Bad Reputation (2018)


Joan Jett is a rock and roll icon.

(2018) Music Documentary (Magnolia) Joan Jett, Kenny Laguna, Iggy Pop, Billy Joe Armstrong, Michael J. Fox, Deborah Harry, Chris Stein, Kathleen Hanna, Miley Cyrus, Ian MacKaye, Pete Townshend, Bill Curbishley, Mike Ness, Kristen Stewart, Dougie Needles, Alison Mosshart, Dana White, Sally Hershberger, Rodney Bingenheimer, Thommy Price, Carianne Brinkman, Cherie Currie. Directed by Kevin Kerslake

 

One of the problems we film critics have is that often with documentaries we have a tendency to review the subject as much as the film. I’m certainly guilty of that and the temptation to do that with an icon like Joan Jett is damn near irresistible.

You can’t help but admire Jett as a musician. In an age when most women were relegated to playing soft rock or folk music, Jett wanted to rock hard. She wanted to be like the boys onstage; like Pete Townshend, like Jimmy Page, like Clapton. People in the industry would look at her like she was from Mars. Girls don’t rock; they strum. They sing sweetly and they certainly don’t shriek

As a teen, Joan Larkin made her way from Pennsylvania to Los Angeles to chase her rock and roll dreams. She hung out in the English Disco, an all-ages nightclub where glam rock was worshiped by men and women wearing way too much make-up. Joan stood out in that crowd and met Sandy West, a kindred spirit who wanted to be John Bonham. They added guitarist Lita Ford, singer Cherie Currie and bassist Jackie Fox and were christened The Runaways. Joan took her mother’s maiden name as her stage name and under the aegis of promoter Kim Fowley (whom Iggy Pop described as “like Frankenstein’s monster, if Frankenstein’s monster was on Quaaludes”) they would go on to record four studio albums and one live album before breaking up acrimoniously.

The band was met by critical scorn and by outright hostility by male rockers who didn’t want to see their clubhouse invaded by girls yet performance footage (of which there is sadly far too little) show that the Runaways were as hard rocking as any male band of their time. When the band broke up, Jett was devastated. She self-medicated with booze and drugs, hanging out with people like Sid Vicious, Nancy Spungeon and Stiv Bators, most of whom as Jett puts it “are dead now.” She even thought of joining the military to get herself straightened out but it was rock and roll that saved her.

She was introduced to Kenny Laguna, a noted bubblegum pop producer who heard something in Jett. Putting together a backing band who became known as the Blackhearts, Laguna melded his pop sensibilities with Joan’s hard rock instincts to create a kind of hard pop. When no label would even consider them, Jett and Laguna founded heir own label, becoming a precursor to the DIY punk labels that started in the 80s. When pop mogul Neil Bogart heard their demo, he arranged to distribute their first album and it looked like a wise move when the first album did extremely well but Bogart died before they could follow up on that success and his label died with him. Undaunted, the band found another label to distribute their music and they hit the big time powered by constant airplay on MTV. While most of the band’s hits were covers (“I Love Rock and Roll,” “Crimson and Clover”) there were several that Jett and Laguna penned as well (“Bad Reputation”). Through the 80s, Jett became the Queen of Rock, a darker haired version of Ann and Nancy Wilson.

The rock business has always been notoriously cyclical and as label relationships soured, the Blackhearts were bounced from label to label but while Jett and her band would never recapture the popularity they had in the 80s they continued to have hits here and there through the 90s and into the 21st century.

Now so far I’ve reviewed the subject and certainly Jett is worthy of a documentary but the problem with this documentary is a lack of depth. It’s a bit more of a puff piece and Kerslake doesn’t seem inclined to examine some of the darker subjects, like the allegations  in Cherie Currie’s book that Fowley had sexually assaulted members of the Runaways – Jett is certainly aware of those allegations and you’d think in this MeToo era she would be at least wanting to comment on them, even if only to say “I wasn’t aware of that kind of thing going on so I can’t validate Cherie’s story.”

There is also astonishingly little detail in how the high school aged Joan got from Pennsylvania to the West Coast, whether she was able to reconnect with her former bandmates in the Runaways or even who her personal influences are as a musician. Watching this movie is very much like staring at a picture that has been put through a shredder and tossed in a trash can and then later reassembled at the city dump; there are lots of pieces missing and the ones that are there are incomplete.

Still, Jett is candid and engaging. She doesn’t address her sexuality – I don’t think she should have to – which has been a subject of gossip for decades. If anything, I think Jett is married to rock and roll and that’s the source of her sexuality and her creativity. It is her center and her savior, and often her curse. It is the greatest love in her life. And like all of our own relationships it has had its ups and downs but she is still loyal to it nevertheless. That’s pretty damn admirable if you ask me.

You likely won’t respect Jett as a musician any more after seeing this than you already do – or do not, if you are of that mindset. You may find yourself respecting her more as a person as I did. Overall I’d have to say that while Jett is indeed a rock icon who deserves every accolade she gets thrown her way, I might have wished for a better biography of her than this. She’s earned better.

REASONS TO GO: Jett is a marvelous subject; she’s candid and engaging.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit Music Documentary 101.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief nudity, sexual references and gestures, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jett celebrated her 60th birthday just four days before the film was released.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Runaways
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.

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All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records


Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Russ Solomon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Mark Viducich, David Geffen, Michael Solomon, Steve Knepper, Heidi Cotler, Dave Grohl, Mike Farrace, Rudy Danzinger, Paul Brown, Steve Knopper, Steve Nikkel, Stan Goman, Ken Sockolov, Chris Hopson, Bob Delanoy. Directed by Colin Hanks

To people of a certain age, a visit to a record store was akin to a spa day; we would spend literally hours browsing the bins of records, cassettes and later compact discs. We’d pour through the bargain and used bins, sweaty palmed and wide-eyed until our breath would catch in our throats as the one record, that one record that made the time and effort worth it appeared out of the stacks. There were no finer moments in my life.

Those days are gone; most of us, myself included, get our music digitally downloaded through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon or some other service, or stream our music through Pandora, RDIO or Band Camp. Music is so easily accessible that it has lost much of its magic to many of us. Why bother spending that kind of time haunting a record store when you can just Google the name of your treasure and it will be located in seconds? Who among us of a certain age can remember the thrill of first entering a Tower Records, a record store that dwarfed anything we’d known before and had just about anything and everything that was available – and if they didn’t have it by God they could get it for you in a week, tops.

In 1999, as a title card at the very beginning of the documentary All Things Must Pass which chronicles the story of what is perhaps the most iconic record chain in history, Tower Records had over a billion dollars in sales. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy. How did that happen?

Well, the Internet happened. Music suddenly was being file shared and downloaded. Who needed to go inside an old-fashioned brick and mortar emporium? Who had the time? Besides, you could find anything on Napster for free. Why pay twenty bucks for a CD when you could get the very same quality for free? You can’t compete with free, says one talking head ruefully during the course of the film.

Competition happened. Big box stores like Wal*Mart and Target began stocking CDs in comparable qualities and sold them at cost. Tower couldn’t compete with that either. But this wasn’t all Tower’s doing; the music business itself made some incompetent decisions, focusing on music piracy. They may have won the battle against Napster but they lost the war; the major labels these days are shadows of their former selves and making a living as a musician is way harder than it used to be – and it was never easy.

&Tower grew because it was a family store, a neighborhood store. It began as a few bins in a drug store located in the Tower Theater building in Sacramento. When the proprietor’s son, Russ Solomon, decided to get in the record retail business, his father sold the bins to him and soon Russ had a couple of stores in Sacramento. Then one in San Francisco. Then another in Los Angeles.

Russ believed in expansion but he also believed in having more stock than anyone else. He believed in putting people as clerks who were people you’d want to hang out with and talk music with for a couple of hours. I remember going into the Tower Records in Mountain View, California and when the clerks found out I was the rock critic for the San Jose Metro ended up spending nearly three hours just chatting with nearly all of them in between them ringing up customers. They grilled me on various groups and styles; about some I would plead ignorance but others I knew well. When I left the store, the manager told me that I was “Tower Records clerk material.” I don’t ever recall being as thrilled about a compliment in all my life.

That family feeling carried through to the executives of the company, nearly all of whom started out working at the cash register. As we listen to their interviews, particularly Mark Viducich (he of the walrus-like moustache in the photo above) and Heidi Cotler, we get the sense that these are people who are used to speaking what’s on their mind and would be a hoot to hang out with for a few beers after work. These guys knew their market because they were their market.

Solomon’s aggressive expansion phase made Tower a global presence, particularly in Japan which was rabid about American culture (the Japanese expansion was Viducich’s call). Music being such a personal thing, they understood that it had to be treated almost as therapeutic and so it was. If music was the catalyst for change in the latter half of the 20th century, Tower Records was the company that provided the chemicals for the reaction.

Times did change and despite their best efforts Tower Records is no more. Now Colin Hanks, the actor and son of Tom, has fashioned a documentary that is a very good idea – it is going to inspire a ton of nostalgia for a lot of people ranging from the baby boomers to Gen X; in other words, the people that Millennials roll their eyes at these days. That can’t be a bad thing for the box office.

If I have one complaint with the film it’s just that the format is pretty tried and true – lots of talking heads with archival film footage interspersed with it. The soundtrack is pretty good but not as great as that which accompanied The Wrecking Crew or Muscle Shoals. That’s a bit of a problem, but one that isn’t a deal killer at least.

There are some record collectors left but most of us have reverted to digital storage. Ironically the CDs which prompted the golden era for Tower in terms of profits were also the vehicle for the doom of big record chains including Tower. Once music was digital, the obsolescence of brick and mortar record stores was assured.

Still, one can look back fondly on hours spent at Tower, Amoeba and Park City CDs and the money spent and not one dime of it do I regret. Music is as essential to life as breathing (the Japanese Tower continues to use the old Tower slogan “No music, no life”) and I can’t imagine life without it. We all have our own soundtracks and Tower was the place where many of us acquired ours.

REASONS TO GO: Classic nostalgia for aging music geeks. Engaging interviews.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian format.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Tower Records no longer exists in the United States, they still thrive in Japan under separate ownership.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Homemakers

New Releases for the Week of June 28, 2013


White House Down

WHITE HOUSE DOWN

(Columbia) Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods, Joey King, Jimmi Simpson, Matt Craven. Directed by Roland Emmerich

A DC cop who had just been turned down for the secret service is touring the White House when it comes under a terrorist attack. Don’t you hate when that happens? In any case, he needs to rescue the president, keep his daughter safe and keep our country from collapsing. All in a day’s work, right?

See the trailer and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged sequences of  action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image)

20 Feet from Stardom

(Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Bruce Springsteen. The world’s greatest backup singers of the rock and roll era get together to reminisce on their careers as some of the most recognizable voices in music whose names you don’t know. A big hit  as the opening night film at this year’s Florida Film Festival. Catch my review here.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Music Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for some strong language and sexual material) 

Copperhead

(Brainstorm) Billy Campbell, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Fonda, Francois Arnaud. A pacifist farmer in upstate New York defies his neighbors and his government in 1862 as the Civil War rages. The resulting schism in the community thoroughly illustrates the fact that war isn’t only fought by its combatants and it can have a terrible cost on the community at large.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Historical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for an unsettling sequence) 

Fill the Void

(Sony Classics) Hadras Yaron, Yiftach Klein, Irit Sheleg, Chaim Sharir. A Hassidic family in Tel Aviv is rocked to the core when the eldest daughter dies in childbirth. When it looks like the widower will be matched with a Belgian woman, taking their only link to their deceased child with him, the family proposes that the younger daughter (who is betrothed to someone else) instead marry the widower. She now must choose between family duty and the call of her heart.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements and brief smoking)

Ghanchakkar

(UTV) Emraan Hashmi, Vidya Balan, Sanjay Dutt, Rajesh Sharma. A master safe cracker decides to do one last heist before retiring and so he does – the big score he’s always dreamed of. The gang decides to split up and lie low until the heat dies down. However, when they reunite to collect their cash, they realize the safe cracker has had some sort of accident and has completely lost his memory. Or is he paying a rather dangerous game? They must stick around and find out which it is.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

The Heat

(20th Century Fox) Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans. An uptight FBI agent and a loose cannon Boston cop team up to take down a ruthless drug lord – if they don’t end up killing each other first. Oh and by the way – said agent and cop are women. This could get real ugly.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Buddy Cop Comedy

Rating: R (for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence) 

Twenty Feet from Stardom


Sweet harmony personified.

Sweet harmony personified.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Radius) Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fisher, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Bette Midler, Chris Botti, Lynn Mabry, Claudia Lennear, Sheryl Crow, Patti Austin, Gloria Jones, Janice Pendarvis, Stevvi Alexander. Directed by Morgan Neville

Florida Film Festival 2013

We all know the stars. Their faces, their voices, their music. We can hum their songs in our sleep. We don’t always get the full components of what goes into that classic music however. We rarely know who the backup singers are.

This documentary aims to rectify that. Focusing mainly on four African-American women, the movie looks at the importance of back-up singers to popular music of the last say, 50 years or so. There’s Darlene Love, for example, who not only sang leads on a lot of classic songs (“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” comes to mind) but her voice can be heard on some of Phil Spector’s classic hits – as part of The Blossoms, an early girl group she fronted, her powerful voice decorated some of the classic songs of the ’60s. Still, she’s primarily known as playing Danny Glover’s wife on the Lethal Weapon films.

Merry Clayton, like many of the great backup singers the daughter of a preacher, is perhaps best remembered as the female voice on the Rolling Stones classic “Gimme Shelter” for which she was awakened in the middle of the night to do and sang in pajamas and curlers.  She’s sang for some of the biggest names in music and while her face may not be familiar, I guarantee you’ve heard her voice many times.

Lisa Fisher may have the most amazing voice of them all. While much in demand (she has been the Stones’ touring backup vocalist for more than 20 years) she has for the most part shunned a solo career (although she won a Grammy for her lone solo album). She prefers to sing for the simple joy of singing, preferring to remain in the background rather than pursuing the solo career she more than has the talent to achieve.

Judith Hill famously sang at Michael Jackson’s memorial service and is heavily featured in the documentary of the rehearsals for his final tour that never happened due to his untimely death. She writes and performs not only for herself but for other big stars and recently became a contestant on the singing competition The Voice which I would count her a heavy favorite to win it all.

These women and many others like them (and a few men too) may not be well known but they are absolute titans in the industry. The respect that is paid them by the stars who are interviewed is palpable and as is mentioned by Claudia Lennear during the film, most people when they’re singing along to a song are singing what the backup singers are singing.

I will confess to having been a music critic for nearly a dozen years in the San Francisco Bay Area and like most people – critics included – I kind of took the contributions of these amazing singers for granted. One of the best thing this movie does is break down the importance of the background singers in the song. One stark illustration of this is found when ”Gimme Shelter” is played with the tracks removed one at a time until only Clayton’s vocal track remains. It’s a very simple yet effective reminder of the power of the human voice.

The human connection through music is universal. There are those who feel a particular passion for it and have the talent and the desire to express themselves through their music. Some of them make it and some of them don’t regardless of how good they are – it’s largely a matter of luck and timing. For my money, regardless of the fame and fortune these ladies and others like them have gathered (or lack thereof) they are every one of them stars in my book. If you love rock and roll or hell, any sort of pop music, you owe it to yourself to see this. It will change your outlook on music – in a good way – forever.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and spiritually uplifting. Everything a documentary should be.

REASONS TO STAY: If musical documentaries don’t interest you…

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few swear words and some brief nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Gil Friesen, the former head of A&M records, came up with the idea and title after attending a Leonard Cohen show with his friend Jimmy Buffett. Unfortunately, Friesen passed away shortly before the film debuted at Sundance earlier this year.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the film has appeared at Sundance but won’t see theatrical release until June 14th but frankly, I don’t see critics not falling in love with this early Oscar contender.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Young @ Heart

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Nancy, Please and more from the 2013 Florida Film Festival

High Fidelity


High Fidelity

This is my movie and these are my people.

(2000) Romance (Touchstone) John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr, Lili Taylor, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Springsteen. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

John Cusack is one of those actors who is quirky, engaging, charming, occasionally irascible but always interesting to watch. In short, a young Jack Nicholson. From time to time, Cusack will produce small-budget films on his own that are generally paid for by his appearances in big-buck extravaganzas such as Con Air. Like Cusack himself, these less fiscally ambitious movies are nearly always quirky yet endearing and generally include his sister Joan in some capacity (see Grosse Pointe Blank).

In High Fidelity he plays Rob Gordon, who owns an eclectic record store in Chicago that actually sells records, and by that I mean vinyl. The store specializes in classic rock and soul and indie rock. Gordon has just broken up with his girlfriend Laura (Hjejle), who left him to take up with a New Age ex-hippie named Ian (Robbins). While Gordon’s store employees – the loud, rude and opinionated Barry (Black) and the soft-spoken music nerd Dick (Louiso) – try to keep the store running (such as it does; the store is nearly broke), Gordon is busy trying to figure out why he keeps getting dumped.

A compulsive list-maker, Gordon seeks out the girlfriends responsible for his top five worst breakups in an effort to discover why they chose someone else over him.

Cusack imbues Gordon with complexity. He yearns for stability and contentment, but always sabotages himself with the wrong impulses just when those goals seem attainable. Moody, temperamental, a musical snob and more than a little bit of a jerk, Gordon is nonetheless sympathetic. He admires excellence (particularly in music) and champions the underdog without fail, which is why he sells vinyl, a sort of Don Quixote of music retail. He smokes compulsively, talks to the camera like it’s a confessional and plunges into all situations without fear. It may sound awful on paper, but Cusack is likable enough to pull it off.

To his advantage, Cusack surrounds himself with a great cast. Black and Louiso are hysterical as his employees. Sister Joan is her usual acerbic self as a mutual friend to the estranged couple. Robbins shows flair as the new boyfriend. Catherine Zeta-Jones is lustrous in an uncredited cameo as Charlie (one of Cusack’s top five)and indie film queen Taylor, as another one of Cusack’s list, lends cachet. Bruce Springsteen even cameos as himself, displaying a heretofore unrevealed knack for the craft.

This was pretty much Jack Black’s break-out performance. It was from here that he went on to get leading roles and it’s easy to see why. His on-screen charisma is simply astonishing here. He steals nearly every scene he’s in, culminating in a stunning performance of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” in the final reel. He’s manic, hysterically funny and infectious in this role which has to be considered one of the best performances of his career.

As a rock critic for an independent alternative weekly for six years, I can tell you that this is MY film and these are my people. Director Stephen (Dangerous Liaisons) Frears wisely lets Cusack take center stage, letting the rest of the performers play off him and build their performances off of him. Cusack takes up a ton of screen time – he’s in almost every scene – so if he’s not your cup of tea, you should probably pass on this one. Still, there are some great laughs herein (particularly the scene in which Cusack and Robbins meet face-to-face in the record store), a lot of insight into why we mess up our relationships, and an awesome soundtrack, much of which was selected for the film by Cusack himself.

The film began life as a novel by Nick Hornby (from whose pen also spawned About a Boy). That was set originally in Hornby’s native London but was transplanted to Chicago by Cusack who co-wrote the script. I think the shift works really well; the action seems germane to the Windy City setting and one gets a sense of life among Midwestern hipsters. Chicago has always been a center for musical trendsetting and separate from L.A. or New York is a far more grounded location, making for more down-to-earth kind of realism rather than a boatload of trendies struggling to be the first to the Next Big Thing.

High Fidelity didn’t do killer box office, but it shouldn’t be overlooked among the wave after wave of teen sex comedies, self-indulgent Oscar leftovers, event movies and niche films that populate the video store. It’s a well-written, enjoyable movie that will be on your mind long after you turn off the TV slash computer slash smart phone.

WHY RENT THIS: Killer soundtrack. Fine script and excellent performances by Black, Louiso, Hjejle and both Cusacks. Some laugh-out-loud moments.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Cusack you won’t like this.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s some sexuality and a lot of four-letter words.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The location of Rob’s store Championship Vinyl used to be a Wax Trax record store, the retail outlet for the influential Chicago-based Industrial and Punk label.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.1M on a $30M production budget; the movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Wanderlust