From Hot Wax to the Silver Screen: Quadrophenia (1979)

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To view Quadrophenia click here.

Since film got sound, filmmakers have been making musicals. And much of the time the inspiration was the music itself. That is to say, while many musicals are composed originally, like Oklahoma (1955), others, like An American in Paris (1951), are adapted from music already in existence, music that inspired the filmmakers to, essentially, turn songs into plots. After the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, and its late 1960s/early 1970s predilection for concept albums, rock operas and good old fashioned wretched excess, there was new fertile ground from which filmmakers could excavate a storyline. Some were strict adaptations, some were songs as story and some were loose inspirations. In the 1970s, several movies were made with rock songs as their basis with decidedly mixed results, until finally, they seemed to have given up on the singing part altogether.

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Just Some Guys from Jersey

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To view Eddie and the Cruisers click here.

In the past week or so, my illustrious peers at StreamLine have written with knowledge and insight about international classics like Mon Oncle (1958), rare foreign films such as Black Jesus (1968), and key films by notable auteurs Douglas Sirk and Richard Lester. But, not me. Today, I am writing about Eddie and the Cruisers (1983)—make that happily writing about Eddie and the Cruisers.

I didn’t realize how much I adored Hollywood movies from the 1980s until I taught a section on them in one of my classes last spring. I discovered that it is an era as distinct as the ones before and after, with specific characteristics and genres associated with it. And, it serves as a transition from the serious content and experimentation of the Film School Generation to the wholesale corporatization of Hollywood by the early 1990s. One of the characteristics that I like most about some of the films of this era is the interest in mythic protagonists who are larger than life, including action heroes, genre archetypes or self-aware characters. The title character from Eddie and the Cruisers, which is currently streaming on FilmStruck, falls into that category.

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The Politics of Singing: Une Chambre en Ville (1982)

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To view Une Chambre en Ville click here.

Jacques Demy’s reputation has long suffered from an inferiority complex among the French New Wave filmmakers. Fans and critics find movies like The 400 Blows (1959) and Breathless (1960) challenging and daring while movies like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) are beloved all time classics, certainly adored but not considered the kind of serious art that the others were doing. If you’ve read my pieces on Demy before, you already know I think this is rubbish. But as Demy’s career grew, it expanded outwards and allowed for far more risk-taking and innovation than his earlier work. By the time he got to Une Chambre en Ville, he was making movies that were as innovative and daring as anything coming out of the early days of the New Wave. Une Chambre en Ville, not nearly as famous as many of Demy’s earlier works, is riskier and more challenging than almost anything he ever did.

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Yes He Can: Jean Gabin and the French Cancan (1955)

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To view French Cancan click here.

Jean Gabin, the great French actor and star, had worked with Jean Renoir three times before called upon to play the role of impresario Henri Danglard in Renoir’s salute to the Belle Epoque, the Moulin Rouge and the theater at large in French Cancan (1955), so he was ready for anything, and seasoned enough to deliver. It’s a movie I’ve seen multiple times and written articles about elsewhere, including for TCM. Yes, it’s a favorite, obviously. But more than that, it’s a fascination. A fascination with the way its simple story, one that could have easily been a Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show” movie, speaks to something much grander, and yet more intimate at the same time. Fascination with the way the film uses artifice and theatricality to tell a story, not so much about people or characters, but about art and history. And finally, a fascination with the way both Gabin and Renoir tell their own story in the process.

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You’re Invited to Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

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To view Muriel’s Wedding click here.

Last year, I took a look at the enduring (and sometimes unexpected) impact the music of ABBA, the wildly adored Swedish pop group, has had on the world of cinema. One of the key titles in that study was Muriel’s Wedding (1994), an Australian films from the Miramax-led art house wave that hit theaters during the grunge years. Now that you lucky dogs can watch it right here on Filmstruck as part of a “Starring Toni Collette” two-fer with another Miramax title, Cosi (1996), what better time could there be to take a closer look? [...MORE]

On the Road Again: A Poem is a Naked Person (1974)

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On November 14th Leon Russell passed away at the age of 74, after a remarkable career in music. He started as a sought-after studio session ace, working on everything from the Beach Boys and Frank Sinatra to the “Monster Mash.” Drawn to roots music of all kinds, when he started his rock band it played an ecstatic blend of country-blues-R&B (known as the “Tulsa Sound”) that became one of the top touring acts of the 1970s. In 1972 Les Blank started filming a documentary, A Poem is a Naked Person, that would follow one of Russell’s tours as well as the recording process of what would become the album Hank Wilson’s Back. It was shot over two years, and has the vibrancy and surprise of Blank’s improvisatory style. He captures anything, whether it’s an intense studio session or a random girl singing a Three Dog Night tune before a wedding. A Poem Was a Naked Person was not a traditional concert doc, so due to creative differences and contractual snags, it did not see the light of the projector for decades. But it was finally released by Janus Films in 2015, and is now available to stream on FilmStruck.

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Beatlemania: A Family Tradition

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My mom’s first experience with The Beatles was like most people of her generation; her first glimpse of the mop-topped foursome was on February 9, 1964, on America’s favorite Sunday night pastime, The Ed Sullivan Show. Mom was only nine years old and hadn’t heard The Beatles’ music, and wasn’t even quite sure who they were, but the two-set spotlight on Sullivan was enough to excite her. Her friend Jeannie called her on the phone in advance of the Sullivan episode and told her she just had to watch this amazing band. Jeannie, likely telling my mom, “They’re cute! They dress alike, and have these adorable haircuts…and they talk so different!” Jeannie was the same age as Mom, but had siblings much older than her, so she knew about the band because of them. Taking her friend’s advice to heart, Mom made sure to tune in for The Beatles’ performance. As soon as Paul sang those first few words from “All My Loving,” the young girls on television and at home collectively lost it. Moved by the spirit, Mom began flailing her arms and kicking her legs. In her frenzied state, she failed to notice that one of her shoes was dangerously close to flying off her foot. Next to the chair she was sitting in sat her mom, my dear Granny, undoubtedly smoking a cigarette with the ash perfectly curled on the end, with a cup of coffee perched on the flat wooden arm of the sofa. (Apparently my grandparents always had a pot of coffee on and drank the stuff around the clock.) Mom continued to kick her feet until her shoe flew off her foot, hitting Granny’s full coffee cup, causing it to fall and shatter all over the floor. According to Mom, my Granny thought the whole situation was a hoot, which sounds about right.

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The Trouble with Making Music

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“What really makes me want to play music is when I really hear an individual thought pattern placed in an environment to make something actually come about that is not an obvious thing that everyone is doing.”

That’s Ornette Coleman, the extraordinary free jazz saxophonist and true innovator speaking about music in the documentary Ornette: Made in America (1984), but it applies just as well to the new form of documentary film that was born in the sixties, rising with the new wave of popular music cementing itself in American and world culture. The movies documenting the daily activities of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (1967) or The Rolling Stones in Gimme Shelter (1970) were not of the staid and tired talking head variety. They documented in the true sense: without narration, without captions, without context. A freer form was necessary to cover a new era of music that didn’t lend itself to the established norms of the interview film.

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ABBA: The Movie

Earlier this year I made a trek with three friends to Stockholm where we got to experience firsthand the Eurovision Song Contest, that annual feast of musical excess, questionable taste, vocal acrobatics, and international squabbling. This year proved to be no exception, and though it’s still a niche event in the United States, all of Europe and many other countries (particularly Israel and Australia) treat it like a major sporting event. Tradition holds that the winner’s country hosts the following year’s contest, so it was Sweden’s sixth turn to be taken over for a couple of weeks by Eurovision fans.

Not surprisingly, you couldn’t walk through a store or sit through an event without hearing the name “ABBA” at least a few times. Sweden’s greatest pop music export, the fabulous foursome famously won the contest in 1974 with “Waterloo,” energizing a career that would burn brightly until the group’s dissolution in 1982. Since 2013, Stockholm has also been home to ABBA: The Museum, an eye-popping immersion in the group’s music, impact, and blazingly colorful outfits (including the weirdly lifelike figures in the photo below). However, the group’s popularity is perhaps greater than ever around the world, and as I concluded walking through rooms flickering with concert footage and music clips, they’re also one of the most cinematic music acts of all time. [...MORE]

Hollywood Jazz History: Syncopation (1942)

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“The kind of jazz we know is dead. Count me out as a pallbearer.” – Johnny (Jackie Cooper), in Syncopation

Syncopation (1942) tells the history of jazz through the story of two white kids, so its limitations are obvious. But it is a fascinating film for how aware it is of the histories that are being left out. The film acknowledges  the music’s roots in black America, and begins with a pocket history that traces its path from Africa through slavery and the development of jazz that began in Congo Square in New Orleans. A Louis Armstrong avatar, here named Rex (Todd Duncan), seems to be a leading character, his friendship with the jazz-mad white girl Kit (Bonita Granville) the early focus of the story. But his character is essentially erased as it moves along, focusing instead on Kit’s relationship with struggling (white) hot jazz trumpeter Johnny (Jackie Cooper).  Johnny learns from Rex, co-opts his music, and starts the swing music fad. But Johnny is extremely self-conscious about his artistic debt, worrying that what he is doing inches from influence to theft. The film forgives and endorses his actions, but the fact that this doubt is opened up at all is unusual for such seemingly whitewashed material.

The Cohen Media Collection released Syncopation in a beautiful Blu-ray last week, restored in 2K from an archival fine grain 35mm from the Library of Congress. What makes this an essential purchase for jazz fans are the bonus features – classic shorts previously available in muddy prints on YouTube, here now in HD, including Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), and Symphony in Black (1935, with an appearance by Billie Holliday), as well as shorts featuring Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Teagarden and Artie Shaw.

 

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