Thursday, May 4, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Girlfriend is Better

Talking Heads (from Stop Making Sense): Girlfriend is Better

[purchase CD]

[purchase DVD]

Director Jonathan Demme died last week, so it is only fitting that we include him in this theme. Demme could almost be the subject of his own theme here. He directed fictional films such as Something Wild, which made brilliant use of music. Bruce Springsteen won an Oscar for his song from Demme’s film Philadelphia. Demme also made music videos. But here I turn my attention to another form that Demme excelled in: the concert film.

Talking Heads and their leader David Byrne were great subjects for Jonathan Demme. The band came together in art school, and they always had a strong visual sense. Early in the movie, we see David Byrne in normal clothing. He looks skinny, almost emaciated, but man can he move! Girlfriend is Better is a dramatic moment in the film, because it is our first glimpse of the big suit. Demme shows it to us first in the form of a menacing shadow, and then lets us see the man casting the shadow. Suddenly, David Byrne is transformed into something other. When I saw the film in 1984, I did not know that Byrne was on the autistic spectrum, and if I had known, I would not have understood at the time. Now I know that people on the spectrum often feel that they are “other”, that they don’t quite fit in with a neurotypical society. They do however have much of value to contribute. To me now, the arrival of the big suit in the movie is a great visual expression of all of this.

I don’t want it to sound like the movie Stop Making Sense is some kind of manifesto. Taken as a whole, the movie is first of all a record of a great show. Beyond that, it is also a generous film that makes time not just for the music of Talking Heads, but also for spotlights on solo projects by members of the band, including Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz’ side project the Tom Tom Club. Even when David Byrne is on stage, Jonathan Demme’s camera finds other permanent and guest members of the band, and lets us get to know them through their performances. There was talk in the music press at the time of strains in the band, but the film shows a large group that knew how to be in perfect synch for their performances.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Songs From Movies about Musicians: Backbeat

Purchase: Backbeat Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Backbeat, a bio-pic about the earliest iteration of The Beatles—well, The Silver Beatles, actually—came out in 1994, and at the time, I remember thinking: wow! What a movie! So cool, so uber-hip as to be so different from what was happening at the time. I’ve re-watched it since and all I can really say is, in deference to the aging process, the accents are good, especially the guy who played George Harrison. In fact, all the portrayals are good: Lennon is brooding and nasty, Paul is smiley, yet focused. George is quiet. Then there’s Pete Best, the world’s unluckiest drummer, but the focus of the film, Stuart Sutcliffe, the “lost Beatle” or the “5th Beatle”, who left the band to become a painter and then tragically died from an intracerebral hemorrhage is the central story. The injury was the possible result of a vicious beating he took, and a kick to the head, in one of the Beatle’s many misadventures in Hamburg, Germany, where they cut their teeth as a bar band pre-1964 and their history-making splashdown in America to start the British Invasion. The film’s focus is on those wild times, as the Beatles sorted out just exactly who they were, and the irony of seeing them portrayed as pre-icons, unaware of what was to come, makes for interesting watching.  And the fact that the film devotes most of its image making to Sutcliffe and his relationship with photographer Astrid Kirchher, lends to the air of mystery around just who the Beatles were before they become the biggest celebrities in history.

Sutcliffe died a year after leaving the band, at the age of 21, after having secured a scholarship to attend the Hamburg School of Art. Pete Best was replaced by Richard Starkey…the rest is history.

It’s sad to think of what could have been when one discusses Sutcliffe (or Pete Best, for that matter). An artist first, Lennon convinced him to join the band and play the bass, which Sutcliffe had absolutely no talent for whatsoever. But, he looked cool, and in a band as image-conscious as this, that counted for a lot. In fact, it was arguably Sutcliffe that inspired and invented the Beatle’s image—point in fact: he was the first to wear a mop-top; the others were copying him. Same with the Beatle boots and the duds. But, with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison being as talented as they were, tensions were bound to arise—the looks would only get them so far. Seriously, think about it: The Beatles started out like any other pop outfit: thriving, rocketing to fame on their carefully cultivated image and the devastating good looks. But, they surpassed the look and did something as yet really unachieved at that time in pop/rock music, which was make music. 

Music, as in italicized music, asterixed music, real music*.  

The level of talent, of song writing and composition skills, has rarely, if ever, been matched since by a pop band. So, good looks, mop top haircuts, and those Chesterfield suits with the velvet collars and the drainpipe pants, would have only taken The Beatles so far if not for the god-given musical talents. Imagine a history where the Beatles were a relegated to a few oldies hits, dusted off on classic rock radio, never achieving Abbey Road, or Sgt. Pepper’s, because they were kind of Justin Beiber, or something even less, a factory made hit, here and then gone. Pop music is more flash than it is bonfire. The Beatles remain an ever-growing phenomenon not because they were among the first, but because they deserve, perhaps, had to be that. 

The movie itself, as I said, is…OK. It’s a nice period piece, full of authentic sets, haircuts, and great wardrobe. It shows the tensions in the band, defines the personalities that would go on to be more legendary the real, and depicts Paul’s anger and dislike of Sutcliffe, knowing he was better on bass than the aspiring art-school aesthete.  

But, it is the soundtrack that we will end on. Produced by Don Was, and featuring a veritable all-star line up including Dave Priner of Soul Asylum (huge at the time the movie came out); Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs; Mike Mills of REM; Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth; and a young kid named Dave Grohl from a little band called Nirvana. The album is a vanity project of sorts, with ace musicians, wildly popular at that particular juncture, covering, in a most un-ironic way, their roots. The music that Beatles started out with was and remains some of the most enjoyable ever written: 2-minute, whip crack rockabilly and soul numbers that really, though covers themselves at the time, were the very earliest traces of rock n roll. The DNA of the genre, if you will—what made rock n roll a cultural force, and not just a local southern radio oddity named after a slang term for sex, with a fast backbeat and a quicker guitar riff and shuffle.

This modern day crew cuts a fantastic, hyped up and warp-speed collection of such tunes as Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Twist and Shout”, Chuck Berry’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music” and “Carol” and the Berry Gordy penned, “Money”, perhaps the most recognizable of the later Beatle’s hits.

The soundtrack is well done, recorded crisply and full of a buoyant, joyous energy. And like its predecessors, it clocks in at under a half-hour—those 2-minute pop classics, all jangle guitar, shotgun snares and ripping vox are a thing of the past, sadly.  I remember thinking of the album as a nice little novelty, a different kind of sound from musicians who I loved at the time, doing far different sounding music than what was popular (Greg Dulli, in particular, is in excellent form—but, then, the Afghan Whigs were really just a hyped up, angry soul band…). 

For me, having grown up on The Beatles and studied them deeply well before I even got out of middle school, the soundtrack was a lark, a fun reinterpretation. But, for a lot of people my age, in the confused post-Nirvana (Cobain committed suicide just about a week after the soundtrack came out), still growing grunge and alterna-revolution, the soundtrack to Backbeat was kind of a text book, a primer for what came before and laid the groundwork for the rock ‘n roll that was happening now (well, then actually…).  

The thing itself, rock ‘n ‘ roll, is constantly changing, but its roots, as open to debate of ownership and origin as they are, remain solid. The place rock music came from is sacred, a spring or an oracle, still able to mystify. Going back, regardless for the reason, proves, like all good art, that reinterpretation, not necessarily reinvention, will keep the thing perpetually alive. And kicking. Hopefully to a kicking backbeat…

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Songs From Movies About Musicians: Tiny Dancer

Elton John w/ Stillwater: Tiny Dancer


By conceit and definition, Cameron Crowe's 2000 semi-autobiographical timepiece Almost Famous uses a quite specific, carefully curated set of older songs as soundtrack fodder, the better to establish and maintain both the innate historicism of the cinematic summer of '73 it depicts, and the tonal tension of just-out-of-reach coolness that the film explores as it meanders through the intimate and often hilariously naive tour bus chronicles of reputation-on-the-verge and be-true-to-thyself challenges through the perspective of a 15 year old budding music journalist who misrepresents himself to Rolling Stone to garner an all-expenses-paid journey through America alongside fictional band-on-the-rise Stillwater. Indeed, the music used is so inherently integral to the film, it's no surprise to find that the official soundtrack was awarded the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album; though the published product includes less than a third of the songs heard throughout the movie, the 17-track result offers stunning capture of time, tone, and topic in ways that befit the movie majestically.

But unlike most of the other songs in the film, Elton John's Tiny Dancer - at over six minutes, the longest song on the soundtrack, and arguably the one with the longest screen time and significance as well - also serves the narrative explicitly, in multiple ways. Lyrically, it's a perfect match: the song is directly about a groupie, a seamstress for the band who loves the music man, and sings along to the words from the crowd in performance as if they were poetry for her alone. And in many ways, the song provides the emotional climax of the film itself, serving to prompt a slow-build highway sing-along that doesn't so much resolve the building tensions of the groupies and musicians that storm around our narrator as it releases those tensions to the wind, trading them for the unifying factor that transcends and bonds the group - which is to say, the shared love of song and subject, which must be experienced in the heart and in the moment always.

I'm sure there's a word for soundtrack songs which the characters can hear, and react to - as distinct from songs which merely accompany the story, and lend their layers of meaning from overhead. But even if there isn't, this moment, which Rolling Stone Magazine lists as #11 on its list of the The 30 Greatest Rock & Roll Movie Moments (and, I suspect, only rates so low because it would seem smug and self-centered for RS to place a cinematic milestone about its own magazine at the top of the list), provides the prototype, the idealized incidence of how to do it right. And so today we share the song with context: the scene itself, with a tip of the hat to Crowe for making sure the music matters, and still does...and a bonus coversong, for those who want to hear every note, done live and lovely by tender geekpop sentimentalist Ben Folds, recorded just a year or two after the film was released, and thus perhaps at least partially in homage to the movie itself.

Monday, May 1, 2017


This I can't resist, a timely tribute to the humming music scene of that there London on the cusp of the 1960s. Actually made first as a play for the West End in 1958, it was the 1959 film that remains the slightly less dusty memory. The plot mirrors any of the many true rags to ritual stories of the day, shady entrepreneur snaps up backstreet working class crooner, 'I'm gonna make you a star', gives the kid a new name and a new suit and the rest is cliche. Here is actually what George S. Davies in ImDB has to say:

"Johnny Jackson, a sleazy talent agent, discovers teenager Bert Rudge singing in a coffee house. Despite Bert's protestation that he really is only interested in playing bongos, Johnny starts him on the road to stardom. The deal they cut, however, is highly exploitative of the young singer, and their relationship soon begins to go bad."

Sound familiar? Try this. Harry Webb, young skiffle band enthusiast, is spotted by small-time mogul Harry Greatorex. He persuades him to change his name and sends him on the road to stardom. Much as I would love to report a reality as played out in the film, (un?)fortunately the newly named Cliff Richard, for it was he, went on to become a somewhat iconoclastic figure in UK pop, pop that is, rather than the rock he was originally deigned and designed to produce. I am prompted to this post by seeing adverts promoting his new album, 75 at 75, featuring the ridiculously 'youthful'© singer bouncing up and down on the cover. And, yep, quite a legacy of work it is, with at least 5 or 6 I can bear. Sorry, it's true I am no fan of the old bugger, sorry, blighter, lest any confusion occur. (Pity really, as his erstwhile backing band, or at least the guitarist, one Hank B. Marvin (real name Brian Rankin), is an acknowledged influence on legions of plank-spankers from Neil Young to Mark Knopfler.) So why the hell am I wasting your, his and my time with this piece? Easys: the stage name chosen for the fictitious Bert Rudge.........
Ladies and Gentlemen, I offer you Bongo Herbert:

Of course Cliff went on to appear in a myriad of movies, mostly, to be fair, as dire as the similar works of his onetime role model, Elvis Presley. From 'The Young Ones' to 'Summer Holiday' and beyond, ahead of various saturday evening TV variety shows, Cliff Richard seems always to have been in the background of my youth. And, in one instance, actually there. I was perhaps 7 or 8, on the tiny isle of Herm, in the Channel Islands, just off the french coast. For some reason the ferry back to St Peter Port was delayed. Amongst the stranded day-trippers was Cliff, uber-tanned and sporting a splendid pair of budgie-smugglers*. My elder sister was entranced, as everyone tried to get closer to him, without ever formally acknowledging his presence, in a masterclass display of british stiff upper lip. I am uncertain whether he even acknowledged his presence, thankfully sparing us the now ritual response to rain at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

(As I review this, 'cos yes I do, believe it or not, I feel somehow a little churlish, belittling this pillar, this crown jewel of the establishment, indeed still hugely popular with many a blue-rinsed matron, so as recompense, have a Cliff and a Hank, together in their prime:


Buy the film or if you dare...

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Movies About Musicians: Old Joe’s Place

The Folksmen (From A Mighty Wind): Old Joe’s Place


For our new theme, we will be posting songs from movies about musicians. This is a deceptively rich theme that should yield some interesting approaches and results. We can choose, it seems to me, from any of the following: fictional films; documentaries about music and musicians; or concert films. To get the ball rolling, I have decided to start with a movie that could be said to fit all of these categories: A Mighty Wind. A Mighty Wind is a documentary about the making of a tribute concert for the folk music promoter Irving Steinbloom. In the film, Steinbloom may not have been the finest human being, but he did play a key role in the launching of the folk music revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Don’t feel bad if you never heard of Steinbloom; the film as actually a brilliantly executed satire of that revival, and the story and characters are fictional. The satire is gentle and loving, with many of the groups featured having obvious real world models. The Folksmen, for example, are based on pop folk groups of the actual revival, such as the Limelighters and the Kingston Trio, and the impression is spot on.

The Folksmen are played by actors Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. They made their first appearance on a sketch in a 1984 episode of Saturday Night Live, and would later appear as the occasional opening act for the also fictitious metal group Spinal Tap. Astute readers may notice that both groups share the same lineups. Spinal Tap also were featured in a mock documentary, this one called This is Spinal Tap, and both films were directed by Guest. All of the songs were written by cast members.