Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004)

So we already know the BEST POP MUSIC FILM (that'd be Purple Rain) and the BEST CONCERT FILM EVER (Stop Making Sense, of course), but what about THE BEST ROCKUMENTARY EVER?

Well, here it is.

Unlike so many pop movies that cater strictly to the fan base, Some Kind of Monster will appeal to those who've never heard of Metallica and even those who don't like them. The film is many things: A story of a band trying to hold it together, a fascinating psychological portrait, a commentary on therapy, a wellspring of unintentional comedy, and a document of the creative process.

I like this movie so much that whenever it's on TV (usually VH1 or VH1 Classic) it's an automatic turn and watch, from whatever point I come in. In honor of that watchable goodness, I present a running diary of my latest viewing of the film. As always, apologies to Bill Simmons, from whom I stole this shtick.

0:00:38 The film starts us off in 2003, with best-selling hard rock band Metallica about to release a new album. Rock critics sulk into a listening room and nod their heads vaguely to the heavy sounds they hear.

0:01:32 Band members sit for lightening round-style press interviews regarding the tortured origins of the new album. Lead singer James Hetfield is asked to summarize Metallica's entire career in one word and he's at a loss for words. The film takes the opportunity to go two years into the past, conveniently to when the film started shooting...

0:03:44 An MTV News Break (remember when those things used to come in and you'd wonder if it was real news or some fluff piece?) with Kurt Loder reveals that Metallica bassist Jason Newsted has quit the band. At the same time, the band are about to begin recording a new album, and have brought in a "performance coach" named Dr. Phillip Towle ("Just, what, exactly, are you a doctor of, Mr. Venkman?") to help them work through their issues as a group. Towle had worked with the Saint Louis Rams, previously. They could probably use him again (They're currently 1-8).

0:04:42 This is the first appearance of Phil's yellow sweater. We'll get to know it well.

0:05:02 In a refreshing moment that'll be repeated, people on film actually mention that they're being filmed. This is always one of the most unrealistic part of documentaries, that people wouldn't show some sort of awareness / discomfort with the fact that there's a camera in their face.

0:07:43 The first day of recording is April 24, 2001. Producer Bob Rock (who helmed some of David Lee Roth, Motley Crue, and Bon Jovi's biggest albums) is producing AND sitting in on bass.

0:07:58 Footage of James Hetfield driving his black with flame-decals dragster as he claims, "This is part of me not trying to be famous." To his credit he realizes how ridiculous this is going to sound and adds that he realizes he's going to get noticed while driving the dragster. Then he tries unsuccessfully to justify it as non-conformity.

0:09:56 Drummer Lars Ulrich lounges in front of a huge Jean-Michel Basquiat painting and waxes philosophical about the nature of the creative process before being interrupted by shouts from his son. "Yes, sweetie?" he replies.

0:11:08 Gentle guitarist Kirk Hammett surfs and reveals he's quit drugs and scaled back his drinking. He claims to like the individualist nature of surfing, which proves to be psychologically telling, given his sublimated role in the band.

0:12:09 Old footage of the recording of the Black Album reveals that things have always been a little bit tense (that was 1991).

0:14:35 As a result of a group lyric-write James stumbles upon the title of the film.

0:15:06 A priceless dose of unintentional comedy comes in the form of Dr. Phil (can I call him that?) reading an earnest bit of prose that ends, "We have learned and we understand and now we must share" followed by Kirk explaining to everyone what a mission statement is.

0:16:40 While rehashing the previous day's collaborative writing, Kirk exclaims, "I couldn't get to sleep last night because I was so wired from it all." Hetfield rolls his eyes, a sure sign of trouble on the horizon.

0:17:27 James killed a bear in Russia, but it's not edible because it had been hibernating. So, good job, you shot a sleepy bear. We also find out that because of this hunting sojourn, he missed his son's first birthday party. Priorities man, priorities.

0:20:00 Lars' improbably cute son comes in to the studio. "This is daddy's workplace," he announces and proceeds to manically play drums.

0:20:46 As if on cue, an interview finds Jason Newsted listing his reasons for leaving the band. For one, he felt music wasn't the number one commitment for the band members anymore. "Music is my children," he says, as English teachers everywhere cringe. The bigger issue, though, is the fact that Newsted felt stymied, like he couldn't do any side projects. And in reference to bringing in a performance coach, he says, "I think that this is really fucking lame." Finally, he makes use of the word "squillions." Good interview, all around.

0:23:14 Hetfield, surprisingly self-aware, admits barring Newsted from side projects. He says he didn't want Jason to enjoy that more than Metallica. "The way I learned to love things was to choke them to death." Like the Russian bear?

0:24:14 A piece of studio equipment is mislabeled METLLICA in neat silver Sharpie marker.

0:26:30 Now is a good time as any to urge you to pay attention to the changing hair lengths and facial hair configurations that the band goes through as the film progresses.

0:29:36 Tension mounts in the studio. James doesn't like Lars' rhythm experimentations, and in classic respond-to-a-complaint-with-your-own complaint, Lars calls James' guitar part "stock." James calls him on this tatic and Lars stays petulant. Bemoaning their lack of communication, he asks, "Do you want me to write it down?" Meek Kirk jumps in with a whiny, "You know what guys, why don't we just go in there and hammer it out instead of hammering on each other." He is roundly ignored.

0:31:54 Another MTV News update, this time with fresh-faced Gideon Yago reporting that James has entered rehab for alcoholism. Points to whoever wrote the copy for throwing in an "Alcoholica" mention.

0:33:05 As the band goes on hiatus while James rehabs, the film focuses on Lars. We meet his gnomish father Torben. As they hike through some open land, watch for an awkward moment where Dr. Phil and Lars talk about Torben as if he isn't there, while Torben appears about to keel over.

0:35:45 In what might be my favorite moment of the film, Lars plays a new Indian-flavored track for his father, who responds in a thick Dutch accent, "I would say delete that. Unless I'm a guy that's shouting in some sort of echo chamber."

0:37:28 Phil's yellow sweater makes appearance # 2!

0:37:42 Discussing James' ongoing absence and the uncertain status of the band, Lars remarks, "This is a bit of a shit sandwich." It's unknown whether or not he was intentionally referring to This Is Spinal Tap. ("The review you had on Shark Sandwich, which was merely a two-word review, just said Shit Sandwich.")

0:41:01 Kirk rides a horse on his land and gives an interview wearing a pink collared shirt, open at the chest. Given his effete mannerisms and way of talking, the first time I saw this I thought, 'I didn't know he was gay!' How cool would that be, to have a gay lead guitarist in one of the heaviest and most macho bands of all time. Eventually, I looked it up. He's not gay.

0:42:22 Dave Mustiane, the guitarist Kirk replaced, shows up for a one-on-one with Lars. Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica before the band even made their first record and is obviously still bitter about it, though the film points out that his post-Metallica band, Megadeth, has not exactly been unsuccessful. He bemoans his severed relationship with Lars and wishes to go back to the good times: "I remember the day you and me talked about digging a hole and smoking hash through the dirt." Okay. This is followed by Lars asking and answering his own questions but not really interacting with Mustaine.

Mustaine then says that, "People hate me because of you" and admits he fucked up. He wishes they had asked him to clean up and get sober instead of just kicking him out of the band. At this point I feel that Dave Mustaine has Bret Michaels-level potential for reality TV career resurrection. Someone get on that.

0:45:44 An extended sequence features Kirk, Lars, and Bob Rock attending the first performance of Jason Newsted's new band, Echobrain. Rock starts to notice a bunch of ex-Metallica crew members now working for Echobrain. Jason doesn't even stick around to talk to his ex-bandmates. A bit melancholy after the gig, Lars laments, "Jason is the future. Metallica is the past." Considering that Echobrain was a flop and that Newsted left after one album, I think he was kinda wrong.

0:52:12 After a YEAR away, James returns. His first comment, "Why are we filming this?" This leads to a discussion about whether the film should carry on, with both directors (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, documentarians who gained the band's trust through their film Paradise Lost) sitting in and seeming open to the option of not continuing. Though we don't see a resolution, they obviously decide to carry on, because the movie doesn't just abruptly end here.

0:58:27 Dr.Phil owns the exact same sweater in robin's egg blue!

0:59:23 While collaborating on lyrics, Kirk comes up with a line they all love: "My lifestyle determines my death style."

1:00:03 There's a good producer moment where Rock gives James a helpful suggestion on how to sing a certain portion of the song. This is a good time to point out that the album they're working on throughout the film ends up being pretty bad. The creative process is still obviously interesting, but imagine how much more amazing the film would be had the record turned out to be a masterpiece!

1:01:28 James, who is limited by his rehab to only work 4 hours a day, complains about Lars and Bob listening to songs without him. "I feel like I'm walking into something that's already been decided." Kirk replies without missing a beat: "That's just like the last 15 years for me." His comment goes unaddressed.

1:04:27 Why is Lars wearing a bathrobe in the studio?

1:06:03 Lars gives a great speech responding to James' complaints about the band working without him. It ends with, "All this rules and all this shit. This is a fucking rock and roll band. There shouldn't be any rules. Fuck."

1:07:56 During a fan appreciation day, regular joes are given the chance to audition for bass player. The winner gets to play a song with the band. How cool is that?! A woman named Elena wins.

1:09:13 The fighting between Lars and James continues. "I'm not enjoying being in the room with you playing," James says. I'm distracted by the ridiculous amount of fruit they keep at their studio.

1:12:00 Lars reflects on his friendship with James and they honestly sound a little bit like a couple. He says that they always got along great when it was just the two of them, but any third party automatically led to strife and competition.

1:15:59 A discussion about not having guitar solos on the album upsets Kirk. "Can I say something that I think is bullshit?" he begins. He then eloquently explains that not putting solos on the songs dates it to a current trend. Everyone actually listens to him this time and they decide there should be no hard and fast rule about solos.

1:18:17 Kirk sez: "I try to be an example of being egoless to the other guys." I don't think it has worked so far.

1:19:26 A rare moment of humor and camaraderie between the three guys as they try to do straight-faced radio promos about some sort of cash giveaway. They soon start making their own vulgar, funny promos like Lars' "I'm about to stick $10,000 up your ass!" They discuss why they have to do this and the answer is basically to grease the palms at the major radio chains. James comes up with the line, "I'll wash your back so you don't stab mine" and of course it ends up in a song.

1:22:19 While doing vocals James does a B-52s Rock Lobster ad lib. A very strange but satisfying moment.

1:22:51 Lars gives a lesson on semantics. Is there really a difference between "moping" and "sulking"?

1:23:25 Bad sweater watch continues, even though we haven't seen Dr.Phil's yellow sweater in awhile. This time it's MTV News' John Norris, who looks supremely uncomfortable in a bright red body-hugging sweater with a large leather-trimmed zipper at the neck.

1:23:59 James discuses the death of original Metallica bassist Cliff Burton. He laments the fact that "we'll never have that initial four guys going on and on." Well, technically if you wanted that you'd have to get Mustaine back in the band.

1:26:29 The yellow sweater is back! Phil tries to contribute some lyrics. Soon after, you can watch him methodically dismantle a sandwich.

1:37:00 They play 18 songs for manager Cliff Burnstein, who becomes progressively more antsy and bored as they go on.

1:40:35 Lars, who has been collecting art for many years, auctions off his entire collection at Christie's. He gets drunk during the bidding and ends up making somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million dollars.

1:45:27 Dr. Phil begins to wear out his welcome. He starts talking about something called "The Zone," which I believe was some sort of method he was hoping to write a book about and get a huge payday. But, the band all think it's stupid. But don't feel sorry for Phil. We soon find out that the band is paying him $40,000 A MONTH for his services. I'm sure to Metallica that's pocket change, but still!

1:46:47 James in reference to Phil: "I'm afraid he's under the impression that he's in the band."

1:49:26 Auditions for a new bass player begin. Bassists from across hard rock come out of the woodwork, including former members of Marilyn Manson, The Cult, Kryuss, Jane's Addiction, and Ozzy Osbourne's band.

1:51:38 The yellow sweater comes back for its fourth and final appearance.

1:54:20 Bob urges the band not to settle on an inferior bass player, warning, "We don't want another Jason." Ouch. Soon after Lars asks, "Are we gonna sack Bob now?" and one can't help but feel a little sorry for the producer, especially when you learn that Metallica didn't bring him back to produce their follow-up.

1:56:28 They pick the Ozzy Osbourne guy, Rob Trujillo, who impressed during audition by "playing Battery with his fingers." He seems like a genuinely sweet and laidback guy. When they give him the official offer to join he looks like all of his dreams have come true. Then we see footage of him practicing bass in his bedroom.

1:58:32 Things get ugly with Phil when the band learns he's considering moving his family from Kansas City to San Fransisco. He doesn't see his relationship with Metallica ending anytime soon and he thinks they still have a lot of work to do. "I have individual performance goals for each of you," he reveals. Lars rightly brings up the question of ethics. If a therapist is making money off of a person being unwell, what is their motivation to cure that person?

2:03:06 They refer to the documentary while discussing business with Rob. They tell him if it loses money, he's not liable for that. I can't find any budgeting info on the film, but it only made about $1.2 million at the box office. I'm sure TV and DVD sales added a bit to that.

2:04:04 Some of the album titles the band considered: We're Already Dead, We're Just Haunting Together; Old, Ugly, Nasty; Best Dressed Chicken In Town; Butchered; Sarcasm With Meaning; Surfing the Zeitgeist; Unbridled; Floods Of Vomit; Speed Ave.; Satanic Cukoo Clock; Unresolve; and St.Anger. They went with the final one.

2:05:44 The band film the video for the album's title track at San Quintin State Prison. This affords us the opportunity to see a lot of awesome prison mustaches. Refreshingly, most of the inmates are white.

2:08:27 The quotable Lars Ulrich: "You can make something aggressive and fucked-up with positive energy."

2:09:58 The band seems at peace with Phil again. James mentions not knowing the difference between depression and sadness, and Phil responds that there is "clearly" a difference, but declines to explain what it is.

2:12:59 The film boasts that St.Anger debuted at number 1 in 30 countries, ignoring the fact that most critics hated it and several fans shunned it. It sold 2 million copies in the U.S., which is not bad, but considering that their previous 8 albums sold 3 million, 5 million, 6 million, 8 million, 15 million, 5 million, 4 million, and 5 million copies respectively, this was a let down. It has a 65/100 Metacritic rating, and the reviews for its follow-up Death Magnetic, all led with, "it's better than St.Anger."

2:13:59 The movie ends with the band playing Frantic, a terrible new song, to an adoring sausage-fest of an audience.

And there you have it, the BEST ROCKUMENTARY EVER!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sid and Nancy (1986)

Pretty vacant

I was hesitant about Sid and Nancy, because I approached the film with little or no knowledge of the two principals or of the Sex Pistols' music (I tried; it never did anything for me).

But then I thought, this is the rare case where I'm the average viewer of a pop music film. So I decided to go with that perspective.

What Happens:

I'm recognizing a pattern here. Just like other biopics Selena and Notorious, Sid and Nancy starts at the end. We're in New York, and police have responded to a 911 call at the Hotel Chelsea. They find Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman) in a near catatonic state, and a dead woman on the bathroom floor. Blood is everywhere. The police arrest Sid and take him in for questioning. "Who is she?" they ask him. "Where did you meet her?"

"At Linda's," he responds and we flash back to the beginning of our story, a year earlier.

Sid is the bass player for UK punk sensations the Sex Pistols. He likes to hang out with his lead singer, Johnny Rotten, and do things like break out the windshields of Rolls Royces. They go to Linda's house. She's a dominatrix who doesn't mind if the boys spray paint on the walls of her very nice place. She's got a friend named Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb), an American groupie and heroin runner / addict.

Neither John nor Sid is exactly taken with Nancy right away, but she hangs around anyway. After a busted drug deal, Sid takes pity on her and offers to buy from her, though he is not a user. She takes his money and runs, but they meet again later after her druglord boss has abandoned her. They get high and have sex. In the morning Nancy, who knows the drill, gets up to leave, but Sid asks her to stay.

And so begins their courtship. They get high together, yell at each other, and generally cause Sid to stop focusing on his job. This changes when the Pistols set off for an American tour. The band, knowing Nancy is bad news, refuse to allow her to come on tour. Sid and Nancy fight about it, and he leaves.

In no small part thanks to Sid's erratic behavior (he can barely stay upright on stage, he keeps hurting himself, both accidentally and purposefully) the tour doesn't go well, and the band breaks up when the drummer and guitarist both quit. Sid goes back to Nancy. They resume their old ways, and they head to New York to try to get clean and strike up a solo career for Sid.

Things don't go well. He gets some gigs, but they're poorly-received, and he's not really committed to making it work anyway. Both Sid and Nancy start using again and begin a slow descent into drug-addled vacancy. The two begin to spend all of their time in the hotel, living in squalor. They alternately talk of a suicide pact and of getting clean. During an argument one night, they scream at each other, then tussle. They go to sleep together. Nancy is bleeding. She wakes up in the middle of the night and the sheets are soaked in her blood. She staggers into the bathroom, collapses, and calls Sid's name before dying.

Now we're back where we started. Sid makes bail and asks the cops where he can get some good pizza. He goes to a pizza place seemingly in the middle a huge desolated lot. He eats, pushes the table over, and leaves. Some black boys are dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band's Get Down Tonight and Sid joins them. Then, Nancy shows up in a cab and he gets into it with her and they drive away.

What Really Happens:

I had a lot of problems with this movie. It's not necessarily a bad movie. The production values are good, something you can't take for granted with '80s films. It's very watchable. Where I get hung up is in the message/purpose of the film. Is it a biopic, a tragic love story, or a cautionary tale? The film doesn't commit fully to any of the three. It's not really a biopic, because it only covers one year in the subjects' lives. The problem with it being a love story (probably the most common way the movie is thought of) is that the story is less about love than it's about co-dependence. Before drugs became a part of their lives, there was no action or interest between Sid and Nancy. They spend more time fighting in the film than they do showing affection for one another. And while by virtue of its existence the film serves as a cautionary tale against drug addiction, I'm not convinced that was at all the filmmaker's intention. Instead of condemning, the film seems to take a little too much glee in the bad behavior and the nihilism of its subjects.

Furthermore, neither character is remotely likable, which I'm guessing was purposeful, since neither seemed to be all that likable in reality. But we need some reason to care about them, and the film never really provides that. Sid doesn't seem to care about anything. He has no real talent (even as a bass player) or appeal. He's a blank slate. Nancy is a shrill opportunist. We don't know how they ended up where they are, or what they're rebelling against, why the punk aesthetic appealed to them so much. The only glimpse we get of either's past is a brief visit to Nancy's grandparents' house. They're Jewish and wealthy, and thus Nancy just seems like the family fuck-up. In reality she probably had some serious unaddressed mental illness. Sid too.

But let's look at the four categories for biopics and see how the film fares there.

1) Believable Actors
Both Oldman and Webb had very short resumes when they were cast in Sid and Nancy, but what different paths they took! Their performances in the film are actually good precursors for their later careers. Gary Oldman is amazing. He embodies Sid Vicious completely, for what that's worth. Chloe Webb, on the other hand, is wholly unimpressive. In many scenes, she throws subtlety to the wind. Part of it is the way Nancy is written, so writer/director Alex Cox is partly to blame, but in many scenes her acting choices are downright distracting. The result of her overacting is that her character is never quite sympathetic and thus we don't really care what happens to her. All of the other actors do fine jobs, especially Andrew Schofield as Johnny Rotten. But Webb is a dealbreaker.

2) Truth
It's well-documented that Sid and Nancy plays it fast and loose with the truth. Even Wikipedia, of all places, calls it a "fictionalized account." I have a couple of problems with this. One is that most people watch biopics and take everything as gospel truth. The other is that the truth was more compelling than the fiction the film creates. Sid and Nancy were not only co-dependent, they were also mutually abusive of one another. The ending, with Sid getting in Nancy's cab and driving away, is a symbolic approach, but ends up glossing over the tough-but-compelling reality. In "real life," after making bail (thanks to Sex Pistol manager Malcom McLaren) Sid spent the next few months trying to fulfill his side of the suicide pact with Nancy. On different occasions he took an overdose of methadone, slit his wrists, and jumped out a window. Finally, about five months after Nancy's death, he succeeded. Assisted by his mother, he took what many believe to be a purposeful overdose of heroin.

I don't buy Sid and Nancy as a punk rock Romeo and Juliet, mostly because it seems insulting to the latter, but Sid's suicide is a vital part of the story. It completes it. Plus, the hopeful, glossed-over ending doesn't match with the nihilism of the rest of the film, nor that of its subjects.

3) Defining Moments
All good pop music stories have clear defining moments. The story of Sid and Nancy has four: Their meeting, the demise of the Sex Pistols, their drug holiday, her death, and his death. The film depicts them all save the latter. I wish more time had been spent on the Sex Pistols and what really went down with their break-up. In total maybe 15 minutes of the film are spent on the band. In comparison, the final drug holiday descent is given 25 straight minutes. And the film lingers on that crucial moment - Nancy's death - a little too long. It's almost like a snuff film.

4) Musical Performances
You might guess from the paragraph above that music is by far a secondary concern in the movie. As such, musical performances are in short supply. We see the Pistols perform about four times, with brief snippets of them doing Anarchy in the UK, No Feelings, God Save the Queen, and a cover of the Monkees' (I'm Not Your) Steppin' Stone. Sid's solo career gets one showpiece, a disturbing dreamlike sequence where he does his cover of Frank Sinatra's My Way and ends up opening fire on his audience and killing many of them, including Nancy.

Though the lack of music is disappointing, I suppose it's fitting that the film spends most of its time on bad behavior and drugs over music, because that was obviously Sid's priority as well.

Questions and Comments:

I'm trying not to be a square or an old fogey with this, but even after watching the film and reading up on Sid Vicious, I'm still at a loss as to why he was so intriguing to people. I'm even trying to reinhabit the dark worldview I sporadically held in my teens and early twenties, and I still don't get it. As I said before, he wasn't intelligent, he wasn't talented, he stood for nothing, and he wasted his life. Some say he embodied the spirit and attitude of punk, but I think there are many other heroes who did it better, like maybe Joey Ramone or Joe Strummer.

On that note, I love punk music, but I think the lifestyle of the late-'70s British punks was so hypocritical. Here's this "we-don't-give-a-fuck" movement that requires a ton of effort to participate in. You don't wake up with a mohawk or your hair spiked with egg whites or died green. You have to pony up for the leather jackets and put the saftey pins in them yourself. And in other ways these early British punks were no different than hippies. They slept in communal situations and didn't bathe all that much. And money was not a concern, especially not for the Sex Pistols who lived a rebellious lifestyle while their record label and manager funded them. It's all kind of bullshit really. The film addresses the ephemeral and phony nature of the aesthetic ever so briefly when at one of the Pistols' gigs a punk tells his friend that he "ain't gonna be a punk no more." He says he wants to be a rude boy (a Jamaica-inspired trend focused on ska music) instead.

The film brings up a lot of questions about domestic abuse. A woman's murder at the hands of her lover is nothing new in abusive relationships. And though it's more likely that both parties contributed equally to their demise, the film makes a strong case for Nancy as a villain. She introduces Sid to heroin and helps distance him from his one positive outlet, the Sex Pistols.

In his book Killing Yourself to Love, Chuck Klosterman visits the Hotel Chelsea. Nothing much comes of it, but in the book he reports that Sid once told his mother he found sex "boring." The film actually depicts this subtly in a couple of ways. The first night the two meet, Nancy snuggles up to Sid and he brushes her off. Later, in the middle of their drug-addled final days, Sid asks, "How long has it been since we fucked?" Neither knows, and they briefly discuss trying it, but they're both too inert to make it happen. This can be a commentary on addiction, but it also says something about their relationship, namely that it was far from a traditional love affair.

The film only hints at the role Sid's management (Malcom McLaren) and record company had in his demise, but it's undoubtable that they enabled him. When Sid and Nancy are on their drug holiday it's never clear who's funding it, but given the amount of money Sid still had, he must have been still getting regular support from the company. It was in their best interest to have him embody the punk lifestyle, but in they end they just helped one of their assets destroy himself.

Am I the only one who wondered what became of the couples' cat, Socks, after Nancy's murder?

According to the Internet Movie Database, Chloe Webb had only two professional acting gigs before Sid and Nancy. One was an episode of Remington Steele. The other was an episode of Mary Tyler Moore's failed 1985 sitcom Mary.

Jack Klompus, Morty Seinfeld's Del Boca Vista nemesis on Seinfeld shows up as the manager of the Hotel Chelsea. The actor's name is Sandy Baron.

A pre-plastic surgery Courtney Love is in the movie too, in a role so small it could be called a cameo. She probably would have been a better choice to play Nancy than Webb was.

In Conclusion:

The combination of unclear purpose, miscast leading lady, and glossing-over of the truth sinks Sid and Nancy. One even wonders if it was a film that needed to be made in this form. I can't help but think a documentary would have served the story better.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Fear of a Black Hat (1994)

Take away the pornography; take away the women-bashing; take away the "kill whitey" stuff. Take it all away, and you've got the kids next door.

We all like things summed up in five words or less. So it's easy enough to say Fear of a Black Hat is a "rap version of Spinal Tap" and move on, right? But wait. Together, let's resist the temptation to be glib.

What Happens:

Fear of Black Hat is a mockumentary following a year in the life of rap group N.W.H. (Niggas With Hats). The group is comprised of MC Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff), hype man Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott), and DJ Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence).

In the film's fictional world, the documentary is being shot by grad student Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons), who's doing her thesis on rap as political and cultural communication. Nina appears throughout the film, interviewing the group members.

As the movie begins N.W.H. at a middling level of success. They've made a name for themselves with past minor hits such as My Peanuts, P.U.S.S. Why?, Grab Your Shit, and Booty Juice but still can't get that name on the marquis at their concerts (instead, they're listed as "Special Guest"). In one scene, the backstage bouncer hasn't even heard of them and won't let them in.

That all changes when they release Fear of a Black Hat. On the strength of the strident single Guerrillas in the Midst (as well as album tracks such as Straight Outta Da Butt, Garden Hos, Fuck the Security Guard, and Bald and Buried (Wear Your Hat)) the band blows up. Their album goes to number one, they appear on the cover of Newsweek, and they take over headlining the Monsters of Rap tour.

The boys enjoy their money and fame for awhile, but then, as always, things begin to sour. First, their white, ponytailed manager Guy Friesch (Howie Gold) gets killed in a backstage altercation (he's their 5th manager to die by gunfire). Then, a groupie named Cheryl C. (Rose Jackson) attaches herself to Tasty Taste and begins to sew seeds of dissent in the group by complaining Ice Cold's extra curricular activities (he's landed a starring role in a film called New Mack Village, directed by Jike Spingleton). She's their own personal Yoko, if you will. This eventually creates a rift that drives the band apart (and leads to the accidental death of manager #6, Marty Rabinow (Barry Heins)).

The three embark on very different solo careers. Ice Cold starts the Ice Plant and scores a hit with a dance single called Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y. Tone Def gets in touch with his spiritual self and forms The New Human Formantics. Their hit song is called I'm Just a Human Being. Finally, Tasty Taste takes out his anger about the break-up on his solo album Extreme Use of Force, featuring songs such as The Ice Man Melteth and Granny Said Kick Yo Ass.

Eventually of course they all realize that they're better together, and make a triumphant return to the stage. As the film ends, they are about to release a new album, The Black in the Hat Comes Back.

What Really Happens:

Fear of a Black Hat was written, directed, and stars Rusty Cundeiff (he plays Ice Cold). He also wrote the songs that appear in the film. It's a tour de force display of talent, even more remarkable - and curious - for the fact that he's done almost nothing of note since. He did direct and act in some episodes of Chapelle's Show, but that's basically it.

If the cause of his relative anonymity can't be found in the quality of Fear of a Black Hat (and I certainly don't think it can), then the next best culprit is the dismal, dismal, dismal box office performance of the film. Reportedly made for just under $1,000,000, the film grossed just under $240,000. Ouch.

It certainly couldn't help that the film came out a year after Chris Rock's CB4, a film with an identical premise (if very different execution), a bigger budget, and a higher-profile cast.

Even considering all of this Fear of a Black Hat is very watchable and frequently quite funny. It also provokes a thought or two.

As you can see, the film has a lot of fun making up fake songs and albums. There are also lots of fake artists among N.W.H.'s tourmates are MC Slammer (who has recently dropped the "MC"), The Jam Boys (their chief rivals), Vanilla Sherbet (a token white rapper), Yo' Highness, and Parsley, Sage, Rosemary N' Thyme. Ice Cold also points out his fellow Ices: Ice Tray, Ice Coffee, Ice Water, Ice Box, Ice Berg, and Ice Cup. Save this last batch and the Jam Boys, each of them is analagous to an existing rapper: Vanilla Ice, Queen Latifah, and Salt 'N Pepa, namely.

N.W.H. themselves are not a specific parody of anyone, though they contain similarities to N.W.A. (in nomenclature and appearance), 2 Live Crew (in their outrageously bad taste), and Public Enemy (mostly musically, though Tasty Taste is an obvious Flava Flav stand in, especially when he's seen wearing a full size trophy on a chain around his neck).

When the N.W.H. members go solo, the musical parodies become even more obvious. Ice Cold's Ice Plant project is a C & C Music Factory clone, replete with a they-got-a-skinny-girl-to-lip-synch-for-a-soulful-black-woman controversy. Tasty Taste's Granny Said Kick Your Ass is an LL Cool J homage, and The New Human Formantics are a spot-on P.M.Dawn take-off. Cundeiff has a lot of fun time creating videos for all of these tunes, many of them parodies of the original videos in question.

And then there's the question of the film's message. You might say, it's a comedy, do we have to talk about this? Yes, yes we do. Like Spinal Tap, Fear of a Black Hat elevates the pomposity of the musical and famous to cartoonish levels. Unlike Spinal Tap, this film also has the job of confronting stereotypes about race. By 1994 rap had split into categories: party, socially conscious, politically conscious, and gangsta. At various times N.W.H. fits into all categories, but mostly they're the final one, the one that was most riddled with violence and misogyny. Though that brought fame and fortune to its purveyors, it also helped further negative stereotypes about African-Americans while at the same time making them seem attractive and desirable. To some degree gangsta rap reflected the reality of black life in urban areas, there's no denying that. But did some rappers stretch that reality? No doubt.

What it ultimately left us with is a picture of rappers (and black men, by extension) as violent, short-tempered, gun-toting thugs with little respect for women, laws, or themselves. By ratcheting these stereotypes up to 11 in the film, Cundieff becomes an equal opportunity offender. Not only is he making fun of people who believe the stereotypes (something that Dave Chapelle excelled at on his show as well, by the way), he's also taking the piss out of the rappers that indulge in ridiculous levels of excess and self-mythology. Near the end of the film, the Jam Boys and N.W.H. participate in a Rappers Against Violence program at an elementary school. After a showing of N.W.H.'s video for A Gangsta's Life Ain't Fun (which features the group in hot tubs with topless women, surrounded by stacks of cash and champagne), it quickly devolves into a game of one-upmanship over who's harder. Tone Def takes credit for the Savings and Loan scandal. Tasty Taste claims to have been shot with a bazooka ("He used to be 6' 4"," Ice Cold adds). Then they reveal that one of the Jam Boys attended prep school and was on the tennis team, yearbook staff, and in the glee club, and that his gangsta cred is nonexistent.

Also like Spinal Tap, all three lead characters are more than a little dim. And though the guys in Tap took themselves too seriously, they rarely claimed to be doing anything beyond making entertainment. Spurred on by Nina's questions, the band (especially Ice Cold) try desperately to claim social and political meaning in their songs. First they describe their name as a tribute to slaves who couldn't wear hats while working in the fields, which then made them too tired to rise up and rebel. Then they try to justify clearly misogynistic lyrics to songs like Booty Juice ("the butt is like society, and the white man wants to keep it closed up") and Come Pet the P.U.S.S.Y. ("It stands for 'political unrest stabilizes society, yeah'").

Questions and Comments:

Kurt Loder appears twice as basically himself, but without his usual MTV News backdrop. Instead, he has a hastily and poorly assembled backdrop.

The actor who played Tasty Taste was Jerry a.k.a the black Cobra Kai in Karate Kid!

Mark Christan Lawrence (Tone Def) has done a ton of TV work in his career. Most recently, he is the manager of the Buy More on Chuck.

Speaking of that character, he's a fountain of weird / funny quotes. Here are some:
  • "Tasty once killed a motherfucker for taking a picture of him while he was thinking about smiling."
  • "When you take that bus, you get there."
  • "The second letter of the English alphabet is B. Think on it."
  • "The black man was the first sensitive man, long before Alan Alda."
Kasi Lemmons (Nina Blackburn) is also known as a Victoria Madsen's friend in Candyman.

The film provides a good joke for your next party. Q: What's the difference between a ho and a bitch? A: A ho fucks everybody. A bitch fucks everybody but you.

In Conclusion:

A film without a country, so to say, Fear of a Black Hat is nonetheless a movie that manages to be charming and appealing while trying to piss you off. Though overlong in places, it nonetheless deserves gang status (that's the urban version of cult status, by the way).

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Notorious (2009)

Dangerous on trizzack, leave yo' ass blizzack

Our second biopic is also the most recent. It's the authorized story of rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Big Poppa, a.k.a The Notorious B.I.G., a bigger-than-life personality and talent who didn't make it past the age of 24.

What Happens:

The film starts at the end, with Biggie's death, just like Carlito's Way. Biggie himself is our narrator, looking back at how he got where he got.

The son of a single Jamaican, Jehovah's Witness mother (Angela Bassett), Christopher is a shy, bespectacled, chubby kid (played by Christopher Wallace, Jr., his son!) growing up in Brooklyn. He's not popular at school and is in obvious pain over the absence of his father. He finds solace in hip hop, and even begins to write lyrics about his deadbeat dad. He also finds acceptance and status by becoming a dealer during the mid-'80s crack epidemic.

A few years later Chris (now played by Jamal Woolard) finds out his girlfriend Jan (Julia Pace Mitchell) is pregnant. He's obviously not pleased at the development, but he promises to take care of her. Later, his mom confronts him about skipping school, and he reveals both the drug dealing and the pregnancy. She kicks him out. THEN, he completes the hat trick of at-risk-urban-youth and is sent to jail (the film doesn't tell us why), and he uses his time to write. While he's locked up, baby daughter T'yanna is born.

When he gets out, Chris records a demo tape under the name Biggie Smalls, and through a friend he gets an audience with Sean "Puffy" Combs, a producer at Uptown Records and already a proven hitmaker with Mary J. Blige and Jodeci. In a meeting, Puffy tells Chris to stop dealing drugs and that, "By the time you 21, I'll make you a millionaire."

From there, we get the fairly typical A Star Is Born story as Chris navigates the peaks and valleys of fame. Not only do we get to see the rise of his career (apathetic early crowds won over by his charisma, his first album climbing the charts, etc.) there's also ample time devoted to the two main components of the Notorious B.I.G. legend: His way with the ladies and his relationship with Tupac Shakur.

The former finds Biggie to be an insatiable Lothario. He cheats on his baby mama with Li'l Kim Jones (a.k.a. Li'l Kim - more on her later), and then cheats on her with Faith Evans (whom he married after a three week courtship). Oh, and he wasn't faithful to Faith either. In fact the film depicts their wedding ceremony, and shows Biggie tripping over the words "forsaking all others."

As for Tupac, some might be surprised to find that the two icons were fast friends with a strong mutual respect. The film follows them through several meetings, each with a slight change in their interaction. At first, Pac is a mentor (he warns Biggie that things are never going to be better than they are at that moment, and he's pretty much right), then they're equals (Biggie warns Pac to watch who he keeps company with), and then comes the incident at Quad Studios. While Biggie is working on a track, Pac get's jumped and shot in the lobby. He thinks Biggie set him up, and this leads directly to the east coast / west coast feud that ultimately resulted in death for both men.

The film ends in California, where Biggie is promoting the release of his second album. In an avalanche of foreshadowing he has relationship-summarizing conversations with his mom, Fatih, and Kim, before getting a tattoo of the 23rd Psalm ("yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" etc.). Ignoring an anonymous death threat, he goes out to a club and is shot on his way back to the hotel.

At the funeral, there's not a dry eye in the house. The point of view of the film switches to his mother's, and she has a brief flashback of a time right after son Christopher Jr.'s birth, and then she's further buoyed up by the fan love that greets the funeral procession, seeing how much her son meant to people (this is taken from actual documentary footage). The End.

What Really Happens:

In the piece on Selena, I introduced the four criteria for good biopics. We'll use those to go through the ins and outs of Notorious.

1. Believable Actors
When forced to choose, casting directors for biopics should always go for spirit over resemblance. If they can get both, of course, that's the ideal. Notorious does damn well on almost every count. The actors that play Tupac and Puffy (Anthony Mackie and Derek Luke) don't look much at all like their real-life counterparts, but they have the swagger. The others, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, and Jamal Woolard, are all the whole package, with looks and chops. Naughton especially nails the transformation of her character. And Woolard was a find, in that he is also a rapper who both looks like and can reasonably replicate Biggie's flow (more on that later).

2. Truth
The truth is slippery in this film. On one hand, you have the credibility of Notorious being an officially-sanctioned biography, with both Voletta Wallace and Bad Boy Records (a.k.a. Diddy) producing. Then again, are they the best ones to tell the story? This is the pitfall of having family members involved. You get unprecedented access to up-close-and-personal information (and the luxury of casting your subject's son to play him as a boy!), but you also get the a lack of objectivity. Not only do family and friends want to remember the best, they also have a stake in the story being told a certain way.

This shows up in interesting ways in Notorious. The film, as you may have guessed, doesn't shy away from depicting some of the more negative aspects of Biggie's character, especially his treatment of the women in his life. In addition to showcasing his charm, the movie shows the negative consequences of his philandering. It ultimately costs him his marriage to Faith. In one especially effective sequence, Biggie confronts Faith on rumors that she slept with Tupac (who claimed in the raw Hit 'Em Up, "I fucked your bitch you fat motherfucker"). When she denies it he roughs her up and throws a chair across the room. He eventually calms down and apologizes, but she responds: "Maybe now you have an idea what it's like to be cheated on."

The other morals of the film aren't so clear. In fact, sometimes it seems like Biggie's bad behavior is glorified. When he cheats on Kim and ignores a call from Jan in order to smoke weed, drink Pepsi, and participate in a threesome we find the ultimate result is the inspiration for his hit song Juicy. What kind of message are we supposed to glean from this? Also, it never truly seems like his drug-dealing was done out of anything other than a need for self-confidence, even though he claimed in Juicy he was just "tryin' to get money to feed my daughter." Part of being a rapper is creating a larger than life persona, so we can forgive some stretching of truth.

On the flip side, there's some conveniently shuffled or skipped details. Speaking of his daughter, in the film it appears that she's born while he's incarcerated. In actuality, she was born two years later. The film also ignores fact that Biggie never finished high school and was arrested multiple times before and after his prison stint.

The film also has an agenda. Namely, it wants to prove to you that Biggie had absolutely nothing to do with Tupac's death. Now, I tend to believe this. I think both Pac and Biggie's murders were done by hot-headed hangers-on who took things waaaaay too seriously. But the film oversells its message by making it seem like Biggie didn't contribute to the east coast / west coast feud in any way. I find that hard to believe.

3. Defining Moments
Every iconic musician has a story full of key plot points. The Notorious B.I.G.'s life story has a few noteworthy ones. The shy, underconfident kid's transformation into a charming drug dealer and ladies man. The rise of a rap career based on pure raw talent and fortuitous timing and stewardship (from Puffy). The friendship with his only true peer that went bad and the feud that followed. The tragic death.

The film depicts it all well. The coastal feud (doesn't that sound fancy?) is especially well-covered, even including the infamous incident at the 1995 Source awards when Death Row Records head Suge Knight dissed Puffy not so subtly: "Any artist out there want to be an artist, and wanna stay a star, don't wanna worry about the producer tryin' to be all in the videos, all in the records, dancin', come to Death Row."

4. Musical Performances
The bottom line on Notorious in terms of music is that it skimps. Yes, there's a generous amount of Biggie songs in the movie. And yes, it was a very smart choice to use Jamal Woolard's vocals instead of having him lip synch. But in the end music takes a back seat to the other drama. We get some In some ways it makes sense, because that's how things played out in Biggie's life. On the other hand, the only reason anyone cares about the Notorious B.I.G. is because of his music.

That said, there are a couple of magical musical moments. One is a street battle in which Biggie just decimates a braggart named Primo. The other is a concert in Sacramento during the height of the east coast / west coast hoopla. The crowd is quite hostile toward Biggie and Puffy, begging the question: Why would you pay to go see someone you hate? But I digress. Biggie wins the crowd over eventually by wading right into the controversy and performing Who Shot Ya, a boastful tune that was widely misinterpreted as being about Tupac.

But that's about it. The actual recording of Biggie's two albums is woefully under-represented by the film. His second album gets an especially short shrift, with only one (pretty bad) scene devoted to the making of the two disc set. How did his life intersect with his lyrics? Where did the musical ideas come from? How did he compose his rhymes? Maybe only record geeks care about that kind of stuff, but afterall this is a man's legacy we're talking about. In the end that's what he left behind, his music. It deserved more focus.

Questions and Comments:

The foremost question in my mind went unanswered by the film. What is B.I.G. an acronym for? I had to look up to find out that it means "Business Instead of Game."

If conspiracy theorists ever needed fodder, Biggie's two album titles are perfect. The first was called Ready To Die. The second (released after his murder) was Life After Death. If people start having Biggie sightings, I'll take it seriously.

As a high schooler, Biggie changes outfits after leaving home and before getting to school (he mainly adds chains, rings, and fancy shoes) to pull the wool over his mom's eyes. It's just like Stephanie Kaye in Degrassi Junior High.

In the film, Puffy is like a human fortune cookie. Some choice wisdome: "Don't chase the paper, chase the dream", "What don't break a nigga, make a nigga.", and "We can't change the world unless we change ourselves." He's also the one that, rightly, convinces Biggie to record Juicy (Biggie thinks it sounds too commercial): "If I don't have something I can play on the radio, nobody'll ever hear or buy your album. You'd just be a broke-ass mix-tape rapper."

Voletta: "What kind of grown-ass man calls himself Puffy?"

Can we blame B.I.G. for how Li'l Kim turned out? The film makes a case. When he meets her, she's Kim Jones, a smartly-dressed store clerk. They have sex immediately, despite the fact that Jan and Biggies daughter are still very much in the picture. He promises to take care of her. When he finds out she can rap and he advises her to be less gangster and more sexy. Instead, she combines the two. Though the film doesn't show how exactly it happened, we know that he hooked her up with Puffy, she joined Junior M.A.F.I.A., and became foul-mouthed Li'l Kim. Later, when Biggie marries Faith, Kim is justifiably angry and confronts him in the studio about his broken promise. "You said 'I got you,'" she reminds him, and wonders what Faith has that she doesn't. His response? "Look, bitch, stop talkin' all that shit." Today, she's a half plastic ex-con.

Having Biggie narrate the story from beyond the grave is a bit creepy, but it's also effective. My favorite line: "Ask 10 people who Pa is and you get 10 different answers"

What's up with the absence of Mo' Money Mo' Problems in the film? There is a conversation between Biggie and his friend D Roc where Biggie says the line, but the song never makes its expected appearance.

Kudos to whoever decided not to play I'll Be Missing You (Puffy and Faith Evans' cash-in Police-copping post-mortem tribute) over the end credits. I was dreading it the whole time. The better choice prevailed, Jadakiss' Letter to B.I.G.

In Conclusion:

Notorious is far from perfect but riveting nonetheless. The same thing could be said about its subject.