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

HARD DAY'S NIGHT, A (1964)

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

PERSONALITIES

“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 ABBA Hey

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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THE WIZARD OF OZ – 75th Anniversary

75th Anniversary of THE WIZARD OF OZ

A blurb written in 1998 by Rick Polito for a TCM screening of The Wizard of Oz was resuscitated on the internet two years ago and went viral: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.” Eight years before that, during my college years in 1990, space limitations on the calendar film series I was programming inspired similarly curt descriptions. Mine, however, were not funny and only annoyingly glib. For 2001: A Space Odyssey I wrote one sentence: “Do we really need to write a description for this?” My flippant entry for The Wizard of Oz was no better: “You know this one too. It’s not like it hasn’t been on TV every year for the last 25 years.” Had I done my homework I would have known that, at the time, it had actually been on TV for even longer than that but, either way, readers were not amused. And rightly so, because no matter how familiar you are with The Wizard of Oz, the film has many layers, it deserves more than flippant sentences, and it rewards repeat viewings. More to the point, people who are only familiar with The Wizard of Oz from television will have a  big-screen opportunity to tremble under the earth-ripping power of those opening cyclone shots, thanks to TCM and Fathom Events which will be bringing the movie to select theaters nation-wide on January 11th. [...MORE]

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July 19, 2014
David Kalat
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You squashed my favorite Beatle

OK, so I’m a couple of weeks late writing about the restored A Hard Day’s Night.  C’mon people, the movie’s 50 years old, no matter when I wrote about it would be late, so gimme a break.

But my daughter is an aspiring singer/songwriter, and I love me some absurdist British comedy, so this is a natural fit with me and I couldn’t let its glorious restoration pass by unremarked.  Plus, it is quite striking how innocent, sincere, uncalculating, necessary, and humane the rebellion embodied by the Beatles is/was, especially compared to the alternately cynical and dangerous rebellion presented by today’s rock stars.

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KEYWORDS: A Hard Day's Night, The Beatles, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, The Sex Pistols
COMMENTS: 18
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A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

Opening title sequence for A HARD DAY'S NIGHT

If you missed A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964) when it screened at the recent TCM Film Fest, you’ll get another shot tomorrow when it airs as part of an evening celebrating the British Invasion. A Hard Day’s Night marks the Fab Four‘s debut in front of the cameras for a feature film and is credited with breaking away from the previous template for musical pictures of a boy-meets-girl story interspersed with musical numbers. This is not to say our four boys don’t meet girls, as there are throngs of screaming women, many random encounters, and George Harrison would even meet his future wife, Pattie Boyd, on the shoot (she’s one of the women the Beatles run past in the train – and was also responsible for grooming his hair during the film shoot). But what really fuels the film is an anarchic energy inspired by The Goon Show radio program of the ’50s that also influenced the lads in Monty Python. To be more specific: one of the people talking into the microphone for the Goon Show was Peter Sellers, before he was a film star, and Sellers would later co-direct with Lester The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960), which was an 11 minute short that the Beatles quite liked and which led to Lester being hired for A Hard Day’s Night (and a year later also Help!). [...MORE]

Zip a Dee Doo Dah

While celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World a couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to think about racist content in family movies.

No, no–hold on, bear with me. I was having a great time and was fully immersed in the magical world of Disney like I was supposed to, but I ran across an interesting paradox that got me thinking. You see, over the years, Disney has retired some rides because their source material was deemed too obscure (bye bye Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride), and even some that didn’t seem all that obscure got the axe to make way for attractions based on the latest releases (bye bye 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

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Given this policy, the enduring popularity of Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom is something to marvel at, since the ride is based on perhaps the most obscure work in the entire Disney canon, Song of the South. Weirder still, Splash Mountain debuted in 1989, a few years after its source material Song of the South was decommissioned and mothballed. It would have been easier to just forget Song of the South ever existed–but there’s something about this film that is not so easily forgotten.

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How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Carnegie Hall (airing on Tuesday at midnight—set your DVR) is an epic-length cinematic love letter to classical music from one of America’s most important, if elusive and enigmatic, directors.  It is also the movie that indirectly saved my DVD venture from premature death, and for that I owe it an eternal debt.

Maybe the title is unfamiliar.  I should ‘splain what it is first:

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