Wednesday, February 28, 2007
March 20th will see the re-release of one of the most important catalogues in popular music. Long either out of print or only available with inferior sound quality, the Sly And The Family Stone catalogue has long needed an overhaul. The original seven blistering albums include A Whole New Thing, Dance To The Music, Life, Stand, There's a Riot Goin On, Fresh and Small Talk. No word yet on the final two albums he recorded later. The upcoming releases are all to be completely re-mastered with significant liner notes and bonus tracks. They will be available at a budget price for just a limited time and a box-set containing all of the discs will also be released for only around seventy bucks.
Alternately one of the most triumphant and tragic of all rock visionaries Sly Stone's music only improves with age. Everything from the celebratory nature of Dance To The Music to the dark paranoia of There's A Riot Goin On stands as some of the best soul, funk and rock ever recorded. The undervalued Fresh and Small Talk warrant a special note as they contain some of the greatest and least heard music Sly ever recorded.
Give thanks by buying these important releases and pay tribute to a man that broke down barriers in race and music and broke himself in the process. Let him know he's still loved, rock's greatest lost prophet might just have a few surprise notes left up his sleeve.
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
There was something surreal about seeing Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola give Martin Scorsese his long overdue Oscar the other night. While I am not a huge Lucas or Spielberg fan there is no denying their monumental importance to film and seeing this group together again was pretty inspiring. I felt it was pretty obvious that Scorsese was going to win when those three walked out on the stage; so upon their introduction where Lucas joked that that he was the only one who hadn't won an oscar I found myself thinking about a photograph I had seen years before and about a guy who has never even been nominated for an Academy Award.
I have never been able to comprehend peoples disdain for Brian De Palma. De Palma's films along with Scorseses and Coppolas shaped my youth as no other American filmmaker did, and yet many people continue to have an overwhelming hatred for De Palma's body of work.
The complaints against De Palma have almost always been the same and have almost always been unsatisfactory to me. The biggest one is the misogynistic claim that has constantly been thrown at him. I have always had the hardest time swallowing this one as it is hard to think of another modern American director who has continually worked with such strong women in his films. De Palma's 'golden' age between Sisters and Scarface presented us with some of the most effective work by actresses in that incredible period. From Margot Kidder in Sisters through Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface De Palma had an amazing skill at photographing, directing and bringing out the best of his leading ladies. Sissy Spacek remains the most famous De Palma heroine in Carrie but one shouldn't overlook the work of Amy Irving and Nancy Allen in these films. I would hold Amy Irving's work in The Fury among the great performances of the seventies and Nancy Allen brought such an immeasurable presence to De Palma's cinema that it is impossible to imagine these films without her.
The other criticisms have always been the same: too violent, too stylized, too Hitchcockian....too much. I honestly think that many 'film' lovers are actually scared of cinema, and the possibilities of it. De Palma is one of the most cinematic of all directors, this man loves film and he loves what he can do with it. More than any of his peers De Palma has been able to create a body of work that is itself in love with cinema, but it is also a body of work that has an emotional resonance that many continue to deny. For all of the audacious camera work, split screens, slow motion, deep focus and long tracking shots many of my favorite De Palma moments are more intensely personal shots. Travolta in the last scene of Blow-Out, Pacino standing in the rain in Carlito's Way watching Penelope Ann Miller through the window, the look on Amy Irving's face right before the climax of The Fury. De Palma isn't afraid to be as human as he is stylish, and it is the emotional weight that his greatest films carry, along with his undeniably power as a technician, that allows these films to endure more and more year after year.
I plan on writing more in the future on De Palma, I can't imagine my life as a movie lover without his films. Also this man can still deliver, seeing Femme Fatale a few years back was one of the most invigorating, and emotional, experiences I have ever had in a theater.
Brian De Palma will probably never even get nominated for an Academy Award and I am sure it didn't cross anyone else's mind that he was missing from that group the other night. His critics have always tried to push him to the margins and yet his work continues to thrive. People keep discovering his films, gloating web-sites continue to appear and for people like me that have loved his work for so many years, we continue to find the answer as to why we love cinema in his greatest films.
Monday, February 26, 2007
The botched tribute to Morricone was enough to spoil my night but the Academy not mentioning these three fine actresses we lost this past year was unforgivable. So let's take a moment to remember Candice Rialson, Tina Aumont and Adrienne Shelly.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
An absolutely mind-blowing extended live performance of Listen To The Band from The Monkees historic 33 1/3 Revolutions special.
It is a travesty that the Monkees are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One of the bravest and most important bands of the sixties that went from manufactured glory to near avant-garde brilliance in the space of just a couple of years. Live they would become a powerful, and at times savage, unit and from the beginning they crafted many of the most perfect songs of the sixties. Songs that would affect generations and influence country rock, punk, pop and alternative music.
While it is hard to call anything other than the magical Daydream Believer/Goin Down the Monkees best single, their most overlooked remains the startling Michael Nesmith composition Listen To The Band. Hitting a dismal 63 on 1969's pop charts, it would mark The Monkees last stab at greatness and the band would splinter apart soon after.
Anyone questioning the genius of Michael Nesmith should sit down and listen to any studio or live rendition of Listen To The Band. An anthemic, experimental ode fuelled by a powerful horn section and one of the most infectious choruses of the sixties. Nesmith's plea to just listen to the band followed by the resolution to 'make it alone' sums up not only the strange and undervalued odyssey of The Monkees but also of the sixties themselves. Recorded the same year as the Manson murders the song would give call to the splintering of an entire generation. The 'togetherness' of the sixties would turn into the more introspective and isolated seventies. Listen To The Band is a lament as well as a celebration to the decade that was being left behind, as well as a look forward to the next one just around the corner.
The double A sided single also featured the undervalued Nichols/Williams track Someday Man, a sly answer to The Beatles Nowhere Man. Someday Man would chart even worse than Listen To The Band but remains a perfect little pop song with a great Davy Jones vocal track.
Many people will always consider The Monkees a joke, these are typically the same people who ignore the fact that everyone from The Mamas and Papas to The Beatles at times used studio musicians on their sessions. For the more adventurous The Monkees remain one of the true treasures that came out of the sixties, four very talented young men who refused to rest on the image that had been created for them.
I saw Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones several years back in Louisville and it was a powerful show, at a zoo no less, with the medley of Porpoise Song and Listen To The Band proving the most explosive moment.
Fans of the band will know of what I speak but for those who have always treated The Monkees with disdain, for gods sake, listen to this band.
Look among every decades most popular and respected films and you will find countless films that fall between the cracks. Some will eventually get rediscovered while others will just sit dormant, literally dissolving, until they disappear forever. The 1970's seem to have an unlimited supply of films from all over the world that are continually getting re-discovered by a new generation of film fans. Genre films seem to hold the most mystery and continually provide the biggest thrill among fans hungry for something unique and valuable.
Luigi Bazzoni is a writer and director who has relatively few films to his credits. The two most well known would be the films he made with Franco Nero in 1968 and 1971, the Euro-Western Man Pride and Vengeance and the giallo The Fifth Cord. 1975 would see Bazzoni deliver a film that has to my knowledge never been released anywhere on DVD and at this point grey market copies are all that are available.
Entitled Le Orme, but also known as Footprints on The Moon and Primal Impulse, this odd little film features one of Florinda Bolkan's finest performances and remains one of the more impenetrable films of the seventies. The plot recalls, at times, Robbe-Grillet's Last Year at Marienbad and would look forward to the underrated Astronaut's Wife. It tells the story of a translator named Alice, played beautifully by Bolkan, who loses three days of her life. The film follows her attempts to discover what happened to her in those three days and she is led to a mysterious hotel in the town of Garma. Here she meets several people, including young Nicoletta Elmi in one of her best roles, who remember her either as Alice or a mysterious 'Nicole'.
Throughout the film we are presented with a strange reoccurring dream that Alice keeps having. The dream is of an astronaut who, in a experiment by the government, was left behind on the moon. Alice remembers this as a scene from a film, entitled Footprints on the Moon, that she saw years before. Bazzoni directs this film with an extreme confidence and he leads us slowly through to a conclusion that is as odd as we expect it will be. He uses many long and slow tracking shots that give the film an incredibly lonely and isolated feel.
The film's most brilliant move is the visual comparisons between the beach in Garma that Alice is drawn to and the landscape of the moon she keeps dreaming of. Le Orme was based on a novel by Mario Fanelli and he is credited as the co-screenwriter (sometimes even as co-director) with Bazzoni. I would be most interested to read the book, as the film feels more like a short story or perhaps even a longer prose poem.
One of the film's biggest selling points is the cinematography by none other than Vittorio Storaro, who would shoot this film right before his work on Bertolucci's 1900. The film's blue and near black and white moon shots match perfectly the disconnection Alice is having from the world around her. One of the film's most striking images is the hotel room with a colorful oriental style peacock panel as the splash of colors this provides will have special significance towards the end of the film.
Bolkan, as stated previously, gives another one of her trademark intense performances. We believe her every step of the way and the film's final moments might be ridiculous if it weren't for Florinda's dedication and believability. Nicoletta Elmi has one of her largest roles and that alone makes the film notable for Italian film fans. Followers of Italian cinema will recognize Evelyn Stewart who appears briefly and Klaus Kinski also has a small role as the government scientist. Nicola Piovani provides the fine score, which recalls at times his work on Perfume Of A Lady In Black. It isn't one of his most haunting works but I would be curious to know if it was ever available on record.
Talented director Luigi Bazzoni wouldn't shoot another film for another twenty years, and when he finally followed up Le Orme it was with a documentary. To this day, Le Orme is the final fictional feature film from Bazzoni, a fact that marks him as one of the most mysterious Italian directors of the seventies.
Le Orme is another one of those films deserving to be seen by more people. Perhaps flawed and overly ambitious at times, it remains one of the most unique and overlooked Italian films from the seventies. Seek it out and see if you can unravel its mystery.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Long undervalued as one of the great beauties and most diverse actresses of the seventies, Margot Kidder and several of her films have continued to endure all these years later.
Many people who grew up in the seventies fell in love with Margot as Lois Lane in the Superman films. It is a part that she will always be connected to, I couldn't even see the newest Superman film because I already had my Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
Margot started her career in the late sixties in Gaily Gaily and has appeared in well over 100 films and tv shows since then. A dedicated worker who has survived more blows than most of us could even began to handle, Margot is working on several projects in the next year alone.
The earliest role that she had, that is among my favorites, is her part as the American student Zarel in the underrated 1970 Gene Wilder film Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx. Fortune is one of the sweetest films and characters from the early seventies and its tragi-comic feel has stuck with me for many years. Margot is breathtaking as the selfish young student who romances and ultimately abandons Quackser. I have read reports that Margot wasn't happy on this set which is a shame because I think this is such a wonderful little film and it features one of the great Wilder's finest performances.
Margot would continue with many film and tv roles before scoring the starring role in her friend Brian De Palma's classic Sisters from 1973. De Palma's triumphant film features perhaps Margot's best performance, as a schizophrenic Siamese twin. It is a tricky role that would have become strictly camp in a lesser actresses hands but Margot handles it beautifully and injects the part with much more humanity and realism than most genre films are accustomed to. Margot would start the ball rolling for De Palma and lead the way for the great work he would do later in the decade with everyone from Amy Irving to Nancy Allen.
Margot would score another horror hit a year later with the influential Black Christmas. Along with Mario Bava's Twitch Of The Death Nerve, Bob Clark's Black Christmas remains one of the most copied horror films ever made. A virtual blueprint for John Carpenter's Halloween, this Canadian shocker would give us one of Margot's most most entertaining roles. As the foul mouthed and sexy Barbie, Margot easily stole every scene she was in (not easy when you are working with everyone from Olivia Hussey to John Saxon) and she looks like she was having a ball doing it. This stylish thriller is now available in yet another dvd edition, this time featuring an interview with Margot recalling her time making it.
The hard to find Reincarnation of Peter Proud is one of many spooky seventies films that has slipped under the radar. I still have fond memories of seeing this film on tv years ago and have hoped for a DVD release but one has still yet to be announced.
More tv work would follow before Margot would land the role that would grant her immortality and would send her into the dreams of every teenager in the seventies. Many actresses have played Lois Lane but none ever inhabited that iconic character with as much charm and charisma as Margot. Perhaps it is a generational thing but for me she is the one and only Lois Lane.
The recent re-releases of the Superman films show clearly how important Margot was to their success and as her involvement became lessened the films suffered. Still the first two are grand entertainments and the chemistry she shared with the great Christopher Reeve affected an entire generation.
Margot would become a bona fide superstar in between the first two Superman films and her great appearances on Saturday Night Live and her Rolling Stone cover story added to her allure. While 1979's Amityville Horror isn't a great film by any means it remains one that many people, including myself, enjoy revisiting. Perhaps it is more nostalgia than anything else but the film and Margot in it retain a certain power.
The 1980's would find Margot in many good performances in mostly flawed films like Heartaches, Some Kind Of Hero and Trenchcoat. Her tv work also continued, including an interesting remake of Bus Stop.
Her peak was that period in the seventies when she was at the height of her beauty and at her most powerful as an actress. My heart has continually gone out to her through her troubles in the past couple of decades and I've been so proud to see her always emerge as a strong and dignified woman who seems incapable of giving up. She has become a great character actress and wonderful role model, we should all be so blessed to have just half her strength.
Two of rock's most famous visionaries joined up earlier this week, at New York's Joe's Pub, for a historic set. Just after Midnight Lou Reed walked out for the conclusion of Pete Townshend's set and they performed three of Lou's most legendary tunes together. The three songs performed were Waitin' For The Man, White Light White Heat and Pale Blue Eyes. The founders of The Who and The Velvet Underground teamed up on vocals and guitars and they were also joined by Dinosaur Jr. leader J. Mascis.
Well over a decade ago Lou Reed appeared at a tribute to Townshend, performing a song off Psychoderelict but this marked the first time they had ever played together.
This performance is scheduled to be posted at http://towsertv.petetownshend.co.uk/ sometime Monday, for those who would like to see it. I can't wait and am grateful this was recorded.
Two giants and two of my heroes, hope the crowd there realized how fortunate they were.
"Ah. I love Lou Reed, but I'm not sure I ever did what he did. I think Lou deals with earthly themes, [whereas] I deal more with wishy washy abstracts! A literary model for me would probably be someone like Herman Hesse crossed with Somerset Maugham. The story is there, but I tend to try to work around it for some reason. Where my songs land in the neighborhood, which rock really demands, they [also] land in a general reflection of a group, a team, a gang, a small society. Lou is like an Elmore Leonard crossed with Charles Bukowski - he's actually better than both of them in my opinion. His story is often a neighborhood moment. He captures a specific, a color, the nature of a feeling. Lou is actually perfect pop. Just perfect sometimes.
-Pete being interviewed by The Independent late last year-
UPDATE: The streaming video is now available at the link above. The performance with Lou and Pete is sublime. They mesh together perfectly and it is amazing that Lou continues to find something new and inventive to say with these songs year after year. The two are clearly having a great time playing together and the mutual admiration is obvious. Chill inducing stuff, don't miss it.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
There are many TV shows being released on dvd in the coming months but none have the historical value of Shout Factory's upcoming 4 Disc box set of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
A true television and rock music milestone, this will mark the first time that some original uncut episodes will be released on disc. The market has been saturated with public domain copies for years of varying quality but due to copyright reasons these were missing Ricky Nelson's songs.
This will not be a complete season set, I expect those in the future though, but will be a best of 24 episode collection. The Nelson family, specifically Rick's younger son Sam, is helping with this release. The episodes will be remastered and will feature audio commentaries, home movies, a featurette and more.
I haven't written about Rick Nelson as of yet on this blog but I consider him one of the greats from his early rockabilly work to his pioneering country rock sides. He remains one of popular musics most misunderstood and underrated icons.
The songs Rick would sing at the end of certain episodes from 57 on would mark the first time many homes would let rock and roll in and the smoking guitar work of James Burton would affect many future musicians, a certain Lou Reed has repeatedly said that seeing these shows had an enormous impact on him.
The shows impact on television history would also be significant, influencing everything from Seinfeld, variety shows and pretty much any family comedy you can name.
Mark your calendars for the May 1st return of a very sweet, endearing and important part of television and music history.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
It was with much trepidation that I went and saw George Hickenlooper's Factory Girl last night. When I first heard about this film, which seems like years ago, I was extremely excited mostly because of the casting of Sienna Miller. My initial thought I had the first time I saw Sienna Miller was that she beared an uncanny resemblance to Edie, so at least the casting was right.
The most positive things I can say about Factory Girl all concern Sienna Miller. She gives a rich and fascinating performance that makes Edie Sedgwick human and very real. She was born to play this part, unfortunately George Hickenlooper was not born to direct it.
Factory Girl, at only 90 minutes, covers a very small portion of Edie's life. With the exception of some flashbacks it ignores the childhood which emotionally scarred her and the monster of a father who molested her. This is mentioned in passing but Hickenlooper fails to give the importance to her early years that they deserved. Also nearly totally left out is the fascinating last few years of Edie's life, which in many ways is more interesting than her years with Warhol. We are shown throughout the film Sienna as Edie talking to a psychiatrist about her time in New York but her marriage is only mentioned briefly at the end and her final film Ciao Manhattan is never mentioned.
I realize this film is obviously centered on Edie's years with Warhol but leaving Ciao Manhattan out of the mix is an incredible mistake. The film remains one of the major legacies of Edie Sedgwick's career and life and the absence of even a mention is suspect.
The first half of the film is the strongest, for awhile it seems like Hickenlooper is going to allow Andy Warhol to be human and the early scenes between Andy and Edie are at times touching. Guy Pierce gives a wonderful performance as Warhol but as the film progresses the screenplay and direction lets Pierce and Warhol down. Warhol is presented as a total blank shell at the end and the audience is never told of the assignation attempt that would shatter his psyche and close him off from the sixties.
Warhol was well known as a prodigious worker but mostly in Factory Girl we just see him lying around and we are never given the idea of just how much work this man put out in the sixties. The factory itself is also done very poorly, we just see the same six or seven people lying around over and over again. Hickenlooper as managed to do the near impossible, he has made the factory and the sixties seem pretty boring.
Hickenlooper plays fast and loose with the facts, even going so far as to blatantly change things that we have footage of like interviews and Warhol's films. I realize, of course, that dramatic license has its place but Hickenlooper's disregard for the facts, or even something resembling them, is disturbing.
The Velvet Underground is shown coming in after Edie leaves the factory(one of the film's many WTF moments) and outside of a couple of brief performance clips they are not mentioned. The film's soundtrack is also a bizarre mix of mostly questionable songs but the inclusion of Tim Hardin's haunting Red Balloon is a welcome one.
The film's biggest flaw is the bizarre 'musician' character who is clearly Bob Dylan. Hayden Christensen gives one of the worst performances I have seen in a long time, portraying Dylan as a egotistical shallow bore. It is probably more of Hickenlooper and the screenwriters fault rather than Christensen but all of his scenes are wince inducing. I have no doubt that the relationship between Bob Dylan and Edie Sedgwick was a complex one but this film's portrayal of it is laughable and damaging to all of those involved. Hickenlooper can say what he will but it all comes down to the fact that Dylan (or his image) has a bigger marquee value than say Bob Neuwirth or anybody else who had a bigger impact on Edie Sedgwick. The whole Dylan segment feels like a board room discussion, 'hey let's let Bob Dylan break her heart and everything will make sense'.
Well life doesn't make sense, not yours, mine or Edie Sedgwicks. Hickenlooper would like to convince us that we should blame Bob Dylan or Andy Warhol for Edie Sedgwick's disintegration but the truth is a lot deeper than this film is willing to go.
As I was watching this film I wondered what people who didn't know anything about Edie, Warhol, The Factory, the sixties or even Bob Dylan would take from it. Perhaps that bothered me more than anything else, I have immersed myself with this stuff for almost twenty years but I feel for newcomers who will be sucked into Hickenlooper's limited view.
Someone else should make a film about Edie Sedgwick and Sienna Miller should play her again. Sienna gives a brilliantly moving performance that makes a very flawed and at times corrupt film watchable. It's a performance that is filled with love for Edie Sedgwick and the period that she helped shape, unfortunately she is being filmed by a man who apparently detests both.
Watch Factory Girl for an incredible lead performance and then go and buy the books Girl on Fire and Edie, search down Warhol's incredible films, listen to The Velvet Underground and watch Ciao Manhattan for the real Edie Sedgwick.
"I read that script, it's one of the most disgusting, foul things I've ever seen...by any illiterate retard...in a long time. There's no limit to how low some people will go to write something to make money". -Lou Reed-
Sunday, February 18, 2007
The Rolling Stones intense We Love You is one of their great A-sides and also one of their most unknown. Peaking at just 50 upon its 1967 release in the States and only available on a small number of Stones collections, it remains one of their strangest and most personal works.
1967 had been an incredibly hard year for The Rolling Stones. Decreased record sales, the failing health of Brian Jones who would be dead within a year, drugs and the arrest of Keith, Mick and Marianne Faithfull had sent the band into a darkening downward spiral.
We Love You was recorded quickly, following the release of Mick and Keith from jail, after a particularly messy trial. From the opening sound of the jail cell door closing to the psychotic psychedelic sound that would prove so influential, We Love You is one of the most uncommon and uncompromising Stones singles. It's strange lyrics seemed to thank their fans and supporters but a deeper look reveals a bitter anti-establishment stab at the British government and authorities.
The Who had began covering Rolling Stones songs as singles as a protest to the arrests of Jagger and Richards and they weren't alone in feeling like the Stones were being made examples of. The Beatles were paying particular attention and if you listen close you can hear Lennon and McCartney singing background throughout We Love You.
The single would serve as notice to The Stones next album, the controversial and poorly received Their Satanic Majesties Request. Majesties has since gone on to influence countless bands ranging from Sonic Youth to The Flaming Lips. A band like Brian Jonestown Massacre and singer Miranda Lee Richardson would be unthinkable without Majesties dark and evil sounding psychedelia.
The b-side of We Love You, Dandelion, is another one of the Stones great moments and has become a much better known song. Dandelion would prove to be one of the lighter and more sublime moments on The Satanic Majesties Request and has appeared on countless best of collections. Keith Richards likes the song so much that he even named one of his children after it.
1968 would see The Stones making an impressive comeback, with the astonishing one-two punch of Jumping Jack Flash and Beggar's Banquet. 68 would mark the beginning of a five year run in which The Stones would lay to waste every other band in the world and would live up to their title as the greatest rock band ever.
Some of their most interesting music though would be made in their darkest year of 1967 when seemingly the world was against them. The We Love You/Dandelion 45 is a tribute to the power of the single and a reminder of just how experimental and audacious The Stones can be.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Philippe Garrell and Nico in 1972's The Inner Scar. Nico would star in, provide dialogue and compose the music (available on the Desertshore album). Garrell would write, direct and co-star in it. Pierre Clementi would also appear.
Click over to http://www.knkmusic.net/ for a splendid free download of Nico live at Ronnie Scotts. One of the better later live recordings I have heard by her.
Friday, February 16, 2007
We need to be a little kinder to the few remaining popular music geniuses we have. We are running seriously low these days, perhaps the sixties and seventies spoiled us. Looking back at those decades it was like a new one was popping up out of Britain, France or America every other week. Since that moment when Elvis Presley first starting singing "That's All Right" in between takes with Scotty Moore and Bill Black joining in it seemed like we would never run out of people who would really be willing to take a chance. But in the past ten years it has begun to happen. Every year brings new talent but the true visionary is dying out. Perhaps it was inevitable, I mean how much can you do with sound in popular music?
David Holmes is these days best known as a top soundtrack composer, and why not? His scores for Out Of Sight, Oceans Eleven and Oceans Twelve among others have provided some of the most thrilling music of the past decade. The popularity of his film scores has unfortunately overshadowed his solo work as well as his powerful funk group The Free Association. At this date nearly all of his most innovative and influential music has slipped out of print in the States. Much like The Velvet Underground, Big Star and countless other under appreciated in their times acts, his work now resides in cut out and used record store bins. Check those 99 cent bins carefully next time you are at your favorite record haunt, you might just find something that will change your life.
David Holmes has had two big strikes against him in the rock community. Anytime the words DJ and Dance are mentioned many rock fans will recoil away in horror. It is there loss, since the sixties much dance music has at times been the most innovative around, but wait David Holmes doesn't perform typical dance music. The there is the DJ moniker, and an Irish DJ no less. Holmes did start out his career as a club DJ, and still spins on occasion, but his eclectic mixes would alienate as many clubbers as those that he would turn on. So, David Holmes isn't your typical DJ. Actually he isn't your typical anything which is one thing that adds to his allure, even his soundtrack work differs from most composers who only want their work featured. One of Holmes most enduring characteristics is his love for his record collection, and his need to bring it to us.
After Djing in his native Belfast as a teenager Holmes recorded his first album, The Films Crap Lets Slash The Seats, in 1995. He was 26 years old and the double cd films inspired set was well received but it was overlong and remains Holmes' least essential work. He would get some producing and remixing jobs from it though and he would soon start to plan the follow up.
After the death of Sarah Veronica Holmes, whom his second album would be dedicated to, Holmes wound up Djing in New York City. Inspired by the city and especially the people in it Holmes got the idea to start recording conversations on his daily walks through the New York streets. These snatches of colorful conversations would provide the genesis for the album he was getting ready to record, the first of his decade long string of masterpieces, 1997's Let's Get Killed.
Many albums have featured samples of found conversation but none have ever sounded like Let's Get Killed. In fact Holmes second album really doesn't sound like anything else. While it was recorded ten years ago, it sounds like something that is going to be recorded in about twenty years from now.
The album begins with a track entitled "Listen, 49 seconds of Street Noise" and an anonymous New Yorker telling us why New York is the greatest city on earth. "Listen", without a break goes directly into the single, "My Mate Paul". This track is one of the least groundbreaking on the album but it has a nice dub progressed sound scape that lasts for over five minutes. All of Holmes work is cinematic in nature and this is obviously the albums opening credits, the sampled drum loop that plays throughout is particularly nice. Holmes continually messes with the drum's time signature, giving the song a dizzying feel. It sounds repetitive at first but further listen s reveal a very complex track that Holmes has built from a variety of sources that would undergo many transformations on future remixes.
The title track is next and here we are presented with our first snatched conversation. The track has a chilling film noir feel to it and the violent narration is carried through by a propulsive drum pattern. It's here that the album really begins to take shape as Holmes begin to throw in a barrage of sound effects and samples.
The classic "Gritty Shaker" follows, one of Holmes signature tracks and another single off the album. More traffic noise and this time dialogue from what sounds like a street psychic rambling on about money, sex and past presidents. It's the kind of dialogue that can't be written, it is too naturally shambolic and features the great line, "I advise you to become a lawyer because you are going to have to represent yourself some day."
The delightful "Gritty Shaker" flows directly into the rap of "Head Rush On Lafayette", made entirely out of a frantic drum pattern and a rhyme that sounds like something off of a Last Poets album.
One of the more mellow moments on the record follows. Entitled "Rodney Yates" and resembling his later soundtrack work on Oceans Eleven, this track features incredible guitar work by Keith Tenniswood and a lovely Holmes Synth track that is reminiscent of Eno. It is one of the most ambient feeling of all the tracks but it never loses it's groove. One of Holmes' great moments.
The next track is one of Holmes most audacious moments. Beginning with an argument over who is the best, John Shaft or James Bond. Coming right off the immortal line, "James Bond was Hispanic" Holmes rips into his own version of the immortal Bond theme. A completely retooled masterwork of one of the most famous themes on earth. Samples come in and out but it's the crazed Samba like feel that takes the track over the edge. Much better than Paul Okenfield's later commissioned James Bond remix, this track smokes and is a splendid tribute to the Bond films that Holmes loved so much as a youth in Ireland.
More dialogue in "The Parcus and Madder Show" is followed by a track that would have been right at home of Sandinista by The Clash, "Slasher's Revenge". A top dub track that still has echoes of the Bond theme, like us Holmes can't quite get it out of his head.
"Freaknik", with it's opening dialogue of a guy just thrown out of a downtown punk club, is one of the only sort of dance tracks on the record. Holmes can't resist challenging expectations though as he continues to play start-stop with the rhythm.
"Caddell Returns" opens with a junkie lamenting about all of the drugs he has taken and ends with, "I can't even tell you what day it is." One of the most soulful spots on the album and predicting the future Free Association project that Holmes would throw himself into later. The Bond theme comes back in again briefly and then suddenly the album shifts into one of the most beautiful moments Holmes has ever put onto vinyl, with a sample of Patti Smith's "Easter". It's a dramatic, haunting turn where we hear Holmes tipping his hat to one of New York's finest. It's also a reminder of why Holmes pissed so many people off in the club world, whether it was closing his sets with Elvis Presley's "If I Can Dream" or sampling one of Patti Smith's most tender moments, he was never willing to pander to expectations. This is a guy who will beyond all else, always deliver the unexpected.
The album's, and David Holmes, most jaw dropping moment is the penultimate track. Entitled "Don't Die Just Yet", Holmes deliverers and audacious reworking of the legendary "Cargo Culte" off Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire De Melody Nelson. This was the first time many people would have heard this remarkable piece of music as most hipsters and music lovers were just starting to immerse themselves in the legend of Gainsbourg. Holmes delivers us a mission statement on this track and it is an extraordinary moment. On first listen he has barely touched the song but the subtle and substantial differences will be apparent to anyone who worships Melody Nelson. Holmes damn near tops Gainsbourg's original on the album version. He manages to bring British music dance, New York punk and the historically unfairly maligned French music scene together in six breathtaking minutes. It's right up there with the finest Portishead, Bjork and Massive Attack moments of the 90's most progressive and daring music.
The album ends with "For You", in which we hear our passenger exiting his cab and stepping out into the street. More voices that have their first and only album appearance, immortalized on vinyl by someone who appreciated that they deserved to be heard.
Steven Soderbergh would hear Let's Get Killed and asked Holmes to record his the film he had began work on, Out Of Sight. It was a match made in heaven and Holmes has just finished up Soderbergh's Oceans Thirteen. He would record another solo masterpiece entitled Bow Down To The Exit Sign in 2000, this time utilizing singers over snatched conversations. His mix albums have become the stuff of legend and have turned on, for those lucky enough to hear them, many young people to a wide variety of music they had have never heard before.
He continues searching through old records trying to find sounds and moments that touch him. He was the one responsible for unearthing Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" and sent it to Soderbergh to use in Ocean's Eleven. Holmes refused to remix the Presley song though as he said he didn't want to touch perfection or perhaps even more appropriate was when he would say, "It was already as funky as fuck." This refusal led to Junkie XL remixing it and having a global smash number one hit, but it was Holmes who was responsible for digging it up.
David Holmes has slowed down a bit in the past year or so. As much as I love his soundtrack work I hope that he continues cutting his own albums. His solo catalogue represents some of modern musics most unknown treasures, his best music may be lost in your corner store's cut out bins but it will be someday be re-discovered by those adventurous enough to dig.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Looking at Bernardo Bertolucci’s career has always reminded me a bit of The Rolling Stones. Starting off strong and quickly progressing into a period of awe inspiring brilliance that no-one, especially himself, could top; and then finally the aftermath of continually attempting to live up to the standard he had set so high for himself.
From his first feature, 1962’s The Grim Reaper through his third, 1968’s Partner, Bertolucci would show himself as an amazingly assured and inventive director who had obviously taken a lot from Pasolini, whom he had assisted, and Godard, whom he idolized.
1970’s Spider Stratagem would prove the major turning point, his Beggar’s Banquet if you like, marking a turning away from the overtly Godardian Partner. It would begin an five year-three film run that would perfect and alter the cinematic landscape in a way that few films, and filmmakers, ever had.
The Conformist is one of the great films, viewing the recent Paramount DVD release it is hard for me to think of a more perfectly structured and layered film. Everything from the lovely Vittorio Storaro cinematography to George Delerue’s haunting score to the iconic casting is as good as cinema can possibly get. The film has moments like the first close up of Dominique Sanda and the chilling last shot of Trintignant that cause an almost physical reaction in me everytime I watch the film. I’m jolted by it, in the way that I wish more horror films would. I appreciate the film and how unique it is more and more as we get further away from it. It is one of those films, like Citizen Kane or Three Colors Red, that while watching it I have hard time convincing myself that it’s not the greatest film ever made.
Bertolucci would follow this impossible to top film with a second masterpiece that would immortalize and crush Bertolucci at the same time. Much has been written about Last Tango In Paris and I think that the film’s notoriety has taken away from just how powerful an experience it actually is. I will write more on this film that I revisit at least once a year at a later date. Watching it today is, to continue my Stones comparison, at bit like listening to Sticky Fingers, It is the work of someone in complete and total control of his craft, a virtual greatest hits film marriage of direction, cinematography, music, editing and of course acting. Much liked The Conformist where Bertolucci symbolically killed off Godard this film would do the same to Truffaut, and Bertolucci would no longer be compared to anyone else. So much has been written about Brando’s monumental performance that the work of Maria Schneider has long been overlooked. The recent re-releasing of Antonioni’s The Passenger restores her as one of the great figures of seventies cinema. Her Jeanne, form Tango, is a performance that has long been unfairly ignored but it is impossible to think of a more luminous and troubling presence in cinema.
Something happened to Bertolucci after Last Tango In Paris, something changed in him and his films. Certainly the storm that greeted Tango, getting arrested for obscenity and realizing that he had made not one but two of the greatest films ever in a row all had to weigh on him.
It would take him nearly five years to get another film in theaters but 1900 would turn out to be his Exile On Main Street, a sprawling five hour epic that veers on the edge of disaster but somehow works. In scene after scene Bertolucci delivers a film as large and bold as it’s subject. Nothing about it worked as well as The Conformist and Last Tango In Paris though. The stitches were really coming apart through it and it’s noticeable. Everything from the look of the film to the casting choices would fall just short of the standards he had set earlier. Still, at it’s most hypnotic and audacious, it is one of the great films of the seventies and one that most directors wouldn’t have even attempted.
The film would immediately be subjected to cuts and censorship problems. Much like Sergio Leone’s equally epic Once Upon A Time In America it would be a film many would see first in a compromised and raped version.
Bertolucci’s next two films, Luna and Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man, were both much smaller scaled and had more in common with his early films rather than his seventies masterworks.
He would again enter epic territory and sweep the Oscars with The Last Emperor but I don’t feel that this film has the power of his greatest work. It is a film made of great parts but it is Bertolucci himself that seems missing. Suddenly a wild visionary revolutionizing cinema was just a great craftsman. The Last Emperor is a fine film that deserved the acclaim it received but I don’t think of it as a great Bernardo Bertolucci film.
The Sheltering Sky seemed to be an attempt to return to the more personal feel of his early seventies work but poor casting and studio interference hurt the film.
The critics would turn on Bertolucci after The Sheltering Sky and suddenly one of cinema’s great masters would be treated with disdain. I found this particularly distasteful. Little Buddha and Stealing Beauty might have been flawed works by an aging master but they both have moments that are sublime and powerful. Stealing Beauty especially, with it’s subversive take on class warfare and repressed sexuality, is worth another look. Still one has to wonder if working with a leading actress, talented Liv Tyler, who was unaware of his past work made Bertolucci feel a little out of time.
Besieged would find him continuing trying to channel his early groundbreaking work on sexuality but it would prove to be possibly his weakest and least ambitious film since Luna.
It felt like the work of a man who was at the end of his creative rope and after seeing it I had a doubt Bertolucci would return.
I remember very clearly the first trailer I saw for 2003’s The Dreamers. To say I was excited about the film is a bit of an understatement. The idea of Bertolucci making a film about the French Student riots of 1968 and paying tribute to the original New Wave heroes of his youth got me more excited about a film than I had been in a long time.
I had bad timing with The Dreamers, it was released the same week I had a bad car accident and it took me several weeks to see it. My mental state really affected how I felt about the film and I came out incredibly disappointed. I wanted to see something that would kick start a revolution, if not in cinema at least in me, but all I could think about in the theater was how worried I was about driving home. The beauty and power of The Dreamers alluded me on that first viewing. Even something as obvious like Bertolucci finding someone as mesmerizing and interesting as Maria Schneider, in young Eva Green, went past me.
I would wait well over a year to revisit The Dreamers, it would be an eye opening and exhilarating experience the second time though. In repeated viewings it becomes a more and more powerful film about what it is to be young and alive. It is a film about ideas, sex and ultimately a passionate love of cinema. It might not be one of Bertolucci's greatest works but certain scenes, from the kids running through the museum intercut with Godard's Bande A Part to Eva Green channeling Garbo, have a magnificently redemptive quality about them. The Dreamers isn't the work of an old man trying to just relive old glories, but one of our last masters regaining his power.
Watching The Dreamers is a bit like watching that last Ali fight where he suddenly starts dancing in that 8th round. Just in that moment when you think everything is just a shadow and a memory, something remarkable suddenly happens and that forgotten arm comes out of nowhere and delivers a near knock out blow.
Bertolucci is planning his follow up to The Dreamers with Bel Canto, an adaptation of Ann Patchett's novel about a South American gorilla group. I believe Bertolucci has at least one more great masterpiece left in him. The Dreamers seemed to remind people and critics of his power and the last 2 years have been filled with incredible special edition DVDS of some of his finest work. There may never be another film made as perfect as The Conformist, but isn't it great to realize the one person who might be able to deliver it is still trying?
Monday, February 12, 2007
Just like countless Hollywood productions wouldn't have been the same without child stars ranging from Natalie Wood to Jodie Foster, Italian Horror had it's own young important young starlet in Nicoletta Elmi.
Nicoletta added considerably to many cult favorites from the seventies in her work with directors like Visconti (Death In Venice), Paul Morrissey (Flesh For Frankenstein), Argento (Deep Red) and of course Mario Bava, whom she would work with twice, in Twitch Of The Death Nerve and Baron Blood.
Nicoletta always added something special to all of the films she appeared in from her work as a little girl all the way to her turn as a lovely woman playing the usher in Lamberto Bava's Demons.
Two personal favorites are her work in Aldo Lado's Who Saw Her Die and Luigi Bazzoni's Footprints. She brings much to both of these very mysterious films and more than holds her own with powerhouse actors like Florinda Bolkan.
It's regrettable that Nicoletta didn't continue her film career but I hope she has found happiness in her personal life. Tomorrow is her Birthday, let's hope she is celebrating in style. She remains an indelible and unique part of Italian film history.
Sunday, February 11, 2007
Over at dvdtalk is an excellent 5 star review, written by novelist Jamie S. Rich, of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. I found that this review matched a lot of my own feelings about this film so I thought I would post the link below. It was easily my favorite film from last year and was a perfect ending for Coppola's extraordinary trilogy which she began with The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation.
I especially appreciated Jamie Rich noting that Sofia Coppola is one of our finest young auteurs, I would go so far as to say she is one of the last authentic American auteurs we have.
I am also including a link to Roger Ebert's four star review of the film which is one of the most unique critiques he has ever written.
While I can’t prove it I suspect that classic television has done more to shape my life than say 20 plus years of education. The classic shows of my youth have given me so many ideals that I still carry with me. My ideal walk is an odd hybrid of George Jefferson and Juan Epstein. A good fashion sense to me comes directly from Greg Brady’s wardrobe. Want my ideal woman, mix Mary AND Rhoda with some Samantha and Jamie Buchman thrown in. I still think of role models as Mr. Kotter and Lou Grant and I still deep down expect all of the problem’s life continually throws at me to finally wrap up with a valuable moral lesson like in Andy Griffith.
This all of course would make me completely insane if so many people from my generation didn’t suffer from it. Intellectuals and the snobbish can deny it but television shows played as important a role in the 20th century as any major political event. My generation of broken home kids needed a James Evans or Mike Brady in their homes and a lot of us wouldn’t be the same without them.
I have come to realize that things have changed for me this decade; the last few years have been the first time in my life that I don’t watch TV anymore. It’s on all the time but inevitably I am using it just to watch DVDs. It’s been almost ten years since I religiously followed certain shows; the last group consisted of Mad About You, Seinfeld, E.R. and The X-Files. Tv on DVD has changed a lot, Arrested Development is my favorite recent show but I caught it on disc. No longer is there a moment to mark each week for me to sit down and watch a favorite show. That’s an odd phenomenon not to have in my life anymore, and it represents a real breaking point from my past.
Being born in the year of Watergate I had to catch up with a lot of shows in re-runs after school and some of my best memories are rushing home to watch The Brady Bunch, Welcome Back Kotter and Good Times. The summer’s were even better, I would get my chores done in the morning to have the afternoon’s free to tune into Chicago’s WGN which would run episodes of Kotter and Good Times after the Cub’s baseball games.
Television handed me one of my earliest traumatic events with the death of James Evans on Good Times. After a particularly long Cubs game that ran over WGN broadcast a rerun of the episode where it was announced that James died. I couldn’t believe my surrogate father was gone; it was bad enough I had to accept the absence of my real father but this was too much.
After the James Evans incident television would continue to hand me disappointments. The cold harsh reality of getting to Junior High and realizing that kids no longer dressed and looked like Greg and Marcia Brady, or realizing that I was never going to look like Vinnie Barbarino or have a girlfriend like Nancy Drew. I continued to love and watch it though and each year would bring new shows and characters to get involved with.
The late 90’s handed me and my shows a series of knockout punches. Mulder left the X-Files to Scully, Dr. Delamico left E.R’s unit, Seinfeld fell apart and the Buchman’s had that damn baby. Hadn’t Johnny Carson retiring and Gene Siskel dying been enough? By the turn of the decade I was left without any new shows and suddenly television as I knew it belonged strictly to my memories.
The fall of 2003 brought my last love affair with a television series. I began to see ads that summer for a spin-off of one of my favorite films and book, Out Of Sight, that would feature one of my favorite actresses, Carla Gugino. Karen Sisco was made for me, the idea of getting to watch one of Elmore Leonard’s best characters come to life each week got me excited about television again. I eagerly awaited the premiere and wasn’t disappointed. The show felt like it was from another planet in comparison to all of the horrendous reality programs that had overtaken us after 9/11. The show was cool personified from the great opening credits featuring The Isley Bros. always smoking It’s Your Thing, to the brilliant stroke of casting Robert Forster as Marshall Sisco to just the sheer privilege of getting to watch Carla Gugino each week.
So for several weeks in the fall of 2003 I felt good again, I had something to look forward to each week again. Work didn’t seem quite so draining and while Karen Sisco wasn’t perfect it got better with each episode. My rekindled romance with television was short lived though. After just 7 episodes Karen Sisco was put on ‘temporary hiatus’, have two words ever put more fear into the heart of a television viewer? The week that hiatus was announced I was involved in a horrendous car accident that would mentally scar me as much as any event in my life. As I was attempting to recover from my accident Karen Sisco was cancelled and my love affair with television came to an end. The final three episodes would run on USA and then it was over.
It was James Evans dying all over again and for months I couldn’t accept that the show was gone. My friend Casey told me I really couldn’t let go of anything and she was right, and I blame it all on that episode of Good Times.
Television is like a much-missed girlfriend to me now. Watching the dvds of Good Times and Mad About You, or old tapes of Welcome Back Kotter and Karen Sisco are like pulling out a box of old love letters and photographs. It’s all memory now, and with the recent onslaught of Tivo and DVR technology that makes it possible to watch any show whenever you want to, I wonder if anyone in a few years will have that important once a week extended family that so many from my generation needed and got. I would have been a lot more lost in my childhood without the stability that television and my favorite shows offered, I would hate to think about a generation that wouldn’t have that sort of weekly re-assurance. I hope the new broken home kids find their own extended families, and for me I hope my memories and dreams are still that ‘ticket out’.
Saturday, February 10, 2007
I did not plan on writing about Joe Carnahan's Smokin' Aces. Typically I only write about films that I love on this blog and I did not love Smokin' Aces. I'm actually not even sure I liked it, and yet since I saw it just over a week ago it has stuck with me.
This is Carnahan's third feature after Blood Guts and Octane (which I didn't like) and Narc(which I did but thought it was overrated). Smokin' Aces is majorly flawed, overly complex and incredibly violent film that feels like a very pesky candle that either burns too bright or not at all. Almost every review I have read of the film calls it 'Tarantinoesque' and I know what they are trying to say but it seems to be one of those cop out terms that critics use everytime a new crime film comes out.
Tarantino is a master scriptwriter who is able to pull many disparate elements in and make them cohesive. It is Tarantino's control as a director that makes his films so memorable. They might seem chaotic and frenzied but underneath each one is a really assured craftsman. There is nothing cohesive or controlled about guys like Carnahan or Guy Ritchie. These guys are just about the chaos and Smokin' Aces takes this to the extreme. It is an ultimate 'kitchen sink' film made by a talented director who appears to be extremely frustrated and angry.
A key to the brutality that Carnahan injects in his Smokin' Aces is the fact that he was thrown off Mission Impossible 3 a couple of years back. Suddenly an up and comer got the rug swept from under him and the frustration and fear that Carnahan must have felt is poured into everything frame of this film.
A major problem with Smokin' Aces is its cast of 'I know that face'. Everyone from Ben Affleck to Alicia Keys(who is actually very good) shows up and the film would have greatly benefited from a cast of unknowns. Some of the casting works (Jason Bateman is great in his two very odd scenes) while some doesn't (Andy Garcia gives possibly his worst performance).
I was also never completely sure what kind of film Carnahan wanted to make. It works best during its most serious and over the top moments, but the attempts at humor continually undercut it. One painfully unfunny sequence involves a Grandmother and overly hyper karate kid that has cutting room floor written all over it.
This is also one of the most gleefully sadistic American films I have seen in a long time. The ratings board is obviously getting more and more relaxed or jaded, I'm not sure which. It works in the films favor, Carnahan's force as a filmmaker comes through in the film's most violent moments. Even at it's most overblown and ridiculous the violence in this film is absolutely hypnotic.
Smokin' Aces is a major train wreck of a film, so why I am writing about it? I think that this very well might become one of the major cult films of this decade. Last years horrendous Running Scared, which I could barely get through, was a predicted cult film by many but it already seems to have been forgotten and I think time will not be kind to that film. I have a feeling, that I can't totally put my finger on, that time will treat Smokin' Aces well. It takes years to give a film a legitimate cult following but I think this, as well last year's equally over the top but a lot more fun Crank, will find an audience that will embrace it eventually.
The film's biggest asset is without a doubt Jeremy Piven, an actor who continually delivers impressive performances in less than stellar films. Here, as the title character, Piven really shines. This is one of the great melt-down performances of the last few years and Piven injects this character with a sad, tortured humanity that saves the film in every scene he is in.
Smokin' Aces achieves true brilliance just once and it is a scene that keeps coming back to me. Aces has just sold out the last friends he had and he is bordering on overdosing on all the coke he has been snorting. His life as just caught up with him and he stands staring into a mirror. An extended version of John Cale's extraordinary Big White Cloud, from his first solo album 1971's Vintage Violence, begins to play and for several minutes Cale's song plays and we watch Piven fall apart. It's a beautiful, tortured few moments that silenced the rather large audience I saw this with. Suddenly everything works and director, actor and musician are totally together. It is a perfect moment in a very imperfect film and the most exhilarating moment I have had a theater in this young year.
Smokin' Aces might disappear when it is released on DVD but I doubt it. Carnahan is talented and he might have a great film in him somewhere, until then his 'disasters' will probably be more interesting than a lot of 'good' films that will fill up our theaters.
Friday, February 9, 2007
One of The Marble Index's finest moments. This beautiful video was put together in 1991 to celebrate the original cd release of Index. I still remember, like it was yesterday, finding this disc in an Evansville, Indiana record store. I was 17 and shopped at the store often, the guy behind the counter said 'good choice'. Without a doubt the understatement of my teenage years.
The end of this month will see the release of a new double set collection of Nico's work entitled The Frozen Borderline. The collection will contain her two finest album's The Marble Index and Desertshore along with 17 unreleased alternate takes. I first heard these two astonishing albums when I was a teenager and I had never before, or since, been as transformed by recorded sound. These records opened my musical tastes completely and albums I would later hear like Pere Ubu's Dub Housing or Don Cherry's Symphony For Improvisers made sense in a way to me that they wouldn't have if I hadn't been exposed to Nico's music. I trace my openness to all kinds of music, no matter how extreme or far out, to hearing these two works by Nico.
The albums were both recorded with John Cale and several years ago he called them, 'an important contribution to European classical music'. Anyone who hasn't heard these magnificent works should do themselves a big favor and pre-order this set.
The Velvet Underground produced three of the most important solo careers of the rock era in Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico. These two albums by Nico are the equal to Cale and Reed's best, and you can't get much better than that.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
We have become so used to extras on dvds that it is easy to forget just how special, and actually how important to film history, the idea of them really is. The ability to see deleted scenes or behind the scenes footage from your favorite film might seem commonplace now but it has really just been since the arrival of the dvd format that this kind of thing has been readily available to anyone outside of the people making the films. There have always been promotional featurettes and on the set documentaries but only a handful of these were available to the home market. Laserdiscs and then DVDs changed the way a lot of us view films, at their best they give us an inside view to the filmmakers intentions and journey. Unfortunately as we have gotten more and more expectant of these extras, they seem to have gotten more and more superficial. Many of the current discs being produced use the special features sections just as back slapping promotion or as a teaser to a future double dip release, it seems to be getting rarer to see quality extras.
Thankfully many smaller companies have, since the dawn of the format, continued to attempt to give us something that speaks about the quality and importance of the film we have purchased. Criterion has, since the days of laserdisc, been at the top of the line in regards to their extra features. The first audio commentary I ever heard was on the laserdisc of Silence Of The Lambs. I still recall the excitement and mystery of it, I just couldn't believe that I was going to be able to listen to the filmmakers discussing their craft and memories for the whole film. We take this so much for granted now that we forget just how revolutionary the idea for an audio commentary was.
Audio Commentaries are a good place to start, in listing some of my favorite extras, and since I am mostly focusing on Euro genre films I won't go into American favorites like the cast commentary on Boogie Nights, Jodie Foster's talks or Abel Ferrara's strange but spellbinding talks on Driller Killer and King Of New York.
The best commentaries can, and should, be fun and insightful. Some can be made up just of special memories and stories. What Italian horror fan didn't rejoice to hear Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck recalling Fulci's The Beyond, or John Phillip Law talking about Bava's Diabolik with Tim Lucas? Many of the best commentaries just have the feel of a pleasant afternoon spent remembering, this can often be as eye opening as an in depth critical commentary and can be as moving as the feature itself.
Commentaries can also be combative, think of Umberto Lenzi and John Morghen's piece for Cannibal Ferox. It's as though the two men are watching separate features and we can hear years of bitter thoughts coming through our speakers. Asia Argento's at times acidic commentary for her Scarlet Diva perfectly compliments the film and places us in the position of an armchair psychologist.
Criterion remains the king of critical commentaries but Tim Lucas has delivered some splendid ones for Mario Bava's work. The upcoming Bava collections promise more Lucas talks and one can hope that future Argento discs continue to have the great work of Alan Jones helming them.
Documentary work has become more and more in-substantial on mainstream dvds, often short promotional featurette's take the place of an actual in depth look at the work. Many companies specializing in Euro obscurities, such as No-Shame, Blue Underground, Grindhouse, Shriek Show and Anchor Bay, have delivered splendid documentary work for their films. Shriek Show as been barraged with complaints about some, admittedly, shoddy work they have done on some of their discs and this has overshadowed that early on they delivered some incredible extras. Their Fulci releases for Zombie and Lizard In A Woman's Skin each contained in depth looks at the films containing dozens of interviews with surviving cast and crew members, they stand as fine examples of how much depth hands on studies of these films can provide.
Edwige Fenech had been absent not only from early dvd extras but her films took awhile to finally start appearing on the format. You would think that her early Gialo work with Sergio Martino would have been prime candidates for early release but it's just within the past few years that her films have started to make a big push into the market. No-Shame dvd has put out the majority of them and it was with them that she sat down and did a series of filmed interviews. Every fan-boy's, including myself, heart jumped into their throat when they saw that she was as beautiful as ever. All of these interviews show a charming, intelligent woman more than ready to talk about her work in everything from giallos to the sex-comedys she filmed in the seventies. No-Shame did a real service to the Euro fan community in conducting these interviews and I don't think it was a coincidence that shortly after they began to appear that Eli Roth cast her in his upcoming Hostel sequel.
A very different, but no less captivating, kind of interview appears on Grindhouse's amazing double disc set of Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. One of the most interesting extras on the disc is an half hour plus talk with Robert Kerman. It's an incredibly open interview with a talented, seemingly disappointed man who never completely fulfilled his potential. Kerman comes across as arrogant, oddly touching and always brutally honest. The thing I like most about the interview is that it appears unedited, at one point Kerman asks the interviewer to keep something he says in and Grindhouse, to their credit, does just that. The whole disc has an outlawish anarchic feel to it, just like the film it is celebrating.
Finally the best dvd extras are the ones that hit you on a more personal level. Perhaps they point out something small you never noticed before, perhaps a simple small memory of an actor or director can give you more insight into the art of film than you ever imagined you could have. The best extras are inevitably produced by people who love film, which is why more mainstream dvd releases are becoming more and more shallow, they are viewed as promotion and nothing else and are being manufactured by businessmen not artists.
My favorite dvd extra is just about 11 minutes long and doesn't contain any great insight. It's cheaply shot on video and takes place just outside a college in Italy. The pretty casually dressed woman being interviewed outside, under a tree, would go unnoticed by most film fans but lovers of Italian horror know her, and this short interview with Cinzia Monreale on Shriek Show's dvd of Joe D'Amato's Buio Omega is one that I keep coming back to.
I can't really put my finger on what it is that draws me to this interview, at first it was the sheer novelty of seeing the woman who played the blind Emily in Fulci's The Beyond being interviewed. The talk is casual, the interview seems a bit unsure of his questions, and she seems a bit amused at the attention but also honored. She remembers Fulci and especially D'Amato fondly. At one point it seems like she wants to say something negative about a Buio Omega co-star but then just smiles and compliments them. I think the thing that gets me about this short clip is that I just know this woman really from those two films, she is forever locked in time for me in them. There is just something really special about watching this still incredibly beautiful woman who is in between classes recalling, what is for her, also a moment locked in time. I love the clip and I can forgive Shriek Show for their sometimes very careless work just for this short supplement.
This piece, scattershot as it is, was in part inspired by a recent Mobius board talk on why someone should buy two copies of Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill just because one has an audio commentary. Speaking just for myself, a film like Kill Baby Kill is symbolic for the essence of my love for European films. It'll be a pleasure to add two copies of it to my collection and if I have to sell a couple of discs of commercial modern Hollywood films that really have no meaning for me to get it, I gladly will. Ten or fifteen years ago an audio commentary on a film like this would have been unheard of and the day that I don't support an important release in this genre that I love so much is the day that I stop loving film.....and that day is no where in sight.
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
I was saddened to hear that actress/singer Barbara McNair had passed away Sunday, losing a long battle with throat cancer.
Outside of being a fine singer who cut some great albums for Motown in the sixties, a terrific double cd retrospective is available, she also costarred not only in one of my Jess Franco's best films, but also one of my favorite Elvis Presley films.
1969 saw the American release of both Franco's Venus In Furs and Elvis' final film, Change of Habit. McNair was unforgettable in both. She was especially effective as the stunning nightclub singer Rita in Franco's film opposite James Darren. Her singing of the theme song is an incredibly memorable moment and her voice echoes throughout the film each time Maria Rohm enacts her revenge.
Change of Habit is a lesser film compared to Venus In Furs but it is still a personal favorite. Elvis had never been more beautiful and his final film would be a total break from the formula pictures he had been doing. Mcnair and Elvis share several really nice moments for, future X-Files director, William Graham. Mcnair and Elvis got along well off the set and she would later remember him fondly as a supportive friend in several documentaries after his death.
McNair appeared in many films and tv shows, as well as her own variety show, including They Call Me Mr. Tibbs and a great guest spot on The Mod Squad.
Her albums are well wortrh searching out and two, as well as the double disc anthology, are in print on cd. She gave one of the definitive readings of the sublime Bacharach tune Here I Am and had a big hit with You Could Never Love Him.
She will be greatly missed.
Sunday, February 4, 2007
It would be interesting to take a poll of music lovers and critics and ask the question, 'What was the high water mark lyrically on an album in the rock era?'
There have been a lot of best of lists but I don't recall ever seeing that and yet what specific album would most music lovers point to as being the lyrically, the greatest? Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, how about Tom Waits Blue Valentine? Paul Simon's first album, what about Lou Reed's New York? Wouldn't want to leave the ladies out, Patti Smith's Horses anyone, Rickie Lee Jones Pirates? Springsteen, Townes Van Zant, don't forget Paul Westerberg. Tough question and I don't have the answer but the first one that comes to my mind and the one I would nominate is Under The Big Black Sun by X.
John Doe and Exene's Cervenka's lyrical masterpiece chronically the struggles of a working-class couple going through loss, a broken marriage, alcoholism and boredom is to my eyes and ears one of the great literary achievements in rock history. As good as any novel and the fact that the words are on top of one of the great rock bands in their prime only sweetens the deal.
Under The Big Black Sun should have been a disappointment, and God knows everyone was expecting one. It was the first major label album by X who had just signed with Elektra from the indie label Slash. Major label debuts are notorious for presenting watered down versions of once great acts. Even a great album like The Replacement's Tim suffers from a bit too much production, and the battle between the indie and corporate idea of what constitutes a great album continues to this day.
X were never a typical band though and with Under The Big Black Sun they delivered their finest work. It's a work that synthesises their harder earlier punk origins with their interest in more classic American traditions like country and folk. Americana 15 years before everyone was throwing that word around, it was called Cow-punk at the time and groups like X and Lone Justice would pioneer the sound that a future generation would reap the benefits of. Much like the country-rock sound Rick Nelson, Michael Nesmith and Graham Parson's would revolutinalize in the late 60s. It was a new spin to something very old.
Under The Big Black Sun would, like their first three albums, be produced by former Doors mastermind Ray Manzarek and I'm not totally sure if he has ever gotten enough credit for these recordings. First of all the idea that a musician so associated with L.A. rock from the sixties producing a young punk band in the eighties was incredible, but Ray managed, like John Cale with The Stooges and Patti Smith, to produce X with just enough control. He never compromised their sound, but he roped it in just enough to allow its inherit subtleties to come out. Ray Manzaerk is an uncredited hero to the 2nd wave American punk movement.
X's third album kicks off with the thunderous The Hungry Wolf, and we are immediately presented with something much more complex than the average rock lyric. Recalling Exene's native American ancestory we are presented with a, 'hungry wolf' running 'endlessly with my mate'. The song, ending with the haunting refrain of 'I Roam' is dedicated to The Santee Sioux Indians and JL 'Funny Papers' Smith.
The album continues chronicling the couple's doomed relationship with Motel Room In My Bed, it's lead character going to sleep, "Soggy and forgetful, hopefully not waking up so fitfully". Exene have John have an incredible way of presenting a concrete situation, like alcoholism, in such a subtle way. The music might be in your face but the words rarely are, these are clearly two authentic poets who happen to be part of one of the great American rock bands.
The single Riding With Mary continues and it's one of X's greatest songs and gives us the first clues that Exene is going through much more than just a disintegrating relationship with John. Her beloved sister had been killed just prior to recording this, she would remember her so tenderly in the film The Unheard Music just a year after this album, and it's that death that is sparking many of Exene's most poignant lines. The song, detailing an adulterous affair, ends with this image, "on the dashboard rides a figurine. A powerless, sweet forgotten thing, so the next time you see a statue of Mary, remember my sister was in a car".
Exene's Come Back To Me follows and is dedicated to her sister Mary. If anyone has ever written a more heartbreaking and real description of a funeral and dealing with death I have never heard it. Lines like, "Flies and relations make an annoying sound" and "I built a shrine for you on the kitchen wall with flowers and Florida souvenirs. You were walking through the house last night, I knew it was you from the space in your steps" are so perfectly rendered and detailed. Notice how they aren't just souvenirs, but Florida souvenirs, and it's not just her steps but the space in between them. Anyone who has ever questioned how good rock lyrics can be should listen to this song.
Typically an album will have a very specific break between side A and B. Different sounds or themes will be approached but here X again shows that they were never typical as Under The Big Black Sun and Because I Do both share an alcoholic haze of confusion and regret. The last lign on side one, "Mary's dead, Good morning Midnight" lends intself perfectly to the opening, "I am a black and white ghost in a black and invisible dress", of side 2.
Throughout the album, even though they are exceptional, the lyrics never over shadow the music. This is, after all, a rock record and it's a great one. Bonebrake and Doe were really coming into their own as a rhythm section. Bonebrake is a huge jazz, and specifically Lionel Hampton, fan and his drumming is uncommonly controlled for a punk group. It is also savage and loud, just tribal enough for Hungry Wolf and tender enough for Please Come Back To Me, exceptional work. Billy Zoom was astonishing in all of his work with X, early Rockabilly was and is his biggest influence and he continually gives the band some of the most incendiary fret work imaginable. He makes it seem effortless also, you never feel like he is pushing it or trying to impress. His riffs are deceptively simple and always powerful.
The album's themes of adultery and loss continue with Blue Spark and the only cover on the album, Dancing With Tears In My Eyes. The Leadbelly quote on the inner sleeve is particularly chilling, ending with a thought that will resonate with any music lover filled with something dark, "that's to show how music can bring you back.....if you ain't too far gone".
The album closes with three of X's most legendary songs. Three songs that would take the band to a spiritual place that few have ventured to. These are that Darkness on The Edge of Town that Springsteen sang of and that Badlands that Malick filmed.
First up is Real Child Of Hell, an exhausting rehearsal was filmed for The Unheard Music, and its idea of possession being the cause of a relationship breaking down is an astonishing one for rock. The real child of hell that the song presents is not only inside John Doe and Exene Cervenka but ultimately the fan wanting Exene's dress and much more. It's an indictment not only of themselves but the people they are confessing to, and if you haven't figured it out by now Under The Big Black Sun is a confession.
The ferocious two minute How I Learned My Lesson is what lyric sheets were made for with lines like, "Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so I never want to see you again", becoming a blur underneath the incredibly fast and frantic music.
The album ends with the finest song John Doe and Exene Cervenka ever wrote, and musically the finest song X ever performed. I don't say that lightly either, The Have Nots is one of the great songs in American music and I would hold it up against anything that Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen or Reed ever wrote. Our sage ends with the couple separated and they are both at bars, just after work, drinking themselves into a much needed oblivion. It's a sympathetic chronicle and indictment of the American dream gone wrong, The Replacements would later cover similar ground in Here Comes A Regular as well as Th Manic Street Preachers in the astonishing Design For Life. It's a subject many authors and filmmakers have covered but it's not something you see in Rock music a lot. Correlating the life of a rock band with a dead end job with "the game that moves as you play" is one of X's most chilling moments. It's fitting that the original lyric sheet goes on longer than the song with a listing of bars to visit, hide and ultimately fade away completely in.
Under The Big Black Sun was awarded five stars by Rolling Stone and was near the top of nearly every critics poll in 1982. It was a defining moment for X and one which they would never top. They would record one more album with Manzarek, the brilliantly scattered More Fun In The New World. The remainder of their catalogue all suffers from over-production but still feature some of the most sublimely brilliant American music ever recorded. They would never scale the despairing heights of Under The Big Black Sun again but would provide a lovely sequel of sorts in 1987's See How We Are, in which the by now divorced John Doe and Exene Cervenka would lament, "the bars we keep between us".
25 years later Under The Big Black Sun is still relevant, still without peer and I'm pleased to report still available. Rhino had a wonderful re-release of it out, remastered with bonus tracks and in depth notes. Even though that will never sound as good as much worn and loved vinyl copy, I urge anyone who might be reading to get this currently available cd. It might make you re-think those best of lists that are released each year, it might make you remember a lost love or at the very least it will remind you that we all have something inside that needs exorcising.....if we're not too far gone.
Here is the original and classic unit of X with Billy Zoom on guitar, DJ Bonebrake on drums, John Doe on Bass and vocals, and of course Exene Cervenka on vocals. I love Letterman's intro here and while the interview is a bit tense it's obvious that he likes them. Promoting More Fun In The New World and covering Jerry Lee Lewis' scorching Breathless from the underrated Jim Mcbride film.
Great stuff, I miss these days when Letterman would spend so much time with his musical guests.