Category Archives: Rock ‘n’ Roll

Like we did last summer: Top 15 Rock Musicals

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 3, 2021)

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Ah, July 4th weekend. Nothing kicks off Summer like an all-American holiday that encourages mass consumption of animal flesh (charcoal-grilled to carcinogenic perfection), binge drinking, and subsequent drunken handling of explosive materials. Well, for most people. Being the semi-reclusive weirdo that I am (although I prefer the term “gregarious loner”), nothing kicks off summer for me like holing up for the holiday weekend with a case of Diet Dr. Pepper and an armload of my favorite rock musicals.

For your consideration (or condemnation) here are my Top 15 rock ‘n’ roll musicals. Per usual, I present them in no ranking order. For those about to rock…I salute you.

Bandwagon – A taciturn musician, still reeling from a recent breakup with his girlfriend, has a sudden creative spurt and forms a garage band. The boys pool resources, buy a beat-up van (the “Band” wagon, get it?) and hit the road as Circus Monkey. The requisite clichés ensue: The hell-gigs, backstage squabbles, record company vultures, and all that “art vs commerce” angst; but John Schultz’s crisp writing and directing and mostly unknown cast carry the day.

Indie film stalwart Kevin Corrigan stands out, as does real life indie rocker/Chapel Hill music scenester Doug McMillan (lead singer of The Connells) as the Zen-like road manager (director Schultz is one of McMillan’s former band mates).

The original soundtrack is an excellent set of power-pop (you’ll have the catchy signature tune, “It Couldn’t Be Ann” in your head for days). Anyone who has been a “weekend rock star” will recognize many of the scenarios; any others who apply should still be quite entertained.

The Commitments – “Say it leoud. I’m black and I’m prewd!” Casting talented yet unknown actor/musicians to portray a group of talented yet unknown musicians was a stroke of genius by director Alan Parker. This “life imitating art imitating life” trick works wonders. In some respects, The Commitments is an expansion of Parker’s 1980 film Fame; except here the scenario switches from New York to Dublin (there’s a bit of a wink in a scene where one of the band members breaks into a parody of the Fame theme).

However, these working-class Irish kids don’t have the luxury of attending a performing arts academy; there’s an undercurrent referencing the economic downturn in the British Isles. The acting chemistry is superb, but it’s the musical performances that shine, especially from (then) 16-year old Andrew Strong, who has the soulful pipes of someone who has been smoking 2 packs a day for decades. In 2007, cast member/musician Glen Hansard co-starred in John Carney’s surprise low-budget hit, Once, a lovely character study that would make a perfect double bill with The Commitments.

Expresso Bongo– This 1959 British gem from Val Guest undoubtedly inspired Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners– from the opening tracking shot giddily swooping through London’s Soho district coffee bar/music club milieu, to its narrative about naive show biz beginners with stars in their eyes and exploitative agents’ hands in their wallets. Laurence Harvey plays his success-hungry hustler/manager character with chutzpah. The perennially elfin Cliff Richard plays it straight as Harvey’s “discovery”, Bongo Herbert.

The film includes performances by the original Shadows (Richards’ backup band), featuring guitar whiz Hank Marvin (whom Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page have cited as a seminal influence). The smart, droll screenplay (by Julian More and Wolf Mankowitz) is far more sophisticated than most of the U.S. produced rock’ n ’roll musicals of the era (films like The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock Rock Rock do feature priceless performance footage, but the story lines are dopey).

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 the fab title song.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch – It’s your typical love story. A German teen named Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell) falls for a G.I., undergoes a less than perfect sex change so they can marry, and ends up seduced and abandoned in a trailer park somewhere in Middle America. The desperate Hansel opts for the only logical way out…he creates an alter-ego named Hedwig, puts a glam-rock band together, and sets out to conquer the world. How many times have we heard that tired tale?

But seriously, this is an amazing tour de force by Mitchell, who not only acts and sings his way through this entertaining musical like nobody’s business, but directed and co-wrote (with composer Steven Trask, with whom he also co-created the original stage version).

Jailhouse Rock-The great tragedy of Elvis Presley’s film career is how more exponentially insipid each script was from the previous one. Even the part that mattered the most (which would be the music) progressively devolved into barely listenable schmaltz (although there were flashes of brilliance, like the ’69 Memphis sessions).

Fortunately, however, we can still pop in a DVD of Jailhouse Rock, and experience the King at the peak of his powers before Colonel Parker took his soul. This is one of the few films where Elvis actually gets to breathe a bit as an actor (King Creole is another example).

Although he basically plays himself (an unassuming country boy with a musical gift from the gods who becomes an overnight sensation), he never parlayed the essence of his “Elvis-ness” less self-consciously before the cameras as he does here. In addition to the iconic “Jailhouse Rock” song and dance number itself, Elvis rips it up with “Treat Me Nice” and “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains A punk version of A Star is Born. This 1981 curio (initially shelved from theatrical distribution) built a cult base, thanks to showings on USA Network’s Night Flight back in the day. As a narrative, this effort from record mogul turned movie director Lou Adler would have benefited from some script doctoring (Slap Shot screenwriter Nancy Dowd is off her game here) but for punk/new wave nostalgia junkies, it’s still a great time capsule.

Diane Lane plays a nihilistic mall rat who breaks out of the ‘burbs by forming an all-female punk trio with her two cousins (played by Marin Kanter and then-15 year-old Laura Dern). They dub themselves The Stains. Armed with a mission statement (“We don’t put out!”) and a stage look possibly co-opted from Divine in Pink Flamingos, this proto-riot grrl outfit sets out to conquer the world (and learn to play their instruments along the way).

Music biz clichés abound, but it’s a guilty pleasure, due to real-life rockers in the cast. Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick of The Tubes are a hoot as washed up glam rockers. The fictional punk band, The Looters (fronted by an angry young Ray Winstone) features Paul Simonon from The Clash and Steve Jones and Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols.

The Phantom of the Paradise – To describe writer-director Brian DePalma’s 1974 horror schlock-rock musical take-off on The Phantom of the Opera as “over the top” would be understatement.

Paul Williams (who composed the memorable soundtrack) chews all the available scenery as ruthless music mogul “Swan”, a man with a curious predilection for insisting his artists sign their (somewhat long-term) contracts in blood. One who becomes so beholden is Winslow (William Finely) a talented composer hideously disfigured in a freak accident (and that’s only the least of his problems). Jessica Harper plays the object of poor Winslow’s unrequited desire, who is slowly falling under Swan’s evil spell.

Musical highlights include the haunting ballad “Old Souls” (performed by Harper, who has a lovely voice) and “Life at Last”, a glam rock number performed by “The Undead”, led by a scene-stealing Gerrit Graham camping it up as the band’s lead singer “Beef”.

Quadrophenia –The Who’s eponymous 1973 double-LP rock opera, Pete Towshend’s musical love letter to the band’s first g-g-generation of most rabid British fans (aka the “Mods”) inspired this 1979 film from director Franc Roddam. With the 1964 “youth riots” that took place at the seaside resort town of Brighton as catalyst, Roddam fires up a visceral character study in the tradition of the British “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in the early 1960s.

Phil Daniels gives an explosive, James Dean-worthy performance as teenage “Mod” Jimmy. Bedecked in their trademark designer suits and Parka jackets, Jimmy and his Who (and ska)-loving compatriots cruise around London on their Vespa and Lambretta scooters, looking for pills to pop, parties to crash and “Rockers” to rumble with. The Rockers are identifiable by their greased-back hair, leathers, motorbikes, and their musical preference for likes of Elvis and Gene Vincent.

Look for a very young (and much less beefier) Ray Winstone (as a Rocker) and Sting (as a Mod bell-boy, no less). Wonderfully acted by a spirited cast, it’s a heady mix of youthful angst and raging hormones, supercharged by the power chord-infused grandeur of the Who’s music.

Rock and Roll High School – In this 1979 cult favorite from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own films under Corman’s tutelage) and Mary Waronov (hilarious as the very strict principal.) R.I.P. Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny and Tommy.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show– 46 years have not diminished the cult status of Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s original stage musical about a hapless young couple (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) who stumble into the lair of one Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) one dark and stormy night.

Much singing, dancing, cross-dressing, axe-murdering, cannibalism and hot sex ensues-with broad theatrical nods to everything from Metropolis, King Kong and Frankenstein to cheesy 1950s sci-fi, Bob Fosse musicals, 70s glam-rock and everything in between. Runs out of steam a bit in the third act, but with such spirited performances (and musical numbers) you won’t notice. O’Brien co-stars as the mad doctor’s hunchbacked assistant, Riff-Raff.

Starstruck-Gillian Armstrong primarily built her rep on female empowerment dramas like My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, High Tide, The Last Days of Chez Nous and Charlotte Gray; making this colorful, sparkling and energetic 1982 trifle an anomaly in the Australian director’s oeuvre. But it’s a lot of fun-and I’ve watched it more times than I’d care to admit.

It does feature a strong female lead , free-spirited Jackie (Jo Kennedy) who aspires to be Sydney’s next new wave singing sensation, with the help of her kooky, entrepreneurial-minded (and frequently truant) teenage cousin Angus (Ross O’Donovan) who has designated himself as publicist/agent/manager. Goofy, high-spirited and filled to the brim with catchy power pop (with contributions from members of Split Enz and Mental as Anything). Musical highlights include “I Want to Live in a House” and “Monkey in Me”.

Still Crazy– Q: What do you call a musician without a girlfriend? A: Homeless! If that old chestnut still makes you chortle, then you will “get” this movie. Painting a portrait of an “almost great” 70’s British band reforming for a 90’s reunion tour, Brian Gibson’s 1998 dramedy  Still Crazy does Spinal Tap one better (you could say this film goes to “eleven”, actually).  Unlike similar rock ‘n’ roll satires, it doesn’t mock its characters, rather it treats them with the kind of respect that comes from someone who genuinely loves  the music.

Great performances abound. Bill Nighy stands out in a hilarious yet poignant performance as the insecure lead singer of Strange Fruit. Prog-rock devotees will love the inside references, and are sure to recognize that the character of the “lost” leader/guitarist is based on Syd Barrett. Still, you don’t need to be a rabid rock geek to enjoy this film; its core issues, dealing with mid-life crisis and the importance of following your bliss, are universal themes.

Foreigner’s Mick Jones and Squeeze’s Chris Difford are among the contributors to the original soundtrack. I also recommend Gibson’s 1980 debut Breaking Glass (a similar but slightly darker rumination on music stardom). Sadly, the director died at age 59 in 2004.

Tommy –There was a time (a long, long, time ago) when some of my friends insisted that the best way to appreciate The Who’s legendary rock opera was to turn off the lamps, light a candle, drop a tab of acid and listen to all four sides with a good pair of cans. I never got around to making those arrangements, but it’s a pretty good bet that watching director Ken Russell’s insane screen adaptation is a close approximation. If you’re not familiar with his work, hang on to your hat (I’ll put it this way-Russell was not known for being subtle).

Luckily, the Who’s music is powerful enough to cut through the visual clutter, and carries the day. Two band members have roles-Roger Daltrey as the deaf dumb and blind Tommy, and Keith Moon has a cameo as wicked Uncle Ernie (Pete Townshend and John Entwistle only appear briefly).

The cast is an interesting cross of veteran actors (Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Jack Nicholson) and well-known musicians (Elton John, Eric Clapton, Tina Turner). Musical highlights include “Pinball Wizard”, “Eyesight to the Blind” “The Acid Queen” and “I’m Free”.

True Stories – Musician/raconteur David Byrne enters the Lone Star state of mind with this subtly satirical Texas travelogue from 1986. It’s not easy to pigeonhole; part road movie, part social satire, part long-form music video, part mockumentary. Episodic; basically a series of quirky vignettes about the generally likable inhabitants of sleepy Virgil, Texas. Among the town’s residents: John Goodman, “Pops” Staples, Swoosie Kurtz and the late Spalding Gray.

Once you acclimate to “tour-guide” Byrne’s bemused anthropological detachment, I think you’ll be hooked. Byrne directed and co-wrote with actor Stephen Tobolowsky and actress/playwright Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart, Miss Firecracker). The outstanding cinematography is by Edward Lachman. Byrne’s fellow Talking Heads have cameos performing “Wild Wild Life”, and several other songs by the band are in the soundtrack.

Tribeca 2021: Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Nothing against Ben Fong-Torres, but I approached this film with trepidation. “Please, god,” I thought to myself, “Don’t let ‘Fortunate Son’ be on the soundtrack.” Thankfully, there’s credence, but no Creedence in Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary, which despite the implications of its title is not another wallow in the era when being on the cover of the Rolling Stone mattered, man.

OK, there is some of that; after all, journalist and author Ben Fong-Torres’ venerable career began when he first wrote for Rolling Stone in 1968. By the following year he was hired as the editor and wrote many of the cover stories. Fong-Torres quickly showed himself to be not only an excellent interviewer, but a gifted writer. His journalistic approach was the antithesis to the gonzo stylists like Lester Bangs and Hunter Thompson in that his pieces were never about him, yet still eminently personal and relatable.

Just like her subject, Kai’s portrait is multi-faceted, revealing aspects of Fong-Torres’ life outside of his profession I was not aware of (like his activism in the Asian-American community, and how it was borne of a heartbreaking family tragedy).

Tribeca 2021: Creation Stories (**)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

 

Tribeca 2021: Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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.

Tribeca 2021: Poser (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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All About Eve for millennials. Co-directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev’s dark satire centers on an Ohio-based emo chick named erm…“Lennon” (Aujolie Baker) with vague aspirations to become a songwriter who (when not working at her dreary dishwasher gig) buzzes around the fringes of the Columbus underground scene, ostensibly to do “research” for her podcast (that may or may not have followers).

Sullen and deadpan, it’s no wonder that Lennon doesn’t have any friends. However, once she ingratiates herself with a darling of the local indie music scene (Bobbi Kitten) she begins to emerge from her shell…in a rather discomfiting way. What ensues is a cross between the (far superior) underground scene satire The Last Big Thing and Single White Female.

No music, no life: Top 10 music docs of the decade

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 30, 2021)

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Without music, life would be a mistake. – Friedrich Nietzsche

After 11 months of hunkering down, I’d imagine “Netflix fatigue” is setting in for some (you know…when you spend more time scrolling for something “interesting” than actually watching anything). Buck up, little camper… there are still many worthwhile films-you just need to know where to look. With that in mind, I’ve combed my 2011-2020 review archives and picked out the 10 top music docs of the decade. If music be the food of love, play on!

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Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me – Founded in 1971 by singer-guitarist Chris Bell and ex-Box Tops lead singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Beatle-esque Big Star was a 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 2013 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.

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Gimme DangerWell it’s 1969 OK, all across the USA/It’s another year for me and you/Another year with nuthin’ to do/Last year I was 21, I didn’t have a lot of fun/And now I’m gonna be 22/I say oh my, and a boo-hoo (from “1969” by The Stooges)

They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore. The composer is one Mr. James Osterberg, perhaps best known by his show biz nom de plume, Iggy Pop. Did you know that this economical lyric style was inspired by Buffalo Bob…who used to encourage Howdy Doody’s followers to limit fan letters and postcards to “25 words or less”? That’s one of the revelations in Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 cinematic fan letter to one of his idols.

Jarmusch is a bit nebulous regarding the breakups, reunions, and shuffling of personnel that ensued during the band’s heyday (1967-1974), but that may not be so much his conscious choice as it is acquiescing to (present day) Iggy’s selective recollections (Iggy does admit drugs were a factor).

While Jarmusch also interviews original Stooges Ron Asheton (guitar), and his brother Scott Asheton (drums), their footage is sparse (sadly, both have since passed away). Bassist Dave Alexander, who died in 1975, is relegated to archival interviews. Guitarist James Williamson (who played on Raw Power) and alt-rock Renaissance man Mike Watt (the latter-day Stooges bassist) contribute anecdotes as well.

A few nitpicks aside, this is the most comprehensive retrospective to date regarding this influential band; it was enough to make this long-time fan happy, and to perhaps enlighten casual fans, or the curious. (Full review)

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Heart of a Dog – I love Laurie Anderson’s voice. In fact, it was love at first sound, from the moment I heard “O Superman” wafting from my FM radio late one night back in the early 1980s. It was The Voice…at once maternal, sisterly, wise, reassuring, confiding, lilting, impish. Hell, she could read the nutritional label on a box of corn flakes out loud…and to me it would sound artful, thoughtful, mesmerizing.

It’s hard to describe her 2015 film; I’m struggling mightily not to pull out the good old reliable “visual tone poem”. (Moment of awkward silence). Okay, I blinked first…it’s a visual tone poem, alright? Even Anderson herself is a somewhat spectral presence in her own movie, which (like the artist herself), is an impressionistic mixed media mélange of drawings, animations, video, and even vintage super 8 family movies from her childhood.

You could say that Death is Anderson’s co-pilot on this journey to the center of her mind. But it’s not a sad journey. It’s melancholy and deeply reflective, but it’s never sad. (Full review)

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Janis Joplin: Little Girl Blue – In Amy Berg’s 2015 documentary, we see a fair amount of “Janis Joplin”, the confident and powerful cosmic blues-rocker; but the primary focus of the film is one Janis Lyn Joplin, the vulnerable and insecure “little girl blue” from Port Arthur, Texas who lived inside her right up until her untimely overdose at age 27 in 1970.

“She” is revealed via excerpts drawn from an apparent trove of private letters, confided in ingratiating fashion by whisky-voiced narrator Chan Marshall (aka “Cat Power”). This is what separates Berg’s film from Howard Alk’s 1974 documentary Janis, which leaned exclusively on archival interviews and performance footage. Berg mines clips from the same vaults, but renders a more intimate portrait, augmented by present-day insights from Joplin’s siblings, close friends, fellow musicians, and significant others.

Despite undercurrents of melancholy and sadness and considering that we know going in that it is not going to have a Hollywood ending, the film is surprisingly upbeat. Joplin’s intelligence, sense of humor and joie de vivre shine through as well, and Berg celebrates her legacy of empowerment for a generation of female musicians who followed in her wake. On one long dark night of her soul, that “ball and chain” finally got too heavy to manage, but not before she was able to wield it to knock down a few doors. (Full review)

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice – Ronstadt (and that truly wondrous voice) is the subject of this intimate 2019 documentary portrait by directing tag team Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid Closet, Howl, Lovelace). The film 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.

What struck me most as I watched the film 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. (Full review)

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Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool  – 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 2019 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.

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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 this engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary. 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 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 infamously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely. (Full review)

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Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda – There’s a wonderful moment of Zen in Stephen Nomura Schible’s 2018 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.

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The Theory of Obscurity  – As defined in The Theory of Obscurity: a film about The Residents (and by the artists themselves) the Residents are not a “band” …so much as they are an ongoing art installation.

In his 2016 film, Director Don Hardy Jr. took on the unenviable task of profiling a band who have not only refused to reveal their faces in any billed public appearances over a 40-year career but continue to this day to willfully obfuscate their backstory (and the fact that publicity is handled through their self-managed “Cryptic Corporation” puts the kibosh on any hopes of discovery).

Attempting to describe their music almost begs its own thesis-length dissertation; it’s best understood by simply sampling it yourself. Just don’t expect anything conventional. Or consistent; they are experimental in every sense of the word.

The Residents have been more musically influential than one may assume; members of Devo, Primus, Ween and the Talking Heads are on hand to testify as such. I was a little surprised that Daft Punk isn’t mentioned, especially since they literally wear their influences on their sleeves (well, in this case, their heads). While The Residents are not for all tastes, Hardy has fashioned an ingratiating, maybe even definitive, portrait of them. (Full review)

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The Wrecking Crew – “The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to an aggregation of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the distinctive pop “sound” that defined classic Top 40 from the late 50s through the mid-70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the general public, even if the music they helped forge is forever burned into our collective neurons.

This 2015 documentary was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the team.

Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with Brian Wilson (most notably, on the Beach Boys’ seminal Pet Sounds album) and backing sessions with just about any other chart-topping artists of the era you would care to mention.

Tedesco has curated fascinating vintage studio footage, as well as archival and present-day interviews with key players. You also hear from some of the producers who utilized their talents. Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes…and they have got some great stories to tell. Tedesco’s film is a celebration of a unique era of popular art that (love it or loathe it), literally provided the “soundtrack of our lives” for some of us of a (ahem) certain age. (Full review).

Who needs the Peace Corps: Zappa (****) & White Riot (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2021)

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“A lot of what [The Mothers of Invention] do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don’t feel their environment – they don’t worry about it – they’re not going to do anything to change it and something’s gotta be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”

– Zappa, on Zappa…from Zappa

Directed by actor Alex Winter (yes…”Bill” as in “Bill & Ted”), Zappa (****) is the best film portrait of composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa I’ve seen to date (and I’ve seen a lot of ’em). Intimate and moving, it covers all aspects of his career, but it’s the first doc to (rightfully) position him as one of our greatest modern composers (not just a “rock star”).

While there are brief performance clips, this is not a Zappa performance film (there are plenty of those already) but rather a unique attempt to get inside his head; to understand what inspired him, what pissed him off, but mostly what drove a Picasso-like need to create up until the end (which came much too soon when he died of prostate cancer in 1993, just weeks before his 53rd birthday).

In a recent IndieWire interview, Winter expounded on his decision to take an intimate approach:

“I came up in the entertainment industry, where you’re surrounded with mythologizing and so much bullshit. It’s so hard to tear those things down and find human beings there or retain your own humanity. So I think there was an aspect of my own interest in Zappa, how he retained his humanity and the consequences he faced for living the life that he did that compelled me all the way through.”

Winter was given unprecedented access to the family archives, so he had his work cut out for him:

“For me, the gold in his vault was hours and hours and hours of him shooting the shit. The stuff that we made narration out of was literally him on his easy chair in the basement talking to Matt Groening or talking to a musician or a pundit. We just cut all the other people out and made a narrative. Then we chopped the narrative up, so he would start his prison story in ’68, he would keep it going in ’85, and he would end it in ’92. We’d use all of that in one sentence. So, we were very aware of the idea of trying to demystify yourself while you re-mythologize yourself which was something Zappa did himself.”

One prevalent theme in Winter’s portrait is that Zappa was an artist with intense creative focus (the one time I got to see him perform in Troy, New York in 1976 I remember marveling how he was able to sing, play and conduct the band…all while chain-smoking through the entire set). His perfectionism and 3-dimensional chess mindset (as Winter appears to be implying) could have contributed to Zappa’s reputation as a brusque and manipulative “boss” with some of his players.

That said, there is also a well-chosen roster of former band members (Ruth Underwood, Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, Steve Vai, et.al.) and creative collaborators on hand to parse his strengths and weaknesses from a first-hand view, and offer illuminating insight into the blood, sweat, and toil that went into producing such an impressive body of work (over 60 albums released in Zappa’s lifetime, plus uncounted hours of live and studio tapes spanning 30 years that languish in the family vaults). Some of them do acknowledge that Zappa could be cold and dismissive…well, an asshole.

But as The Burning Sensations sang: Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Winter’s main thrust isn’t about the traumas and psychodramas. It is about the creative process of an iconoclast who (by his own admission), worked day and night composing the music that he wanted to listen to, simply because no one else was. And if other people happened to like it…he was cool with that.

“Zappa” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

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As a musician, Eric Clapton has rarely played off-key…but he really hit a sour note with music fans attending a 1976 concert in Birmingham, England. During the performance, Clapton launched into a shocking, racial epithet-laden anti-immigrant harangue, essentially parroting the tenets of the fascistic, far-right National Front organization that was gaining substantial political power and declaring his glowing admiration for former Conservative MP-turned demagogue Enoch Powell.

Clapton wasn’t the only U.K. rock luminary at the time who sounded like he was ready for the white room with no windows or distractions. David Bowie infamously stated in one interview “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.”  (Bowie would later blame it on the drugs, laughing off the comments as “theatrical observations”). Rod Stewart made the unfortunate comment “…immigrants should be sent home.”

Something else was trending in the U.K. music scene circa 1976-the burgeoning punk movement. In addition to its prime directive to shake up the rock establishment that included the likes of Messrs. Clapton, Bowie and Stewart, there was an anti-fascist political ethos streaking through the punk ranks.

Granted, there was a certain segment of the “skinhead” subculture that became synonymous with National Front rhetoric…but not all skinheads were NF sympathizers. In short, it wasn’t simply Mods vs. Rockers anymore. The U.K. music scene had become …complicated.

In her documentary White Riot (***), Rubika Shaw takes a valiant stab at sorting all that out in 80 minutes; specifically through the lens of the “Rock Against Racism” movement that was ignited (in part) by Clapton’s ill-advised foray into spoken word performance in 1976, and culminated in a game-changing 1978 rally/music festival in London’s Victoria Park headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band that was attended by an estimated 100,000.

Shaw mixes archival clips and interviews with present day ruminations from some of RAR’s movers and shakers, primarily represented by photographer/political activist David “Red” Saunders. Sanders, whose background ran the gamut from underground theater player and war photojournalist to doing professional photography for ad agencies, periodicals, and album covers, was the co-founder of Temporary Hoarding, the punk fanzine that became the “voice” of RAR.

In the film, Saunders recalls how he kick-started RAR with this letter to the U.K. music press:

When I read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, I nearly puked. What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. So you’re going to stand for MP and you think we’re being colonised by black people. Come on… you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B? You’ve got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their chequebooks and plastic crap. Rock was and still can be a real progressive culture, not a package mail-order stick-on nightmare of mediocre garbage. We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music – we urge support – all those interested please write to:

ROCK AGAINST RACISM,

Box M, 8 Cotton Gardens, London E2 8DN

P. S. ‘Who shot the Sheriff’, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

[Signed] Peter Bruno, Angela Follett, Red Saunders, Jo Wreford, Dave Courts, Roger Huddle, Mike Stadler, etc.

Now there is a mission statement that says: “Let’s kill it before it grows.”

And it was growing; “it” being the influence of the National Front. Initially flitting about the fringes of British politics as a coalition of radical right-wing groups in the 60s, the organization had a more centralized platform by the end of the decade. They had found a “champion” of sorts in Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party politician who gave an inflammatory address in 1968 dubbed the “Rivers of Blood speech”.

The speech was a populist appeal against non-white immigration into Britain, advocating (among other things) a repatriation program. While not as radical as the NF’s stand on immigrants (basically “round ’em up and send ’em all back”) it gave them a sense of empowerment to have a high-profile government official as an ideological ally (sound familiar?).

Stand back and stand by…there’s more.

There are a number of items that “sound familiar” in Shaw’s film, particularly in the recounting of an August 1977 clash in the streets between members of the National Front (who had organized an anti-immigrant march) and counter demonstrators. There was a strong police presence; the day would come to mark the first time they used riot shields on mainland Britain.

A number of the Bobbies also let their white slips show by demonstrating a marked preference for using strong arm tactics against the counter-demonstrators (many of whom were people of color), while coddling the NF marchers (August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin…anyone?).

Modern parallels resonate well outside the Colonies. From an April 2020 Guardian article:

Contemporary Britain is battling far-right rhetoric similar to that which divided the country in the 1970s, with the Brexit debate revealing how politicians continue to stoke racial tension, according to the director of a film about the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR).

Rubika Shah, the director of a new documentary about the lead up to RAR’s march and concert in east London’s on 30 April 1978, says the UK is still struggling to counter the far-right populism that made the National Front a force in the 1970s.

“There are so many similarities,” Shah said. “I hope people look at some of the stuff that was happening in the late 70s and think: ‘Wow, this is actually happening now.’” […]

Shah said she deliberately included National Front slogans such as “It’s our country, let’s win it back” to show their echoes in modern campaigning, such as Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” mantra that was used during the Brexit referendum. “It’s scary how that language creeps back in,” she said.

The director said she was shocked to hear Boris Johnson use the term “invisible mugger” to describe the Coronavirus, as “mugger” was a word used by the National Front and right-wing media to describe black people in the 1970s.

Make America Great Again!

Shaw’s film is engaging, fast-paced, and infused with a cheeky “D.I.Y.” attitude. Considering all the angles she covers, it may be a little too fast-paced; political junkies might find themselves craving a deeper dive into backstory and context. Music fans may be disappointed that despite the film’s title (taken from the eponymous Clash song), the film is not exclusively “about” the punk scene (tiny snippets of performance footage is the best you’ll get).

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of sociopolitical history, and an uplifting reminder that even in the darkest of times, a righteous confluence of art and politics can affect real and positive change.

“White Riot” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

Tribeca 2020: Somebody Up There Likes Me (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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.

Tribeca 2020: Love Spreads (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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.

Blu-ray reissue: Rock and Roll High School (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Rock and Roll High School – Shout! Factory

In this 1979 cult favorite from legendary “B” movie producer Roger Corman, director Alan Arkush evokes the spirit of those late 50s rock’ n’ roll exploitation movies (right down to having 20-something actors portraying “students”), substituting The Ramones for the usual clean-cut teen idols who inevitably pop up at the prom dance.

I’m still helplessly in love with P.J. Soles, who plays Vince Lombardi High School’s most devoted Ramones fan, Riff Randell. The great cast of B-movie troupers includes the late Paul Bartel (who directed several of his own films under Corman’s tutelage) and Mary Waronov (hilarious as the very strict principal.)

Shout Factory’s 40th anniversary edition features a new 4K scan; image is gorgeous and the colors really pop. Sound quality is a slight disappointment; it’s certainly not “bad”, but not as much of an improvement over previous Blu-ray and DVD versions as I had hoped for (especially for a film with such a great music soundtrack). Generous extras include a new 70 minute feature about the production of the film. Fans should be pleased.