Tag Archives: On Pop Culture

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Dance Craze (BFI; Region ‘B’ locked)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here, There, and Everywhere Now and Then

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

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

-The Beatles, “Tomorrow Never Knows”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Farewell, hello. Farewell, hello.”

-Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

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

-The Beatles, “Hello Goodbye”

Beatles forever!

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

I Saw A Film Today: A Top fab 14 list

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

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By Dennis Hartley

Here’s a Fab Four fun fact: The original U.K. and U.S. releases of the Beatles LPs prior to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did not contain all the same songs (even when the album titles were the same). This was due to the fact that the U.K. versions had 14 tracks, and the U.S. versions had 12. That’s my perfect excuse to offer up picks for the Top 14 Beatles films.

I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know: In addition to documentaries and films where the lads essentially played “themselves”, my criteria includes films where band members worked as actors or composers, and biopics. As per usual, my list is in alphabetical order:

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The Beatles Anthology – Admittedly, this opus is more of a turn-on for obsessives, but there is very little mystery left once you’ve taken this magical 600 minute tour through the Beatles film archives. Originally presented as a mini-series event on TV, it’s a comprehensive compilation of performance footage, movie clips and interviews (vintage and contemporary).

What makes it unique is that the producers (the surviving Beatles themselves) took the “in their own words” approach, eschewing the usual droning narrator. Nicely done, and a must-see for fans.

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The Compleat Beatles – Prior to the Anthology, this theatrically released documentary stood as the definitive overview of the band’s career. What I like most about director Patrick Montgomery’s approach, is that he delves into the musicology (roots and influences), which the majority of Beatles docs tend to skimp on. George Martin’s candid anecdotes regarding the creativity and innovation that fueled the studio sessions are enlightening.

It still stands as a great compilation of performance clips and interviews. Malcolm McDowell narrates. Although you’d think it would be on DVD, it’s still VHS only (I’ve seen laser discs at secondhand stores).

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Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years – As a Beatle freak who has seen just about every bit of Fab Four documentary/concert footage extant, I approached Ron Howard’s 2016 film with a bit of trepidation (especially with all the pre-release hype about “previously unseen” footage and such) but was nonetheless pleased (if not necessarily enlightened).

This is not their entire story, but rather a retrospective of the Beatles’ career from the Hamburg days through their final tour in 1966. As I inferred, you likely won’t learn anything new (this is a well-trod path), but the performance clips are enhanced by newly restored footage and remixed audio. Despite the familiar material, it’s beautifully assembled, and Howard makes the nostalgic wallow feel fresh and fun.

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A Hard Day’s Night – This 1964 masterpiece has been often copied, but never equaled. Shot in a semi-documentary style, the film follows a “day in the life” of John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their youthful exuberance and charismatic powers. Thanks to the wonderfully inventive direction of Richard Lester and Alun Owen’s cleverly tailored script, the essence of what made the Beatles “the Beatles” has been captured for posterity.

Although it’s meticulously constructed, Lester’s film has a loose, improvisational feel; and it feels just as fresh and innovative as it was when it first hit theaters all those years ago. To this day I catch subtle gags that surprise me (ever notice John snorting the Coke bottle?). Musical highlights: “I Should Have Known Better”, “All My Loving”, “Don’t Bother Me”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, and (of course) the classic title song.

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Help! – Compared to its predecessor (see above), this is a much fluffier affair, from a narrative standpoint (Ringo is being chased by a religious cult who wish to offer him up as a human sacrifice to their god; hilarity ensues). But still, it’s a lot of fun, if you’re in a receptive mood. The Beatles themselves exude enough goofy energy and effervescent charm to make up for the wafer-thin plot line.

Marc Behm and Charles Wood’s script has a few good zingers; but the biggest delights come from director Richard Lester’s flair for visual invention. For me, the best parts are the musical sequences, which are imaginative, artful, and light years ahead of their time (essentially the blueprint for MTV, which was still 15 years down the road).

And of course, the Beatles’ music was evolving in leaps and bounds by 1965. It has a killer soundtrack; in addition to the classic title song, you’ve got “Ticket to Ride”, “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”, “The Night Before” and “I Need You”, to name a few. Don’t miss the clever end credits!

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I Wanna Hold Your Hand – This was the feature film debut for director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale, the creative tag team who would later deliver Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Sort of a cross between American Graffiti and The Bellboy, the film concerns six New Jersey teenagers. Three of them (Nancy Allen, Theresa Saldana and Wendy Jo Sperber) are rabid Beatles fans, the other three (Bobby Di Cicco, Marc McClure and Susan Kendall Newman) not so much.

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

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Let it Be – By 1969, the Beatles had probably done enough “living” to suit several normal lifetimes, and did so with the whole world looking in. It’s almost unfathomable how they could have achieved as much as they did, and at the end of all, still be only in their twenties.

Are there any other recording artists who have ever matched the creative growth that transpired over the scant six years that it took to evolve from the simplicity of Meet the Beatles to the sophistication of Abbey Road ? So, with hindsight being 20/20, should we really be so shocked to see the four haggard and sullen “old guys” who mope through this 1970 documentary?

Filmed in 1969, the movie was intended to document the “making of” the eponymous album (although interestingly, there is also footage of the band working on several songs that ended up appearing on Abbey Road). There’s also footage of the band rehearsing on the sound stage at Twickenham Film Studios, and hanging out at the Apple offices.

Sadly, the film has developed a rep as hard evidence of the band’s disintegration. There is some on-camera bickering (most famously, in a scene where George reaches the end of his rope with Paul’s fussiness). Still, there is that classic mini-concert on the roof, and if you look closely, the boys are actually having a grand old time jamming out; it’s almost as if they know this is the last hurrah, and what the hell, it’s only rock ’n’ roll, after all. I hope this film finally finds its way to a legit DVD release someday (beware of bootlegs).

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

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

Sir Guy sets about imparting a nugget of wisdom to his newly appointed heir: People will do anything for money. Basically, it’s an episodic series of elaborate pranks, setting hooks into the stiff upper lips of the stuffy English aristocracy. Like similar broad 60s satires (Candy, Skidoo, Casino Royale) it’s a psychedelic train wreck, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny.

Highlights include Laurence Harvey doing a striptease whilst reciting the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet, a pheasant hunt with field artillery, and well-attired businessmen wading waist-deep into a huge vat of offal, using their bowlers to scoop up as much “free money” as they can (accompanied by Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”).

Badfinger performs the majority of the songs on the soundtrack, including their Paul McCartney-penned hit, “Come and Get It”. Director Joseph McGrath co-wrote with Sellers, Terry Southern, and Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and John Cleese (both have cameos).

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

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Magical Mystery Tour– According to a majority of critics (and puzzled Beatles fans), the Fabs were ringing out the old year on a somewhat sour note with this self-produced project, originally presented as a holiday special on BBC-TV in December of 1967. By the conventions of television fare at the time, the 53-minute film was judged as a self-indulgent and pointlessly obtuse affair (it’s probably weathered more drubbing than Ishtar and Heaven’s Gate combined).

Granted, upon reappraisal, it remains unencumbered by anything resembling a “plot”, but in certain respects, it has held up remarkably well. Borrowing a page from Ken Kesey, the Beatles gather up a group of friends (actors and non-actors alike), load them all on a bus, and take them on a “mystery tour” across the English countryside.

They basically filmed whatever happened, then sorted it all out in the editing suite. It’s the musical sequences that make the restored version released on Blu-ray several years ago worth the investment.  In hindsight, sequences like “Blue Jay Way”, “Fool on the Hill” and “I Am the Walrus” play like harbingers of MTV, which was still well over a decade away.

Some of the interstitial vignettes uncannily anticipate Monty Python’s idiosyncratic comic sensibilities; not a stretch when you consider that George Harrison’s future production company HandMade Films was formed to help finance Life of Brian. Magical Mystery Tour is far from a work of art, but when taken for what it is (a long-form music video and colorful time capsule of 60s pop culture)-it’s lots of fun. Roll up!

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Nowhere Boy – This gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood was one of my 2010 Seattle International Film Festival faves. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teen-aged John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”.

The story is not so much about the Fabs, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

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Produced by George Martin – While no one can deny the inherent musical genius of the Beatles, it’s worth speculating whether they would have reached the same dizzying heights of creativity and artistic growth (and over the same 7-year period) had the lads never crossed paths with Sir George Martin. It’s a testament to the unique symbiosis between the Fabs and their gifted producer that one can’t think of one without also thinking of the other. Yet there is much more to Martin than this celebrated collaboration.

Martin is profiled in an engaging and beautifully crafted 2011 BBC documentary called (funnily enough) Produced by George Martin . The film traces his career from the early 50s to present day. His early days at EMI are particularly fascinating; a generous portion of the film focuses on his work there producing classical and comedy recordings.

Disparate as Martin’s early work appears to be from the rock ’n’ roll milieu, I think it prepped him for his future collaboration with the Fabs, on a personal and professional level. His experience with comics likely helped the relatively reserved producer acclimate to the Beatles’ irreverent sense of humor, and Martin’s classical training and gift for arrangement certainly helped to guide their creativity to a higher level of sophistication.

81 at the time of filming, Martin (who passed away in 2016) is spry, full of great anecdotes and a class act all the way. He provides some candid moments; there is visible emotion from the usually unflappable Martin when he admits how hurt and betrayed he felt when John Lennon curtly informed him at the 11th hour that his “services would not be needed” for the Let it Be sessions (the band went with the mercurial Phil Spector, who famously overproduced the album). Insightful interviews with artists who have worked with Martin (and admiring peers) round things off nicely.

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The Rutles: All You Need is Cash – Everything you ever wanted to know about the “Prefab Four” is right here, in this cheeky and hilarious 1978 mockumentary, originally presented as a TV special. It’s the story of four lads from Liverpool: Dirk McQuickly (Eric Idle), Ron Nasty (Neil Innes), Stig O’Hara (Rikki Fataar) and Barry Womble (John Halsey). Any resemblance to the Beatles, of course, is purely intentional.

Idle wrote the script and co-directed with Gary Weis (who made a number of memorable short films that aired on the first few seasons of Saturday Night Live). Innes (frequent Monty Python collaborator and one of the madmen behind the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) composed the soundtrack, clever mash-ups of near-Beatles songs that are actually quite listenable on their own.

Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and other music luminaries appear as themselves, “reminiscing” about the band. There are also some funny bits that feature members of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” (including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd). Look fast for a cameo from George Harrison, as a reporter. Undoubtedly, the format of this piece provided some inspiration for This is Spinal Tap.

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That’ll Be the Day – Set in late 50s England, Claude Whatham’s 1973 film (written by Ray Connolly) is a character study in the tradition of the “kitchen sink” dramas that flourished in 60s UK cinema.

David Essex (best-known for his music career, and hit, “Rock On”) plays Jim MacLaine, an intelligent, angst-ridden young man who drops out of school to go the Kerouac route (to Mum’s chagrin). While he’s figuring out what to do with his life, Jim supports himself working at a “funfair” at the Isle of Wight, where he gets a crash course in how to fleece customers and “pull birds” from a seasoned carny (Ringo Starr) who befriends him.

Early 60s English rocker Billy Fury performs some songs as “Stormy Tempest” (likely a reference to Rory Storm, who Ringo was drumming for when the Beatles enlisted him in 1962) Also look for Keith Moon (who gets more screen time in the 1974 sequel, Stardust).

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Yellow Submarine – Despite being a die-hard Beatles fan, over the years I’ve felt somewhat ambivalent about this 1968 animated feature “starring” the Fab Four; or rather, their cartoon avatars, voiced over by other actors. While I adored the music soundtrack, I never quite “got” all the fuss over the “innovative” visuals  (which could be partially attributable to the fact that I never caught it in a theater, just on TV and in various fuzzy home video formats).

But, being the obsessive-compulsive completest that I am, I snapped up a copy of Capitol’s restored version a few years ago, and found it to be a revelation. The 2012 transfer was touched-up by hand, frame-by frame (an unusually artisan choice for this digital age), and the results are jaw-dropping. The visuals are stunning.

The audio remix is superb; I never fully appreciated the clever wordplay in the script (by Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn and Erich Segal) until now. The story itself remains silly, but it’s the knockout music sequences (“Eleanor Rigby” being one standout) that make this one worth the price of admission.

Star-making machinery: Milli Vanilli (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 30, 2023)

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“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – Johnny Rotten

In my 2015 review of Danny Tedesco’s documentary The Wrecking Crew, I wrote:

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

 Tedesco traces origins of the Wrecking Crew, from participation in co-creating the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with seemingly any other popular artist of the era you could name (The Beach Boys, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, Petula Clark, The Mamas and the Papas, etc.).  […]

Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes (and as you can imagine, they have got some great stories to tell). […]

One of my favorite reminiscences concerned the earliest recording sessions for The Monkees. An apparently uninformed Peter Tork showed up in the studio, guitar in hand-and was greeted by a roomful of bemused session players, giving him a “WTF are YOU doing here?!” look before he slunk away in embarrassment.

That said, The Monkees were a “manufactured” pop act from the get-go; it was certainly no big secret that all four members were actors, hired to portray a fictional band in a TV series (fans couldn’t exactly claim that they were duped). And to their credit, band members did (eventually) write a few of their own songs, did all their own singing, and for live performances they played their own instruments as well.

Not surprisingly, the success of The Monkees spawned a number of TV musical sitcoms built around fictional bands, like The Archie Show (animated), Josie and the Pussycats (animated), and The Partridge Family. The Archies “band” scored the number one Billboard hit of 1969 with “Sugar Sugar”, selling 6 million copies (Ron Dante and Toni Wine were the studio vocalists). The Partridge Family (with vocals by actors Shirley Jones and David Cassidy, backed by members of The Wrecking Crew on the studio recordings) released  5 albums, even scoring a #1 hit in 1970 with “I Think I Love You”.

So it would appear that the majority of music consumers didn’t  feel compelled to investigate “who” wrote, sang, played on, or (for that matter) produced the record; they liked something  they heard on the radio, bought a copy, and didn’t give it much more thought.

Of course, there have always been music snobs:

“I just wanna hear the music…that’s all.”

Keep in mind, this was all pre-MTV. To be sure, music acts had been performing on variety shows from television’s inception (sometimes live, sometimes lip-syncing). Even pre-dating television, there were the “soundies” – short films containing single performances (filmed in 35mm and printed in 16mm for easier distribution to clubs, bars, eateries and other businesses outfitted with “movie jukeboxes”).

But once MTV signed on in 1981,  there was a paradigm shift in record company marketing strategies. To MTV execs, the music videos were  “content”, but to the record company execs, the videos were “free ads” to push product sales. As for viewers, it became more about the artist’s image and/or the clip’s entertainment value; one could argue that the music was secondary (I could name a lot of MTV “hits” from the 80s wherein, had I heard the song before seeing the video play on a continuous loop, I might have thought “meh”).

Hence, the artists who most quickly ascended to the top of the music video heap tended to be those who knew how to “make love to the camera”, (as opposed to the ability to hit a high ‘C’ or display mastery of an instrument). As a result, ripped physiques, fashion and choreography ruled the day…stagecraft over song craft. But hey…as long as it moved units and kept shareholders happy-[*chef’s kiss*]

Thus it was, in this milieu, that the curious case of Milli Vanilli unfolded…as recounted in Luke Korem’s documentary, simply entitled Milli Vanilli (streaming on Paramount+  October 24th).

If any act was tailor-made for the MTV fast track in the late 80s, it was Milli Vanilli. Robert Pilatus and Fabrice Morvan (who hailed from Munich, Germany) were impossibly good-looking dancers and singers* (*I’ll get to that in a moment) with undeniably charismatic stage presence. The duo seemingly zoomed in out of nowhere in 1989 with a debut album (Girl You Know It’s True) that went platinum 6 times and sold over 30 million singles. Heavy MTV rotation of their songs certainly contributed to their meteoric rise.

But alas, what the lords of MTV giveth…in July 1989, Milli Vanilli was performing at a Connecticut theme park, when something went horribly awry. In the midst of performing “Girl You Know It’s True”,  a disconcerting hard drive glitch left no doubt in the minds of concert attendees and viewers watching the live MTV broadcast that Pilatus and Moryan were lip-syncing. Embarrassed and flustered, Pilatus fled the stage in a panic, leaving Moryan and the band to vamp until he was coaxed back by emcee “Downtown” Julie Brown.

Weirdly, while the incident undoubtedly raised questions regarding the act’s artistic integrity, the show resumed and the crowd stuck with them, cheering and having a grand old time. And the duo still snagged a Grammy in 1990 for “Best New Artist”. Go figure.

Although public sentiment gradually turned against them (they became the butt of jokes, one of the vocalists on the records exposed them, and at one point the duo offered to give back their Grammys to quell the backlash), it wasn’t until late 1990 that the “mastermind” behind the act, manager/producer Frank Farian publicly admitted the con-and then promptly fired Pilatus and Moryan. While he appears in archival clips, Farian-who comes off as a cross between Phil Spector and Colonel Tom Parker-declined to appear in the documentary.

One of the declared aims of the film is to “pull back the curtain on the story that we thought we knew, but didn’t”. I’m not sure Korem quite achieves that goal (after all, this is an oft-told tale). The film works best in its moments of  emotional resonance, largely provided by Morvan, particularly when he  speaks of his challenging friendship with Pilatus (who sadly died in 1998 of a suspected accidental prescription drug and alcohol overdose at age 32).

Were they victims of Farian’s Svengali-like sway, easily preyed upon and exploited…or were they willing participants in a con, seduced by the trappings of fame and success? Also worth contemplation-as someone in the film offers, “nobody involved in this committed a crime”.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room (briefly touched on in the film)-a story as old as rock ‘n’ roll-the exploitation of artists of color. I once had the privilege of interviewing the great Bo Diddley. He spoke at length about how white artists brazenly co-opted the Black artists’ innovations in the 1950s.  I’ll never forget how he framed it-he said “Elvis and those other guys took everything I did, threw it on the rock ‘n’ roll truck and drove it through town.” He also pointed out that he performed his signature tune “Bo Diddley” on The Ed Sullivan Show several months before Elvis’s first appearance on same. But historically, which appearance gets lauded as seminal?

While the Milli Vanilli story isn’t exactly that same scenario-you could say it’s “Elvis in reverse”. Producer Sam Phillips famously (or infamously) once  said, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!” Then one day, Elvis Presley walked into his Memphis studio (and the rest is history-although it was Colonel Parker who made the lettuce).  At any rate, Farian saw two charismatic black performers (and dollar signs), and the rest is…well, you be the judge.

One of the most fascinating revelations in the film is that on the original 1989 European pressing of Milli Vanilli’s debut album (titled  All or Nothing), Pilatus and Moryan’s names do not appear in the musician credits; whereas they are (falsely) credited in the subsequent U.S. release (re-titled Girl You Know It’s True). As I pointed out earlier, there are those who bother to read all the liner notes…and there are those who just want to hear the music. Caveat emptor.

I Want My TCM

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on June 24, 2023)

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“Without TCM, classic movies will die and with them, part of our culture.”

-from the “TCM Mantra”

In 1994, media mogul Ted Turner launched Turner Classic Movies, a commercial-free subscription channel dedicated to airing uncut classic and deep-catalog films ranging from the silent era to the early 80s. At the time of its inception, TCM’s only real “competitor” in the cable market was American Movie Classics, which operated under a very similar programming philosophy.

However, by the early 2000s, AMC (for assorted business reasons) was interrupting film presentations with commercial breaks; and once the channel went down that road, they were soon kowtowing to ad agency and sponsor demands – e.g., being pressed to incorporate more contemporary films into their programming. By default TCM was now the sole haven for classic film buffs on cable TV.

Consequently, over the ensuing years TCM has built a sizeable, passionate, and fiercely loyal coterie of fans (myself among them), as well as a (mostly) genial social media community (we’re not unlike the Deadheads; albeit more Ty Power than tie-dyed).

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I say “mostly” genial, because once the news broke of some developments at TCM HQ earlier this week, those friendly villagers put torches and pitchforks on standby:

It’s not every day that Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson team up. But IndieWire has learned they will today: The three directors have scheduled an emergency call with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav about the layoffs of Turner Classic Movies’ top brass. […]

The network laid off much of its leadership [on June 20th ], including executive VP and general manager Pola Changnon; senior VP of programming and content strategy, Charles Tabesh; VP of brand creative and marketing Dexter Fedor; VP of enterprises and strategic partnerships Genevieve McGillicuddy, who also served as the director of the annual TCM Film Festival; and VP of studio production Anne Wilson.

These people were responsible for everything from curating lineups, to shooting intros and outros, and for creating original shows, documentaries, and video essays that serve as major contributions to American cultural history.

Scorsese has often said he has Turner Classic Movies on all day in the background when editing his movies with Thelma Schoonmaker. “It gives me something to turn to, to bounce off of, to rest in, to reinvigorate my thinking — just glancing at some image or combination of images at a certain moment,” Scorsese told the Los Angeles Times of his favorite network. “It’s more like a presence in the room, a reminder of film history as a living, ongoing entity.

Spielberg appeared at the last two TCM Film Festivals and in multiple TCM documentaries. Paul Thomas Anderson also was at the festival this year; in that same LA Times article, he called the network “holy ground.” […]

These cuts come as WBD CEO David Zaslav recites what’s become his rosary: He wants Warner Bros. to be a studio for filmmakers. He wants to build bridges with directors who were burned by the previous regime under Jason Kilar, who responded to the pandemic with a unilateral move for day-and-date releases on HBO Max.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “I just wanna be left alone to watch The Third Man on my couch in peace while I enjoy a pizza. What’s with all these corporate shenanigans?”

In brief: TCM’s tie-in with Warner dates from 1996, when Turner Broadcasting System merged with Time-Warner. That put TCM and Warner Brothers Entertainment under the same corporate overseers. Then in 2019, Time-Warner was acquired by AT&T, which renamed the company “WarnerMedia”. In 2022 (almost done) following its spin-off by AT&T, WarnerMedia merged with Discovery, Inc. Hence: TCM currently serves at the pleasure of the CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery; that position is currently held by Mr. David Zaslav.

Am I getting through to you, Mr. Beale?

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You get up on your little twenty-one-inch screen and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.

– from Network (1976), screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

Anyway, the reaction to this news on Film Twitter was swift and heartfelt:

Speculation continues to rage regarding what the management shakeup portends for TCM; but this breaking news from across the pond did little to allay “worst case scenario” fears:

It’s the end of an era for the British television landscape: Turner Classic Movies (TCM) UK, widely known as TCM Movies and a cornerstone for film enthusiasts, is preparing for its final act.

This dedicated channel, which has showcased the rich filmographies of Turner Entertainment and Warner Bros., is set to close its curtains on July 6, 2023, marking a poignant farewell for UK’s classic movie lovers.

This sombre news comes amidst a backdrop of global uncertainty for TCM. Across the Atlantic, the future of the American TCM channel hangs in the balance following recent layoffs announced by Warner Bros. Discovery.

As the UK prepares to say goodbye to its beloved classic film channel, the struggle to preserve its American counterpart underscores the ongoing challenges and importance of maintaining the legacy of classic cinema worldwide.

Forgive me, I’m going to curse in “UK” now. Bugger bollocks bloody hell (I feel better).

Still, the news wasn’t all gloom and doom. This glimmer of hope broke on Friday:

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is attempting to calm the waters after stirring up a storm over Turner Classic Movies earlier this week. Zaslav is moving oversight of the channel to Warner Bros. Pictures bosses Michael De Luca and Pamela Abdy, sources with knowledge of the situation tell The Hollywood Reporter.

The move is meant to reassure the film community after WBD announced a restructuring this week that saw TCM chief Pola Changnon exit after 25 years, along with key team members. […]

According to sources, putting TCM under the auspices of De Luca and Abdy — executives who are well regarded in the film community — will satisfy Spielberg, Scorsese and Anderson. The hope is the trio will be involved in curating for the channel. It’s unclear at this stage if any of the TCM staff who departed earlier this week could return, but sources say WBD is prepared to spend more money on the channel and will not consider selling it.

The key word is “curating”. Because I think the programming philosophy that informs an enterprise like Turner Classic Movies has deep roots in the repertory houses that have all but disappeared. In a 2017 piece about the death of the “neighborhood” theater, I wrote:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venerable (if a tad dodgy) downtown venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time in the dank and the dark with snoring bums who used the auditoriums as a $2 flop: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 3 years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

[*sigh*] Those halcyon days of  power-grazing on repertory theater triple-bills are gone, but for me, TCM is the next-best thing extant. And it would be a damn shame to lose that too. In the meantime, keep fingers crossed-and as TCM presenter /”Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller advised, keep those cards and letters coming, folks.

UPDATE (6/26/23)…

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SIFF 2023: Being Mary Tyler Moore (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

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Robert Redford recalls in this film, “I had a place in Malibu. I was sitting there, looking out at the ocean, and this woman walks by. What it looked like to me was that she was sad. I said ‘Oh…that’s Mary Tyler Moore.’ And we’d always seen Mary Tyler Moore as this happy, upbeat, wonderful, wonderful character who was full of joy and innocence.”

Famously, what Redford saw in Moore the day of that chance encounter led to him offering her the part of the insular mother in his critically acclaimed 1980 film Ordinary People (a very un-“Mary Richards” character). This dichotomy forms the nucleus of James Adolphus’ documentary, offering an intimate glimpse at a complex woman who, while undeniably  groundbreaking and influential, had her share of tragedies, personal demons, and insecurities.

SIFF 2023: A Disturbance in the Force (***)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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I missed “The Star Wars Christmas Special” in 1978…but after seeing Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak’s documentary, perhaps that’s for the best. Leaving viewers and TV critics aghast, the unintentionally kitschy one-off has since garnered cult status (George Lucas initially OK’d the project but disowned it following the broadcast). The backstory is recounted in a cheeky and entertaining fashion. Warning: this film may trigger nightmares about Bea Arthur tending bar at the Mos Eisley Cantina.

How quick they pass: RIP Burt Bacharach

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2023)

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Well, here we go again:

One of the most accomplished pop music composers of the 20th century, Burt Bacharach, has died at age 94. The musical maestro behind 52 top 40 hits including “Alfie,” “Walk on By,” “Promises, Promises,” “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “What the World Needs Now is Love” and “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?,” Bacharach had an untouchable run in the 1960s and 1970s with a wide range of pop, R&B and soul artists. According to the Associated Press, Bacharach died on Wednesday (Feb. 8) at his home in Los Angeles of natural causes.

Working with lyricist partner Hal David, Bacharach and David were dubbed the “Rodgers & Hart” of the ’60s, with a unique style featuring instantly hummable melodies and atypical arrangements that folded in everything from jazz and pop to Brazilian grooves and rock.

Many of their songs were popularized by Dionne Warwick, whose singing style inspired Bacharach to experiment with new rhythms and harmonies, composing such innovative melodies as “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and “I Say a Little Prayer.”

Bacharach’s music cut across age lines, appealing to teens as well as an older generation who could appreciate the Tin Pan Alley feel of some of David’s lyrics. His fresh style could keep the listener off­ balance but was intensely moving, defying convention with uplifting melodies that contrasted the often bittersweet lyrics.

Granted, he was 94, and enjoyed a long and productive life, but this is another one that hurts (we’ve had a string of them lately). I realize it’s generational; as I Tweeted today:

And get off my lawn. I guess I AM that f**king old, which became abundantly clear after I received a number of replies schooling me on a thing or two…prompting this apologia:

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Here’s what “the kids” were referring to:

At any rate, the Bacharach/David catalog is a rich vein of pure pop for now people of any generation; which is why their songs can play any room-from cocktail lounges to mosh pits.

That said, the recording artist most synonymous with the legendary songwriting team is Dionne Warwick. Bacharach, David, and Warwick had an amazing chemistry. Here’s a clip from a 1970 episode of The Kraft Music Hall, which illustrates why Bacharach and Warwick were such a perfect match of composer/arranger and recording artist…the easygoing rapport, mutual respect, and the creative inspiration each took from the other is palpable.

Casual brilliance. Like most pop geniuses…he made it look so easy. A much harder task is picking my 10 favorite Bacharach songs, so I’ve cheated a bit and made it an even dozen.

Always Something There to Remind Me (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – Sandie Shaw

This was a #1 hit in the UK for Shaw back in 1964.

Baby, It’s You (Burt Bacharach, Luther Dixon, Mack David) – Smith

This early Bacharach hit had previously been covered by The Shirelles and The Beatles in the early 60s, but I’ve always loved this swampy blues version, with a seductive and soulful lead vocal by Gale McCormick. It made the U.S. top 5 in 1969.

Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – Dionne Warwick

Warwick’s version is, of course, definitive.

God Give Me Strength (Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello)  – Kristin Vigard

This version (sung by Kristin Vigard) appears in the sleeper Grace of My Heart. Allison Anders’ 1996 film features a knockout performance by Illeana Douglas. Elvis Costello recorded a version for Painted From Memory, his 1998 collaboration album with Bacharach-but curiously, Vigard’s beautiful interpretation remains unavailable in any other format.

I Say a Little Prayer (Burt Bacharach, Hal David)  – Aretha Franklin

Another definitive rendition. Three words: Queen of Soul.

The Look of Love (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) –  Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield’s breathy delivery and the most laid-back sax solo in the history of recorded music make this one really special. This version memorably graced two film soundtracks: Casino Royale (1967), and The Boys in the Band (1970).

Make it Easy on Yourself (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – The Walker Brothers

Scott Walker’s mellifluous baritone makes this a winner. The 1965 single topped the UK charts at #1, and peaked at #16 on the Hot 100 Chart in the U.S.

Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head  (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) –  B.J .Thomas

Bolstered by its utilization for a memorable (if oddly incongruous) scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, this song hit #1 in the U.S. and Canada in late 1969.

This Guy’s in Love With You (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) –  Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert was never in love with his own voice, but his laid-back performance (and subtle trumpet work) struck a chord with millions of record-buyers, which handily pushed this to #1 on the Billboard charts in 1968. Bacharach arranged.

Walk on By (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) –  The Stranglers

I was torn on this one, because I love Isaac Hayes’ epic version equally (featured on his classic 1969 album Hot Buttered Soul, which I wrote about here). But I decided to go with The Stranglers, who released this fab version in 1978. Shades of the Doors’ “Light My FIre”.

What the World Needs Now (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – Jackie DeShannon

This peaked at #7 in 1965. Covered by many artists, but DeShannon’s version rules.

The Windows of the World (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – Dionne Warwick

Warwick has declared this haunting, moving antiwar statement to be her personal favorite from her own catalog. Unusually political for a Hal David lyric, it was released in 1967.

Bonus Track!

 

Bacharach Medley (Burt Bacharach, Hal David) – The Carpenters

Say what you will about the Carpenters…but their Bacharach medley was killer-bee. No Autotune here, kids…absolutely live. Harmonies pitch-perfect as the studio version, AND she’s keeping perfect time.

Not necessarily in that order: A (roundabout) tribute to Jean-Luc Godard

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 17, 2022)

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December 3, 1930-September 13, 2022

A film should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. –Jean Luc-Godard

Speaking of “non-linear”, that reminds me of a funny story (well, not “ha-ha” funny). I once had the privilege of seeing the late Jean Luc-Godard in the flesh before I had seen any of his films. To be honest, this memory had been tucked away in the cobwebs of my mind until several days ago, when it was triggered by this AP news flash:

Jean-Luc Godard, the iconic “enfant terrible” of the French New Wave who revolutionized popular cinema in 1960 with his first feature, “Breathless,” and stood for years among the film world’s most influential directors, died Tuesday. He was 91.

Godard died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones at his home in the Swiss town of Rolle, on Lake Geneva, his family said in a statement. The statement gave assisted suicide, which is legal in Switzerland, as the cause of death.

A medical report recently revealed the director had “multiple invalidating pathologies,” according to the family statement, which did not specify the conditions.

Over a long career that began in the 1950s as a film critic, Godard was perhaps the most boundary-breaking director among New Wave filmmakers who rewrote the rules for camera, sound and narrative — rebelling against an earlier tradition of more formulaic storytelling.

[JUMP CUT]

Be advised that this will not an assessment of his oeuvre. No one could accuse me of being a Godard scholar; out of his 40+ feature films, I’ve seen 12. And out of that relative handful, the only two I have felt compelled to watch more than once are Breathless and Alphaville.

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The aptly entitled Breathless still knocks the wind out of me; it was (and remains) a freewheeling, exhilarating poke in the lens of conventional film making. And…sodamsexy. Despite its flouting of the rules, the film is (possibly) Godard’s most easily digestible work. Over the years, his films would become ever more challenging (or downright maddening).

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Indeed, even my second-favorite Godard film, Alphaville, played hard-to-get with me. From my review of the 2019 Blu-ray reissue:

The first time I saw this 1965 Jean-Luc Godard film I said to myself “WTF did I just watch?” I shrugged it off and forgot about it for about a decade. Then, a couple weeks ago I picked up a copy of this newly restored 4K Blu-ray and watched it a second time. This time, I said to myself, “Oh. I think I got it.” Then, after pausing a beat “No. I don’t got it.” Now bound and determined, I watched it AGAIN several days later.

This time, by George…I think I got it: Godard’s film, with its mashup of science fiction, film noir, dystopian nightmare and existential despair is a pre-cursor to Blade Runner, Dark City and Death and the Compass.

See? I freely admit to being a middlebrow film buff with a high school diploma who’s been to two worlds fairs and a rodeo, but I eventually “get it”. Now, it’s possible the stumbling block that I can’t quite articulate is the “disturbing quality” of Godard’s films that Pauline Kael expounds upon thusly in her 1966 essay “Movie Brutalists: The French New Wave”:

There is a disturbing quality in Godard’s work that perhaps helps to explain why the young are drawn to his films and identify with them, and why so many older people call him a “coterie” artist and don’t think his films are important. His characters don’t seem to have any future. They are most alive (and most appealing) just because they don’t conceive of the day after tomorrow; they have no careers, no plans, only fantasies of the roles they could play, of careers, thefts, romance, politics, adventure, pleasure, a life like in the movies. […]

An elderly gentleman recently wrote me, “Oh, they’re such a bore, bore, bore, modern youth!! All attitudes and nothing behind the attitudes. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, I went places and did things. The reason they all hate the squares is because the squares remind them of the one thing they are trying to forget: there is a Future and you must build for it.”

He’s wrong, I think. The young are not “trying to forget”: they just don’t think in those terms. Godard’s power—and possibly his limitation—as an artist is that he so intensely expresses how they do feel and think.

OK, I think I get it now. Godard was intense. Like a repo man (to paraphrase Harry Dean Stanton). And you know what? Akin to Ms. Kael’s elderly gentleman, when I was in my twenties, I didn’t just loaf around, being a rebel, either… I went places and did things. Like that time I was living in San Francisco and went to see Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard.

[FLASHBACK]

I should back up a second and explain how it was that I ended up seeing Godard before seeing any of his films. From my 2017 essay about the demise of the neighborhood theater:

Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 3-year period of my life (1979-1982) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260-mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 60s and 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit.

[FLASH-FORWARD]

Which brings us back to the news of Godard’s passing this week. I suddenly remembered attending an event in the early 80s that featured Pauline Kael and Jean-Luc Godard onstage somewhere discussing (wait for it) film. But since my memory has been playing tricks as of late (I mean, I’m 66…however the hell that happened), I thought I’d consult someone who was there with me…my pal Digby. She not only confirmed that she and I and my girlfriend at the time did indeed pile into Digby’s Volkswagen to see Kael and Godard (at the Marin Civic Center in Mill Valley, as it turns out), but somehow dug up a transcript of the proceedings.

There was much lamenting and gnashing of teeth when we realized this happened 41 flippin’ years ago (oh, to be in my mid-20s again). Anyway, the evening was billed as “The Economics of Film Criticism: A Debate with Jean Luc-Godard and Pauline Kael” (May 7, 1981). I recall primarily being super-jazzed about seeing Kael (I was more familiar with her work than Godard’s). I can’t recall a word either of them said, of course, but I do remember my surprise at how engaging and effusive Godard was (I had fully expected to see the “enfant terrible”).

Reading through the transcript…I must have learned a lot (it didn’t stick). For the most part, Godard was wearing his thoughtful critic’s hat that evening. Here’s one fascinating exchange:

J-LG: Well, just five minutes ago you told me that I should not hold you responsible for all American film criticism, but I think you are, in a way, just as I feel responsible for the movies I see even if I have not made them.

PK: Oh, no, I won’t accept that. I can’t believe that you personally feel that you are responsible for the work of somebody whose work you hate.

J-LG: Well, let’s take this article, for example. You wrote about why movies are so bad, and you attack (and I disagreed with you) a good fellow you mentioned by name who was Vice President of some conglomerate. You made him responsible for everything that is bad in the movies. I said to myself, “How can one man be responsible for… ?” I mean a movie is made by a hundred people at least. It’s like war. Nixon is responsible, but the American people are responsible for electing Nixon.

PK: Well, let me explain what I mean about the people at the top having that much influence. If the people at the top of the movie company are not primarily interested in movies, but come either from agencies or law firms or the business community itself, if they are from the Harvard Business School, as many of them are, and they are put in to rationalize the business, and if they look strictly in terms of how much money they can get out of a project before it goes into production, that is to say of how much they can be sure of from television, from overseas televisıon, from cable, from cassettes, they know they can get the most money from pictures that have stars or have a big bestseller property. Those pictures are the easiest to market, and so it is the marketing decisions that determine which pictures they will make. And often if a picture comes along that they did not have much confidence in and really couldn’t sell in advance, they don’t do anything for it so that a picture like Melvin and Howard or, say, All Night Long or Atlantic City doesn’t get anything like the promotion of those movies that they are sure of. As a matter of fact, they are embarrassed to be connected with those movies because they assume those movies are going to fail financially and so, inadvertently, they make those pictures fail.

J-LG: Yeah, but it’s not a good reason. It’s right, but it doesn’t describe the reality of making a movie. They alone are not making the movies, the movies are made by the audience, the movies are made by the cinematographers, by the union people, they are all responsible. . . I mean why don’t they sell American cars today?

PK: Jean-Luc, let’s put it this way….

J-LG: No, it’s because who is obeying this order? I try never to obey it. That’s why….

PK: You don’t work in a big studio system.

J-LG: I wish I could (laughter).

PK: But the reason you can’t is the reason I am explaining. It’s the same reason that an American Godard could not work in the big studio system.

Plus ca change

That’s my Jean-Luc Godard story, and I’m sticking to it. As mentioned earlier, I did eventually catch up with some of his earlier work; now that his final reel has played and the lights have come up, I should probably catch up a little more before my end credits start rolling (or they revoke my film critic’s license…whichever comes first). Maybe I’ll begin with his final film and work my way back until I meet myself in the middle. In the end, it’s all relative. After all, as  supercomputer ALPHA-60 says in Alphaville, “Time is like a circle which turns endlessly.”

[FIN]

Tribeca 2022: Chop and Steele ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 11, 2022)

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Is a moonlighting gig still definable as “a moonlighting gig” if you don’t have a day job? Self-employed presenters Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher are primarily known as creators (and curators) of the “Found Footage Festival”- the duo’s traveling roadshow of truly weird and wacky VHS-sourced clips. What began as a shared hobby for the long-time buds has turned into a years-long obsession with combing second-hand stores, garage sales and dumpsters for tapes…encompassing everything from commercially released special interest to obscure corporate training videos.

But that’s only half the story in Ben Steinbauer and Berndt Mader’s profile. Pickett and Prueher also have a second incarnation as elaborate pranksters. For a brief and shining moment, they became “Chop and Steele”, self-billed as “strongmen” (even if they certainly didn’t look the part). Almost unbelievably, they were able to book numerous appearances on locally produced “happy talk” TV shows, pushing the gag as far as possible before hapless hosts would catch on and immediately cue a commercial break.

They even finagled a taping on America’s Got Talent (although their bit wasn’t aired…and you’ll see why). Chop and Steele’s “career” abruptly ended when a media company brought a lawsuit against Pickett and Prueher. Entertaining, with thoughtful sidebars regarding the sometimes-tenuous relationship between comedy and the First Amendment. Howie Mandel, Bobcat Goldthwait and other admirers add their two cents.

Diamonds in the idiot box: Top 20 TV themes

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2022)

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I’m taking a break from sticky floors and stale popcorn tonight to share my favorite TV show themes. It began as a “top 10” list, but I quickly gleaned that I had assigned myself a fool’s errand with that limitation. So I upped the ante to 15. Then 20 (damn my OCD!).

The Adventures of Pete and Pete – Nickelodeon’s best-kept secret, and a guilty pleasure. Gentle anarchy in the Bill Forsyth vein. I discovered, watched, and occasionally re-watch favorite episodes as an (alleged) adult. You can’t resist the hooks in Polaris’ theme.

Cheers – “Norm!” Gary Portnoy performed (and co-wrote) this upbeat show opener.

Coronet Blue – When I was 11, I became obsessed with this noir-ish, single-season precursor to the Bourne films. This theme has been stuck in my head since, oh…1967?

Due South – Paul Haggis’ unique “fish out of water” crime dramedy about a Canadian Mountie assigned to work with the Chicago P.D. was one of my favorite shows of the 90s (confession: I own all 4 seasons on DVD). It also had a great theme song, by Jay Semko.

Hawaii Five-O – The Ventures were the original surf punks (and they’re from Tacoma!).

M*A*S*H – Johnny Mandel’s lovely chart (ported from Robert Altman’s 1970 film, sans Mike Altman’s lyrics) is quite melancholic for a sitcom-but it spoke to the show’s pathos.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show – This ever-hopeful tune plays a bit wistfully now that Ms. Moore has shuffled off, but hey-as long as we have syndication, we’ll always have Mary.

Mission Impossible – Argentine jazz man Lalo Schifrin hit the jackpot with this memorable theme (he composed some great movie soundtracks too, like Cool Hand Luke). Legendary “Wrecking Crew” bassist Carol Kaye really lays it down here.

The Monkees – Here’s the cosmic conundrum that keeps me up nights: Mike Nesmith was my favorite Monkee…yet the Monkees remain Mike Nesmith’s least favorite band.

The Office (BBC original series) – For my money, nobody tops future Atomic Rooster lead singer Chris Farlowe’s soulful 1967 take on this oft-covered Mike d’Abo composition, but this nice rendition by Big George obviously struck Ricky Gervais’ fancy.

Peter Gunn – Henry Mancini was a genius, plain and simple. Wrote hooks in his sleep.

Portlandia – Somehow, stars Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein (along with series co-creator/director Johnathan Krisel) have mined 7 seasons of material by satirizing hipster culture. Like any sketch-comedy show, it’s hit-and-miss, but when it hits a bullseye, it’s really funny. It’s easy to fall in love with Washed Out’s atmospheric dream pop theme.

Rawhide – “Move ‘em on! Head ‘em up!” This performance explains why Mel Brooks enlisted Frankie Laine to sing the Blazing Saddles theme. I’m afraid this squeezed Bonanza off my list (I’m sure I will be verbally bull-whipped by some of you cowpokes).

Secret Agent Man – This Johnny Rivers classic opened U.S. airings of the U.K. series Danger Man (which had a pretty cool harpsichord-driven instrumental theme of its own).

The Sopranos – For 7 years, Sunday night was Family night in my house. Fuhgettaboutit.

Square Pegs – This short-lived 1982 comedy series (created by SNL writer Anne Beatts) was, in hindsight, a bellwether for the imminent John Hughes-ification of Hollywood. Initially a goofy cash-in on New Wave/Valley Girl couture, it has become a cult favorite.

The Twilight Zone – It’s the Twilight Zone “theme”, but it’s not so much conventional composition as it is avant-garde sound collage (ahead of its time, like the program itself).

Weeds – I suspect many of the show runners of this outstanding Showtime dramedy weren’t even born when Malvina Reynolds recorded this song; but its cheeky social satire is a perfect match.

The Wire – This lauded HBO series is a compelling portmanteau of an American city in sociopolitical turmoil. The Blind Boys of Alabama’s urban blues hits just the right notes.

WKRP – I’ve worked in broadcasting since Marconi, so trust me when I say that this sitcom remains the most accurate depiction of life in the biz. Tom Wells composed the breezy theme, show creator Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics, and Steve Carlisle performs it.