The Wrecking Crew


Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

Another day at the office for the Wrecking Crew.

(2008) Musical Documentary (Magnolia) Cher, Brian Wilson, Mickey Dolenz, Nancy Sinatra, Glen Campbell, Herb Alpert, Leon Russell, Glen Campbell, Tommy Tedesco, Plas Johnson, Hal Blaine, Dick Clark, Carol Kaye, Jimmy Webb, Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, H.B. Barnum, Lou Adler, Al Casey, Bones Howe, Don Randi, Snuff Garrett, Bill Pittman, Carmie Tedesco. Directed by Denny Tedesco

When people look at the golden age of rock and roll, there are few better places to turn their gaze to than Southern California in the 60s and early 70s. Some of the most iconic music of the rock and roll era came from that time and place. Bands like the Beach Boys, Sonny and Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, the Monkees and so on routinely recorded there. However mostly what they provided was the vocals; the music was actually made by someone else.

They were called The Wrecking Crew, although not by themselves. There were about 20 to 30 main players in the pool of studio musicians that lived in L.A. at the time (the movie lists more than 100) who appeared on the bulk of the albums that came out of the area, including from bands that were made up of actual musicians, like The Byrds.

One of the most respected of them was guitarist Tommy Tedesco. A raconteur with a great sense of humor, Tedesco also had the kind of skill that made him comfortably at home in any style of music. He was also a whiz at Spanish/Mexican guitar. He teamed often with bassist Carol Kaye (one of the few women among the Crew) who was responsible for iconic baselines such as the ones found in the Mission: Impossible theme and on Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On.” Hal Blaine was also one of the most prolific and respected drummers of his time; as he himself recounts, the Crew judged each other not by how many gigs they got because all of them were fully booked, but how many they turned down.

The Crew also worked on movie and television theme songs (the guitar on the Bonanza theme song, for example, was Tedesco). It is actually kind of thrilling to watch saxophonist Plas Johnson play the iconic notes to the theme of The Pink Panther.

None of the Crew craved the limelight and only a few of them really achieved any notoriety, chief among them Glen Campbell who went on to a long career doing country-tinged easy listening music (with such hits as “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Linesman” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” many of which utilized his colleagues in the Wrecking Crew) as well as an acting career. They are almost without exception not listed on the albums they played on as musicians. However, their influence has been incalculable; Blaine himself played on seven straight Record of the Year Grammy winners, a feat that has never been duplicated before or since, and he is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But largely the Crew labored in public obscurity, content to play music, collect large checks and shape rock and roll as we know it. The director, Denny Tedesco, is the son of Tommy and started this project in 1996 as a means of tribute to his father, who would pass away a year after he started filming the project although a group interview including his father plays a substantial roll in the documentary. There are also other subjects, like Dick Clark, who were alive when interviewed (and in Clark’s case, unaffected yet by the stroke he suffered in 2004). Campbell himself suffers from Alzheimer’s but was perfectly lucid in his pre-diagnosis days.

There are also interviews with the stars who they worked for. It is interesting to hear Cher, who normally is an effusive and self-confident interview when talking about her latest film project kind of revert to the shy and less confident personality she had when she was first starting out. We also get to see Brian Wilson talk about the Smile sessions that would later become the most famous album never released (although it has since) with some of the tracks showing up on the Pet Sounds album.

The music here is simply unbeatable. Nearly every clip brought a smile to my face. Not all of it was rock and roll; the Crew backed up all sorts of different musicians, including most of the members of the Rat Pack. We can hear Frank Sinatra joking with his daughter Nancy on audio tape taken from the sessions when they recorded “Something Stupid” together. Stuff like that is priceless.

It took Tedesco 13 years to assemble the film and nearly as long to get it released theatrically. As you can gather, getting the rights to use much of the music in the film was a formidable task It took a lot of money that the production didn’t have, so they used Kickstarter to acquire the funds to help them get permission. People of a certain age, however, will certainly appreciate the effort. While the filmmakers don’t really go too much into what the main folks in the Crew thought of their fame or lack thereof, or what happened as the business changed and studio musicians fell out of favor, but that dose of reality would likely have made this a lesser film. There are insights into the time and place of the Crew, but little of themselves. If you’re looking to get a feel for who these people really were, you won’t get much beyond “talented musicians with stories to tell.”

Still, Denny Tedesco wisely lets the music do the talking for them. It’s rare you get a movie where you exit the theater feeling better when you walked in; it’s even more rare when you learn something in the same movie. The Wrecking Crew accomplishes this and it might motivate you to go spend your paycheck on Amazon or iTunes gathering the songs here into your own personal collection, if they aren’t already there. If they aren’t, they should be.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible soundtrack. Some nice insights into a bygone era of music. Definitely a labor of love and it shows.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really delve into the issue of being “the men (and woman) behind the curtain.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some salty language here and there and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie originally played at the 2008 Florida Film Festival but took six years after that to get a distribution deal, finally getting a much-deserved theatrical release seven years after it was made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 20 Feet From Stardom
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Run All Night

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The Front Man


Why, yes, we're in a band.

Why, yes, we’re in a band.

(2014) Documentary (DevlinPix) Jim Wood, Christie Wood, Dan Snyder, John Kayne, Glen Burtnik, Graham Maby, Howard Stern, Beetlejuice, Robin Givens. Directed by Paul Devlin

Florida Film Festival 2014

We are all the stars of our own documentary feature. Our lives are, to us, as important and meaningful as any we see on the screen or read about in the newspapers and history books. The one thing we all have in common is that our lives are ours to live.

Jim Wood is one of those guys who not only gets to have his own documentary feature, other people are going to get to see it as well. In all honesty he’s a pretty ordinary guy in a lot of respects – he’d probably be the first to say he’s just a guy from Jersey – but he has hopes of being a rock star. Or at least, he did.

He did something about it too. He has a band – the Loaded Poets – that have been playing in Jersey bars and recording tracks for about 27 years now, dating back to when they were in high school. He and his band mates – Dan Snyder and John Kayne – have been plugging away for nearly all that time. They have no illusions that they’re going to hit it big. That’s just about impossible to do even if you’re young and attractive and while these guys aren’t necessarily bad looking, they’re well past the young portion of the equation. In other words, you won’t be seeing them on American Idol ever and also as unlikely on such shows as America’s Got Talent or The Voice.

Which is likely all right by them. They want success on their own terms which means the songs come first, and in all honesty they aren’t half bad. However, Jim has joined his bandmates in wedded bliss – and Jim’s got a gorgeous wife in Christie. She’s very supportive of his music – going so far as to make out with Beetlejuice on the Howard Stern show just to get her husband’s webpage advertised on his show – but she realizes neither one of them are getting any younger and the window for having a family is beginning to swing shut with an ominous creak.

Jim is a wacky kind of guy who sometimes looks at least on-camera like he doesn’t take much seriously but that would be doing him a disservice. While I have no doubt that he’s a kid at heart, one gets the feeling that when he needs to be he’s smart and mature. The decision to have the kid alters his life as he trades one dream for another – although he continues to make music on his own terms.

While fame eludes him, he talks to a couple of local boys who grabbed a fair slice of fame of their own – Glen Burtnik who had a minor hit in the ’80s and was a member of Styx for several years, and Graham Maby, best known as the bass player for the Joe Jackson band. Both offer insights into fame, rock and roll and how to integrate it into a good life.

This is like watching a documentary about your buddy down the block. Devlin, who has known Jim since kindergarten, uses home movies and years of footage that he has taken to compile a look at an ordinary guy living an extraordinary life. A huge fan of the Z-Movie Alien Factor, he seeks out its director Don Dohler and after impressing the affable director by quoting dialogue, casts both Jim and Christie in one of his last films (he passed away in 2006) as victims of vampires.

While the movie violates one of the prime commandments of home movies – your child is always far cuter to you than it is to everyone else – to be fair that’s a violation that occurs in a number of documentaries. Otherwise, Jim, Christie and their coterie are people you wouldn’t mind sharing a beer with at a barbecue down the street. This isn’t the most important documentary you’ll ever see but I could have spent more time with the people onscreen and at the end of the day that’s about the highest compliment you can pay to any kind of movie.

REASONS TO GO: Very human. Likable subjects.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really vital.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some sexuality and a few instances of foul language here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Devlin’s local TV pilot Slammin’  which presented the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe semi-final poetry slam as a sporting event, was nominated for two local Emmys.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/10/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anvil: The Story of Anvil

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Slingshot

Back to the Future


Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

Michael J. Fox is going back in time.

(1985) Science Fiction (Universal) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells, Marc McClure, Wendie Jo Sperber, George diCenzo, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Jay Cohen, Casey Siemaszko, Billy Zane, Harry Waters Jr., Donald Fulilove, Lisa Freeman, Courtney Gains, Jason Hervey, Maia Brewton. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people my age and slightly younger have a real soft spot for Back to the Future. One of the biggest box office successes of 1985, the movie has become a treasured icon of its age, a movie very much associated with the decade despite its time-travelling motif. Younger generations are well-versed with the film mostly from frequent cable and broadcast TV appearances as well as from their parents VHS and DVD collections. Either way, there are few movies of the last 30 years that have resonated the way this one did.

Marty McFly (Fox) is a frustrated high school senior. He lives in a kind of middle class hell, his mom Lorraine (Thompson) a somewhat prudish, somewhat bitter woman who knows the best days of her life are behind her. His father George (Glover) is a picked-on milquetoast who allows his boss, Biff Tannen (Wilson) to abuse him mercilessly, taking credit for work that George does. Marty yearns for something better, whether it be through rock and roll or through his girlfriend Jennifer (Wells). Even the town he lives in, Hill Valley, is in a state of decrepitude; its clock tower that was once the crown jewel of the town square hasn’t worked for decades since a chance lightning strike left it inoperable.

He is also friends with Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Lloyd), considered to be a crackpot by most (and it’s kind of understandable) but he’s been doing some research into time travel and thinks he’s found a way to make it work. Through a series of accidents, Marty gets into the time machine (which is in, appropriately enough, a Delorean) and is sent back to the year 1955. Through a further series of mishaps, Marty manages to prevent his parents from meeting and instead takes his father’s place convalescing in the home of his mom, who instead of falling in love with his dad falls in love with Marty himself.

Without plutonium for the reaction, Marty is stuck in 1955 but he may not be for long – if he can’t get his parents to meet and kiss on the dance floor of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, he’ll never have been born. And even if he does get them together, how is he going to get back home to 1985?

Zemeckis and Gale were at the top of their game here and for Fox it is the role that he is most associated with, maybe even more so than Alex Keaton from Family Ties. The movie was kind of a perfect storm of elements coming together in just the right way. It was a movie that fit the time, but it was also much more than just a sci-fi adventure flick with lots of thrills and great characters, although it is that as well. The movie was supposedly inspired by writer/producer Bob Gale finding one of his father’s high school yearbooks and wondering if he had known his dad back then would they have hung out together, an intriguing concept.

We rarely think of our parents as people, but they were all young once; they all had the bloom of youth in their cheeks, all had hopes and dreams, all loved and lost, all got into trouble with their own parents and all did exactly the same kinds of things you did yourself. We can’t really put them in that perspective however; we need our parents to be parents. It’s hard to see them as young kids who didn’t have all the answers and weren’t always right. We can’t see them as ourselves.

This movie kind of forces you to look at them that way and realize what a crap shoot it is that you even exist; one missed connection and you’d never have been born. But at the same time, it’s a fun ride (so fun that it became a ride at Universal Studios theme parks although they have since replaced it with Simpsons -themed rides) that never lets up and is huge fun from minute one to closing credits. Movies like that are few and far between. From the Huey Lewis and the News songs to the eccentricities of Doc Brown to the awkward humor of having Marty being hit on by his mom (which offended some critics at the time), the movie remains an icon of the 80s and if it is a bit anachronistic with its Delorean time machine, Walkman cassette player and Libyan terrorists, it is no more so than most movies which are all without exception a product of their times. This is a classic that should be an essential part of any collection.

WHY RENT THIS: An absolute classic, one of the best movies to come out of the 80s. One of the most beloved films of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find this a little dated.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sensuality and mild violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fox was still starring in Family Ties when he signed to do this film. Because of his television commitment, he filmed most of his scenes from 6pm until 3am, getting about five hours of sleep a night. Scenes set in daylight were filmed on weekends. He managed to film the entire movie without missing a single shot of his television show.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are outtakes and a Q&A session with film students at the University of Southern California and producer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis. There’s also an extended conversation with Fox. The 2-Disc Collector’s Edition also includes a TV special, Back to the Future Night made to promote the sequel hosted by the late Leslie Nielsen, the footage from both the lobby and the ride of Back to the Future: The Ride which once was a big attraction at Universal Studios but no longer exists. There is also an independent retrospective, Looking Back to the Future which was originally feature-length and has been considerably cut here. The movie is available on Blu-Ray currently only as part of a boxed set including the entire trilogy which IMHO is worth owning as a complete set.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $381.1M on a $19M production budget; this was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 80s.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast From the Past

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: In My Sleep

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

The Runaways


The Runaways

Joan Jett loves rock and roll; Cherie Currie loves the lifestyle.

(2010) Musical Biography (Apparition) Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, Michael Shannon, Danielle Riley Keough, Scout Taylor-Compton, Tatum O’Neal, Stella Maeve, Brett Cullen, Alia Shawkat, Johnny Lewis, Hannah Marks, Jill Andre. Directed by Floria Sigismondi

The world of rock and roll is a harsh one, full of broken promises and shattered dreams. Every so often, a performer or a band will break through and change things; on other occasions, a performer or a band will succumb to the excesses of the industry. Sometimes, a performer or a band will do both.

Joan Jett (Stewart) is a young girl who idolizes Suzi Quatro and Keith Richards. She’s an adept guitarist but nobody will take her seriously and she longs to be in a rock and roll band. She meets Kim Fowley (Shannon), a fixture on the Sunset Strip in the 1970s-era Los Angeles when this all took place. Fowley sees himself as an acute judge of talent and a canny promoter who understands what sells. He longs to be a major player in the music business, something he is not at the time. He likes Jett’s look and her dream of  fronting an all-woman rock band – there were none at the time that had any success, although in pop music the girl groups of the 60s (Martha and the Vandellas and over in Motown the Supremes) had met with success. However, these were women who projected a certain safe and virtuous image. Fowley – and Jett – wanted danger and subversion. Fowley hooked up Jett with Sandy West (Maeve), a drummer. The two began practicing together but the band needed fleshing out.

Cherie Currie (Fanning) is Bowie-obsessed and performs one of his songs dressed just like him at a school talent show, getting booed by her audience and flipping them off in retaliation. Her home life is falling apart at the seams – her dad (Cullen) is an alcoholic, spiraling slowly to an inevitable end and her mom (O’Neal) has fled to Indonesia to escape, leaving her with her twin Marie (Keough) as essentially sole support. Fowley discovers her and brings her to his trashy trailer to perform with the band. At first Cherie is stiff and hesitant but with Fowley pushing her/abusing her into the right attitude, her natural performing talent, sexuality and charisma come to the fore. “It’s not women’s lib,” Fowley crows, “Its women’s libido!” The remaining spots in the band are filled up with guitarist Lita Ford (Taylor-Compton) and bassist Robin Wolf (Shawkat).

The group plays a series of gigs in a series of depressing dives before Fowley gets them signed to a major label. A song, “Cherry Bomb” becomes a minor hit (although it becomes a big one in Japan) and the band begins to headline gigs and support major acts in stadiums. They go to Japan where they are mobbed by rabid fans and all of a sudden this group of young girls – all in their mid-teens at the time – suddenly are cursed with the success of the rock and roll lifestyle; plenty of sex, plenty of drugs, and not so much rock and roll. Eventually, the curse of success will overcome the band, with internal musical differences and Currie’s drug habit proving to be too much for the band to survive.

Director Sigismondi makes her feature debut here after mostly directing music videos, as well as working in fine arts (she’s a talented photographer and sculptor as well) and to her credit she makes the most of a very little. She manages to capture the look and feel of both the L.A. suburbs in the 70s (I should know – that’s where I lived at the time) and the decadent scene on the Sunset Strip.

I’ve been a big fan of Fanning for a long time and she doesn’t disappoint here. She captures the nature of the vulnerable and sometimes lost Currie nicely, showing her as clay to be molded by Fowley and drifting off-course, prey to the temptations of the road. As her family life disintegrates, she becomes more and more lost. The movie to a large extent focuses most on Currie (but to be fair, she did write the biography that the movie is based on) and Fanning handles the load nicely.

Stewart, best known as the angst-ridden Bella Swan in the Twilight franchise is surprisingly rough-edged here, showing the force-of-nature strength of Jett but also her bisexual tendencies. There is a fairly lurid make-out scene between Jett and Currie which comes off as exploitative, but given the nature of the band and the era, kind of makes sense as something like it would appear in a 70s “B” movie, which this closely resembles in tone. Stewart shows more range here than she has previously, forcing me to revise my opinion of her as a somewhat one-note actress. I look forward to seeing more from her along these lines.

Shannon is a terrific actor who has one Oscar nomination to his credit and has the chops to garner more of the same should he get the right roles. This one is not, but he does capture the manic and manipulative nature of Fowley who yearned to be a mover and a shaker, but whose claim to fame would always be this band. He often claimed he assembled the Runaways both conceptually and practically, a claim he has backed off from in recent years. Shannon is riveting in the part, capturing both the yin and the yang of Fowley who could be supportive one moment and abusive the next.

In fact, in many ways this movie sugarcoats the Runaways story, leaving out allegations of sexual and physical abuse around the band. It also leaves out the backstory of the rest of the band (in the case of Ford, at the real Lita’s request) in focusing on the two leads. The filmmakers do a disservice to the band in essentially portraying them as a two-woman creative team (in reality, West and Ford co-wrote most of the songs with Jett and Fowley). While it’s true Jett and Currie were the heart and soul of the band, it would have been nice to include more of the rest of the band’s story in the movie, particularly that of West who passed away from lung cancer just prior to the beginning of filming.

The legacy of the Runaways is undeniable; Joan Jett remains a rock and roll icon, an inspiration to young female rockers everywhere. It’s a bit of a crying shame that they remain largely unknown here and those who do know them mostly know them for “Cherry Bomb,” their signature hit. They were certainly much more than that, and anyone who has seen their Showtime documentary (which includes some incendiary performance footage) will attest to that. The movie picks up part of their essence – enough to make it worth seeing. I just wish we would have gotten a little bit more of it.

WHY RENT THIS: An authentic recreation of the time and the scene. Surprisingly gritty performances from Stewart and Fanning. Shannon shows a good deal of charisma.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie leaves out a good deal of information, and fictionalizes or trivializes the group’s achievements.

FAMILY VALUES: There are occasionally graphic depictions of teen sex and drug use, as well as a whole lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jackie Fox, the actual bass player for the Runaways, declined to give the producers of the film the rights to her life story so a fictional character was introduced to be the Runaways bassist (and ironically, has no lines in the film); Lita Ford also declined to give her rights to the producers, but did meet with Scout Taylor-Compton prior to filming and declared that even if the film was awful, Taylor-Compton at least did her character justice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.7M on a $10M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Single Man

Pirate Radio


Pirate Radio

The one drawback to living aboad ship is all the cockroaches.

(2009) Rock ‘n’ Roll Comedy (Focus) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, January Jones, Gemma Arterton, Tom Brooke. Directed by Richard Curtis

As a former rock critic, I find myself somewhat amused, puzzled and alarmed all at once when I regard the state of rock and roll. Originally, the music was supposed to be rebellious; it was a symbol of rising up against the system and crafting something new, different and exciting. Now, it is the system. I guess that’s true of most things that start off that way.

To many, the apex of rock and roll occurred in the 60s, and the epicenter of that apex was in England. Some of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time were all practicing their art with relish and relevance – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and so on and so forth. Yet if you wanted to hear those great British bands in Great Britain, you couldn’t. The BBC, the government-controlled broadcasting company, refused to play it on moral grounds, allowing rock and roll a begrudged hour or two per week and even then the songs that were played were far more middle of the road pop than rock.

When a need arises, trust some enterprising soul to figure out a way to fill that need and so pirate radio was born. A bunch of DJs and mariners rented a merchant vessel, outfitted it with a huge bloody antenna, and anchored in international waters, beaming the sounds of the Troggs, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix to a grateful nation. The most famous pirate station was Radio Caroline (which still broadcasts on the internet to this day, by the way).

While this crew isn’t Radio Caroline (the people and events that inspired the movie were scattered on the many dozens of pirate radio ships that encircled the British Isles), they are zany in their own right. Aboard Radio Rock is the debonair and irreverent Captain Quentin (Nighy), The Count (Hoffman), an American DJ who’s enormously popular and is the heart and soul of Radio Rock; Thick Kevin (Brooke), not the brightest bulb in the chandelier; Dr. Dave (Frost), a somewhat blindly trusting DJ who ought to know better; Gavin Cavanagh (Ifans), who is the most popular DJ in pirate radio and begins a fierce rivalry with the Count when he’s brought aboard Radio Rock, and young Carl (Sturridge) who is actually the protagonist, a virgin whose free-spirited mum (Thompson) sent him aboard the pirate radio vessel to sort himself out with his godfather, Captain Quentin. Bad idea, mum.

Curtis, who also directed Love Actually which is possibly the best romantic comedy of the past decade, knows how to work with an ensemble (Thompson and Nighy also worked for Curtis in that cast) and you never feel that any character is given short shrift; well, not really anyway. Carl is a bit too bland a character whose only trait seems to be his virginity, which is more a lack of opportunity than a characteristic. He is the audience surrogate to somewhat of a degree whose only function is to sit back and shake his head at the antics of the DJs. Those guys!

And the antics are highly entertaining, particularly as they import groupies to sail out aboard the ship to relieve these intrepid men of their sexual frustrations (hey, they’re both sailors and disc jockeys – can any human being get more inherently horny?) and not coincidently, bare their breasts on-camera. Hey, sex sells damn it.

Hoffman, Nighy, Ifans and Frost are always entertaining, and seeing them work together is a nice treat. Branagh plays Dormandy, ostensibly the villain of the piece, the tight-arsed minister in charge of ridding Britain of pirate radio forever. He is aided by the appropriately named Twatt (Davenport), the assistant in charge of finding dirty tricks and loopholes. He would later cross the Atlantic and become a personal advisor to President Nixon (just kidding). Both Branagh and Davenport are solid.

What will stay with you from this movie is the absolutely astonishing soundtrack which contains some of the best music from the late ‘60s. Some critics have moaned and groaned about some of the songs being from after 1966, the year this is supposed to take place. As Jay Leno might say, SHUT UP! Nobody cares about your knowledge of music history. The music fits the story and the songs are awesome. Just sit back and listen and let the grown-ups talk.

This isn’t as good a film as Love Actually but it’s pretty dang good all the same. For those of my generation, the music is a trip straight down Memory Lane (with a brief stop at Penny Lane, although the Beatles didn’t grant the rights and releases to their music so they don’t appear on the soundtrack). Curtis does a good job of evoking the era and keeps things light and a bit manic, all leaving a good taste in the mouth. It may only be rock and roll but I like it – and so did millions of others, including you I’d bet. While this movie didn’t fare very well box office-wise, it deserves a better fate, if just for Curtis’ taste in music alone.

WHY RENT THIS: A phenomenal soundtrack and a general sense of fun and bonhomie pervade the film. The actors look like they’re having the time of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders down into Unnecessaryland and the whole virginity subplot seemed less enticing than the goings on with the DJs.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is blue, but not as blue as the bare behinds which were hanging out in the cold North Sea air.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted happened on a variety of pirate radio ships, particularly the most infamous Radio Caroline, whose red and white color scheme was borrowed by the Radio Rock vessel. A DJ did get married on board a pirate radio ship, and Radio Caroline’s first ship did sink (although the station eventually got a second ship which remained in use until 1991; it sits as something of a museum and many of the artifacts from the vessel were used in this film).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a short but informative featurette on the history of pirate radio in the UK. Unfortunately, the DVD consumer gets shafted again.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.4M on a $50M production budget; any way you slice it, the movie flopped at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Brothers Bloom

Nowhere Boy


Nowhere Boy

Julia Lennon and her baby boy John.

(2009) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, Josh Bolt, David Threlfall, Sam Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Ritter, James Johnson, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, James Jack Bentham.  Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood

It is said that great men often come from humble beginnings, and there are few beginnings more humble than the working class Liverpool of the 1950s. From there sprung the Beatles and specifically, John Lennon (Johnson), a man who has reached near saint-like standing today.

Yet this film isn’t about John Lennon the Beatle or John Lennon the activist. It’s about John Lennon, the 15-year-old boy who had a charming grin and a goofy wit, as well as a rebellious streak and a lot of pain hidden in deep reservoirs within him.

The source of this pain was a feeling of abandonment; from the age of five, he had been raised by his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). While his Uncle was a good-natured man who understood his nephew seemingly better than the uptight Mimi, Lennon wondered about who his daddy was or why his mother Julia (Duff) had allowed someone else to raise him.

He would get his answers although not quickly. He encounters Julia at a funeral, then is stunned when he learns she lives mere blocks away from his house. He decides to visit her with mate Pete (Bolt) – not Best, incidentally – under the guise of getting away to Blackpool for the afternoon, and is welcomed with open arms.

Julia is very different from his Aunt Mimi…night and day, really. Whereas Mimi is guarded, the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia wears her heart on her sleeve, and expresses her emotions freely. Where Mimi is conservative and pedestrian in her tastes, Julia loves rock and roll and wants to experience everything. They may have been sisters, but they were as bi-polar as could be.

At first there’s a good deal of competition between the two. Mimi resents Julia’s intrusion into her ordered upbringing of John and Julia wants to resume her duties as mother again, duties she felt were taken away from her against her will. While Mimi is too mannerly to allow their rivalry to become ugly, there is certainly tension between the two women.

As John learns the details of Julia’s life and why things happened the way they did, he begins to pull away from both women. About this time he sees a newsreel of Elvis Presley at the movie theater and is taken by it; the screaming of the girls, the adoration, he wants it for himself. “Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” he muses out loud in one of the film’s forced ironies. His adoring mother responds “Because he was saving you for John Lennon,” which is as good an answer as any of us ever get. The irony here is that while he sees the adoration, he doesn’t see how that adoration can become a prison and it’s a prison he will wind up inhabiting for much of his adult life; it is a prison that will get him killed far too young.

As rock and roll begins to take him away from his studies, the strain between he and Mimi reaches a breaking point and John will soon have to make a choice between his dreams, the love of the woman who raised him and the need for the love and approval of his birth mother. Could he really have it all?

Matt Greenhalgh wrote this based on the memoirs of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half–sister (shown in the movie as the elder of Julia and her husband Bobby’s (Morrissey) two daughters), and I imagine that her own reminiscence is colored by the loyalty to her own mother, who is shown to be far more sympathetic than the often priggish Mimi.

Johnson, made a splash earlier this year in Kick-Ass (which he actually filmed after this movie which was released in Britain almost a year ago), a role very different than this one. Here he is introspective, moody and so full of teen angst it’s leaking out his ears. This role demands a certain amount of gravitas and Johnson provides it nicely. He only resembles Lennon superficially on a physical level, but he captures the swagger and the silly side of him well.

Thomas has to make what is essentially a closed-off woman sympathetic, a very difficult task in the best of circumstances and few actors have the chops to pull it off well, but Thomas manages most of the time. Duff has a different sort of challenge, making the carefree and somewhat scatterbrained Julia relatable, and she pulls it off as well. There is some evidence that the real Julia had some mental illness in her background and Duff hints at it nicely.

As I said, this isn’t about the Beatles although Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Bell) do show up, but only Paul makes much of an impact here as we see the rivalry between John and Paul begin to develop at its earliest stages.

We do see the emphasis John placed on his music; we just don’t get what really drove him as a person, and as the film sort of sets you up to believe that it will, it came as a letdown to me and cost the movie ratings points which may have been more of the fault of studio marketing executives than the filmmakers.

Most of the music on the soundtrack is of cover tunes – not a single Beatles song shows up here, other than the iconic opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” which opens the movie with the reverence of church bells but somewhat predictably is part of a dream sequence. However, I will say the musical sequences are done well enough.

It’s a bit of a disappointment but the movie is well-acted enough and does give enough insight into Lennon’s formative years to still get a recommendation from me. Of course, keep in mind that Lennon is a personal hero of mine, so be warned by that caveat that I might be softer on a film about him than I might otherwise be – or quite possibly and in fact more likely, harder.

REASONS TO GO: A look at the ex-Beatle’s formative years, a period not much covered by biographers. Strong performances by Johnson, Duff and Thomas.

REASONS TO STAY: You never really get any insight as to what drove Lennon other than mommy issues.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of rough language, a bit of sexuality and a whole lot of drinking and smoking; I would say it’s probably safe for most teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Johnson did most of his own singing for the movie, which was released in the U.S. the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

HOME OR THEATER: Home viewing for this one, definitely.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: I Sell the Dead