Saturday, April 18, 2009

Anderson/Wakeman tour (2006)

I didn’t see this tour. I seldom go to concerts; plus, I was in the wrong hemisphere for this one. But I recently downloaded a field recording of one of the shows (10/14/06, Opera House Buxton), because I wondered if this might be Yes in disguise.

What’s not surprising about this recording is that neither Jon nor Rick sound much different than they did in their prime, ca. 1973. Jon’s voice has a very slightly detectable hint of the huskiness that comes with age, but for all intents and purposes is the same startlingly high, clear, and agile instrument it was all those years ago. Rick’s fingers haven’t lost a step, so to speak: he can still stroll, saunter, trip, canter, or gallop up and down the keyboard at will. They’re both still virtuousos, if you’re into that kind of thing.

What is surprising is how perfect they sound together, just the two of them. For the most part this consists of Rick playing a grand piano and Jon singing; often Jon will join on acoustic rhythm guitar; sometimes there are solo interludes. In other words it’s just the two of them, but it’s still a full sound, as full as it needs to be. Rick fills up all available spaces (as you always knew he could) with frills and fillips, and Jon proves to be more adept at rhythm guitar than I, at least, had ever given him credit for. Jon’s given plenty of room to stretch out vocally, and Rick’s accompaniment, despite what I said about frills and fillips, is always tasteful and sensitive, supporting Jon’s vocals, not upstaging them. They’re playing together, listening to each other, making each other sound good.

The arrangements are wise. The old songs often shade off into moodier keys than they were originally written in, or shiftier rhythms, the kind of things that are almost impossible to pull off in full-band situations. These changes reinvigorate songs you’ve heard a million times. The new songs sound written to perfectly complement the older ones: constantly changing settings that flow in and out of the older selections. The result is that rare Yes bird, live versions that actually work on their own, rather than as copies of the studio versions.

The only real flaw is the lyrics to the new songs. The tunes are fine, but the lyrics are pretty much the same New Agey slogans Jon’s been writing for the last twenty-five years. His lyrical content has always been New Agey, mind you, but in the ‘70s this content was couched in quite arresting imagery and word-music. You never knew quite what he was singing about, or even what he was singing, but you could tell it was abstract, or more precisely, concrete in an abstract way; very visual, very evocative. “Crawling out of dirty holes their morals disappear.” Somewhere along the way, though, he got evangelical about his New Ageyness: he decided he needed to tell you, in every song, that love is all around, and it’s all you need, and it gives you hope, yadda yadda. All of which may be true, but saying it so directly doesn’t make for good lyrics.

That aside, this is good stuff. Startlingly good, at times. Good enough that you wish they’d pursued the idea. Evidently they got halfway into recording a studio album as a duo, but stalled. The show, though, provides an old double elpee's worth of good stuff. They ought to release it.

Sometimes Yes disguises itself.

James Bond review: A View To A Kill (1985)

CUT TO THE CHASE: In 1985, real men didn’t eat quiche. Bond makes it.

BOND, JAMES BOND: To be fair, that may be an attempt to show that Bond is man enough not to need to subscribe to silly American anxieties about masculinity: he’s secure in his manhood. The problem is…Moore doesn’t look terribly manly serving up that quiche.

So: clever gesture or not, it doesn’t work. And that’s about the size of things for this film. It’s not as boisterously dumb as Moonraker, but it doesn’t work any better than that film. It’s mostly just ho-hum.

It’s Moore’s last outing as Bond, and that should give it some kind of luster. There is a hint of grand nostalgia in the sequence at Zorin’s stud farm in France – although not enough to make that sentence as fun to write as it should be. Mostly Moore and the movie around him look finished, done with, end of the line.

What Makes Bond Bond: He bets on Pegasus. He knows his opponent’s going to cheat, and he makes it work for him.

What Makes Roger Moore Roger Moore: One great shot: Bond in full tuxedo regalia, standing on the stairs of the Eiffel Tower, aiming his PPK. In this shot, as in no other in the film, Moore looks as much like James Bond as anyone ever has.

BAD GUYS: Rogue KGB agent Max Zorin is trying to destroy Silicone Valley so he can corner the world microchip market. See what I mean? Ho. Hum.

Evidently they wanted Bowie or Sting for this role, and that’s why Christopher Walken ends up with bleached blonde hair. Like so much else about this movie, that just doesn’t work. It’s meant to look Aryan, I guess, as Zorin’s a product of an ex-Nazi scientist’s breeding and steroid experiments, but it just looks weird.

Zorin is one of the least memorable Bond villains. Mostly that’s the fault of the writing. We don’t really know what he’s trying to do for most of the film, and when we do find out, it doesn’t make much sense and is hard to get too worked up over. Not that killing everybody in the Bay Area isn’t serious: we just never believe he’s actually going to be able to do it.

But I lay part of the blame at Walken’s door. He gives a typically neurotic performance, with lots of fun twitches and oddly-placed extra beats, but it’s a small performance. Full of finesse, but utterly lacking in the kind of larger-than-life quality it needs to fill up the huge empty spaces of this film. When he’s not on screen, you simply forget about him.

He’s got two henchmen. Scarpin, too, is forgettable; May Day is unforgettable, but not necessarily in a good way. More on her below.

GRATUITOUS SEX: It’s difficult for me to imagine what possessed the producers, making Bond sleep with May Day. I’ll agree that Grace Jones is striking, even that her image had a lot of sexuality built into it. But it was that joyless mid-‘80s gym-honed sexuality: sex as competitive sport. Utterly wrong for 007. She’s a decent Evil Henchman, but a catastrophe as a Bond girl.

Tanya Roberts is a little better—with a resume that included Charlie’s Angels, Beastmaster, Mike Hammer, and Sheena, she had what adolescent boys wanted in 1985, at least. Unfortunately she’s kind of forgettable as a Bond girl, just a pretty Northern California babe. You could almost imagine James settling down with her and, I don’t know, growing roses or something. Taking over a winery. Again, not quite what we have in mind for 007.

But that’s not all in the Gratuitous Sex department for this, Moore’s swan song. There’s the female MI6 agent who drives the iceberg-shaped submarine, and then there’s rival Russian agent Pola Ivanova (Fiona Fullerton) and her Tchaikovsky. Pola is by far the best Bond Girl in the film, despite being just a cameo. GS4, surprisingly enough.

But the worst thing in this department is - it must be said - Moneypenny. I guess because they knew it would be Moore's last film, they lose Penelope Smallbone and let Moneypenny have Bond all to herself. But all dressed up for Ascot, she looks like somebody's grandmother. Bond deserves better - hell, Lois Maxwell deserved better.

AND VIOLENCE: Yes, the fight on the upper reaches of the Golden Gate Bridge is a classic. It’s hard to go wrong with heights, I guess.

To balance that we get death by papillon.

What else? Well, here’s a parable for you. They start off on the Arctic coast of Russia somewhere, Bond skiing his way through a mission. He loses one ski and keeps going on the other; so far so good. Loses that, and sets a trap that nets him a snowmobile; again, so far so good. This he wrecks, so he picks up one of the runners, snaps it to his ski boots, and invents the snowboard.

So far so good. But as he sails off down the slope, the producers play “California Girls.” And not just a snippet: they let it play for a good long time. They’ve been using these jokey music cues for several films now, but this is the most egregious example. Downright ruins the scene. That’s your later Moore Bonds in a nutshell.

BOYS WITH TOYS: This has one of my favorite gadgets of any Bond film: a real live pair of X-ray spex. Unfortunately, they’re not quite cool enough at this point in the series to pull off the obvious joke. Luckily, they realized it and didn’t try. That would have to wait until The World Is Not Enough.

Other than that, not much. Q gets to use a Roomba to spy on Bond. Fun stuff.

JOIN THE NAVY AND SEE THE WORLD: France and San Francisco. The sequences in Paris and Chantilly are not bad at all. But as is almost always the case, the minute the film moves to the US, it loses any steam it had built up, which in this case isn’t much. Bond takes to wearing what look like endless variations on the Member’s Only jacket; he gets stuck in a Generic ‘80s Car Chase, riding a fire engine, of all lame things. Sigh.

ETC.: The title sequence, all day-glo body paint and streamers in black light, is the best thing about this film, by a long shot. Duran Duran give us the coolest Bond theme song in what feels like a geological age, and as it kicks in, the camera closes in on a woman unzipping her parka. Her breasts relax, and as her bare cleavage opens up, it reveals the 007 logo. It’s a classic touch, one of the most ridiculously sublime shots in the entire series. And it's nearly the only thing here worthy of James Bond…

RATING: 002.

Friday, April 17, 2009

De-Lovely (2004)

It's not really an accident that I'm reviewing De-Lovely, a music biopic, so soon after reviewing Cadillac Records, a music biopic. When I put that in my queue, Netflix thought I'd like this one too. I don't know if that makes Netflix really dumb (how many people are into both gritty gutbucket blues and sophisticated ironical showtunes?) or really smart (because in fact I did enjoy them both).

I enjoyed this for a couple of reasons. First, it's a reasonably well-made movie, with a nice focus on a complex relationship, Cole Porter's with his wife Linda. In the end I'm not sure we really understand why Cole and Linda got together or stayed together, but its an unsurety that rings true: in the end I think the only people who understand why a couple stays together are the couple themselves. The movie made me believe their relationship, which is more important than understanding it, maybe.

Second, it exposed me to a lot of great Cole Porter songs, many for the first time. I'll admit that this kind of music is a real blind spot for me (see parenthetical remark #1 above), but I'm always up for a good melody, and Cole Porter had 'em. With captivating lyrics to boot. I'm not going to be able to say anything original about him at this point, but I second what everybody else says.

Curiously, I found the movie's treatment of its songs to suffer from the same flaw that Cadillac Records' did. I say curiously, because on the surface it seems to take the opposite approach. Instead of having the actors sing (with the exception of Kevin Kline, who really can sing), they had professional singers do the job.

The artists in De-Lovely have the advantage in that they're not competing against defining recordings of these songs - many masterful recordings have been made of Porter's songs, obviously, but the songs themselves have their own identity as Cole Porter compositions. They're not as closely identified with any one artist as "I'd Rather Go Blind" is with Etta James. And I don't have a problem with contemporary singers updating songs from that period; I have a couple of the Red Hot + discs and really like them. And (final disclaimer) I don't think the musical performances in this film are all that bad per se (Sheryl Crow's is suprisingly good, Alanis Morissette's is predictably awful, Natalie Cole's is predictably good, and Elvis Costello's is surprisingly weak, considering that he basically owns "Love For Sale" as far as I'm concerned).

It's just that the movie does a really good job of immersing you in the period, and then a familiar contemporary pop singer comes on and reminds you that it's 2009 and you're sitting in your living room watching a movie. Their singing styles are too far removed from what would have been acceptable for the period - from what Porter would have imagined his songs sounding like. The result is that we come away with a clear vision of the man and his relationships, but a fairly hazy view of his musical aesthetic.

The thing films can do for music is provide the context in which the music makes sense. The best music films give you that context, and then give you the music: it's a complete circuit. O Brother Where Art Thou? perfectly and lovingly creates the world that lives inside country blues and proto-bluegrass from the '30s, and then gives you loving recreations of that music, and sometimes the originals. I'm Not There gives you the worlds Bob Dylan imagines in his songs, and the Bob Dylan that those songs make you imagine. These are what music movies should be.

Cadillac Records did a good job of recreating the time and place that conditioned Chess blues. De-Lovely does a good job of imagining the life of the composer. But neither film gives you much in the way of the actual music that resulted from these contexts. We're primed and left hanging, if you'll forgive the mixed metaphors.

De-Lovely ends with a recording of Porter himself singing "You're The Top," and it's a terrible shock. Granted, he isn't thought of as having been a great singer in the first place, but the style he's singing in, the way he enunciates his lyrics, his tonality, is too far removed from contemporary musical aesthetics for the viewer/listener to enjoy without some preparation. And, crucially, little we've seen or heard over the previous two hours has prepared us for it. Now imagine a film that takes us, those of us who are uninitiated in the musical values of the '20s and '30s, and woos us so that by the end, we can hear the beauty and vitality in Porter's performance. So that it makes sense to us musically.

That's what I want from a music movie.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

King Kaufman hangs it up

I once commented that King Kaufman was one of my favorite columnists, or words to that effect. Well, now he's announced that he's no longer going to be writing his regular sports column for Salon. He insists it's a positive move for him, and who am I to say he's blowing smoke, but jeez, it's a drag to know he won't be doing his regular column anymore.

I'm not what you call a sports fan, not really. I enjoy watching the football on a weekend afternoon, just like Hyman Roth, and I can dig about three innings of baseball before I get bored (unless it's the Red Sox, and they're in the playoffs against the Yankees), and I can appreciate soccer if I'm in the right mood, etc. But mainly my interest in sports is cultural: I'm passively fascinated by the psychology of rooting for a team, by the pageantry of the modern NFL, by the historical patina of baseball (not necessarily by the actual history), by the concept of the Olympics, by the beauty of fit bodies in motion.

So I don't read the sports pages, as a rule. But King Kaufman was an exception. He's such a damn good writer, for one thing. And for another, he's less a sports analyst per se than a guy who sits back and asks the big questions and the small, and then gamely tries to answer them. Like, why does Fox Sports hate baseball? Why do we care if Barry Bonds was on steroids? Et cetera.

He's like that friend you might be lucky enough to have whose opinions are so well-thought-out, so original, so aprodamnpros, and so pithily presented that you'll listen to him talk about anything, even if you haven't got the slightest inkling of an opinion on the subject yourself.

I'm going to miss his column.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Derek McCulloch/Shepherd Hendrix: Stagger Lee (2006)

Read this graphic novel recently: Stagger Lee, by Derek McCulloch (script) and Shepherd Hendrix (art). In the fine print in the back McCulloch specifies that Greil Marcus's book Mystery Train first acquainted him with the Stagger Lee story. Me too. And I've been fascinated ever since.

Obviously not as fascinated as McCulloch - I haven't assembled two discs' worth of covers of "Stagger Lee" - but fascinated enough to be thrilled when I found this comic.

Simply put, Stagger Lee killed Billy Lyons in St. Louis on Christmas Eve, 1895. The murder became one of the most celebrated in American song, passing through hundreds of cover versions - hundreds of permutations. It's myth as much as history - and why? It's "all about that John B. Stetson hat." If you can understand that, you'll understand a lot.

McCulloch and Hendrix understand that. It's an amazing comic. It's equal parts historical novel, folkloric investigation, musicology, literary analysis, racial meditation, and artistic evocation of a time and a place. You get a thorough explanation of what we know about the event, what distinguishes the major musical rehearsals of the story, what life was like for African Americans in St. Louis in the 1890s, and What It All Means. And you get it in a story told with intriguing characters, beautiful art, and a wonderful economy of expression. There's a hell of a lot packed into 230 pages, just like there's a hell of a lot packed into the three minutes or so most versions of the song occupy.

St. Louis, in the 1890s. Not only did the Stagger Lee murder take place there, but so did the number 2 and 3 famous American murder-ballad murders: Frankie killing Albert (or Johnny), and Duncan killing Brady. And all this is happening while Scott Joplin is pioneering ragtime just a few blocks away. I used to live in St. Louis, and I used to walk around wondering why this place wasn't a Mecca for anybody interested in American history, African-American culture, popular music... Well, Joplin's house has been restored. That's pretty cool. But when I went there I felt like I was the first visitor it had had in years...

But I ramble.
Here are a few versions of the song, for good measure.

Frank Hutchison's.

Mississippi John Hurt's.

Lloyd Price's.

The Grateful Dead's.

Nick Cave's.

Bob Dylan's.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cadillac Records (2008)

Watched Cadillac Records the other night. As a blues aficionado of sorts, I was interested in this from the moment I heard about it, but it disappeared from theaters before I got a chance to see it. A shame. I think of the Chess catalog as the Old Testament of American music. You ignore it at your peril.

I was a bit disappointed by it as a movie. On the plus side, it's fun. It imagines the major players about like a blues fan would like to think they really were. Leonard Chess is a wheeler-dealer with a complicated relationship to his black artists - he's not innocent, but not entirely exploitative. Muddy Waters is no saint, but he's never less than a man. Howlin' Wolf is a force of nature. And so on. It also has a good visual sense. Some of its images - of Muddy walking along in absolutely flat Delta cotton fields, or Cadillacs pulling past the camera with hoods that go on forever - are pretty righteous.

But as a drama it's a bit confused. It can't decide if it wants to tell a collective story of the label's rise and fall a la Dreamgirls, the parallel stories of Muddy Waters and Leonard Chess, or the love story of Leonard Chess and Etta James. It ends up doing all, and the result is scattershot. Even after eliminating several major players (Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley, not to mention Phil Chess) it feels crowded.

Worse, the writing's lame. Adrien Brody and Jeffrey Wright do their best to evoke some real emotion in here, but they're never given anything but the tritest lines to say. And never mind capturing the mythic power of the blues. There are some evocative scenes, such as Alan Lomax playing Muddy's voice back to him on a turntable in the trunk of his car. But you can't escape the feeling that there's more to be said about the blues and what it meant than this movie can find to say. To go back to the Dreamgirls comparison: I have a lot of problems with what that movie says about Motown, but it at least does a good job of convincing you that it mattered. This doesn't do Chess justice. I'd love to see what Scorsese would have done with it.

The biggest problem is the music. As with most recent music movies, they let the actors sing. I'm sure there are good movie reasons for this, but there are no good musical reasons for it. Jeffrey Wright gives it his best shot, but he never comes close to the sheer authority Muddy Waters had when he sang. Beyoncé reaches deep, but she never stops sounding like a 21st century pop singer trying to dazzle you with melisma rather than rip you up with emotion.

And in a movie like this, if you don't have the music, what the hell do you have?