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Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Tuesday 24th September 2013 Leave a comment

I’ve been a fan of Björk’s music for a fairly long time now, but I’d always avoided hearing Selmasongs, the soundtrack album for Dancer in the Dark. That’s mainly because I don’t like listening to musicals’ OSTs until I’ve seen and heard the tracks in their original cinematic context. However, I was kind of dreading watching Dancer in the Dark: I’d heard it was a good movie, but a book about Björk I read several years ago gave a summary of the film’s plot, and it sounded like pretty much the most unrelentingly depressing story ever.

Well, it’s not relentlessly depressing, mainly because the musical numbers (both the songs and the choreography) are really, really good. I know that any cheerfulness in those scenes is tempered by the irony that the conventions of Hollywood musicals are being applied to such a downbeat story, but it was something that worked for me, if only because I’m a fan of her music outside of this film.

The film was made in between Björk’s albums Homogenic and Vespertine (by general consensus among her best), and I could hear aspects of both those albums in the film’s arrangements: the incorporation of cacophanous machinery into “Cvalda” kind of recalls the noisy beats of songs like “5 Years” and “Pluto” in the latter half of Homogenic, whereas other songs have more delicate arrangements reminiscent of the “microbeats” of Vespertine. (The echoing, bassy male backing voices in “I’ve Seen It All” kind of came across to me as an inversion of the female backing vocals that repeat the phrase “she loves him” in “Pagan Poetry”.) And of course, as this is a musical, occasionally you’ll hear something that could have come from Björk’s most famous song/video: “It’s Oh So Quiet”.

The standout song is probably “I’ve Seen It All”, which contains the memorable couplet:

What about China? Have you seen the Great Wall?
All walls are great, if the roof doesn’t fall!

I can’t decide whether those lines are deceptively simple and genuinely clever, or merely endearingly cute and childlike. Whatever it is, the rhyme works in context, and I really like it.

Since watching the film, I’ve heard the Selmasongs album, and for the performance of “I’ve Seen It All” on the CD, the film’s actor Peter Stormare is replaced by everyone’s favourite vehicle-phobic, asymmetrical-eylidded, multi-instrumentalist rock frontman, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. But he doesn’t just sing the few lines that Peter Stormare sang in the film; instead, all the song’s lines alternate between Björk and Yorke. That means that although in the film the song made sense as a question-and-answer conversation, that doesn’t carry across to the album version, and for that reason I have to say that I prefer the movie version. (Sorry, Thom!)

So, it’s safe to say that the music was my main focus when watching the film. What about its other aspects?

A couple of reviews of the film I’ve read since watching it have noted that its filming style was offputting, the camera rarely showing what you want to see. Hentai Cop’s review, for example:

… Lars makes the film really tough to watch on a technical level. He shoots the film digitally and handheld, mostly in close-ups that frequently zoom in and out. The style is disorienting and reclusive, which makes Bjork the main focus of every shot (and complements her character’s blindness, as the the frame becomes very limiting).

Comments like that surprise me, since I didn’t find the camera’s motion any more distracting or offputting than in anything else handheld – say, an episode of The Thick of It.

So, unlike some people, I had no problem with the film’s abrupt musical transitions, with the concept of mixing upbeat Hollywood musical with downbeat misery, or with its filming style. In fact, it was only really the story’s melodramatic nature that put me off the film at all: accepting the inherent implausibility of the plot was, for me, by far the biggest hurdle. I felt like I would probably get most out of the film if it made me feel that the doom that would befall Selma was inevitable, that the film could never end any other way; instead, there were several points in the film when I felt myself thinking, “No, I can’t believe that in real life, this character would really be that stubborn! Surely this time this character will, for once, make the sensible decision to get out of this situation!” (But – spoiler! – she does not.)

Despite that, I liked the film a lot, even if that was more for the musical sequences than anything that happened in between them.

Other reviewers more cinematically literate than me can say where this stands in the von Trier oeuvre. As it’s the first of his films I’ve watched, I can’t do anything like that. In fact, I don’t know whether I’ll ever watch enough of his films to be able to do that – right now, all I know is that I never, ever want to watch Antichrist…

[4 out of 5]

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Categories: Films, Music, Reviews Tags: , , , ,

Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Monday 12th November 2012 Leave a comment

This film contains “I am the Walrus”, my favourite Beatles song, and therefore, by extension, my favourite piece of music by anyone ever. “The Fool on the Hill” ain’t half bad, either, and if “Your Mother Should Know”, “Flying” and the title song are more minor tracks by the band, they’re not unpleasant. (Never been keen on “Blue Jay Way”, though, although it does effectively convey a disconcerting atmosphere.)

So the music video aspects of the film work well enough – the problem is pretty much everything else.

The plot: Ringo and his aunt get on a coach for an outing to an unknown location. (I wonder if the presence of Ringo’s aunt was intended to be reminiscent of Wilfred Brambell’s role as Paul’s Grandfather in A Hard Day’s Night?) The passengers observe some bizarre events, and some wizards up in the clouds observe the coach’s progress. (Those wizards were the main thing I remembered about the film from when I watched it as a kid, but it turns out that they’re only in it for about two minutes.)

Hilarity ensues!

… Except it, er, doesn’t.

Some of the sketches would be called Pythonesque if not for the fact that a) the film was made almost two years before the first episode of Flying Circus was broadcast, and b) they’re not funny. (There is something of The Meaning of Life’s Mr Creosote in the spaghetti scene, and Victor Spinetti’s incomprehensible drill sergeant is very much like a stock Python character.)

A couple of John Lennon’s brief snippets of narration hint at the sometimes hilarious wordplay in his books “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works”. For example, one line of dialogue in the film is followed by the narrator’s storytelling addition “… he said”, and I like his deadpan uncertainty over whether there are “four or five magicians” (perhaps prefiguring Yellow Submarine’s “Once upon a time, or maybe twice”). But these snippets appear rarely and don’t last more than a sentence or two – I wanted more of them!

One bit that is mildy amusing is the cut from Ringo’s Aunt daydreaming of a romance with Buster Bloodvessel, to the reality of the man drearily droning on and on. (Only mildy amusing, though.)

Late in the movie, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band turn up to provide the soundtrack to a stripper’s performance (“CENSORED”), and to some extent they outshine the Beatles in their own movie.

In The Beatles Anthology, Paul McCartney’s main defence of the film is to say “Where else are you going to see a performance of ‘I Am the Walrus’?” but he also makes the claim that he’d heard that “people like Steven Spielberg” saw it in film school and were impressed/influenced by it. I’ve always been skeptical of that claim… but then, in the Arena documentary that accompanied the BBC’s October 2012 broadcast of the film, who should turn up but Martin Scorsese, confirming that he for one genuinely thinks it’s a remarkable film.

Some of the talking heads in that documentary remark on how the film’s approach of drawing upon avant-garde* experimental influences (lack of plot or script, Ringo Starr messing about with lenses in his role as Director of Photography(!), random shots of cheering crowds) and filtering them through working-class Liverpudlian childhood nostalgia (a charabanc coach trip) is representative of exactly what the Beatles did so successfully in much of their music. These are good points – at least until the moment the doc gets Macca attempting to tie MMT’s experimentality to Un Chien Andalou, which is just a little bit of a stretch. (And of course the documentary illustrated the comparison with THAT shot – ARRGGHHH!)

So it’s not a good film. But the story behind it is interesting for what it says about where the Beatles were at that point – after Brian Epstein’s death and dominating the world with Sgt Pepper, they were casting about wildly for new ideas, which eventually led to them going off to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and founding Apple and trying to make a fly on the wall documentary about themselves, and we all know what happened with that. So the film’s scriptless nature is nicely representative of all that – but it doesn’t really make for a very fun film to watch.

[2.5 out of 5]

* “French for bullshit”, I think someone once said. I wonder who?

Categories: Films, Music, Reviews Tags: ,

Rock Band Making Ofs

Thursday 24th November 2011 Leave a comment

For Rock Band’s fourth anniversary, Harmonix have uploaded some interesting behind the scenes information about the series’ development.

Here’s an interview about the production of the instrument peripherals, together with a video:

 

There’s also this more general video about the games’ development:

Frank Zappa – Lumpy Gravy and Zoot Allures

Wednesday 23rd November 2011 Leave a comment

“Well, you have to call them something, so why not call them something amusing?”

Frank Zappa, 1993

Frank Zappa is a musician with one of the most daunting discographies in rock music: sixty-two albums during his lifetime by this count, plus a steady stream of posthumous releases.

I haven’t yet made much headway through that list. So far I’ve only heard: Hot Rats (excellent – “the Frank Zappa album for people who don’t like Frank Zappa!”), his 1966 debut double-album Freak Out! (very good), Apostrophe(‘) (okay), and Joe’s Garage Acts I-III (the title track and “Watermelon in Easter Hay” are great, but I’m less keen on the rest); plus the compilation albums The Best of Frank Zappa and Cheap Thrills. Recently I added another two to that tally.

Lumpy Gravy (1968)

2 out of 5

A mixture of musical snippets, conversation fragments and sound effects loops: a little bit like a highly extended, slower-paced, less dense, less unsettling “Revolution 9”.

There are some interesting and pleasant pieces of music, but you can be certain that just as you’re getting into one, it’ll be interrupted by a contextless, not very funny spoken-word bit.

Zoot Allures (1976)

4 out of 5

I’m in two minds about this one. On the one hand, the playing throughout the album is fantastic, and so is the production (love that guitar tone). “Black Napkins” shows how you do a four minute piece of virtuoso fret-wanker-noodle-ry and keep it interesting.

I also really like the other two instrumentals, and the solo on opening track “Wind Up Workin’ in A Gas Station” (although the rest of that song is rather spoilt by irritating chipmunk vocals).

But unfortunately, the album features some of the most tedious, toilet-humour-heavy lyrics of any Zappa album I’ve heard so far, and that’s saying something. The opening words on the album are “This here song might offend you some/If it does, it’s because you’re dumb”, which gives you adequate warning of how it’s going to proceed.

Now, Zappa could be funny: as the quote at the start of this post illustrates, I very much agree with his approach to song-entitling; his delivery of “dried muffin remnants” in the intro to “Muffin Man” is hilarious; and there’s something irresistibly silly about “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (especially the cry of “Great googly moogly!”). The toilet humour shouldn’t be a problem either – even songs like “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?” are fun due to the sheer audacity of how OTT they go (and it helps that they’re set to good tunes).

So yes, humour does belong in music. The problem is that the dick jokes on this album are mostly lazy and not very funny:

Ms. Pinky“:

Her eyes is all shut in an ecstasy face
You can cram it down her throat, people, any old place
Throw the little switch on her battery pack
You can poot it, you can shoot it till your wife gets back

I got a girl with a little rubber head
Rinse her out every night just before I go to bed
She never talk back like a lady might do
An’ she looks like she loves it every time I get through

Wonderful Wino“:

I went to the country
And while I was gone
I lost control of my body functions
On a roller-headed lady’s front lawn
I’m so ashamed, but I’m a wino man
I can’t help myself

Disco Boy“:

“You never go doody!” (That’s what you think)
“You never go doody!” (That’s what you think)
“You never go doody!” (That’s what you think)

Doody
Ah, go doody
Doody
You never go doody

But thank THE LORD
That you still got hands
To help you do that jerkin’ that’ll
Blot out yer Disco Sorrow!

Etc, etc…

As far as wank jokes go, it’s not exactly the surprising, character-based £20 note scene from Peep Show, is it?

But as I said, the musicianship is pretty consistently excellent throughout; it’s just a shame it’s in service of such unfortunate songs. For the most part, though, I think the playing makes up for the words – hence my four-star rating.

I really like Frank’s sleazy vocals on “The Torture Never Stops“, but the female shrieks mean I wouldn’t want to play it loud! I prefer the live version on the Cheap Thrills compilation, which has Captain Beefheart singing, a different guitar riff throughout, and lacks the screams. Not sure either version really deserves to be nine minutes, though.

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Red Hot Chili Peppers – The Uplift Mofo Party Plan

Tuesday 22nd November 2011 Leave a comment

The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was one of the first RHCP albums I ever heard. I’m still rather fond of it.

I originally posted this review at Rate Your Music.

The 2003 remastered edition:

If you intend to listen to this album, I urge you to seek out the original CD release rather than the 2003 24-bit digitally remastered version, because in my opinion the re-release is down there with the Chili Peppers’ own Californication as one of the worst victims of the Loudness War I have ever heard. I’m no audiophile (I wish I could afford to be one…) but it’s clear that the 2003 edition suffers from an absurd degree of compression, clipping and lack of dynamic range that makes it extremely fatiguing to the ears.

The 1987 version was perfectly adequately punchy as it was, so get that. True, by buying the older version you’ll miss out on the 2003 edition’s two bonus tracks and the liner notes booklet featuring numerous images and retrospective comments from Flea – but at least the thing will be listenable for more than two minutes at a time!

There are other differences too: for example, on the original release the final guitar lick of “Fight Like A Brave” fades out so that it’s barely audible; on the 2003 remastered version the whole riff is heard, but it concludes by cutting off very abruptly. For someone familiar with the original version, it’s a disconcerting alteration.

The music:

Enough about the remastering; what of the music itself? It’s a decent little album, and probably the best of the Chili Peppers’ pre-Blood Sugar Sex Magik work. It suffers from dated shouted choruses, but the production is a big step up from RHCP’s first two albums, and there’s some great guitar playing from Hillel Slovak, who died shortly after the album’s release.

The two absolute highlights are “Fight Like A Brave” and “Me and My Friends”; the latter has a great guitar solo. (It’s nice to learn that “Me and My Friends” has apparently made a return to the Chili Peppers’ live repertoire in their recent I’m With You album tour.)

“Behind the Sun” is a lovely lazy summer song and one of the most melodic things the band did in the ’80s. “Skinny Sweaty Man” is fun comedy number in which Anthony Kiedis does his best Mel Blanc Looney Tunes voices. “Organic Anti-Beat Box Band” is an energetic party track, and there’s a Bob Dylan cover which is OK (but not as good as the band’s later covers of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire”).

Alas, “Party on Your Pussy” (which was listed as “Special Secret Song Inside” on the 1987 release, for obvious reasons) and “Love Trilogy” represent the Chili Peppers’ unfortunate tendency toward the childish and crude at its worst. The later “Sir Psycho Sexy” on Blood Sugar Sex Magik was just as vulgar, but funnier and set to much better music.

If you’re a fan of later RHCP albums looking to investigate their earlier work, I would recommend getting the What Hits!? compilation before you delve into this album. That compilation contains this LP’s highlights “Fight Like A Brave” and “Me and My Friends”, plus two other decent songs from it (“Backwoods” and “Behind the Sun”), as well as most of the worthwhile songs from the Chili Peppers’ other early releases.

3/5

 01. Fight Like a Brave (3:54)
 02. Funky Crime (3:00)
 03. Me and My Friends (3:09)
 04. Backwoods (3:08)
 05. Skinny Sweaty Man (1:16)
 06. Behind the Sun (4:41)
 07. Subterranean Homesick Blues (2:33)
 08. Party on Your Pussy/Special Secret Song Inside (3:16)
 09. No Chump Love Sucker (2:42)
 10. Walkin' on Down the Road (3:49)
 11. Love Trilogy (2:41)
 12. Organic Anti-Beat Box Band (4:03)

2003 EDITION BONUS TRACKS:
 13. Behind the Sun (instrumental demo) (2:55)
 14. Me and My Friends (instrumental demo) (1:54)
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Think of something new, videogame advertisers!

Monday 8th February 2010 Leave a comment

Has anyone noticed how many game adverts of recent years have used the gimmick of juxtaposing violent imagery against music that’s classical, laid-back, sombre, old-fashioned, jaunty, or otherwise incongruous?

I think the trend began in 2005 with the museum advert for Criterion’s Black:

Then we had:

Methinks these advertising agencies have been watching Face/Off a little too much…
Read more…