April 8, 2016 • 9:07 pm 0
In some 80 years, the formula for a musical feature film has changed very little: From The Jazz Singer and The Jolson Story to The Glenn Miller Story and The Gene Krupa Story, ever since movies could talk, film goers have savored a good yarn concerning familial conflict within and without the complicated, misunderstood, and stone cold wrecked lives of musicians. Truth is always better than fiction but for strictly commercial considerations, screenplays generally raise the stakes on untreated addictions, felled planes, philandering, domestic abuse, and mental illness, as if that were at all necessary. It appears that approximating the lives of professional road musicians as people is less important than adhering to the odd Hollywood recipe that contains reportage, entertainment, moralization, and glamorization in one 90-minute package. As long as the tragedy (the triumph is usually incidental) is set to a toe-tapping beat and confirms what the general audience thinks it already knows about the hard-knock lives of working artists, there is potential for box office gold. The resulting tutorials on how to lead chaotic, short-lived, and tortured creative existences will always trump whatever a shelf full of well-researched biographies (i.e. books) have to say on the subject since, let’s face it, who reads those anymore? And so it is these depictions of fame, drugs, money, sex, guns, and all forms of excess cut to music that take the place in the public imagination where scenes at practice, contemplation, study, daydreaming, composing, performing, traveling, recording, reflection, playback, and in pursuit of other creative interests might’ve lived (with any likeness to any persons living or dead strictly coincidental).
Somewhere in this mix between sensational and substantive lives Don Cheadle’s directorial debut and star turn in Miles Ahead, and Ethan Hawke’s role as Chet Baker in Robert Budreau’s Born To Be Blue. The films concern trumpet players of considerable renown, one East Coast the other West, one black, the other white, both famous for charting their own paths of excellence while dogged by substance abuse and the insecurities that go with addiction. All similarities stop there.
Miles Davis as most listeners know was a creative genius who continually broke musical boundaries and innovated in jazz and beyond it. Miles Ahead is a completely, though not entirely, fictionalized version of a time when Davis dropped out of the public eye in the mid-’70s. In the film, a Rolling Stone reporter (Ewan McGregor) drops in on the recluse in an attempt to deliver him from the brink of obscurity and excess (a reporter seeking the “comeback” story is another well-worn device). Cheadle has gone on record aplenty addressing viewer and critical concerns over the film’s fabrications, as well as the matter of having to include a white buddy (as portrayed by McGregor) in the script. He nevertheless made the best film he could given the time, budgetary, and racist restraints of his business. But it his performance as Davis, portrayed alternately in his fit and fighting years and at the dawn of his more eccentric, latter days, that is pitch perfect (it’s likely Davis’s friends and contemporaries Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter would not have rubber-stamped the project had they thought any less).
The conceivable tension and the stress that Davis was under, living contemporary life as a legend, is transmitted with precision by Cheadle, an actor who needn’t prove his versatility: Over the course of a distinguished career that’s extended for more than 30 years, from an early role opposite Denzel in Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, to his current popularity in House of Lies, Cheadle is the epitome of excellence. In his new medium as a director he shines, delivering a film that strives for excitement in scope and dimension. He also demonstrates artistry in his choice of collaborators, from an impeccable cast (especially Emayatzy Corinealdi) to glorious set design, locations, and musical direction (Robert Glasper). The story itself however, co-written with Steven Baigelman, could’ve been less ham fisted and more finessed, though details like Davis’s training in composition, his taste for Chopin, Stravinsksy, and Ravel, and a life-changing police brutality incident based on fact all make it into the story, serving to portray Davis more as a multi-dimensional human and less of an icon.
In an early scene, McGregor’s character interviews Miles who notes he’s a Gemini, “I was born modal,” he says. “A little bit of this and that…” Reminded of Cheadle’s particularly entertaining and under-looked performance in Talk To Me, in which he played the real life DJ Petey Greene in amplified reality, I wondered if he was inspired to craft his own screenplay that was also not self-conscious in its departure from fact. Whatever the source of inspiration, from the high-pitched drama of Davis’s five years off-the-grid, to the more somber reckoning with getting back to work, Miles Ahead borrows from the Hollywood biopic playbook, yet forges its own path toward developing a new kind of cinema in the spirit of improvisation associated with jazz itself.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is but one note that runs throughout Born To Be Blue, loosely based on the sad life of Chet Baker. Starring Ethan Hawke and focusing mostly on the post-1966 period during which Baker was kicking heroin, Born To Be Blue is more like a throwback to earlier jazz films in which the lead’s life is lost to a dream of music but is left instead to hiding inside an addiction. Losing his ability to play horn following a post-gig street hassle that forced him to relearn his instrument was indeed a fact of Baker’s life, though the movie twists the people and places surrounding the events. Baker lived as a heroin addict until his death in 1988, reportedly from a fall, and the film makes note of that fact too in its final notes. In between there’s lots of bleeding, smoking, and cool California coastal scenery. Again, Hawke’s performance as the broken and addicted Baker is appropriately pathetic, though there are sparkles of redemption in his comeback, particularly in his choice to use his voice as an instrument. But whatever Born To Be Blue lacks in fact or focus, it delivers in the feel, the vibe and look of jazz; these are the black, white and blue tones, the sharp-dressed, cigarette dangling Cali and New York cool styles we’ve come to associate with the music’s ’50s and ’60s epoch.
Perhaps it’s set-dressing and soundtracks that the biopic is good for: Whether the scandal that rocked Jerry Lee Lewis’s world in Great Balls of Fire, or the plane crash that took out Ritchie Valens (La Bamba) and Buddy Holly (The Buddy Holly Story), sensational and sentimental do all right, but often its period detail that make or break the projects. Scenery chomping performances are even better: Ray and Ring of Fire were fairly straight ahead versions of the crooked roads walked by iconic musicians Ray Charles (Jamie Foxx) and Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix), but both films would’ve amounted to little more than catalog song-shilling opportunities were it not for their Oscar-worthy performances. More recent efforts like the Todd Haynes Dylan tribute, I’m Not There, the loose interpretation of Jimi Hendrix’s life (Jimi: All Is By My Side, based on a discredited bio, adapted by John Ridley and starring André Benjamin) and Gus Van Zant’s Last Days, about Kurt Cobain, all took inside/out, post-modern, chuck-it-all-to the-wind, impressionistic approaches to storytelling (none were particularly satisfying). Straight Outta Compton took liberties by sanitizing the story of West Coast gangsta rappers NWA, while Love and Mercy mostly got it right, especially the scenes in which Paul Dano portrayed a troubled Brian Wilson, lost in the joy of composing. The forthcoming Nina, starring Zoe Saldana, would appear to be on the fast track to how not to handle the casting of a film about a beloved legend and her misdiagnosed mental illness. The critically acclaimed Coal Miner’s Daughter starring Sissy Spacek in an Oscar-winning performance as Loretta Lynn, may serve as the one exception to all the rules: A well-executed film about a woman in music who triumphs (though Patsy Cline’s plane crash figures in Lynn’s own story) is all too rare.
Both Miles Ahead and Born To Be Blue certainly fulfill the function of entertainment; the acting is sharp and the subject matter more interesting than the rest of what’s on offer at the multiplex; the depiction of the creative process and hands on music making that comprises much of a musician’s life is handled for the most part well. And yet, I found myself wanting something more, something that probably can’t be found in a simple music biopic. I went to both films looking to get lost, which is of course one reason we go to the movies in the first place. But more than that, I went in search of lost time—a time when movies had more weight, were handled with more care. Is this just me, hoping for a return to the forever of my own young life, when the biopic and music doc were still emergent? The movies that provided a portal to my own discovery, that excited and transported me with their well-told, visual stories were released in a period coincident with own my nascent enthusiasm for jazz. Lucky enough to indulge in Round Midnight (in which the real Dexter Gordon plays a fictionalized composite character), the documentaries Thelonius Monk: Straight No Chaser and Charles Mingus: Triumph of the Underdog, there was also Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost, a stylized documentary on Baker…These films, plus my shelves lined with books of interviews with the musicians and the recordings themselves fed my understanding of a music I am still only in the infant stages of knowing. And yet, I understand enough to know that the ghost of Charlie Parker looms large over the new films about Baker and Davis. I thought persistently of Bird, the film Clint Eastwood made over 20 years ago on a budget of 9 million dollars for which Forest Whitaker should’ve earned an Oscar. If that makes me a product of my generation, then ah well, call me a traditionalist. And yet, the distinctly 21st Century biopics Miles Ahead and Born To Be Blue signal the future; they are the something new of biopics. Only a square would begrudge an artist for taking a step in a new direction.
February 16, 2016 • 7:46 pm 0
In October of 1966, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for the purpose of combating
police violence in their Oakland neighborhood. Just in time for the organization’s fiftieth anniversary, the story of the Black Panthers is told once and for all in Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.”I’m interested in movements, not from the top down but the people who join and sustain movements,” says Nelson. “I really wanted the film to be about the rank and file members who are normally not talked to.” Though hailing from the East, Nelson was exposed to his local Panther chapter as a teen; he considered joining for about a minute, but opted to pick up a camera instead of a gun. Pursuing freedom narratives throughout his career as a documentarian, it was only natural that over time, as an African American observing Black lives, the story of the Panthers was a natural for his historic oeuvre, though he could not have predicted the timelessness of the story and the never ending cycle of police brutality in communities of color, combined with young people’s need to invent new ways to resist.
“In the last year and a half, when we were close to locking down the film, Ferguson happened,” explains Nelson. Of course he knew police brutality, and the need for better schools and housing were still relevant (“It’s why I wanted to do the film seven years ago,” he says) so the fact matters became more urgent was simply history taking its course.
“Because of recent circumstances, it’s opened a door to a conversation where people don’t wish to condemn the Panthers outright or at first glance,” he says. “They are more moved to think about the fact African Americans organized to defend their community. A year ago, they might’ve said, ‘Defend their community from what?” but people wouldn’t say that now.”
As the story goes, from their incredible rise to their notorious fall, the sight of young, mobilized Black people caught fire with the media and sympathizers on the ground as BPP chapters sprung up around the country and even Hollywood (Brando, Fonda) got down for the cause. At the same time, law enforcement was taking notes: By the late ’60s, J. Edgar Hoover’s well-documented COINTELPRO program was full blown. Nelson allows all the players in the dramatic take down of the Party to speak to its highs and lows.
“We wanted geographical diversity, and talked to lot of Panthers, men and women. I knew early on, I wanted to tell certain stories, like the murder of Fred Hampton and the LA shootouts, so we found Panthers in the Chicago and LA chapters involved in those events,” he says. “We also wanted to interview as many cops, FBI agents and informants as possible,” he explains. Conversely, events like the UCLA murders of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were left out as were stories of party sympathizers like H. Rap Brown and Angela Davis (there are also no contemporary interviews with former party leaders Seale and David Hilliard). Plenty of filmmakers, scholars and Panthers themselves have attempted historical overviews of the Party, but award-winning filmmaker Nelson (Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer) has landed on something close to a definitive reading of its politics and people, in all their glory and contradictions.
“I never know why people talk or don’t talk,” says Nelson, “I never ask them. I’m just happy when they do.”
October 15, 2015 • 9:34 pm 0
Read entire article at Down With Tyranny!
April 13, 2015 • 5:15 am 0
In the early ’60s, young British filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp set out to find a rock band and make it the subject of a movie: To be crafted in French new wave style, they were set to upend the dominant narrative of grey, post-war England and capture the excitement of an explosive youth quake in progress.
“We didn’t know what we wanted, but we absolutely knew what we didn’t want,” says Chris Stamp in the new documentary, Lambert and Stamp. Their indescribable “it” made itself apparent at the Railway Hotel in 1964 where the High Numbers were at the center of a raucous and sweat-soaked Mod dance scene, yet instead of going through with their film, they turned the band—Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon—into a palette for their expression. Fifty years later, Lambert and Stamp tells the largely untold story of the men Daltrey calls “the fifth and sixth members” of the Who.
November 7, 2014 • 9:50 am 0
Bob Neuwirth is a character in the secret history of rock ‘n’ roll. In 2011, on the occasion of a retrospective of his paintings showing in LA, I seized a rare opportunity to interview him for Crawdaddy! and got a few words on the state of the 21st Century’s art and music.
“I think it was Matisse who said artists should have their tongues cut out,” says Bob Neuwirth. As a visual artist and songwriter, his large abstract canvases are enjoyed by collectors, while his solo singer-songwriter albums Back to the Front and 99 Monkeys are appreciated by connoisseurs of the form. Neuwirth has also played a unique role in the lives of his fellow artists. A great teller of tales, as opposed to a tale-teller, he’s served as an ear to friends in the arts for five decades now; as a catalyst to epic songs, he’s lived the moments we read about in history books.
“Art is everywhere,” explains Neuwirth. Though to recognize it, “It takes a different set of eyes. If it’s music, it’s a different set of ears…Just because something is reproduced in multiples doesn’t make it good,” he says.“Turn on the radio. What you hear on the radio is for people who aren’t really listening,” he says.
If some of what Neuwirth is rapping sounds as cryptic as a zen koan, it’s because he’s earned the right to wax on; he’s pulled-off the great American hat trick of living an artist’s life while remaining just under the radar of massive success. An original hipster—back when it was still cool to be cool—his tales of beatnik glory took him from Boston’s Back Bay, hanging out with folk guitarist Sandy Bull, to checking into art school (“but not for long,” as he sings in his semi-autobiographical song, “Akron,” the rubber city from which he ran away). From Boston it was on to busking in Paris with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from there, it was to Berkeley where he developed his abstract-expressionist painting and tried winging it as a folksinger who “couldn’t sing and couldn’t play,” he says.
In his time, he was insulted by Lenny Bruce, kissed on the mouth by Miles Davis, and invited to meet the Beatles while on tour with Bob Dylan in England, a trip he took in exchange for art supplies. “He said I’ll give you a leather jacket and all the canvas you can paint on,” remembers Neuwirth of the deal with Dylan. The resulting tour was documented in D.A. Pennebaker’s milestone rock documentaries, Don’t Look Back and the follow-up, Eat the Document, which Neuwirth also had a hand in technically assisting. He remained a confidante of Dylan’s (he was there when they switched on the electricity at Newport, and was also invited on board the Rolling Thunder Revue). He’s been a compadre to Kris Kristofferson, a friend to Janis Joplin (he co-wrote “Mercedes Benz”), a companion to Jim Morrison and a filmmaker for the Doors.
In the ’70s Neuwirth moved on to pre-punk New York and the Max’s Kansas City scene, a legendary hanging place for visual artists. He brought in songwriters like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and contributed to the making of the music there as he gathered more fuel for his great untold stories of rock’n’roll. “Then the New York Dolls showed up, and that was pretty much it,” he says of the displacement of the folky, singer-songwriters from the scene. But Neuwirth also had a hand in the changing of the guard when he advised one of the club’s regulars, Patti Smith, to turn her poems into some songs: “Next time I see you I want a song out of you,” is how Smith remembered his encouragement in her autobiography, Just Kids.
Going on to collaborate with John Cale on The Last Day on Earth, a musical theater piece concerning the apocalypse, and working on projects that took him from Cuba (Havana Midnight) to Appalachia (Down From the Mountain), Neuwirth remained in the orbit of collaboration with musicians and artists of all stripes. There are plenty more stories where these came from, though between his brushes with greatness, Neuwirth stayed devoted to his own art, attempting to collage and paint his own masterpiece. Bumping around from studio to studio, he lived in a rat-infested loft formerly occupied by jazzman Eric Dolphy. But New York and the art scene was changing. The roads for struggling artists to take gradually began to close down and the art and music inspired by the ideas that emerged in the ‘60s and ‘70s were subsumed into a new age of mass consumerism. Could Neuwirth imagine the culture returning to a time when artists and musicians held as much influence as 15 minutes of fame does today?
“In the 21st Century, everyone thinks they’re an artist,” he says, “But trying to do anything good is harder than it looks. There’s lots of good around but that doesn’t make it excellent and it doesn’t make it art. Someone actually just said to me that they thought banking was an art,” he says.
So where does one find art in the culture today? “If people want art, they have to look for art,” he says, noting there’s no shortage of work. “There are plenty of musicians with things to say. There’s plenty of jazz…classical….there’s really good paintings around—maybe not for sale. ” Acknowledging one person’s cup of meat might not be another’s (“There’s something to be said for beauty being in the eye of the beholder,” he says) he concedes there’s room for everyone by way of one of his trademarked aphorisms with which we can’t argue: “Bad art is better than good bombs.”
March 3, 2014 • 2:28 pm 0
Classic Track: “He’s A Rebel”
Born Darlene Wright in Hawthorne, California, and christened Love by Phil Spector, Darlene was a member of the vocal group the Blossoms and an A-list singer on the talented but wily producer’s sessions. Knowing in his bones the Gene Pitney song “He’s a Rebel” would be a hit, instead of crediting the Blossoms, Spector rushed it out as the Crystals who were signed to his Philles label. Love was also the secret weapon on the Bob B. Soxx and the Bluejeans singles, “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts”, and “Not Too Young to Get Married.” Her unmistakable tone with no-nonsense, girl group attitude has backed-up Elvis (she and the Blossoms were part of the ’68 comeback special), Sonny and Cher, Papa John Phillips, Little Steven Van Zandt and his boss, Bruce Springsteen.
Career Highs: We’d have to ask her what she thought of singing on Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones” or if her turns as Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon movies were thrills to her, but we loved them. Maybe her heart sang when she headlined her own one-woman show, Portrait of a Singer, or when she went to Broadway as Motormouth Mabel in the musical adaptation of the John Waters story, Hairspray.
Career Low: Going uncredited on all the Spector productions (she eventually won a lawsuit that helped her collect on some unpaid royalties).
Essential Listening: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is the song for which she’s probably best known outside of “He’s A Rebel”; you can also hear her every year as background vocalist on the seasonal hit, “The Monster Mash.” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love” and “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry” are Love’s other great shots in the spotlight. Her hits are all compiled on The Sound of Love: The Very Best of Darlene Love and Da Do Ron Ron: The Very Best of the Crystals, issued by Sony/Legacy Recordings.
And if you like that you’ll like: “Lord, If You’re A Woman” (“give a sister a hand”), tells a story about someone who’s been had and if you have been, you’ll say amen.
What She’s Doing Now: Darlene Love took her rightful place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame when she was inducted on March 14, 2011. On March 2, 2014, she accompanied director Morgan Neville onstage at the Academy Awards to accept the Oscar for Twenty Feet From Stardom, a documentary about the lives of background vocalists. As part of her acceptance speech, Love sang a portion of the Gospel classic, “His Eye on the Sparrow,” in acknowledgement of how music and faith carried her through the hard times.
Watch the action: Love With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in 2009
February 21, 2014 • 5:55 am 4
On this day in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated, shot mulitiple times at the podium of the Audubon Ballroom where he was about to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Thousands flocked to Harlem over a three-day period to view his body before the burial.
Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925 into a Baptist family; his father was a follower of Marcus Garvey and educated his son on all matters of black pride. While serving a prison sentence in the 1950s, he learned about the Nation of Islam and began a correspondence with Elijah Muhammed; by the time of his release he’d joined the organization and changed his name to Malcolm X. An immediately charismatic leader at Temples one, 10, 12, and seven, his musician following included Etta James, Johnny Otis and saxophonist Archie Shepp. In 1964, he left the NOI and made his way to Mecca. As a Sunni Muslim, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz came to believe that Islam was the way toward racial harmony.
Twenty years after his death, the legacy of Malcolm X had largely not been passed down to the next generation; certainly, his contribution to the black liberation cause had not been fully incorporated into history texts despite the perennial popularity of the considered classic, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration with Alex Hayley. But leave it to music—in particular Public Enemy—to recognize and close the gap. The New York hip hop collective began to use Malcolm X’s teachings and speeches in concert with their videos and recordings (Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One and Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, also played a major role in the comeback; the efforts were not without controversy at the time).
Chuck D has said Public Enemy was partly founded on the idea of “connecting the dots” for those unfamiliar with the depth of black history; hard information is tightly packed into their raps that raise a fist in the name of consciousness. Of course this all happened back in the highwater era of Reagan and Bush, or what you might call the beginning of the middle of the end: As the nation enjoyed its boom-time and Michael Jackson paid a visit to the White House, the holiday for Dr. King was still left unrecognized by all 50 states, and the disconnect had only just begun. This year, smack dab in the middle of black history month, Nikki Minaj misappropriated the famous image of Malcolm X holding a gun, in defense of his family; Black media voiced its concern, the Shabazz family threatened legal action and Minaj rethought her plan. Hip hop is generally removed from its mission to educate and there is still no holiday in the name of Malcolm X. Instead, his civil and human rights works are officially recognized by films, speeches, books and songs. In addition to the Hayley book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable is the considered definitive biography. James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare is a comparison study of the pair’s liberation strategies. This musical tribute from musician, poet and educator, Archie Shepp, taken from his 1965 album, Fire Music, was recorded as an elegy soon after the assassination. A reading from Keep on Pushing follows.
February 15, 2014 • 10:03 am 0
Mike Bloomfield died in San Francisco, CA on February 15, 1981
Bob Dylan calls him “the best guitar player I ever heard.” Carlos Santana remembers his distinctive style: “With an acoustic guitar, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or Les Paul, you heard three notes, or you heard one note and you knew it was Michael.” B.B. King credits him with his own crossover success with young, white audiences. “I think they felt if Michael Bloomfield said if he listened to B.B. King, we’ll listen to him too,” said King, still on the touring circuit at age 88.
So how is it in the age of excess information about guitar styles and rock ’n’ roll, Mike Bloomfield isn’t cited more often as a major contributor to the music’s evolution?
(Read entire article by Denise Sullivan at Blurt online).
December 7, 2013 • 4:49 pm 0
(UPDATE, December 19: I have since seen the film in its entirety and the “Green Green Rocky Road” scene is the best part. Though Len Chandler and the histories of some of the other folksingers of color on the scene—Odetta, Richie Havens, Buffy Sainte-Marie—have been well-documented, the filmmakers chose to render invisible their counterparts or composites in their deeply cynical look at Greenwich Village folk).
Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film concerning a fictional folksinger from the early ‘60s Greenwich Village scene (based loosely in post-modern style on some incidents from the life of actual folksinger Dave Van Ronk and other figures of the Village scene) opened in select theaters this weekend.
I have not yet seen the film, but gathered from the soundtrack the title character played by Oscar Isaac, performs “Green, Green Rocky Road,” which Van Ronk himself went as far as to call his “theme song.” With melodic and rhythm roots in the Georgia Sea Islands and before that, West Africa, readers of Keep on Pushing will remember the songwriting credit for “Green, Green Rocky Road” belongs to Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman (yes, as in Beat poet, Bob Kaufman).
I had the great and rare honor to interview songwriter and activist Chandler in 2007; large portions of our interview appeared throughout Keep on Pushing and on this site. Chandler spoke highly of Kaufman, Van Ronk, and of course Bob Dylan, who detailed their shared history and collaborations in his book, Chronicles. And yet, it is “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song Chandler never recorded, that may be one of his most enduring achievements, despite the fact he was a singing hero of the Civil Rights Movement (his contributions to African American/US political and social history remain obscured and inexplicably, largely unsung).
Here’s a clip of Van Ronk performing the song, followed by a clip of Chandler performing his own “Keep on Keepin’ On,” from his rare Columbia album, To Be A Man.