Buena Vista Social Club: Adios


The music of Cuba is timeless.

(2017) Documentary (Broad Green) Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, Ry Cooder, Nick Gold, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Juan de Marcos González, Barbarito Torres, Gilberto “Papi” Oviedo. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

In 1997, American musician Ry Cooder discovered the seductive rhythms and melodies of Cuban music. Gathering together a group of aging Cuban musicians who continued to make vibrant and amazing music from their native land, he put together an album with literally an all-star group of Cuban musicians in what was a love letter to the island. German filmmaker Wim Wenders made a documentary about the tour that surrounded the album. The documentary he made, Buena Vista Social Club which was also the name of the album, were worldwide phenomena and made international stars out of the musicians that were portrayed, garnering major awards including Oscars and Grammys.

That was then, this is now. 20 years has passed since the first album and many of the musicians from the first film, who were already elderly when the album was recorded, have since passed on. This documentary acts both as prequel and sequel, giving us a little more insight to the development of son Cubano music and the people who made it stars, particularly Ferrer and Portuondo, the royal couple of Cuban music. The first third of the film concentrates on that, showing the two as they appear in variety show footage from the 50s and in Cuban commercials of that era, leading up through the revolution that changed the island forever and the eventual slide into obscurity – Ferrer was shining shoes two doors down from the studio where the BVSC album was recorded.

The middle third chronicles the rise of the Buena Vista Social Club and the effect of the album, tour and film on their lives and the fame it brought both to the music that in many ways defined Cuban culture and the musicians who created it. The concert footage is particularly joyful; there are outtakes from the original Wenders film included here (Wenders was one of the producers on this film although he declined to go behind the cameras for it) that remind us how the best music comes from the soul. Even if you’re not a fan of Latin music you can’t help but be seduced by the lovely melodies, insidious rhythms that almost compel you to dance and the lyrics which reflect the universal struggles and triumphs of life.

The final third is somewhat more melancholy, something of a “where are they now” segment as we follow the lives of the primary people chronicled in the first film in the years after the movie was released. Ferrer and Portuondo are the main subjects and they are engaging and delightful personalities. Ferrer passed away in 2005 and his death was mourned throughout Cuba but also in the international music community as well.

We also see the state of Cuba as being hopeful as it appears that relations with the United States are at long last going to be normalized during the Obama administration; sadly since the making of the film it appears all that will be for naught as the new President seems more inclined to leave things the way they are vis a vis Cuba. That adds to the melancholy.

I am myself of Cuban descent and although my father passed away in 1986 he loved to play the Cuban songs he loved as a young man on the piano in our home. I can still here those lovely melodies echoing in our living room as he would play. As I watched the movie in the theater, I could feel his presence and that of my grandmother who also loved the music well. Perhaps that makes me a little more inclined to overlook the faults of the film which to be quite honest isn’t nearly as good as the original documentary and doesn’t carry with it quite the same feeling of joy.

This is a somewhat bittersweet movie; there is some hope for the music as new musicians have moved in to play the same songs and perhaps writes some new ones. The music continues to thrive in Cuba and although it hasn’t had quite the success here in the States can still be found in places where Cubans congregate, particularly in Florida.

The best music comes directly from the soul as I said – and clearly the music of Buena Vista Social Club: Adios comes from that place inside these musicians that pulses with life and celebration. It also comes from the place that simmers with regret and disappointment. We all know these aspects of our lives and it is somewhat comforting to know that there is a soundtrack for it. Whether or not you are of Latin descent, music like this speaks to you on a primal level. We can relate to it because we are all human. Music like this is timeless and beyond borders; it goes to what makes us who we are. If for that alone, this is a documentary that should be seen. Sure, you can see it without having seen the first but to be honest I would recommend seeing the first if you are only going to see one of the two.- but you should see both.

REASONS TO GO: The music is timeless and amazing. The personalities of the musicians is exuberant and unforgettable.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t quite hold up to the original documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some material that’s a bit suggestive and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original movie and album were named for a Havana dance hall patronized by poor Afro-Cubans. The dance hall no longer exists.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Fandango Now
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hecho en Mexico
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: LA 92

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One More Time with Feeling


Nick Cave in his element.

Nick Cave in his element.

(2016) Musical Documentary (Picturehouse) Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Susie Bick, Thomas Wydler, Earl Cave, Else Torp, Martyn Casey, Jim Sclavunos, George Vjestica. Directed by Andrew Dominik

 

Nick Cave is one of those artists who people either never heard of or fall in love with. His sonorous voice isn’t the kind you associate with pop music and while his songs are beautiful and haunting, they generally have a darkness to them that some find uncomfortable. It isn’t an accident that one of his best albums is entitled Murder Ballads.

Cave had begun the recording of his sixteenth album with his band the Bad Seeds when tragedy struck; his 15-year-old son Arthur accidentally fell off a cliff near his Brighton home and died of the injuries he sustained. Cave and his wife Susie Bick were devastated as you can imagine and work on the album stopped for a time.

Now the songs of the album are infused with the presence of the son who is gone. The lyrics are dark and bitter, like a coffee infused with burnt chicory. The tragedy becomes the elephant in the room and in order to keep from answering endless questions about it, Cave enlisted Dominik, whose film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was scored by Cave and his usual partner-in-crime Warren Ellis.

Most of the film is in black and white (there are a couple of color sequences, one involving Cave’s surviving son Earl and a sequence in which Danish soprano Else Torp lends her voice to one of the songs on the album) and that seems perfect for the somber situation, and for Cave’s catalog in general. That’s not to say that this is all ashes and sackcloth however; there is some teasing that goes on, particularly from Ellis who claims that Cave’s hair “never looked better.”

The music is at the center of the film and quite frankly, I was motivated to buy Skeleton Tree almost immediately after arriving home (thank you, eMusic) and I haven’t regretted it since. The music is haunting and beautiful and sad – sad can be intensely beautiful – and will stick with you for a long while. I’m still listening to the tracks from the album in almost constant rotation.

Speaking of constant rotation, one of the annoying things about the movie is that for nearly every song Dominik has his camera circling on a dolly around the piano Cave is playing or the microphone Cave is singing into. There are some lighting effects that go with some of the songs but Dominik could have changed things up a little more from song to song. Frankly I ended up closing my eyes and just letting Cave’s voice wash over me for most of it and maybe that’s the intent. Cave’s voice is raw and real; reading the lyrics on the page are fine and they reveal his anguish and grief, but to really get the truth of his pain one must hear his voice. There are few singers who are as emotionally communicative as Cave is.

Another issue I have with the film is the interviews with Cave, particularly early on in the movie. Often Dominik (I assume it is Dominik doing the interviewing; it could be someone else) interrupts Cave and finishes his sentences. Sometimes Cave says “Yeah, right” but other times he says “No, not really…” as Dominik tries to express what Cave is feeling. A cardinal rule of interviewing on-camera is to let the subject do as much of the talking as possible; you never interrupt them nor put words in their mouth. Your function is to ask a few questions and the occasional follow-up but to keep your mouth shut as much as possible, particularly when you have someone like Cave who is intelligent and thoughtful. I would have preferred to hear more of Cave and less of Dominik.

Dominik is, however, a gifted visual director and some of the images here are amazing and poignant, particularly as the film goes on. Dominik chooses not to say anything specific about the tragedy that clearly haunts Cave so if you were initially unaware of his son’s passing you may end up getting snippets of some sort of unexpressed trauma but it isn’t until the last 20 minutes or so of the movie that Cave and his wife speak openly about the death of their son and they never tell you specifically what happened. The film’s final image – of the cliff where Arthur Cave spent his final moments – is a haunting one and will stay with you nearly as much as the music that precedes it.

This does make a fine companion piece to the album although I don’t know how much it is going to enhance the listening experience of sitting down in a nice quiet place, turning on the headphones and letting the music of the Bad Seeds and Cave’s expressive voice wash over you. If Dominick’s direction had been less intrusive this easily could have been a contender for best movie of the year. As it is it will certainly merit a certain amount of contention for my top ten list, although likely the second half. Skeleton Tree is more likely to vie for my favorite album of 2016 however, and you might feel the same after seeing this and more importantly, hearing the album.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely amazing. Cave is a thoughtful interview subject. A fascinating look at the creative process for what will be a landmark album. At times, the film is emotionally wrenching.
REASONS TO STAY: Dominik is too intrusive a director. The interviews are poorly conducted.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Other than a screening at the Venice Film Festival, the film debuted on September 8, the day before Skeleton Tree – the band’s sixteenth album – was released.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Listening to Skeleton Tree in a nice quiet place.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Max Rose

Breaking a Monster


There's still room for a purple haze.

There’s still room for a purple haze.

(2016) Music Documentary (Abramorama) Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins, Alec Atkins, Alan Sacks, Annette Jackson, Kevin Jonas, Tracey Brickhouse, Moe Dawkins, Johnny Karkazis, Tabitha Dawkins, Douglas Wimbush, Q-Tip, Nile Rogers, Samantha Sacks, Jolene Cherry, Gary Adelman, Jimmy Webb, Ernestine Charles, Gloria Atkins, Annette Van Duren. Directed by Luke Meyer

 

The music industry is an absolute bastard to break into. Finding success in it is nearly impossible, particularly now in an era of digital downloads and pirated tracks. Success isn’t a function of how hard one works or how talented one is; the road to success is littered with the carcasses of hardworking, talented performers who simply didn’t make it. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time to meet the right person. Few other careers have luck play as important a factor.

Three young Brooklyn boys have had a yen for heavy metal ever since their dads took them to wrestling matches where the ring entrance music of the wrestlers is almost always metal; also their favorite videogames tended to have a metal soundtrack. Soon Malcolm Brickhouse, Jarad Dawkins and Alec Atkins – three lifelong friends – began to put together a band of their own. Doesn’t sound too unusual, right? Throw in that all three are African Americans (a rarity in the metal world which is almost uniformly white) and that they all hadn’t reached their teens as of yet and you’ve got something different. Add in that they are extremely talented musicians not just for their age but period and you have something special.

The boys practiced in their basements and eventually went to Times Square to play. A passerby caught their performance on video and uploaded it to YouTube. That video went viral and soon it caught the attention of industry veteran Allan Sacks, who on paper wouldn’t sound like a particularly good fit. In the 70s he was in the television industry and helped create the classic sitcom Welcome Back Kotter and by the 90s had switched to the music industry where he helped discover Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers. He flew out to New York from the West Coast and signed the band to a management contract. Good fit or not, his clout helped open doors and the septuagenarian manager soon had the band signed to a two-album contract with Sony for a cool $1.8 million.

Most of the film takes from the contract signing onward and gives us a good idea of how the work really begins after the contract has been notarized. The boys meet with stylists who select clothes for them to wear onstage and Malcolm gets a vocal coach which he sorely needs. One of the worries that Sony has about the band is that Malcolm’s voice hasn’t dropped yet so it’s impossible to know what his voice is going to sound like when it does and whether or not he’ll be an adequate singer; for the time being his vocals are…let’s just say raw and leave it at that.

Plus we’re talking about 8th grade kids, not seasoned professionals. The label wants them to do interviews, festival appearances and promotional interviews; the boys just want to play videogames. Malcolm in particular likes to skateboard which gets Alan and Sony all up in arms; the risk of injury is too great and could put Malcolm’s career in jeopardy if he injures his arms or his head. Skateboarding is henceforth forbidden, which turns Malcolm’s mood extra-sour.

Compounded with that is that the band wants to make a record and Sony doesn’t think they’re ready for it. Consequently they put pressure on Alan to get them into the studio and while he counsels patience, have you ever tried to tell a young teen boy to be patient? Ain’t happenin’ folks.

The boys themselves are engaging and charming. They are a bit more focused than the average 13-year-old but that’s not saying much. You don’t get a sense that the fame and money has changed them much, although they do sometimes express that it has changed the way others perceive them which is to be expected. They seem genuinely nice boys and one hopes that the pitfalls of the music industry don’t sour them too much; it’s a cutthroat industry and it takes a tremendous ego to survive it.

What matters most is the music and quite frankly, it’s pretty good. Not good for kids their age but good period. The single that they do record, “Monster” has a terrific hook and some nimble guitar work. Even if you don’t like metal, you can’t help but admire the skill that went into the song. Producer Johnny Karkazis (better known as Johnny K) works with Malcolm patiently trying to get the vocals down, even helpfully suggesting that he clench his fist and pump it during the final chorus to get the right tone. It works.

In fact, I have to say that the overall tone works for the film as well. This isn’t a story that is all that different than any other “making of the band” documentary has covered other than the fact that these are African-American kids trying to make it in a world of grizzled old white guys. In fact, when the point is raised that Sony may have signed them because of the novelty of their situation, in one of the more charming scenes Brickhouse acknowledges it but also follows that with “I don’t care!” Any means of getting the foot in the door will do and Brickhouse at 13 is worldly enough to realize that. In and of itself, that may be the most impressive thing about him of all.

REASONS TO GO: The subjects are engaging and likable. Meyer is wise enough to be an unobtrusive “fly on the wall.”
REASONS TO STAY: In many ways, this territory has been covered before.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity is uttered.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Unlocking the Truth continues to play as a band today; however they were dropped by Sony shortly after filming was completed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/26/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Southside with You

Mateo


Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

Mateo puts his past in his rearview.

(2015) Documentary (XLRator) Matthew Stoneman, Carlos Hernandez, Felipe Botero, Samuel Lazcano. Directed by Aaron I. Naar

If you go by the assumption that the best individual subjects for documentaries are those who fall furthest outside the mainstream of society, then Matthew Stoneman might well be the perfect subject. A mild-looking red-headed ex-convict mariachi singer from New Hampshire currently residing in Los Angeles, he regularly spends time in Cuba where he has spent seven years recording an ambitious record titled Una Historia de Cuba with Cuban musicians, including members of the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. He is often described in his press as the “gringo mariachi” which is fitting.

Facially resembling Bill Gates a little bit, Stoneman has a gentle, voice that is at odds with the typical big voices spawned by American Idol that dominate pop music at the moment. His songs express a good deal of longing, a kind of melancholia that cuts right to the heart. This is the kind of music that simply isn’t made in the American and western idioms; this is music from the Latin soul and it isn’t for everybody.

Stoneman, who uses the stage name Mateo and is addressed as such by the Mexican mariachi musicians he hangs out with in Los Angeles, plays in restaurants and scrounging for tips as well as at weddings, quinceañeras and whatever gigs he can find. He lives in an apartment that resembles an episode of Hoarders and saves every penny to fly to Cuba.

It is in Havana that he feels more at home, working with Cuban musicians on his ambitious record which as far as I could tell was original songs by Stoneman documenting the various styles of music in that Caribbean country as well as detailing its history. The Cuban musicians have accepted Stoneman as one of their own, a kindred spirit and praise his work ethic repeatedly, as well as his talent. While some will find his voice a little tentative, his low-key delivery is perfect for the tone and vibe of his music.

The documentary captures Stoneman in all his elements, and not all of them are savory. In the studio he is exacting, knowing exactly the sounds he wants to create but he collaborates with the musicians and accepts their input, sometimes with some contention but the experience looks to be joyful – certainly the musicians are having a good time.

Stoneman himself, though, seems more driven than happy. During the film he admits that he doesn’t have much use for friends and family and prefers to keep to himself which I believe is poison for an artist. He is clearly a lonely man, and his music reflects that; he could use a wider variety of emotions in his music with the caveat being that I’ve only heard what’s on the soundtrack – for all I know the rest of his music is upbeat and fun but something tells me that the melancholy dominates. When you deny yourself all the colors on your palate as a painter, your painting is going to be limited; so it is with music as well, with emotions being the colors that a musician employs. Still, the music I heard here is haunting and many viewers are going to be looking to order the CD the first chance they get although to be honest, I was unable to locate a website that it was available for purchase – my search was necessarily cursory however. If I find one, I’ll be sure to update this review though.

This isn’t a travelogue so the views of Cuba are more of the everyday life of the Cuban people and less of beautiful beaches and colonial architecture that we associate with the island nature, although there are some views of both. Mostly we get a sense of how Cubans live and while they don’t have a lot of the goods that we here in the States have, they don’t seem to miss them (it was refreshing not to see anyone carrying the ubiquitous cell phone around).

Stoneman does have a checkered past and while he doesn’t bury it, there isn’t a lot of detail about it in the film (most of the information as to what he did was culled from interviews I read with the filmmakers). It was while he was doing time for armed robbery that he was first exposed to the ballads that Mexican-American inmates listened to and sang, and he became so enchanted with them that he decided to give up on his career in pop music and concentrate on the beautiful Latin music that he became enamored with.

We do get a glimpse of Stoneman’s darker nature; he has a bit of a thing for Cuban hookers and there are several sequences detailing his search for them, including one fairly graphic scene in which he finds one to his liking. He is also a little bit confrontational from time to time, although you don’t get a sense that he has a temper; he never raises his voice during the course of the film. Not that he doesn’t in real life. Further, he is certainly estranged from his parents and the impression they give is that he abruptly severed ties with them; they seem a bit puzzled about it but the father is a bit fatalistic; he doesn’t expect that they will have any sort of relationship with their mercurial son for the rest of his days. Whatever rift exists between Stoneman and his parents is never detailed in the film.

Neither is the question of how Stoneman can afford to make his album. In Los Angeles he ekes out a hardscrabble existence, and yet the filmmakers state that the album took seven years and cost $350,000 to produce. That’s a pretty significant chunk of change and it doesn’t seem likely that an existence of tips and parties could produce that kind of cash, which if you average out would be $50K per year. Unless Stoneman has another job that isn’t shown in the film, the math really doesn’t add up; Los Angeles is a very expensive place to live.

Stoneman himself is a bit o a question mark; you get the sense that he is mostly a pleasant person and he is certainly driven and his passion for his music is undeniable. On the flip side, he doesn’t seem to let anyone in too deep; he can be affectionate with his friends but onscreen anyway he doesn’t seem disposed to revealing too much about himself. Personally, I would have liked to have gotten to know him better but something tells me that wouldn’t be possible in any case; some people like to keep others at a comfortable distance and Stoneman is clearly of that ilk.

In many ways this is a courageous documentary, and given the recent re-opening of the American embassy and the swelling movement of ending a half century of sanctions that have accomplished nothing and normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba, it is a timely one. Being the son of a rabid anti-Castro Cuban myself, I can only wonder what my late father would have made of Stoneman. I’m not sure he would have admired the man, but he certainly would have been fascinated by his music.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing music and beautiful images. An insider glimpse at Cuba. Enigmatic yet fascinating subject.
REASONS TO STAY: Stoneman not really forthcoming about his background, other than in broad strokes. The prostitute sequences may be offensive to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly rough language, brief nudity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stoneman was arrested for fencing stolen recording equipment, breaking his leg while attempting to elude the police. He spent four years in prison for his crimes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :The Buena Vista Social Club
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Park Bench

Love and Mercy


Brian Wilson, just chillin'.

Brian Wilson, just chillin’.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) John Cusack, Paul Dano, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel, Kenny Wormald, Joanna Going, Dee Wallace, Max Schneider, Graham Rogers, Nikki Wright, Tyson Ritter, Brett Davern, Erin Darke, Diana Maria Riva, Bill Camp, Johnny Sneed, Claudia Graf, Tonja Kahlens, Carolyn Stotesbery. Directed by Bill Pohlad

The word “genius” is often thrown about the media like a demented Frisbee, landing on both the deserving and the undeserving. Of the former category, one would have to include Brian Wilson, the man behind the Beach Boys sound. Those unfamiliar with popular music who think of the Beach Boys as the band solely of “California Girls” and “Surfing USA” clearly missed some of the great music of the era, exemplified with “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.”

Wilson, like many authentic geniuses, was tormented throughout most of his life. As a young man (Dano) when he was churning out hit after hit for the Beach Boys, his tyrannical and emotionally abusive father Murray (Camp), himself a frustrated former musician belittled his son’s accomplishments, especially after the band fired him as their manager. “In five years, nobody will remember you,” he sneers at one point, “Nobody will remember the Beach Boys.” Clearly, he was wrong.

However, Brian’s insecurities blossomed into full-fledged paranoia, exacerbated by drug abuse. The pressures of creating not only great music but music that sells began to take its toll not just on Brian but also within the band; Mike Love (Abel), the band’s lead vocalist, resisted change vigorously, wishing to stay with a tried and true formula, even though as Brian foresaw, musical tastes were changing rapidly and the Beach Boys were just as rapidly becoming irrelevant. Brian’s marriage to wife Marilyn (Darke) disintegrated and as his mental health deteriorated, he would enter a period of reclusiveness (rarely leaving his bed) and morbid weight gain, at one time clocking in at well over 300 pounds. Drug-addled and plagued by erratic behavior, his family worried for his health and sanity.

In the 1980s he came under the care of radical therapist Eugene Landy (Giamatti) who became his legal guardian. Landy separated Brian from his brothers and mother (his father had passed away in 1973) and essentially oversaw every facet of his life, making decisions for him. Brian at this time (Cusack) was a shell of a man, functioning but just barely so. During this period he met the beautiful blonde ex-model Melinda Ledbetter (Banks) at a Cadillac agency where she sold cars. The two hit it off and began dating, under the strict supervision of Landy who eventually made the couple separate. Ledbetter, concerned about Brian’s worsening condition, fought for and achieved Landy’s removal. She would eventually marry Brian and the two remain a couple today.

Pohlad has more experience as a producer than as a director, although he has been associated with Terrence Malick somewhat of late and that approach has served him well here, refusing to take the route of standard musical biopics and instead takes the more fragmented approach of the Todd Bridges Dylan bio I’m Not There which may have as much to do with employing that film’s writer Oren Moverman as writer here.

One thing (of many) Pohlad did right was the casting. Dano is a near-perfect choice for the young Brian, capturing both his fragile emotional state and his absolute mastery in the studio. The real Brian Wilson’s experiments with psychotropic drugs would lead him to auditory hallucinations that he still suffers from today; not only does Pohlad really give us a sense of what Brian was hearing (with snippets of classic Beach Boys riffs in amazing mash-ups by film composer Atticus Ross) but Dano sells it, showing Brian’s fascination and occasional frustration with the music he couldn’t escape even if he wanted to. We see how tormented he was outside the studio and how happy he was in it; as Brian and his bandmates gather around the microphone to sing the harmonies that justifiably made them famous, only then does Dano’s Brian Wilson look truly happy.

As the middle-aged Bryan, Cusack turns in one of the best performances of his career – and as many of you might know, I’m a big fan of Cusack so that’s saying something. The older Brian is a completely different person than the younger one, although they have much in common – which is what inspired Pohlad to cast two actors who don’t really resemble each other to play him. This Brian is damaged goods, completely dominated and cowed by the powerful personality of Landy who exudes cult-like control over the musician. Cusack resists the temptation to make Wilson a collection of tics and neuroses; he seems like a fairly normal guy until you spend a goodly amount of time with him.

Giamatti may well be the best villain of the summer; he plays Landy as a controlling tyrant with a terrible temper. He seems nice enough and compassionate at first glance but soon the sadistic side shows through the cracks. Giamatti imbues Landy with enough soft-voiced charm to make him seem like a coiled snake, able to strike at any moment. It’s a compelling performance that if this were released in the fall might be getting some serious Supporting Actor buzz. He might anyway.

Banks gets short shrift here because the other performances are so strong, but that doesn’t mean she’s a slouch. In fact, although at first Melinda seems like essentially just a pretty face, we get to see the core of steel inside her as the movie progresses. The one false note lies in the writing; I think that it would be natural for others to think Melinda is a gold digger – Landy brings it up near the end of the movie. However, it really isn’t addressed in the movie, how others other than Brian and Landy are reacting to her. I would have liked to see what the perception of her was among the Wilson family, although to be fair it’s likely that Brian upon whose recollections the movie is based may not have known.

Pohlad tries to give us a sense of what Brian was experiencing, using sound and lighting effects to give us a sense of his torment. I heard that some moviegoers walked out during one of these sequences at a screening attended by one of my friends. I didn’t find them especially offensive, but clearly some did for whatever reason.

Having seen the documentary The Wrecking Crew recently and knowing that  they were involved with recording the Beach Boys music in the studio gave me an extra perspective into the film. I’m not saying it’s required viewing prior to watching Love & Mercy but it certainly is an advantage.

This is definitely one of the best movies to arrive so far this year. Incendiary performances, imaginative storytelling, terrific music and insight into not so much the music that Brian Wilson created but the mental illness that may or may not have gone hand in hand with it.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific performances all around. Captures both eras nicely. Of course, the music.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting Wilson’s mental issues may be confusing or even disturbing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: Definitely some adult themes, depictions of drug use and a fair amount of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the studio scenes in which Brian and the Beach Boys are recording Pet Sounds were filmed in the actual studios where the iconic album was recorded. Most of the Wrecking Crew were portrayed by Brian Wilson’s current band and Dano used actual studio recordings to stop the band and instruct the musicians as to what he wanted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I’m Not There
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Time Lapse

Muscle Shoals


The fruits of success.

The fruits of success.

(2013) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Aretha Franklin, Bono, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Rick Hall, Percy Sledge, Candi Staton, Clarence Carter, Donna Godchaux, Jimmy Cliff, Ed King, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce, Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Alicia Keys, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Johnson, John Paul White. Directed by Greg “Freddy” Camalier

Most aficionados of great music will know the name of Muscle Shoals. A small Alabama town on the Tennessee River, it would become the site for the recording of some of the greatest songs in the modern pop music era. FAME studios, founded by Rick Hall back in the late 1950s above the City Drug Store, but relocated the studio to its current location in 1962 where the first hit, Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” was recorded.

From then on, some of the most recognized songs of the rock era were recorded there including Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1,000 Dances,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.” The house band, made up of session musicians Barry Beckett on keyboards, Roger Hawkins on drums, David Hood on bass, Jimmy Johnson on guitars and Spooner Oldham on organ were known as the Swampers and created a funk and country laced sound that became signature of the Muscle Shoals sound. Many artists, including Paul Simon (who recorded his seminal Here Comes Rhymin’ Simon there) were surprised to find out that the musicians were white.

In 1969 the Swampers decided to become their own bosses and founded their own studio across town. Muscle Shoals Sound would become home to Lynyrd Skynyrd who recorded some of their seminal work there (the Swampers are name-checked in the iconic Skynyrd tune “Sweet Home Alabama”) as well as other class rock mainstays including the Rolling Stones who recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” there. Hall was understandably upset, seeing the defection as a betrayal as he had just signed a big deal with Capital. Muscle Shoals on the other hand had made a deal with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic and this drove a further wedge between Wexler and Hall who’d already had a falling out. Hall however persevered, bringing country artists like Mac Davis and Jerry Reed and continues to bring in some of the best rock, R&B and soul artists in the world to his studio which thrives to this day. Meanwhile Muscle Shoals Sound has moved to a larger facility and the new owners of the building they were originally in have plans to turn it into a music museum.

First-time director Camalier intersperses interviews with beautiful shots of the Tennessee River, the rural area around Muscle Shoals and the quaint small town environment of the town itself. Most of the interview subjects refer to a “magic” that permeates the air around Muscle Shoals – well, the white ones do at any rate.

During the ’60s black artists weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Hawkins, a white man, talks about the looks he’d get from locals when he’d take black artists to the local luncheonette on a meal break. One of the film’s great faults is that this is glossed over to a large extent; we hear more about the white artists’ impression of the situation than with black artists like Carter and Sledge. I would have liked to hear more of their viewpoint of a situation in which they had complete artistic freedom and respect in the recording studio but once outside it became second class citizens. I got the sense however that things in Muscle Shoals weren’t as bad as they were elsewhere.

Much of the film really concentrates on the glory days of the area in the 60s and 70s. We do see Alicia Keys recording a song at FAME but largely there is little about either studio past 1980. The interviews sometimes overlap on the same ground and I would have liked a little more examination a to why a small town in Alabama was able to have such a major impact on popular music – at the end of the day however I think that there are a whole lot of intangibles having to do with the right place, the right time and the right people.

The soundtrack is pretty incredible as you might expect and some of the stories that the artists tell are worth the price of admission alone (Keith Richards asserts, for example, that he wrote most of “Wild Horses” in the bathroom moments before recording it). While this isn’t the most informative documentary you’re ever going to see, it is nonetheless essential viewing for anyone who loves rock, soul and country.

REASONS TO GO: Great music. Gives a real sense of time and place and its importance in making musical history.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really spend much time in the present. Can be repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly foul language, smoking, drug content, a snippet of partial nudity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founded by the Swampers was located in an old casket factory.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Frozen

The Pianist (2002)


Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

Adrien Brody realizes he may never get a role as juicy as this one ever again.

(2002) True Wartime Drama (Focus) Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilia Fox, Ed Stoppard, Frank Finlay, Maureen Lipman, Jessica Kate Meyer, Julia Rayner, Joachim Paul Assbock, Roy Smiles, Daniel Caltagirone, John Bennett, Cyril Shaps, Andrew Tiernan, Nina Franoszek. Directed by Roman Polanski

Survival is relative. There are ordinary survival stories; making it through the work week, for example. We all make compromises, do what we must to keep a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes on our backs. We relate to the extraordinary survival situations — such as the Holocaust — because of the little things we ourselves do to survive.

Pianist Wladislaw Szpilman (Brody) in pre-war Warsaw has a bright future; already a world-famous concert pianist, he is young, handsome, talented and outgoing. The world is his oyster.

Unfortunately, this oyster is tainted. Nazi Germany takes over Poland so quickly that Szpilman, busy in the studio for the past week and out of touch, has not read the papers and is so completely unaware that his country has been invaded that he doesn’t understand when he hears explosions and sees flying glass at the studio.

The situation deteriorates. As the rights of Jews become more and more restricted, eventually they are herded into the small area that would come to be known as the Warsaw Ghetto. The horrific becomes the everyday. People starve to death in the streets. Jews are pulled aside by Nazi officers at random and shot like animals. Then, the Ghetto is cleared, and things become even worse.

Through it all, Szpilman does what he must in order to survive. Relying mostly on the kindness of friends and admirers, he hides out after escaping the train to the death camps, and witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, the brutal Nazi suppression and eventually, the end of the war. Szpilman is not a fighter, although he wants to be more heroic. His bravery does not come in physical courage, fighting a ruthless enemy. His bravery is internal, facing starvation, loneliness and death. Throughout, the hope that he will again someday play his piano in front of a packed concert hall sustains him.

There have been many movies depicting the horrors of the Holocaust. Although Szpilman is Jewish, this is not a Jewish story per se. Whether or not Szpilman is a devout man or not is never explored. This is one man’s story in a world gone completely insane. It is his muse more than his God that sustains Wladislaw Szpilman, and with everything taken away from him – his family, his friends, his home, his career – his muse cannot be, and that is where the triumph and the spirit of this movie lies.

Brody won an Oscar for his performance here, as did director Roman Polanski, himself a Polish Holocaust survivor. Brody’s Academy Award is richly deserved; his performance is subtle, nuanced and rarely out of control. There are many wonderful moments, most accomplished when Brody is alone without another actor to play off of, a notoriously difficult achievement. I will always remember the scene in which Szpilman is hiding in an apartment in which there is a piano, which he dares not play for fear he will be discovered. But play it he does, his hands several inches above the keys, playing music only Szpilman can hear, and by the expression of satisfaction on his face, it is enough. Kretschmann also is noteworthy for playing a sympathetic German officer.

The Pianist is wrenching at times in its unflinching look at the horrors of everyday life in occupied Poland, so the squeamish may want to have their finger on the fast-forward button. However, the triumphant story of a man defying impossible odds, and Brody’s classic performance make this a must-see on home video.

WHY RENT THIS: An Oscar-winning performance for the ages by Brody. Inspiring and uplifting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The brutality and horror of the Nazi reign is depicted without blinking so this may be upsetting to the sensitive sorts.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some violence and occasional bad language, but the images of death and torture may be too much for some.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Brody is the youngest actor to date to win the Oscar – he was 29 at the time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is an excellent feature on the real Szpilman with interviews with him and Polanski describing their own experiences during the occupation.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $120.1M on a $35M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Schindler’s List

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Bullet to the Head