American Graffiti (1973)

American Graffiti

You just can’t stay seventeen forever. From magic hour until dawn, George Lucas’ evocation of the last night of properly being a teenager in Modesto, CA c. 1962 remains one of the most truly felt, realistically dramatised portraits of that difficult age. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is arguing with high school class president Steve (Ron Howard) in the car park of Mel’s Drive-In when he says he’s changing his mind about leaving for college in the morning. Steve breaks up with Curt’s sister and head cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams) and vests custody of his beloved wheels to Toad (Charles Martin Smith) while the oldest teen in town, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) looks on.  Music is pouring from the school hall where Herby & the Heartbeats aka Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids are performing at the back to school hop. Steve and Laurie have to pretend they’re still getting along as they dance in front of everyone. Curt spots a blonde angel (Suzanne Somers) cruising the strip in a Thunderbird and can’t be persuaded she’s a prostitute even after phoning her. John gives little Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) a ride and she aggressively but innocently pursues her crush on him. Toad picks up Debbie (Candy Clark) in the car and she proves surprisingly sweet considering her Monroe-esque attributes. John agrees to a drag race on Paradise Road against Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) and it ends in a flame-out at dawn …  This low budget quasi-autobiographical film and tribute to hot rodding was made by George Lucas when he couldn’t get his version of Apocalypse Now off the ground. HIs college classmates Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck co-wrote his story and Richard Walter did a sexy rewrite which didn’t work for Lucas and he rewrote it all himself using his record collection as inspiration for the different sections. It wasn’t sufficiently sexy or violent enough for AIP so United Artists financed the development (whew). It looked to UA like a music montage so that was when Universal came up with the money for production. It was shot in Techniscope utilising two cinematographers in each scene to save time and money and look like widescreen 16mm. It was editor Walter Murch’s idea (after Verna Fields left the rough cut for a bigger budget movie called What’s Up Doc?) to arrange the story to Wolfman Jack’s radio show focusing on rock ‘n’ roll classics. The soundtrack budget didn’t allow for the fees demanded by Elvis’ company, RCA and it’s all curated by Kim Fowley. The songs chronicle each of the vignettes, culminating in Curt’s departure for college at the local airport. Steve stays in Modesto and the credits commence with a card telling us of what supposedly becomes of each of the four protagonists. Ironically Lucas missed his high school reunion in Modesto because of the shoot which took him to San Rafael and then Petaluma. It was done in sequence and mainly at night so the actors would look progressively more tired as the night becomes morning. Charming, cherishable, wise and funny, with a vast array of performers who became household names and starting a huge vogue for Fifties nostalgia – Rock and roll has been going downhill since Buddy Holly died, as one of the guys declares while rubbishing The Beach Boys. An evocative, classic, inspirational homage to guys, girls, cars and rock ‘n’ roll. What more do you want?! Produced by Francis Ford Coppola, whose Dementia 13 is on the marquee of the local cinema.

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The Fisher King (1991)

The Fisher King theatrical

Obnoxious NYC shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is doling out advice as per and looking forward to a part in a TV sitcom when the news mentions his name – a man was inspired by his rant against yuppies to go on a shooting spree in a restaurant and then killed himself. Jack spirals into a suicidal depression and we find him three years later working in the video store owned by his girlfriend (a fiery Mercedes Ruehl) and about to kill himself when some youthful vigilantes decide to do some street cleaning – he’s rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a Grail obsessive and homeless loner whose wife was killed in the restaurant massacre. How their lives intertwine and they both chase the objects of their affection (and each other’s obsession) while battling mental illness is the backbone of this comedy-drama-fantasy that is told in the usual robust and arresting style of Terry Gilliam, who was directing a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese. There are iconic images here – the Red Knight appearing to Parry as his hallucinations kick in, and the chase through Central Park;  the extraordinary Grand Central Station waltzing scene in which Parry meets the weird Lydia (Amanda Plummer);  Jack and Parry watching the stars. Gilliam’s own obsessions are all over this despite his not writing it, with references to the Grail (obv) and Don Quixote.  It’s all wrapped into four distinctive performances which embody oddball characters in search of a role for life in a very conventional time, with emotions riding high while personal circumstances contrive to drag them to the very pit of their being. There are some outstanding performances in small roles by Tom Waits, Michael Jeter and Kathy Najimy in a film that proves that dreams do come true.

Gary Numan: Android in La La Land (2016)

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Gary Numan appeared like a Kraftwerk clone from another planet at the end of the Seventies with his band Tubeway Army and their earworms, Cars and Are Friends Electric? His appearance drew ire from the critics, who played no role in boosting him since he just … manifested, like a badass machine dream. His unique musical approach was to take Moog synth sounds and feed them through guitar effects pedals. It was the height of the New Wave and even within that loosely defined movement he was an anomaly. Not that you’d really learn this here because this concerns his move to LA a few years ago with his feisty former fan wife, their three lovely daughters and is really about mental health, financial woes and the difficult writing of his make or break album and emigrating to the US because he’s broke and needs to connect with more opportunities. We learn a huge amount about his (few) relationships;  his Asperger’s diagnosis when he was a kid; very little about his tunnel vision and determination; and the eventual difficulties with his manager father when he kept going on expensive tours that led to his folks going to ATMs at night and using their credit cards to pay the bills. He and his wife both succumbed to depression around his 50th birthday and the stress of keeping going and raising three small children whom they struggled to conceive is movingly told. It’s an engaging piece of work with some beautifully staged sequences including several mobile camera shots upside down which is presumably an objective correlative for his view of the world. And his wife’s hair colour is different in every scene. But there’s not enough about the music or what actually happened to make – and break up – Tubeway Army! Darn it! For another film, perhaps, or the Uncut version. Directed by Steve Read and Rob Alexander.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (2016)

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Who are The Beatles? Get me The Beatles! Get me hepcats that sound like The Beatles! Get me a young Beatles! Who are The Beatles? Imagine a  world where The Beatles never existed. It’s not easy if you try. The story of their early years: the tours, the fans, the madness, the constant travel; the songwriting; the link between Lennon and McCartney; the moment Ringo joined and made them a band; playing in sports stadia through Tannoys;  the impossible demands; not being able to hear themselves onstage, not being able to hear what they really needed, inside;  endless contracts, their democratic structure (all four agreed or not at all); and the constancy of their friendship;  the final concert in Candlestick Park, SF, August 1966; the way they used their difficulties to create even more majestic music when they retreated to the recording studio. And the end. Before any of them had reached the age of 30. Ron Howard uses stills, archive footage, latterday interviews with stars who are fans, journalists who accompanied them, director Richard Lester who made their films – rush-released cos nobody thought they’d last – composer Howard Goodall who rates them with Mozart and Schubert, new interviews with McCartney and Starr (DPd by Caleb Deschanel, not too shabby) and the songs. The songs. I sang along like I was in the front row of their concerts. All of it is contextualised with news footage of another, troubled time and we’ve seen a lot of this before, but it’s the music. The music will never die. Soundtrack of my life. Written by Mark Monroe and PG Morgan.

Vanishing Point (1971)

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The very essence of 70s existentialism. In a way. Perhaps those sunburst flashbacks are not a good idea. Maybe if the script had the courage of its convictions we would just experience the desert drive with Barry Newman instead of getting backstory, romance, rationale. Kinda like Falling Down, which similarly overloaded an explosively effective social drama with causes, which wasn’t really needed and deflated the message. Here we have pillhead Kowalski fresh out of Nam who is promised his next cache for free if he brings this 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T back to San Francisco from Denver in 15 hours. A multi-state police chase ensues. Cleavon Little is the radio DJ narrating his progress. Sometimes you should trust the audience a little more. And make a fully fledged classic. Unique, terrifically atmospheric, brilliantly shot by John A. Alonzo and well directed by Richard C. Sarafian. Written pseudonymously by G. Cabrera Infante as Guillermo Cain.This is really something. And the car!

Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Grosse Pointe Blank poster

This is the one where the hitman developing a conscience goes home to give romance a second shot. In fact, it’s one of the best films of the 90s. It’s a very black comedy about high school, life, killing, babies, music and all that kinda good stuff. John Cusack is Martin Blank, the troubled contract killer who’s persuaded by his assistant (played by sister Joan Cusack) to attend his 10-year high school reunion in Grosse Pointe. She says of her own, “it was as if everyone had swelled.” When he discusses it with his traumatised psychiatrist (Alan Arkin), he asks what he’s supposed to say to people there: “I killed the President of Paraguay with a fork, how have you been?” He has a job in Detroit so he can kill two birds with one stone as it were –  so decides to go home for the first time in a decade. Mom is on lithium in a home for the bewildered. His house has been taken over by a supermarket and a killer on his tail blows it up. The girl he stood up at prom (Minnie Driver) is now the local DJ and has a killer soundtrack (courtesy of Joe Strummer) but insists on bitch slapping him live on air before they can get together. And there’s another hitman, Grocer (Dan Aykroyd) who has a bone to pick with him over crossing his path and wants him to join a union. Tom Jankiewicz wrote the story and did the screenplay with additions by Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis (currently on producing duty on the compelling TV drama The People Vs. OJ Simpson) and Steve Pink. There is fun to be had with the supporting cast, including Jeremy Piven, Hank Azaria and in a tiny role, Jenna Elfman (where is she now?) This is one great curveball of a movie and it’s directed by George Armitage who you might recall did the terrific Miami Blues. And if there’s a message, it’s probably a bit Thomas Wolfe: yes, you can go home again, but you probably shouldn’t.