Sunday, 11 January 2015

Whiplash and music-film

Whiplash: not as in recoil but rather the sanction meted out to the workhorse of slave. Damien Chazelle's essay in the growing pains of a wannabe jazz drummer is a really entertaining matinée. It's certainly a step sideways into reality following the proper musician-fantasy Grand Piano, which he wrote for a colleague. I enjoyed it in many respects but in the end I felt that it had somehow underachieved its own goal- rather as Andrew, the protagonist, appears to have done.

Andrew, a music college freshman, is played by Miles Teller. His face is familiar here for his comic roles and the first big shock of the film is to see his character callow and starstruck by the iconic bandmaster Fletcher, played by JK Simmons. The film follows a twisting track as Simmons' Magus-figure bullies, sweet-talks and sabotages Andrew's good intentions. Whether Fletcher actually wants to get the best of him or whether he is trying to exert power for its own sake is never quite clear. The suggestion is the former. Puppy-fat vignettes with Andrew's father and the fumbling, insecure first forré in a romance are no match for the leanness of the musical education on offer, lean not only in figure, with Fletcher as a drill sergeant in his black tee, but also in time-keeping and talk.

So there's an Oedipal issue. Yet the film is really about the artisan. What makes him step beyond the confines of the satisfactory or the reproduced? Must there be conflict? Must there be pain? Well in this story there is. Teller does a good job of dusting himself back off and trying again (not to mention some really convincing drumming). Whatever Fletcher's intentions, Andrew finds himself driven forward, upward. The end of the film dovetails with (the) musical cadence and leaves us with a cliffhanger concerning our assessment of Fletcher's method and the relationship he now has with the prodigy.

My misgivings are not with this emotional aggregation. Rather I found myself unable to settle on how Chazelle wanted us to support our conclusions. The film opens with sharp cutting on key beats of the music, setting up the coincidence of film and music yet this gets a little messy towards the end. It would be a fudge to suggest that 'hey, this is jazz, lets keep the mistakes in'. The general storytelling is too conventional (not meant perjoratively) for the grammar of the film to be anything more than a colour. I really liked the close-in, close-up visceral nature of the filming and the alternate perspectives (including overhead shots); the literal blood, sweat and tears. What it says about the dynamics of Andrew's mind is... well, I didn't get anything from it.

This may be a problem of making a film about music. The film is, as it stands, a tight, punchy coming of age drama. I enjoyed it. Perhaps I should stop flogging it.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Music in Birdman

There are two distinct musical threads in the soundtrack of Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu's earnest film about a middle-aged actor's existential Waterloo. The drama is supported by a dozen choice cuts of classical music and a smattering of original stuff, notably from a jazz drummer (of which more later).

First to the classical library. To get Riggan's internal drama out onto the screen, Iñárritu uses a dozen or so late 19th century romantic scores; rich, expressive, mature music for the epic struggle going on inside a man who want to make good an imperfect life. Tchaikovsky is perhaps the most readily identifiable of in this respect, music that is synonymous with the theatre. The director uses excerpts from both the fourth and fifth symphonies (here's the fifth, complete)

It was interesting to me that the music with the most overt psychological narrative, two works of Gustav Mahler, were used early on. This is because the opening of the Mahler's 9th symphony and one of the five-song set of Rückert-Lieder deal directly with issues of mortality and life-satisfaction. I particularly liked the second iteration of the opening of the 9th symphony in the film (at the opening of this complete recording): it occurs as two characters stand beside thick ropes hanging from the theatre flies, which look like the resonant harp strings we can hear plucked in the score, evoking Mahler's temperamental heartbeart.

For all that Birdman is a Big-Apple-paced comedy at heart, there's no questioning the seriousness of Iñárritu's intent when we hear the opening of the song Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen from the Rückert Lieder:

I am lost to the world
with which I used to waste so much time,
It has heard nothing from me for so long
that it may very well believe that I am dead!

Later on Keaton's Riggan indulges the tempting suggestions of his fantasy alter ego after a night on the tiles. An explosive 30 seconds of generic blockbuster boredom gives way to a more peaceful, magic-realist sequence that is underscored with Rachmaninov's 2nd symphony, high-watershed heart-on-sleeve Russian soul-baring music.

Interestingly, I didn't readily identify the excerpts of Ravel nor those of John Adams - which included music from Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer which was itself the subject of Broadway controversy only this year.

The second of Iñárritu's choices involves music that is more than just soundtrack. The musician Antonio Sanchez was invited to produce an original score on a drum kit alone. This excellent, organic character-in-sound (surely the most two-dimensional musical addition to a film since There Will Be Blood?) pops up throughout the film.

There is a nice account of the process in this Vanity Fair article. It was especially powerful in a film that was preceded by a trailer for Whiplash. Further information on original music written for the film by Joan Valent & Victor Stumpfhauser can be found on the Birdman IMDb soundtrack page.

(Excerpts on this page may not be the actual performances used in the film)

Saturday, 28 December 2013

2013 Top Five Films

Bizarrely, I could almost compile a top five of films I wish I had seen but didn't. Couldn't we all? Well, I really should have taken myself to see Before Midnight, the third in Richard Linklater's ongoing exercise in the forensic study of a contemporary romance. If the trajectory of Before Sunset is anything to go by, the film remains just this side of ironically self-aware, maintaining the fiction that allows it to probe truth-through-drama (oooh!). I also managed to sidestep Behind The Candelabra, Blue Is The Warmest Colour, Frances Ha, The Selfish Giant, Filth, Captain Philips and Rush.

However, that is it really. I did get to see Gravity (in 2D), Nebraska, Side Effects, The Great Beauty and Stoker and enjoyed them all very much. Happy New Year!

Monday, 16 December 2013

KM Show, 16 Dec 2013: 1989

This is the script to my slot in Kevin Markwick's weekly film & music show on Uckfield 105 FM, Mondays at 9pm

Hello. So, here we are, at the end of the decade. Like the pop music – indeed, like the very money of the 1980s - cinema had been pursuing all sorts of ideas and markets. For neither the first nor last time, we watched as the leftfield wiped the floor with what looked like guaranteed hits. From serious drama to science fiction, the great explosion of cinema for children or the maturation of the 1970s blockbuster, the formula for success remained out of reach.
Success by cheating was the central theme of Working Girl, a film that tied up all sorts of 1980s thematics . The two leads were box office supernovae: Harrison Ford plays a wholesome everyman city manager and Sigorney Weaver, the indie Amazon made great by Ghostbusters, is his evil boss. The heroine of the film though is a blonde icon of meritocracy. Melanie Griffith is introduced early in the film arriving at the Big Apple in the same manner as immigrants would have done a century earlier – but this is class, not national migration and Griffith’s triumph in the workplace is a whole lot more palatable to the audience. Here’s the tie-in single, Let The River Run, sung by Carly Simon.

Working Girl straddled the central American ideals rendered anew in 1980s Reaganomics and looked forward to the new, punchy feminism of the 1990s. It was a mainstream film for mainstream ideas, well made and good fun. It’s as close to a formula as you might expect to get.
Over here, as is often the way, we weren’t doing films in quite the same fashion. In fact, one of the great films of 1989 was different in almost every respect to Working Girl – and yet gave us one of today’s enduring feminist icons in Helen Mirren. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover is the enduring masterwork of Peter Greenaway. The film is a mannered, faintly surrealist sequence of episodes rendered almost entirely as a series of dark baroque oil paintings. Visceral is too insufficient a word to cover its violence and wet heat, punctuated with a series of utterly credible sexual encounters. Greenaway’s familiar composer-at-arms Michael Nyman produced this wonderful baroque-Weimar hybrid, as if Handel was writing music for a Brecht stage play; decadent, confrontational, wry and yet not without pathos.

Yes, it’s difficult to know exactly what people are going to want to see. Well, almost. From the perspective of almost a quarter of a century on from 1989, there is one film that has become a totemic genre-in-itself, a hugely entertaining blockbuster that props up the Christmas schedules almost as regularly as It’s  A Wonderful Life. In fact, with the emotional driver of family vs money, it’s not dissimilar to Frank Capra’s perennial classic – though, I’m not entirely sure we can see Jimmy Stewart coining one of cinema’s most famous one liners by dropping a makeshift bomb down a lift shaft. Yes, Die Hard is 18 certificate-entertainment at its most wholesome, a Western fought out in an echt-1980s corporate tower block, with the double distillation of an Englishman playing a German as a baddie. The good guys win and the film plays out with Vaughan Monroe singing in the season. Happy Christmas indeed!

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

KM Show, 9 Dec 2013: 1988

This is the script to my slot in Kevin Markwick's weekly film & music show on Uckfield 105 FM, Mondays at 9pm

Throughout the 1980s the film business was just as sensitive to the trends and topics of the day as the next industry. Cinema had delivered all the entertainment that hindsight dictated, from science fiction to adventure, producing hits for children, teenagers and adults alike. In 1987 a violent stock crash in America started the beginning of a worldwide downturn. Perhaps 1988 was too early for links to be drawn between the films released in that year and the previous Autumn’s crash but it is interesting to look at the smattering of fantastical, escapist flicks that were popular in that subsequent year.

Moonwalker is, inevitably, a feature-length pop video, a grand folly of its extraordinary star, not to mention the natural extension of the ambition of the Thriller and Bad videos. A mannered and bizarre vehicle for Michael Jackson, most of the film is dated. However, the originality and panache of the dancing singer-songwriter and his company makes for thrilling set pieces, including this, the most famous, Smooth Criminal.

For those more independently-minded cinema goers, the big off-beat hit of 1988 was Beetlejuice. Michael Keaton brought an energy and shtick to the eponymous… well, It’s not really possible to explain the resurrected Pierrot-exorcist Beetlejuice in this single sentence. Whatever Keaton and his director Tim Burton intended, the film is great fun. It also gave us this fine, eclectic score from Danny Elfman, which Andrew Hewitt, composer of Submarine and The Double, mentioned as an influence on his own work when speaking to this show in January

Escapism doesn’t necessarily demand fantasy. Arguably the best film of 1988 was a feature-length nostalgia trip charting one man’s life in movies. Cinema Paradiso is a fictional account of a young boy who grows up in a sleepy Italian town with the local projectionist as a de facto father. All the technological and social developments in the talkies are covered with great fun and love. The final scene is one of the great dam-busting coups of cinema as the wonders of the past rush forward to ambush the grey-haired film executive that the boy has become. Ennio Morricone wrote a striking, BAFTA-winning score that is the equal of the film’s tremendous heart. I wonder how much of himself Kevin sees in little Salvatore ‘Toto’ di Vita… Goodbye.

Monday, 2 December 2013

KM Show, 2 Dec 2013: 1987

This is the script to my slot in Kevin Markwick's weekly film & music show on Uckfield 105 FM, Mondays at 9pm 

Hello. 1987 was the high watermark of capitalism’s explosion in America and the UK. The best pop song of the year, Pet Shop Boys’ West End Girls deals directly with the entrepreneurial, urban working class and the existentially hollow philosophy of acquisition.

Well, acquisition pops up in films of 1987 in all sorts of ways. To start with, there’s Roger Donaldson’s excellent thriller No Way Out. The story is cobbled together from the debris of the cold war but fires up in a proprietorial spat over a woman. Sean Young was, sexually, one of the most interesting screen actresses of the 1980s and her explosive affair with Kevin Costner – who is unknowingly cuckolding Gene Hackman - is the only propulsion the film needs. Paul Anka provided a romantic title song to fuel the first act drama.

In 1987 the Coen Brothers’ corporation satire the Hudsucker Proxy was yet to come. Instead they focused on the rather more straightforward comic playout of child-theft in Raising Arizona. When biology stands between Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter they resort to stealing a  baby and a screwball comedy ensues. But then, you already know about Carter Burwell’s eclectic curating of Raising Arizona from a previous show, so instead there’s another drama featuring Nicholas Cage in 1987 which deserves our attention.

Moonstruck may be most famous for precipitating Cher’s net-curtain dress at the following year’s Oscars but it’s also quite an earnestly observed wrong-side-of-the-tracks style romance. Unlike Pretty Woman, where a visit to the opera was a way to highlight a juxtaposition of class, so a trip to see la Boheme in Moonstruck is a scene of old-fashioned romantic assimilation. On stage the lovers say goodbye but the music says they are more in love than ever; back in the gallery the camera cuts between the principals whose hearts have clearly triumphed over the same issue of the head.

People are rather more difficult to acquire than things. That’s what makes for good drama. Of course that’s not to say the old-fashioned pursuit of cold, unresponsive cash won’t drive a story too. In 1987, Innerspace was just such a science-fiction adventure in which Jules Verne gets updated by the venal intervention of bad guys after miniaturisation technology – and the cash that the highest bidder will offer for it. The good guys are either side of the same wholesome American coin. There’s the great all-American successor to Jimmy Stewart in Dennis Quaid’s boffin-jock Lt Tuck Pendelton – and a man from the street, Jack Putter, played by a comic who is as he is named, Martin Short. The drama and action of Innerspace come with a Jerry Goldsmith score but the film’s heart is in the set piece where some whisky and a boogie to Sam Cooke’s Twistin’ The Night Away brings the two heroes together on the dance floor. Goodbye.

Monday, 25 November 2013

KM Show, 25 Nov 2013: 1986

This is the script to my slot in Kevin Markwick's weekly film & music show on Uckfield 105 FM, Mondays at 9pm 

If the film business had learned anything by 1985, it’s that there’s a huge teenage market hungry for cinema. Back To The Future was that year’s most successful film – everywhere – so it’s unsurprising that Michael J Fox got wheeled out again in Teen Wolf. As Kevin mentioned last week, this one was made before Back To The Future, though no one needs a time machine to know that this Beach Boys track will never date. Surfin’ USA underscores the celebrated set piece as Fox, now confusingly a Wolf, goes van-surfing. Don’t try it at home kids.

By 1986 new romanticism had matured and was starting to split into the tributaries of stadium rock and shoegazing indie. Despite the pop monopoly over young romance, Merchant Ivory continued to provide elegant period drama in the genre. A Room With A View is one of their best-loved productions, introducing the offbeat English rose that is Helena Bonham-Carter and misappropriating a famous opera aria in which a mother sings to her children, to stand as the surge of young love across the Florentine landscape. Other music by Puccini was used in this film but enduring popularity for variety entertainers and at talent shows proves O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicci may be second only to Nessun Dorma in its familiarity.

It wasn’t all rose-tinted coming of age though. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a very different sort of film from the vital, zesty teen adventures flooding the cinemas of 1986. Kyle MacLachlan’s suburban utopia takes an early wobble when he finds a severed ear behind his home – this is David Lynch as William Blake, with his vision of the sick rose, who says ‘the invisible worm that flies in the night, in the howling storm has found out my bed of crimson joy, and his dark secret love does my life destroy”. It gets pretty close to that when we encounter the terrifying, black-hearted Frank Booth. Dennis Hopper’s celebrated psychopath presides over a mesmerising aside at the climax of the film in which Dean Stockwell steps out and performs this Roy Orbison song, In Dreams, not as a celebration but as a threnody for youth’s illusion.

In this year of the teen flick, John Hughes was the unofficial king of direction. His first hit was The Breakfast Club, a chamber piece set in a Saturday morning school detention. The intensity of the acting from a charismatic young cast, and the injustice of weekend incarceration makes for an espresso shot matinee.

If we remember John Hughes for anything though, it would be for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, an outwardly innocuous tale of a teenager who simply decides not to go to school. The film regularly ignores the fourth wall, just as Ferris, played by Matthew Broderick, charmingly refuses to play by any rules. The result is utterly irresistible, culminating in the famous Twist and Shout sequence in Chicago city centre, where the production team appropriated an annual parade to create an unforgettable street party. Goodbye.

Monday, 18 November 2013

KM Show, 18 Nov 2013: 1985

This is the script to my slot in Kevin Markwick's weekly film & music show on Uckfield 105 FM, Mondays at 9pm

Hello. Here I am again like a zombie that Kevin didn’t manage to decapitate after having talked us through 1985 the week before last. The great success of Back To The Future was just the cresting wave of a tide of movies aimed at young people and there are plenty more to sift through. John Hughes was getting into his directorial stride with the mad-cap Weird Science, a film in which two high school geeks manifest pre-internet porn at a house party. St. Elmo’s Fire was Joel Schumacher’s rather more straightforward high school coming-of-ager. Even Steven Spielberg was trying to re-create the success of the Indiana Jones formula for youngsters by producing  adventure films along the same lines. The Goonies, a sort of Peter Pan hybrid was something of a hit. However, in today’s post-Harry Potter  world it’s the schoolboy-restyling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Young Sherlock Holmes, that I’ve looked at. It’s a film notable for some up to the minute CGI from Industrial Light and Magic’s John Lassiter, who went on to make the Toy Story films. The technology may be high spec, but the story – and so Bruce Broughton’s music – is the stuff of old-school derring-do.

While kids were day-dreaming of action or romance there was still a fair bit of serious adult fare on release in 1985. Pale Rider is a funny amalgam of Westerns. An immoral town gets its comeuppance for past sins in classic high noon style, though the whole thing is couched in a magic realism that director and star Clint Eastwood borrowed from the European artfulness of earlier spaghetti Westerns. Very different but no less serious is the sci-fi-satire of Brazil in which Terry Gilliam re-imagines Orwell’s worst nightmares in a post-Cold War (but pre-NSA) future.  Jonathan Pryce is the Kafkaesque victim of mistaken identity, Sam Lowry for whom Kate Bush wrote this dream sequence song.

Inevitably there was one film that was the best of all these worlds. A serious science fiction adventure that dealt in serious moral issues, targeting a specific age group but having some fun along the way. In fact, Cocoon even manages to provide a good role for poor Steve Guttenburg who was about to be saddled with the dubious success of the Police Academy formula. An ET for pensioners, Cocoon involves the life-conferring properties of pods stowed on earth by an alien race. Luckily for the members of a Florida retirement home, they’re being kept in a local swimming pool.  James Horner cued up some swingtime for the inevitable party sequence. Goodbye!