Sunday, November 14, 2004

Head (1968)

"A manufactured image, with no philosophies..."

The Monkees may well be to blame for my obsession with popular music. When they made their 1987 comeback and the old episodes started showing up on TV, they quickly became a favorite. That summer I spent the longest two weeks of my life visiting my grandparents in Kentucky and, to allevieate my homesickness, my step-dad sent me a tape: Then And Now...The Best Of The Monkees. It got my undivided attention.

When I got a CD player the first thing I sought out were Monkees CDs. I was in luck, because Rhino was on the forefront of the reissue game, and they'd released all 10 of the Monkees' albums with "restored original artwork and bonus tracks." I bought all of them. There were the albums with the hits on them, of course, but among a few curiousities cheif was a CD with a plain silver cover and the name Head. It advertised itself as the soundtrack to the film, a film that I didn't even know existed. How could the Monkees have made a movie without me knowing?

Well, because it was a flop. But, it shouldn't have been!

The Monkees got an unfair rap. To the rock and roll hipsters they were the Prefab Four, a cynical commercial unit with no artistic merit, only designed to sell records and merchandise to teen girls. There is some merit to this, afterall the group did advertise clothing for JC Penny. The band weren't picked with music in mind. Sure, Mike and Peter were actual performers and songwriters, and Mickey and Davy could sing, but they were actors first. The untruth about the Monkees is that they they were fakes. Yes, they came together in an artificial way, and they had a powerful corporate machine behind them, but in they end, they were still a band. In their short initial career, they sporadically did things that all bands do: They performed live, composed some of their own material, and recorded music as a self-contained unit.

In a time so concerned with authenticity, the boys themselves were painfully aware of their image. Head, believe it or not, was an attempt to change that image.

What Happens:

Helmed by first-time director Bob Rafelson (who would later do Five Easy Pieces and The Postman Always Rings Twice) and co-written by Jack Nicholson (yes, THAT Jack Nicholson) Head is a very stream-of-consciousness, very meta film. There is no plot to speak of, only a series of vaguely connected vignettes and musical numbers. That's not to say there aren't recurring themes. Appropriately, the film is majorly concerned with overcoming the fake and commercial aspects of life, more specifically the Monkees' status as manufactured teen idols. The way to do this? Make a really hip film, and have the boys admit they're fakes.

What Really Happens:

Imagine yourself as a teenage Monkees fan coming into the theater, excited to see your idols on the big screen and expecting the rolling-a-bed-through-the-streets-while-catchy-music-plays Marx Brothers style comedy of the TV show. Instead what you see is a highly esoteric, impressionistic work of art filled with songs you don't know.

Now you can see why this movie tanked so badly at the theaters. Expectations are one thing, but remove those and what you have is a highly enjoyable film.

We start with the dedication and opening of a suspension arch bridge. When the mayor is about to cut the ribbon, Mickey comes crashing through like a runner winning a race, and then promptly takes a dive off the side of the bridge. While he's in the water, Porpoise Song (Theme From Head) strikes up and the colors turn psychedelic and some mermaids show up. The song itself is a minor classic filled with nonsensical lyrics ("an overdub has no choice / it cannot rejoice"). The biggest surprise is it was written by Goffin and King, the team responsible for some of the group's poppiest hits. Sgt.Pepper obviously had a huge influence.

This transitions into a scene where a hot girl is taking turns making out with all of the boys. She saves Davy for last and of course that kiss sets off harps and doves. It's sort of a dig at his poster boy image, and the first sign that the Monkees have become self-aware. This becomes very obvious in the next sequence, where we see the boys in the trenches of war. They are preparing for a raid, which promptly turns into them running onto stage for a concert. Of course there's a commentary on the Vietnam war there, as well as an insider's look at how it feels to be the objects of so much fervor. The boys play Circle Sky, a rare de-countrified Mike Nesmith composition, and the performance is interspersed with screaming audience reaction and actual scenes of people in horrible situations. It's obvious but effective social commentary. When the band finishes the song, they're literally ripped apart by the audience.

From there the movie just snowballs, through a funny fake Coke commercial set in the desert, to a belly-dancing sequence, to western, boxing, and party scenes. Throughout, people step in and out of character, walk off sets, or have existential crises. Men turn out to be women, maharishis turn out to be liars, cops dance, Mike denouces Christmas and birthdays, huge eyeballs appear in medicine cabinets, etc.

The music shuffles things along but there's not a single classic song. As We Go Along is an introspective number accompanied by scenes of the boys walking though snow-convered mountains and flower-filled fields, and to me is reminiscent of those old Sesame Street song sequences about nature or lonliness.

As the film winds down the boys engage in a manic chase through the film's sets and end up right back where they started, in the water. And as the film ends we realize the water was not a river or ocean, but a tank in which they were trapped.

Questions and Comments:

Teri Garr, Victor Mature ('60s B-movie actor), Annette Funicello, and Frank Zappa all make appearances. The latter gets the best lines. After Davy's performance of the vaudeville-esque number Daddy's Song (with choreography by Toni Basil!), Zappa tells him: "That song was pretty white, man." He goes on to say that Davy obviously spends more time on his dancing than his music, and should probably reverse that.

My senior year of college a friend and I wrote and directed our own short film. It was called Put On Your Dancing Pants. Not long before we started production, we watched Head, and little did we know how much influence it would have. The movie we made incorporated several elements of Head, including a dream sequence, flashing words on the screen, interviews, and a general sense of surrealism.

The dialogue is rather sparse, but what is said is usually funny or quotably weird, such as "Nobody ever lends money to a man with a sense of humor" and "I believe he's in the john, I mean, comfort room."

In Conclusion:

There were really two possible outcomes regarding the release of this film. The first possibility was that Monkees' fans, critics, and haters all embraced the film for its artistic merit and self-awareness and the Monkess thus lost their square image. The second possibility, the one that actually happened, was that the band was effectively killed. They limped on for another year without Peter Tork and then called it quits.

That's a shame really. Overall, this movie manages to be wonderfully weird without crossing the line to offputtingly weird, and it does so admirably. You'd never see a major label recording act make a movie this cool and out-there today. Never.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Keep it locked up

In terms of numbers, Elvis Presley has a film career unmatched by any other recording star. And as we know, quantity ALWAYS means quality. And Jailhouse Rock is considered the cream of the crop.

It might be helpful to keep in mind that when this film was released, Elvis was already a huge star with several number one hits to his name.

What Happens:

Elvis plays Vince Everett, a thuggish feller who's sent to jail for beating a man to death. Here, he's considered a "hooligan" and ends up in a cell with Colonel Tom Parker, I mean Honk, a musically-inclined old man. Honk likes to play gospel songs on his guitar to soothe the souls of the other inmates. When he learns that Vince has musical talent he nurtures it, teaching Vince everything he knows.

He even arranges to get Vince on T.V. and it results in mountains of fan mail (including a disturbing letter from a 15-year-old girl wherein she gives her measurements).

After 14 months, he gets out of prison and is determined to become a star. He meets a record company employee named Peg who helps him on his road to fame. The film follows him through the traditional arc of struggling-for-fame, achieving it, getting too big for his britches, and then realizing the error of his ways.

What Really Happens:

I had problems with this movie. The main one is that Elvis' character is not likable at all. He goes to prison because he gets into a melee with a pimp and can't control his anger while beating him up. Since this is the case, then you hope for the movie to offer the character some redemption. It does, but not enough. In fact there's one small redemptive moment compared to roughly 8 horrible ones. Here are some of them:

Afer his star-making turn as in the televised prison talent show (!) he stupidly involves himself in a prison riot and gets more time added to his sentence.

On his road to fame he's petulant. There's a scene in which he sings "Young And Beautiful" in a club and the patrons could care less. In frustration, Vince smashes his guitar in the face of a particularly chatty patron. Yeah, that's the way to build a fanbase.

When Honk gets out of prison, looking for a piece of Vince's career, Vince cold-bloodedly cuts him off.

Later, he slaps up a record executive who steals the arrangement idea for one of his songs.

His relationship with Peg is also maddening...they are very hot and cold. At first she seems to despise him but he digs her. Then she starts to like him and he responds by treating her like shit. They flip back and forth for the entire film. It's like Ben and Felicity all over again. It does inspire a curious scene where she tries to include him in her group of friends, but he gets very angry about their discussion of jazz (he thinks it's too high-minded) and storms away after insulting a party-goer. She storms after him to give him the business and he responds by kissing her. Of course she melts, but she does offer weak protestations about his romantic "tactics." He responds: "They ain't tactics honey...it's just the beast in me."

As for the twists and turns of the plot, they aren't really interesting. Peg and Honk both come to think fame has given him a big head (though it was pretty big before) and is not thankful enough for the work they did to get him where he is. This leads to the climactic scene where Vince and Honk get into a fight and Honk punches him straight in the windpipe, thus taking away his voice. Given how much of a jackass Elvis is in the movie, it's kind of a satisfying moment.

(By the way, he gets his voice back for the final scene).

Questions and Comments:

When Elvis reveals his musical talent to Honk, he sings a song about being kissed tenderly. To me, this doesn't seem like the wisest idea... to sing a love ballad to your new cellmate.

Why isn't the music a strong point in the film? There's only one genuinely electrifying song / performance, and that's the title track. Though his dancing is great, he barely even tries to mask the fact that he's lip-synching. Other songs, such as Treat Me Nice, Young And Beautiful,
Don't Leave Me Now, etc. barely qualify as rock 'n' roll. Mostly they're just boring, and even a young fan's insistence that a performance of (You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care is "really gonesville" doesn't convince me.

There's a baffling moment wherein a radio DJ (who's about to play Vince's new song) reads a dog food commercial that touts its use of horse meat. I can't even venture an explanation as to why this was given precious film time.

I've mentioned one, but there are actually two scenes where a woman dislikes / is mad at Elivs and his solution is to force her to kiss him. Both times they give in immediately. Are we to believe this is because he was such an awesome kisser? Or is this truly the only method of dealing with women who despise you? If it's the latter, then I've been approaching things all wrong.

In Conclusion:

If this is the cream of the crop that is Elvis' film output, I'm certainly not going to spend any of my time on the rest of the harvest.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Graffiti Bridge (1990)

This is one bridge that needs to be burned.

Graffiti Bridge was written and directed by Prince and was billed as a long-awaited sequel to Purple Rain. It's actually amazing that this film was made, considering that Prince's second movie, 1986's Under The Cherry Moon, was about as popular as a screen door on a submarine.

What Happens:

As I understand it, the Kid now has his own nightclub (Glam Slam, which was a real club Prince owned in downtown Minneapolis, but the interior scenes don't appear to have been filmed there). He's in debt, and his music isn't bringing large crowds, though the people in the club seem to be enjoying themselves, especially all the couples who are getting freaky in the booths. Instead, the Kid is all wrapped up in some sort of spiritual crisis, spurred on by a mysterious woman named Aura (Ingrid Chavez). The Kid's old rival, Morris Day, also has a night club and he's very interested in putting the Kid out of business, as well as gaining Aura's affections.

What Really Happens:

The end credits say the movie was filmed at Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota. Can I just say that it looks like it? I don't believe more than two scenes were actually filmed on location. At least Under the Cherry Moon had that going for it. From the nightclub exteriors of Seven Corners to the wooded area containing the tagged up bridge of the title, the settings have an enclosed, fake, low-budget feel to them.

Anyway, as we begin, the Kid's girlfriend leaves him because…he likes to write music. I think. At this point he starts seeing Aura, who repeatedly tells him "It's just around the corner." What "it" is, nobody knows. She disappears into thin air a lot, but also hangs out by the titular graffiti bridge in the fake woods, and writes poetry. I must mention here that she also comes with a whispered interior monologue a la every character in David Lynch's version of Dune. I don't really even have an opinion on this.

So Morris Day's club is called Pandemonium, and he has a sort of gangster-like hold on the area of nightclubs called Seven Corners (an actual place in Minneapolis, but they're all college bars and restaurants, not nightclubs). Curiously, there are apparently only four nightclubs (the other two are owned by Mavis Staples and George Clinton!) in Seven Corners. Let me just say here that I don't buy Morris and Jerome's transformation from members of a rival band to gangsters. That whole bit is fuzzy for me. But I must admit that the old chemistry is there even if the sparkling dialogue isn't…perhaps this is why they get as much or more screen time as Prince himself.

But even though Prince's supposed purpose here is to win Aura's heart and protect his club, he doesn't seem especially interested in either. He's apparently not terribly concerned about the operations of his club, or even being there on a regular basis. He seems to be sickened by the blatant sex and skirt-chasing of Morris and Jerome. (That doesn't stop him from freaky with Aura to the tune of Joy In Repetition, replete with a lot of above-the-clothes groping and hip-straddling).

He also spends time writing letters to his dead father (one of the very few connections to Purple Rain, and a tenuous one at best) and seems to want something out of that, but what we don't know. Aura sees a list of songs he's been writing, all have titles referring to spiritual matters, but are any of them played in the movie? No, instead we get mindless jams like New Power Generation and Can We Funk?

It's never clear why Aura, who seems the most lucid character in the movie, would even consider dating Morris. But, she always seems to know something we don't, and probably never will. So, when the Kid steals her away (literally, he kidnaps her), tensions escalate between the Kid and Morris and this results in, besides a few sorry "intimidation" attempts by the Time, a song challenge.

A cool idea, and one that brings up fond allusions to Purple Rain, but we get no clear criteria or rules, and once the competition starts it's intended to be obvious that the Time's performance of Shake is better than Kid's pyrotechnic Tick, Tick, Bang though I'm not convinced.

Then, danger befalls Aura, as she has warned would happen since the beginning of the movie, and Prince uses this as inspiration to win the contest by performing Still Would Stand All Time a pretty, but unremarkable, song. Jerome is amazed: "He won with a ballad."

But wait, don't the Time get a second chance too? Apparently this is like a baseball game in P.E. class where one team got to bat an extra inning and then the period ended and they declared themselves winners while the other team protested to no avail. One can't help but wonder what would have happened if the Time had busted out Ice Cream Castles. One also can't help but wonder why Morris would abide by silly song contest rules when earlier he had no qualms about breaking and entering, threats, and destruction of personal property.

So Morris has this sudden change of heart, lets the Kid have his club, and goes to get it on with his annoying girlfriend. The Kid reprises New Power Generation, and we're out. As the credits roll, we're left wondering if Aura was an angel, and whether what we just watched could truly be considered a movie.

Questions and Comments:

Why couldn't Thieves in the Temple - the best song on the soundtrack - have been utilized better? It's wasted with a montage and band-less performance in which Prince apes some Michael Jackson moves in smoke silhouette style. And this is a cool, creepy song that could have had great resonance with the events of the movie. It seems like Prince was trying to save some money and double this as the video for the song.

What is the purpose of Tevin Cambell coming out and singing Round and Round to the Kid on the street early in the movie? It's a great song, yes, but seems to be in the movie only so it could be placed on the soundtrack. The performance is not built up to, nor does it have any repercussion later in the film.

Why isn't Can't Stop This Feeling I Got in the movie? If any song on the soundtrack would seem custom-made to go in a movie, this is it. It would have been a great performance scene a la Let's Go Crazy in Purple Rain. At least play it over the credits!

What happened to Apollonia? The Revolution? If you were going to call this a sequel to Purple Rain, shouldn't you at least attempt to address these things? A sequel only works when it feels like a natural continuation of the original story, and this doesn't. At all.

The most interesting thing about this movie is how it dovetails with Prince's career path at the time. By that I mean that in the late '80s he was on the commercial decline. The Batman soundtrack had given him a commercial success, but not a critical one, and he'd lost a lot of fans with the Lovesexy album (which was mostly concerned with spirituality and was reportedly inspired by Ingrid Chavez). So Prince turned that pain into art, and as a result put the final nails in the coffin of his movie career.

Jimmy Jam is the most jovial person to ever appear in a movie. Every scene he's in he looks like he's just damned happy to be there. Considering he'd already had several hits with Miss-Jackson-if-you're-nasty by this time, it can't be because he was so thrilled to have a taste of success. He just seems to be a joyous guy, which is nice to see.

In Conclusion:

Maybe we just need to wait for early '90s nostalgia to rear up and cast a rosy glow over everything from that era, but Graffiti Bridge just doesn't evoke that "those were good times" feeling yet. It's inevitable that this sort of rebirth WILL happen though; they're already showing Full House and The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air on Nick-At-Nite. But the sad fact is that even period nostalgia can't redeem the fact that this is a bad movie. Everything that Purple Rain did right, this movie does wrong.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Wiz (1978)

There's somebody home in Soulville

Two things about The Wiz:

First, I was completely unaware of it until the summer after my freshman year in college, when I worked at the tiny video rental section of Kroger's Grocery. The first time someone asked me if we had The Wiz, I tried to give her The Wizard of Oz, and then was completely baffled that when she informed that that this wasn't the right movie (afterall, I thought my movie knowledge rather complete). The woman, who was African-American, and an employee at the store, informed me gently but firmly: "It's the black version." It's strange how once something finally comes onto your personal radar screen, it's pretty much permanently there. After that, in one brief summer, I must have had six or seven requests for it, all from African-Americans.

Second, a friend of mine informs me that when he was young he watched The Wiz with a certain sense of fear, not at the events depicted on screen (which could very well inspire fright in a child) but because he thought as a white child it wasn't meant for him and he shouldn't be seeing it.

How unfortunate that a couple of white kids had to be so ignorant. Though this version of the Wizard of Oz story was created by African-Americans and features an all black cast, I feel that it's a big glib to reduce it to the description "the black version." It is also a modernized, urbanized version, with a surprising extra shot of pathos.

What Happens:

Dorothy is a 24-year-old Kindergarten teacher who lives in a New York apartment with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, and she's played by Diana Ross. On Thanksgiving, family and friends gather together, but Dorothy is visibly distant from any sort of connection. While cleaning up, Aunt Em admonishes Dorothy for her fear of getting out in the world. Immediately after, Dorothy's dog Toto runs outside and she follows him into a nasty snowstorm. She's swept up by a snow tornado (!) into another world. That world is called Oz, and it's a wasted, twisted version of New York, replete with graffiti people, human crows, ruined amusement parks, and evil subways.

Here, Dorothy has accidentally killed the Wicked Witch of the West, and inherited her magic silver shoes. However, all she cares about is getting home, and sets about to visit the Wiz, who rules Oz with his magical powers. Along the way she picks up companions who all lack something: a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion.

They reach the Wiz, who directs them to kill Evelynn, the Wicked Witch of the East before he will grant their wish. They follow through on said mission, reveal the Wiz to be Richard Pryor, and find that they already possessed the things they had been searching so hard for. Dorothy goes home with a sense of self-assurance, strength, and love. Oh yeah, this happens amidst a startling amount of elaborate musical numbers.

What Really Happens:

Okay, let's get the negative out of the way first. I have to admit a bias about musicals, one that might be shocking from a person who would undertake a project like this. The bias is, I find most musicals boring. There are exceptions (My Fair Lady and The Wizard of Oz), but watching them at home I have a tendency to get antsy, and roll my eyes when people break out into song randomly. I'm sorry.

So my one question about The Wiz: Why so many musical numbers? I didn't clock it, but I would estimate that of the film's 135 minute running time, 115 are feature someone singing or dancing. This would be wonderful if all the songs were up to snuff, but most are just blandly inoffensive. And maybe some blame can be put on Sidney Lumet, a director with some distinguished films to his credit (Serpico, Network, and 12 Angry Men to name a few) but no musicals before or after this one.

Anyway, this movie's screenplay was written by Joel Schumacher, who also gave the world (gasp!) Batman and Robin (besides Simone, the single worst movie I've seen when expectation is taken into account). This did not bode well when I saw it in the opening credits, and yet I was able to set aside my bias against crap movies and realize that the dialogue is exceedingly well-crafted. Just the fact that the Scarecrow continues to pull relevant famous quotes from his body is impressive, but we get a lot of modernized, intelligent wordplay here.

Comparisons to the original Wizard of Oz are inevitable, and yet The Wiz holds up amazingly well against that classic. I won't bore you with all of the changes, but here are a few that really grabbed my attention:

  • Dorothy is very sympathetic. Much more than the Judy Garland version, you get a sense of emptiness and fear out of Diana Ross' portrayal. Perhaps it's because she's older, or because her eyes bug out. Anyway, all good stories are about characters who find something they never knew they had within, and this definitely gets across here. In the original version you just feel like Judy simply appreciated home more because of her adventure. Diana comes back a woman.
  • Casting Oz as an urban wasteland was brilliant and it carries through in most spots, especially in Munchkinland becoming a city park, and the vastness of the Emerald City as a hopping downtown. Just as the original twisted Kansas farm country into Dorothy's Oz, The Wiz takes New York and does the same, and the results are naturally richer.
  • Couldn't the lion have been changed into something more urban? Granted, there are no lions in Kansas (though there would have been plenty of scarecrows), but how about a big rat for the New York version? Now that would have been cool. Freaky, but cool. An aside: Were there no advancements in costuming between 1939 and 1978? The lion still looks like little more than a guy in pajamas. One improvement: In The Wiz, we learn that the lion's real name is Fleetwood Coupe de Ville.
  • There's a wonderful sequence when they get to the Emerald City where the current color of style keeps changing on the Wiz's whim. They go from green, to red, to gold each accompanied by a song and dance that tout that color's virtue. The costuming budget must have been astronomical, but the commentary on the fleeting nature of style is priceless.
  • The flying monkeys are just as weird and disturbing here as in the original. They have motorcycles for bodies, sunglasses, and huge mouths.
  • Finally, I must say something about the casting. For the most part it's great. Diana is good. Nipsy Russell (as the Tinman) often appears to be channeling Bill Cosby, but is effective nonetheless. Lena Horne is a bit too campy as Glenda the good witch (and what's with all the floating kids around her?). The idea to cast Richard Pryor as the Wiz was a great one, even if he doesn't have much to do in the role. Mabel King kicks ass as Evillene, especially in her one number Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News (don't try to figure out the double negatives in that title). Finally, I found Micheal Jackson to be very charming and he gets the two catchiest songs (of course) You Can't Win and Ease On Down The Road.
Questions and Comments:

Dorothy is 24? Yeah, right! Diana Ross probably insisted on this being the character's age, since she doesn't look a day under 44.

Is it me or does the melody of When I Think Of Home sound a little bit like I Just Can't Stop Loving You (from Michael's 1987 Bad album)?

The tape copy of the film I rented from Blockbuster was strangely worn out at the part where the lion is introduced. It's as if someone watched that part over and over again, obsessing over it for some unknown reason. I like to think about these sorts of things.

If you start Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album three minutes into this movie, it will play in synch with the happenings in the film. This is a complete fabrication.

In Conclusion:

Purely given the nature of this film (remake a classic, and use all black actors?!!), reaction is bound to be divisive. But disregarding race and tinkering, there are some movies that you just feel you could live in, like there's a rich world contained within. Few movies achieve it, but the ones that do are the ones that show attention to details, interesting dialogue, and character pathos. Even though it is flawed, this movie has all of that. And if you find yourself lacking a sense of wonder, watch it with a child…I'm betting it's a film that they will be both frightened by and irresistibly drawn to, just like the original.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Moonwalker (1988)

Michael Jackson egomania when we could take it

In the future, lots will be written about this time in Michael Jackson's life. One of the most common sentiments I hear in reference to him besides revulsion is sadness. He made so much vital and exciting music that it would be a shame for it to be tainted by his significant personal problems.

Sadly, it's getting to the point where we forget how HUGELY popular Michael was, and for the right reasons. I mean, Thriller has sold 45 million copies world wide! He won eight Grammys in one night! Bad had five number one singles! Michael's transformation from a child star to an adult star was something the world had never seen before. At the apex (or at least plateau) of his popularity, Michael made a movie. It's not a continuous story, but more of a visual scrapbook.

What Happens:

We start off with a performance montage of Man in the Mirror which is replete with many shots of fainting audience members, and interspersed clips of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Gahndi, JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, starving kids, etc. It's kind of a downer opening, but it strives for some sort of relevance, punctuated by Michael standing like Jesus on the cross. Make your own interpretations and insert them here.

Next we get a well-edited retrospective of Michael's career, moving from the infectious sounds of the Jackson 5 (and the early proof of just how much talent this man contains), to the rat song Ben, to the highlights of his solo career. The best moment of this is easily his 1983 moonwalk at the Motown 25th Anniversary special. The crowd's reaction is a sort of elated gasp. Wonderful.

This is followed by three music video clips. The first is a shot-by-shot recreation of the Bad video (which was directed by Martin Scorsese) using all little kids. It kind of reminds me of the Lost Boys from Hook, and creeps me out a little.

The clip for the song Speed Demon makes gratuitous use of Claymation. I can't knock this too much, because that was the shit back in those days...remember the California Raisins?

The next one is my favorite. It's a video for a Bad b-side called Leave Me Alone, which is definitely in my top 5 favorite Michael songs. Not only is the song great, the production values of the video are outstanding. It was done in an arresting animated collage style (the Talking Heads used it in their And She Was video), and features Michael directly addressing the odd media image he has acquired. Not only do countless tabloid headlines fly by, but he also passes his supposed shrine to Liz Taylor (accompanied by Bubbles the chimp of course), and dances with the Elephant Man's bones. This sort of willingness to self-parody is what is desperately missing from modern-day Michael.

Here's where it gets boring. "Smooth Criminal" is supposed to be the meat in the sandwich, but it's processed instead of deli. This is a baffling bit of filmmaking that concerns Michael and his three child friends (one played by Sean Lennon!) and a drug czar played by an extremely hammy Joe Pesci. Turns out that Michael is some sort of alien with the power to transform in to cars and robots. The high point of this is that it segues seamlessly into the very cool video for Smooth Criminal. And yet, how this is related to the rest of the story is unclear.

After the Smooth Criminal performance, I'd recommend fast forwarding to the climactic showdown where Michael turns into a robot and his face momentarily breaks apart. It's very prescient.

Finally, we wind down with an overlong performance of Come Together, which was to appear a full seven years later on the HIStory album. Then the credits roll over the group that worked with Paul Simon on Graceland performing a song called Walking on the Moon. This is a nice touch.

In Conclusion:

If you can make the mammoth effort to separate the Michael of today from the nostalgia for his glory days, this is an enjoyable viewing experience. The amazing thing is that no matter your feelings on Michael, at some point you are just likely to feel creeped out (or at least uncomfortable) by this film. Like I said, prescient.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002)

Every little thing is gonna tear them apart

Novice filmmaker Sam Jones thought it might be a fun project to follow Wilco through the recording of their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Their previous albums, AM, Being There, and Summerteeth were all big critical favorites and had garnered them a dedicated, if small, fan base. Jones was one of those fans, and with the delusion of a fan felt the band was on just the verge of a commercial breakthrough. So why not document the making of the album that would bring them international stardom?

It didn't quite work that way, but Jones got something even better. As sometimes happens, the stars aligned and a wonderful story fell into his lap.

What Happens:

When Wilco completed Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and turned it into their record company, the company flatly rejected it as not commercial enough. The band promptly bought the album back and sold it to another company which happened to have the same owner as their old label (in today's music industry there are really only three major labels). When it was released, the critics hailed the album as a masterpiece, and the first week sales were better than any previous Wilco album (which, granted, was still not a whole lot).

It's very rock 'n' roll to think of the record companies as completely clueless, and here we have concrete proof of it.

Questions and Comments:

For my money, no form of film has more potential for thrills than documentary. It is an often-abused, cliched, and parodied format, but when done right, like Hoop Dreams, or this film, it is riveting.

More than just the shake-your-head story of an innovative album being rejected, Jones also captures that old favorite, band infighting. Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy have a visible tension between them that grows as the film progresses and eventually leads to Bennett quitting the band. It's a shame really, because they obviously did great work together, but it's also thrilling to see. There's an argument between the two over a minute detail of editing that just completely sums up how silly things can get between two people. Jay's post-quitting interview is a textbook case of self-delusion. Watch for it!

It's a bit strange to spend so long looking at people you normally just listen to. So, I found myself my making mental connections to more familiar faces. For example, Jay Bennett resembles a more studious version of Scottie, from Boogie Nights. Also, the band's manager Tony could make some side money as a James Garner impersonator. Finally, the similarity between Jeff Tweedy and the Man Behind the Curtain from The Wizard of Oz is eerie.

Despite the wonderful music they make, this band can come off as a bit humorless and self-possessed, and this documentary bucks that perception with several small touches. The best of these is a scene in a Wendy's with Tweedy and his wife and kids ordering and attempting to put together enough cash to pay. It blows the roof off any perceptions of a debauched rock star lifestyle.

This movie also has the advantage of being the best-titled of the lot (Stop Making Sense taking a close second). It is, of course, the name of the first track on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but there's something more to it. I think it's the fact that the I and the Am aren't contracted. It sounds so formal. It's almost as though it's a response to something else.

Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory plays over the final credits. I can find no logical reason for this, but it's a brilliant touch nonetheless.

In Conclusion:

Beautifully filmed in black and white and expertly edited from what must have been a TON of footage, a fan could ask for little more than this. Even non-fans are likely to be sucked in by the sheer arc of the story and appeal of the people involved.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Can't Stop The Music (1980)

Can't we at least try?

Though there should have been every indication that Village People's days as a mainstream commercial force were at their end by 1980, someone somewhere made the horrible decision to give them their own movie. Okay, maybe the idea wasn't completely horrible. They had a fan base that might have given the movie respectable earnings and cult classic status. But that "might have" hinged on the fact that they make a semi-decent movie. In that, they failed.

What Happens:

Steve Guttenberg plays Jack Morell, an aspiring songwriter who lives with a retired supermodel, played by Lex Luthor's girlfriend from Superman I and II. In the opening scene Jack quits his "demanding" record store job and then celebrates by roller-skating gaily through the streets of New York.

Jack has an opportunity to DJ at the "happening" club where they hang out, Saddle Cramps. As he does this, Samantha (the supermodel) dances with a series of strange men (including one name Phillipe, who dresses in full Native American garb...okay not "full" he tends to prefer extremely short and tight cut-off jeans over a loincloth).

Through a series of tedious events, Samantha and Jack decide to form a group with the aforementioned men as singers. The rest of the movie follows their attempts to achieve stardom with an increasing cast of characters joining the ride, including Jack's mom, a lawyer played by Olympian Bruce Jenner, a record exec, and the head of a modeling agency.

What Really Happens:

This movie is full of inexplicable things. For example, we have no idea how Jack and Samantha met and decided to live together, or how long they've done so. Therefore it's strange when they start talking about his songwriting dream as though it's something they've never previously discussed. It's like he woke up one morning and decided that's what he wanted to do. This leads to a series of delayed realizations, such as 1) Samantha has close ties in the record biz; 2) Jack can't sing; and 3) we could recruit all these singers we know (so what if they happen to have proclivities toward dressing like construction workers, cowboys, and Indians). Odd.

The scene where Samantha goes out to recruit the guys to sing is notable for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that she gets an ice cream cone before she starts, and it keeps changing flavors as the scene progresses. It isn't prominent enough to be a visual gag, so it just looks like sloppy filmmaking. The other is the fact that the Construction Worker gets his own dream sequence in which he sings a spectacularly horrible song called I Love You To Death, which by all appearances is about domestic abuse.

Bruce Jenner (this film was supposed to launch his acting career, but he only made one other film after this one) comes out of nowhere. There's no satisfying explanation for why his character becomes affiliated with Samantha and Jack. When he first meets them, he seems to be having fun, and then he just storms out. Then he comes back again the next day and engages in some slapstick comedy / sex with Samantha.

Ray the Policeman shows up at a party and joins the group impromptu. They note that he was formerly in a group called the Cop-Outs. Kind of humorous. Interesting fact I learned from the DVD: The original Policeman (who sang on all the hits) had left the group right before the movie. He was obviously a smart man.

After the group gets a chance to record a demo, they decide to add more members and this leads to an audition scene that outdoes itself. Nerd Alert: One of the comics books I used to read was called The Legion of Super Heroes. They had about 30 members, and they would periodically have try-outs where these complete losers with strange super powers would show up. This scene reminded me of that. Anyway, from this we get The Biker a.k.a. Leatherman, an obviously gay and obviously hairy fellow who does a knockout version of Danny Boy. The Army guy also comes in here, but for some reason he doesn't have to audition.

I guess one of the big complaints about the movie from the group's fanbase was the fact that the filmmakers "straightened it up" for mainstream consumption. So the movie rolls along on the pretense of straightness (at the initial party scene all of the Villagers save Phillipe seem to have lady friends), and then we get to the YMCA scene and GAYNESS bursts out like the sun after a brief rainstorm. Seriously, this has to be one of the gayest non-explicit sequences ever filmed. The montage includes showering, synchronized swimming, gymnastics, locker room hi-jinks, wrestling, dance boxing, push-ups, and weight-training. All featuring men. Not a woman in sight. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The band's rise to the top never really happens. They badger a beleaguered record executive into signing them to a contract, and perform in a milk commercial with Samantha (using "milkshake" as a euphemism waaaay before Kelis ever thought to). Then they perform a triumphant one-song set in San Francisco at the end of the film and the credits come, leaving us all feeling like we barely know the Village People any better than we did a couple hours earlier.

Questions and Concerns:

Is Jack supposed to be gay? The supermodel mentions several times how they have a strictly platonic relationship, and we never see him show any romantic interest in anyone, man or woman.

The fact that Steve Guttenberg still had a career (and how: Police Academy, Cocoon, Three Men And A Baby, and Short Circuit, all with ensuing sequels) after this film is simply amazing. His acting here is so horrible, and in one scene they have him wearing white overalls with no shirt.

Speaking of sequels, the record executive who eventually signs the group is played by Paul Sand, whose most famous role is the boxing coach in Teen Wolf Too. This is not a lie.

If the movie wasn't so afraid to be gay there might have been more lines like this one delivered by Jack: "Anyone who can swallow two Snowballs and a Ding-Dong shouldn't have any trouble swallowing a little pride."

This movie might be ageist. An old lady who hits people with her bag shows up twice, and in Bruce Jenner's introductory scene he gets mugged by an old woman with an accomplice who rides a moped and wears a jumpsuit and helmet (he looks like one of the Beastie Boys in the Alive video).

In one heartbreaking moment, Jack calls the Village People sound "the music of the '80s." Ironic that this line is in the film that killed their career (at least temporarily).

In Conclusion:

Village People were an inherently outlandish concept that lent itself to this sort of marketing, so it's sad that what could have ended up as a gay cult film ended up so pedestrian. There are only four or five musical numbers, and much-too-much time dedicated to boring characters that surround the band. Most of the Village People themselves probably only had one or two lines, IN THEIR OWN MOVIE.

Well, as Samantha says early in the film: "I didn't invent it; I'm just in it."

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Tommy (1975)

A musical rumination on fame, growing up, and testing an audience's patience

Pete Townsend has a story to tell you, and he doesn't really care if you "get" that story or not. The Who's discography is littered with high concept projects like Quadrophenia, Lifehouse (which, with the story abandoned, became their best album, Who's Next), and Tommy. The latter was a hit as an album when released in 1969, so Hollywood said: Let's make a movie!

It's hard to tell if this was a bad idea from the get-go, or if all of the decisions made thereafter just made it seem so.

What happens:

Ann Margaret, wearing the same sweater she wore in the beginning of Bye Bye Birdie, falls in love with a military man. They get married, have a baby named Tommy, and then the military man dies in war. I must say that throughout this movie, Ann Margaret is nearly consistently foxy, even 15 or so years out from her prime. Well done to her. Anyway, Ann meets a new man, who is instant trouble. In a scene that causes the first (but not last!) significant confusion of the film, Tommy witnesses either 1) his mom and this new man having sex, or 2) his new step-dad killing his father. Perhaps this is metaphorical. I don't know.

Anyway, Tommy ends up deaf, dumb, and blind.

From there, we go to Tommy pretty much grown up and now being played by Roger Daltry. There's something poetic in having Daltry play Tommy, in that he was the voice for The Who, and here he is stricken silent. Anyway, from here the film takes us on a disturbing series of adventures for Tommy, meant, I assume, to signify the slow corruption of growing up. Sadly, I'm not buying into Pete Townsend's worldview at all. At some point, Tommy becomes a pinball champion, gets famous, then rebels against his fame (controlled of course by his step-father) and gets his voice back. Credits.

Oh, and did I mention that there's absolutely no dialogue? None. The music plays in some form from beginning to end.

What really happens:

At 25 minutes in we get the first of many strangely interesting moments. This is not only the first appearance of the rest of The Who, but also Eric Clapton. And they're all wearing priests' robes and performing next to a big statue of Marilyn Monroe! What the mind really wants to know is that with both Pete and Eric playing guitar, who takes lead?

Tina Turner throws in a stunner of a performance as the Acid Queen, who introduces Tommy to drugs and/ or sex (not sure which, really, but it involves syringes, snakes, skeletons, and a sarcophagus). Can I just say that Tina Turner is the all-time champ of musicians at picking acting roles? I mean, this AND Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome?! She needs some sort of special Oscar for this, or at least a Golden Globe.

Keith Moon appears again, this time as a nasty uncle in the hands down most disturbing scene in any music movie. He sings Fiddle About, which is about child molestation. You can't really blame the filmmakers for this one: It's a disgusting topic any way you film it. But what makes it so disturbing is how much Keith seems to be enjoying himself!

There's a scene in which Tommy confronts himself in a junkyard. The writer, producers, and director of Superman II should be ashamed for blatantly ripping this off!

In the most transcendent moment of the film (okay, it's the only transcendent moment), Elton John appears as Tommy the Pinball Wizard's opponent. Inexplicably, he's been given super long legs and huge-ass shoes, but he looks great and sings his heart out, and mugs appropriately to the camera. It shall remain one of the great mysteries of all time as to why Elton never got his own movie in the '70s. A shame, really. Anyway, The Who play along with him and then destroy their instruments at the end of the song…honestly, this scene almost redeems the whole film.

Jack Nicholson sings. I don't even need to say anything about this, do I?

Ann Margaret has an extended scene in which she's watching commercials in an all-white room. She begins to drink and hallucinate and ends up wallowing in baked beans and chocolate. It's sort of sexy and gross and baffling all in one big package.

In Conclusion:

Stephen Hawking needs to watch this movie, because it may defy the laws of physics as our universe knows them. Time actually slows down while you're watching. It's an amazing phenomenon really, and I must commend all involved.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Crossroads (2002)

Author's note: This piece was written when my attitude toward Britney was much more positive. As of now, she has mostly frittered my good will away, but in better days I had somewhat of a crush… Anyway, the format differs from my other reviews in that I kept a running diary as I watched. That is reproduced faithfully below.

Okay, it's Friday night at approximately 9:45 PM and we're live from my modest apartment. I have spent the earlier part of the evening with friends, so I'm not a total loser here.

9:47 - 9:55 Previews. Orange County's contains a "Britney Spears is vapid" joke. Priceless!

9:57 Ad for Britney's latest album, Britney. Already have it.

9:59 All right, 12 minutes later the movie is about to start. The ratings board warning before it promises a PG-13 rating with "Sexual Content and Teen Drinking." Now we're talking! The credits start, listing not only Britney, but Dan Ackroyd and Kool Moe Dee too! I'm already wishing I'd seen this in the theater.

10:01 Britney's real life little sister is playing her as a kid, in a flashback sequence. Britney narrates, telling us exactly what is happening on screen before us. There are three girls who promise to be best friends forever.

10:02 We're into it already! Britney dances to Madonna (Open Your Heart) in her bedroom. She's wearing a camisole and panties! Oh no, she's putting on pants. This scene should have been MUCH longer.

10:05 Okay, so the girls are about to graduate from high school and aren't friends anymore. Points for realism. Now Dan Ackroyd makes his second appearance and Britney has her first chance to act. Verdict: Dan looks like he's been stung by a hive of bees. Britney cries convincingly. She's having a Diane Court-esque crisis.

10:07 Noticing that we haven't heard any Britney music yet.

10:08 Now we're getting somewhere! Yowza! Britney is wearing pink bra and panties and is about to lose her virginity with her lab partner. Less than ten minutes in and this movie is looking like a skin fest.

10:09 Britney isn't going to go through with it. How sad to be this lab partner guy…he gets so close to the sun. Like Icarus.

10:10 - 10:16 Plot stuff. The three friends reunite and decide to go on a road trip.

10:17 We meet the guy Britney is obviously going to sleep with. I already hate him. The movie has to make me like him.

10:19 Still no Britney music, but we do get N*Sync in the car. The guy doesn't like it; he's too cool for it! Plus, he refers to his car as "the cruiser." I'm liking him less and less, if that's possible.

10:24 Britney in the shower!

10:25 Britney wears a lot of pink in this movie. Oh, there goes the after school special alert: One of Britney's friends is pregnant.

10:28 Matthew Sweet just got some residuals off the appearance of Girlfriend, but we're still sans Britney music, dammit. Oh, and the interactions between this guy and Britney are SO lame. I'm going to be tempted to turn the movie off when they sleep together. Oh, and since he seems to not own a razor, I'm going to start calling him Stubbly.

10:30 Britney says "bitch" and "damn." I'm scandalized!

10:33 Kool Moe Dee appears!

10:34 The pregnant girl wants to be a singer, so they're going to do karaoke. But wait, she's choking! Who is she, the girl in The Devil and Max Devlin? Does Eliot Gould have to be there for her to sing well? And the audience is booing! Who boos bad karaoke? Isn't that the point? This appears to be the same road house audience the Blues Brothers played for.

10:35 Britney takes over the mic! She's looking foxy, and there's a stripper's pole right next to her! The look on Stubbly's face is unintentional comedy all the way to the bank!

10:40 An overzealous suitor gets fresh with Britney and Stubbly punches him out. It would have been a stroke of genius to have this guy played by Justin Timberlake. You hate a wasted opportunity like that.

10:41 - 10:46 As promised, teen drinking. But wait a minute, isn't one of them pregnant? And oh, now they seem to have gotten sober really quickly. They're sharing.

10:47 Stubbly takes his shirt off to reaveal tats on his back. Oh he's so dreamy (insert sarcastic tone). Blech!

10:50 Some classic over-acting from Stubbly. Who is he, Charlie Chaplin? You get the feeling that this is his big scene in the movie….and it sucks! My goodness what a whiny guy: "My car…it's the only thing that hasn't been taken over by chicks." Look dude, some of us enjoy the company of women.

10:52 Not only does Stubbly manage to maintain a permanent 5 o'clock shadow (he must have a beard trimmer set to "mildly rugged") but he insists on wearing a stocking cap, in Texas, in the middle of June. Is this really necessary? Okay, so now he's going to tell us why he really went to jail…

10:53 That was so lame!!! Is it just me or is Stubbly RUINING THE MOVIE?!?

10:54 - 10:58 They camp out at the place where Britney filmed the Not a Girl, Not Yet A Woman video.

10:59 Kim Catrall makes the briefest of appearances. There is a David Lynch-ian moment where the phone rings and both Kim and Britney react as though the sound is foreign to them.

11:01 Britney, wet from the rain and emotionally distraught seeks comfort in his Stubbly's arms. They kiss. Ugh! Get a clue Britney! This is too close to reality for me.

11:04 Stubbly sits in an atrium type area at a white piano. Is he John Lennon? Stop right now! See, he's putting music to the poem Britney wrote…it's called Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman. I bet Max Martin and Dido sat at a piano just like this when they wrote it.

11:08 Capitol Records building makes an appearance.

11:09 They're at the beach. Britney is looking especially cute in a bikini and a little hat. She gets diarrhea of the mouth, and Stubbly is utterly uninterested in what she has to say.

11:10 There's an odd cameo from a man who appears to be former MTV veejay Jesse Camp. It's very disorienting. Sidebar: I actually saw Jesse Camp here at a record store, just walking around. My friend Richard was also there and claimed it wasn't him, but really, how many supper skinny guys trying to look like the offspring of Keith Richards and Steven Tyler are there?

11:11 I just realized I don't know any of the character's names. Oh no, and here's the scene I've been dreading. Stubbly and Britney are going to get it on…and we're not going to see a single moment of it! I'm strangely conflicted about this.

11:15 Plot convenience alert! I won't even go into it. It's not worth it. Suffice to say that even M. Night Shamalyn wouldn't have this happen in one of his movies. Shameful! I find it interesting that while Britney is throwing away her virginity, her two friends go through huge traumas! Is Britney causing this? Is this some sort of twisted take on morality?

11:18 Dan Ackroyd appears again and gives a speech almost as lame as Stubbly's "chicks / car" speech. Dan has a southern accent that appears for only one word of this whole diatribe. He is REALLY mailing it in. They should give a special award at the Oscars for mailing it in. Or at least a Golden Globe.

11:20 Britney claims that all Stubbly did was "give us a ride." Well, at least he gave her one. Ohhh, too easy.

11:25 Britney performs Not A Girl… Wow, this really came together quickly and without any practice. We're dealing with prodigies here. All of that practice that Britney has lip-synching really came in handy for this scene. But, Britney looks good, so who really cares about all of that? Oh, I think I just inadvertently discovered the filmmakers' philosophy for this movie.

11:29 The three girls reaffirm their promise to be friends forever. I want to see a sequel where Britney has become tired of Stubbly's irresponsibility and has grown away from her friends again.

11:30 Britney performs Overprotected as the credits roll. Fine way to end things. Oh wait, yes, we've got the Purple Rain frozen frame for the end. Kudos to the filmmakers for that.

11:32 Tape rewinding. I don't feel like I've wasted my time, but it could have been spent slightly better. This was a bad movie, but Britney was in her underwear. Stubbly was the worst boyfriend in a pop star movie this side of Glitter, but that underwear was pink. Okay I'm too conflicted about this movie. Best to just end it here.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Krush Groove (1985)

There are some higher

Krush Groove is the first rap music movie. For that alone it gets props, but unfortunately, its notoriety stems mostly from the fact that it was a flop (especially stinging because it came in the wake of Purple Rain, and probably labored under unrealistic expectations of the same level of success). You might remember that it inspired the famous exchange in Dogma where Ben Affleck attempts to use Matt Damon's faith in the film's box office prospects to prove that he is more often wrong than right.

What Happens:

We've got several storylines going here, all interconnecting in some way. The main plotline centers around Run D.M.C. who have just made their first hit record King of Rock. Their small record company, run by Run's brother Russell and Rick Rubin (playing himself) is struggling to meet the demand for the record and Russell makes a shady deal with the guy who plays the shady promoter in Rocky V.

Next we throw Sheila E. into the mix. She's just starting out and both Run and Russell take an interest in her career and her romantic availability. Sheila likes Russell better than Run. This obviously leads to tension and with Russell being pressured to pay back his loan, Run takes his group to a bigger label and a lucrative contract.

Finally, we've got the Fat Boys (at this point calling themselves the Disco Three), who are attempting to break into the business. Throw in Curtis Blow and lots of cameos and performance scenes, and mix well.

What Really Happens:

Anyone with at least rudimentary knowledge of Def Jam Records will know that the character Russell Walker is a thinly-fictionalized version of Russell Simmons. And in case you don't pick that up, the movie's credits inform us that "The Russell Walker character was inspired by the life of Russell Simmons." What's amazing to me is that Simmons exhibited enough restraint to not play himself, and let Blair Underwood have the job. You might think that it was a movie studio and/or director decision to have a famous actor playing this important role, but this was Blair Underwood's first movie. At that point, L.A.Law wasn't even a glimmer in Susan Dey's eyes.

Anyway, the first thing that strikes me about this movie is the style. The clothes and lingo still seem fresh. Maybe this is because eighties hip-hop culture has made a comeback, but I tend to think that there are just certain things that will always be classic: Volkswagen Beetles, Converse Chuck Taylors, black stocking caps, and Adidas tracksuits.

The other thing that strikes me is how many performances there are. It's obviously taking a page from the Purple Rain book. However, as fun as the songs may be, they have no real resonance in the story (save All You Can Eat by the Fat Boys). Like I said, we get a lot of performance clips, and some are great (Fat Boys doing Don't You Dog Me in the staircase of their high school, Sheila E. performing Love Bizarre looking and sounding so much like Prince that it's a little disconcerting, and some cameos I'll mention later). But because the movie packs so many artists and storylines into such a small place, you ultimately feel like you didn't get enough time with any of them, save maybe the Fat Boys. Run D.M.C. get especially short changed, and Jam Master Jay specifically. In fact Jay only has one scene where he isn't background decoration, and unfortunately (considering how he died) it features him threatening to pull out a gun in a relatively benign situation.

That said, Sheila E. cuts a particularly appealing character in the time she's given. There's one scene at her apartment (which features a Prince poster on the wall I must add) where she claims that anybody can rap and then proceeds to demonstrate her skills. She's not as convincing as a love interest, and there's a love scene between her and Blair Underwood that didn't do much for me, even with the Force MDs' Tender Love playing over it. Kurtis Blow is also a very decent character and a voice of reason in the film's events. I didn't realize before that he was the real-life guru behind the Fat Boys, but apparently he got them together and did their beats. This is played out rather tenderly and briefly on screen.

Finally, let's talk cameos. About an hour into the film there's a succession of cameos that is fairly mind-blowing. First we've got LL Cool J with a surprise appearance in the Krush Groove offices, begging for an audition. He's skinny, but throws down a bit of Can't Live Without My Radio and impresses nicely. Immediately following this we see New Edition in shiny silver matching suits performing My Secret. I'm intrigued by New Edition because they keep trying to reunite, and keep meeting with complete apathy. Then right after that, you have the Beastie Boys! They come out doing their very first single, the little known She's On It. Who could've predicted at this time that they'd become what they did? Amazing.

Questions and Comments:

Hoop Dreams fans, look for an Arthur Agee lookalike in the background of the scene where the Fat Boys try to get into the Disco Fever club for the first time.

There's a boggling loss of decency in a brief high school scene where one of the Fat Boys is roasting a fetal pig. I seriously believe cinema could have done without that…even Jon Waters would have left this on the cutting room floor.

Rick Rubin is an odd guy. He started out doing the hip-hop thing and now is an in-demand rock producer. This is foreshadowed in one scene where he can be spotted in a Husker Du T-Shirt. Shout out to Minneapolis!

Run D.M.C. actually work at a car wash at the beginning of this movie, and that's sort of inexplicable. But, it does inspire the great line: "You won't see Lionel Richie working at no car wash."

In Conclusion:

The movie only runs 90 minutes, and with so many things going on, it can't help but sink under its own weight. Watch it for the performances, cameos, and that slice of eighties hip-hop style, not for plot or character development.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Madonna: Truth Or Dare (1991)

We're just living in her material world

Had it gone in a different direction, this project could have easily focused purely on the film oeuvre of Madonna in all of its shame and glory. Is there another actress who has received more Razzies (the ceremony which presents itself as the complete opposite of the Oscars, rewarding extraordinarily bad film work), and yet also won a Golden Globe? She's got Shanghai Surprise, Body of Evidence, The Next Best Thing, and Swept Away to her credit, and yet also can lay claim to Evita, A League of Their Own, and Desperately Seeking Susan.

I'll admit my bias right here: I have a lot of love for Madonna. I think if I could only own one album it would be a serious decision between The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and The Immaculate Collection. But, like any superstar, it's impossible to adore her fully and completely (especially the newer calcified version). There's too much baggage there, as we'll see.

What Happens:

The filmmaker followed Madonna around on her 1990 Blonde Ambition tour supporting the Dick Tracy (also a stinker) soundtrack I'm Breathless. Along the way he captures Madonna at her most candid. He also documents the troubles and triumphs she experiences, including a visit to her roots in Michigan, controversy in Canada, the tedium of touring and pulling off an ambitious stage show, and of course sex and romance. What emerges is a portrait of Madonna as a tough, sometimes raw young woman who has been through a lot and is still in the process of growing up. There's also a strong presentation of her with her dancers and entourage as a caring den mother. And this was before she even had kids!

The documentary bits in black and white are interspersed with color scenes of various song performances.

What Really Happens:

This movie, though it first showed Madonna as the shrewd businesswoman she is, also documents her careening into the worst point of her career. In some ways she was still very much searching and unsure of herself, as evidenced by the Sex book and Erotica album that came out the next year. Knowing that this will happen, and that she will rebound in typical heroic fashion makes for compelling viewing.

That said, as a documentary, this is rarely as gripping as the format has the potential to be. Perhaps it's because the events that occur are hardly ever dramatic. As a result, the beginning especially seems like we are in for a long tedious ride. Initially, Madonna comes off as a self-absorbed bitch-on-wheels. She plays bullying games with her staff, complains about audience members, and her narration seems like what hyper self-analytical college students sit around and talk about.

On top of that, the first couple of musical numbers are lip-synched and choreographed and do nothing for me. But as the movie progresses and we see more of these numbers that were in the show, the cumulative effect is an appreciation for how much work it must have been to pull that off every night. Personally, I prefer the band that comes out on time, says little but "Hello" and "Thank you" and kicks the ass out of their songs, but I can appreciate "high concept" too.

The same happens with the documentary. Slowly the scenes add up and we begin to get a more fully realized portrait of Madonna. There's a scene where her father (who looks startlingly like Ralph Nader) visits with her, and it's as awkward as any other parent-grown child interaction. There's another scene where she visits her mother's grave. It's a bit overwrought, but still affecting.

When she plays in Detroit she meets with a childhood friend named Moira, and it's a very sad scene. Moira is obviously living a hard life, but wants Madonna to be the godmother of her baby. Madonna somewhat gently brushes her off. It gives a taste of some of the lesser side of fame.

Finally, also contributing to the emotional investment of the film is the afforementioned relationship she has with her dancers. She obviously cares about them, and even has to play peacemaker. She's like a really hot teacher. But then this is all negated at the end with the famous titular truth or dare game, and a bizarre sequence where she has them visit her bed one by one.

Questions and Concerns:

Warren Beatty (he and Madonna were famously involved at this time) is actually a voice of reason in the film. At one point he remarks that Madonna "doesn't want to live off camera."

The parade of celebrity guests that visit backstage is dizzying. We get Al Pacino, Mandy Patinkin, Lionel Richie, and Kevin Costner (sporting a righteous mullet). He calls the show "neat," and after a few seconds of awkward conversation leaves, only to have Madonna stick her finger in her throat behind his back. How would you like to be him and have this moment immortalized? Terrible, yet satisfying.

I wonder what the percentage of this movie involves Madonna getting her make-up done. I'm guessing 18.5 at least. This is a project for somebody.

In Conclusion:

Though not a thrilling documentary, it will be important someday for the depiction of a certain time of Madonna's life. However, non-fans and hatas should approach with caution.

Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

It was all downhill from here

What Happens:

Desperately Seeking Susan is a stylish, surprisingly good movie about a rich woman who discovers the joys of letting your soul fly free and bohemian. It's a very '80s update of The Prince and the Pauper or City Mouse Country Mouse stories. Rosanna Arquette has a comfortable but soulless life until she starts following a series of ads concerning the titular Susan (played by Madonna of course). A complex series of events leads to her being mistaken for Susan, the two women switching places, and high jinks ensuing! She falls in love with Aiden Quinn, has some trouble with some thugs, and works in a nightclub. Susan, meanwhile, enjoys the high life for awhile.

What Really Happens:

Rosanna Arquette looks rather foxy in this movie. I've always been a Patricia man myself, but watching this, I can see why Toto made that song about Rosanna. What was that called again?

Don't freak out, but Madonna is actually good in this movie! Sure, she tends to speak in one liners (a perfect way for non-actors to come across well in movies), but she is effective, funny, and seductive. It makes me wonder if she'd just stayed in smallish roles, such as A League Of Their Own, how much movie-going pain and heartache might have been averted.

Questions and Comments:

Be sure to watch for the parade of pleasantly familiar faces. Here's a rundown of who to look out for: Rosanne's sister, Steven Wright (!), Dana's orchestra friend from Ghostbusters (the one who Bill Murray describes as "still very pale though"), Jon Turturro, and Richard Hell.

Marshall Crenshaw's song Someday, Someway plays over a diner scene. This is just wonderful.

Madonna dances to Into the Groove in a club scene. This is an odd moment, because we're not supposed to be thinking of this character as a massive pop star, but how can we ignore it? She seems to enjoy her own music a bit too much.

And finally, nudity:
11 minutes - Madonna's nipple
26 minutes - Rosanna's nipples
1 hour 18 minutes - Madonna's nipple (back again for an encore)
1 hour 23 minutes - Aiden Quinn's ass (for all the fellas)

In Conclusion:

Open your heart and tune in next time this movie is showing on cable.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

It couldn't get no worse!

When I was in high school, at the tail end of my initial obsession with The Beatles, I bought a country tribute album to the band. This was when "country music" was a four-letter-word in my vocabulary. My Beatles obsession was such that I probably bought it just because it had a charming John Lennon drawing on the front. But a listen to it proved something I'd always suspected: It was impossible to ruin The Beatles. Little did I know that in 1978 Robert Stigwood, Peter Frampton, and The Bee Gees nearly accomplished just that.

What happens:

Sergeant Pepper is a Glenn Millerish figure who, as the song says, taught the band to play 20 years ago today. And they were the toast of wartime; an inspiring bunch. This is all told to us by a narrator who sounds like George Carlin, but actually turns out to be George Burns. Now, in modern times, his grandson Billy Shears (played by Peter Frampton, looking exactly like Roger Daltry) is getting the band back together as a modern rock group! The other three members happen to be Robin, Maurice, and Barry Gibb, The Bee Gees!

The band's first gig is a revelation, and of course they're ushered off to California to become big rock stars. Unfortunately this means the Billy must leave behind his foxy, foxy girlfriend Strawberry Fields. Why she can't go along to California, other than for dramatic narrative purposes, shall remain a mystery. As happens with any well-brought up, level-headed band, they are immediately corrupted by the bacchanalia of the record executive lifestyle, which involves lots of loose women, gorging at medieval style dinners, and large spinning record coffee tables. Billy cheats on Strawberry right away.

Despite this lack of focus, the band becomes immensely popular, and gains the attention of the malevolent Mean Mr. Mustard, who is played by a British actor Frankie Howerd. He's is a tremendous ham (mmm, mustard and ham). This leads to a series of misadventures and elaborate musical numbers. Actually to call them musical numbers is a bit misleading, because like Tommy, this whole movie is dialogue-free. There is Beatles music from wall to wall.

In the end, the band rediscovers the power of love, Huey Lewis style, and this leads to the defeat of Mr. Mustard and his minions, but also to the death of sweet, hot, innocent Strawberry Fields. This is a maddening moment, because she is the ONLY likable character in the movie. But fear not! Billy Preston shows up, playing some Jesus/religious icon figure, and brings her back to life.

Choir sings, roll credits.

What Really Happens:

Okay, this movie really fucking sucks. Almost everything about it is annoying, from the bad acting to the poor film stock. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to hit fast forward. I don't think there is any other movie besides Showgirls that featured so many career lows in one place. Here are some of them:
  • George Burns performing Fixing a Hole. This scene is the dictionary definition of surreal. He doesn't really even sing…in fact, he comes dangerously close to inventing white rap.
  • Steve Martin singing Maxwell's Silver Hammer while playing a crazed doctor. He seems to have an odd fascination with this, having played variations on the role in The Man With Two Brains, Little Shop of Horrors, and Novocaine.
  • Performances by Earth, Wind, and Fire (by far the coolest thing in the movie, but still a career low), Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith. In fact, Steven Tyler appears to die at the same time that Strawberry Fields does, but no one is really concerned.
  • A band called Stargard appears, but for them this was probably a career highlight.
  • A huge choir of "stars" singing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Watch for Dame Edna, Edgar Winter, Robert Palmer, Curtis Mayfield, Bonnie Raitt, Donovan, Etta James, Heart, Seals & Croft, Bruce Johnston, and Hank Williams Jr. The sad thing is how many of them flub the lines of the song as the camera swings past them. I'm assuming this was done in one take with no practice.
  • Peter Frampton is simply horrible, whereas The Bee Gees come off as okay. In fact, hearing them sing some of The Beatles stuff is pretty cool. Is it any wonder that they still had a strong career after this and Frampton didn't?
In Conclusion:

This movie does the unthinkable. It makes you annoyed with The Beatles. You'd like to think that this shameless manipulation of their work was fought tooth and nail by The Beatles themselves. For heaven's sake, John was still alive when this was made! I'm guessing that it was probably Paul's decision, to fund his pot habit through the '80s. A splendid time is guaranteed for none!

Saturday, August 14, 2004

The Bodyguard (1992)

She's got the stuff that he wants

If there's such a thing as suffering in comparison, then it follows that there must also be such a thing as benefiting from comparison. That's the case here. In no way am I deluded into thinking that The Bodyguard is a great movie, but when pitted against some of the dreck I've watched for this project, it might as well be a masterpiece.

What Happens:

Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) is an elite personal bodyguard. We know this because the opening scene shows him sitting on a man in a parking garage, having apparently just fended off an assassination attempt. Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston) is a massively popular singer and actress whose life is in danger. We know this because in the second scene a television in her dressing room blows up. So of course Frank is hired to protect her and her son, who is played by Bobby Brown (okay, not really).

We find out that Rachel has been receiving strange ransom note-style letters, and that someone has snuck into her mansion and "masturbated on the bed." Rachel comes with a large entourage, including an existing bodyguard, a manager, a family friend, and a bitter sister. Frank immediately clashes with almost every single one of them. So basically we follow as Frank follows Rachel through a series of outings and appearances and bits of danger.

Along the way they fall in love, though why that happens isn't completely clear. It must be physical, because he seems disgusted by her personality, and he doesn't have one himself, so she can't like him for that reason. Anyway, as the googly eyes go on, the mystery of who is threatening Rachel deepens. At first it appears to be a David Spade lookalike, then someone else. Anyone with minimal powers of deduction will be able to figure out who the villains are here.

The movie culminates in a murder, and a climactic final scene at the Oscars, where Rachel Marron is the favorite to win Best Actress (wishful thinking on the part of the film's producers?). The mystery is solved, Frank saves the day, and I Will Always Love You is sung.

What Really Happens and Thoughts:

Let's talk about the actors. Kevin Costner is sort of an enigma to me. I'm deeply ambivalent about him. He's not going to entice me to see a certain movie, nor is he going to dissuade me from seeing it. This movie might actually help me get over that ambivalence a bit, because he bothers me here. First, he looks like he was filming JFK simultaneously, because though it takes place in the '90s, his look is pure early '60s with the suits and the short hair. It's disorienting.

The other problems I have with this character are probably not Kevin's fault. We are supposed to buy him as a badass, but it just isn't convincing. Sure he likes samurai movies, orange juice, drives an El Camino, and he has NO sense of humor, but do I trust him with my life? He is supposedly a tortured soul because he wasn't there the day Reagan got shot, and he blames himself. Man, aside from the guilt about Brady, you'd think it'd be a source of pride! Anyway for me the telltale sign when he took a bullet for Whitney in the end, I really hoped he would die. Maybe I was just in a tragic mood.

As for Whitney, she doesn't have to do much other than play herself, but once again, let's look at this in comparison. If you take her versus Madonna, Mariah, and Britney in their first starring roles, she easily bests all of them. And the songs for this movie are top notch. I Have Nothing is, for my money, the best song of the lot, and they sure get a lot of mileage out of it. I think the filmmakers underestimated how popular I Will Always Love You would be, because it definitely gets second class treatment (we don't even hear Whitney's version until the end). Anyway, I wanted to go out and buy the soundtrack right away, which is what any pop star vehicle should compel one to do.

The interesting thing about this movie as a pop star vehicle is that it picks and chooses what conventions it wants to stick to. Having the pop star play a barely autobiographical version of herself? Check! Making the pop star the center of the movie? Nope. Lots of songs by the pop star? Check! Lots of performance scenes? Nope. So what's going on? Thinking outside the box? Shame on them. I would be inclined to label this movie a hybrid: part pop-star vehicle, part movie featuring a pop star as one of the cast. So this leads me to one of two conclusions: 1) the filmmakers were brilliantly playing off of expectations, or 2) the filmmakers were completely clueless.

I did a bit of research on the filmmakers, and this actually has a pretty good pedigree going for it. The writer was Lawrence Kasdan, who is responsible for The Empire Strikes Back, Body Heat, and The Big Chill, among others. He's also a director, and I'm not sure why he didn't take the reins here. Instead we get Mick Jackson, who has a very undistinguished resume, besides one gem: L.A. Story. So I don't know why this movie wasn't a bit better.

Anyway, going back to conventions, there's one this movie does stick to, in a bizarre way. I've written about the Purple Rain blueprint of ending the film on a freeze frame shot of the pop star triumphant. Well, this movie ends in a freeze frame, but it's of Costner, standing stone still with a completely sour look on his face. The freeze goes on past the point where you're comfortable with it.

Finally, one thing I loved about this movie was that it chose to exist in a world of fake celebrities, songs, and movies. This brings up fond thoughts of Seinfeld and the strange fake movies they would see, such as Death Blow, or Chunnel. In The Bodyguard we get things like Queen of the Night, and Hot and Cold. Who wouldn't want to see these Oscar-nominated movies?

In Conclusion:

Good songs, good show by Whitney, but not probably not enough to completely satisfy the fans, because the movie can't decide what it wants to be. But once again, it could have been A LOT worse.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

The Jazz Singer (1980)

I'm amazed, and confused

In 1980 Neil Diamond's star had faded somewhat, yet someone somewhere with money and influence (probably Neil himself) thought it would be a good idea to remake the 1927 Al Jolson film The Jazz Singer, with Neil in the title role!

What Happens:

Neil plays Yussel Rabinovitch, a Jewish Cantor. In fact, he comes from a long line of Cantors. But he has a dream of becoming a singer/songwriter, despite the objections from his wet-blanket wife and traditional father (a paycheck-seeking Laurence Olivier). When he gets an opportunity to have one of his songs recorded he flees to L.A. and his career takes off, at the expense of his former life. Will he be able to balance the expectations of family with his dreams of a music career?

What Really Happens:

To satisfy his performance jones in New York, Yussel does shows at an all-black club under the name Jess Robin. The rub is that he has to use make-up to pass himself off as a black man. Thankfully there's only one scene of this, and it ends with Neil's whiteness being discovered, getting into a fight with Winston Zedmore (from Ghostbusters), and going to jail. All this after a stirring rendition of You Baby, which sounds like a lost Motown classic. Following this, Neil must listen to both his wife and his father tell him how ridiculous his dreams are. This is always a good thing to do to your loved ones…crush their spirits!

When Jess gets an opportunity to have his ballad Love On The Rocks performed by a real recording artist (the dreamy Keith Lennox) he jumps at the chance and goes out to L.A. At this point the film presents the viewer with a real moral conundrum: Is Jess being selfish by leaving behind his commitments, or is he right to follow his dreams? The events that follow try to make that a simple question in favor of the latter, but I'm not convinced.

Anyway, it turns out Lennox wants to ruin Love On The Rocks by performing it as a screaming rocker. So with the help of Molly, a record company rep played by Lucy and Ricky's little girl, Jess decides to make a go of performing his own music. He nabs a spot opening for Zany Gray (?) and despite his metallic maroon shirt, impresses. This leads to a record deal!

As things snowball with Jess's career, he and Molly spend so much time together they can't help but begin making goo-goo eyes at one another. But, oops, Neil's wife is still in the picture and is still NOT happy about this whole becoming a rock star thing. This leads to divorce.

Of course Jess goes immediately to Molly after his divorce is finalized (the ink probably wasn't even dry) and declares his love. It comes off as desperation, but quickly pays off. Then we are treated to a goofy "in love" montage replete with cultural misunderstandings, dreamy looks, tandem bicycle rides, and a chest-hair-heavy sex scene.

Then dad comes to visit, and promptly disowns Jess for a variety of complex reasons, but mainly because Molly isn't Jewish. This leads us into the classic A Star Is Born arc, wherein Neil becomes a complete ass (treating Molly poorly, throwing fits during recording and rehearsal). Then, inexplicably, Neil sets off to wander across America alone. He grows a beard, buys a cowboy hat and takes up smoking.

But it turns out he left Molly with a bun in the oven, and she goes ahead and has the baby while he "finds himself." When he finally returns, to find Molly and his son frolicking on the beach, Molly embraces his return. He patches things up with his dad at Yom Kippur, resumes his rock star career, and the credits roll to the strains of America.

But wait, let's do the math. If Jess had no clue Molly was pregnant when he left, then she couldn't have been very far along. So let's say she was one month pregnant when he left. The kid appears to be at LEAST six months old when Neil returns. That would mean he was traveling for 14 months. If someone disappeared from your life for over a year, leaving you to take care of a child alone, wouldn't you at least give them a right hook in the jaw before you let them move back into the house? Come on!

Questions and Comments:

To be fair, Jess does attempt to get his wife to come out to L.A. with him, but what's strange is that Hello Again is used as a theme for Jess and Molly, when it actually describes loving someone long distance, and this applies much better to his wife.

I hate to be a prickly pear, but Neil technically isn't a "jazz singer" at all. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find any jazz in this movie anywhere, save the brushed drums on Summerlove! Would it have hurt anyone to change the name to The Pop Singer?

Does disowning still happen? We see it in movies and T.V. all of the time, but you rarely meet anyone who has actually been disowned. And at what age do your parents actually stop owning you?

Before watching this movie I'd never before noticed just HOW much Neil resembles Larry from Three's Company.

In Conclusion:

Despite some tasteless moments and misogyny, this movie will be supremely entertaining for any Neil fan. You can tell he really cared about this story, and connected with it. And there's no denying that the soundtrack produced some of Neil's best songs and gave him a strong comeback!