Saturday, July 31, 2010

Good movies, Pt. I

While movies embraced rock and roll a little late in the game, they did so with the same cynical precision that has tainted the studio system since celluloid itself became more than just a fad.

Hollywood, an industry run by pseudo-puritanical suits possessing a tin ear (like almost all businesses) has never been very kind to rock and roll. Most of what passes for rock and roll in cinema is, and has always been, innocuous schmaltz presented with the sole purpose of making a quick buck (not unlike much of the music industry).

Yet, when the movie industry managed to look at rock and roll off the ledger and acknowledge it as something more than the silly music of adolescent angst, the results have been sublime. Unfortunately, it took some time to rise above the sludge.

One of the great unanswerable questions of the universe is when rock and roll began. Certainly, some of the blues, R&B and jump jazz of the late ’40s and early ’50s qualified as rock and roll but the success of the sound on those sides was confined to a handful of white teenagers (with whom “race music” was rising in popularity, in every sense as an underground movement) and African-Americans — something that hardly mattered in the Jim Crow America of the time.

It’s the Sun Records session of July 1954 that is largely agreed upon as the point where rock and roll found its voice, when Elvis Presley cut Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” and Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” for Sam Phillips. Within a few months from the record’s debut on a Memphis radio station, DJs across the country were spinning records similar to Presley’s sound. Chuck Berry, Little Richard and various Rockabilly bands had been recording for years but it took Elvis to ignite the fuse on the underground and make it a movement.

Hollywood, like the rest of the establishment, refused to accept that America’s youth had fallen under the spell of the new sound. Convinced that teenagers across the country had succumbed to mass psychosis, the establishment negated rock and roll as nothing more than a moment of pubescent hysteria.

The first rock and roll movie was the 1956 comedy “The Girl Can’t Help It” and was produced merely as a vehicle for propelling its star, Jayne Mansfield, to prominence. The opening sequence, a none-too-sly innuendo of Mansfield walking down the street clutching two bottles of milk against her prodigious breasts (with Little Richard’s title tune pounding out on the soundtrack), the tone was set for a satire of the silly fad that was sweeping the nation — rock and roll.

Yet, despite its sneering disregard of the music, the movie sabotaged its own intent, convincing American teenagers that their new music had at last achieved affirmation.

What followed was, in Hollywood’s cynically greedy tradition, was a slew of rapacious rubbish that was both sophomoric and soporific. Almost all rock and roll movies amounted to nothing more than a musical revue (with current hot acts) tied together with the thinnest of plots, all meant to cash in on the budding baby boomer’s taste for The Rock and Roll.

By the early ’60s, those movies had largely devolved into Beach Party movies (riding the wave of surf music’s popularity), almost all of which involved a plot in which some middle-aged villain was determined to squelch the kid’s desire to just dance and make-out. In the end, the bad guy was vanquished, either locked in a closet or found redemption in that, well, the kids were all right and that music was actually kind of catchy.

On the flip side, while Elvis made a few movies that rose above the standard Hollywood Rock and Roll movie dross (“Jailhouse Rock,” “Kid Creole”), asking what was better is rather like asking, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

Given the truly dismal state of Rock and Roll movies, it appeared that the music would remain marginalized by Hollywood; the music presented as Rock and Roll in “proper” movies of the time was largely lousy jazz passed off as “that crap the kids are listening to.” However, in 1964 two movies forever changed how the movies would treat Rock and Roll.

In 1964, experimental film maker Kenneth Anger released “Scorpio Rising” with the first all Rock and Roll soundtrack. Including artists like Elvis, Ray Charles, The Crystals and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (among others), the film hinted at a trend that wouldn’t find its footing until the ’80s — exploiting the emotional power of rock and roll to score a narrative.

That same year, The Beatles released “A Hard Day’s Night” (directed by Richard Lester), the first excellent Rock and Roll film.

Largely regarded by film and music critics as the greatest Rock and Roll film ever made (although not at the top of my list), the movie fictitiously chronicles 36 hours in the life of the band that was, at that time (and in the words of John Lennon), “more popular than Jesus.”

With zany dialog and madcap action, the movie zips along with the chaotic energy of the best Marx Brothers as The Beatles dodge throngs of screaming fans, confused cops and British blue-bloods just to make it to their gig. Interspersed with numerous Beatles’ performances (a precursor to modern music videos), there is barely a wasted frame in the film.

While Rock and Roll movies had been maudlin and mawkish in their portrayal of the music’s effect, “A Hard Day’s Night” is vibrant and fresh, never missing a chance to make fun of the music (or The Beatles, for that matter). The movie is, quite simply, celebratory, an expression of utter joy that is at the authentic heart of Rock and Roll.

What makes the greatest Rock and Roll movies is that spirit of celebration, that expression of the joy of life lived at its fullest and on the edge. It is a characteristic shared by all the best Rock and Roll movies I discuss here.

Number two on my list is “Almost Famous” (2000), a veiled retelling of Cameron Crowe’s adolescent experiences as a budding rock critic (Crowe wrote and directed the movie).

Probably the best cinematic portrayal of what it’s like to be in love and, more so, what it’s like to be in love with music, the movie the young William Miller from his first stab at rock journalism to his travels with the fictional band Stillwater (a kind of amalgamation of The Eagles, Allman Brothers and Led Zepplin). Transcending familiar Hollywood plot lines of emergence (and the journey leading up to that), love, betrayal and redemption, the movie possesses the gift of transporting the viewer into William’s world, allowing us to see that world through his innocent eyes — and experiencing his transformation as we share his pain.

Honestly, I have never met anyone who has said that they don’t like this movie; on the contrary, anytime I have mentioned “Almost Famous,” they’ve only said that they love this movie.

Not so, regarding my fifth favorite Rock and Roll film, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001). Definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” movie, I think some people are disturbed by the transgendered lead character while others find some of the film rather depressing. However, the movie is, from start to finish, celebratory in its declaration of the redemptive value of music and how that value is the soundtrack of a life lived on the edge.

Also depressing in much of its plot, “Saturday Night Fever” (my fourth favorite Rock and Roll movie) from 1977 is nevertheless a celebration of life and how important music is in that.

Stuck in a racially-charged Brooklyn with a dead-end job, a squabbling family, and a group of lunkhead macho friends, Tony finds himself elevated at the local disco, the king of dancing. Painfully aware of his limited chances in life (and made more self-aware by his new dance partner, the successful and educated Annette), Tony seeks an escape from his narrow existence and the trap that life has set for him.

With a soundtrack comprised of some of the most exhilarating music of the ’70s, the movie is liberating, both for Tony and the viewer. Like “Almost Famous,” “Saturday Night Fever” is about how someone risks everything in order to fulfill a dream, to make life everything that it is supposed to be — an expression of love for someone and something.

In its own odd way, “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984) is precisely about expressing love of someone or something except that it does so in a way that is sidesplittingly hilarious. In fact, it is not just the funniest Rock and Roll movies ever made, it is one of the funniest movies ever made.

Marty DiBergi, a documentary film maker and longtime Spinal Tap fan, follows his heroes around on what proves to be, the demise of the band.

With a lethal history of losing drummers — one by spontaneous combustion, another by choking to death on vomit (“but not his own vomit”) — and apparently having outlived their shelf-life, Spinal Tap is unable to bring out a single fan to an autograph signing, gets lost in a labyrinth on their way to the stage, wind up with midget stage props (due to a misunderstanding of proportion), find themselves trapped in other, malfunctioning stage props, find their latest album rejected by their record company, and unceremoniously land a gig for an officer’s dance in a U.S. Air Force hangar.

Yet, in the meantime, the band remains completely optimistic (even the drummer, aware of the life-span of past drummers) at their ability to make their comeback and oblivious to their ineptitude. Indeed, they have complete faith in their talent and music, even if the rest of the world has passed them by.

“It’s very special, because, as you can see, the numbers all go to 11. Right across the board. Eleven, 11 ... And most amps go up to 10? Exactly. Does that mean it’s louder? Is it any louder? Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it? It’s not 10. You see, most blokes are going to be playing at 10 — you’re on 10 on your guitar, where can you go from there? Where? I don’t know. Nowhere! Exactly! What we do, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? You put it up to 11. Eleven. Exactly. One louder. Why don’t you just make 10 louder, and make 10 be the top number, and make that a little louder?” says guitarist Nigel Tufnel to Marty as he explains the unique configuration of his equipment. And it is that “one over the top” attitude that expresses the sheer joy of Spinal Tap.

It is that joy that sets these movies far above the standard Rock and Roll cinematic fare. In these movies, the liberating quality of music and the Zen of maximizing the moment are evident in every frame.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A 1974 Ford Pinto

In less than four months, our country is having an election and, frankly, I’m depressed.

Not in a partisan, us-against-them kind of way; I’m far too realistic and jaded to concern myself with party politics. Ideas excite me, political parties both amuse me and bore me.

No, I’m depressed because I fear our system is so broken that a fix only distracts the voters from the real condition. Politicians and a complicit, duplicitous media (more interested in the stench of celebrity than in honoring the spirit of the First Amendment) are merely morticians applying makeup to a corpse.

There’s a lot that needs to be done in this country but we won’t get there under the current system. Short of creating a Parliamentary system (my preferred solution, giving rise to a multi-party system, one among many advantages), the House and Senate need to :

  • Restrict races to six weeks; if a candidate can’t articulate a clear vision in that amount of time, they’re just more muddle for the game. The endless media circus we call political campaigns is an essentially endless process. Allow the electorate catch its collective breath and force the media to pursue real news.

  • Pass The Fair Elections Now Act to get the mega-rich and large corporations out of the business of buying politicians. Influence peddling has become the primary purpose of politicians and our representatives too often side with paid interests rather than voting in the interests of their constituents. Legislators are so busy rounding up favors to fund their next campaign that they forget why they’re in office.

  • Pass filibuster reform. It’s silly that the Senate requires 60 votes to pass critical legislation and the only argument in favor of the filibuster is that it protects the rights of the minority party. What drivel. The only purpose of the filibuster is to create gridlock, preventing the Senate from getting any work done, and creating a tyranny of the minority.

  • Enact Legislative reform. Rules for legislation in the House demand that amendments are germane to a bill and no riders are allowed. Unfortunately, the same doesn’t apply to the Senate and too often, good bills are killed by bad amendments or riders. Conversely, bad legislation often gets passed riding on the coat tails of a good bill.

Look, if your pet legislation is so crappy that no one will vote for it, get a clue. And if you oppose a bill, be honest and lobby against it, round up votes or get over the fact that things don’t always go your way. Defeating a bill with a poison pill amendment or grabbing some pork through the use of a rider is puerile.

Call me a dangerous radical (or depressed idealist) but until our government can pass the four reforms above, we have a 1974 Ford Pinto of a government.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The worst of the Best Of

Too often, so many “Best Of” CDs contain what amounts to a collection of cuts from albums that, on their own terms, weren’t worth buying — a single cut and a dozen songs of absolute crap.

Or so we think.

As conscientious music buyers, we buy the “Best Of” CD in an attempt to avoid buying an entire collection, assuming we’re getting the “Best Of” as determined by the artist’s record company or some other dimwit who has decided they’ve decided what you’ll consider what’s best by the band, disregarding the gems by the band. Worse yet, some worthless weasel has decided that a band deserves a “Best Of” designation due to their years of assaulting our ears and our spare moments of avoiding that band’s crap.

As a service to my readers (or as a way to irritate a lot of people), I present you with the Worst Of the Best Of: Those collections of hits and knock-offs that should be avoided at all costs, to avoid embarrassment (and someone like me identifying the worthless cur in your collection, in an announcement as welcome as genital warts on a wedding night) or save you precious coinage when you could have purchased something worthwhile.

You’ll thank the IMS in the end, I assure you.

Strictly Commercial: The Best of Frank Zappa. Yes, commercial, but hardly the best and barely anything I’d want to hear as far as Zappa’s output. Indeed, a Zappa “Best Of” release is about as much as an oxymoron as “Pagosa night life,” Chimera, like the Black-Winged Snipe or the left-handed Skyhook. “Best Of” Zappa barely scratches the surface and the cuts on this disk, while “Strictly Commercial,” are hardly the songs that matter to anyone looking for an introduction to the man’s genius. Skip this and purchase a score of Zappa (and Mothers) disks.

The Best of Billy Joel: Really? Was there anything he did that resembles real Rock and Roll? If there was anything Joel produced that didn’t elicit at least a slight gag reflex, please alert me and we can listen to that cut over a slice of white bread slathered with Ragu. Until then, send this disk flying towards the back 40 and fill it full of buckshot; spare the clay pigeon.

Ultimate Yes: Ultimate migraine. Between Jon Anderson’s hideous screech, Rick Wakeman’s onanistic manipulation of the keyboards and the rest of the band’s plodding, prog-rock pretensions, a minute of this tripe is like an evening trapped between two stoners discussing theories of The Pyramids, aliens and Eleanor Roosevelt’s breasts. If you’re intent on playing this disk, do so with the engine running and the garage door closed; we’ll figure out why it was important to you at the inquiry.

Legend — The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers. A disk for people who don’t really like reggae but believe they need a Marley disk to impress their friends. Sure, all the Marley songs you’ve ever heard are here, all overplayed and redundant in their own way, with the collection a complete disservice to arguably the most influential musician in the world (even more than Elvis or the Beatles). A true “Best Of” Marley collection would include at least a half dozen disks and even those would be impoverished and not worth owning with the availability of his individual albums.

Light & Heavy: Best of Iron Butterfly. Owning this disk is like framing and displaying that freshman year report card for the semester you pulled a .25 GPA. This disk is a testament to the fortitude of the sound engineer who, apparently, enough drugs in his system to tranquilize a herd of elephants, still managed to stay vertical at the mixing board. Including 21 cuts of some of the most pointless and moronic sludge ever recorded, the collection doesn’t even include the LP version of “Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida” — as interminable as any Grateful Dead self-indulgent noodling — but the “single version” which, in its very existence, verifies that humans are not nearly as evolved as we’d assumed. Living Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida Loca translates into “A quart of tequila and a quaalude won’t get me through this garbage” without a power drill and several well-placed targets along the scalp.

Hold the Line: The Very Best of Toto. Fly to Africa, eat some monkey brains, catch a nice case of Ebola and then chart the progress of your decaying flesh with a cheap digital camera. Print your favorite photos from that process and glue them onto pieces of cardboard, all tied together with old shoestrings. Your “Best Of” photos, chronicling your lesions and oozing scabs will be immensely more entertaining and socially relevant than anything included in this collection. “I bless the rains down in Africa,” indeed; a nice dose of Ebola is preferred.

Tom Waits — Greatest Hits. Owning this is like buying a .44 Magnum and a box of Nerf bullets. I can only imagine that this exercise was the result of some meretricious contractual obligation that Waits was unprepared to argue away. Ill-conceived and essentially useless, this collection forsakes truly great songs (“Goin’ Out West,” “The Earth Died Screaming,” “Filipino Box-Spring Hog,” among dozens of others) for some truly baffling choices. It’s as if some record executive hired his idiot nephew to pick whatever he liked and the kid made hash marks on the back of Waits’ albums while playing “Metal Gear Solid 4.” Waits deserves much, much better.

Very Best of John Coltrane, is not just a lie but a damned lie: At best this collection is a Reader’s Digest sampler for a twisted rest-home version of musical chairs, at worst, a proud declaration of ignorance regarding Coltrane’s expansive and inestimable genius. There’s no excuse not to own dozens of Coltrane CDs and even less excuse to own this expression of absolute disrespect for an American treasure. Owning this disk makes one as about as cool as Tucker Carlson astride a plastic pink pony.

1 — The Beatles, is OK, I guess, if you’re 14 years old and your parents think an evening of Lawrence Welk is a nifty way to kill a couple of hours, but how realistic is that (and is Lawrence Welk even broadcast anymore?)? I remember this disk topping the charts about a decade ago and thinking that, in this age of easily digestible information, broken down into fruity and chewable Flintstones vitamins, “1” was a perfect example of how distracted our society had become. A race of shattered skulls, continuing to run face first into tree after tree while the forest remains obfuscated. Apparently millions of listeners bought this shameless attempt to continue to milk the Beatles cash cow but the only purpose for owning this disk is to hand it off to our alien overlords and saying, “Listen to this and get back to me when you can tell me what you think of these guys.”

Best of the Beast, Iron Maiden. No true metalhead would own this and the only purpose I can think of for releasing this collection was to give it space on countless jukeboxes in pool halls.

Made in the Shade, Rolling Stones, was a cynical attempt by the Rolling Stones to make a few more million dollars and skirt the fact that they had done far too many drugs in the early ’70s. Drawing cuts off of two great albums (Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street) and two mediocre albums (It’s Only Rock and Roll, Goat’s Head Soup), Made in the Shade was released as a way to mollify fans and make a few bucks while the Stones dragged themselves out of their most debauched and demoralizing period. Unfortunately, Jagger and Richards would not redeem themselves for a few more years, nearly going over the edge with the halfhearted Black and Blue, rising back to something of their former stature with the cocksure Some Girls. Skip Made in the Shade, buy Sticky Finger and Exile on Main Street (truly, two essential albums) and if you absolutely must own the rest of the cuts on this travesty, purchase them off iTunes.

Playlist: The Very Best of the Spin Doctors, is a groove-infused, hippy-dippy whippit fest of putrid mid-’90s jam-band excess. These guys didn’t do anything remotely memorable or notable and to there’s any “Best” here is like choosing between puking in the shower or in bed.

Every Breath You Take: Classics (the Police). I don’t know what is more amazing: that these guys managed to sell so many records or that they had so many people that they were a “new wave” band. If edgy haircuts and skinny ties make the “new wave” band then I guess you could include Huey Lewis and the News and Hootie and the Blowfish in that category (and you’d be dead wrong). The Police were, from start to finish, a band that produced some passable pop music and gave millions of teenagers an excuse to puff up their dos and dye them blue. I shouldn’t be so hard on the Police except for the fact that they gave us Sting, the most annoying, nauseating pap-producer to hit the carousels of middle-aged women attempting to stay hip and young, a Vegas lounge act for the geriatric Gen X set.

Enough. It was a good friend who led me down this path and, this far into it, I’m beginning to realize that the Worst of the Best of is an infinite road, a moebius strip of mediocre and mindless music that, not worth listening to when it was first released, is even less worthy on a Best Of compilation.

Either bands are far too great to require a Best Of compilation and their output should be recognized on the merits of individual works or bands are so inept and awful that a Best Of compilation is a painful reminder of a bad idea gone horribly wrong.

Perhaps the age of the MP3 player has made the era of the Best Of compilation as dead as cassette tapes. Unfortunately, I don’t have faith in that evolved state. While my music snobbery may be insufferable, my savvy regarding the recording industry’s infinite capacity for greed refuses to bury the dead an rotting cur. And, in the words of H.L. Mencken, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”