Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Mitch Mitchell-1947-2008

We lost the greatest drummer rock and roll has ever seen when Mitch Mitchell died in his sleep of natural causes earlier this month. Mitchell isn't the household name that other drummers like John Bonham or Keith Moon were, but he has long been my favorite drummer. For those that don't know the name, John "Mitch" Mitchell was the drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, pioneering a sort of jazz-infused rock drumming on all of Hendrix's studio recordings, and can especially be heard on classics songs like "Foxy Lady" "Up From the Skies" and "Manic Depression". He and Hendrix would often record songs with just the two of them in the studio because they fed off of each others energy so much. Mitch was known for his frantic energy, but nimbly precise drumming. Just listening to the controlled chaos that is his playing on "Fire" gives me goosebumps. Sadly, he was the last surviving member of the group, as Hendrix died in 1970 and bassist Noel Redding passed away in 2003. Mitch had largely stayed out of the spotlight in recent years, but had just finished playing a Hendrix tribute tour before he died.

Friday, November 21, 2008

When a classic, shouldn't be-The Beach Boys "Pet Sounds"

I like Pet Sounds, it's a good album. Its reputation, however, is that it's one of the best albums ever made. When Rolling Stone magazine made a list of its 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time, Pet Sounds came in 2nd only to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Brian Wilson, as the creative force behind the group, had been inspired to push himself to the limit by the release of The Beatles' Rubber Soul in 1965, saying of his first listen:

"I really wasn't quite ready for the unity. It felt like it all belonged together. Rubber Soul was a collection of songs ... that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed. I said, 'That's it. I really am challenged to do a great album.'"

Most people think he did make a great album with Pet Sounds, but I don't. It's a nice little album, it's enjoyable, but it's not great. I can appreciate the influence it has had on a production level, but the fact is (fact in my mind anyway) that there are only 2 great songs on it. Only "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows" are truly great songs. Not that that's a bad thing, most groups would kill to have 2 all-time great songs on an album. But the thing is, there are at least 2 great songs on the worst Beatles albums. So what makes Pet Sounds a classic on the level of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, or Led Zeppelin II?

Obviously, since I don't believe it's true I won't be able to answer the question. Still, I go back and listen to it every few months to see if one day something in it hits me the right way and I suddenly see why everyone likes it so much. But honestly, if it were a Beatles album, it wouldn't even scratch my top 5 from them, much less an all-time great list.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Groundhog Day-the philosophical comedy

"I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over..."

What would you do if you had all the time in the world? What would you do if your actions seemingly had zero consequences? If there are no consequences, then what's good and what's evil? If there's no tomorrow, then what is the point of today? Writer/director Harold Ramis tackles these kind of questions in his modern comedy classic Groundhog Day. Weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) wakes up every morning to see that it's February 2nd and he's in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the Groundhog Day festivities. Phil doesn't know why this is happening (wisely Ramis and co-writer Danny Rubin never try to explain), but he knows that he's the only one who's experiencing the phenomenon. He tries to tell his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) what is going on, but to no avail. They wake up the next day on their first February 2nd.

The movie deals with some deep philosophical questions, mostly through Phil's reaction to what's happening. At first he gives in to every hedonistic fantasy one could imagine. He gets into a drunken high-speed chase with the cops (and is thrown in jail), steals money from an armored truck, seduces women with carefully placed knowledge (which he got from them the day before), and throws himself into gluttony with reckless abandon. He tries to seduce Rita, even spending time learning French and memorizing poetry to try and impress her. Rita proves to be a tough nut to crack and Phil eventually gives up. Before too long, the existential weight of his situation gets to him and he slips into a deep depression. He tries multiple times to commit suicide, shooting, stabbing, electrocution, etc. only to find the alarm in his Punxsutawney hotel room waking him up at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, once again on Groundhog Day. He determines to do something good with his time when he's confronted with death, in the form of a sickly homeless man that Phil tries to save (God knows how many days he spends trying to rescue the old man). Phil realizes that maybe there are better ways to spend his eternity in Punxsutawney.

There's a lot of loneliness to Phil's situation. There's a scene where he and Rita are wasting time by flicking playing cards into an upturned hat, Rita says it'd take her years to learn how to do it as well as Phil does, but he says "Nah, six months. Practice 4 or 5 hours a day and you'd have it". There's a certain knowing melancholy to the way that Murray delivers this line, Phil has to spend his endless days doing something and when you realize that he has spent half a year just flicking cards, it really makes you think about whether his situation is a blessing or a curse. We're never told how long this goes on for (10 years, 10,000 years, it doesn't really matter). If you had all the time in the world, you could learn everything that there was to know, experience everything there was to experience. But Phil wouldn't have anyone to share in his knowledge or experiences, because they wouldn't remember what happened the next day. It's a sad life, and we're happy when Phil decides to do some good in the town, even if it seems futile.

Reading back through what I've written, it makes this sound like kind of a downer, but actually Groundhog Day is a terrific comedy as well. Watching the "teenaged, evil Phil", as Ramis has called him, after Phil discovers that there are no consequences to his actions, you see the gleam in Murray's eye that tells you he's having a good time indulging in his fantasies. He has a lot of great moments in the beginning being snarky ego-centric Phil, but there's also some things like when he hurts his back after hurrying to save a kid falling out of a tree (for probably the 1,000th time), the kid runs off and Phil shouts "You never thank me!". And all that isn't even going into detail about the terrific, somewhat one-sided, romance between Phil and Rita that is really one of the throughlines of the movie.

Murray is terrific, maybe the best he's ever been, and he's been great in a lot of movies. Andie MacDowell is radiant, and I can see why Phil falls for her. She's intelligent, beautiful, and MacDowell is just so likable and natural in the role. Chris Elliott is sort of underused in his role as the camera man, but really it's more because the movie is focused on Phil and his story, rather than trying to pad the running time, which Ramis has perfect at around 100 minutes. I can see why Groundhog Day has developed such a revered reputation (in 2006 it was added as one of the less than 500 titles in the United States National Film Registry because it was "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant"). It's much deeper than your typical comedy, but it also delivers a bunch of laughs. What more could you ask for?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rififi-A heist movie masterpiece

I'll admit that I don't know nearly as much about French cinema as I should. However, I have little doubt that Jules Dassin's 1955 masterpiece Rififi is the greatest French film ever made. In fact, it's one of the greatest films ever made, period. It technically falls under the category of being a heist movie, but it's of such a high quality that it just makes that label seem inadequate. It set the archetype for all future heist movies, but doesn't feel cheapened due to its imitators. If anything, the imitators feel cheapened in my mind because Rififi shows them how it's supposed to be done.

It starts in the early hours of morning in a smoky room in Paris where a group of men are finishing an all night poker game. Tony (Jean Servais) needs money to keep playing, so he calls up his friend Jo (Carl Mohner) to help him out. Apparently Tony just did a 5 year stint in prison for a jewel heist he pulled, and Jo was the protege for whom Tony took the rap. Jo takes him out of the room and into the fresh air where he plans on taking Tony home, but instead stops at a local coffee shop to meet his friend Mario (Robert Manuel). Tony's in failing health, but Jo and Mario are planning a heist of an ultra high-end jewelry store, and they desperately need Tony to mastermind the operation. Tony brings in an intermediary that they'll launder the jewels through once they have them, and knows of an Italian safecracker named Cesar (Dassin himself, acting under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) that they'll need to get through the safe. The thing about jewel heists though is that things aren't always over after the job is pulled. The guys can't screw anything up by flaunting their new wealth, which would draw the eye of both the police, and maybe the ruthless gangster than Tony's ex-girlfriend shacked up with while he was in prison.

The heist of the jewelry store is by far the most famous sequence in the movie. It's a wordless, music less 32-minute tour de force by Dassin. It's unquestionably one of the handful of greatest sequences to ever reach my eyes. These men are professionals at what they do, have thoroughly prepared for this heist (in a previous terrific sequence in the movie), and communicate with one another almost telepathically. Even after disabling the sound sensitive alarm system, there's no reason for these guys to make any noise while they're working, so they don't. Apparently composer Georges Auric scored the entire 32-minute sequence even though Dassin told him he didn't want music over it. Auric assured him that he'd need it if there was to be a half hour of the movie without dialog. When Dassin screened for him both versions of the sequence, Auric told him "It's wrong, the music. Take it out". If ever there was a piece of film I was going to show someone to illustrate that you don't necessarily need dialog to tell a story, it'd be this sequence.

Jean Servais, as Tony, had been a low level French film star who had fallen on hard times before making Rififi. Dassin said that they were lucky to get him because he was such a good actor, but they were able to get him because he desperately needed work and they didn't have much money. He's haunting as the over-the-hill but still sharp Tony. Obviously a career criminal, you can see in his eyes and hear in his voice that he's a beaten down man, but he comes alive a little bit during the heist and afterwords. It's a wonderful performance, but my favorite performance in the movie was by Dassin as Cesar le Milanais the safecracker. His final scene in the movie is another masterpiece of directing, but it's also an extraordinary performance from a guy who had recently been nearly bankrupt due to being put on the Hollywood Blacklist in the late 1940's. Dassin tried several times to get other projects going, even outside of the US, but was not able to get anything done until a French producer told him he was the only man who could make Rififi.

Rififi was a huge hit upon its release and restored Dassin to both artistic and financial good standing (the producer couldn't afford to offer him a decent upfront salary, so Dassin was given a percentage of the profits contract). Dassin won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the movie was widely hailed as one of the great film noirs ever made. Its reputation has only grown in the ensuing 53 years, and with good reason. I'd heard about it for years, but never got around to watching it. Then I had it in from Netflix for a while and never got around to watching it. Now I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to experience this true masterpiece of world cinema.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Commitments-Another musical done right

"The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. The Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once and say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud."

Alan Parker's The Commitments is a movie that has a lot of insight into the way that many bands work. They might be fighting like the pettiest of siblings backstage, and creating beautiful, moving music when they get onstage in front of the crowd. The problem with the band The Commitments is that they can't always keep those two behaviors separate. Sax players trying to fit a jazz solo into soul music whether it fits or not, egotistical singers that piss people off but sound too damn good to kick out of the band, your trumpet player nailing all of your female singers, crazy roadies, and angry pawn shop dealers, but above all else... the music. This movie has some really good music. Otis Redding, James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, and more are worshipped by The Commitments, and this movie helped introduce a lot of those people into a new generation in the early 90's. I may relate to the band interactions and the music more than some people will, but it's done so well that I think people understand it even if they don't have first hand experience with it

Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) wants to put together a band in Dublin, and although he doesn't play an instrument, he fancies himself to be a manager. He recruits old friends on guitar and bass at a wedding where their terrible band is playing. While there, Jimmy also sees a drunk man named Deco (a 16-year-old Andrew Strong) get up and sing while the band is on break, he likes the guys voice and approaches him a few days later about singing in the band. After enduring disastrious auditions, Jimmy gets with a friend who sang in school and asks her to bring a couple of friends to be the female singers of the band, he finds a saxophonist, a drummer, pianist, and is found himself by trumpet player Joey "The Lips" Fagan, a veteran of seemingly every meaningful soul horn section ever. Jimmy decides on the name "The Commitments" because "All of the great groups of the 60's were The somethings". Soon they're on the road and squabbling constantly, onstage and off, while Joey proves that his nickname may not have been given to him because of his trumpeting, as he claims it was. Jimmy's sax player starts rebelling, his drummer quits, there are onstage electrocutions and subsequent trips to the hospital, and so on. Jimmy has idealized managing a band, even hilariously conducting self-interviews about his future successes with the band, but finds out pretty quickly that it might not exactly play out like it does in his head. But he thinks they can get Wilson "Mustang Sally" Pickett to join them onstage when he's in town, since Joey jammed with Pickett back in the day, and if he could just pull that off, Jimmy's band might make the big time.

The Commitments isn't really trying to make any big statements about music, or life, or anything really. It's just telling the inherently episodic story of life in a working band. Like always, some of these episodes work and others don't. There's a great sequence near the beginning of the movie where Jimmy holds massive auditions for the band. Nobody can correctly answer the question of who their influences are (Jimmy is naturally looking for an answer like "Sam Cooke and Ray Charles" or something of the sort), and some don't even end up being musicians. If there are maybe one too many scenes of the band fighting amongst themselves, I can forgive Parker's inclusion of them, since that's still a pretty accurate representation of a lot of bands.

The band sounds really good. Strong has a, well...strong voice, even if it's a bit untrained at his (then) young age. I had no clue while watching the movie that he was only 16, he looks like he's at least 30. It's weird to see Glen Hansard as the guitar player. After seeing him in the movie Once, or with his bands The Frames and The Swell Season, it's strange to see him 15+ years ago all baby faced and everything. None of the other bands members are known to me from anything else, although one of the female singers would later play a bit part in Pulp Fiction, as Rosanna Arquette's druggie friend. But I think that might be for the best. The Commitments is all about kind of making it, then self destructing, but looking back on the experience with fond memories. I think we can all relate to that at least a little bit.