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September 19, 2016

Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?


American singer and pianist Nina Simone blazed across the sky of popular music for what seems like an incredibly brief period. Her meteoric rise to eminence in the early part of the 1960s was matched by her all too sudden disappearance from public life in 1968. The documentary, What Happened Miss Simone? produced by Netflix and now available on Blu-ray from Universal Music and Eagle Rock Entertainment, not only fills in details of Simone's life before her period in the spotlight, but tells us exactly what happened to her.
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The movie follows Simone from her earliest beginnings playing piano in church and growing up in segregated America. As a child she was taken under the wing of two white women piano teachers who recognized her talent. Like any other child learning piano she had aspirations to become a classical pianist and even attended the Juilliard School of Music. It was her ambition to become the first woman African American classical pianist. However, when that opportunity was denied her through what she believed was racism, she turned to playing in jazz and blues clubs to help support her family.

It was from those inauspicious beginnings her career was born. Her fame was assured with the release of her first record and the public's reception to her rendition of "I Loves You, Porgy" from the Gershwin brothers opera Porgy and Bess. There's some wonderful footage of her playing the song taken from an old Playboy TV show. The sight of a young black woman playing for an all white audience of smug wealthy hipsters says more about the state of America in the late 1950s than any political slogans or protests.

For the next five or so years Simone would do everything from play a sell out concert at Carnegie Hall to sing onstage at Civil Rights rallies. Her famous song, "Mississippi Goddam", summed up African American anger at those obstructing their civil rights in the 1960s. As her career took off she also became friends with the African American intellectual and artistic communities. James Baldwin, Dick Gregory and Langston Hughes were among those she counted among her friends, while her neighbours were the family of the late Malcolm X.

However, while on the surface things looked great, her life was far from easy. Using excepts from her diaries to let Simone tell her own story, the movie shows us a life filled with domestic violence (she was beaten by her husband), loneliness, and repressed violent urges. These written passages reveal a deeply troubled mind.

All of a sudden, in 1968, Simone left America and took herself into self-imposed exile. First to Liberia in Africa, then Switzerland, and eventually France. It was while she was in France in the 1980s her mental illness was finally diagnosed - bi-polar. Her violent mood swings, bouts of depression and even her sometimes extreme behaviour were all rooted in this disease.

Director Liz Garbus has done a masterful job of telling Simone's story. She weaves together archive footage and still photos with contemporary interviews to allow a complete picture of the woman and her times to unfold in front of us. The co-operation of Simone's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, was obviously key in helping her gain access to things like the diaries and other fascinating archival material.

Of course you can't do a movie about Simone without her music. From start to finish we are regaled with the splendour and majesty of her performances. While some of the quality isn't the greatest - we're talking about footage that dates back almost sixty years in some cases - the black and white footage from the old TV shows is wonderful.

Even better is the CD included in this package, as it contains lovely produced versions of many of the songs which feature in the movie. Some highlights include "Mississippi Goddamn", "Sinnerman", and her covers of "I Put A Spell On You", "Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair", and "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood". The latter is particularly poignant in light of the information we found out about Simone in the movie.

The Blu-ray/CD package of What Happened Miss Simone? is a wonderful record of an amazing and unique voice in American popular culture. Simone was more than just a wonderful performer, she was also an articulate and passionate voice in the fight for civil rights. As Dick Gregory says in the movie; "She said things with "Mississippi Goddamn" no one else would have dared say". A great movie about an amazing woman that comes with a bonus CD containing some of her greatest songs.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray/Music Review: What Happened Miss Simone?/a>)

February 22, 2015

DVD Review: The Last Pogo Jumps Again


When people talk about the early days of punk rock London, England and New York City (NYC) always feature prominently in their conversations. CBGBs and Max's Kansas City in New York and the 101 in London are club names spoken of with almost as much reverence as the names of the musicians who made the venues famous. However, in 1976, about twelve hours north of NYC, across the border in Canada, the sleepy little city of Toronto, Ontario was starting to wake up and discover it wasn't just a cultural outpost for Europe and the US. In a country with no record labels of its own, where theatre performances were primarily touring road shows from England and the US and the only films being made were deliberately awful so they could be used for tax write offs by their investors, an explosion was needed to jump start its circulation.

That explosion was punk, and the epicentre was a few square blocks in the city's downtown core. From 1976 - 1978 the first wave of punk hit Toronto with all the grace and power of a beer bottle thrown from a fire escape exploding on the street below. Sure there were casualties, but the aftershocks sent reverberations through the cultural make-up of the city, and by extension the country, which helped to redefine the arts in Canada forever. Those who didn't live through the times, or even the six or seven years following them, might not realize the impact punk and its Do It Yourself ethos had on Canadian culture.

The documentary film, The Last Pogo Jumps Again (named for an infamous concert in 1978 called The Last Pogo which gathered a number of local bands together for a final two day blow out concert at the immortal Horseshoe Tavern after the owners balked at letting promoters book any more punk bands - it ended with the police shutting the bar and fans smashing the furniture) directed by independent directors and producers Colin Brunton and Kire Paputts does an amazing job of not only recreating the atmosphere of the times, but also in depicting the scene and its major players warts and all.
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Probably very few outside of Toronto have ever heard of Nazi Dog (Steven Leckie) and The Viletones, The Curse, The Demics, The Diodes, The Forgotten Rebels, Teenage Head, The B-Girls or many of the bands who appear in the film. A couple of them managed to attain some status beyond the city's borders; Martha and the Muffins were fortunate enough to sign with a British label. (The irony of having to buy a Toronto band's album as a British import was a sad commentary on the state of the Canadian record industry at the time) Those few bands, Teenage Head and The Diodes, who did manage to get record deals were screwed over by the industry. In spite of the former selling over a 100,000 copies of a single album, they never really made it big or any money.

Through present day interviews with former members of the various bands, the promoters who booked the spaces for them to play and various others who were part of the scene, the film makers chronicle the key years of 1976 - 78, punk's fermentation in Toronto. At three and a half hours (cut down from its original five) you'd think this movie would be over long, but you don't notice the time passing at all. The people, the subject matter and the way the movie has been pieced together pulls you in so beautifully you're completely involved with the story. For those of you who want even more, there's a DVD of special features included in the package which is the over 100 minutes cut from the film.

What makes the movie so fascinating, and so poignant, is the wonderful mix of personalities and people we meet. Some of them remain the defiant and witty selfs they were nearly forty years ago. They are still working on their own terms as artists but not hanging on to whatever brief glory they had in the past. They have obviously moved on with their lives but continue to draw upon the same creative energy which fuelled them in the beginning. Unfortunately others haven't been so fortunate. We see men who have obviously had their lives ravaged by booze and drugs. Guys who once lit up a stage and a room with their presence who now look like wrecks of their former selves.
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It's unfortunate because these were the men and women who were directly responsible for bands like Arcade Fire and The Metrics being able to forge careers. Without them there wouldn't have been an independent music scene in Canada. Back in the 1970s the major labels, CBS, RCA and the others, all had affiliates in Canada. However, none of them, save CBS, could sign a Canadian band without approval from head office in Los Angeles. While they might have all been signing New York punk bands, none of them were interested in Toronto. This forced most of the bands to form their own labels and produce their own records. Heck The Diodes even built their own club, The Crash & Burn, as there were almost no venues initially for the bands to play in.

One thing the documentary makes clear, is that the punk scene in Toronto wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful as it was without the men who became known as The Garys. Gary Topp and Gary Cormier got seriously into promoting music when they took over operation of a run down cinema on Toronto's main drag, Yonge St. In 1976 they booked The Ramones into The New Yorker for their first ever Canadian concert. They were followed by The Talking Heads, Wayne County, The Cramps and Tom Waits. When the New Yorker became too expensive, they moved onto the Horseshoe tavern and threw it open to local as well as international bands. They went onto to open The Edge, which continued to mix local talent with out of town groups like Gang of Four, B-52's, XTC and even Nico - former Velvet Underground singer.

However, concert promoters can only nurture a scene, they don't create it. Without the individuals who had the nerve to want more than what was on offer at the time and to do something about it, there wouldn't have been anything to promote. The Last Pogo Jumps Again delves into the heart of that scene and tells us the stories of the people who made it beat to its unique drum. The legacy of Toronto's punk scene can be heard and seen in everything from cover bands in Japan playing songs by Teenage Head, Nirvana's cover of a Viletones song and a thriving independent music and arts scene in Canada forty years later. As Steve Leckie says near the end of the movie, "Punk maybe dead but its still bleeding". You can buy this fascinating piece of music history through its web site's shop. Its worth every penny and more.

A version of this review first appeared at Blogcritics.org as The Last Pogo Jumps Again: Punk Toronto Lives)

November 3, 2014

DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders


It's been a long time since the hay-days of punk rock in New York City, and even a longer time since the original line up of the New York Dolls took to the stage. Yet that period, since the dolls formation in 1972 and the subsequent punk scene centred around the East Side of Manhattan starting in 1976, produced some of the most influential and controversial pop music artists of the late 20th century. One of the most enigmatic and talented figures of the era was the Doll's original lead guitar player, singer songwriter Johnny Thunders

Born John Anthony Genzale in 1952 he died under strange circumstances in a New Orleans Hotel on April 23 1991. Known for his heroin habit and hard living it has been generally assumed he died of a drug overdose. To those not familiar with his story Thunder's life and death can be dismissed as just another case of a rock and roller wasting his life and potential via a needle in his arm. However, as the documentary Looking For Johnny: The Legend Of Johnny Thunders from director Danny Garcia recently released on DVD and distributed through MVD Entertainment Group shows, there's more to his story than you'd think.

The documentary is the usual mix of interviews and archival footage we've all come to expect from this kind of film. However, director Garcia and his editing team have done a great job of seamlessly cutting the interviews and other footage to give us a chronological account of Thunders' life. They've also done an excellent job of establishing the background against which his early career played out against. New York City was a much different place in the 1970s and early 1980s than it is today. Close to bankrupt, crime riddled, Manhattan, especially its Lower East Side, was a haven for drug dealers and struggling musicians needing cheap housing. It was here, in old warehouses and cold water walk-ups the new music scene developed.
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As the movie follows Thunders' musical trajectory over the course of his life, from high school bands through his membership in the New York Dolls, the seminal punk band The Heartbreakers with Richard Hell and his attempts at a solo career, we learn how he was not only a dynamic performer, but also a prolific and accomplished song writer. As his former bandmate in The Dolls, Sylvain Sylvain says when talking about arguably Thunders' best known song, "You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory", when someone like Bob Dylan says they wish they wrote a song, you know its great.

However, even more importantly we learn how much he was loved and/or respected by those who knew him. While he might have careened through most of his adult life addicted to drugs, the majority of those interviewed in the movie only speak of how much he meant to them. Sure, he pissed them off at times, and he was impossible at other times, but they still stuck by him and remember him with affection and or sorrow. The impression we are left with is of a vulnerable individual who was his own worst enemy, but was deeply loved in spite of his faults.

While there is no escaping the fact drug and alcohol abuse was responsible for killing his potential for a financially successful career, there's also no denying the influence he had on popular music. He might never have achieved fame in North America save as an underground star, he toured extensively through-out Europe and Japan both as a member of his various bands and as a solo act and his music influenced everyone from The Sex Pistols to Morrissey. Any question you might have about Thunders' abilities will be laid to rest by the archival footage of his solo acoustic performances. There is something so incredibly raw and vulnerable about the sight and sound of him standing on stage with his guitar it can bring tears to your eyes.

When he was able to open himself up to his music, rid himself of the demons which tormented him and drove him into the arms of addiction, he shone with the light of true inspiration. It would be easy to dismiss Thunders as another example of a great talent gone to waste through the deprivations of drugs and alcohol, but as the movie makes clear his death was more than a case of another guy simply overdosing. Garcia and his crew were able to obtain a copy of the coroner's report on Thunders' death and it puts things in an entirely different light as it indicated his body showed all the signs of him being in the later stages of leukaemia.
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Interviews with friends who saw him in the months leading up to his death confirm they were worried about his health. He had admitted himself to a detox centre and was on a methadone program in an attempt to get himself clean, yet he looked to be sicker than ever. Phyllis Stein, the former partner of his long time friend and fellow Doll and Heartbreaker, the late Jerry Nolan, talked about the last time Nolan saw Thunders before he left New York City for New Orleans. She says Nolan came home shaken and described Thunders as being covered with bruises where there shouldn't have been any. Stein then tells us how her mother had died of leukaemia when she was a child, and how in the later stages of the disease she displayed the same symptoms.

Yet in spite of knowing he was very sick, and probably knowing he was dying, from all accounts Thunders was doing his best to get clean. Instead of doing his best to continue with his seemingly endless quest to escape reality, he seems to have in the end resolved to at least attempt to meet his death face on. Nobody knows for sure what happened the night he died in a New Orleans hotel. The police never looked into why his room had been picked clean of all his money and possessions, or why riga-mortis had frozen him in a foetal position when they finally found him. They just dismissed it as another junkie death.

As Searching For Johnny - The Legend of Johnny Thunders makes perfectly clear, Thunders was more than just another junkie. Nearly 25 years after his death he is still remembered and talked of fondly by his friends and those he played music with. Music he wrote more than thirty years ago is still being played and sought out around the world. You might not be able to put your arms around a memory, but this movie helps to keep the memory of Johnny Thunders alive and reminds us of what he meant to both popular music and those who loved him. If you've never understood what all the fuss is about, watch this movie and it will give you at least a glimmer of understanding into the life and times of one of rock and rolls' great talents. If you did know of him, or know him, watching this movie will break your heart all over again.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Looking For Johnny - The Legend Of Johnny Thunders)

March 5, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Come Back Africa, The Movies of Lionel Rogosin Volume 2


Documentary movies always seem to get short shrift. For too many people there the things people tell them to watch at school so they will learn something. Growing up on a diet of talking heads sitting around talking about subjects you're not really interested in would turn anybody off watching them. Which is highly unfortunate, as there are documentary movies out with just as much action and excitement as anything the studios could ever come up with. In fact, they are even more intense when you remember what you're watching actually happened.

The rather unfortunate shunning of this genre of film making has led to some of the more innovative directors and producers being ignored or forgotten. One of the most brave and innovative American documentary makers was probably someone most of you have never heard of, Lionel Rogosin. After returning from fighting in Europe in WW ll he was determined to continue the fight against oppression and intolerance in some way. Even though he had never directed or had anything to do with film before, he decided it would be the best way of communicating to the largest number of people at once. His first movie, On The Bowery, a documentary about the down and outs in New York's lower east side, won the Grand Prize for documentary films at the Venice Film Festival and The British Film Academy Award in the same category in 1956.

But injustice was what he wanted to depict, not just cinema verite, and he created two landmark movies which dealt with the circumstances of two groups of people dealing with systemic racism: Africans in South Africa in the late 1950s, Come Back Africa and African Americans in the early 1970s in Black Roots. These two movies have now been restored and packaged together in a special Blu-ray presentation by Milestone Films under the title Come Back Africa: The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume ll.
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Come Back Africa was shot on location in South Africa and is a mix of documentary and docu-drama. Due to the fact he had to lie to the government about what he was filming in order to get permission to shoot, Rogosin and his crew had to shoot hundreds of feet of footage they would never use. The rest of the time they had to make sure they were not being observed and shot most of the film on the fly or in locations they knew were secure. They also had to use amateur actors due to the risk of informers. According to the documentary about the making of the movie included as one of the special features, Rogosin and his wife showed up in Johannesburg and were fortunate enough to meet several white members of the African National Congress and Africans who were willing to help them with the script and finding locations.

In order to attempt to tell the world the reality of the indignities of Apartheid they decided to focus on the plight of one man and his struggles to find work and what he and his family had to put up with in order to survive. We follow the one character through a variety of work and living situations, including making a trip down into the gold mines with the workers. While we are now overly familiar with the horrors of the Apartheid system of segregation and the manner in which it dehumanized Africans, in the 1950s this would have been a brutal revelation to the rest of the world. On the other hand it was also the first introduction people outside of South Africa had to the music of the townships. (One of the excuses Rogosin gave to the South African government for making the film was telling them they were documenting the music of the "natives" to show how happy they were in their lives).

The film was shot entirely on location in Sophiatown, the black ghetto which had been home to Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and Hugh Masekela, plus many of the actors and script writers who were involved in the films creation. At the time of the filming it was a centre of Black culture and activism. It was also on the verge of being destroyed by the South African government. Shortly after filming finished all the residents were forcibly evicted and the township razed and replaced with white only housing.

Instead of imposing a script upon his African cast, Rogosin gave them scenarios and let them improvise their own dialogue so they could create as accurate a picture as possible of their lives. The scenarios themselves were based on events the cast had actually lived through and in spite of their lack of experience they were able to impart these scenes with a verisimilitude you'd never find in a scripted movie or regular style of documentary. It might be raw and a bit awkward at times, but there can be no denying the power of what you're watching.
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Of course the irony of this being filmed at the same time the battle against segregation in the US was just starting to really heat up isn't easy to forget. Ten years after making Come Back, Africa Rogosin made the second feature included in this package, Black Roots, which is a kind of oral history of African Americans told in words and music by a couple generations of African American musicians. Reverend Gary Davis, Jim Collier, Larry Johnson, Wende Smith, Florynce "Flo" Kennedy and others simply sit around in front of the cameras exchanging stories and singing songs relating ot the horrors of the African American experience in the 20th century.

They tell stories about everything from witnessing lynchings by the Klan to how their sharecropping families would work all season picking cotton and then not be paid a cent for their labour as the dealers would rob them blind. The songs they play range from old Leadbelly country blues numbers to more modern angry songs. Collier singing the lines "If I can't live my life in freedom/ I'll burn the whole place down" is a reflection of the state of African American anger at the time. After hearing their stories you may begin to have an inkling why patience was wearing so thin among their communities. Not only had their best leaders been killed or arrested, they had lived lives of horrible indignity for hundreds of years. I'd be pissed at any white liberal telling me change takes time if I had experienced even a modicum of what they and their families had endured.

Considering these films were both shot on film and the prints have been laying around for ever, both the sound and the visual quality are much better than you'd expect. While it's obviously not going to be up to the standards most people are used to, they were both still of a better quality than any number of movies I've seen put into digital format. However, even more important is how these films are still relevant today. While they are over fifty and forty years old respectively, both are not just important historical documents, they also put current conditions in both North America and South Africa (and any other place where indigenous and other populations have been oppressed by a majority or minority) into their proper context. When you see and hear the stories being told in either of these movies you might begin to understand how much further both societies have to travel before they can even begin to make redress for the past.

These two movies are examples of the power film has to tell stories and impart information in a way no other medium can approach, Watching these two examples of Rogosin's work lets you see the potential there is in cinema for effecting change, and how its power is being wasted by those who see it only as the means for making money. Documentary movies can be every bit as emotional and passionate as any other kind of movie, and what makes them even more frightening is they are telling the truth. No horror movie Hollywood churns out can match the fear and loathing either of these documentaries generate in their audiences.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Movie Review: Come Back Africa: The Movies of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2)

November 26, 2013

Movie Review: The Last Song Before The War


I can't remember when I heard about the Festival au Desert, which has been taking place in Northern Mali since 2001, for the first time. I do remember it was in 2009 I was offered press credentials to cover the Festival, and regretting having to turn the opportunity down. Without a sponsoring media organization to cover my costs of travelling there was no way I could finance the trip. Maybe that's why, even though I've never been, I feel a connection to this event like no other musical event staged anywhere in the world and regret missing it each year more than I've regretted missing anything else.

For those who don't know Festival au Desert is an annual celebration of the music and culture of the people of Mali. Held during the time of a traditional festival of the area's nomadic Kel Tamasheq people, it also commemorates a peace treaty signed between the Tamasheq and the Malian government in 1996 ending years of armed struggle. All of which made the festival's cancellation due to armed conflict in 2013 even more of a bitter pill to swallow. While it looks as if conditions have settled down sufficiently for the festival to be renewed in 2014, for a time it looked like not only the future of the festival was in doubt, but music in Mali period. What had started as a Tamasheq uprising in North Mali had been usurped by fundamentalist Islamists intent upon imposing their version of Muslim law on the region and the country, including the outlawing of music.

Thankfully a combination of French, Chadian and Malian troops have ousted the terrorists forces from Mali. The French then followed this up by brokering a new treaty between the Malian government and the Kel Tamasheq. Unfortunately terrorists are still active in the region, witness the murder of two French journalists recently, which makes holding a festival with international guests and visitors something of a risk. So it might be a while before the festival can return to its home in the north. However, for those like me who can't get there, and those who would like to have a taste of the experience, all is not lost. A new documentary film, The Last Song Before The War, from Thinking Forward Media, is the next best thing to actually attending the festival.
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Technically speaking they shot the film at the festival in 2011, so it wasn't the last festival before the war, but it was the last one before the spectre of war hung over the proceedings like a dark cloud. As the movie details three British citizens had been killed in Mali in late 2011 and the war actually started only days after the festival ended in early January of 2012. There's a very poignant interview with Malian singer Kharia Arbry, a woman who defied traditions to become the first female to perform publicly as a singer in Northern Mali, talking about playing with fear in her heart during the festival in 2012.

However, the bulk of the movie is spent on celebrating the festival and the music and culture of Mali. We start in the capital city of Mali, Bamako, joining organizers for the final meeting before the festival as they iron out last minute details. We then learn something of the logistical problems involved with organizing a music festival in the Sahara desert. As with many developing nations infrastructure, like paved roads and bridges, we take for granted in the West, aren't prevalent in Mali. While it might be a short plane hop from Bamako to Timbuktu, the major city nearest the festival location, it can take two to three days to cover the same distance by car.

We travel north with the film crew over hard packed dirt roads and a ferry crossing through villages and small cities until we finally reach Timbuktu. Everywhere you travel are the signs of a country trying to shake off the chains of poverty. An ex Minister of tourism in the Malian government explains tourism is the third largest sector of the Malian economy. International events like the festival are vital to not just the north, but the entire country, for the spin off effects it has on the economy. We see signs of this the closer we come to Timbuktu as more and more European faces start to appear in the market squares of the towns and a local man tells us the markets are busy today because of all the tourists heading to the festival.

Finally arriving at the festival site, we are struck again by its isolation. While rows of tents have been set up to accommodate travellers and there are other signs indicating something will be happening here, what you notice most is the sand stretching endlessly in all directions. As if to emphasis the point we hear from Festival director, Manny Ag Ansar, the truck carrying the sound system broke down. A replacement truck had to be found and the equipment transferred onto the new vehicle before it continue its journey north. The truck has still not arrived, but is expected soon, after which it will take about six hours for the set up. He hopes to be able to start the festival on time later that day...but... he shrugs and smiles.
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Then the music starts, and you realize why people like Robert Plant and Bono have made the pilgrimage to Northern Mali to attend the festival. Mali is the birthplace of what we know as pop music and to hear what are familiar sounding blues riffs played on an instrument that looks like its made out of a stick stuck into a long narrow gourd strung with four strings (a ngoni) is to understand and appreciate the music all over again. Then when you hear how the Malians, from Kel Tamasheq bands like Tinariwen to the phenomenal guitar player Vieux Farka Toure, have taken guitars, Western blues and rock and roll and melded it back into their own traditions, it's like the music has come home to where it belongs.

While scenes of crowds massed together in front of a stage listening to performances are common, watching massed rows of camel riding turbaned people parading through the grounds is not something you'll see at most gigs these days. It reminds you forcibly you're in another world, another culture, and you're being given the opportunity to experience something rare and beautiful. In a continent which has seen tribal wars escalate into horrible massacres, this coming together of the many tribes and people of Mali, and of different races from around the world, for the sole purpose of enjoying each other's music, is wonderful.

The Last Song Before The War is not only a chance to experience the festival. For, while the film makers have done a wonderful job in letting the beauty and wonder of the spectacle speak for itself, they've also done an equally excellent job of placing the festival in its appropriate context historically and culturally. Through interviews with musicians representative of the various people of Mali and overseas, journalists, organizers of the event and audience members they inform us of the history of the event, what it means to locals (musicians and non-musicians alike) and the impact it has on those who visit.

They've also made the wise decision to let the events of early 2012 speak for themselves. by using feeds reporting on the war's early stages and the later developments which saw the imposition of the invaders' narrow interpretation of Islamic law. One thing they failed to mention which is important for viewers to understand, is over 80% of Malians call themselves Muslim. However, that didn't prevent more than 300,000 people fleeing from the draconian laws being forced on them. From internationally known musicians to poor farmers, they were all forced to flee the cities of the north to seek refuge where they could.

The Last Song Before The War is a beautiful trip to an oasis of harmony and music in a world filled with strife. Far too many documentary movies never give you the chance to experience their subject matter in a tangible enough way to genuinely appreciate what the movie is about. Here the film makers have created the perfect mix of information and example to allow you to understand why music lovers the world over point to Festival au Desert as an example of what music could and should be. At the very least it should whet your appetite to find out more about the music and the people of Mali. Who knows, it might even encourage you to make the pilgrimage to the roots of the music you love.

Currently you can pre-order the DVD of The Last Song Before The War which should be available in early 2014

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Film Review: The Last Song Before The War)

November 20, 2013

Television Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana


Once upon a time there was pop music. You either liked what you heard or you didn't, and you didn't particularly care about anything else. There were other types of music other people listened to, but that wasn't pop music. There was country and western music which was played by people who dressed funny and whose audience seemed to made up of senior citizens and people with short hair. It was like it was from another world. However as you grew older you discovered something, the rock and roll you listened to had been born out of the strange marriage of country music and blues music.

As you listened to more and more music, the more you realized it was all interrelated. From punk to disco it all could be traced back to the same beginnings. Sure it had split off onto wildly divergent paths, but they all traced their roots back to the same sources; the folk music of the British Isles and African music brought over with slaves. Even with Spain and France having significant impact on certain areas of North America, the African/British influence has remained the dominant force in popular music. You might hear traces of one of the other two, but they are usually laid over the same core everything else is.

As the music industry has sought to target specific markets they've begun pop music was divided up into an ever increasing number of sub-genres. Even though I've been a music critic for eight years now, I still couldn't tell you the difference between half of them. Even more confusing is the way so many people seem to apply different names to what is essentially the same music. One of the more confusing ones that's popped up in recent years has been something called Americana. My initial impression of this genre was it was a catch all category for anything which didn't fit anywhere else as it seemed to include everything from Woody Guthrie style folk/country music to Credence Clearwater Revival rock and roll. Well according to a new television special, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of American, airing on PBS Friday November 22 2013 from 9:00 - 10:00 pm DST (check local listings for air times in your area) as part of its PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013, I wasn't too far off.
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While I found the focus of the hour long show a little too Nashville-centric when it came to discussing the history of what it called Americana, and overly concentrated on its country roots, it doesn't stop the points it makes about the music any less valid. As was pointed out by one of the talking heads - it was hard to keep track of who said what with so many voices chipping in over the course of the show - America is still a young country comparatively speaking and is only now beginning to develop its own sound. This sound, coming out of the melting pot of cultures which have met in America, explains why Americana is such a mixed bag of musical types and genres.

The examples of bands considered by the show to qualify for the genre ranged from a Latin tinged country rock outfit from Miami to the new darlings of pop music Mumford and Sons from England. However, most of the bands on the show seemed to be ones with obvious country or Nashville influences. Combined with the show's crediting of Emmylou Harris, via her association with Graham Parsons, as being one of the primary influences on the current Americana scene, gave the impression that country music is the major factor in the development of this music. Aside from the inclusion of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Alabama Shakes, they seem to have forgotten any African American influence there could have been on American music. In fact Carolina Chocolate Drops lead vocalist Rhiannon Giddens sort of sidled up to the point with her comment about it being nice to play gigs where the Alabama Shakes are sharing the bill, as they add a little bit of colour to the proceedings.

Now none of this is meant to disparage any of the people mentioned in the show. I've always loved Emmylou Harris, but I think its a bit of a stretch to credit her with being as great an influence as the show suggests. To do a show about this type of music and never once mention four guys from Southern Ontario and their drummer from Arkansas, The Band, is like talking about Opera and not mentioning a guy named Mozart. Parsons and Harris may have tried to bring country music to the pop music crowd in the early 1970s, but The Band remain one of the first outfits who created a melange representing almost every musical culture imported into North America.

While they call the show, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana the real emphasis is on the first part of the title - Nashville. Here the show excelled showing us how country music and Nashville have diversified so it now represents more of America than just a small segment of the population. It was also interesting to see what young bands like The Avett Brothers and Civil War to name only a few, have done with the country form to create a sound of their own. What was especially nice to see was the care these bands were taking with vocal harmonies, arrangements and the crafting of songs in general. It's a refreshing change from listening to the image conscience, celebrity seeking, so called musicians the air waves are usually littered with these days.

The show isn't hurt either be the people chosen to be front and centre as guides for the hour. Roseanne Cash, Buddy Miller, Billy Bragg, and Jim Lauderdale are not only knowledgable and intelligent, they each have an honest to god love and appreciation for the music which you can't help but get caught up in. Talking heads in shows like these can be boring or dry, but these four aren't shy of showing their excitement about an act or letting their emotions slide through. When Cash talks about how country radio stations refused to play her late father's latter recordings she doesn't attempt to hide her scorn for them and her pride in her father for being true to himself.
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It was Lauderdale, though, who had one of the best moments in the show right at the opening when he introduces the word Americana for the first time. He gives a little sly smile, almost as if tipping the audience a wink, and you can almost see the quotes round the word as he says it. He's not trying to undermine its significance but he's letting us know he doesn't take this business of genres too seriously. When he and Miller get together, either working with a younger band for the satellite radio show they host, talking about the music or performing you sense their deep love for what they do.

Hearing and seeing the music through the eyes and ears of these two and the others, and feeling the love they all feel, is what makes this show special. You can't help but be caught up their enthusiasm and excitement over the bands. All of them have been around the music industry for a long time, and with the exception of Bragg, most of that time had been spent in Nashville. What has made them all so excited is the genuine change in country music with the resurgence of people being interested in creating music and not just songs.

While I'm not in agreement with all that's expressed on this show, and I think there were some glaring omissions, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana does a good job of explaining the genre's seeming lack of boundaries. It also provides viewers a chance to meet some of the new bands who are performing new versions of country music. It may not be a complete picture of Americana music, but its some of the better music being played today. It's real people, making real music and singing about things they believe in. I don't care what you call it, but that's generally a recipe for great music.

(Photo credits: Deborah Feingold)

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana

November 11, 2013

DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film


When people talk of the genesis of punk rock they usually refer to bands like Television, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash as being the ones at the forefront of the movement. Sometimes it seems like the music sprung out of nowhere, as if all of a sudden people like Richard Hell, John Lyndon and Joe Strummer came up with the idea our of thin air. While these bands and individuals were vital to the genre's success and their role in its history can't be denied, there were others who laid the groundwork for what would become punk. Iggy Pop and the Stooges, The New York Dolls and the recently deceased Lou Reed are the names mentioned most frequently as being their inspiration.

However, a new documentary movie by acclaimed director Julien Temple, Oil City Confidential, distributed in North America by MVD Entertainment Group, tells the story of a band whose contributions have largely been forgotten, but who probably had just as much influence on the punk scene as any of those mentioned above, Dr. Feelgood. Temple has made a career out of charting the history of British punk through a series of documentary movies including The Great Rock and Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols and The Future is Unwritten about Joe Strummer, so he's not someone's who opinion you can dismiss lightly.

While a version of Dr. Feelgood continues to exist and tour today, it was the original line up and the period between 1971 and 1977 which concern us and Temple's movie. However, Temple does more than just focus on the story of a band and rock and roll, he creates the context for both their birth, character, success and failure. Employing the band's original guitarist, Wilko Johnson, as a kind of tour guide and oral historian, Temple sets the stage for their beginnings by taking us back to the land of their birth, Canvey Island. Thirty miles east of London in the county of Essex, Canvey Island is located offshore in the Thames River. While a type of holiday resort for Londoners in the early part of the 20th century, 1936 saw the construction of the first oil terminal in the region and since then refineries and terminals have sprouted up like boils until they now cover the landscape.
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So when the band (Aside from Wilco members included The Big Figure (John Martin) drums, John B Sparks bass and Lee Brilleaux (Lee Collinson) vocals, harmonica and occasionally slide guitar) formed in 1971 the smokestacks of gas refineries and the huge oil storage tanks dominated the landscape. As the oil business loomed large in the life of those from Canvey Island, so Canvey Island loomed large in the development of Dr. Feelgood. In order to establish what the island meant to these four guys and how it figured in the character of the band, Temple spends a portion of the movie telling us the history of the island.

Using archival footage dating back to pre-WW II we learn the island had a wild reputation. It was a place where you went to do things you wouldn't do back home. Loose women, booze, gambling - almost anything went on Canvey Island. In 1953 the below sea level island suffered its worst recorded disaster when it flooded killing 58 people and forcing a great deal of the population to be evacuated. The flood hit the tourists areas, including the amusement parks and holiday camps, hardest as they were closest to the Thames. Following the flood a new concrete flood wall was built. As a result the island now closely resembles pictures you see of fortified beaches in France during WWII as its completely surrounded by concrete.

Interspersed with the history of the Island we learn the history of the four original band members and how they found each other. Brilleaux had formed a jug band when he was a teenager. They would take their instruments around in an old baby pram to various tourist spots and pubs and set up outside and busk for some extra cash. Temple has unearthed some great footage of them wheeling a pram piled high with instruments as they head out to gigs. However, it was the blues and R&B Brilleaux really wanted to play. So he, Sparks, and Martin approached the older Wilco - he'd actually been a teacher in the local school- who'd they heard played guitar to join them.

As Temple reminds us pop music in the early 1970s in the UK was dominated by progressive rock groups playing longwinded synthesizer pieces which had nothing to do with rock and roll. It would seem to have been the worst time in the world to form a band who wanted to play down and dirty blues and R&B based music. However, it was also the time when pubs in London were just starting to book bands. So instead of having to book venues, bands were cramming themselves into whatever corner of a pub they could fit and playing for a crowd who was right in their face.

Dr. Feelgood, dressed in cheap suits, looking a little like low rent gangsters, and playing their raw blues and R&B were very much the antithesis of the progressive rock bands on the radio. They'd climb into their old beat up van after work and drive the 30 odd miles to London to play a gig and at the end of the night make the return journey. When describing this juncture of their career, Temple intercuts current interviews with members of the band with footage from black and white British crime movies. In doing so he creates the atmosphere surrounding them in those early days. They, like the criminals in the movies, were making smash and grab raids on London before retreating to their hide out on Canvey.
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Watching footage of the band playing live there's a definite element of menace to their stage presence. Brilleaux looms over the centre of the stage, a large figure hunched over his microphone while Wilco glides around stage playing his guitar with his eyes boring into the audience like he's sizing them up for his next victim. In a brief clip Richard Hell of Television sums up by saying about Wilco something along the lines of "He had this whole crazy stare which was awesome." Hell wasn't the only one impressed by the band. During their times playing the pubs in London, people like John Lydon and Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols) and Joe Strummer were catching their act.

While you might think it hyperbole before you see the movie, Temple's description in his notes accompanying the DVD of Dr. Feelgood being John The Baptist to Johnny Rotton's Anti-Christ, is quite accurate. They were the initial tremor foreshadowing the shockwave of punk in England. Even if they didn't have the same status in New York City, they were treated as fellow travellers and compatriots when they played there in 1976.

Unfortunately, by then Wilco was starting to fall off the rails. He had been the band's primary songwriter on their first two albums and when it was time to go into the studio for the third album, he had nothing. He was isolated from the rest of the band by his use of drugs and not being a drinker. When he was supposed to be writing songs he was merely sitting in a room doing drugs. He's completely candid about his behaviour today, and how it caused him and Brilleaux to fall out. As Wilco says, there's always one guy in the band who falls in love with being a rock star when they first start achieving success, and he was the guy in Dr Feelgood.

Temple has created some of the finest documentaries about punk rock ever made. They don't just do a good job of capturing their subject matter warts and all, they allow audiences to understand the context which created the music and how the various individuals developed. With Oil City Confidential he has not only created a movie which captures the spirit of the times and tells the story of the band, Dr. Feelgood, he has created a movie whose form itself is a tribute to the anarchic nature of punk.

One thing you'll notice during the movie the interviews done in the present never have all four original members of the band together. This isn't because of any lasting acrimony between them, it's because Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994. The interview footage of him has been taken from a BBC interview done in the early 1990s. As well as other clips not included in the movie, one of the bonus features included with the DVD is this interview in its entirety.

Dr. Feelgood's original line up put out three studio albums, Down By The Jetty (January 1975 ) Malpractice (October 1975) and Sneakin' Suspicion (1977) and one live album, Stupidity (1976), which went to the top of the UK Charts. Their hay-day may have only lasted three years and four recordings, but their place in the history of rock and roll and pop music can not be underestimated. Would punk rock in England have happened without them? Of course it would have. However, without them there wouldn't have been an audience ready and waiting for the bands who came after. As the film shows they set the table for others to reap the rewards of fame. Hopefully Oil City Confidential will help ensure the names Lee Brilleaux, Wilco Johnson, John B Sparks and The Big Figure will now be remembered and given their due place in the annals of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Oil City Confidential - A Julien Temple Film)

June 13, 2013

Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming


As more and more people are turning their computers into the centre piece of their home entertainment systems there has been a corresponding increase in the number of companies supplying either content or hardware. The Blu-ray player I just purchased not only plays discs, but wirelessly connects to the internet allowing direct access to Netflix through televisions. For the nominal fee of $7.99 (CDN) per month I can watch a wider variety of television programs and movies than I would ever be offered by my local cable company for a fraction of the price. True, not everything on the market is available nor are the majority of the programs current, but having to deal with commercials and being able to watch the shows whenever I want compensates for any deficiencies in content.

However, what if you're interests lie beyond what Netflix has to offer? What if you've grown spoiled watching the higher quality programming that only ever seems to show up on PBS or is only available on DVD or Blu-ray?. Well, Acorn Media, the supplier of great DVD sets featuring the best of British, Canadian, Australian and American programming, has started their own network, "Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming"

Currently Acorn TV runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, offering 18 separate series a week with a new series being rotated in every week. Each series runs for thirty days giving you plenty of time to watch however many episodes it may involve. For example until June 30 2013 you can watch the complete Doc Martin Special Collection which includes all five seasons of the television show and the movies featuring characters from the show. As this set lists for $124.99 (US) that's quite the deal.

Like most of these services Acorn offers everybody a free thirty day trial, but the $2.99 monthly/$29.99(US) yearly price for the service is quite a bargain. Of course if you want to watch the service on something other than your computer monitor it will cost you a little bit more if you don't already have one of four streaming players the service is currently offered on. The best deal is a combined offer featuring your first year of Acorn TV and the Roku streaming player for $79.99(US). Roku doesn't only offer Acorn TV, it will give you access to a multitude of streaming channels ranging from sports to music. Of course you'll have to pay for each additional channel, but compared to what cable companies charge and the ability to watch what you want when you want it, this is still a much better deal than any provider of regular TV can offer.

As of now you can also watch Acorn TV on your iPhone or iPad, as long as they're equipped with the Safari browser; Apple TV; ( but you also need either an iPhone or an iPad to make the connection) the Barnes & Noble Nook device with an Acorn TV application downloadable from the Barnes & Noble web site or a Google TV Box equipped with Google's Chrome Browser.

Now the technical details are out the way, we can turn to the quality of the programming on offer. First of all you should know while the current format seems rather limited, there are plans in the works to not only increase the amount of content available by five - making 90 different series available at once - they also plan on dropping the thirty day time limit for each program. However, it's not mentioned anywhere if they plan on continuing to add additional shows on a regular basis. Of course, if you have any experience with the quality of programming offered by Acorn Media, you know chances are you'll want to watch the majority of what's on offer. In addition, since many of their packages are complete series, one program can be the equivalent of ten DVDs worth of episodes with each being a minimum of an hour in length. Even my basic math skills tell me that adds up to a heck of a lot of viewing hours.

With quantity covered, what about quality? Judging by what's on offer for the current thirty day period not only will there be something for just about everybody, you can be guaranteed no matter what you watch will be feature some of today's finest actors. This month alone features programming ranging from classics seen on past episodes of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre to items from the current and yet to be released Acorn catalogue. For example you can watch PBS's 1993 adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City starring Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis, all 17 episodes of The Ruth Rendell Mysteries Collection with individual segments featuring actors like Colin Firth, the newest instalment of perennial favourite Midsummer Murders: Set 22 and the not yet released on DVD, Falcon, staring Martin Csokas.

Currently the only drawback I can see with Acorn TV is its limited availability. However, its still a relatively new service and they say they are looking into ways of increasing access. If you already have one of the streaming devices mentioned above and you like British television than adding the Acorn TV channel to your system is a no brainer. The cost makes it probably the best bargain going right now. If you need any more incentive, they are also offering free shipping to anywhere in the continental United States if you decide you want to own a DVD copy of the show you've been watching once you've signed up. Three dollars a month is not very much to pay for checking out between 18 and 22 different television programs.

If you enjoy the best television has to offer in drama, comedy, documentaries and history than you can't help but appreciate Acorn TV. It's the specialty channel to end all specialty channels and you don't have to pay a cable company for installation or for a bunch of stations you'll never watch in order to enjoy it. Even watching it on my 17 inch laptop's monitor and listening to the audio through headphones has made it obvious this service isn't like anything else out there. Netflix and the others may offer a few British television shows, but none of them come close to being able to match Acorn TV for variety and quality.

(Article first published at Blogcritics as Acorn TV: The Best British TV Streaming)

December 12, 2012

Television Review: The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour


Every year around this time there always seems to be something new being released associated with The Beatles. Those of you not old enough to have been alive when the group was still together must wonder what the hell is so special about a group who have been disbanded for over forty years. To be honest with even for those of us who were around it's easy to forget what made them special and distinguished them from the rest of the pack of pop bands. I don't listen to them very often anymore, in fact I don't even think I own a single one of their records, so I don't have many opportunities to be reminded of what the magic was all about.

However, when ever I do go back and dip into their catalogue, especially the stuff recorded from 1966 onwards, I'm struck once again by not only their inventiveness, but the musicianship and artistry that went into their work. By 1967 they had stopped touring and really didn't have anything to prove to anyone anymore. They were ruling the international pop charts and looking for new worlds to conquer. Although they all briefly experimented with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of George Harrison, their hearts were never really into it. They were too curious, too interested in doing things and experimenting with their art to simply sit around and naval gaze all day. It was out of that insatiable urge to explore that was born one of their most controversial projects, the one hour movie The Magical Mystery Tour.

Originally aired on British television as a Boxing Day special (December 27) in 1967 it shocked people who were used to the four cute/mad cap guys featured in their previous movies A Hard Day's Night and Help. Instead what they got was an apparently haphazard collection of seemingly unconnected scenes concerning what happens to a group of people taking a bus tour together. After this one appearance on television the movie pretty much disappeared from view. Occasionally grainy prints of the film would show up, but the quality was so poor as to be almost unwatchable. Now, all these years later, its finally being restored and North American television audiences are going to be treated to their first opportunity to see it in their homes.
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Thanks to the good people at the Public Broadcasting Systems' (PBS) show Great Performances Friday December 14 2012 will not only see the broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour at 10:00 pm, directly preceding the movie viewers will also have the chance to see the documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. Airing at 9:00 pm it will you in on the back story behind the film. (Please check local listings for dates and times) If you miss this airing of the film, don't worry, because this new remastered version is also being made available for sale in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo package with special features that seem to include most of the documentary as well.

I had previously tried to watch one of the aforementioned crappy versions of the film, so was very interested in seeing what it would be like with good quality sound and clean visuals. One of the problems for a North American audience will be we're not familiar with the concept of the "Coach Trip" - climbing onto a bus with a group of strangers and touring around for the day looking at sites. However in England, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, this was a very common outing especially among working and middle class families like those the members of The Beatles grew up in. One of the observations made in the documentary is how much of the imagery used in the film would have been taken from the Beatles' childhoods and how much of it would have been very familiar to other English people at the time.

Village fairs and church socials would have featured things like sack races, tugs of war and races while novelty acts like midget wrestlers were common at side shows. The Beatles might not have been part of that world by the time they made the movie, but it was the world they grew up in and obviously had some fond memories of. However, they also understood the rather limited world view it represented and deliberately created a rather cartoonish version of it for their movie. However, there was nothing cruel about the depiction, it was more along the lines of gentle teasing that showed while they remembered these type of events they had long since out grown them.

If The Magical Mystery Tour was about anything it was about the joy of doing something just for the sake of doing it. The Beatles decided they wanted to make a movie and this was the result. They played with camera effects, different filters and various lenses to create distortion and multiple exposures. They took stock pieces from British Musical Hall and turned them on their head. The grand finale to the movie with them singing and dancing to "Your Mother Should Know" while dressed in white tail coats. (Notice while the other three have red roses in their button holes, Paul McCartney's is black - which was probably used to fuel the "Paul is dead rumours" that began circulating soon after) That none of them could really dance, made the sequence all the funnier. They manage to make it down the grand flight of stairs relatively in step, but once they hit level ground John Lennon and Ringo Starr especially seem to have a hard time walking and moving their arms at the same time.

As the interviews in The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited make clear, the movie wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was done for the fun of doing it and to experiment with doing new things. Even the songs included in the movie itself, "I'm The Walrus", "Fool On The Hill", "Blue Jay Way", "Your Mother Should Know" and the title song "Magical Mystery Tour" were not standard Beatles fare. While Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and had shown them starting to experiment with studio effects, these songs were just that much more out there. Ranging from the archaic to the psychedelic they all would have come as a surprise to those used to the nice safe pop songs of their early years.
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While people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda weigh in on the significance of the film in the documentary, as well as some of those who were actually in the film, the most interesting bits in it are the commentary provided by McCartney and Starr. From Starr we learn that the movie was McCartney's idea. As the only unmarried member of the band at the time McCartney spent a lot of time checking out the avant-garde theatre and film scene in London. He also had picked up some rather basic film cameras and had begun playing with them and creating short films. So he came up with concept for the film and then assigned each of the others various scenes to write. However he was also fascinated with the idea of improvisation and decided things should be kept free and easy and allowed cast and crew to create spontaneously in front of the camera.

While the psychedelic era was also known for drug use, and there have been all sorts of rumours circulating about LSD and the Beatles, the subject of drugs and the film is almost completely avoided. The one brief reference to drugs is made by Starr when he's talking about experimenting with the different lenses used for filming the sequence of Harrison performing "Blue Jay Way". He says, in almost an aside something along the lines of various "medicines" available at the time made the effects even more fun to watch.

If you tune in to watch The Magical Mystery Tour on your local PBS station later this week don't be expecting to see a highly polished film. However, if you let yourself go along for the ride, you'll find yourself having a good time. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for both The Beatles sense of the absurd and their willingness to experiment. They had to have known the movie was never going to be popular and was bound to shock a number of people, but that didn't stop them. Can you picture any other band at the peak of their popularity taking this kind of risk?

To our eyes it will seem rather tame and the effects rather primitive, but for the time it must have been rather shocking to a mainstream audience. When it aired on Boxing Day in 1967 it followed a nice safe Petula Clark Christmas special. Imagine the family gathered around their television set the day after Christmas and being presented with The Magical Mystery Tour - even today I can think of any number of people who wouldn't consider it appropriate fare for the holidays. If you've never seen it before, or are like me and only seen a crap copy of it, this impeccably restored version will be a treat. Meet The Beatles all over again and remember what it was that made them so special.

(Article first published as Television Review: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour on Blogcritics)

December 6, 2012

DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72


In these days of the media's attention so focused on the lives of those we consider celebrities it can be hard to believe there was a time when a trip behind the scenes into the life of a pop musician or film star was considered something out of the ordinary. Yet it wasn't too long ago that the idea of a camera crew following a celebrity around was considered a novelty. In those more innocent times it wasn't a matter of media trying to uncover scandals or revealing secrets. In fact the sole purpose of these early reports from backstage seemed more concerned with humanizing larger than life figures.

At least that's the impression one gets watching the footage taken by famous rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya of Ike and Tina Turner. Using one of the first ever portable video cameras, Gruen and his wife joined the Turners and their band on the road and at home for their 1971-72 tour. Now, forty years later, the footage taken during this time has been cut, edited and digitally remastered as Ike & Tina Turner - On The Road: 1971 - 72, and released on DVD by MVD Entertainment Group.
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Needless to say video technology was in its infancy in those days. According to Gruen's notes the camera was loaded with tapes similar to those used on old reel to reel audio equipment. The picture quality wasn't the greatest. In low light the image would darken to the point where the screen would almost be black and in bright light it would blanch out. The audio was mono only and would tend to distort if the source was too loud and pick up any and all ambient noise in the surrounding vicinity. If this were filmed today we would just throw it out as garbage. However, as a historical record of a bygone era and for the look it allows us into the lives of one of rock and roll's more controversial husband and wife teams, its an invaluable document.

The sad demise of Ike and Tina Turner's marriage has been well documented. The abuse she received at his hands and sneaking out of their hotel room with only change in her pocket is all that most think about when their life together is brought up. In his liner notes for the DVD Gruen says the footage he shot shows why they were together for twenty years. While I'm not sure it accomplishes that goal, what this DVD does is remind us of just how incredible the band was at the height of their performing prowess. While I'm sure there's still footage from their periodic television appearances, I can't see any network in the early 1970s airing some of the footage included in this DVD.

If in the 1950s they wouldn't film Elvis below the waist and in the 1960s demanded the Rolling Stones change the line "let's spend the night together" to "let's spend some time together", there's no way they would have allowed the full unbridled sexuality of Ike and Tina on the air in the 1970s. It must have been hard enough to get Tina and the Ikette's dance moves approved for prime time television. This is a band that reminds you of the word funk's origins with almost every note they play. Even considering the poor quality of some of the footage there's no disguising the fact their music wasn't the safe anti-septic stuff being churned out by Motown for mass consumption. They were playing down and dirty funk and R&B which makes even most of today's rappers look tame in comparison.

At least 50% of the film, if not more, was taken off stage. There's footage of Tina at home with the kids making supper and going grocery shopping like any housewife. However, even standing over a stove cooking, out of the slinky costumes and wigs she wore on stage, her natural glamour and presence shine through. Of course not everybody's house in those days has an in ground swimming pool, a sunken living room and a Grammy trophy on the mantle piece. Yet in spite of these things we also see a fairly typical domestic situation for the time period. Wife and kids hanging at the house.
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Interestingly enough, Ike never appears in the footage shot at home. We only ever see him in work related situations. Backstage, rehearsing the band, or in the studio Ike's presence is inescapable, but we hardly ever see the two of them alone together. Taciturn to the point of almost hardly ever talking except during rehearsals, I can't recall him saying anything not related to business during the entire DVD. Even then he doesn't say much. However, there's no doubt he's the one running the show musically. Watching him lead the band on stage and in rehearsals he's like a conductor. Even during concerts he would tend to stand facing the audience in profile so he could cue the band when required.

Of course, with Tina out front nobody was going to be paying much attention to anybody else anyway. She could blow the doors off an auditorium with her voice one moment and the next bring you to tears with her gentleness. She's pulling an audience to their feet and getting them dancing in the aisles and then sitting them back down again to break their hearts. Then there's her dancing. While your mind tells you she has to have her feet on the ground, your eyes are telling you a different story. Like some exotic bird she seems to float above the stage all the while twisting and twirling like an ecstatic dervish.

Unlike others who dance with only their arms and their legs, her whole body is involved. It's like every muscle is attuned to the music and responds to what's being played. It might start with her hands or her feet, but soon it can't be contained and her whole body explodes into motion. However it's not an uncontrolled flailing around either. For no matter how fast or involved her movements she's always able to stay centred on a song's rhythm and its that pulse which lies at the base of everything she does.

As an historical record of just how incredible Ike and Tina Turner were at the peak of their career there's no questioning the value of this DVD. However, in spite of what Gruen says in his liner notes there's no evidence of them having anything in common aside from the music. Nothing of what we see of them together in this movie indicates an emotional bond existed between them. In fact we learn almost nothing about Ike except that he was completely devoted to his music. Maybe he was just a very shy man, or very private, but don't go looking for anything that will give you any insights into their private life, because you won't find it here.

While the majority of the DVD is taken from the black and white footage Gruen shot with his early model video camera, there are a few pieces of colour film spliced into it that were shot at the same time. Unfortunately all they serve to do is make the flaws in the video even more obvious. Some of the times parts of the image on screen is blacked out because of low light, and other times the exposure is off because the ambient light was too bright. However, that doesn't stop this DVD from being something special to watch. The music created by Ike and Tina Turner was some of the most amazing R&B/soul/funk produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Any opportunity to see them perform shouldn't be missed. No matter what happened down the line, it can never be denied what they did together was amazing - it's just too bad it couldn't have lasted.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72 on Blogcritics.)

September 24, 2012

DVD Review: Bob Dylan And The Band: Down In The Flood


There are some things we just naturally associate with each other in life and pop culture. Just as you can't think of ham without cheese it's almost impossible to think of Lennon without McCartney or Jagger without Richards. The latter being two of the most famous song writing teams in the history of contemporary pop music and the nucleus of their respective bands. While there is precedent for the association of two individuals either as a songwriting team or as a performance group in pop culture the marriage of Bob Dylan and The Band was something unique in the history of popular music.

Since the release of his first record in 1962 Dylan was a highly successful solo act claimed by the folk music community as not only the inheritor of Woody Guthrie's role as voice of the people, but seen by his audience as the guiding light leading the way to a better future. On the other hand, The Band, (Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm) were the creation of rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Although Hawkins was originally from Arkansas he carved out a career for himself in Canada and put together a band made up of four young Canadian musicians and a drummer (Helm) from his home state. Under his tutelage The Hawks, the name Hawkins gave to all his bands, learned how survive in bars and play a mixture of rock and roll, blues, rockabilly and R&B.
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A new DVD, Bob Dylan And The Band Down In The Flood, from the Chrome Dreams label of Britain, being released in North America by the MVD Entertainment Group on September 25 2012, purports to take an in depth look at this unlikely marriage of folk and rock and roll. From their infamous tour of 1966, their hibernation in Woodstock, the triumphant tour in 1974 to their final act during The Last Waltz, this documentary picks over the roughly eight years Bob Dylan and The Band were associated with each other in painstaking detail.

Now, don't watch this movie expecting to see tons of footage of Dylan and The Band in performance as it was not authorized by either of them. The movie is primarily made up of interviews with those who either had some sort of association with them or had written about them for the music press. There's Romping Ronnie (Hawkins) himself, John Simon, the producer of their first two albums, 1966 tour drummer Micky Jones, and supposed authorities like Barney Hoskins (The Band's biographer), Sid Griffin (referred to as the archivist of The Basement Tapes) and journalists Derek Barker from Isis and Anthony De Curtis from Rolling Stone

The early part of the film splits between telling us about The Hawks and what Dylan was up to from 1964 until 1966 when he hooked up with the boys. It does a credible job of recapping the basic facts of both their careers but stumbles for the first time when explaining how they found each other. The best they can come up with is that once the Hawks had split from Hawkins and began performing as Levon & The Hawks and that Dylan must have got wind of them somehow.
It goes from there to telling how Robertson and Helm came up to New York City to meet with Dylan and were basically hired on the spot.

I found it hard to believe Dylan would have hired a band sight unseen - or at least without checking them out somehow. Anyway, one thing that we do know for sure is that Levon wasn't thrilled with giving up being band leader and becoming somebody's backing band again and quit. Which is how it came about that Jones was hired as drummer. His main contribution to the film and the history is to confirm that during the 1966 tour they would play louder and louder as the booing became louder. He also recounts what he knows about Dylan's famous motorcycle accident as it affected him directly. After he and the Hawks had returned to the States from England he was still under contract to Dylan and was supposed to be going on tour with them again. However Dylan called him just after the accident to let him know his services were no longer required. According to Jones Dylan had told him he was in traction and all future touring plans were on hold indefinitely.

If you've seen any of the movies made about the 1966 tour, including the superlative I'm Not There, you're not going to learn anything you didn't know already. There's the usual speculations about drugs and Dylan burning out in answer to why the tour was cut short, but the movie doesn't really have anything new to add about what happened. They do show some footage from that time, but again its stuff that has appeared elsewhere first as it all looks and sounds very familiar.
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When the scene shifts to upstate New York and The Band and Dylan settling into Woodstock the movie again stumbles out of the blocks in telling the story. Instead of anybody offering up any sort of explanation of what really happened to Dylan in his motorcycle accident we go from Jones telling us Dylan phoned him to Dylan inviting The Band to hang out in Woodstock to jam and record. For a guy who was supposedly in traction the photos we're shown of Dylan at this time show him looking surprisingly spry. Just the fact he was able to play and record enough music for what turned out to be the double album of The Basement Tapes make you wonder how hurt he really was. However they just skirt over reality to get on with the myth making. It may seem trivial to you, but this sort of stuff drives me crazy and it makes me question people's credibility as "authorities" if they've never bothered chasing down the facts of the matter.

Ironically the one guy interviewed who comes across the best is not mentioned in the liner notes, Robert Christgau. Critic for almost every major publication in the US, including The Village Voice and Playboy he comes the closest to putting the relationship between The Band and Dylan in perspective. For after that period when they hung out together in 1966 they pretty much went their separate ways until 1974. However, that time was instrumental in changing the paths of both their careers.

The final bit of the movie deals with the reuniting of Dylan and The Band. They talk a little about the one studio album they made together, Planet Waves, the tour of 1974 and then finish off with the Last Waltz. They don't really offer any special insights, or any new footage, about any of these events. In fact that's pretty much the case with the DVD all the way through. For those not familiar with the story of Bob Dylan and The Band it does a competent job of telling the history of their association and placing it in its appropriate historical context. While everything the film has to say about the subject has been covered before, this is probably the first time it all has been put together in one movie.

As far as Bonus features go the DVD includes biographies of the various people interviewed for the documentary and the entire interview with Micky Jones from which were drawn his contributions to the movie. It's been over 40 years since The Band broke up yet they still remain linked in the minds of many with Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan and The Band: Down In The Flood might have most of the facts about their on again off again nearly decade long association, but at the end you're still left wondering why it is we continue to make this association.

Is it merely the power of Dylan's name and his personal mythology that elevates anybody associated with him to the same near mythical status? Or were The Band that influential a group in their own right? While I have my own opinions on that matter, this movie didn't offer any compelling reasons for either argument. Somehow though, Dylan and The Band, who only released three albums together and really only toured together once, remain as iconic in pop music as others who have contributed far more. Don't get me wrong, I liked The Band, but rather than providing reasons for cementing their place in musical history, this movie left me questioning their significance.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Bob Dylan and The Band: Down In The Flood on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Photo of Boy Dylan & The Band by Bob Gruen

September 1, 2012

DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax


In the early 1960s New York City, specifically the Greenwich Village neighbourhood, was host to what came to be known as the great folk music revival. The coffee houses and clubs in the area featured a variety of acoustic music and poetry readings for audiences made up of young, mainly university students. people looking for something more from popular culture than just a good time. It was an odd mixture of people playing traditional bluegrass, old time country, blues and topical protest music. While a great many of these new young performers looked to people like Woody Guthrie and other former musical activists as their inspiration, there were some who looked further afield.

The Friends Of Old Time Music (F.O.T.M.) was founded by three young musicians who took it upon themselves to search out and bring to New York City an older generation of blues, folk and bluegrass musicians and arrange to have them perform. It was after two of these concerts in 1961 that ethnomusicologist and field recorder Alan Lomax invited the performers and a collection of the current crop of younger folk musicians back to his apartment in the Village for an impromptu sing a long and get together. He also arranged to record and film the proceedings. Now, more then fifty years after the footage was shot the Association for Cultural Equity/Alan Lomax Archive and Media Generation have edited and cleaned it up as much as possible for release as the DVD Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass. Currently available for sale via the Media Generation web site (the link above) it will start showing up in retail outlets on September 11 2012.
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The disc is divided into two parts, thirty-five minutes of footage from those two evenings they were able to salvage and interviews with one of the founders of F.O.T.M., John Cohen and the man who shot the footage, the late George Pickow. Needless to say the latter, shot in 2010, is a lot more polished than the original footage, but both are equally fascinating. For instance we find out from Pickow that the event wasn't as spontaneous as some might have been believed as the BBC had asked Lomax if he would be able to provide them with footage of American folk singers. He also mentions the fact Bob Dylan was in attendance one of the two evenings, but was under firm instructions from his management not to let himself be photographed, so he just sat in a corner listening and smoking pot.

The actual footage doesn't have a very promising start as the opening shots of Alan Lomax welcoming us to his apartment are overexposed and the audio is broken up with static. Thankfully once it moves into the actual performances it improves and the majority of it is in far better shape than you'd expect. Aside from a couple of places where you can tell those who re-mastered the sound had to do some doctoring, it's remarkable how clean it is. Cohen's bluegrass trio from the time, the New Lost City Ramblers, are the first group to appear, and its funny to see the trio crammed together in a corner of the apartment with audience members sitting on couches tapping their feet and nodding their heads in time to the music.

During his portion of the interview Cohen starts pointing out members of the audience, including a very young Maria Muldaur and others who have since gone on to make names for themselves in either music or one of the other arts. It gives us an indication as to how amazing a time it must have been for these young artists living in New York City. Judging by those gathered in Lomax's living room, not only were they surrounded by others their age of like mind and interest, they had ready access to older more experienced artists for inspiration and guidance. It's no wonder so many talented people had their start during this time.

Among those captured on tape were old time Appalachian folk singer Roscoe Holcomb who was the inspiration for the term high lonesome sound for his ability to sing in a near falsetto; Clarence Ashley, accompanied by his band which included a young Doc Watson in singing the classic "Coo-coo Bird" and Memphis Slim with Willie Dixon on pump organ and acoustic bass respectively. Aside from playing a couple of tunes each, all were also interviewed by Lomax and talked about the type of music they played. What's really interesting is how these three groups of musicians from such distinct backgrounds and playing different types of music, all talked about what they did in the same way. It was music which came from life experience and the heart no matter if it was country, bluegrass or blues.
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Of the younger generation immortalized on camera from those two nights, only one of them would be at all familiar to audiences today. Ramblin' Jack Elliot was still relatively young when he was filmed here singing Woody Guthrie's song about serving in the merchant marines. According to Pickow Elliot had taken it upon himself to learn as many of Guthrie's tunes as possible in order to ensure they would continue to be performed. At the time this recording was made, Guthrie was confined to the hospital bed where he would spend the rest of his life slowly dying. There's something rather poignant about seeing people already establishing his legacy before he's dead in anticipation of a day when he's gone.

Someone who is nowhere near as well known today as he was in the early 1960s is Peter LaFarge. Long before there was any really organized push for recognition of Native American rights, LaFarge was writing songs about their situation. A member of the Nargaset nation which was almost pushed to extinction by the end of 19th century he had been raised by members of the Tewa nation on the Hopi reservation in New Mexico. He worked as both a rodeo rider and singer until he broke his leg badly and had to give up riding. Here we see him singing his song "Ira Hayes", made famous by Johnny Cash. If his performance appears unusually theatrical that's not surprising, he studied acting and came to New York City as a cast member in a play.

His death in 1965 is still considered mysterious as it was officially put down to a pre-existing heart condition. but friends thought he may have committed suicide. Unlike others in the folk scene he never made any concessions to popular trends by toning down his politics or making his music more commercially accessible. However his influence can't be underestimated as it was because of him Cash recorded the album Bitter Tears, devoted to the status of Native Americans, and which included six songs by La Farge. The clip of him performing shows him at his uncompromising best. In his comments Cohen says at the time he thought La Farge was a little over the top, but he now realizes he was just ahead of his time.

While obviously neither the sound nor video quality of the performance part of Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass are what we're used to, all things considered, they are better than we have any right to expect. However, far more significant is the opportunity this film represents. Not only is it a record of a time of unprecedented artistic growth and experimentation it also shows how, while this new generation may have been looking to the future, they built on the solid foundation of the music of previous generations. When that's coupled with the opportunity see and hear those who showed up at Alan Lomax's apartment it makes this an invaluable document. Of course, the music is great and it's a lot of fun to be a part of such an intimate gathering. No modern unplugged concert you've seen can match watching these great musicians hanging out in the casual atmosphere of Lomax's living room.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ballads, Blues & Bluegrass: A Film By Alan Lomax on Blogcritics)

August 30, 2012

Movie Review: The Green Wave


When was the last time a documentary film made you cry? I don't usually cry in most films, let alone documentaries, yet as I was watching The Green Wave, a film by Ali Samadi Ahadi from Dreamer Joint Venture productions, I found myself with tears pouring down my face. Originally released in Germany the movie had its English language premier at The Sundance Film Festival and is now showing in select theatres in North America. With a mixture of animation, interviews and raw footage taken from camera phones and other clandestine means of photography Ahadi recounts the events surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran which culminated in government sanctioned violence against people protesting their results.

Green is the colour of Islam, but in Iran of 2009 it became associated with the campaign to have reform candidate, former Prime Minister of Iran Mir-Hossein Mousavi elected President. The film opens prior to the election. The first things which are established are the fact there was dissatisfaction, especially among the young, with the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. What was especially troubling was how come with billions of dollars in oil revenues during his presidency the economy had worsened and there were fewer opportunities for employment for young people. Then the film introduces us to Mousavi and his campaign for president.
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We learn how the campaign had booked a large sports arena in Tehran for a political rally. The campaign workers were nervous enough people would show up to make it worth while. Then when they arrive at the arena to start setting up for the rally they discover the size of their support. People began showing up hours in advance offering to help. It wasn't just young people or students who supported Mousavi, there were people from all walks of life including members of the clergy and the military. People who had given up hope of there ever being significant change in Iran began to have hope again.

Then came the election. The first nasty shock was the ballots were designed to be confusing. In order to vote for a candidate you had to write a code in the box next to their name. While the codes were posted on the walls of the polling stations, nobody had been prepared for this rather odd practice. Then reports started coming in of polling stations mysteriously running out of ballots with people still waiting to vote and other polling stations closing hours before voting was due to stop. Confusion was high, and then things started to turn ugly. The government cancelled all visas for foreign press, shut down satellite transmission and all other means of communication with the outside world. As one person being interviewed said, they should have known something odd was going on as during the last couple of hours of voting the state television station started showing nature programs instead of election coverage.

The next day with results still undecided people took to the streets refusing to believe the government was really going to try and manipulate the election. They figured they were just stalling as long as they could before surrendering power. Then Mousavi was placed under house arrest and more and more people took to the streets demanding something be done. Unfortunately what was done was not what they wanted. The militia and the police took to the streets as well and began to attack the demonstrators. Troops mounted on motorcycles in two man teams swarmed the streets beating and stabbing anybody they came across whether they were demonstrators or not. They invaded the residence at the university and began randomly beating the students. Police marksmen opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops killing and wounding them. Hospitals were forced to turn wounded patients over to the military and the dead were unceremoniously hauled out of morgues and piled in the back of pick up trucks and never seen again.

As all media had been shut down during this time, Ahadi has very little actual footage to draw upon to tell the story. However, what he does have are people's blog twitter postings from the time. It's these he uses to give us first person accounts of what happened to some people as well as to help establish a timeline for when events took place. In spite of being under house arrest Mousavi was able to somehow access his twitter account to let people know what was happening to him. Ahadi also takes the blog posts and uses them to recreate events with illustrations. While he could have animated the images, he's done something even more effective. Individual panels, like those in a graphic novel, fill the screen freezing a moment in time. So when a doctor is talking about treating those injured by the army, we see her standing in a hospital corridor, hands spotted in blood and eyes filled with pain.
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While these images and the raw footage taken from camera phones and other mobile devices of the attacks on peaceful demonstrators are upsetting, unfortunately this type of footage is depressingly familiar. Soldiers firing upon civilians has been far too common an occurrence these days for it to come as a surprise that it would happen in Iran. It's the reactions of the survivors to these events that wrenched my heart. Naturally they still haven't recovered from the horror of what happened and that's always hard to watch. However what's really heartbreaking is the fact they are shocked it happened at all.

Their sense of betrayal and disillusionment makes you wonder how they could have been so naive as to believe the totalitarian regime they had been living under would not have attacked them for protesting. It was like they had just woken up to the fact their kindly uncle who had been buying them sweets since they were children had been sexually abusing them and the rest of their family. While it's understandable those living under the thumb of the regime might have been indoctrinated to the extent they wouldn't have noticed how harsh conditions were until they impacted on them directly, what was really disheartening was listening to some of the things said by those who should have known better.

Dr. Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, shows what I think is incredible naivety when she makes a comment about how France, Germany, Italy and other European Union nations should remember the dead protestors before conducting business with Iran. When has any nation let human rights abuses by another nation stand in the way of business? Oh sure they might make statements expressing outrage over the events, but stop trading with one of the largest suppliers of oil to the European Union? Not going to happen. If the West was at all serious about dealing with the Iranian regime properly there would have been a complete trade embargo in place ages ago. It's not just Iran either, the West turns a blind eye to human rights abuses everywhere whenever it suits us.

It's heartbreaking to hear such an intelligent and resourceful woman clinging to false hopes. Or to hear some of the young people living in exile talking about seeing the youth of their current home going out and having fun and wondering if they know their contemporaries in Iran don't have that freedom? Or listening to the voice of a young woman asking what is this place which is like a prison where people can be killed or arrested without reason and tearfully answering herself with one word, Iran.

Prior to the "Arab Spring", the popular movement in Arab countries where the people managed to throw off some of the longest serving dictators in the Middle East there was the Green Wave in Iran. For a few desperate weeks in the summer of 2009 there was the whiff of freedom in the air for a people who had suffered under oppressive regimes since the end of WWll. Whether the secret police of the Shah of Iran or the Revolutionary Guard and the morals police of the supposed Islamic Republic there has always been a force present insuring voices of dissent are silenced. Maybe they hoped this time it would be different. However, as The Green Wave makes clear, it might have taken the government a bit longer to clamp down on this occasion, but when they did, it was with a viscousness designed to obliterate resistance and destroy hope. I dare you to sit through this movie without crying. The people of Iran deserve our tears, it's only too bad the world isn't willing to do more for them.

(Article first published as Movie Review: The Green Wave on Blogcritics.)

August 28, 2012

Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story


Over the years I've had the opportunity to see a variety of documentary movies on widely divergent subjects. However, the one thing all of them have had in common, are their desire to convince the audience of the importance of their topic. Unfortunately the very nature of the genre sometimes seems to work against their makers and far too often ends up rendering even the most interesting subject matter dull. For in their search for accuracy and authenticity many of them end up either being boring recitations of facts or endless interviews with experts. Film is a visual medium and unless there is something incredibly compelling about either the experts or the story they are relating, it can quickly become boring to watch footage of people simply talking.

In watching their most recent documentary movie its obvious to me that the people at Corner Of The Cave Media, especially director/producer/writer Brad Bernstein both understand this and take great pains to avoid falling into that trap. It's no wonder Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story has not only been made an official selection of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), but been scheduled for three public screenings: Thursday September 6 2012 at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 9:45 PM, Saturday September 8 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 9 at 9:30 AM and Saturday September 15 Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 10 at 4:30 PM, with the premier coming on opening night of festival.
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On the surface a documentary about an illustrator of children's books, poster artist and creator of various works of art, doesn't sound like the most stimulating of subjects. Perhaps if it were about somebody aside from Tomi Ungerer it might not have been very interesting. But, not only is the story of Ungerer's life and career fascinating, Ungerer himself is a wonder. On top of that Bernstein understands that even a documentary about a single person needs to have motion, as our focus wanders if we stare at the same thing for too long. So while we spend a great deal of time over the course of the movie with Ungerer, the interviews with him are broken up by animation sequences created from his art work, and by transporting the audience backwards and forwards in time using archival film footage, still photographs and samples of Ungerer's work from various periods in his life.

While over the course of the movie's ninety minute running time we are given Ungerer's life story from the time of his birth in Strasbourg France to the present in his homes in County Cork Ireland and Strasbourg, the narrative somehow defies the constraints of linear time. As Ungerer is describing what his life was like during the Nazi occupation of France during the 1940s we are looking at some of the drawings he made during that period. Not only do the illustrations make the memories extremely real, but as you listen to him speak you realize this period of his life is still very much alive for him. This is driven home when he talks about how his personal paranoia leads to him constantly dreaming about being arrested. Not only that but we see how the trauma of this period is reflected in his artwork down though the years, especially his political posters from the 1960s. For Ungerer the past lives on and the film makers have managed to somehow convey this in the way they have narrated his life and career.

What will be a surprise for a lot of people is that they've never heard of Tomi Ungerer. Especially when they find out about his career as a commercial artist and illustrator and writer of children's books in the 1950s and 1960s. He immigrated to America in 1956 and landed in New York City just as the need and interest in illustrations for magazines crested. With television in its infancy advertisers still relied on print media as their primary means of reaching consumers. So illustrators like Ungerer were in huge demand. It wasn't long before he branched out into the writing and illustrating of children's books.

According to his contemporaries interviewed for this movie; people like illustrator, playwright and novelist Jule Feiffer and, in one of the last interviews before his death, fellow children's book writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak, Ungerer was one of the most remarkable artists they knew. Sendak went so far as to say, that without Ungerer's influence he doubts whether his most famous book, Where The Wild Things Are, would have ever existed. We hear about how Ungerer quickly became a favourite of the influential publisher of children's books at Harper Collins and his books were hugely successful. So what happened?
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What happened was Ungerer was interested in more than illustrating children's books and as the 1960s progressed he branched out to reflect the growing social and political changes that were happening in America. First there were his posters with their blunt political statements about such hot topics as segregation and the war in Viet Nam. However it was interest in erotica that caused the most problems. While the pieces wouldn't even qualify as pornography today, the Puritan streak runs deep in America - one only needs to look at today's Republican Party for proof of that - and when it was discovered somebody who wrote and illustrated children's books was also drawing pictures of naked adults all hell broke loose. His books were removed from the shelves of every library in the country and he was comprehensively black listed. As of 1971he might as well have ceased to exist.

While neither the film makers nor Ungerer make the obvious comparison of likening what happened to him to what happened to work the Nazis deemed unacceptable in the 1940s, the parallels are unavoidable. For the second time in his life he must have felt like he was living in a totalitarian regime which wouldn't tolerate freedom of expression and somebody's work could be arbitrarily deemed "wrong". Is it any wonder the poor man is still plagued by paranoia and dreams of persecution and arrest? What's astounding is how in spite of what he has been through, he not only continues to produce art today, he is still as vital and interested in the world around him as he was when he started.

What's amazing about Far Out Isn't Far Enough is the people responsible for the film have made it every bit as interesting and exciting as if it were a feature film. You become so caught up in the story of this man's life, his art and his way of looking at the world he becomes larger than life. While you can't escape the fact Ungerer is talking into a camera and answering somebody's questions about this, that or the other, the wall that usually seems to exist between the subject of these films and you watching crumbles at some point in the proceedings. Director Bernstein is smart enough to know when you're filming a force of nature like Ungerer, you try to be as unobtrusive as possible and do your best to be nothing more than a conduit between your subject and the audience. Not only has he succeeding in creating an incredibly intimate portrait of this complex and intelligent man, he has done the world a great service by reintroducing us to the work of an artistic genius whose work has been ignored for far too long.

Thankfully Phaidon Press, has taken it upon itself to reissue Ungerer's titles previously black listed in America and not seen in book stores for more then forty years. Ungerer himself recently wrote his first new children's book since the early 1970s. It is to be hopped the combination of this film and his books being made available to the public again in North America will ensure he starts to gain some of the recognition he deserves for his contributions to the world of art. Tomi Ungerer is a brilliant light whose illumination we've been denied for far too long. This film gives us an indication of what we've been missing and hopefully whats still to come from one of the great creative minds of ours or any time.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Far Out Isn't Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story on Blogcritics.)

August 2, 2012

Television Review: The Barnes Collection


There are those who collect art for the status it brings them, those who collect it as an investment and those who collect it for their love of paintings. No matter what their reason most people's collections probably don't exceed a few treasures they've managed to pick up at small galleries or at auction. The idea that one person could amass enough works of art to fill a gallery is almost beyond belief, but that's exactly what American collector Albert Barnes managed to do. Now a fascinating documentary, The Barnes Collection, airing on PBS Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm (check you local listings) introduces us to this enigmatic man and his legacy to the people of his native Philadelphia.

The roughly hour long film loosely splits along three lines. The story of Albert Barnes and how he amassed his collection, the history of the collection in America and Barnes' and his collection's legacy. In order to tell the parts of the story that take place in the 19th and early parts of the 20th century the film makers have had to rely on interviewing art historians and those involved with the collection, still photographs and readings from Barnes's correspondence and other writings. While that may not sound like much to go on for creating a picture of what this man was like, such was the force of his personality we learn more about him than you'd expect. It also helps that he was opinionated and outspoken in his letter writing and didn't hesitate to speak his mind on any subject, even on the subject of himself. It's not often you hear someone come as close as he does to referring to themselves as an asshole - although he couches it in terms just a little bit politer.

The historians associated with the The Barnes Foundation - the non-profit organization responsible for the up keep of the collection and programming associated with it - and the other art historians interviewed for the film confirm both Barnes' assessment of himself and fill in the details of his biography. His was the classic rags to riches story of the 19th century. Born in a rough working class neighbourhood in Philadelphia, he still managed to go to university and graduate with a medical degree, although he never seems to have practiced medicine. It was through this education that he fulfilled the American Dream by making a fortune from Argyrol, an antiseptic silver compound used in the prevention of infant blindness that he developed with Herman Hille. He could have pretty much afforded to retire once he was in his twenties.
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We also find out that it was during his time as a student in Europe, he studied physiological chemistry and pharmaceutics in Germany, he first was exposed to the world of modern art. While there's no real explanation for why he became such an avid collector, the documentary does make a point of mentioning his early friendship with American Impressionist painter William James Glackens. It was through Glackens he obtained introductions to some of the biggest dealers in Paris in the early years of the 20th century when he began buying up modern art by the bushel load. The original bill of sales for his collection read like a who's who of modern art at the time. Picasso, Gauguin, Cezanne, van Gogh, Braque, Degas, Manet, Matisse, Miro, Modigliani, Monet, Jean Renoir, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Seurat and Tolouse-Lautrec are just some of the names which show up on receipts and invoices.

After a while he began making trips to Paris himself and buying works directly from the painters. He had no formal training in art, but judging by some of the things he said, that was a plus not a negative. He talked about paintings in terms of them being conversations he could have with the artist and how they were constantly telling him new things. He didn't bring any preconceived notions of what art should be to his evaluation of a work and was able to appreciate them in a way that few people of his time were capable of doing. This was driven home to him when he arranged for an exhibit of his modern works back home in Philadelphia and the paintings were roundly condemned by everyone from academics to politicians as crude, vulgar and obscene.

After detailing how he amassed his collection, which aside from the modern art included Old Masters, Americana, wrought iron, furniture, African sculpture and many other miscellaneous items, the documentary covers what he did with it all. In 1922 he had purchased a large property in Merion, an outskirt of Philadelphia, which he used as a residence and gallery. It was here the collection was put on permanent display and where he began to try and implement the ideas on the role of art in education that he developed. To that end he founded The Barnes Foundation with the purpose of "promoting the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts".
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He began developing educational programming inspired by the idea expressed by American philosopher John Dewey that it was only through education a society could achieve true democracy. It was to that end that some of the first "students" the foundation worked with were the workers in his factory. He discovered they only needed six of their eight hour work day to properly do their jobs, so for two hours a day he'd bring them out to the Marion gallery and began teaching them about art. The foundation continues to do this type of work to this day as we see when the film crew follows some of its members into a Philadelphia school as they teach students about art and how to see what an artist might be trying to say with a work.

The final stage in the history the documentary recounts is what's become of the collection today. When the residents of Marion began to object to having a museum in a private residential area a new home was constructed to house it in downtown Philadelphia. Interviews with the architects of the new gallery show us how much care and planning went into the creation of the new space - with an emphasis on ensuring an ample supply of natural light for viewing the work in the day time. However, what's really fascinating is seeing the care taken by the foundation's employees to ensure the collection would be displayed exactly as Barnes had hung it originally. Prior to packing each room in the Marion gallery they mapped out how everything was positioned. This involved measuring the distance between each work so when they were rehung in the new space each room would look exactly the same as it did before and would have the same visual impact on visitors Barnes had intended.

While The Barnes Collection only scratches the surface of both the man who created the collection and the collection itself, it is a great introduction to both. While its unclear on why Barnes felt the need to amass such a huge collection of art work in the first place, it's what he did with it, and what the foundation bearing his name still does, that's his true legacy. Making this massive collection of great art from around the world, a collection which includes works by some of the most renowned modern artists, available and accessible to the public is in itself a gift whose worth is next to impossible to judge.

However, even more important as far as I'm concerned, was his understanding of the role an appreciation of the fine arts played in education, and how important it was for everyone to have the opportunity to obtain that education. To know this collection exists for that purpose and the foundation continues to carry out Barnes' original mandate is a ray of light in today's otherwise bleak educational landscape. In an era when governments consider arts education in schools a luxury and a waste of money, it's a relief to know there are those in the world who know its true value. So on Friday August 3 2012 from 9:00 - 10:00pm take the time to see how one man's vision of art and education is still a goal worthy of trying to fulfil.

(Article first published as Television Review: The Barnes Collection on Blogcritics.)

July 13, 2012

Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley


When a pop musician has been dead forty years it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, and with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let's face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception. It's especially difficult when so called "Classic Rock" stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.

So I can't blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot forty years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can't be much better, so why should I shell out how ever much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual I'm willing to bet that you've never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley released by Legacy Recordings you'll agree.

Jimi Plays Berkeley isn't a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it's more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of Berkeley California was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and other causes. By the time Hendrix's concert took place in 1970 running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
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All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix's concerts were taking place is another question. However it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert's May 30 date the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4 1970. So songs like "Machine Gun" and "I Don't Live Today", while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.

The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Bobby Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It's a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.

During the rehearsals is also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there's little that can be done to improve an old film's quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix's original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 Surround Sound. While that won't eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I've heard of Hendrix what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you'd be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
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Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he's singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow as this is "our own little world tonight".

The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, "Hear My Train A Comin'", his own material, "Purple Haze", "I Don't Live Today", "Machine Gun", and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his two favourite covers "Johnny B Goode" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Listening to him play is only half the story. It's watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening you forget he's playing a right hand guitar strung for a left handed person upside down and backwards or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board - they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar's controls and ply the whammy bar.

Unlike today's guitarists who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there's barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a Wha Wha peddle and a couple of others which he doesn't even seem to make use of, he's creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note like he's trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it's like he's returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he's seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn't about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died he had opened Electric Lady Land studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.

Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it's good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix's touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix's need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.

Jimi Hendrix would have been seventy years old on his next birthday (November 27 2012) if he had lived and there's no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn't about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix's heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley on Blogcritics.)

April 21, 2012

DVD Review: In Their Own Words


The invention of first radio and then television should have witnessed the birth of an age celebrating the sharing of ideas. The ability to communicate to a large number of people over great distances was the ideal opportunity to bring the formerly exclusive worlds of art, philosophy and science out of the ivory towers of learning and the salons of the wealthy into everybody's living room. Unfortunately that wasn't to be the case. Instead of presenting a wide range of ideas they've been used mainly as vehicles for the dissemination of propaganda or marketing goods. In fact, if anything, radio and television has resulted in fewer people having access to the arts or being exposed to diverse opinions and ideas as their content bears a striking resemblance to a modern version of the Roman "Bread and Circuses" designed to pacify the mobs and keep them from reflecting on the ills of society.

While nobody seems to question the argument the media are only giving the public what they want, what kind of choice are they offered? Oh sure a few underfunded public television stations in North America offer alternatives to the standard fare, but they spend most of their energies on trying to stave off budget cuts by those whose best interests is served in keeping the public placated and uninformed. What's even more frustrating are those few examples over the years of the media fulfilling its potential with programming exposing listeners/viewers to some of the world's most creative and innovative thinkers. For those who don't believe that television or radio shows consisting of people talking can be as captivating as any situation comedy, soap opera, day time talk show or cop thriller should take the opportunity offered by the Athena imprint of Acorn Media release of the two disc DVD set In Their Own Words on March 13 2012.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have done more to bring the words and ideas of some of the great English language writers and thinkers to the world than other television stations. In Their Own Words is a compilation of highlights of this type of programming from the twentieth century. From the early days or radio comes the only known existing recording of Virginia Wolfe talking about her work and the voice of Sigmund Freud discussing his then groundbreaking ideas on psychotherapy.
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With disc one devoted to English language, predominately British, authors and disc two to great thinkers of the modern world, viewers are given the chance to re-familiarize themselves with the famous who are responsible for not only the development of the written word as we know it today, but the philosophies and policies that have come to form the basis of our society. Economists, social critics and scientists broach their ideas on the welfare state, feminism, free markets, genetics, quantum physics and medicine. We watch and listen to the steady evolution of the novel from the days of the world's recovery from WWI through the angry young men of post WWII and as the joint influences of technology and immigration from the furthest reaches of Britain's former Empire came to bear upon its format and content.

Presented in the format of a documentary about its subject the set is more than a compilation of old recordings and footage of the writers and thinkers in question. What's almost as fascinating as hearing from the various parties involved is seeing the twentieth century being treated like an historical era. Having known people who had lived during every decade in the century I had never really stood back and observed it. Watching this set I was able to see how patterns that have occurred history were repeated during my own lifetime.

You also gain a real appreciation for how the pace of change sped up as the century progressed. On both discs the first two or three eras covered are defined by events. So they start with WWI - the years just prior, during and the years after and then continue with WWII and its immediate aftermath including the 1950s. However from then on change comes fast and furious. While the 1960s are one segment onto their own, after that major shifts in thought and policy seem to be almost yearly occurrences. Is it any wonder there was such an explosion of wildly different world views during this time? You have the rise of Thatcherism in Britain but at the same time there is a new wave of civil rights protests by both women and homosexuals.

It's against this backdrop we witness the changes that occur among both writers and thinkers. In the early part of the century both were still the preserve of the upper classes. Even those considered radical like the Bloomsbury group that produced Virginia Wolfe and others came from upper class backgrounds while the major thinkers, like Bertrand Russell, were all academics with little real world experience. It wasn't until WW II and after that we saw novelists from other backgrounds making their voices heard. While academics still made up the majority of people making contributions to our understanding of the human condition, economics and philosophy, as the century progressed their work can be seen to develop a far more practical application then before. For instead of presenting theories that spoke in generalities about ideas, they started to try and come up with explanations for things that went on in society.

The various programmes from which the interviews that form the basis of the set were culled for the most part allowed each subject to present their ideas and thoughts without challenging them. In some ways this was quite refreshing as it gives the viewer the chance to form their own opinions without somebody else's influence. However, in order to give us a better understanding of a subject's significance the film makers have also included interviews with both their contemporaries and current experts in the field. However they have done their best to keep editorializing to a minimum and restrict the commentary to explanation and comparison to what had come before. We still may not agree with what somebody has to say or believe, but we will gain a much better understanding of why they thought what they did and the process which allowed them to develop their thoughts.

Obviously In Their Own Words is limited as its subject matter is only British writers and thinkers. However, it still manages to give viewers a wonderful perspective on the evolution of thought and literature in the twentieth century. Of course being able to hear first hand from people like Kinglsy and Martin Amis, Salaman Rushdie, Evelyn Waugh, Graeme Greene, John Maynard Keynes, Jane Goodall, Martha Meade and the countless others who are the subjects of this set is somewhat amazing. The producers have done a great job organizing what could have been an overwhelming amount of material into a fashion that allows us to fully appreciate each voice and mind. Even better is they've taken material that has been stuffed in archives in some cases for nearly a hundred years, recorded on equipment we'd consider hopelessly primitive, and managed to clean them up sufficiently for us to have no trouble understanding those talking. All in all this is a must own for anybody interested in the history of thought and literature in the twentieth century.

(Article first published as DVD Review: In Their Own Words on Blogcritics.)

April 9, 2012

DVD Review: Everyday Sunshine - The Story Of Fishbone


Documentary movies about rock and roll bands are all the rage these days. The majority tend to be about those who most of us are already familiar with. I mean you have to have been living in seclusion for the past twenty years if you're a fan of pop music and not heard of U2 or Pearl Jam. While there's no denying the impact either of those bands have had, what can we really learn about them or the nature of popular music from a movie about either band? On the other hand, watching something like Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone, a new documentary by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler charting the story of one of rock and roll's truly unique bands, gives you insights into the nature of the industry, the dynamics of working in a band, and the sheer, almost perverse, energy required to keep a dream alive when everything seems to conspire against you.

Fishbone, for those who don't know, came out of the thriving Los Angeles punk rock scene of the 1980s. While they shared a lot of things in common with other bands of the era, one thing distinguished them from the rest, the fact they were nearly all from South Central LA and all were African American. Even today the idea of an African American rock and roll band is an anomaly and in the 80s it was unheard of. So how on earth did a bunch of guys from South Central end up as Fishbone? The movie tells us how in 1979 the California State Supreme Court decreed that the only way to achieve racial balance in the schools of Los Angeles would be to institute a program of mandatory bussing. Kids from the hood would be shipped by bus to the fancy and well funded schools in the suburbs. It was here that Norwood and Phillip Fisher (bass and drums) Kendall Jones (guitar), Chris Dowd (keyboards) and Walter Kibby (trumpet and vocals) were introduced to Led Zeppelin and other white rock and roll acts by their new classmates, and met Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone and thermin) one of the few black kids who actually grew up in the Valley.

While bussing may not have done much for racial integration in America, when it came to the musical integration of Fishbone, it was an incredible success. Slashing guitar riffs met R&B horns, funky rhythms, gospel tinged vocals and was wrapped up in the anarchic packaging of punk rock to explode all over the bars and clubs of LA. While they were a hit with anybody who saw them, nobody cares what colour your skin in in a mosh pit, when they started to move into the recording studio it was different story. Columbia, the first label they signed with, still had a black music division in those days, but Fishbone weren't Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson - hell they weren't even rap music - and they sure didn't fit anybody's image of what "black"music should sound like. Yet in spite of these obstacles by 1993 the band looked like they were on the verge of the big time. Spike Lee directed their music video, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and signing on for the Lollapalooza tour all seemed like things guaranteed to push them into the spotlight.
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However, coincidence or not, the wheels started to fall off around the time the four cops accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted and South Central went up in flames. Growing up black, poor and male in LA they had all felt the sharp end of the LAPD at one time or another and were just as angry as everybody else over the verdict and it came out in their music. Not something a mainstream record label like Columbia was going to be comfortable with. At the same time guitarist Kendell Jones started experiencing personal difficulties, drinking heavily and accusing his fellow band members of being instruments of the devil. When Norwood and a few others tried to stage an adult intervention in order to get Jones the psychiatric treatment they thought he needed, he had them charged with attempted kidnapping. While they were all eventually acquitted, the loss of Jones seemed to signal the beginning of the end as Chris Dowd left the band a year later.

As the movie makes clear, while others had joined the core group who came together in 1979 along the way, when the centre started started to fall apart the band began a long slow decline back from the brink of success. By 2003 only Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore remained of those who started the group, and the strain of holding it all together was starting to take its toll on them. The camera had been moving back and forth between the present and the past throughout the course of the movie as the directors wove archival footage of the band performing, rehearsing and hanging out in the studio with present day interviews, animation and even paintings to bring Fishbone's story to life. As is normal with these types of things we viewers are safe from any direct emotional involvement with the subject matter because it's all stuff that's happened in the past. So when the camera all of a sudden drops us down in the middle of something happening in the present the wall separating the audience from the movie's subjects comes tumbling down.

In footage shot at various points over the last decade we see how the struggle to keep the band going has come to affect the relationship between Fisher and Moore They both begin to harbour resentments towards the other which they start to reveal to the camera i their inteviews. Moore, the mercurial front man, is as potent a force on stage as he ever was and continues to look for new means of expressing himself. Exploding in all directions at once he washes up against the stolid and very grounded Fisher who as bass player has always provided the roots which gave the band its strength. Within the original band their were other members who could serve as buffers between the two with either the force of their personalities or their creative contributions. But the two of them as the only creative engines were gradually being pushed apart like polarized magnets.
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What's amazing about this film is that instead of merely hearing others talking about the problems between the two men, or even just the two of them talking about each other, the camera sits down with them and watches as they attempt to hash out their differences. Both of them are committed to the idea of Fishbone and have made huge personal sacrifices for the band. However that can only keep working as long as its able to fulfill each of their artistic needs. As we've seen from the present day footage showing the band playing for miniscule audiences or attending publicity events which nobody comes to, they're not making the force they once were. Yet in spite of their differences, neither Norwood and Fisher want to give up on the band and still believe they have something to say that needs to be heard. It's that common ground that allows them to work things out and to continue the band. In fact, as the movie ends it seems like the band's future is actually looking brighter then it has in ages. Kendal Jones joins them for a gig and not only appears to have rid himself of the demons that plagued him in the early 90s but also wants to play with the band again. Trumpeter Kibby had left the band in 2003, but came back in 2010 and Chris Dowd - who had been one of the main writers in the early days - plays a couple of gigs with them.

Watching the footage included in the movie of the band performing during their hay days of the 1980s you can see why people like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and others claim that Fishbone were the band who inspired them the most. You can also see how almost impossible it would have been for any record label to cope with them. Their music defies any sort of classification and their stage show would have a straight audience quaking in their boots. Moore thrashing atop the mosh pit, scaling the walls of the concert hall to climb into a balcony and diving into the audience and singing all the while while the rest of the band thrashes out a deadly mix of punk, funk, ska, rock and roll and jazz. What's truly amazing is how tight the band is. This wasn't some group of idiots who had no idea how to play their instruments or who couldn't find their way from the beginning of a song to its end without getting lost. No this was a tight knit and well rehearsed band with incredible skill whose vocal harmonies were as tight as a gospel choir and musical arrangements as crisp as any band.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone does a wonderful job of not only telling audiences who Fishbone was, but who they are today. However, it's not just about a rock band, its about the people who are in a rock band and what it is that keeps them going when times are tough. This is one of the few "rockumentaries" I've seen where which manage to capture the love and pain involved with playing rock and roll when you care about it more than anything else in the world. It can eat at your soul. but the rewards can also be glorious. As this movie shows so poignantly the members of Fishbone have seen both sides of that coin and the long grey areas in between as well.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone on Blogcritics.)

May 8, 2011

Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades

A few years back I wrote an article about the threat to America's wild horses in general and the small herd of Mustangs on the Blackjack Mountain preserve in Oklahoma in particular. At that time I laid the blame for the mismanagement of one of America's greatest natural resources at the feet of the Bureau Of Land Management (BLM) and their close ties to corporations buying leases on public land to run livestock. The BLM is supposedly responsible for the stewardship of all wild lands not currently national parks owned by the federal government in trust for the people of the United States. The acts which govern the terms of their stewardship spell out they are supposed to treat them in manner sensitive to the existing ecosystems. One of the pieces of legislation which applies to these territories is the Wild Free-Roaming Horse And Burro Act passed in 1971 that was designed to preserve existing populations of wild horses and burros on all government owned lands.

Unfortunately it seems the BLM have an awfully interesting interpretation of the terms of their remit and have done everything in their power to reduce the numbers of horses in the wild and find as many ways as possible to contravene not only the spirit of the law, but the letter as well. In my article of 2008 I mistakenly blamed agribusiness as the biggest co-conspirator in this effort to defraud the American public. However, while it is true they have quite a bit of pull within the BLM, they at least aren't actively destroying the environment which the horses depend on for survival. After all, they too need the pasture land and clean water the horses require. It turns out the real problem is the fact the BLM have been hard at work selling off the last of America's wilderness to oil, gas and mining companies.
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Nothing says wildlife preserve quite like uranium tailings, polluted water, radioactive waste, pools of sulphuric acid, strip mining, oil wells and a night sky light up by the flames from natural gas stand pipes. Yet while everyone's backs are turned that's what is happening all across the American West. From Colorado through Montana, Utah down through to Nevada and New Mexico the land is being doled out to responsible environmentalists like BP (remember the Gulf oil spill?) and their friends in the Oil and Gas business. Disappointment Valley in Colorado has a new crop - survey spikes staking out claims for Uranium mines. (There's still a law on the books that dates back to the gold rush days that allows prospectors to lay claim to any land not privately owned in order to set up a mining operation. Once they've laid a claim all they need do is apply to the BLM for permission to "lease" the land and they can begin mining operations. Of course once their lease is expired the country gets it back, but unfortunately these tenants aren't required to return the property in the same shape they found it and nobody else seems to want to clean up after them.)

It would be nice to say I'm just making this up off the top of my head and there's no proof to substantiate any of what I'm saying, but the truth of the matter is the picture is actually a lot worse than the one I've been painting. All you need do is watch the soon to be released documentary Wild Horses And Renegades (It will have its premiere on May 12 2011 at the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula Montana at the Wilma Theatre at 7:00pm.) to find out not only the depth of the BML's duplicity when it comes to their management of America's wild lands, but the seriousness of the situation facing the few remaining horses and burros in the wild. I have to warn you though, I've recommended to my wife that she not watch the movie, and if you are at all easily upset by scenes of blatant cruelty to animals either be prepared to close your eyes at short notice or to have your heart broken and your stomach turned periodically. While director James Kleinert has done his best to make this movie an homage to the horses he so obviously loves, he has made the decision not to hide the truth of their situation from the viewer.

The ugly truth includes footage from slaughter houses just across the border in Mexico where supposedly protected animals somehow end up, the repulsive manner in which the animals are "humanely" rounded up for removal and their treatment by BLM employees rounding them up. While not as visually ugly, truths obtained through the freedom of information act regarding the BLM's aims and objectives for the wild horse herds, are equally disturbing as they talk about how they can best circumvent the laws meant to preserve the horses. Not only do these documents reveal an orchestrated campaign of disinformation they outline possible ways of removing animals from the wild and subsequently selling them to slaughter. You see in 2004 an amendment (The Burns Amendment, named for its sponsor Senator Conrad Burns of Montana) to the Wild Horse And Burro act was tagged onto the appropriation bill in the Senate that once again allowed for the slaughter of wild horses where it had been originally prohibited. Any animal the BLM considers excess they can now sell for slaughter no matter if its healthy or not.

Wild Horses & Renegades from Moving Cloud on Vimeo.


What makes the movie so powerful are not just the images, too many shots of abuse and they'd lose their power to shock us. Kleinert has very wisely divided the movie up between testimony from a mixture of experts, celebrities and even interviews with BLM mouthpieces and employees, footage of wild horses on the range, images of how the West is being lost to industry and the way the BLM treats the horses under their stewardship. The experts range from former BLM employees who had the gall to believe their job was to protect the areas under their stewardship and were let go, members of Congress from the affected regions - Democrats - who want to see changes made to the way the BLM operates, people working to preserve both the horse and burro population and the wild lands, to ranchers who have seen the lands they used to run cattle on destroyed by pollution. Each of them peel away another layer of the carefully constructed skin of lies spun by the BLM of how everything they do is for the good of the animals and the land.
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Of the celebrities, Viggo Mortensen, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, author Scott Momaday and Raul Trujillo make intelligent and impassioned pleas based on facts and the need to conserve something supposedly precious and unique to America. So many pay lip service to the idea of the wide open spaces and how the West is emblematic of the spirit of America, yet most have no problem standing by and letting it be destroyed. The BLM position, as expressed by employees and those who support their policies, of looking at everything in terms of whether or not it is useful is not one conducive to preserving the wild intact. In fact it's a philosophy which puts them at odds with their directive of stewarding the land and its inhabitants as any horse they deem not "useful" is now slated for slaughter.

The smartest thing director Kleinert has done in this movie is to simply let the BLM condemn themselves through their own actions and words. Listening and watching their high handed behaviour in dealing with public complaints, hearing about the repeated cases of conflict of interest and mismanagement documented by the government's internal auditors, the number of ex-oil company officials who lobby and work in the Department of the Interior, under whose auspices the BLM fall, and then watching footage of their 'safe' and 'humane' roundups tells the viewer all we need to know.

Right from the start Kleinert makes no bones about his own personal bias - this film is pro-wild horse and preserve the wild lands and doesn't care who knows it. It is an impassioned plea to his fellow citizens to do something about preserving a part of their country's heritage and a warning that those who have been entrusted with that responsibility are failing them badly. Movies like this one are important as they expose ugly truths we might never find out otherwise. It's one thing to listen to people talk about something, it's another thing all together to see it with your own eyes. I seriously doubt you'll come away from watching this movie unmoved. Hopefully it can motivate enough people to make their voices heard and help preserve the American wild horse and the land it needs for survival.

(Those wishing to reserve a copy of the DVD of this movie when it is released can do so by filling out a form at the film's web site)

(Article first published as Movie Review: Wild Horses & Renegades on Blogcritics)

March 3, 2011

Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion

Open up Google Maps and check out Agadez in the Western part of Niger and the Sahara desert. If you switch over to the satellite view of the city and pull back far enough it disappears into the surrounding desert. It becomes just another shade of brown in what appears to be a never ending vista of tan. How did this city come to appear here in what is apparently the middle of nowhere? Is it just some recent thing that sprang up in response to human greed for something buried beneath the shifting sands? In actual fact the city was founded sometime before the 14th century and was officially designated a Sultanate in 1449. More importantly it is the capital of Air, one of the traditional Tuareg federations, and was one of key way stations along the caravan routes they followed carrying trade from Algerian ports on the Mediterranean Sea into the interior of Africa and back.

Descendants of the Berber tribes of North Africa they were named Tuareg, Arabic for rebels, for their initial resistance to adopting the Muslim faith, but refer to themselves as the Kel Tamsheq after their language. Even though they eventually adopted the religion and the camel herding nomadic lifestyle they now live of the colonizing Arabs, they have continued to resist any kind of external control over their lives to this day. From French colonial rule to having the way they practice their religion dictated to them by outsiders they have have struggled preserve their way of life and traditional territories. Since the withdrawal of French rule from the Sahara in the early 1960s the lands they used to move through freely have been divided up amongst Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Algeria. Since 1963, and the first uprising of the modern era, they have taken up arms to protect their rights in the 1980s, the 1990s and most recently in 2007.
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Much like elsewhere in the world the Kel Tamsheq discovered treaties have a way of being forgotten when governments change or when it is discovered the useless land they were given is rich in natural resources. It would come as no surprise to Native Americans to hear that when uranium was discovered in Niger all the treaties were thrown out the window. While the 1980s had seen the Kel Tamsheq fighting for their lands, the 1990s saw them fighting for survival as the Niger government began to target them for persecution. Libya and Algeria have both served as homes in exile for them in the past, and did again in the 90s. Among those whose families fled to Algeria at the time was Omara "Bombino" Moctar from Agadez. Twenty some years later, both Moctar and Agadez are the subject of a new documentary film, Agadez, The Music and the Rebellion, directed and produced by Ron Wyman and his Zero Gravity Films production company.

Since the 1980 uprisings more and more among the Kel Tamsheq have turned to music in order to both further their cause around the world and as a means of keeping their own culture alive for new generations who have been cut off from the traditional lifestyle of their parents. With the loss of their habitat to expanding populations and resource exploitation a generation faces the risk of being cut adrift from what it means to be a Kel Tamsheq as they come of age in the cities instead of the desert. According to Wyman's notes he had initially set out to make a film about the people and the city of Agadez. However the movie evolved into including the young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar (He was given the nickname Bombino by the older musicians who he first played with as a play on the Italian word for baby bambino) whose music they were introduced too via a cassette tape their guide played endlessly while driving them, and the role music was playing in furthering their cause.
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Sometimes changing horses in mid stream like this can result in either never making it across the river or at least getting soaking wet. However, in this case Wyman has done a magnificent job of integrating the two seemingly divergent directions his film could have taken. Primarily this is because he has the courage the recognize the strength of the bond between the music, the environment and the people to let them speak for themselves through the visuals supplied by his camera instead of relying only on talking heads to make the point. The movie's opening frames not only establish his intent to adhere to the credo of a "picture being worth a thousand words", they also prove out the adage by taking our breath away and letting us know we're entering into an environment far removed from anything most of us have ever experienced.

However, since images can be misunderstood by a viewer's preconceived notions of what is important in life based on their own circumstances, Wyman wisely ensures we are given the proper context to place them in. To us what looks like abject poverty and primitive living conditions - hauling water from wells, cooking over open fires and a noticeable lack of any of the amenities we consider bare essentials, are simply the realities of living in that environment. Through interviews with members of the Kel Tamsheq community of Agadez, well educated people who have experienced life outside of the desert and chosen to return home, we learn enough of the people's history and their philosophy of life to begin to understand what they consider important and why these "hardships" are a small price to pay for being able to live as they choose.

At one point one of those interviews tells the story of how at first the people cursed their parents for bringing them to such a harsh land where survival was so difficult. However they soon came to bless them, for nobody else wanted it and they could live as they wished. As with any other culture whose people are as in tune with their environment as the Kel Tamsheq, it's when they are removed from it problems arise. This is why they have fought so hard, and against increasingly impossible odds, for the right to live as they have always lived. However they are also realists and have come to understand they will never win through force of arms and the times require a different approach.
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The need to integrate their approach to life with living in the modern world is what has made the role of musicians like Bombino so important to the Kel Tamsheq. For not only are they able to carry their case to the world, they are also the means of communicating to the new generation what it means to be one of the Kel Tamsheq and why they should take pride in who they are. In telling the story of Bombino, Wyman shows us how music is the chain connecting the generations both through the way he learned to play and how he is continuing the work begun by his teachers. The music he plays combines the modern and traditional worlds his people move through both in the content of his lyrics and in the music itself.

The life of the Kel Tamsheq is not easy, but it is the life they have chosen to live and desire to keep on living in as much as the modern world will allow them to do so. In Agadez, The Music And The Rebellion Ron Wyman has done an excellent job of not only depicting their life without romanticizing or sentimentalizing it, but showing what they are doing to preserve it in the face of increasingly difficult odds. Follow his camera into one of the harshest environments on earth and meet the people who not only live there, but cherish the freedom it brings them. You will also meet the remarkable young musician, Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose story of exile and return is typical for his generation, but whose talent is unique. Like his people he has persevered in the face of persecution (two of the musicians he used to play with were killed by the Niger army when they targeted the musicians among the Kel Tamsheq in the 2007 uprising and he was in exile in Burkina Faso until 2010) and now uses what he does best to fight for them.

Named Tuareg, rebels, by the first wave of invaders who tried to dictate to them how to live, the Kel Tamsheq may have laid down their weapons but that doesn't mean they have given up their battle for independence. Ron Wyman's film is currently making the rounds of film festivals in North America and around the world telling their story. Hopefully it will find its way onto DVD soon. There are many people in the world who claim to speak for freedom and liberty, but few whose way of life epitomizes those ideals as much as the Kel Tamsheq. If for no other reason it will be a shame if this movie is not seen by as a wide an audience as possible. The good news is those wishing to hear the music of Bombino won't have to wait long as his CD, Agadez, is being released by the Cumbancha label on April 14h 2011.

Photo credits: Agadez Mosque By Moonlight Swiatoslaw Wojtkowiak, Photo of Omara "Bombino" Moctar by Ron Wyman
(Article first published as Movie Review: Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion on Blogcritics.)

February 8, 2011

DVD Review: The People Speak

Open a newspaper, any newspaper, in order to read about what's going on in the world and you'll usually be treated to reports on what's been said by a select minority. Spokespeople from government, business leaders and, if you're lucky, a politician in opposition to the government's position will all weigh in on the issue at hand. They usually talk in broad generalities about the big picture without ever giving any indication on the impact their actions might have on people further down the food chain. When the government announces a ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate and the business leader says he can live with that and the leader of the opposition says he would have cut it more although its a good start, nobody bothers to mention what will happen because of the ten per cent lose of revenue.

In theory paying ten per cent less in taxes is supposed to allow business to increase productivity, lower prices and hire more workers all of which will generate sufficient revenue to make up for the short fall created by the tax cut. In practice what happens is the companies simply increase their profit margins and nothing ever is passed onto the consumer or the labour force. But we never hear from the single mom who is trying to buy food and pay rent while working minimum wage about how the increase in food costs, rent, utilities and medical expensed not covered by her health insurance because of government cut backs in social services to pay for the ten per cent cut in the corporate tax rate have affected her. We never hear how the streamlining of departments in order to save money has resulted in the number of workplace health and safety inspectors being reduced and she's working in increasingly unsafe conditions or how she is forced to quit her job because the day care she had her kids in was closed due to "rationalization".
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Not only won't you find her voice in most newspapers, you can pretty much be guaranteed of not finding her voice, or voices like it. in most history books either. It's pretty difficult to get a balanced picture of events when you only read one view point don't you think? How accurate a picture do you think you're getting when you read about the labour unrest in the early part of the 20th century and you only read about what the government and corporations have to say and nothing from the rank and file of union workers? The late American historian Howard Zinn had the idea that people might want to read about history from the point of view of the workers and the single mothers and it turns out he was right. Since his People's History Of The United States was first published it has sold over a million copies, which must be some kind of record for a history book. Taking the concept a step further in 2009 he and co-author Anthony Arnove published Voices Of A People's History Of The United States, a collection of speeches, letters and other documents giving first hand accounts of events throughout the history of the country by those whose voices aren't normally heard. From soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War to the parents of people killed when the World Trade Centre went down, all of them gave readers a perspective on history they might not have read or heard before.

In an effort to bring these words to the public actors Matt Daemon and Josh Brolin put together a touring show of their fellow actors that went university campuses and the occasional public hall, in order to present live readings from the book. The show was filmed at two separate locations and that footage has been edited onto one DVD, The People Speak. Also edited into the movie are performances of various musical pieces by performers who either played live with the actors or who recorded their segments especially for the DVD. Unfortunately the only review copy I was able to obtain was via a download from I-tunes, which didn't contain any of the special features which are included on a second disc when you purchase the package. It also meant there were no notes available to consult to double check the identities of who was reading what. (Oh, and I-Tunes has to be the worst facility for downloading video - it took me over three hours to download something less then two hours in length using a high speed connection)

Howard Zinn serves as the narrator and host for both the DVD and the live performances, and he starts off by telling us a little about himself and the impetus for creating both his first book and this follow up. He makes no bones about the fact the voices we are about to hear are ones of dissent - the people who spoke out against the status quo and who refused to toe the official party line. However, as he says, since America was founded through dissent, it only seems appropriate these voices should continue to be heard. The first account we hear is of how during the Revolution, officers acted pretty much like they would have were they in the British army and lorded it over the enlisted men. The enlisted men were poorly clothed and starving and when they dared protest they were whipped or hung. The first reading of the night, by Viggo Mortensen, was of a letter describing the whipping and hanging of one Sergeant Macaroni for having the nerve to protest about conditions on behalf of his men and then during his whipping continue to do so which resulted in his being immediately hung.
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So much for the myth of soldiers freezing to death willingly out of patriotism. As we continue down through the years balloons continue to be popped. The great emancipator Lincoln writes to the effect that he would willingly allow slavery to continue if it meant the salvation of the Union. There were also riots in the cities of the north protesting the fact that rich people could buy their way out of the draft for $300.00 (somethings never changed as wealthy people were able to obtain deferments from service as long as there was a draft). As to the myth of Johnny Reb which exist even to this day - well most of them were conscripts who would desert at the first chance as they had little interest in dying for the big landowners.

For those who might doubt the veracity of some of the material being read during the performance, it's interesting to note how much of it comes from the trials of various people who were arrested for doing things like voting illegally or trying to abolish slavery. John Brown was hung for trying steal weapons in order to liberate slaves and Susan B Anthony tried to vote before it was legal for women in the United States. Both were tried and found guilty of their crimes and what the actors read are the speeches both gave when asked if the defendant had any words to say before sentencing was carried out. Other readings are from speeches that were given at public events like ex-slave Soujourner Truth's "Ain't I Woman" speech from 1851 given to a group of white abolitionists.

The performers on the DVD are pretty much instantly recognizable: Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Josh Brolin, Morgan Freeman, Jasmin Guy, Benjamin Bratt, Marisa Tomei, Mat Daemon, Don Cheadle and David Straitharn to name a few, and their performances range from simple readings to near dramatic re-enactments. Interestingly enough it was an actor I was unfamiliar with before this, Kerry Washington, who made one of the strongest impressions with her performance of the above mentioned Sourjourner Truth's speech. Not only did she do a fine job of assuming the accent of a black woman from the times but she was also able to bring the speech to life. While all the performers did capable jobs of reading their pieces so an audience would understand what was being said, there were times when I wished they had invested them with a little more emotion - created more of a performance.
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On those occasions an actor chose to give a performance you were given a much deeper understanding of what the original document was about and the intent behind the letter or speech. Ironically I can't remember the people he depicted, but David Straitharn's presentations were some of the most emotionally powerful of the night. It wasn't that he ranted or raved, it was the way in which he was able to raise his level of intensity while talking to match his character's emotions. Another performance of note was Viggo Mortensen's reading of a letter from a parent whose child was killed in the bombing of the World Trade Centre. First of all it was the only reading in Spanish during the night, and second of all you didn't need to speak the language to understand the depth of the father's anguish and the passion he felt for his subject. The actress performing the wife read the letter in English - the couple are Hispanic - so we were able to understand they were pleading with people not to use their son's death as an excuse to perpetuate violence.

Interspersed between the speeches were the occasional musical performance. Bob Dylan, accompanied by Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks, went back to his roots and played Woody Guthries "Do Re Mi" from the days of the dust bowl quite credibly and Bruce Springsteen did a typically intense solo version of his own "Tom Joad", the performer who took me most by surprise was Pink. I had only heard of her vaguely before and her performance of "Dear Mr. President" is the highlight of the DVD. The passion for her material and her vocal ability were a remarkable combination and one wondered how anybody could have listened to this song and not be moved. Some might wonder what she or her song have to do with history, but according to Howard Zinn, we are all living history all the time and what goes on today is just as important as what happened yesterday.

The People Speak represents an opportunity very few of us are given. Not only does it present aspects of history not everybody is familiar with, it brings it to life and makes it real. For too many people history has been confined to the pages of dusty books and boring classrooms - this represents a chance to see and hear it brought alive. We may not be able to travel back in time, but this DVD brings the past to us.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The People Speak on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

DVD Review - Discovering Hamlet

Having worked, read lived, breathed and died, in theatre for a little over a decade, I'll never be what would call a passive observer of the action taking place on a stage. In fact I'm probably the person you least want to sit beside when your in the audience of your local community theatre's production of anything. If you thought the critic from your paper was a snot, before the first scene is over you'll probably want to have me physically removed from the theatre. If its not the muttering under my breath about incompetent actors who shouldn't be allowed on stage, it will be because of the constant shifting around in my seat as I fight the urge to stand up and demand the show be closed down.

And that's just for those occasions when people are hacking their way through summer stock fare like Noel Coward or Neil Simon. When it comes to anybody foolish enough to try and attempt even the simplest of Shakespeare's work thinking if Mel can do it why can't I, I turn from being merely insufferable to deranged. Usually the only difficulty I'm faced with under those circumstances is figuring out what is pissing me off the most, the fact nobody understands what they're saying or how they attack their speeches like sprinters attempting a world record in the 100 meters.
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I refuse to apologize for any appearance of snobbery or elitism these attitudes might convey, for having experienced the magic and wonder of seeing Shakespeare performed by those who know how to speak the language, anything less is tantamount to sacrilege. Unfortunately the opportunities to see these works performed at those standards are few and far between if you don't live in a major metropolitan area or a community like Stratford Ontario, which hosts a professional Shakespearean festival every year.

Well, if you can't go to Shakespeare the next best thing is to bring it into your home. The new, two disc, DVD package of Discovering Hamlet, from the Acorn Media Group, provides the viewer with not only a chance to see great actors at work, but also provides some insight into what goes on prior to what you see on stage opening night. The first disc is a documentary made of the rehearsal process for a 1988 production of Hamlet directed by Derek Jacobi and starring Kenneth Branagh.The second disc features extra footage from the film, including extended versions of the interviews with the actors in the play, choreographing the stage fight between Hamlet and Laertes that ends the play and hanging out backstage with the actors at the opening night party.

In 1988 Branagh was just on the cusp of international renown as his film version of Shakespeare's Henry V would be released shortly after this production of Hamlet closed its run. He had already established himself as the next rising star of British classical theatre and was now set to climb the next rung on the ladder. As the director of the play, Derek Jacobi, says in an interview conducted many years after the film was made, the role of Hamlet is see as a bell-weather mark for classical actors of a certain age. All the great ones, and he listed Olivier, Gielgude, Richardson, Redgrave, Burton, and then shyly included himself, took on the role at roughly the same point in their careers and it was now Branagh's turn to put his stamp on it. The impression we're given is not only was Branagh tackling one of the more challenging roles in classical theatre, he was also feeling the pressure to step into the shoes of those who came before him. So not only does he have to learn an amazing amount of dialogue and create a character, he also has to do so knowing that his performance will be compared with those who have come before and judged accordingly.

If you think that's a daunting task wait until you hear the rest of what he's up against. Hamlet was being presented by Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in repertory with two other works by Shakespeare. Meaning, he was not only spending his days in rehearsal, at night he was performing in one of two other plays as well. The company has only four weeks with which to pull the production together with a first time director at the helm. For while Jacobi was, and is still, an accomplished actor, this was to be his first, and he now claims his last, directing job. As Jacobi is the first to admit, just because someone is a gifted actor, it doesn't mean they will have any talent for directing.
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The movie, which is narrated very capably by Patrick Stewart, joins the actors and director in the first week of rehearsal and then follows them though to just before Branagh walks on stage opening night. We don't actually see his performance, although we do see clips shot during the final dress rehearsal, but what the movie does is show us the process both actors and directors go through in preparing a play as complex and difficult as Hamlet. If nothing else, viewers will gain a far better understanding of just how much work it takes to bring a piece of professional theatre to life on stage. The actors not only are in rehearsal for close to eight hours a day, they are also expected to learn their lines when they're not rehearsing and are expected to have them memorized by the third if not the second week. (The fight scene I mentioned earlier was choreographed outside of the normal rehearsal hours, meaning the actors involved had to show up early that day.)

However, don't be looking for anybody giving away any acting tips or hints on how to mount your own production of Hamlet. In fact I had forgotten how frustrating it can be to talk to actors and directors about their process for developing a character or staging a play. It's not that they don't know what they're doing, it's just not the sort of thing you can easily articulate to people who are not directly involved with the project you're working on. While the woman (Dearbhla Molloy) playing the role of Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, says something about drawing upon her relationship with her son to help her prepare for the role, that's the closest any of the actors come to talking specifics about what they did to help them prepare. Even when we overhear the rehearsals via the camera, it doesn't make much of a difference as everybody seems to be talking in a shorthand incomprehensible to those who don't work in theatre. At one point we watch Jacobi giving notes to his actors - telling them things they need to work on to improve their performance - and while his words obviously mean a lot to his actors, the fact that he's telling them they need to listen to each other more instead of anticipating their lines will probably mean nothing to those who haven't worked in theatre in some capacity.
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The other thing you have to be aware of is even when the camera does capture some of Branagh's, or any character's performance for that matter, it will seem like they are overacting horribly. This is when you realize the huge difference between film and stage acting. Aside from having to memorize the whole script at once instead of merely whatever pages you'll be shooting on a day, actors are also having to make themselves understood by people who are as much as 200 feet away from them without using any amplification when they are on stage. On film they will look ridiculous because of the mediums tendency to exaggerate even the smallest motion. (In the interview conducted years later with Jacobi, the director of the movie asks him what he thinks is the biggest challenge facing the classical theatre today. Jacobi's answer is actors have become so reliant on amplification few know how to use their voices sufficiently well to handle the nuances required to perform Shakespeare live anymore.)

Discovering Hamlet won't tell you very much about the process of putting on a play or creating a character. However this glimpse of life backstage and in the rehearsal hall does help you realize there is real magic in the world of theatre, although it might not be quite what you were expecting. The magic is how these seemingly perfectly normal looking people, wearing jeans and t-shirts for the most part, transform themselves into princes, kings and queens. Perhaps after watching this two DVD set you'll begin to understand some of my frustration with watching less than stellar performances of Shakespeare. For while it might not allow you to experience the excitement of seeing the play performed, the glimpse you are offered of actors preparing will whet your appetite to seek out the plays as they should be seen. On stage and performed by actors who are able to fulfill Hamlet's instructions to the company of travelling players he hires in Act III scene 3: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had lief the town crier spoke my lines."

(Article first published as DVD Review: Discovering Hamlet on Blogcritics.)

December 28, 2010

My Top Ten DVDS 2010

This is something new for me, in fact its a first. In all the time that I've been critiquing I've never put together a list of the movies/DVDs which have appealed to me most in a year. So what's so different about this year that all of a sudden I feel compelled to inflict my opinions on you? Looking over the list of movies I've selected the only reason I can think of is because none of them are ones that are going to be getting much, if any attention, elsewhere.

Let me be clear, I've not put this list together just because they are the ten most obscure movies of the year, they just happened to be ones that I've liked the most from those released this year on DVD that I've reviewed. There are other movies I've watched this year I might have liked more, but they weren't current releases or I didn't review them. (Primary among those was the film adaptation of Arturo Perez-Reverte's books set in 17th century Spain, Alatriste with Viggo Mortensen in the title role. It's taken me nearly two years to find a copy of the movie as its never been released in English speaking North America, but if you can get your hands on a copy of the South American DVD do so as its a brilliant film) However, that does not diminish the worth or quality of the titles listed below as each has something of value to offer an audience.

You might not necessarily be entertained, and I wouldn't recommend sitting down and watching all ten of them back to back, but the viewing will never be boring. I've never been a big fan of the passive entertainment that's normally on offer in our multiplexes and cinemas, and the list below is reflective of my tastes, so my choices aren't likely to have much in common with similar retrospectives. Hopefully you will be intrigued enough to follow the links to check out the full reviews and maybe even watch one or two of them. They may not be what you're used to, but they're all fine examples of the art of film making and the power of visual communication.

Che: The Collectors Edition. This three disc collection contains both parts one, The Argentinean and two, Guerrilla of the movie tracing Ernesto "Che" Guevara's life as a revolutionary. From his success in helping Fidel Castro overthrow the American backed Batista government in Cuba to his death in Bolivia, we follow him through the jungles of South America. While there're obviously going to be disputes over his place in history, hero or villain, there can be no disputing this is an excellent movie and that Bencio Del Toro gives the performance of the decade in the title role of Che. Complaints have been made that the movie ignores the executions he ordered and is biased, but after more than a century of a pro American bias in history books, the media and film when it comes to Latin America, isn't it about time we see and hear something representing another opinion?

The Yes Men Fix The World. About a month ago the mighty oil company Chevron was publicly embarrassed when their new ad campaign was subverted by press releases under their logo announcing they were taking full responsibility for all the environmental damage they've caused. Naturally they were outraged and said they would never admit to any wrongdoing or take any responsibility for any actions they may or may not have done. The Yes Men had struck again. Andy Bichlbuam and Mike Bonanno have been doing their best to take the corporate world to task for decades. They've done everything from go on live television as representatives of Union Carbide Chemicals promising to finally clean of and provide proper compensation for the disaster in Bhopal India to appearing as representatives of HUD in New Orleans after Katrina announcing the government had changed their mind and would rebuild all the public housing destroyed in the hurricane.

This movie documents the various actions they have taken around the world, showing us how they go about preparing for events, and just how gullible most of the corporate world really is. Unfortunately, as they are the first to admit, while they may be having a good deal of success increasing public awareness of what corporations like Chevron are up to, they're not having much success in stopping them. While corporate America might claim to be victims after a Yes Men prank, after watching this movie you have to wonder how that's possible. A multi billion dollar corporation on one hand - two guys, some friends, a good graphics program and a whole lot of chutzpah on the other hand, and the former are the ones crying foul because they're being called on their failures to take responsibility for destroying the world and the deaths of thousands of people? After watching a documentary like The Yes Men Fix The World you begin to understand why the world is in such a mess and how much work we still have to do in order to have a hope in hell of fixing it. At first this is a bit of a laugh, and although it ends hopefully, the overall impact is the realization we need millions of Yes Men if we ever hope to change the world.

Lost In La Mancha. Anybody who has any illusions left about the film industry will quickly have them dashed after watching this documentary about Terry Gilliams attempts to film an adaptation of Don Quixote. What was supposed to have been a project on the part of two film students, follow the director of a major motion picture through the process of making a movie from pre-production to screen, ended up becoming a record of the insanity involved in producing a film in today's market. As Gilliam discovers there is little or no room for artistry or imagination in this world as all anybody is worried about is the box office after the fact, not how you get there. The truly depressing thing about this documentary comes at the point when you realize the potential being lost with this movie remaining unmade. Without being overt, but just by letting the facts speak for themselves, Lost In La Mancha shows just how far removed film making has removed itself from anything close to representing an artistic vision.

Black White & Grey. I'd wager that most Americans who even think they know something about the visual arts wouldn't be familiar with the name Sam Wagstaff. However if you have any interest in photography as an art form, according to this DVD, its Sam you have to thank for it being considered something other than a poor cousin to painting and sculpture. The movie traces Wagstaff's career in the arts from a curator who championed experimental art in the early 1960s, an independent collector of first objects d'art and then photographs, to patron of the arts through his championship of his lover, the brilliant but controversial photographer, Robert Maplethorpe. As is usual with this type of film a great deal of what we learn about the man comes from other people's opinions, and some of the talking heads are just a bit catty and should be taken with a couple of tons of salt. However, people like poet and rock singer Patti Smith not only provide a good deal of insight into Wagstaff's motivations for collecting, but go behind the rumour and innuendo in describing his and Maplethorpe's relationship. While remaining relatively unknown outside of those active in the art world, without people like Sam Wagstaff it is impossible for a country to reach its potential culturally. Not a visual artist himself, he had an eye for knowing what was real and the courage to champion unpopular work. This is a moving portrait of one of the great unsung heroes of contemporary art in North America.

The End Of Poverty?. Anyone out there who still doesn't consider the economic imperialism of the developed world to be the root cause of poverty in Africa, South America and Asia needs to watch this movie. Interviews with economists, historians and individuals from various countries whose lives have been effected by the economic policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank show both how the system works and its results. When a country is forced to allow foreign corporations to develop their national resources so they receive little or no economic benefits and have no say in how the development takes place the situation is bad enough. When the raw product is then shipped overseas for processing and then sold back to the country again at usurious prices the effects on their economy are crippling. It's more than obvious after watching this movie that the answer to the question of the title is, there is no end in sight when it comes to poverty. You may want to deny what your hearing and seeing at first. but the arguments and testimony are too compelling to be ignored. By the end of this film you will have to agree there is a serious problem and the only way it can be addressed is if we radically change the way we treat the developing world.

Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam. This is rock documentary with a difference. Inspired by Muslim convert Michael Muhammad Knight's novel The Taqwacore he and a collection of Islamic punk bands head out on a barnstorming tour of the US with their ultimate destination being the Islamic Society Of North America's national convention. When the tour is over, the cameras and Knight then follow one of the bands over to Pakistan where they are attempting to start a punk movement in their parents' homeland. For Knight it is also a chance to re-visit the mosque where he first studied after converting and to continue his exploration of his new faith by visiting the shrines of various Sufi saints. While a bit rough around the edges the movie does a good job in not only capturing the excitement felt by the young people involved in the tour and their fiercely independent attitude - best expressed by Knight as giving the finger to both Bush and fundamentalist Muslims. The movie also introduces us to Knight, a figure of interest for having converted to Islam at seventeen, and we learn he is a very complex and intelligent man not afraid to take responsibility for past mistakes and willing to accept the challenges converting throw at him. A fascinating portrait of a man that will also offer viewers a far different view of Islam than is normally seen in popular media - a view that as many people as possible need to see.

A Single Man. Aside from being one of the most beautiful examinations of life and death ever depicted, a wonderful script, and amazing cinematography this film should be compulsory viewing because of Colin Firth. Maybe there have been more flamboyant performances by an actor in a movie before, but this, to my mind, has to have been one of the most complete I've ever seen. Everything, from his body language to the way he uses his voice conveys something of his emotional state every step of the way through the movie. Their is such grace and economy of movement in everything he does that you almost forget he is acting. It's still beyond me how he could have failed to win the Oscar for best actor. If you haven't seen this movie yet, do so now as its brilliant.

Leonard Cohen: Bird On A Wire. In 1972 Leonard Cohen was probably at the height of his international popularity as a singer/songwriter. On his twenty concert tour of Europe that year he was joined by documentary film maker Tony Palmer who followed him with cameras on and off stage from Dublin Ireland to Tel Aviv Israel. For various reasons the film was never released and it was only in 2009 Palmer was informed the raw footage had been found in a warehouse in Los Angeles. After a year of restoring and doing what he could, he came away with this remarkable portrait of both Leonard Cohen the individual and Leonard Cohen the performer. You'll be surprised at both Cohen's sense of humour and the intensity of his passion. While there are obvious deficiencies in the sound quality, the tour was plagued by equipment trouble, the concert footage is wonderful for its intimacy and the way it captures the connection Cohen has with his audiences. While one movie will never be enough to reveal Leonard Cohen, this one does a remarkable job in peeling back some of his layers.

Infidel. There are occasions when a little irreverence is a lot better than a ton of seriousness, and this movie is proof positive of that. Completely without shame this movie makes fun of fanatics on both sides of the Muslim Jewish divide without ever losing sympathy for the individuals caught in the middle. Omid Djalli plays a British born man who is the son of immigrants from Pakistan. Naturally he has always assumed he's a Muslim, but when his mother dies he discovers not only was he adopted but he was born to Jewish birth parents. At first he tries to overcompensate, making blustery anti-Zionist comments, but soon he decides he must get in touch with his real roots. He turns to a Jewish taxi driver, Richard Schiff, who teaches him dance steps from Fiddler On The Roof, how to shrug and say Oi-vey and other essentials of Judaism. This movie is bound to offend people on both sides of the issue who take themselves too seriously, and brings a much needed human face to the divide between the two faiths. People tend to forget that Jews and Muslims are kin from way back, and its politics which truly separates them not religion. Hopefully this movie will help us all remember the things we have in common are more important than those which divide us.

Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother If you ever needed proof that notoriety is probably the worst enemy of art, this two DVD set is a perfect example. Each DVD contains footage from one of the last two public readings American poet Charles Bukowski ever gave. Over the years his rough and honest poems and his vivid descriptions of the rough life of an alcoholic garnered him a literary reputation as a great writer. Unfortunately far too many people were unable to separate the man from his work and would show up at his readings in the hopes of seeing some "action". So while the record of the two readings does give us a great idea of his abilities as a writer, we also quickly see why he stopped giving public readings more then fifteen years before his death. He can barely get through a poem's introduction without being heckled, and is reduced to having to yell at the audience to shut up so he can keep reading. Even his occasional reminders that they paid for him to be there, and he'll happily sit there and say nothing if they don't shut up, doesn't stop them from acting like idiots. It's a real pity, because if they bothered to listen they would hear between the lines the real beauty and pain that he describes in his poems and might just realize he's not anything like they think or expect. Watching these movies lets you know just how much our expectations of those we call celebrities can actually destroy the art we claim to appreciate.

(Article first published as My Ten Best DVDs Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

November 24, 2010

DVD Review: The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Lou - 1971 - 1973

The death knell for the innocence of the flower power years of the 1960s was first sounded by the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy in 1968 wiyh the latter resulting in the eventual election of Richard Nixon to his first term as President of the United States and an escalation of the war in Viet-Nam. With Nixon in office, and the body count rising in South East Asia, the non-violent protests of the 1960s were soon a thing of the past. In 1971 Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students demonstrating against the war at Kent State university resulting in the deaths of four protesters. All of a sudden music about love, peace and LSD making the world a better place wasn't such a good fit for the times as people didn't really want to be reminded about what was going on around them but preferred entertainment which would help them forget their troubles.

The Glam - short for glamour - Rock movement which saw rock bands doing everything from wearing their girlfriends clothes on stage, (The New York Dolls) wearing elaborate costumes, dying their hair and slathering on the make-up, was, on the whole, escapism to the max. More concerned with style than substance the music was a harbinger of what was later to become known as the ME decade. Self indulgent, flashy and quite often musically simplistic, Glam Rock wasn't about social change, it was about everybody having a good time and rock and roll superstars preening in the spotlight. Of course that wasn't true of all those at the time, there are always those who find a way to transcend a genre and make a definitive statement about themselves and their music at the same time.
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According to a new documentary, The Sacred Triangle: David, Iggy & Lou 1971 - 73, being released on DVD November 23/10 by Chrome Dreams on the and distributed by MVD Entertainment, three such exceptions at the time were David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. While these three men are now well known singers and songwriters for a variety of reasons, the early 1970s saw each of them at a crossroads in their respective careers. Bowie was still looking to breakthrough as a popular performer; Reed was looking to start a solo career after his break with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground and Pop was trying to recover from the excesses of the original Stooges.

The movie provides the usual rock and role documentary mix of talking heads, period concert footage and pop culture history lesson to tell its story. Although Bowie ends up being the pivotal figure, we learn that the impetus for his shift to the theatricality of Glam Rock, and by extension the Ziggy Stardust album which catapulted him to fame, was the work being done under the umbrella of Andy Warhol's Factory in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While The Velvet Underground's music and gritty lyrical content were responsible for his shift from being a solo performer on twelve string acoustic guitar to fronting a hard edged rock band, it was the outrageousness of Pork, a theatrical performance produced by Warhol in 1971, that inspired his stage shows and encouraged him to create the androgynous character Ziggy Stardust.

While the movie never says so overtly, one also gains the impression that Bowie also liked the idea of being an impresario along the lines of Warhol. For shortly after his initial success he formed MainMan Management, a production company. In fact, from information given in interviews, Bowie's ex wife Angie in particular, the feeling is that at that point in his life he was more interested in being a star first and a musician second and the latter just happened to fulfill the former goal. Former Factory denizen Leee Black Childers, who was later a vice-president of MainMan, is also interviewed, and explains how Bowie became the producer of record for Transformer, the album that brought Lou Reed into the public eye as a solo performer. He also talks about MainMan's attempts to work with Iggy Pop at this stage and how the one album they produced of his pretty much sank without a trace.
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The Sacred Triangle does a good job in bringing the history of the era and the key players to life. Those interviewed, including Jayne, (Wayne) County, were all able to talk intelligently and informatively about the three men and the events surrounding the period in question and to explain how the careers of Bowie, Reed and Pop ended up intertwined at this critical juncture in all their careers. However, what it doesn't do is live up to its title. While I've been an admirer of all three men at various points in their careers, the movie failed to convince me that there was any justification in referring to their collaboration at this time as the most dramatic shift in musical style since the beginning of the rock age, as the blurb on the DVD's packaging claims.

In fact, while there is no denying the music produced at the time was interesting, the lasting impression created by the film was of a movement based on titillation and a desire to shock rather than any great artistic motivations. There is something almost superficial about the way the movie treats its subject matter with the result at the end you're left saying, so what? If you were looking to gaining any new insights into either one of Bowie, Reed or Pop, you will come away disappointed. I've always considered Glam Rock to have been one of the symbols of how far rock and roll strayed from its roots in the 1970s by the way it seemed to celebrate fame and the cult of personality over the music. While that might be an unfair assessment on my part The Sacred Triangle did nothing to change my opinion. As far as I'm concerned, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie succeeded in spite of their association with Glam, not because of it. In fact, as it becomes clear in the movie, Bowie was the only one of three who even was part of the genre, and by 1973 he had divorced himself from it by retiring his Ziggy Stardust persona.

As for the technical quality of the movie, little attempt was made to re-master any of the original concert footage so the sound is only basic stereo. While some of the older clips are a bit fuzzy, the producers have done a good job in searching out pieces of as high a quality as possible. Unfortunately their flaws are obvious when they are compared to the material shot specifically for the movie and makes for some rather jarring transitions. It also only serves to emphasis the dated quality of the material, and making it seem even less significant in terms of its importance in popular music's evolution.

Those who are die hard fans of the performers under discussion, interested in background on Andy Warhol and The Factory, or who like early 1970s rock music will probably find The Sacred Triangle interesting. However, the rest of you can probably find better things to do with a hundred plus minutes of your time.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Sacred Triangle: Bowie, Iggy & Reed 1971 - 1973 on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother

Say poetry and most people will immediately think of something intellectual, slightly effeminate and not usually worth the effort it takes to understand. They'll think back to their days in high school trying to make sense of seemingly incomprehensible words strung together apparently without rhyme or reason while their teacher droned on about metaphors, similes and deeper meanings. The idea that poetry might actually have something to do with the real world or be written in language that anybody can understand would come as quite a surprise to most people. That the same poetry might be about the mean streets of big cities featuring casts of characters who hang out in old dingy bars or the cracked stone steps of tenement buildings drinking two dollar bottles of wine and rot gut whisky would never even cross their minds.

Until his death in 1994 American writer Charles Bukowski produced scores of poems and prose depicting life among those who eke out an existence in low paying menial employment and who seek solace in the bottom of a bottle, cheap whores and whose hopes for the future rely more on the long shot at San Marino or race tracks like it around the country. Not only did his poetry talk about subject matter most others wouldn't or couldn't tackle, it did so in the language of the people who populated them. Sex, bodily functions, drinking, gambling and generally life on the skids are fixtures of Bukowski's poetry.

Yet, that's not the be all and end all when it comes to his work. For behind the words is an intelligent and compassionate mind which, although he makes no effort to hide his readers from the nastier realities of life on the skids, never makes those populating his work figures of ridicule or objects of sympathy. He finds humour and pathos among them in equal measures, and is just as likely to be laughing at himself as anybody else. For Bukowski not only wrote about the down and outs, for the longest time he was one himself, and a good deal of autobiographical detail makes its way into his work..
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Although Bukowski lived until 1994 he gave his last live poetry reading in 1980. A newly released two DVD set, One Tough Mother, produced by mondayMEDIA and the Infinity Entertainment Group, combining the films made of his last two readings (There's Going To Be A God Damned Riot In Here!, Vancouver 1979 and The Last Straw, Redondo Beach California 1980) give one a fairly good indication as to why he stopped giving doing them. As its title suggests, the Vancouver reading degenerated at times into a shouting match between Bukowski and the audience and even though it was a less antagonistic gathering in California, the atmosphere still left a lot to be desired.

Far too many people made the mistake with Bukowski of confusing fiction with reality. For while it was true that at one point in his life he had lived much like those who inhabited his poetry and prose, by this point in his life he was no longer living rough. There was no reason for him to have to fight for his survival, but if these two readings were any indication as to how audiences reacted to him, they expected him to be one of the foul mouthed protagonists depicted in his work. In both instances he tries his best to remind them of who he has become by reading a work which deals with the issue directly. In the poem he talks about how he receives letters from men living in single rooms written on torn lined paper which compliment him on how he's captured their lives on paper. He then continues on to wonder what they would think if they knew their missives were ending up at a two garage house where he leads a perfectly comfortable life and keeps a young man in a cage, beaten two or three times a week and fed on cheap whisky, who writes all his poetry these days.

However in spite of everything, the heckling from the audience and Bukowski's increasingly angry rejoinders - in Vancouver he becomes so angry he lashes out at audiences in general because there are always two people who sit right down front who insist on talking through his readings - both movies are still valuable records of one of the most original poetic voices of the twentieth century. While his reading style is fairly low key, the power of the words is such that we very quickly find ourselves falling under their spell. There's no beating around the bush with Bukowski's poetry; little in the way of allegorical language, metaphor or any of the other poetic devices our teachers were so fond of forcing us to try and interpret so we could find the meaning hidden in the words. Indeed there is very little subtlety to his work at all, just like the world he uses them to describe. Whether he's describing the state of his money after he drops his wallet into the toilet after he has had a particularly foul smelling dump or inviting us back to his room where he's spending the night with a women.
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Needless to say a poetry reading isn't the most visually exciting thing you'll see on a DVD as the camera is forced to stay with its rather static subject the whole time. However, its fascinating to watch Bukowski right from the moment he walks onto the stage. Whether he's smoking his ever present Bidi (an Indian clove cigarette), taking large gulps from a seemingly bottomless glass of red wine, talking with the audience and even reading the occasional poem, his weathered features and rough hewn voice hold our attention where others wouldn't. He has some sort of charisma which is hard to define as its not the standard issue stuff handed out to the good looking or otherwise conventional types we're normally attracted to.

There's a clue to be found in his readings as to what it is that keeps us focused on him. For while he has no problems joking with the audience about himself or trading insults, you could see genuine anger come through when his poetry was derided or treated with indifference. It's that passion for his work, the total commitment to his art that we feel emanating from him, that keeps our attention focused on him throughout the reading. Even when he seems to be uncaring and blasé about the whole affair, there's the sense of something lurking beneath the surface that's not quite safe - like a hibernating bear who is slow to rouse we're aware he could wake up at any moment and rip someone's head off.

Each disc comes with bonus features that weren't available when they were released individually. While some of them are just your standard talking head things with academics pontificating about Bukowsik's work (God he must be laughing about that) its well worth checking out the readings of his poetry by people like Bono, Tom Waits and others that are part of the interview with Johm Dullaghan who directed the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and the excerpts from a performance of the play Love Bukowski. However no matter how interesting any of these features might be, none of them compare to the genuine article itself. While you only receive the smallest taste of just who or what Charles Bukowski was and what his poetry was like, for those who have never experienced him before this will make an unforgettable introduction and give everybody else a few more moments to savour his genius. Charles Bukowski ain't like the poetry you learned about in school, but its some of the best damn stuff you'll ever have the opportunity of reading or hearing.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Charles Bukowski: One Tough Mother on Blogcritics.)

October 19, 2010

Movie Review: Reel Injun

I don't normally write articles that receive a lot of comments, but twice I struck enough of a nerve with people that they responded in the hundreds. One was on everyone's favourite topic, gun control, and the other was on the use of Native Americans, First Nations in Canada, as mascots in sports teams. I was astounded at how many people couldn't get their heads around the fact that a race of people would be offended by being equated with the San Diego Chicken or other figures of ridicule that dress up in costume and generally run around making fools of themselves at public events.

The most common argument I heard was these mascots were honouring the brave fighting spirit of Native Americans and how it should be taken as a compliment not an insult. What these people seemed to forget is that when you reduce a people to one characteristic they lose their humanity as we ignore every other aspect of their culture. If you want to honour Native Americans maybe you should teach students in schools how one of the models for the American Constitution was the Iroquois Confederacy and their system of governance, instead of creating cartoon figures who have little or no bearing on the realities of Native American life across North America.
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You can't really blame the sports teams and fans though for the mascots. These representations are merely an extension of the way in which Native Americans, and indigenous people everywhere, have been portrayed in popular media since the 19th century. From Buffalo Bill's depiction of the slaughter of men, women and children at Wounded Knee Creek as a glorious triumph for the 7th Calvary to contemporary New Age books selling "Native wisdom" the culture of over five hundred different nations has been exploited and distorted with depressing regularity and with little concern for reality. Now Canadian film maker Neil Diamond, a Cree Indian from Northern Quebec near the Arctic Circle, has made a documentary tracing the history of Hollywood's representations of Native Americans. While its already made the round of Film Festivals last year, Reel Injun will have its American television debut on the Public Broadcasting Service's (PBS) show Independent Lens November 02/10.

A mixture of film clips from the earliest silent movies and interviews with film critics, actors, directors and Native American activists, Reel Injun not only shows how Native Americans have been depicted on the big screen over the years, it also explores the effect these negative stereotypes had on Natives. It seems like the camera has always loved them, as the first films ever made, Thomas Edison's back in the late 19th century, were of Laguna Pueblo dances. They were also the first peep shows to be shown in Times Square in New York City; put a penny in the slot and watch the savages dance; and there is something almost pornographic in the lurid black and white images of the dancers caught by this early camera.

Still, the early days of silent film, when technology was simple and cheap, actually saw movies being made by Native Americans about Native Americans depicting the realities of their lives at the time. It wasn't until the "talkies", and more specifically Westerns, came along that the problems began. Diamond himself talks about how as a young kid the only movies he saw on his reserve were the ones shown in a church basement on Saturday afternoons and how he and his friends would never identify with the Indians on the screen when a Western was shown. First of all none of them wore feather head dresses or rode horses, and secondly who'd want to be the bad guy?

Ah, but that's the past you say, and things have changed since then. Look at Dances With Wolves with its sympathetic portrayal of the Lakota for example. While its true, according to some of the film critics interviewed in Reel Injun that it was a watershed in the way it depicted Native Americans as multi-dimensional humans, it was still an outsider's view of what Native life was like, and a distorted one at that according to some. Russell Means, a Lakota and former leader in the American Indian Movement, was offended by the depiction of his nation requiring some "white guy with a mullet" to teach them how to fight. The people who defeated Custer at Big Horn didn't need "Lawrence of the Plains" to teach them anything.
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In fact, while most interviewed agreed, including Clint Eastwood, John Trudell, and Native film critic Jesse Wente, individual performances by people like Chief Dan George, Graham Greene and Gary Farmer, were invaluable in changing people's perceptions of the one dimensional stoical Indian, it wasn't until Native Americans began making films about Native Americans that real change occurred. Smoke Signals, based on a story by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, was set on the Spokane reservation in the state of Washington. Nobody was wearing feathers, riding a horse or talking in pidgin English, The characters lived in the modern world and dealt with the day to day shit that concerns most Native Americans today.

However, even Eyre says that his movie was made with the wider world in mind, and it wasn't until the release of The Fast Runner by Inuk director Zacharias Kunuk was there was a film by, about and for Native people in North America. Winner of the Camera d'or for Best Feature Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001, Fast Runner was set a thousand years ago among the people of the far north. Shot entirely in the language of the people, it was a gritty and real representation of what life was like in the days before contact with Europeans. There was nothing glamourous or holy about the life depicted - it was just who they were and what they had to do in order to survive.

That's a long way from the days of Chuck Conner playing Geronimo or Native actors being told they didn't look "Indian" enough to play themselves. However stereotypes die hard and its going to take a lot more movies along the lines of The Fast Runner before the image of noble savage is erased from people's minds. Perhaps the days are gone when young Native boys are going to be beat up after Saturday afternoon matinees like Russell Means and his brother were for being Injuns, or be made to feel ashamed of their heritage because they only see themselves as villains on the screen. However movies like Eastwood's Flags Of Our Fathers and Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man and their honest depiction of Natives are still in the minority and reach far fewer impressionable minds than Disney's Pocahontas with its depiction of a real woman as a Barbie Doll Indian Princess.

Reel Injun might be light hearted in tone at times, but it tackles a serious subject with directness and courage. Many people who watch this movie aren't going to be happy as it cuts the legs out from under American icons like John Wayne and Western movies in general. However there were lots of people who thought segregation was a good thing too and we know how that turned out. Not all Native Americans are noble, great horsemen and very few of the ones I know talk to animals anymore than I do. For those who don't understand what all the fuss is about when people complain about mascots or how Natives are depicted in films, if you keep an open mind when watching this film, you'll come away at the end of the hour with a far better understanding of why it hurts so much.

(Article first published as TV Review: Reel Injun on PBS on Blogcritics.)

September 17, 2010

Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen- Songs From The Road

It's not often that items are released within a couple of weeks of each other about the same artist where one was originally recorded some forty years before the other. It's especially rare to have two DVDs about the same person with that time difference surfacing one right after the other. The number of performers who have endured from the 1970s to now are few enough as it is, but for there to be anything new under the sun from the past not yet released that is actually worth viewing is as remarkable as the longevity required for them still to be performing today.

Leonard Cohen has actually been around a lot longer then since the early 1970s, but the DVD scheduled for release on August 31/10, Bird On A Wire, was of the never before seen film made of his 1972 European tour. (As of now the DVD has still not been released due to "concerns" on the part of Cohen's current label - you won't even find it listed yet at either the distributor's web site or at Amazon.com) Now two weeks later, September 14/10, Columbia Record's Legacy Recordings has released Songs From The Road a collection of twelve songs taken from Cohen's 2008/2009 world tour. Available as a CD/DVD package and Blu-ray, the songs are taken from eleven of the many venues Cohen performed at during his two years on the road, with two from his November 2008 concert at London's O2 Arena.

While twelve songs might not seem like much of a representation of a career that has spanned nearly five decades, that's not the point of this release. Instead it was an attempt to capture some of what the recording's producer, Ed Sanders, calls the tour's special moments. As we see in the special feature documentary included on the DVD, "Backstage Sketch", it was Cohen's habit at the end of each show to go directly from the stage to a waiting vehicle which would whisk him back to his hotel. Accompanied by only his tour manager and Sanders he would usually not even mention the show just performed. However, over the course of the tour there were nights when something special would have happened on stage which would compel Cohen to talk about the show. Each of these songs represent, either in Cohen's or Sander's estimation, one of those moments on the tour.
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Ironically, just like its predecessor from 1972, Songs From The Road opens with Cohen's Tel Aviv concert. In September of 2009 Cohen played to some 50,000 people at the Ramat Gan Stadium. While that might seem like a strange environment for a performer whose material is as intimate as Cohen's, you can't help but be amazed at his ability to connect to an audience no matter what its size. As he and the band work their way through a beautiful rendition of "Lover, Lover, Lover", the camera pans out over the stadium where the entire audience appear to be holding green light sticks which are swaying in time to the music like some eerily glowing field of grass. Even more than actually seeing the audience react to the song, one can't help but be impressed by the connection it demonstrates exists between Cohen and his audience or the implied power it represents. Yet, the appreciation he shows for their applause when the song ends is so genuine, it's his humility that leaves the strongest impression.

It doesn't seem to matter where he's performing, or the size of the crowd, each of the songs on this DVD manage to capture the sense of communion existing between Cohen and his audience. This is not your typical rock and roll tour with its crowd of worshippers, instead there appears to be a genuine feeling of reciprocity between the performer and his audience. After each song the applause is deafening and Cohen responds by standing before them humbly, either doffing his hat in recognition of their response or saying a genuine "Thank you friends", constantly surprised at the strength of their reaction.

No collection as small as this one will satisfy every fan of Cohen's, but what I liked about it is the mix of classics and lessor known pieces. "Bird On The Wire" and "Chelsea Hotel" are followed on the disc by "Heart With No Companion", "That Don't Make It Junk" and "Waiting For The Miracle", three songs that you won't often find on any greatest hits collection. "Heart", with its decidedly country feel and slightly tongue in cheek presentation, watch for the three back up vocalists doing some line dancing in the instrumental break, was an example of the rather surprising lightness of spirit that pervaded Cohen's performances. This was, after all, the guy who became famous for cutting a rather brooding and romantic figure. However, even though his material has lost none of its emotional intensity, there was prevailing sense of optimism to the proceedings.
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Perhaps the explanation lies not in what was being performed, but in the fact that both audience and performers were taking such joy in being present. This was something that went beyond the audience merely appreciating Cohen and the band's renditions of the songs, and is hard to define. Unlike other concerts where there is a clear demarcation of roles for both performer and audience, the line at these concerts seemed to blur somewhat. It was like the connection between the two was so strong each song became an experience to share, not something one sat back and passively observed.

One of the best examples of this is the recording of Cohen's performance of "Hallelujah" recorded at the Coachella Music Festival in California. Normally multiple stages are in operation at once, but festival organizers arranged it so Cohen's performance was the only one scheduled and he performed for the entire festival crowd. With a crowd that size standing in front of a stage you'd expect to notice people being distracted or looking around. Not on this night at this moment. Every face seemed riveted on the slightly stooped grey suited figure holding the microphone; hanging on his every word and awaiting their cue to start singing along with the chorus. As producer Sanders says in his notes, if he had to pick a moment as a highlight from the tour it would be hearing the tens of thousands of voices raised in a chorus of one word at the end of the song - Hallelujah.

Naturally the sound and visual quality of this CD/DVD package are excellent with the on stage visuals being exceptionally well done providing both wonderful close ups during solos and excellent full band coverage when required as well. However don't look to the special features for any startling revelations or insights into the artistry of Leonard Cohen. While the short documentary, "Backstage Sketch", introduces us to all the other people on the tour; band members, roadies, tour manager and even the tour accountant, Cohen himself only appears incidentally.

While Tony Palmer's film, Bird On A Wire from 1972 provided viewers with extensive back and off stage footage of Cohen and his band, the tour itself was plagued by horrible sound problems. As a result the footage from on stage was limited and not of the quality we're now used to. It was more than adequate considering the conditions and the time, but compared to what you can see and hear on Songs From The Road you truly comprehend the advantages our new technology has given us over films made in the past. While Bird On A Wire might have given us a better understanding of Cohen the man, Songs From The Road allows you a deeper appreciation of Cohen the performer and the amazing bond he has with his audiences.

(Article first published as Music CD/DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Songs From the Road on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2010

DVD Review: Tony Palmer's Leonard Cohen - Bird On A Wire

In 1972 Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen was at the height of his popularity both in his native country and abroad. The antithesis of the rock and roll gods who normally dominate popular music and fill venues where ever they play, Cohen captivated audiences and listeners with the unabashed sexuality and intellect of his work. Even today, with him well into his seventies, he remains a charismatic figure and retains the ability to enthral audiences the world over. Somehow, even those who might not have sufficient knowledge of the English language to grasp the nuances of his words, are held as if in thrall when he climbs on stage. A true troubadour of the heart and soul nothing seems to impede his ability to communicate with an audience.

However, what we have witnessed over the last couple of years, whether in person or on DVD, are a master in his declining years. Though, even now there are few performers today able to match his power to connect with an audience, what must it have been like to see him when he was at the peak of his prowess? While the release last year of footage taken from his performance at Isle Of Wight in 1970 gave us some idea as to his abilities, the conditions in which the concert took place - due to rioting by the audience and other crazy circumstances he ended up not taking the stage until around two in the morning - did not make it ideal for viewing him at his best. While it was amazing to see him calm down close to half a million people who had gone as far as setting fire to the stage after nearly five days of bedlam, it wasn't what anyone would call a typical Cohen concert, if there could be such a thing, from the period.

Two years after that performance Cohen embarked on a twenty city tour that would take him from Dublin Ireland to Jerusalem accompanied by a film crew under the direction of British documentarian, film,theatre and opera director, author and critic, Tony Palmer. Probably best known for his astounding seventeen part television history of Pop Music, All You Need Is Love, by 1972 Palmer had already directed twenty-three movies including concert films of Cream, (Cream Farewell Concert 1968) Frank Zappa's 200 Motels and the documentary Ginger Baker In Africa. For some reason though, Cohen wasn't happy with Palmer's edit of the footage and requested it be re-edited by a person of his choice. Unfortunately the result was so botched that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), who had commissioned the film, refused delivery and it was never broadcast.
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Fast forward to 2009 when Palmer was informed that the original footage, something like two hundred cans of film, had been found in a warehouse. While some of the footage was in dubious condition, the sound was in perfect shape. So Palmer set to the painstaking task of sorting and restoring miles of film with the result that almost forty years after it was originally shot Bird On A Wire, has been released on DVD, distributed by MVD Entertainment. While the story behind the movie is almost enough to make it worth seeing in itself, you'll soon discover this is no mere curiosity piece. Rather it is a masterful piece of work by a gifted and experienced documentary film maker.

The film follows Cohen and his band off and on stage as they wend there way east across Europe from Great Britain until their final two concerts in Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Palmer has chosen to open the film with footage of the second to last concert in Tel Aviv, where once again we find Cohen in the position of having to try and pour oil onto troubled waters. This time it's not the audience who riot, but the security personnel who go over the top. At one point during the concert Cohen invited audience members at the back to come and sit down in what he saw as an open space in front of the stage so they could hear and see better. Perhaps he should have checked with the bouncers before hand, for when people started to come down to the front of the stage and sit, they were forcibly removed. In spite of Cohen's pleas for restraint things quickly descended into chaos and the concert couldn't go on.

What we don't know at the time, and which gradually becomes clear over the course of the film, is at some point early on in the tour something had gone wrong with the sound equipment they were using. As a result the band had to make do without the use of on stage monitors - meaning they were virtually unable to hear themselves - and the whole system eventually feeding back if they exceeded a certain volume. On one occasion we saw Cohen invite those in the furthest reaches of an auditorium who were having difficulty in hearing to come up and sit on stage with the band so they could hear. It's a testament to the respect audiences held Cohen in, that when he asked that only those who were truly having difficulties come up on stage, they listened to him. Instead of the mad rush you might have expected upon the issuing of this invitation, only those who weren't able to hear came forward while everybody else stayed in their seats.
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While that is a rather extreme example, it typifies how well the film captured the rapport Cohen had with his audience. Some of the lighter moments included him chiding the audience for starting to clap for a song after he'd only played a few chords, reminding them that all his songs sound the same because he only knows a couple of chords so how could they possibly know what song he's about to sing? What's truly remarkable about those moments are how warmly the audience responded and the affectionate laughter that met these and other self-deprecating comments he would make.

Aside from the fact that some of the footage was in black and white and it was obviously shot on film, such was Palmer's skill as a director there were times while watching it is easy to forget the footage that is nearly forty years old. It was far harder to maneuver cameras and crew in those days, yet somehow he and his people managed to not only capture remarkably intimate concert footage, they were obviously so unobtrusive Cohen and those around him acted as if they were unaware they were being filmed. (There is one memorable moment, however, where Cohen is talking to a very pretty women visiting back stage and he turns to face the camera and comment on how hard it is to chat someone while being filmed) As a result the footage taken offstage captures life on tour; backstage before and after a show, in transit, interviews with the press, and the interaction between the band members; far better than I've ever seen it depicted.

While all of this is interesting, what really makes Bird On A Wire a treasure is what we see of Cohen himself. The expression wearing your heart on your sleeve might have been coined for him at this stage in his life as he can't hide how he's feeling from anybody, including his audience at times. However, at the same time he exudes a sense of power that allows him to stand up in front of his audience and almost reprimand them like a parent would a misguided child and they actually listen to him.
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Like all artists he's plagued by the desire for his work to be perfect, and if it can't be it shouldn't be seen. At one point he stops his show in Jerusalem because he's not happy with the quality of his performance and takes the band off stage, uncertain as to whether or not he'll continue with the show. It's not about pride, or if it is it's the right kind, because he refuses to cheat the audience by giving them anything less than what he considers his best. He eventually does go back on, and the audience doesn't want him to leave. Eventually he has to come back on stage after multiple encores to tell the audience that he and all his band are back stage crying right now and couldn't possibly do another song.

While there are none of the special features we've all come to expect from modern DVD packages included on the disc, there are some lovely surprises in the packaging, Aside from a nice sized booklet with each page containing collages of pictures, quotes, and clips from newspaper articles about Cohen, a replica of the poster for the film and what looks to be a postcard sized replica of promotional artwork of Cohen from the 1970s are also included. Naturally the image quality and the sound reproduction are limited by the condition the film was found in and the technology used to shoot it in the first place. However, all things considered, and this is a sign of a remarkable restoration job, they are probably better quality than anybody had any right to hope.

Bird On A Wire by Tony Palmer should be compulsory viewing for anyone wishing to make a documentary about a concert tour. Its combination of impeccably filmed concert footage and fly on the wall off stage reporting makes it probably the best movie of its type that I've ever seen. It succeeds in presenting an intimate portrait of one pop music's more enigmatic and charismatic figures. This is Leonard Cohen as you may never have seen him before and definitely won't ever again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Leonard Cohen - Bird on a Wire on Blogcritics.)

September 2, 2010

DVD Review: Bob Brozman - Par Avion

The first time I heard Bob Brozman was a few years back and at the time I was amazed at his abilities as a blues guitarist and vocalist. Aside from John Hammond Jr. I'd not heard another contemporary musician performing solo acoustic blues and be able to hold my attention for not only the length of a CD, but a ninety minute concert on DVD as well. So I was really surprised when talking to the publicist who had supplied me with those discs that he wasn't considered to be primarily a blues performer. Here was a guy who sounded like he was burning a hole in the neck of his resonator guitar his slide was moving so slickly, and yet blues was only considered something he did on the side. How could that be possible?

Well it turns out that Brozman is one of the few people around who justly deserves to be described as a world music performer. Unlike the majority of people who happen to be given that label only because they were born in a non English speaking country, Brozman actually plays music from all over the world. If it can be played on a stringed instrument, seemingly any kind of stringed instrument, there's a damn good chance he's played it at some point in his career. From the islands of Hawaii, Reunion Island off the coast of Madagascar, the Okinawa Islands, Papua New Guinea, India, France, to the blues of his native America Brozman has travelled the world for thirty years seeking out new music and new musicians to play with.

While there have been individual recordings made of most of these musical collaborations, for the first time music lovers have an opportunity to view clips of Brozman and those he's worked with in action. A new DVD, Par Avion, for sale only through his web site, is a montage of video clips, still photos and of course music, dating back to his early days as a street musician in the early 1970's. While age and dubious equipment means the quality of some of the clips aren't the highest, it doesn't prevent the DVD from being a incredibly fascinating document.
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The movie opens with a couple of stills showing Brozman from his street musician days when he was making his living by travelling around America busking for a living. From there we move to 1978 for some faded black and white footage from Boulder Creek California for two tunes, "Ukulele Spaghetti" and "Shake It And Break It". Even at this age we see Brozman is already a virtuoso on his beloved resonators as he rocks the house on both a ukulele and guitar version of the old metal instruments. Combined with a clip from a local San Francisco news show in 1984, on which he's seen playing "River Blues", these pieces of video give viewers an indication of just how good a player Brozman is. With a voice like Leon Redbone and a dexterity on the fret-board like no one else, it's obvious he could have easily been a huge success playing only the blues.

However, this is the man who once said in an interview, "If you're bored it usually means your boring", and he sure wasn't about to let himself be either. The next few clips are from 1986 in Kailua Kona Hawaii and feature Brozman playing Hawaiian pedal steel. This is a style of music that even then had long since gone out of fashion, and in an interview done at the time he admitted that when he played those types of events he was usually the youngest person performing as nobody else his age or younger seemed interested in the genre anymore. It turns out he learned how to play it listening to old 78 rpm records of Tau and Rose Moe, Hawaiian musical stars of the 1920s. Somehow or other Tau heard of Brozman and in 1988 invited him to their home in Oahu. The result was a recording of Hawaiian pedal steel and lap blues unlike any that had been released in decades.

While the video clips from the recording session are faded black and white and over exposed in places, the sound quality is still crisp and clean. However the best moments are footage of Tau and Brozman sitting together jamming on their lap slide guitars against the backdrop of the Pacific ocean and lush green of the Moe house grounds. This section of the film ends with a beautiful shot of the two men walking along the beach together with Tau telling Brozman how much they appreciate a young guy like him from the mainland helping keep their music alive.

We then continue to hop skip and jump around the world and through the years with Brozman to watch him play swing music for ballroom dancers in Vancouver British Columbia in 1992, give a brief introduction to resonator guitars for a Japanese Television documentary in '94, and then down to Santa Cruz California to play some intricate jazz/blues with Martin Simpson of England. The hectic pace continues onto Okinawa, Reuion Island, Papua New Guinea, peppered with occasional stops at music festivals in Quebec City in Canada where he's seen performing with his friends from around the world including Takashi Hirayasu from Okinawa, Rene Lacaille and Granmoun Lene from Reunion, and Debashish and Subhashis Bhattacharya from India.
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From what I've described I'm sure Par Avion sounds a rather disjointed affair, jumping all over the place as it does. However, when putting the clips together editor Daniel Shane Thomas has taken the time to build in transitions which provide some on screen text background as to where we are going and who we are about to see perform. Of course the other connective devise is the movie's subject matter, Bob Brozman. You can't help but be caught up in his enthusiasm, and obvious love, for the music he's playing and this, more than anything else, that serves as the through line for the movie. Brozman is not your typical musical tourist, taking what he likes best of other people's music and incorporating into his own. Rather he's there to learn how to play the music of whatever region he's visiting, and then record it with the local musicians. Therefore, with each new place visited we learn a little more about the fascinating common language human beings from every part of the world share - music.

Bob Brozman lives for and loves music and he's chosen to share some of what he has loved most over the last thirty years with us through the DVD Par Avion. If you've never heard or seen him play before, you've missed out on a truly extraordinary individual and musician and should take this chance to get to know him. The disc is only available through his web site, but it's well worth your while to make that little extra effort to pick up a copy. You'll be introduced to a whole new world of music.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Par Avion on Blogcritics.)

August 23, 2010

Music DVD Review: Jackson Browne -Jackson Browne: Going Home

A couple of years ago I was interviewing Francis Jocky, a singer/songwriter from The Cameroon in Africa, and was rather taken aback by his answer to my question about early his musical influences. "I started being interested in music when I was eight years old, and I was listening to Bob Marley, Randy Newman and Jackson Browne". While it's pretty typical for a kid from Africa to have been listening to Marley, and the fact he was listening to Newman was surprising, what really shocked me was he had heard of Jackson Browne let alone had listened to him in the Cameroon. While I've been listening to Browne's music since somewhere in the 1970s, it's always seemed to me that he's some sort of well kept secret. For a guy who has been playing professionally since he was seventeen and released more records than I can remember off the top of my head, it's remarkable how many people I've met seem to have either never, or only vaguely, heard of him.

Part of that is due to the nature of the music industry, with its your only as well known as your last hit record attitude, and part of that is due to the fact you weren't going to hear any of Browne's music on mainstream radio at any time through the 1980s or 1990s. Long before it was popular, or safe, to be writing and recording music critical of American foreign policy, Browne was one of the few mainstream musicians who put aside his career ambitions to write a series of albums containing songs openly critical of the Regan administration and American Imperialism in general. Writing songs critical of Oliver North, and all the other right wing heroes of the day, quickly assured your songs wouldn't receive radio play during either the Regan or Bush Sr. years. So, by the time that decade had ended the man who had written "Taking It Easy", "Late For The Sky", "Doctor My Eyes" and "Running On Empty" - FM radio hits through-out the 1970s - had disappeared off most people's radar.

I often wonder if the Disney Channel knew exactly who Browne was back in 1994 when they presented Jackson Browne: Going Home, now being re-issued on DVD by Eagle Rock Entertainment, to television audiences. Maybe they thought they were presenting the heart warming story of somebody's comeback or something, because I can't see them knowingly giving a ninety minute special to somebody as politically outspoken as Browne. However it managed to get on the air, Going Home is a fascinating mix of documentary and performance footage summarizing Browne's career to that point giving fans an opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation of the man and his work and those unfamiliar with him a chance to see why his influence has been felt half way around in the world in The Cameroon.
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Interviews with Browne and others, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley, not only tell the story of Browne's life but allow the viewer to understand this guy isn't your standard issue rock star. We learn from Browne about his jazz playing father and how he grew up in that rarest of things in twentieth century America, a fully integrated household as his father would often rehearse his multi-racial band at home. Not only would that influence him musically, but it would also help shape his way of looking at the world and his social conscience. For as we quickly discover from the conversations with others, even in the days before he was writing "political" songs, he was participating in, and promoting, benefit concerts for various causes.

While there are plenty of pop stars who seem more than willing to lend their names to causes or appear at events, its quickly obvious that Browne doesn't just view them as photo opportunities to salve his conscience like so many others do. One of the most telling scenes in the documentary is a clip of him with having a very serious conversation about the pros and cons of nuclear power with one of the arena staff where one of these events took place. Not only does he genuinely engage and listen to the person he's talking to, he treats him and opinions as equals. How many pop music stars can you think of who would not only take the time to have that conversation but treat the person with that amount of respect?

However, while its fascinating to learn about how Browne helped the Eagles launch their career when they all lived within a block of each other or that he started out his career when he was seventeen at Andy Warhol's "Factory" in New York City, my favourite parts of the movie are those when he's filmed hanging out with his old friend, multi instrumentalist David Lindley. For those who don't know Lindley he's one of those folk who seem to be able to pick up any stringed instrument and make it sing. Yet according to Browne what truly distinguishes Lindley is his love of polyester. Lindley wears some of the most god-awful, eye watering and nausea inducing polyester clothes made while performing. Browne takes an almost perverse delight in commenting on Lindley's wardrobe, and in the process reveals his wonderful sense of the absurd.
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Then there's the music. The movie contains twenty-one of Jackson Browne's songs performed everywhere from him sitting in the back of a car travelling with his son, a rehearsal hall with his band as they prepare for an upcoming tour, a recording studio, and finally in front of a studio audience specially brought together for the taping of this special. It's during the latter that he's joined by special guests Nash, Crosby, Lindley and Jennifer Warrens. The songs span his career to that point from early classics like "Before The Deluge" and "Doctor My Eyes" to "Lives In The Balance" and "I'm Alive" from albums released in the 1980s.

To be perfectly honest I wasn't a big fan of most of Browne's contemporaries in the Southern California soft-rock/country scene as I found it mainly insipid and emotionally vapid. So much of it seemed to combine the mawkish sentimentality of the worst country music with boring middle of the road pop - think The Eagles "You Can't Hide Those Lying Eyes" and you'll get the picture. All you have to do is listen to any song of Browne's and you immediately hear the difference. Not only are they far more musically complex and interesting than anything done by those he supposedly influenced, lyrically he has the ability to take highly personal material, with the potential for being self-serving and cliched, and create something that speaks to people on a universal level. We can listen to a song he sings about his own experiences and recognize something of ourselves in it no matter what the topic.

As far as production values go you really couldn't ask for anything better considering the date of the original recording. With DTS Digital sound and the option of either Dolby 5.1 surround or Dolby Digital stereo the audio quality on the DVD is excellent and the video, 4:3 format, is of equally good quality. While some might be disappointed by the lack of special features the movie itself contains more than sufficient musical and biographical content about its subject to keep even the most ardent fan satisfied. While you may wonder at the value of a sixteen year old film, because of the insights it gives the viewer into Jackson Browne and what makes him tick combined with the amount of music included, it remains a valuable addition to any serious music fan's collections. Whether you're a long time fan of Browne's work or know little or nothing about him, Going Home will go a long way towards explaining the its appeal to an eight year old boy in The Cameroon.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Jackson Brown - Going Home on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2010

DVD Review: Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam

When he was seventeen years old Michael Muhammad Knight followed in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali and converted to Islam. However unlike Ali, and the majority of other Americans who become followers of the Nation Of Islam, Knight isn't an African American. Brought up in an Irish/Catholic household, his conversion to Islam was in reaction to his white supremacist father. Like many other converts to a new religion he became something of a zealot to begin and travelled to Pakistan to study at a very conservative mosque.

However there came a point where the dogma became too much for him. Islam was still important to him, but not the narrow minded view of the world the conservatives dictated should go with it. So he ran from one extreme to another and sat down and wrote the novel The Taqwacores, which supposed the existence of a house full of Islamic punk rock musicians sharing a house together in Buffalo. Initially self published the book began to strike a chord with disaffected Muslim youth across North America and Knight was constantly writing people to tell them the characters in the book didn't exist.

In a strange twist on the old life imitating art thing though, it came to pass that Michael and a collection of Islamic punk musicians - mainly the young people who contacted him in the first place - came up with the idea of bringing the book to life. In the book the musicians set out on the road to tour around North America with their ultimate destination being the annual Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) convention in Chicago. So, piling into a school bus painted green and decked out with graphics and slogans, bands like the The Kominas from Boston, The Secret Trial Five from Vancouver, Al-Tharwa from Chicago and individual musicians like Omar Wagner from Washington DC, set out to shock and awe America.
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Joining them on the bus, and for the the tour and beyond, was a documentary film crew headed by Canadian director Omar Majeed. The resulting film of this strange pilgrimage, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam (not to be confused with the soon to be released film adaptation of Knights book The Taqwacores) is now available on DVD through Lorber Films. The film is roughly divided in two with part one introducing us to the various bands on the tour, following their misadventures as they attempt to play gigs, get stopped by cops, spend the night in a mosque in the middle of a corn field in Ohio, and finally make it to the ISNA conference. Part two picks up at some point after the tour in 2007 as two members of The Kominas have moved back to Pakistan and are attempting to bring punk with them and Knight comes to visit with camera crew in tow.

As we meet the young people involved in the Taqwacore tour (Taqwa - the Muslim term for God consciousness - core for hard core punk) we realize that like Knight they are all trying to find a place for themselves in the world. As young Muslims in North America they don't want to give up their faith, but at the same time they want the freedom to be who they are as individuals as well. Gay, straight, male and female their songs range from the overtly political like The Secret Five's "Guantanamo Bay" or tongue in cheek satire like The Kominas' "I'm An Islamist" - their version of the infamous Sex Pistol tune.

While watching them wander across America in their green school bus I couldn't help but be reminded of another school bus forty some years earlier and the book that recorded that journey. American author Ken Keasy and his band of Merry Pranksters drove an old converted school bus around the country in the early 1960's preaching the gospel according to LSD and were memorialized in Tom Wolf's Electric Kool-aid Acid Test. However the great thing about film is that we have a much more direct link to the action and it's not so blatantly filtered through an author's voice. With Wolf's book you have the feeling it was written with the idea of giving middle class liberals a few cheap thrills, while Taqwacore is far more intent on telling the story and perhaps broadening viewer's minds as to who Muslims are.
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While the attempt to bring punk to an Islamic audience in America met with mixed success; when they performed at the ISNA conference they were closed down by the organizers for having female singers and dancing but the audience of young girls wearing headscarves were more than happy to sing along with lyrics like "Stop the hate"; what kind of reception would it get in an Islamic country? When Knight arrives in Lahore Pakistan he finds that his two old buddies from the Taqwacore days have sunk into a bit of a hash soaked stupor. They've pulled together a band but are finding it next to impossible to play gigs. What they hadn't counted on was the fact that popular music is mainly for the small percentage of affluent people, while the poor people whose message punk is aimed at are much more interested in traditional music or Bollywood. It's also almost impossible to bring the two audiences together in a single venue because of the class differences still very prevalent in that country.

While they eventually do manage to give a successful free concert in downtown Lahore, the majority of our time in Pakistan is spent with Michael Knight as he travels around visiting various shrines and mosques. He even braves going back to the mosque where he studied years ago and sits and talks with the cameras about himself for a while. What's really quite amazing about him is his incredible ability to be completely honest with himself. At one point he talks about his behaviour when he first converted and how he used to lecture his mother about her way of dressing and the fact that she would have a glass of wine before sleep. At first he thought her reactions to this, soft smiles and not arguing with him, were the sign of a mother's loving patience, but then he realized it was also the behaviour of a person who had been seriously abused for a long time.

His father used to threaten her endlessly and she had to sit through hours of torment while he would accuse her of everything from having the Devil for a lover to giving birth to the Devil's son. Her only defence was to never fight and passively let him rant on and on. When Knight finally put two and two together he understood that his lecturing his mother on her behaviour in the manner he was doing was abuse. When someone is able to admit this to himself any doubts you might have had about their sincerity are lost. His conversion to Islam may have initially been an act of rebellion, and his subsequent conversion to punk an expression of frustration that Islam wasn't able to supply all the answers he wanted, but the journey he and all the other young people we meet in this film are on, are sincere attempts to find a path that honours both their faith and themselves.

While the idea of punk rock Muslims might sound ridiculous to some people and to others it might even be blasphemous, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, Taqwacore: The Birth Of Punk Islam is inspiring and hopeful. Not only do those involved dispel any stereotypes you might have about Muslims, they also show how it is possible to be a religious person without letting your religion dictate who and what you are as an individual. The underlying message of tolerance and respect, mixed with a healthy dose of the benevolent chaos of punk, is one the world could stand hearing over and over again.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Taqwacore -The Birth Of Punk Islam on Blogcritics.)

May 20, 2010

DVD Review: Griefwalker

Death doesn't seem the most inspiring of topics for a film does it? If I were to hazard a guess I'd say that the majority of us do our best to go through our days without thinking about death or dying. After all who wants to think about such a gloomy subject? What purpose would it serve anyway? Wouldn't thinking about your impending doom, because we are all going to die eventually, just serve to depress us? So it might surprise you to hear somebody say that by denying our eventual deaths we reduce our ability to live our lives to their fullest.

Stephen Jenkinson has a Master's Degree in Social Work, is a graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity, worked in the centre for children's grief and palliative care in a major children's hospital in Canada and as an associate professor in a Canadian medical school. He counsels individuals and their families helping them come to terms with their impending death and all its implications. He also lectures and leads workshops for people who work in palliative care and offers workshops to the general public on how to get the most out of your life - through a better understanding of death. Griefwalker, produced by The National Film Board Of Canada and distributed by Alive Mind Media, is a documentary about Jenkinson that was filmed over a twelve year period by director Tim Wilson who also happens to be Jenkinson's friend.

There are two parts to the film; one deals with Jenkinson and his work and includes footage of him working with clients, leading seminars and interviews with people who have worked with him, while the other is a mixture of the director's personal recollections of his relationship with Jenkinson and an examination of the man's philosophies and how his approach to life has shaped them. At times the director steps out from the behind the camera and becomes part of the film as he cross examines his friend or recalls personal memories. For at one point the director had come close to dying after what was supposed to have been routine surgery and Jenkinson had said something to him that pissed him off at the time. In the movie the two men discuss that time and it works into their discussion on death and people's relationship to it.
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The interviews with clients are some of the hardest things you'll ever watch in a movie because of their simple realism. These are real people talking about their circumstances and that makes it all the more poignant. There are two incidences where we are witness to Stephen at work counselling people, and a third is a young couple recounting their experiences with him when their infant daughter died. What we quickly find out about Jenkinson is that he's genuinely serious about helping people come to terms with the reality of impending death, and does so by forcing them to confront their fears. He doesn't come across as necessarily sympathetic - at least in the sense we might think of based on the sentimental ideas of sympathy we've been raised on. However there can be no doubting his compassion for the people he is dealing with as he coaxes them into admitting what they are really feeling or facing up to their situation.

The case of the young couple is a good example of this. Their baby was being kept alive by blood transfusions. Every two or three days she would need another transfusion but there was no promise of her ever recovering. The mother recalls how Jenkinson gradually helped her realize how she was in denial about her baby's chances of survival by making her say out loud the false hopes she was clinging to in her head. Eventually she and her husband took their baby home where she could die in peace and without pain. They were able to enjoy their child's last days to the fullest because of this instead of the gradual wasting away that would have occurred in the hospital.

I've a natural mistrust of people who assume the trappings of a culture other than there own as most of the time they have only a superficial knowledge of what they've adopted and make no attempt to actually live their lives according to what they supposedly believe in. So the sight of Jenkinson with his hair tied back in a braid was at first slightly off putting. However as the movie progresses you come to realize this is not someone who had merely taken on the appearance of his Algonquin neighbours, he has an understanding of their culture and belief system, and attempts to live his life accordingly. He has also looked to indigenous cultures around the world for the basis of his program for teaching people how to cope with death based on their connection to the world around them.
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The movie does a great job of only presenting Jenkinson's ideas on death and dying, but introducing us to the man and showing us not only how he formulated his concepts, but how the life he has chosen to live embodies them. He is what he preaches and does his best to live according to what he espouses. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, and the movie is a pretty convincing argument in favour of what he has to say about our fear of death and how that impacts our quality of life, you can't help but admire him for his dedication to helping people and his compassion for everybody he comes in contact with.

Probably everyone has seen a silly Western movie at some time or another where an Indian character on the verge of going into battle will say "It's a good day to die". However, the real meaning of that expression is live each day as if it were your last and enjoy it to its fullest. Greifwalker is the story of a man who does his best to make any day a good day for people to die in by helping them confront and defeat their fears surrounding death. While the DVD doesn't come with any special features, the person you meet in the film is probably one of the more special people you'll come across in a long time.

If you're interested in learning more about his counselling services and workshops be sure to go to his Orphan Wisdom web site where you'll find complete descriptions of what he has to offer and a listing of his scheduled appearances - so far - around North America for 2010.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Griefwalker on Blogcritics.)

May 16, 2010

DVD Review: Sound Of The Soul

The lack of tolerance for other people's belief's has been the bane of mankind's existence for who knows how long. Theoretically we're a rational species and after the millions of years we've been hanging around on the planet you'd think we'd have matured sufficiently to accept not everybody looks at the world the same way. Unfortunately the reverse seems to the be the case as the longer we hang out the more intolerant we seem to become. From east to west you'll find the world has become more and more divided into "us" and "them", with them being responsible for all of "our" problems, no matter who they are.

Yet wouldn't the world be a lot easier to live in if we weren't afraid of the person beside us on the plane because they're a different colour or call their god by a different name they we do? What makes it so hard for people to be tolerant of somebody else's beliefs or even worse, makes it so easy to hate and fear them for it? Are we all so desperate to find somebody we can blame for what's wrong in the world that we have to find a scapegoat? Why is it so easy for our leaders to convince us that those others over there are evil and we are good? Have you ever stopped to think what would happen if there were a place where people of all faiths could come together and appreciate what they have in common instead of fearing their differences? Where we could all celebrate the fact that we all believe in something and see that for the miracle it is?

You might think that's an impossibility in this day and age, but every year since the first Gulf War people of all faiths from all of over the world have been coming together to do just that for a week in June at the Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music in Morocco. Of course Morocco is a bit of an oddity in itself, for as hard as this may be for many to believe, its an Islamic country where Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together in peace for centuries. The festival brings together faith based musical groups of all beliefs from countries all over the world to perform for international interfaith audiences.
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A few years ago director Stephen Olsson travelled to Fez to record the event and find out more about the remarkable circumstances that have allowed it to happen. The resulting movie, Sound Of The Soul is now not only available on DVD through Alive Mind Media, its also being broadcast on the Internet by Global Spirit, one of the many programs available through Link TV. (The initial broadcast is on Sunday May 16th/10 at 6:00 pm EST but check the schedule as it will be re-broadcast throughout the month) The Global Spirit broadcast will include a question and answer session with the director and a panel discussion about the film with Marla Kolman Antebi, Sarah Talcott and Kabir Helminski, a Jewish scholar, an organizer of Inter-faith youth camps, and a Muslim/Sufi scholar and musician respectively.

The movie not only takes viewers to the Fez Festival to enjoy the variety of music on display; vocal groups from Ireland, England, and Russia, a French Jewish vocalist singing with a Moroccan Muslim orchestra, a gospel band from New York City, a fado singer from Portugal, and performances by groups from Afghanistan, Morocco, various African countries, and South America; but provides a look into the remarkable history of its host country. Founded by a Sufi saint Morocco has a history of tolerance that should make it the envy of the world. When the Ottoman Empire was overthrown in Spain, Jews, Muslims, and those Christians not comfortable living under the Inquisition, fled across the Mediterranean to North Africa and settled in Algeria and Morocco. It was the latter that has proven to be the haven for all, as even through the turmoil of the last century she has not been swayed from her founding creed of respect for all.

The film maker interviewed leaders of all three faiths who talked about the history of their people in the country and their current situation. While the founding of Israel saw the Jewish community's numbers drastically reduced as people immigrated, it didn't create the huge divisions that occurred in other countries where there had formally been tolerance between Muslims and Jews. Not once in any of the interviews did you have the feeling that any of those being interviewed were dissembling in any way. It never felt like they were glossing over any uncomfortable truths or making the situation sound any better than it is.
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As we followed the cameras through the streets of Fez what strikes one is the way the modern world and the past have come together so comfortably. Narrow streets filled with people of all ages and sexes dressed in everything from t-shirts and shorts to headscarfs and robes rub shoulders naturally and seemingly without discomfort. We visit courtyards that are hundreds of years old and stare in awe at what first appears to be decorative patterns carved into the walls, only to discover it is scripture spelling out the tenets of Sufism etched by hand hundreds of years ago.

Of course its the music that brings people to Fez each year, and the music is incredible. If you buy the DVD you'll not only find bonus features of complete concerts, there's also a CD featuring some of the performers from the film. While there is plenty of commentary provided by members of each faith on the importance of music for building bridges between peoples, watching people's reactions to the different performers tells the story of music's power far more than talking head can hope. One only has to watch the young Moroccans dancing up a storm to the New York City based gospel group,The McCullough Sons of Thunder, to make that connection.

The camera also go behind the scenes at the Festival to cover a symposium being held at the same time featuring spiritual and business people from around the world, including members of the World Bank and the head of the World Trade Organization Michael Moore. This was the one part of the film where you could feel the tensions of the world intruding on what had been an oasis of peace until that point. It was hard to watch somebody like Moore, whose organization is one of the root causes of suffering in the developing world through policies that continue to siphon the wealth of many into the hands of few, spout words about tolerance and understanding without feeling a wee bit cynical. When the camera drew back to show his audience you could see the scepticism on the faces of many of those listening - especially those spiritual leaders from the developing countries. While the point of the symposium was the need for balance between the spiritual and the secular needs of the world, it was obvious the spiritual leaders present weren't convinced of Moore's sincerity.

Sound Of The Soul is a wonderful movie in that it gives us an example of what the world could be; of how it is possible for men and women of all faiths to appreciate and respect each other and their beliefs. However at the same time it makes perfectly clear just how unique The Fez Festival Of World Sacred Music is, and how far the world has to travel before we can live up to the example of Morocco and its remarkable people. In a world where hope for peaceful coexistence is in increasingly short supply, this movie is a godsend - no matter what your god looks like.


(Article first published as DVD Review: Sound of the Soul on Blogcritics.)

April 28, 2010

DVD Review: The End Of Poverty?

In the early 1960's a young man was sent by the CIA to try and assassinate the president of Iraq who was trying to divert some of the profits from the oil his country produced to stay in his country. The assassination was a failure and the young man, Saddam Hussain, barely escaped with his life. Not willing to trust such an important action to amateurs again, the CIA arranged for the president to be overthrown and executed on public television in Iraq and installed Hussain's family as rulers. Earlier, in the 1950's, when the democratically elected president of Iran tried to do the same thing, the British government on behalf of British Petroleum (BP) approached their former comrade from WWll, President Eisenhower, to see if he could take care of the problem for them. The CIA arranged for the deposing of the Iranian president and installed the Shah of Iran in his place.

Since the end of WWll a new economic colonialism has arisen to replace the old empires of Europe that has ensured, despite countries winning their political independence they are still subject states whose domestic and economic fates are dictated by decisions reached in the corridors of power in Europe, Japan, and the United States. While the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have been assuring us in the developed world that the only hope for the future lies in the globalization of trade, they've not bothered to explain whose future is at stake. If in the last thirty years the number of people in the world going to bed at night hungry, dying of malnutrition and related disease, and living on less than a dollar a day has at least doubled, while a smaller and smaller percentage of the world's population controls a greater amount of it's wealth, what does that say about globalization and and who it is helping?

While the connection between economic policy and CIA assassinations might not seem obvious to some, according to information presented in the documentary The End Of Poverty?, being released on DVD April 27th/10 by Cinema Libre Studios, they are both serving as means to the same end - keeping the control of natural resources the world over in the hands of a small minority. Not only has this resulted in increased financial hardship for the citizens of the affected countries, it has also seen the almost complete degradation of their social structure as vital services like health and education have either been reduced to a fraction of what they once were or simply become beyond their ability to afford. For not only have the countries lost any of the profits associated with the harvesting of natural resources, they have no access to them either as they are all shipped back to the home country of whichever company "acquired" the rights to them. Resulting in the country in which they were produced having to buy back they wish to use.
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The resulting loss of capital and needless expenditure means they have less money to spend on social programs and those costs have to be borne by somebody. That somebody turns out to be the people, who for the most part can't afford to pay the fees for sending their children to school or receiving even the most basic medical attention. When you barely earn enough to feed and house your family, paying for a doctor or schooling becomes luxury items you can't afford. Of course that means a new generation is being raised the world over with a skill set suited only for the most menial types of employment who have no hope of improving their or their children's lot in the world.

As The End Of Poverty? points out though, there's a fine tradition of these practices dating back to the 1500's when Spanish conquistadors first came to America. They were a little less subtle in their methods as they simply slaughtered anyone who stood in their way, and then began the process of carrying away as much of South and Central America's valuable natural resources as they could stuff in the holds of their ships. At the same time they began using the rest of the land to create plantations to grow crops suited for export, coffee and cacao primarily, depriving the local populations of even the means to grow sufficient food to sustain themselves. The same type of practices were carried out all over the world in one way or another by the Dutch, British, Germans, French, and Belgians in Africa, Asia, and North America.

The British and the Dutch took it one step further and stopped local crafts people and artisans from manufacturing goods made from these resources. They then stole the techniques used by textile workers in India (British) and pottery makers in Indonesia (Dutch) and created their own industries in the same products and sold them back to those who were no longer allowed to make them anymore. By the time the colonial powers were ready to surrender control over their colonies in the 1950's and '60's, they left behind countries with no industry, land that had been worked to death growing single crops, untrained and poorly educated populations, and massive debts from having to import everything.

It's at this point the new form of colonialism takes over, involving a mixture of bribes, threats, coups, assassinations and in some cases armed interventions. While numerous people were interviewed during the course of The End Of Poverty? from government officials, economists, to individuals from various countries describing the conditions they lived under and the way the current economic system sustains poverty, the two who were the most chilling were Chalmers Johnson, former CIA consultant and author of Nemesis: The Last Days Of The American Republic and John Perkins formerly employed by American business interests as an Economic Hit Man and author of Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man. While Chalmers confirmed things like the CIA's involvement in the assassinations of heads of state and coups to get rid of governments unfriendly to American business interests, Perkins was, if anything, even more scary in his description of his former job.

As an economic hit man he would meet with the leaders of developing countires in order to convince them to take out crippling loans in order to finance major infrastructure projects to be built by American firms. As a result of their debts these countries would then be forced to sell off the rights to their natural resources in an effort to pay back what they owed, usually to the company who was hired to build the project that caused the debt in the first place. He said that his arguments to convince leaders basically came down to you can accept this bribe and sign the contract or else we will replace you with someone more willing to assist us. According to him the assassination of world leaders from the Congo to Ecuador over the last fifty years can be laid at the door of these practices.

With the majority of the land in the hands of either large corporations or individuals and being used to either grow crops that offer no benefit to local populations or are strictly for export purposes people can't even grow their own food to offset their lack of income. As we find out when the cameras travel to Kenya and interview local farmers in the Rift Valley area, even holding on to your land doesn't help. Dominion Foods of the United States was allowed to dam the river to service their agribusiness in the valley and proceeded to flood the grazing lands and fields of all the local farmers. Land which had sustained them for generations has now been turned into swampland which means not only can't it be used for crops any longer, but the mosquito population has increased bringing with them malaria and other associated diseases.

I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who will be willing to dismiss everything said in this movie as anti-American propaganda, the whining of liberal bleeding hearts, or socialist rhetoric. However, anybody who doesn't have some sort of vested interest, be it philosophical or financial, might start to realize after listening to so many people from so many different countries all over the world describing their circumstances, this has nothing to do with politics or national sentiment. People are starving to death on a daily basis in numbers that are almost beyond comprehension and it could easily be prevented. They might even start to agree with the conclusion John Perkins has reached; that as long as people's lives anywhere in the world are unstable because of poverty, nobody's life is secure. It took the events of September 11 2001 for him to come to the conclusion that something has to change for all our sakes - what will it take to convince you?

The End Of Poverty? is not easy to watch because of the information it imparts. However there's nothing wrong with how its delivered as everything is told in as direct manner possible in language anybody can understand. The special features include even more information as they contain in depth interviews with some of those who appeared in the film and some additional experts as well. As Nelson Mandela said, "Like slavery and aparthaid poverty is not natural. It is man made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings". We just have to be willing to take action, and this DVD offers some of the most compelling arguments you'll ever hear for taking action. Poverty and starvation exist because of the greed of a few and the ignorance of many - after watching this movie no one will be able to plead ignorance ever again.

April 26, 2010

DVD Review: Six Centuries Of Verse

Sometimes when you think of the opportunities for the sharing of information and the dissemination of knowledge that are being neglected and compare it to what's normally on offer through today's mass media, it's hard not to be appalled at the waste of technology and resources. Humans have created so much that is beautiful and awe inspiring in the past few thousand years, yet the chances of seeing any of it outside the confines of educational programming are minimal. Instead of using the media as a means of celebrating our genius and inspiring people with examples of our potential for greatness, it's main use appears to be as a means of advertisement. What else can we assume when keeping sponsors happy with high ratings is apparently the major factor in deciding what is aired or isn't aired?

Even more demoralizing is how the majority of the shows created which might make a difference and expose people to some of the marvels of creation are as likely to alienate viewers as enthral them. For instead of dispelling the beliefs that intelligence and appreciation of the arts are not only suspect but the preserve of an elite segment of society alone, they end perpetuating both lies. Either the material is presented in such a reverential manner the viewers can't help be intimidated or believe it has nothing to say to them or their lives, or it comes across as being beyond their abilities to understand.
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British television has rightfully garnered a far better reputation for presenting intelligent programming than its American counterpart. However, that doesn't mean they aren't subject to falling into some of the same traps as their counterparts across the Atlantic ocean when it comes to dealing with the arts. That was brought home to me again while watching the new three disc DVD package Six Centuries Of Verse being released on April 27th/10 by Acorn Media through its Athena label. Originally broadcast by Thames television in 1985, airing on public television in North America in the 1990's, the sixteen episodes of the series trace the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the 1980's. Each of the episodes deals with a specific period in history, the poets and the style of poetry associated with it.

Hosted by Sir John Gielgud, the series also features assorted British and American actors reciting the poetry from the different eras. While there are names we would normally associate with this type of thing amongst the cast, Anthony Hopkins and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, there are also a couple of surprises, Lee Remick and Stacy Keach, actors more well known for their association with popular television shows and movies than the classics or poetry. When I read the names of the last two amongst those listed, I had hopes the creators of the series had attempted to make it appeal to a wider audience than usual for an arts related program, especially one that deals with poetry.

Unfortunately that ended up not being the case as right from the outset the atmosphere created was one of cloistered elitism. While there is no doubt that Gielgud had one of the finest voices of his generation and was a marvellous actor, the very qualities that made him renowned actually worked against him. He is too perfect in his speaking, and very British, two things that are most associated with the upper classes and higher education and most likely to give people the impression the material at hand is meant only for people like that. Filming him in what looks to be the drawing room of your typical English manor house and its environs only served to increase that impression.
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Thankfully they had the sense to ensure that the audience could at least understand the excerpts from Beowulf and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the early episodes through the use of subtitles in the case of the former and reading a translation into modern verse of the latter. However, while I understand the desire to present the material in a chronological order, it might have been a better idea to find a way of starting with something more accessible. Poetry in of itself is incomprehensible to so many people that starting off with pieces in a "foreign" language is sure to frighten them away. Perhaps it would have better to have an introductory episode where they gave samples of poems from later eras which could entice viewers into watching. Then, when you do travel back in time to the roots of English language poetry, there's not really the need to spend more than one episode on examples of Old and Middle English verse. It's rather too much to expect people to sit through an entire episode on Chaucer, as even translated his work isn't something people are liable to read outside of the classroom these days anyway.

What I did appreciate about the program was their attempts to place the material in an appropriate physical context. Poems that were set in certain obvious locales, like prison cells or in a forest, were recited in those locations, giving the audience a much better chance of understanding not only the poem, but how poetry is able to convey emotion and ideas in a way that prose can't. While some of the actors gave into the impulse sometimes to "perform" the poems they were reciting, the times they chose to simply recite the material and strove to convey the poems meaning to the listeners were far more effective.

While Six Centuries Of Verse does a reasonable job of representing the history of English language poetry from Beowulf to the modern day (although their omission of the "Beat" poets like Allan Ginsberg and modernists like e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce was strange) it, like other programs of its type, failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by television to reach a wide audience. Surely there must be a way of presenting poetry, and the arts in general, so that it can be appreciated by more than just those who are all ready interested in it? If even I, who appreciate most of the works presented over the three discs found my attention wandering, what does that say about its appeal to an audience who'd rather be watching American Idol? If we're really serious about the arts being for more than just a few, we need to find a way of overcoming the elitist stereotype associated with them. Unfortunately this set, while making a few steps in the right direction, still doesn't manage to make that breakthrough.

April 9, 2010

DVD Review: Black, White, + Grey

Over the course of history the visual arts in the Western World have gone through any number of transformations. However, it was in the twentieth century when non-representational, or abstract, works began being created the cry "But is it art?" was heard most often. From Picasso's cubist reconstruction of form, the Sur-realists absurdist creations, to Jackson Pollock's spatter strewn canvases, preconceived notions of what made something a work of art went out the window. No longer would art merely glorify the wealthy and the sacred or be content with creating pretty pictures, so the definitions of what constituted art was, and is, continually being re-evaluated.

The history of art in the twentieth century looks to have been a series of explosions occurring one after another which refused to allow for any sort of complacency on the part of the observer. Just as you were getting used to the power and density of the work of somebody like Pollock, along comes the stripped down work of the Minimalists. In the post- war world of American art it seemed like every time you turned around there was something new either waiting to be discovered or to outrage. This was the world that curator, collector, and sometime patron of the arts, Sam Wagstaff found himself in when, after a spell in advertising in the 1950's, he returned to university and graduated with a degree in art history.

If you've not heard of Sam Wagstaff don't feel too bad, it's doubtful very many people have. However a documentary movie now on DVD, Black White + Grey, from Art House Films, shows the key role he played in helping shape definitions of art. While he did curate some provocative shows, and champion the work of some new and influential artists early on in his career, it was how he almost single-handedly legitimized photography as one of the fine arts which makes him most important. Intertwined with his fascination with photography was his relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Wagstaff not only became the largest single promoter of Mapplethorpe's work and ensured the success of his career, he was also his lover.
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As the film points out you couldn't have found two people more different from each other than Mapplethorpe and Wagstaff; the latter was from as aristocratic a family as you can get in America while the former was from a working class neighbourhood in Queens. Wagstaff was from the generation where gay men served as escorts for women who wanted a safe date and were useful when an extra was needed to make up for an odd number of guests at a dinner party. Mapplethorpe was part of the new generation who frequented the bath houses, wore leather, and didn't hide their sexuality. Some of those interviewed for the movie make it clear they felt Mapplethrope was only using Wagstaff for his money and influence in the art world. However, others, like Patti Smith, offer a different perspective.

Smith and Mapplethorpe had set up house together at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City in 1969 and she recalls Mapplethorpe coming home from a party one night all excited about a man he had met, Wagstaff, describing him as everything he ever wanted in a partner. Smith's description of the three of them together belies any of the more catty comments made by others, Though there is no doubt in anybody's mind that Mapplethorpe would never have had the meteoric success he enjoyed without Wagstaff's support, no matter what anybody might have thought of his subject matter, they were all in agreement there was no doubting Mapplethrope's talent. Wagstaff may have given him a leg up, but if he hadn't had the spark of creative genius somewhere inside of him he'd have never been able to establish himself as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his time.

While Wagstaff had never been short of money, it was only in 1973 with the death of his mother that he inherited sufficient to be considered truly wealthy. It was at this time he began his obsessive collecting of photographs, a collection he was later to sell to the Getty Museum for millions of dollars. Smith describes the three of them going out hunting for photographs and how Wagstaff would literally fill brown paper shopping bags with them. As his collecting grew more refined he started attending auctions in both New York and London, buying anything from job lots to single rarities. There doesn't seem to be any discernible pattern to his purchases as he would buy everything from portraits and landscapes, to photographs of those suffering from medical abnormalities.
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In the special feature included with film, a speech Wagstaff gave at a symposium on art at the Corcoran Museum, he talks about how being from the world of sculpture and paintings he had never considered photography to be in the same league artistically. However when you think about the technology involved with early photography - people having to hold poses for a period of time to allow the image to be etched onto a plate - and you look at some of the subject matter of the items he collected, you realize they were as carefully composed as any painting.

There's one shot in particular that brings that point home, an image of a group of young men gathered around a dock at various stages of going into and coming out of the water. If it had been taken recently we would have just considered it a candid snapshot that anybody could have taken. However, because of the time period it meant that each individual had to be carefully positioned and posed by the photographer to achieve the effect he was after. Art is about intent as much as anything else, and what Wagstaff was able to show with images like this one was the intent to create is just as viable in photography as in any other form of the visual arts.

Some may not remember, or even care, but one of the horrors of the 1980's was reading the obituaries and watching the death toll from AIDS rise. With his connections and money Wagstaff was able to keep the particulars of his illness secret until he died in 1987. Mapplethorpe, always the more open of the two, made no secret of what it was that eventually killed him in 1989. In fact the Mapplethorpe Foundation, founded after the artist's death, splits its funding between photographers and AIDS research. However as the movie makes clear their true legacy is the important role each man had in establishing photography in North America as more than just the poor cousin of painting and sculpture. While the movie does touch upon the more sensationalistic aspects of their relationship, and what it meant to Wagstaff personally in regards to the way he dealt with his sexuality, the major focus remains on their contributions to the world of art.

One of those interviewed in the movie commented on how at one time curators were hired more for their artistic abilities than their academic credentials. With the proliferation of new modes of expression in the sixties and seventies - from happenings, installations, to video and performance art - it took somebody with the eye of an artist to be able to "see" what was being attempted and to access its validity. Sam Wagstaff was one of that breed of curators. As he had so many times earlier in his career he saw something in both Robert Mapplethorpe, and the medium he worked in, that convinced him of there importance. Black, White, + Grey does a remarkable job of not only telling the story of their relationship, but in making sure that Wagstaff is given his due place in the history of modern art. His more notorious protégé's name might be more well known, but Wagstaff built the foundation upon which Mapplethorpe and other photographers have since been able to erect careers.

April 3, 2010

DVD Review: Lost In La Mancha

Back in the 1980's when I was working in theatre the film boom was just beginning in Toronto Ontario. Caravans of trailers, generator trucks, and honey-wagons taking up whole city blocks were still a novelty back then, and people would stand around gawking at the crews setting up a for a day's shooting, hoping for a glimpse of whomever might be staring in whatever feature was being shot. With my experience I could have taken advantage of the work that was coming available, but the little I had learned about the process of film making from those already in the business had left me wary of taking any more than the occasional day work as an extra or production assistant. If I had stayed in Toronto perhaps I would have eventually broken down and taken the plunge, but the more I've come to learn about the world of film production the happier I am that never happened.

Having listened to the drunken ravings of the city's premier set and light designer about having to work in what he called "tunnel-vision" (television) in order to make ends meet, and hearing horror stories about movies never getting off the ground because of producers taking their salaries of the top and leaving nothing left over for the actual making of the film, very little about it appealed to me. Sure the pay was ten times that what you'd make in theatre, but what you'd have to do and the conditions you'd be working under, never seemed to make the pay-off worth while to me. Even back then when there was far less reliance on technical effects and CGI were just initials, there seemed to be very little artistry involved when it came to movie production. In fact originality of thought and vision appeared to be more of a detriment than anything else for those considering a career in film, especially when dealing with the mainstream of North American film making - Hollywood.

I don't think it would bother me so much if they at least would stop with the sham of pretending they have anything to with art. However not only do they cling to the pretence that what they do is art, they've created the circumstances whereby those who are genuinely creative are either frozen out, discredited, or face incredible difficulties having their movies made because they aren't "commercially viable" or fit any of the familiar formulas. Twenty some years after I worked in film, two young film makers, Kieth Fulton and Louis Pepe, made the documentary Lost In La Mancha (available on DVD through Docurama Films) detailing how the system hamstrings genuinely creative people before they even begin shooting a movie. Given unlimited access by the director, Terry Gilliam, their movie, which was to have been a record of Gilliam making a film adaptation of Cervantes' Don Quixote, The Man Who Killed Don Quixiote, turned into a recounting of a director's worst nightmare.
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Having been labelled "difficult" and "out of control" (He refused to give his movie Brazil a happy ending so Universal Pictures created a version of it for America with a different ending from that which was released in the rest of the world and won't allow the original to be shown publicly in their) he was unable to secure financing for the movie in North America. What money he was able to raise in Europe didn't allow for any margin of error, so even before Gilliam has started shooting he's having to compromise his vision. However, in spite of the undercurrent of tension that you rarely find in a "making of" documentary, initially everything proceeds much as you'd expect. We follow Gilliam and his department heads through meetings about props and set pieces, sit in on discussions of logistics, and listen to what various people have to say about working with Gilliam and their hopes for the project.

In fact, the impression we receive is that from a technical standpoint everything is on track. The one disquieting note is there seems to be some problems co-ordinating the actors. Due to the budgetary problems the leads for the movie, Johnny Depp, Depp's partner Vanessa Paradis, and French actor Jean Rochefort, have agreed to work for less than what they would normally be paid, but that means Gilliam and company have to set their filming schedule around their other commitments. The trouble is that with time winding down before they have to start filming, they still haven't been able to get all the actors together for costume fittings and screen tests, let alone have any rehearsal time with them. Then, just as they're about to begin filming, Gilliam gets the word Rochefort is unwell and will be delayed.

This is about when the documentary becomes the account of the film's disintegration. For not only does Rochefort's health become a dominant issue, when they do manage to shoot some film they are plagued by everything from jets flying overhead during filming to a flash flood washing away their equipment. As the end of the first week of filming draws to a close it becomes painfully clear that the film is doomed and shooting will have to be suspended. Things go from worst to awful when it becomes clear that the insurance company who was supposed to be protecting them if things like this happened, declared that Rochefort's illness was an "Force Major", or "Act Of God", and not only were they not planing on paying, they ended up owning the rights to the movie through some convoluted business involving film financing.
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While the documentary is heartbreaking for the way in which it depicts how a man's dreams and visions can literally be stolen away from him through no fault of his own. However, you also realize that in spite of the reputation that Gilliam might have of being reckless and irresponsible as a film maker, he is actually the complete opposite. Watching him work with his people in the pre production stages of the movie you see how incredibly prepared he is for shooting with all the detail for each scene planned out to the smallest detail. The picture you receive of Gilliam is of a meticulous craftsman who not only has vision, but the ability to see it through to completion if allowed.

The package Lost In La Mancha is a two disc set, with the first being the documentary itself, and the second special features. The special features include interviews with Depp , Gilliam, and the documentary's directors and producer. It's quite interesting to hear what both Gilliam and Depp have to say about the reactions to the documentary, and how both at the time this was shot, 2003, were still committed to making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. (According to the Wikipedia page devoted to Gilliam he is set to begin filming it again with Depp sometime this year). However for sheer entertainment the highlight of the special features is the interview/conversation between Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam that was shot during the 29th Telluride Film Festival. They talk about everything from science fiction movies to Gilliam's history and have a great time dissecting the film industry in the process.

Lost In La Mancha is not just a record of how things went horribly wrong during the shooting of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote its also a fascinating look behind the scenes at the bitter realities involved in the making of a film. While circumstances conspired to derail the production, the fact remains in a better world they shouldn't have been able to force its cancellation. As long as the power over what gets seen in cinemas remains in the hands of a relatively small number of people and we continue to be enthralled more by technology than artistry, originality will become a rarer and rarer commodity. We can only hope brave directors like Terry Gilliam continue to tilt at windmills and fly in the face of reason by attempting the seemingly impossible by taking real chances when ever they step behind the camera.

March 23, 2010

DVD Review: The Yes Men Fix The World

During the night between December 2nd and 3rd of 1984 the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal India released methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins into the air resulting in what has been estimated as between a low of 2,259 to as many as 15,000 immediate deaths. Now more then twenty-five years after the initial gas leak the 390 tonnes of toxins remaining on the site continue to leak into the surrounding ground water resulting in birth defects, ongoing medical problems and death among those living adjacent to the plant. With Union Carbide now being owned by Dow Chemical, the chances of any real restitution being made to those who suffered from the initial leak, those who are being born sick, or the mess even being cleaned up sufficiently to prevent any future damage appear non-existent.

So the world was shocked to hear a Dow Chemical spokesmen, Jude Finisterra appearing on a BBC World News special commemorating the twentieth anniversary in 2004 announcing the company was going to immediately liquidate Union Carbide and use the money from the sale, around twelve billion dollars, to clean up the site and properly recompense all those who were suffering because of the spill. With their share price plummeting, it fell 4.2% in twenty-three minutes for a loss of around two billion dollars, Dow was quick to release a statement denying they had any such plans and that the person who made the statement wasn't there employee. Who was Jude Finisterra and how did one of the most respected news agencies in the world come to believe he was actually a spokesperson for a huge multinational corporation?

Well, the folk at the BBC shouldn't feel so bad, for according to a new documentary being released on April 1st on DVD by Docurama Films, The Yes Men Fix The World, they weren't the first or the last to be fooled by the brilliant activist duo known as the The Yes Men. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno have been travelling the world posing as everything from special assistants to the head of HUD, the arm of the American government responsible for public housing, to representatives of the World Trade Organization in their quest to fix the world. While they have had some great successes dating back to their early days working separately with Mike switching the voice boxes of Barbie dolls with GI Joes and Andy hacking images of men kissing into violent video games, this movie might just put an end to their personal involvement in any future actions.
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You can't go as public as this and tell everybody how you've been so successful in the past without at least somebody out there taking notice. They've let the cat out of the bag and now people aren't going to be as easy to fool. It will probably require more than just a web site saying you're part of Dow Chemical before they invite you to appear before a television audience of over 300 million. In the movie the Yes Men describe their two most dependable methods for attending conferences or being invited to speak at an event. The first is the setting up of websites which give a visitor the impression it is affiliated with the company in question. In the case of the Dow Chemical announcement they had set up a web site called DowEthics.com designed to look like a real Dow site that dealt with issues just like Bhopal and a BBC producer contacted them with an invitation to appear on the twentieth anniversary show.

In other instances they would find out about conferences they wanted to attend - lets say a meeting of over 500 oil industry representatives in Calgary Alberta Canada - and they would contact the organizers and ask them if they would like the head of Exxon to come and speak. At the last minute he won't be able to attend and his special assistant will be flown in to give the presentation and speak in his place. Which is exactly what they did to get invited to an oil industry conference in Calgary Alberta in order to introduce Exxon's newest bio-fuel - candles made from dead bodies. As there were going to be thousands of corpses caused by global warming - why not take advantage of this supply of raw materials? They even came with a sample candle and a video of the loyal Exxon employee who upon discovering he was terminally ill had volunteered himself for rendering.

Aside from detailing some of their more elaborate stunts, they've also included interviews with those voices who represent the free market system. These men, representatives of some of the biggest conservative think tanks in America, make no bones about what they stand for and boast about their achievements. One of them takes great pride in saying how if it wasn't for his group America would have signed the Kyoto accord. Part of the campaign they ran included a commercial, paid for by Exxon, whose tag line was: "Carbon Dioxide - they call it pollution, we call it life." Their logic being since such things as trees and plants breath carbon dioxide the exhaust their industries create support the growth of plant life. Of course they make no mention of the fact that industry has been responsible for such massive deforestation there aren't nearly enough trees left in the world to absorb all the carbon dioxide being produced these days.
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The Yes Men aren't afraid to take their lumps either, and throughout the movie they play clips of the media response to their stunts as well as relaying official statements from various politicians who have been duped by them. Its quite amazing how many times they are accused of playing cruel tricks upon people by creating false hopes. When they went to New Orleans and announced that HUD was changing its mind and would re-open all the public housing instead of tearing it down - public housing that had survived Katrina intact - or announced on world wide television that Dow Chemical was going to finally do what was right - the response was identical. Yet who were the ones who were doing the damage in the first place, who caused all the pain to begin with? Weren't those who made the decision to tear down public housing in New Orleans depriving people of a place to live being cruel? Wasn't the fact that Dow Chemical announced that it had no intentions of making restitution to the people of Bhopal or cleaning up the Union Carbide plant more of an insult to the people living there than anything either of the Yes Men could have said?

To find out Andy and Mike went to Bhopal and met with the people who run the community health clinic for those affected by the leak and with a journalist who not only broke the story, but for five years prior to the leak tried to warn the government the plant was a disaster waiting to happen. The journalist and the head of the Sambhavna Clinic both agreed that while they were obviously disappointed that the offer wasn't real, they thought it was a brilliant way to make the world aware of the ongoing situation and how Dow Chemical was shirking its responsibilities.

The truly scary part of The Yes Men Fix The World is the number of times people have taken them at face value. Whether they're explaining to people how to factor loss of human life against potential profits in order to figure out a projects net value, explaining how corporations should be allowed to buy people's votes in order to stream line democracy, or demonstrating an outrageously silly survival suit to insurance adjusters, nobody blinks an eye and merely want to exchange business cards. They were trying to shock people and ended up shocked themselves. The only times people got upset is when they made announcements about doing something positive for people who were suffering. What does that tell you about the world we live in?

While the feature documentary runs almost ninety minutes, the special features include records of even more stunts the Yes Men have pulled off, as well as going into more depth on some of the projects that were included in the main part of the documentary. For those wanting to know more about the two minds behind the Yes Men there's also some biographical details provided as well as some early attempts at Internet and video activism.

While there are moments of hilarity through-out the The Yes Men Fix The World, and they do their best to end on an note of optimism, it's hard not to feel pessimistic after watching it. Thinking of the literally billions of dollars that are spent annually in order to perpetuate the myth of the free market in the end its hard to believe, no matter how many people take to the streets, no matter how often corporate greed and duplicity are exposed, that business as usual won't continue to be business as usual. Until there comes a time when that changes, nothing much else will. As long as we continue to place a higher value on profit than we do on life that's not going to happen.

November 1, 2009

DVD Review: Throw Down Your Heart

From the back seat of Jed Clampett's jalopy carrying the clan into Beverly Hills to the backwoods predators of Deliverance, to most of today's world the banjo has its roots in the same back hills that gave us moonshine and country music. The fact that today's so called country music has about as much in common with the traditional Irish, Scottish, and British folk songs that were being sung in the hills of Tennessee as The Beverly Hillbillies did with reality, might suggest that some things aren't quite what they appear to be when you're talking about the roots of country music. However it is a little odd that nobody ever thought to wonder where it was that the banjo came from and who introduced it to the hill country.

It's unfortunate, but with country music being whiter than white in its early days, and segregation being what it was in the south, there probably weren't that many people playing the banjo who were going to be quick about admitting its origins were with the slaves who had brought it over with them from Africa. Forbidden to use their drums by the masters, they utilized the string instruments of home instead and incorporated them into their new life over here. Music had always accompanied work in Africa, so here it was no different. As slavery spread, and some were freed, the music and the instruments spread and were picked up by white people who started to use them in their music as well, and early forms of the banjo would have been part of the deal

Now Bela Fleck is not your typcial banjo player, you only need to take a quick glance at his career to see that. How many banjo pluckers list any of the Marsalis family as regular collaborators, or have played with everyone from tabla players from India to symphony orchestras? Like most banjoists Fleck started with the basics of country and bluegrass, but he hasn't limited himself to just those genres. Somewhere along the line he began to wonder about the roots of his instrument, and that led him Africa. Some people make pilgrimages to various religious shrines, but Bela Fleck decided to make a pilgrimage to visit the birthplaces of the banjo. The result was the hour and half long documentary film Throw Down Your Heart directed by Sascha Paladino, now being made available on DVD for the first time November 3rd/09 through Docurama Films.
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Starting in Uganda in East Africa we follow Fleck as he travels along the coast to Tanzania on the Indian Ocean, and then north and west up to Mali and The Gambia. Along the way we are introduced to the music and musicians of each area; some of whom are international stars in the burgeoning world music scene, while others are local villagers for whom music is an integral part of their lives. An extraordinary man in all senses of the word, Fleck's reverence for his subject and his delight in the people he meets is obvious and heart warming. Completely unaffected he's the same person whether he's recording with Mali's diva Oumou Sangare in a modern studio or with a group of Ugandan woman in a dirt floored hut with chickens at his feet.

For those of you who had any doubts about the banjo's African roots, they should be dispelled the first time you hear him accompany what we call a thumb piano - properly known as a kalimba - in one of the first Ugandan villages he visits as you can hear the similarities in tone between the two instruments; they sound like they were meant to be played together. It's not just instruments that sound alike which interest Fleck, he wants to learn about the music which the banjo sprang from, and then record with the people who continue to make it today. There's this wonderful scene in one village where the people are shown assembling a huge glockenspiel type instrument which involves laying keys the length of a forearm made out of wood over a pit or hollow log. Then a group of men assemble and begin playing it together; some of them slapping keys with the palms of their hands, others using mallets, and the result is as glorious display of percussion as I've ever seen. Fleck quickly finds how the banjo fits into the patterns they've developed and plays along as if its the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing.

In Tanzania we meet Anania Ngoliga, an amazing kalimba player, singer, and lover of music. It's the city he lives in, on the shores of the Indian Ocean, which gave the move its title. For when the slaves were brought out from the interior of the continent prior to being shipped east - the slave trade went into the Arab world as much as it did ours - and they saw the ocean for the first time they knew they would never see their homes again. Roughly translated into English they named the place "throw down your heart" to represent their sorrow at being taken from their homes. There's a beautiful scene of Fleck standing in the Indian Ocean up to his knees playing his banjo as the sun slowly sets behind him. The juxtaposition of his song, which captures the sorrow of the place, and the beauty of the scene, sum up so much of the history of Africa and its people.
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When we jump across the continent to Mali and the Gambia, Fleck meets up with people who are playing some of the instruments from which the banjo obviously descended. Bassekou Kouyate plays the ngoni, a two stringed instrument with a body made from either wood or a hollowed out gourd covered in raw-hide. When he and Fleck sit down to jam in Kouyate's living room their instruments bridged whatever communication gap existed between them (Kouyate didn't speak English and Fleck didn't speak French). While there were obvious differences between the two instruments in construction, the similarities were equally obvious and the men were able to play together without any rehearsal. On the special features section of the disc that includes extra scenes that were cut from the theatrical version of the film, there's an extended version of the two them doing a brilliant blues jam.

Everywhere Fleck went he seemed to find people of like mind. Neither he nor anyone he met had too far to travel before they were on the same page musically. There was an obvious connection between what type of music the banjo was comfortable playing and what was being played by the musicians he was meeting no matter what instruments they were utilizing. Its an amazing site to see people from such different cultural backgrounds finding common ground with their instruments with such ease. As the film progresses you are left with no doubt that the banjo has come home.

Considering how much of the film was recorded under less than ideal conditions, the sound and picture quality are amazing - it even comes with a choice of either Dolby stereo or 5.1 surround sound. The only disappointing thing that I found with the package was the lack of liner notes. It would have been helpful - and useful - to have included a breakdown of the various locations and who was appearing in each scene, as well as background information on each of the musicians who appeared in the film. After all they are an integral part of Fleck's pilgrimage.

However, that quibble aside, this is a wonderful movie, and you couldn't ask for a more passionate or interested pair of eyes to see this world through then Bela Fleck. While he might be learning about the banjo and the music that is responsible for its development, we're learning about him. His genuine delight in everything and everyone he encounters, combined with his willingness to accept that anybody could have something to teach him, makes him the ideal conduit for us to learn through. Even if you already are familiar with the music from parts of Africa, Throw Down Your Heart will take you further and deeper into the music then you'll have experienced before while introducing you to some of the amazing musicians who create it. All in all a pilgrimage well worth taking.

August 19, 2009

DVD Review: Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey

For some reason the more civilized we become the more we look to find what we've lost on the way amongst those who we at one time would have dismissed as primitive or savage. Even as early as the 19th century, when we were still forcing them onto reserves and destroying their means of livelihood, Native Americans were beginning to be seen as figures of romance. Photographer Edward S Curtis took to stamping about the "wilds" taking photos of various nations in traditional costumes. That the costumes he photographed people in happened to come out of his luggage and were usually garb only worn by those who lived on the great plains, mattered little to the white audience who to this day still lap up his photos of "authentic Indians caught in their natural habitat".

As the twentieth century progressed and people began experiencing dissatisfaction with their own cultural identities and the social mores they saw around them, their eyes began turning to other cultures and belief systems. The problem was that most of them had no idea what it was they were actually looking for and answers are hard to find if you don't know what questions to ask. As a result there has developed a tendency to idealize various cultures and their lifestyles and decide that the secret to a better world lies in emulating something that never existed. Attempts to take bits and pieces of a culture and apply them out of context don't do anything but diminish those one is trying to imitate.

One of the most disturbing trends is how people then begin to market what they've "discovered" about this other culture. I'm sure most of you have seen some variation on books with titles like Find The Inner Shaman Within You or some such crap. They promise you a better life through a spiritual awakening achieved by practising the secrets of the Amazon that they preach in their book. Of course if you're having difficulty with the achieving success with the book, you can take their workshop to get the full experience.
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Unfortunately these attitudes aren't limited to those trying to make a quick buck as I discovered watching the DVD of director Kathi Von Koerber's movie Footsteps In Africa: A Nomadic Journey from Kiahkeya Productions. Presented as a documentary about nomads, and the Tuareg of the North Sahara in particular, Footsteps comes across as being far more a mixture of "The Noble Savage" and "Discover Your Inner Nomad" rather than a true examination of what life among the Tuareg is like. The hour long film splits its time between shots taken in and around a small camp, and those taken at a couple of major festivals held in the Malian part of the Sahara.

One only needs to read the notes on the back cover of the disc to be warned that this isn't really a documentary, but rather a film made by people setting out to prove their own agenda. For in them it states that the director believes "the wisdom that nomadic life entails, gives deep insight into human's relationship to the earth". So instead of merely observing life among these people of the Northern Sahara, she skewed the footage to show what she wanted to show. Interviews with what she called tribal "elders" and a "healer" produced homilies like "nature is life" and "the further we move towards science the more we move away from nature". While those sound like noble sentiments, what the film doesn't do is place them in their proper context.

The Tuareg people are nomads who live in one of the harshest environments in the world. Like the Inuit of the far north their entire belief system is going to be based around what it takes to survive in their particular environment. Calling them keepers of an ancient wisdom is to wilfully misrepresent what their knowledge represents. Take the Tuareg out of their habitat and they suffer horribly, because nothing of what they know has prepared them for life outside it. Sure they have a deep understanding of the natural forces that are prevalent in their world, but it was born out of an understanding of what it takes to survive there and its not wisdom that can be applied in other situations.
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Nothing is mentioned in the film about the struggle the Tuareg have had to hold on to their habitat. Like how in Mali where this movie was filmed, there was recently an armed rebellion. Or how this has been the third major rebellion since the 1960's in an attempt to stop the steady encroachment of civilization into their traditional territory. While the Tuareg have roamed the Sahara for centuries, their primary territory now resides within the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger, with the latter two being the countries they have fought with the most.

It's incomprehensible to me, and also irresponsible as far as I'm concerned, that the film makers have completely ignored the reality of just how tenuous the Tuareg existence has become. By only focusing on one encampment and activities at festivals they have presented an extremely distorted view of life among the Tuareg. In fact the whole movie does them a great disservice by not telling the truth about their circumstances. Knowing this it's hard to take anything the moviemakers claim in this movie seriously, and I found the whole project distasteful and exploitive.

There have been a number of quite fascinating movies made about the Tuareg people of the Northern Sahara. Desert Rebel and Palace Of The Winds have done a good job of explaining their situation and depicting the environment they live in. Unfortunately Footsteps In Africa is not one of them as it presents a highly idealized and romanticized version of who and what these people are. I would look elsewhere for the truth.

July 28, 2009

Music Review: Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae

Normally trips down memory lane are exercises in sentimentality that have little or no interest to anybody save for those directly involved in the events being rehashed. When such excursions are married to popular music the results are as varied as people's individual tastes and how they choose to remember their own past. It's difficult to generate enthusiasm for these exercises in nostalgia if you actually lived through the era in question, especially when the music designated as being representative of the times doesn't appeal to you now anymore then it did when it first polluted the air waves. Duran Duran don't appeal to me now anymore then they did back in the 1980's and I really can't see how anybody can look back on music like that with anything other than nausea. However, there's a difference between those sordid attempts at pretending there was anything worth remembering about bad pop music and embarrassing clothing trends and celebrating a specific genre of popular music.

In Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae the musicians who were at the forefront of performing this precursor of reggae reunited in Kingston Jamaica to record and perform some forty years after the genre's heyday. The documentary movie made of the reunion follows them around the city checking out their old haunts and into the studio as they re-record their rocksteady hits. While the movie has only received limited release, it opened on July 24th/09 in four cities in Canada, the soundtrack, Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae was being released on the Moll-Selekta label.

A joint Canadian and Swiss co-production the movie probably won't get much distribution action south of the border, so the CD might just be Americans only opportunity to check out the greats of the rocksteady era coming together to play their music one more time. Judy Mowatt, Leroy Sibbles, Rita Marley, Sly Dunbar, Marcia Griffiths, and Hopeton Lewis might not be familiar names to most of today's audiences. Reggae fans might recognize the names of the three women from their time as the "I-Threes" singing harmonies for Bob Marely (and in Rita's case, as Bob's wife); Sly Dunbar as the drumming half of the ubiquitous reggae rhythm section Taxi Squad; and Leroy Sibbles from his days as the lead singer of the Heptones and his subsequent successful solo career. However, most of the other people involved in this won't be known to many people outside of Jamaica, as rocksteady didn't seem to travel off the island.
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Before any of them made names as reggae stars, they were playing and recording rocksteady. In a lot of ways it seems like the main difference between rocksteady and reggae was the amount of recognition and money the performers received as compensation for their efforts. The music, at least what's been recorded on this disc, doesn't sound much different from reggae, save perhaps that it's lighter on the bass and a bit more up tempo. What makes these songs so important is they represented the beginning of the move away from ska music, which had dominated the Kingston music scene until the mid 1960's, that would eventually lead to reggae.

It was rocksteady that slowed the music's tempo and added the heavy bass that has become such a distinctive part of the reggae sound. It was also these new performers who first started to write lyrics about love and conflict. Listen to a song like "Sounds & Pressure" by Hopeton Lewis and you hear elements of both ska and reggae. The peppy horns have always been a feature of ska, but here the music is at a slower tempo and is propelled with the slower, almost insistent beat, that distinguishes reggae. Unlike reggae though there is a definite lightness to the music. While they might be talking about subjects like needing to find work or your love leaving on the next train like in U-Roy's classic "Stop That Train", the music just doesn't seem anywhere near as dense as reggae.

Listen to Ken Boothe singing "Freedom Street", with it's exhortation to walk down freedom street in order to rid the world of war and injustice. The message might be heavy but the music is a lot brighter than what you'd hear if it was sung by someone like Marley or Tosh. There is a pop element to the songs that is lacking in reggae, and you get the feeling that it doesn't take itself anywhere near as seriously as reggae does. Of course there's another big difference, you're not going to hear anybody mention Jah, or any talk of Rastafarianism for that matter, in these songs.
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Now listening to these songs there's something else you have to keep in mind, the average mean age of the people recording them has to be at least somewhere in the sixties. These songs were all recorded in 2008 at the old Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston where many of the songs were recorded the first time - forty years ago. I can remember when Leroy Sibbles came to live in Canada in the late 1970's to escape the political violence that was tearing the slums of Kingston apart, and he wasn't a young man then. Yet hearing him on disc now, he sounds no different then he did all those years ago.

The same goes for all of the performers on this disc. Judy Mowat's voice is as strong and powerful as it was when she first recorded "Silent River Runs Deep" or when she Rita, and Marcia were singing harmonies for Bob Marley. These folk are ageless wonders, and they are superbly backed by musicians just as capable as they are. The rhythm section, anchored by the incomparable Sly Dunbar on drums, is so tight that you can drop a penny on it and it will bounce in perfect time. Songs like "Shanty Town (007)" sound as good now, if not better, thanks to improved recording techniques and technology, then they did when I first heard them on the soundtrack for the movie The Harder They Come, The Harder They Fall from the early seventies.

Rocksteady: The Roots Of Reggae is a wonderful collection of music from an amazing group of musicians who made history forty years ago by paving the way for people who went on to become far more famous than most of them ever did. It amazes me that rocksteady never caught on in the wide world in the same way ska and reggae did outside of Jamaica. It's far more infectious than reggae and much more accessible than ska, meaning there's no reason why it shouldn't catch on with a wider audience even now. According to Sly Dunbar a lot of Jamaicans would say they prefer rocksteady to reggae because it had better sound, singing, playing, and better instrumentation. Well, while some might argue with some of those specifics, it's easy to see how somebody could prefer rocksteady over reggae. If you've never heard this music before this is the perfect opportunity as your not going to find anybody who can perform it better than the people on this disc. One warning - there's over sixty minutes of music on this disc so be prepared as once you put it on you're not going to be able to sit still until the last note fades away.

July 21, 2009

DVD Review: Where The Road Bends: Tales From A Gypsy Caravan

In 2005 a group of Central and Eastern European countries initiated the The Decade Of Roma Inclusion, a ten year program aimed at improving conditions for the regions ten to twelve million Romani, more commonly known as Gypsies. Its aim was to tackle the educational and social disadvantages faced by Roma communities, and initial signatories included Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro, and Slovakia. These eight countries combined account for over half of Europe's Roma population, which led to hopes that after centuries of persecution perhaps the Roma might finally know some acceptance.

Four years later an Amnesty International report on conditions among the Roma of Europe found the following: they were being denied proper education in the Czech Republic and Slovakia; discrimination in Italy; anit-Roma sentiment on the rise in Hungary; forced evictions in Serbia; refusal of adequate housing in Romania; and Roma being forcibly returned to Kosovo, from which they fled to escape persecution, by countries all over Europe. Five of the countries who supposedly were going to work to improve conditions for Roma showing up in an Amnesty International report on discrimination against the Roma is not what you would call heartening or is it bound to inspire confidence in this, or any, program's chances of success.

Of course with countries' economies reeling from the great "slowdown" everybody's looking for a scapegoat and the Roma and Jews have always run neck and neck for the title of favourite for that distinction in Europe. In fact, if anything, the situation is worse than it sounds. Amnesty's report of anti-Roma sentiment in Hungary is a genteel way of describing arson, murder, and rallies by the extreme right against what they call "Roma Crime" In a country which doesn't keep crime statistics based on ethnicity it's amazing how all of a sudden a minority population is responsible for an increase in crime.
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While the political will in Europe just doesn't seem to be strong enough to bring about any real change in the lives of the Roma, other organizations have taken it upon themselves to try different approaches. One such effort was a tour of North America by Roma musicians from Spain, Romania, Macedonia, and India organized by the World Music Institute and documented on film and DVD in the movie Where The Road Bends: Tales Of A Gypsy Caravan. Directed by Jasmine Dellal the film not only joins the tour across North America, but spends time with each of the performers in their home countries introducing us to their lives. The hope was through the combination of the tour and the movie that people will get to know the Roma beyond the stereotypes perpetrated by racists and start to see them as humans as well as giving those involved an opportunity to tell their stories to a wider audience.

The two bands from Romania, Taraf De Haidouks and Fanfare Ciocarlia might be stars on the road and be garnering international attention, but at home they still live in villages minimal amenities. Both bands are the main sources of income for their villages and it seems that in both cases a new generation of band members is being prepared to replace the current ones as they age. Seeing the people ploughing their fields behind teams of horses, and heating their homes with brush wood, it's hard to remember that this was being filmed in 2006. It looks like nothing has changed in hundreds of years, save for the naked electric light bulbs strung in public places.

Obviously the two Romanian bands had much in common, but one of the amazing things about the movie was watching how these groups from around the world without any language in common were able to connect with each other through their music. While all of the bands were fascinated with the group from India, Maharaja, as they represented the origins of the Roma, it was the Spanish flamenco duo of Antonio El Pipa and his aunt Juana la del Pipa who connected with them the most. By the end of the tour they had even managed to work out a performance piece called Tango Maharaja, where the two bands joined forces to dance and sing together. It was really quite extraordinary watcing how they found common ground without being able to talk to each other except through smiles, hand signals, and their music.
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Esma Redzepova from Macedonia is recognized globally as the Queen Of The Gypsies, an honour bestowed on her by then Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Aside from being a dynamic performer for over forty years, Esma, has also been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her political work on behalf of the Roma. Unable to have children of her own she and her late husband adopted forty-seven children and trained them to earn their livings playing music. As Roma go she is well off, but although she might appear to be a diva when on stage, off is another matter as can be seen from her interaction with the other performers on the tour. Even if there were some trace elements of diva that did shine through, after watching her perform you could forgive her anything.

Of course it's the music that is the most compelling part of the movie. From the all out assault of Fanfare Ciocarlia, the raw, fiery passion of Antonio and Juana singing and dancing flamenco, the eerie and beautiful music of Maharaja and their amazing dancers, the wild strings of Taraf De Haidouks, to the magnificence of Esma Redzepova, its an experience that has to be witnessed to be believed. Life, love, joy, sadness, sorrow, but never self-pity, pour from their songs and their dances like lava from a volcano. You can't help but wonder what these people do that allows them to experience life so fully that they can perform and share this with us to such an extent. After being spat on for hundreds of years, and still being spat on and treated like dirt to this day, they somehow find inside themselves the strength to not only continue living, but to play music that is far more life affirming than anything you'll hear from almost any other source.

It strikes me as one of the world's supreme ironies that these musicians were paraded around like this in an attempt to garner wider acceptance of the Roma among the world at large, when they should be giving the rest of us lessons on how to live. We should be grateful that the Roma are still willing to even make an effort to reach out to us instead of picking up weapons to fight back and protect themselves from our world. If you know nothing about the Roma, this movie will not only introduce you to their music but give you a peek into their lives and an overview of their history as a people since they left India over a thousand years ago to travel west. Perhaps you'll come to understand that you have nothing to fear from them except the chance of your heart being broken.

July 11, 2009

DVD Review: Punk In England

What happens when you set out to disrupt the established order and and somewhere along the way discover that you've become the establishment? After a couple of years of playing the same music over and over again that's what was happening to punk bands in England by the end of the 1970's. At least that's how Bob Geldof describes the situation in an interview near the beginning of Wolfgang Buld's Punk In England, the follow up to his 1978 documentary Punk In London, now available from MVD Entertainment. Geldof, who was lead singer of The Boomtown Rats at the time, claims that with the exception of The Clash, who were good enough to evolve without selling out and the Sex Pistols who imploded, punk bands by 1979 were at the end of the road. He says that by refusing to grow they allowed themselves to become the establishment which others wanted to overthrow because they had become boring.

While there is some truth to what Geldof says, there's also the fact that by 1979 major labels were catching on to the fact that there was money to be made from punk and began signing the more marketable bands to deals. After EMI's disaster with the Sex Pistols, labels weren't interested in real punk bands, they wanted bands like The Jam who could be marketed easily and looked nice. You only have to listen to the songs included on this disc by The Jam to hear how much different they are even from the supposedly evolved Clash. For while the Clash may have made their music more complex and slowed the tempo down somewhat, watching the clips of them included in this movie shows they haven't become any more commercial than they were previously. There's not many who would be prepared to call their music nice and safe and ready for mainstream radio play in the United States or other big markets. Sure compared to footage of them playing only the year earlier there's a huge difference, but listen to them compared to the Jam who appear soon after them in the movie and you'll see an even bigger difference.

While Geldof is right in saying that punk bands ran into a wall due to their own lack of creativity and new bands with fresher ideas did come along to replace them, the reality is that on the whole those bands who did come along and replaced them were a lot more commercially viable and less liable to lead a revolution. Sure there were some other bands at the same time like Spiz Zenergi but judging by the samples of their work we see in the movie, not only weren't the commercially viable, their music just wasn't that good. Band's like Ian Dury and the Blockheads, who are shown here singing their song "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" were more like the novelty bands of the sixties who had one or two songs that caught the public's attention before they vanished from the scene. "Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll" might have been sold quite a few copies and received air play on some FM radio stations, but it's wasn't enough to guarantee Dury and his mates eternal popularity.
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The music movement that proved to have slightly more legs than punk did was ska, which really can't be considered punk so I'm not sure why it was included in this documentary. Maybe it was because bands like the The Specials and The Selector were political statements simply by virtue of their existence. Perhaps the fact that they were both inter-racial bands playing music which had obvious reggae influences was enough for Buld to include them as part of the punk movement. For, while them both having black and white musicians in their bands may not sound like such a big deal to us, in the racially charged England of the late 1970's it was huge. In 1976 Rock Against Racism was started in response to Eric Clapton making racist, anti black statements during one of his concerts, including chanting "Keep Britain White" the slogan of the neo-nazi National Front Party. On top of this there was also substantial amounts of racial violence directed against both the black and the south-east Asian communities in England.

So integrated bands like The Specials, The Selector, and a little later on The English Beat, not only created wonderful music but sent a message of tolerance that was badly needed at a time when there wasn't much to be seen anywhere else. The film makes a point of noting that neither the Specials nor The Selector were signed to major labels and both released discs on the independent Two Tone label; an obvious reference to not only the composition of their membership, but their musical influences. While ska of course had been around for a long time, and in fact predates reggae music, the type played by the bands in the late 1970's had a harder edge to it than any of the older ska I've heard. Listening and watching The Selector especially gives you a really good idea of how their music combined pop, rock, and reggae to make for a really upbeat, and high energy dance music.
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As a special feature on this release, another, shorter documentary by Wolfgang Buld is included, Women In Rock. Unfortunately it's pretty much as patronizing and a waste of time as you'd think it would be from the title. The only women who are at all interesting of those he's chosen to talk with or show performing are Siouxie, of Siouxie & The Banshees and the incredibly odd Nina Hagen. The clips of Siouxie and The Banshees playing in this second documentary are actually one of the high points of the whole disc musically as far as I'm concerned as they are much more musically interesting than most of the other bands who appear in either documentary.

While the quality of the sound and visuals are surprisingly good considering their provenance, there's not much the film crew can do to improve upon the quality of the music. In fact, while this may not have been the point of the film when it was made back in 1979, Punk In England shows how music that had once been considered a threat by the establishment was co-opted and made safe for mass consumption with bands like The Jam. Aside from the brief spark of life provided by The Specials and The Selector half-way through the movie, after the opening couple of tunes by The Clash, the music becomes boring and pedestrian. No matter what the title of this DVD claims, judging by the music it presents, there's really not much punk left in England by 1979.

July 9, 2009

DVD Review: Punk In London

In the summer of 1980 London England was close to a war zone with race riots and battles between police and demonstrators breaking out all the time. Then Conservative Party Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had created such a divisive atmosphere that the anger of the disaffected, the poor and people of colour, boiled over onto the streets routinely in June and July of that summer. For a while it looked like the song "London's Burning" that The Clash had written a couple of years earlier had every chance of coming true. While there were punk scenes in North America; New York City, Toronto Ontario, and Los Angeles, in comparison to what was going on in England, and specifically London, that's all they were was scenes, not the politically charged calls to action that were sound tracks for running battles with the police.

In an interview he gave in 2006, German film director Wulfgang Buld describes how news of punk had reached Germany. So when the film school he was attending demanded he do some documentary features as part of his course work, he set off to England in 1978 with a film crew to see what all the fuss was about. One of the films he made during that trip, Punk In London, has just been released in a re-mastered form on DVD by MVD Entertainment. The interviews with various musicians, and the footage of bands like The Boomtown Rats, The Jam, The Lurkers, Chelsea, Subway Sect, The Adverts, and The Clash not only capture the energy of the music and the time, but also the anger constantly simmering just beneath the surface. In the film the anger comes across as general dissatisfaction and frustration with the way things were shaping up in England at the time and make you realize the events of 1980 weren't just a spur of the moment thing, but a long time in the building.

The interview with Buld is one of two special features included on the DVD, the other being a concert given by The Clash in Munichin 1978, and while its interesting enough for establishing a context for the movie and describing how it came about, what makes Punks In London fascinating is its subject matter. Shot with one camera and portable sound equipment, Buld and his crew go everywhere from the clubs, the old warehouses bands used for rehearsal halls, to the storefront label/record store Rough Trade who played a key role in giving bands exposure.
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Unlike today when these things would have been arranged by a band's management or label, Buld would show up with his crew on location sometimes having phoned in advance and other times not. This resulted in the interesting scene of them being basically told to piss off by The Stranglers; "I'm not a prostitute" one them responded when asked why they didn't want to be in the film by Buld. However, because of that spontaneity it also means this is one of the best up close and intimate looks at the people and the music involved in punk I've seen. A couple of the more interesting moments that occurred because of this were an interview with Kevin Rowlands, who would go on to fame as the lead singer and founder of Dexy's Midnight Runners but at the time was fronting a band called The Killjoys, and following Bob Geldof onto stage with the camera to film the Boomtown Rats from behind their drum kit performing "Do The Rat".

Aside from the music there are also some interviews with people who were on other sides of the scene. Rough Trade was, and for all I know still is, a small independent record store/label which was one of the first places people could go to get information on bands, buy independently produced singles, and talk about what was going on in the world at the same time. The interview with two guys working at the store gives you some idea as to how the punk scene was being politicalized and hints somewhat at events to come in the future. There was also an interview with a reporter form the London music magazine Sounds where he takes credit for the magazine being one of the first music papers to take punk seriously. While I can't argue with him on that point, I did snicker a bit listening to the guy. Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's New Music Express (NME) was the magazine my friends and I all bought when we wanted to find out about what was going on in British music, while we considered Sounds a bit of a joke. So it was funny to see this guy taking himself so seriously and making out how important they were.
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However, the music is what was really important, and while some of the footage is a bit grainy and some of the sound isn't the best, what Punk In London captures like no other film I've ever seen shot from that era is the experience of watching one of these bands perform. If you ever went to some small hole in the wall of a club where far more than the legal limit of people have crammed into the space and felt the way the music connected audience and band than you'll understand that feeling, and how rare it is to see it caught on film. I've seen other footage taken during the same era, but I've never seen anyone manage to capture the spirit of the time on film quite like this.

The real highlight as far as I'm concerned is the special features section containing the full footage of The Clash concert. For those of you who may have only heard songs from later on in the band's history - say from Sandanista and after - and wondered why they were called a punk band, watching this film from a gig in Munich in 1978 will explain everything. Yet, no matter how loud, how fast, or how intense they were, they also dispel the myth of punk bands not being musical as they harmonize on their vocals and are as tight a band as any you're liable to see anywhere or anytime. It turns out these weren't ideal conditions either, for as we learn in an interview the tour of Germany had been a shambles as they haven't eaten in three days and were thrown out of their hotel by the police.

While there's no way to capture the feelings generated by the music and the times, and punk really was a product of time and place, this movie comes the closest to doing that of any that I've ever seen. So if you've ever wondered what old farts like me are going on about when we rave about how great punk used to be, this movie will give you some idea of what we were talking about. The revolution may never have happened, but you can see why we might have thought it possible. With energy like that as your soundtrack, you really could believe in your power to change the world.