Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Critic's Notes and Frames Vol. XVIII

Looking as androgynous and funky as Little Richard in Jimi Hendrix's duds, Prince wrote music that was sexually charged, playfully lewd and enthusiastically impudent. In other words, he was precisely the tonic the Eighties needed. "Prince is bad," Johnny 'Guitar' Watson once remarked. "It's like seeing Sly [Stone], James Brown and Jimi Hendrix all at once." Right at a time when sex was again becoming a mortal sin, Prince turned sex into a quest for salvation. His album, Dirty Mind (1980), was a blissfully torrid celebration of eroticism. His band, both racially and sexually integrated, was supercharged, just as Sly & the Family Stone had been before them. Also like Sly, Prince mixed musical genres which caused mass confusion at radio stations that couldn't decide whether he was R&B or rock. By the time his third album, 1999, came out in 1982, however, it didn't seem to matter. The infectiously coy "Little Red Corvette" shot into the American Top 10. Thanks to MTV and the video culture it bred, Prince became the first black crossover artist (along with Michael Jackson) to help broaden the network's musical palette.

At the height of his success in 1984, Prince made his movie debut in the R-rated Purple Rain. James Dean had made his astonishing debut in East of Eden almost thirty years earlier, playing a misunderstood loner. Prince (calling himself 'the Kid'), followed the same pattern, portraying a moody, struggling artist. Purple Rain mythologized his status in the pop world, and one song from its soundtrack ("Darling Nikki") generated the type of controversy that captured the attention of Mary Elizabeth 'Tipper' Gore. She was so horrified when her young daughter bought the record with a song about a guy who meets a woman masturbating with a magazine that she helped launch the PMRC in order to toilet train pop performers. So in both memory and tribute to the artist known as Prince, it seems fitting to send him off with one of what Gore would call the "Filthy Fifteen" songs which launched the censorious body that Frank Zappa, Dee Snyder and John Denver stood before Congress to fight.


The six-part miniseries adaptation of John le Carré's The Night Manager was the most gripping six hours of television I've seen in some time. Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is the night manager at a luxury hotel in Cairo. But when a woman who trusts him with information involving Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), a billionaire British businessman who is also an international arms dealer, she is murdered due to his careless trust. In time, he gets recruited by an intelligence agent, Angela Burr (Olivia Colman), to infiltrate Roper's inner circle while also discovering that Roper has discomforting ties to Her Majesty’s government. Once Pine starts developing feelings for Roper’s mistress, Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), his desire to atone for his earlier mistake puts the mission at risk.

Hugh Laurie & Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager.

Although the 1993 novel was set in Central America, director Susanne Bier (Brothers, After the Wedding) and screenwriter David Farr have now placed it in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Yet even with the changes (including a dramatic reversal on the ending), the themes of guilt and redemption come closer to Graham Greene than le Carré. Hugh Laurie's Roper, a curdled Harry Lime, is the kind of obscenity who calmly and cynically stares out into the ills of the world and finds justification for profiting from human misery while simultaneously causing it. By contrast, Hiddleston's Pine has the cool British reserve that covers a multitude of impulses. Elizabeth Debicki's delectable Jed becomes part of both Pine's hidden appetites and his need to find forgiveness. Despite the thrills, though, The Night Manager doesn't achieve the complexity of other le Carré adaptations like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Russia House, The Tailor of Panama, or the more recent version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Bier doesn't reflect on (or parse through) the political nuances, but instead puts her foot on the accelerator and keeps the dramatic thrills coming. In the end, The Night Manager is an entertaining and satisfying melodrama.


What you hear in the electricity of Donovan's 1968 "Hurdy Gurdy Man" is just as foreboding as what you can hear in the "gentle" acoustic guitars on The Beatles' White Album. Donovan tells of the Hurdy Gurdy Man singing songs of love, but the mood he conveys isn't all that loving. His tune may have been inspired by the Maharishi Yogi (as many tracks on the White Album were), but the abiding spirit on the record could just as easily be Charles Manson – the shadow Maharishi.

Donovan composed a song that was less a celebration of spiritual renewal than a harbinger of bad tidings. "Hurdy Gurdy Man" held warning signs of utopian instincts turning destructive just as his "Season of the Witch" had also done in 1966. The hidden dread of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" wouldn't bloom though until many years later. Director David Fincher, in his unsettling 2007 masterpiece Zodiac, used the song to underscore the first attacks of the Zodiac serial killer in San Francisco. On the anniversary of the birth of the United States, in the former locale of the Summer of Love, the Zodiac brutally struck two lovers in a parking lot as "Hurdy Gurdy Man" played on the radio. And all of this was a mere month before Manson down in LA would hear The Beatles' White Album as his own call to carnage.


For modernist composers like John Cage, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Edgard Varèse working in areas of composition involving and integrating tape manipulation was as musically rewarding as scoring for instruments. On their album Modernists, the group Alarm Will Sound pays tribute to their work by recreating – acoustically – all the tape elements of a collage composition. Besides Edgard Varèse’s “Poème électronique,” conductor Alan Pierson also steers Alarm Will Sound through The Beatles' "Revolution 9," a fascinating choice given its status as perhaps the least enjoyed track on their White Album. (I beg to differ.)

As a piece of audio collage art, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's foray into the world of Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Henri Chopin, "Revolution 9" is an extraordinarily inventive piece of musique-concrete that simulates a world ruptured by chaos. Lennon and Ono aren't stridently offering up views on armed revolt, or peace, but instead they are painting a vividly complex impressionistic map of the events that shaped the tragic arc of 1968. In their pinpoint cover, Alarm Will Sound turns every phrase in this audio sound-poem into a perfectly sculpted piece of modernist music.


The danger of trying to recreate an old familiar pop sound is constructing an echo chamber in which to fetishisize your nostalgia for it. That's not a problem for the LA neo soul/indie pop band Fitz and The Tantrums. Formed in 2008, singer Michael Fitzpatrick purchased an old Conn electronic organ and the notes of what became "Breakin' the Chains of Love" soon came pouring out. It wasn't long before he contacted his old school friend, saxophonist James King, who then recommended both drummer John Wicks and singer Noelle Scaggs. After Wicks brought in keyboardist Jeremy Ruzumna and bass player Joseph Karnes, the song didn't trap the players in the past but opened a door for the past to infiltrate the present. "It was literally like five phone calls, one rehearsal, and we could have played a show that night," Fitzpatrick recalled. After hearing the song come up on the shuffle of my playlist to create a bright space in my day on one grey afternoon, I believe him.


I can still remember the security detail nervously ushering us into the Toronto press screening of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ back in 1988 after all the bomb threats from (at that time) Christian fundamentalists. As usual with these folks, the outrage was misplaced. Last Temptation was hardly a sacrilegious work, but one that was about the testing of one's belief and how one comes to live with eternal faith in a world bound by time. The themes came off a little too literal, however, as if Scorsese was too close to the material. (He would beautifully pull off the same ideas years later in his little seen, Kundun, about the life of the Dalai Lama.) Peter Gabriel's score for Last Temptation remains a beauty bringing together musicians from the Middle East, Africa, Europe and South Asia to create an ambiance that's both sensual and mysterious. The combined efforts and collaboration of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N'Dour, L. Shankar, and Baaba Maal – almost all familiar names today – create a pan-cultural tapestry that perfectly maps and defines Christ's spiritual struggles.

 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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