The Public Image is Rotten


John Lydon considers his kitchen.

(2017) Music Documentary (Abramorama) John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins, Lu Edmonds, John Rambo Stevens, Alan Dias, Bill Laswell, Don Letts, Pete Jones, Bruce Smith, Thurston Moore, Moby, Adam Horovitz, Big Youth, Flea, Nick Launay, Scott Firth, Keith Levene, Jebin Bruni, Ginger Baker, Andrew Perry, Michael Alago, Ian Mackaye, John Waters, Vivien Goldman. Directed by Tabbert Filler

 

At first glance, doing a documentary on his post-punk project Public Image, Ltd. (or more popularly known as PiL) doesn’t seem to be something John Lydon would be terribly comfortable. Music documentaries by their nature tend to look back; Lydon has always been more interested in what lies ahead rather than what lies behind. However, Lydon has turned 60 and when people get to be more reflective at that age.

For those who don’t know, Lydon was one of the founding members of the Sex Pistols, the band credited with igniting the punk revolution which led to a fertile period in which musicians explored new forms of pop and rock and created music that broke all the rules, then continued on breaking those rules again. The Sex Pistols imploded before much of that happened amid much acrimony; Lydon was famously sued by band manager and control freak Malcolm McLaren who prevented Lydon from using his stage name of Johnny Rotten; the memory still leaves a bitter taste in his mouth although when McLaren passed away in 2010 Lydon paid tribute to the impresario.

Nearly broke and without a means of making a living, Lydon assembled a new band that eventually was named after a book by Muriel Spark with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, Lydon’s former schoolmate Jah Wobble and Canadian drummer Jim Walker. The group released several albums and eventually fell victim to egos and contentious personalities. But that wouldn’t be the end of PiL.

Public Image Ltd. Has been in existence for 40 years now and has consistently pushed the boundaries of expectation, choosing to explore and invent rather than repeat. While they’ve only released ten studio albums in that period, albums like Metal Box and Happy? Have influenced generations of musicians, including Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Moby and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who was once offered a position in the band but turned it down to remain with his old band), all of whom are interviewed here.

Lydon is a fascinating subject. He is known for his candor and occasionally for genuine introspection. He has a puckish sense of humor (he spends much of the film interview sequences in his pajamas, sitting at a breakfast bar in his kitchen, reheating his coffee in the stove. He is self-deprecating from time to time – he doesn’t take fame very seriously – but when it comes to the music his demeanor is all business. He also keeps his private life as private as possible. His wife Nora doesn’t appear on camera and Lydon doesn’t really discuss how he and his wife have raised her granddaughters (Nora’s daughter is the late Slits lead singer Ari Up) although he does remark that having the kids around has changed him.

Most of the film revolves around the band and Lydon is generally complimentary to former bandmates, although there are exceptions. Of Wobble he said “He contributed a lot but ultimately he took more than he gave,” referring to Wobble’s middle finger exit to the band. Filler at least gives equal time to some of the musicians whom Lydon has issues with. Lydon is a fine storyteller and many of his bandmates – particularly Atkins – are also fine storytellers as well.

Fans of the band – which I was not one of – will appreciate the concert footage of the group, including their notorious Ritz show in New York in which the band chose to play behind a theater screen leading to a near-riot which Lydon gleefully claims is maybe their best live show ever. I have to admit however hearing Lydon talk about the uncompromising nature of the band and their need to continually reinvent themselves made a fan out of me and that’s not an easy thing to accomplish.

If I have any beef with the movie is that we don’t get as much on what motivates some of the stylistic changes that the band went through. I think part of it is that Lydon insists on bringing in musicians who are inventive but also gifted players like Levene, the late John McGeoch, Alan Dias and even Jah Wobble. Still, this may be one of the best music documentaries ever made. Even if you’re not a particular fan of PiL you should still see this; you may change your mind as I did.

The film is currently playing in New York City but will be playing all over the country in the coming months. Orlando residents can see the movie in November as part of the Enzian’s Music Monday series. Tickets for that show are on sale now.

REASONS TO GO: The band’s story is truly compelling. Lydon is an engaging raconteur. The concert footage is wonderful. Interviewing Lydon in his pajamas at his breakfast bar in his kitchen is a stroke of genius.
REASONS TO STAY: We get little sense of the things that influence Lydon in his creative process.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Filler’s first feature film as a director. He has worked as a cinematographer on other films including Sammy Gate and The Activist.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wrecking Crew
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: 
MDMA

Above & Beyond: Giving Up the Day Job


EDM goes acoustic ensemble.

(2018) Concert Film (Abramorama) Jono Grant, Tony McGuinness, Paavo Siljamaki. Directed by Myles Desenberg and Paul Dugdale

 

From time to time musicians feel a need to reinvent themselves and/or their sound. This can be done for a number of reasons; to keep their music from stagnating, to keep their own interest high, to move into a more commercially viable arena or to find success where they had found none previously.

The latter is not the problem for the Grammy award-winning Electronic Dance Music (EDM) group Above & Beyond. The core trio of Grant, McGuinness and Siljamaki has inspired millions of fans with their aggressive beats tempered with chill-down breaks that gave them one of the most rabid and loyal fan bases in all of electronic music, no small feat. It was the reaction of their fans to those breaks that inspired them to take the steps from the DJ booth into the recording studio with acoustic guitars in hand and pianos on their mind instead of samplers.

The results are actually gorgeous. Their goal is playing the venerable Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, one of the most distinctive and respected concert venues on Earth – think of it in terms of similar to Carnegie Hall, the Sydney Opera House and Royal Albert Hall (which they also play during the course of the film). For the Hollywood Bowl concert they enlist an orchestra of L.A. classical musicians to accompany their 17-musician band (which includes four vocalists; one male and three females. It sounds in many ways like Darkwave music – a kind of ethereal goth – crossed with ambient pop. These are acoustic versions of the band’s own songs, sometimes with lyrics added but re-imagined for the concert stage rather than the dance club. Not being a fan of EDM myself, I was unfamiliar with their music so it came as a surprise to me that the songs were so inherently musical. It’s caused me to reassess my opinion of EDM in general.

The film doesn’t get any favors from their marketing department who characterize it as following the journey of the band from the DJ booth to the Hollywood Bowl. I suppose in a strict sense that’s true, but this is almost entirely a concert film rather than a musical documentary; we don’t see much of how the band transitions, mainly seeing rehearsal gigs and some backstage footage and interviews. The film follows the concert film cliché of moving from one song interspersed with rapturous fan reactions to some interview footage and talking head appearances from the band, to another song with rapturous fan reactions to watching the band hanging out on a New York basketball court to another song…you get the drift. I was expecting yin and I got yang which can be disconcerting when you’re viewing the film – be warned in that regard.

The fan reactions seem a little over-the-top from time to time. Some critics have sneered that it is manipulative, but aren’t all concert films essentially gifts to their fans? Of course the fans are portrayed as reverent. Honestly I wonder sometimes if various online movie review sites and daily newspapers hire people because they are absolutely ignorant of how movies work.

As with most concert films the appeal is going to mostly be with the band’s core fans but that doesn’t mean people who aren’t into the band can’t enjoy this either. It might very well make some new fans for the band which I suspect is icing on the cake for them. It might not convince you to paint your face with Day-Glo colors, grab some glowsticks and head out to your local palladium to dance and sweat your ass off but it may well make you wish, as I do, that the soundtrack to this film and that concert is eventually released. I would buy that in a New York minute.

REASONS TO GO: The music is absolutely stunning. This might very well change your appreciation of EDM bands as it did mine.
REASONS TO STAY: The film utilizes standard concert film tropes. I could have used much more background about the transition from electronic than acoustic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but not a lot.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the group hadn’t performed in acoustic venues regularly, they have released two acoustic albums prior to the Hollywood Bowl show depicted here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Whiplash
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Disaster Artist

Hitchcock


Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock.

(2012) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Toni Collette, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Wincott, Richard Portnow, Michael Stuhlbarg, Kurtwood Smith, James D’Arcy, Ralph Macchio, Kai Lennox, Tara Summers, Wallace Langham, Paul Schrackman, Currie Graham, Melinda Chilton, Mary Anne McGarry. Directed by Sacha Gervasi

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most decorated and respected directors in the history of movies. We are familiar with him as a man mainly through his television show and his dry sense of humor, his cameo appearances in his own movies such as Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Strangers on a Train. Few know that as he finished another triumph, North by Northwest, he was aching to redefine himself. He managed to do that with a little movie called Psycho.

Hitchcock (Hopkins) and his wife Alma Reville (Mirren) are reveling in the acclaim for his latest picture. Like the wives of many great men, Alma contributes a great deal to his success although she has been content to remain out of the limelight. However, Hitch’s colossal ego and womanizing has frayed her patience to the breaking point. She assumes he will take on another suspense film for which he has become justly famous.

However, her husband yearns to stretch his wings somewhat which doesn’t bother you – when she discovers that his next project will be based on the Robert Bloch novel Psycho she is horrified. The movie is about a serial killer (who is in turn based on Ed Gein (Wincott) who has been haunting Hitch’s dreams of late) which in that era was unheard of. Until then, movies took the point of view of those who chased killers, not of the killers themselves and particularly not those who were clearly insane.

But as usual, Hitchcock gets his way. However, the studio shares Alma’s concerns. Hitchcock is forced to finance the film himself with Paramount acting only as a distributor. He sets out to assemble the cast which will include Anthony Hopkins (D’Arcy), Janet Leigh (Johansson) and Vera Miles (Biel). The latter Hitchcock had worked with before – until she had dropped out of the production due to her pregnancy, incurring the wrath of the director and he didn’t mean to let her forget it.

Because Hitch is paying for this, things are done on the cheap. Black and white film stock in an era of color. Filming on the Universal lot rather than Paramount’s because studio space is cheaper there. First-time screenwriter Joseph Stefano (Macchio).

But while something amazing is taking shape onscreen, things are in chaos at home. Alma is not just feeling taken for granted, she’s feeling downright ignored. Her contributions, normally appreciated and vital, are being virtually unheard. She is feeling somewhat obsolete, particularly as Hitch pays more attention to Leigh. Alma begins to develop a relationship with budding screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Huston) which drives Hitch crazy with jealousy. Still, as the film comes towards completion, will the movie vindicate the director’s vision – and will it be enough to save his marriage?

History shows that it did and Hitch remained married to Alma until his death in 1980. Psycho remains to this day the most profitable black and white sound film ever and in some ways is the film most identified with Hitchcock. As I mentioned in my review (see link above) this is the movie that ushered in the modern horror genre in many ways with the serial killer POV, the death at an early stage of the film of a lead character, excessive violence (although it seems tame today) and the psychosexual aspects of murder.

But this is a film about that film so we must talk about Hopkins as Hitchcock. Hopkins is one of the ablest actors of our time, having mastered characters both villainous and kind. He assays the character of Hitchcock with the use of a fat suit (Hopkins had just completed a weight loss program and was loathe to gain a significant amount of weight to take on the part of the portly Hitchcock) and an uncanny mimicry of the director’s mannerisms. Does he capture the essence of Hitchcock? I think so, insofar as we know what the essence of Hitchcock is.

There’s the rub, in fact. No disrespect to Hopkins, Hitchcock was and remains an enigma in many ways. He was a very public figure but we never really got to know the man. Sure, there are lots of biographies that talk about his obsession with his leading ladies (that were nearly always blondes), his difficult relationship with his mother, his tyrannical style as a director, his flirtatious nature which most people today would say bordered on sexual harassment. However there is precious little information direct from the source – Hitchcock disliked talking about himself except in very broad terms. Most of the more intensely personal information that Hitchcock ever revealed was in an interview by French director Francois Truffaut years later. Hopkins gives a game try but he’s hampered from the get-go.

Mirren is a different matter. She has as much onscreen personality as any actress alive, perhaps the most of any. She’s like a hurricane bearing down on a peaceful fishing village and as Alma nags Hitch about his weight and drinking, expresses her opinions about the risks he’s taking with their savings and his career or quietly standing off to the side in his shadow, Mirren makes us understand that she was a formidable woman indeed and every part as necessary to Hitchcock’s success as the director himself.

We see a bit of the filming of the movie – oddly the iconic shower scene gets very little time here – but then again this isn’t really a nuts and bolts primer about the making of a movie. It’s about how movies get made and in particular this one, which followed a somewhat torturous path to completion. Film buffs will probably be curious to see this but might be disappointed. For one thing, it misses out on some interesting aspects, like Hitchcock submitting an anonymous bid to Bloch for the rights so he could low-ball the author. For another, it does fudge on history although one of the items that critics have been disparaging the most – Alma’s relationship with Cook – is actually true, verified by correspondence between the two.

I found the movie to be an entertainment more than a historical document. As the former, this is a winner. Although I never believed for a moment I was watching the Master of Suspense at work, I felt like I was watching how he might have worked and I am satisfied I got some insight into his creative process. However, as the latter, I don’t think this stands up nor do I think it was meant to. There is enough here to be informative as to how the movie came together and we see some aspects of Hitchcock but again I don’t think we get a very complete portrait of the man. Then again, an hour and a half is really an insufficient amount of time to really get a complete picture of anyone.

WHY RENT THIS: A fascinating look at the creative process behind one of the most iconic films ever made. Mirren is a force of nature. Of interest to film buffs.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Really doesn’t give a lot of insight to Hitchcock the man. Fudges a little bit on history.
FAMILY VALUES: Some cinematic images of violence, a bit of sexuality and some language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set in Hitchcock’s office on the Paramount lot were filmed in the late director’s actual offices, which are still there.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an amusing cell phone PSA.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23.6M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (purchase only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shadow of the Vampire
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Darling Companion

Brother’s Justice


Dax Shepard can't believe himself as an action star either.

Dax Shepard can’t believe himself as an action star either.

(2010) Mockumentary (Tribeca) Dax Shepard, Nate Tuck, Tom Arnold, Ashton Kutcher, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, David Koechner, Seth Green, Michael Rosenbaum, Ryan Hansen, Jess Rowland, Steve Tisch, Andrew Panay, Greg Siegel, Josh Temple, James Feldman, Laura Labo, Jordan Morris, Chevonne Moore, Rome Shadanloo. Directed by David Palmer & Dax Shepard

I have to admit that there are times I’m not sure what a filmmaker is up to. Dax Shepard is a case in point here. This appears to be a satire on the moviemaking process, the culture of enabling star egos and of vanity projects in general. I mean, that seems to be the case. But I’m not 100% certain after seeing this.

Basically, it’s a mockumentary starring Shepard, who has appeared in dozens of movies as a comic actor in supporting roles (like the oafish boyfriend in Baby Mama) as well as on the acclaimed TV show Parenthood. Here, he’s made the decision that it would be more lucrative for him to be an action movie star rather than a comic actor mainly because the competition is less fierce. He writes a Chuck Norris-style movie complete with drug dealers, bikers, sibling warriors and a climactic fight going down a mountain.

His aim is to star in it himself, even though he has no action skills whatsoever. He goes into training in a dojo whose sensei is less sure of Shepard’s prospects (and abilities) than Shepard is himself. Shepard’s pal Nate Tuck is there as a producer and inevitably gets stuck with the tab for expenses Shepard is racking up.

Trying to see this turkey to the studios proves to be formidable but Shepard is undaunted. He approaches A-listers like Favreau and Cooper as well as Tom Arnold to help lend credibility to his movie. At last he realizes that he is going to have to do it himself.

There’s plenty of room for laughs here, but unfortunately there aren’t a lot of them. Part of the problem is that Shepard makes himself so unlikable, so egotistical and so out of touch with reality that you’re rooting for him to get his ass kicked. That can work in certain situations but not here and not now.

The cameos are basically the best part of the movie which is kind of a damning fact in and of itself. The bottom line here is that if you like Dax Shepard’s work, you’re going to love this. If you don’t – and I’m one of those who finds him more obnoxious than funny – than you’re not. And I didn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty cameos. Some nice satire on the Hollywood system.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If Shepard isn’t your cup of tea you’re really going to hate this one. Sometimes makes you feel more uncomfortable than amused.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of bad language and a few violent scenes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was an Audience Award winner at the 2010 Austin (TX) Film Festival.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Waiting for Guffman

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Fast & Furious 6