Saturday, July 13, 2013

Live Forever: Black Sabbath's 13

Black Sabbath today
Take one look at the Wiki entry for the subject “heavy metal” and you’ll get almost two dozen sub-genres, including the amusing “traditional” heavy metal genre as if the form has been around long enough to become the cultural equivalent of folk music. A music critic first coined the phrase after seeing Jimi Hendrix perform in a British club in 1966. Chas Chandler, Hendrix’s manager at the time, relates the story in the Robert Palmer TV series about the history of rock'n'roll. As Chandler tells it, Hendrix’s performance sounded like heavy metal falling from the sky. His description certainly put into words the feeling one got when hearing Hendrix's music, but it wasn’t enough to describe the blues-based music Hendrix was really playing.

The same might be said for Black Sabbath, the group from Birmingham, England, who started out playing blues-based rock as a bar band. But due to limited opportunities for gigs at the time, the only way Black Sabbath could distinguish itself was by playing louder and, in effect, harder than their competition. Hard rock, the nomenclature I used when I first heard Sabbath in the early seventies, made more sense and was a fair assessment of their edgy, blues-like sound. Heavy metal was a better description for bands such as Metallica or Judas Priest who dispensed with any musical references to blues.

Black Sabbath (1970)
Nevertheless, many fans insist that Black Sabbath founded heavy metal, so I won’t argue the point because a lot of bands were inspired by Sabbath’s first couple of albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid (Vertigo), both recorded and released in 1970. Those records, which I heard in my youth, were so far removed from the commercial sound of Top 40 that they really were inspiring. The Black Sabbath sound, driven by Tony Iommi’s guitar licks, made for music that was dark and mysterious yet catchy thanks to his blues-based style. But I didn’t care for the satanic image Sabbath employed because it lacked the humour of Alice Cooper, the other “hard rock” band my friends and I used to listen to. But Black Sabbath was never far from our collective turntables when I was in high school, even though I preferred the progressive rock of Genesis, Emerson, Lake & Palmer and King Crimson. Once punk rock moved in, all those records were quietly put back on the shelf. Black Sabbath continued to do their thing for a few more years after Osbourne went solo, but by that time I had lost interest. In a sense, I outgrew their music.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Legend Plays a Legend: Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore

Christopher Plummer toured in the title role of Barrymore in 1996 and 1997 (I saw him play it in Boston), and it won him a Tony Award when he brought it, briefly, to Broadway. He never really put it on the shelf; he always planned to return to it, and his association with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada enabled him to do so a few years ago. The screen version, adapted from William Luce’s play and directed by Erik Canuel, is a filmed performance – like his Prospero in The Tempest, also shot at Stratford – tricked up with a some bonus footage to make it look a little more like a movie. Canuel’s visual addenda aren’t convincing but they don’t matter in the least, because a film of a tour de force by one of the theatre’s greatest living actors needs no excuse. If Barrymore had been released in the sixties, it would have made the rounds of major cities in special mid-week two-day engagements, like Olivier’s Othello and Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Given the economics of today’s film distribution, it barely got released at all, though you could see it on HBO for a while and now it’s available on DVD.

If Barrymore isn’t much of a movie, well, it wasn’t much of a play either. The setting is the empty stage of the Majestic Theatre in New York in 1942, which John Barrymore, at the end of his life – he died of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver after collapsing on Rudy Vallee’s radio show later that year – has rented for a private rehearsal of scenes from Richard III, in the hopes of resurrecting the stage career he abandoned for the movies. The text, such as it is, is a collage of bits from Shakespeare, memories presented as anecdotes, and musings on his wrecked, alcoholic but highly colorful life as a classical actor and a matinee idol; you might call it autobiographical stand-up with an undercurrent of tragedy. The only other character is Frank (John Plumpis), his prompter, who is alternately an admirer and a nag, and whose own story, briefly touched upon (he was refused for military service because of his admitted homosexuality), injects some irrelevant sentimentality when Barrymore, anachronistically, commends him for his honesty and courage. Frank is a somewhat annoying distraction, but who wouldn’t be when you’ve got Christopher Plummer as Barrymore? Like Canuel’s faux cinematic “touches,” he doesn’t really get in the way.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

You Need to Get Out More: Berberian Sound Studio and This Is The End

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio, a small, oddball British film written and directed by Peter Strickland, is a ‘70s grindhouse homage of a different kind. Such directors as Robert Rodriguez (the Machete films) and Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) have celebrated the supposedly liberating qualities of shamelessly over-the-top violent trash by making their own semi-parodies; Strickland has come up with a scenario that allows him to pay tribute to the enticement of gory Euro-schlock horror pictures, and the hard work of traces of genuine craftsmanship that went into making them, without pretending that 95% of those movies amount to nothing more than grand, unkept promises loosely held together by atmosphere and sadism.

Strickland’s film stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a meek, meticulously sound expert who had come to a “garden shed” of a studio to work on the soundtrack to an Italian torture-porn movie about the interrogation of witches. Except for a delectable, cheeseball-psychedelic opening credits sequence, the audience can only guess at what’s actually on the screen from the sounds we hear, and from Gilderoy’s reactions. The film-within-a-film is called The Equestrian Vortex, and the sound man seems to have been expecting something along the lines of National Velvet. He’s not a man used to employing his talents to heighten the effectiveness of a scene in which a woman has a red-hot poker inserted into her vagina, and if there’s one thing his employers are less interested in than his mild pleas that they honor their agreement to reimburse him for his plane ticket, it’s helping him get his bearings. The director, Santini (Antonio Mancini), is a lecherous dolt who sees the sound man as a new captive audience for his speeches about what he’s really up to. When Gildeory says that he’s never worked on a horror film before, the director haughtily corrects him: “This is not a horror film. It is a Santini film!” – adding that it is “about the human condition.” When Gilderoy has seen enough staged “interrogation” footage to get green around the gills, Santini lectures him: “These things happen, yes. It is history. I hate what they did to these beautiful women. Yet it is my duty to show it."

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

J.M. Barrie's Curse

“May God blast anyone who writes a biography of me.”
– J. M. Barrie

Whatever celestial space James Barrie (1860-1937) currently occupies, the sprite likely would look kindly on Marc Forster’s 2004 film Finding Neverland, a gauzy semi-biopic of himself that is based on the play The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee. After all, it is a celebratory idyll of innocent play that began in Kensington Park in 1898 when Barrie first captivated the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies with his gift for adventurous story telling. As a short, hyperactive man with a thick mustache, sad eyes and a pipe-smoker’s cough, Barrie certainly would have been pleased with the handsome, clean-shaven and boyish Johnny Depp who portrays him as a charming defender of the (four not five) boys and a gallant protector of their mother. Time is telescoped in the film.  Set circa 1904 when his imaginative games with the boys inspired him to stage his most famous production, Peter Pan, Barrie would have endorsed the film’s sweet, sentimental tone as it skims across a bright Edwardian surface while ignoring the darker undercurrents and psychological perplexities that pervaded his relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Arc of a Song: On Broadway

Songwriters Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, circa 1966 (Getty Images)

In the history of popular music, or music written since 1900, we currently enjoy an evolution of 113 years worth of the art of the song. I’d like to take a look at one song, “On Broadway,” and four contrasting versions that reflect the times in which they were recorded.

“On Broadway” was written by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, two of the most successful songwriters to come out of the famous Brill Building, the songwriter’s haven of New York City. It was first recorded in 1962 by a girl-group known as The Cookies, whose version was more of a light novelty pop song. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who shared an office with Weil and Mann in the Brill Building, took the song to a different, now familiar, version, setting the tune to an R&B rhythm and changing the phrasing to reflect an more nuanced and personal story about a young person looking for hope “on Broadway”. The result of Weil/Mann/Leiber/Stoller collaboration was the remarkable 1963 recording by The Drifters.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Other Voices: Passion Play and Strange Interlude

Passion Play, directed by David Leveaux

Peter Nichols’s 1981 Passion Play begins at the conclusion of a social evening at the home of James and Eleanor, a middle-aged couple with grown-up daughters. Both are connected to the arts: James restores paintings and Eleanor is a classical singer and teacher. They have been entertaining Kate, a photographer in her mid-twenties whose partner, Albert, a close friend of James, has recently died. The scenario is complicated – Albert’s relationship with Kate broke up his marriage to Agnes, who remained friends with Eleanor. It becomes more complicated when, in a moment alone (offstage) with Eleanor in the kitchen, Kate confides that she finds James attractive, and Eleanor repeats it to him. At first this is an academic matter for the couple, who discuss it with amusement on Eleanor’s side and an apparent lack of interest on James’s, though since the thought operates on him as a kind of aphrodisiac – he has an immediate desire to make love to his wife – he’s evidently more interested than he allows himself to believe. (Turning James on isn’t Eleanor’s intention; she’s both surprised and a little embarrassed by his sudden unrestrained ardor. When he tries to catch up with her on the stairs, she protests, “James! I’m a grandmother. You’re a grandfather. There’s a place for that kind of thing. It’s called the bedroom.”) And when Kate arranges lunch with him a few days later, ostensibly because she needs his help in pulling together a book of her work, she makes a direct sexual proposition. The immediate result, over coffee at her place, is nothing more serious than a kiss, but his guilt over it – and, clearly, over his impulse to carry it farther – twists him into knots and prompts him to lie to Eleanor about where he’s been.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

State of the Union: Roland Emmerich's White House Down

When Barack Obama was elected as the first black President of the United States in November 2008, it was a momentous event in American history. And it ignited a fever of idealism not felt since 1960 when John Kennedy first declared the coming of a New Frontier. At that time, JFK's inaugural address provided a promise that the country would begin to live up to its most cherished dreams – the quest for equality that lay in its founding documents. Of course, Kennedy's murder in Dallas in 1963, to be followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, not only seemed to assure that the promise couldn't be kept, but also that the coming of Obama wouldn't be in anyone's rear view mirror. Obama's election victory, arriving after almost four decades of racial segregation, war, assassinations, government corruption and terrorism, was experienced as both euphoric and an impossibly earned reward after years of bitter struggle and loss. Given that climate, it seemed only natural to believe that the movies of the Obama era would be in large supply and perhaps be even richer in content and feeling than those in any other Presidential period before him. But those pictures just didn't materialize. And, in part, it was because Obama, the avatar of another New Frontier, couldn't be found.

If supporters have experienced his presidency since 2008 as cautious, ineffective, and lately, an act of betrayal after the revelations of the government's wire-tapping of its citizens, his enemies continue to exploit that rift by making him seem a non-entity (as Clint Eastwood did at the Republican Convention), a fraud (as Donald Trump implied by demanding his birth certificate), or America's greatest threat (as the Tea Party and people on the conspiracy fringe of the right and left have claimed). In this climate, Obama emerged not as a world leader, but a trapped and inert statesman because, despite what his presidency represented, racism clearly hadn't gone away. The tragic currency of assassinations, embroidered throughout American history, had not really changed either. We're all too keenly aware of what happens to those who become lightning rods for great social change. American idealists seek community, but they also draw out the isolated loner who feels neither a need for community or to be a part of history. He chooses instead to destroy those who offer it to him. Given the danger zone Obama operates in today, he understands fully that if anything were to happen to him due to any bold move he made in public policy, his family would not only lose a father, the country would dissolve in violence and chaos.

In Roland Emmerich's White House Down, about an assault on a black President by a right-wing paramilitary group staging a violent coup, there's no question about the mirror it holds up to the state of the union. The parallels with Obama and his political crucible are unmistakeable. (It could be titled Obama's Revenge.) But its allusions to the current president are all on the surface. With a pulpy plot by James Vanderbilt that borrows from Die Hard, White House Down creates a bogus surrogate for the nation's hopes and fears. In the story, President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) is getting plenty of heat over a proposed peace treaty between his allies which would lead to military forces pulling out of the Middle East. In particular, he draws the rage of the retiring Head of Presidential Detail Martin Walker (James Woods) who organizes his own detail to remove the President. Walker seeks revenge for the death of his son who was killed in a black ops mission approved by Sawyer. His conspiracy of mercenaries, also black ops types led by Emil Stenz (Jason Clarke), supposedly speak for the might of the military-industrial complex which sees the treaty as a threat to their control of the region. (How their control is manifested in the Middle East is never explained, or made sense of. And if they were that powerful, why would the President be so bold in blatantly threatening them?)