Category Archives: Rock ‘n’ Roll

SIFF 2024: Scala!!! (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2024)

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Lester Bangs defined ‘punk’ as “…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.” That philosophy informed the programming for Scala cinema, where the audience was as outrageously transgressive as the film fare. Ditto Jane Giles and Ali Catterall’s documentary, which earns a 3 “Fuck off” rating!

SIFF 2024: Resynator (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2024)

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[shakes fist] “Curse you, Robert Moog!” They say history is written by the winners. Director Alison Tavel’s documentary may reinforce that adage. For as long as she can remember, Alison has been told that it was, in fact, her dad (who passed away when she was 2 months old) who was the “true” inventor of the synthesizer; namely, a prototype he dubbed as “the Resynator”. While not a musician herself, Tavel has pursued a career in the business as a roadie (currently for Grace Potter), which put her in a position to pull a few strings and do some detective work. Her subsequent journey to discover (and document) the truth of the matter is at once a fascinating glimpse into the fickle nature of the music biz and a genuinely touching story of a young woman finally “meeting” the father she never got to know.

SIFF 2024: Saturn Return (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 11, 2024)

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The unsolved mysteries of romantic relationships and musical partnerships are commensurate.  For example, what drives two or more musicians to form a band? What sparks the attraction? Why does the band/creative partnership often break up? Why do human relationships in general almost seem engineered to fail? Is the culprit self-sabotage; i.e., does a fear of success and a fear of romantic intimacy represent two sides of the same coin? And most importantly, why are there so many songs written about failed relationships? Such questions form the crux of Isaki Lacuesta and Pol Rodríguez’s nonfiction drama, inspired by the Spanish indie band Los Planetas.

The story focuses on the creation of the band’s third album (1998’s Una Semana en el Motor de un Autobús); a period when the band was in turmoil. The female bassist has recently quit to pursue her interest in another field, the guitarist is struggling with substance abuse, and the lead singer has a creative block. To add to the pressure, they’ve been invited to record their next album in New York with a notable producer. The directors take a similar tack to Gus Van Sant’s Last Days; painting an intimate and impressionistic portrait. Excellent performances by all, accompanied by an atmospheric psychedelia soundtrack.

Blu-ray reissue: American Pop (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 24, 2024)

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American Pop (Columbia/Sony)

Within the realm of animated films, Ralph Bakshi’s name may not be as universally recognizable (or revered) as Walt Disney or Studio Ghibli, but I would consider him no less of an important figure in the history of the genre. During his heyday (1972-1983) the director pumped out 8 full-length feature films (Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic, Wizards, et. al.) using his signature blend of live-action, rotoscoping, and  traditional cel animation.

In his 1981 film American Pop, director Bakshi  and screenwriter Ronni Kern ambitiously attempt to distill the history of 20th Century American popular music (essentially from Vaudeville to Punk) in 90 minutes. The narrative is framed via the triumphs and travails of four generations of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family (all of whom are involved one way or the other in the music business). Intelligently written, beautifully animated, with an eclectic soundtrack (everything from “Swanee” to “Pretty Vacant”).

Columbia/Sony’s release is bare bones; no commentary tracks or extra features. The transfer, while a definite improvement over my 2009 Columbia DVD edition, does not appear to be a “restored” print (the “mastered in high definition” notation on the back of the keep case is a tell). The 2.0 DTS-HD MA audio track is adequately robust for this engaging musical-drama.

Blu-ray Reissue: Tokyo Pop (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on Dec 17, 2023)

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Tokyo Pop (Kino Lorber/Indie Collect)

This 1988 film is a likable entry in the vein of other 80s films like Starstruck, Breaking Glass, Desperately Seeking Susan, Smithereens and The Fabulous Stains. Star Carrie Hamilton’s winning screen presence helps to buoy the fluffy premise. Hamilton (who does her own singing) plays a struggling wannabe rock star who buys a one-way ticket to Tokyo at the invitation of a girlfriend. Unfortunately, her flaky friend has flown the coop, and our heroine is stranded in a strange land. “Fish out of water” misadventures ensue, including cross-cultural romance with all the usual complications.

For music fans, it’s a fun time capsule of the late 80s Japanese music scene, and the colorful cinematography nicely captures the neon-lit energy of Tokyo nightlife. Director Fran Rubel Kuzui (who co-wrote the screenplay with Lynn Grossman) later directed the 1992 feature film Buffy the Vampire Slayer and went on to serve as executive producer for the eponymous TV series. Sadly, Hamilton (Carol Burnett’s daughter) died of cancer at age 38 in 2002.

This one has been on my reissue wish list for a while. Indie Collect’s 4k restoration is sparkling, and the colors are vibrant. Regarding the audio…it is nice and clean, but be ready to ride your volume control, as the music has about ten times the gain over the dialog (a noticeable trend in remastered film soundtracks that makes me crazy). There are no extras, but you can’t have everything, and I am just happy that I can finally retire my VHS copy!

Blu-ray Reissue: Dance Craze (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 16, 2023)

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Dance Craze (BFI; Region ‘B’ locked)

In the book Reggae International, a collection of essays compiled by Stephen Davis and Peter Simon, sub-culturalist Dick Hebdige writes about the UK’s short-lived yet highly influential “2-tone” movement of the early 1980s:

Behind the fusion of rock and reggae lay the hope that the humour, wit, and style of working-class kids from Britain’s black and white communities could find a common voice in 2-tone; that a new, hybrid cultural identity could emerge along with the new music. The larger message was usually left implicit. There was nothing solemn or evangelical about 2-tone. It offered an alternative to the well-intentioned polemics of the more highly educated punk groups, who tended to top the bill at many of the Rock Against Racism gigs. […]

Instead of imposing an alienating, moralising discourse on a popular form (alien at least to their working-class constituency), bands like the Specials worked in and on the popular, steered clear of the new avant-gardes, and stayed firmly within the “classical” definitions of 50s and early 60s rock and pop: that this was music for Saturday nights, something to dance to, to use.

In 1981, a concert film called Dance Craze was released. Shot in 1980 and directed by Joe Massot (The Song Remains the Same), it was filmed at several venues, showcasing six of the most high-profile bands in the 2 Tone Records stable: Bad Manners, The English Beat, The Bodysnatchers, Madness, The Selector, and The Specials.

I’d heard about this Holy Grail, but it was a tough film to catch; outside of its initial theatrical run in the UK (and I’m assuming very limited engagements here in the colonies) it had all but vanished in the mists of time…until now.

This film is nirvana for genre fans; all six bands are positively on fire (this is music for Saturday nights-I guarantee you’ll be dancing in your living room).  Thanks to cinematographer Joe Dunton’s fluid “performer’s-eye view” camerawork and tight editing by Ben Rayner and Anthony Sloman, you not only feel like you are on stage with the band, but you get a palpable sense of the energy and enthusiasm feeding back from the audience.

Luckily for posterity, Dunton originally shot the film in super 35mm. Coupled with the meticulous restoration (using 70mm materials), it looks and sounds superb (especially for a concert film of this vintage). Extras include a 34-minute episode of the BBC program Arena examining the 2-tone movement (from 1980), outtakes, previously unseen interview footage, and more. (Please note: This is a Region ‘B’-locked Blu-ray, and requires an all-region player!).

Here, There, and Everywhere Now and Then

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 4, 2023)

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All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

All play the game
Existence to the end
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

-The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

I read the news today-oh boy. Well …technically, I read this news several days ago:

The last Beatles song featuring the voice of late member John Lennon and developed using artificial intelligence [was] released on Thursday at 1400 GMT alongside the band’s first track, record label Universal Music said.

Called “Now and Then”, the song – billed as the last Beatles song – will be released in a double A-side single which pairs the track with the band’s 1962 debut UK single “Love Me Do”, Universal Music Group (UMG.AS) said in a statement.

The Beatles’ YouTube channel premiered late on Wednesday the short film “Now And Then – The Last Beatles Song” ahead of the release of the track.

Directed by Oliver Murray, the 12-minute clip features exclusive footage and commentary from members of the band, Lennon’s son Sean Ono Lennon and filmmaker Peter Jackson, who directed the 2021 documentary series “The Beatles: Get Back”.

In the clip, Jackson explains how his team managed to isolate instruments and vocals from recordings using AI, including the original tape of “Now and Then” which Lennon recorded as a home demo in the late 1970s.

The song also features parts recorded by surviving members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr as well as the late George Harrison.

“That ultimately led us to develop a technology which allows us to take any soundtrack and split all the different components into separate tracks based on machine learning”, Jackson says in the video.

And in the end …how did it all turn out? Give it a spin-and I’ll meet you on the flip side:

I think it’s quite lovely, and couldn’t have arrived at a better time (most of the news as of late has been…soul crushing). In fact, out of the 3 resurrected and studio-sweetened John Lennon demos borne of Paul, George, and Ringo’s Beatles Anthology sessions in 1995 (the other two being “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”), I think this one is toppermost of the poppermost.

“Farewell, hello. Farewell, hello.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

I don’t know why you say, “Goodbye”, I say, “Hello”

-The Beatles, “Hello Goodbye”

Beatles forever!

(It’s a good week to say “hello” to one of my older posts-restored and remixed)

I Saw A Film Today: A Top fab 14 list

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

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By Dennis Hartley

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.

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 obsessives, but there is 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 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).

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 classic 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 a receptive mood. 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. For me, the best parts are the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (essentially the blueprint for MTV, which was still 15 years down the road).

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 was the feature film debut for director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale, the creative tag team who would later deliver Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sort of a cross between American Graffiti and The Bellboy, the film concerns 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.

They end up together in a caper to “meet the Beatles” by sneaking into their NYC hotel suite (the story is set on the day the band makes their 1964 debut on The Ed Sullivan Show). Zany misadventures ensue. Zemeckis overindulges on door-slamming screwball slapstick, but the energetic young cast and Gale’s breezy script keeps this fun romp zipping right along.

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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).

UPDATE: My review of Peter Jackson’s 2021 music doc series Get Back.

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The Magic Christian – The original posters for this 1969 romp proclaimed it “antiestablishmentarian, antibellum (sic), antitrust, antiseptic, antibiotic, antisocial and antipasto”. Rich and heir-less eccentric Sir Guy Grand (Peter Sellers) meets a young homeless man in a public park (Ringo Starr) and decides to adopt him as his son (“Youngman Grand”).

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 60s satires (Candy, Skidoo, Casino Royale) it’s a psychedelic train wreck, but when it’s funny, 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 of 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 (both have cameos).

The enormous cast includes a number of notable supporting players to keep your eye peeled for (mainly cameos), including Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Attenborough, Raquel Welch (Priestess of the Whip!), Spike Milligan, Roman Polanski, Christopher Lee, and Yul Brenner.

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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 (it’s probably weathered more 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 was one of my 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 candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon 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 – Set in late 50s England, Claude Whatham’s 1973 film (written by Ray Connolly) is a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in 60s UK cinema.

David Essex (best-known for his music career, and hit, “Rock On”) plays Jim MacLaine, an intelligent, angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (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 seasoned carny (Ringo Starr) who befriends him.

Early 60s English rocker Billy Fury performs some songs 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 1974 sequel, Stardust).

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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” all the fuss over the “innovative” visuals  (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 completest 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.

Instant International Film Festival

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 8, 2023)

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Ah, Summertime …when the livin’ is easy and the movin’- pitcher Pickens are Slim:

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Now, I have no personal beef against crowd-pleasing spectacles featuring transformers, superheroes, archeologists, little mermaids, teenage krakens, or grown-up conspiracy theorists who battle fantasy villains in alternate universes; but if you are in the mood for something more off the beaten path that, you know …isn’t primarily targeting 15 year-old males-summer movie season can be exasperating.

If you are of like mind, no worries. I’ve been covering film festivals for Hullabaloo since 2006. So if you’d rather pass on Indy Jones and satisfy your “indie” Jones instead, I’ve combed the archives and curated a “Best of the Festivals Festival” that you can program from the comfort of your living room (since its acronym is BOFF, I thought it best not to use that as a header).

These 15 fine selections are all available via various platforms. Add popcorn and enjoy!

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Another Earth (USA, 2011) – 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. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Bad Black (Uganda, 2016) – Some films defy description. This is one of them. 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. (Streaming free on tubi)

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Becoming Who I Was (South Korea, 2016) – 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. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (USA, 2012) – 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 power pop 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. (Streaming free on YouTube)

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Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (USA, 2021) – It’s been a long, strange trip for Beach Boys founder/primary songwriter Brian Wilson. After a 2-year streak of hit singles about sun, surf, cars and girls (beginning with the 1963 release of “Surfin’ U.S.A.”), Wilson hit a wall. The pressures of touring, coupled with his experimentation with LSD and his increasing difficulty reconciling the heavenly voices in his head led to a full scale nervous breakdown (first in a series).

Still, he managed to hold the creeping madness at bay long enough to produce the most innovative work of his career (Pet Sounds, in 1966). Wilson’s roller coaster ride was only beginning, with a number of well-documented ups and downs (personal and professional); but his unique creative faculties remained intact. Considering what he has been through, it is amazing Wilson is even alive to tell the tale.

Brent Wilson’s documentary borrows the “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” concept, following Rolling Stone editor Jason Fine and Brian Wilson as they cruise around L.A., listening to Beach Boys tunes. Fine gently prompts Wilson to reminisce about the personal significance of various stops along the way. Most locales prompt fond memories; others clearly bring Wilson’s psyche back to dark places he’d sooner forget. What keeps the film from feeling exploitative is the fact that Wilson demonstratively trusts Fine (they are longtime friends). A sometimes sad, but ultimately moving portrait. (Streaming free on PBS

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Drunken Birds (Canada, 2021) – Ivan Grbovic’s languidly paced, beautifully photographed culture clash/class war drama (Canada’s 2022 Oscar submission) concerns a Mexican cartel worker who finds migrant work in Quebec while seeking a long-lost love. Grbovic co-wrote with Sara Mishara. Mishara pulls double duty as DP; her painterly cinematography adds to the echoes of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. It also reminded me of Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm; a network narrative about people desperately seeking emotional connection amid a minefield of miscommunication. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song (USA/Canada, 2021) – Several years ago, I saw Tom Jones at the Santa Barbara Bowl. Naturally, he did his cavalcade of singalong hits, but an unexpected moment occurred mid-set, when he launched into Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”. Jones’ performance felt so intimate, confessional and emotionally resonant that you’d think Cohen had tailored it just for him. When Jones sang, I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice, I “got” it. Why shouldn’t Tom Jones cover a Cohen song? I later learned “Tower of Song” has also been covered by the likes of U2, Nick Cave, and The Jesus and Mary Chain.

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

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he Integrity of Joseph Chambers (USA, 2022) – This psychological thriller has a slow burn, but really gets under your skin. Early one morning, a white-collar father of two (Clayne Crawford) rolls out of his warm bed and readies himself to go deer hunting. His half-awake (and concerned) wife reminds him he has never gone hunting by himself and has limited experience with firearms. Undeterred, he insists that the best way to get experience is to “just go out and do it.” After stopping at a friend’s house to borrow his pickup truck (and a rifle), he heads for the woods. What could possibly go wrong? Anchored by Crawford’s intense performance, writer-director Robert Machoian has fashioned a riveting tale infused with a dash of Dostoevsky and a dollop of Deliverance. (Rent on Google Play)

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The Last Film Show (India, 2021) – Child actor Bhavin Rabari gives an extraordinary performance in writer-director Pan Nalin’s moving drama. Set in contemporary India in 2010, the story centers on Samay, a cinema-obsessed 9-year-old boy who lives with his parents and younger sister. He is frequently beaten by his father, who is embittered by having to support his family as a railway station “tea boy” after losing his cattle farm. He forbids Samay to watch movies unless they are “religious” in nature.

This of course drives Samay to play hooky from school and sneak into the local theater whenever possible. Eventually he befriends the projectionist, who takes Samay on as a kind of protégé, in exchange for the delicious school lunches that Samay’s mother packs for him.

There are obvious parallels with Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, but Nalin puts his own unique stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a colorful and poetic love letter to the movies. (Rent on Prime Video; free to Prime members)

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Love Spreads (USA/UK, 2020) – 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 This is Spinal Tap, with a dash of Love and Mercy-bolstered by a smart script, wonderful performances, and catchy original songs. (Streaming via Showtime on demand)

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Monkey Warfare (Canada, 2006) – 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 (Rent on Apple TV)

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Nowhere Boy (UK, 2009) – 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. (Rent on Prime Video)

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Polisse (France, 2011) – Now here’s a thinking person’s alternative to the current (and dubiously tabulated) box office “hit” Sound of Freedom (which Digby wrote about earlier this week). Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011, this is 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. (Rent on Google Play).

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Settlers (UK, 2021) – Writer-director Wyatt Rockefeller’s sci-fi drama is Once Upon a Time in the West on Mars. The story centers on 9-year-old Remmy (Brooklyn Prince), who lives with her settler parents (Sofia Boutella and Jonny Lee Miller) at a remote homestead. Following an attack by hostile parties and subsequent arrival of a drifter who claims that the homestead rightfully belongs to him, Sofia’s life (as well as the family’s dynamic) changes drastically. The story takes place over a 9-year period; with Nell Tiger Free playing 18-year-old Remmy. Not wholly original, but smartly written and well-acted, with great production design and cinematography (exteriors were filmed in South Africa). (Streaming on Hulu)

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Trollhunter (Norway, 2010) – 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! (Streaming free on YouTube)

Tribeca 2023: Let the Canary Sing (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17, 2023)

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The biggest surprise in Alison Elwood’s engaging portrait of Cyndi Lauper is the thoughtful, articulate, and soft-spoken woman who reflects on her life and career; a far cry from the goofball New Wave Judy Holliday shtick that defined her public persona. By the time her slyly feminist anthem “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” put her on the map in 1983, she’d already been toiling in the music biz for over a decade (mostly fronting cover bands; it was interesting to learn that she was once a backup singer for Patti LaBelle). She freely admits that the graph of her career is a classic roller coaster, but it turns out she’s more of a polymath than one might suspect and has never compromised her vision. I confess losing track of her post-80s output, but I came away with newfound respect for her ongoing dedication as an artist and an activist.

SIFF 2023: Even Hell Has its Heroes (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 13th, 2023)

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(Engaging sheepish mode). I’ve lived in Seattle 30 years…yet the “ambient metal” band Earth (led in numerous iterations by guitarist Dylan Carlson) somehow slipped under my radar. I felt a bit redeemed when I learned in Clyde Petersen’s documentary that they’re more well-known outside of the Northwest. Moody, experimental, and hypnotic (not unlike Earth’s epic drone pieces), Petersen’s film is, at its heart, an elegiac paean to that ephemeral moment Seattle ruled the music world.