Saturday, May 2, 2015

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XIV

Brett Morgen's new picture, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (which showed at the Toronto Hot Docs Festival and premieres in a few days on American HBO), isn't about taming the inherent violence in rock, it's about what happens when that rebellion becomes inverted and artistic danger ultimately claims the artist. In telling the story of Kurt Cobain, the boyish looking co-founder of Nirvana, Morgen uses an assortment of material from the personal archives of the Cobain family – including Cobain's scrapbook drawings, diary entries, tape compilations and memoirs – to provide an in-depth portrait of his life and work. While Morgen strips away the romantic myths of the suffering artist, he gets at the deeper wounds of a great artist who lives out the suffering in his life until he can't sustain it anymore in his work. Even if, in life, Cobain parodies the Fifties image of the bland suburban American family, his home movies with partner Courtney Love, where they frolic and nod out on heroin, are a horror show Sid-and-Nancy sit-com. Critic Howard Hampton once called Kurt Cobain "a self-assassinating pop star," Mark David Chapman and John Lennon rolled into one, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck provides us with the clues to that paradoxical dilemma. If the pop stars of the past once sought and desired fame and success, Cobain grew up in an age of skepticism where fame and success were not to be trusted. Morgen's picture gives us a troubling view of an artist whose deeper need to slash his canvases doesn't come from a simple desire to destroy himself, but from a more primal terror of finding no model to build that canvas on.

Elvis Presley was never the great actor he'd hoped to be. He was hardly adequate. But when you consider the quality of the movies, who could rise to the occasion? His great role became the epic drama of his career - especially his comeback performance in 1968 - and the landmark recordings he made. But having said that, there's a scene I truly like for its simplicity in getting close to cracking the bland surface of Elvis's screen roles. His duet with R&B singer Kitty White of "Crawfish" in Michael Curtiz's 1958 picture King Creole has an erotic bite that soon became toothless by the time Elvis went Blue Hawaiian.

                                                                          Grateful Dog.

This clip of Bert Parks covering Paul McCartney & Wings's "Let 'Em In" during the 1976 televised Miss America pageant is so otherworldly that it's beyond bad. But you can't take your eyes off of it. You also can't call it camp exactly because it feels almost too conscious of its own oddness. But, for pure strangeness, it'll never top Dean Stockwell lip-synching Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" from Blue Velvet. That's partly because that moment defines a landscape of the psyche that few would dare tread. It also has more power than Parks because I'd like to believe that Dean Stockwell did it to make up for having to endure, as a child, Frank Sinatra singing him Brahms' "Lullaby" in the treacly 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh.

As a parodist, Stan Ridgway has had a substantial career, first with Wall of Voodoo, as a termite artist digging into the subterranean tunnels of American archetypes. In "Camouflage," from his 1986 debut solo album, The Big Heat, he chews into Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets" – or maybe it's Stonewall Jackson's "Waterloo" – and comes up with a ghostly satire with a sly macabre grin worthy of H.P. Lovecraft.

Back in 1967, Chess Records teamed up Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters to make The Super, Super Blues Band. Although it was largely dismissed as a novelty record, I loved the verbal sparring, the cutting, the boasts and the dares that these very distinct giants toss across the studio floor to each other. The terrific song selection even comes to define the qualities of each performer. Where Howlin' Wolf owns "Little Red Rooster," Bo Diddley sounds hopeless as if he wouldn't know the rooster if it crowed in his face. But when Diddley offers up his playful cock-of-the-walk "Diddley Daddy," both Wolf and Waters begin waving white flags. The good natured camaraderie gives each singer room to shine and the space to back off when needed. No knockout punches, but some good hooks get thrown.

                                     Somebody here is one toke over the line, but it ain't the singers.

Most folks know this track by Blondie. In the original, by the LA pop band The Nerves, singer/guitarist Jack Lee certainly sounds put out, and he's surely annoyed and upset that he's been left high and dry by his girl. But you can't escape the impression that she could keep him hanging there forever. In Blondie's stronger cover, singer Deborah Harry tears into the song with such vengeance that the guy who jilted her had best left town.

Here is a jazz all-star band for the ages. Playing live in Norway in 1964, pianist Jaki Byard, bassist Charles Mingus, trumpeter Johnny Coles, tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, drummer Dannie Richmond and bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy (before being honored with his memorial barbecue) take us through Duke Ellington's "Take the 'A' Train." In his dazzling solo, Dolphy takes the train down tracks still under construction. My friend Donald Brackett once told me that the main issue he had with Ken Burns's Jazz documentary was that it framed Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington as the revered masters who overshadowed their progeny. Brackett said he would have preferred starting the series with Charlie Parker and then looking back to explore Armstrong and Ellington as his antecedents before looking ahead to where jazz may have gone in their wake. This performance perhaps provides the skeleton key to the door Brackett was opening.

                                                         A Streetcar Named Abiding.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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