Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Kate Nash- kisses and kitties

OK, I admit that I'm a cat fan and I'm also a fan of Lily Allen so how am I going to resist a cute up-and-coming pop-dance diva like this? Her video for "Pumpkin Soup" is pretty funny and it's full of cats, the song's catchy and she's adorable too. What's not to like? As plenty of people have pointed out, she's got a L.Allen vibe about her (especially with the thick Cockney accent, which I've loved to hear going back to punk) and I consider that a plus too. Her album came out in the UK this summer (Made of Bricks, Polydor) and here's hoping it reaches Stateside soon. For more music, see her MySpace page.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Boyz II Men & Japancakes- above and under the covers

What's the secret to a good covers record? One thing is to try to make people forget about the originals or at the very least make them not wish that they could hear them instead right now.

Unless it's Yo La Tengo, most bands will also chose material that's already pretty well-known, partially so that they can connect to a built-in audience who's gonna already appreciate a collection of tune they're already familiar with.That's part of the strategy of Boyz II Men's new Motown tribute. These young heartthrobs made some of the best selling music of the 90's (they're the all-time top selling R&B group), now they're yesterday's news. That's a shame 'cause they still have their voices and as anyone who remembers their mega-hit "End of the Road" or "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" (prom material for sure) can tell you, they had some really good tunes too.

Motown: A Journey Through Hitsville USA
of course can't replace the originals but then again, what could? Still, these mannish boys retain their wonderful harmonies as they apply them to the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokie, Stevie and their own reprise of "End of the Road," lest we forget. Except for the Commodores' "Easy," it's a great selection of songs, beautifully sung and as such, serves as a nice alternative mixtape featuring a bunch of familiar oldies. And hey, B2M were Motown artists themselves so why not include themselves in the tradition?

Though they've recently re-assembled and prepare to unleash their tuneful noise on the world again, My Bloody Valentine have never really left us though they seemed to have literally disappeared in the mid 90's. That's because their shoegaze music has been with us in one form or another through countless bands that pay homage to them. As such, Loveless, which has been their final release for while, is rightfully seen as "classic," "a masterpiece" and such as it artfully blends screaming feedback with indelible melodies in a way that's rarely been equaled, even by MBV itself.

You can't blame bands for trying to simulate that wonderful sound and now Athens, GA's Japancakes, a post-rock combo who owes more to Caleixco than MBV, has gone even farther by recreating the whole album, keeping the title intact too. Their version replaces the wispy vocals and melodies with keyboards, guitars & strings, reminding us how breath-taking and catchy these songs still are. The thing is... the original version(s) also included waves of noise on top, burying the light airy tunes underneath- this improbably mix is what made the record so revolutionary. Japancakes for better or worse decide not to duplicate the noise quotient though, leaving the result as being kind of half-formed. Admittedly, even MBV couldn't always get the mixture right- their last live shows in the 90's were ridiculous walls of noise that short-changed their well-crafted songs. Maybe it was wise for Japancakes to do the opposite then and NOT to replicate this side of Loveless as it would have made their record just a carbon copy of the original where here we can appreciate the selections as actual songs. And since the vocals were buried on the original versions, floating through the music as if they part of background, maybe it's appropriate also that the JC version is instrumental as well.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'm Not There- a mixed Dylan overdose

Ideally, a Dylan movie is my idea of entertainment, combining two of my favorite obsessions. And Todd Haynes came up with a brilliant idea about how to do it- have several actors portray him not just in different times of his life but also different aspects of it and also have the group of "Dylans" include not just one race or gender. The latter is a tribute not just to the way that he speaks for or embodies so many people but also for his complex nature. And beyond the idea, I'm Not There is beautifully shot, with many scenes screaming out for a screen the size of which that most people couldn't fit in their homes.

But there's a difference between theory and practice and in the end, Haynes comes up with a mixed bag at best. The stories vary not just with the settings but also the actors. The bad ones include Christian Bale (an actor I usually love) as a John/Jack, a snotty, empty folkie who finds religion and Marcus Carl Franklin as a hobo named Woody Guthrie. For the latter, it's so much of race standing out as it is with age, being 11 years old and trying to cram old-man wisdom in his mouth where it just sounds weird or out-of-place- Haynes in fact gives up on the story early on in the film. Also, Ben Whishaw as the mid-60's Dylan doing his confrontation press conference pose is a waste because it's done better in another characterization in the film.

And there's the good scenes/characters. Heath Ledger plays an actor (who plays Bale's Jack character in a movie) plus a mid 70's persona who's insular and caustic to his friends and especially his wife, played wonderfully by Charlotte Gainsbourg, whose palpable suffering helps to add poignancy to the story. Though it's usually the part that's most reviled, I actually liked Richard Gere as Billy, a outlaw somewhat modeled after Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (which Dylan himself co-starred in). But rather than just an an average Western, Haynes populates the scene with all sorts of weirdos and freaks that look like they spilled out a Fellini film but are also manifestations of Dylan's most imaginative 60's songs (especially the Basement Tapes). Gere's Dylan is a little stoic but also kind-hearted, open and defiant plus a pleasure to watch, especially when he tries to drink in a funeral scene in a gazebo where Calexico play "Going to Acapulco."

And then there's the role that they're already screaming "Oscar Nomination" about. Cate Blanchett is indeed very good as the scabrous, rascally Dylan (called "Jude" here) we've known in Don't Look Back, whether fending off reporters or playing around with Allen Ginsberg (David Cross), yelling at a Jesus statue "why don't you do your early material?!" Not only does she have a natural feel for the character much more than the others but she obviously has the most fun with it even when she's/he's being overwhelmed by a life that's spinning out of control (plus she makes Whishaw's scenes totally unnecessary, which makes you wonder why he's there in the first place).

Overall, part of the problem is what plagued Haynes' Velvet Goldmine, another mythic retelling of a rock tale. That film's hokeyness dragged it down and here, it's a problem too: famous lyrics get blurted out as actor's lines, ridiculous album covers imitating the original ones, fake interviews with friends (including a Kim Gordon cameo) that are as dry as a Christopher Guest movie but minus the uncomfortable humor. And except for Blanchett, the worst acting comes from the characters who try to crudely imitate the Dylan drawl too much (especially Bale and Whishaw).

I'd hesitate to recommend it to non-Dylan fans or just film-goers not familiar with his material or life, not just because they wouldn't get the references but also because it's a little spotty overall. For Dylan fans, they'd need to see it though some will surely grouse about rewritting history. Haynes freely admits in the opening credits that the film was "inspired by the many lives" of our hero. But the way that he plays fiction/non-fiction sometimes is a little gratuitous, especially when he makes out the Newport '65 audience to be only detractors (which they weren't). But in the end, this film remains an interesting and worthwhile experiment, albeit a mixed one.

As for the music, when Dylan himself is heard, his songs add something special to the scenes, especially the Blood on the Tracks material in Ledger's section (including a great, pained, organ-less version of "Idiot Wind"). The movie soundtrack itself is even more mixed than the movie, with many versions using identical arrangements as the originals, making you wonder why it was necessary to do the covers at all. There are a couple of good versions there (by Gainsborogh, Los Lobos, Hold Steady) and I love the line-up of artists (good indie rock line-up though I could do without Cat Power). But overall, I would just rather listen to a good Dylan compilation. I think it's pretty telling that his own song (the previously unreleased title song for the movie) which appears at the end pretty much outshines almost all of the covers before it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ptolemaic Terrascope returns

Just when you thought your favorite psychedelic/folkie magazine had disappeared, it's re-emerged, in another land no less. Phil McCullen founded Ptolemaic Terrascope in 1989 and had based it out of the UK. It expanded so that it wasn't just a quality publication but also an annual festival. Though McCullen stepped down from his duties, he handed his publication over to someone very capable who coincidently shared the same initials as the magazine (or maybe it wasn't a coincidence): the inimitable Mr. Pat Thomas.

Thomas has an impressive background. In addition to his editorial duties, he's written for the likes of Crawdaddy, MOJO and Perfect Sound Forever, where I first encountered him. He's written articles for us on krautrock and English folk among other things. In addition, he's led the psych/jazz combo Mushroom for a number of years. And... he's headed several labels including Heyday and now the reissuing powerhouse that is Water Records. If that wasn't enough, when I was putting together a collection of long-gone Athens legends Oh OK, Thomas was the one who topped off their small recorded output with a prime live show that he recorded. He's even said that he's still game to write for PSF. Which makes feel like a slacker since I couldn't do half of that...

That's why when I heard that Thomas was taking over Terrascope, I knew that it would be in good hands. The latest issue (can it really be only number 36?) and Thomas' first at the helm has a Devandra Banhart feature plus interviews with Shirley Collins, Davey Graham, Vashti Bunyan and Ron Asheton (Stooges). It that ain't enough, there's a free CD with Doug Yule (Velvet Underground), Barbara Manning, Six Organs of Admittance, Steve Wynn and some of the interview subjects.

Needless to say, any sane music nut would love PT (the magazine and the guy).

Monday, November 19, 2007

Quarterlife- not just another Gen Z soap opera

Maybe because it's written by the same folks who brought up My So-Called Life but as far as the burgeoning (and usually blah) field of web shows goes, Quarterlife is a keeper. Maybe it's also because though they're a bunch of good-looking young white kids, they're all messed up and confused in one way or another so you kind of empathize with them on some level. I know, I know... poor little artist-wanna-be's. But from the guys scamming for a commercial to the alcoholic actress who's a hottie but not devoid of feelings to the put-upon magazine-girl-turned blogger, they're memorable characters.

It looks like NBC agrees as they just agreed to pick up the show for their TV line-up. As an LA Times article notes, with a writers' strike going on and having a show that's already been developed made this all the more appetizing to them. It'll be interesting to see how the show survives (hopefully) on the small screen after developing on thousands of computer screens.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

This Is England- fear and loathing among the skinheads

It takes a lot of huevos to use a title that draws a line in the sand. Ornette Coleman dared to do that with his early albums and I could imagine a great road movie pinching its title from Yo La Tengo's "Detouring America." It's one thing to say that you're making a statement and another thing to actually back it up.

Writer/director Shane Meadow's semi-autobiographical film This is England actually does that. It received great reviews but only had a short run in the U.S. indie circuit. No doubt the film's downcast story didn't draw crowds- it's just out on a DVD now after a brief late summer run. That's a shame because it's a compelling portrait of adolescent life, gang mentality and the big bugaboo that we hate confronting, racism.

Along with the great performances (especially Thomas Turgoose and Stephen Graham as anti-heroes), the music here is used deftly. Along with Ludovico Einaudi's beautiful, melancholy score, there's plenty of rude-boy reggae from Toots and the Maytals plus appropriate bits of UK ska, skinhead music, poppy new wave and, in a pivotal, harrowing scene near the end, Percy Sledge "Dark End of the Street," which serves an interracial bridge though it ultimately becomes a gap.

The film starts with a news clip collage of UK riots and unrest. It's 1983 and Mrs. Thatcher has decided to send the royal navy to beat up Argentina over an island they've both laid claim to. One of the early casualties is the father of Shaun (Turgoose), the 11-year-old hero of the movie. He misses his dad badly and feels out of place at school, being picked on all the time. That changes when he runs into a gang of teen hoods led by Woody (Joe Gilgun, 2nd from the right in the picture below) who take him under their wing, feeling sorry for him. They shave his head and dress him up to fit in. They let him have an occasional drink and smoke and he even has a low-key sexual encounter with one of the girls. Though his mom doesn't know much about this other than his new haircut, she's just glad he's found some friends.

But things change when an old friend of Woody gets out of jail. When Combo (Graham) arrives, some of the gang are shaken and we know something's wrong. Later, he gives a moving speech to the group where he lays down his believes about his country and what's happened to it. He hates immigrants who've come to the UK and thing that they're owed a living. He blurts out some racist spew before catching himself, remembering that one of the gang has Jamaican blood (Milky, Andrew Shim, 2nd from the left in the picture below). He confronts him and asks "Are you Jamaican or are you English?" Milky shoots him back an angry glare, hesitates and then answers that he's English. Combo's proud to hear that and after an impassioned history lesson declares "This is England!" pointing to the group themselves, the ground they stand on and his own noggin.

Combo then goes off to rant about the Falklands war and what a pathetic waste it is. Shaun won't have any of that and lunges at Combo even though he could never take him in a fight. Combo's impressed by his passion and apologizes to him, saying that he still thinks the war is bullocks but that Shaun should fight back against the system so that his dad didn't die in vain. Combo then demands that the gang make a decision to stand by him and his fight or get lost. Most of them, including Woody, decide that this is going too far and leave but a handful stay, including Shaun. Combo sees himself in Shaun and promises to stick with him no matter what. They see themselves as uber-patriots, defending their own country and literally flying the flag.

At this point, you expect the usual bad boys comeuppance- there's gonna be a rumble, they'll come out on the wrong side of it and the hero will see how fucked up everything is. That does happen but to Meadow's credit, it doesn't happen the way we think it will- not with a huge confrontation with police or immigrants but an internal twisting of friendship and violence that makes it all the more personal and discomforting.

If things were a little more true to life in the movie, maybe we'd see that the skinheads and their more respectable National Front leaders carry on but the last scene where Shaun starts dead back at us is haunting enough- even if he's turned his back on some of his former friends, he's still got a lot of hate in him and his future's far from certain. And by association it seems, the same's true for the country that he and Combo love so much in their own twisted way.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Weird Al does Dylan

A meeting of two great talents. Notice that Al's lyrics are all palindromes. Thanks to Andy Schwartz for the tip off.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Holy Modal Rounders flick premieres in NYC

Anthology Film Archives is going to have a weeklong run of the Holy Modal Rounders biopic Bound To Lose, from December 7th through the 13th. In addition, there will special appearances and/or performances and/or screenings each day including Rounder Peter Stampfel, noted scribes Robert Christgau and Nick Tosches and musician/scribe Lenny Kaye. Check the AFA website for details about each evening. I would have preferred a whole month but this should be exciting enough that you'd might actually consider going more than one evening to see this. Having interviewed Stampfel a while ago about the Rounders, I can pretty much assure you that theirs is a wild and woolly tale indeed...

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Pylon- just another great dance band from Athens

"They're like my babies... I couldn't really say which one I loved more," singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay told me yesterday about the first two albums that her band Pylon released in the early 80's.

I'd hear those albums originally not long after they came out. At the time, I didn't even know their story or about their roots, coming from Athens, Georgia, also home to the then just-emerging R.E.M. and already phenoms the B-52's and a number of other great bands since (including Drive By Truckers and the Elephant Six collective). Pylon was gone by the mid-80's, just missing a boom of interest in the area after R.E.M. started to make it big and documented in the film Inside Out (which includes a brief interview with Hay).

In a contrast I didn't even realize until right now, I got to see both Pylon and the B-52's live within the last week. The B's were doing a Halloween gig and sure enough, the crowd was dressed for the occasion. The band didn't disappoint, hauling out their old hits and squeezing in a few new ones from their upcoming album. Hundreds of people were bouncing around madly (including me and my girlfriend) to this psychotic, kitschy surf music. "Rock Lobster" still sounds wonderfully bizarre today but what's made them have such a long career are their late 80's hits like "Roam" and "Love Shack," the later being a shoe-in to 1000's of party mixtapes.

Pylon were another group of white kids from Athens with femme vocals who were also a rock band playing dance music. But this was different than Funkadelic or Rick James (much less Hendrix). Just as the B-52's used kitsch to put their mark on funk music played at 78 RPM, Pylon did something similar though their unique spin was Hay's growling/shouting vocals and gnarled, poetic lyrics. Great as that was, it doesn't capture crowds as big as the B's have.

I missed seeing Pylon live back in the day and did again when they reunited briefly in the early 90's. I did manage to track down 3/4 of them for interviews about 10 years ago. After hearing their story and realizing that most of their music wasn't available at the time, I did my usual annoying fan-boy thing and asked when they were going to put out their old records again. They wanted to but didn't know how to do it. Though I'd worked on a number of reissue projects before, I was kind of tired of doing that so I just wanted to advise them and let someone else do the heavy lifting.

Luckily, they found a good manager (Phil Walden Jr., associated with Capricorn, the same label that the Allmans were on) and eventually hooked up with the good people at DFA Records. It was a great match as a lot of the label's output sounded like they'd been listening to bands like Pylon, having the same funky, twisted grooves lining the music. Even with all four of them on board for the project, they still had trouble getting together to agree on things as they were involved in other jobs- bassist Michael Lachowski has a design company and drummer Curtis Crowe does production work on the ABC-TV's series Lost, which films in Hawaii.

But the stars aligned to get them together again to sign off on a reissue of their first album Gyrate (originally from 1980), which DFA just put out with some bonus tracks, including the wonderful "Cool" single. To commemorate that, I managed to interview Michael Mills from R.E.M. for a recent MOJO article where he told of their band's love of Pylon (they even covered a few of their songs), reckoning that along with the B-52's, they were one of a handful of local bands that were all-important to everyone around that area.

Even better, Pylon was able to regroup not just to do some local shows in Athens but also to do a mini-East coast tour. It was a joy seeing them live this week, with small red pylons on stage and the band decked out in their own bright red "Cool" shirts which they offered at the mersch table. Lachowski and guitarist Randy Bewley happily bounced around while Hay swirled around like a windmill. Though the bass and drums were on point, Hay and Bewley didn't come through as clearly in the mix until later. By that time, Hay was at her best, belting out the songs as only she could.

And next...? They still have their other jobs to attend to though a writers' strike might mean that Crowe is more freed up now. Hay says that DFA is looking to now put out their second album Chomp (from 1983) some time maybe next year. Maybe down the road, their early 90's reunion album (Chain, from 1990) might come out again too. And maybe a bigger tour too? If their other jobs allow it...

Over the phone, I told Hay how great it was that their music was out again and that they were able to play out again and find new and old fans. In her thick Southern accent that you'd never imagine her having after hearing her sing, she thanked me for nudging them to get their music out again. I did feel kind of mushy hearing that but the fan boy in me just thought "I can't wait for Chomp to reappear!"

Friday, November 09, 2007

Three sides of Dylan (hold the myth please...)

In an otherwise shitty interview with 60 Minutes, Bob Dylan did tell them something revealing. When asked about his 60's hits, he says "I don't know how I got to write those songs. Those early songs were almost magically written... It's a different kind of a penetrating magic. And, you know, I did it. I did it at one time."

And so it goes with a living legend who's long left behind his most-famous persona(s). As such, Murray Lerner's Bob Dylan: The Other Side of the Mirror - Live at Newport Folk Festival 1963-1965 is a fascinating portrait of the artist as a young man and the many changes he went through in a head-spinning three years. Lerner had already chronicled Newport during the same time span in 1967's Festival, which included several other performers (though history makes it seem that Dylan was the only one around then). Some of the Mirror material originally appeared there as well as in Martin Scorsese's recent No Direction Home. So which Bob Dylan do we see in Mirror?

Version 1963: Shy reserved, on stage with a group of peers and elders and influences, he looks both boyish and like an old soul at the same time. Seated, he's reserved and yet somehow compelling in a daytime "workshop" of topical songs, occasionally with supporter/girlfriend Joan Baez chiming in, singing "Talkin' World War III Blues," "Who Killed Davey Moore?" and "Only A Pawn In Their Game. " Even then, it was obvious that something important was going on here as relatively large crowds gather to hear him. For the later, large evening show, he performs "Blowin' In The Wind" with The Freedom Singers, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. And so the myth was taking root...

Version 1964: On his feet now for the bigger evening show, he's much more relaxed and much more willing to please- smiling and throwing himself into the songs. He's much more a showman now. When he leaves, he crowd roars for him and he comes back briefly to thank them, laughing and full of cheer. Does a sweet duet with Joan Baez on "It Ain't Me Babe" where they playfully josh with each other.

By now, his star was rising, not just with his own music but with versions of his songs becoming hits for other artists. Even here, we see Johnny Cash do a version of "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

Of course, fame changes things for artists as we see next year but Dylan himself was also going through his own changes in how he approached and played his own music. It wasn't just that he was cozying up to amplifiers and rediscovering the rock music he loved in his younger days but he was also moving away from protest music and crafting incredibly surreal, poetic songs now as evidenced by "Mr. Tambourine Man," which he plays here. Interesting that the crowd doesn't chide him for his songwriting change (indeed Pete Seeger's seen at the side of the stage tapping his feet along to the song after announcing Dylan) so much as his electrification later on. The only topical song seen here is "With God On Our Side."

Version 1965: One of the most (in)famous rock shows ever, especially since a lot of the crowd didn't know it was going to be a rock show. By this time, Dylan was anointed as "the voice of a generation," which of course he didn't want to be.

At Newport, he's dead serious now and there's now a notable distance between himself and the audience. This time, there's no collaborations with other artists, just a back-up band behind him. There's a sloppy version of "Maggie's Farm" that's steamrolled by guitarist Michael Bloomfield's acidic guitar and then a stronger, calmer version of "Like A Rolling Stone." In between, it sounds like a mix of cheers and boos. "It Takes A Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train to Cry" (the third/last song that he did with his band for the show) isn't seen/heard here. The band leaves and Dylan comes back for a two song acoustic set: convincing versions of "Mr. Tambourine Man" (much more tense than the 1964 version) and "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," which the crowd appreciates more.

By then, the shy kid and the happy entertainer are long gone in the space of 1-2 years as Dylan was trying on a new mask and would have plenty more to try on later. Maybe one of the reasons that part of his audience was so pissed when he plugged in was that he was changing his artistic persona so quickly that they couldn't keep up. Of course, he didn't end it there and for anyone wiling to go along for the ride, he usually kept things mighty interesting...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Control and how to lose it

If Mel Brooks wasn't so busy minting mucho bucks by turning his old movies into Broadway gold, he'd probably be the one turning his satirical sights on the recent onslaught of musical bio-pics instead of Jake Kasdan and Judd Apatow (for the upcoming Walk Hard). As Apatow said in a recent interview, the same themes of obscurity to fame along with drug problems and infidelity, leading up to redemption is what you see again and again now in films like Ray and Walk the Line (both of which he liked and so did I). With a slew of others waiting to be released soon, this genre was ripe for ribbing.

What makes Control so different from these other films is that not only is there no happy ending but there's also a shortage of played-up drama. Filmed in black-and-white, telling the tale of late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, it's one of the most understated musical flicks you'll see. Of course, that suits the subject perfectly and credit for that goes not just to photographer turned director Anton Corbijn but also the widow of the film's subject, who also happened to be the co-writer.

Deborah Curtis' book Touching from A Distance serves as a basis of the movie and paints a picture of a troubled, talented, driven, confused young guy. We see the turmoil of I. Curtis (played by Sam Riley) and his battles with fame, epilepsy, love and fidelity and how he ultimately caves in, hanging himself just as the band is about to tour the States and make a bigger name for themselves. We also see how tortured the cuckolded D. Curtis (played by Samantha Morton) is as he shacks up with another woman and keeps gravitating back and forth between his wife and his other lover.

A story like this would be easy to make into an over-the-top soap opera but the reason that the film works so well is that it doesn't do that at all. If anything, the film owes a lot to Ingmar Bergman, an expert at showing inner turmoil in the most subtle ways. When I. Curtis' lover complains that she barely knows anything about him, even after being with him for a while, we realize that neither do we. We only get little hints and snatches of inspiration (from Wordsworth to Bowie) to see who he is. That in itself is also a bit of myth-making (showing him to be the brooding, pained genius) but in my book, that beats pumped-up dramatics any time. After Curtis kills himself, we only see his wife's horrified reaction when she runs out of the house and his bandmates briefly sulking at a pub, followed by an endnote that he died on May 18, 1980 and that he was all of 23 years old at the time.

Of course, such early deaths are the stuff of music legend, alongside Mozart, Robert Johnson, Bird, Elvis, Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, Biggie and Tupac. Though producer/TV personalities/label head Tony Wilson (a co-producer of Control) also got his own bio-pic (24 Hour Party People), don't expect films exclusively focused on other members of Joy Division (now New Order). With the arguable exception of the irascible Peter Hook, they've led too low-key lives to warrant celluloid immortality. And just as a flamboyant talent like Jackson Pollock lends itself to a biopic, other great abstract expressionists like Barnett Newman and William de Koonig don't. Even Mark Rothko, who led a rich, varied life, full of twists and turns, doesn't get such treatment. That doesn't necessarily detract from Corbijn's fine work with Control but it does make you wonder what lives are deemed worthy of film and which aren't.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Beatles- Help wanted

"My dear girl... there are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Perignon '53 above the temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That's just as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!"

That's James Bond, quipping in Goldfinger (1964). But years before McCartney would go on to write the theme for a Bond film, the Fabs would show unrequited love back to the U.K.'s favorite spy in their second feature film, Help! (1965), which is only now back in print after a long absence.

The problem was that while Sean Connery (and later Roger Moore, my own favorite Bond actor) played the role to a T as a suave action men, the Fabs were essentially the same charming whip-smart lads from their first feature, A Hard Day's Night (from the previous year). That mockumentary took us through what was supposed to be their hectic lives and while it didn't find them stretching themselves too much as actors, they gleefully obliged at being themselves. That's probably why it'll always be their quintessential film.

Though they're paired up with AHDN director Richard Lester again in Help!, they're not really in their element there. A lot of the time, they act like they're almost too clever for the movie's goofy conceits. Basically, Ringo is chased around by an Indian cult which wants to sacrifice him for the big ruby ring he's got on. Plot and character development are beside the point as the boys romp around the Swiss Alps, the Bahamas, Buckingham Palace and other locales to escape (though note that in the beginning, they all live in a communal pad of wonders much like the Monkees would later have).

For an action-comedy, it's not a total flop. It's actually got some of the hip parody elements of the original Casino Royale film (the 1967 version) even if Help! has Englishmen with bad accents playing villainous, stereotyped Indians and a mad scientist chasing them around too (played by Victor Spinetti, who also appeared in AHDN and later in Magical Mystery Tour). On the plus side, there's some genuine slapstick stuff that Airplane creators Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (and Monty Python) would appreciate, including snowmen attacking the boys, the Queen's guard getting accidentally gassed, a massive sing-a-long to stop a tiger, a ridiculous fight scene at the end and cheeky captions throughout the movie.

Most of all, beyond the obvious wit and panache of our heroes, there was also their indelible tunes, including the title song (which Lennon later reckoned was a real cry for help), the lovely, Dylanesque "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" and "Ticket to Ride," which they all lip synch as mini-videos within the movie. Their songs are played otherwise as incidental music by orchestras, brass bands and Indian musicians. For the latter, Harrison supposedly picked up a jones for the sitar, setting up an early link of the Western phenom of "world music." It's also interesting to note how much classical music they appropriate here- the tiger's lulled by Beethoven's "Ode To Joy," a battle scene ends with Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," a theme from Wagner (Lohengrin I believe) is heard in another fight scene and the film ends with the lads hamming it up over Rossini's overture for "Barber of Seville." Alex Ross would be proud...

But luckily, they wouldn't go on to keep making silly genre pics, just as Elvis was doing at the same time. They were shifting along quickly from pop art to art pop within a year. Compare the arty, surreal video that they did for "Strawberry Fields Forever" as well as the experimental flop Magical Mystery Tour (which also had its share of stunning mini-videos buried within it).

And though they kept nursing an interest in film, along with a handful of other interesting videos still waiting to be collected, their output otherwise was giving their blessing to the Yellow Submarine cartoon (1968) and documenting their demise in Let It Be (1970). Like Help!, both of these have been E-Bay fodder for a long time, waiting to be widely available again to complete the Beatles' celluloid legacy.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Levon and the Band again

After battling off throat cancer and the loss of his fellow Band singers Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, Levon Helm had been laying low for a while, usually only performing high-priced private gigs at his own Woodstock home. Now a quarter-century after his last album, his return on Dirt Farmer (Vanguard) isn't just the return of a (literally) great voice but also a good album that he can hang his hat on, aided in part by his own daughter Amy. It's the best kind of roots music, plumbing not only oldies (Carter Family) but also newer material (i.e. Steve Earle) and done with truckloads of conviction and very little sentimentality. Ryan Adams could learn a lot from him as such. (You can hear samples and buy the album at the Barnes & Noble site)

Hearing this fine album also made me remember a great Saturday Night Live sketch from earlier this year, based on the Band's classic tune "The Weight." Here, cast members plus host/music-nut Zack Braff listen to the song in a bar and recall fond memories linked to the song. The joke is that each of the memories are depraved and disgusting but treated casually by each of the guys. Each story starts out as a sweet family-themed tale and then rapidly breaks down- a great slap at sentimentality. What's also great about the sketch is the timing- each story is just long enough to get tied to each verse and then everyone sings the chorus together until Levon drags out the last line there in the song as each actor then delivers the last grisly detail of their tale.

Since a writers' strike is on, we might have to make due with these kind of re-runs for a while...