Tag Archives: On Music

You upset me, BB

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 15, 2015)

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Today, Lucille is a widow. Is there any guitar player of the past 60 years who hasn’t been influenced by him? He had a deceptively simple playing style…but just try to reproduce that tone (and that vibrato…Jesus, that vibrato). God knows, I’ve tried (and I’ve been playing for 40 years). With his innate and effortless stage cool, he made it look natural and easy; but each one of those smooth, economical lead lines were plucked directly from his blue, blue soul. His interpretation was singular and elemental. Long live the King…

Thoughts on a Beatles anniversary & a new (-ish) documentary (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2014)

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Digby has invited me to share my memories and thoughts about the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago today (CBS is airing a 2 hour tribute special tonight-Paul and Ringo are doing a couple numbers!). Truth be told, that “memory” is a little fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was all of 7 years old; a tad on the young side to fully grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad would come to define any rock’n’roll he might overhear 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 flights). And weekly programs like Sullivan were, well, one week late. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles 50 years ago… next Sunday.

My true “discovery” of the Beatles occurred soon after I turned 11, during the summer of 1967, when my best pal George (who was 2 years my senior) practically browbeat me into blowing a month’s worth of allowance to pick up a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s, assuring me that it would change my life. He was right. Sgt. Pepper turned out to be 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.

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I’ve done a few posts in the past about the Beatles on film, and figured I had covered most angles. But the funny thing about Beatles-related movies and documentaries is that, like the band’s legacy itself, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving. Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there’s Something New (hey…that would make a cool album title). A few weeks ago, I was perusing the bins of a music and video store here in Seattle, and stumbled upon a straight-to-DVD documentary from the UK with an intriguing (if unwieldy) title called Going Underground: Paul McCartney, The Beatles and the UK counter-culture.

Focusing on a specific period of London’s underground scene, it connects the dots between the American Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac & co.), the social, sexual and aesthetic sea change in the UK during the early to mid-60s, and analyzes its subsequent influence on the Beatles (one word: acid). As one interviewee observes, “They were probably the most avant-garde group in Britain, but also the most commercial.” Actually the Beatles don’t enter the narrative until about halfway through, but it’s still an absorbing watch.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Beatle songs/clips (and a perfect example of that avant-garde/commercial dichotomy). BTW this is also the song I always play for those wizards who claim that Ringo was only a so-so drummer…listen to that mother go!

Blu-ray review: Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

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Jeff Beck Live in Tokyo – Eagle Vision Blu-ray

Who’s the coolest 70 year-old on the planet? My vote is for guitar virtuoso Jeff Beck, who just keeps improving with age. I’ve been playing guitar for over 40 years, and no matter how closely I study the man’s fingers, I am absolutely stymied as to how he wrestles those sounds from his axe. It’s some kind of alchemy that is beyond my ken. Eagle Vision’s Blu-ray captures a dynamic performance at the Tokyo Dome City Hall from April 2014. Beck glides effortlessly between genres, proving equally adept at blues, metal, fusion, jazz and funk (sometimes all within the same number). He also shows off his newest band, all chops players (as you would expect). It’s interesting to see him playing off a second guitarist (classical-leaning Nicolas Meier), which he hasn’t done in some time. Highlights include “A Day in the Life”, “Stratus”, and the achingly beautiful “Where Were You”. The disc has exemplary image and sound.

Blame it on the boogie: The Secret Disco Revolution **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)

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Remember the disco era? I try not to. Yeah, I was one of those long-haired rocker dudes walking around brandishing a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt and turning his nose up at anything that smelled of Bee Gee or polyester back in the day. What can I say? I was going through my tribal phase (I think it’s commonly referred to as “being in your early 20s”). Now, that being said, I sure loved me some hard funk back in the mid 70s. A bit of the Isley Brothers, War, Mandrill, Funkadelic, etc. oeuvre managed to infiltrate my record collection at the time (in betwixt the King Crimson, Bowie, Who and Budgie).

But I had to draw the battle lines somewhere around the release (and non-stop radio airplay) of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (ironically, I love the film itself). In retrospect, I think what offended my (oh so rarified) sense of music aesthetic was that while “disco” plundered R&B, funk, soul (and even elements of rock’n’roll) it somehow managed to expunge everything that was righteous and organic about those genres; codifying them into a robotic, repetitive, and formulaic wash. But hey, the kids could dance to it, right?

Now, I am extrapolating here about disco music itself, as one would reference “blues” or “jazz”; not “disco” as a cultural phenomenon or political movement. What did he say? “Political movement”?! Actually, I didn’t say. Director Jamie Kastner is the person who puts forth this proposition in his sketchy yet mildly engaging documentary (mockumentary?) The Secret Disco Revolution. I think he’s being serious when he posits that the disco phenomenon was not (as the conventional wisdom holds) simply an excuse for the Me Generation to boogie, snort and fuck themselves silly thru the latter half of the 70s, but a significant political milestone for women’s lib, gay lib and African American culture.

He carries the revisionism a step further, suggesting that the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” riot (ignited by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl’s 1979 publicity stunt, in which a crate of disco LPs was blown up at Comiskey Park in front of 50,000 cheering fans) was nothing less than a raging mob of racists, homophobes and misogynists. Hmm.

Kastner uses the aforementioned 1979 incident as the bookend to disco’s golden era (kind of like how writers and filmmakers have used Altamont as a metaphor for the death of 1960s hippie idealism). For the other end of his historic timeline, he (correctly) traces disco’s roots back to early 1970s gay club culture.

How disco morphed from a relatively ghettoized urban hipster scene to arrhythmic middle-American suburbanites striking their best Travolta pose is actually the most fascinating aspect of the documentary; although I wish he’d gone a little more in depth on the history rather than digging so furiously for a sociopolitical subtext in a place where one barely ever existed.

Kastner mixes archival footage with present day ruminations from some of the key artists, producers and club owners who flourished during the era. The “mockumentary” aspect I mentioned earlier is in the form of three actors (suspiciously resembling the Mod Squad) who represent shadowy puppet masters who may have orchestrated this “revolution” (it’s clearly designed to be humorous but it’s a distracting device that quickly wears out its welcome).

So was disco a political statement? When Kastner poses the question to genre superstars like Thelma Houston, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn King, they look at him like he just took a shit in the punch bowl. Hell, he can’t even get any of the guys from the Village People to acknowledge that their wild success represented a subversive incursion of gay culture into the mainstream (they’re likely toying with him because he’s belaboring the obvious…”The Village People were camp?! I’m shocked! Stop the presses!”).

Well, here’s how I look at it. Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John”? That’s a political statement. James Brown singing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud”? That’s a political statement. Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman”? Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”? Those are political statements. KC and the Sunshine Band singing “Get Down Tonight”? Not so much. And as for Kastner’s assertion that anyone who wore a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt back in the day (ahem) was obviously racist, homophobic and misogynistic, I would say this: I have never particularly cared for country music, either…so what does that make me in your book, Mr. Smarty Pants?

In search of the lost chord: Pianomania ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 16, 2011)

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Tuner sandwich: Stefan Knupfer at work in Pianomania

“It looks like you’re just poking around in there,” observes a young woman. “Yes,” replies Stefan Knupfer, with a shrug and a laugh, “…that’s exactly what I’m doing.” On one level, he is in fact just “poking around” the innards of an immense concert grand piano. However, as we come to learn from watching Pianomania, a new documentary from Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, Herr Knupfer is being somewhat modest. He is actually engaging in a much more complex and esoteric endeavor: the art of piano tuning.

Cibis and Franck offer up a “year of the life” portrait of the affable Austrian piano technician, tagging along as he dashes around Europe in a company van (doggie in tow) to service Steinways for a bevy of world-class performers (including Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo). I admit that I had doubts going in regarding the subject matter (“That note sounds flat-can he tweak it to A-440 in time for the big concert? I’m on the edge of my seat!”). However, as it turns out, this pursuit of tonal perfection holds the dramatic elements of a classic “quest” narrative.

Knupfer must prepare two pianos (beginning nearly a year in advance) which will be used by Aimard for a recorded performance of Bach’s “The Art of Fugue”. The fastidious Aimard isn’t asking for much…only that Knupfer adjust his instruments in such a way that affords him the option to call up the tonality of a clavichord, an organ and a harpsichord at will. The two artists (for the film bears out that the tuner is just as much an ‘artist’ as the performer) ensconce themselves onto the stage of Vienna’s Konzerthaus and set to work like a pair of mad scientists sweating over a formula.

Nothing fazes the cheerful Knupfer, with exception of a horrifying realization that his new hammerheads are off-size by 0.7 millimeter (prompting an uncharacteristic cry of “Shist!” from our intrepid hero). Knupfer is so empathetic with his client’s vision that when the performer makes a nebulous request like “less air!” he knows exactly what Aimard means (even if we don’t).

Knupfer’s infectious enthusiasm for his gig is a documentarian’s dream; especially when the camera is there for his frequent moments of creative inspiration. While helping Richard Hyung-Ki Joo and violinist Aleksey Igudesma brainstorm visual gags for one of their comedic performances, he comes up with an idea to replace a piano leg with a cheap yet still fully functional violin (in a very funny scene, Knupfer calls an instrument dealer and says he is looking for a violin that costs “like five Euros or something”, to which the dealer instinctively responds, “Do you want to smash it?”) Even the more serious work that he does inside the music box greatly benefits from his ability to constantly think outside the box, as it were (like bouncing tennis balls to temper the strings, for example).

I’m not a keyboard player, or frankly much of a classical piano fan (more of a guitar guy) yet I still found this film to be absorbing and entertaining . As credits rolled, I realized  I previously had no clue as to what a piano tuner  does; like a lot of folks I’ve always assumed it to be more on the technical, rather than creative side of the music.

I can relate to Knupfer’s obsessive nature; I’ve been known to zone out for two or three hours at a time “poking around” with pedal settings and amp adjustments in search of the “perfect” guitar tone. Some viewers may cry foul  that the filmmakers seem to have made a conscious decision not to reveal too much about Knupfer’s personal life. However, the pursuit of excellence and perfection in any field is an admirable endeavor, and  at the end of the day that’s really what the film is about. Sometimes, it not the music-it’s how you play it.

Confessions of a Beatle Fan, pt. 1: Living in the Material World ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 15, 2011)

In the Summer of ’67, 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 sex on acid…I can’t. Mainly because I had only recently turned 11. The first thing I discovered was Mad magazine (which undoubtedly explains a lot, to long-time readers). The second thing was record collecting. I still remember my very first vinyl purchase, blowing at least three months’ worth of allowance at the JCPenney in Fairbanks, Alaska. I purchased two LPs (at the whopping price of $3.98 each), and one 45 single. The LPs were Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the 45 was “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever”…all by that band that, you know… Paul McCartney used to be in before Wings.

Flash-forward about 35 years or so. 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 scribbles. I lingered over one in particular, which was initially tough to decipher, with all the crossed-out words and such:

But you know I know when it’s a bean”? Huh? It still wasn’t really registering as to what I was looking at (the mind plays funny tricks sometimes). 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, Oh.My.(Rock) God. This is John Lennon’s original handwritten draft of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. I am bearing witness to the genesis of one my favorite songs. Here I stand, head in hand, with my eyes but inches away from a tangible manifestation of pure inspiration and genius. Suddenly, I panicked. Was I worthy enough to keep looking? Was my face going to 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 this experience.

Devoted Fabs fans may find themselves welling up a bit after viewing a slightly flawed yet still essential documentary from Martin Scorsese called George Harrison: Living in the Material World, which debuted on HBO last week. Clocking in at an epic three and-a-half hours (presented in two parts), it is the most in-depth cinematic portrait to date of “the quiet Beatle”. In fact, Scorsese (who, you may recall, memorably employed Harrison’s “What is Life” for one of the musical cues in Goodfellas) seems to be on a mission to prove otherwise. Harrison, we learn, not only had much to say, but was not shy about speaking his mind; he was no shrinking violet.

Nor did he necessarily spend all of his off-hours steeped in meditative Eastern spiritualism, strumming his sitar. He was, after all, a rock star; along with his three mates one of the most famous rock stars off all time, and wasn’t adverse to fully taking advantage of the perks at his disposal during the heights of Beatlemania. “He was a guy,” Paul McCartney offers coyly (referring to what one would imagine to be a lost decade of revelries that would probably make an ancient Roman blush). Harrison was very spiritual, but like any human being he was not perfect. Scorsese illustrates the dichotomy well, and it’s the most compelling element of his film.

Like its subject, the film is not 100% perfect. While nicely capturing the mood and the spirit of Harrison’s distinct musical eras (via a treasure trove of vintage footage, inter-cut with interviews) there is an occasional disconnect with the historical timeline (the uninitiated may be left craving more contextualization) There’s not too much 60s footage that I haven’t seen before (I’ve seen virtually everything Beatles). Still, Scorsese is such a great filmmaker, he makes what would seem a retread in lesser hands feel fresh and vital.

[Intermission]

Next Week: Top 10 Fab 4 Flicks! (same Beatles time, same Beatles station)

Big Star in heaven: RIP Alex Chilton

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 20, 2010)

O My Soul:  Alex Chilton, 1951-2010

In the early to mid 70s, a then yet-to-be-named rock ‘n’ roll subgenre emerged. It was a sound that took chiming Beatlesque harmonies and jangly Roger Mcguinn chord shapes, threw in a dash of The Who, Small Faces and the Kinks, plugged it all into a Marshall stack and said all that it had to say in 3 minutes. Thusly, “power pop” was born. For my money, the Holy Trinity of its first wave was Badfinger, The Raspberries, and Big Star. The latter outfit proved to be the most influential, paving the way for bands like Cheap Trick, The Flamin’ Groovies and Pezband, kicking the door open for early 1980s New Wave power poppers like The Plimsouls, 20/20, The Records, The Shoes and The dBs.

Big Star co-founder Alex Chilton may not be a household name, but to power pop aficionados, he is an icon; I was saddened to hear of his death this week at age 59. I still get a warm and fuzzy feeling whenever a Big Star staple like “When My Baby’s Beside Me”, “September Gurls”, or “Back of a Car” pops up in my mp3 player’s shuffle. Anyone who has heard “The Letter” by his first band, the Boxtops will surely recognize his voice (unbelievably, the owner of those soulful pipes was only 16 at the time).

I once had the pleasure of seeing Chilton perform here in Seattle during a Big Star revival tour, with a lineup that included original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, along with local musicians Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies (one of the better contemporary power pop bands). It was a magical evening, with the 50-ish Chilton demonstrating to the crowd that he still had “it”. Please join me, as we bow our heads for a four-chord salute:

In the loose palace of exile: When You’re Strange ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 17, 2010)

Just another band from L.A.

I can still remember the first time I heard “Riders on the Storm” by the Doors. I was all of 14. It haunted me then and haunts me now. Even though it wasn’t a movie, it was my introduction to film noir. Distant thunder, the cascading shimmer of a Fender Rhodes and dangerous rhythms. “There’s a killer on the road. His brain is squirming like a toad.”  Fuck oh dear, this definitely wasn’t the Archies.

I’ll tell you this-it sure as hell didn’t sound like anything else on the radio at the time (especially considering that it squeaked in at #99 on Billboard’s Top 100 for 1971, sandwiched between the Fifth Dimension’s “One Less Bell to Answer” and Perry Como’s “It’s Impossible”). Jim Morrison’s vocals really got under my skin. Years later, a friend explained why. If you listen carefully, there are three vocal tracks. Morrison is singing, chanting and whispering the lyrics. We smoked a bowl, cranked it up and concluded that it was a pretty neat trick.

By the time “Riders on the Storm” hit the charts, the Doors had begun, for all intents and purpose, to dissolve as a band; Morrison had left the U.S. to embark on an open-ended sabbatical in France. When he was found dead in his Parisian apartment in July of 1971 at age 27, it was no longer a matter of speculation-the Doors, Mk 1 were History.

But what a history-in the 4 ½ years that keyboardist Ray Manzarek, guitarist Robbie Krieger, drummer John Densmore and lead vocalist Jim Morrison enjoyed an artistic collaboration, they produced six timelessly resonant studio albums and the classic Absolutely Live (which still holds up as one of the best live albums ever by a rock band). They are also one of the first bands to successfully bridge deeply avant-garde sensibilities with popular commercial appeal. It was Blake and Rimbaud…that you could dance to.

There have been a fair number of books about the band over the years; a few in the scholarly vein but chiefly of the “tell-all” variety. Like many Doors fans, my introduction to the Jim Morrison legend came from reading No One Here Gets Out Alive many moons ago. The book was co-authored by journalist Jerry Hopkins and Doors insider Danny Sugarman. In retrospect, it may not be the most objective or insightful overview of what the band was really about, but it is a wildly entertaining read.

That was the same takeaway I got from Oliver Stone’s way over-the-top 1991 biopic, The Doors. Interestingly, I found his film to be nowhere nearly as “cinematic” as the Doors music has always felt to me (Francis Ford Coppola nailed it-it’s all there in the first 10 minutes of Apocalypse Now).

Surprisingly, it has taken until 2010, 45 years (!) after UCLA film students Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek first starting kicking around the idea of forming a band, for a proper full-length documentary feature about The Doors to appear, Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange.

You’ll notice I said, “about The Doors”. Stone’s aforementioned film ultimately lost its way as a true portrait of the band, I believe, because it was too myopically fixated on the Jim Morrison legend; Morrison the Lizard King, the Dionysian rock god, the drunken poet, the shaman. Yes, he was all of that (perhaps more of a showman than a shaman), but he was only 25% of the equation that made The Doors…well, The Doors. That’s what I like about DiCillo’s film; he doesn’t gloss over the contributions of the other three musicians.

In fact, one of the things you learn in the film is that Morrison himself always insisted that all songwriting credits go to “The Doors” as an entity, regardless of which band member may have had the dominant hand in the composition of any particular song (when you consider that Morrison couldn’t read a note, that’s a pragmatic stance for him to take). The band’s signature tune, the #1 hit “Light My Fire” was actually composed by Robbie Krieger-and was allegedly the first song he ever wrote (talk about beginner’s luck). He’s a damn fine guitar player too (he was trained in flamenco, and had only been playing electric for 6 months at the band’s inception).

Manzarek and Densmore were no slouches either; they had a classical and jazz background, respectively. When you piece these snippets together along with Morrison’s interests in poetry, literature, film and improvisational theatre (then sprinkle in a few tabs of acid) you finally begin to get a picture of why this band had such a unique vibe. They’ve been copied, but never equaled.

The film looks to have been a labor of love by the director. Johnny Depp provides the narration, and DiCillo has assembled some great footage; it’s all well-chosen, sensibly sequenced and beautifully edited. Although there are a fair amount of clips and stories that will qualify as old hat to Doors aficionados (the “Light My Fire” performance on the Sullivan Show, the infamous Miami concert “riot”, etc.), there is a treasure trove of rare footage.

One fascinating clip shows the band in the studio constructing the song “Wild Child” during the sessions for The Soft Parade. I would have been happy to watch an entire reel of that; I’m a real sucker for films like Sympathy for the Devil, Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii and Let It Be, which offer a glimpse at the actual creative process.

The real revelation is the interwoven excerpts from Morrison’s experimental 1969 film HWY: An American Pastoral, which I’ve never had an opportunity to screen. Although it is basically a bearded Morrison driving around the desert (wearing his trademark leather pants), it’s mesmerizing, surreal footage. DiCillo must have had access to a pristine master print, because it looks like it was shot last week. It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I realized this wasn’t one of those dreaded recreations, utilizing a lookalike. As a matter of fact, Morrison has never appeared so “alive” on film. It’s eerie.

SIFF 2009: Telstar ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2009)

It’s weird kismet that I screened Telstar, a new biopic about the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Joe Meek (whose career abruptly ended when he shot his landlady before shooting himself in 1967), just one day after a judge sentenced the legendary, innovative and tragically deranged music producer Phil Spector (whose career abruptly ended when he shot actress Lana Clarkson) to a term of 19 years to life.

Similar to his U.S.  counterpart, the British-born Meek also reached his creative peak in the early 60s, and developed a signature studio “sound” that set his song productions apart from virtually everyone else’s. While the two shared an equally unpredictable and mercurial temperament, they were innovative in mutually exclusive ways. Spector’s much-heralded, signature “Wall of Sound” was generated by utilizing elaborate “live” sessions, involving large groups of musicians, state-of-the-art studios and a huge echo chamber.

Meek, on the other hand, recorded piecemeal, and produced most of his legacy in a tiny home studio, set up in a modest London flat. He would isolate musicians in different rooms in order to achieve very specific sounds for each instrument or vocal track, often utilizing overdubbing (SOP these days, but not at that time). Completely untrained (and unskilled) as a musician, his sonic experimentation was fueled by his obsession with outer space and informed by musical tonalities that came from, well, “beyond”; his resulting forays have secured him a place as a pioneer in electronic music.

(OK, now engaging Music Geek Mode). One of my prized CDs is I Hear a New World-which was written, produced and conceived by Joe Meek (and recorded by “Rod Freeman and the Blue Men”) which I described as follows in a 2003 review that I published on Amazon:

Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson drop acid in a recording studio on the dark side of the moon, and the resulting session yields something that sounds very much like this long lost Joe Meek album. “I Hear a New World” was a more literal title than you might think, as the voices in his head were soon to drown out the sounds of the Muse for the tragically doomed Meek… Informed music fans will intuit snippets of templates here and there for the Residents, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream or even more recent offerings from Radiohead and The Flaming Lips. The fact that Meek bore a spooky physical resemblance to director David Lynch certainly adds fuel to his already eerie aura.

Telstar is named after Meek’s biggest and most recognizable hit from 1962, an instrumental performed by The Tornados (who were essentially his studio band at the time). The film (based on a stage play by James Hicks, who co-adapted the screenplay with director Nick Moran) suffers a bit from an uneven tone, but I still think it is quite watchable (especially for fans of the era), thanks to the great location filming, a colorful and tuneful recreation of the early 60s London music scene, and a fearless, flamboyant performance from Con O’Neill (recreating his stage role as the tortured Meek).

In fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are infused with a door-slamming exuberance and manic musical energy that I haven’t seen since the memorable opening salvo of Julien Temple’s love letter to London’s late 50s pop scene, Absolute Beginners. Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes are more akin to the denouement in Taxi Driver. Then again, if you are already familiar with the story of Meek’s trajectory into paranoia and madness, you go into this film with the foreknowledge that it is not likely to have a happy ending.

The bulk of the film delves into elements of  Meek’s personal life, like his stormy relationship with protégé/lover Heinz Burt (JJ Field), a middling singer/guitarist who Meek had hoped to manufacture into the next Eddie Cochran (that didn’t happen). In fact, one of Meek’s greatest tragedies was how he squandered much of his potential with missed opportunities, unfortunate judgment calls and misdirected energies. For example, Meek once turned down an opportunity to produce some sessions for a certain (then relatively unknown) Merseyside combo managed by a Mr. Brian Epstein.

I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on portraying Meek’s genius in the studio, but you can’t have everything.S till, I got a kick out of the vivid recreations of performances by early 60s rock luminaries like Gene Vincent and Screamin’ Lord Sutch (who was a major influence on Alice Cooper). It’s during those moments (and the sporadic glimpses of Meek working his studio magic) that the film really comes alive. O’Neill’s performance is a real tour-d-force.

Tom Burke is also quite good as the oddball Geoff Goddard, who worked as an in-house songwriter for Meek (as well as a kind of “medium” for helping him retrieve pop hooks from “beyond”). James Corden is quite engaging (and provides some much-needed levity) as Meek’s long-suffering session drummer, Clem Cattini. The ubiquitous Kevin Spacey (who is featured in at least 3 SIFF entries this year) is also on hand in a small but memorable role as Meek’s chief investor, Major Banks. I hope this film finds distribution.

Picky, picky, picky: It Might Get Loud (**1/2)

Image result for it might get loud

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 19, 2009)

“My goal is to trick these guys into showing me their tricks,” confides a visibly nervous Jack White with somewhat forced bravado as he heads for an exclusive guitar player’s confab with U2’s The Edge and the legendary Jimmy Page, As our cocky young Mr. White comes to learn (along with the viewer) during the course of Davis Guggenheim’s new rockumentary, It Might Get Loud, “tricks”…erm, are for kids.

I will confess that, despite being a huge Zep fan, I was going to give this one a pass (at least until the DVD) because it offended my sensibilities that anyone would infer that the other two (talented as they may be) deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Pagey-but a friend shamed me into dragging my lazy ass out to the theater. White (singer-guitarist for the White Stripes and The Raconteurs), The Edge and Page may seem like odd bedfellows; but once I “got” the filmmaker’s intent, it started to sort of make sense.

Each of the film’s three subjects represents a distinct type of species within the genus of Rock Guitarist. First, you have The Primitive (represented by White). The Primitive is raw, instinctively expressive and spontaneous (any piece of wood with strings will do…plugged into something that makes noise).

Then, we have The Gearhead (represented by The Edge). The Gearhead is the antithesis of The Primitive; he is controlled and precise, obsessed with hardware and perennially tweaking his settings to match the elusive Perfect Tone he hears in his head.

Finally, we have The Virtuoso (Page), who can pick up any stringed instrument, from a mandolin to a Les Paul, and make it sing like a gift from the gods (or as Page dubs it, “the whisper and the thunder”).

Guggenheim inter-cuts separately filmed interviews, with each artist discussing his influences and techniques. The individual interviews offer a bit more insight than the summit, which feels staged and awkward at times; and when the three do play a few numbers together, the result is disappointingly pedestrian (it’s not unlike the discordant sonic wash of “Riffs ‘r’ Us” that assaults you when you stroll into a Guitar Center on a busy Saturday afternoon).

I suppose your reaction to the film will hinge on how big a fan you are of the individual musicians profiled. For me, Page has the most interesting back story and could have easily provided enough material to fill the movie’s entire running time. He’s kind of the Zelig of rock guitarists; over the course of his career he’s proven to be adept at nearly every style of music you’d care to mention.

As a teen Page played in skiffle, blues, and R&B bands, and by the mid 60s had become one of England’s most in-demand session players, playing with everyone from Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey to The Who and The Kinks (although it isn’t mentioned in the film, one of his most recognizable solos-for-hire is that fuzz-toned riffing on Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man”). Once he joined The Yardbirds, the stage was set for the formation of Led Zeppelin, and the rest is History.

I don’t mean to belittle the fact that U2 is one of the most popular bands on the planet, or that Jack White doesn’t have his moments of inspiration; but in the context of the filmmaker’s intent, you do wonder what he hoped to achieve by bringing these three disparate stylists together. As a guitar player, I could compartmentalize what each artist brings to the table, but I was still scratching my head when it was over. Now, if you will excuse me, I think I’ll plug in and brush up on a bit of that “whisper and thunder” myself.