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.

An affectionate if subjective review of a musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 2)” (2011)

I had expected the second part of this documentary on George Harrison to be more interesting than the first and to be quite deep – it covers the second half of his life after all! – but the reality is that it is no more than an affectionate series of snapshots and fond reminiscences by family members and friends who loved him or worked with him. There is little exploration into why Harrison was so drawn to following esoteric Hindu and other Indian traditions and philosophies, how he was able to reconcile being a major celebrity and popular music icon, with enormous wealth and influence at his finger-tips, with following a spiritual path which must have beckoned him at some stage of his life to renounce his material life-style and possessions. One suspects that Harrison’s understanding of the Eastern traditions might have been a bit naive or self-serving, and not very self-critical or engaged in self-examination; there is mention in the documentary of his cocaine habit and his infidelity to his first wife Pattie Boyd (who divorced him in 1977 because of his repeated unfaithfulness and his alcohol and cocaine abuse) and later to second wife Olivia Arias, so his spiritual quest was certainly an odd one that permitted self-indulgence. Since the point of the film is supposedly to investigate how a famous celebrity comes to follow a personal spiritual quest in order to deal with the pressure of fame and the emptiness of easy wealth, and how that person lives with the contradictions that arise as a result, the documentary’s failure to do so in a meaningful way to those audiences not familiar with Harrison’s music or musical history leaves the whole project looking like a moving scrapbook of memories and selected highlights that might or might not be interesting to know.

The format that Martin Scorsese uses to make the documentary – allowing interviewees to ramble at some length and slotting them together in a meandering chronological narrative along with snippets of old photographs and film – strains at its limitations: everyone interviewed speaks warmly of Harrison and his generosity with money and material possessions, his puckish humour and various eccentricities. Harrison’s boundless generosity, stemming from his beliefs, leads him to an unexpected career as a film producer, providing financial backing to various British films in the 1980s through Handmade Films and helping to keep the British film industry afloat during that decade. The interviews generally present a positive view of Harrison and he comes off looking a like a saint. The film-making approach makes a sober assessment of Harrison’s life and spirituality impossible. (The fact that Olivia Harrison was a co-producer might partly explain the film’s generally forgiving view towards her late husband.) Large gaps in Harrison’s musical career in the late 1970s,  part of the 1980s and most of the following decade are glossed over. Inexplicably there is no mention of the recording and release of his album Thirty Three & 1/3 in 1976 which revived public interest in Harrison’s career after a creative slump in the early to mid-1970s.

Anyone wanting an evaluation on how significant Harrison was as a musician and song-writer during his life, even as some sort of guide or exemplar of living a spiritual life, and whether the legacy he left after his death has stood the test of time and grown, won’t find the answer in what is essentially a hagiography.

Scorpio Rising: an amazing concoction of film collages, music and themes

Kenneth Anger, “Scorpio Rising” (1964)

One of the most amazing concoctions of film collages and music soundtracks, “Scorpio Rising” is perhaps Kenneth Anger’s most famous and influential film. It’s a showcase of Anger’s interest in outsider and gay sub-cultures, homoeroticism, and ritual behaviour and activity that result in transformation usually through the medium of sexual violence and death. The juxtaposition of various visual sequences in parallel can have read into it a connection between and among Roman Catholic belief, the attraction of cults (religious and political) and Anger’s ambivalent opinion about them, the role of ritual in sustaining such cults, and the place of violence and sacrifice in ritual practice that helps to sustain belief and restrain and keep people in their place.

On a basic level, the film follows a young biker, Scorpio, as he customises his bike and lavishes love and care upon it. He later dresses, slowly and carefully, in full biker gear before going to the bar where he and his friends usually hang out. They subject one of their own to a hazing that involves stripping and humiliating him and then possibly raping him. They then engage in a mock celebration of Mass culminating in one of the guys pissing into his helmet and offering it around to his flock. The fun climaxes in a furious bike race in which someone falls and breaks his neck. The police are soon at the scene to cart everyone off to jail.

In amongst all that activity, Anger includes footage from an old Cecil B de Mille film (“King of Kings”) of Jesus restoring sight to a blind man and later mounting a donkey to enter Jerusalem, from which city we know he’ll never leave alive. Photographs and propaganda material showing Adolf Hitler as a saviour figure and Nazi swastikas also appear. It’s as if Anger wants his audience to infer that religious fervour for Christianity and its major figures is no different from Nazi fanaticism and that religion, political cults and youth sub-cultures are as one in celebrating their distinctive rituals, fetishising objects of worship, incorporating violence and death with sexual undertones in their most important celebrations, and using that violence and the transformation of sacrificial victims as a focus for releasing social tension and unease in a world that pays lip service to freedom and individuality but fiercely suppresses both.

About 13 deliberately chosen pop and rock songs of the mid-1960s, all used without permission, make up the soundtrack in a way such that they heighten the audience’s sense that a ritual is underway, that a sacrifice is being prepared and death (and the transformation that it represents) will be the crowning result of both the ritual and the film. The audience plays an active part in interpreting the music and the visuals to draw out meaning that would not exist with the music and the film apart and in isolation from one another. We are very much participants in the ritual when we watch this film.

The beauty (if such a thing can be said) about Kenneth Anger’s films is that they are precise enough and vague enough that audiences can read a myriad of messages that all overlap. One can read nostalgia, a love of dressing, fun and teenage rebellion into the film; darker themes such as uncritical hero worship and the close relation of sexual violence, death and repression also appear.

 

A survey of social and cultural changes in 1960s Britain through one musician’s life in “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)”

Martin Scorsese, “George Harrison: Living in the Material World (Part 1)” (2011)

A really very thoughtful and fascinating documentary (in its first half at least) on the life and career of the British rock musician icon George Harrison, as told by the people who knew him and worked with him, in more or less chronological order from his days as a working-class Liverpool schoolboy jamming with the kids who together would become one of the world’s most beloved and influential rock bands. Hollywood director Martin Scorsese performs a very deft job tracing Harrison’s development as a musician, a song-writer and a man on a personal spiritual quest to find meaning and purpose in his life. Harrison’s maturation as a musician and person took place during a period of social and cultural ferment in Britain, one in which his band The Beatles was itself a major player, attracting other musicians, artists, photographers and various hangers-on, not all of whom had something worthwhile to give. The pressures of fame, wealth, the power and influence that come with having money and celebrity, and the often unwelcome attentions of a media hungry for sales and profit or of groupies, drug dealers and others, were deeply felt by the band members both individually and collectively, and Harrison felt such strains perhaps more deeply than the other members – hence the sub-title, in which living with such easy wealth pushed Harrison into questioning the direction and purpose of his life and heading onto a more spiritual path.

Part 1 deals with Harrison’s time with The Beatles: his career then is more or less synchronous with the band’s musical evolution right up until 1966 when meeting the Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar exposes Harrison to a very different musical tradition and culture which leads him to investigate meditation and spiritualism. The documentary moves with the ease and flow of classical Indian improvisational music through the 1960s and shows something of the rapidly changing musical and cultural scene in Britain. The creative conflicts among The Beatles crop up as a motif throughout the documentary.

One expects that the former surviving members of The Beatles (Paul McCartney and Ring Starr) will appear in the documentary and they do. Ex-wife Pattie Boyd and best friend Eric Clapton (who was in love with Boyd while she was married to Harrison and who married her after the Harrisons divorced) also appear. Though there is a lot of talk about the internal politics that drove The Beatles apart, there is very little about how Harrison approached the song-writing process, how he became a talented and capable composer in his own right such that Frank Sinatra adopted one of his songs “Something” into his own repertoire, and why his talent was slow to develop to the extent that it was overshadowed for a long time by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

(Of course one of the problems in making a documentary about a dead person based entirely on interviews with the people who knew him is that they will often be inclined to speak well of him, rather than criticise his shortcomings, and this is certainly the case here with this documentary with the result that Harrison perhaps comes off as a better person than he actually deserves to be. His martial infidelities which cost him his marriage to Boyd are passed over. Plus one hardly expects the likes of McCartney to rue his and Lennon’s treatment of Harrison as an inferior in the song-writing department to the extent that Harrison’s contributions to The Beatles’ collective work were held to much higher standards than Lennon and McCartney’s compositions.)

Fittingly Part 1 ends with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, one of the great Beatles classics and the first such song to feature a guest musician (Eric Clapton on lead guitar) in a significant role, thus signalling Harrison’s eventual break away from The Beatles into his solo career and life which I presume will be covered by Part 2.

The documentary is aimed at people who know The Beatles’ music and something of their history and the times in which they lived. For others (mostly young people born after the 1970s), the documentary may be confusing and even pointless: Harrison wasn’t the most prolific member of the band and was certainly very self-effacing, and his otherworldly songs are not always the most pop-friendly chart-topping pieces. But perhaps that is all the more reason for Scorsese to have made a documentary about him. The film’s narrative structure seems very loose but that is deliberate: it’s intended to flow in a wandering way yet it still goes from A to B all the way to Z.

Inside Llewyn Davis: a tricksy film that does no justice to the early 1960s American folk music scene

Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)

Inspired by and based loosely on the life of Dave van Ronk, “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows a week in the life of the fictitious Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk guitarist / singer, who makes one bad decision after another and ends up back at square one after a trip to Chicago to audition for a well-known music promoter and join his record label fails. The film has the air of a fairy-tale, complete with portents and tests of character along the way, all of which Davis either fails to heed or just fails anyway, and is of a piece with an earlier Coen brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – heck, John Goodman even figures here as one of many antagonists with whom Davis has to contend.

At the beginning, the year is 1961 and Davis is playing a gig at the Gaslight Club. His character quickly becomes obvious: he’s not very supportive of the other musicians who play there and he’s a bit of a coward who runs away when he should stand his ground and assert himself. After the show, his encounters with his sister and a fellow musician, Jean (Carey Mulligan), who accuses him of being the father of her unborn child, demonstrate his lack of feeling for others’ problems and struggles in life, and a failure to take responsibility for the damage he causes to friends and family. Above all, his treatment of various marmalade cats that pop in and out of his life shows a lack of compassion. Even his flight to Chicago to meet a label mogul, Bud Grossman (F Murray Abrahams), is an avoidance of responsibility: during the time that he is away, he should have been comforting Jean who is anxiously awaiting her appointment with a doctor.

As a musician, Davis is merely so-so: though his guitar-playing is decent enough, he can’t write emotionally expressive lyrics – all his subject matter is second or third-hand – and in his live performances he can’t connect with his audience and hold their attention. As the movie progresses, Davis becomes more and more a pathetic caricature devoid of compassion and feeling for others and less of a human being himself. By the end of the film, his week has come full circle and he finds himself back at the university professor friend’s house where he dossed before and first met the first of a number of marmalade cats who will mysteriously guide him on his particular odyssey. Davis’s week in effect has become a microcosm of his wider life in which he is forever running in his own existential hamster-wheel with no reward in sight. It’s supposed to be an underlining comment by the Coens that the only people Davis feels at home with are pretentious arty academic types who think that being friends with a down-and-out stereotypical bohemian folkie gives them authenticity.

On the whole, the acting is excellent with the attractive Oscar Isaac injecting some necessary humanity and warmth into what is basically an unattractive and repugnant one-dimensional character. He is ably backed by Mulligan and Justin Timberlake who together form a duo Jean and Jim Berkey, who in the Coen universe could have been the genesis of the famous folk-singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary if Davis had agreed to team up with them. On the other hand, in his few scenes John Goodman as has-been jazz musician Roland Turner chews up the scenery even when fast asleep or blacked out from a heroin overdose.

The cinematography evokes a particular noirish mood of the early 1960s and an America at the tail end of the repressive and grim McCarthy era and not quite yet on the cusp of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, and Lyndon B Johnson’s social reforms that transformed society, eliminating poverty and racial discrimination for a generation of millions of Americans. The camerawork becomes downright menacing and spooky during the travel scenes to and from Chicago and serves to present opportunites for Davis to reconnect with humans and animals which he fails to take.

As a character study, the film is too facile: Davis fails practically every test put in front of him. That’s just so unrealistic and alienates the film’s protagonist from its audiences. The film would have succeeded if Davis chose a few times at least to connect with others and missed every other opportunity. Indeed, the film might have resonated with its audience if Davis had been conceived as a caring musician of middling ability who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and gives up his failing career as a musician at just the point when a young Bob Dylan was to burst onto the scene and revive public interest in American folk music. Instead, the Coens turn “Inside Llewyn Davis” into just yet another of their usual Coen-esque flicks in which they play a capricious God who enjoys toying with His victims in an indifferent and uncaring universe.

The film does no justice to Dave van Ronk, whose life was picked over for various scenes in the Coens’ film: van Ronk worked with the merchant marine just as Davis has done in the past and will do again, supported leftist causes (the most the Coens can bring themselves to refer to this is a short scene in which Davis tries to retrieve his old union card and is asked if he is a Communist) and mentored Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Whereas Davis looks down upon other folk musicians as competitors to be despised as “careerists” if they happen to be different or connect with their audiences. From what I have read of van Ronk, he seems to have been a caring person who was keenly aware of the social and political problems of his time, read avidly (he was a science fiction fan) and joined leftist organisations.

The film does touch on important issues such as musical “authenticity”: are musicians who pursue music as a career and who tailor their performances to meet audience or record label boss demands any more or any less “authentic” than those whose voices are so idiosyncratic that they cannot be pigeon-holed and smoothed over for a mass audience? is Davis right or wrong in spurning the turn to pop music that Jim and Jean Berkey are making? I sense here a nasty message from the Coens which suggests that musicians who for some reason refuse to co-operate with the music industry and submit to commercial pressures and influence on their music to become “careerists” are self-indulgent arrogant pricks while the ones who buckle under and give up what makes them unique to please the recording industry, churning out hit single after hit single for their masters and getting very little in return financially and artistically, are truly genuine and giving of themselves. It’s as if having long ago made their Faustian pact with Hollywood, the Coens (like Davis) are jealous of those who might compete with them and succeed but who still retain their real individuality and quirkiness.

There is a scene in which Davis assists Jim Berkey and another folk singer in recording “Please Mr Kennedy”, a song referencing then US President John F Kennedy’s determination to send an American astronaut to the moon; this is one of the few parts of the film that ground it in its early 1960s period yet it’s also a part totally devoid of political and social commentary on the period. This is of a piece with other Coen films which also take place in a universe where apparently issues of political, cultural and economic import don’t exist. Everything is down to chance and the will of Fate.

This could have been a very touching film about human frailty and how good people get ground down with rejection and failure at every turn simply because no matter how hard they try they’re just not good enough or can’t contort their square selves into round holes. Instead “Inside Llewyn Davis” becomes just another tricksy exhibit in the Coen brothers’ flea circus, leaving this particular audience member with the feeling that she got conned.