Tag Archives: On Music

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.

Electric Kool-Aid acid reflux: Taking Woodstock ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 5, 2009)

Bob & Carol & Ted &…uh, has anyone seen Alice?

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that  old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

 That summer seemed to last forever
and if I had the choice
Yeah – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

 Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really there, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead ?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

 By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

My point is, there’s always been a disconnect between “Woodstock”  the romanticized representation of a generation, and the actual “Woodstock Music and Art Fair” event that took place near Bethel, New York in August of 1969. In other words, can “anybody” who was of a certain age and mindset in 1969 rightfully claim (like Joni) that they were “there”, in spirit, and that it was a beautiful, groovy thing?

Or, did you have to physically attend the event, parking miles away, slogging through a muddy sea of humanity, with only a slim chance of getting close enough to the stage to identify who was playing?

And in spite of the impression given by Michael Wadleigh in his brilliant rock doc, Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music (whittled down from over 300 hours of footage into a 4-hour film), the sound system reportedly left much to be desired, and many of the bands (by their own admission) did not give career best performances.

None of the main characters in Taking Woodstock get that close to the stage, either (although some do ingest certain substances, play in the mud and take a figurative wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of 1969). For the most part, Lee doesn’t set out to just reenact the grand canvas of the event as has already been depicted in Wadleigh’s iconic documentary (what would be the point?).

Instead, he has opted for a far more intimate approach, based on a memoir by Elliot Tiber, who helped broker the deal between the producers of the music festival and the Bethel Town Board to hold the event there after the permits were refused for the originally intended location in the nearby  town of Wallkill, N.Y.

Elliot is played by stand-up comic/first time leading man Demetri Martin (a former writer for Conan O’Brien who you will most likely recognize from sporadic appearances on The Daily Show).

In 1969, he is living in the Village in N.Y.C., eking out a living as an interior designer. When it becomes clear that his aging parents (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) are overextending themselves trying to  keep their Catskills motel business afloat as the bank threatens foreclosure, Elliot heads back home upstate to become their Man Friday. Serendipity eventually puts Elliot face-to-face with concert producer Michael Lang (Jonathan Groff).

Seeing little more than an opportunity to sell out the motel for a few weeks and give the business some much-needed cash flow, Elliot (having no idea that he is playing a pivotal role in enabling what is destined to become  the high-water mark of the 60s counterculture movement) introduces Lang to a local farmer, Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy), who has some spacious fields that might fit the bill.

There is some resistance to overcome from grumpy neighboring farmers, as well as consternation from a local Town Board members about the idea of their sleepy hamlet being overrun by a bunch of Dirty Fucking Hippies (this part of the tale takes on a Footloose vibe).

“Dramedies” can be tricky. Too much drama curdles the comedy. Too much comedy can sabotage dramatic tension. Unfortunately, Lee’s film takes a fair stab at both but doesn’t fully succeed at either, leaving you with the cinematic equivalent of tepid dishwater. There are also a few  intriguing backstories hinted at, but never explored.

That being said, there are a couple decent sequences; particularly a protracted vignette in which Elliot,  trying to work his way closer toward the stage, gets waylaid by a mellow couple, camped out in their VW van. The pair, played with doe-eyed blissfulness by Paul Dano and Kelli Garner invite Elliot aboard for a nice little trip (which doesn’t involve any actual driving-wink wink). It’s a very sweet little interlude, beautifully played by all three young actors.

If you are really hell-bent to skinny-dip in nostalgia, you needn’t scratch your head over Taking Woodstock. Dim all the lights, plug in the lava lamp, light up the bong, then “take Woodstock” (the original documentary) off the shelf. All together now:  “Gimme an ‘F’…”

Punk is a feeling: The Gits ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 19, 2008)

Viva Zapata: Mia and her fans, circa 1991.

In the fall of 1992, I moved to Seattle with no particular action plan, and stumbled into a job hosting the Monday-Friday morning drive show on KCMU (now KEXP) , a mostly volunteer, low-wattage, listener supported FM station broadcasting from the UW campus with the hopeful slogan: “Where the music matters.” I remember joking to my friends that my career was going in reverse order, because after 18 years of commercial radio experience, here I was at age 36, finally getting my first part-time college radio gig. I loved it.

I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to cue up whatever I felt like playing, as opposed to kowtowing to the rigid, market-tested “safe song” play lists at the Top 40, Oldies and A/C formats I had worked with previously. A little Yellowman, Fugazi, Cypress Hill, Liz Phair, maybe a bit o’ Mudhoney with your Danish? Followed by a track from Ali Faka Toure, some Throwing Muses, topping the set with an oldie like the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” to take you up to your first coffee break? Sure, why not? I was happier than a pig in shit.

What I didn’t realize until several years following my  7-month stint there, is that KCMU was semi-legendary in college/alt-underground circles; not only was it literally the first station in the country to “break” Nirvana, but counted members of Mudhoney and Pearl Jam among former DJ staff. I was just a music geek, enthusiastically exploring somebody else’s incredibly cool record collection, whilst taking my listeners along for the ride; in the meantime I obliviously became a peripheral participant in Seattle’s early 90’s “scene”.

One of the countless bands that migrated to Seattle during the city’s brief and shining heyday as America’s D.I.Y Mecca was a quartet hailing from Ohio, who called themselves The Gits (in honor of a Monty Python sketch). Led by talented singer-songwriter Mia Zapata, the band mixed the aggressive melodic punch of L.A.’s X with the art-punk lyricism of San Francisco’s Romeo Void. Zapata’s powerful, bluesy Janis Joplin-meets-Exene Cervenka vocal delivery and charismatic stage presence made her a formidable front woman, and the band quickly gained a strong local following.

They also soon gained the attention of local music producers, and were on the verge of being courted by some of the major labels, when it all came crashing to earth with a resounding thud. In the summer of 1993, Mia Zapata was beaten, raped and killed, her body unceremoniously dumped in a vacant lot. Her murder remained unsolved until an astounding break in the case in 2003 helped bring her killer to justice (thanks to advancements in DNA forensics).

Her frighteningly random and brutal murder not only had a profoundly disheartening and long-lasting effect on Seattle’s incestuous music community, but at the time, symbolically represented the beginning of the end for the city’s burgeoning music renaissance; it was sort of the grunge era’s Altamont, if you will.

In their documentary The Gits (available on DVD), super-fans and first time filmmakers Kerri O’Kane (director) and Jessica Bender (producer) have constructed an engrossing, genuinely moving portrait of the band and Zapata’s legacy. When O’Kane and Bender were doing initial research for their project, they began snapping up all the Gits memorabilia they could get their hands on, acquiring much of it via eBay, and mostly through one particular seller.

That person turned out to be the band’s drummer, who was beginning to wonder who these two particularly obsessed fans were. This eventually led to full cooperation from the surviving band members, after they were assured that O’Kane and Bender weren’t a couple of weird stalkers.. This was a legitimate concern due to the fact that Zapata’s killer was then still unknown and presumably still at large. Thus began a six year labor of love for the pair.

The first half  is devoted to Gits’ history, beginning with their formation at Antioch College in Ohio in 1986. By the time they moved to Seattle in 1989, the band had developed a sonic sensibility more simpatico with  punk rock than it was to the trendy “grunge” sound of the time (speaking as an “old school” rock fan, grunge always sounded like warmed-over Blue Cheer or Sabbath to me, while punk was closer to the spirit of The MC5 and The Ramones).

O’Kane does a nice job encapsulating their Seattle years with well-chosen performance clips and archival photos. Interviews with the band, their friends and members of Mia’s family are supplemented by recollections from professional peers like Joan Jett and members of 7 Year Bitch, an all-female Seattle band who were generously mentored by the Gits (and ironically, signed by a major label long before their more musically accomplished mentors were “discovered” themselves). The music business is a harsh mistress.

The second half of the film deals with Zapata’s death. To their credit, the filmmakers don’t exploit the sensationalist aspects of the crime or dwell on all the gory details of the murder itself. Instead, they take the high road and examine the profound effect her loss had on her family, friends, fans and fellow members of the music community.

The sensitive and respectful handling of the latter part of the story ultimately accentuates what lies at the heart of a film that could have been a real downer: an inspiring portrait of a group of close friends truly committed to each other, their music and their fans.

With all the soulless pap oozing from the music charts and Stepford Idol marionettes warbling their glorified karaoke at us from our Empty Vee these days, it’s enough to give one a glimmer of hope that, somewhere out there in the ether, there will always be someone making Music That Matters (I can always dream, can’t I?)

O’Kane even manages to find and highlight one bittersweet “positive” (for want of a better word) that resulted from the tragedy, which was the formation of Home Alive, an anti-violence non-profit organization that is perhaps best described by the mission statement posted on their website:

Home Alive is a Seattle based anti-violence non-profit organization that offers affordable self-defense classes and provides public education and awareness. We believe violence prevention is a community responsibility as well as an individual issue. Our work in self-defense encourages everyone to recognize their entitlement to the basic human right to live free from violence and hate. Our goal is to build a cultural and social movement that puts violence in a context of political, economic and social oppression, and frames safety as a human right.

Sounds like a damn fine plan to me. Now, if we just could convince the rest of the world to start acting so…punk rock.