Echo in the Canyon


This concert is for the Byrds.

(2018) Music Documentary (GreenwichJakob Dylan, David Crosby, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Browne, Tom Petty, Beck, Michelle Phillips, Lou Adler, Stephen Stills, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, John Sebastian, Graham Nash, Fernando Pedromo, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Matt Tecu, Norah Jones, Fiona Apple, Justine Bennett, Jade Castrinos. Directed by Andrew Slater

One of the mysteries of music is how often it coalesces in a single location – Liverpool and Greenwich village in the early 60s, Minneapolis in the 80s, Seattle and Manchester in the 90s – where all the right conditions of talent and opportunity create a marvelously creative Petri dish that gives birth to a new sound, reinvigorating the now 60 year old hoary beast that is rock music.

For an astonishingly narrow era – 1965 to 1967 – one such place was in Southern California and specifically, Laurel Canyon. Today the Canyon is a tony mixture of trendy hipsters and wealthy consumers that frequent coffee houses and boutiques at the base of the Canyon. Back then, however, it was a musician’s colony and bands like the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Buffalo Springfield and even the Beach Boys (who were already big stars dating back to the surf era) were headquartered there. They would hang out at each other’s houses, share meals and drugs as well as play stuff they were working on for each other. The cross-pollination of the music that started with the Byrds’ foray into electric folk – which came to influence Folkie Number One Bob Dylan himself – and changed pop music forever, paving the way for seminal albums like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Dylan’s progeny Jakob, himself a rock star with the Wallflowers, undertook the documentation of that scene after watching a French film called The Model Shop that starred Canadian actor Gary Lockwood as a Vietnam draftee wandering around L.A. and taking up with a French model who was trying to get back home to Paris. He started out interviewing the movers and shakers of the scene – David Crosby and Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Stephen Stills of Buffalo Springfield, Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. He also spoke with some of those who were heavily influenced by the so-called California Sound – Eric Clapton (then of Cream), Ringo Starr of the Beatles, John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jackson Browne and Tom Petty in one of his final interviews before his untimely death in 2017.

This is a movie that had to be made now as most of those musicians from back then are in their 70s and 80s and so many of those who shaped that scene are no longer with us. Director Andrew Slater – a former music journalist and CEO of Capitol Records – peppers the soundtrack with some of the most amazing music of any era, showing off close harmonies, and the simple yet unforgettable sound of a well-played 12-string Rickenbacker.

Dylan would organize a tribute concert in 2015 at Los Angeles’ Orpheum Theater in which contemporary stars like Beck, Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor played the hit songs of that era. Rehearsal footage and concert footage of the upstarts playing the iconic music of their predecessors illustrates how timeless that music remains.

My only real problem with the movie is that you begin to wonder if this is a labor of ego more than a labor of love. Dylan conducts all the interviews and is often nodding sagely at the remarks of his subjects. He is front and center at the tribute concert and much of the time the camera is focused on him. Dylan’s career has hit a plateau of sorts and one wonders if this isn’t a means for him to re-energize it. A little less Jakob Dylan and a lot more anecdotes from the original musicians would have been much more appreciated. Also, the film focuses on the more successful bands of the era. There were plenty of other bands in the Laurel Canyon scene whose music could have also been shared. Strangely, the Doors – who also lived in the Canyon – are not mentioned at all. I suppose their music wasn’t folk enough to mix with the ethos Slater and Dylan are creating here.

The movie’s demarcation point is Neil Young’s decision to leave Buffalo Springfield in 1967 which would see Crosby follow suit. Just two years later the innocence of the era would be cruelly shattered when a group of cultists went to the home of actress Sharon Tate in neighboring Benedict Canyon and brought the Sixties crashing to a halt. Still, the music that came before those grisly events remains and continue to influence artists to this day. The contributions of those who made it deserve to be properly acclaimed and recognized for what it was – the beginning of real innovation in rock and roll.

REASONS TO SEE: The music is, of course, fantastic. The stories that the musicians tell are mainly more compelling than the rehearsal and concert footage.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times feels more like a labor of ego than a labor of love.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some drug references, sexual references and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Clips from the 1969 movie Model Shop were used to add a sense of what it was like in Laurel Canyon and Los Angeles in the late Sixties.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Concert for George
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Little Woods

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Carmine Street Guitars


Flowers aren’t the gift; flowers come with the gift.

(2018) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Rick Kelly, Cindy Hulej, Dorothy Kelly, Dallas Good, Travis Good, Lenny Kaye, Bill Frisell, Eszter Balint, Jim Jarmusch, Nels Cline, Marc Ribot, Charlie Sexton, Kirk Douglas, Dave Hill, Eleanor Friedberger, Jamie Hince, Stewart Hurwood, Christine Bougie. Directed by Ron Mann

 

It is sometimes depressing to consider how the world has become so commodified. Everything is product now; mass-produced, soulless, disposable. Hand-crafted items are a rarity now, and becoming rarer by the day. Few people take the time or the effort to make things from scratch.

Rick Kelly is one of those people. He has a storefront in Greenwich Village in New York City; the titular Carmine Street Guitars. There, he and his apprentice Cindy Hulej make guitars the old-fashioned way – by hand. Rick uses wood rescued from buildings that have been demolished, buildings that predate the Civil War and I’m not talking about the Marvel movie.

This documentary ostensibly follows the shop for a week in the life, although it doesn’t ostensibly say so. There are pictures on the wall of some of the store’s famous customers (one, a signed photo of Robert Quine, is crooked and no amount of fiddling will straighten it out) which include the late Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Dylan’s current guitarist, former New Wave pretty boy Charlie Sexton, drops by to test drive one of Rick’s guitars.

In fact much of the film is people dropping by to check out guitars Rick has made or is making. Those dropping by include Nels Cline of Wilco, there to buy a birthday gift for bandmate Jeff Tweedy; jazz guitar legend Bill Frisell who plays some surf guitar hits from early in his career. Lenny Kaye of the Patty Smith Band also drops by to noodle on a guitar as does avant garde guitarist Marc Ribot. No matter what the style of the guitarist, they all sound pretty amazing on Carmine Street guitars.

This is a stream of consciousness kind of cinema verité; there are no talking head interviews, no animated sequences and there is no archival footage. We are always in the moment during the film; we don’t get a lot of context and are left to manufacture that on our own. Kelly is kind of an ex-hippie who has an almost grandfatherly aspect to him; the guitars are his children and his clients prospective adoptive parents. Hulej is even more interesting than the idiosyncratic Kelly (whose 93-year-old mother answers phones and does the books for the store). A platinum blonde goth punk chick, her extraordinary beauty works for her as a cinematic focal point but against her in her career; she talks frankly with Eleanor Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces that men often don’t take her seriously because of her looks, particularly as a crafter of guitars.

While Hulej seems to primarily be concerned with burning graphics into the guitars, she can also build them and the sense that these two people are artisans in the best sense of the word also points out that they are a disappearing breed. Watching the two of them at work reminds the viewer that there is something special about those who love what they do and take pride in what they make.

I like that Kelly uses old wood – what he calls “the bones of Old New York” – in his craft. That shows not only a sense of history but also of caring very much about not just where he set up shop but what is sold inside of it. It reminds me why New Yorkers consider their city the greatest on Earth and more importantly, why they have a case for that boast. I know that if I played guitar, I’d want to own one of these. Those who love guitars and the people who play them are very much encouraged to see this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much a stream-of-consciousness documentary; no talking heads, no animations. Some great guitar noodling by masters of the craft.
REASONS TO AVOID: May not have as much appeal for non-guitar junkies.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 2018.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Strad Style
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury

The Only Living Boy in New York


Reflections in my mind.

(2017) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Tate Donovan, Wallace Shawn, Anh Duong, Debi Mazar, Ben Hollandsworth, John Bolger, Bill Camp, Richard Bekins, Ryan Speakman, Oliver Thornton, Alexander Sokovikov, Ed Jewett, Amy Hohn. Directed by Marc Webb

 

It is not uncommon for young people to finish college or drop out of college and end up feeling adrift. Okay, I’m done with school; now what? It’s an exciting and frightening concept at the same time.

Thomas Webb (Turner) – and to be sure, it’s Thomas and not Tommy or Tom – is in just such a pickle. He is the son of successful publisher Ethan (Brosnan) and artist Judith (Nixon) and has not quite moved back in with them but has taken an apartment on the Lower East Side, not far from his parents on the Upper East Side (and true New Yorkers will know that they might be not far away but they are worlds apart).

He’s not sure what to do with his life. He wants to be a writer but his publisher dad dismissed his work as “serviceable.” His mom is fragile emotionally and seems on the verge of falling apart. He is very much in love with Mimi (Clemons) who is more interested in a platonic relationship with him and to make matters worse, is headed for an internship in Slovakia. Thomas is trying to make some sense out of his life; fortunately, he meets W.F. Gerald (Bridges), a writer who lives in apartment 2B of his building (by extension meaning that Thomas lives in not 2B – think about it).. W.F. is kind of rough around the edges but he takes a fatherly interest in Thomas, which suits Thomas just fine since his own dad is distant to say the least.

But Thomas’ world begins to spin completely out of control when he discovers that his dad is having an affair. He becomes obsessed with the mystery lady and discovers that her name is Johanna (Beckinsale) and that she works as a contractor in Ethan’s office. Thomas confronts Johanna and tells her to stop seeing his dad; the cool and collected Johanna responds that what Thomas is really saying is that he wants to sleep with Johanna himself. As it turns out, she’s right.

Thomas is caught up in a dilemma and he doesn’t know how to get out of it. The hypocrisy of his situation isn’t lost on him and so he decides to tell his dad that he knows about Johanna and furthermore, he’s sleeping with her himself. However, this revelation threatens to destroy Thomas’ family altogether leading the way for another stunning revelation that changes Thomas’ life forever.

The critics have been pretty much panning this which is a bit of a shame; it’s not a flawless film but I ended up liking it. Bridges is absolutely wonderful as W.F. and Beckinsale is sexy as all get out as the Other Woman. The dialogue has also been called tin-eared but I found it pretty sharp most of the time. I know, this isn’t the way real people talk – but it’s the way sophisticated New York literary sorts talk. Make of that what you will.

The main trouble here is Turner. His character is wishy-washy, vindictive and fully self-involved. There’s nothing mature about him – and yet the sophisticated literary type ends up sleeping with him and later in the film, another woman falls in love with him. ‘Course, I’m not a woman but I find it absolutely flabbergasting that any woman would see him as the object of love. He offers nothing but immaturity and leaps to conclusion that rival Evel Knieval flying over Snake River Gorge.

And yet they do. Then again, there’s a bit of a literati soap opera feel to the whole thing. It doesn’t have to make sense; it just has to create drama. This is very Noo Yawk which may put some folks off on it – there are certain parts of the country where being from the Big Apple is a hanging offense. Some have compared this to the Woody Allen of the 90s which is not Allen’s best creative period; I can see the Allen comparison but I would push it back a decade.

The soundtrack is a bit eclectic but in a good way; you get Simon and Garfunkel (including the title song) and Dylan, both of whom evoke New York City in a certain era although this is set in modern day. The cast also overcomes some of the script’s flaws, particularly Bridges, Beckinsale and Nixon who does fragile about as well as anybody. There is some charm here, enough to make it a worthwhile alternative to late August film programming. This won’t be for everyone but it might just be for you.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges is absolutely delightful. The dialogue is sharp. There’s some strong music on the soundtrack.
REASONS TO STAY: Turner is completely unconvincing in the lead role. Could be a little too New York literati for most
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and a bit of drug-related material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second 2017 film with a title shared with a Simon and Garfunkel song (Baby Driver was the first).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Graduate
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Everything, Everything

I Am Not Your Negro


James Baldwin listens intently.

(2016) Documentary (Magnolia) Samuel L. Jackson (narrator), James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Dick Cavett, Robert F. Kennedy, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Barack Obama, John Wayne, Henry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Charlton Heston, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sidney Poitier, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rodney King, Michele Obama. Directed by Raoul Peck

 

James Baldwin at one point says in this documentary “The story of America is the story of the Negro and it isn’t a pretty story.” For those who don’t know, James Baldwin was a gay African-American writer who during the Civil Rights era became a prominent and outspoken representative for civil rights. Articulate, intelligent and respected, his was a voice that was angry but one that invited dialogue. There isn’t much of that going on today.

In 1979 he author sent a letter to his literary agent Jay Acton outlining a proposal for a book project entitled Remember the House. In it he said that he wanted to examine the civil rights movement and America itself through the murders of three of his friends; Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. When Baldwin passed away in 1987 he’d completed only 30 pages of manuscript.

Documentary director Peck wondered what that book might have turned out to be. Using Baldwin’s own words from the Acton letter as well as the manuscript itself (all of which is read by Samuel L. Jackson), he uses archival footage of Baldwin doing talk shows, delivering speeches and lecturing at universities to flesh out the written words.

Peck also uses footage of modern race-related issues like the events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of Trayvon Martin to reinforce that the more that things change, the more they stay the same. Baldwin was one of the most brilliant men of the 20th century and he spent a significant portion of his life in self-exile in France, much like leading African-American artists did to escape American racism. That gave him a certain amount of perspective, but he also clearly loved his country and almost inevitably when he felt he needed to lend his voice to what was happening, he would return home.

His observations are eerily timeless, speaking as much to modern audiences as to those of the 50s and 60s. At times it seems he could be talking about incidents that occurred just last week. He speaks in a cultured, urbane voice – something else we’ve lost as a society – and reminds us that once upon a time we had discourse in America, not just attempts to shout each other down. One wonders what he would have thought of the current President and of how social media has changed our country and how we receive information.

This documentary brilliantly weaves the archival and modern images with Baldwin’s words, not only reminding us that he was a great man (which he was) but also that we haven’t learned very much from him. The Oscar-nominated documentary really has a single flaw but it’s kind of a big one; it tends to flog the same points over and over again, but then again perhaps we need that since as mentioned a moment ago we really haven’t learned our lesson yet. Hopefully seeing this documentary might motivate some of you to read some of his books (I know I’m going to be checking out Amazon for at least one or two) but also to remind us that while we have made some progress, we still have a hell of a long way to go.

REASONS TO GO: Powerful and depressing, the film shows us how little we’ve progressed in half a century. Some truly remarkable archival material brings the Civil Rights era to life.
REASONS TO STAY: An element of flogging the same points over and over again does occur.
FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images are violent and disturbing; there is also some profanity including racial slurs, adult themes and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The word “negro” is used 78 times in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AmazonVudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Malcolm X
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: A Dog’s Purpose