(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 25, 2021)
I’m guessing you’ve already had it up to “here” with holly jolly Burl Ives and Rudolph with his frigging red nose so bright wafting out of every elevator in sight. Christmas comes but once a year; this too shall soon pass. I promise I won’t torture you with the obvious and overplayed. Rather, I have curated 15 selections that aren’t flogged to death every year; some deeper cuts (and a few novelty items) for your Xmas creel.
Happy Crimble, and a Very New Year!
All I Want For Christmas – The Bobs
The Bobs have been stalking me. They formed in the early 80s, in San Francisco. I was living in San Francisco in the early 80s; I recall catching them as an opening act for The Plimsouls (I think…or maybe Greg Kihn) at The Keystone in Berkeley. I remember having my mind blown by a cappella renditions of “Psycho Killer” and “Helter Skelter”. Later, I resettled in Seattle. Later, they resettled in Seattle. I wish they’d quit following me! This is a lovely number from their 1996 album Too Many Santas.
Ave Maria – Stevie Wonder
There are songs that you do not tackle if you don’t have the pipes (unless you want to be jeered offstage, or out of the ball park). “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind; as does “Nessun dorma”. “Ave Maria” is right up there too. Not only does Stevie nail the vocal, but he whips out the most sublime harmonica solo this side of Toots Thielemans.
Blue Xmas – Bob Dorough w/ the Miles Davis Sextet
The hippest “Bah, humbug!” of all time. “Gimme gimme gimme…”
Christmas at the Airport – Nick Lowe
Wry and tuneful as ever at 72, veteran pub-rocker/power-popper/balladeer Nick Lowe continues to compose, produce, record and tour. This is from his 2013 Christmas album, Quality Street. I think a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination is overdue.
Christmas in Suburbia – The Cleaners From Venus
Despite the fact that he writes hook-laden, Beatle-esque pop gems in his sleep, and has been doing so for five decades, endearingly eccentric singer-musician-songwriter-poet Martin Newell (Cleaners From Venus, Brotherhood of Lizards) remains a selfishly-guarded secret by cult-ish admirers (of which I am one). But since it is the holidays, I’m feeling magnanimous-so I will share him with you now (you’re welcome).
Christmas Wish – NRBQ
NRBQ has been toiling in relative obscurity since 1966, despite nearly 50 albums and a rep for crowd-pleasing live shows. I think they’ve fallen through the cracks because they are tough to pigeonhole; they’re equally at home with power-pop, blues, rock, jazz, R&B, country or goofy covers. This is from their eponymous 2007 album.
I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas – Yogi Yorgesson
I first heard this tune about the “joys” of holiday gatherings on “The Dr. Demento Show” . It always puts me in hysterics, especially: “My mouth tastes like a pickle.”
Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring – Leo Kottke
In 1969, an LP entitled 6- and 12-String Guitar quietly slid into record stores. The cover had a painting of an armadillo, with “Leo Kottke” emblazoned above. In the 50+ years since, “the armadillo album” has become a touchstone for aspiring guitarists, introducing the world to a gifted player with a unique and expressive finger picking technique. Kottke’s lovely take on a Bach classic is a highlight.
River – Joni Mitchell
Not a jolly “laughing all the way” singalong; but this is my list, and I’m sticking to it. Besides, Joni opens with a “Jingle Bells” piano quote, and the lyrics are stuffed with Christmas references. Oft-covered, but it doesn’t make a lot of holiday playlists.
Santa – Lightnin’ Hopkins
Best Christmas blues ever, by the poet laureate of the Delta.
Now, I happened to see these old people learning the young ones, Yeah just learning them exactly what to do. So sweet, it’s so sweet to see these old people, Learning they old children just what to do. Mother said a million-year-ago Santa Claus come to me, Now this year he gone come to you.
My little sister said take your stocking now, Hang it up on the head of the bed. Talkin’ to her friend she said take your stocking, And please hang it up on head of the bed. And she said know we all God’s saint children, In the morning Ol’ Santa Claus gone see that we all is fed.
Sleigh Ride– The Ventures
I’ve never personally seen anyone “hang ten” in Puget Sound; nonetheless, one of the greatest surf bands ever hails from Tacoma. This jaunty mashup of a Christmas classic with “Walk, Don’t Run” sports tasty fretwork by Nokie Edwards and Don Wilson.
Sometimes You Have to Work on Christmas – Harvey Danger
Ho-ho-ho, here’s your %&#!@ change. We’ve all been there at one time or another. I have a soft spot for this music video (It’s a Wonderful Life meets Clerks) because it features one of my favorite neighborhood theaters here in Seattle-The Grand Illusion.
Stoned Soul Christmas – Binky Griptite
“Man, what’s the matter with you…don’t you know it’s Christmas?!” A funky sleigh ride down to the stoned soul Christmas with guitarist/DJ Binky Griptite (formerly of The Dap Kings). A clever reworking of Laura Nyro’s “Stoned Soul Picnic.” Nice.
A Winter’s Tale – Jade Warrior
Not a Christmas song per se, but it certainly evokes a cozy holiday scenario:
Ivy tapping on my window, wine and candle glow, Skies that promise snow have gathered overhead. Buttered toast and creamy coffee, table laid for two, Lovely having you to share a smile with me.
A beautiful track from an underappreciated UK prog-rock band.
‘Zat You, Santa Claus? – Louis Armstrong
The great jazz growler queries a night prowler who may or may not be the jolly old elf.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
Tough Guys Don’t Dance (Vinegar Syndrome)
If “offbeat noir” is your thing, this is your kind of film. Ryan O’Neal plays an inscrutable ex-con with a conniving “black widow” of a wife, who experiences five “really bad days” in a row, involving drugs, blackmail and murder. Due to temporary amnesia, however, he’s not sure of his own complicity (O’Neal begins each day by writing the date on his bathroom mirror with shaving cream-keep in mind, this film precedes Memento by 13 years.)
Noir icon Lawrence Tierny (cast here 5 years before Tarantino tapped him for Reservoir Dogs) is priceless as O’Neal’s estranged father, who is helping him sort out events (it’s worth the price of admission when Tierny barks “I just deep-sixed two heads!”).
Equally notable is a deliciously demented performance by B-movie trouper Wings Hauser as the hilariously named Captain Alvin Luther Regency. Norman Mailer’s “lack” of direction has been duly noted over the years, but his minimalist style works. The film has a David Lynch vibe at times (which could be due to the fact that Isabella Rossellini co-stars, and the soundtrack was composed by Lynch stalwart Angelo Badalamenti).
Vinegar Syndrome has done a bang-up job with the 2K restoration. Extras include new interviews with Hauser (he’s a real hoot!), cinematographer John Bailey, Mailer biographer/archivist J. Michael Lennon, and more.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
Rancho Deluxe (Vinegar Syndrome)
This criminally underappreciated 1975 Frank Perry comedy-drama sports a marvelously droll original screenplay by novelist Thomas McGuane. Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston star as modern-day cattle rustlers in Montana. Loose and episodic…just like life on the range, I’d reckon (with the odd bit of toking up and kinky sex tossed in just for giggles).
Wonderful ensemble work from a cast that includes Elizabeth Ashley, Slim Pickens, Clifton James, Charlene Dallas, Patti D’Arbanville, Richard Bright and the late great Harry Dean Stanton (memorable as a love-struck cow hand).
One of the “stars” of the film is Willam A. Fraker’s cinematography, which didn’t get its proper due on the lackluster MGM DVD released in 2000. Vinegar Syndrome’s transfer is a new 2K restoration taken from the 35mm interpostive, and it really makes those gorgeous “big sky” Montana locales pop. Extras include commentary by Nick Pinkerton, a new 20-minute interview with Bridges, and a 10-minute chat with McGuane.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
Prince of the City (Warner Archive)
Sidney Lumet directed this powerful drama based on the true story of NYC narcotics detective Robert Leuci (“Daniel Ciello” in the film), whose life got turned upside down after he agreed to cooperate with a special commission. Treat Williams delivers his finest performance as the conflicted cop, who is initially promised he will never have to “rat” on any of his partners in the course of the investigation. But you know what they say about the road to Hell being paved with “good intentions”. Superb performances from all in the sizable cast (especially Jerry Orbach). Lumet co-adapted the screenplay from Richard Daley’s book with Jay Presson Allen.
Warner Archive has a habit of skimping on the extras; this release is no exception, but this is the best-looking print of it I’ve seen since I first caught it in a theater back in 1981.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
Modern Romance (Powerhouse Films/Indicator)
In his best romantic comedy (co-written by frequent collaborator Monica Johnson), writer-director Albert Brooks (the godfather of “cringe” comedy) casts himself as a film editor at American International Pictures. His obsessive-compulsiveness makes him great at his job, but a pain-in-the-ass to his devoted girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), who is exasperated with his history of impulsively breaking up with her one day, only to beg her to take him back the next.
There are many inspired scenes, particularly where a depressed Brooks takes Quaaludes and drunk dials every woman he’s ever dated (like Bob Newhart, Brooks is a master of “the phone bit”). Another great scene features Brooks and his assistant editor (the late Bruno Kirby) laying down Foley tracks in the post-production sessions for a cheesy sci-fi movie.
Brooks’ brother, the late Bob Einstein (aka “Super Dave”, and a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a wry cameo as a sportswear clerk. Also with George Kennedy (as “himself”) and real-life film director James L. Brooks (no relation) playing Brooks’ boss.
Indicator’s 2021 edition sports a sparkling transfer, an entertaining and insightful commentary track by critic/film historian Nick Pinkerton, and a 15 minute featurette from 2018 with cinematographer Eric Saarienen discussing his collaborations with Brooks.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
The Gambler (Imprint Films; Region ‘B’)
While there have been many films about degenerate gamblers, the twist in Karel Reisz’s 1974 character study is that the protagonist is also a college literature professor with a penchant for discussing the ethical dilemmas faced by Dostoevsky characters (leaving it up to the viewer to determine whether he’s lecturing to his students…or to himself?).
James Caan tackles this complex role with aplomb. Screenwriter (and future director) James Toback was inspired by the eponymous Dostoevsky story, but also drew from his own travails as a gambling addict. Also starring Lauren Hutton, Paul Sorvino, Morris Carnovsky and Jacqueline Brooks. The supporting cast seems to include every 70s character actor you can think of: Steven Keats, M. Emmet Walsh, Burt Young, Vic Tayback. James Woods, and Stuart Margolin.
Imprint’s Blu-ray transfer is quite obviously not restored (debris and artifacts tell the tale), but image quality, detail and color saturation is still superior to the Paramount DVD released in 2017. Extras include an insightful commentary by author and critic Matthew Asprey Gear, a video essay by Chris O’Neill, an archival interview with Reisz, and more.
Imprint Films is a new outfit out of Australia specializing in reissuing hard-to-find and out-of-print films. Be advised, their discs are region ‘B’ locked; so they require an all-region Blu-ray player (prices on all-region players have dropped considerably in recent years; worth the investment for deep-catalog film buffs). While many of their titles cross over with domestic reissue specialists like Criterion, Shout! Factory and KL Studio Classics, there is always the odd coveted obscurity that falls through the cracks (e.g. …like The Gambler).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 18, 2021)
Brotherhood of the Wolf (Shout! Factory)
If I told you one of the best martial arts films of the 1990s features an 18th-century French libertine/naturalist/philosopher and his enigmatic “blood-brother” (an Iroquois mystic played by future Iron Chef Mark Dacasos) who are on the prowl for a supernaturally huge, man-eating lupine creature terrorizing the countryside-would you avoid eye contact and scurry to the other side of the street?
Christophe Gans’ film defies category; Dangerous Liaisons meets Captain Kronos-Vampire Hunter by way of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the best I can do. Artfully photographed, handsomely mounted and surprising at every turn.
The image quality on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray, while not the revelation I had anticipated (and definitely not restored), is still a welcome improvement over the DVD. However, this edition compensates by packing in the extras, including 2 full-length “making of” documentaries, and 40 minutes of deleted scenes.
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 11, 2021)
‘Tis the season for the obligatory year-end roundups, so for your consideration (or condemnation) here are my top 10 picks out of the 50+ first-run films I reviewed in 2021:
Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road – It has been a long, strange trip for Beach Boys founder/primary songwriter Brian Wilson. 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 those darker places he’d sooner forget. A sometimes sad, but ultimately moving portrait.
Fire Music – Call it “free jazz”, “avant-garde” or “free-form” …it’s been known to empty a room faster than you can say “polytonal”. After giving your ears a moment to adjust, director and co-writer Tom Surgal’s retrospective on the free jazz movement that flourished from the late 50s to the early 70s unravels a Gordian knot of roots, influences, and cosmic coincidences that sparked an amazingly rich and creative period for the genre. Sadly, the filmmakers suggest a collective amnesia has set in over the ensuing decades that has erased the contributions of the profiled artists from jazz history. Here’s hoping that enough people see this enlightening documentary to reverse that trend.
Heist of the Century – A stoner heist comedy based on a true story? Stranger things have happened. In 2006, a team of robbers hit the Banco Rio in Acassuso, Argentina. They took hostages, stole $8 million in valuables and cash and escaped in a boat despite being surrounded by 200 police. They ordered pizza and soda for the hostages, sang happy birthday to one of them, and left behind toy guns and a note saying they stole “money, not love.” Director Ariel Winograd and screenwriters Alex Zito and Fernando Araujo have fashioned one of the most entertaining genre entries Elmore Leonard never wrote.
Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time – Director Robert Weide (best known as a director and producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm) offers an apologia in his 40 years in-the-making portrait of literary giant Kurt Vonnegut for being “one of those directors” who interjects himself; to his credit he stays fairly unobtrusive (over the decades filmmaker and subject developed a genuine father and son closeness until Vonnegut’s death in 2007). Still, this is no hagiography; Weide doesn’t sugarcoat the bad patches nor the darker sides of Vonnegut’s personality. An intimate, inspiring, funny and deeply moving portrait of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century. Weide’s film beautifully illustrates how loss and trauma can be spun into gold by the alchemy of an inventive imagination.
The Last Film Show– 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. Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso and Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows are obvious touchstones, but Nalin puts his own stamp on a familiar narrative. Gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted, this is a poetic love letter to the movies.
The Paper Tigers – It’s been a while (like never) since I’ve seen a kickass Kickstarter-funded martial arts movie that was filmed in my back yard. Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran’s dramedy wasn’t literally filmed in my back yard…but was shot in Seattle. Tran subverts Hollywood tropes by re-imagining TheKarate Kid through the sensibilities of Chan is Missing in his tale of three former teenage kung fu champions, now riddled with the baggage and infirmities of middle age. What separates this from most martial arts fare is its character development, gentle social commentary, intelligent dialog, and surprising warmth. Don’t despair, action fans…there are still lots of fight scenes, expertly choreographed and exciting to watch. I hope this little gem finds a wider audience.
The Pebble and the Boy – 19-year-old Mancunian John (Patrick McNamee) is not a Mod. But his father was, from the 1980s until his recent demise. John not only inherits his father’s house, but his Lambretta scooter, bedecked with Mod accoutrements. Initially, John puts it up for sale, but after discovering a pair of tickets in his father’s wartime coat for an upcoming Paul Weller concert in Brighton, he decides that he will ride it to “the spiritual home of the Mods” and scatter dad’s ashes in the sea. Chris Green’s comedy-drama is an entertaining road movie; a mashup of Johnathan Demme’s Something Wild and Adam Rifkin’s Detroit Rock City. Green’s writing and directing is reminiscent of Bill Forsyth, in the manner he juggles low-key anarchy with gentle humor.
Surge – It is clear from the outset that Joseph (a mesmerizing Ben Whishaw), the protagonist of Aneil Karia’s unsettling yet curiously liberating drama would feel better if he could just …SCREAM. And once that dam bursts, Joseph’s frenetic bacchanal of self-liberation is a “re-birthing” well outside the parameters of clinical supervision (and decidedly anti-social in nature), all rendered in a dizzying cinematic style reminiscent of Run Lola Run and Trainspotting. I know what you’re thinking…but while you may think you know where things are headed, this unique film confounds expectations at every turn.
Waikiki – This shattering psychological drama (written, directed, produced, and edited by Christopher Kahunahana) is about a young native Hawaiian woman (Danielle Zalopany, in a bravura performance) who is at a crossroads in her life. She suffers PTSD from an abusive relationship. She is temporarily homeless and living in her van. She juggles several part-time jobs, including bar tending and teaching hula. One night, upset and distracted following an altercation with her ex, she hits a homeless man with her van. From this point onward the film takes a tonal shift that demands your complete and undivided attention.
Whelm – Set in rural Indiana during the Great Depression, writer-director Skyler Lawson’s debut feature centers on two brothers: Reed (Dylan Grunn) and August (Ronan Colfer), a troubled war veteran. Desperate for money, the siblings get in over their heads with a suave, charismatic but felonious fellow named Jimmy (Grant Schumacher) and a cerebral, enigmatic man of mystery named Alexander Aleksy (Delil Baran). Equal parts heist caper, psychological drama, and historical fantasy. A handsomely mounted period piece, drenched in gorgeous, wide scope “magic hour” photography shot (almost unbelievably) in 16mm by Edward Herrera. The film evokes laconic “heartland noirs” of the ‘70s like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us.
Holy Krampus…have I really been writing reviews here for 15 years?! I was but a child of 50 when I began in November of 2006 (I was much older then, but I’m younger than that now). Here are my “top 10” picks for each year since I began writing for Hullabaloo.
(You may want to bookmark this post as a handy reference for movie night).
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2021)
We went to see those movies with Elvis. They’d all scream when he came on screen. So we thought “That’s a good job!” – John Lennon, from a television interview.
By the time the Beatles “debuted” on The Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964, they already had a rich 7-year history. The four polished pros in slick suits didn’t simply pop out of Liverpool fully formed; they had paid their dues toiling in sweaty cellar clubs and seedy strip joints (including the pre-Ringo “Hamburg period” from 1960-1962). But for fans here in the colonies, they descended like gods from the heavens.
People of “a certain age” reflexively say they “remember” watching the Beatles perform on Sullivan nearly 57 years ago (whether they did or not). For me that “memory” is fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was 7 years old; too young to grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad labeled any rock ’n’ roll song he heard wafting from my room throughout my formative years).
Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet). And weekly programs like Sullivan were broadcast anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks later than they aired in the Lower 48. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles “live” on Sullivan…on a slight tape delay.
In the Summer of 1967, I discovered two things that changed my life. As much as I would like to be able to tell you that it was body painting and tripping on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains much to long-time readers).
The second thing was record collecting. I scored my first-ever haul of vinyl, blowing three months’ allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I bought two LPs (at $3.98 a pop), and a 45. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane” / “Strawberry Fields Forever”. That was my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.
Flash-forward 35 years. I was enjoying my first visit to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. At the Beatles exhibit, I happened upon a glass case that contained some weathered pieces of paper with hand-written lyrics. I lingered over one, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the scribbled-out words and such:
But you know I know when it’s a bean? Huh? It still wasn’t registering as to what I was looking at. However, when I got to: I think I know I mean-er-yes, but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree I realized that I was “this” close to John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. My mind was blown. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of genius.
Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to look at it? Should I turn my face away, so it wouldn’t melt like the Nazis’ in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Belloq lifts the lid of the Sacred Object? “Don’t look at it, Marion!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. At any rate, I was overcome; there was something profoundly moving about the experience.
By 1969, the Beatles had done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.
Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road?
Hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through the 1970 documentary, Let it Be? Filmed in 1969 and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the movie was originally intended to be a TV special but ended up documenting the “making of” the eponymous album (there were also snippets of the band working on several songs that ended up on Abbey Road).
Sadly, the film has since weathered a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. Granted, there is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where an uncharacteristically riled-up George reaches the end of his tether with Paul’s fussiness).
Still, signs of a deeply rooted musical camaraderie remain in that outdoor mini concert filmed on a London rooftop. If you look closely, the boys are exchanging glances that telegraph they’re having a grand time jamming out; an affirmation that this is what this band of brothers were put on this earth to do, and what the hell …it’s only rock ’n’ roll.
The Let it Be movie doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how tumultuous 1969 was for the band. As Ian MacDonald notes in his excellent 1994 assessment of the Beatles’ catalog, Revolution in the Head:
The day after the rooftop concert, the band recorded three songs unsuited to recital in a moderate gale [“Two of Us”, “Let it Be”, and “The Long and Winding Road”] before winding the [recording sessions for the “Let it Be” album] up in some relief. An ignominious failure which shook their faith in their collective judgement, it had pushed them to the verge of collapse. […]
[soon after the “Let it Be” sessions wrapped] a fatal rift in the group’s relationships opened when Lennon, Harrison, and Starr asked the Rolling Stones’ American manager Allen Klein to take over the Beatles’ affairs. McCartney, who favoured Linda Eastman’s family firm of management consultants, immediately opened a court battle which long outlasted the remainder of the Beatles’ career.
The dream was over. Or so it seemed. The boys were not about to go out on a sour note (at least in a creative sense). As Bob Spitz writes in his exhaustive band bio, The Beatles:
The tapes from earlier in the year that would eventually become “Let it Be” languished in the can, abandoned, a victim of haste and sloppy execution. “[They] were so lousy and so bad,” according to John – “twenty-nine hours of tape …twenty takes of everything – that “none of us would go near them …None of us could face remixing them; it was [a] terrifying [prospect].” “It was laying [sic] dormant and so we decided ‘Let’s make a good album again,’” George recalled.
One drawback with the Let it Be film (aside from the fact it’s been out of circulation for decades and unavailable on home video outside of the odd bootleg) was its relatively short running time. Considering director Lindsay-Hogg had 60 hours of footage at his disposal, the original 81-minute theatrical cut feels stingy; leaving little room for nuance or providing context to the on-camera bickering the 1970 film is chiefly remembered for.
Perhaps predictably in this age of Tweet-length attention spans, there has been much lamentation and rending of garments regarding the decidedly less stingy running time of Peter Jackson’s nearly 8-hour long Get Back, his oft delayed and long-awaited re-edit, sifted from Lindsay-Hogg’s trove of footage (now streaming on Disney+ as a 3-part series). All I can say to those folks is I’ve got no time for you right now, don’t bother me.
The beauty of Jackson’s film is that his extended cut allows room for nuance and context around those storied studio spats, which in fact did not “cause” the break-up of the Beatles; rather they were symptoms of a longtime creative partnership that was literally “aging out”. Three-quarters of the band (John Paul, and George) had been collaborating since they were in their mid-teens; now they were all in their late 20s.
Like any other human being, as each member of the band matured, their individual priorities (as people and as creative artists) diverged. This was evidenced by the release of solo albums from all four members in 1970, the same year Let It Be saw its belated release: Ringo’s Beaucoups of Blues and Sentimental Journey, Paul’s McCartney, John’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, and George’s epic triple album All Things Must Pass.
In fact, one of the film’s greatest delights is catching snippets of songs (still in their infancy) that would end up on later solo albums. John sings “On the Road to Marakesh/Child of Nature” which would turn up in 1971’s Imagine (with different lyrics) as “Jealous Guy” and works on refining a few lines of verse for “Gimme Some Truth” (also destined for Imagine).
George runs a song by the lads that he’s “been working on” called “All Things Must Pass” (it’s already well-formed at that stage). Paul noodles out a recognizable bit of “Another Day” on the piano, which would be his first solo single hit in 1971, and the gorgeous intro to “Backseat of My Car” (a highlight of 1971’s Ram).
Get Back apes the basic structure of Lindsay-Hogg’s Let it Be; the shoot (initially intended to end up as a TV documentary) begins with fitful and half-hearted rehearsals on a sound stage in the drafty (and acoustically-challenged) Twickenham Film Studios. Paul tries to play cheerleader to his cranky band mates (leading to some of the on-camera “bickering”, although it mostly manifests as passive-aggressive asides).
Director Lindsay-Hogg comes off a bit fitful and half-hearted himself; obviously self-aware that precious shooting days are passing by with relatively no narrative to hang his hat on, he prattles on through most of the first third soliciting ideas to spruce up the planned live performance that the film will culminate with.
At one point, Lindsay-Hogg has a brainstorm to film the concert in an ancient amphitheater in Libya, with the audience shipped in from England on the QE2, but the lads won’t have it (I assume this vignette inspired the “Stonehenge” bit in This Is Spinal Tap). Interestingly, the 1972 Pink Floyd documentary Live at Pompeii included a live performance filmed at the ancient Roman amphitheater in Pompeii, Italy (interspersed with footage of the band working on Dark Side of the Moon in the studio, à la Let it Be).
Once the action moves to the basement of the Beatles’ Apple Corps offices, where a makeshift recording studio has been assembled, the band (and the film) begins to perk up considerably. With the deadline pressure of the now discarded TV special off the table, the band focuses on laying down some tracks, enlisting Glyn Johns as producer (George Martin is seen popping in and out of the sessions on occasion, but for the first time, he was not invited to be at the helm …which in hindsight was an unfortunate decision).
But it’s not until keyboard maestro Billy Preston joins the sessions that the band really begins to bring their “A” game. Ironically, Preston would have never been part of the equation had George not (temporarily) walked out of the project (“See you ‘round the clubs,” he deadpans to his stunned band mates before storming out of frame).
While on his hiatus, George hooked up with his pal Eric Clapton and attended a Ray Charles gig in London. Preston (who the Beatles had originally met on a 1962 tour with Little Richard) was playing organ in Charles’ band.
George invited Preston to hang out at the studio, and he ended up playing keys on several songs (most notably, “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down”), as well as sitting in on the rooftop set. At one point in the film, Paul asks Preston “Has anyone asked you yet if you mind coming in every day?” Preston beams like a beatific Buddha (as if someone is going to say “Fuck you…pay me” to an invitation to sit in with the Beatles!).
I was fascinated by the presence of gentle giant Mal Evans. An enigmatic member of the Beatles’ inner circle, Evans was their Man Friday; bodyguard, road manager, roadie, P.A., and apparently (as evidenced in one scene) an occasional co-lyricist.
In another scene, Evans registers childlike delight as he “plays” the hammer and anvil on an early run-through of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. Evans was the person who “discovered” Badfinger and brought them to the Beatles’ attention-which got them signed to Apple. Sadly, in 1976 he was shot dead in his home by LAPD officers, who mistook his air rifle for a real weapon (Evans had been struggling with depression).
Spoiler alert: Jackson saves the iconic rooftop performance for the finale (as Lindsay-Hogg did in Let it Be…but how else could you end it?). Granted, it’s a long and winding road of “fly on the wall” observation to get there, but it makes the payoff of finally seeing the band perform several classic numbers in their entirety sound that much sweeter. For some, spending a day in the life with the Fabs may ultimately feel like it’s all too much …. but do you want to know a secret? I watched Get Back and thought:
Film adaptations of Kurt Vonnegut stories have a checkered history; from downright awful (Slapstick of Another Kind) or campy misfires (Breakfast of Champions) to passable time killers (Happy Birthday, Wanda June and Mother Night). For my money, your best bets are Jonathan Demme’s 1982 PBS American Playhouse short Who Am I This Time? and this 1974 feature film by director George Roy Hill.
Michael Sacks stars as milquetoast daydreamer Billy Pilgrim, a WW2 vet who weathers the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW. After the war, he marries his sweetheart, fathers a son and daughter and settles into a comfortable middle-class life, making a living as an optometrist.
A standard all-American postwar scenario…except for the part where a UFO lands on his nice, manicured lawn and spirits him off to the planet Tralfamadore, after which he becomes permanently “unstuck” in time, i.e., begins living (and re-living) his life in random order.
Now I am transported to 2021, the year I discovered that the best film adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut story (Slaughterhouse-Five aside) is…Kurt Vonnegut’s life story, which is the subject of Robert B. Weide and Dan Argoff’s documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. One could argue that Vonnegut, a WW2 vet who weathered the devastating Allied firebombing of Dresden as a POW, was in fact telling his life story in novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat’s Cradle, and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.
Vonnegut’s postwar scenario was also not unlike Billy Pilgrim’s. He married his first wife Jane Cox, and they had a son and two daughters. In 1957, their household nearly doubled in size in the wake of an almost unbearably sad family tragedy. Vonnegut’s sister Alice died of cancer, only two days after her husband lost his life in a commuter train crash. Kurt and Jane welcomed three of the late couple’s children into their family.
Of course, Vonnegut’s life does not begin and end with Slaughterhouse-Five; while it sold like gangbusters and made him an instant darling of the literary set, his was no “overnight success” story. By the time of the book’s publication in 1969, Vonnegut had already been toiling at his typewriter for nearly 20 years in relative obscurity (although his 1963 religious satire Cat’s Cradle had become a cult favorite with college students). In the meantime, he still had to punch the clock to support his family (including a stint during the 1950s with the ad department for General Electric in Schenectady, New York).
Despite his breakthrough success (or arguably due to it), the 1970s were an emotional roller coaster for Vonnegut; his first marriage fell apart, he holed up in a New York City apartment and dealt with chronic depression and writer’s block for several years, and his bi-polar son suffered a mental breakdown. He found his mojo again by channeling family travails into two of his 70s novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slapstick (not popular with critics, but therapeutic). He remarried in 1979, and enjoyed a career resurgence soon after.
Fast-forward (or become “unstuck” if you will) to 1982. Burgeoning filmmaker and avid Vonnegut fan Robert Weide sent him a letter proposing a documentary portrait. A fair amount of time passed with no reply. As Weide himself recounts in the film, just when he’d given up hope that he’d ever hear back, he received a handwritten letter from Vonnegut giving his blessing. An over-the-moon Weide started work on the film in 1988.
When you consider the film’s belated 2021 release, it goes without saying a project nearly 40 years in the making is nothing, if not a labor of love. Love, as I see it, is the film’s theme. It’s about the love of creating, the love of writing, the love of a reader for their favorite author, and ultimately, the love of family and the love of a long friendship.
Weide (best known as a director and executive producer on Curb Your Enthusiasm) offers an endearing apologia early on for being “one of those directors” who interjects himself into his documentary; to his credit he stays fairly unobtrusive (over the decades the filmmaker and his subject developed and sustained a genuine father and son closeness until Vonnegut’s death in 2007).
This is no hagiography; Weide doesn’t sugarcoat the bad patches nor the darker sides of Vonnegut’s personality (“genius is pain”, an English poet once sang). The result is an intimate, inspiring, funny and deeply moving portrait of one of the greatest American writers of the 20th Century. Weide’s film beautifully illustrates how loss and trauma can be spun into gold by the alchemy of an inventive imagination. And so it goes.