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“Up to My Ears in Miserable, Quote, Unquote ‘Art'”: The Monitor by Titus Andronicus, Ten Years On

April 16, 2020 Leave a comment

Rock and roll is dead. Musicians will continue to play classic songs of the genre, and even continue to form bands, craft songs and albums, chase the rock star dream. Heck, before a global pandemic made live concerts one stunning impossibility among many, they remained a hugely popular draw for income-starved rock groups. But gradually at first and then practically all at once, the rockists watched as their favoured musical genre and privileged subculture, so long held up as the bastian of artistic authenticity in the shallow midst of popular music’s frantic swirl of the pursuit of the new, vanished up the tightened sphincter of its own self-importance as that self-importance ceased to be backed up by vindicating mass appeal. Be it due to ephemeral changing trends or imperceptible shifts in culture or changes in digital music-making technology and delivery methods and mass media engagement, rock sunk back into the muck of subgenre fragmentation, all while new forms of pop and urban music dominated the mainstream charts and static radio, and the hyper-polished corporate monster of modern country music captured rock’s former bread-and-butter demographic of working-class conservative whites. The kids don’t care about rock music anymore. It’s been some time since they did, and there isn’t much to suggest that this might turn around anytime soon.

This was only slightly less true a decade ago in March of 2010, when a ragged New Jersey-formed indie-rock group named Titus Andronicus released their second album, The Monitor. It was at the tail-end of the indie wave of the 2000s, and the torch of authenticity and immediacy that indie-rock had kept burning as a rock subgenre hadn’t yet flickered out, despite many principals of the indie world slipping into the skins of major-label radio and touring juggernauts. The Monitor might have been the final flare-up of that guttering flame. It’s fiery, aggressive, righteously bombastic, slamming together punk’s confrontational energy and blunt directness with the reaching, operatic ambition of album-era classic rock; it’s so steeped in terms of authenticity and immediacy that it’s almost painful to look in the face at times, when it isn’t thumbing its nose at the very idea of living with any integrity in a debased, defaced, disgraced, and destroyed reality. This wasn’t rock’s last hurrah, and despite the album’s expansive ambition, the band would hardly have so swelled a sense of vitality to claim to have crafted the creative capstone of one of the most important cultural movements of the past century. But it was a creative opus steeped in history as much as in the present, in the continuity of helpless stasis and the eternality of boundless ennui. In terms of the album-centric conception of rock’s defining long-play masterpieces, it’s hard to think of another album since The Monitor that approaches the heights of achievement of the genre’s classics.

Flipping past the ghostly 19th-century photograph on the album cover, long-dead men in uniform leaning in momentary cool leisure as if posing for a historical-proxy band portrait, The Monitor‘s opening moments are indelibly striking. It’s an excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum address, one of the future President’s first published speeches and an early highlight in his remarkable career as a political orator. Read in voiceover by poet and teacher Okey Canfield Chenoweth, it’s a title-page epigram in aural form, a thesis statement for the glorious, rambling, epic journey to come:

From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some transatlantic giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe and Asia could not, by force, take a drink from the Ohio River or set a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. If destruction be our lot, we ourselves must be it’s author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.

Lincoln referred to the United States of America as a nation that cannot be conquered from without but can destroy itself from within via its own internal contradictions. For Lincoln in 1838 as well as until his death, the most forceful and dangerous of those self-destructive contradictions was always slavery. Endemic compromises and half-measures to address the deep divisions between white and black, slave and slaveowner, free state and slave state, North and South would continue for over a decade after Lincoln uttered these words in Springfield, Illinois, until in the early days of his Presidency, the American Civil War would break out over the slavery issue’s political instransigence. Intractable semi-solutions and politically-engineered gridlock would do no longer in 1861; slavery would live on or it would die with suddenness, and either way this resolution of last resort would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Freedom not only ain’t free, it’s practically unaffordable.

The Monitor was the brainchild of Titus Andronicus singer, guitarist, and lyricist Patrick Stickles, the band’s primary figure and rock-poet cynical savant. It’s a record of his personal turmoil, doubts and grievances (the band’s debut album was entitled The Airing of Grievances, after a line in Seinfeld‘s iconic “Festivus” episode), as well as a stealth break-up album. But it was also inspired by Ken Burns’ seminal multi-hour PBS documentary The Civil War, which for all of its flaws and foibles (centering of neo-Confederate Lost Cause historical perspectives chief among them) remains the most powerful and widely-consumed history of America’s “Second Revolution”. As Ryan Leas details in his 10-year retrospective essay on the album for Stereogum a month ago, Stickles plucked the fascinating but utterly non-decisive sideline battle between two ironclads (half-submerged steel gunships, clumsy and dangerous proto-submarines) for both the album’s title (the USS Monitor was the Union ironclad warship that slugged it out with the Confederate USS Merrimack) and for the album’s core theme of being mired hopelessly in any number of intractable stalemates whose rare victories are entirely pyrrhic: in politics, in economics, in the culture war, in relationships, in psychological equilibrium, in extracting even a shred of meaning from human existence.

The Civil War is notoriously the war that never really ended; the battlefield conflicts over the preferred American system of social and economic inequality merely moved into the political and cultural spheres, where they endure, unresolved and unresolvable, to today, pre-determining divisive partisanship and crippling attempts at legislative problem-solving and social understanding. The fundamental polarity of this long American civil conflict, absolutely key to understanding the history of rock music, is evoked directly by Stickles in The Monitor‘s roiling centerpiece “Four Score and Seven” (again, a Lincoln quotation, from his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address), which segues from slow, quiet laments for shaken moral equilibrium to furious recriminations before settling into a seemingly endless wailed refrain: “It’s still us against them”, only chased by an anguished primal scream admission of “And they’re winning” and a final neutron-bomb explosion of a rock and roll instrumental coda.

The thing about this refrain and its dispiriting endcap is that in context of The Monitor as a whole, Stickles could have equally sung the line as “And we’re winning” and, whatever the absolutely literal implication of those words, it would have come across as no more or less triumphant or deflating (the album’s second song, the richly sarcastically-titled “Titus Andronicus Forever”, consists almost entirely of the related, repeated refrain, “The enemy is everywhere” over blasting power chords, while its second-to-last companion track “…And Ever” repeats the structure over rollicking ragtime piano). One imagines that Stickles, ever-cognizant of the looming legacy of rock history, could very well have recorded or performed differing versions of the song, the identity of the likely victors swapping each time in the lyric sheet in reflection of his attitudes and opinions of the metastatic moment, like John Lennon repeatedly flipping the script concerning violent rebellion against injustice in “Revolution”. The Monitor is a long-form tone poem about the negation of hope and the freedom of disillusionment, and it lands on either side of the line between optimism and despair multiple times within the space of the record, even in the space of a song or a single line.

It’s in the quasi-literary permanence of Stickles’ dominant pose as a relentlessly self-aware romantic fatalist that The Monitor overmasters the pretentions of finding thematic and emotional common ground between the deadliest war in American history and a mid-20s indie rocker’s navel-gazing crisis of meaning and conscience and belonging. Following the opening Lincoln quotation from Okey Canfield Chenoweth (identifed by Leas as Stickles’ high school teacher, although I couldn’t find that info anywhere else so we’ll have to take his word for it), the band launches into “A More Perfect Union” (a phrase from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution, made current in 2008 as a title of an important campaign speech by the most self-constructedly Lincolnesque of Abraham Lincoln’s political heirs, Barack Obama), an unlikely punky rave-up shout-along anthem that self-consciously draws from a well of proletarian authenticity so popular in rock history as to now be shallow and dry: being from New Jersey. As if aware of the long, fraught tail of New Jersey experience being purposed as shorthand for poetically elevated suffering, Stickles fires directly at the state’s grandest artistic avatar’s most potent expression of struggle and wanderlust: “Tramps like us / Baby, we were born to die” comes the scraping cry from Stickles’s vocal cords, a parodic reference to Bruce Springsteen’s enormous shot-across-the-bow anthem “Born to Run”. The import is clear: whatever the Boss told you 35 years ago, now there’s nowhere left to run.

Structured in movements like a classical composition in the manner of all of The Monitor‘s longer songs (all but two of the ten tracks top five minutes, and five songs stretch past the magical 7-minute mark of notoriously-lengthy rock hits like “MacArthur Park” and “Hey Jude”), “A More Perfect Union” shifts through more apparently confessional lyrics in its middle section (Leas notes that Stickles had moved to the Boston area for a relationship that did not last, snapping into focus the rootless push-and-pull between his native New Jersey and “the lights of the Fenway” with a “cruel New England winter”). Then, like a supremely improbable blood-red sunrise, an uncannily familiar lead-guitar melody lines segues into an utterly rousing adapted-lyrics singalong of “Battle Cry of Freedom”, a popular and enduring Civil War ballad written to extoll Unionism but also adapted for Confederates, which then turns into another Civil War song, “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, with Stickles plucking the tune’s original lyrics about the martyred radical abolitionist John Brown alongside the “Glory, glory, hallelujah” chorus. It’s a stunning composition when pulled apart or just when listened to without digging further, with layers of musical history from modern times and the Civil War era combining with the personal psychological explorations of rock poetry.

The rest of The Monitor is not as singularly arresting as either “A More Perfect Union” or “Four Score and Seven” are as individual compositions, but the boozy, lurching rock-opera singalongs deepen the themes of trapped, cynical alienation with unlikely flashes of inspiration and redemption, all knit together by further voiced-over quotations from Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Jefferson Davis, and William Lloyd Garrison read by Chenoweth as well as the band’s indie-rock colleagues: Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls, and Nolen Strals of Double Dagger. “No Future Part Three: Escape from No Future” closes with the most unlikely affirmational refrain imaginable: “You will always be a loser” (“and that’s okay”, growls Stickles as the scorching guitars begin to fade). The gauntlet is dropped on wordy, super-extended titles, a mainstay of indie-rock (think Sufjan Stevens) and fine art (think J.M.W. Turner) alike: “Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of Crowds (Responsible Hate Anthem)” is the longest, and ties together the titular Shakespeare nod with more Civil War references and a head-spinning lyric that adapts a catchphrase from the old Scooby Doo cartoons into a moment of imagined accountability for explotative rich and powerful warmongers.

“A Pot in Which to Piss” commences with Ramone quoting Jefferson Davis about accepting the crowd’s plaudits during his inagural address as President of the Confederate States of America while having premonitions of “thorns and troubles innumerable” in the coming armed struggle with the North, and personalizes those thorns and troubles with images of bullying, abuse, and sore criticism. This is the song most illustrative of Stickles’ deceptively elegant balancing of smothering pessimism (“Nothing means anything anymore / Everything is less than zero”; “You’ve never been a virgin, kid / You were fucked from the start”) and bruised but unbowed determined resistance (“There’s a white flag / In my pocket / Never to be unfurled”). This forever-contradictory dichotomy is summarized succinctly in the song’s (maybe the album’s) most incredible line (in an album full of incredible lines) of ambiguous implication: “I’m at the end my rope / I feel like swinging”, exasperated, anguished finality culminating in death, liberty, or some macabre and philosophically broad combination of both.

“Theme from Cheers” demolishes the sitcom-derived romanticization of alcoholism, a raise-your-glass drinking song about the depressing, regretful loop of raising your glass to drink. “To Old Friends and New” is the album’s most sustainedly pretty and moving moment, a classic-rock, lighters-aloft piano ballad duet with Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak that is (mostly) sincere and heartfelt about keeping it together through hard times, if often subversively so, in Stickles’ standard mode (“We can build a nice life together / If we don’t kill each other first”; “The reasons for living are seldom and few”). “It’s all right / the way that you live” is this song’s grand singalong finale, and it feels for all the world like a secular benediction, the understanding and sympathetic utterance of a wise holy man. It’s little wonder that The Monitor inspires such devotion and deep identification from its appreciative fans, a powerful investment that Stickles has struggled to live up to with further Titus Andronicus albums over the past decade (which have admittedly produced a certified banger or two).

The Monitor arrives at the promised destination of its core historical touchstone with the 14-minute closing epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads”, the name of the naval battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack in 1862. The historical battle took place over two days, and it feels like the song named after it stretches on for that long as well. Titus Andronicus is hardly everyone’s cup of tea musically speaking, their punk-ish aesthetic clashing with standard assessments of aesthetic beauty in quite purposeful ways, and grinding through loud, dirty guitars, deep-thud drums, and Stickles’ favouring of tonsil-shredding wails and growls over more standardly pleasing pop singing over the extended periods of time that their longer songs take up can be a chore for the uninitiated or the disinclined. Add in a 2-minute (absolutely epic) bagpipe solo and you’re unquestionably going to turn some people off. But if you can get through it, “The Battle of Hampton Roads” is every bit the grandiose conclusion that an album of The Monitor‘s massive but never overwhelming ambition deserves. Stickles’ words, sung with exquisite self-loathing, are a panoply of struggles against depression and sadness and moral judgement and defeat and cultural indoctrination and crippling, fatalistic irony. They also return with raw emotional devastation to the Boston heartbreak that partly inspired the album and came up obliquely in “A More Perfect Union”, which is now the impetus for a pained litany of self-recriminations and predictions of substance-abuse coping mechanisms spat out as the narrator retreats to New Jersey in shame.

The confessions in the middle of “The Battle of Hampton Roads” are rockism in its purest distillation, grounded in the beknighted assurance that only with a guitar and a raw, vulnerable, imperfect voice can the deepest and most authentic truths of the artist’s soul be communicated with the directness and power that they demand. In the same way, The Monitor is perhaps the last true rockist masterpiece, a loose concept record full of Big Ideas and penetrating themes connected across personal experience and cultural consciousness and political history, animated by ambitious, well-crafted, powerful music. It is, to quote Stickles in “Four Score and Seven”, “miserable quote, unquote ‘Art'”, which he self-deprecatingly claims that he “struggle(s) and… stammer(s)” out of himself until he’s “up to my ears” in it. Of course, rockism is, and always was, arrogant, entitled nonsense, no matter how fervently your younger self believed it was true (and mine certainly did). Rock music does not and never did hold a monopoly on authenticity or artistic truth, and the implication that it did is myopic and small-minded (and quite possibly racist and/or sexist to boot). Rock and roll did not die when its claims to ultimate authority were undermined by vanishing market share, and fundamentally equating commercial popularity with artistic importance (however occasionally the two overlap) is a fool’s errand as well.

But The Monitor both embodies and overcomes these pitfalls and genre cliches. This essay on its meaning and importance from the retrospective distance of a decade makes it sound hopelessly portentous, but the truth is this record is a ball, a goddamned party. Its full-throated singalongs can be subversive and self-deprecating, but that renders them all the more cathartic. The skill and precision of the songs’ construction and the hairpin turns of collective musicianship that allow for their execution is impressive but also bone-deep irresistible in indefinable ways, as only fine music can really be (its great indie-rock contemporary work from that year, The National’s High Violet, functions in a similar way if not more so, with its more inscrutable lyrics and downbeat tone). It’s immediate and persuasive art, above all, not at all dry or intellectualized, even if it is intellectual. And now, perhaps even more so than in 2010, The Monitor communicates something fundamental about America, about Americans, and about all people: destruction and danger comes not from without, to be deterred with walls and travel bans, but from within. Patrick Stickles embraces his unseen enemy in the final stanza of the album, calling it “my darling” and begging it, “Please don’t ever leave”. For all of its darkness and rage and cynicism, The Monitor is about self-care and improvement, about looking the demons that haunt us in the face and admitting that we let them in and can’t count on anyone else to drive them out, so we best do it ourselves or else learn to live with them. This is applicable to personal psychology as much as to politics, culture and society: live forever, or die by suicide. There is fatalism to The Monitor, but in the end, there’s hope and solidarity to be found in relentless defeat, and that’s what shines through.

Film Review: Baby Driver

April 3, 2020 2 comments

Baby Driver (2017; Directed by Edgar Wright)

Perhaps it’s just in my case and I was generally going off of him for any number of other reasons, but it had seemed for a number of years that Edgar Wright was fading. The English writer/director made his name as one of the most talented and promising young filmmakers of the 21st Century with a trio of spirited, cleverly-crafted, anthology-style comedy/action films starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost known as the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy: zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, buddy-cop genre send-up Hot Fuzz, and pub-crawling alien-body-snatchers adventure The World’s End. Most film fans would rank those movies in that order when it comes to quality, which implies a decline; Hot Fuzz is my favourite, and even if The World’s End is my least favourite, there’s some complex stuff going on in that screenplay that has not entirely been appreciated.

In any case, Wright followed that likely career-defining trilogy with Toronto-set comic-book adaptation Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (or rather interrupted it, Pilgrim seeing release between Hot Fuzz and The World’s End). Given the biggest budget of Wright’s career and a minor-blockbuster summer release date, Scott Pilgrim was a commercial flop and has assumed the cult fave status that a pop-culture-referencing hipster comic movie should have always aimed for in the first place (it also closed the book on the brief and retrospectively obviously deluded Michael Cera-as-movie-star era). Some people love it, most people don’t like it or don’t get it or just didn’t bother. Then Wright left the helm of a Marvel Cinematic Universe film (Ant-Man, although he and collaborator Joe Cornish retained story and screenplay co-credits) over artistic differences, missing a golden opportunity to make the exciting, graceful, deeply witty mass-appeal popcorn movie that he’s always clearly had in him.

This brings us to Baby Driver, which is that exciting, graceful, deeply witty mass-appeal popcorn movie that Edgar Wright always clearly had in him. Like the Cornetto Trilogy films, Baby Driver is superficially a genre film (a car-chase crime heist actioner) but is transformed and elevated by Wright’s artistic vision, technical skill, omnivorous cultural savvy, and thematic intelligence into a lightning-quick stunner of a jukebox musical crime thriller quite unlike any movie ever made before. It’s a massively entertaining and rewarding return to form from a filmmaker who maybe never really left that form to begin with.

Baby Driver‘s protagonist is titular (and yes, the title is a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song, which plays unironically over the end credits), or crimeworld codename titular, anyway: Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway car driver of shockingly prodigious ability whose genius-level artistry behind the wheel is linked to his idiosyncratic behaviour, keeping mostly silent with his fellow criminals on the job while constantly donning sunglasses and iPod earbuds to listen to whatever selection of his encyclopedic music collection fits his particular mood and/or mission. Baby’s driving skill and love of music both connect via flashbacks to the traumatic car-crash death of his parents and especially his mother, an amateur singer whom he worshipped. He is at the beck and call of well-connected crimeboss Doc (Kevin Spacey, who is well and truly cancelled but reminds us here that he knows what do to with a clever, wordy script as well as any actor of his generation), to whom he owes a debt and who defends him from the doubts and even harassment of the hired robbery crews that he drives from theft location to safety. The most aggressive, unpredictable and dangerous of these harrassing robbers is the antagonistic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who is sadistically quick to violence and murder while Baby prefers not to get his hands dirty, clinging to some rapidly-vanishing moral terra firma (represented by his deaf, wheelchair-bound foster-father, played by deaf actor CJ Jones) despite his underworld absorption. Modern-day Bonnie-and-Clyde criminal couple Darling (Eiza Gonzalez) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) are friendlier, and Buddy even bonds with Baby over their shared appreciation of Queen’s “Brighton Rock”, but even these two show their teeth when circumstances lead to the movie’s final heist going awry.

The opening chase sequence of Baby Driver is indelibly exhilarating and defines the look, feel, sound, and rhythm of the rest of the film. Set to the stop-start herky-jerky rocker “Bellbottoms” by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (when did you last hear that band name?), the scene begins with Baby rhythmically lip-syncing to the song while alone in the car waiting for the robbers to emerge and get in and then kicks into some of the most astonishing stunt driving you’ll ever see onscreen in the subsequent pursuit by police (Jeremy Fry is the production’s chief stunt driver, and he does some amazing things behind the wheel). But Wright, his editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos (Oscar-nominated for their work), and sound editor/mixer Julian Slater (twice Oscar-nominated for his work on the film) cut the shots and audio and even the emotional frequency in this scene to the ebb and flow of the song. All of Baby Driver‘s action scenes are edited for image and sound in this flowing way; a shootout at the film’s climax even features gunshots going off on the beat. Even a single-shot sequence of Baby walking down the streets of downtown Atlanta (as Wright did with Scott Pilgrim with Toronto, a favoured city for standing in for other more famous cities in Hollywood movies gets to play itself at last) to fetch coffee for Doc’s crew over the opening credits becomes a delightfully clever image-sound call-and-response melding of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” (whose memorable opening horn fanfare was sampled in House of Pain’s frat-party anthem “Jump Around”) and Baby dancing along the sidewalk, his movements reflecting the words, miming a horn solo next to a trumpet in a musical instrument shop window, and passing lyrics posted on cue in lampost signs and on wall graffiti.

Baby Driver is not just a theme-park ride, either. It’s a movie with soul (often soul music, too). There’s a full character and narrative arc here for its protagonist, with themes and symbolism layered smoothly by Wright through perfectly-executed set-ups and payoffs. Baby seeks idealized romance and companionship with pretty waitress Debora (Lily James) in a manner that is interestingly likened to his adoring devotion to his dead mother: they both waited tables at the same diner, he has tapes of both of them singing (Baby records every conversation and samples phrases into homemade electronic songs on tape, a hobby which understandably gets him in hot water with his criminal associates when they discover his tape collection), associates both with the freedom of driving for his own sake and not compelled by necessity and shot through with immorality, as he is made to do by Doc. Relatedly, Baby’s surrogate father-figure Doc is a fine mercurial portrait of an abusive patriarch, sticking up for him and peppering him with praise but also dropping menacing bare threats to get what he wants from his dependent. Little wonder that Spacey plays him so well given what we know about the man now, although the character gets a redemptive sacrifice moment that one feels the actor does not likewise deserve.

For this critic at least, Edgar Wright had become a lapsed friend who hadn’t been seen in a while, or maybe more like a familiar acquaintance with a habit for on-point witticisms who had moved away and thus was mildly missed at social functions. Wright has always been one of those younger filmmakers who can be a bit too clever for his own good, and between Scott Pilgrim and The World’s End and his exit from Ant-Man, he threatened to vanish into inward-gazing cleverness amidst the sort of production difficulties faced by nearly all Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers as much as due the fickle tastes of specific cinephiles. Baby Driver is a fairly triumphant comeback by Wright in an artistic, critical and especially commercial sense. Consider this review a sincere pledge to keep in touch with him.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: The Perfection

The Perfection (2019; Directed by Richard Shepard)

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams) is haunted; by death, by missed opportunities, by traumas of the past. Once a talented wunderkind cellist at Bachoff, a prestigious but mysterious music conservatory in Boston run by the refined, strings-pulling mentoring mastermind Anton (Steven Weber), Charlotte dropped out of Bachoff and let her cello collect dust to care for her dying mother. Her mother now gone, Charlotte appears weary, hollowed-out, keeping the lid on frustrated rage (one shot cuts from her sitting silently, staring at her mother’s wide-eyed corpse, to a split-second rending scream).

The interpretation of her mindset, given the information provided in this opening scene of Richard Shepard’s The Perfection, is regret and self-loathing at the waste of her talent mingling with disavowed grief. No wonder, then, that we next see Charlotte rehearsing (out of nervousness, or to strike the correct performative tone?) and then finally leaving a message for Anton and his partner Paloma (Alaina Huffman) seeking to reconnect with them and their exclusive musical world. She meets them in Shanghai, where they are auditioning promising Chinese girls in competition for a coveted spot at Bachoff. There she also meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), a world-famous virtuoso cellist and Bachoff graduate. They express admiration for each other’s playing, flirt, gossip, perform a duet, flirt some more, drink, dance, and sleep together. Lizzie then impulsively invites Charlotte to join her on an off-the-beaten-path tour of the Chinese interior, and they leave together the next day.

It doesn’t take long for their journey to become distressing. Feeling unwell and made paranoid by whispers of an airborne contagion infecting an attendee of the competition the night before, Lizzie’s physical condition and mental state deteriorates quickly on a spartan bus taking them into the sparsely-populated Chinese hinterlands. Despite Charlotte’s assurances that everything will be fine, Lizzie’s ailment creates a scene on the bus, but takes on horror-movie dimensions and becomes catastrophic and life-changing once they are kicked off the vehicle by an irate driver.

But director Shepard (he’s also the co-writer, with Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder) has his editor David Dean quite literally rewind events, and not for the last time, to show what is really going on. Although this first of multiple, meaty twists in The Perfection isn’t what it may immediately seem either, as becomes clear once the film shifts to Bachoff for its troubling climax. Shepard immerses his audience so viscerally in the tensions that enmesh Charlotte and Lizzie first in China and then in Boston that the pivots, which may have been discernible in advance, arrive with full disorienting impact. That impact, too, sheds thematic and metaphorical light on the psychological costs of intense mentorship with an uncompromising drive for success, and of sexual abuse by men in positions of authority. Charlotte and Lizzie’s partnership/rivalry (the film always keeps you guessing which one will win out at any moment) takes on subtly complex facets of feminine solidarity in the age of #MeToo.

Williams is best-known for her bait-and-switch role in Get Out, and with that in mind her casting as Charlotte is quite nearly a spoiler for The Perfection‘s twists. But her range here is much greater and much more unsettling. Browning gives Lizzie an electric charge of passion that renders the character’s direction unpredictable, and Weber (most recognizable as a soft and avuncular sitcom player) plays marvelously against type as a villain of cultivated veneer and fanatical monstrousness.

The Perfection is nearer to great than a low-budget independent cerebral horror with whiplashing plot tendencies released by Netflix has any reasonable right to be. Sharp-witted and eagerly misdirecting even at its economical running time, this is an entertaining and surprising watch with intellectual and emotional substance, not to mention its fair share of queasy and unsettling moments. It’s a compact but dramatic cello solo with a compelling crescendo, and worth the seeking out.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

February 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018; Directed by Bryan Singer)

It’s extremely self-evident exactly why the Freddie Mercury and Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was such a thunderous box-office hit at the same time as it is undeniably clear why it is not, properly speaking, a good movie. Spearheaded by a brassy mirrorball-smash of a performance by Rami Malek as Mercury and featuring numerous spectacular and exhilirating cinematic re-creations of the English rock legends’ bravado live performances, Bohemian Rhapsody leaves you humming and buzzing as its credits roll. It’s a spirited and slavishly faithful tribute to Queen’s ambitious, dramatic music, which, after all, remains very popular, so why shouldn’t a movie about them be likewise popular?

But this is a film that never met a musical biopic convention it could resist locking onto like a rocket ship on its way to Mars, even if (especially if) those conventions inconveniently did not happen to apply to Queen’s career. Outside of its performance sequences (and even inside of them), it’s also a frequent technical fiasco: a queasy cinematographical palette from DP Newton Thomas Sigel, frightfully, distractingly over-busy editing from John Ottman (he was nominated for an Oscar for editing like this, in run-of-the-mill dialogue scenes, no less), and a glaring lack of vision and finish. This last flaw might have been predictable, given the erratic and contentious stewardship of original director Bryan Singer, who was fired by 20th Century Fox with weeks to go in principal photography over persistent absences and was replaced by Dexter Fletcher (who isn’t allowed a directorial credit due to guild rules; he’s listed as an executive producer). Bohemian Rhapsody‘s success has been understood to be in spite of Singer, not because of him; at least one hopes so, given the litany of accusations of sexual misconduct made against him, which themselves did not rise to the level of disqualification from helming such a prominent studio release.

The extent to which any of these technical or behind-the-scenes criticisms will damage Bohemian Rhapsody, let alone matter to anyone watching it, will certainly vary. I, for one, was almost irrevocably lost to it when Mike Myers, buried under blotchy make-up, a permed wig, and an English accent as a fictionalized EMI record exec, directly references the unlikelihood of a scene like the iconic “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong-in-the-car sequence in Wayne’s World ever happening when arguing with the band about releasing the six-minute rock-operatic classic as a single. If I hadn’t been watching the movie in my living room, I would have walked out right then.

That’s the kind of nail-on-the-head in-joke that Anthony McCarten’s screenplay thinks is amusing (and that Myers always has), and those thought processes transfer to more serious dramatic elements of Bohemian Rhapsody. The script builds in a growing distance and then personal rupture between Mercury and his first partner Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton); while they did end their romantic involvement with each other when Mercury told her about his sexual orientation, they were close friends until the end of his life. The pre-third-act crisis that “breaks up” the band is precipitated by Mercury’s desire to make a solo album, which the other three band members treat as an arrogant betrayal; in truth, every Queen member but Mercury released a solo album before he did. The band’s performance at Live Aid in 1985 – widely considered to be the greatest single live performance of rock era, which we must by now get used to referring to definitively in the past tense – forms the climax of the film (it was re-created and filmed meticulously in its entirety, though two songs are cut from the final film), and is built up by the implication that it was their first show together in some time, when really they had released an album the year before and toured extensively just prior to Live Aid. Quibbles about historical accuracy can be judged to be particularly fruitless in terms of a cinematic biography of self-mythologizing rock stars, but these things add up and give an impression that Queen was something other than they were.

Who Freddie Mercury was, however, is the real focus of the non-musical-number scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody. He was an unlikely person to become rock history’s most obscenely outsized talent: the son of Indian Parsi Zoroastrians born in Zanzibar before emigrating to England, he was a sublimely gifted singer with perfect pitch, a (rumoured, never quite confirmed) four-octave range, and pure, swaggering on-stage panache. Identifying as bisexual though increasingly involved in the growing gay community (from which he contracted the AIDS that would claim his life), he was and is nonetheless accepted by a wide range of music fans who responded to his talent and his music, whatever they thought of his lifestyle. Bohemian Rhapsody suggests that behind the arrogant rock star swagger was profound self-doubt and self-loathing without a specific root, that he projected supreme self-confidence but never felt it. The film stumbles clumsily around Mercury’s sexuality and identity, but always retreats to a safe neutral position that it didn’t really matter, because he will, he will rock you. For those of LGBTQ identity who find inspiration and tragic pathos in Mercury’s blazing comet of a life, a position like this in a film from supposedly progressive Hollywood in 2018 smacks of an insult.

The film that treated Mercury’s sexuality with a bit more respect and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody does would be a better film. But then, a better film would have found a way to balance the joy and the tragedy of Mercury’s life in and out of Queen. A better film have explored the giddy inventiveness of Queen’s recording, rather than quick-cutting from the working band selling their van to pay for studio time to swinging guitar amps and scattering coins on drumskins because someone randomly shouted out, “We’ve got to get experimental!”. A better film would explore the interpersonal dynamics of massively popular and rich rock stars and their managers and entourage without inventing conflicts and ruptures that didn’t happen and tell us nothing about Mercury or Brian May, John Deacon, and Roger Taylor as people (and Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t offer us much about Mercury’s bandmates, although Gwylim Lee, Ben Hardy, and Joe Mazzello labour away to give them personality that the script is uninterested in).

A better film, too, would have been able to find a consistent and potent dramatic and emotional equilibrium between the mass-participation delight of Queen’s live shows and the private, diminishing agony of Mercury’s slow health decline from AIDS. Bohemian Rhapsody does better with this than it perhaps ought to, given its other related limitations. Rami Malek’s Best Actor Oscar nomination is really for his impressive physical approximation of Freddie Mercury as a performer (the Academy is full of narcissists and therefore responds strongly to good impersonations of famous people like them), but he is an observant-enough actor to effectively sell the film’s link between the fear and uncertainty he feels due to his AIDS diagnosis and his closing Live Aid performative triumph.

Malek registers, almost imperceptively but entirely clearly, how the awareness of creeping mortality spurs Mercury on to ensuring his immortality. And damn it, despite itself, here at the end, when it matters, Bohemian Rhapsody works. Malek’s Mercury has fully reconciled with his bandmates and told them of his AIDS death sentence. He has found sufficient inner peace to seek out companionship from Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), the loving partner of his final years, while also having a place in his life for Mary. He has earned the approval of his conservative Parsi family (although his father’s proud regard is only finally earned by the “good deed” of playing Bob Geldof’s preeningly compromised African famine relief charity mega-concert, so okay, then).

With all of that held in mind, with those charged atoms pinging through the electrified firmament, Malek-as-Mercury’s delivery on the Live Aid stage at Wembley of the passionate piano verse that is the second movement of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, with its melodramatic scenario of maternal entreaty, murder and death, and existential erasure, sees the film that shares the song’s name snap suddenly, unexpectedly into sharp and powerful focus. When he sings for a billion people “I don’t wanna die / I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all”, his face reflected in the surface of the piano, I’ll be damned if it isn’t finally moving.

Maybe it’s folly scratching at the picayune inconsistencies and inaccuracies of Bohemian Rhapsody (though I’d argue its technical problems are a bit more major). Almost certainly, however, it’s folly to wish it to have been more subtle and nuanced. This is a Queen biopic, after all, and you do not rush into Queen’s bejazzled bosom in search of subtlety and nuance. You go there to be swaddled in smothering grandeur and boundless ornate ambition, to be swallowed whole by the bloated, sparkling beast and sleep cozily in its gold-encrusted bowels.

Queen gets a bit of posthumous flack for the reduction of some of its stadium anthems (“We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” primarily) to sports-arena fan-riling fodder, or for unintentionally birthing the half-feral stepchildren of 1980s cornball hair-metal, that absolute nadir of a half-century of popular music genres. But Queen was unquestionably greater than the parasitic worms that would feed themselves from its spent body. It’s hard to argue, though, that despite its popularity and flashes of quality, Bohemian Rhapsody is one such worm. But Queen also gets the bombastic, unsubtle, mass-market biopic homage that it arguable deserves (and with manager Jim Beach, played in the film by Tom Hollander, producing and with May and Taylor as executive producers, the film the keepers of its legacy asked for and oversaw). Maybe that’s a decent measure of balance, after all.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Coco

October 6, 2018 Leave a comment

Coco (2017; Directed by Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina)

The production process on big-budget animated features like Disney/Pixar’s Coco is longer than your usual Hollywood movie, if you didn’t know. So this eye-poppingly colourful and touchingly respectful fantasy of Mexican cultural traditions, family memory, and embracing creative artistry could not have been conceived and mostly made with the foreknowledge of how much more political urgent it would feel upon its release in 2017.

To be certain, even though immigration to the United States from Mexico specifically has waned in recent years even as migrants from elsewhere in Latin America (particularly refugees often fleeing for their lives from the volatile nations of the Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) have picked up the slack, Mexican cultural influence and political currency remain the most prominent Stateside of any Latin-American country. Americans (particularly White Americans) have simply become more accustomed to viewing Mexicans as the representative migrant group among Latin-Americans, to witnessing those people’s established and rooted communities (some of which, lest we forget, pre-dated white settlement in parts of the country) subsisting alongside their own. For a nation supposedly defined by constant change and frontier-pushing redefinition, America can be as loathe to shift its pre-conceived and well-set notions as any number of less apparently adventurous national consciousnesses.

This prominence has made Mexico, Mexican migrants, and settled Mexican-Americans one of the prime targets for xenophobia, racist fearmongering, and ramped-up border protectionism, even before Donald Trump’s particularly crude amplification of these ugly forces helped to lift him most dispiritingly into the White House. But it has also made Mexican-Americans an increasingly important media demographic, worthy of being pitched a culturally-sensitive and celebratory nine-figured-budget movie from what is perhaps Hollywood’s most consistent and revered studio assembly line of original popular narratives and emotional values. And so Coco stands with more defiance than it might otherwise have done, defending the rich culture and values of a diverse nation of 123 million people from weaponized prejudice and rampant stereotypes, from smears of criminality and children’s detention camps, from “Build the Wall!”

This position is probably far more than this movie has asked for, and if it holds up against the hostility of these forces then that’s because it’s tightly constructed, thematically strong, stunningly beautiful, and even touching (in that heavily-workshopped, factory-of-feelings way that Pixar films set out to move us in emotional terms). Set on and crafted around the traditions and observances of the well-known, visually rich, syncretic Catholic/pagan Mexican holiday known as the Day of the Dead, Coco follows a young Mexican boy named Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) on a multichromatic quest into his family’s history. Miguel’s family runs a hard-toiling, hereditary shoemaking workshop, but further in its past, his great-great-grandfather was a travelling musician. After this man was accused of abandoning his young family to pursue dreams of stardom by Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Imelda (Alanna Ubach), all music was banished from the family, a practice which has continued down to Miguel’s day. Although Miguel loves his clan dearly, this familial tradition causes him great consternation since he cherishes secret dreams of becoming a musician himself, like his idol and hometown hero, the late Mexican superstar Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt).

Driven to desperation for a guitar with which to play a Día de Muertos talent show in the village plaza after his strict grandmother (Renée Victor) destroys his own instrument, Miguel steals into de la Cruz’s memorial chapel and shrine and snatches the master’s distinctive white guitar. This act sets in motion a fantastical voyage to the Land of the Dead, a glowing rainbow-spectrum stacked afterlife metropolis inhabited by departed people turned into living skeletal calaveras. By the rules of this world, the dead endure as long as someone in the world of the living remembers them, which makes the Day of the Dead, with its ofrenda altars of memory festooned with decoration and mementoes of deceased loved ones, the most important day of the year in the Land of the Dead. The dead are screened through customs gates (a familiar bureaucratic barrier fraught with its own ambivalent cultural memory for generations of Mexican-Americans) and, if ofrendas to their memory have been erected, they may cross an arched bridge made of orange flower petals (one of those lovely poetic images that have become the trademark of Pixar works) to visit invisibly with their living descendants until sunrise ends Día de Muertos.

Miguel is unable to obtain a blessing from his calavera ancestors (including the implacable Imelda) that will allow him both to return to the living realm and to continue to play music. Thus, to avoid becoming a skeleton-person himself or returning to his life without any hope of music in it, Miguel enlists the aid of a shifty, ill-remembered outcast rogue character named Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who, in exchange for a ofrenda photo placement to keep him from being forgotten, promises to bring the boy to de la Cruz, a prominent figure in the Land of the Dead as well and potentially the mysterious great-great-grandfather who left Miguel’s family decades before, in search of a music-empowering blessing. What Miguel finds will challenge his family’s traditions and, subtly, his own sense of himself.

For all of its grounding in Mexican Día de Muertos traditions, Coco (written by Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina, who also co-wrote most of the Latin-pop songs and was given a co-director credit with Pixar vet Lee Unkrich) also takes pains to make itself thematically intelligible to the more general audience for Disney/Pixar releases. Hence, the comical animal sidekicks, namely Miguel’s Xolo dog tagalong Dante and Pepita, Imelda’s multicoloured winged tiger spirit animal, or alebrije. Hence, the careful and sanitized but still slightly bold approach to adult themes in a children’s (or at least all ages’) cartoon, namely deaths in the family. Hence, the sneaky wink-and-nudge jokes for the benefit of chaperone parents or young-at-heart adult viewers, namely Miguel’s encounter with Skeleton Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) and her side-splitting stage designs for de la Cruz’s annual Day of the Dead concert: a giant papaya that dancers crawl out of, towards their mother “who is a cactus, who is also me!”

Miguel’s core conflict in Coco, however, animates a more identifiable concern for a more bourgeois creative class segment of Pixar’s large audience. Forbidden from the dangerous, homewrecking passionate pursuit of music by his strict but close-knit family, Miguel views his pre-ordained future as a toiling proletarian artisan with barely-disguised distaste. The suggestion that he be brought into the family workshop to cobble shoes all day until the day that his body quits on him is one that fills him with horror. The assumption that pursuing the life of a musician is superior to manual labour is a general one contained within Coco, not merely applicable to Miguel’s motivations and desires, and this is a very recognizable anxiety for Pixar’s majority white upper-middle-class audience (to say nothing of its creative forces).

Coco also evokes a very contemporary phenomenon of the prominent public figure falling from lofty grace and into lowly infamy due to an unforgivable past transgression (not to spoil it entirely, but let’s just say that Ernesto de la Cruz did not fully earn his musical legacy, and that Héctor’s pariah state is a profound injustice to him). Indeed, such themes are more at the forefront and active in the bones of the story than any conceptions of Mexican nationalism or Latin-American cultural solidarity of the course-correcting sort detailed in my introductory paragraphs. It’s simply a statement to the dehumanizing vehemence towards poor and vulnerable immigrants (refugees fleeing for their safety, many of them) among the xenophobic American right that a fond and lively portrait of colourful Mexican culture and passionate family connections like Coco can feel like a nearly-revolutionary position-taking.

But it’s precisely by whittling away the implacable ideological diminishment of the rights, agency, and feelings of the marginalized with empathy and emotional understanding that the fractious and hostile polity can mend and heal itself. Coco is a manufactured delight in the best Pixar tradition, but if it rises above that to any extent, it’s probably because it engages in this grander discursive project of fairness, comprehension, and maybe, more distantly, justice and co-existence.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

The Ten Verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”, Ranked

The eleven-minutes-plus closing track on American folk-rock balladeer Bob Dylan’s 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, “Desolation Row” is a rambling, evocative surrealistic trip through history, literature, society, and politics, with poetic images and resonant vignettes featuring enigmatically-sketched characters separated through ten verses. Each of these verses close with a line referencing the titular location, a place both romantically symbolic and agonizingly real, a grimy but indistinctly paradisical setting for the grinding suffering of proletarian life whose simple truths are repeatedly desired by the song’s numerous broken dreamers and fallen luminaries.

Like the modern poems that it references and self-consciously resembles (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is a clear touchstone, and not just because its author appears in the lyrics), “Desolation Row” can be a difficult work to approach interpretively, so dense is its allusiveness and ambiguous is its symbolic imagery. Perhaps through the current online media ranking listicle format, that interpretive work of one of Dylan’s greatest compositions can be done in a manner that is as readable as it is modestly insightful. Therefore, here is an analytical ranking of the ten verses of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row”.

Desolation Row from Paul Tattam on Vimeo.

10. Verse 3

Now the moon is almost hidden
The stars are beginning to hide
The fortune-telling lady
Has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel
And The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Everybody is making love
Or else expecting rain
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing
He’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight
On Desolation Row

The weakest of the verses of “Desolation Row” reads like a parody of its strongest: poetic descriptions turned on their heads by wry jokes (the astrologist frustrated by a clouded night without celestial reference points for her predictions) and suggestions of social inversion (the dandy Good Samaritan preparing for a bacchanal) alongside a classic decontextualized gnomic Dylan couplet (“Everybody is making love / Or else expecting rain”). What drives this verse to the bottom, though, is the unclear shout-outs to Cain and Abel and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Unlike most other figures referenced by Dylan in the lyrics, these aren’t really doing anything, and it’s uncertain if they are there of their own accord or as the fortune-telling lady’s “things”. Most of the better verses in the song build a tone, a mood, and a character as well, but this third verse is just there, existing. Sadly, it’s filler.

9. Verse 10

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
About the time the doorknob broke
When you asked me how I was doing
Or’s that some kinda joke?
All these people that you mention
Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces
And give them all another name
Right now I can’t read too good
Don’t send me no more letters, no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

The song’s final verse offers a clever departing post-modern reframing of what has come before, returning to the ordinary and mundane realm of gossiping letters, broken doorknobs, and petty disagreements after the phantasmagorical name-dropping of the first nine verses. It’s a self-conscious and self-deprecating move in classic Dylan form: these iconic figures from literature and history and the imagination embroiled in their symbolically-elevated struggles are just stand-ins and aliases for mutual acquaintances of the narrator and his letter-penning frienemy. The reductiveness of it is knowing but kind of archly so, as the fiery young Dylan could often be, especially in his immediate post-electric period when much of his folk fanbase was calling for his head as a sell-out betrayal (ironically, “Desolation Row” is the sole acoustic folk track on Highway 61 Revisited). Separated musically from the dreamscape verses by a trademarked wheezing harmonica solo, these lines are far less imaginative and striking as those that led up to them and grate slightly in their suggestion that none of those words really mattered or meant a thing. Ever ready to confound, Dylan does return to the semi-chorus repetition of the titular locale at the end, however, suggesting slyly that maybe it wasn’t all such a lark after all.

8. Verse 6

Dr. Filth, he keeps his world
Inside of a leather cup
But all his sexless patients
They’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser
She’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read
“Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on the pennywhistle
You can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough
From Desolation Row

The difficulty in the verse ranking begins to show at this point, when the quality distinction between Dylan’s word clusters becomes so fine and slight that prioritizing one over another becomes a matter of personal preference. So I will say that Verse 6 is more or less one of my least favourite. Its ambiguity is nearly impenetrable and there are few truly memorable phrases that jump out and arrest your attention. Dylan is on an anti-medicine kick, one supposes, challenging the authority of medical professional in his iconoclastic way, but little of it coheres, let alone enthralls. The verse’s rhythm has a good flow, anyway, which distinguishes it a little from those ranked below it.

7. Verse 1

They’re selling postcards of the hanging
They’re painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad, they’re restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row

The opening verse of “Desolation Row” is a scene-setting one, and as such is far from its finest. That said, for a song full of the surreal, the seemingly-unlikely opening line is actually a chilling reference to an all-too-real American horror: the lynching of African-Americans in the South, which often manifested as twisted communal events which would sometimes be photographed and commemorated with prints and cards for sale depicting the extrajudicial execution of other human beings. The reference to the restless riot squad, itching for “somewhere to go” to violently put down uppity citizens, is also a wry critique of the pre-conditions of police brutality. But why are the passports being painted brown? Is this a reference to a fascist bureaucracy? And the blind commissioner stuff just does not land.

6. Verse 7

Across the street they’ve nailed the curtains
They’re getting ready for the feast
The Phantom of the Opera
In a perfect image of a priest
They are spoon feeding Casanova
To get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence
After poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls
“Get outta here if you don’t know
Casanova is just being punished for going
To Desolation Row”

A priestly Phantom of the Opera presiding over a fashionable feast, ostensibly thrown to punish the consummate romantic lover Casanova by inflating his ego with flattery before tearing him down again. The young Dylan’s notorious distaste for social functions and the polite niceties that sustain them is expanded here to a tableau of institutionalized social torture, directed by a posing cleric of the church played by a refined gothic-romantic monster of the underground. It’s not the strongest verse or the point most worth making, but it’s certainly consistent.

5. Verse 5

Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row

Most of the verses that feature historical or cultural characters mix them together in provocative combinations. Not (precisely) so Verse 5, which casts “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood” as a sad faded figure “with his memories in a trunk” who “was famous long ago” as a musician. Dylan has often returned to the tragic street-level ramblings of the homeless as a contemporary urban iteration of the nomadic hobo culture that fascinated his musical hero Woody Guthrie, and Einstein/Robin Hood (the modern paragon of scientific genius hiding in the guise of the mythical inequality-leveling sylvan outlaw) strikes a transient pose, bumming cigs, “sniffing drainpipes” (drug addiction?) and “reciting the alphabet” (low-key mental derangement?). Religion is poked in the eye again, with his monastic friend engaging in the sin of envy. Breaking the top half of the rankings among such marvelous collisions of words is no mean feat, but describing this engimatic figure as “so immaculately frightful” is the kind of magnificent use of language that defines Bob Dylan at his best.

4. Verse 2

Cinderella, she seems so easy
It takes one to know one, she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning
“You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place my friend
You’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row

I can now admit that, as a younger man, I nursed a considerable crush on Dylan’s insouciant Cinderella with “her hands in her back pockets / Bette Davis style”. This image raises this verse’s profile above a couple of those ranked just behind it in my estimation, although the suggestion that the insufferably moony Romeo is confronted and perhaps brutally beaten for his romantic excesses (one of many suggestions of genuine sentiment being strongly punished by an uncaring social order) provides a dark lining to Cinderella’s attitude and casual cleaning at the conclusion.

3. Verse 9

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting
“Which side are you on?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

Dylan’s vocals gain such an uncanny force by the latter stages of “Desolation Row” that it elevates his lyrics and their meanings. This verse scarcely needs elevating, featuring his deepest and most evocative name-drop reference: Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the exemplars of modernist poetry, fighting in the captain’s tower of the doomed Titanic, that maritime symbol of Gilded Age ambition and inequality. The whole verse has a marine theme from Neptune (the Roman god of the sea, linked disturbingly to that most infamously nasty emperor, Nero) to the great passenger liner to fishermen and mermaids and even the laughing calypso singers (reflecting the folk-scene vogue of Caribbean music, just as the fishermen holding flowers reference flower-child hippie subculture). There’s a troubling privileged escapism to these “windows of the sea”, as Dylan suggests the complacent rich elite walking the decks of their yachts and ignoring the socioeconomic deprivation (or does it represent a form of proletarian authenticity here?) of Desolation Row. There’s no need to interpret “Everybody’s shouting / ‘Which side are you on?'” as anything less than an invocation of the sharpening political divisions of 1960s America, divisions all the more stark and calcified a half-century later.

2. Verse 4

Ophelia, she’s ’neath the window
For her I feel so afraid
On her twenty-second birthday
She already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic
She wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion
Her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon
Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking
Into Desolation Row

Ophelia’s verse is a singular character sketch, like Verse 5 but stronger, more focused, and more sympathetic. Dylan’s stance towards women in his songs is decidedly mixed; as great as his definitive song “Like A Rolling Stone” is, for example, it rather glories in schadenfreude at the diminished circumstances of its fallen elite socialite female lead before disingenuously suggesting that her poverty represents a kind of freedom. But here Dylan summons an empathy and understanding of the plight of Hamlet’s callously discarded girlfriend that even William Shakespeare fails to possess in one of the central texts of the English literary canon. Too much examination of and empathy for Ophelia would expose the Prince of Denmark’s self-involved quest for the irresponsible body-count-generating recklessness that it is. But Dylan feels “so afraid” for her and her lonely, suicidal, faith-driven romanticism. He sees her as a modern figure of tragic alienation, and gives her the most sublime of his images (“And though her eyes are fixed upon / Noah’s great rainbow”), delivered with a growing vocal force that exposes the prejudices against his singing as dull and unfounded. And yet this romantic aspiration of Ophelia’s is, as we know, ultimately fatal, and her eyes rise to the sky but continue to linger on the dirty gutters as well.

1. Verse 8

At midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

The most sinister and sharply political of the song’s verses is also its most powerful and hardest to shake. Employed by Alan Moore in his seminal graphic novel Watchmen to drive home his darkly serious vision of conflicted superheroes in a world of injustice, corruption, and oppression, the opening lines suggest an authoritarian regime rounding up dissidents and intellectuals before detailing their confinement not in dank prison holes but in the death-house production centres of industrial capitalism. This work-prison of productive exploitation suggests continuity from ancient feudal privileges (the reference to castles) and is overseen by not only the subalterns of state power but by the ordinary middle-manager insurance men. Desolation Row here is the last bastion of freedom, an enclave of liberty in a sea of strife. “Desolation Row” in general explores social decay, institutional breakdown, and the fuzzy margins of democratic capitalist society. But in this stunning verse, sung with waxing force by Dylan, the general critique becomes scaldingly specific: capitalism is the new force of oppression in the world, a sinister force to be feared and resisted.

Categories: Culture, Music

Documentary Quickshots #7

Elvis Presley: The Searcher (HBO, 2018; Directed by Thom Zinny)

Over two feature-length parts, Elvis Presley: The Searcher seeks out the man behind the world-famous image of gyrating hips, drawling tremolo vocals, and sequined jumpsuits. If it doesn’t quite find the real Elvis, Thom Zinny’s documentary suggests that he was really there all along, in his music, his performances, and his human struggles.

Tracing the life and career of Elvis Aaron Presley from humble beginnings in Tupelo, Mississippi and Memphis, Tennessee to his sad spent bloated end in 1977 (although it does not dwell on the details of the waning days of the King of Rock and Roll), Elvis Presley: The Searcher employs archival footage and photographs of and interviews with Presley himself, as well as with key figures in his inner circle (his wife Priscilla, his controversial manager Colonel Tom Parker, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips) and subsequent musical icons influenced by him (including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and Emmylou Harris).

Arranged roughly chronologically, the film returns regularly to his legendary 1968 NBC comeback special as a summary statement of his cultural impact, a thesis of what Elvis meant to American popular culture. Indeed, the clips from the broadcast reveal an impressive performer, synthesizing a panoply of formative musical influences (rhythm & blues, gospel, country, mainstream pop) with a renewed passion and vigour into mesmerizing artistic displays. The special is a pivot point between two media eras of Elvis, from the handsome crooning lead in a glut of mediocre 1960s movies to the sweating, sideburned touring rock-star colossus that Presley embodied for the last decade of his life (and that launched the notorious impersonator cottage industry that has diminished the legend that it claims to celebrate). It is also a tantalizing suggestion of the provocatively sexy and dynamic but sadly largely-unfilmed youthful late-1950s Elvis, when he burst electrically onto the music scene at the height of the rock n’ roll wave before frittering away two vital years in the U.S. Army.

The Searcher fêtes Presley’s electrifying dynamism and much of his deep musical output. It also aims to suggest hidden depths and thoughtfulness to a man often conceived of as absurdly talented but, especially in his post-draft return to music and film, poorly advised and too fundamentally simple in his outlook and thinking to prevent himself from being used as a cash cow while the rapid currents of American popular culture flowed by him as past a stationary stone. Despite sympathetic second-hand quotes about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and the climactic suggestion that the Comeback Special’s closer “If I Can Dream” was some species of inspiring social commentary and/or healing hymn for the troubled American year of 1968, The Searcher does not make a convincing case for those hidden depths.

None of the speakers providing the film with its narrative and themes challenge the view that Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker (actually a Dutch citizen in the U.S. illegally) exploited him financially and overworked him for years. The Colonel drew on his experience as a literal carnival barker in signing excessive studio contracts to make increasingly poor movies, before touring Elvis extensively at the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s when the movie bucks dried up. The Colonel always had his eye on the next dollar, and as a result drowned his star in bad movies, mediocre music, and exhaustive live shows while his peers used their creative primes to transform the musical forms he had helped to innovate into a potent artistic as well as commercial force. Elvis did not help matters by his apathy towards songwriting and publishing (the latter rights, so lucrative in the future, were often sold off by Parker for quick profit), thus diminishing his control over his artistic direction and his heirs’ grip on his legacy.

The Searcher does compellingly argue for Elvis Presley’s value as a interpretive vocalist and more than anything as an iconic performer, a vibrating, undeniable presence in whatever medium he appeared. As tangible as this accomplishment is, it is drained of some impact by Zinny’s dismissive treatment of one of the core cultural issue around Elvis in particular and American rock n’ roll in general: the oft-disavowed truth that this defining, massively profitable musical genre was largely the domain of white performers appropriating the creative innovations of African-Americans. The Searcher tells us that this is not a problem, because Elvis Presley respected black people and their culture, did not respect the South’s system of segregation and even contributed in his way to its breakdown, and acknowledged his debt to the African-American pioneers of the music. Even further to that, it suggests that because Elvis felt the music, his passion and conviction overcame any objection over appropriation. This may be a case where actions in the micro were not objectionable but reflected and even fed into results in the macro that were. Given the personal focus of Elvis Presley: The Searcher, it is understandable that the treatment of this problem does not extend itself to those larger implications, but it creates a bit of a blind spot in an otherwise fairly comprehensive portrait of one of America’s greatest (if not always its own profound) cultural producers.

The Rachel Divide (Netflix, 2018; Directed by Laura Brownson)

While Elvis Presley became a pre-eminent icon and profited handsomely from his questionable appropriation of African-American culture, Rachel Dolezal’s appropriations have cost her and those close to her dearly. Dolezal became notorious in 2015 when, at the height of the activist Black Lives Matter protests, she was removed as president of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP after it was revealed that she was born of Caucasian-American parents and had been passing as African-American for years. Demonized as a disrespectful poseur and characterized as mentally unsound by critics from across the American political and racial spectrum, Dolezal was certainly controversial but almost uniquely unifying in a highly divisive and partisan cultural discourse. White and black, left, right and centre, politically engaged or casual follower of current events: everybody in America came together to hate Rachel Dolezal for pretending to be something she is not.

Laura Brownson’s The Rachel Divide doesn’t seek to shift that hate, and even Brownson’s fair-minded documentarian objectivity is sorely tested by Dolezal’s stubborn refusal to own up to her falsehoods about her racial identity, the filmmaker finally falling to confronting her subject and demanding some sort of reckoning with the truth. But at the same time, the film provides history and context to Dolezal’s life decisions, suggesting that she is as much of a victim of American social currents as an exploiter of them, as well as confirming a dark and traumatic past of abuse that might be a precursor of whatever mental delusions she now labours under. To complicate matters further, The Rachel Divide shows her dogged dedication to those delusions about her identity having sad consequences on her sons, both of whom are African-American and face ostracizing and obstacles beyond the usual racial bounds due to their mother’s notoreity.

In The Rachel Divide as in her memoir In Full Color (which she is shown writing and promoting in the film prior to its spectacular flop of a book release), Dolezal details the physical and psychological abuse she suffered as a child at the hands of her fundamentalist Christian parents and elder brother in Montana. Her adoptive siblings, who were African-American, suffered even more greatly in the household, and as she grew up, Dolezal began to identify with them and their struggles more intensely, to the point of finally rejecting the white Christian identity of her biological family and choosing instead the denied and discriminated African-American identity of her brothers and sisters (one of whom, Izaiah, she later gained custody of and treats as her own son).

A talented artist and Africana studies instructor, Dolezal became actively involved in the NAACP as well as in legal proceedings against her abusive white family. The Rachel Divide suggests that local political opponents in strongly-majority-white Spokane as well as her accused brother (who hired a private investigator to dig up dirt on her to discredit her as a witness, leading to her exposure) stood to gain from her fall from grace. But it also cannot help but hold Dolezal equally responsible for her problems, even if her stubborn lies have hurt far fewer people than those of much more powerful people in America.

The Rachel Divide toes a fine line. It expresses empathy for Dolezal’s all-too-human struggles to find work (she is apparently now on food stamps) and to find reconciliation to a view of herself that the rest of her society firmly rejects. It explores the almost open sorrow of her sons Izaiah and Franklin, whose lives and futures are continually hurt by who their mother is. But it gives more than equal time to the numerous full-throated objections, criticisms, and forceful excoriations from people across the country who are offended, baffled, and pained by her appropriation of a culture not her own. Dolezal deepens her difficulties in attempting to defend them time and again, making public appearances that inevitably place in her an unfavourable light, and offending further by claiming spiritual kinship with African-American slaves and transsexuals like Caitlyn Jenner.

There are broad and deep questions about the construction of racial identity that are raised by the Rachel Dolezal controversy, and often these questions are raised by Dolezal herself in self-interested defence of her position. She tells one skeptical radio interviewer that race is a social construct, a common progressive academic talking point that is nonetheless rarely understood to presage the sort of identity construction practiced by Dolezal. There is, perhaps, a superficial philosophical argument to be made that if gender is an identity construct that subjects can assert their will over and change if their wish, why can’t race be as well?

But stating that race is a social construct does not mean that, as the radio host heatedly retorts, it is not “real”. Race as it is now conceived may have been a discursive creation of slave-trading European colonialists half a millennia ago to justify the lucrative but cruelly dehumanizing exploitation of African populations, a creation that undergirds the social hierarchical order of the United States as well as of the other wealthy Western capitalist democracies. Changing one’s race as one might change one’s gender (transracialism, as Dolezal calls it) might seem an attractive option for those troubled and pained by the identity they were born with, at least when considered in utopian isolation.

But Dolezal’s transracial shift is predicated on a privilege of passing available to her as a white person but not to her African-American peers, whose racial identity is irrevocably written on their skin, seemingly forever (though hopefully not) a marker of their perceived underclass status in America. Racial identity is not merely formed in response of rejection to the traumas of history, but is tightly and inextricably entwined with those traumas, feeding on their dark energies and seeking to transform them into something more positive and freeing. Rachel Dolezal can discard her past identity and take possession of another for whatever reasons she may choose, but for African-Americans, the past cannot be discarded because it isn’t even past. Racial discrimination and hierarchy endures, strengthening and waning with the tides of history, and it can no more be disposed of by those subject to it than it can be seized on as a psychological balm to those never subject to it, like our Ms. Dolezal.

The Rachel Divide concludes with a tease of Rachel Dolezal’s potential epiphanous reversal of her identity delusion. She appears at a government office to change her name, hinting that she may be leaving her notoreity behind for a fresh start in life. The sinking feeling when her Africanized new name – Nkechi Amare Diallo – is revealed wrings out a frustrated sigh that is nonetheless not an expression of surprise. A psychologist might suggest that Dolezal/Diallo’s traumatic experience of abuse in childhood has manifested as a fixed delusion in adulthood, a self-identification that is aspirational but tragically never grounded in prevalent social reality. The Rachel Divide makes it clear that Rachel Dolezal is not merely clinging to an appropriated and inaccurate racial identity, but doing so to prevent herself from plunging into much darker shadows. This does not make her dishonesty excusable, but it does make it more conceivable.

Film Review: Love & Mercy

February 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Love & Mercy (2014; Directed by Bill Pohlad)

A diptych-style two-eras biopic of the Beach Boys’ troubled genius Brian Wilson, Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy has some fine ideas, memorable images, a strong performance or two, and a clear concept of the points it wishes to make about Wilson’s life and work, or more accurately about the forces that stood in the way of him maximizing his outsized artistic potential and exacerbated his pre-existing and often-debilitating mental illness. But the film suffers debilitatingly from the relative weakness of the later and more dramatic of its twinned storylines, and doesn’t possess enough strength in the other narrative to compensate.

Love & Mercy casts two actors as Brian Wilson at two important junctures and crisis points in his life. Paul Dano plays Wilson at the peak of his creative powers in the mid-1960s, crafting the Beach Boys’ now-acclaimed classic album Pet Sounds and its contemporary hit single “Good Vibrations”, despite mounting, LSD-intensified mental problems as well as the criticism and doubts expressed concerning his artistic direction by his collaborators: his limited-vision ex-svengali father Murry (Bill Camp), and even many of his own bandmates, most infamously “one of the biggest assholes in the history of rock & roll”, Mike Love (Jake Abel), whose disdain for Pet Sounds‘ ambitious intended abstract-pop follow-up was purportedly a key factor in Wilson shelving the album indefinitely (he finally finished and released a latter-day recording of Smile in 2004, to great acclaim).

Intercut with the ’60s plotline is a thematically mirroring narrative of Wilson’s life in the 1980s, as a fragile, perma-dazed, but deeply sweet middle-aged Brian (John Cusack) meets car saleswoman and future wife Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who intervenes to extricate him from the destructive, over-medicating, dictatorial controlling influence of his physician and legal guardian Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The ’80s storyline clearly reflects the ’60s one in its focus on the antagonistic male personalities holding Wilson back from getting what he wants: in the ’60s, they keep him from making the music he wants to make and from properly enjoying and profiting from his artistic creations, while in the ’80s, Dr. Landy keeps him from living a happy and free life.

Unfortunately, half of Love & Mercy is a drag on the other. The film is never better than when it has us watch and listen to enervating re-created snatches of the Pet Sounds recording sessions, as Wilson interacts with and conducts musicians while crafting one of the rock era’s pinnacle achievements. Even the interpersonal friction scenes work very well – Abel’s Mike Love makes a nicely dislikable Doubting Thomas, and when Brian tenderly plays a solo demo version of the overwhelmingly gorgeous “God Only Knows” for his father, Murry can only negatively observe that another act released a song by the same name years before – and the whole ’60s storyline is crafted with an inviting Hippie-era California rainbow lustre (Wes Anderson’s cinematographer Robert Yeoman handles the lens) that makes it a far more appealing setting to spend time in.

Meanwhile, the 1980s storyline appears more dried-out, sun-baked, tired, which certainly reflects the state of the older Wilson’s life but fills these scenes with a certain hazy discomfort that even Banks’ indomitable coastal-blonde sunshine cannot penetrate. Giamatti, who specializes in frumpy, hateable scumbags these days after a brief career interregnum of being allowed to convey some measure of empathy as well, contributes to this discomfort; to be fair, he should, given the role he is cast for, but watching him berate the near-helpless Wilson for the unspeakable crime of having a bite of a hamburger trespasses from artistic expressions of discomfort and abuse to pure audience alienation. Most vitally, while a filled-out Dano is a physical dead-ringer for the young Brian Wilson and nails his gradually-dawning mental disquiet and crippling anxiety, Cusack plays him as, well, a confused and brittle but sneakily endearing version of himself, which is far less interesting.

Pohlad (working from a script by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman) attempts to draw his parallel stories together in a bravado dream-montage sequence late in the film. Reflecting Brian Wilson’s fractured psyche and legendary habit of staying in bed all day during his most troubled personal episodes (which inspired a Canadian rock classic), Cusack, Dano, and the director’s son Oliver as Brian in boyhood are intercut lying in an ornate four-poster bed, with Murry, Dr. Landy, Melinda, and others standing at the foot of the bed and speaking to the prone figure. Interspersed, interrupted dialogue drones on the soundtrack alongside warping snatches of Beach Boys songs “In My Room” and “‘Til I Die”, as images of Brian’s childhood and band performances flash in and out. The scene is intended to weave together Love & Mercy‘s bifurcated narratives via the shared threads of their themes, but it’s a burst of technique from a different profile of film and it overloads this one. It does define Love & Mercy aptly as a bundle of strong ideas and well-built and -chosen elements that somehow unravels in final execution.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Film Review: Get on Up

February 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Get on Up (2014; Directed by Tate Taylor)

“Don’t tell me where, when, or for how long I can be funky!” exclaims the Godfather of Soul, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) to a flustered USO officer in late 1960s Vietnam, where Brown and a reduced remnant of his 22-piece band have just landed to perform for American troops rowdily anticipating the music superstar’s arrival. Their plane has come under enemy fire and is forced to land with one engine aflame. Despite Brown’s fondness for incendiary theatrics and grand entrances, he’s not thrilled about the danger he’s been placed in, excoriating the USO man further: “You want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”

This scene, coming very near the start of Get on Up, Tate Taylor’s semi-nonlinear narrative of James Brown’s life and career, taps entertainingly (but fleetingly) into the characteristics that made Brown so great: swaggering, electrifying, death-defying, self-aggrandizing, hilarious, and more than a little dangerous. Unfortunately, Get on Up touches that live wire only briefly, in moments rather than sustainedly. Brown endured and even thrived in his life on the edge for quite a long time, but Get on Up retreats to the safer, stabler environs of musical biopic convention more often than not, despite a blazing central performance from its star Boseman and gestures towards an artfully fragmented narrative and metaphoric structure.

Taylor’s cinematic narrative of Brown’s life (from a script by brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) generally progresses chronologically along his common-enough rise from rags to riches, filthy anonimity to blazing fame in the burgeoning 1960s popular music world. Brown came from dirt-poor beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s South; there he is abandoned by his mother Susie (Viola Davis), beaten and then traded off on relatives by his Army-bound father Joseph (Lennie James), and inculcated into performance by the charismatic local preacher of the ecstatic African-American church and at the brothel run by his Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer). Possessed with a keen eye for maintaining a swag appearance from a young age, James Brown filches a fine pair of shoes from a lynched corpse (the film’s rare and thus conspicuous nod to the reality of mortal terror for black people in Brown’s younger days) and is later thrown in prison at 17 years of age for stealing a man’s suit.

There, James Brown’s easy charm and evident talent catches the eye of visiting gospel singing group leader Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis), whose family sponsors Brown for his parole. The two men become key allies through the gradual but boiling rise in fortune to come, first with Byrd’s group the Famous Flames and then under the later concert-hall-owning band fronted by Brown. Managed by wily industry vet Ben Bart (a nice supporting role for Dan Aykroyd, who had Brown himself as a guest performer in Blues Brothers), Brown’s odyssey winds through showstopping performances, creative and business trailblazing, identity crises, political tensions, personal struggle and change, and Brown’s legendary volatility and reputation for difficulty.

The latter fraught aspect of his identity receives a strong push, as Brown is shown clashing with his talented band (his lead saxophonist Maceo Parker, played by Craig Robinson, is in consistent conflict with him in the film), smacking his second wife Dee-Dee (Jill Scott) around for slight perceived offenses, and eventually breaking with longtime collaborator Byrd. Taylor prefaces his film with Brown’s dangerous unpredictability, opening with a scene depicting a dramatic and notorious episode of Brown’s well-known behavioural troubles (no, not that time he allegedly struck singer Tammi Terrell with a hammer, nor any of his drug arrests): a 1988 incident involving firearm discharge and armed threats at his Augusta, Georgia offices.

Get on Up is primarily focused on Brown and Byrd’s relationship, at times a partnership of equals but increasingly a hierarchical arrangement with the mercurial Brown as petty dictator. Their interactions and stubborn friendship, one supposes, are intended to reveal something essential in Brown’s character, something deeper and less guarded than the direct, fourth-wall-breaking, narrator-like statements about his career and life that Boseman’s Brown makes to the camera. I’m not sure it does tell us much about James Brown’s soul, ultimately.

It hardly helps that Brown’s idiosyncratic political views – he believed fiercely in black pride and self-determination, but supported and expressed admiration for U.S. politicians as diverse as Democrats Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy as well as Republican President Richard Nixon, to say nothing of his high regard for segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond – get distinctly short shrift. These are reduced to his aggressively neutral peacekeeping during a tense Boston concert after the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and inviting black school children to sing on the recording of “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud”, trading the ski chalet sweater he donned for a white-audience-aimed Frankie Avalon Show performance earlier on for politically-conscious African-style garb in the process. Far more running time and effort is spent detailing how he and Bart broke the concert promoter cartels by using local independent radio to drum up interest in his shows, or his innovations of the rhythmic grooves that would define funk (and later hip-hop and modern R&B, genres that would sample his music extensively). The implication, and not an inaccurate one, is that for James Brown, laying down the funk was itself as profound a political act as he could envision or enact. Anything else was mere electoral theatre.

Questionable thematic balance aside, Boseman is spectacular as Brown, nailing the small details of his dancing, his impassioned vocals (though Boseman doesn’t do all of the singing), his volatile swagger, his gravelly seductive Southern bark of a speaking voice, his swelling pride and confidence. One might nitpick that Boseman doesn’t vanish utterly into the role as, say, Jamie Foxx did as Ray Charles in Ray, or that the lean six-foot-tall actor can’t truly approximate the physical impact of the compact, muscular five-and-a-half-foot-tall Mr. Dynamite, imparting a sense of flowing grace to a performer who was much more an explosive dynamo of demon energy.

As good as Boseman is and as entertaining and even insightful as Get on Up can be (young James’ dream-fantasy encounter with the sweaty, movement-heavy African-American church congregation is especially effective in establishing a recognizable model for his stage persona), the cocksure promise of that Vietnam scene is never quite delivered upon. For all of its gestures towards fragmented non-linearality and metaphorical illustrations of James Brown’s peculiar genius, appeal, and faults, Get on Up skews consistently and with mounting disappointment towards tired musical biopic cliches. Like Taylor’s 2011 Oscar fave The Help, Get on Up can tip into the uneasy feeling of a patronizing white-centric depiction of African-American culture when it isn’t inordinately careful. It won’t go down in history as the movie that killed the funk, but it’s hard to say that it doesn’t water it down more than one might have wished.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews

Music and Images of Special Magnificence: Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring In Concert

December 3, 2016 2 comments

First performed in 2008, the live symphony orchestra performance of Howard Shore’s Oscar-winning musical score for the first film of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogyThe Fellowship of the Ring, has come to the composer’s hometown of Toronto for the first time. The score is performed live by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, two full choirs, and soloists, and is conducted by Ludwig Wicki, whose Switzerland-based 21st Century Symphony Orchestra was the first to play Shore’s classic score live in concert with the projected film and who has toured the world in the years since conducting globally-renowned orchestras. Working closely with Shore (as he has with many other major film composers on similar projects), Wicki has trained himself to conduct his musicians and singers to the film’s cues themselves, presenting a seemless aural and visual experience in top-notch orchestral halls around the globe.

I haven’t the trained music-writing expertise to comment knowledgeably on Shore’s compositions or the specific performance of them by the TSO itself. Music writer Doug Adams does have that expertise, and has demonstrated it in his book The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films (excerpts from which can be read in the TSO’s program for the concerts, downloadable from their website). For a more easily digestable analysis of Howard Shore’s use of themes or fellowshipinconcertleitmotifs in his Rings scores, check out this excellent video essay by the “Nerdwriter”, Evan Puschak.

I can only scratch at the surface of their superior analyses, but scratch I will. The Fellowship of the Ring is my favourite film of Jackson’s trilogy, and really, my favourite film period; I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, but the TSO viewing was probably somewhere in the twenties. There is much to love about it, from the masterful cinematic storytelling to the committed performances (Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, of course, but also Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, Sean Bean’s doomed Boromir, and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd as the poised clownish hobbits, Merry and Pippin) to the impressive totality of its visual design and execution. But as time has passed and initial passion has turned to enduring appreciation, it has become more evident that Howard Shore’s music might be the best thing about Fellowship as well as its sequels.

Shore’s music is remarkable varied and often rousing and magnificent in its own right, but the way it melds with Jackson’s filmic images, supplementing and amplifying the moods, tones, and meanings onscreen, is what makes it special. In live concert performance alongside those images, the score’s great transcendent success in this role is particular emphasized, granting a symphonic grandeur and flow to Jackson’s film in collaboration with its composition, camera movement and motion inside frame, colour, and editing.

The effect was always evident in Fellowship‘s highlight sequences. Look at Arwen’s flight to the Ford of Bruinen, astride a galloping white horse, safeguarding a mortally wounded Frodo from the black-clad and black-steeded Ringwraiths in pursuit of the One Ring that he carries: shot and edited with pulse-pounding exhiliration, Shore’s music drives and expands the pace of perhaps the most exciting riding sequence in film history. Or the Bridge of Khazad-dûm sequence, the relentless deep rhythms and staccato male choir Dwarvish chants soundtracking a desperate chase through the carved caverns of Moria and portending Gandalf’s fall into shadow, which is gorgeously lamented by a boy soprano solo.

This contrast of deep and harsh with high and ethereal, a hallmark theme and tone of Jackson’s film, is perhaps most memorably imparted in Fellowship‘s most resonant visual metaphor: a craning wide shot from above of the grim industrialized pits of Saruman’s stronghold of Isengard scored by a cruel mechanical march, suddenly interrupted by the delicate naturalistic hope of a fluttering moth scored by an elegiac, angelic vocal solo. Even seemingly incidental sequences of narrative advancement become streams of artistry when Jackson’s imagery and Score’s music work effortlessly together: witness the intercutting of the Fellowship travelling down the River Anduin out of Lothlorien with Saruman’s Uruk-Hai strike force thundering through the woods after them.

Shore and Jackson even reach into film music history to heighten the effect of the trilogy’s battle scenes. Watch and listen to the lead-up to the battle in Balin’s Tomb in Moria. Notice how Shore’s music picks up pace and timbre as the Fellowship are confronted with signs of impending attack and prepare to fight for their lives, building to a crescendo as the two forces collide and then dropping away entirely to be replaced by the brutal cacophony of clashing steel and battle cries, the symphony of hand-to-hand death? This is a direct borrowing from/homage to the Battle on the Ice from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky, with music by Sergei Prokofiev likewise climaxing and then dropping away at the moment of joined battle. Jackson liked the effect so much that he repeated it in The Two Towers (the Warg attack sequence) and The Return of the King (the Rohirrim charging the Haradrim’s war oliphaunts at the Battle of Pelennor Fields).

Howard Shore mixed diverse influences from centuries of music (from Romantic opera like Wagner to the abstract dissonance of 20th-century composition) to create a memorable score for a memorable film, and witnessing his music in live performance with the movie further entrenches both score and film as impressive and moving modern works of art of vision and grandeur.

Categories: Culture, Film, Music