Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Masterpiece and its Spiritual Cousins: Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds and Aftermath

Is it possible that The Shirelles best embodied the idealistic spirit of JFK's New Frontier? Perhaps. Especially with one 1960 pop song, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" that delicately captured both the assurance of the decade and its secret fears. Written by Carole King, and her first husband, Gerry Goffin, "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" had an awareness that within every hope lay the possibility of failure, defeat, and maybe betrayal. The singer accepts the devotion of her lover, the light she sees in his eyes, but she's also worried about the future, when that light may refuse to shine. In this enduringly complex tune, the stakes of love get raised so high that the fear of it all falling apart weighs pretty heavy. As Bob Dylan said in 1965, right at the cusp of his greatest glory, "when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose." The Shirelles had, in a certain sense, laid the ground for the romantic dream The Beatles (who would cover their songs) were about to create. But The Beatles also inherited that possibility of failure that The Shirelles saw coming. When the hopes of the New Frontier were so cruelly dashed in Dallas in 1963, The Beatles had reached into that despair, two months later, to hold our hand. But it was coming up to two years since The Beatles rekindled those hopes, and the question of whether we'd still love them tomorrow was still up for grabs.

Their electrifying early records had sought us out, demanding that we share in the pleasures those songs offered. When John Lennon said in "Please Please Me" that he'd continue pleasing us, if only we'd agree to please him, were offered a definite stake in the relationship. Each song they wrote was designed to be a two-way street, the creation of a romantic bond, which required the participation of the listener in every way. The utopianism heard in "There's a Place" was only viable when we first believed that the place actually existed. But by 1965, The Beatles were starting to grow weary and suspicious of their audience. There's a place, alright, and maybe it's now far away from you. No longer trusting the screams of adoration or enjoying the enduring isolation of hotel rooms and ducking into limos, the group began retreating into the safety of the studio.Within those walls, the sounds they began to create outclassed the sounds from the stage. The songs they wrote and covered, in the beginning, had taken the world by force, by the affection expressed in them. Now their music was more elusive, the pleasures tucked beneath the dense melodies. At this point, though, their retreat did not diminish their work. Instead, detachment took it deeper, farther into the exigencies of love and loyalty.

Over 45 years ago, The Beatles released Rubber Soul which is arguably their best album. Rubber Soul showed that The Beatles, now seeking solace from the madness of Beatlemania, were creating a new music that sought to find the more discerning listener. The songs included reached out to find those who dared step outside the din of the screaming throng. With this record, they asked us to lean forward, listen carefully, and take the doubts along with the hopes and the desires along with the fears. Rubber Soul had all the yearnings and qualms of Goffin/King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" but it didn't stop with the question of the title. Rubber Soul went much further to ask: If you don't love me tomorrow, then what? While taking over 113 hours to record, compared to the one-day they took putting together their debut Please Please Me (1963), Rubber Soul was startlingly innovative taking the R&B genre beyond its purist roots. Unlike many other white pop artists, especially the ones who merely paid reverence to the style and attitude of black blues and R&B, or channelled the essence of the form (as did Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac), The Beatles sublimated rhythm and blues into their continually expanding musical fabric. And the record would irrevocably change the direction and sound of pop music. With a densely intelligent collection of love songs, Rubber Soul confronted a variety of issues: the cost of romantic desire (“I’m Looking Through You”), the power of love to heal (“The Word”), as well as to hurt (“Girl”); contemplation (“In My Life”); and the deep despair of estrangement (“Nowhere Man”). On the record, The Beatles broadened their musical identity, too, by introducing an original interpretation of classic R&B (specifically the Memphis Stax soul sound) while resisting being defined by black music (as many other British blues bands were). The Beatles instead defined their own interpretation of American black music.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Recent French Cinema: New Directions, Mixed Results

French filmmakers, more often than not, tend not to stand still in terms of repeating themselves in their films. They may stick to their favourite themes but their movies usually vary in tone and intent. That’s the case with three movies from 2009 that have opened commercially this summer, Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue), Alain Resnais’ Wild Grass (Les herbes folles) and Jean – Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs (Micmacs à tire-larigot).

Fans of Catherine Breillat, the enfant terrible of French cinema, may be surprised how relatively tame and conventional Bluebeard is, compared to such incendiary movies of hers as Romance (1999), Anatomy of Hell (Anatomie de l’enfer (2001) and Fat Girl (À ma soeur) (2004). Her concerns about female desire, sexual attraction and the age old gender wars are still there but filtered through the 300 plus year old Bluebeard fairy tale. That’s the famous French fairy tale of the young girl who marries a famous lord and is warned, when he goes away on a business trip, not to go into a room of the castle they live in. When she does, she discovers what has happened to his many previous wives.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Claude Lelouch's C'était un rendez-vous (1976)

This is probably the most irresponsible and likely one of the most morally indefensible bits of film ever produced by a major filmmaker, and though I hate to admit this, it is a lot of fun. It's one shot and lasts only eight minutes and forty seconds, but it is the ultimate adrenaline rush for anybody who likes to drive fast. Jeremy Clarkson, the man/boy on Top Gear, said this about the film: "it makes Bullitt look like a cartoon."

The film, C'était un rendez-vous, whose title translates "It Was A Date," consists of a very fast car, with a camera attached to its bumper, racing through the early morning (5:30am) streets of Paris at ridiculous, life-threatening speeds. Claude Lelouch, a fast-car nut (in his best known film, A Man and A Woman, the lead male is a race car driver), did this piece of stunt filmmaking without permission or warning. Supposedly interested in testing a new gyro device to steady film images in 'jittery' environments (this was prior to the invention of the Steadicam), he decided to mount the device, a camera with one 10-minute reel of film inside on the front bumper of his car. He had a route mapped out -- allegedly there was an assistant at one blind corner to radio him of any obstacles -- got into the car and gunned it. The route takes him racing down the Avenue Foch towards the Arc de Triomphe, and finishes several kilometres later at the Basilique de Sacré-Cœur. It ends with, of course, a girl awaiting his arrival. He steps out of the car, they embrace and fin.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Climb Aboard and Testify: Robert Randolph and The Family Band's We Walk This Road

Lately I’ve been conscious of record producers such as Joe Henry and T-Bone Burnett. Like Phil Spector and Daniel Lanois, they create a distinctive sound that can really bring out the best in a musician. In the past year Joe Henry has brought out the roots of Allen Toussaint for last year’s best Jazz album, Bright Mississippi. Burnett won an Academy Award for his work on "The Weary Kind” from the film, Crazy Heart. He’s also produced some excellent records for Sam Phillips and his efforts on the sublime Raising Sand with Robert Plant and Alison Krauss were remarkable for bringing two different artists together under one aural roof.

Once again Burnett leaves his mark on one of the most energizing groups to come out of the United States, Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Known mostly as a contemporary Gospel group, this group features a unique blend of blues-based funk and traditional gospel music that's fused to perfection. Unlike a lot of gospel groups featuring a strong Hammond B-3, this band has the sharp-edge of a slide guitar driving the musical bus. All you have to do is climb aboard and testify.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking Bad: AMC’s Amorality Tale

As most of the TV-watching universe is waiting patiently for Mad Men to launch its fourth season next Sunday, the third season of AMC’s ‘other show’ has come and gone.

Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth. The show was created by Vince Gilligan (The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen), and, along with Mad Men, it is one of only two original series ever broadcast on AMC. (A third show, the promising conspiracy series, Rubicon, will premiere this August.) After production on its first season was cut short due to the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike, Breaking Bad returned a year later with a sophomore season that took an interesting and likeable TV show and elevated it to one of the best shows on television. Everyone I know who’s watched it has become hooked. But that’s the catch: you’ve got to watch it. And there are many reasons why you probably haven’t.

First of all, you don’t normally go to AMC for original programming. AMC has only the two shows, both with compressed 13-episode seasons, and they understandably don’t air them at the same time. To watch Breaking Bad, you’ve got to seek it out. And from a distance, it is easy to see why you might not have bothered. It’s a basic cable show about a middle-class school teacher who turns to manufacturing drugs, played by an actor best known for his portrayal of Hal, the father on FOX’s Malcolm in the Middle for 7 seasons. It sounds like a low-estrogen take on Showtime’s Weeds, but without any of the sex appeal. This assessment, while perhaps understandable, could not be more misleading.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Church of Carlos Santana: Ontario Place's Molson Amphitheatre - July 11, 2010

It is possible to suggest that going to see a Carlos Santana concert is yet another trip down memory lane (after claiming, as I did in my June 27th Jethro Tull piece, that I don't go see nostalgia acts), however there's something about his ability over the years to reinvent himself that still makes him vital. He's not as good at it as somebody like Madonna, but he still finds ways -- by either surrounding himself with currently popular singers/musicians (Rob Thomas in 1999 for the hit song “Smooth,” or Chad Kroeger of Nickelback in 2007 with the very catchy tune “Into the Night”) or embracing timely musical genres and infusing them with his own sensibilities -- to stay relevant. And yet, within that vitality is a political point of view that is seriously trapped in the 1960s - but first, to the concert.

The opening act was Steve Winwood. He has made a good habit over the last few years of being the special guest for people such as Santana, Tom Petty and Eric Clapton. Singing hits from the 1960s such as “I’m a Man” and “Gimme Some Lovin’” (when he was part of The Spencer Davis Group) and “Dear Mr. Fantasy” (from his stint in Traffic), through the 1980s, “Higher Love” (his solo years), Winwood's voice still sounds, well, like Steve Winwood. His vocal cords got tired near the end of his 75-minute show, but for a 62-year old, he sounds a lot like he did when he was 16. His band is very solid with a laugh provided to my wife and I as we both thought his lead guitarist, Jose Neto, from a distance at least (we were about 50 feet from the stage), looked like Critics at Large's Kevin Courrier (who knew Kevin had a side gig!). It was not a great, revelatory set, but a nice way to start a warm night down by the water. If there was musical nostalgia on the evening, it was here.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Another Look: Stephen King's Under The Dome

On March 4th this year, Critics at Large's David Churchill wrote about horror author Stephen King’s latest novel, Under the Dome. He rightly praised King’s vivid writing and lauded the book for being a trenchant, relevant look at what happens when society cuts democratic corners by utilizing a ruthless strongman to do the dirty work it has decided is necessary for its survival. David is right about that, but I think Under the Dome is also indicative of how America has changed and become more polarized than ever before in its recent turbulent history, even more so, I suspect, than back in the 60s, when the generation gap reigned supreme.

Under the Dome, which has just come out in trade paperback, and runs to a huge 1,000 plus pages, has a premise that is brilliant simplicity itself but is anything but simple. As the book begins, the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill has been suddenly encased under a dome, which has cut it off from the outside world. A few of the townsfolk try to resist those who want to capitalize on this unexplained event in order to run the town the way they always felt it should be managed. But very quickly things fall apart and in a manner which makes Lord of the Flies seem Pollyannaish.

This is one really scary novel - a pervasive sense of dread is manifest in Under the Dome - that's up there with King’s best horror: Carrie, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, his truly frightening novella The Mist, It and (most of) Cell. His usual strengths, the superb characterization (you always believe the protagonists in King’s books), descriptive prowess (Chester’s Mill comes alive in a way that you can practically touch) and imaginative plotting (Under the Dome is both great horror and ingenious science fiction) are in evidence but this time, there's something new percolating under the surface of his gripping novel: a disquieting political subtext that has bubbled up from current realities.