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.

Suicide Club: gory horror flick intended as interrogation of the state of modern Japanese society

Sion Sono, “Suicide Club / Jisatsu Sakuru” (2002)

Famous for its controversial premise, full-on gory presentation and an arresting opening sequence of 54 school-girls jumping off a city train platform into the path of an oncoming train, “Suicide Club” is a meditation on the nature of modern Japanese society and its increasing dependence on technology as the connection among different generations of people that replaces all other social connections such as family and community. A wave of mass suicide hysteria hits Japan, baffling a group of detectives in Tokyo who try to piece together various incidents in which young high school students throw themselves off train platforms and the tops of buildings en masse. The detectives have little to go on apart from strange white bags, in all of which are found rolls of human skin sewn together. Some of the skin patches feature a butterfly tattoo. The detectives try to track down people with these patches and one of these persons is a young teenage girl Mitsuko, whom we first meet wallking home when all of a sudden her boyfriend Masa flies from the sky and crashes into her, clipping her ear before hitting the ground.

The detectives receive phone calls from mysterious people including a hacker called The Bat and an anonymous boy who warns one detective, Kuroda, of an upcoming suicide event. The police misinterpret the warning and stake out a train station in vain. Kuroda then goes home and discovers his entire family has committed suicide.

The Bat is captured by a group of glam rocker musicians led by guitarist Genesis who warbles a song while stomping on sacks of squirming puppies and mewling kittens. While Genesis and his friends perform, The Bat emails the police and informs them of her whereabouts. The detectives promptly arrest Genesis and the band, assuming they are the people inciting kids around Tokyo to dock themselves.

All while this is happening, a girl group called Dessert perform songs, video clips of which are spliced into the film at various points in ways that connect to the film’s events and insinuate that the singers are essential to the film’s narrative. Thus when Mitsuko goes into her dead boyfriend’s bedroom, she sees a poster of Dessert and figures out from the way the girls are holding up their hands and fingers a conspiracy of sorts. She investigates the conspiracy and finds herself being interrogated by a group of children in a bizarre sequence of surreal visuals and inventive film-camera panning. Mitsuko affirms her will to life in spite of the dreadful events occurring around her and the children order her butterfly tattoo to be removed.

The film seems critical of various aspects of Japanese society including conformity, the obsession with pop culture and youth fads, people’s lack of authenticity and the pervasive alienation within society. The police are shown as rather incompetent and pathetic in their pursuit of individuals they believe are encouraging the young people to kill themselves. Suicide as a cultural phenomenon in Japan is investigated on a superficial level: teenagers seem to treat it as a game. Death and its cavalier treatment by the Japanese are ever present in one form or another. Ultimately the film appears to suggest that the phenomenon of suicide points to a pervasive malaise afflicting modern Japan and that there can be no one cause people can point to: so many factors can drive people to take their own lives. The film offers no easy answers and characters must deal with the possibility of death and come to terms with life and living in individual ways.

Plot-holes abound: the film never makes clear who tattoos the butterfly tattoos on Mitsuko and others and why the tattooist should be doing so; and the sub-plot of The Bat and Genesis remains undeveloped and unrelated to the detectives’ work and Mitsuko’s own journey of self-discovery. The narrative is fragmented and the film lacks “proper” closure; within the film’s theme of alienation and disconnection, I suppose that the desultory nature of the action and its lack of resolution are appropriate. Characters remain undeveloped and one-dimensional, and the acting is competent, but again such a development has its logic within the film’s theme. Perhaps to survive in a society that emphasises conformity, hierarchy and ceaseless hard work for vague and contradictory ideals, people must divorce themselves from their true feelings and soul and behave like automata.

There are several sequences within the film that lack dialogue and “Suicide Club” features some very effective and quite noirish scenes, mixing them with handheld camera work that look very much like newsreels.

As might be expected, the film finds a lot of black humour in suicide, especially in one scene where a group of high school students on top of a building are discussing the incident of the 54 school-girls and laughing at their suicide. Before you know it, a bunch of boys comes along and makes suicide jokes and in no time at all the kids are lined up on the edge of the roof ready for the Great Leap Forward. Probably one of the funniest parts comes right at the end when Dessert sing their closing number urging people to connect with others more fully (and at the same time make money for their record label that exploits people’s alienation and desire to reach out and feel a part of society for profit).

In all, the film functions at a superficial level as a critique of Japanese society and an inquiry into what it means to be alive and to be fully human. It does become confusing and eccentric as it progresses and loose ends aren’t tied very well. I get the feeling that by the end of the film, director Sion Sono was no more enlightened about the phenomenon of suicide and the role/s it plays in Japanese culture than viewers are, though he did later make another film intended as a prequel to “Suicide Club” and wrote a novel that expounds more on the themes of “Suicide Club” and his intentions with that film.



Clean: a tale of caution and redemption lacking in spark and realism

Olivier Assayas, “Clean” (2004)

Rare are the movies in which two main characters happen to be father and his daughter-in-law yet just this month I’ve already seen two: Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clean” which stars the French director’s ex-wife Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang, a washed-up cable TV music show host whose musician husband dies from a drug overdose. The commercial music media blames Wang for giving her husband the drugs he used to kill himself and Wang herself spends time in prison for drug possession. After her release, Wang tries holding down a number of dreary jobs without success while also attempting to reconcile with her young son who is in the care of his grandparents Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). Rosemary herself is dying and Albrecht does not know if he can cope as sole custodian once Rosemary is gone. After many setbacks and personal crises, a glimmer of hope appears for Emily with a possible career as a singer beckoning in San Francisco and Albrecht throwing his support behind her.

The movie is a conventional treatment of a drug addict struggling to pick up the pieces of her life together after a major tragedy and trying to reform and fit into a world she doesn’t really care for. The movie dallies between portraying a character who must face up to responsibility for her life and her son, who must negotiate life’s tough paths without a man on whom she leaned for support, on the one hand and on the other a message about finding something you love to do and which allows you to develop your talents and let you fly. Cheung delivers a fine and moving performance as Wang with all her flaws and brittle personality: a woman who has been self-indulgent perhaps for too long and who is learning the hard way about having to compromise her individuality in a world that cares as little for her as she does for it. Nolte gives just as fine a performance as Albrecht who empathises with Wang and is willing to give her another chance when all her friends in the music business distrust her and withdraw support at the last moment. Wang finally learns who her real ally is.

It should be said also that just as Wang starts changing her attitude and habits, Albrecht also undergoes a change in his attitude towards his daughter-in-law when he discovers his wife is terminally ill. His willingness to change helps Wang to grasp an opportunity to advance in a new career related to music. Some viewers may object that Wang might be returning to an environment where she will once again be exposed to drugs or to the stresses that encouraged or pushed her into drug addiction. However the music Wang performs in the film’s final scenes seems as far away from the new-wave / post-punk music scene that Wang and her musician husband had favoured originally as the dead-end retail jobs Wang had pursued earlier in the film.

Apart from the two leads’ performances, the film lacks spark and is over-earnest in its character study of an ex-junkie trying to rebuild her life. The pace is very glacial and the style is very flat. Not personally knowing any drug addicts or ex-addicts, I cannot comment on how realistic the film is but it seems rather peculiar for the main character not to be in rehabilitation or seeing a social worker or counsellor while weaning herself off drugs. Cheung looks rather too healthy most of the time and for her to run to familiar friends and places where she and her husband got involved in the drug scene in the first place would seem rather counter-productive. Perhaps the movie’s script-writers were imagining Wang as an Asian version of Marianne Faithfull or Nico; they’d have been better off perhaps talking to ordinary ex-junkies who eventually made good and basing Wang’s character and story on their stories.

True Norwegian Black Metal (Vice documentary): a travel guide into the “world” of a black metal musician

Ivar Berglin and Peter Beste / Vice, “True Norwegian Black Metal” (2007)

Despite the title, this short documentary is a brief travel guide into the world of Gaahl, the lead vocalist for the Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth. Interviewer Ivar Berglin, photographer Peter Beste and one other guy are interested in why Gaahl, born Kristian Espedal in 1975, has such an extreme reputation for violence and apparent Satanism in Norway so they visit him at home in a remote mountain village. They initially find a very convivial man with a considerable wine collection who paints portraits in his spare time. Gaahl then takes the film crew through the forests and up a mountain to a wooden cabin, described as his “grandparents’ cabin; along the way, Beste films beautiful scenes of forest trees with boughs covered with snow.

The docmentary begins with a brief but quite effective survey of the history of black metal beginning with its origins in a British band called Venom in the early 1980s. Scandinavian bands such as Sweden’s Bathory and Denmark’s Hellhammer were inspired by Venom to develop a style based on what they considered to be truly dark aspects of human thought and behaviour and their example later inspired the black metal music sub-culture in Norway in the mid to late 1980s. Sensational crimes such as church-burning, attacking the elderly and immigrants, and Varg Vikernes’ murder of Mayhem’s lead guitarist Euronymous in 1993 brought the scene much unwelcome attention from the Norwegian mainstream media and beyond. Into this milieu arrived Gorgoroth whose members also received intense attention from the media and the police for acts of outrage and violence. Gaahl himself was imprisoned for beating up people and other acts of violence and at the time of his interview with the Vice team, had only recently been released from jail.

Initially appearing very much a typical news report with a fast pace, sharp edits and cuts, and a near-breathless reporting style, once the documentary starts focussing on Gaahl’s life in his remote mountain home, it becomes more intimate with a slower pace. As he takes the Vice reporting team through the forests and up a mountain in miserable weather, the reporters voice their annoyance at his actions and moan how they really came “for the music” when all the while Gaahl is showing them the source of the inspiration for his and Gorgoroth’s work!

In these later scenes, Gaahl is portrayed as a lone wolf who draws inspiration from nature and whose personal philosophy is inaccessible from the Vice reporting team, let alone the rest of the world. We are encouraged to empathise with Gaahl and his outlook on life.

Since its making, the documentary has been criticised for misreporting aspects of Gaahl’s life, among them the fact that he actually lives in an apartment in Bergen and does indeed socialise a lot. I don’t know if this misreporting was accidental or intentional but if it had been the latter, I confess to having fallen hook, line and sinker for the deception: the actual “plot” is sketchy, the film crew and Gaahl play their parts, and my own imagination fills in the details.

Heavy Metal Parking Lot: affectionate look at 1980s metal fans and an innocent world long gone

Jeff Krulik and John Heyn, “Heavy Metal Parking Lot” (1986)

In the wake of news that British heavy metal band Judas Priest will cease touring and will be in the main a studio band, holding some live concerts from time to time perhaps, I thought it would be timely to sneak a peek at this documentary about the band’s fans made in 1986. The film was made in Largo, Maryland, during one of the band’s tours: this was probably just after the band had released “Turbo”, one of its lesser-selling efforts, featuring as it does synthesiser guitars which didn’t go down well with JP fans. The film-makers interviewed a number of concert-goers in the outdoor car-park in the afternoon as the early birds try to get a space and decent spots in the venue to see the band.

Most of the people interviewed are very young, ranging in age from thirteen to the early twenties with a few men in their late twenties and thirties; on the whole they are middle class and very friendly and obliging to the film-makers. They are well-mannered and enthusiastic about Judas Priest and other metal bands popular in the 1980s: mainly Dokken and Iron Maiden, with a couple of youngsters mentioning Metallica who were moving from the underground into the mainstream metal scene at the time. Several kids are sozzled on alcohol but they are well-behaved and colourful language is restricted to the occasional “f” word. Special mention must be made of the mop-topped boy wearing the “DC / 10” T-shirt who looks a little like Hollywood actor Adrien Brody: he excitedly performs an impersonation of JP singer Rob Halford singing “Living After Midnight” and ranks JP and Iron Maiden as first and (very distant) second respectively. Having heard Priest and Maiden myself – once upon a time, I owned four or five Priest albums including “Sad Wings of Destiny”, “British Steel” and “Screaming for Vengeance” and taped the song “Exciter” off the radio – I can’t help but agree with that assessment.

The police shepherding the young people into the car park and venue are gentle and friendly and there’s no sign of any hostility between the two groups. The officers are dressed as if for summer duties in their short-sleeved shirts and there’s hardly a baseball cap or set of bovver boots among them.

Watching this documentary was a real eye-opener: I couldn’t help but think of the 1980s as a joyful time when rock and metal were more innocent than now and the main aim was to party-party-party, get drunk and maybe get laid. As yet there are no songs about alienation, “Fade to Black” suicide, apocalyptic scenarios, depression or repressive governments locking down cities; then again, America in the 1980s was still fairly prosperous and young people aspired to attending college, maybe picking up postgraduate studies, and landing a decent well-paying job. If Metallica was becoming popular, it was more the speedy music and drummer Lars Ulrich’s puppyish Paul-McCartney looks than the lyrics attracting young people. Police and youth relations at least look genial. One might assume that one or two of the older guys were on the look-out for some naive nymphettes but one look at them and it seems obvious the fellas are there for the music and to practise their air-guitar fretboarding.

Perhaps later on when the concert ended and the kids were going back to their cars, there was trouble: I have heard that at one Judas Priest concert in the States during the 1980s (it could also have been in Canada for all I know), someone set the cars in the car-park alight and concert-goers were greeted with a bonfire on their return. Whatever, this is one documentary about the band that the JP men might treasure as part of their history: it’s short but it’s also a very affectionate look at ’80s metal fans, their passion, camaraderie and sense of fun and humour.

A welcome look at the importance of an independent label in the music industry through “Heavenly Pop Hits: the Flying Nun Story”

Mitchell Hawkes, “Heavenly Pop Hits: the Flying Nun Story” (2002)

A long overdue and welcome survey of a particular music scene at a particular time in a country that’s long been a minnow in global youth culture and music is this documentary about the New Zealand record label Flying Nun Records. Founded in 1981 by Roger Shepherd in Christchurch as a reaction against the domination of the large commercial record labels in the pop music industry and their imposition of a narrow set of values and expectations on music, the label originally intended to highlight the music scene in Christchurch but quickly began championing the emerging pop music scene in Dunedin, a city a few hundred kilometres south of Christchurch on the South Island. The label’s glory days soon followed with significant acts such as The Clean, The Verlaines, The Jean-Paul Sartre Experience (later renamed JPS Experience after being threatened by a lawsuit by the French philosopher’s estate), Scorched Earth Policy, The Dead C and Alastair Galbraith being signed up. The label faded as a power-player in the alternative music scene as various bands on the label either broke up or left to join other labels or market their own music and changes in ownership brought the label under Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation umbrella and then Time Warner. In 2009, Roger Shepherd bought back the label with financial help from three other New Zealand business partners including the musician Neil Finn and his wife, and is currently trying to build up the label’s reputation to what it was in the 1980s.

The documentary is well-made if very fast-paced and follows a general chronological narrative. Interviews with Shepherd, sound engineer Chris Knox who rose to virtual business partner of Shepherd and various Flying Nun alumni bands are mixed with archived music clips and snapshots of Dunedin city life, all united by narration by unseen speaker Hugh Sundae. Topics such as the label’s financial and administrative disorganisation (not a rare phenomenon among independent labels founded by enthusiastic music fans who had to learn how to run a business on the hop), the British music press’s snobbery towards New Zealand bands, the resistance of New Zealand radio stations towards playing local music that didn’t fit mainstream commercial imperatives, how the so-called jangly-guitar “Dunedin Sound” arose, various bands’ personal issues that played havoc with their careers and music, and the friction that often arose between the label and its bands because of lack of communication, the label’s chaotic running or just plain bad luck, all make appearances. Particular bands like The Clean, The Verlaines, The Chills, Straitjacket Fits, 3ds and Headless Chickens and their histories are featured.

As the 1980s progressed into the 1990s, FNR took on more adventurous, experimental or confrontational bands such as The Dead C, The Gordons / Bailter Space and The Skeptics, and the label’s inadequacies in managing its finances and the competing demands and requirements of its artists put increasing pressure on Shepherd and Knox in juggling their responsibilities. WEA Records and then Festival Mushroom Records stepped in with financial and business assistance and Shepherd, after over 15 years of running FNR, sold the label to Festival Mushroom. The influence of the new owners brought a new professionalism to FNR but some of the label’s endearing if wasteful ways were lost. At the time the documentary was made in 2002, FNR’s future looked hopeful – the end credits mention that Roger Shepherd was working in England as a wine merchant – but this was just before the label fell into a creative black hole under American ownership.

The documentary could have been tweaked in parts with some interviews shortened as it tends to drag in its second half, concentrating on some of FNR’s more significant artists, and its style seems a little too slick and professional for FNR, given that the label was as famous for its easy and lackadaisical approach to managing bands as it was for signing up and promoting underground acts in Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin. While the film clips capture the New Zealand 1980s underground music scene’s energy and bubbliness, after a while they start looking generic and become tiresome. The music featured is varied for guitar-dominated indie pop jangle; only the more obscure acts like The Dead C, The Gordons (later Bailter Space) and The Skeptics really stick out for their uncompromising and sometimes confrontational styles of guitar rock with The Dead C making the jump into freeform improvised guitar noise that got my attention in the mid-1990s and makes the band still dear to me.

The issue of how a record label can reconcile encouraging wayward and uncomrpomising creativity with the need for bands to be disciplined enough to compose and record songs or other music and make money for themselves and for the label is an ever-present current throughout the film but is never really adequately addressed by the narration or the interviewees apart from Bruce Russell of The Dead C. An all too common problem also is that several of FNR’s bands like The Chills were on the verge of cracking global “alternative mainstream” music markets but failed due to lack of financial and moral support from either Shepherd or Knox as the two head honchos were often overwhelmed by their commitments or were too absorbed with finding new bands or indulging their other artists’ needs and preferences.

A revisit to FNR surely seems in order for Mitchell Hawkes and his film crew now that Roger Shepherd has regained control of his famous child; the label certainly could do with increased attention and some money! The documentary is highly informative and is a worthy history of a significant label whose influence was to spread around the world through its bands.


No-one Knows About Persian Cats: showcase of Iranian pop culture and contemporary society

Bahman Ghobadi, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” (2009)

An ingenious film that uses a fiction plot to structure and showcase the Iranian pop music scene and youth culture, “No-one Knows About Persian Cats” brims with young energy and zest and combines youthful hope with tragedy born of the repressive authoritarian restrictions in modern Iranian society. Two young musicians, Ashkan and Negar, played by non-actors who really are called Ashkan (Koshanejad) and Negar (Shaghaghi), dream of hiring two other musicians for their band so they can get passports and visas to go to Britain, ostensibly to play at a music festival there; in reality, they need the passports to escape Iran permanently so that they will be free to play the kind of indie bubble pop they specialise in without having to conform to Iranian government requirements. To this end, they must raise the money by organising a gig and they must find other musicians; they are directed by a friend to Nader (Hamed Behdad), a hyperactive, fast-talking impresario, who agrees to organise the passports and visas, and chase various bands, artists and others to perform at the gig. The bulk of the film is devoted to Ashkan, Negar and Nader travelling around Tehran on Nader’s scooter, meeting bands and musicians, and hearing their music. As time goes by, the threesome feel the pressure to get the documents done, the gig line-up ready and the money on hand to pay the shonky passport-makers; Nader disappears for three days so our friends Ashkan and Negar look for him. They find him at a rave party but as Ashkan tries to coax him out, the party is gate-crashed by the police, everyone tries to flee, the cops resort to heavy-handed tactics and tragedy results.

With hand-held cameras, the film uses a mixture of music-video filming and home-movie filming methods for a somewhat amateurish (but not fully improvised) look with some scenes that are very obviously rehearsed and staged. Each act the trio visits represents a different genre of music popular in Iran: folk, jazz rock, r’n’b, Metallica-influenced thrash metal, garage rock, hard rock, hard blues, fusion, indie pop and rave, and while each act plays, the music-video filming methods adopted for each are borrowed from the filming style associated with the act’s genre. So while hiphop artist Rap Khon sings, the camera moves slowly before the singer as he walks towards it, during the rave scene, the camera shutters flicker to simulate the trippy atmosphere of the party. The subject of the songs sung is significant: romance, longing for freedom, modern urban life and its ills, anomie and lack of connection in contemporary Iran are covered; most of the songs though are not sung in full. The most noteworthy performances are those of Rap Khon and the honey-voiced female torch singer Rana Farhan.

Most actors are non-professionals and viewers get an insight into the restrictions the musicians labour under: the guitar-oriented bands talk of having to practise in cow sheds and garages at certain times of the day, else their neighbours will report them to the police. Ever present by their very absence are the authorities who are portrayed by Ghobadi as hovering at the edges, unseen yet ever ready to strike. Ashkan and Negar play their characters straight and are a little dour; Negar almost verges on being a hysterical nagging mother-hen. The person most likely to make the most impression on viewers is the fast-talking Nader who rattles away so quickly he makes even the most stereotyped, fast-talking Hollywood music impresario creation look like a Texas drawler. In a memorable Best-Actor-Oscar scene with an unseen police inspector, Nader prattles at near-Mach speed, lying through his teeth so hard it’s a wonder they don’t break, and collapses into tears so convincingly that the hardened police inspector, who’s obviously seen a lot of hammy Iran’s-Got-Talent performances, takes pity on him and waives the fines and punishments! Near the end though, Nader unexpectedly reveals a more sensitive side to his otherwise sparkling if irresponsible personality.

The climax could almost have come straight out of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel / film “Persepolis” but it’s more likely a coincidence that the party scenes in both Ghobadi and Satrapi’s creations are so similar. For most young Iranians, private parties are a way of discovering new music, making contacts and meeting new people; they are also an expression of dissent in a society where authorities are intrusive enough to dictate what people, men and women, are allowed or not allowed to wear on pain of imprisonment or heavy fines. No wonder the police are so thuggish in chasing and arresting party-goers.

The film does get repetitive but Ghobadi is as interested in showcasing contemporary life for young people and musicians in an underground music scene as in telling his story. A tension arises from the filming techniques used and the mixed documentary / fiction narrative adopted which gives energy and crackle to the film’s subject matter. Viewers may feel Ghobadi is trying to prove to Western audiences that Iranian kids are just as hip as everyone else in the world and there may very well be an element of that striving in Ghobadi’s decision to make the film.

Overall this is worthwhile viewing to get a snapshot glimpse of Iranian youth culture as it was in 2009 and of the broader Iranian society, its challenges and problems for young people there generally.

Modulations, Cinema for the Ear: boring and direction-less survey of electronic dance music genres from 1970s to 1990s

Iara Lee, “Modulations, Cinema for the Ear” (1998)

Billed as a history of electronic music and music technology in the 20th century. “Modulations …” turns out to be a survey of various electronically-based dance music genres from the 1970s to late 1990s as they developed in the United States, the United Kingdom and Europe. Some of the music might be nice and I did recognise some musicians and music journalists who were interviewed (Genesis P-orridge, Kodwo Eshun who used to write for The Wire music magazine, David Toop, illbient pioneer DJ Spooky, members of the 1970s German psychedelic experimental group Can) but I felt let down and cheated by the documentary’s emphasis on dance and rave music to the exclusion of everything else that happened in popular music and its associated subcultures since the late 1970s. Reliance on interviews with musicians, DJs, fans and journalists and their subjective views on dance music genres such as Detroit techno, house, jungle and their various spin-offs with no over-arching voice-over narration to tie all the different points of view together makes for a fragmented assemblage from which viewers have to piece together the competing genres into a time-line in which the genres exist in parallel on both sides of the North Atlantic pond. There’s no attempt on the film-makers’ part to make sense of the dance music phenomenon and what it says about youth culture and why it arose and became popular when it did. As the film progresses, the lack of an over-arching structure and direction means the documentary risks being boring with the constant parade of talking heads spliced with snippets of live and studio performances, some animation and general film footage.

The documentary begins with Genesis P-orridge talking about how early forms of experimental music were inspired by the cut-up techniques of William S Burroughs (in which bits and pieces of prose are cut out of their original paragraphs or story and spliced together to suggest something new or different). There is a progression from musique concrete, a genre of experimental music developed in France which uses found sound and field recordings as material for creating original music, to Detroit techno (a form of house music that arose in Detroit in the late 1980s) to jungle, a UK genre combining hiphop and elements of techno. The scene then shifts to the US to investigate disco and the rise of house in Chicago in the 1980s, combining disco with electronic influences from the German band Kraftwerk. This calls for another leap back to Europe to investigate genres like gabba (a Dutch form of techno using hyper-fast beats and an aggressive approach) and ambient versions of house.

The film’s attempt to emulate the energy and pace of the genres it covers is understandable but without an unseen narrator to tie the quick edited shots and the interviews together, “Modulations …” will lose viewers quickly. Showing snapshots of interviews rather than large passages from them loses the context necessary to understand statements made by interviewees and some of what they say could be misinterpreted by viewers. Interviewees and the people and scenes they talk about end up coming across as self-centred, hedonistic and uncaring when such may not be the case. If the purpose of much dance electronica is to induce a trance-like state through repetition, speed and over-stimulation / over-saturation of the senses with colour, sound, smell and image, that isn’t to be derided as self-indulgent: people may find their own freedom, liberation or a sense of community and oneness with others that way. The use of drugs like ecstasy is a means to an end, not a self-indulgent activity in itself, though it must be said that precautions such as drinking lots of water while dancing and ingesting ecstasy are necessary and that it’s the illegal status of ecstasy, not the actual drug itself, that could be encouraging organised crime to control its distribution networks and to tamper with its purity.

The really interesting moment comes about the 47th minute when some American house fans and DJ Spooky talk about anomie and passivity in modern Western society, and how many people feel alienated, bored and unengaged with their cultural surroundings. This is an interesting point that the documentary could have taken up to show how modern dance electronica culture can alleviate such feelings and encourage people to feel connected to others. Another interesting moment is a camera shot of Asian women workers, some looking middle-aged, in a factory inspecting synthesisiers and samplers: what do these women think of these instruments, do they know who uses them and how they are used, do they know what music is made with them? What are these women paid for making and inspecting these instruments, and do they feel proud of their work?

Though the film does mention experimental music pioneers like John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer, Genesis P-orridge and Pierre Henry are interviewed and there’s even a very brief shot of Japanese noisician Masami Akita of Merzbow fame playing live, there’s no coverage of any other form of electronic-based music that isn’t dance or rhythm-based: there’s no mention of isolationist music, formal composition or improvised music that uses electronics, industrial, power electronics or noise music. If the film had been packaged and presented as a documentary on the history of dance music and that only, then it has historical value but as it is, it’s a jumbled collection of talking heads and music clips that fails to do much justice to a set of music genres that in their own way try to celebrate individuality, freedom, diversity and tolerance.

Satan Rides the Media: how media sensationalism helped create a legend and a cult

Torstein Grude, “Satan Rides the Media” / “Satan rir media” (1998)

Focussing on the sensational murder of Norwegian black metal musician Oystein Aarseth aka Euronymous by fellow musician Varg Vikernes aka Count Grishnackh in Oslo in 1993, the media hysteria that followed Vikernes’s trial in 1996 and the issue of church burnings by black metal followers generally through the 1990s, this documentary raises the question of the interplay between media sensationalism and the tendency of people in the media spotlight to play up to and manipulate news reporters with provocative stories and actions, many of which turn out to be untrue.

Using interviews with black metal musicians, police, journalists and academics, Grude builds up a clear and complex picture of the media cooking up stories about the supposed Satanic outrages of a small underground music scene whose main crimes until Euronymous’s murder were of church arson, how these stories were used by Vikerenes himself to gain sympathy among young people, and how the stories actually hindered police investigations into other crimes suspected of a connection with the black metal scene. Musicians freely admit that they deliberately used shocking images to create spectacle and theatre, to scare people, to release emotion and relieve social pressures on young people in contemporary Norwegian society. Journalists from the Bergen Tidende and other Norwegian newspapers admit to making up and embellishing stories about blood-drinking, sacrifices and Satanic worship when nothing of the kind ever occurred. Academics and police pour scorn on the sensationalist aspects of the black metal subculture which the media fabricated and obsessed over.

What gets lost amid the media hysteria is why black metal blossomed as it did in Norway and nowhere else: what was it about Norwegian society in the 1980s that a group of young people felt alienated and got together to create and play extremely aggressive and violent music that attracted people of like mind and yearning and which also drew in attitudes and behaviours that eventually spiralled out of control? A significant issue is that once Vikernes was arrested for murdering Euronymous, people in the BM scene started to open up to police about crimes committed by others they knew in the scene and provided details that often pointed to Vikernes’s involvement; as though Vikernes’s arrest was a relief and a heavy burden now suddenly removed. This might suggest that the level of alienation in Norway among young people in this scene was so great that though they obviously needed guidance from adults, they felt unable to ask for it and the adults did not or could not see that the youngsters were in trouble.

There is also some cursory treatment of black metal’s stand against institutional Christianity: in some of his interviews Varg Vikernes makes very valid points about the forced conversion of the Norse people in Norway to Christianity under Olaf Tryggvason who reigned as King Olav I from 995 to 1000. Olaf Tryggvason used violence, torture and death to terrorise and steamroll his people into accepting Christian beliefs. Temples dedicated to worshipping Odin and his retinue were razed and Christian churches, usually made of wood, were built over their remains; hence, black metallers who resented Christian hypocrisy and Christianity’s history of oppression against non-believers believed they were dealing out justice to an evil force by burning its houses of worship. It’s possible that much of the conformity and the sanctimonious morality of Scandinavian society, disguised as egalitarianism and fair justice for all, can be put down to Christian oppression of individuality and encouraged a passive aggression that found release in black metal.

Vikernes comes across as intelligent but self-serving: he blames his problems and his arrest on others; in court scenes, he plays up to the media and his fanbase. Other musicians say he liked to provoke people and stir up trouble to get attention for himself, his albums and for the black metal scene generally while Euronymous was keen to keep the subculture small and exclusive, the better perhaps to control and direct it. After his imprisonment – he was sentenced to jail for 21 years, the maximum allowed in Norway – Vikernes continued to be a source of unhealthy media speculation which kept linking him to church burnings and murders in other countries. As recently as 2004, a teenager burned down a church in Moonee Ponds in Melbourne, Australia, under the supposed influence of Vikernes and his Burzum project and was sentenced to three years working in a youth training centre. The church itself has been replaced by a community park.

That these issues are made very clear is a tribute to the director and his crew who made the film: some of the issues may seem complicated but they are easy to follow and the film’s style is straightforward and matter-of-fact. One might expect a lot of black metal music in the background but there isn’t much there at all; I was so absorbed in listening to the issues that emerged from Vikernes’ trial and the accompanying circus that any music that might have been there became completely invisible (or inaudible rather). For most of the film’s running time, Grude lets his interview subjects do the talking and drive the documentary, and there is little voice-over narration. It would be good if Grude had the time and resources to revisit the documentary and find out what has happened to the people involved in the case (especially Vikernes now that he is out of jail and keeping busy recording new albums and spending time with his family on his farm) and perhaps record a follow-up documentary.


The show goes on in “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Matt O’Casey, “Queen: Days of our Lives (Part 2)”

Contrary to my expectations, knowing something of the band’s history, I found the second part of the BBC2 documentary more interesting and involving than the first part. The episode is a more unified piece and is entirely a straightforward account of the band’s years from the “Flash Gordon” album, released in 1980, up to and beyond Freddie Mercury’s death from AIDS. As in the first part, the narrative is based entirely on interviews with remaining band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having retired from music soon after Queen’s break-up in 1992) and other significant people who worked with the band during the 1980s.

The main issues that arise in the documentary include those that plague many bands after they achieve success: a search for a new direction after having reached the top; the drop-off in creativity and originality combined with the struggle to keep pumping out the hits; getting on one another’s nerves after being together so long and wanting to do different things that may not agree with your band-mates. With Mercury finally acknowledging his homosexuality and finding acceptance in the gay community in the early 1980s, Queen starts drifting apart in musical taste and direction at a time when the band most needs to consolidate its reputation in the United States; after a trail of literal hits followed by misses, by 1984 the musicians finally realise they will never conquer middle America, the country too conservative and restricted in culture, taste and humour. By this time having successfully toured Argentina and Brazil and playing to huge crowds in football stadiums, the members console themselves by writing and releasing more material, playing Live Aid and touring eastern Europe. The Live Aid show in 1985 is particularly invigorating and leads to a renewed purpose which doesn’t last long; by the time the band reaches the end of its 1986 tour in Wembley Stadium in London, May and Taylor already have a hunch that Mercury isn’t up to performing at his usual high level of intensity and that he is already unwell.

The other significant issue that arises is the extent to which the band compromises with the political context the members find themselves in, in agreeing to tour Brazil and Argentina, then both ruled by military fascist governments in the early 1980s, and later playing Sun City in one of the bantustans in South Africa in the mid-1980s. Although May and Taylor stoutly defend the decision to play Sun City and the band did donate the concert proceeds to charity, their justification never sounds quite convincing and the two appear to be trying to convince themselves more than their interviewer. Of course their dilemma pales in comparison with, say, the astounding hypocrisy of U2’s decision to relocate their tax base in the Netherlands after Ireland’s taxation law reform in 2006 which would have required the U2 members to pay a higher rate of tax; while minimising your income tax in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, this combined with U2 and in particular Bono’s self-promotion as leaders of charity and other “social justice” causes leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – but in the more “innocent” 1980s, to go to Sun City supposedly to play to mixed-race audiences in a country where racial segregation was a fact of everyday life was a very naive decision for people who had university degrees as Queen did.

The period from 1986 to November 1991 when Mercury died is portrayed as fairly heart-breaking; Mercury’s condition goes from bad to worse and then some. There’s a whiff of manipulation here: in 1988, Mercury managed to fit in a musical collaboration with the Catalan-Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe which is not mentioned in the documentary. Video clips alone demonstrate the ravages of AIDS on Mercury’s looks: despite a defiant blazing-eyed attitude in “I’m Going Slightly Mad”, he is shrunken and gaunt in most filmed appearances. The film filters for Queen’s last video clip are deliberately clouded over to soften Mercury’s heavily made-up features.

The documentary quickly sweeps through Mercury’s death and funeral, and the prurient attention this sparked in the Murdoch tabloid press, and concludes with the 1992 Wembley Stadium send-off that featured several famous singers of the time on a run-through of beloved Queen hits. There’s a quick race through post-Mercury projects including a musical and a collaboration with Paul Rodgers but surprisingly nothing about Queen’s actual impact on their public and on other musicians in particular.

As in the first episode, none of Mercury’s close associates appear to elucidate or defend some of his actions and the behaviour that resulted in his contracting AIDS. The fact that John Deacon doesn’t appear as an interviewee is also a blow as he was responsible for some of the band’s biggest hit-single successes during the 1980s. As a slightly more detached member of the band through much of its history, Deacon is an ideal person to offer a different though still first-hand perspective on his band-mates’ decisions and actions; May and Taylor are simply too close to Mercury as friends to offer a critical view of him though May at least tries.

The episode is better than I thought it would be: the songs that Queen offered in the 1980s aren’t anywhere near as good as what they pumped out in the previous decade but the episode does show that even when a band achieves success, the commercial pressures to maintain that level of achievement increase. It may very well be that such pressures to keep banging out hits sapped the band’s creativity and encouraged Mercury’s self-destructive behaviour. Away from the stage, Mercury was known to be shy and introverted and possibly he found the disconnect between his stage persona and his actual personality to be too much for him to handle.