Thursday, December 31, 2009

All You Need...

I've heard nothing but great things about the Tony Palmer TV documentary "All You Need Is Love", a very comprehensive 17 part documentary on the history of popular music. Now I've seen the first few episodes and I'm a little beumsed. The shows I've seen do have some rare performance footage and impressive interviews with the likes of John Hammond and Eubie Blake, but some of the juxtapositions and conclusions reached had me scratching my head.

The four shows I saw were on the African roots of popular music, ragtime, jazz and blues. Understandably there was a lot in these subjects on how black musicians had to dilute their work to appeal to white audiences but two of the seeming examples of this were Louis Armstrong and James Brown!  Even odder, the first part of the Jazz program was narrated by someone named Al Roth who insisted that jazz did not come out of the  Storyville brothels of New Orleans (which writes Jelly Roll Morton out of history) or develop in Chicago speakeasies though he doesn't really give any alternative explanation for where it all came from.

The Jazz show is the oddest of the four. Obviously in an hour TV program it would be impossible to touch on all the essential figures in the genre, but Duke Ellington's only mention comes in passing when Hammond discusses the dishonesty of the music business and Count Basie's sole appearance is in contrast to footage of the Ku Klux Klan.  Later on they have musicians like Dave Brubeck, John Lewis and George Shearing talk about the importance of structure in jazz which would seem to be a rebuke to the 60's New Thing which is not even directly brought up. There's no mention of Ornette Cleman and John Coltrane is only shown in footage of his days with Miels Davis.  Interestingly the show does put some focus on what was then the current scene by showing Chick Corea fooling around on a syntthesizer and, since this was a British production, performance footage of British scenesters Mike Gibbs and Ian Carr.

Then there are other odd things like the Blues episode never mentioning Robert Johnson and ending with ten minutes on Billie Holiday who rarely sang blues. Then there is also the way that the same footage of modern day strippers is somehow shoehorned in to the ragtime, jazz and blues episodes. I'll get back to this series eventually and I'll be interested to see if some of these odd features continue in the future.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Movies Of The Decade

Lately I've been hit over the head with the fact that it's the end of the decade. I've been seeing all sorts of lists about the best music, TV, news stories, athletes and whatever of the last ten years, so I thought it would be fun to do one myself.

My major love is music but I have no way of figuring out just what CDs I have that came out within the last decade so I'm instead doing my twelve favorite movies of the period. I don't have really mainstream tastes and I'm completely burned out on fantasy epics so you won't find "The Lord Of The Rings" or any comic book movies here (though "The Dark Knight" was under consideration) and as for comedy,  the likes of Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith do nothing for me. I tend to be drawn to darker or crazier films. Some of the ones I've listed were substantial hits. Others barely got a theatrical release. The only real commonality is that they all stayed with me long after I watched them. So here goes:

1. Let The Right One In  - This Swedish vampire film lived up to its hype. It was haunting, sad and a troubling meditation on love. A Video Watchdog article pointed out marked similarites between this and the mega-hit "Twilight" but I'll happily take this story about an eternally twelve-yeat-old vampire girl and her new protector over the teemybop version.

2. There Will Be Blood - An epic that could stand beside the silent work of Griffith or Von Stroheim. This story of a ruthless oilman in the early 20th Century was beautfully told and Daniel Day-Lewis well deserved his Oscar.

3.  Frozen River - A simple story about a single mother who turns to smuggling immgrants across the Canadian border to afford a new home for herself and her son. It was gritty and poignant and Melissa Leo at least got the recognition of an Oscar nomination for it.

4.  The Three Burials Of Mesquelaides Estrada - One that got away. Everybody gushed over "No Country For Old Men" but to me, this is a far superior Tommy Lee Jones movie and one which he also directed. Jones plays a Texas lawman who makes a trip to Mexico to give a dead friend a proper burial. As in that other picture, he beautifully plays a man who realizes he's out of his place and time and this movie at least has an ending.

5.  Bug - This is another brilliant film few people saw a supposed horror film that actually turns out to be an amazing study in psychological disentegration. Ashley Judd gave the performance of her career to date and it's a shame nobody knows about it.

6.  Lost In Translation - At least this movie found an audience. This story of two lonely people finding an unexpected connection in the alien world of Tokyo showed that Sofia Coppola definitely inherited her father's directing chops. As for Bill Murray, he has never been better.

7.  I (Heart) Huckabees - Finally a comedy. This story of self-help gurus, advertising and Shania Twain was so completely insane you just had to let its wacked out logic wash over you. It starred Naomi Watts, Dustin Hoffman, Mark Wahlberg, Jason Schwartzman, Lily Tomlin, Isabelle Huppert and Jude Law among others and not one of them was wasted.

8.  Control - Joy Division is my favorite rock band of all time so naturally I sought out this biography of the group's doomed singer, Ian Curtis. Anton Corbijn diirected with the same somber economy as his photography and the film did a great job of capturing the grim feel of the group's native Macnhester and the cathartic drama of their music.

9.   Dogville - Lars Von Trier is one of those directors who doesn't seem to always have all his oars in the water but he has directed two brilliant films, "Breaking The Waves" and this one. It's an audacious and simply staged fable about human cruelty that reveals itself by the end as a riff on the Brecht-Weill song, "Pirate Jenny". It's been called a criticism of America but with its international cast I really don't see that, the closing use of David Bowie's "Young Americans" not withstanding.

10.  Looking For Comedy In The Muslim World - Other people make comedies about fat schlumps trying to get laid and make millions. Albert Brooks makes a comedy about a comedian hired by the State Department to do the title task and nobody cares. Nevertheless this had Brooks playing the same narcisstic worry wart he did in "Lost In America" and "Modern Romance" and it was terrific. His comic voice is sadly missed these days.

11.  The Brown Bunny - I made this a Top 12 list because I had to get this in. Yes, Roger Ebert hated the rough cut of this and if people know it at all, it's for a miniscule oral sex scene but this is as powerful a study of the effects of guilt and loss as anybody has done recently. Whatever you say about Vincent Gallo he got it dead solid perfect with this one.

12. Million Dollar Baby - There may be the likes of "Bronco Billy" and "Pale Rider" in his past but ever since "Unforgiven" Clint Eastwood has been in his glory as a director.  This is my favorite of his films to date (but I've yet to see "Letters From Iwo Jima" or "Gran Torino"). Ostenibly a boxing story, this really goes back to one of his favorite themes, lonly and abandoned misfits forming a family unit which in this case, leads to a powerful and tragic climax. Hilary Swank's and Morgan Freeman's Oscars were well deserved.

Other movies considered: The President's Last Bang, Battle Royale, Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, Birth, Melinda And Melinda, Baise-Moi.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

CD Impressions

This is the first of occasional posts on music I have been listening to, not necessarily new stuff just what I pull out of my collection:

Lee Konitz, Satori (Milestone)

The great Mr. Konitz from 1974 doing his usual magical liquid improvising, mostly in the company of another iconoclast, pianist Martial Solal. The session is notable for trying to stay up with the times by using electric piano on two tracks, the free-falling title track and "Sometime Ago" where Solal adds burbling keyboards to Konitz's sweeping waltz time playing. Also notable here are the two young turks in the rhythm section, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.

John McLaughlin, Extrapolation (Polydor)

This is McLaughlin's celebrated first disc as a leader and on of the few that captures him still as a member of Britain's fine jazz scene. Listening to his brawling with John Surman's muscular baritone, you wonder how his career would have gone if he hadn't gone to America to work with Miles Davis and gone the Mahavishnu-Shakti route. This is tough, punchy music of exceptional quality.

John Zorn, "Alhambra Love Songs" (Tzadik)

John Zorn tries out the piano trio format on this disc, writing music supposedly in the style of West Coast musicians like Vince Guaraldi and Hampton Hawes. There is some good mellow jazz here in tunes like "Half Moon Bay", "Moraga" and "Alhambra Blues" but Zorn being Zorn, he can never stay in one genre for very long so there's also exotica, rock, serialism and noir faux-soundtracks. The players, Rob Burger, Greg Cohen and Ben Petrowsky, are very capable but to get the real feeling of the classic West Coast sound, stick with the original Mulligan or Guaraldi recordings.