Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Amy_Movie_Poster

Director: Asif Kapadia

Country: UK / USA

Runtime: 128 mins

A tale of a tragic downfall by the director of Senna

There are many popular musicians who have followed a drink- and drug-fuelled pathway to an early death but few, if any, who have done it as publicly as Amy Winehouse. In the same way that he did with his earlier film, Senna, director Asif Kapadia has woven a highly affecting picture from contemporary footage taken from a variety of sources, including home movies, news items, fans’ mobile devices and camcorders, and an ever-present video camera in recording studios, cars and hotel rooms. There is no commentary but the visuals are regularly overlaid by the voices of participants in Amy’s story.

At the time of her death there was much criticism of the paparazzi’s intrusive behaviour but Kapadia’s documentary makes clear that the causes of the star’s death were multiple and complex, and that the seeds of her destruction were sown much earlier. Winehouse appears to have been a wilful force of nature, even as a child. She describes herself as uncontrollable once her father had left home. As a teenager she was bulimic.

Winehouse cheerfully states that her real ambition is to be singing jazz in clubs. Fame, she says early on, is something she wouldn’t be able to cope with but the success of her first album and the touring that follows means fame is unavoidable. From this point on Winehouse’s life is complicated by a dangerous cocktail of negative influences, including an obsessive relationship with Blake Fielder, heavy drinking and drug-taking, and the reappearance of her father who becomes involved in her professional life in a not wholly helpful fashion.

What I found particularly disturbing is the way that, as both Fielder and Winehouse begin to fall apart in front of the world’s cameras, they are treated as a source of laughs by various popular television comedians (the guilty parties include Graham Norton and Jay Leno; by contrast, former drug addict-turned comedian Russell Brand tried to get Winehouse to rehab).

As someone who was only passingly familiar with the music of Amy Winehouse this documentary made clear what a huge talent and charismatic star she was. None other than Tony Bennett hails her as one of the all-time great jazz singers. Amy is a gripping tale of a brilliant life cut tragically short.

Rating: 4/5

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Whiplash_poster

Director: Damien Chazelle

Writer: Damien Chazelle

Country: USA

Runtime: 107 mins.

Cast: Miles Teller (Andrew Neiman), J.K. Simmons (Terence Fletcher), Paul Reiser (Jim), Melissa Benoist (Nicole), Austin Stowell (Ryan Cooper).

Blood, sweat and tears in the struggle to be great

Whiplash is a terrific psychological drama about the tense professional relationship between two men. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a young drummer enroled at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where he catches the attention of jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew wants to become one of the greats whereas Fletcher is driving his players to become great. But the pressure that Fletcher applies to his musicians goes beyond merely having high expectations and tips over into outright bullying. However, his contention is that the only musicians who truly become great are those who care enough to transcend anything that life can throw at them. Fletcher continually plays mind games with his musicians. No sooner does Andrew get elevated to the role of core drummer in Fletcher’s jazz orchestra than it is cruelly snatched away again.

We also see various other musicians being subjected to degrading treatment for failing to meet Fletcher’s impossible-to-meet expectations, but it is always clear that Andrew has the greatest drive to fight for a place in Fletcher’s band and to achieve greatness. However, Andrew’s own determination leads to a disaster that threatens both his career and Fletcher’s.

It is hard to think of another film that has given such a visceral depiction of a musician’s striving to be the best there is. This is literally a struggle involving blood, sweat and tears. Miles Teller is splendid as Andrew, but the greatest plaudits must go to J.K. Simmons for his terrifying portrayal of Fletcher (he has been nominated for an Oscar, but quite why he falls into the “Supporting Actor” category I don’t know).

Rating: 5/5

Beatles

UK 1964

Director: Richard Lester

Screenplay: Alun Owen

Runtime: 87 mins

An enduring classic is re-released in a restored version

Clang!! This greatest of all pop music films opens with the resounding chime of the greatest chord in pop music, a chord that renders the title track instantly recognisable to millions of people worldwide. As the rest of the song plays over the opening credits, we see The Beatles being chased by their fans, indicating the frenetic lifestyle that is documented throughout the rest of the film.

Now showing in a newly-restored version, A Hard Day’s Night stands alone from any pop music film made before or since. On the surface, it presents a fictionalised day-in-the-life story about the preparation for a television variety show, in which The Beatles will be the headlining act. In order to add some episodes of dramatic conflict, the writer Alun Owen introduces the character of Paul’s scheming grandfather (“a real villain, a mixer”), played by Wilfred Brambell, who drives other characters to behave in ways that threaten to derail the TV show.

However, Owen also shows us the flipside of fame, in which the world’s most famous musicians are constantly seeking to escape from the demands placed upon them. He also delivers some sly satire on the manufacture of teenage fashion. And visually the film is a treat. Much has been made of Richard Lester’s borrowings from the French new wave cinema of the time, but it is possible to overplay this influence. Other more conventional techniques are also deployed to great effect and the heralded “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence obviously borrows from Lester’s own 1960 work, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (a favourite of The Beatles themselves).

There is a very beautiful shot in the “And I Love Her” sequence, when the camera slowly pans around McCartney’s head until a spotlight begins to make the screen white-out, until eventually we see a nicely backlit profile of Paul. This reinforces the dreamy nature of the song itself. During the same song there is also a nice shot of John sitting in the background playing the guitar, whilst in the foreground we see him reflected upside-down in what appears to be a drumskin.

Having never before seen A Hard Day’s Night on the big screen, I watched this restored version at the cinema on two separate occasions. The second time I went was on a Saturday, and the audience were mostly adults including various older adults who had brought their young children. On this occasion there were only a few lines in the film that elicited some isolated titters. The first time I saw the film was a weekday evening, and the audience was easily dominated by young people who giggled at various bits of dialogue and sight gags, including things that would surely have been incomprehensible or bizarre to a modern audience. Did they understand that the joke about Paul’s grandfather being “very clean” is a reference to Wilfred Brambell’s role in the 60s & 70s TV comedy Steptoe and Son, where his son constantly referred to him as a “dirty old man”? One of my favourite moments shows the boys in the studio where they are due to perform, and John elicits some mocking laughter by saying “Why don’t we do the show right here?”. The line is a reference to earlier, more innocent, pop musicals; there may have been only one film that used this line, but in my imagination it feels like every Cliff Richard movie has a scene where his gang – having been thwarted from performing at their intended venue – turn up at a country field, whereupon someone delivers that cliché. The knowing use of the line consciously sets A Hard Day’s Night apart from all the earlier pop musicals.

The film also has some blink-and-you-miss-it moments, as well as some elements that you can’t imagine appearing in any other movie. In one extraordinary scene Paul’s grandfather, who is Irish, is taken to a police station for his own safety, where he also bumps into Ringo. There, he launches into a diatribe against the coppers, telling them he knows it will only be a matter of time before the rubber cosh appears, and singing “A nation once again!”  The scene works because the policemen in question are in fact friendly bobbies, offering their guests cups of tea, but it still seems quite incredible to slip in such a reference to police brutality against the Irish. Quite a few of the media and showbiz figures in the film are clearly camp gay men, though thankfully you always feel these are good-natured depictions rather than homophobic (The Beatles themselves were famously accepting of the sexuality of their manager, Brian Epstein). At one point John Lennon encounters an actor in a regency costume; the two stop as they are about to pass in a corridor and the actor suggests they swap costumes. “Cheeky!”, laughs Lennon, and they move on.

To modern eyes it is surprising to see grown men behaving in a mildly flirtatious manner with girls in school uniforms, as The Beatles do in one early scene. But again, this scene is played entirely humourously and the representation of schoolgirls was almost certainly a simple recognition that this demographic was then the core audience for the Beatles. At one of the screenings I attended there were two very young girls next to me, and they giggled throughout at the scenes of similarly young girls screaming, crying, and hugging each other as The Beatles play onstage. It is only later in the film, when fully adult women appear – actresses – that The Beatles show any real interest in the opposite sex.

A Hard Day’s Night concludes with the boys departing for the midnight matinee at Wolverhampton, a reminder that they haven’t escaped the crazy hardworking schedule that fame has brought them and which, in real life, would eventually see them abandon live music and retreat into the studio. However, as the title track played over the final credits such dark thoughts were swept from my mind and I was lifted once again by some of the most wonderful pop music that has ever been made.

Rating: 10/10