 60s (Candy, Skidoo, Casino Royale) it’s a bit of a psychedelic train wreck, but it’s very funny.

Highlights include Laurence Harvey doing a striptease whilst reciting the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, a pheasant hunt with field artillery, and well-attired businessmen wading waist-deep into a huge vat full of slaughterhouse offal, using their bowlers to scoop up as much “free money” as they can (accompanied by Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”).

Badfinger performs the majority of the songs on the soundtrack, including their Paul McCartney-penned hit, “Come and Get It”. Director Joseph McGrath co-wrote with Sellers, Terry Southern, and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese.

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Magical Mystery Tour– According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project, originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair; a real psychedelic train wreck. Over the years, it’s probably weathered more continuous drubbing than Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate combined.

Granted, upon reappraisal, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has held up remarkably well. Borrowing a page from Ken Kesey, the Beatles gather up a group of friends (actors and non-actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside.

They basically filmed whatever happened, then sorted it all out in the editing suite. It’s the musical sequences that make the restored version released on Blu-ray several years ago worth the investment.  In hindsight, sequences like “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus” play like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away.

Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider that George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. Magical Mystery Tour is far from a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. Roll up!

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Nowhere Boy– This gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood made the toppermost of the poppermost on my list of 2010 Seattle International Film Festival faves. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teen-aged John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, 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 handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

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Produced by George Martin– While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.

Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin . The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.

Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.

81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some very candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how deeply hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon rather curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.

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The Rutles: All You Need is Cash– Everything you ever wanted to know about the “Prefab Four” is right here, in this cheeky and hilarious 1978 mockumentary, originally presented as a TV special. It’s the story of four lads from Liverpool: Dirk McQuickly (Eric Idle), Ron Nasty (Neil Innes), Stig O’Hara (Rikki Fataar) and Barry Womble (John Halsey). Any resemblance to the Beatles, of course, is purely intentional.

Idle wrote the script and co-directed with Gary Weis (who made a number of memorable short films that aired on the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live). Innes (frequent Monty Python collaborator and one of the madmen behind the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) composed the soundtrack, clever mash-ups of near-Beatles songs that are actually quite listenable on their own.

Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and other music luminaries appear as themselves, “reminiscing” about the band. There are also some funny bits that feature members of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd). Look fast for a cameo from George Harrison, as a reporter. Undoubtedly, the format of this piece provided some inspiration for This is Spinal Tap.

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That’ll Be the Day– Anyone who ever doubted Ringo Starr’s acting abilities need look no further than this 1973 film, which proved that, if given the right material, he could deliver the goods. Although he is not the protagonist, Starr provides crucial support for David Essex, who stars as a Lennon-esque character (whose journey is continued in Stardust, the 1974 sequel about the rise and fall of a rock star).

Set in late 50s England, Claude Whatham’s film (written by Ray Connolly) is a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the British cinema of the 60s. Essex (best-known for his music career, and his 70s hit, “Rock On”) also does a bang-up job here as young Jim MacLaine, a highly intelligent but angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (much to Mum’s chagrin). While he’s figuring out what to do with his life, Jim supports himself working at a “funfair” at the Isle of Wight, where he gets a crash course in how to fleece customers and “pull birds” from a fellow carny (Starr) who befriends him.

Early 60s British rocker Billy Fury performs some numbers as “Stormy Tempest” (likely a reference to Rory Storm, who Ringo was drumming for when the Beatles enlisted him in 1962) Also look for Keith Moon (who gets more screen time in the sequel).

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Yellow Submarine– Despite being a die-hard Beatles fan, over the years I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about this 1968 animated feature “starring” the Fab Four; or rather, their cartoon avatars, voiced over by other actors. While I adored the music soundtrack, I never quite “got” what all the fuss was over the “innovative” animation (which could be partially attributable to the fact that I never caught it in a theater, just on TV and in various fuzzy home video formats).

But, being the obsessive-compulsive completist that I am, I snapped up a copy of Capitol’s restored version a few years ago, and found it to be a revelation. The 2012 transfer was touched-up by hand, frame-by frame (an unusually artisan choice for this digital age), and the results are jaw-dropping. The visuals are stunning. The audio remix is superb; I never fully appreciated the clever wordplay in the script (by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal) until now. The story itself remains silly, but it’s the knockout music sequences (“Eleanor Rigby” being one standout) that make this one worth the price of admission.

Blu-ray reissue: Sid and Nancy ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Sid and Nancy – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

The ultimate love story…for nihilists. Director Alex Cox has never been accused of subtlety, and there’s certainly a glorious lack of it here in his over-the-top 1986 biopic about the doomed relationship between Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb chew all the available scenery as they shoot up, turn on and check out. It is a bit of a downer, but the cast is great, and Cox (who co-scripted with Abbe Wool) injects a fair amount of dark comedy (“Eeew, Sid! I look like fuckin’ Stevie Nicks in hippie clothes!”).

The movie also benefits from outstanding cinematography by Roger Deakins, which is really brought to the fore in Criterion’s 4K restoration. Extras include a 1987 doc on the making of the film, and the “infamous” 1976 Sex Pistols TV interview with Bill Grundy.

The idol maker: Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 7, 2017)

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A long distance, directory assistance, area code 212                                       Say hey, A & R-this is mister rhythm and blues                                                     He said hello, and put me on hold                                                                                To say the least the cat was cold                                                                                  He said don’t call us, child…we’ll call you.

-from “Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”, by Sugarloaf

In Hit Men, Fredric Dannen’s excellent 1990 book recounting the golden era of the major record label power brokers, the author writes:

Rock historians tend to romanticize the pioneers of the rock and roll industry. It is true that the three large labels of the fifties—RCA Victor, Decca, and Columbia, which CBS had bought in 1938—were slow to recognize the new music. […]

The pioneers deserve praise for their foresight but little for their integrity. Many of them were crooks. Their victims were usually poor blacks, the inventors of rock and roll, though whites did not fare much better. […]

The modern record industry, which derives half its revenues from rock, worships its early founders. It has already begun to induct men such as disc jockey and concert promoter Alan Freed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When veteran record men wax nostalgic about the fifties, they often speak of the great “characters” who populated the business.

One of the direct descendants of those “characters” (and also profiled in Dannen’s book) is legendary A & R man Clive Davis. Davis was president of Columbia Records from 1966-1973, and founder and president of Arista Records 1974-2000 (when he founded J Records). In 2000, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the non-performer’s category. He was chairman and CEO of the RCA Music Group from 2002-2008; currently he is the chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment (at age 85).

Davis is also the subject of a new documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives. You should know up front that Chris Perkel’s film was made with Davis’ full blessing and cooperation; so if you are looking for an expose of the cutthroat music business, you will be disappointed (for a more unvarnished portrait of Mr. Davis and his peers, I recommend Dannen’s book). Still, music fans should find it a worthwhile watch.

Putting the generally hagiographic tone of the film aside, the title’s “soundtrack of our lives” conceit is actually not too far off the mark. As is recounted in the film, the lawyer-turned-record company talent scout came roaring out of the gate by cannily raiding the embarrassment of new and exciting talent on display at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

After watching Janis Joplin’s jaw-dropping performance at the festival, he immediately signed Big Brother and the Holding Company (good call!). Other notable artists who joined the Columbia roster under Davis’ tenure and mentorship: Santana, Laura Nyro, The Electric Flag, The Chambers Brothers, Chicago, Blood Sweat & Tears, Loggins & Messina, Aerosmith, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and Earth Wind and Fire.

Unfortunately, Davis ended up getting fired from CBS in the mid-70s for alleged misappropriation of company funds for personal use. Details of this period are glaringly glossed over in the film; we are only offered Davis’ contention that he was the sacrificial lamb in a company-wide payola scandal that he denies having any direct involvement in.

Arguably, this could have been the best thing that ever happened to him, as Davis dusted himself off and founded Arista Records shortly thereafter. While he didn’t necessarily “discover” every artist on the label, he did assemble an impressive lineup that would seem to affirm his “golden ear” for talent: Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Eric Carmen, Air Supply, Ray Parker Jr., Carly Simon, The Grateful Dead, etc.

Davis has also displayed a talent for helping give long-established artists with waning sales a second wind in their careers; the film explores how he “reintroduced” Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, The Grateful Dead and Santana to a new generation of fans.

Not surprisingly, a sizeable portion of the film is devoted to Davis’ most storied client relationship, which was with Whitney Houston. Under Davis’ mentorship, Houston became one of the biggest selling artists of all time. Their partnership was at once professional and paternal; Davis’ recollections of his attempts (too little too late) to help her overcome the struggles with addiction that led to her sadly untimely end are very personal and moving.

As I inferred, music fans will find the film absorbing (if not necessarily revelatory). I would have liked to have learned a little more about Davis’ “process” as a talent scout and an idol maker; maybe a few more anecdotes about working directly with specific artists (at times as a de facto producer in the studio) might have spiced things up. Still, as a study of what is literally a dying breed of “hit men”, this single should make the charts.

The diva and the gypsy: Dalida ** & Django ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2017)

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This has been keeping me up for several nights. How could I, a self-proclaimed musicologist, have been hitherto completely and blissfully unaware of the Egyptian-Italian “international superstar” Dalida, who sold a record-breaking 170 million records during her lifetime? Her 30-year career began in 1956…my birth year. So apparently, her music was part of the soundtrack of my life (although…you wouldn’t know it to ask me). In my own (weak) defense, I have heard of Zamfir (master of the pan flute!), and I’m aware of international superstar Nana Mouskouri, but Dalida? A complete flyover for me.

Unfortunately, after watching Dalida, Lisa Azuelo’s slickly produced yet superficial 124-minute biopic, I still don’t know that much about her, except that her personal life was a tragedian’s dream. While she did have natural talent, statuesque beauty, and massive success going for her, an inordinate number of men in her life committed suicide…as did she (it’s probably not the best “date movie” if you or your date lean toward melancholia).

In fact, the film kicks off with Dalida’s first suicide attempt in 1967 (talk about foreshadowing) and then proceeds from there with flashbacks and flash-forwards. We do see Dalida (born Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti) as a young girl in Cairo, getting taunted and bullied by her fellow students at Catholic school; they call her “ugly” and “four-eyes”…but there is no elaboration offered as to whether this sowed the seeds of her lifelong self-esteem issues (manifesting in adult life as we see her struggle with bulimia).

Of course, our ugly duckling does turn into a swan; after winning the Miss Egypt pageant, Dalida (Sveva Alviti) relocates to Paris in the early 1950s to pursue a show biz career. While she aspires to act, her singing talent and charismatic stage presence gains her entre into the music business. She meets Radio Europe 1 producer (and future hubby) Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), who helps guide her into international superstardom.

After a promising start, the film falls into a predictable pattern: Dalida starts a passionate new relationship. Her lover kills himself (either while the relationship is still in progress, or a delayed reaction sometime after it fizzes). She sings a really sad song. She meets someone else. Her new lover kills himself. She sings an ever sadder song. She meets another guy. Her latest lover kills himself. She sings a song so sad…I want to kill myself.

If that was her life story, that was her life story; I understand that, and it’s very sad. But there is little else in the film that gives us a sense of who she really was. On the plus side, Dalida’s original recordings provide the soundtrack (revealing a unique juxtaposition of melancholia and pop sensibility that recalls Scott Walker). The film sports earnest performances, catchy tunes, and it has a good beat; but as a biopic…you can’t dance to it.

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If you were a free-thinking musician, artist, writer, poet, filmmaker, scientist, or scholar living in or around Germany circa 1933-1945, there was a shared occupational hazard: fleeing the Nazis. Whether you were Albert Einstein or the von Trapp family, there was just something about the Third Reich that made you feel, oh, I don’t know…unwelcome?

The crushing of free thought and creative expression under fascism’s thumb has provided dramatic fodder for a number of WW2 films; some fictional (e.g. Cabaret, Mephisto, and The Last Metro), and others that are based on true stories (The Sound of Music and Julia).

The latest film to mix biopic with WW2 intrigue is Etienne Comar’s Django, which dramatizes guitarist-composer-European jazz pioneer Django Reinhardt’s escape attempt to Switzerland while living in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1943. While his talent and reputation kept him relatively “safe”, Reinhardt had a couple strikes against him. He was a free-spirited musician, and he was Sinti (the Nazis were less than kind to the Gypsies).

As the film opens Django (portrayed with verisimilitude by Reda Kateb) is in the midst of one of his legendary Paris engagements with the Quintette du Hot Club de France. Django has a patron in jazz-loving Luftwaffe officer Dietrich Schulz-Koehn, aka “Doktor Jazz” (Jan Henrik Stahlberg). While on the one hand Django is well aware of the atrocities being committed against Gypsies, he is somehow able to appease the occupying Germans enough to keep his immediate family fed and out of danger while still actively engaging in his favorite extracurricular activities of drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

However, he has a sobering moment when Dr. Jazz informs him that he has arranged a tour for Django and his group, with an itinerary that includes dates in Germany. While things are still relatively loose in Paris, the closer you get to the fatherland, the more stringent the “rules”. Django is outwardly amused but obviously concerned about his possible future when he is presented with a rider for the tour that includes directives like:

“As to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones (so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation […]

 …so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs).”

Oy. Tough room.

So it is not surprising that when Django sees an opportunity at one of the road gigs for his family (who have accompanied him on the tour) and himself to make a break for the Swiss border in the dark of night, they go for it, providing some suspense and intrigue in the third act. Possible spoiler here, but quite curiously, there seems to be a bit of disparity between how the filmmakers portray the outcome of this escapade with the actual historical accounts (and that’s all I am prepared to say about that at this juncture…ahem).

The recreation of Reinhardt’s music (by The Rosenberg Trio) is beautifully done; if Kateb isn’t actually playing, I have to say he’s doing a wholly convincing job of miming the right notes (although “hands only” cutaways for the more intricate soloing passages suggests supplementation from a ringer). A nitpick or two aside, Comar has fashioned an absorbing (although far from complete) portrait of a fascinating musical talent whose work and innovation is ripe for rediscovery and appreciation by a new generation of fans.

[Both playing at SIFF’s “French Cinema Now” festival, running through October 5th in Seattle. For tickets and further information, click here].

Nothing without its meaning: Mali Blues ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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“Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”              

-H.L. Mencken

African women live through too much hell and suffering                               We should look again at our ancestral beliefs and assess them               Keep what’s good for us, and reject all that harms us                               African women live through too much hell and suffering                            They cut it…stop female circumcision!                                                           Mother, it hurts so much                                                                                                    It hurts so much

-from “Boloko”, by Fatoumata Diawara

Needless to say, self-taught Mali guitarist-singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara does not make her living churning out moon-June pop tunes. She is a creative artist who is fiercely and fearlessly dedicated to speaking truth to power. That’s the kind of stance that makes you a lightning rod anywhere in the world (especially if you are a woman), but it borders on suicidal in an impoverished West African nation where Islamic militants have declared war on music and musicians. From a 2012 Guardian article by Andy Morgan:

The pickup halted in Kidal, the far-flung Malian desert town that is home to members of the Grammy award-winning band Tinariwen. Seven AK47-toting militiamen got out and marched to the family home of a local musician. He wasn’t home, but the message delivered to his sister was chilling: “If you speak to him, tell him that if he ever shows his face in this town again, we’ll cut off all the fingers he uses to play his guitar with.”

The gang then removed guitars, amplifiers, speakers, microphones and a drum kit from the house, doused them with petrol, and set them ablaze. In northern Mali, religious war has been declared on music.

When a rabble of different Islamist groups took control of the region in April there were fears that its rich culture would suffer. But no one imagined that music would almost cease to exist – not in Mali, a country that has become internationally renowned for its sound.

“Culture is our petrol,” says Toumani Diabaté, the Malian kora player who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Björk, to name but a few. “Music is our mineral wealth. There isn’t a single major music prize in the world today that hasn’t been won by a Malian artist.”

“Music regulates the life of every Malian,” adds Cheich Tidiane Seck, a prolific Malian musician and producer. “From the cradle to the grave. From ancient times right up to today. A Mali without music? No … I mean … give me another one!”

In his new documentary, Mali Blues, Lutz Gregor follows popular world music artist Fatoumata Diawara as she prepares for her appearance at the 2015 Festival of the Niger. Originally born in Ivory Coast to Malian parents and currently living in France, Diawara has not been back to Mali since she left at age 19. That is why her participation in the festival has profound personal significance; it signals Diawara’s first performance in her home country since achieving international recognition and success.

Several of Diawara’s fellow Malian musicians also appearing at the festival are also profiled, including Taureg guitarist Ahmed Ag Kaedi, rapper Master Soumy, and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. As a guitar player, I was particularly taken with Kouyate’s mastery of his instrument…he’s like the Hendrix of the ngoni. I have never seen anyone play an electrified ngoni before; much less with pedal effects (like a wah-wah). To just look at this oddly rectangular, 4-string banjo-like instrument, you’d never imagine one could wriggle such a broad spectrum of power, beauty and spacious tonality out of it.

Beautifully photographed and edited, with no voice-over to take you out of the frame, Gregor’s documentary plays like a meditative narrative film. In the film’s most bittersweet scene, Diawara performs “Boloko” (her song about the draconian practice of female circumcision) for a small audience of women and girls in a Mali village where she spent her formative years. After a moment of silence following the performance, the women begin to ruminate.

“A song is nothing without its meaning,” one woman says to Diawara, continuing, “You are good and courageous.” And, as this extraordinary film illustrates, a culture is nothing without its music…or its poetry, literature, or art for that matter. Those who would destroy it will never hold a candle to the good and courageous.

SIFF 2017: A Life in Waves ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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While her name isn’t a household word, Suzanne Ciani is a musical polymath whose work has been heard by millions…from New Age fans to pinball enthusiasts. Brett Whitcomb’s film is an inspirational portrait of this innovative artist’s 40-year career. An early electronica pioneer, the classically-trained Ciani was in one respect too ahead of her time, because she hit the glass ceiling fairly quickly (the late 60s synth scene was a boy’s club). Undaunted, she reinvented herself as a “sound designer”, making a ton of loot devising ad jingles (and effects, like the Coca-Cola “pop and pour” sound), theme songs, game sound effects, you name it. She kept composing, eventually founding her own New Age record label and becoming a genre star. A fascinating look at a creative genius who’s managed to ride the wave at the crest between art and commerce.

SIFF 2017: Bill Frisell: A Portrait ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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He doesn’t “shred” or do windmills on stage. In fact, he looks more like a college professor who drives a 1972 Volvo than a peer-revered guitar slinger that most people have never heard of. I will confess that even I (an alleged music geek) couldn’t name one Bill Frisell song. Yet, this unassuming Seattle-based virtuoso has 35 solo albums and scores of sessions with more well-known artists to his credit. He’s also tough to nail down; All Music Guide files him under a dozen genres, including Modern Creative, Post-Bop, New Acoustic, World Fusion, and Progressive Folk. Emma Franz’s film, while perhaps just a smidgen overlong for anyone but a super-fan, nicely conveys the joy of creating, and as its title infers-delivers an amiable portrait of an inventive player.