Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Summer of Soul (…or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Dir: Ahmir ‘Questlove” Thompson | US Doc, 118’

The 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival is the subject of this dynamite documentary from Ahmir ‘Questlove” Thompson ‘proudly’ showcasing that musical celebration of Black culture, fashion and history.

Back in the day – and we’re talking about the Sixties (and even the 1920s, 30, and ’40s) – everyone loved Black music, not because it was Black but because it was rhythmic, soulful and cool. But maybe that’s because I had a father who hummed, danced and played on the piano those heady tunes from Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw and more.

Soul followed on in the same effervescent way, the syncopated jazz of his era becoming the sinuous and sensual soul of my student days: music from Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, Marvyn Gaye, Mahalia Jackson and the Supremes.

Thompson revisits this darkly glamorous era in a New York concert that coincided with the much higher profile of Woodstock just down the road. Now that was my brother’s territory: The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Joni Mitchell. The Harlem affair somehow got buried under the weight of Woodstock, but why, when the music was just as fabulous – I never thought about ‘Black’ music – just music I liked…and I would been there like a shot given the opportunity…years later.

In Harlem’s Mount Morris 300,000 – mostly Black- fans gathered to enjoy a series of free ‘gigs’ and Thompson has assembled a treasure trove of archive footage that tethers the era to the present with just a smattering of talk heads that enrich rather than diminish the musical experience. MT

OSCAR WINNER FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE | BEST DOCUMENTARY EE BAFTAS 2022 | NOW IN CINEMAS

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (2021)

Dir.: Brent Wilson; Documentary with Brian Wilson, Linda Perry, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Jason Fine; USA 2021, 95 min.

Do we need another Brian Wilson documentary? I Just Wasn’t made for These Times and Love & Mercy have already told his story, but the billion or so the super-fans will always ask for more. And The Beach Boys were America’s answer to The Beatles, back in the day, they epitomised an era and their harmonies are almost as divine – so yes, we do!.

Director Brent Wilson (no relation), veteran of music docs like Streetlight Harmonies, has tried the linear angle, confronting the images of the ‘Beach Boy’ founder with today’s survivor of schizoid-affective and bi-polar disorders, who enjoys being on tour again, even though the hallucinatory voices still haunt him – and have done for the last 60 years – when he is performing, in spite of all the medication available.

‘Rolling Stone’ editor Jason Fine, a close friend of Wilson, drives the megastar composer/singer round his favourite haunts, sadly only getting monosyllabic answers to his leading questions. Brian is very much in the shell he has created to survive. And there is more that enough pain for anybody to deal with, let alone a highly-strung artist.

There is the Hawthorne home of his childhood, where his father Murry (who died in 1973) played sadistic games while managing the bank with Brian and his brothers Carl (who died of lung cancer in 1998) and Dennis, who drowned in 1963. The two then visit the house Brian shared with his wife Marilyn, and their two children Carnie and Wendy.

They even take in the darker times: The “Malibu Prison” where Brian spend the 1980s under the influence of psychiatrist Eugen Landy, whose infamous 24-hour therapy led to a total inter-dependency, and was only solved when Landy started to mingle in the music business. Landy too was responsible for Brian breaking up with Melinda Ledbetter, but the two then married after Brian’s ‘release’ from Landy – the couple have adopted six children, and Melinda still works hard as Brian’s business manager. Brian insists today “that Landy saved me”.

Music-wise there is extensive time devoted to the iconic “Pet Sounds” and SMiLE, that came into being in  the mid-1960s and finished thirty years later. There are few revelations, the bitter chapter of Brian’s relationship with fellow Beach Boy Mike Love is nearly brushed out of the picture. Only once the mask of self-defence slips, when Brian tells Jason “I have not talked to a real friend in three years.” At the Beverly Glen Deli, where Brian and Jason stop for lunch, Brian devours his ice cream sundae with almost childlike enjoyment: and its with this same soulful devotion that he plays the piano (again) for an audience who adores him. Oh yes, about the surfing: “Yeah, Dennis surfed, I never learned it”.

The movie poster says it all: the young Brian looking over the shoulders if his older self at the piano. But this is not a psychoanalytical study, but a love letter to the music of Brian Wilson. As Bruce Springsteen says of “Pet Sounds”: “The beauty of it carries a sense of joyfulness even in the pain of living. The joyfulness of an emotional life”. AS

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE | UK and Eire

La Revue des Revues (1927)

Dir/Wri: Joe Francis | Cast: Josephine Baker, Andre Luguet, Helene Hallier, Pepa Bonafe | France, Silent 103′

St Louis-born and Harlem-raised Paris music hall star Josephine Baker was the highest paid entertainer of her day and has now made history as the first Black woman to enter France’s hallowed Pantheon, courtesy of President Macron. In Cannes she also has a special marine walkway dedicated to her memory.

The grotesquely inappropriate musical accompaniment by Taranta-Bubu, the emphasis of the plot on foot fetishism and Baker’s contributions to this silent drama have been discussed at length by many critics, but here are a few brief words on the other production numbers which comprise about three quarters of the film.

They nearly all suffer from being extremely unimaginatively photographed from the point of view of a theatre audience, the choreography generally seems to consist of the performers simply marching laterally back and forth across a rather crowded stage displaying a variety of almost comically elaborate (and generally disappointingly unscanty) costumes and even more comically elaborate hats – the rather Edwardian nature of the costumes emphasised by the number of production numbers staged in period costume (usually 18th Century).

Aside from the two Josephine Baker numbers, the three other routines with a contemporary ambiance appropriate to the 1920s were: ‘Les Poissons d’Avril’ with Erna Carise briefly displaying herself slinkily attired as a snake; ‘Le Temple Egyptien’, its Ancient Egyptian setting ironically inspiring a faintly avant garde sequence that would have gone well with Stravinsky rather than the caterwauling by Taranta-Bubu that all the other reviewers have complained about; and finally Lila Nikolska, performing in an understated little tassled tutu flanked by a much smaller chorus in less fussy costumes and on a far less fussily decorated stage than anything that has preceded it, and all the more effective for it. @Richard Chatten

AVAILABLE ON THE CRITERION CHANNEL |

 

Ailey (2021)

Dir.: Jamila Wignot; Documentary with Alvin Ailey, Judith Jameson, Carmen de Lavallade , Robert Battle; USA 2021, 90 min.

Alvin Ailey (1931-1989), founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre (AAADT), remains pretty much a mystery in this lyrical portrait of the dancer and choreographer – a black, closeted gay man. Cicely Tyson called him the “Pied Piper of modern dance”, and when Ailey received his award during the Kennedy Honours ceremony in 1988, ironically presented by Ronald whose policies had punished the gay community.

In her first outing as solo writer/director, Jamila Wignot works with Ailey archive interviews often as a commentator, escaping the ‘talking heads’ malaise which blights many documentaries. Alvin Ailey was born in 1931 in rural Texas, he never met his father, but his mother worked on the cotton fields and as a cleaning lady for white homeowners. In 1941 they moved to Los Angeles where their relationship became the corner stone of Alvin’s psychological world for the rest of his life. Later, when he suffered from Bi-Polar disorder and was institutionalised in a psychiatric ward, it was his mother who took him home and looked after him. Alvin was very protective of his mother, right to the end, when he made his doctor sign the cause of his death as a result of a blood disorder, so that she would not be stigmatised by him being a victim of AIDS.

Ballet was for Ailey a form of escape, he was captivated by the Ballets Russes Monte Carlo and Catherine Dunham even though his football coach at High school tried in vain to interest him in the sport. Alvin was taught by Martha Graham, among others, and founded the AAADT in 1958 at the age of only twenty-seven, after having moved to NYC, where he replaced Lester Horton as choreographer at his last engagement.

Perhaps Ailey’s most famous ballet, “Revelations” (1960) was called a “re-enactment’ of life, a mixture of passion and sorrows” by members of the ensemble. In 1970, AAADT was nearly bankrupt, and the Foreign Office sent the ensemble on a tour of Asia and Europe. They were extremely popular, particularly in Stuttgart (Germany) “where the sell-out crowd hollered and stomped, like they had an orgasm”. The audience called the troupe for 80 curtain raisers. But Alvin remained an enigma even for his closest collaborators, he was just another person when he left the building after performing. His work was sometimes criticised for not being political enough in the wake of the rising Civil Rights movement, but he answered “that his protest was on the stage, not the streets”.

Further successes were “The River” (1970) and a year later, “Cry”, a birthday present for his mother, and a solo performance for Judith Jameson. There is interesting footage from an interview of Alvin with Harry Belafonte, where they discuss race integration, which for Alvin did progress too slowly. After the death of close collaborator Joyce Trisher, he was shocked and honoured her with “Memoria” (1979). But the experience in Texas stayed with him forever: after successful performances in Paris, he claimed that he could not adjust to such different experiences, and left. He soon returned with “Fever Swamp” (1983). Alvin Ailey spent the last days of his life on a sofa, watching his troupe rehearse.

Apart from archive footage and Newsreel snippets, Wignot uses rehearsals by the new artistic director, Robert Battle, of “Lazarus” by Rennie Harris, to celebrate 60 years of the AAADT, with Masazumi Chaya, another co-director of the company, also commenting on the continuation of Alvin Ailey’s work.

AILEY flows like a dream, languid and indulgent. Perhaps Alvin Ailey was too much of a contradictory personality to have everything revealed in one feature. But Wignot has achieved enough, to make us curious to get to know him better. AS

IN CINEMAS AND ON DEMAND from 7 JANUARY 2022

The Beatles and India (2021) Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival

Dir: Ajoy Bose, Peter Compton | Doc, 95

Regaling the time when The Beatles went mad in India – where Beatlemania was already a thing – this new musical documentary digs up some archive treasures from from an era that launched flower power and all things surreal and psychedelic.

The title sequence kicks off with Rammi Kapoor doing his stuff accompanied by India’s equivalent band the Savages and a motley crew of exotic dancers in Bhappi Sonie’s 1965 film Janwar. We then cut back to archive footage of a bomb-struck Liverpool where the boys recall their how grim it was back then in England – has anything changed – and confirming that the grass is always greener when you venture to pastures new. As they did.

The Beatle story has already been rung dry of new juice but somehow Ajoy Bose and his co-director Peter Compton switch stuff around to make this fun and entertaining, and a tribute to how four young guys electrified the youth of their day, who up to then looked and acted pretty much as their parents had done until this zippy injection of counterculture ushered in the Swinging Sixties.

And the band’s massive success certainly did its bit in turning the spotlight on India  which until then had never registered in the collective consciousness of the west (could they now please do something for climate change?).

Of course, George Harrison will always go down in history as being the most adventurous Beatle beating a path to India to take sitar lessons from Ravi Shankar in 1966. The others followed in 1968 captivated by the idiosyncratic sitar music and its history and transformational powers, and this is the thrust of this new film with its fascinating talking heads recalling their own memories of the band’s visit from the Indian perspective. MT

MALLORCA EVOLUTION INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL | 27 Oct 27 – 2 Nov 2021

Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1958) Curzon

Dir.: Bert Stern, Aram Avakian; Documentary with Theolonious Monk, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Chico Hamilton, Chuck Berry; USA 1959, 85 min.

This documentary of the Newport Jazz Festival that took place at Freebody Park, Newport, Rhode Island in July 1958 is the only directional credit of fashion photographer Bert Stern; also one of three credited cameramen of Jazz. (His co-director Aram Avakian is best known for helming End of the Road (1970), which got a X-rating for showing an abortion).

Jazz is a lively interactive blast from the past, the crowd are major players in an event that captures the heady atmosphere of a free-wheeling and jubilant world on the cusp of the 1960s: the best was yet to come in this brave and promising new era. Of course, behind the scenes Behind Vietnam was raging and the filmmakers make a conscious decision not to include the mayhem caused by an influx of black citizens into the luxury enclave of Rhode Island. But they are big players as musicians and onlookers enjoying the pleasant July seaside resort.

The music is very mainstream, even by standards of the late 1950s. Looking at the list of omissions by the filmmakers – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington with his band, and Mary Lou Williams – it becomes clear Jazz was meant to appeal to the widest audience possible. Still, it works, mainly because the lack if commentary, just the voice of emcee Willis Connover. The directors drift around the harbour too where yachts were competed in trials for the ‘America Cup’, adding a salty maritime edge to the sultry Southern singers. Their camera catches the Hamilton Quintet rehearsing in a nearby house, after which cellist Nathan Gershman plays Bach’s Cello Suite number one – just for himself.

Having said all this, there is a towering cast of musicians, dominated by female artists – Louis Armstrong (joyful as ever) and his “All Stars”, Anita O’Day (Sweet Georgia Brown), Dinah Washington (All of Me), R&B star Big Maybelle and Mahalia Jackson. At the beginning we get only a short glance of Theolonious Monk, playing “Blue Monk” with his trio, totally immersed in playing the piano, oblivious to what was going on around him. Chuck Berry enjoyed great applause for his version of “Sweet little sixteen”, even though it was originally a rock hit. But the night belonged to Mahalia Jackson, whose “The Lord’s Prayer” ran into Sunday morning.

The audience is shown intimately, not just a decorative backdrop, but a real participant. Some are serious devotees, others have brought their children and even babies to boogie along. A vicar and fan with his own 8mm camera are also on show. The consensus was to give the impression of a united nation, helped along by a decade of affluence. But the undocumented police interference was a sign of things to come. The near future would bring the murders of John F. Kennedy, his brother Bobby and the slaying of Martin Luther King amongst a growing Civil Rights movement. So looking back Newport 1958 appeared like a beacon of hope, in a world now lost for ever. We are left wondering how many of the earnest young citizens went on to the streets in the 1960s, protesting against the Vietnam War.

The film was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 and the restored copy is much more than a Jazz documentary: A snapshot of a nation just before major turmoil would jumble the pieces leaving nothing in its place any more. Only the jazz survived. AS

A 4K RESTORATION ON CURZON | 30 AUGUST 2021

 

Bernstein’s Wall (2021) TriBeCa 2021

Dir: Douglas Tirola | Wrs: Leonard Bernstein, Douglas Tirola | US Doc, 101′

“the artist can change the world but he can’t necessarily do it through his art” 

Leonard Bernstein became a household name for his ground-swelling score of modern Broadway classic Westside Story. In those days to be a twenty-something Jewish immigrant conductor was unheard of. But Bernstein was determined to bring music to the mainstream and it was this democratisation of his craft and the arts in general that made him his place in history.

Bernstein came from a non-musical background in Boston. His father – whom he described as a cold, authoritarian tyrant  escaped Italy on an ocean-liner and settled in Brooklyn to ply his trade as a fishmonger.

Directed by Douglas Tirola and narrated by the composer himself in modulated engaging tones, Bernstein’s story unfolds in a didactic but fascinating way, enlivened by a wealth of personal photos and archive films – and of course, audio footage in a rich musical score. In these vivid scenes Bernstein comes across as an inquiring free-thinker, his lustrous dark curls framing an opened-faced sensual masculine beauty that only got better as the years rolled by.

Cultural ambassador, artist, teacher, and philosopher, the musician’s gift to the world was his ability to bring classics to everyday audiences who would mostly see his prodigious passionate outpourings on the television during the 1950s when he was known for his CBS arts series Omnibus in 1954.

Although classically trained Bernstein developed an eclectic interest in all kinds of music, jazz and opera blurring the lines between class and culture sealing his reputation as an iconic figure whose talent would unify, engage and entertain.

Training at Tanglewood, Bernstein would soon gravitate from Boston to New York where he took to the conductor’s podium with ease and aplomb wafting aside his radical background with charismatic determination, thanks to his supportive mentors Serge Koussevitsky and Aaron Copland.

Romantically it was plain-sailing for the affable family-orientated conductor who fell for Chilean American actress Felicia Montealegre, snippets from their early love letters rendered in graceful black and white graphics. Soon he had a son and a daughter and needed to support them all. From modest beginnings in Carnegie Hall, The New York Philharmonic beckoned in 1958.

Bernstein’s way of engaging his audience was to give a rousing introduction to his dynamic stage performances – offering an entente cordiale in Russia, or laced with a political agenda at home – but always brimming with a febrile physicality as his quivering body conveyed his excitement and passion for music via the orchestra to the audience: “music keeps me glued to life even when I’m depressed”.

Tirola adds political and social footnotes. Felicia, a keen pianist and obedient fifties wife, saying all the right things, yet clearly sharing her husband with another muse, music itself. But also a burgeoning yen for men – an episode which is discretely conveyed in those same black and white graphics. And Felicia admits his confused sexuality clouded their marriage of 27 years although it was undoubtedly happy and fulfilling for a time, his homosexuality is never explored.

Politics and leftist activism takes centre stage during the Kennedy years as Bernstein increasingly warms to his role as conductor for social change, using his reputation and art to promote peace, equality and racial harmony. In Alabama he is seen joining fellow jazz musicians in a peace rally, and visiting Jerusalem to give a rousing speech on the Mount of Olives. And there snaps from his well-publicised and misinterpreted soiree in support of the civil liberties for the Black Panther party – leading to Tom Wolfe’s coining the derogatory phrase “radical chic”. This all caused a vicious backlash on the Bernsteins and a storm of critical hailstones in 1970 his subversive stance drawing suspicion from Richard Nixon.

The film coming to a satisfactory close with footage of Bernstein conducting the Ninth Symphony in East Berlin in 1989 as part of the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To mark that reunification, he rewrote part of Friedrich Schiller’s text for the “Ode to Joy” movement, and had the choir substitute the German word for “freedom” in place of “joy.”

Tirola’s warm but not hagiographic approach allows for an enjoyable and immersive look back at the conductor’s fascinating life. Of his own musical choices Bernstein talks glowingly of Beethoven although his West Side Story work is almost entirely absent, apart from a few visuals. We are left with the impression of a genius but never a showman, a true artist absorbed and taken over by his obsession – a true conductor if ever there was one – music was the lightening bolt that set Bernstein’s life on fire. MT

Tribeca Film Festival | JUNE 2021

 

 

Men Who Sing (2021) Sheffield Doc Festival 2021

Dir/Wri: Daryl Williams | UK Doc 77′

The Welsh are well known for their singing. And this charming story about an elderly Welshman’s choir in the town of Rhyl on the Denbighshire coast, makes it World Premiere at this year’s Sheffield doc festival.

Director Dylan Williams is best known for his award-winning documentary debut Men Who Swim (2010), and this thematic sequel turns out to be another poignant love letter – this time to his father. Not the closest pair, the two are reunited when the widowed 90 year old announces he’s selling the family home “while he’s still able”. Naturally this is a wake up call to ‘only child’ Dylan, who promptly makes his way back from his home in Sweden where he has lived for the past twenty years.

Almost entirely in the Welsh language this is, unsurprisingly, a tuneful and light-heated biopic, making great use of its green and pleasant coastal settings in the former industrial town in North Wales, known for building the airbus, and this is where most of the choir men have been gainfully employed. Now retired they have found cosy camaraderie in this local choir, and inspiration from their feisty choir-mistress Ann)

But most of the men are now mostly in their eighties, and a much needed recruitment drive to find new singers to boost their dwindling numbers makes up the other main strand to the narrative, along with the important need to keep practising, improving and entering competitions, adding an element of drama to the storyline. Men Who Sing is not just a another tribute to a filmmaker’s father, this is a well-structured and watchable portrait of a choir, and a generation of men soon to be lost forever in the industrial heartlands of North Wales. MT

SHEFFIELD DOC FESTIVAL 2021

The Committee (1968)

Dir: Peter Sykes, Wri: Max Steuer | Musical Drama | Cast: Paul Jones, Tom Kempinski, Robert Langdon, Pauline Munro | UK 58′

To grasp where this film is coming from I guess you’d have to read the short story by Max Steuer (originally a dream) on which it is based. It plays as a bargain basement melange of Robbe-Grillet and Kafka, with the attention immediately grabbed by the arresting title sequence juggling mug-shots of the three main protagonists to a sinister blurping accompaniment on the soundtrack; but which is soon allowed to dissipate by what follows. For a film that begins with the central figure decapitating a total stranger on a whim, The Committee is an incongruously well-mannered, very British affair – albeit with hip sixties trimmings in the form of a soundtrack by Pink Floyd and a personal appearance by Arthur Brown.

Ian Wilson’s cool black & white photography is presumably intended to evoke L’Année Dernière à Marienbad, and as in Marienbad there’s a lot of talk but very little actually said. The plush backdrop is here provided by the London School of Economics, where Steuer – author of ‘The Scientific Study of Society’ (2003) has been ensconced in the philosophy department since 1959, and was at the time of the making of ‘The Committee’ a lecturer in economics and social sciences. The endless gnomic prattle may be a joke at the expense of his colleagues there. @Richard Chatten

THE COMMITTEE is available on Amazon

Tina (2021) Berlinale Film Festival | Specials 2021

Dir: Daniel Lindsay, T J Martin | With Tina Turner, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Bassett, Kurt Loder | US Doc 118′

The most surprising quality about Tina Turner, according to Dan Lindsay and T J Martin’s revealing biopic about the superstar, is her sheer determination, given her crushing start in life. This new new film chronicles Turner’s early rise to fame, her personal and professional struggles and her musical renaissance in the early 1980s. There are snatches of her iconic stage moments, with the American singer’s performance of her dynamite R&B hit:- River Deep…Mountain High being the most notable. The hit marked a move away from her controlling partner Ike, thanks to producer Phil Spector.

And there are snatches of Rolling Down the River, Heartbreak Tonight and Simple the Best – but mostly the focus is on the singer herself, revisited via the original interview audio tapes as well as commentary from the famous celebrity journalist Carl Arrington, in conversation in her Swiss lakeside chateau. Kurt Loder (the Rolling Stone editor), Angela Bassett (who played her in What’s Love Got to Do With It ), Oprah Winfrey and playwright Katori Hall, who wrote the book for the musical, are the most informative talking heads in a film whose first half is, appropriately, still haunted by the shadow of Ike.

She was born in 1939 in Nutbush, Tennessee, the child of cotton farmers. Her parents fought endlessly and her mother hit back – a defiance that clearly gave Tina her get up go after the two eventually disappeared leaving her and her siblings with a cousin. They never came back.

And she speaks out about her turbulent life and marriage to Ike who beat her with coat hangers, even when she was pregnant, during those Motown years. She admits to being “insanely afraid of him” so much so she attempted suicide two or three times due to his womanising and cruelty, and she finally left him-  ironically on the 4th July – finding salvation in Buddhism which changed her life and set her free to be resilient and self-determining – not a victim  – during her fifty year career in music. She left her marriage to Ike with nothing but her ‘name’ which is now a brand. So she had to go back on the road to make some money.

The turning point came in the 1980s when she came into contact with the engaging Australian manager Roger Davies who asked her how she saw a new solo career. She told him she wanted to be “the first female roll’n’roll singer to fill a stadium”.

And so he sent her to Britain for a new chapter in her life, setting off with a song she at first detested ‘What’s Love Got to Do with It’, written by Manchester born Terry Britten (and originally recorded for Bucks Fizz) that became the breakout number in an album ‘Private Dancer’, that sold out in two weeks and went on to spawn 50 concerts. Tina was 50. At this point manager Kurt Loder suggested she author a book to ward off the tacky stories that still dogged her time before and after Ike. And they didn’t go away – although the book ‘I, Tina Turner’ became a bestseller.

Restyled and booted, Tina’s terrific body and gyrating hips – not to mention her dynamite vocal delivery – made her a stunning stage presence and the film captures this jubilant wave of female emancipation that lit up London’s Wembley Arena and everywhere else she played.

The final scenes are gilded with a blissful aura as Tina reveals the love in her life in the shape of German music pro Erwin Bach, whom she met in 1986 and married 27 years later. And it’s these golden moments that really shine in a biopic that quietly reflects on the past and joyfully celebrates the tremendous feminine force of nature that is Tina Turner. MT

BERLINALE FILM FESTIVAL | SPECIALS

The Bee Gees: How Can you Mend a Broken Heart (2020)

Dir: Frank Marshall | Wri: Mark Monroe | Musical Biopic |  HBO Documentary Films

In this new biopic on HBO Frank Marshall takes on a mammoth task in charting the rise to fame and fortune of the legendary brothers Gibb. The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart shows how three guys from Manchester via the Isle of Man and Australia went from crooning popular ballads to the pulsating falsetto phenomenon that was Saturday Night Fever, as the ‘Kings of Disco’. The band were active for several decades generating one hit after another – over a thousand, including 20 No. One Hit singles – across a wide variety of genres.

In all started when brothers Barry, Maurice and Robin Gibb made up the trio taking over from The Beatles. The Bee Gees were Britain’s answer to the Osmonds and the Jackson 5, writing, harmonising and performing their own repertoire of songs and folksy ballads that included: Massachusetts, Words, and I’ve Just Gotta Get a Message to You. They had big hair and big teeth to match, and megawatt smiles.

A simple low budget disco hit of 1978 was the turning point of the ‘boys’ career. Masterminded by their producer Robert Stigwood and starring a snake hipped John Travolta, it captured the imagination of the New York press and set fire to a sizzling string of chart-topping, best-selling hits that had everyone jiving. Suddenly we were all rocking a Kevin Keegan haircut, and wincingly tight Satin trousers (the girls drawing the line at hairy chests). The Bee Gees music was percussive and dance-worthy but always deeply tuneful and their harmonies were made in heaven.

After a brief sashay through the 1960s and early 1970s, the film dedicates most of its running time to how band’s music achieved its famous sound after the producers arrived in the wake of the disco fever. We hear from Eric Clapton  whose input proved vital in moving the brothers to America in the mid 1970s and whose band Cream was also managed by Stigwood. Stateside they discovered a revitalising vein of creativity. Producing gurus Karl Richardson, Arif Marden (Atlantic Records), and Albhy Galuten emerge as the major musical facilitators behind the scenes providing engaging insight, particularly for those unfamiliar with their talents, and that included the lesser known band member Blue Weaver.

Barry Gibb is now the sole survivor of the Bee Gees and provides a thoughtful spokesman for the family’s eventful trajectory. From his home in Miami he comes across as a sensitive soul seemingly unaffected by superstardom, and reflecting poignantly on a past touched by the bitter rivalry of his younger (twin) brothers Maurice and Robin. Another clan member in the shape of Andy enabled the band to generate teenage fans with his own material, but he sadly lost his battle with addiction at only 30 (in 1988).

Enriched by interviews and archive footage, the only missing element is the romantic counterpoint so familiar in musical biopics (where were the groupies, the wives and the lovers? only Maurice’s first wife Lulu appears in interviews). The only surviver Barry Gibb emerges a unexpected musical hero who is still musically active and was awarded a Knights Batchelor for his services to the industry in 2018.

Surprisingly The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart is the first feature length doc about the band. An intensely enjoyable experience the film contains some cracking musical performances, and there’s much to discover about the brothers’ tremendous output even before they sang one falsetto note in their disco days and beyond. An ideal collectors item, then – to be revisited time and time again for the sheer dynamism of this musical archive. MT

NOW ON SKY DOCUMENTARIES | 13 December 2020 | DVD and DIGITAL DOWNLOAD | 14 December 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

Billie (2020)

Dir: James Erskine | US Biopic, 97′

James Erskine’s documentary about one of the greatest jazz legends of all time pays exuberant tribute to its focus: Billie Holiday. Born Eleanor Fagan in Philadelphia, 1915, she would go on to enjoy a career spanning 47 years. Perhaps ‘enjoy’ is not the best way to describe Billie’s Holiday’s often troubled existence echoed through her plangent vocal style and sensual ability to manipulate phrasing and tempo. What lives on is her extraordinary talent in singing the blues through these unique recordings.

Erkine bases his impressionistic film on a stash of recording interviews by the late Washington based writer Linda Lipnack Kuehl, who dedicated eight years during the ’60s and ’70s to her informative book about Billie Holiday. And these interviews and recordings breathe new life into our knowledge of a talented jazz singer who rose to fame in the Harlem of the 30s and 40s and lost her life at just 44 after several decades of heartache.

Heartache is a soulful motif that floods Billie’s repertoire with 30′ tunes ‘If You Were Mine’ and “You Let Me Down” with band accompaniment from Count Basie, Teddy Wilson or Artie Shaw. But there were also more upbeat tunes about love such as “I’m Painting The Town Red to hide a Heart that’s Blue”. And the lively ballads “Twenty Four Hours a Day”; ‘Yanky Doodle Never Went to Town’. and the chirpy “Miss Brown to You” with Teddy Wilson’s wonderful orchestra (from the album ‘Lady Day’).

Through Linda’s recordings Erskine shines a light on a time fraught with poverty, misogyny and racism where women certainly got the rough end of the deal particularly in the music business. Billie inhabited these times with gusto and courage, lamenting them in her songs that reflect back on her deep need to be loved by men – and women, using drugs and alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Living in the fast lane also took its toll: “We try to live one hundred days in one day”. Her story was a sad one, recorded here for the first time from the other side of the microphone – through the memories of those who knew and loved her.

Harsher memories contrast with the warmth of these tribute echoing the exuberance of those early days of jazz, and the darker times – we hear from a vicious pimp who remembers beating the women under his power in an era where such events were commonplace in the backstreets of New York. But the police were often as venal in their approach to Billie, pursuing her day and night throughout her life because of her success as a black woman. “Wasn’t she entitled to have a Cadillac?” says drummer Jo Jones. But often Billie couldn’t even get service when dining in a restaurant. After leaving the Count, she was a black singer in a white band. Eventually she served time for drug abuse but on her release still filled Carnegie Hall with queues round the block.

Erskine doesn’t hero worship or quail away from controversy surrounding  the ‘false memory’ of many talking heads, reflecting how time can alter the perspective. Linda Lipnack Kuehl doesn’t let her interviewees off the hook, demanding they justify their recollections. A case in point is Jo Jones’s strident claim that producer John Hammond sacked Billie from Count Basie’s band for not sticking to the blues. Hammond vehemently claims the sacking was for financial reasons.

What emerges is the soulful emotion of a talented artist who by definition was subject to highs and lows in giving of herself to her art and this comes across in visceral archive footage – particularly of ‘Strange Fruit’ – and live recordings that celebrate this timeless singer whose talent will never diminish.

It eventually becomes clear that one of her biggest fans was Linda Lipnack Keuhl who was there throughout her career, feeling a close affinity with Billie and her struggle to succeed, despite their different backgrounds at a time of racial segregation and strife. As Linda points out – the musicians were black but the critics, agents and managers were white. Thanks to Linda’s inquisitive style of journalism this tribute to Billie comes alive. MT

BILLIE is available, on demand, from 13th November on BFI, IFI, Curzon Home Cinema, Barbican. There is a live Q&A with James Erskine on 15 November as part of EFG London Jazz festival and it will be available to buy on Amazon and iTunes on 16 November.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL BILLIE HOLIDAY | Volumes 1,2,3 accompanied by Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra. 

Uprooted: The Journey of Jazz Dance (2020) *** Raindance Festival 2020

Dir: Khadifa Wong

Khadifa Wong’s life experience as a dancer informs her lively if over-talkie debut feature about the origins of jazz dance.

Celebrating its international premiere at this year’s Raindance Film Festival, the film traces the roots of this expressive and iconically American dance form from its early history in the 19th century and through to the current day. And it all start during slavery – wouldn’t you know? Back then it was a vital form of protest, not just a way of expressing enjoyment. Well that certainly makes it a topical film with the current Black Lives Matter month in full swing.

Wong’s ground-breaking documentary also offers a political and social chronicle of the times, alighting on more weighty issues of racism, socialism and sexism while offering up a passionate and thought-provoking musical biopic.

The dancer and director has delved into the archives enlivening her film with cuttings and news footage. Over fifty experts offer up their valuable insight from choreographers to teachers and dancers themselves so it does occasionally feel overwhelming to have so much knowledge and opinion in the space of less than two hours. But the movement and dance elements are what really makes this a winner and Matt Simpkins’ camerawork captures the essence of bodies gyrating to great affect.

Curiously enough it was white men in the shape of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Jack Cole who really emerged as the forerunners of the form. And one of the most engaging talking heads, dramaturg and choreographer Melanie George shares her thoughts about why these luminaries were so influential while Black innovators were often lesser known. And she discovers that their ability to codify  the various forms of jazz dance with Hollywood and Broadway that gave it a different profile that took it above and beyond its roots and origins. The lesser-known artists also have their say, Frank Hatchett, Pepsi Bethel and Fred Benjamin Wong amongst them – although none is particularly famous to mainstream audiences.

Wong cleverly makes the point that jazz dance was actually a pared down version of the tribal form of communication for many Africans, and particularly slaves, enabling them to express themselves with their bodies in highly syncopated, exaggerated and meaningful ways – almost like silent film – relying on strong facial and body language – to make their feelings known. The Pattin’ Juba and Cakewalk were both dances that originated in the plantations of the Deep South where enslavement relied heavily on this kind of vital communication for protest, or even survival.

Eventually jazz became more sophisticated and sinuous moving through the bebop and hard bop years and we start to recognise names such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. There is also some impressive clips that show James Brown and Little Richard and really convey the seriousness of their political message – they were not just merely there to entertain.

A documentary about dance expression should always focus primarily on the dancing, and this is the only slight criticism that one can level at Uprooted. Wong has done so much research for her deep dive into the subject seems to focus on talking and commentary over movement and music. When we see Chita Rivera and Graciela Daniele doing their stuff the film comes alive — so their stories of segregation and racial alienation seem all the more poignant. There is a fascinating piece about Patrick Swayze’s mother Patsy, being the only white dance teacher in Texas to allow Black children into her school. If there’s one talent those entertainers have it’s the ability to move their bodies in magnetic and beguiling ways. And Black dancers have it in spades. MT

RAINDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2020 | 28 OCTOBER – 7 NOVEMBER 2020

Ronnie’s (2020)

Dir: Oliver Murray | Doc with:

The sheer exhilaration of live music is one of life’s pleasures. And Oliver Murray conjurs up the vibrant spirit of Jazz in this documentary tribute to a man who was always “gracious, inviting and free to share his ideas with everybody” in the words of American record producer Quincy Jones. This is the story of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Soho’s storied jazz club in London.

Ronnie Scott (1927-1996) was an English jazz tenor saxophonist who played alongside some of the most famous figures in the world of Jazz in a small basement location in London’s Frith Street in the heart of Soho.

Once described as a “very nice bunch of guys”, Ronnie was all things to all people, everyone describing a different side of his charismatic personality. And Murray saves the darker side for the final chapter of this layered biopic. Scott grew up in a working class Jewish family in the East End of London where he trained on the saxophone just like his father before him, founding his iconic jazz club in 1959 and unintentionally creating a den of cool and a meeting place for luminaries of the jazz world and their aficionados.

Still going after 60 years, Ronnie Scotts is now a household name, inextricably linked to the word Jazz, the current manager (and talking head) Simon Cooke has been keeping the place going for the past 25 years. Owned by theatre impresario Sally Greene and the entrepreneur Michael Watt since 2005

Fascinating archive footage forms the background to a later interview with Ronnie – taking us through the history of his East and West End childhood and early adulthood in the 1940s where he became a dance-band saxophonist (like his father) and then falling in love with Bebop and learning his Jazz style on board oceans liners bound for New York. Here he discovered Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and eventually, sailing back to London, he dreamed up the idea of his own jazz club – he would be the star-power – starting the evening in compare mode with a series of dry jokes – his fellow musician Pete King was the business brain. The idea came together with the aspiration to provide keen musicians with the first ever place to perform in Gerrard Street (just round the corner), although Americans were forbidden by the Musician’s Union to play in English venues. This made the financing complicated because only the Americans bought in the money. This led to a long-standing feud with the UK musician’s union.

Five bob (UK shillings) was the charge for the Saturday ‘all-nighter” and there was generous hospitality shown to regulars and those who worked there. Later the club moved to bigger premises at 47 Frith Street and welcomed the likes of Sonny Rollins, Dizzie Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Roland Kirk, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker and Sarah Vaughan, and even Van Morrison all of whom perform in the clips that Murray interweaves into this lively biopic.

Scott was the frontman while macho straight-talker King took care of the business. Their close relationship was likened to a marriage, by King’s wife Stella, who describes Ronnie as a complicated man who, unknown to friends and fellow musicians, suffered from low moods that he shook off by playing his music. And bankruptcy was often round the corner, Ronnie recalling the bailiffs being on site one time even pricing up the piano while the show went on. Ronnie often gambled away the takings but he was also the life and soul of a place fondly remembered here by those who enjoyed it over the years amongst them Mel Brooks, music journalist John Fordham, Ronnie’s daughter Rebecca, and his various wives and partners Mary Scott, Francoise Venet, and others who help flesh out the complicated artist he was.

But the unique feel of the place and Ronnie’s soulful charisma dominant this jubilant often deeply poignant biopic about a man with a vision, and a club that still attracts crowds as never before and will hopefully carry on. MT

ON QUALITY PLATFORMS

 

 

Carmine Street Guitars (2018) ****

With Rich Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly2018 | CANADA | Doc | 80′

This genial music biopic explores the laid-back vibe of Carmine Street Guitars, a little shop in the heart of New York’s Greenwich Village that remains resilient to encroaching gentrification.
Custom guitar maker Rick Kelly and his young apprentice Cindy Hulej build handcrafted instruments out of reclaimed wood from old hotels, bars, churches and other local buildings. Nothing looks or sounds like the classic instruments they have created with loving dedication. The film shoots the breeze with Rick and his starry visitors who treat us to impromptu riffs from their extensive repertoires and talk about how much they treasure this village institution and its reassuring presence as a little oasis of calm in the ever-changing, fast-paced world of the music business.
Rick’s pleasant banter with these lowkey luminaries is what makes this enjoyable musical therapy for fans and those who have never heard of the guitars, their craftsman or those who have commissioned and cherished the hand-made instruments since the 1960s: Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch, to name but a few. A small gem but a sparkling one. MT
STREAMING ON DIGITAL PLATFORMS FROM 26 JUNE 2020

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

Echo in the Canyon (2019) **** VOD release

Dir: Andrew Slater | US Doc, 82′ | With: Lou Adler, Eric Clapton, The Beach Boys, Ringo Star, Michelle Philips, Tom Petty, Beck, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Jakob Dylan, David Crosby

The Californian neighbourhood of Laurel Canyon takes centre stage for this richly crafted rockstar-studded retrospective about the mid 1960s music scene, from debut filmmaker Andrew Slater. Practically every living musician who formed part of the folk scene of the era shares nostalgic anecdotes and musical performances from the era with artist Jakob Dylan who occasionally makes his own contributions interweaved with archive footage.

Brian Wilson, Ringo Star, Eric Clapton, Michelle Philips, David Crosby, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his death in 2017, all feature amongst the glitterati of rock legend. And those who remember and treasure the era will be richly rewarded with archive footage showcasing the Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn!, the melodious musings of the Beach Boys and other L.A.-based breakout of an era that would go on to influence and capture the imagination of song writers and performers all over the world.

This is a documentary first for Slater who cut his teeth in journalism and went on to collaborate with Dylan on a Los Angeles tribute concert in 2015. And a coterie of more contemporary singers Norah Jones, Cat Power and Fiona Apple amongst them join in to perform tunes from the original artists back in the day. Obviously seen from a US point of view, film focuses on the brief period between 1965 when the Byrds were number one of the charts with their interpretation of Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man (Don’t Look Back), and 1967, when folk music started to “go electric” and folk and rock came together, the Beatles and Cream providing a British answer to the music of the Beach Boys and the Byrds, Brian Wilson recalls how his 1966 album Pet Sounds was influenced by the Beatles’ breakout 1965 album Rubber Soul. And Michelle Philips richly recalls her romantic beginnings with fellow band member John Philips in this entertaining and illuminating trip down a musical memory lane. MT

VOD DIGITAL RELEASE FROM 8 JUNE 2020

Stop Making Sense (1984) **** Bfi Player

Dir: Jonathan Demme | With David Byrne and Talking Heads |Biopic, 84′
A musical biopic in the best sense of the word. In Hollywood December 1983, Jonathan Demme films three concerts from Scottish maverick music maker David Byrne, rolling them out without explanation or talking heads – although Talking Heads are very much part of the scene. The bands speaks for itself and we get the best seats – on stage, up close and personal and from the back of the auditorium, even loitering in the wings.
Demme’s film is an energising experience made at the climax of what would be the band’s final major tour. The show starts with the beat-driven Pyscho Killer and works its way through a classic repertoire with hits such as, Take Me to the Water tThis Must be the Place that scored Paolo Sorrentino’s film of the same name in 2011 and of course, Once in a Lifetime. Byrne gradually relaxes from taut jutting-faced uncertainty to a more smiling and febrile intensity, a style icon in white plimsolls and oversized concrete-coloured suits. Hypnotic to look at, his moves are as funky, smooth and syncopated as Bing Crosby or even Elvis without the sexual magnetism: Byrne is a performer more artfully ambivalent in his erotic appeal, but none the less legendary. And he feels very much at home on his own or surrounded by his family of Talking Heads. A nostalgic, diverting, happy film. MT
NOW ON BFI PLAYER
https://youtu.be/yCXT5Fs-V10

Rachmaninoff: The Harvest of Sorrow (1998) ****

Dir: Tony Palmer | UK Doc, 102′

Tony Palmer’s extensive documentary about the one of the world’s most loved composers(1873-1943) is a vibrant memoire, enlivened by musical interludes, ample archive footage of his life and times in Russia, Sweden and the United States where he finally died in 1943, unable to return to his beloved homeland: “a ghost wandering forever in the world”.

Playing out as a long autobiographical letter to his daughters Tatiana and Irina, voiced by Gielgud in slightly sardonic but wistful tone, the film covers the composer’s life until his final months in New York. But it starts at a low point, with the Rachmaninoff family leaving Russia in 1917, escaping from the Bolshevik devastation of Petrograd (soon to be Leningrad) set for musical adventures in Stockholm, and thence to America. Desperate about leaving his homeland, the composer also felt at a low ebb creatively: “Nowadays I am never satisfied with myself, I am burdened with a harvest of sorrow: I almost never feel that what I do is successful”.
Quite the opposite: Rachmaninoff would become a celebrated figure, but a very private man, who would tell interviewers: “if you want to know me, listen to my music”. Avoiding the intellectual approach, his wanted his music “to go direct to the heart, bypassing the brain”. Remembered by his niece, Sofia Satina, as a happy, tall, elegantly dressed gentleman who loved his Savile Row suits and driving his car, although he was never wealthy, and ironically ended his days as a concert pianist playing for money until his fingers were literally bruised, to maintain his family during gruelling tours of the United States, which he hated: “now I play without joy, just mechanically”. His friend Igor Stravinsky remembered him in those times as “a six-foot scowl”.
Sergei Rachmaninoff was born in Moscow to a musical family, taking up the piano from the age of four and gaining a place at the Conservatoire whence he graduated at nineteen, having already composed several orchestral and piano pieces. Although he dreamed of the Mariinsky Theatre, his philandering father broke the family up and Rachmaninov started his career with family in Moscow where he became friendly with Tchaikovsky, the last of Russian Romantics, and the two formed a close friendship. But the composer was always most at home in the small town of Ivanovka, where he spent his summers as a young boy, and his grandson is seen returning here in an exhaustive sequence that pictures the refurbished family home – a fairytale blue and white wooden clad affair (destroyed by the Bolsheviks) during celebrations to honour the musical legend. It was in Ivanovka that local folkloric musicians became a big influence on the young composer’s, along with the Russian Orthodox chants. He is also know for his fugal writing, which is even more of a throwback to the classical era.
It took Rachmaninoff until the late 1890s to free himself from his friend and idol Tchaikovsky. He is best classified as a neo-romantic, in the style of Bruckner and Mahler, but in reality he is much closer to Elgar. The distinguishing feature of intra-tonal chromaticism runs through the whole of Rachmaninoff’s work. He is also known for his widely spaced chords, used in the Second Symphony ‘The Bells’. But towards the end he was less concerned with melody, his emotional and impressionistic style is best experienced in the 39 Etudes Tableaux, which is a deeply affecting rollercoaster.
The other important contributor to the film is conductor and composer Valery Gergiev (Widowmaker) who is seen at work in the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg. It was Rachmaninoff himself who said that his life had been ‘a harvest of sorrow’, and Tony Palmer certainly brings that poignancy to bear in this deeply affecting film that brings the spirit of Rachmaninoff alive. MT
https://youtu.be/43dF4wg0r2o
NOW ON BLURAY | STREAMING ONLINE

Elgar (1962) **** Streaming and on Blu-ray

Dir: Ken Russell | UK, Doc 55′

Elgar was Ken Russell making a straightforward musical biopic under the strict control of Huw Wheldon’s guidance. And it certainly works to the film’s advantage when compared to the bloated and faintly ludicrous charades notably: Tommy and Lisztomania.

With its velvety black and white visuals and soaring score of orchestral masterpieces and more delicate pieces for the violin and cello, Russell was able to convey another portrait of creative angst while retaining the composer’s lofty romantic vision inspired by his walks in the rolling Malvern Hills. Weldon was the Head of the BBC and had put a dampener on Russell by banning dramatisations of the lives of real people. Russell used the difficulty cleverly getting round this by using actors filmed at a distance and no dialogue allowing the music too do its tour de force. Although Elgar sometimes veers on the didactic with Weldon’s stentorious narration overlaying the graceful set pieces showing a young boy (‘Elgar’ ) riding across the English landscape or through country lanes on a bicycle (with the love of his life Alice), this ethereal melding of sound and vision showed Russell at his best, despite – and perhaps because of – the limitations.

Elgar had a love of the countryside and it served as his muse when composing during his daily forays in the open air. By the time he returned home the compositions were fully formed in his mind, he had only to write them down. Russell traces the composer’s lowly background; his meeting Alice (Caroline Alice (1889-1920) who pioneered the way forward, never giving up on her arrant belief in his talent.

Elgar’s music captured the imagination of the Germans and finally took flight during the First World War, when the British public finally took him to their hearts with his talent for rousing marching music, and Russell’s film is enriched with brilliant archive footage showing all the pomp and circumstance of these celebrations, but also the quiet moments of self-doubt and reflection. But above all this is a true love story of the best kind: Where belief and perseverance drive the romance forward to great heights. Real love is not staring into each other’s eye, but looking in the same direction, as Elgar discovered. Alice was the making of this most English of our composers. And Russell’s Elgar is a small gem.

NOW ON BLURAY | STREAMING ONLINE

 

Lisztomania (1975) ** Russell and the Music Makers

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Roger Daltrey, Sara Kestelman, Paul Nicholas, Ringo Starr, Fiona Lewis, Veronica Quilligan; UK 1975, 103 min.

Ken Russell was really impressed with Roger Daltrey: so much so he cast him in two features released in 1975: Tommy and Lisztomania, an expression invented by German opera impresario Heinrich Heiner to describe the craze for Liszt that developed at the Bolshoi in the 1840s  – akin to Beatlemania (Ringo Star is ironically cast here as The Pope). Accused of being too crass and self-indulgent for the first, Russell easily surpassed all limits of taste and showmanship in his biopic of the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, successfully taking the cinema back to where it first began: as a sensational fairground attraction for the masses.

We meet Liszt (Daltrey) in bed with Countess d’Agoult (Lewis). The Count discovers them ‘in flagrante’ and nails them into the body of a piano, placing it on the railway track. This serves as a start of flashbacks in which Liszt meets Richard Wagner (Nicholas), putting him off with his flashy piano interpretation of the German’s opera Rienzi, whilst courting rich women in the audience. One of them, Princess Carolyn (Kestelman) gives Liszt her address in Russia. Two of Liszt’s children are killed, and he is left with Cosima (Quilligan). He tells her he would do everything, even enter a pact with the Devil, to compose brilliant music again. Following the Princess to Russia, she promises he will compose the music he longs for if she is put in charge of his life. Hallucinating, Liszt sees the women of the Princess’ household assaulting him, before they become seduced by his music – and his ten feet penis.

In Dresden, Germany, Wagner becomes embroiled in the May Uprising. Wagner is injured in the fighting, and when Liszt is tending to his wounds, Wagner drugs Liszt, who passes out. Wagner turns into a vampire, sucking Liszt’s blood. Later Liszt and Carolyn travel to Rome to  persuade the the Pope (Starr) to allow Carolyn to divorce. The marriage is annulled at final stage by Carolyn’s husband. Liszt enters a cloister, but is soon found in bed with a woman. Meanwhile Wagner has seduced Cosima, while evil Jews are seen raping blond Aryan girls. Cosima and Wagner wear Superman outfits, promising to kill all Jews to cement the advent of the super race. Wagner later confesses he has built a mechanical Viking Siegfried. But Liszt plays his music, and Wagner is nearly exorcised, when Cosima kills Liszt. Finally, Liszt is re-united with the women he loved and Cosima (sic), singing, that he has finally found peace.

Together with Mahler and Tchaikovsky’s The Music Lovers, Lisztomania is the third outlandishly baroque composer biopic Russell directed in stark contrast to the sober, factual and deeply affecting black-and-white BBC portraits of Elgar, Debussy and Delius he made accompanied by Huw Weldon’s sonorous narrations, before been taken over by his own hyperbole. Legendary DoP Peter Suschitzky, who would also photograph Russell’s next feature Valentino, tries his best to keep up a carnival atmosphere. The spectacular moments – and the in-voluntary Chaplin imitations, produce a distorted mix of an orchestrated party. It would be wrong to talk about Lisztomania in terms of having aged badly – it was never more than a miserable, self-indulgent trip by a director, who had fallen victim to his own folly de grandeur. AS

AVAILABLE ON BLURAY and PRIME VIDEO and BFIPLAYER

      

Tchaikovsky and the Music Lovers (1970) **** Blu-ray

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Gable, Kenneth Colley, Izabella Telezynska, Sabina Maydelle; UK 1970, 122 min.

Blending the crass with the ethereal as was his wont Ken Russell billed his portrait of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) as “a romance about a homosexual married to a nymphomaniac”. Riding high on his success with Women in Love, United Artists allowed a lavish budget for The Music Lovers, and it was completed in the same year as Russell’s Richard Strauss biopic Dance of the seven Veils for the BBC.

As a director of sober BBC biopics and large screen escapism, Russell was having a field day. Dance of the Seven Veils was only aired once until recently, after the Strauss family forbade any music by Richard Strauss to be played in the feature because they misinterpreted the composer being shown as a staunch Nazi, which the archive material shows quite clearly. The Music Lovers, on the other hand, is aesthetically much closer Russell’s Mahler portrait of 1974. Based on the letters between Tchaikovsky (Chamberlain) and his benefactor Madame Nadezhda von Meck (Telezynska), edited by Catherine Drinker Bowen and Barbara von Meck, Melvyn Bragg’s script has operatic proportions but uses dialogue very sparsely, leaving the music to stand for itself.

In a romantic setting, we meet the composer first with his lover Count Chiluvsky (Gable). But homosexuality was illegal in Czarist Russia, and at the conservatoire, fellow composers including Rubinstein (Adrian) had started gossiping. Tchaikovsky takes an aggressive, and as it turned out, not too wise approach to the dilemma: he marries the over-sexed and rather fragile Antonina Miliukova (Jackson). The marriage ends in disaster with Antonina becoming more and more unhinged, finally ending up in a psychiatric ward. Tchaikovsky dearly loves his family, brother Modest (Colley) and favourite sister Sasha (Maydelle), he also has a horrible memory of his beloved mother’s death, which will, in the end, mirror his own. He transfers all his attentions to Madame von Meck, who lives in Switzerland. On her estate, the composer rests for long periods of time, whilst von Meck travels in Europe. In reality the two never met, but in the feature von Meck watches the sleeping composer. The episodic character of the narrative, combining Tchaikovsky’s music and psychological estate, as it does in the 1812 Overture, is less jarring than in later features such as Lisztomania.

With much help from the great Douglas Slocombe (Rollerball, Hedda) and his sweepingly romantic images, The Music Lovers just stays on the right side of the line between opulent drama and over-the-top showmanship. Chamberlain and Jackson are outstanding in their turbulent train crash of a the newly married couple paired with Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, and this is the highlight of Russell’s stylistic achievement. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY

 

Bartok (1964) ***** Russell and the Music Makers

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Boris Ranevsky, Pauline Boty, Sandor Eles, Peter Brett, Rosalind Watkins, Huw Wheldon (narrator); UK  1964, 50 min. (For BBC ‘Monitor’)

Ken Russell’s first feature film French Dressing (a re-make of a Roger Vadim And God Created Woman) in 1964 was a critical and financial disaster. So back he went to the BBC’s Monitor/Omnibus, a long-running Arts magazine series, that would spawn a host of black and white musical biopics including a triumphant study of Elgar (1962) and an innovative look at the Hungarian composer. Bela Bartok (1881-1945). When Russell returned to feature films in 1967 with the Len Deighton adaption of A Billion Dollar Brain, the result was, sadly, similar to his 1964 outing. But you could never accuse him of being banal.

There are many parallels between Bartok and Elgar, mainly their love of the countryside, which is reflected in their music. But Bartok (like his music) was a much less straightforward character than the rather robust Victorian Elgar: he was downbeat, full of angst and loss, suffering an eventual exile, which robbed him of his beloved Hungarian countryside.

We start with a reflexion on The Miraculous Mandarin, influenced by Stravinsky and Schoenberg. But there are also undertones of Debussy, who was one of his great admirers. Russell’s narrative is darkly erotic – the ballet features a girl who is led by men to seduce clients making love to them until death. Then there is a young sex worker (Boty) whose engagement with a client (Eles), is interrupted by her pimps. They rob him, let him escape, but again catch up with him, beating him up again. The rather violent sex (and misogyny) united Bartok and the Russell of his later films. The same goes for the one act Opera Bluebird’s Castle, where we follow Bluebird (Brett) and his latest wife Judith (Watkins). She does not want any secrets between them and pays with her life, when the last chamber is opened she gets a good glimpse of the bodies of his previous wives.

Huw Wheldon was much more than just the narrator of Bartok – he had been made Controller of BBC One. As such he wielded enormous power, and (again) refused any re-construction (docu-drama) of real events. Bartok begins with the composer (Ranevsky) as an old man, according to Wheldon’s commentary, in poor health and fighting his demons. But overall “Bartok struggled all his life to maintain his privacy, he was an alien in an alien world”. This condition found its way into his music, a theme Russell graphically conveys into images: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta is underlined by Bartok’s near paranoid loneliness. Showing his isolation, claustrophobia, later repeated on a crowded escalator: a permanent descent into the nadir.

Bartok’s fragility is understandable, given the state of Hungary: after growing nationalism the First World War brought Hungary independence from the hated House of Habsburg; but what followed was the chaos of the Räte Republic and immediately afterwards the semi-fascist rule by Admiral Horthy. The latter lasted until the end of WWII, and Bartok forbade his work to be performed in Germany and Italy, even though he needed the royalties. He did well to escape to the USA with his second wife in 1940. Wheldon describes his music for Divertimento for String Orchestra from 1939 as a “statement of grief.” Later Bartok wrote in one his letters: “What an elemental disease home sickness is, how overwhelming. What a strict law lies here, not likely to be disturbed. Hungary had never meant more to anybody.”

Bartok had always fought the Germanic influence in Hungary’s cultural life. He, like Elgar, fled the big city and ventured out into the countryside. “Whenever possible, he got away into the plains and villages of Hungary, living with the peasants and sharing their life. He conducted a systematic investigation of the whole peasant music tradition of Hungary.”                              

Another emigrant, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov put it like this: “I discovered in nature the non-egalitarian delights that I thought in art. Both were forms of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception.” But there was a lot of darkness in Bartok and his music, and this nocturnal quality is reflected in the vivid images. Quoting Wheldon again we learn “that nocturnal themes, famous now as Bartok’s Night Music, turn up quite explicitly, again and again, over the the whole of his output.” This goes particularly for Bartok’s final composition Concerto for Orchestra. A mourning song text, that he had collected in 1913 seems perfectly related to the music: “Oh you black and woeful earth!/Who ever gets inside you/Nevermore comes back gain/Many people have you swallowed/Yet you haven’t had your fill.” Written by a man, who found life in New York (in spite of a teaching post at Columbia) a brutal experience.

Russell and DoP Charles Parnall navigate their way though loss, grief and anguish, bringing out the fate of Bartok in poetic sequences, using his music to underline the complexity of his compositions. The overall tone is always reflects the thematic darkness: the destruction of total war. Like the last words in Bluebird’s Castle: “Henceforth, there shall be darkness, darkness, darkness.”  AS

BARTOK ON THE BBC MONITOR SERIES 1964 | MONITOR

   

 

Cunningham (2019) *****

Dir: Alla Kovgan | US Doc, 93′

Mercier Philip Cunningham or “Merce” (1919-2009) was an American dancer and choreographer whose groundbreaking style is celebrated here in a stunning 3D documentary. Cunningham is a first feature for documentarian Alla Kovgan. In keeping with Merce’s innovative approach, she combines archive footage and new works never performed in public in this dynamic front row experience of visionary dance style. The dancer refused to describe his work as Avantgarde or even modern: “I don’t describe it, I do it” he opines during the VoiceOver narration. The film refreshingly avoids a talking heads approach, focusing on dance as a purely visual expression of “animal authority and human passion”, rather than an accompaniment to music.

Merce was also passionate about working with artists from other disciplines including composer John Cage, Cunningham’s longterm partner; the painter Robert Rauschenberg; and Andy Warhol whose collaboration is particularly striking in Merce’s 1968 Sci-fi themed dance work Rainforest which featured Warhol’s metallic helium-filled silver balloons (the Silver Clouds) that float around the dancers like something from outer space.

Born in Centralia, Washington in 1919 Merce was always adamant about his craft that was at the forefront of American dance for more that 50 years until his death in 2009, age 90. He performed in 1999 with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the New York State Theater for his 80th birthday. In common with virtually all artists he describes the endless need to practice from dawn ’til dusk, and his battered feet are pictured in close-up going through the motions of a dance routine.

Kovgan explores the first 30 years of a career that would play a part in transforming ballet and dance. Most of the movements are radical – bestial even – neck muscles ripple and pulsate, torsos quiver. The film’s structure is fluidly organic rather than chronological, making striking use of DoP Mko Malkhasyan’s aerial photography and ground-level camerawork that allows sequences to flood off the screen making us feel part of the dance routine. The 3D adds to the dancers’ lithe physicality, and their syncopating movements — the New York skylines stand out in pin-sharp vibrancy, as do the vivid outdoor settings that zing with freshness and acuity. The soundscape adds weight and depth but is never intrusive.

Conversations and correspondence between his contemporaries Cage, Rauschenberg, Warhol and Jasper Johns contextualise Cunningham’s vision; his disciplined, prolific and experimental concepts facilitating a counterculture that transformed the postwar dance-scene – although it wasn’t well-received by everyone. During an international tour in 1964 Parisians threw tomatoes during performances – “if only that had been apples”, claims Rauschenberg, “we were hungry and wanted something to eat”.

Money was tight in the early years when the troupe took off across America in a minibus but gradually this new and expressive form took off during a 1964 world tour when his reputation for being outlandish slowly faded – to his chagrin: his aim was always to cutting edge. Eventually Merce became an old father rather than a instructive companion to his fellow dancers but his inspiration lives on in his disciples Paul Taylor, Karole Armitage and Alice Reyes who have gone on to form their own companies with memorable routines such as Suite for Two; Winterbranch and Second Hand. MT

CUNNINGHAM IS ON RELEASE FROM 13 MARCH 2020 | ANDY WARHOL’S SILVER CLOUDS CAN BE SEEN AT THE TATE MODERN, LONDON, IN A MAJOR EXHIBITION OF HIS WORK | 11 MARCH 2020

Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall (2019) ****

Dir: Alfred George Bailey | With: Amelia Davis, Anton Corbijn, Michael Douglas, Bruce Talaman, Michelle Marghetts | Editor: Adam Biskupski | US Doc 

 “Jim Marshall held up a mirror to a white hot era that will never come again”. B Talaman

George Bailey’s immersive documentary tells the story of the photographer behind some of the music industry’s most evocative images. Jim Marshall was a true maverick who elevated some of music’s lesser known players to star status with his inspired professional shots. And naturally HE snapped the greats: Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Dinah Washington and John Coltrane all trusted him to join them on stage where he created some of the most enduring black and white images of the 20th century. He also captured The Beatles fated last concert at Candlestick Park in August 1966.

Copyright Jim Marshall Photography LLC On Tour with the Mamas and Papas 1967

Marshall  (left) never left home without his Leica camera strung over his shoulder. But he was also a self-destructive man who could be his own worse enemy. He even served time for his occasional use of guns. Cars and cameras were also the lifetime obsession of this ebullient guy with a magnetic personality who was also described as a “little malevolent gnome” by Sicilian writer Michelle Marghetts who would become his girlfriend, and goes on to share some of the most salient revelations in this enjoyable biopic.

Born into an immigrant family in 1930s Chicago, James Joseph Marshall was of Syrian Catholic origin – according to Michael Douglas who got to know him on The Streets of San Francisco series and who is one of the film’s most insightful talking heads. Another is Amelia Davis, his assistant for a dozen years until his death in 2010. According to her Marshall sniffed more cocaine than the Rolling Stones when he joined them for a Life magazine shoot. He communicated with her through scrawled notes pinned to his front door, these became the barometer of his psychological state – “no work today Davis”. Close to Marjorie, his mother, Jim had a troubled relationship with his distant, womanising father, who left when he was 10 and died when he was 15. Jim remembers him making a delicious pancake one day, and then bashing Jim’s head against the table the next, knocking two teeth out.

Rather like its acid-tripping subject, the biopic flips backward and forward to highlight different phases of Marshall’s career. After an early time in New York’s early 1960s, where he became close to Bob Dylan, Marshall moved to San Francisco in the thick of the Haight-Ashbury era for the Summer of Love, and stayed there. A consummate professional he was proud of his talents: “people think they can copy my pictures, but it’s taken me half my life (to learn how) to do them” He captured impromptu moments in turbulent careers, but had to work hard to win his subjects over – Miles Davis is seen relaxing; Coltrane is pictured as “a quiet genius”.

Johnny Cash flipping the bird at San Quentin Prison 1969. Copyright Jim Marshall Photography LLC

Other famous photographers also join the fray: Bruce Talaman explains Jim’s lensing style, and Anton Corbijn posits:  “no matter how good you are, if you don’t have the access, you don’t have the pic.” “People trusted Jim, but not immediately” says Graham Nash — who went to LA and never came back.

But it wasn’t just the guns and drugs that saw Marshall’s glittering career crash from the starry rock n roll firmament. There were outside reasons. Stars became more aware of their fame, and employed people to guard it: those famous PRs who often stand in the middle of artists and those that chronicle them.

Show Me the Picture is a fascinating snapshot of the jazz, soul and rock n roll era showcasing a brief moment in time “when you could still say and do what you wanted before the world became controlled and politically correct”. The final act covers Marshall’s efforts to document the ‘Peace’ symbol. Clearly he had a highly inventive mind and an inquiring one. He also stressed the need for artists to hold on to their copyright at all costs, a wise step that bankrolled his life even after his commissions dwindled and left something tangible for Davis. Show Me the Picture jumps around bit like its acid-tipping subject – but for aficionados of  rock and roll, jazz and soul of the 1960s onwards, it’s an hour and a half of unmitigated bliss. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 31 JANUARY 2020

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg | Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964) *****

Dir.: Jacques Demy; Cast: Catherine Deneuve, Anne Vernon, Ellen Farmer, Nino Castelnuovo, Marc Michel, Mireille Perrey; France/West Germany 1964, 91 min.

Jacques Demy (1931-1990) was a unique and multi-talented filmmaker who rose to fame in the wake of the New Wave. The Umbrellas was the second of a trilogy, bookended by Lola (1961) and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967). American style musicals are dominated by song and dance numbers, whereas in The Umbrellas is entirely sung. Demy wanted to create a European counterpart to the American tradition: The film is much closer in style to opera than musical.

It all focuses on Sixteen-year old Genevieve Emery (Deneuve) who is madly in love with car mechanic Guy (Castelnuovo). Her mother (Vernon) is not keen on the marriage, she is holding out for a more substantial match for her daughter. Guy is not really poor, he still lives with his godmother Elise (Perrey), who spends most of her time in bed, being looked after by Madeleine (Farner). But Madame Emery has another reason to wish for a financially more rewarding partnership for her daughter: her umbrella shop is on the verge of bankruptcy. Enter Roland (Michel), a diamond dealer, who falls for Genevieve.

When Guy gets drafted into the army, with the possibility of seeing action in the Algeria War, the lovers consummate their relationship. Madame Emery’s best laid plans seem to come to nothing when her daughter gets pregnant. But Roland (who was part of Lola, and quotes from it), forgives all and suggests they bring up the child together. But the marriage ceremony is anything but joyful, and the little epilogue is even grimmer: Guy has married Madeleine after the death of Elise, and has bought a petrol station with the money he inherited from her. On a cold winter evening Genevieve stops at the petrol station and asks Guy if he wants to speak to his daughter, who is in the car. Guy is not keen at all, looking forward to meeting his wife and little son.

Comparing The Umbrellas with Godard’s Un Homme et une Femme (1961), it turns out that Demy is very much more a realist than the self-proclaimed revolutionary Godard. Whist Anna Karina (in bohemian Paris) just wants to marry Jean-Paul Belmondo to have a baby – even if the baby’s father might be Jean-Claude Brialy, Genevieve and her mother (in provincial Cherbourg) see the child as a fly in the works. Instead of a fairy tale ending, where the pigherd marries the beautiful princess and they live happily ever after, Demy offers an exchange relationship: Genevieve’s young beauty is traded for Roland’s wealth. The ending is more bitter than sweet.

Michel Legrand’s score and Jean Rabier’s colourful images have made The Umbrellas into an emotionally resonant classic. Shot on Eastmancolour, notorious for fading, Demy’s widow Agnes Varda created a restored copy in 1992. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 6 DECEMBER 2019 at BFI SOUTHBANK and NATIONWIDE as part of the BFI MUSICALS! THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

Tommy (1975) *** re-release

Dir.: Ken Russell; Cast: Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed, Elton John, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, Robert Powell, Paul Nicholas; UK 1975, 108 min.

After his subtle and convincing art features for BBC 2, and his iconic dramas Ken Russell’s sortie into rock music suffers from bombastic overkill. The vibrant visuals are still astonishing, but Russell treats his narrative like an assault course. Hovering between a masterpiece and a manic mess, this is one of his worst features, and, not surprisingly he himself admitted that “Tommy is his most commercial film”.

The film is set in a wartime Britain. Captain Walker(Powell) and Nora (Ann-Margret) have recently become parents to the titular child Tommy whose childhood is getting off to an awful start. The young boy witnesses Nora’s lover Frank (Reed) killing his father, and he reacts with a catatonic stupor that makes his deaf, dumb and blind ushering the classic hit That Death Dumb and Blind Child. Moving on to his teenage years, Tommy (Daltrey) is neglected and abused, his wizardry at pinball being his only escape. There are some decent cameos, the best by Elton John, performing Pinball Wizard in his skyscraper boots. Also enjoyable is Tina Turner’s Acid Queen. Ann-Margret excels in her champagne detonation cum baked beans and soap suds explosion scene, whilst Reed and evil cousin Kevin (Nicholas) use Tommy as a scapegoat for all their own frustrations. This being Russell, it is no surprise that Tommy finally becomes the Messiah, climbing the mountain.

Russell is not interested in any form of dramatic structure, his aim is to set the night on fire with a slew of cinematic musical numbers: the relentless visuals, the gaudy design and the over-the-top acting of his stars excites the wild child in him and he is oblivious to the chaos and near incoherence. The music is based on the Rock Opera by Pete Townsend, and while fans will thoroughly enjoy the spectacle, although newcomers to the story might find it all too dated. But the main reason for a re-run must surely be Roger Daltrey’s sheer dynamism as a performer captured spectacularly by Dick Bush and Ronnie is this all singing and dancing seventies showstopper. AS 

Opening at BFI Southbank, in cinemas UK-wide on 22 November 2019 as part of the major season

BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show On Screen, November 2019 – January 2020

 

The Amber Light (2019) ****

Dir: Adam Park | Wri: David Broom | UK Doc 93′

Following on from Scotch: The Golden Dram (2018) comes this voluble road trip documentary that explores the impact of Scotland’s best known liquor on the lesser known parts of the country’s cultural identity and history. The Amber Light certainly loosens the tongues of a range of personalities from the world of art, music, literature and food. In his feature debut, Adam Park also focuses on the unsung role of women in distilling and blending over the centuries, the influence of alchemists, medicine men and botanists, and the evolution of spirits from medicine to social lubricants.

And when musicians are not on screen, the film’s writer David Broom adopts a voluble conversation style in talking us through the history of the spirit, explaining how whisky suddenly became more than a drink made in a distillery for him, providing a creative impulse for him to explore the culture surrounding it. DoP Dan Dennison has an ingenious way of filming interweaving interviews with live footage of Scotland that suddenly break into delicately rendered amber coloured animations.  The film also looks at the temperance movement, smugglers, Dante’s Inferno, and the use of unexpected ingredients in whisky’s development, such as saffron.

Music is also an important part of Gaelic culture and the rhythms of whisky-making inspired many ballads, such as “Blond Haired Boy” referring to the spirit itself. The film’s score also features a selection of Scottish musicians and singers to feature music from including King Creosote, Alasdair Roberts, James Yorkston, Rachel Newton (plus more to be announced) as well as Avante-Garde noisemakers and poetry collective Neu Reekie.

Dave Broom, who has been writing about spirits for 25 years and he is the main influence behind this informative whisky travelogue that travels the length and breadth of Scotland, talking to key innovators and thinkers in the whisky world – farmers, distillers, bar owners and historians – as well as people less directly involved: musicians, artists and writers, including Scottish novelists and “king of the Tartan Noir” Ian Rankin is almost an ambassador for the golden dram and he certainly who waxes lyrical about how wishy brings out the “darkness in the Scottish soul”, born of the long nights that encourage brooding, bringing out the worst in people: “Not everyone can handle it”. This offers an musical opportunity for a rendering of the sinister ballad: “Jonny My Man”  Musicians Alasdair Roberts, James Yorkston perform live on screen.

Whisky is a particularly socially cohesive dram: it has provided an opportunity to open a conversation with a perfect stranger. Once the amber nectar is poured into a glass, introductions can begin and very soon the dialogue flows, and friendships are forged. Made on a shoestring, and none the worse for it: David Broom raised the lion’s share of the film’s finance from crowd-funding. MT

ON RELEASE AT SELECTED ARTHOUSE CINEMAS FROM 22 November, paired with Director Q&As and whisky tasting opportunities at several sites across London, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Cambridge, Dublin and more—all through DECEMBER 2019

 

Musicals! | The Greatest Show on Screen | Winter season 2019

BFI MUSICALS! THE GREATEST SHOW ON SCREEN is the UK’s greatest ever season celebrating the joyful, emotional, shared experience of watching film musicals on the big screen. Highlights of the season, The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) in Belfast Cathedral; a festive screening of White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954) in Birmingham Cathedral; and a tour of Russian musicals to London, Bristol and Nottingham

BFI Musicals will also feature a touring programme of 12 musicals  such as Gold Diggers of 1933; First a Girl (Victor Saville, 1935), Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955), A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954), Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972), Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935), Carousel (Henry King, 1956), Sweet Charity (Bob Fosse, 1969), Pakeezah (Kamal Amrohi, 1972), Cabin in the Sky (Vincente Minnelli, 1943) and Singing Lovebirds (Masahiro Makino, 1939).

Three classics on release this season are – Singin’ in the Rain on 18 October; Tommy on 22 November and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on 6 December. The re-releases will screen at venues across the UK, ensuring that audiences the length and breadth of the country will be able to join in the celebration of all things song and dance.

https://youtu.be/1t6L-HU9Amg

Mystify: Michael Hutchence (2019) ****

Dir.: Richard Lowenstein; Documentary with Michael Hutchence, Kylie Minogue, Helena Christensen, Michèlle Bennett, Tina Hutchence, Rhett Hutchence, Martha Troup; Australia 2019,

As writer and director Richard Lowenstein is more than qualified to put together this melancholic portrait of his endearing, snake-hipped compatriot Michael Hutchence (1960-1997), whose career as singer and frontman for INXS put him into the pantheon of rock music. Lowenstein not only shot most of the group’s music videos between the mid 1980s and the early90s, he also directed the singer in his only feature film appearance Dogs in Space (1986). Lowenstein certainly succeeded in “wanting to leave a legacy that was not the cliché rock star legacy”.

Low on musical performances but informative about Hutchence’s romantic interludes, these clearly shaped a life affected by the fault-lines of his childhood. There is a short interview with some close friends of Michael’s at primary school which informs the narrative early one:. “He did not seem to want to go home, he just lingered around”. When the future rock star’s parents, Kelland, a businessman, and Patricia, a model turned make-up artist, split up, Patricia took Michael with her to the USA, leaving Rhett with the father. Rhett later developed a drug problem which Michael thought was caused by his separation from his mother. His guilt complex went untreated, but later incidents, banal as well as dramatic, show that Michael’s personality was very much damaged from the outset.

His music was very much that of an undomitable hero, his relationships with women were full-blooded but short-lived – apart from the the relationship with Michèlle Bennett, today a film producer, which lasted seven years. Bennett was the only person who still knew him by the end of his life: ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ was a song which followed their breakup. There is a charming home movie of Michael and Kylie Minogue, lovers for two years, holidaying on a boat. Michael tried to explain to Kylie the motives of the murderer in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, a dark, obsessional novel, which collided very much with Michael’s sunny music stage personality.

His relationship with Danish model Helena Christensen was overshadowed by an incident in 1992, when Michael suffered an unprovoked attack from a taxi driver in Copenhagen. The singer hit his head on the kerb, fracturing his skull. For one month Hutchence lay in a dark room, vomiting and eating next to nothing, before Helena was able to convince him to look for medical help. As it turned out, he had lost his sense of smell and taste. This lead to a personality change: Michael became moody, showing bi-polar symptoms, and spurts of aggression.

His relationship with Paula Yates started late in 1994, even though they were intimate long before. Yates, a famous writer and TV presenter, was married to the Boomtown Rats lead singer Bob Geldorf, the pioneer of “Band-Aid’. The couple had two daughters, and Geldorf took their divorce two years later very badly. After Yates gave birth to Michael’s first and only child Tiger Lily in the same year, Geldorf started a legal campaign trying to get custody of all three daughters. Geldorf was a celebrity, and Yates and Hutchence were hounded by the popular media. When Hutchence returned to Australia in preparation for an INXS concert tour at the end of 1997, he hoped Paula would visit him in Australia with the three daughters. But Geldof won an injunction, and the court case was adjourned to December. Hutchence was unable to bear being separated from his daughter, and committed suicide by hanging himself on 22nd November 1997. Yates died of an overdose in January 2000, her daughter Peaches in 2014, at the age of 25. Bob Geldorf adopted Tiger Lily, against the will of the Hutchence family.

Apart from Bono and Hutchence’s manager Martha Troup, we listen to the testimonies of band members Andrew, Jon and Tim Farris, as well as bassist Gary Beers, with Kirk Pengilly being not available. There are nine tracks from Hutchence and INXS, courtesy of Tiger Lily’s intervention with the copyright holders, who had blocked Lowenstein’s approaches before. Although their youthful faces appear on film, the comments we hear are the contemporary voices of the musicians. DoP Andrew de Groot mixes Hutchence’s own films, the home movies of his childhood and concert clips, avoiding Talking Heads as much as possible. We are left with a profound sadness, as Michael Hutchence, like most really gifted performers, was never sure of his talent, often believing he only “got the applause, because I wiggled my arse”. Lowenstein’s documentary is a true testament to sorrow.AS

IN CINEMAS 18 OCTOBER 2019

Shock of the Future **

Dir: Marc Collin | Music Drama, Biopic | France 84′

A girl reacts with nonchalance, petulance and finally flirty self-assurance when hired to compose a jingle for an advert in late 1970s Paris. Not much of a role model for aspiring female music-makers – especially when the sleazy old geezers that rally round to help her are clearly after one thing – which is why Marc Collin’s film is such a missed opportunity.

The Shock of the Future works best as a riff on the genesis of electronic funk and synthesised music from Pink Floyd to Michel Jarre and French disco drummer Cerrone (nice to revisit his one hit wonder ‘Supernature’) during the late 1970s early 1980s. Collin is a French musician and producer so has a keen feel for the vibe and the pioneering women who made it happen: Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Spiegel and Wendy Carlos. But he is clearly over-awed by Alma Jodorowsky – granddaughter of Alejandro – who plays sultry Ana, a chain-smoking budding composer whose sexy attributes ensure oodles of assistance from the men who swing by her humble bedsit where she idly twiddles knobs – sadly not theirs – on an impressive early synthesiser. The threadbare narrative and shallow characterisations don’t do the film a favour – especially for Jodorowsky’s subtle talents, but it’s short and sweet at only 84 minutes running time and provides a pleasurable heads up for that heady era. MT

OUT THIS FRIDAY, 13 September 2019

 

 

Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967) | Tribute to D.A. Pennebaker

DYLAN-Dont-Look-Back-DROPDirector\Writer: D A Pennebaker

With: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donovan, Alan Price, Marianne Faithfull, Allen Ginsberg

96min | Documentary | US

Although it may not have meant much back in 1967, D.A. Pennebaker’s full-length documentary DON’T LOOK BACK now offers an absorbing and resonant tribute to a handful of folk heroes of the ’60s and particularly Bob Dylan who it follows on his 1965 British tour.

This freewheeling and voyeuristic trip down memory lane offers a rare and real portrait of the recalcitrant singer songwriter performing impromptu in hotels and more formal venues showcasing his laid back but often prickly approach which won the hearts and minds of his young audience of the time, Dylan went on to capture the imagination of many and achieve iconic cult status. Whether the film pictures the real Dylan or just his facade is a matter for consideration but Pennebaker makes us feel the intimacy of these encounters.

Surrounded by an entourage of contempo cronies: his rebarbative manager Albert Grossman; his long-term companion Joan Baez; the Scottish balladier Donovan; helmer of The Animals, Alan Price, the film offers behind the scenes glimpses of their convivial gatherings offering up ad hoc renditions of their work: Dylan strums and sings “The Times They Are A-Changing,” and Donovan ‘To Sing for You”. There is a chance to see Baez’ gentle beauty and spiky humour in offguard moments that capture her feral beauty.

The awkward approach of some of the interviewers – particularly a journalist from Time Magazine – is very amateurish, and it’s a wonder that Dylan didn’t punch him in the nose – but he adopts his usual acerbic style, hiding behind a public persona, ruffled hair and sunglasses, refusing to be riled but engaging nevertheless.

D. A. Pennebaker has since made several impressive biopics: Monterey Pop (1968) and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars being among the best. His handheld camera offers a grainy indie feel with jump cuts that keep the pace lively despite the relaxed tone that often hints at an underlying anger, that eventually seeps out in a scene featuring an ugly encounter between Grossman and a hotel manager. The film’s finale sees Dylan kicking backing after a successful concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall, happy to be seen as an artist peddling no particular message and who no one understands. MT

OUT ON CRITERION UK | Amazon BLURAY

 

Marianne and Leonard (2019) Netflix


Dir. Nick Broomfield; Documentary with Leonard Cohen, Marianne Ihlen, Judy Collins, Helle Goldman, Aviva Layton; USA 2019, 97 min.

Veteran filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Whitney: Can I Be Me?) tries to unravel one of the greatest love stories between artist and muse: Leonard Cohen and Norwegian Marianne Ihlen met 1960 on the Greek Island of Hydra, a sunny place for the counterculture of hippies who wanted to get away from a cold, organised northern hemisphere, where emotions were as cold as the weather. Whilst their relationship lasted seven years, they lived with each other’s shadow until the very end: they died within three months of each other in 2016, and Cohen’s beautiful farewell message to the dying Marianne makes up, at least a bit, for his lifelong philandering.

Cohen came from a well-to-do family of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania and Poland who had settled in Quebec, Canada. Aviva Layton, married to the poet Irving Layton (“Poets don’t make great husbands), the latter taking Cohen – who started off as a writer and poet – under his wings on Hydra, classifies Leonard’s mother Marsha as “Mad as a hatter, Oedipally mad.” It became soon clear that poets were not the only artists who were useless husbands. Ihlen was also looking after her son Axel, from a failed marriage with a violent Norwegian writer, and was quiet happy being Cohen’s muse he insistered on having his sexual freedom – like many males (not only in the hippie environment). A much older Cohen can be quoted saying “I was always escaping, I was also trying to get away.”

After the total flop of Cohen’s first novel Beautiful Losers (1966) he turned to music, but he was so insecure abut his voice, that, as Judy Collins reports “He would at first only come on stage with me”. A year later, Cohen was off to on a “hedonistic odyssey”, the excesses well documented by band members and tour organisers. We can see Cohen literally wading into his female admirers, who were waiting for him after the concerts. We do not know when exactly Marianne said her farewell but she returned to Oslo, took a secure job, married (the same man twice) and looked after Axel, who had to spent long periods in institutions.

Broomfield skips over chunks of the 1970s and 80s, and takes up the story in 1994, when Cohen became a monk in a Buddhist monastery in California. After leaving, he found out, that his business manager (and friend) had spent all five million of his retirement account, and Cohen went back to touring, earning well over USD per year. He sent Marianne first row tickets for his concert in Oslo, and we see her singing “So long, Marianne”: a wise woman who had not lost her love for a man who hardly deserved it.

Broomfield, who spent some time on Hydra with Marianne and Leonard, certainly knows his subject and the era of free love – too often an excuse for men to be promiscuous – while their female muse looked after their domestic needs. Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre, the work of a low-level depressive, has certainly influenced a generation, and it is only fitting that Marianne & Leonard tells the story of the woman who influenced him – and who, even on her deathbed, puts her feelings for him into words. After being read his farewell message, in which he mentions that he ‘is just behind her on the way’, she exclaims: “This is beautiful; but, poor Leonard, he has no Sue to massage his feet”.  AS

ON NETFLIX

 

 

 

Beyond your Wildest Dreams: Entertainment cinema during the Weimar years

BFI Southbank and various venues nationwide will mark the centenary of the Weimar Republic with a major two-month season running from Wednesday 1 MaySunday 30 June; BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS: WEIMAR CINEMA 1919-1933 celebrates a ground-breaking era of German cinema showcasing the extraordinary diversity of styles and genres in Weimar cinema, which conjured surreal visions in the sparkling musicals Heaven on Earth (Reinhold Schünzel, Alfred Schirokauer, 1927) and A Blonde Dream (below, Paul Martin, 1932) and gender-bending farces such as I Don’t Want to Be a Man (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918).

“Ein blonder Traum”
D 1932
Lilian Harvey

In this first foray into the Weimar era we will try to analyse the mainly escapist features of the period, leaving out the prestige projects of Lang and G.W. Pabst, covered in Rudi Suskind’s comprehensive documentary From Caligari to Hitler, and have a look at the B-features which were part and parcel of the growing film industry in Germany, leading to a rapid rise of new cinemas, particularly in the urban centres. Director/producer Joe May, who gave Fritz Lang his big break (before also emigrating to Hollywood) was not only was responsible for mega-productions like Das Indische Grabmal, but, among the 88 features he directed, were small comedies like Veritas Vincit (1918), in which transmigration of the spirit is used, to tell a love story. E.A. Dupont’s Varieté (1925) was a celebration of the music-hall, but was not modern at all: it sounded more like an epilogue than a resume. Karl-Heinz Martin’s From Morning to Midnight (1920) was in contrast a very expressionistic film. Set in Japan, it tells the story of a bank teller, who uses the money he steals on sex-workers, before committing suicide. The Love Letters of the Countess S. (Henrik Galeen, 1924) was typical for a series of films, which dealt with love affairs at aristocratic courts. Comedy of the Heart by Rochus Gliese (1924), also falls in the category ‘scandalous love affairs of the monarchs’. Blitzzug der Liebe (1925) directed by Johannes Gunter might not be well known, but its narrative is very typical for the genre: Fred loves Lizzy, but does not want to marry her. Lizzy makes him jealous, by asking the gigolo Charley to court her. But Charley is in love with the dancer Kitty, who is fancied by Fred. A double wedding solves all problems. Max Reichmann’s Manege (1927) is a sort of minor variation of Varieté , set in the world of the circus. Dupont again is responsible for Moulin Rouge (1928), one of many Varieté  remakes. Ein Walzertraum (1925) by Ludwig Berger and War of the Waltz 1933) by the same director, are, like Two Hearts in Walzertune (1932) by Geza von Bolvary part of many features shot in Vienna, featuring the music of the Strauss family. Karl Grune’s Arabella (1925) is a rather more intriguing endeavour showing the life of the titular horse from its own POV. The Erich Pommer production of Melody of the Heart (Hanns Schwarz, 1929) was one of the first sound features; DoP Karl Hoffmann lamented: “Poor camera! No more of your graceful movements. Chained again”. Even the grim reality of unemployment featured in comedies such as The Three from the Unemployment Office (1932) directed by Eugen Thiele, a plagiarism of his more famous The Three from the Petrol Station (1930). Director Karl Hartl, who would later be a standard bearer of the Nazi regime, showed potential in The countess of Monte Christo (1932), in which a poor film extra (Brigitte Helm) is mistaken for the star, having a great time at a luxury hotel. The final mention should go to Hans Albers, the action man of the German cinema, his career lasting from the Weimar era, via Goebbels and the III. Reich to the post WWII cinema in the Federal Republic: he starred in four Erich Pommer films: FPI Doesn’t Answer, a U-Boot Sci-fi adventure directed by Karl Hartl and scripted by Curt Siodmak and based on his novel of the title; Monte Carlo Madness (Hanns Scharz, 1931), Quick ( 1932, directed by Robert Siodmak, who would soon emigrate) stars Albert as a womanising clown and The Victor (Hans Hinrich/Paul Martin, 1932), where Albers rather ordinary telegraphist develops into a fearless hero. AS

BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS: WEIMAR CINEMA 1919-1933

 

Solo (2019) *** ACID at Cannes 2019

Dir: Artemio Benki | Doc France/Czech Rep/Arg/Austria

Psychologists have identified strong links between creativity and mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. Some of our most famous writers, artists and musicians have suffered from mental instability: Virginia Woolf was dogged by depression, Ernest Hemingway committed suicide after treatment, Robert Schumann died in a mental home and even Steven Fry admitted to bi-polar when he famously walked away from a role on the London stage.

Producer and director Artemio Benki explores mental affliction in his serene and sensitive documentary screening in the ACID sidebar at Cannes this year. Solo centres on Martín P. a young Argentinean piano virtuoso and composer who has been receiving treatment for his breakdown four years ago as a patient in the controversial psychiatric hospital of El Borda, the largest and most noted of its kind in Latin America. As a child Martin was hailed a musical genius and went on to be the most talented composer of his generation. But for the past four year he has been struggling to get back to the concert stage while composing his latest work Enfermaria. Solo tells his unique yet relatable story, his fight with creativity and his obsession with being the best in a world where perfection and talent require confidence and persistence to thrive. Martin’s essential focus is to find that safe place between ‘insanity’ and ‘normality’ so he can move on and develop his career and his life. MT

SCREENING IN ACID Sidebar | CANNES FILM FESTIVAL 2019

 

Amazing Grace (2018) ***

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott | US Doc 89′

By the early 1970s American ‘Queen of Soul’ Aretha Franklin (1942-2018) was a already megastar with a string of hits behind her such as Chain of Fools and I Say A Little Prayer. This concert film goes back to her roots as a Gospel singer in 1972. Warner Brothers hired Sydney Pollack to direct the two-night session in the simple, half-empty Bethel Baptist Church in Los Angeles, accompanied on the piano by gospel star Reverend James Cleveland, the father of one of her children. But the footage never had an official release despite the massive success of the resulting double album.

Ten years after Pollack’s death in 2008, producer Alan Elliott had another go with the material and Amazing Grace is the result. Playing out as a straightforward chronological recording (with the inclusion of a scene from an earlier concert) the documentary shows Franklin channels her own spirituality into her selfless performance – there is not a one iota of guile or self-regard in her singing style or in the serious, detached way she presents herself to the audience, wearing a simple tent dress and earrings, yet pouring herself entirely into the music. She is simply a conduit for the soulful tunes to come through, as if directed by another power – sweating profusely, such is the intensity of her experience.

Up until her death in August last year, Franklin blocked the film stating Elliott had not obtained her permission to go ahead. But now it is here for all to enjoy, a collection of sometimes overwrought renditions – the most enjoyable are those accompanied by the talented band of musicians, and it’s interesting to see a young Mick Jagger enjoying himself in the audience along with Charlie Watts, and Pollack clapping along. There is also an appearance from her father Rev C L Franklin who talks about their early experience on the road.

Amazing Grace is a bit thin music-wise but what it does is shine a light on Franklins’ impressive connection with the spiritual power that lies beyond her songs, affording her a serenity and apparent protection from the corrosive affects of the fame and fortune she had achieved by that time. The only other singer who appears to have this is Stevie Wonder – and he is blind. The numbers are well-known to the Gospel crowd: Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy.”; “Never Grow Old,” Despite her colossal fame Aretha cuts a modest, almost compliant figure. Clearly, fame did not touch her, but her Gospel songs certainly made their mark. MT

ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE from 10 MAY 2019

The Sound is Innocent (2019) **** Visions du Réel

Dir.: Johana Ozvold; Documentary with Francois Bonnet, Steve Goodman, Julian Rohrhuber, John Richards, Hanns Hoelzl, Albert Decampo; Czech Republic/France/Slovakia 2019, 68 min.

Johana Ozvold, a graduate of the FAMU Film School in Prague, explores electronic music from conception to performance, narrating and directing this impressive debut.

Kicking off with a big table full of old printers, CD players, radios and computers that gradually tumble onto the floor, she shows how easy it is to make electronic music (EM) from disused gadgetry. Next, archive clips from pre-WWII show how an accident (a needle getting stuck on vinyl) led to a revolution in music.

Charting its progress from the pioneers of the Iron Curtain, to the French avant-garde composers, and the post-modern creators of digital sonic artefacts, Ozvold’s approach borders on Sci-fi and is both visually alluring and eerie. Past and future commingle in a complex and multi-layered way, as she meddles with analog equipment and digital recording techniques challenging preconceived ideas to produce a unique scenario where weird but exciting sounds that feel fresh and exhilarating.

Frenchman François Bonnet, director of INA GRAM (National and audio-visual Institute) explains developments in music both before 1945 and going forwards. Crucially EM allows the composer complete control of all stages of the process, unlike conventional music. This raises a number of questions: When does sound actually become music? And because technology has its own history, there are distinct stages of development (before and after the invention fire) and all these stages led to new connections in the human brain, allowing EM to develop as mainly cerebral music, in which the material (instruments) are the message.

The electronic sound is omnipresent: back in the 1950s, the audience treated EM as a music form of the future. This is the reason why EM found its way into Sci-fi features, fantasy films and animation. During this era, and well into the 1960s films formed a new concept with EM: the earth was gone, it had never existed. EM and avant-garde formed a new science that could manipulate the waves. Then came the Sputnik era when EM composers in the old Soviet block had to be careful not use certain forms of EM, in case they were labelled as bourgeois formalists.

Steve Goodman (UK), producer and founder of the Hyperdub Label, takes us back to the 1920s, when people were actually afraid that the earth would be invaded from outside, analogue to this, DJs after WWII made their EM music change the space, in which teenagers listened, including high frequencies, shattering glass. With the advent of computer, the programmers became poets. Julian Rohrhuber, a German computer scientist and philosopher, talks about the creation of new instruments, were codes of the computer interfaces are like poetry, open to be written and rewritten. During the performance of EM, the musicians form and transform the sound using microphones, electronic filters and volume control. The transformed sound is played by loudspeakers and is mixed with the direct sound. 

John Richards who performs on his own inventions, compares composers of EM with soldiers and archivists. He insists on the group playing together in a spontaneous, improvised way. Composers and media activists Hannes Hoelzl and Alberto Campo go a step further: for them it is the audience that makes the decisions, not the conductor on the podium.  Their view is that computers are democratic, the music played by the machines is like a partnership. Their group is based on ‘musicians’ with a Visual Arts background, rather than conventional music training.

The Sound is Innocent is an avant-garde and challenging film that requires some effort to engage with. But it also a worthwhile documentary that opens up new avenues not only in understanding EM, but also appreciating the way it is played, both for the individual and as a group experience. AS

WORLD PREMIER | 10 APRIL 2019 | Visions du Réel, NYON, SWITZERLAND

 

 

   

   

The Walker (2015) **** Taiwan Film Festival 2019


Dir: Singing Chen | Doc, Taiwan 147′

Renowned Taiwanese choreographer Lin Lee-Chen has devoted her life to a slow and studied form of dance that embraces modern techniques with ancient religious ritual. Chen’s impressive Taiwanese documentary explores the origins of her method, showing how stealth rather than speed is the essence of the calming dance movements. Lin channels her own inner tranquility and potent physical strength into routines that share her powerful dexterity and calming creativity.

This epic study starts with a deep rumble of drums as the underworld opens and a mystical pearly white Sea Goddess Mazu gracefully emerges leading her dusky spirits forwards. This is one of the eerie yet mesmerising dances Lin has created and is performed by her Legend Lin Dance Theatre. Her work is borne out of a desire to express and share her own inner calm.

Ten years in the making the documentary is an impressively meditative endeavour that illustrates the difference between the Lin’s slow oriental aesthetic and that of the West which focuses on speed. The dance excerpts are visually exquisite, blending calmness with richly vibrant colours and an emphasis on pools of light that highlight the ritualistic dance routines. Another sequence takes place on the seashore and is one of the most sinuous and graceful performances in the repertoire, the costumes billowing and swirling as they gently contour the dancers’ elegant forms. If you’re looking for a comprehensive visual history of Taiwanese dance then this is probably the most appealing so far. MT

SCREENING AT BERTHA DOC HOUSE during the London Taiwanese Film Festival 2019 | 3 April 2019

Teddy Pendergrass: If You Don’t Know Me By Now (2019) ***

Dir: Olivia Lichtenstein | Biopic | 106′ US

Teddy Pendergrass was such a loved and wanted child, success would always follow him. Born in Philadelphia to a proud mother who had suffered six miscarriages that made her cherish him all the more, the two grew close after his father left home shortly after he arrived. Powerful both musically and physically, he had an electric smile and a rich and melodious voice. And women in their droves would flock to his sexually-charged performances, while men were attracted by his power. Lichtenstein chronicles his story but somehow misses a vital chapter, playing down a sinister but clearly significant crime side-story involving the local Phili mafia. And that somehow eclipses the high notes of this essentially celebratory film.

Much the same as Aretha Franklin, Pendergrass started singing in his local Gospel church where he would be ordained. He soon joined Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, only to leave  in 1977  – under a cloud – for a spectacular solo career, that would result in a clutch of platinum discs: an impossibly handsome, virile man with a rich and sensuous voice. But in 1982 tragedy would touch his life when a car accident turned him into a cripple. He flirted with suicide but pulled back from the brink thanks to his family and friends. One of the film’s most moving moments is seeing Pendergrass performing from a wheelchair at Live Aid at Philadelphia.

In 1977, one of the most important woman in his life was shot dead. No one has ever been convicted of Taaz Lang’s crime but Teddy was devastated. And clearly the split from Melvin had left him with enemies too, not least the local police, yet to play this up would diminish the overall impact of his own success and recovery from near death. And, at the time his career was taking off and he was positioned to be a major crossover artist, a Black Elvis even. But the crash takes over in the final scenes changing the mood of the film and leaving us wondering what really happened and why.

The murky world of organised crime in pop music is a real issue, but Pendergrass’s inspirational comeback story forces a different narrative arc on the film, leaving questions unanswered. It’s a remarkable story, but way more complicated than this makes it sound. MT

DVD RELEASE DATE 29.03.19

NATIONWIDE SCREENINGS

moviehouseent.com/films/teddy-pendergrass

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live (2019) ****

With Joni Mitchell, Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Diane Krall, James Taylor | Music

Canadian singer songwriter Joni Mitchell takes a back stage for her birthday celebration  tribute concert which features some of the World’s best known singers. Arriving on the arms of her escorts, she sits down to enjoy her own work performed by others. And it’s a motley crew – a bit like asking Polanski to direct a Scorsese film – it’s just not the same classic, but the original elements are still there. So if you’re expecting to hear Joni sing, you’ll be disappointed but entertained royally, nevertheless.

Most Memorable of all is Graham Nash who strikes out with the only song not written by Joni – but for her – Our House, simply and poignantly performed on the piano (and what a fabulous strong voice still – at 77). The two lived together for several years in their twenties in California. Diane Krall also shines with her husky voice of warm treacle. Seal sings softly (but then spoils it with a wimpish comment “I worship the ground you walk on”). But Chaka Khan brings a welcome vitality to the stage after Emmylou Harris’ dreadfully bland rendition of a song about Irish convent girls. Awful too, is Rufus Wainwright who really ruins Joni’s stunning song Blue, and then talks about his husband, thanking him profusely, for some reason. No Rufus – not your platform, thanks. He does a slightly better job with “I am on a lonely road and I am travelling….” Although no one could sing it like Joni. Brandi Carlile has the voice most similar to Joni, but more bassy and without the subtle complexity.

James Taylor and Norah Jones are also welcome. During the concert, there are archive clips of Joni on stage and birthday greetings come live via video from Elton John and Peter Gabriel, who gives creative expression to Joni’s iconically complex tunes and lyrics describing them “sparkling like jewels on a trampoline”.

The voluminous LA venue is hung with Van Gogh style artwork of Joni and photos by Henry Diltz, Nurit Wilde and Norman Seeff whose recent Joni: The Joni Mitchell Sessions, is being released in the US on hardback.

Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration Live | The Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, California | NATIONWIDE FROM 4 MARCH 2019

 

 

Freak Show (2017) ** Bluray/DVD release

Dir: Trudie Styler | Musical Drama | US | 97′

Actor, producer and now filmmaker, Trudie Styler works her contact list to great effect in cobbling together this middling teen-outsider musical powered by an impressive central turn from Alex Lawther. He plays Billy Bloom, a spirited and thoughtful young man who finds his gay identity at odds with his new surroundings when the family move from New York to a Red Neck southern state.

Thanks to DoP Dante Spinotti, Freak Show opens stylishly with a glamorous Bette Middler (as Muv) dancing with her little son (Eddie Schweighardt as the young Billy). The two are as thick as thieves but when Muv falls off the waggon, leaving Billy with Daddy ‘Downer’ (Larry Pine actually looks like Lawther), the movie soon loses its pacy allure, and dissolves into a series of musical vignettes that piece together Billy’s gradual empowerment from victim to victor. This schematic sprawl lurches from one scene to the next, hanging entirely on Lawther’s capable coat tails – and there are some striking rigouts thanks to Colleen Atwood and Sarah Laux – and Billy gets the best lines: “I just moved here from Darien Connecticut, the hometown of Chloe Sevigny”.

Intended for a teen audience Freak Show brings to mind Amy Heckerling’s 1995 comedy Clueless, and is adapted from James St James novel by Patrick J. Clifton and Beth Rigazio, who also wrote Raising Helen. Rather than finding her own distinct voice, Styler cherry picks liberally from reliable stalwarts such as Oscar Wilde and Plastic Bertrand whose quotes and music may not be known to young audiences.

After the conservative kids get used to Billy’s outlandish attire at his new school, he soon becomes friends with tousled haired dreamboat Flip Nelson (Ian Kelly), who he secretly fancies, meanwhile Flip is a bland but underwritten teen idol who remains unconvincing as a real person. Billy suffers a brutal homophobic attack that lands him in a coma and hospitalised, but this deepens his thing with Flip and he’s persuaded to run for homecoming Queen. There are some witty exchanges between Middler’s Muv and Dad’s housekeeper Florence (Celia Weston) who flags up the potential woes of Billy’s adolescent crush with Flip, and the gauche handling of this particular conflict resolution is one of the film’s many flaws. But these will likely slip off the radar of the film’s intended audience – it premiered at Berlinale’s 14K generation plus sidebar. See this for Alex Lawther and his star performance as Billy. MT

NOW AVAILABLE ON BLURAY DVD

 

Sundance Film Festival | Award and Winners 2019

Sundance announced its awards last night after ten extraordinary days of the latest independent cinema. Taking place each January in Park City, snowy Utah, the festival is the premier showcase for U.S. and international independent film, presenting dramatic and documentary feature-length films from emerging and established artists, innovative short films, filmmaker forums. The Festival brings together the most original storytellers known to mankind. In his closing speech President and Founder Robert Redford commented: “At this critical moment, it’s more necessary than ever to support independent voices, to watch and listen to the stories they tell.” Over half the films shown were directed by women and 23 prizes were awarded across the board including one film from a director identifying as LGBTQI+

This year’s jurors, invited in recognition of their accomplishments in the arts were Desiree Akhavan, Damien Chazelle, Dennis Lim, Phyllis Nagy, Tessa Thompson, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Yance Ford, Rachel Grady, Jeff Orlowski, Alissa Wilkinson, Jane Campion, Charles Gillibert, Ciro Guerra, Maite Alberdi, Nico Marzano, Véréna Paravel, Young Jean Lee, Carter Smith, Sheila Vand, and Laurie Anderson.

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary/China | Dirs: Nanfu Wang/Jialing Zhang,

 photo by Nanfu Wang.

ONE CHILD NATION After becoming a mother, a filmmaker uncovers the untold history of China’s one-child policy and the generations of parents and children forever shaped by this social experiment.

The U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic/USA | Dir/Wri Chinonye Chukwu

 

photo by Eric Branco

CLEMENCY: Years of carrying out death row executions have taken a toll on prison warden Bernadine Williams. As she prepares to execute another inmate, Bernadine must confront the psychological and emotional demons her job creates, ultimately connecting her to the man she is sanctioned to kill. Cast: Alfre Woodard, Aldis Hodge, Richard Schiff, Wendell Pierce, Richard Gunn, Danielle Brooks.

The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary: Dirs: Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov | Macedonia

HONEYLAND – When nomadic beekeepers break Honeyland’s basic rule (take half of the honey, but leave half to the bees), the last female bee hunter in Europe must save the bees and restore natural balance.

The Souvenir| photo by Agatha A. Nitecka.

The World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic | UK | Dir/wri: Joanna Hogg

THE SOUVENIR: A shy film student begins finding her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man. She defies her protective mother and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship which comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams. Cast: Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton.

The Audience Award: U.S. Documentary, | USA  Dir: Rachel Lears:

KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE — A young bartender in the Bronx, a coal miner’s daughter in West Virginia, a grieving mother in Nevada and a registered nurse in Missouri build a movement of insurgent candidates challenging powerful incumbents in Congress. One of their races will become the most shocking political upset in recent American history. Cast: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, U.S.A. Dir/Wri: Paul Downs

BRITTANY RUNS A MARATHON — A woman living in New York takes control of her life – one city block at a time. Cast: Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Lil Rel Howery, Micah Stock, Alice Lee.

The Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary/Austria: Dir: Richard Ladkan

SEA OF SHADOWS/Austria – The vaquita, the world’s smallest whale, is near extinction as its habitat is destroyed by Mexican cartels and Chinese mafia, who harvest the swim bladder of the totoaba fish, the “cocaine of the sea.” Environmental activists, Mexican navy and undercover investigators are fighting back against this illegal multimillion-dollar business.

The Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic/Denmark Dir: May el-Toukhy

QUEEN OF HEARTS — A woman jeopardises both her career and her family when she seduces her teenage stepson and is forced to make an irreversible decision with fatal consequences. Cast: Trine Dyrholm, Gustav Lindh, Magnus Krepper.

 

The Audience Award: NEXT, Alex Rivera, Cristina Ibarra

THE INFILTRATORS / U.S.A. (Directors: , Screenwriters: — A rag-tag group of undocumented youth – Dreamers – deliberately get detained by Border Patrol in order to infiltrate a shadowy, for-profit detention center. Cast: Maynor Alvarado, Manuel Uriza, Chelsea Rendon, Juan Gabriel Pareja, Vik Sahay.

The Directing Award: U.S. Documentary | USA Dirs: Steven Bognar and Julia

AMERICAN FACTORY  — In post-industrial Ohio, a Chinese billionaire opens a new factory in the husk of an abandoned General Motors plant, hiring two thousand blue-collar Americans. Early days of hope and optimism give way to setbacks as high-tech China clashes with working-class America.

The Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic U.S.A. Dirs: Joe Talbot, Screenwriters: Joe Talbot,

THE LAST BLACK MAN IN SAN FRANCISCO — Jimmie Fails dreams of reclaiming the Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. Joined on his quest by his best friend Mont, Jimmie searches for belonging in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left them behind.

The Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary NOR | Dir: Mads Brüggerwas

 photo by Tore Vollan.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld / Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Belgium — Danish director Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Bjorkdahl are trying to solve the mysterious death of Dag Hammarskjold. As their investigation closes in, they discover a crime far worse than killing the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

The Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic | Spain (Dir/Wri: Lucía Garibaldi,

THE SHARKS / Uruguay, Argentina – While a rumour about the presence of sharks in a small beach town distracts residents, 15-year-old Rosina begins to feel an instinct to shorten the distance between her body and Joselo’s. Cast: Romina Bentancur, Federico Morosini, Fabián Arenillas, Valeria Lois, Antonella Aquistapache.

The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic USA | Dir: Pippa Blanco

SHARE— After discovering a disturbing video from a night she doesn’t remember, sixteen-year-old Mandy must try to figure out what happened and how to navigate the escalating fallout. Cast: Rhianne Barreto, Charlie Plummer, Poorna Jagannathan, J.C. MacKenzie, Nick Galitzine, Lovie Simone.

U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency| USA | Dir: Jacqueline Olive

ALWAYS IN SEASON — When 17-year-old Lennon Lacy is found hanging from a swing set in rural North Carolina in 2014, his mother’s search for justice and reconciliation begins as the trauma of more than a century of lynching African Americans bleeds into the present.

A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award: Emerging Filmmaker USA : Liza Mandelup

JAWLINE — The film follows 16-year-old Austyn Tester, a rising star in the live-broadcast ecosystem who built his following on wide-eyed optimism and teen girl lust, as he tries to escape a dead-end life in rural Tennessee.

A U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing USA : Todd Douglas Miller

APOLLO 11 — A purely archival reconstruction of humanity’s first trip to another world, featuring never-before-seen 70mm footage and never-before-heard audio from the mission.

U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography | U.S.A. Dir: Luke Lorentzen

MIDNIGHT FAMILY / Mexico/DOC — In Mexico City’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, the Ochoa family runs a private ambulance, competing with other for-profit EMTs for patients in need of urgent help. As they try to make a living in this cutthroat industry, they struggle to keep their financial needs from compromising the people in their care.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2019 | 23 JANUARY – 3 FEBRUARY 2019

Climax (2018) *** Home Ent release

Dir: Gaspar Noé | Drama | 97′

The Argentinian provocateur is now in his fifties but still loves to see the worse in people, as his latest ‘thriller’ shows. This nihilistic metaphor for modern youth starts with a group of young Parisian dancers sharing the joy of their art through a series of video vignettes in the wake of their US tour. This all plays out on TV screen sunk into a bookshelf of bizarre titles ranging from suicide manuals to DVDs of Possession, Harakiri and Schizophrenia. With its ghastly blood red and green tinged camera work, Climax is a well-executed but unedifying affair that’s best left for the horror crowd or those who enjoy a touch of dirty dancing – and I mean dirty.

Shot in fifteen days and opening with the final credits – the camera erupts onto a dance floor basking in gory neon where skanky-looking types writhe and wriggle to the sounds of ‘Supernature’ – all spinning out in one hypnotic take. Scantily clad and in various states of undress the disco divas then move to the sidelines to share inane banter along the lines of: “you’re so fucking fake”. The dancing grows more frenetic after they unwittingly imbibe LSD spiked Sangria. And this is where the film finally descends into a nadir of full-blooded decadent debauchery.

Neither seductive nor particularly interesting, this devilish chamber piece may be a delight to Noe’s fanbase, but others will find it sad to see society’s bases impulses played out as a soi-disant arthouse piece.  Shirking a coherent narrative, the film’s throbbing electronic beats appeal to the darker more reptilian impulses of the human brain. As the camera plummets and soars, the desire to vomit grows stronger. Couples copulate and urinate in the name of art. Noé’s schtick is growing tiresome. Can we play at something else? MT

DVD and BLURAY | 21 January 2019 courtesy of Arrow Films 

https://we.tl/t-Rnh1zai4tW

 

 

The Song of the Tree (2018)**** Talinn Black Nights 2018

Dir: Aibek Daiyrbekov | Musical Drama | 93′ | Kyrgyzstan

THE SONG OF THE TREE is an ambitiously mounted and sumptuously vivid love story: about a people’s everlasting love for the homeland, and a woman’s ardent love for a man. Based on real and mythical stories passed down from one generation to another, it is also Kyrgyzstan’s first musical film, set and filmed in this magnificent scenic country.

It follows the story of a feisty young man (Esen,Omurbek Izrailov)) who falls foul of his mountain community over time old issue of honour, after stealing some meat, which leads to the felling of a secret tree. Humiliated, he decides to leave with his love Begimai (Saltanat Bakaeva) but after they are  intercepted, the lovesick loner becomes hellbent on revenge. 

The musical elements embellish the nomadic narrative rather than driving it forward, the songs are gracefully performed and, despite subtitles, the story more or less tells itself pictorially to those who hate reading the bottom line. And there’s plenty here to enjoy. Filmmaker Aibek Daiyrbekov tells his tale against the stunning widescreen backdrop of the Tien Shan range of mountains. But there is an intimacy to the story that retains our interest throughout and this often involves a singing vignette in the foreground.

Set during the 1800s the film really conveys the stridence and casual violence of these exotic people who think nothing of whipping their adversaries savagely and pulling out daggers, without a ‘by your leave’. There are some spectacular chase scenes on horseback – one in particular sees a horse roll over and over down a sandy valley. Daiyrbekov keeps our attention on the lovers story (despite the odd subplot) and this eventually culminates in a face-off between between Esen and Oguz (Jurduzbek Kaseivov), the man who cut down the tree and murdered his brother.

There’s nothing particularly unique about the plot line but Daiyrbekov’s directing and mise en scene and Akzhol Bekbolotov’s camerawork is absolutely glorious and visually exquisite. Meanwhile Zholdoshbek Apasov’s compositions and use of local instruments give the film a lyrical quality that adds to its enjoyment. With a modest running time of 93 minutes, this is a worthwhile addition to Kyrgyzstan contemporary cinema. MT

SCREENING DURING TALINN BLACK NIGHTS FILM FESTIVAL 2018

https://vimeo.com/300254926

The Song of the Tree Review Asian Movie Pulse

 

Pina (2011) Bluray and Home Ent release

Dir: Wim Wenders | Germany, 2011 | Doc | 113′    

PINA is an amazing and lavishly attractive musical that combines 3D to heighten our enjoyment of a series of dance sequences filmed by Wim Wenders and featuring the celebrated dancer Pina Bausch in her Tanztheater in Wuppertal in the southern Ruhr valley, Germany.

The German choreographer died in June 2009 at the age of 68 just as she was starting her collaboration with Wim Wenders but he so believed in the project that he continued with Pina’s versions of Vollmond, a dance that centres on water splashing in a rock pool, Stravinsky’s exotic expressionist piece The Rite of Spring; Kontakthof, where rhythmic movements are inspired by a heightened naturalism; and the dynamic routine Café Müller, where six dancers move around in a restaurant as they rearrange the tables and chairs. West End Blues sees the troupe in full evening dress with lounge suits and long flowing gowns as they move to the jazz syncopations of Louis Armstrong and his band. The dances often break out into the nearby streets where they swirl around using the backdrop of the monorail and green spaces as inspiration for their graceful compositions. Ever inventive this is one of Wenders’ most memorable and enjoyable films along with Wings of Desire and the cult classic Paris, Texas. MT

PINA RELEASES ON BLURAY FROM 12 NOVEMBER 2018 and on DVD on CURZON ON DEMAND

The Last Waltz (1978) **** Home Ent release

THE LAST WALTZ is deeply personal yet timeless in its universal appeal. Martin Scorsese’s love song to rock music is a resounding one, and arguably the best concert film of all time. Dated in its Seventies look, but endearingly so, the doc has been remastered onto bluray, and the result is stunning. The film showcases the legendary rock group The Band’s final farewell concert appearance. Joined on stage by more than a dozen special guests, Van Morrison,  Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell perform their iconic numbers to dazzling effect. The Last Waltz started as a concert, but it became a celebration. In between numbers, Scorsese chats to members of The Band, filmed by master DoPs Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond. Scorsese’s message to the audience, “this film should be played loud” MT

ON RELEASE FROM 12 NOVEMBER 2018 | COURTESY OF EUREKA FILM LABEL 

THE BAND | BOB DYLAN | ERIC CLAPTON | NEIL YOUNG | JONI MITCHELL | VAN MORRISON | NEIL DIAMOND | EMMYLOU HARRIS| MUDDY WATERS | THE STAPLES | RINGO STARR | RON WOOD | DR. JOHN | PAUL BUTTERFIELD | RONNIE HAWKINS

 

The King (2018) **** DVD release

Dir: Eugene Jarecki | US | Musical Biopic with Alex Baldwin, Ethan Hawke, Ashton Kutcher, Lana Del Rey, Emmylou Harris | 109′

Using Elvis Presley’s life as a metaphor to explore America’s modern malaise from so-called dream to disaster, Eugene Jarecki’s Sundance Grand Jury Winner heads across the States for a musical mystery tour in the legendary star’s vintage Rolls Royce, four decades after his life as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century ended in a heart attack, aged 42.

Although Jarecki adopts a novel approach to the life of the legendary singer and entertainer, the results are sprawling, spirited and great fun in a biopic that gazes deep into the soul of a nation in flux and features an eclectic cast of stars and well known places from Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, to Graceland, Memphis, Las Vegas and New York.

Enlivened by archive footage, musical interludes and enlightening observations from Ethan Hawke and Alec Baldwin, ex-band members and those associated with Presley’s life, Jarecki cleverly draws a comparison between the star and President Trump  showing how these two  transformative figures made a terrific impact on the US culture. In Presley’s case his musical style created a bridge to ease racial tension which sadly ended in disappointment, particularly in the southern states, due to the pursuit of financial above humanitarian goals (Presley always chased the money in his career choices, and when once purportedly asked by President Reagan whether he would choose a new swimming pool or to help kids with AIDS, he went for the swimming pool). On the face of Jarecki’s seems like an inspired and persuasive viewpoint: whether it stands up beyond this cursory glance, remains to be seen and sometimes his approach feels as it Elvis has been slotted in to meet the needs of his argument. 

Needless to say, the musical soundtrack is astonishing (shame the excerpts are so short) and Jarecki’s wide angle images of the glittering skylines and sweeping landscapes of Route 66 make this an enjoyable romp as well as an informative biopic of the “King of Rock and Roll” MT

ON DVD FROM 1 October 2018

ARTISTS FEATURED IN THE KING

EmiSunshine and The Rain; Leo “Bud” Welch; STAX Music Academy All-Stars John Hiatt; Loveful Heights; Immortal Technique; The Handsome Family; Nicki Bluhm and The Gramblers; M. Ward ; Justin Merrick and the STAX Academy All-Stars; Lindy Vision; Robert Bradley

FILMS FEATURED IN THE KING

LOVING YOU (1957); SPEEDWAY (1968); JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957); KID GALAHAD (1962); GI BLUES (1960); FOLLOW THAT DREAM (1962); GIRL HAPPY (1965); CLAMBAKE (1967); IT HAPPENED AT THE WORLDS FAIR (1963); TICKLE ME (1965); EASY COME EASY GO (1967); FUN IN ACAPULCO (1963); BLUE HAWAII (1961); LIVE A LITTLE LOVE A LITTLE (1968); HARUM SCARUM (1965); PARADISE HAWAIIAN STYLE (1966); FRANKIE AND JOHNNY (1966); VIVA LAS VEGAS (1964)

The Man from Mo’ Wax (2017) ****

Dir: Matthew Jones | Music Biopic | doc |

The Man from Mo’Wax chronicles the life and times of the influential producer, DJ, and musician James Lavelle.

For his laudable debut feature Matthew Jones draws on extensive archive footage and previously unseen videos of Lavelle together with stills and original interviews that capture the essence of his idiosyncratic label Mo’Wax, gaining insight into his relationship with DJ Shadow and duo’s chart-topping UNKLE project, featuring amongst other musicians Thom Yorke, Richard Ashcroft, Josh Homme and Kool G Rap. No stone is left unturned in exploring the ups and downs of the iconic cool guy’s personal life and loves in this enjoyable and lively documentary that will appeal to fans and music-lovers alike. MT

There will be a special event at BFI Southbank on 30st August 2018, featuring a screening of the film and a Q&A with James Lavelle and director Matthew Jones. The film will be released in selected cinemas nationwide on the 31st August – celebrating the 20th anniversary of ‘Psyence Fiction’’s release. Following that the DVD/Blu Ray will be released September 10th with TV streaming TBA. For more information about all confirmed nationwide screenings of The Man From Mo’Wax

NOW AVAILABLE COURTESY OF THE BFI ON BLURAY

 

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One Note at a Time (2017) ****

Dir:  Renée Edwards | Featuring: Clarke Peters (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Dr John, Kermit Ruffins, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Irma Thomas, Hot 8 Brass Band | US Doc | 95 mins.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans traditional jazz musicians gather together to play and talk about the soul of their city which celebrates its 300th Anniversary in 2018. 

Renée Edwards’ paean to these Louisiana musicians is a labour of love that’s been nine years in the making. Four of these were spent following a small number from different genres, as they came to terms with their changed city, musical landscape and life. Intertwined are their musical and health stories, as they frequent the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, a lifeline and comfort, that simultaneously had its own struggles, whilst aspiring to fulfil a mission to ‘keep the music ALIVE’. Without these guys the city would lose its soul, not to mention the thousands of tourists who come to join in the fun.

Best known for her editing work for some of television’s highest profile news and current affairs series and documentary dramas, including award-winning Panorama Specials, A Fight to the Death and The Mind Reader, this is the British-born filmmaker’s feature debut. And it’s a semi auto-biographical piece recording her own happy memories of childhood holidays spend in the area, but shot through with a melancholy that records a dark time for New Orleans when the music stopped in 2005 in the aftermath to one of the most deadly and destructive hurricanes in American history. The flood defences failed, flooding the Crescent City for weeks. Lives were lost and lives were shattered. Many displaced musicians felt compelled to return to the chaos and bleak confusion to play again. This is the story of some who made it back, told in their own words. MT
ONE NOTE AT A TIME has won numerous international and domestic festival awards including BEST FEATURE DOCUMENTARY at Studio City International Film Festival, GOLD WINNER at Los Angeles Film Review Industry Awards, BEST DOCUMENTARY at Nottingham International Film Festival and three awards at the Oxford International Film Festival including FILM OF THE FESTIVAL.

ONE NOTE AT A TIME 2018 marks the 300th anniversary of the founding of New Orleans.

Elvis ‘68 Comeback Special (2018) ***

Dir.: Steve Binder; Documentary with Elvis Presley; USA 1968/2018, 105 min.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this legendary Elvis Presley Comeback Show, originally filmed in the NBC studios in June 1968, director Steve Binder and Priscilla Presley shed light on the details of the recordings; followed bya 90-minute special cut of the original 440- minute DVD. The Special Edition will be shown in cinemas on August the 16th, the 41th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death.

Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker, who had pushed the singer into a mediocre Hollywood career after his return from Military Service, originally wanted the first public appearance of Presley for seven years as a Christmas Special, but when ‘Hullabaloo’ producer/director Steve Binder came on board everything changed, though Parker church a hope that at least the final song would be a festive one for the screening in December of that year. But Binder sent Presley away to slim down, and for the start of the recordings on June 17th in the NBC studios, he re-united Presley with his original musicians Fontana and Scotty Moore, later adding Mike Deasey and Hal Blaine to support the star. Presley was a little shy at first, but soon started goofing around on and off the little stage, which looked “like an open boxing ring”. And he certainly looks terrific in a swanky black leather outfit and his signature slicked back hairdo. More sexually alluring but with the same dry sense of humour as The Beatles, who had made their own tour of the US two years earlier.

For the planned Gospel medley recordings on June 27th, Parker had given out tickets mainly to NBC security guards, and Binder personally went to ‘Bob’s Big Boy’ to get a much different age group to attend. Whilst classics like “Guitar Man”, “That’s alright” and “Heartbreak Hotel” make us remember how great Presley was creatively and physically (only nine years before his death), Binder cut the infamous ‘Bordello’ sequence. A week after shooting ended, Presley started the Western Charro. As Blaine said “Everybody was on Cloud Nine” – but Presley would never be the same, even in his third, ‘Las Vegas’ re-incarnation. This release is bound to be a hit with fans of the star and may even garner some new interest from the current millennial generation. AS

AVAILABLE IN UK CINEMAS FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY ON 16 AUGUST 2018 ACROSS 250 CINEMAS NATIONWIDE 

Modern Life is Rubbish (2017) **

Dir: Daniel Jerome Gill | Cast: Josh Whitehouse, Jessie Cave, Ian Hart, Steven Mackintosh, Freya Mavor, Tom Riley | Musical Drama | UK | 114′

Daniel Jerome Gill is clearly a fan of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. Modern Life  is Rubbish makes a brave attempt to re-create Stephen Frears’ 2000 cult classic drama, that sees a young couple come together through their shared love of music, only to part ten years later, falling out of love.

Gill’s endearing but lightweight film lacks the charisma and zinging chemistry brought to the original by John Cusack and Iben Hjelje – not to mention the sensational script – to make it another breakout hit. Modern Life works best as a stinging reminder of the economic climate of its time as the world entered the late 1990s recession, Its sparkling string of musical hits by Blur, The Smiths, Oasis, and Radiohead considerably enhance the film’s entertainment and nostalgia value.

As Liam and Natalie, Josh Whitehouse and Freya Mavor are gently appealing: he, an old-school struggling musician who believes in his worth and his art; and she, an uptown aspiring art designer (of album covers) who lacks conviction, despite a megawatt smile. We first meet them in the rather morose opening scene whence the drama sashays backwards and forwards – to the time they first clapped eyes on each other, in a record shop, gradually showing them falling in love, as opposites attract. Liam’s inability to embrace the modern corporate world make him an appealing embodiment of anti-corporate culture, his disdain for social media is palpable: He refuses to own a smartphone or an iPod and is proud of his tangible record collection on vinyl. Natalie is more pragmatic, casting aside her artistic hopes for the advantages of pecuniary gain, to work in advertising. But her heart is clearly not in it – at the opening night of her first gig in an art gallery, the two realise they are not quite cut out for each other when Natalie explains: “We’re doing a viral campaign for the gallery” and Liam chips in: “a load of wank, if you ask me”. That said, the soundtrack that first defined their relationship keeps pulling them back together.

Taking its title from Blur’s 1993 album, the film is a pure satirical trip to its era, working best as a testament to the late 1990s, rather than as a believable story of frontman Liam and his weak attempts to make it with his band Headcleaner, his lack of finances being the major cause of the pair’s eventual rift. The scenes involving Steven Mackintosh, Will Merrick and Ian Hart feel laboured and generic (although Hart gives a stonking turn as the band’s agent), but when Whitehouse (a real guitarist) takes to the stage in a live performance, the film gets a shot in the arm, in lucid sequences filmed by cinematographer Tim Sidell.

Strangely, it’s the viral success of the band that finally makes Liam a name, and this leads to the inevitable, and a rather bittersweet, finale for the lovers in this ultimately enjoyable trip down memory lane. MT

OUT ON RELEASE from 4 May 2018

 

 

 

Sundance London 2018 | 31 May – 3 June

Once again Robert Redford brings twelve of the best indie feature films that premiered in Utah this January, with opportunities to talk to the filmmakers and cast in a jamboree that kicks off on the long weekend of 31 May until 3 June.

Desiree Akhavan picked up the Grand Jury Prize for her comedy drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post in the original US festival, and seven films are directed by women along with a thrilling array of female leads on screen, and this year’s festival champions their voices with Toni Collette (Hereditary) amongst the stars to grace this glittering occasion taking place in Picturehouse Central, Leicester Square. Robert Redford will also be in attendance.

An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn (Director: Jim Hosking,

Screenwriters: Jim Hosking, David Wike) – Lulu Danger’s unsatisfying marriage takes a fortunate turn for the worse when a mysterious man from her past comes to town to perform an event called ‘An Evening With Beverly Luff Linn For One Magical Night Only’.

Principal cast: Aubrey Plaza, Emile Hirsch, Jemaine Clement, Matt Berry, Craig Robinson

Eighth Grade (Director/Screenwriter: Bo Burnham) – Thirteen-year-old Kayla endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence as she makes her way through the last week of middle school — the end of her thus far disastrous eighth grade year — before she begins high school.

Principal cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton

Generation Wealth (Director: Lauren Greenfield) – Lauren Greenfield’s postcard from the edge of the American Empire captures a portrait of a materialistic, image-obsessed culture. Simultaneously personal journey and historical essay, the film bears witness to the global boom–bust economy, the corrupted American Dream and the human costs of late stage capitalism, narcissism and greed.

Principal cast: Florian Homm, Tiffany Masters, Jaqueline Siegel

Half the Picture (Director: Amy Adrion) – At a pivotal moment for gender equality in Hollywood, successful women directors tell the stories of their art, lives and careers. Having endured a long history of systemic discrimination, women filmmakers may be getting the first glimpse of a future that values their voices equally.

Principal cast: Rosanna Arquette, Jamie Babbit, Emily Best

Hereditary (Director/Screenwriter: Ari Aster) – After their reclusive grandmother passes away, the Graham family tries to escape the dark fate they’ve inherited.

Principal cast: Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Ann Dowd, Milly Shapiro

Leave No Trace (Director: Debra Granik, Screenwriters: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini) – A father and daughter live a perfect but mysterious existence in Forest Park, a beautiful nature reserve near Portland, Oregon, rarely making contact with the world. A small mistake tips them off to authorities sending them on an increasingly erratic journey in search of a place to call their own.

Principal cast: Ben Foster, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Jeff Kober, Dale Dickey

The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Director: Desiree Akhavan, Screenwriters: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele) –1993: after being caught having sex with the prom queen, a girl is forced into a gay conversion therapy center. Based on Emily Danforth’s acclaimed and controversial coming-of-age novel.

Principal cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle.

Never Goin’ Back (Director/Screenwriter: Augustine Frizzell) –Jessie and Angela, high school dropout BFFs, are taking a week off to chill at the beach. Too bad their house got robbed, rent’s due, they’re about to get fired and they’re broke. Now they’ve gotta avoid eviction, stay out of jail and get to the beach, no matter what!!!

Principal cast: Maia Mitchell, Cami Morrone, Kyle Mooney, Joel Allen, Kendal Smith, Matthew Holcomb

Skate Kitchen (Director: Crystal Moselle, Screenwriters: Crystal Moselle, Ashlihan Unaldi) – Camille’s life as a lonely suburban teenager changes dramatically when she befriends a group of girl skateboarders. As she journeys deeper into this raw New York City subculture, she begins to understand the true meaning of friendship as well as her inner self.

Principal cast: Rachelle Vinberg, Dede Lovelace, Jaden Smith, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, Kabrina Adams

The Tale (Director/Screenwriter: Jennifer Fox) – An investigation into one woman’s memory as she’s forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive; based on the filmmaker’s own story.

Principal cast: Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, Ellen Burstyn, Common

Yardie (Director: Idris Elba, Screenwriters: Brock Norman Brock, Martin Stellman) – Jamaica, 1973. When a young boy witnesses his brother’s assassination, a powerful Don gives him a home. Ten years later he is sent on a mission to London. He reunites with his girlfriend and their daughter, but then the past catches up with them. Based on Victor Headley’s novel.

Principal cast: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Stephen Graham, Fraser James, Sheldon Shepherd, Everaldo Cleary

SURPRISE FILM! Following on from last year’s first ever surprise film, the hit rap story Patti Cake$, Sundance Film Festival: London will again feature a surprise showing.  No details as yet, but it was a favourite among audiences in Utah, and with just one screening this will be among the hottest of the hot tickets. The title will be revealed only when the opening credits roll. My bets are on Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which picked up the World Cinema Audience Award back in January; or possibly Rudy Valdez’ drug documentary The Sentence, or it could even be Burden, which took the US Dramatic Audience Award for its story of a love affair between a villain and a woman who saves his soul. 

SUNDANCE LONDON RUNS FROM 31 MAY – 3 JUNE 2018 | TICKETS

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ballad of Shirley Collins (2017) | Home Ent


Dir: Rob Curry | Tim Plester | Musical biopic Doc | UK | 94′

Rob Curry and Tm Plester (Way of the Morris) retain a 1970s aesthetic for this lyrical paean to Shirley Elizabeth Collins MBE (born Sussex 5 July 1935) the English folk singer who, along with her sister Dolly, is widely regarded as the mainstay of the English Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s. After leaving school at 17, she often performed on the banjo and recorded with her sister Dolly, whose piano accompaniment created unique settings for Shirley’s plain and often plangeant singing style. She first met Communist activist and eminent ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax at a party Ewan MacColl held in the early 1954, fell in love and followed him back to Kentucky in 1959 where he had been under surveillance during the McCarthy witch-hunt. The two made recordings under Atlantic Records under the title Sounds of the South (some were re-enacted in the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother Where Art Thou). But the focus here is largely on Shirley and her life experiences up to the present day, and there’s a distinct feeling of loss and redemption that runs through it.

Shirley Collins comes across as vulnerable but warmly down to earth telling how she briefly lost her singing voice after a relationship ebded, but she has certainly recovered it now – she looks and sounds stunning at 82 – as she performs informally. Shirley is also a lively raconteur adding a touch of wry humour when recalling letters to her family back home, written from her time in Mississippi with Alan, which she describes as ‘quite domestic’: “I must finish now as I have to go and syringe Alan’s ears”.

Narrated by Hannah Arterton (The Five) and enlivened by original black & white footage, audio archives, and colourful filmed excerpts from Arundel and the countryside around East Sussex where she grew up, this enjoyable and informative biopic raises the profile of this little known era of English folk singing with a distinct pagan feel to it. THE BALLAD OF SHIRLEY COLLINS is fascinating and gorgeously framed and captured in Richard Mitchell’s limpid visuals. MT

DVD ON RELEASE FROM AMAZON.CO.UK

The Magic Flute (1975) ****

Dir.: Ingmar Bergman; Josef Köstlinger, Irma Urilla, Ulrik Cold, Birgit Nordin; Sweden 1975, 135′.

Filmed opera is not always successful on the big screen, but director/writer Ingmar Bergman has made the right choices in his staging of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with the libretto by Schikaneder. It was first performed in 1791 in Vienna, just weeks before the composer’s untimely death.

Bergman’s first decision was to rebuild the 18th century Drottningholm Palace Theatre in Stockholm on the soundstage of the TV studio. Secondly, he recorded the music before shooting, and with the actors/singers in lip-synchrony during the filmed performance itself, he achieved a vivid, naturalistic view of the Paleolithic world shown. Furthermore, the camera often pans into the audience, to picture the director, his son Daniel and the actress Ingrid Bergman. A young girl also catches our attention: her face mirrors all the actions on the stage. In staying faithful to the (not always) perfect libretto, Bergman conveys the wonderland of the theatre – as seen by the audience of the 18th century – with all its improbabilities.

After the overture the curtain opens and we see Tamino (Köstlinger) being chased by a dragon – not a particularly fearsome one – but Tamino does not ruffle his fur. Saved by three female servants of the Queen of Night – whilst Tamino believes that Papageno is his saviour – our hero sets out to liberate Princess Pamina (Urrila), daughter of the Queen of Night (Nordin), from the clutches of her father, Sarastro (Cold), who leads a masonic order. The Queen is immediately shown for what she is: smoking in the backdrops languidly under a “Non Smoking” sign. Three little boys in a balloon accompany Tamino on his journey to Sarastro’s castle, always encouraging the hero to stay brave and steadfast – something the audience can relate to – after his meek performance with the dragon. Sarastro sets Tamino three tasks, but only if he successfully finishes all of them, can he marry Pamina. The Queen of the Night flies into a rage and sings “The vengeance of hell boils over in my heart”, reminding us of a good old-fashioned horror queen. Her outburst is quiet appropriate, since Tamino has to visit the underworld, where people tear each other up. The monsters that occasional turns are furry animals, very much like Maurice Sendak’s creatures in ‘Where the wild things are”.
In the style of of Autumn Sonata and parts of Fanny and Alexander, Bergman shows his mastery of filmed theatre. The dominant feeling is a childlike enjoyment, a playful naivety, which is supported by Sven Nykvist’s cinematography. This Magic Flute is a celebration of the magic of theatre, caught by a director and DoP fondly remembering their childhood. AS

THE INGMAR BERGMAN RETROSPECTIVE | BFI and BFIPLAYER | MARCH 2018

3 Film Composers Who Died Young

Jóhann Jóhannsson, 48 (1969-February 2018) whose sudden death at 48 has just been announced, was an  award-winning Icelandic musician whose intuitive, poignant and often pounding original scores graced a wide range of theatre and dance productions and films such as Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival where he daringly combined strings, electronics and vocals to achieve unique soundscapes. He won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for both The Theory of Everything and advised on Darren Aronofsky’s recent drama Mother! The BBC’s Maryanne Hobbs has described his particular talent for “elevating the unseen human element” in his source matter has been variously praised. James Marsh’s human drama The Mercy is a case in point and his last score is for Garth Davis’ Mary Magdelene which opens this year.

https://youtu.be/0sziNUZa4Sw

But Jóhannsson is not the only film composer whose life was tragically cut short. Another was Polish composer Krzysztof Komeda (1931-1969) who captured the positive zeitgeist of the 1960s with his breezy jazz scores and electronic vibes. His talent for doomladen and unsettling fare was also evident in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Cul de Sac and Knife in the Water. In a brief but prolific career he wrote more than 70 soundtracks, 46 scores for short films, including 11 feature films and appeared as ‘the pianist’ in Janusz Morgenstern’s Gdansk-set New Wave drama Goodbye, See you Tomorrow (1960).In the same year he scored Innocent Sorcerers another more serious New Wave piece about the restlessness of Polish post-war youth, by the great Andrzej Wajda. At this time, Komeda’s love affair with Scandinavia began and went on for the rest of his life, and he performed with his own jazz band at the ‘Gyllene Cirkeln’ (Golden Circle) in Stockholm and at the Montmartre Jazz Club in Copenhagen, along with other celebrated American Jazz musicians. His final score for Polanski included the 1968 haunting piano piece Rosemary’s Lullaby, sung by Mia Farrow (1968) and the music for The Fearless Vampire Killers whose main star Sharon Tate would also die young. Tragedy arrived after a good-humoured tussle at a Los Angeles party that Christmas. Komeda suffered a brain trauma and never recovered.

Victor Young was an American composer, conductor and balladeer whose life was also tragically cut short at the age of 56. Born into a musical Jewish family in Chicago on 8 August 1900, he began playing the violin as a child of 6 and with the Warsaw Philharmonic in his teens, after being sent to Poland to study at the Warsaw Imperial Conservatory. It is rumoured that he performed at a St Petersburg concerns attended by Tzar Nicholas II, and was later invited to play privately for the monarch. But his film career began when he returned to Los Angeles as a fiddler and then a concert master for Paramount-Publix theatres. In 1930 he was commissioned to write the instrumental to Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, re-styling it as a romantic violin solo. He was uncredited for the famous tune Can’t We Talk it Over in William Dieterle’s romantic drama Man Wanted (1932) but from the mid 1930s to the late 1957s Young’s Hollywood film career really blossomed with credits for When I Fall in Love, which he co-wrote as the central tune to Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth’s 1952 romantic war drama One Minute to Zero; For Whom the Bell Tolls (1944);  Dieterle’s Love Letters (1945/6), starring Joseph Cotton and Jennifer Jones; Dana Andrews’ starrer My Foolish Heart (1950); and Moonlight Serenade that featured in Bette Davis and Sterling Hayden’s romantic drama The Star (1952). During his career he garnered 22 Academy Award nominations for his work in film, but only won an Oscar after his death, for his score of Around the World in Eighty Days (1956). And he had one screen role, conducting Bing Crosby in The Country Girl (1954). MT

 

 

TRIBUTE | Jóhann Jóhannsson | 1969 February 2018 

 

Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars (2017)

Dir: Lili Fini Zanuck | Writers: Stephen “Scooter” Weintraub, Larry Yelen | Music Biopic | 213′

Fans of Eric Clapton will certainly know the facts behind the ’god of guitar’s’ eventful life. In her flawed but emotionally penetrating rock-doc, Lili Fini Zanuck’s poignantly conveys the years of heartache behind this fated and fêted musician.

London UK : PATTIE BOYD ATTENDS THE UK PRMEIERE OF “ERIC CLAPTON : LIFE IN 12 BARS” JANUARY 10TH 2018. (CREDIT : JAMES GILLHAM / STILLMOVING.NET)

Lili Fini Zanuck and Eric Clapton are longterm friends and collaborators: He provided the score for her feature Rush, back in 1991. And despite the use of a meandering, counterintuitive narrative to tell his, often tragic, story with its ill-judged epilogue feeling more like a cheesy commercial for Clapton’s current project rather than a fitting finale, the study is mostly thorough in its breadth and depth, chronicling the life story of an Englishman who has suffered, been severely tested and has come up trumps.

Life in 12 Bars is an ironic title given Clapton’s years of alcoholism, so let’s hope this is refers to his mastery of the guitar, an instrument that was to be his muse, his whipping boy (we are shown how he uses it as anger therapy), and his saving grace throughout his life. The film opens with a fabulous account of Clapton’s early childhood, his artistic reveries and discovery, aged 9, that his mother had abandoned him: he was brought up by his grandmother Rose Clapp. We learn how Clapton turns his disappointment and rejection into developing his musical technique from his teens to his involvement in blues-based and psychedelic groups. The Yardbirds and The Cream years are covered in compelling depth, and Zanuck shows how Clapton did his bit for the blues, and was headhunted by Mayall who got him playing for the Bluesbreakers. He even moved in to Mayall’s home with his family.

But Zanuck and her writers Weintraub and Yelen tend to gloss over certain aspects of his career – probably out of respect to friendship – and it’s Clapton himself who owns up to his behavioural shortcomings as an introvert who couldn’t relate to women but became obsessed by one of them, Patti Boyd, during her mariage to George Harrison. So although the film goes into almost forensic detail on some aspects of the story, other years are befuddled – almost as if in an booze-fuelled haze – such as his career as a solo recording artist which gave rise to a several salient albums. Pattie Boyd merely serves the narrative as a flirtatious cypher who cannot make up her mind between him and George – while he is yearning for her love, howling at the moon for her to leave George, which she eventually does, but by then too much damage has been done for them to make a go of things. Talking faces are almost entirely absent to give context to this period of his life, particularly his closest friend, Ben Palmer.

London UK : JOHN BATTSEK, JOOLS HOLLAND, LILI FINI ZANUCK, ERIC CLAPTON AND CHRIS KING ATTEND THE UK PRMEIERE OF “ERIC CLAPTON : LIFE IN 12 BARS” JANUARY 10TH 2018. (CREDIT : JAMES GILLHAM / STILLMOVING.NET)

Zanuck has a cinematic way of conjuring up the days lost to booze and drugs in Hurtwood, Clapton’s country house in the depths of Surrey. But his romantic affairs take on a rather hazy anecdotal feel, the story often flipping back and forth – and there’s a curious bit where Zanuck suddenly goes back to his mother’s second rejection of him, arriving from Canada with her two latest children, and this comes towards the end of the story, father than at the beginning, where it would have clearly better informed us of The emotional arc that coloured his career. Clearly this fundamental rejection was going to lead to a lack of trust and vulnerability issues that would go on to jeopardise any kind of lasting romantic attachment. But it’s these years that are so movingly conveyed by Zanuck, showing Clapton heartbroken over Boyd after dedicating Layla to her, and retreating into a ‘safe’ world blunted by drugs and alcohol. But there’s much to enjoy here in this freewheeling trip back to a rich and vibrant musical era. And it’s heart-warming to see how Clapton has finally managed to overcome his demons, albeit circuitously, and despite a rather cheesy ending which actually has the strange effect of making the legend seem less interesting than he appeared to be at the beginning of his career. MT

OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 12 JANUARY 2017

 

 

Napoléon (1927)

Dir|Writer|Prod: Abel Gance | Music: Carl Davis, Carmine Coppola, Arthur Honegger | Silent | 330min

One of the highlights of silent film is the digitally restored version of Abel Gance’s cinematic triumph NAPOLÉON. This magnificent film is enhanced by Carl Davis’ rousing score and technical touches to reveal the original tinting that make it feel edgy and contemporary enough for modern audiences as it approaches it centenary.

It portrays the early life of the legendary French soldier who was go on to make his mark in world for centuries to come. In opening scenes Napoleon Bonaparte is seen playing with his school friends in the snow, already asserting his powers of leadership in an impressive performance by Vladimir Roudenko. Albert Dieudonnéthen plays the adult Napoleon as he forges ahead with a successful military campaign in Italy. Running at over 5.5 hours, this is an absorbing and thrilling experience blending melodrama with moving musical interludes and combining intimate domestic scenes with full scale widescreen historical recreations that offer insight into the French Revolution and Italian campaigns of 1796. MT

Digitally restored by Photoplay Productions and the BFI National Archive, with a newly-recorded score, composed and conducted by Carl Davis, Napoleon (1927) comes to UK cinemas, DVD/Blu-ray and BFI Player | Back this December 2017 

Song of Granite (2017)

Dir.: Pat Collins; Cast: Colm Seoighe, Michael O’Conthoala, Macdara O’Fatharta, Jaren Cerf, Kate Nick Chonaonaigh; ROI/Canada 2017, 98 min.

Pat Collins’ portrait of Irish Dean Nos singer Joe Heaney (Seosamh O hEanai) is an exercise in displacement. Elliptically, and often enigmatically, we follow Heaney from the village of Carna on the west Coast of Ireland, where he was born in 1919, to his exile in the United States and Canada – from the mid 1960s until his death in 1984.

Biopics often fall short of our expectations due to endless Talking Heads sharing their own thoughts, but here Collins relies on sound and image to get his subject across, at it works. Heaney is played by three different actors: Colm Seoghe as a boy – by far the most impressive of the trio; Michael O’Conthoala in his forties and Macdara O’Fathharta as the ageing Heaney in his sixties. Heaney lived for a long time in isolation in Carna, he was only “discovered” by the public at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, after which he emigrated to New York. Collins does away with a narrative structure; long shots and many close-up framing of faces are mixed with static shots of landscapes, giving the feature the feeling of a daydream. Sometimes Collins switches to plain naturalism: when an ethnomusicologist visits Heaney’s village, his father sings into an ancient recoding machine, Collins arranges the scene with four villagers in framing his father, the background is made up by a two door-shaped crevice. The camera wanders from back- to foreground, creating a composition, which is conceptual perfect – but creates a feeling of distance. The same can be said for the shots in New York -actually filmed in Montreal: Heaney in his porter uniform, lonely in his basement flat, meeting another Irish musician and the introduction of two females, Rosie (Cerf) and Maire (Chonanonaigh), whose identity remains in the dark – as do many aspects of this docudrama. The Irish folk songs, liberally sprayed throughout, are taken in long takes, performed without instrumental accompaniment, are also part of the overall structure, creating a historical, almost anthropological style.

Whilst Collins aesthetic braveness should be applauded on the one hand, Heaney remains an elusive figure: his feeling of displacement in North America is underwhelmingly documented. We never get any nearer to who Heaney was. He is sucked into the structure of a film whose aesthetics are taken much more seriously than the character it aims to portray. Overall, this leaves a hollow feeling, almost like an idyllic picture postcard from a bygone era. AS

ON RELEASE FROM 15 DECEMBER 2017 NATIONWIDE

Grace Jones – Bloodlight and Bami (2017)

Die:. Sophie Fiennes | UK/Ireland. 2017 | Musical Biopic | 115′

As fabulous now as when she was in 1979 – when I first experienced her at a concert in Italy’s famous Covo di Nord Est – Grace Jones still rocks. At almost 70, her voice has mellowed, wavering occasionally, but her glamour and star power are just as potent and her aura and outrageous antics as just spectacular, if not more.

After an overture of Slave to the Rhythm where Grace performs in purple regalia and a golden sunburst mask, Fiennes cuts to an autograph session with fans fawning: “I’ve been waiting to see you for 25 years” – Grace responds “so has my mother”. Suddenly we are following her through Jamaica airport for an exuberant reunion with her mother (who looks like Aretha Franklin), son Paolo and niece Chantel, and as night falls, the camera pictures a sultry moonlight gig in the torridly tropical island, drenched in lush emerald forests.

1268255_Grace-Jones-2At at raucous and voluble family meal we get some backstory on the Jones and Williams troubled family backstory in a scene that culminates in a full-throated performance of Wicked and Williams’ Blood as Grace struts around amid strobes – sporting nothing but a black leotard and a massive clotted cream moonshaped crown – by Irish hatter Philip Treacy – Fiennes tribute captures the warmth and ebullience of Jamaica and Grace’s defiant irreverence.

Grace was once a Bond Girl – May Day – in A View To A Kill and also appeared in Conan The Destroyer, but here we witness the real Grace for the first time: The woman behind the act, and she’s as feisty and strangely vulnerable as you would imagine. Champagne flows throughout as Grace moves constantly, making angry phone calls and negotiating in French – she lived in Paris for many years with French photographer Jean Paul Goude who styled her legendary look and shtick. Opening an oyster with difficulty she snarls: “wish my pussy was still this tight”. Fiennes’ punctuates the gutsy real time footage shot in her kitchen, car and dressing room – with Grace’s mesmerising Dublin stage show, but both are beguiling and cinematic. Fiennes’ shirks the traditional documentary format – there are no photos or archive footage, making Bloodlight And Bami fresh, feisty and intriguing for longtime fans who have never really experienced the woman ‘behind the scenes’. It’s also longer than most docs at nearly 2 hours.

La Vie en Rose is performed in a blossom pink setting – all softly sequinned and shimmery. Bloodlight And Bami – the film’s title is Jamaican for the recording studio lighting. She’s busy raising money for her next album, accompanied by her bass duo Sly and Robbie. Grace is no wallflower when it comes to things financial: she wants to be paid upfront for every concert, but will trawl through the old stalwarts just to raise money for her new work. You get the impression these old numbers bore her slightly, as she rants through Nipple to the Bottle, tottering gamely on amazingly amazonian legs. “Sometimes you have to be a high-flying bitch”.

Jones hasn’t forgotten the ghosts of the past: her abusive step-grandfather fuels the angry energy for her stage persona. Her parents lived away from Jamaica in New York during her childhood but she’s now closer to her mother and goes with her to church back home.

Pull up to the Bumper is vigorously vampish. Her lyrics – like her lips and bone structure – are strong and powerfully stand the test of time. Grace is vulnerable, scary and exotic – a feminine volcano that smoulders and could erupt at any time. Fiercely feline she purrs more like a jaguar than a pussycat. Her following is eclectic and all-encompassing: middle-aged men; sophisticated women and the gay crowd, all attracted to her burlesque bravado and musical power.

In concert footage, Grace mesmerises with performances of Pull Up To The Bumper and more personal tracks including Williams’ Blood, This Is and Hurricane. She is s force of nature, and certainly a force to be reckoned with. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Legendary GET CARTER composer, Roy Budd is to have his lost score for Rupert Julian’s silent classic film, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA premiered at the London Coliseum, 24 years after his untimely death in 1993. On October 8th 2017, Budd’s masterpiece score will be performed by the 77 piece Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra, conducted by Spencer Down, alongside a screening of the silent film in a world premiere event.

British jazz musician and composer Roy Budd, is best known for the film scores of Get Carter with Michael Caine and The Wild Geese with Roger Moore and Richard Burton. In 1989 Budd acquired the only surviving original 35mm reel of Rupert Julian’s silent 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera, and lovingly restored it to its former glory before composing his own score to the film, a sweeping romantic symphony. Phantom is the sound of Budd blossoming from jazz virtuoso to classical maestro.

img014 A self-taught pianist and child prodigy, in 1953 aged six, Budd performed his first concert at The London Coliseum on the same bill as Roy Castle and went on to perform with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Hope, and Antonio Carlos Jobin as well as scoring 40 feature films.

Throughout his childhood Budd, who has perfect pitch, won a number of televised talent competitions, before releasing a single, “The Birth of the Budd”, when he was still a teenager, and becoming the resident pianist at one of London’s jazz meccas, the Bull’s Head pub in Barnes. In 1971, he sealed his place in film history when, aged 22, he was hired by Mike Hodges to score his grim revenge drama, Get Carter, starring Michael Caine. The music budget was a mere £450, but Budd, along with a bassist and a percussionist, recorded a spine-tingling harpsichord motif which is now iconic. In 1981 The Human League covered the theme from Get Carter on their multi-million selling album Dare.

Phantom Dancers_SmIn 1989 Budd acquired an original 35mm film print to the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera from a collector. He restored the film to its full glory using an experimental two colour process and original tints from the film’s original release. Budd completed a full orchestral score for the film using an 84-piece orchestra and recorded this with the Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, with five weeks to go before a London premiere at the Barbican in partnership with UNICEF and European tour, Budd suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and passed away at just 46 years of age. The concert was cancelled and Budd’s widow Sylvia was asked to foot the bill. Sylvia has fought for 24 years to give the score the public airing it deserves.

Phantom of the Opera is arguably Budd’s greatest achievement: a grand soundtrack for full orchestra with several themes and leitmotifs that pay tribute to the great composers of the concert hall and screen, while at the same time unmistakably the work of its inspired creator.

LONDON COLISEUM | 8 OCTOBER 2017

Nico, 1988 (2017) | Venice Film Festival

Writer/Dir: Susanna Nicchiarelli | Cast: Trine Dyrholm, John Gordon Sinclair | Biopic drama | 93′ | Italia, Belgium

Danish singer and actress Trine Dyrholm holds centre stage as the maverick ’70s icon Nico in this stylishly cinematic third feature from Roman director Susanna Nicchiarelli.

NICO, 1988 focuses on the final years of the Berlin-born Christa Pfaffen who died in 1988, aged 49, having enjoyed a full life as mother to Alain Delon’s son, lover to Jim Morrison and muse to Andy Warhol – while also writing vocals for legendary band Velvet Underground.

Resenting the ’80s, Nico emerges a single-minded sullen misanthrope who takes no hostages amongst her associates or band-members while exuding a vulnerable charisma: “I’ve been at the top and the bottom – both places are empty”. Her final lasting love is for her son, a playfully convincing Sandor Funtek (Blue is the Warmest Colour). John Gordon Sinclair gives a dour turn as her manager but Dyrholm dominates in an astonishingly powerful performance.

Even if you’re not a fan, this enterprising part-imagined drama has pleasurably Noirish undertones sashaying through live sessions based on Nico’s last European tour: Paris, Prague, Nuremberg and even Manchester look tantalising through Crystel Fournier’s vibrant lensing as each perfectly composed frame resonates with Nico’s born-again soul. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL 30 August – 9 September 2017 | ORIZZONTI AWARD

 

The Cloud-Capped Star (1960) | Meghe Dhaka Tara | BFI India on Film

Dir/Writer: Ritwik Ghatak | Cast: Sudiya Choudhury, Nirinjan Ray, Anil Chatterjee, Gyanesh Mukherjee, Bijon Bhattacharya, Gita Dey | 126′ | India | Drama

Ritwik Ghatak is sometimes overlooked in contrast to his Bengali compatriot Satyajit Ray. THE CLOUD-CAPPED STAR is the first part of his trilogy E Flat and Subarnarekha offering an emotional and deeply personal account of post partition poverty in 1950s Calcutta, East Bengal. Sublime in its poignant sadness flecked with occasional dark humour it is a visual masterpiece of chiaroscuro splendour set amid abject suffering of a gentle woman whose continuous acts of sacrifice show that the meek and selfless do not always inherit the earth. Quite the reverse.

The gripping linear narrative enlivening by enjoyable musical interludes centres on Nita (Choudhury) the talented eldest daughter in a cultured Hindu refugee family who puts all her efforts and hard-earned cash into the dreams of her three younger more self-seeking siblings. Falling for a promising but ultimately specious young scientist (Sanat/Nirinjan Ray), her dreams are shattered as her world slowly unravels when Sanat proves to be unfaithful and spineless and her father – the voice of reason and wisdom – suffers a serious accident leaving him bedridden. Richly thematic, this satirical melodrama offers insight into Indian society showing how women are the family underdogs despite their intelligence, perspicacity and perseverance.  Ghatak’s inventive use of poetic realism and his convincing characterisations and impressionist interweaving of sound, image and mood convey a palpable feeling for Bengal and its artistic traditions. MT

SCREENING DURING THE BFI’S INDIA ON FILM SEASON | SUMMER 2017

Patti Cake$ (2017)

Dir: Geremy Jasper | Cast: Danielle Macdonald, Bridget Everett | Siddarth Dharanjay | Drama | 108′

PATTI CAKE$ follows a common formula: a depressed and overweight girl has aspirations of making it in the music business with hopes kindled by the likes of X Factor. This is not New York City but the backwaters of New Jersey, where our heroine’s day job is in a bottom-feeders downtown bar.

With the buzz around celebritiy status, these kind of ‘talent discovery’  films are becoming predictably schematic: on one level they feed the dreams of the disenchanted, but in a world where everyone can become a star, the firmament gets rather overheated. And this is the case with PATTI CAKE$ which is sparky, well-made and cinematic, a bit saggy in the middle – you may doze off – but otherwise perfectly decent. The main character Patti, also known as Killer P, Dumbo and Patricia (newcomer Danielle MacDonald) is, as usual, bored with her humdrum existence at home with skanky mom Barb (Bridget Everett) and fag-smoking grandma (Cathy Moriarty) who is laid up in bed unable to pay her medical bills. So far, so convincing. Patti’s best mates with the local chemist Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) who joins around with her when she comes in for grandma’s drugs, then joins her in a sudden outlandish ‘star-quest’ to the Big City.

But where is the evidence of Patricia’s musical talents, or grafting towards a career in that direction? Apart from noting down a few lines in a notebook, there is no backstory or history that makes us want to root for her as a budding star, or any great tunes – for that matter. Patti’s dream rapper is also a fictional star, rather than a real one, and a cypher into the bargain, adding further bum notes to this musical drama. Then we’re led to believe that her Black mate and ‘enabler’ Bob, aka the Antichrist, is some charismatic mystical charmer who ends up having little to say – let alone sing or play.

After a few setbacks, the action culminates in a showcase rap competition where her mother is grafted in to aid and abet proceedings with her trusty lung power, consoling the teary two in a crowd-pleasing finale. PATTI CAKE$ works as light entertainment but certainly no standout, as we were led to believe by the Sundance hype earlier on this year. MT

ON RELEASE 1 SEPTEMBER 2017

 

Alive in France (2017) | Cannes Film Festival 2017

Dir: Abel Ferrara | Cast: Abel Ferrara, Joe Delia, Paul Hipp, Cristina Chiriac, Dounia Sichov, PJ Delia, Laurent Bechad | 79mins | Rockumentary

Cult film director Abel Ferrara turns the camera on himself in the role of raddled rock star in this self-indulgent concert documentary premiering here at Cannes Film Festival.

Ferrara joins a long list of filmmakers who have morphed into their own musical subjects but the others have done so with considerably more flare and elan particularly David Lynch and Woody Allen. Strutting and staggering about on stage like a dishevelled hippy, Ferrara doesn’t exactly strike a pose in the way that Madonna did for her Blond Ambition Tour. Better described as a poor man’s Keith Richard. his musical ravings are at best forgettable, at worst shambolic and meandering.

The director of classics Bad Lieutenant and The King of New York embarks on a tour that plays out in Paris and Toulouse during October 2016 with his musical collaborators Joe Delia and Paul Hipp. Described as a friends and family affair, maybe it should be kept that way, while his film fans look forward to the next film SIBERIA with Willem Dafoe.  MT

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL | 17-28 MAY 2017 | SPECIAL SCREENING.

 

 

Bunch of Kunst (2016)

Dir: Christine Franz | with Andrew Fearn, Steve Underwood, Jason Williamson | Germany | Music Biopic | 106min

BUNCH OF KUNST accurately reflects the mindset of the Sleaford Mods, a couple of angry individuals who turn their feelings into sweary music. Whilst lacking the acerbic humour of Ian Dury, the Sex Pistols or The Clash the band gladdens the hearts of a fervent fan base with an axe to grind in modern Britain. They also stand out as a cry for help amid the saccharine hurling of so many of today’s British vocalists: at least the Mods are unaffectedly genuine in their vitriol, captured so candidly here by new German director Christine Franz.

There is clearly no animosity between the duo themselves who share a warm and mutually respectful friendship: writer Jason Williamson and computer ‘beat man’ Andrew Fearn call themselves “the voice of Britain” but continue a long tradition of fury that brings nothing particularly new to a party that’s been rocking on since the 1980s Punk era.

Franz follows the band from their genesis in a Nottingham bedroom to chart success – a journey that has taken two years and now sees them performing to fervent wide-eyed fans whose lives they seemingly reflect in livid lyrics. The long-forgotten towns and dreary backwaters epitomised by Morrissey are here again and chiming with a new generation of disenfranchised followers. Daniel Waldhecker visuals capture the heady waywardness of it all on stage and behind the scenes. This strong and evocative debut for Christine Franz will certainly delight fans. MT

ON RELEASE FROM 4 MAY 2017

The Eccentrics: The Sunny Side of the Street (2015) | Kinoteka 2017

Dir: Janusz Majewski | Musical Drama | Poland | 112min

Janusz Majewski’s stylish musical drama sees a former soldier and jazz fan return to Poland after the Second World War where he forms a swing band striking a chord of optimism in dreary fifties Warsaw. The venture is a roaring success and soon Fabian (Maciej Stuhr) is dating Modesta (Natalia Rybicka), a beautiful and mysterious fellow musician who joins the players as a vocalist. Intoxicated by their newfound freedom and excited about the future, the two lovers are the talk of the town but Poland is changing as positive and negative influences from the West make their lives more complicated. Although slightly bogged down by its superfluous subplots, ECCENTRICS is well worth seeing for its exuberant jazz numbers sung in perfect tune by the leads (unlike the lovers in La La Land) and for its stunning period set design and costumes. MT

SUNDAY 26 MARCH 19.30 REGENT STREET CINEMA | KINOTEKA POLISH FILM FESTIVAL 2017

Django (2017) | Berlinale Competition

Dir: Etienne Comar | Cast: Reda Kateb; Cécile de France (Louise); Beata Palya, Bim Bam Merstein; Gabriel Mirété; Vincent Frade; Johnny Montreuil, Raphaël Dever | 117 min · Colour

Etienne Comar (Of Gods and Men) sadly fails in his attempt to bring the jazzy verve of Belgian-born Romany Django Rheinhardt’s music to the rescue of this rather earnest biopic, although it cleverly carries the undertone of Nazi persecution of his people during wartime France during 1943, based on the fictional novel Folles de Django by Salatko, who co-wrote the script.

After a thrilling opening in Paris where the musician entertains enraptured audiences while German officials set up a propaganda initiative against his ‘degenerate’ jazz, a narrative torpor sets in despite a game and committed lead performance from Reda Ketab as the charismatic and carefree strummer with Cecile de France seductively sinuous as his agent, who enhances his publicity value to the top brass, while remaining in cahoots with them. Django thinks his popularity will give him protection from the Nazis but wisely refuses to go on tour in Germany after pressure from the powers that be, taking refuge with his wife Naguine (the Hungarian singer Beata Palya) in a village near the Swiss border, where he reconnects with other members of his family, composes a classical work “Requiem for the Gypsy Brothers”, and makes a crafty bid for freedom via Lake Geneva into Switzerland, the Nazis hot in pursuit.

Despite its drawbacks DJANGO offers decent entertainment and is certainly worth a watch for its colourful cinematography and historic footage, but Colmar’s studious and rather stodgy narrative flies in the face of the cherished allure of the musician who captured our collective imagination and fondness with his effervescent brand of jazz. MT

BERLINALE 9-19 FEBRUARY 2017 | IN COMPETITION

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Strike a Pose (2016)

Director-writers: Ester Gould, Reijer Zwaan | Cast: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn | Doc | US |

Revisiting Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition gig, 25 dancers reflect on their experience in a very different world, a quarter of a century ago. This Dutch documentary looks at what happens once the performance high is over and the champagne glasses are washed and back on the shelf.

1990 felt feisty and fresh and so was Madonna and her dancers. Breaking onto a music scene that still seemed rather touching and naive, the quaint newness of ‘nautifying’ religion now seems very dated and tame in its way, and Gould and Zwaan successfully capture the zeitgeist of those ‘ground-breaking’ moments, with the usual talking heads, clips and footage format. But STRIKE A POSE is rather top heavy on sentimental family stories and light on entertainment, music and Madonna herself. So don’t go expecting a toe-tapping cheer-filled shindig; this really should be classified as an LGBT interest documentary rather than music biopic, per se. None of the dancers stands out as a personality with any particularly charisma. That said, this low-key indie makes some salient points about the cult of celebrity and its often catastrophic consequences for delicate egos and sensitive types, many of whom were still really kids when they took part, and there are some sincere revelations about what it feels like to be gay, then and now: “We carried our flamboyance as a warning,” says Camacho. “Yes, we have earrings on, we have eyeliner on, but don’t mistake any of this for weakness.”

So STRIKE A POSE is certainly worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a human interest story about the soulful introspection of gay men in the entertainment business and their melancholy reflections on the past, and of the first great arena spectacle that now is very much the way to go. MT

NOW ON RELEASE FROM 3 FEBRUARY 2017 AT BERTHA DOCHOUSE

 

 

 

La La Land (2016)

Dir: Damien Chazelle : Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone | US | Musical Drama | 129min

The 73rd Venice Film Festival opened with the razzmatazz of a rousing Hollywood musical, that is sadly not as good a film as it thinks it is, despite the much hyped critical acclaim that has it scoring more points on Imdb than some real classic masterpieces. Damien Chazelle’s much anticipated follow-up to Whiplash is a musical by theme and content and breaks into song during a title sequence that feels rather awkward and amateurish with most of the songs sung off- key, when you consider the wealth of US musical talent available.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as LA wannabes at the bottom rung of the creative careers: he is Jazz pianist Sebastian, she as aspiring actor Mia. Gosling and Stone have worked together before with writer-director Damien Chazelle and both are decent enough dancers even if they do not have perfect pitch. They share a sparky onscreen chemistry from the outset when they first fall out during a mini fracas from their respective cars while driving into LA, and then later when their paths cross again just after Sebastian (Gosling) has been fired for playing his own tunes during his nightime gig at a fancy restaurant. LA LA LAND would work just as well, in fact better, as a straightforward drama – the banal script and musical elements sometime feel forced and unnatural although Seb does compose one catchy tune (from original composer Justin Hurwitz) which becomes ‘their’ song in an fluffy leitmotif that runs through the rest of the movie – at it is very much a movie: and boy can Gosling move.

This is a lively and entertaining film that make the mainstream crowd happy – it could be anybody’s story and resonates with most of us, whether we are working in creative fields or not, with its ‘reach for the stars premise’ of following your dream rather than settling for a safe and comfortable existence. Stone is the most vulnerable of the two as she finds the constant rejection of screen tests and auditions difficult to deal with but eventually gets into her groove. Gosling is more punchy and down to earth. Obsessed by trad jazz rather than the meandering self-indulgent kind, he eventually lands up with a well paid job playing the latter before setting up his own club which allows him to play the stuff he really enjoys. Falling in love comes naturally to them both but the road is rather rocky and involves the less travelled one on the way.

Gosling gives a suave and seductive turn throughout, never doubting himself for a moment. Stone – who won the Volpi Cup at Venice 2016 – feels more brittle and spiky, although she really puts her heart and soul into singing, dancing and acting. Damien Chazelle has a film grasp of the dark and dangerous nature of showbusiness and brings this to LA LA LAND as he did to his debut Whiplash. The final ‘what might have been’ montage works well enough to send to you off with a spring in your step. It’s a good film – but not a great one. MT

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 13 JANUARY | VENICE FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 10 SEPTEMBER 2016 | Best Actress Emma Stone

Bernard Herrmann and The Red Shoes

Katherine Hepburn was once asked what ‘star quality’ was and she replied: “I don’t know but I’ve got it”. This indefinable quality is the premise of Powell and Pressburger’s timeless cinema classic THE RED SHOES (1948), which Sir Matthew Bourne, a fan of classic film, has riotously reimagined for his latest balletic blockbuster, at London’s Sadler’s Wells this holiday season. Bourne’s ballet is also a tribute to the Hollywood composer Bernard Herrmann whose scores oozed star quality, enlivening the films of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut and Martin Scorsese, not to mention Ray Harryhausen and Brian De Palma.

the-red-shoes-byBy replacing the film’s original Oscar-winning score with Bernard Herrmann’s music, ardent film fan Bourne intends to raise the profile of a Hollywood legend whose evergreen compositions possess the resonance and star quality that he feels, quite rightly, should be enjoyed by contemporary audiences in a theatrical setting with a live orchestra, not just in the cinema. Lez Brotherston’s imaginative set has a revolving proscenium arch that transports us back to an early 20th-century ballet company, inspired by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and the production is saucily tweaked with Bourne’s own brand of irreverent humour. Whisking us effortlessly from a glamorous Monte Beach in summer to the sordid sadness of the East End cabaret, this is a dizzying production that dazzles at every turn with a stunning central peformance from ballerina Ashley Shaw.

THE RED SHOES is a ballet within a ballet and Bourne has cleverly identified three key elements that make Herrmann’s music so suitable: the backstage life of Boris Lermontov’s dance company, the emotional awakening and torment of ballerina Victoria Page and the joie de vivre of the ballet itself.

THE RED SHOESThe Hollywood composer was born Max Herrmann to Jewish parents of Russian origin in New York City 1911. His musical career kicked off in his teens when he won a composition prize at the age of 13, founding the classical New Chamber Orchestra of New York when he was just 20 and studying at the Juilliard School. Herrmann was soon appointed chief conductor of the CBS Symphony Orchestra and his friendship with Orson Welles led to a collaboration with the auteur on the radio series The Orson Welles Show. When Welles joined RKO Herrmann joined him with scores for CITIZEN KANE (1940), THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS  (1942) and Welles starrer JANE EYRE (1943).

THE RED SHOESFor THE RED SHOES ballet Bourne has concentrated on Herrmann’s pre-Hitchcock fare and uncovered some real gems such as his Concerto Macabre from HANGOVER SQUARE (1945) along with the often unacknowledged dance music of CITIZEN KANE (1941) and the bittersweet beats of THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR (1947). But the ballet’s dynamite centrepiece scenes, set against a dramatic background of birds, fleeting clouds and eerily silhouetted buildings are perhaps the most futuristic and inventive thanks to Herrmann’s restless trembling music which features among others Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451perfectly evoking the psychological tension between the love-torn trio of Boris Lermontov, Julian Craster and Victoria Page. Under Terry Davies the New Adventure orchestra makes great use of edgy expressionist electronic strings, the vibraphone and the glockenspiel as well as classic piano and wind to convey the sense of seduction combined with heart-stopping obsession and some cheeky interludes to lighten the tone. The heart-rending finale is quietly devastating as Ashley Shaw’s elegant dancing complements the emotional resonance of Hermann’s orchestral magnificence and his lighter danceable beatsmaking this a memorable and moving addition to Bourne’s ballet bonanza. MT

THE RED SHOES IS AT SADLERS WELLS LONDON UNTIL 29 JANUARY 2017 | OTHER VENUES ON TOUR

 

 

 

 

Gimme Danger (2016) | Bluray release

Dir: Jim Jarmusch | With Iggy Pop, Ron Asheton, Scott Asheton, James Williamson, Steve Mackay, Mike Watt, Kathy Asheton, Danny Fields |Doc | US | 108min

You might expect Jarmusch’s portrait of wild child Iggy Pop to be idiosyncratic; but it is also witty, inventive and affectionate in showing how Pop’s rock band The Stooges went on to influence popular music in the four decades that have followed his often shambolic rise to fame with a brand of music that burst onto the scene in mid-sixties Michigan. On stage Iggy Pop bops and writhes around, occasionally lurching forward into the crowd like a king cobra on cocaine, but in private he is an articulate and engaging raconteur who flashes a row of even white teeth with every outrageous revelation as he wriggles around on a Louis XV gold chair in his yellow caravan. Clearly Pop’s a maverick in the music star firmament: “I don’t wanna be part of the punk crowd, the glam crowd or the TV crowd, I just wanna be”.

A long term friend of Pop, Jarmusch enlivens GIMME DANGER (lyrics from the 1973 album, Raw Power) with collages and witty animations (by James Kerr) depicting vignettes from the band’s history and these are restlessly interwoven into the narrative that zips along with photos and archive footage of Iggy and the band that go to make up this entertaining and meaty biopic, dedicated to band members who are no longer alive. Born in Muskegon, Michigan 1947, James Newell Osterberg Jr was an indulged child allowed to play his drum kit in the main room of the trailer where he grew up and eventually took over the main bedroom in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Jarmusch focuses his film on the rise and early demise of the band from the late 1960s until the mid 1970s and the Bowie association (under British manager Tony DeFries) and then follows through with the Stooges’ ‘reunification’ in 2003 until their recognition in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010.

His own musical influences number R&B blues singer Bo Diddley and he irreverently disses the 1960s flower power era as being a corporate set-up. Talking heads joining the commentary are his original guitarist James Williamson who returned to the band after a 30-year career in Silicon Valley and whose intricate playing style Pop describes as “like somebody’s just let a police drug dog into your house – he goes everywhere”. There is also Stooges’ manager Danny Fields who signed the band to Elektra Records; Ron and Scott Asheton, Mike Watt and Steve Mackay.

Drugs were an inevitable part of the band’s decline but this is acknowledged in a cursory fashion and Pop is clearly much more interested in talking about musical styles and jazz and blues influences that informed his creativity. His shirtlessness is down to Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments and there is a hilarious and well-chosen clip showing the actor flirting with Anne Baxter from 1956.

Live performances are evidence of Pop’s sheer joie de vivre that often leaves his band members playing alone as he throws himself at the mercy of the crowd during hits “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, I Got a Right and “T.V. Eye” and there are also moments with the Sex Pistols, The Ramones and the Buzzcocks who were influenced by the wildfire force of nature that is Iggy Pop. MT

OUT ON DVD \ BLURAY FROM 16 JANUARY 2017 | COURTESY OF DOGWOOF | AMAZON.CO.UK

 

 

Mirzya (2016) | LFF 2016

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Dir: Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra | Cast: Harshvardhan Kapoor, Siyami Kher, Om Puri, Art Malik, K K Raina, Anjali Patil | 130min | India

Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s latest Hindi drama is an ambitiously mounted and dazzling lyrical epic that interweaves the legendary Punjabi love story between Mirzya and Sahiban “If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt – only love”. The traditional version opens in the magnificent desert fortresses of Rajasthan and tantalizingly precedes each episode of the reimagining of a modern day Romeo and Juliet, where school friends Monish and Suchitra found first love in modern Delhi as children and then unite as adults in the 21st century. However, Monish (Harshvardhan Kapoor) now works for a prince, to whom Suchitra (Saiyemi Kher) is engaged to be married.

What makes MIRZYA so appealing to watch is the dynamic performances of newcomers Harshvardhan Kapoor and Saiyami Kher who are glamorously gorgeous both as a modern couple and as their mythical counterparts. A tunefully rhythmic soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy sets the extravaganza off on its way, and minimal CGI effects depict an exotic bird involved in the narrative, zooming exuberantly into the sky in a metaphor for the feelings of the lovebirds themselves.

MIRZYA has brave intentions and plenty of chutzpah, but much of the story gets confused as it flips backwards and forwards and the result is an over melodramatic affair that often feels implausible and over-excited in the contemporary context, despite the convincing onscreen chemistry of the leads. MIRZYA is certainly spectacular to look at and entertaining to watch,  but the narrative fails to be convincing despite the director’s best intentions. MT

SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 16 OCTOBER 2016

 

One More Time With Feeling (2016) | Venice 2016

Dir-: Andrew Dominik | with Nick Cave | Biopic | UK | 112min

Embracing the overwhelming grief Nick Cave is feeling due to the death of his son, New Zealand filmmaker Andrew Dominik has chosen to film his biopic in black and white, and with “ridiculous handheld 3D camera” – his words precisely but with the help of Benoit Debie and Alwin Kuchker things finally get on track. Leaving the 3D glasses off detracts nothing from the well-observed but overlong picture of the musician’s experience since the death of his son. Cave brings his own witty stream of consciousness to the party, as we watch the film taking shape in the studio during a pre-recording session.

With his seemingly idyllic life: a wife and soulmate, and twin sons – actor, writer and musician Nick Cave confessed to having it all in Iain Forysth’s (far superior) 20,0000 On Earth. Here he pours his grief on losing a child into a string of striking lyrics (“your legs are so long they should come with their own elevator”). He now confesses to occasionally feeling “an object of pity”, a fact that does not fit well with his own self image, but his natural self-deprecation prevents this from sounding narcissistic. Cave also admits that songs can foretell certain events, as dreams can be visionary, and this is something he shares with his wife whom he describes as multi-facetted. Clearly death and bereavement has brought them even closer together. But as he gets older he feels that “the struggle to do what I do requires more effort”.

The test of a successful biopic must surely be that it offers entertainment not only to fans but appeal to wider audiences. And here Dominik largely fails as the format and filming detracts from the subject matter. Despite these obvious flaws ONE MORE TIME WITH FEELING adds a certain something to the Nick Cave experience that will appeal to his many fans and resonate with the bereaved arthouse audiences. Let’s hope there’s more great stuff to come from this engaging musician and lyricist. MT

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL UNTIL 10 SEPTEMBER 2016

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land (2016)

Directors: Steve Read and Rob Alexander

85min | Biopic | UK

Steve Read and Rob Alexander get together again for their second documentary that stylishly explores the human side of the reclusive British synthpop pioneer who started Tubeway Army rising to fame with two iconic ’70s hits – Cars and Are Friends Electric?

After thirty years away from the spotlight 55 year old Gary Numan emerges a blissfully married father of three small girls and making a move to a castle in Los Angeles to expand his repertoire into the film world and promote Splinter (2013) – his latest album which turns out to be a bestseller. Alexander and Reed’s film doesn’t attempt to fill in the blanks of the past three decades career-wise, but looks behind Numan’s cold and alienating public persona to expose a rather loveable man who is genuinely passionate about his music and disarmingly down to earth. The directors also avoid a talking heads approach centring their biopic on a close circle of Numan’s collaborators and his parents, who reveal how their son was a self-starting loner who suffered pathological stage fright as was much later diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Numan started life as Gary Webb and formed his five man band Tubeway Army as a London teengager in the late ’70s, getting them signed to a major label during punk rock’s surge to the public consciousness. When he discovered how the moog synthesiser could produce a series of highly original sounds Numan incorporated these electronic new wave vibes into a groundbreaking album ‘Replicas’ creating the first UK synthpop hit ‘Are Friends Electric?’ – along the same lines as the German band Kraftwerk several years previously. His robotic stage routines and swivelling eye movements where a clever attempt to emotionally detach himself from his public appearances in order to cope with severe shyness and social unease caused by Asperger’s, but they soon became one of the most innovative and successful features of his performances.

However, debt rapidly followed his breakout success largely due to the mounting costs of his futuristic stage sets and expensive lighting equipment and this caused a rift with his father and manager as the family had sacrificed everything for their only son’s career. The film makes no attempt to explore how financially Numan bounced back simply stating that he carried on working and touring, clutching success from the jaws of failure due to inner strength and his relationship with Gemma – a long-time groupie who eventually became his wife in 1997. One of the takeway moments of the film is when Gary shares his composing techniques ensconced in his musical studio. Fully admitting how unpleasant he can become during this anxiety ridden process, he confesses to coming alive nowadays on stage and wishes he could go on forever.

GARY NUMAN; ANDROID IN LA LA LAND works as a portrait of a fully evolved creative force and also as a tribute to  his relationship with the driven force of bubbly Gemma whose hair changes from a raven to flame and then butter blond bombshell during filming and, whom he describes as “everything that I am not” and his conduit to the outside world. Gemma has clearly built her entire existence round the easy-going and appealingly self-deprecating musician who appears to be charmingly devoid of hang-ups or pretensions as he goes about his days in black jeans, tee-shirts and sleeve tattoos. Numan still dyes his quiff of hair black in an attempt to stay youthful. But as his daughter Echo comments: “Daddy you still look old – but with black hair instead of grey”. Clearly children keep you grounded, even when you’re a pop star. MT

OUT ON 26 AUGUST 2016

 

Born to be Blue (2015)

Wirter|Director: Robert Budreau

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Carmen Ejogo, Callum Rennie, Tony Nappo, Stephen McHattie

97min | Biopic | US

Ethan Hawke’s career took off when he received critical prise for Reality Bites which lead to his role in the Before trilogy in a career that has steadily grown as a screenwriter, novelist director and actor in mainstream titles and  independent arthouse fare such as BORN TO BE BLUE where he plays the role of Chet Baker in a re-imagining of a period in the celebrated jazz musician’s life that blends reality with ‘semi-fictiona’l elements as a film within a film.

Opening with Baker playing himself in a biopic, we see him falling for his on-screen love interest (Carmen Ejogo) as he battles with heroin addiction.

With its relaxed jazzy score, BORN TO BE BLUE plays out in a freewheeling way as it dabbles at the edges of truth which gives it an innovative but also questionable slant, neatly side-stepping cliche. Like many artists, Baker did struggle with drugs, and interestingly, he found it difficult to break into the world of jazz as a white man – but this is by no means a pitiful portrait or one that see Baker cry into his cups but it is certainly a worthwhile take on the music industry of the era.

Hawke is convincing as the tortured musician (did he have trumpet lessons – possibly) and appealing in the role to which he brings a certain intensity without going overboard. Born to be Blue is an enjoyable film rather than a great one. But worth watching nevertheless. MT

NOW OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE

Sid and Nancy (1986)

S&N_PR_PicDirector: Alex Cox

Cast: Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, David Hayman, Andrew Schofield, Courtney Love

112min | Biopic | UK

Far the most interesting thing about the Sex Pistols was their music. The story of the band is, for the most part, unedifying and one that Alex Cox and Abbe Wool’s narrative does no favours in the re-telling via the love story between bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb) in this tame ’80s biopic. Intimate in scale and shot largely within the claustrophobic confines of sordid bedrooms, New York hotels and bars, Sid and Nancy is gut-retchingly unappetising (puking and bodily fluids abound – but at least the blood looks authentic) but there are a handful of scenes where DoP Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography is really given reins to take flight – when the band goes on tour in the US and the final scene encompassing the magnificent Manhattan skyline shrouded in morning fog, which must rank amongst the most memorable of any committed to celluloid during the 80s. The score features a smattering of iconic tracks but we are well into the first half hour before any are played in a truncated ‘on-stage’ gig in a small bar. This is not a film to see if you’re hoping to hear The Sex Pistols malevolent musical brilliance.

The film opens at the end of 1978 in the immediate aftermath to Spungen’s death in the Hotel Chelsea, where the couple lived, with the police questioning a catatonic Sid Vicious over his involvement. Flashing back to a year earlier, Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) and Sid have just met drugged-up groupie Nancy, whom Sid eventually starts dating, feeling sorry for her sad plight and following her into heroin addiction, which will eventually claim his own life the following year. Their love gradually drives a wedge between Sid and the rest of the band, and a disastrous American tour sees Sid go off the rails, destabilised by Nancy’s neediness, a result of her unhappy childhood. Back in New York, the couple reunite with Nancy attempting to manage Sid’s solo career, organising gigs which never actually pan out. In the midst of Nancy’s depression, Sid decides to return to England and the two argue in a drug-induced haze that eventually comes to a tragic end.

Gary Oldman is the only star turn here, loose-limbed and lithe as he weaves from mouthy punk performances to a profanity-ridden ‘My Way’ version, set on a neon sweeping staircase, in an early music video. Webb is true to her character, an annoying, whiny irritant swathed in tattoos and bruises, with no saving graces and not particularly good acting at that. The band’s guru Malcolm McLaren is convincingly played by David Hayman rocking an ill-advised rusty wig.  Schofield’s turn as Johnny Rotten – the only one who seems to have made good – is gutsy and plausible. There is also a welcome glimpse of Courtney Love in a cameo role. But none of the edgy blast of anger that was punk really comes through here as we remember it. Everything feels rather stagey and timid compared to the real thing.

Attempts to recreate a socio-political backdrop of British life to this romanticised counterculture feel largely false and rather tacked on: a Luncheon Voucher banner in a newsagents, the famous Saatchi poster, ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ and detectives in tweeds and heavy-rimmed glasses. The US scenes fare far better feeling fresh and original and particularly a final track of street kids boogieing with a transister to KC and the Sunshine Band’s ‘Get Down Tonight’ (1975). That and the Manhattan skyline make Sid and Nancy worth seeing, if you can sit through the rest of it. MT

BACK IN CINEMAS 5 AUGUST AND BLURAY\DVD OUT ON AUGUST 29 2016

 

 

Absolute Beginners (1986) | DVD and Bluray release

absolute-beginners-blu-rayDir: Julien Temple | Cast: Patsy Kensit, Eddie O’Connell, Robert Fox, Steven Berkoff | UK Musical | 108min

Helmed by renowned British director Julien Temple (The Filth and the Fury), this lavishly mounted but uneven ’80s musical is based on Colin MacInnes’ revered novel about upwardly mobile creative life in Soho and Notting Hill in the late ’50s. Starring David Bowie, along with his renowned title track, ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS was one of the most ambitious homegrown productions of the decade, and now celebrates its 30th Anniversary with a brand new high definition restoration and the first ever UK Blu-ray release.

Despite occasional flourishes, the film falls down on its undistinguished but workmanlike performances: Patsy Kensit (Suzette) and Eddie O’Connell (Colin) are the flibbetigibbet pair who lead a bizarre casting of Lionel Blair as noncey tin pan alley king Harry Charms, Alan Freeman as Call-Me-Cobber, Steven Berkoff spouting his usual vitriol as The Fanatic, James Fox as Henley of Mayfair and Sade in her big screen debut as Athene Duncannon (her only film role to date). Musically unremarkable and meaningless, apart from Bowie’s contribution, the narrative is flaccid and the tone as camp as a row of tents, despite a curious undertow of racial tension. Nostalgic is the defining word about this new release – perhaps some things are better left to quietly fade away. That said, fans will no doubt lap it up. MT

OUT ON 25 JULY 2016 courtesy of Second Sight Films

 

 

I Saw the Light (2015)

Director: Marc Abraham

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt

123min  | Biopic |

Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen are the stars in Marc Abraham’s tribute to US country music legend Hank Williams which takes its title from one of the best loved songs by the singer. The biopic charts Williams’ rise to fame from his 1944 marriage to Audrey, at a petrol station in Alabama when he was just a small time ‘country’ singer, through to his tragic death from heart failure at only 29 as the best-selling, chart-topping superstar headlining the “Grand Ole Opry “show in Nashville, Tennessee (1953).

Abraham’s narrative focus here is very much on Williams’ failed love affairs that started with Audrey and continued with a series of other women, culminating in his second marriage to Billie Jean Jones (Maddie Hasson), as he desperately sought  emotional support, fuelled by alcohol and drugs, to sustain him through his short but meteoric musical career.

The film takes its title from ‘I Saw the Light’, one of the most popular songs by the country legend, but another song ‘Lovesick Blues’, would have been more appropriate for a story that fails to distill the spirit and joy of Williams’ phenomenal contribution to the music scene in 1940’s America, concentrating instead on his rather maudlin marital turmoil and succession of sad love affairs, overshadowed by the domineering presence of his widowed mother Lillie (Cherry Jones).

Tom Hiddleston dazzles in the role and the renditions – his tall and willowy frame ideal for the part of a man who suffered from a rare form of spina bifida, leaving him occasionally crippled, bedridden and addicted to painkillers. Complete with cowboy suites encrusted with diamante and an ubiquitous cowboy stetson he really looks convincing, and although he feels miscast, despite sterling efforts, in evoking the folksy charm of a “lil’ ole Southern boy” and part-time philanderer: Williams’ off-piste activities feel cheeky and playfully forgivable in Hiddleston’s take. As Audrey, Elizabeth Olsen has the same hard-voiced, unsympathetic edge to her character as she does in Avengers, competing with Williams in the singing arena, peddling her own canoe and nearly submerging his own showboat in the process as a rather bullish femme fatale who comes to the marriage with a child and has a cherished boy with Williams as they serially split and regroup in a partnership where she appears to wear the trousers.

Ultimately, I SAW THE LIGHT doesn’t carry a candle to recent biopics such as Love & Mercy and even Miles Ahead which have better showcased their artists’ iconic 20th century American success stories. None of the musical numbers here really shine out as the enduring classics that they undoubtedly have become in the American ‘country’ consciousness.

Yet despite its failure to set the musical world on fire, there’s much to be admired in Merideth Boswell’s set design and some stunning set pieces as the luminescent Lousiana landscapes really come alive in the capable hands of Michael Mann’s regular DoP Dante Spinotti (Heat/L.A.Confidential). MT

NOW OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 6 MAY 2016

 

Funny Face (1956) | Blu-ray release

imagesDirector: Stanley Donen, Writer: Leonard Gershe, Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire | 103min | Romantic Musical | US

There’s much to enjoy in Stanley Donen’s joyful FUNNY FACE. The music and lyrics are by George and Ira Gershwin. The dancing is exhilarating – Fred Astaire’s fabulous technique makes for poetry – and Audrey Hepburn displays her ballet school training with huge confidence. There’s even downright sassy Kay Thompson zippy contribution to the dancing scenes.

Donen employs rhythmically precise editing techniques: The “Bonjour Paree!” montage turning into a split screen celebration of Paris; and masterly camerawork with Audrey Hepburn’s number “How Long Has this Been Going On” combining singing, acting, lighting, set design and overall balletic energy that’s five minutes of really great cinema.
Yet it’s the colour photography of Funny Face that makes Donen’s film so outstanding. In Joseph Andrew Casper’s book ‘Stanley Donen’ (1983) he concludes that throughout FUNNY FACE, “the film colour danced to tell a story.” For me this dancing narrative skilfully uses colour to psychologise character and satirise its subject matter – the fashion world and Parisian beatnik existentialism.

Take the film’s opening number “Think Pink” with its magazine editor (Kay Thompson) striding towards doors of different colours, seeking the right colour for that month’s issue. This is both a satire and homage to the 50’s women’s fashion magazine. The yellow and lime of Audrey Hepburn’s waved hat in her bookshop scene suggests a deep need for romance, Hepburn and Astaire’s flirtatious duet in the red filtered photographer’s darkroom, the red and green spotlights of the night club episodes and the abrupt freeze of model photography images against Parisian landmarks. All push the story forward, making me think that Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg not only absorbed the colour palette of MGM musicals but is Donen’s Paramount achievement.

“Colour is fundamental to fashion photography, and therefore to Funny Face, where, besides being both the chief carrier for movement within and between shots and a cutting principle, it is choreographed as well”: that is Joseph Andrew Casper being spot on again. Of course a film is not just about remarkable photography, the storyline is crucial. Admittedly in romantic musicals we can accept a simpler story. If there is a criticism of FUNNY FACE it’s the failure to fully convince us of the development of Jo Stockton’s (Audrey Hepburn) character. You could say that the script fails to choreograph her transition from book shop assistant/ philosophy student to fashion model icon with adequate scenes. Despite her misgivings (she agrees to it all, so as to travel to Paris and meet the leader of the Emphaticalism movement) her resistance to the fashion crowd is not strong enough. And her need to be swept up into a romance with the much older photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) is a bit underwritten in the film.

Still it is a musical, and you principally come for the singing and dancing. FUNNY FACE gives you that in abundance with great elegance and charm. And if you are only an Audrey Hepburn fan, and could watch her in anything, then for me she’s never been more captivating than she is here. Alan Price

NOW OUT ON BLU-RAY

Mavis! (2016)

Director: Jessica Edwards;

Documentary with Mavis Staples; USA 2015, 80 min.

In her first feature documentary, director/writer Jessica Edwards charts the life and career of Mavis Staples, born 1939 in Chicago. Mavis started her career in 1948 as part of her father’s Gospel group ‘The Staples’, and later, after the demise of the group, as a solo entertainer still going strong today: after 65 years, the last thing on her mind is retirement.

Mavis grew up on Chicago’s South Side, sharing a neighbourhood with Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield. Her father, Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples (1914-2000) had emigrated from the South, and it took Mavis a while to find out that whilst she and her siblings (brother Pervis, sisters Cleotha, Yvonne) were singing Gospel, Dad’s guitar was pure ‘Blues’ – he had not forgotten his Missisippi roots. And neither did he forgot his harsh upbringing in the racially segregated South, were black women had to cross the pavement when a white person was walking towards them.

‘Pops’ and the ‘Staple Singers’ got in contact with Dr. Martin Luther King during the American Civil Rights Movement at the beginning of the 1960s. Around the same time, Mavis and her family met the young Bob Dylan, not very famous then, and the “Staples” performed his “Blowing in the Wind”. Dylan fell for Mavis and asked for her hand in marriage. But nothing came of it. Mavis shrugs her shoulders today with the throwaway comment: “We may have smooched”. For his part, Dylan is a lively interview partner, full of admiration for the ‘woman who got away’. Mavis was only married for a short time in 1964, but, as she explains: “I had the perfect father, no man could measure up to him”. Today, on her single career which started in 1994, she is nearly always accompanied by her sister Yvonne, “who enjoyed managing the group much more than singing”. Mavis’ long career, which led to musical co-operations with Prince, among others, led to her first “Grammy” in 2011 for the album “You are not Alone”.

Edwards succeeds in showing the feisty nature of the singer right from the beginning, at a live concert in her hometown of Chicago, and later at the Newport Folk Festival. Old concert clips from the latter and Wattstax, show that Mavis has not lost any of her bubbly energy and her empathy with the concertgoers is as strong as it was in Sixties. Newsreel and TV clips give us a glimpse of the musical history of the USA; a few too many “talking heads” only succeed in getting Mavis! closer to a feature length running time. As is often the case, less would have been more: Mavis Staples is far too much a forceful personality and has more than enough talent – she does not need the hagiographic approach Edwards chooses. AS

OUT ON RELEASE FROM 19 FEBRUARY 2016 

 

Bolshoi Babylon (2015) | DVD release

Director: Nick Read | Documentary | UK | 86min

Internecine politics fail to dampen the ardour of Russia’s finest export and barometer of the superpower’s national health in BOLSHOI BABYLON

British director Nick Read (The Condemned) explores the bizarre case surrounding the acid attack that nearly blinded Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Sergei Filin in this tight and well-paced documentary whose unprecendented access to the inner workings of the ballet and enticing clips from recent productions (Swan Lake, Boris Godunov, Traviata etc), are sure to entice balletomanes and cineasts alike.

But this is not the only salacious aspect of a film that grows more intriguing by the minute with its revelations about the Bolshoi and its attempts to overcome a never ending battle to survive both in and out of the theatre confines. Interviews with its new company director Vladimir Urin, principles such Maria Allash and Maria Alexandra and ballet masters Boris Akin and Nicolai Tsiskaridze paint a bloody portrait of the physical and emotional rigour required to stay the course by all involved with Moscow’s hallowed cultural edifice.

It gradually emerges that the acid attack, in 2013, was ordered by dancer in defence of his girlfriend’s lack of promotion due to favouritism by the powers that be, headed by Filin and that left him with extensive third degree burns to his face and partially blind in one eye. Not only does this confirm rumours of violence and corruption in contemporary Russian society but it also upholds long-held beliefs and stereotyping in the West. Pavel Dmitrichenko, a soloist, admitted to hiring his neighbour to attack Filin due to jealousy and resentment. Vladimir Urin, polishing up his own profile courtesy of the filmmakers, reveals that many are interested in influencing the future of the national treasure, not least President Vladimir Putin and Prime Dmitri Medvedev, who appears in a startling interview where he claims the Bolshoi is a sort of guided propaganda missile of national heritage that is sent abroad to influence and profit the mother country.

This is a commercial film but also one that will make you jump on  the nearest plane to Moscow to experience the Bolshoi for yourselves. What emerges it that the arguing, bitterness and jealousy is the ‘raison d’être’ of the Bolshoi, defining them firing up the enthusiasm, professionalism and creative brilliance of these highly emotional artists. The only criticism is the brevity of the beguiling ballet footage of the troupe performing seen both backstage and from the Bolshoi Theatre presidential boxes. MT

 NOW ON DVD 

 

Grazing the Sky (2015) | DVD release

images-1Writer|Director: Horacio Alcala

Cast of the Cirque Du Soleil | Documentary | Mexico | 87min

Imagine if all you ever wanted to do was dance with a circus wheel. That was Jonathan’s dream. Bailing on his English literature studies, he joined the Cirque Du Soleil and the circus ‘Cyr Wheel’ is now his life. Directed and produced by Mexican film-maker Horacio Alcalá, GRAZING THE SKY uncovers the secret world of circus dancers as they explore their passions and the motivations behind their highly-skilled craft.

Interviewing for a production of Cirque Du Soleil, a Canadian iniative that has now become famous everywhere with its various permutations and themes, Mexican helmer Horacio sets out to discover new recruits for the troupe’s production. We meet these performers in audition, offering their artistry from their respective discplines interwoven with their various ethnic backgrounds from Palestine, Holland, Spain, Canada, Brazil. On the other end of the journey, Australian gold-medal gymnast, Damian Istria, about to retire from Cirque Du Soleil after a life-time career.

GRAZING THE SKY does take itself a bit too seriously at times, coming over a tad inauthentic: the artists opine about their “passion” as if they’re reading a script, rather than talking naturally and this gives the documentary the feel of a glossy filmed advertisement for Cirque de Soleil. It also gives the impression that the performers are somehow looking at their craft as a therapy that has saved their lives rather than a serious professional vocation, which clearly it is.. That said, the technical credits are superb with slick and inventive cinematography from David Palacios, giving the piece an intense and magical feel at times. The idea started as the brainchild of Patrick Flynn, Company Manager for Cirque Du Soleil, and shines a light on the many ways that dancers find their vocation into today’s circus industry – a far cry from the past where the only way in came from family connections.

But the dancers do become a family of sorts, bonded by shared experience and expression that takes them all over the world where they perform the various techniques with equipment from Saar Rombout and the Cyr wheel, with which Jonathan Moss is now one of the top dancers. The only other criticism here is the lack of footage for the other Cirque Du Soleil skills such as juggling. But Horacio’s documentary offers worthwhile insight into the contemporary world of the 21st century circus: the travelling caravans and performing animals have (thankfully) now moved on. MT

OUT ON DVD from January 25th 2016

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Eden (2014) | DVD release

Dir.: Mia Hansen-Løve; Cast: Felix de Givry, Arsinee Khanjian, Greta Gerwig; France 2014, 131 min.

At only 33 years old, Mia Hansen-Løve has already directed four features, a considerable achievement for a woman director in France. EDEN shares with her last two outings, a central character who does not know when to give up. In Father of my Children (2009), the producer Gregoire Canvel (based on the real life figure of the independent producer Humbert Balsan) can’t stop producing, even though his debts are astronomical – desperate, he commits suicide in the streets of Paris. Camille, the heroine in Goodbye first Love (2011) can’t get over her first love, and spends years in the doldrums, before accepting the loss. Both films could do with some shorter running time, but they are aesthetically so mature, whilst genre- wise so different, that one has to marvels at this filmmaker’s skill.

EDEN, true to its name, is set in the world of French Garage music, chronicling the years from the late eighties to the present. Its anti-hero, the DJ Paul (de Givry), inhales mountains of coke and goes through many broken relationships whilst living in the “fast lane”: a superficial and consumerist existence. Having given up his literature studies, his debts accumulate and his mother (Khanjian) has to continually bail him out. His girlfriends usually don’t stay around long; empathy is not his strength. On his travels to New York, he meets up with Julia (Gerwig), who had left him in Paris. Having been dumped again, he rekindles the relationship, even though Julia has two little girls. When Paul’s best friend, the cartoonist Cyril, commits suicide, throwing himself under a metro train, Paul, now in his mid thirties, says goodbye to his former life style, and returns to his first love, literature. When a young woman on his course, asks him about his past, he lets on about his involvement in Garage music – to his utter astonishment, she has never heard of this music genre…..

Paul, like many men in his circle, is semi-autistic. Narcissistic, egocentric and spoilt by his mother, he accumulates debts from a coke habit that ruins his bank balance and his health. Self-pity is just another character trait he wears on his sleeve. His love for Julia only functions in retrospective yearning. When he meets her again, she has to abort their child, because Paul is totally broke.  Hansen-Løve’s style is remarkable: even those who know next to nothing about this particular music scene in France will find this edifying and informative, not only from a musical angle, but also from the  atmosphere engendered, and the admirable characterisations. Hansen-Løve astonishes with her maturity and sheer brilliance, worthy of any veteran., Her talent and spontaneity oozes out of every frame. The ensemble acting is brilliant, the camera catches every moment in time, working in elliptic movements, showing the musicians in intimate close-ups and illuminating the Paris skyline in glorious panoramic shots, that never degenerate into picture-postcard blandness. A spellbinding tour-de-force of music and emotion. AS

NOW ON DVD RELEASE from 14 December 2015

The Nutcracker (1986) | Christmas re-release | DVD

Dir.: Carroll Ballard; Cast: Hugh Bigney, Vanessa Sharp, Wade Walthall;

Music: Peter I. Tchaikovsky; LSO conducted by Charles Maccerass; North West Ballet;

USA 1986, 89 min.

Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) has tried to give Tchaikovksy’s ballet based on ETA Hoffmann’s story, a more child friendly appeal. He has engaged the children’s book author Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are) to co-script and have a hand with the design.

The opening sequence shows an illustrator sketching sets and characters of the story. But that is as far it gets innovation-wise: the rest is a very respectable version, choreographed by Northern Ballet’s artistic director Kent Stowell. Somehow acting and dancing never manage to feek ‘live’, this is an saccharine-laced sugarplum: too sweet and too much culture with a capital C. And, in spite of aerial shots and some interesting tricks – like the dream dancers on the bed sheets with the girl’s face towering over them – one hardly forgets that this is a (very well) staged ballet.

Ballard’s successes as a director, particularly with Never Cry Wolf depended on great outdoors settings. They were lyrical epics about men in the wilderness. But he never breaks trough the demarcation lines of the stage: his trickery (like the fourth wall in some of the scenes) just underlines the fact, that he is showing a “Guckkasten” production. Strangely enough, one of the most impressive scenes is the fat tiger, having to function as a maypole for the dancing children – most certainly an idea of Maurice Sendhak.

THE NUTCRACKER is a prime example for the impossibility of filmed ballet: it is in a way a contradiction in itself, because ballet is somehow transitory – the dancers glide, their physical presence feel replaced by their image. Charles Maccerrass’ interpretation of Tchaikovsky is ponderous, giving it too much ‘schmaltz’ and failing on the tempi – after all, this is supposed to be a ghost story – for children – but nevertheless, the music never reflects the eeriness of the story.

Only when Sendak’s sinister figures appear do we finally see something out of the ordinary. But these moments are rare and they feel alien in the context of the whole, rather mediocre, enterprise. The dancing is somehow lost, whilst the dancers are obviously better dancers than actors, the camera concentrates most of the time on their secondary skills. Too often cuts interrupt the action, taking away the fluidity one associates with ballet; only near the end, during the Nutcracker Suite, we are treated too a long, uninterrupted dancing sequence. The result is still an admirable effort, perhaps the collaboration of Maurice Sendak set the bar of expectations too high.AS

NOW AVAILALBLE ON DVD

China Craft| What to see this Winter | Film | Dance | Art | from China

London plays host to some of the most exciting Chinese art, dance and cinema, both from mainland China, and its edgy sister Taiwan. Here’s a selection of the best offerings for the Winter season. The common thread throughout is master-craftmanshp: a mind-numbing attention to detail that is intoxicatingly beautiful and unique in its creativity and inventiveness

IMG_3323AI WEI WEI until 13 December 2015 | RA London W1

Major artist and cultural phenomenon Ai Weiwei is known for his powerful, provocative and visionary works and is now one of China’s most influential artists and drawing international attention to the Chinese government’s limitations on individual freedom.

Ai became widely known in Britain after his sunflower seeds installation in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2010 but the RA is now showcasing the first major exhibition in the UK, bridging over two decades of an extraordinary career highlighting Weiwei’s formal attention to detail and to realism, and the calculated whimsy of his creative vision.

Among his newest works are a number of large-scale installations, as well as works in mixed media from marble and steel to tea and glass. With typical boldness, the chosen works explore a multitude of challenging themes, drawing on his own experience to comment on creative freedom, censorship and human rights, as well as examining contemporary Chinese art and society. What emerges here is not only meticulous and mind-numbing attention to detail – Wei Wei’a art also require a dedicated troupe of highly skilled artisans in its painstaking execution. The centrepiece of utter brilliance is a series of limited addition chrysanthemums: delicately rendering in ice-blue, snow-white and shell pink. The refined exquisiteness of these ethereal baubles justifies their price tag of £14,000 per piece.

CHINA NATIONAL OPERA | SADLERS WELLS Theatre | until 22 November 2015

《杨门女将》朱虹饰穆桂英 copyThe hot ticket of the decade is CHINA PEKING OPERAs visit to the UK this November – The Peking Opera is a unique art form that requires the highest level of performing skill; demanding  lifelong dedication to practising its artistry. In this dance and musical extravaganza, each performer trains from a very tender age at opera school before being an apprentice and learning from the masters. With  spectacular costumes, face painting make-up and stunning stage craft, Peking Opera represents the essence of tradition Chinese values – achievements come through sweat and tears and resistance to material temptation. If there is an identity and unifying force for Chinese nationals, whether from the mainland, Taiwan or Hong Kong; it is the Peking Opera.

In FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE (ticket details) Zhu Hong gives a unique performance as the lover of the Overlord of Chu, Xiang Yu, who is fighting to save the Qin Dynasty. Floating like an exotic flower, her role culminates in a magnificent sword dance that leaves her as composed as a water lily on a tranquil pond. This combination of controlled emotion and highly complex choreography, echoing Wuxia epics such as The Grandmaster and House of Flying Daggers, is what makes this spectacular an unforgettable experience.

The troupe also perform WARRIOR WOMEN OF YANG, a story set during the Song Dynasty (960AD-1279AD) when the Emperor of Mercy, General Yang Zongbao, leads the Song army against the Western Xia and is victorious thanks to his fierce and loyal female soldiers.

In the climate of a largely westernised China, there are still artists who are passionate about the traditional form of Chinese artistic heritage and devote their lives to preserving the century old form of art. It is a dream kept alive by the National Peking Opera Company who continue to pursuit their dream of keeping this ancient Chinese art form alive and sharing its beauty and stagecraft with the world.

Differing only slightly in costume and makeup, all traditional opera forms, including Peking opera, are, strictly speaking, “regional,” in that each is based on the music and dialect of a specific area. Peking opera assumed its present form about two hundred years ago in Beijing, then the capital of the Qing Dynasty, it is usually regarded as a national art form combining singing, dancing and martial arts. Peking opera is the most representative of all Chinese traditional dramatic art forms.

《杨门女将》探谷-4 copyThe music of Peking opera is mainly orchestral music and percussion instruments provide a strongly rhythmical accompaniment. The main percussion instruments are gongs and drums of various sizes and shapes. There are also clappers made of hardwood or bamboo. The main stringed instrument is jinghu (Beijing fiddle), supported by erhu (second fiddle). Plucked stringed instruments include yueqin (moonshaped mandolin), pipa (four-stringed lute) and xianzi (three-stringed lute). Occasionally, suona horn and Chinese flute are also used. The orchestra is led by a drummer, who uses bamboo sticks to create very powerful sounds — sometimes loud, sometimes soft, sometimes strong and exciting, sometimes faint and sentimental — and bring out the emotions of the characters in coordination with the acting of the performers.

The vocal part of Peking opera is both spoken and sung. Spoken dialogue is divided into yunbai (recitative) and jingbai (Beijing colloquial speech), the former employed by serious characters and the latter by young females and clowns. The vocal music consists mainly of erhuang (adapted from folk tunes of Anhui and Hubei) and xipi (from Shaanxi tunes). In addition, Peking opera assimilates the tunes of the much older kunqu opera of the south and some folk arias popular in the north.

The character roles in Peking opera are finely and strictly differentiated into fixed types. Female roles are generally known as dan and male roles as sheng, but male clowns are known as chou. A chou, depicted by a patch of white on the face, is a humorous character. Male characters who are frank and open-minded but rough or those who are crafty and dangerous are known as jing or hualian (painted faces). Peking opera roles are further classified according to the age and personality of the characters. Each different role type has a style and rules of its own. What makes this “opera” unique, is this exotic combination of movement, dance, singing and music that makes it feel literally ‘out of this world’.

CHINESE CINEMA | THE ASSASSIN

ASSASSIN_THE_trees_green copy

Peking opera and its stylistic devices have appeared in many Chinese films. It often was used to signify a unique “Chineseness” in contrast to sense of culture being presented in Japanese films. Fei Mu, a director of the pre-Communist era, used Peking opera in a number of plays, sometimes within “Westernized”, realistic plots. King Hu, a later Chinese film director, used many of the formal norms of Peking opera in his films, such as the parallelism between music, voice, and gesture. In the 1993 film Farewell My Concubine, by Chen Kaige, Peking opera serves as the object of pursuit for the protagonists and a backdrop for their romance. Chen returned to the subject again in 2008 with the Mei Lanfang biopic FOREVER ENTHRALLED. Peking opera is also featured in Peking Opera Blues by Tsui Hark.

Three_Times_9 copyHou Hsiao-Hsien’s sumptuous films epitomise Chinese cinematic artistry and attention to detail. Fabulously meticulous both in execution and narrative, his award-winning dramas are amongst the most beautiful ever committed to celluloid. Born in Mei County, Guangdong province (China) in 1947, Hou and his family fled the Chinese Civil War to Taiwan the following year where he studied at the National Taiwan Academy of the Arts.

Internationally Hou is known for his austere and aesthetically rigorous dramas dealing with the upheavals of Taiwanese (and occasionally larger Chinese) history of the past century seen through the experience of individuals or small groups of characters. A City of Sadness (1989), features a family caught in conflict between the local Taiwanese and the newly arrived Chinese Nationalist government after the Second World War. Groundbreaking for tackling the controversial February 28 Incident and ensuing White Terror, the film became a major critical and commercial success, winning the Golden Lion at Venice in 1989, making it the first Taiwanese film to win the top prize at the oldest international film festival in the World.

hou1 copy copyHis narratives are elliptical and his style marked by extreme long takes with minimal camera movement but intricate choreography of actors and space within the frame. Hou uses extensive improvisation to arrive at the final shape of his scenes and the low-key, naturalistic acting of his performers. Famous for his rigorous austerity, a close collaboration with cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin since the 1990s has brought a sensual beauty to his to his imagery and this is at its most sublime in his most recent Wuxia outing THE ASSASSIN, which won him Best Director at Cannes this year (2015). Since the 1980s, Chu Tien-Wen has been his writing partner notably on Three Times (2005), The Assassin (2015) and Flowers of Shanghai (1998).  He has also cast revered puppeteer Li Tian-lu as an actor in several outings, including The Puppetmaster (1993), based on Li’s life.

THE ASSASSIN IS ON RELEASE NATIONWIDE FROM 22 JANUARY 2016

THE CHINA PEKING OPERA | COURTESY OF SINOLINKPRODUCTIONS.COM | SADLERS WELLS 19 -22 NOVEMBER 2015 

AI WEI WEI AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY LONDON W1 UNTIL JANUARY 2016 

 

Boy Choir (2014) | DVD Release

Dir.: Francois Girard

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Garret Wareign, Joe West, Kathy Bates, Josh Lucas

USA 2014, 103 min.

Canadian director Francois Girard (Red Violin) has done well to ingratiate himself with Hollywood: his simperingly-mawkish BOY CHOIR aims to be a tear-jerker but makes any cliche-counter bust after twenty minutes.

Rebellious Texan teenager Stet (Wareign) loses his poor (single) mother in a car crash, filmed with the greatest amount of tackiness possible. Enter Dad (Lucas), who has never met his son, since he has been busy having his own designer family, including two teenage daughters, in New York. Anyhow, his bank account allows him to bribe the principal of the prestigious American Boychoir School, to take young Stet on. His gutless rival for the solo parts, Devon (West), steels Stet’s music sheets before a performance, plasters photocopies of the hero’s late mother’s police photo all over the dining room – but, yes you guessed, to no avail, since Stet, with help of the great humanitarian Master Cavelle (Hoffman) gets the solo part in Haendel’s “Messiah” and, for a proper happy ending – right again – a membership in Dad’s upper class family.

The only interesting part of this schmaltz-opera is the bickering staff of the school, including a really funny Kathy Bates as headmistress. The rest is as far off the mark as the director’s knowledge of music; proclaiming at one moment that Handel’s “Messiah” lasts 50 minutes (real time 140 minutes), then just showing the “Halleluja”, which ends the concert in the film, whilst again, twenty more minutes of music follows in real life – something BOY CHOIR does not give a toss about. AS

ON DVD FROM 5 OCTOBER 2015

 

The Colour of Money | From the Gold Rush to the Credit Crunch | September 2015

Golddiggers 1933_2 copyPerfectly situated in the hub of Europe’s Financial centre, The Barbican offers a selection of films and discussions this Autumn exploring money through themes of power, wealth, poverty, corruption and consumerism.

From the silent era comes Erich von Stroheim’s potent thriller GREED, shows how the corruptive force of a sudden fortune ruins the lives of three Californians. The glitzy side of Hollywood is depicted in Mervyn LeRoy’s comedy musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (right) where millionaire turned composer Dick Powell uses his fortune for the good of the community. Robert Bresson won best director at Cannes 1983 for his classic l’ARGENT based on Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon that explores the journey of 500 franc note and the devastating effect on its final recipient. In THE WHITE BALLOON (1995), Jafar Panahi’s slice of realism, written by Abbas Kiarostami examines how a child is swindled out of her birthday money and blockbuster THE WOLF OF WALL STREET charts the rise to riches and ultimate fall of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) due to a 1990s securities scam. In AMERICAN PYSCHO (2000) Christian Bale stars as another wealthy City who sociopathic personality enables him to fund a lifestyle and escape into his own American dream. These are our recommendations:

Greed_7 copyGREED | Dir: Erich von Stroheim; Cast: Gibson Gowland, Za Su Pitts, Jean Hersholt | USA 1923; 462 min. (original), 140 min. (theatrical release), 239 min. (restored version)

Roger Ebert called Greed “the ‘Venus of Milo’ of films, acclaimed as a classic, despite missing several parts deemed essential by its creator”. It is also a classic example of Hollywood butchery, in this case performed by the new partners of MGM, Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer; Thalberg turning out to be Von Stroheim’s bête noir having already fired him from Merry-Go-Round at Universal. Just twelve people saw the original version (edited from 85 hours of total footage); one of them, the director Rex Ingram, believed that Greed was the best film ever and would never be surpassed. Shot over 198 days from June to October 1923 in San Francisco, Death Valley and Placer Country, California, it took over a year to edit, and cost $ 564 654 (around $ 60 million in todays money), but only grossed $ 274827 at the box office.

Based on the novel ‘Mc Teague’ by Frank Norris, Greed centres around the relationship of John Mc Teague (Gibson) and his wife Trina (Pitts). Mc Teague is operating as a dentist without a licence, when he meets Trina, who has been the girl friend of his best friend Marcus Schouler (Hersholt). After Trina wins $5000 in the lottery just before she marries McTeague, Schouler wants her back, and denounces Mc Teague to the police, for working without a licence. Mc Teague asks Trina for $3000, to save his skin, but she refuses him, being too fond of the money – she cleans the coins until they glitter. Mc Teague murders his wife and Schouler again reports him to the police. Mc Teague flees to Death Valley from his pursuers, among them Schouler, whom he fights to the death.

Greed  caused violence to break out off screen too. The film was nearly destroyed because of its unwieldy length, making it almost impossible to edit. A fist fight broke out between Mayer and Von Stroheim, after the former provoked the director with “I suppose you consider me rabble”, to which Von Stroheim answered “Not even that”. Mayer struck him so hard, that he fell through the office door. Mayer wanted a uplifting film for the “Jazz Age’, and Greed was uncompromising realism. But the studio even changed the meaning of what was left with inter-title cards. In the MGM version, when Trina and Mc Teague went by train to the countryside, the MGM title card reads “This is the first day it hasn’t rained in weeks. I thought it would be nice to go for a walk”. In Rick Schmidlin’s reconstructed version of 1999 (based on Stroheim’s 330 page shooting script and stills) it reads: “Let’s go and sit on the sewer” – and so they sit down on the sewer.

Von Stroheim, who invented an aristocratic upbringing and a glorious army career for himself, was nevertheless a master of realism when it came to films: when Gowland and Hersholt fight in Death Valley, the temperature was over 120 degrees, and many of the cast and crew had to take sick leave, Von Stroheim coaxed the actor on “Fight, fight. Try to hate each other as you hate me”. AS

L'Argent_2 copyL’ARGENT (1983) | Dir.: Robert Bresson | Cast: Christian Patey, Caroline Lang, Sylvie Van der Elsen, Michel Briguet France/Switzerland 1983, 85 min.

To find the money to direct what turned out to be his last film L’Argent, Robert Bresson needed the intervention of the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang – just like he did with L’Argent’s predecessor Le Diable Probablement (1977). L’Argent went on to win the Director’s Prize in Cannes, sharing in with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.

L’Argent is Bresson’s truest ‘Dostoevskyan’ work, even though it is based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Forged Coupon’. From the outset, money changes hands at a furious tempo: a young boy asks his father for pocket money but what he gets is not enough for him; he pawns his watch to his friend, who gives him a forged 500 Franc note. The boy, having recognised the forgery, takes the money to a photo shop, buying only a cheap frame with the note. The manager of the shop – after discovering the forged note, scolds his wife for being so naïve. But she reminds him that he took in himself two forged notes of the same denomination the week ago. The owner gives all three notes to Yvon Targe (Patey), who is the gas bill collector. Later, in a restaurant, Yvon tries to use the money but the waiter recognises the forgeries. Yvon is spared jail, but loses his job. Moneyless, he acts as get-away-driver for a friend’s robbery, but the plot fails and Yvon’s run of bad luck continues until its devastating denouement.

Apart from opening, everything is told in Bresson’s very own elliptical but terse style, making the smallest detail more important than the action. The prison is shown as a labyrinth in which Yvon is lost, particularly when sent into solitary confinement after a fight with fellow prisoners. The prison is shown in great detail in a similar vein to Un Condamne à mort s’est Echappé (1956) and becomes the material witness to Yvon’s suffering. The murder of the hotel-keepers is shown only in hindsight: a long medium shot of bloody water in a basin, followed by a close-up of Yvon emptying the till. The failed robbery is shown by the reactions of the passersb-by, who witness Yvon driving off, after shots are fired. Finally, enigma of the last shot in the restaurant, when the crowd looses interest in Yvon, as if he were simply not enough of a person, in spite of the hideous murders. In this shot, the whole universe of Bresson is captured: there seems to be no sense in human deeds, and, therefore there is no question of a why, and no guilt, but, perhaps just redemption.

DOP Pasqualino de Santis (Death in Venice) excels particularly in bringing together the close-up shots of the objects, and the long shots of Yvon as he gets increasingly lost: in the robbery, in prison, and in the cosy house of an old woman. We feel him shrinking, as he loses his identity during the film, becoming a total non-person by the end. The acting is as understated as possible, and Bresson closes his oeuvre of only thirteen films in fifty years with another discourse on spiritual and mystic values in a world, where money is everything and everywhere. AS/MT

THE COLOUR OF MONEY | BARBICAN LONDON EC2 | 10 – 20 SEPTEMBER 2015 

 

Cemetery Without Crosses | Una corde…un Colt (1969) | Blu-ray | DVD release

image009 copyDirector: Robert Hossein   Writer: Dario Argento

Cast: Michele Mercier, Robert Hossein, Guido Lollobrigida, Daniele Vargas, Serge Marquand,

90min   Spaghetti Western  France

Robert Hossein directs this Spaghetti Western with a French twist and also stars as a friend who reluctantly comes to rescue and avenge a woman whose husband has been lynched by a rival gang. Well-crafted, sparingly scripted and infused with soulful Latin romance, the film conjures up the harsh and macho world of 19th century America where men were monosyllabic and women alluring. Sergio Leone’s memory comes flooding back through Andre Hossein’s evocative instrumental score and Scott Walker’s rousing rendering of the title track. Guy Villette’s sound design makes good use of howling ambient winds and creaking boards.

Maria (Michele Mercier) and her husband have made enemies and none more bitter than the Rogers family. But after his death a resonant and palpable chemistry ignites between her and Manuel and this, together with Henri Persin’s impressive range of set pieces that create a remarkable sense of place, is largely the reason for the film’s sixties success and enduring watchability.

Although Dario Argento is credited with writing the script, his input was more down to dialogue with Claude Desailly and Hossein making the major contribution. Performances are authentic and convincing from the largely French cast. Manuel and Maria work particularly well together, both giving subtle yet compelling turns as they gradually fall in love. CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES is a classic Western of the finest order. MT

OUT ON DVD and BLU-RAY COURTESY OF ARROW FILMS AND VIDEO on JULY 20, 2015

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Lambert and Stamp (2014)

GettyImages_85360721 copyDirector: James D Cooper

With: Kit Lambert, Pete Townsend, Roger Daltrey, Chris Stamp, Richard Barnes, Robert Fearnley Whittingstall

118min   Music Documentary    US

Kit Lambert and Christopher Stamp shaped the early years of one of England’s greatest rock bands that was The Who. James D. Cooper’s enjoyable documentary traces the partnership of this unlikely couple, who are no longer around but whose memory lives on, in this affectionate portrait featuring band members: Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey, and Stamp’s elder brother, the actor Terence. Chris also makes an expansive and charismatic appearance and it’s only later that you realise that he died in 2012. Clearly this well-researched film. with its superb editing by Christopher Tellefsen, has been a long time in the making.

Watching Lambert & Stamp the phrase “the past is a different country ” frequently springs to mind. Not only did they do things differently back in the Swinging Sixties, but life seemed simpler then and a great deal more fun. This heady conconction of black and white photos, archive footage and musical excerpts charts the days of the Mods and Rockers and Swinging London that formed the genesis in 1964 of The High Numbers, later known as The Who.

Lambert and Stamp were two highly unorthodox characters who together forged a relationship that was to make these media entrepreneurs into successful record producers in the world of Rock. Yet Kit Lambert couldn’t have come from a more illustrious and upmarket background. The son of classical composer Constant Lambert, he was born in Knightsbridge and educated at Lancing College and Oxford and spoke French and German – we see him conversing fluently in TV interviews. In contrast, Stamp grew up in the East End, one of five children whose father was a tugboat captain on the Thames. Meeting in Shepperton Studios, where they both fostered dreams of graduating from directing assistants to fully-fledged film directors, they were drawn together by a remarkable synergy, sharing an interest for French New Wave. Their original aim was make a film about a music band and were searching around with this idea that would provide them with an entrée into the film world as directors. Townshend reflects that “irreverence” is probably the wrong word to describe their approach to managing the band, since that would imply that they weren’t treating the endeavour seriously. But may be this laissez-faire style was just right in handling these young and rebellious men and moulding them into rocks stars. And although Lambert was frightfully classy his manner is described by all the band members as warm and approachable. Being gay, he was also unthreatening to the other men. Although Daltrey claims, jokingly, to have been slightly miffed that Lambert never made an approach, making him feeling “unattractive”. In another hilarious moment, Townsend’s school chum, Richard Barnes, claims that, Kit, a chain-smoker: “used one match in his whole life to light his first cigarette” which he was apparently offered at the age of 9 by one of his father’s friends. Kit had worked as a crew member on The Guns of Navarone, Tommy and To Russia With Love.  Terence Stamp describes his brother as “a rough, tough fighting sort of spiv,” whose interest in girls was helped, undoubtedly, by his gift of the gab and unruly mop of dark hair. Even in his seventies, his hair turned white, he exudes a voluble appeal. 

Cooper ‘s documentary is replete with nearly two hours of amusing anecdotes and moving moments that coalesce in this candid and fascinating exposé of the band, the personalities and the sixties .Although this era has already been well-documented (and dramatised in the 1979 film  Quadrophenia), Cooper still finds something new and worthwhile to bring to the party of the sixties popular music revolution that also embraced The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. MT

LAMBERT AND STAMP IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 15 MAY 2015

Heaven Adores You (2014)

Dir.: Nickolas Dylan Rossi   DoP: Jeremiah Gurzi

Documentary; USA 2014, 104.min.

Nickolas Rossi’s debut documentary, which he also co-photographed, is an earnest and very soulful insight into the life of singer and songwriter Elliott Smith (1969-2003), whose melancholic and often nihilistic ballads are played against a background of the places Smith inhabited, mainly Portland, Oregon. The greatest strengths of the film are the long shots of urban life, often at night, giving the documentary a noirish quality, quited suited to Smith’s personality and the unclear circumstances of his untimely death.

Elliott Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, his parents divorced when he was six month old and Elliott was raised in Duncanville, Texas. His childhood was very traumatic, he did not get on with his stepfather, and it emerges that music became an outlet for his psychological troubles. In Portland he was to become part of the punk rock scene in the early 1990s, culminating in him playing and singing for “Heatmiser”.  But it soon became clear, that his talents were best served as a solo artist, and he was, at the beginning of his career, often compared to Paul Simon. His first release “Roman Candle” (1994), was followed two years later with his first film score for “Lucky Three: an Elliott Smith Portrait”.  Smith’ next album “Either/Or” gave much insight into the psyche of the songwriter: the title is from a two part volume of the Danish philosopher Soren Kirkegard, an early existentialist, whose main topics were angst, death and the questionable existence of God.

His link with the  film world came in 1997 when he wrote “Miss Misery” for Gus Van Sant’s movie Good Will Hunting, and was nominated for an Oscar. At the Oscar ceremony in March 1998, he played the song, finding the occasion very “absurd”, and not minding that he did not win. Further albums like “XO” and “Figure 8” (2000) established him as a star. Like many artists, Elliott Smith was a shy person who hated touring and interviews and after he moved to New York in 1998, his psychological problems worsened, as did his alcohol and drug dependency. In California, his condition deteriorated even more, though he wrote the song “Needle in the Hay” for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tannenbaums (2001). On his 34th birthday on August the 6th 2003, he gave up drugs and alcohol after many failed treatments but, ironically, he was to die of two stab wounds in his chest, later that year and the inquest left an open verdict. At the time he was living with his partner Jennifer Chiba in Echo Park, California.

Song titles like “Everything Means Nothing To Me’ and “Ballad of Big Nothing” are not the only sign of Smith’ vulnerability: even though HEAVEN ADORES YOU interviewed many friends and musician (among them Joanna Bolme, for whom Smith wrote the ambivalent love song “Say Yes”), nobody seems to have known Elliott and he remains an enigma for everyone he met. The motifs of nomadic wandering, solitude and melancholia captured in the dark images of Portland, New York and Los Angeles are the nearest we will ever get to a man, whose introspective nature collided with his status: “I’m the wrong kind of person to be really big and famous”. AS

HEAVEN ADORES YOU ELLIOTT SMITH IS ON RELEASE AT SELECTED CINEMAS FROM 7 MAY 2015

 

Argerich 2012

Director: Stephanie Argerich

Documentary with Martha Argerich, Annie Dutoit, Lyda Chen, Stephen Kovacevich

France, Switzerland 2012, 94 min. French/English/Spanish

Born in Buenos Aires in 1941, Martha Argerich is perhaps the most important pianist of the second half of the 20th century. Known as the “tigress” at the piano, she is very protective of her private sphere. Luckily, her daughter Stephanie is a filmmaker, and has filmed her mother for over two decades; the result, BLOODY DAUGHTER is not a hagiography, but an episodic portrait of a genius who also happens to be the mother of three daughters. Her oldest, the violinist Lyda Chen (whom we see rehearsing with her mother), is the daughter of the composer/conductor Robert Chen; Annie’s father is the conductor Charles Dutoit, and the London-based pianist Stephen Kovacevich is the father of Stephanie, the youngest. Kovacevich gave the film the title, calling Stephanie lovingly his ‘bloody daughter”. Later we see the two arguing over Stephen’s failure to put his name on his daughter’s birth certificate, one of several parental omissions for which many children of great artists suffer.

Martha Argerich, who gave her first public concert at age eight, moved to Europe with her family aged twelve, supported by the president of that time, Juan Peron. The great Friedrich Gulda was her main influence, but she studied also with Nikita Magaloff. Winning major competitions, among them the Chopin Prize in Warsaw, Argerich was already a star in her mid-twenties (in an era, when musicians were called ‘young’ when they were in their forties), her stage persona, a mixture of the beautiful and enigmatic, was also helpful.

We see her re-visiting the stage of her early triumph in Warsaw, when she played Chopin’s first piano concerto in 2010, merchandise with her name being sold to adoring crowds. Whilst some of the footage may be repetitive, we get a very good picture here of how Argerich prepares for her concerts, and how she deals with the aftermath of elation in strong contrast to her pre-concert nerves. Since the early 80s, the pianist is not keen on giving solo performances, because she “feels too lonely”.

Martha interweaves her well-crafted documentary with plenty of drama from her mother’s past: revealing h0w Argerich’s mother (from a family of Russian Jews) literally kidnapped Martha’s oldest daughter Lyda from an orphanage, Martha having to give up custody of the child for her for a while. In 1995, heavy-smoker Martha  underwent a life-saving cure at the John Wayne Cancer Centre – but we see her continuing the habit, in spite of having had a part of her lung removed. On the comic side, Stephanie remembers that her mother was not keen on the idea of her attending school, writing sick notes with the help of her elder sister Annie. Furthermore, Martha had absolute no idea about the grading system of school tests, congratulating her daughter on a rather bad score. The documentary ends with the four women discussing their relationships, Martha telling Stephanie that she prefers non-verbal communication with her. But the highlights of this engaging piece are still the musical performances past and present: when Argerich performs Schumann, “every emotion of his soul is in his music”, we forget all the images of BLOODY DAUGHTER showing her minor and not so minor foibles: when she touches the piano, she changes the world. AS

ON RELEASE AT SELECTED CINEMAS FROM 1 MAY 2015

 

 

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (2015)

Director: Brett Morgan


132 minutes (US) MUSICAL BIOPIC  

Over 20 years after his death, what is the enduring appeal of Kurt Cobain? Does it speak of the anodyne, characterless musical landscape du jour that we are still so enamoured with his rise and fall? Or is it simply down to appreciation of a musical visionary? Alternatively, is it the gruesome romance of suicide; the garish, tragic apex of that stereotyped notion of the tortured artist? Or a complex compound of the two?

Presented as a HBO production, Montage of Heck is the latest in a substantial line of documentaries to look into the late icon’s life. Rather than the probing, but ultimately unauthorised, illegitimate and dissatisfying Nick Broomfield doc Kurt & Courtney (1998), director Brett Morgen’s film secures a modicum of legitimacy due to the calibre of its witnesses and previously unseen video footage.

It is a film that is ghoulish, schizophrenic and chaotic. As the follow up to his jumbled and only partially successful 2013 Rolling Stones film Crossfire Hurricane, Morgan’s latest suffers from similar failings. Clocking in with considerable heft at 132 minutes, he certainly hasn’t scrimped on detail. Most of the main players in the Kurt story are present and (depending on perception) correct, bar one notable absentee in the form of Kurt’s former drummer, and now full time founding Foo Fighter, Dave Grohl. Interest is undeniably piqued upon hearing testimony from his mother and father, alongside his old bass player Krist Novoselic and former girlfriends, which include the ever candid Courtney Love. They offer a window into the teenage and adult Cobain like never before.

So far, so interesting. It is with considerable disappointment, therefore, that the residual impression left by this documentary is a negative one. Aside from this writer’s considerable ethical issue and umbrage with the work (as outlined below), Montage of Heck is sprawling and undisciplined.

For a band whose catalogue only contains one song that ends on a fade out, this is the antithesis of their focused, no-frills ethos. At times, it is far too digressive and takes those digressive turns in the wrong places. If Kurt’s notes portray concern at violation, then he would be horrified by this work. It is guilty of raiding, ransacking and violating his personal, private moments whilst his corpse gathers dust.

You may not need to see Montage of Heck to have formed the opinion that the Love/Cobain relationship was toxic. You can read enough articles to construct that opinion vicariously. However, to see the home video footage is to really ram the point home. As Courtney openly confesses her heroin consumption during her pregnancy, she also recounts how Kurt stated, ‘I’m going to get to $3m and then become a junkie’. It is all rather sad, and it is the Love material that makes matters particularly uncomfortable, as this slide towards the abyss gathers pace.

It takes a strong stomach not to squirm at the footage of Kurt and Courtney kissing in extreme close-up or wallowing around in the narcotic den that formed their home; blissfully out of their not so pretty (at the time) heads in a druggy haze. Such intimate and frequently unflattering moments are dredged up time and time again. It is increasingly disquieting to witness and exacerbates the feeling that the audience is being subjected to a voyeuristic trip that feels improper; like a Peeping Tom.

It isn’t all negative though. Aside from clips of the familiar (for example, the blistering Reading festival headline performance from 1992), what could have been presented as a whisper of a memory from friends and relatives, is frequently enhanced by the drawings, audio clips and super 8 home video footage (which, for better, or the worse as outlined above, is a treasure trove). It is worth checking out the fleeting sound check footage that hints at the historical lack of love lost between Dave Grohl and Love. It is fascinating. Further, the ad hoc utilisation of animated sequences to provide a bridge to many of the excerpts lifted from Kurt’s diaries and other such voiceover accompaniment is visually arresting and effective.

Montage of Heck, for all of its faults, represents another coup for a filmmaker who is making a habit of securing great access to the great and the good within the hallowed halls of rock history. The debate can rage on as to whether the world needed to peel the curtain behind the public persona of Cobain as it does here. Maybe the elusive enigma that hitherto prompted endless conjecture on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ on his suicide benefited from a lack of video disclosure. Instead of conjuring nostalgia and sadness, the film – either intentionally or not – pops the bubble of romance. In doing so, it shows the dark(est) underbelly of this musical giant. Greg Wetherall.

IN CINEMAS FROM 10 APRIL 2015

Radio On (1979)

images-3Director: Chris Petit

Writer: Chris Petit, Heidi Adolph

104min   Drama | Music  UK

Cast: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer, Sandy Ratcliff, Sting,

With funding from Wim Wenders and his cinematographer Martin Schäfer, British director Christopher Petit’s first feature could hardly have been shot in colour. Indeed, black and white seems particularly fitting for the sombre and troubled tone of this endearing seventies road movie. With shades of Get Carter, without the stars, it sees David Beames (as Robert) driving from London to Bristol to check out the mysterious death of his brother. Under murky, sleet-soaked skies, the dismal journey has Robert searching for his own identity in a dispondent Britain where he fails to engage with anyone he meets along the way: an ex-soldier, a woman looking for her child and a child punk rocker. Accompanied by an iconic soundtrack comprising David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Ian Dury, Lena Lovich and a wonderful vignette from Sting, posing as a garage mechanic in the depths of Wiltshire; Robert’s failure to communicate with the disenfranchised seems, even then, to reflect the malaise now emblematic of the way we live in Britain today. The journey ends as bitterly as it began, with his Rover stalling and peters out on the edge of a desolate quarry. Raw and chilly, this sneering piece of British cinema raises an idiosyncratic question-mark, that still remains unanswered today. MT

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REVIEWED AT THE AUTEUR FILM FESTIVAL, CURZON BLOOMSBURY

No Manifesto: A Film About the Manic Street Preachers (2015)

Director: Elizabeth Marcus

With James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Sean Moore, Nicky Wire

96min  Biopic Documentary  UK

Better known for her work behind the scenes in Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 11, Elizabeth Marcus’s directorial debut, 12 years in the making, is a biopic of this popular Welsh band, whose original intention was to sell 16 million copies of their first album before splitting up. Of course this never happened and here Marcus tells their story from their 2005 ‘Past-Present-Future’ tour right through to the present day workings of the band.

Travelling from the Band’s hometown in South Glamorgan, the action travels to Europe and the US, consisting of a collage of interviews with band members James Dean Bradfield, Nicky Wire and Sean Moore intercut with musical moments, live footage of rehearsals and impressions from enthusiastic fans. Those expecting a filmed concert such as we’ve seen recently with the biopics on Morrissey, Peter Gabriel and Duran, Duran, will be disappointed: the focus here is very much on the band members themselves as they share their thoughts, observations and hopes for the future and emphasis is put on the creative process with a ‘no holds barred’ approach. The band gave unprecedented access to Marcus and her crew and she offers up a fascinating and intimate insight that will appeal not only to fans but to anyone interested in popular music and the making of it. MT

No Manifesto will be released on 30 January with one night showings at Cardiff Chapter Cinema and Manchester Cornerhouse Cinema on January 30 and 31 respectively and at the Curzon cinemas London. A DVD release will follow in mid February 2015.

 

 

Algol (1920) | Tragödie der Macht

Director: Hans Werckmeister   Writers: Hans Brennert, Friedel Köhne

Cast: Emil Jannings, John Gottowt, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, Hanna Ralph, Erna Morena

99min  Fantasy | Sci-Fi

The intriguingly titled ‘Algol’ (1920) crops up occasionally in histories of silent cinema in general and sci-fi cinema in particular, but the excellent restoration – complete with a live musical accompaniment by the esteemed Stephen Horne – displayed at the Barbican, in the City of London, represented the first chance in Britain actually to see the film on a big screen in over 90 years. (The film can be viewed on YouTube, but untinted and with German titles only; and a DVD, also scored by Horne, may be in the pipeline).

Subtitled Tragödie der Macht (Tragedy of Power), the film provides a fascinating glimpse of a period when Germany’s fragile new postwar democracy seemed precariously poised on the brink of total political and economic collapse, yet was possessed of a film industry capable of producing an ambitious, lavishly mounted production such as this.

Emil Jannings – already a star of international stature on the strength of his roles for Lubitsch, and later the first actor to win an Oscar – plays Robert Herne, a coal miner presented by a mischievous alien called Algol (played by John Gottowt) with a machine that renders coal obsolete as a source of energy and thus gives Herne the financial clout to suck the rest of the world dry. (Sound familiar?) The action spans twenty years, during the course of which Herne loses his wife and ultimately his marbles before finally going up in smoke with his diabolical machine.

The histrionic plot combining both anti-capitalism and anti-technology provides a rather slender framework for such an opulent production, but Hans Werckmeister (a quantity otherwise totally unknown to film historians, who died in 1929) directs with a firm hand. The acting is generally good; far less like stereotypical ‘silent film’ acting than that in Fritz Lang’s later and much better-known Metropolis, while the superb photography and production design (the latter by Walter Reimann, fresh from working on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) consistently provides something interesting to look at. All in all, a dynamic and enjoyable relic of an extraordinary era both in the history of the world and of the cinema. Richard Chatten.

Richard Chatten has written for Film Dope, The Independent, the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, The Encyclopedia of British Film, The Journal of Popular British Cinema and Cinema: The Whole Story. His favourite film is A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

Björk: Biophilia Live (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir: Nick Fenton, Peter Strickland.  With Björk, Manu Delgado, Graduale Nobili, UK Filmed concert, 97min

Like most artists, Björk is uncompromising – you have to be, really, to preserve your creative control and vision in a highly competitive market where not only talent, innovation and self-belief are required, but also perseverance and downright doggedness. Björk is a singer who possesses all of these attributes and manages to be exotic and mysterious into the bargain. If her tonally tuneless droning appeals, then you will be there for this biopic in which her unique style is showcased during a concert at Alexandra Palace in 2013, featuring 10 new compositions. Made all the more ethereal and ‘out there’ by her judicious collaboration with Peter Strickland and Nick Fenton whose highly stylised and striking visuals compliment her performance to perfection, this is a vibrant and mesmerising experience: images from nature form the basis of a ‘multidimensional, multimedia’ project: opening with David Attenborough’s mellow voiceover, Björk and her largely girl band is accompanied by a psychedelic array of swirling images from starfish and jellyfish dancing over the sea bed, to lightning, lunar cycles and tectonic shifts. If Björk’s your bag, you’ll love it. MT

SCREENING ON 9/10 OCTOBER IN OWE2 AND SOHO and ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 17 OCTOBER

THE LFF RUNS UNTIL 19 OCTOBER 2014

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Keep On Keepin’ On (2014) | BFI London Film Festival

Dir.: Alan Hicks; Cast: Clark Terry, Justin Kauflin, Quincy Jones; USA 2014, 84 min.

Hicks first full length documentary features the Jazz trumpet legend Clark Terry now in his nineties, and his latest protégé, 23 year old Justin Kauflin, a budding jazz pianist. But theirs in much more that an ordinary master/student relationship: Terry has been suffering from Diabetes for over sixty years, and his eye sight is weakening constantly, albeit slowly. Kauflin, on the other hand, has been blind since being in sixth form. The two of them meet mostly in Terry in Arkansas, Justin being ferried back and forth from  Virginia by his mother, who is a full time carer like Gwen, Clark’s wife and editor on his recent biography, which has just been published.

Alan Hicks highlights Terry’s caring, optimistic nature in this upbeat portrait with fascinating footage and interviews with Miles Davis and Bill Crosby. We discover that Clark Terry was born in Missouri, had ten siblings and grew up in utter poverty, but in contrast, his stellar career led him to play with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones among others. He was the first African-African staff musician at NBC, playing ten years on the “Tonight” Show with Jimmy Carson. Terry supports Kauflin who has immense stage fright, sometimes being unable to express himself at key moments such as the “Theolonius Monk” competition, when Justin had reached the semi-final stage, but was unable to progress further. Hicks really shows the hurt, the desperation – but afterwards Terry being able to offer more than words, when the two practice again together.

In the four years covered, Hicks shows the subtle development of the relationship between the musicians without resorting to sentimentality: the gradual deepening of the friendship to mutual support and a unique closeness. Whilst there have been famous products of Terry’s “academy”,  such as Dianne Reeves and Terri Lyne, who pay homage to the master, Justin Kauflin will always be very much more than just a student for Clark Terry. KEEP ON KEEPIN’ ON is one of those rare documents of emotional strength; the pursuit of musical perfection which eventually becomes a mutual survival pact. AS

THE LONDON FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 9-19 0CTOBER 2014

VIEWINGS TIMES: 8.10. 20.45 NFT 1, 9.10. 15.30 NFT 2, 10.10. 18.30 Rich Mix

The Casanova Variations (2014) | San Sebastian Film Festival

Director/Writer: Michael Sturminger

Cast: John Malkovich, Fanny Ardant, Veronica Ferres

Professional Singers: Sophie Klussmann, Daniel Schmutzhard

150min   Biopic/opera

John Malkovich is well-suited to the role of maverick 18th century serial seducer Giacomo Casanova (apparently he had a modest 120 lovers). Long-term collaborater Michael Sturminger has cast him in this strangely weird but rather enjoyable ‘chamber-opera in a musical biopic’ where he reminisces over his misspent youth, to a rousing Mozart score. His accent has echoes of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s in the recent Nymphomaniac (maybe they shared the voice coach) but his presence is more irascible than coaxing: admittedly he’s reached the end of his life and is angrily desperate and ailing rather than sensual and playful about the game of love here. He flails around desperate for satisfaction: but nowadays he ‘can’t get none’, so he writes his memoirs looking back in unrequited lust to his previous dalliances with paramours, played with talent and vivaciousness by Veronica Ferres (Elisa) and a beguiling Fanny Ardant (Lucrecia) and remembered in flashback with well-known operatic vignettes and arias sung and played by professional singers overseen by Martin Haselbock.

Sturminger’s script is adapted from Casanova’s ‘Histoire de Ma Vie’ with some embellishments but gives more of an impression than a well-formed narrative. The Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte score plays rather like a selection of Classic FM snippets. The elegant costumes and sets by Andreas Donhauser and Renate Martin (Paradise: Love) and DoP André Szankowski’s (The Mysteries of Lisbon) luscious visuals are what ultimately makes this a ravishing and mildly entertaining, if slightly bizarre, piece of filmmaking. MT reviewed at Cannes 2014

SAN SEBASTIAN FILM FESTIVAL RUNS FROM 19-27 SEPTEMBER 2014

Finding Fela (2014)

Director: Alex Gibney

119min   US   Documentary

Well-known, prolific documentary-maker Alex Gibney has recently given us Mea Maxima Culpa; Julian Assange in Wikileaks: We Steal Secrets and Lance Armstrong (The Armstrong Lie). This time he turns his camera on the Nigerian political activist and prolific musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti.

Born into a Nigeria’s elite in a wealthy and educated family in 1938, the enigmatic and colourful Kuti and his feared band, the Koola Lobitos, dominate the music scene in Nigeria in the 1970s and 80s with his self-styled ‘Afrobeat’ – music: a mélange of jazz, soul and funk beats, the best known of which is the album “Zombie”. Gibney scrabbles around piecing together patchy footage of this maverick music-maker, flitting between his political life and ‘art’. Often tuneless and meandering on for hours, the musical tracks and performances of this trance-like genre never really reach a climax yet somehow these rhythmic vibes lead listeners to the mysterious, exotic heart of deepest, darkest Africa conjuring up a world largely unknown to audiences in the sixties and seventies.

Gibney’s film takes on this meandering style, sprawling through the life of the man he calls ‘a visionary’ but also who appears sinister and dark.  Told alongside excerpts from New York choreographer Bill T Jones’s lively Broadway musical ‘Fela!’, which offers much information about his band’s dance methods and style, Gibney fills in the gaps with archive footage and interviews (from Paul McCartney) which are more formal in nature, telling of his family background in Lagos (where he learnt to play classical piano) and subsequent performances at his ‘Shrine’ club in the capital, although there is scant information on his musical influences apart from a cursory mention of ‘Jay Z’ .

What emerges is a mercurial personality who seems rebellious and provocative by nature, highly duplicitous yet rather traditional; peddling an anti-establishment populist agenda for human rights in his country yet at the same time cutting a large swathe through Lagos’s nubile scene and marrying 27 women in one ceremony, behind the back of the woman he was already happily married to at the time (and father to her children).  Yet women had a benign influence over him from early on: his strong mother (an feminist lawyer whom he worshipped) and his long-term lover Sandra Izsadore, an African-American Black Power campaigner, give interviews and seem to be articulate and highly appealing individuals. His academics brothers trained as doctors and seem very calm and serious. Gibney compares him to Bob Marley, but there is little of Bob Marley’s charm, infectious charisma and musical legacy to this figure, whose music seems largely unknown in the West for obvious reasons that will emerge: coming away you feel unengaged and slightly bemused in contrast to the positively uplifting experience of Marley (2013).

More than anything, Fela Kuti comes across as a confrontational figure who used music as a ‘weapon’ against the Government who reacted to him aggressively with frequent episodes of police harassment and violence – one of which left his 82-year-old mother fatally injured and many of his family members and acolytes hospitalised. After a brief exile in Ghana, he formed his own party “Movement of the People” he fail to gain election. Often arrested by Nigeria’s corrupt military government, he chose to remain in his native country. Dabbling in traditional ‘witchcraft’ and other arcane practices he later developed AIDS, dying in 1977. His funeral was attended by 1 million Nigerians. MT

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REVIEWED AT SUNDANCE UK APRIL 2014

NOW ON GENERAL RELEASE

 

Pulp (2014)

Director: Florian Habicht

Starring: Jarvis Cocker, Nick Banks, Candida Doyle, Steve Mackey, Mark Webber

91min   UK   Music biopic

Jarvis Cocker’s quirky personality shines through this warm-hearted biopic that follows his indie rock band Pulp, in a final home town concert in 2012. Jarvis describes the film as a ‘tidying-up exercise’, after the band’s informal departure from the music scene in 2002, but acknowledges this is ‘not a very rock n roll concept’. Sheffield is very much a part of the story and the reason for the open-armed welcome the band receive for its swan song. Jarvis has maintained a low-key presence on the music scene since he put the band to bed, quietly pursuing other creative projects while living modestly in a Victorian semi; vehicle maintenance and feeding the ducks are also part of his routine.

Sheffield is a town where superlatives don’t exist. But most locals (interviewed in vox-pop) were looking forward to the big night and seemed to think the band was “alright” (meaning fantastic in ‘Sheffield-speak’). The Yorkshire town is nothing to write home about according to Jarvis; but if he did write home, it would be a love letter and a heart-felt tribute to the humdrum comfort of the city and to ‘Pulp’, as well.  German-born New Zealander, Florian Habicht, handles his subject with artful aplomb, capturing a palpable sense of place and bottling it for all to savour, not only diehard fans.  Pulp is a collaborative effort with the locals: the paper-seller, the knife-maker, kids, the old and the down at heel.

1379597_426245800808751_1995528444_n copyJarvis Cocker cuts a geeky figure as a rock God but, strangely, that’s what he’s become – with his fine line in tailoring and ‘lifts’ – odd to see on a man of 6ft 2 – and a natural sense of highly intelligent humour: he never takes himself too seriously and makes fascinating viewing with his self-deprecating charm, Fame has never suited him, feeling like a “bad nut allergy’. A teenage lack of confidence with the girls led to much  introspection as to how he could get the girls, and it was largely with this in mind (or so he claims) that writing music came about; although success came much later. Candida Doyle claims she helped finance the band in the early years, but still plays keyboard despite her arthritis – not a cool disease for a rock chick, she admits. For his part, Jarvis feels happier sharing emotions with his concert audience than face to face and his gawky movements on stage are unselfconscious because during gigs, he thinks of ‘absolutely nothing’. Some of his lyrics are as darkly funny as Morrissey’s: the misery of love and loneliness; the grey sadness of the industrial landscape epitomised in bleak despair of the tortured artist, tinged with bitter irony.

But it’s the fans and locals who provide the most laugh-out loud moments. Frank, salt of the earth characters are unfazed by his fame but deeply fond of his music. And the band, strikes a deep empathy with everyone. With songs such ‘Common People’ and ‘Help the Aged’  he has truly bonded with the underdog, the disenchanted and the disappointed; buying into the Nation’s psyche with the engaging power of Britpop and the National trait of deeply engrained stoicism.  It’s always sad to say goodbye but there are good ways to do so, and Habicht has found a rousing, warm and honourable one.  MT

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PULP IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 6 JUNE 2014  and on DVD from 14th July 2014

A Hard Day’s Night (1964) Now on MUBI DVD/Blu dual format

HARD_DAYS_NIGHT_QUAD_FINAL copy

Dir: Richard Lester | UK Biopic Drama, 90′

Indisputably the biggest and best band of the sixties, the Beatles ushered in an era of change in a Britain still emerging from Post War austerity and tradition. Their groundbreaking talent came to the big screen in A Hard Day’s Night, in which four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool changed the face of music forever and created the phenomenon that was Beatlemania. Richard Lester’s exhilarating biopic features all the best tunes including the title track, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” paving the way for the era of music videos.  A Hard Day’s Night follows the Beatles, John, Paul, Ringo and George, through a typical day as they’re mobbed by fans on the way to London (by train) with their manager Norm (Norman Rossington) accompanied by tracks such “And I Love Her” and “If I Fell”.

The DVD contains the following: New 4K digital film restoration, approved by director Richard Lester, with two audio options—a monaural soundtrack and a new 5.1 surround soundtrack

– A new piece combining 1964 Interviews with the band members and behind the scenes photos and footage.

– You Can’t Do That – a documentary by produced Walter Shenson including an outtake performance by The Beatles

– Things they Said Today – a documentary about the film featuring director Richard Lester, music producer George Martin, and cinematography Gilbert Taylor

NOW ON MUBI | ALSO ON DVD

Mistaken for Strangers (2013)

Director: Tom Berninger

Cast: Tom Berninger, Matt Berninger, Aaron Dessner, Bryce Dessner, Bryan Devendorf, Scott Devendorf

75min  Musical Biopic   US

An unexpected surprise is this quirky and endearing account of brotherly affection and pride from Tom Berninger on the subject of  his older brother Matt, frontman of The National. They both grew up in a wealthy family but couldn’t be further apart in terms of success and sophistication. The suave and worldly Matt is under no delusions when he invites Tom to be part of the team on the 2010 World Tour; highly aware of his brother’s shortcomings. And Tom admits he’s no fan of the band.  So sibling rivalry starts to rear its ugly head from the outset with hilarious and often poignant results, and therein lies the entertainment-value of this quirky documentary, even for those who’ve never heard of the band.  This is, first and foremost, a study in self-sabotage (Tom’s) and family dynamics of the dysfunctional kind.  If you are a fan of The National, don’t worry: you will be rewarded with plenty of great tour footage – this is a doc that very much cuts both ways with something for everyone.

Strangely Matt and Tom are not the only brothers on tour. Four of the bandmates are also brothered-up (not literally) so this also makes for an interesting comparison study with some rich psychological undertones.  We discover the comfortably rotund, mop-haired Tom likes heavy metal and is still romantically unattached whereas Matt is a happily hitched family man with a sharp hair cut and tailoring that would do Tom Ford proud. And although the wheels occasionally threaten to come of the band-wagon, this is a tour with a upbeat vibe that never descends into the realms of bitterness or rancour. 

When the band gets back on homeground, the camera starts to focus more on the family angle with Tom talking to his parents about their childhood and the large age gap between the brother (9 years). At this point, Matt’s wife, Carin Besser, is wheeled in to reveal the challenges of the band’s formative years.  Well-paced and enjoyable throughout, Taken for Strangers is another successful music biopic that never outstays its welcome, ending on a positive and life-affirming note. MT

MISTAKEN FOR STRANGERS IS SCREENING AT THE EAST END FILM FESTIVAL 2014

AND ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 27 JUNE 2014 NATIONWIDE

 

Dvorak – In Love? (2014) – DVD

Dir.: Tony Palmer; Documentary with Vaclav Neumann and Julian Lloyd-Webber

CSSR 1988, 52 min.

Produced in 1988, the same year as his Shostakovich biography “Testimony”, Tony Palmer’s DVORAK- IN LOVE? is set on three levels: the major part consists of a a filmed recording of Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B-minor, which he wrote in 1894-95 in the United States. Conducted by the great Czech conductor Vaclav Neumann (1920-19995), with a very young Julian Lloyd-Webber as soloist, it is a detailed study of musical collaboration, which goes into producing a now classical recording. A voice-over forms part two of this project: Dvorak’s letters tell about his undying love for Josefina Kaunitzova, sister of Dvorak’s wife Anna, who was gravely was ill when Dvorak returned to Prague from the USA in April 1895; she died in May of the same year. Dvorak changed a cadenza of the cello concert in her memory. Whilst Dvorak concedes, that “his wife made him famous, managing his affairs”, he never got over Josefina, his first (and only) love; despite having six children with Anna.

Finally, the third element got the TV production into hot water with the communist authorities: set off by Dvorak’s complaints of being repressed by the Austrians in his own country. Palmer includes a compilation of newsreel images from Dvorak’s time to Chamberlain’s surrender to Hitler, Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia from 1939 to the end of WWII, and finally the brutal suppression of the “Prague Spring” in 1968 by Soviet troops. The film was not shown before the end of the Soviet Empire, one of the first documentaries broadcasted on independent Czech TV.

Neumann speaks mainly German, Czech only with his orchestra (the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra), the recording manager (who has as an astonishing amount of power regarding repetitions of parts of the music, he is not too happy with) speaks English and German and Lloyd-Webber tries bravely to communicate as much as possible. Clearly, it is a triumph of music over languages. Dvorak’s letters are deeply saddening: he seemed only have married Anna to keep in contact with Josefina, who married a Count. This unrequited love might have driven him on as an artist, but it must have blemished his whole personal life – and most certainly that of his wife. The newsreel clips tell the sad story of a small European country, being occupied by bigger, neighbouring countries for centuries. It hardly matters which language they had to speak, Czech was for private use only. As Dvorak put it so succinctly: “What is an artist without his country?” DVORAK – IN LOVE? is an essay on ‘Heimat’, Love and Music, the way Palmer connects the three is masterful. AS

On DVD for the first time on the 7th July 2014, courtesy of Firefly. RRP: £12.99’

The Winding Stream (2014) | East London Film Festival 2014

In 1917 A.P. Carter was selling fruit and living a meagre life in the mountains of Virginia, when he heard Sara Dougherty sing “Engine 143”, a popular song about an engine driver who got himself killed. So begins Beth  Harrington’s THE WINDING STREAM, a documentary about the founders of Country music, the Carter family, and their most famous member (by marriage), Johnny Cash. A.P. Carter married the 16 year old Sara, and together with Sara’s cousin, Maybelle, he founded a family dynasty, which is still alive today, long after Sara left her husband, who was obviously not very caring. (Even though she still worked with him and Maybelle). Perhaps not that many people have heard of A.P. Carter, Sara and Maybelle, the original trio, but everyone knows Johnny Cash, Maybelle’s son in law. Harrington interviewed Cash three weeks before he died. He tells the story how he met June, backstage at the Grand Old Opry in 1956, where she was singing with her sisters Helen and Anita, and her mother Maybelle. It turns out, that Johnny was even than every bit of a rascal, and Maybelle had her doubts about him being the right man for her daughter – even though she had no reservations about his talent. Harrington tells the story chronological, and with great care for details. Apart from the music, we learn a lot of the early days in the music business of the 20s, about the roles of women and the unglamorous life of the music pioneers. And when we hear the third generation Carters still going strong on stage today, we start to appreciate the significance of the title, “Winding Streams” and the long, hard road from the mountains of Virginia to the glamour of Nashville, Tennessee.

(EEFF, Red Gallery, 14.6., 19.20)

 

Made in America (2013)

MIA Pack Shot 2D copyDirector: Ron Howard

90min  Musical documentary  US

Featuring: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Gary Clark Jr, Passion Pit, Janelle Monae, Skrillex, Pearl Jam, Rita Ora, D’Angelo, Janelle Monae, SantiGold

Ron Howard is the director behind Frost/Nixon and A Beautiful Mind. That his next project should involve (and be financed by) the hip-hop artist Jay-Z may at first seem strange but actually the two get on like a house on fire in Made In America, a documentary that looks at how Jay-Z set up a two-day concert in Philadelphia (2012).

Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Brooklyn, NY, we learn how Jay-Z used his musical talent as a way not only to carve out a future for himself but also to help others and ended up married to superstar Beyoncé Knowles. Howard illustrates, by way of participant interviews and some really entertaining and inspiring musical vignettes with the artists, how the concert has injected a upbeat vibe into the local community, re-energising the work ethic in a positive way.  However, not everyone approves of his efforts: local resident Lillian Howard voices her strong disapproval of the ‘bang-bang’ music which, she claims brings an undesirable element into her neighbourhood; illustrating that you can’t please all of the people, all of the time!

We hear about Jay-Z’ political visions for the future of his multi-racial America with its black president who has, in his opinion been a cohesive force in bringing the country together. But, like so many hugely-talented creatives, Jay-Z remains a cypher; locked behind his facade of fame, unreachable despite Howard’s efforts to get beneath his skin  MT

MADE IN AMERICA IS AVAILABLE ON VOD AND DVD: 19 MAY 2014

VoD: http://bit.ly/1h6B5ks 
DVD: http://amzn.to/1iSq0F7

 

 

 

American Interior (2014)

Former SUPER FURRY ANIMALS frontman Gruff Rhys is on a mission to push the boundaries beyond music and into the realms of multimedia with this project entitled AMERICAN INTERIOR that unites literature, film and technology to create a trailblazing multi-sensory experience.  And he succeeds with this magnificently quirky magical mystery tour that fetches up in the lunar landscape of North Dakota, were he meets the Native American Mandan Tribe and bonds with them over their struggle to keep their native language alive (as he does with the Gaelic tongue) in a fascinating road trip of discovery in more ways than one.

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Obviously a man called Rhys is bound to have Welsh forebears and here he traces his ancestry back to a modest farmhand called John Evans who tried to establish the veracity of an 18th Century Native American Tribe called “Madogwys”.  Evans lost his parents at a young age and, according to a Welsh psychiatrist, this was the reason for his intrepid mission into what was then considered a trip to the Moon.  Rhys makes this film all the more fun and at times poignantly moving, by taking with him a miniature model of Evans complete with soulful eyes, an incipient beard and clothes reconstructed from records of the time (remember the effect of Wilson in Cast Away?). With his tongue firmly in his cheek and a catchy selection of ballads, he then sets forth with his ‘mate’ to trace the adventurous exploits of the real Mr Evans, that involved wrestling various furry and unfurry animals amongst other feats of derring-do and establishing a real map of the Mississippi.

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Taking place during the summer of 2012, the documentary is inventively filmed by Ryan Owen Eddleston and features monochrome camerawork with salient objects highlighted in fluorescent colours sometimes to comic effect. The result is  inventive, fun and filmic as he takes us through the real-life paces of Mr Evans in this foreign land. Thoroughly enjoyable even if you’ve never heard of the ‘Furry Animals’: Gruff Rhys is a chatty, offbeat character who oozes silliness and seriousness in equal measure (whether this is crafty or unwitting it certainly makes him engaging company on this documentary road-trip not to be missed.MT

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Super Duper Alice Cooper (2014) DVD

Director/Writer: Sam Dunn, Scot McFadyen, Reginald Harkema

98min   US   Music documentary

SUPER DUPER ALICE COOPER is unexpectedly brilliant – really witty and visually interesting. They’ve found a way of animating old photos and turning them almost into films – and almost into 3D films, at that. And it’s a great tale of the transformation of a bunch of mundane suburban kids into glam-rock gods. Part of the general speeding-up of lifestyles that happened in the 60s.

It is well-paced and made with some artistry: I think they’ve seen Julien Temple docs like London – the Modern Babylon and used that “tiny scraps of film” technique, plus the aforementioned doctored photos. And it’s all done in voiceover, which is a way of getting round watching ancient-looking rockers being interviewed, I suppose. I don’t think you would need to like Alice Cooper to enjoy it, as it’s a bit of a social/cultural document; entertaining and funny. Also, it emerges that Alice himself always looked like an emaciated 70-year-old – even when he was a teenager! Ian Long.

IAN LONG IS HEAD OF CONSULTANCY AT EUROSCRIPT.CO.UK

DVD out on May 26

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Memphis (2014) Sundance UK 2014

This dreamy cinema verité piece from writer-director Tim Sutton makes for an inventive sortie into the life of a struggling blues musician played by Willis Earl Beal.  Sutton’s meditative camera follows Willis (whom he claims has God-given talent) and he wanders in a daze through downtown Memphis; where sultry, mysterious visuals enrapture and entrance, telling the story through mood rather than classic narrative format.  Boys ride bikes, his grandfather follows on crutches and there is more than a hint of romance. Occasionally Beal breaks into song with snatches of bluesy, jazz music suggesting the beginnings of new compositions or are they just musical memories.? A frustrating film that somehow leaves us wanting to know and hear more. MT

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MEMPHIS IS SCREENING AS PART OF THE SUNDANCE UK FILM FESTIVAL IN LONDON FROM 25-27 APRIL 2014 

Visitors (2013)

As a meditative contemplation of life, Godfrey Reggio’s film in black and white film will polarise audiences. Opening with another Philip Glass’s electronic mind-numbing soundtrack, the tone is one of menace and portending gloom. Gradually the face of an ape looms into view, followed by a spacecraft. Is this going to be a mystery from outer space, a documentary on UFOs or astronauts?

Soon we discover there is no narrative structure or dialogue just sound and vision. We are left to contemplate, for what seems like an eternity, a series of faces as inquiring of the audience as it is about them. Time lapse sequences follow endless views of buildings, tree stumps and hands – all painstakingly portrayed by Reggio’s unrelenting lens.  A filmmaker of outstanding originality and vision, who has given us KOYAANISQATSI (1982), POWAQQATSI (1988); ANIMA MUNDI (1992) and NAQOYQATSI (2002) has made a powerful contribution to the film world. Yet VISITORS feels cold, uninviting and difficult to engage with. You will either embrace his approach as filmic Nirvana or turn and walk away. MT

VISITORS IS ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 11 APRIL 2014

20 Feet From Stardom (2014) Oscar for Best Documentary 2014

1979903_548360491928849_113296906_o copyDirector: Morgan Neville

91min  US  Documentary 

Having defied the odds and beaten the clear favourite The Act of Killing to the Best Documentary accolade at this year’s Academy Awards, it’s clear to see why Morgan Neville’s 20 Feet From Stardom was triumphant, as a compelling, heartwarming and unaffected exploration into the fascinating world of backing singers.

From the contentiously salacious vocals on Ray Charles What’d I Say, to the graceful arrangement of Lean on Me by Bill Withers, backing vocals are an integral part to our enjoyment of music across the decades. Having spent years in the shadows of some of the finest, most prominent recording artists of all time, now the likes of Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love are given the platform to shine, and showcase their unique, and somewhat breathtaking abilities.

There is something so unmistakeably emotional about this production, as we candidly delve into a world behind the scenes, where broken dreams and empty promises remain a prevalent theme. Nostalgia is equally as important to this picture, and scenes such as Clayton returning to the recording studio where she provided vocals on The Rolling Stone’s Gimme Shelter is enough to bring a tear to your eye. Neville masterfully intertwines personal anecdotes from the likes of Clayton herself to Mick Jagger, as we learn of how she came to be involved – dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, heavily pregnant, and with curlers still attached to her hair. An intimacy of sorts, and a human element is brought to these songs, as we are taken behind the track and explore the mechanics of how it came to be, and the personalities involved.

Jagger is one of many fine talking head appearances, with Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen also featuring, amongst others, to pay homage to the hard work and incredible talent of these gifted musicians. Neville seamlessly drifts between the various different singers, succinctly and efficiently, as we’re given a flavour for each of their personalities and their own unique situations, ranging from those who rose to prominence in the 60s, to current singers such as Judith Hill. This works as a catalyst for a series of other themes to be explored, as race and inequality are covered, dressed up in a rich socio-political context, while the more intimate, human themes such as the lust for fame are equally imperative.

That said, Neville can be accused of merely brushing the edges of a few issues, not truly offering enough depth – however it’s a small blemish on an otherwise accomplished piece of filmmaking. It’s just intriguing to see the faces behind the voices we’ve heard a million times over, voices that define and complete some of the most renowned records ever created. You’ll forever listen to these songs in a different way from hereon, and believe me, that’s by no means a bad thing. Stefan Pape.

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ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 28 MARCH 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Svengali (2014)

Director: John Hardwick

Writer: Jonny Owen

Cast: Martin Freeman, Vicky McClure, Michael Socha, Maxine Peake, Matt Berry, Morwena Banks

93min  Comedy   UK

The premise whereby impassioned, eternally optimistic rockers attempt to spread the sweet sound of music to the unsuspecting public, has been covered in British cinema this past year in the likes of Good Vibrations and Vinyl. Though there are shades of the intrinsic charm of the former, John Hardwick’s Svengali is regrettably more in tune with the latter, in what is ultimately an unfulfilling comedy picture.

Our eternal optimist, in this instance, is Dixie, played by Jonny Owen – who also penned the screenplay. Bored in his monotonous livelihood in a small town in Wales, he sets off for London with his girlfriend Shell (Vicky McClure) by his side, and plastic bag in tow, hoping to become the manager of an unsigned band he heard online. Though triumphant in his quest, and attracting interest from the likes of renowned record label owner Alan McGee (playing himself), it seems he may eventually have to choose between the band, or his girlfriend; as the two aren’t quite as compatible as he had initially envisaged.

The overstated narrative can be somewhat frustrating, and though inevitable (this is cinema, after all), it can prove difficult to believe in the band’s increasing popularity. It doesn’t help that we don’t ever hear them play, but that issue is key to how absurd and fantastical is all turns out to be: as even for an industry that is notoriously impulsive, this band are ‘the next big thing’ before anyone has even heard them play.  That said, Hardwick does a fine job in capturing the essence and anarchic spirit of a fresh new indie band in the early stages of their career, with a nod to the likes of The Libertines, and the movement that followed them at the turn of the Millennium.

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Talking of spirit, Dixie is a wonderful creation, with an infectious optimism and outlook in life. His happy-go-lucky persona and ability to find the good in everyone is an endearing quality, and the audience wish him all the best as a result. It also means that when he’s upset about something, or annoyed with somebody, we completely adhere to it given it’s such a rarity. He has a great image too, reminiscent of Irish comedian Michael Redmond, always with his trusty plastic bag in hand. He collects things as a child would, and it’s this blissfully naïve quality we like about him. Meanwhile, he shares a great chemistry with McClure – hardly surprising as they’re an item in real life – though the actress is better than this film. There are some great cameos to be noted too, such as Martin Freeman and Maxine Peake, though conversely, you can see why Alan McGee didn’t ever pursue a career in acting.

Svengali suffers most in the flat comedy, as a film that succeeds more when it’s heartfelt and poignant with a well-handled romantic narrative. It begs the question why the film can’t drop the pointless gags that pollute the production and detract from the one key thing that makes this film a worthwhile endeavour – its sincerity.  Stefan Pape.

SVENGALI IS OUT ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 21 MARCH 2014

 

 

 

 

Peter Gabriel Back to Front (2014)

Director: Hamish Hamilton 97min  Concert Film  UK

BAFTA winner Hamish Hamilton’s concert film opens with an intimate confession from the Genesis frontman: behind the flamboyant mask, there lurks a timid soul. On stage Gabriel emits a calm magnetism, singing his songs with the ease of a true professional. At 63, he doesn’t particularly ‘wear it well’, by his own admission. Scuttling around like a stout beetle in battledress, he claims to have perfected the art of ‘dad dancing’ even before fatherhood although in the London’s massive 02 Arena, gone are the daredevil stunts of jumping into the crowd. But how can a man with so much musical talent, move with so little rhythm?  Is this all part of his unique brand of idiosyncratic charm as a performer; a way of reaching out to his fans, most of whom are middle-aged (in ‘country casuals’) and have stuck with him from his early days in the art rock band which he left in 1975 to embark on a successful career as an inventive singer-songwriter, visual presenter and humanitarian human being.

His breakthrough album was SO (1986) and spearheaded a future in visual presenting, digital recording and distribution. Strong visuals are the  centrepiece to this BACK TO FRONT World Tour.  Hamilton’s pin-sharp high tech resolution at 4k contrasts with some very low tech filming and a slow pull that takes the image from being out of focus, slowly towards deeper and deeper degrees of resolution and focus.

Joined by a talented selection of session musicians (also in black): drummer Manu Katché; bassist Tony Levin; guitarist David Rhodes and multi-instrumentalist David Sancious. Jenni Abrahamson is the voice of Kate Bush without her lithe, pre-raffaelite lissomeness and there are some giant camera cranes writhing like giant octopuses. In this monochrome affair the only colour comes from guitars gleaming like drops of blood on the stage, backlit by panels of lights; red-bathed for RED RAIN and vibrant primaries for SLEDGEHAMMER and NO SELF CONTROL.  The band run through the entire SO album and include some of Gabriel’s latest numbers (Digging in the Dirt,  The Tower that Ate People). Somehow it all seems so slick and commercial in comparison to the uneasy poetic edginess of the early days. With his fatherly stolidness, the music feels safe and dumbed-down rather than fresh and innovative and the vastness of the O2 drains intimacy from songs such as DON’T GIVE UP, In YOUR EYES and MERCY STREET. Peter Gabriel is an artist and musician who has repackaged himself for the digital age and the 21st century: he knows where his bread is buttered. MT

FILMED LIVE AT THE 02, LONDON ON 21 7 22 OCTOBER 2013 – PETER GABRIEL BACK TO FRONT will be screening at Cineworld, Odeon, Vue, Showcase and other indie cinemas nationwide on 20 March 2014 with further screenings from Sunday 23 March 2014 at selected locations.

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Ealing Music & Film Valentine Festival 12-16 February

By popular demand, Ealing Music & Film Valentine Festival returns in 2014 to light up February’s dark days with a programme to celebrate the rich and varied music, film and dance heritage of one of London’s most culturally enriched boroughs.

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The excellent film slate follows this years dance theme with one of the BFI’s top ten British films of all time, the Oscar winning THE RED SHOES from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Tony Palmer’s MARGOT. There will also be a screening in association with the Ealing Classic Cinema Club of the Ealing Studios-made satirical comedy THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT starring Alec Guinness. Ealing Studios will once again be throwing open its doors to the public for tours.

Full Programme

The Life and Works of Richard Wagner (1913)

THE LIFE AND WORKS OF RICHARD WAGNER

Dir.: Carl Froelich, William Wauer; Cast: Giuseppe Becce, Olga Engl, Manny Ziener, Ernst Reicher, Miriam Horowitz: Germany 1913, 96 min.

Whilst this newly restored version of the silent film was accompanied at the piano with a new score by the composer Jean Hasse, the original production had no music by Wagner at all: Cosima Wagner, still alive in 1913, wanted the princely sum of half a million Reichsmark if she allowed her husband’s music to be played. But the directors got lucky: the main actor, Giuseppe Becce, who bore an astonishing resemblance to the real Wagner, happened also to be a gifted composer. The narrative shows Wagner as the victim of circumstance, mainly his debtors and other, jealous composers, like the Jew, Giacomo Meyerbeer, who is shown as dubious and without any real influence. Wagner’s womanising is romanticised, everything is motivated by his art. There is an involuntary funny appearance of the Russian anarchist Bakunin, who looks more like Rasputin than a revolutionary. The film relies mainly on excerpts of Wagner’s work, which is not very surprising, since film was at the time before  WW1 mainly filmed theatre. The production design (by Wauer) is highly imaginative and the camera tries to be as mobile as possible. Performances are over-dramatic and histrionic, but again totally in harmony with the practice of the era. Overall, this very sanitized version of Wagner’s life is often monotonous, showing no ambivalence, reducing the film to a hero’s portrait.

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Richard Wagner will always be a controversial figure – not so much because of his music, which is after all a matter of taste, but because of his virulent anti-Semitism, making Adolf Hitler (“You can’t understand National Socialism without understanding Wagner”) his number one admirer. When Hitler saw Wagner’s first opera “Rienzi” (which ends with the total distraction of the hero’s world) he exclaimed “Exactly, how it should be, never give in, better to die than to survive”, expressing his fatal ‘all or nothing’ attitude, which saw any compromise as weakness.

It is ironic that one of the directors, Carl Froehlich, (WAGNER being his debut), ended up as the leader of the “Reichsfilmkammer”, where he controlled the German film industry between 1939 and 1945, not only being the chief censor, but deciding who could work and who not. His co-director of 1913, William Wauer, fell into the latter category: he was forbidden to work. Froehlich was later imprisoned by the Allies, and was second only to the infamous Veit Harlan in the numbers of films the directed or produced which could not be shown during the first years after the war (with West Germany being ‘needed’ to fight communism, ‘cleaned up’ versions of these “Verbotsfilme” were shown later to full houses). Froehlich was also the producer of “The Choral von Leuthen”, a pro-German propaganda film, which was produced in 1932, but had his celebrated premiere in 1933, attended by Hitler, after he became Chancellor. But Froehlich also produced “Mädchen in Uniform” (1931), a very progressive film. Equally strange, his “It was a gay ball night” was premiered in the USA in November 1939, two years into the war. AS

THE LIFE AND WORKS OF RICHARD WAGNER IS AT THE BARBICAN DURING A SEASON OF MUSIC-THEMED FILM EVENTS DURING JANUARY 2014

Kidd Life (2012) 2nd Nordic Film Festival 2013

KIDD LIFE

Dir.: Andreas Johnsen, Cast: Nicholas Westwood aka Kidd;

Denmark 2012, 97 min.  Music Documentary

Denmark, a country of reason and rationality, seems an unlikely place for a music phenomenon like Kidd (alias Nicholas Westwood), whose 2011 Hip-Hop song on the internet became an overnight sensation and paved the way for a short but meteoric career for him and his group. Born 1989 in Dundee, Scotland, to an alcohol-loving father (with whom Kidd still has issues), Westwood struggles to make the transition from boy to adult – his anarchic life style has no place for responsibility – a girlfriend complains that he made her pregnant against her will, but this message does not reach him, like everything else in his life – he can only take himself seriously.

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After March 2011, when  ‘Kysset med Jamel’ went viral on the internet, the group was invited to many festivals, including the prestigious Roskilde festival. Their (only) LP “Greatest Hits” reached No. 10 in the Danish charts. On New Years Eve 2011, after having performed at the Danish Music awards, Kidd announced that he was finished with music. True to his word, only one more single -‘Fetterlein’- followed in February 2012, reaching No. 15 in the Danish charts.

After one LP and four singles Kidd and his group fell back into total obscurity and Johnsen shows why: in diary-like scenes, we see the inability to connect with anybody: this permanent play-acting becomes a stylised life form, which becomes a substitute for the interactions of real life. We watch bewildered that Kidd can take himself so seriously, that he believes that all his comments really matter – even though he forgets them immediately, together with his outspoken provocation that leaders of the right-wing “Danish People’s Party”, according to him, deserve to be killed.

The film is shot mostly with a hand-held camera producing a particularly suitable mode of aesthetics, since the waving and sometimes out-of-focus images represent Kidd and his chaotic life style. Often we are reminded of the b/w slapsticks of the early cinema: Kidd lurches through space like one of the early silent stars on the run from their enemies. Hectic and without any sort of continuity, the film tries to catch the essence of Kidd, but he is always racing to another event, into another mood, needing another drug to speed up his life even further. The music of the group is secondary, but this is only right, since it is near accidental. The question of an identity for the rapper can’t be answered: this is a life in transit, fuelled by immaturity and self-centred monomania, which makes him more of a child than the adult he should be. He is not so much a shooting star, but a falling star. AS

KIDD LIFE SCREENS AT THE RIVERSIDE STUDIOS LONDON ON 1ST DECEMBER 2013.  FOR FULL DETAILS SEE OUR PREVIEW

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