Happy 89th Birthday Clint Eastwood 31st May 2019!

The guy in the lab. Rowdy Yates. The Man With No Name. Dirty Harry Callahan. Clyde’s friend. The musician, composer, actor, producer and director and Hollywood superstar Clint Eastwood turns 89 today. Entering his eighth decade in the industry where he paid his dues in uncredited roles in movies and bit parts before regular work on TV and the spaghetti genre made him a worldwide figure, this year’s The Mule (practically a musical!) proves he’s still got the chops and the pull to make box office gold with something to say about the way we live now. Widely recognised as an icon of American masculinity, he found his particular space with the assistance of Don Siegel but exploited his personal brand in cycles of police procedurals, comedic takes on folklore and the country and western sub-genre as well as tough westerns. Unforgiven marked his coming of age as a great director, an instant classic and a tour de force of filmmaking. While some might think he has feminist sympathies he has rarely risked acting opposite a true female acting equal – a quarter of a century separated him from Shirley MacLaine in Two Mules for Sister Sara and Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County. It took another decade for him to make the stunningly emotive Million Dollar Baby with Hilary Swank, which marked a different kind of turning point:  he has transformed his cinematic affect from what David Thomson calls his brutalised loner to bruised neurotic nonagenarian in one of the most spectacular careers in cinema. Many happy returns, Clint!

Rocketman (2019)

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You have to kill the person you were meant to be in order to become the person you want to be. A troubled Elton John (Taron Egerton) flounces offstage in full costume to attend an Alcoholics’ Anonymous meeting in 1990 to finally tackle his prodigious appetite for drink, drugs, sex, food and shopping. We revisit his life in flashbacks to his lonely childhood in post-war suburban Middlesex as Reggie Dwight with a desperately mismatched mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) and a grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones) who encourages the young prodigy. He plays with a band called Bluesology supporting visiting US acts and gets picked up by A&R man Ray Williams (Charlie Rowe) to write for producer Dick James (Stephen Graham) and is teamed with teenage lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) whose words spark an astonishing array of songs in the young composer. They are sent to premiere the renamed ‘Elton John’ to perform at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles where he literally takes off overnight but the pressures of performing and an encounter with personal manager John Reid (Richard Madden) leads to a life of unhappiness and addiction … Do you know how disappointing it is to be your mother? The Elton John biopic that has been in the work for decades finally hits the ground running trailing tantrums, tiaras and all the sequinned flamboyance that the man has on his rider. It’s more than a jukebox musical – it’s a freewheeling fantasy that uses some of the best songs John and Taupin have written to explore the astronomical fame that exploded when they went to the US as soon as they created Your Song. Lee Hall’s script is sometimes too on the nose (if you show you don’t also tell, natch) but for the most part director Dexter Fletcher’s approach is wildly inventive, epic and oddly appropriate even when the time-travelling back and forth is anachronistic in terms of the songs themselves so it might confuse those expecting a more logical biography. It bucks convention and Fletcher has clearly watched the oeuvre of Ken Russell (appropriately enough considering John’s role in Tommy, referenced here), understanding fundamentally the possibilities of narrative playfulness, the sung-through sub-genre and of course the necessities of the backstage form. As brilliantly evoked as the concerts are, the high points take place in a livingroom in Pinner. The monstrousness of his parents is to the fore even if we don’t get into the horrors of his mother hiring an Elton John tribute act to appear at her 90th birthday party since the 1990 addiction therapy is as far as it goes chronologically.  The children who play the young Reggie should get a big shoutout because they are quite extraordinary – Matthew Illesley and especially Kit Connor – and there is a nice touch for Irish viewers with The Stripes (the band that got away from John’s record company and split last year, sob) appearing as members of Bluesology, the group he had before his breakthrough. Egerton lacks the nuance for tragedy but he has some fantastic moments principally as the beloved stage performer:  perhaps that’s enough – those lows are sequenced well in montages and anything resembling the sordid reality might be too tough for this high wire act to bear. Dramatically though it’s the relationships John has with Taupin and his grandmother that make the emotions land. Tate Donovan revels in his outrageousness as Doug Weston, the proprietor of LA’s Troubadour;  while Madden is a horror as the man who took John to the cleaners and stole his heart. Quite the morality tale in terms of his excesses (we never get to see him actually enjoy all those drugs) but the sheer wit and imagination on display is peculiarly apt when it comes to amplifying the content of all those great songs. A delightful evening at the cinema that simply bursts with all the zest a musical can muster and much better than Fletcher’s job on Bohemian Rhapsody but somehow it’s a tad less enjoyable. Go figure. Oh, just write the fucking songs, Bernie. Let me handle the rest!

Cold War (2018)

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Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.  In post-war Poland conductor and musicologist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are holding auditions for a state-sponsored folk music ensemble. Wiktor’s attention is immediately captured by Zula (Joanna Kulig), an ambitious and captivating young woman who is faking a peasant identity and is on probation after attacking her abusive father when he attempted to rape her. They commence a sexual relationship but Wiktor doesn’t want to incorporate more Stalinist propaganda in their productions and wants to escape to the West. Zula doesn’t join him when he escapes in Berlin but a couple of years later he finds her on tour in Yugoslavia where he is quickly removed back to his current base in Paris. Then Zula shows up and leaves her marriage and becomes a recording artist with his help. She can’t stand what he has become and flees to Poland the night her album is launched and Wiktor makes a tremendous sacrifice just to see her again … As far as we’re concerned you don’t exist. It starts with people singing folk songs, performed plaintively and sonorously against a mysterious monochrome backdrop which is rural Poland yet some images take a while to reveal themselves from abstraction. That’s all of a piece with the lives of these somewhat disembodied, disenfranchised individuals whose better existence is entwined with each other yet whose life together is messy, filled with bust-ups, disagreements, partings, border crossings, cultural preservation, propaganda and politics. Their identity – colonised, travelling, in denial – presents a kind of melancholy frankly incomprehensible to people who think they should be glad to be out of the hellhole of the Eastern Bloc.  Neither protagonist is especially likable and the underage relationship is at first shocking, even if she is sexually precocious. The gleaming black and white photography seems bleak at first but paradoxically heightens the romance because this is a film that rejoices in the possibilities of cities and how people can express themselves in one international language – music. Watching Zula finally let loose in the West to Rock Around the Clock is joyous, even if it further fractures her relationship. The architecture isn’t stressed but the common culture it expresses looms over the narrative – building styles, churches, bars, clubs, concert halls, the locations where this couple can find themselves and each other, over and over again. It’s sombre but passionate. Finally they wind up at a literal crossroads, decision made. Writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski traverses these ideas like a high-wire artist, never stooping to the obvious even if some of the melodramatic curves seem inevitable. When Zula tosses her eponymous record in a fountain and then takes off back to Poland it seems unlikely they can ever meet again. But Viktor returns to his home country only to be imprisoned? Well. If it wasn’t true, would you believe it? Yet that is what Pawlikowski’s own background looks like – complex, difficult, liminal, like all stories about affiliations and borders and political ideologies and exile. It’s about his parents. And it’s true. And it took years and years for them to get together and their relationship covers a continent of musical styles and idioms. Remarkable. Let’s go to the other side.

Scott Walker 9th January 1943 – 25th March 2019

Child actor. Guitarist. Singer. Walker Brother. Teen idol. Avant garde performer. Soundtrack composer. One of the great voices of the twentieth century (although he was 30 Century Man.) Noah Scott Engel aka Scott Walker was born in the United States but chose to make the UK his base from the mid-Sixties where the Walker Brothers group had their biggest success. He made a radical turnaround in his performing and songwriting style, once described as though Andy Williams had turned into Stockhausen. Eclectic, driven, singular, endlessly influential. Genius. RIP.

Andre Previn 6th April 1929 – 28th February 2019

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The man immortalised as André Preview by Morecambe and Wise to a generation of children who grew up with BBC TV, has died today, aged 89. A formidable and versatile wunderkind, he made his name composing and arranging film scores with MGM musicals and in partnership with filmmakers as diverse and demanding as Stanley Donen and Billy Wilder, but was equally at home on Broadway, conducting orchestras, composing concertos or playing jazz. So preternaturally gifted was he that he scored Holiday in Mexico while still at high school – a film mostly memorable for featuring Fidel Castro as an extra! He is the last of his kind. Rest in peace. And thank you for the music. I’m just very pleased to be a musician. MM#2250

Score – A Film Music Documentary (2016)

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We can make you feel anything we want you to feel. Matt Schrader’s documentary about film composers is a compelling and immersive odyssey which tracks the evolution of the music score from its heyday in classical Hollywood through the present day. Alex North’s debut score for A Streetcar Named Desire featuring jazz stylings is named as the first truly modern score, marking a break from the nineteenth century symphonic style that had dominated to that point. It’s actually revolutionary, say this assemblage of composers, film directors and critics. Then John Barry is cited, the James Bond theme (which he adapted from Monty Norman’s signature) inextricably linked with the spy genre. An array of composers describe and exhibit their collections of instruments, with Mark Mothersbaugh wondering what happened to the toy piano he picked up in the Beverly Center for sixty bucks – he used it to compose the Rugrats theme then returned it and got his money back. Bernard Herrmann was an original, demonstrating that anything was possible:  as the shower scene from Psycho is shown without music, you suddenly see the edits. The emotional effects of film composition are discussed through physiology and eye movement – that’s the science. Jerry Goldsmith’s work is the next signpost to modernity – his work on Planet of the Apes even used kitchen utensils to achieve its particular affect. When writing a new score for Chinatown (after the original had been written, recorded and dumped) he demanded four harps, four pianos, strings, percussion and a solo trumpet:  instant film classic. John Williams dominates because he was chosen by Steven Spielberg, who thought after seeing The Reivers with its pastoral theme he was an old guy:  far from it, he was a hep young jazz cat. When he presented the filmmaker with two notes for Jaws, Spielberg thought it was a joke. Of course those notes triggered a major work, but he was nervous. Then came Star Wars. And E.T., where the gaps are left to ultimately bring the story to a fanfare that is oriented to Elliott’s point of view in an epic story of unique intimacy. Some iconic London recording studios are visited – Air (discovered by George Martin, who converted it from a church building) and where David Arnold has worked for a quarter of a century;  and Abbey Road, also inhabited by Martin with the Beatles but latterly better known as a soundtrack centre with some intriguing engineering and choral setups explored. Danny Elfman was picked to compose for Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure because he liked his work with synth band Oingo Boingo and a new, dark universe of music was begun from scratch. With Thomas Newman, son of the great Hollywood composer Alfred, the emotive solo piano comes to the fore:  inimitable, as we recognise in Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty. Hans Zimmer, also part of an Eighties synth group, Buggles, is practically a genre unto himself, Led Zeppelin with an orchestra. As he sits in his Santa Monica studio saying his music exposes him, he reminds us that if it weren’t for film composers a lot of orchestras would be going out of business. And suddenly we swerve into contemporary composition:  experimental work by rock musicians starting with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on The Social Network. Thus is a new era born, constantly reinventing itself with technology and innovations. The poignant conclusion is a loop back to the ideas presented at the start of the film – that directors generally cannot articulate what they want from a score. James Cameron misunderstood a recording sent to him by the late James Horner for Titanic: Horner described it as ‘a sketch’. It was a musical sketch, for piano, but Cameron thought it was literally for the actual sketching scene when Di Caprio draws Winslet, posing nude. He edited the scene to the music and called Horner. Horner protested it was a sketch. Cameron said it was perfect, he should see it. Horner said he could get the best pianist in the world to play it. Cameron kept it as it was. It’s perfect. All your other work in a film could come to nothing if you don’t get the music right

Ludwig (1973)

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Ludwig. He loved women. He loved men. He lived as controversially as he ruled. But he did not care what the world thought. He was the world. Munich 1864. Young Ludwig (Helmut Berger) is crowned King of Bavaria and sets up financing his composer friend Richard Wagner (Trevor Howard) whom he hopes will be his intimate friend. When Wagner betrays him with married Cosima von Bülow (Silvana Mangano) he leaves Munich but Ludwig continues to support him. Ludwig’s cousin Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider) wants to set him up with her sister Sophie (Sonia Petrovna) but it’s Elisabeth that Ludwig wants. He retreats into the world of imagination, soundtracked to Wagner’s compositions, even when the 1866 Austro-Prussian war happens and his brother Otto (John Moulder-Brown) and cabinet cannot persuade him to take a side. Despite his burgeoning homosexuality he is persuaded to marry Sophie by his advisor Count Durckheim (Helmut Griem). Following the Franco-Prussian war of 1871 when Bavaria loses a deal of sovereignty to Prussia, Otto is hospitalised to treat his declining mental health. Ludwig is absorbed by his extravagant building projects including Neuschwanstein Castle and becomes involved with actor Josef Kainz (Folker Bohnet) and starts hosting orgies. He ignores Elisabeth. Word of his behaviour spreads to the Bavarian cabinet so that by 1886 it’s time to draft in the doctors … Mad, bad and dangerous, that was Ludwig’s reputation and Luchino Visconti’s lush, beautiful account doesn’t exactly clarify matters about his decline and mysterious demise even though it creates a fully fleshed world, dictated by the preferences of the protagonist himself. Partly the confusion has to do with what version you have the opportunity to watch. With five different cuts varying from two to four hours in length (I have watched two, the latest being the 226 minutes version as Visconti intended) this is something of a frustration in anyone’s language;  and, at the point in Visconti’s career where decoration was slowly supplanting dramatic tension, the joy in seeing Berger and Schneider exchanging sweet nothingness is replaced by a kind of exhaustion. Beauty can do that to a person. Breathtaking? It’s all that. And less, and less, if you see the shorter cuts with some of the gay stuff removed for censorship reasons. To the detriment too of dramatic logic. Yet this is quite a rounded vision of Germany’s intellectual and cultural aspects in the latter half of the nineteenth century, bristling through a nation-state’s growing political personality as a kind of warped belle époque happens. Visconti had a stroke after filming which led to all manner of issues for a production that happened when his long-cherished Proust project failed to come to fruition.  It’s a tribute to his protegé Berger really, who totally inhabits the role from boy to man with remarkable, emotive physicality in this inscription to a sorrowful life (the Italian dub is voiced by Giancarlo Giannini); while Schneider was returning to the role of Sissi (which had made her famous throughout Europe in a series of much-loved films) as a favour to the director.  Written by Visconti with Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, this was shot on the original locations, which adds immensely to the overwhelming spectacle, a great immersion into big characters and the way they made their lives matter.

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Being human is a condition that requires a little anaesthesia. In 1970 college student and Heathrow Airport baggage handler Farrokh (Freddie) Bulsara (Rami Malek) goes to a nightclub to watch a local band called Smile where he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) who’ve just lost their bassist/singer. He gives an impromptu display of his four octave range and offers to be the band’s new lead vocalist. The diva has arrived fully formed. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) the band – now known as Queen – plays at local gigs across Britain until they sell their van to produce their debut album which earns them a contract with EMI. At the same time, Farrokh legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury and becomes engaged to Biba store clerk Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) with whom he lives. During the band’s U.S. tour, Freddie begins to question his sexuality. In 1975, Queen record their fourth album, A Night at the Opera but leave EMI when executive Ray Foster (an unrecognisable Mike Myers) refuses to have the six-minute song Bohemian Rhapsody released as the album’s first single. Freddie has Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett (Dickie Beau) debut the song on the airwaves. Despite mixed reviews, it becomes a smash hit. Shortly after the band’s world tour, Freddie begins an affair with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), his personal manager, and Mary breaks up with Freddie when he comes out to her as bisexual, although she assures him that he is gay. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career after sacking manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) in a sleight of hand engineered by Prenter who leads Freddie in an increasingly debauched way of life as he records his albums in Munich, drugged up and losing contact with the band and their new manager and former lawyer Jim ‘Miami’ Beach (Tom Hollander). Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with them just in time for Live Aid, a concert which Prenter decided not to tell Freddie about. While facing a recent AIDS diagnosis which he discloses a week before the world’s biggest ever concert, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. .. How many more Galileos do you want?! The dramatic peaks of this controversial and troubled production (is there any other kind?) are the composition of the legendary epic song that gives rise to the title; and the final twenty-minute set at Live Aid on 13th July 1985.  The writing of the songs is what underpins the film’s dramatic core – from the first words or notes or flashes of inspiration to the band’s individual contributions in studios intercut with live performance this might be one of the best expositions of composition certainly in terms of rock band biopics, demonstrating how something gets written, produced and performed. But it’s really all about Freddie the showman and the other guys are just sketches of perfectly reasonable young musicians, not fully formed characters who might have had reason to knock Freddie sideways even if Roger tries (it was produced by them with Jim Beach, so it was never going to go full fetish). There might be complaints about the telescoping of certain incidents (the AIDS diagnosis) for dramatic purpose but it serves the wider ambition, which is to delineate just how extraordinary the connection with the audience was from their very first performance. Mercury’s own lifestyle and how he became ill is then suggested rather than graphically explored (whew) but the seedy Prenter is assigned the role of villain in chief and Leech does what he can in the character role where his costuming becomes the model for Freddie’s gay Village People look (prompting an apposite line from Brian). Boynton is rather good in another underwritten role as the toothsome Mary whose friendship was the hinge for Freddie’s sanity and a reality check when he went over the edge.  The social and cultural backdrop of Zoroastrianism and being a Parsi immigrant in Britain is paid its due even if it’s a little perfunctory but works to explain Freddie’s exoticism and the originality which he gleefully exploits for presentation amid these middle class boys. It’s ironic that it’s Roger who wants to cross-dress for the I Want to Break Free video and Freddie who gets pilloried for it at a press conference. Roger, there’s only room in this band for one hysterical queen. It’s far from perfect but once you get accustomed to the wildly charismatic Malek (and his enormous teeth – extra incisors, folks!) it’s quite thrilling, taking us from the wet dull dank hinterland of England in the early 1970s when the apex of fame is an appearance on Top of the Pops, where the BBC man insists that they lip-sync; through the leather-clad descent into a druggy fug not giving a four x about what people thought until it was too late while the other guys got married and had families. Freddie’s efforts to find Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) years after their first encounter at his party are quite touching particularly because he’s the first man he takes home to meet the parents, on the morning of Live Aid, prompting a reconciliation that leads the folks to watch him on the telly. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (from a story written with Peter Morgan) is flawed and rather kitsch but somehow the parts make up an entertainment that will have you stomping in the aisles. How these extraordinarily well-educated men heard music and put it through their own misfitted filter for a wider world is the whole show. Basically, this is Queen’s Greatest Hits. Oh, and Freddie’s cats are absolutely delightful. Directed for the most part by Bryan Singer who flung a hissy fit à la Freddie and had to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher. I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever