Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

The Great Pretender: a shallow picture of a famous rock music icon

Rhys Thomas, “The Great Pretender” (2012)

The public fascination with the shy Parsi Indian boy born in a British colonial backwater in Zanzibar in 1946, who later became a golden-voiced rock star legend much beloved throughout the world before AIDS took him in 1991, knows no bounds; a feature film dramatisation of his life, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has been raking in the hundreds of millions in revenue throughout the world and there is no shortage of documentaries on the life of Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Probably the best known of these is “The Great Pretender”, made by Queen fan Rhys Thomas, which focuses on Mercury’s life from 1976 onwards to 1991 and a little beyond. In particular there is a heavy emphasis on Mercury’s solo work that produced the album “Mr Bad Guy” and his collaboration with the Catalan / Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe.

The narrative is driven by interviews of people who associated with Mercury from 1976 onwards and archival footage of Mercury himself and his later lover Jim Hutton (who died in 2010); what they say about Mercury is that, far from his flamboyant and confident public persona, he was shy, even self-tortured at times, restless and eager for new experiences and ways of doing things, and maybe not a little shallow at times. During the late 1970s / early 80s, Mercury comes across as arrogant, self-absorbed and selfish; towards the end of his life he has grown tired of his hedonistic lifestyle and matured quite considerably. He is no longer interested in competing with other, younger rock / pop singers in showiness and wants to compose more serious and complex music. At this point, he is advised by his doctors that he has AIDS and the disease is progressing rapidly to the point where he has very little time left in the world to do the things he wants to do.

For all its emphasis on Mercury’s solo work, the film shows no songs or pieces of music from “Mr Bad Guy” or “Barcelona” in their entirety and viewers have to accept the film’s opinion that “Mr Bad Guy” failed (in terms of album sales) because Queen fans refused to accept the idea of Mercury performing without Queen. (I have heard the album myself and can say that the relatively simple nature of the songs and the choice of instrumentation were abysmal for someone who years before wrote complex songs like “Liar” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.”) Viewers are left with a fairly shallow picture of a man who lived a double life as the flamboyant Freddie Mercury in public and the shy, modest and retiring Farrokh Bulsara in private. How he could have managed all that while composing, recording and performing (with three other people) a considerable body of songs over 15 albums is a question most people want to know: this documentary comes nowhere close to giving a satisfactory answer.

Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens: focusing on the fashions and image rather than the music and the subculture

Sarah Vianney, “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” (2018)

Despite the title, the heavy metal queens of Botswana  featured in this Deutsche Welle documentary aren’t musicians and there’s not much actual heavy metal music either, not even in the sparse music soundtrack. “Botswana’s Heavy Metal Queens” is more an account revolving around individual persons than a sociological survey of a particular aspect of a subculture that has taken root in a southern African country. The film focuses on the lives of three young women – Gloria, Ludo and Flora – going about their daily activities and how their obsession with metal gives meaning, identity and structure to their lives. Gloria is a single mother who organises regular garbage pick-ups in her community in Maun (a rural town in northern Botswana) with other female metal fans like herself,  all in their cowboy-leather glory. Ludo does carpentry at home making babies’ cradles. Flora is a secretary at a construction company.

The film’s narrative revolves around the three women’s efforts to get together and travel by car with a bunch of male fans to a metal festival in Gaborone, Botswana’s capital, where the country’s leading metal band Skinflint is headlining. The women make their own leather clothes and take care to get the appropriate accessories. Ludo and her male pals arrive in Flora’s village, strutting down the street, engaging in hilarious greeting rituals and head-banging to their favourite bands. Taking Flora with them, the fans detour to celebrate a fellow fan’s wedding where they are the cynosure of all eyes. After paying their respects, the fans continue on to Gaborone and arrive just in time to catch Skinflint’s performance at the bar where the festival is being held. The documentary ends with Gloria, Ludo, Flora and their friends moshing together right in front of the band.

The documentary takes in vast expanses of the dry semi-arid country where the women live and work. The conditions of the villages where they live are poor but not squalid; everyone looks happy and healthy, and children can be seen playing in the streets or gazing curiously at the strange adults in their black leather get-ups. While the film is very well done and even beautiful in parts, viewers don’t learn much about how metal came to have a foothold in the most rural parts of Botswana, nor why metalheads here have adopted a cowboy-leather aesthetic. The film makes much about how metal represents a release for Gloria, Ludo and Flora from the more mundane aspects of their lives and the social and cultural pressures they endure as women. For these women, metal helps them express their individuality and desire not to have to conform to social expectations. The music provides them with a social network of their own choosing and this social network in turn allows them to experience life beyond their own communities in a safe way. At the same time, metal runs the gauntlet among conservative Christian churches in their communities who accuse metalheads of being devil worshippers and Satanists; Gloria counters the accusations by performing good deeds in public in full metal gear. However the views of older people in her community and Ludo and Flora’s communities will be hard for the women to change.

An opportunity to learn something about society in Botswana, and how a particular subculture based around a genre of music imported from abroad helps young people learn about the West and incorporate aspects of Western culture into their own lives and cultures, was missed. A somewhat patronising attitude towards metal, with the focus on the clothing that metalheads in northern Botswana wear, is present in the film. While the women genuinely enjoy the music and the opportunity to experience a different life and social network outside their rural communities, documentary director Vianney appears not to have gauged how devoted to the metal subculture these women are and how much of the music they know, apart from their dress. The interest in the heavy metal queens – as opposed to a more general interest in the presence of metal in rural Botswana – seems quite prurient. What male metalheads think of the music and of the women’s interest in it is never asked; it is as if, when the men follow the music, it’s a case of boys just being boys, but when women follow the music, there must be something deeper going on – and sure enough, the film-makers dig up themes of identity, individuality and nonconformity and the modern stereotype of African women “empowering” themselves.

Climax: French society in microcosm with all its stresses, anxieties, hidden secrets and a dark puppet-master

Gaspar Noe, “Climax” (2018)

In the hands of Argentine-French director Gaspar Noe, a story about a group of young dancers hired to be part of a dance troupe to tour the US becomes a launching pad for a downward exploratory spiral into the deepest, most depraved chasms of human psychology. The young cast of hip-hop hopefuls, each individually interviewed and eagerly expressing their ambitions to take the dance world by storm, rehearse in an old school building for several days and then hold a party to celebrate. Too late they discover that the bowl of sangria punch has been spiked with LSD and they all succumb to the drug’s hallucinogenic and other more serious side effects. As the music throbs and pounds in the background, and coloured lights flash and pulse overhead, the young dancers’ psychological barriers and inhibitions give way, any desires, prejudices and grudges they hold for or against one another come out into the open, and they explode into physical and sexual violence.

Even though it’s not a long film at 96 minutes, “Climax” nevertheless can feel like an endurance test, due to the relentless, in-your-face intensity of the dancers’ suffering and helplessness under the influence of acid. It is cleverly structured in three parts: the first part, consisting of the dancers’ audition interviews, establishes who the youngsters are and their hopes and feelings about the great adventure they’re embarking on; the second part of the film, shot in one single take, showcases their energetic free-form krumping style, followed by a succession of quickly edited pieces where various dancers converse in pairs about others in their group; the third part of the film, when the dancers realise they have been drugged, is the most nightmarish and technically inventive section as the camera closely follows individual dancers, smoothly switching from one to another as they pass each other in dimly lit corridors or on the spinning dance floor. A definite narrative hierarchy is established, suggestive of a transition from stability or life through a portal into chaos and death, and investigating in cursory ways issues that evoke anxiety in modern human society: unwanted pregnancies, abortions, suicide, incest, mutilation, ostracism, death. Like the ritual it is, sacrifices are demanded by this narrative, and sacrifices in all their dreadful tragedy there are.

The cinematography may be disorienting, with the camera taking bird’s-eye views or hanging upside down, and usually following characters closely behind as they run and stumble for help, but the scenes are never jumpy or jerky, and the picture is always clear. I never felt nauseous at any time while watching the film (and I have had problems in the past watching films like “The Blair Witch Project” where the camera often jerked about). The intense, garish red and green lighting adds to the general sense of unease, disorientation, paranoia and the hellish surroundings of a school building that has seen better days.

The ethnic and religious diversity of the dancers, their varying sexual orientations, the French flag as a backdrop behind the DJ spinning the vinyl, and the anxieties, prejudices and fears the young people express as they are overcome by the combination of alcohol and acid may all symbolise 21st-century French society in microcosm, with all its hidden issues, stresses and problems, whose causes lie far back in France’s dark colonial or politically and socially conservative, often repressive past, and which threatens the delicate social balance that (now as never before) might break at any moment. One might discern that the LSD represents dark forces in French society – it has its own Deep State that may be at once separate from and linked to other nations’ Deep States – that manipulate different groups in France and pit them against one another in constant conflict and violence, all so they are easier to control and can never discover who their true oppressors are. The revelation at the end of the film of who is responsible for spiking the sangria suggests as much.

The film’s end credits are placed at and near the beginning of the film so that when it finishes, viewers are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust back into cold reality. One does not know when the nightmare really ends … or has it really just begun?

Bohemian Rhapsody: a boring and forgettable film fails to address its lead character’s complexities

Bryan Singer, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

Astonishingly, given the rich source material and the fact that so many people are knowledgeable (or fancy themselves to be) about the career of the British rock band Queen and the life of its lead singer Freddie Mercury, this biopic of the buck-toothed bad-boy diva with the golden angel voice manages to make him and his troupe utterly boring and one-dimensional, thanks to a script that squeezes them into a tired narrative stereotype of innocent youngsters wishing to escape humdrum lives, achieving fame and fortune early, and then falling off their pedestal through being tempted by leeches into dubious life-styles that may doom them in the end. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek, in a bravura performance that may come to define his career), the son of a Parsi Indian couple, works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport during the day and frequents pubs at night to watch bands playing. He likes one band, Smile, and follows the musicians, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), outside the venue; he offers the guys a couple of songs he’s written and they tell him they’ve just lost their lead singer / bassist. Bulsara then spontaneously bursts into song and leaves the two gobsmacked musicians to consider him as a replacement. They waste no time in doing so and promptly find a bassist, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), to complete the set-up. From here on, apart from a few stumbles and glitches on the way, the band, grandly renamed Queen, and led by Bulsara who transforms himself into Freddie Mercury, marches onto a path that includes a string of catchy hit singles and memorable albums that combine epic heavy rock with various unlikely genres of music such as music hall, tours of distant lands and a bewildering array of outlandish costumes and changes of hairstyle, all culminating in the recording of the heavy rock / opera pastiche song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which the band releases as a single against the objections of the boss of EMI Records (Mike Myers). The song and its accompanying album “A Night at the Opera” establish Queen as a major headlining rock music phenomenon across the world.

Alas and alack, fame proves to be no bed of roses or a pleasure cruise as the band comes to rely more on record label managers and employees to help manage their escalating business affairs so they can concentrate on writing, recording and touring their music. Mercury, having realised he is bisexual and breaking up with his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) of several years, drifts into the gay club subculture, egged on by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) who also blocks Austin and other Queen members’ access to Mercury. The band is on the verge of breaking up until British pop musician Bob Geldof organises the massive Live Aid benefit concert that takes place simultaneously in London and Philadelphia in 1985. Queen manage to squeeze into a 20-minute playing slot in the London Wembley Stadium schedule and this gig, in which the band plays as much for its own survival and reason for carrying on as it does for the stadium audience and the Ethiopian famine victims, becomes the focus for reconciliation among the band members and a redemption for Mercury who finally discovers who his real “family” is: apart from his immediate family, this means his fellow Queen band members and the band’s obsessive fan base.

The film’s emphasis on “family” has as an unfortunate underside a sneering contempt for homosexual men and their subculture; and by implication, scorn for outsiders, marginal cultures and the diversity that current Western society always claims to uphold and celebrate (while crushing it and directing it to serve its aims of war and conquest in former European colonies – and ultimately against Russia and China). The Prenter character is cast into the role of villain to shoulder the blame for encouraging Mercury in indulging in endless sexual affairs and the partying and drug-taking that will eventually be his doom. The narrative’s breathless flow compresses 15 years into about two hours of screen-time which means too many liberties are taken with the timeline of events, something that will irk die-hard Queen fans. Even viewers unfamiliar with Queen’s history can see that too much is being packed into particular scenes to ring true to life. Subplots such as Mercury’s relationships with Mary, his family and the man who will eventually become his most devoted companion, the no-nonsense Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), are treated very superficially. The result is that, in spite of Malek’s intense performance in inhabiting his character, viewers are left not knowing any more about Mercury or what inspired and influenced him to become a singer – and a world-famous one at that – at the end of the film than they did at the beginning. One has to know something about the role of Parsi Indians as loyal administrators for the British empire on the Indian subcontinent and their adoption of Victorian British values and customs, such as sending children to boarding school (and unwittingly exposing them to bullying and sexual predation in a closed environment) and imbuing them with genteel British culture as well as their own, and see in this context the foundation for Mercury’s affected style and eclectic tastes in music and culture. One also has to be aware that Zoroastrianism – the religion Mercury was born into – emphasises purity of living and the begetting of children in family environments, and this means it abhors sexual practices such as anal intercourse and homosexuality generally. The religion also has a dualistic, perhaps polarised worldview in which one either sides with Good or with Evil, and there is no other alternative. The inner conflicts this must have set up for Mercury may go some way to explaining his flamboyant style of performance, in particular his emotional style of singing, his song lyrics that often deal with being alone and the accompanying anguish, restlessness and the desire for new experiences that led him into a debauched life-style and becoming infected with AIDS.

Other characters in the film are as flat as pancakes in their portrayal; even the other Queen musicians, though they have their quirks and Roger Taylor has his temper and obsession with girls and the rock’n’roll life-style, seem rather like cardboard cut-outs. For all its concern about the band’s internal dynamics that drove their creativity and how they wrote their songs, the film gives the sketchiest of details about what inspired individual members to write particular songs (mostly of the bland stadium sing-along sort, not the more interesting fantasy kind found on early Queen albums) and how they recorded them. Even the band’s history is treated in a very cursory way, to serve the narrative and its emphasis on a superficial inclusiveness: the band’s legendary in-fighting and discontent with constant touring that led three members, not just one, to pursue individual side projects and issue their own albums in the early 1980s, are acknowledged but sketched over very quickly.

The music that exists, usually in fragmented form, in the film is not enough to save it from being stereotyped and forgettable. Potential viewers are best advised to watch documentaries and live recordings online and in other digital formats to find out how Queen still continues to fascinate people and maintain its place in British cultural nostalgia. While the British themselves continue to hold Queen and Mercury in awe, and seem spellbound at how an immigrant from a former colonial backwater in Zanzibar could have navigated his way through the British cultural landscape and general Western popular culture of the mid-20th century into becoming a beloved cultural icon, at the same time they are unwilling to acknowledge their past as an empire based on stealing other people’s lands and resources, extracting wealth from them, and forcing the majority of these people into economic slavery while encouraging and privileging their minority groups in handmaiden roles.

Atomic Blonde: anaemic bland fallout from this plutonium blonde bombshell that fails to ignite

David Leitch, “Atomic Blonde” (2017)

I confess I had very low expectations of this spy action thriller film. I was pleasantly surprised that the acting was half-decent even though the script gave the cast very little to work on and sacrificed character development and motivation for violence of a relentlessly brutal and bloody nature. Charlize Theron plays the titular character in an assortment of stylish monochrome clothes (and red stiletto-heeled shoes that come in handy in smashing someone’s face to a pulp) as she stalks the streets of West Berlin and East Berlin in late 1989. The East German government has been more or less hung out to dry by the Soviets under Mikhail Gorbachev and crowds in East Berlin are baying for reunification with their brothers and sisters in West Berlin. In the meantime, an expensive watch containing a list of double agents and their details, provided by an East German Stasi agent called Spyglass, has been taken by Soviet spy Yuri Bakhtin from British spy James Gascoigne. US and UK intelligence agencies scramble to get the watch and rescue Spyglass by despatching the plutonium blonde bombshell Lorraine Broughton (Theron) – well at least she has a normal jolly-hockeysticks name, not a suggestive Bond-girl monicker – to the divided city. An additional assignment is to find and get rid of a mysterious double agent called Satchel who has been selling secrets to Moscow. Broughton meets up with British agent David Percival (James McAvoy), in charge of the Berlin spy station for MI6, to trace the whereabouts of the watch. While the two have various adventures clobbering KGB agents and Broughton manages to fit in some nooky with young rookie French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), the watch itself changes hands between Bakhtin and Percival. Broughton and Percival try to spirit Spyglass out of East Berlin but after more fistfights and car chases resulting in a long list of casualties both human and machine, Spyglass ends up being killed and Broughton eventually realises that Percival is out to bump her and new girlfriend Delphine off.

The action is fast-paced with new incidents following hot on the heels of the last incident (whatever that was) to keep the ketchup flowing. Theron keeps busy pounding the pavements in her high-heeled boots and pounding enemy agents with her fists which I suppose is some compensation for the frustration of having to work with a lightweight script and a one-dimensional character. McAvoy and the rest of the cast do what they can to support Theron and John Goodman as CIA supremo Kurzfeld is always a scene-stealer. The film’s setting in West and East Berlin in 1989 provides the necessary ideological / political contrasts between the gritty and desperate East Berlin city-scapes and the more slick and glamorous West Berlin side to give the movie that needed counter-cultural hipster hard-edged cool to haul in the Generation Y audiences. A soundtrack of popular if banal songs from the 1980s punctuates the film so loudly and brashly that all the songs end up sounding trashier than they did originally 30 years ago, and any meaning or significance they might have had then completely evaporates: this applies even to New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Nena’s “99 Luftballons”. What does the culture of 1980s East Berlin have to offer? Well, it offers Andrei Tarkovsky’s moody and contemplative “Stalker”, a film now recognised as a classic by film critics and audiences on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Someone’s having the last laugh somewhere.

In a film that really has nothing to say, apart from gawping at German post-punk youth culture without understanding the political background that made it so attractive to Germans and non-Germans alike, Leitch has to pad out the script with thuggish violence, car chases, icky music (good thing David Bowie’s albums “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” were never chart-toppers in the 1980s or a song from one of those albums would have been included) and silly plot twists that add no depth to the narrative or the characters themselves. The ultimate identity of the mole Satchel ends up being elusive and in itself a ploy by the CIA to provide falsified information to the Soviets. What does all the double dealing and triple dealing ultimately prove about the nature of espionage and intelligence gathering done by government agencies? When the body count finally stops for lack of fresh meat and all the wreckage has been hauled away and the streets cleaned with a new layer of asphalt, little has been gained by opposed spies and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall replaces one truth understood by Western and Communist spy agencies with another: that such organisations and the nature of international espionage are but veils of illusion obscuring reality.

When a film milks aspects of late 1980s German youth culture as cynically and superficially as “Atomic Blonde” does, that surely tells us that the film-makers have failed to understand that culture and its music, let alone the political and ideological context that underpins them.

David Bowie Iconic: an unedifying trio of interviews with rock star legend

?, “David Bowie Iconic” (2016)

From the packaging, I thought this DVD was supposed to be a documentary about the British rock / pop legend but instead it turned out to be three interviews from three decades strung together without any unifying theme to them. The interviews are not in chronological order and the topics Bowie discusses with the interviewer have no bearing on his career or personal development. Of the three interviews featured – and God only knows why they were selected – probably the best known is the second interview dating from 1974 when Dick Cavett interviewed Bowie who was then heavily addicted to cocaine and was highly nervous, twitchy and insecure during that interview. The other interviews are dated some time in the mid-1990s and in 1987 and show a much healthier and more self-assured and relaxed Bowie.

A package of Bowie interviews should have shown interviews from most phases of the man’s career from the early 1970s right through to 2015 or whenever it was that Bowie could no longer give interviews due to failing health from liver cancer. In particular interviews about how he and fellow Brit Brian Eno composed and recorded the music for the albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger”, collectively regarded as Bowie’s Berlin trilogy even though “Low” was not actually recorded in Berlin, would have been interesting for diehard fans and casual observers alike. How Bowie was able to overcome his addictions, paranoias and fears, and whether the music he made during the late 1970s was therapeutic for him would have been intriguing to know as well. Instead we are treated to rambling stuff about British guitarist Peter Frampton and how Bowie hoped to work with him or bizarre topics like black noise.

There was not even any of Bowie’s music played either to link the interviews or as background music that would allow viewers to appreciate why he is so highly regarded as a rock / pop music innovator and visionary. Needless to say, this DVD should be avoided.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch: an individual’s search for wholeness and authenticity delivered in a flat musical adaptation

John Cameron Mitchell, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

A feisty little number showcasing John Cameron Mitchell as a director, actor, scriptwriter and singer, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the film adaptation of the musical of the same name in which Mitchell also starred. The film follows the quest of Hansel (Mitchell) growing up in East Berlin in the 1960s – 70s: a product of a dysfunctional family, he finds refuge in Western rock music. Dissatisfied with his life, he seeks escape with an American soldier who suggests that he (Hansel) change his sex from male to female and marry him (the soldier). Taking his mother’s name (Hedwig), Hansel does what the soldier suggests – although the sex change operation is botched – and marries the fellow who then takes her to Kansas and abandons her there. At the same time, Hedwig sees on the TV news that the Berlin Wall has fallen so all her sacrifice has been for nought. Nevertheless, Hedwig picks herself up by forming a band, writing and performing songs, and babysitting for US army families. She meets and befriends Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), teaching him all she knows about rock music and helping him with personal problems. They write and record songs together, and eventually fall in love. When Speck discovers that Hedwig is transgender, he flees with the songs they have written together and establishes his own career as teen pop idol Tommy Gnosis. In this, he becomes wildly successful and Hedwig launches a copyright lawsuit against him. She tries to raise money for the lawsuit by forming a new band The Angry Inch, composed of eastern European migrants including her “husband” Yitzhak (played by actress Miriam Shor), and touring franchises of a seafood restaurant chain and various other small venues.

Hedwig’s history is told in various ways including song, animation and traditional live action plot narrative mixed together. Most of the plot is told in flashbacks that follow a chronological sequence and this sequence is sometimes interrupted by some incident relevant to the plot in the present day. Throughout this narrative of rise and fall, defeat and rise again, followed by betrayal and another defeat, is threaded a journey in which Hedwig searches for wholeness, renewal and authenticity, indicated by her constant reference via the song “The Origin of Love” to a story in Plato’s “Symposium” in which humans were originally two people stuck together and forcibly separated by the gods, and the purpose of life is for humans to rediscover their lost halves.

While Mitchell excels in his multi-tasking as director and actor, and portrays Hedwig in all her bitchiness and questing, the songs in themselves are not all that interesting – performed in various conventional pop / rock styles, they are clearly aimed at the general public – and would be flat without Mitchell’s flamboyant presence; and the plot itself builds up to a weak and inconclusive climax. Does Hedwig win her lawsuit? We don’t really know, though later she gains much public sympathy after an incident with Speck later in the film. The final scenes in which Hedwig appears to reconcile with Speck could be pure fantasy – indeed, everything that happens after Hedwig’s encounter with Speck in his luxury limousine could be fantasy.

Apart from Mitchell himself, the cast is rather mediocre, and without the songs and Mitchell’s stage performances, the film tends to be flat. There isn’t much to recommend the music and I’m not surprised that most of what is memorable about the film is Mitchell’s acting and his character Hedwig in all her primping and glam finery.

David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy – a good if dry introduction to David Bowie’s most influential recordings

Christian Davies, “David Bowie Under Review 1976 – 1979: The Berlin Trilogy” (2006)

David Bowie’s death in early January 2016 left behind a considerable artistic legacy encompassing visual art, cinema and music but it is his music that forms the foundation and core on which everything else Bowie has done is based. In particular the music he made from 1976 to 1979 is the basis on which Bowie’s reputation as an experimentalist and innovator in music and visual artist rests, and as the title of this DVD indicates, it’s this period with emphasis on the three albums “Low”, “Heroes” and “The Lodger”, often referred to collectively as the “Berlin trilogy” – though with regards to their actual music and musical arrangements, and where they were recorded, they don’t actually form a trilogy – he made with fellow UK musician Brian Eno as collaborator that’s under the spotlight. This documentary is an exploration of what led Bowie to join with Eno in Berlin and other parts of Europe to write and record the music on these albums the way they did, how their collaboration developed and how they eventually drifted apart and went their own ways after “The Lodger” album.

The documentary’s style is as minimalist as “Low and “Heroes” are in its structure: it is chronological and relies heavily on interviews with some musicians who knew and worked with Eno, and with music reviewers and analysts like David Toop, David Stubbs and various others. Bowie and Eno themselves were not interviewed for the documentary though it features recordings of Bowie talking to other interviewers. The documentary includes excerpts of particular tracks from the recordings along with interviewees’ opinions of them, snippets of music videos and live performances, and also places Bowie’s songs in a broader context by demonstrating parallels between them and the work of other musicians and performers like Blur, Iggy Pop (whose career Bowie helped save by co-writing several songs for his classic albums “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” and by supporting him on tour), Madonna and Talking Heads.

At times the documentary can be a bit dry for those Bowie fans expecting gossip and lots of name-checking; but for those interested in learning about what the music experts interviewed think of particular songs and instrumental pieces from the three albums, the film does a good job there. There is not much information though about the aleatory processes Bowie and Eno used to compose melodies and rhythm structures, nor about the themes that inform all three albums and how these themes fit in with Bowie’s concerns with alienation, the nature of identity and the search for authenticity in a world obsessed with appearance and celebrity, and his interests in the occult and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy.

The documentary is at its best describing the history of how Bowie and Eno came together and worked on the albums, with the assistance of musicians like Carlos Alomar, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, and especially Tony Visconti who produced all three albums as well, and the other work that Bowie did in-between recording them. Where the documentary is weak perhaps is in not interviewing artists and musicians who were inspired and influenced by these albums, in investigating those aspects of Berlin culture and society that made a deep impression on Bowie and his music, and whether the city and its citizens had any influence on him in giving up his flirtation with Nazi symbols and ideology.

There is mention of Bowie’s cocaine addiction insofar as it was this among other reasons that led to Bowie fleeing the US and setting up new digs in Europe and which inspired his 1975 album “Station to Station” – but apart from that, there is very little else about the deep psychological and spiritual crises that fed and were fed by the coke habit and which among other things led to the break-up of his marriage.

In short, the documentary is a good introduction to the making of three of the most famous Bowie albums and their place in Bowie’s career and studio output. Perhaps it could have done more for an even more informative and intriguing visual essay but we are probably not likely to see anything similar and more investigative.

Invocation of My Demon Brother: not an essential film to see for Kenneth Anger fans

Kenneth Anger, “Invocation of My Demon Brother” (1969)

If like me, you’ve already seen a considerable number of films by Kenneth Anger, this one won’t add much that’s new to your knowledge: Anger creates what’s basically an extended rock music video with scraps from another film “Lucifer Rising”, shots of bikers, a group of people smoking from a skull and a Satanic funeral ceremony for a cat. Filming techniques such as the layering of images (a constant Anger motif), film speed distortion, placing the camera at odd angles and juxtaposing shots drawn from different sources to suggest a narrative and create unusual connections are combined so as to extract maximum shock and horror, and disturb viewers with intimations of occult evil. Bold red shades are emphasised to invoke Western stereotypes about devil worship. A multi-lens filming approach so as to suggest an insect’s point of view adds an extra sinister impression.

Some viewers will obviously find this film very dark and frightening, especially in scenes where a Satanic high priest flourishes a flag with the swastika symbol: this could very well be Anger in a cheeky mood, knowing that (in 1969) Western audiences were sensitive to the horrors of Nazism and Nazi flirtation with pagan religion and the occult, and so he uses a Nazi symbol in the context of an occult ritual to shock people. The joke is that the ritual is in honour of a dead cat! – in this way, Anger plays with images and their sequencing, and the cultural associations they have for Western viewers, to create a spectacle that makes fun of people’s fears and the things they avoid without understanding why they do so.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the soundtrack, composed on Moog synthesiser by famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger: it ain’t much to hear, to be honest, but it’s probably the most significant work of solo music he’s done in nearly 50 years.

The film is not essential viewing: you’re best directed to Anger’s other works “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome”, “Lucifer Rising” and “Scorpio Rising” if you want a psychedelic experimental film experience with occult themes.