Straight Into a Storm


This is truly a band of gentlemen.

(2018) Music Documentary (Abramorama) John McCauley, Ian O’Neil, Chris Ryan, Dennis Ryan, Robbie Crowell, Shaylyn McCauley, Joe Lusi, Chris Paddock, Paul Marandola, Diego Perez, Brendan Massei, Zeke Hutchins, John Chavez, Justin Collins, Adam Landry, Taylor Goldsmith Dawes, Jana Hunter. Directed by William Miller

 

Deer Tick is far from a household name – are there any rock and roll household names anymore that didn’t arrive via some TV reality competition show a la American Idol or America’s Got Talent? The truth that rock and roll has become a niche genre in pop music; the bands that make it generally have some sort of hip-hop pedigree but I digress somewhat.

The indie rock band Deer Tick has pushed on through what are fairly long odds to go from, as lead singer/songwriter John McCauley proclaims, “being an indie band to being a cult band” and yes, there is a distinction. We see plenty of performance footage from house parties in their native Providence to the film’s nadir, a seven day residency at the 600-seat Brooklyn Bowl to simultaneously celebrate the band’s tenth anniversary and the incoming New Year (the residency culminated with a New Year’s party in 2014). That their most recent footage is three years old robs the film of any immediacy it might have had but then, I don’t think anyone is clamoring for a Deer Tick biography.

And yet we got one and I must admit that it is pretty thorough as these things go. McCauley is a reasonably competent raconteur and his band mates contribute some fairly interesting stories about the life of a touring band in the age of Spotify. When you make a documentary about a cult band, the question becomes “will the movie make any new fans for the band?” The answer is likely not; the performance footage tends to be choppy and often shot on cell phones. You get a sense of some of the songs (and Dennis Ryan explains in depth why he needed to write a song about John Wayne Gacy) but for the most part we just hear snippets. The performances were often characterized by heavy drinking and drugging which makes them far more interesting if you’re present and also drinking and drugging. I will plead guilty to loving the Beat Farmers but being shitfaced with the band will do that for you.

And there’s the rub. The things that make fans rabid about a band is not so much a devotion to their music although that’s where it begins. No, the connection comes through interaction, a feeling of being part of the band which getting drunk with them will kind of do. When you’re as plastered as the band is, you become a part of the show.

Some time is spent on McCauley’s problems with drugs and how marriage and fatherhood have caused him to cut way back on his psychedelic consumption (although not completely eliminated it). There’s also some morbid talk about him joining the so-called 27 Club, the group of artists (mainly rock musicians) whose only qualification for membership is dying at age 27. McCauley was eager to join the club along with the likes of Janis Jopllin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain. For anyone who watched the old VH-1 documentary series Behind the Music this will be familiar turf.

I found myself, not being a fan of the band or at least a devoted one, checking my watch a little bit as the film approached its end. There’s no doubt that this is a movie for the fans and the rabid ones at that. If you’re not a fan of the band or unfamiliar with their music you’re way better off checking out some of their recordings on Spotify if you’re interested in really checking them out. I would recommend the War Elephant album as a starting point and in particular “Art is Real (City of Sin)” if you want to fall in love – and who doesn’t want to fall in love with a band? It’s wonderful to make a discovery that only you and a select few are aware of. That makes the emotional connection even stronger. Like all romances though, one must take some caution though; not everyone will understand your love. That doesn’t matter so much though – love is love, even when it is given to a band. At least you’ll always have the music.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is generally the best part.
REASONS TO STAY: Way too long and detailed, the film will likely only appeal to big fans.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shut Up and Play the Hits
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Tattoo Girls

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Miss Sharon Jones!


The show must go on - no matter what.

The show must go on – no matter what.

(2015) Musical Documentary (Starz Digital Media) Sharon Jones, Alex Kadvan, Austen Holman, Homer Steinweiss, Neal Sugarman, David Guy, Starr Duncan-Lowe, Binky Griplite, Saundra Williams, Joe Crispiano, Ellen deGeneres, Jimmy Fallon. Directed by Barbara Kopple

 

Music is something that has an ephemeral effect on all of us. It reminds us of our past; it strengthens us for our future. It gives us hope when we’re down; it gives us joy when we’re up. It connects us with one another and yet is highly personal and individual. Music redeems us and inspires us. Music for some of us is everything.

Sharon Jones is not a household name but by God she should be. For years with her band the Dap-Kings, she has singlehandedly kept the torch for classic soul music alive. With a delivery like Aretha Franklin and a stage presence like James Brown, Jones has been making a good living for more than a decade now, playing to packed houses of true believers. She’s irrepressible and charismatic in a way that a lot of modern pop stars could never hope to come close to.

In 2013 she was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer and that is where the jumping off point is for this fascinating documentary. We follow along with her treatment in upstate New York, living with a friend who is also a nutritionist. We also see her band, struggling to make ends meet as their fourth album and subsequent tour are delayed while Sharon gets herself well. This adds extra pressure to Sharon who knows that there are a lot of people counting on her; she wants to get back on the road not just because of her love for performing but because she wants her band to get paid. Some of them are having a hard time financially because of Sharon’s illness. The band is family and the close relationship between Jones and her manager Alex Kadvan is truly heartwarming.

The performance clips are among the film’s highlights; we can see her with the spirit upon her at shows, shaking her booty and dancing like she’s possessed by the spirit of James Brown. She’s very cognizant of the roots of soul; in one of the film’s best segments, we see her performing Gospel during her recovery at a Brooklyn church. It’s a moving moment, particularly given her situation. Her faith is surely being tested but it’s no contest; there is a purity to her belief although she doesn’t state it as such. It’s just evident in her demeanor and in her performance. I don’t know that she’s a particularly religious woman but she is certainly moved by the Spirit here.

I am at a loss to decide whether the movie is about Sharon Jones, cancer or something else. Right now my gut leans towards the joy and healing power of music and the indomitable spirit of someone who refuses to let anything get her down. Jones recounts on several occasions how a Sony executive dismissed her as being “too dark, too fat, too short and too old” and how that nearly derailed her career before it started. Only her mama’s reassurance that she was talented no matter what people said kept her going. In fact, the only time Sharon Jones cries during the film is when she thinks about her mom, recently passed, and wishes she could see how strong her daughter was in kicking cancer’s ass.

This isn’t like most movies of this sort; yes, there’s a comeback concert at New York’s Beacon Theater but it’s certainly a work in progress; she forgets the lyrics from time to time and the energy, present in earlier performance clips, is muted a bit, understandably so. However, as we see through a montage of performance clips, as time went by she got stronger and her self-assured stage presence returned. Eventually we would discover that the new album, delayed for release until 2015, would be the first Grammy nomination of Jones’ career, something that she talks about during the movie as being a bucket list goal.

I can’t think that anyone who sees this won’t become a huge fan of Sharon Jones – not just as a performer (although I’m sure that once you hear her strikingly modern yet retro soul tunes you’ll be tempted to pick up an album or two) but more importantly as a person. Her spirit lights up the film like a torch that burns from the first frame to the last. There are musical experiences we have in life that are transcendent; they illuminate us from the outside in and allow us to see something of the meaning of what it is to be human. Sharon Jones represents the best of us and this documentary shows that even the music you’ve never heard of can sometimes lift us beyond what we thought possible and bring us into a very real sense of catharsis. This is an absolutely dazzling documentary.

REASONS TO GO: The music will transport you. The film will uplift you. The experience will remind you that the connection between music and life is an incredibly strong one.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting the cancer treatments may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some occasional mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  At the screening of the film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, Jones revealed that the cancer had returned and she would be undergoing further chemotherapy.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One More Time with Feeling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: A Man Called Ove

I Am Thor


It's good to be Thor.

It’s good to be Thor.

(2015) Music Documentary (Blue Lame 61) Jon Mikl Thor, Mike Favata, Steve Price, Rusty Hamilton, Jack Cionne, Katherine Elo, Stuart Morales, Thundergeek, D. Stevens, Steve Zazzi, Frank Soda, Nik Turner, Jack Holmstrom, Ed Prescott, Bruce Duff, Mark Weiss, Al Higbee, Mike Muzziani, Don Hill, Frank Meyer, Ben Perman, Ani Kyd, Linda Dawe. Directed by Ryan Wise

Florida Film Festival 2015

Some of our rock gods live in palaces, Taj Mahal-like and florid. They are truly Gods among men, regal and unlike us mortals in every way. We aspire to their greatness for they are great indeed, touching millions of lives in different ways. Then again, some of our rock gods live in trailer parks. They scrape and struggle to get by, trying to bring their music to the masses and somehow, failing. It isn’t always because their music isn’t up to snuff; sometimes it’s bad decisions or just plain bad luck.

Jon Mikl Thor is one such rock god. In the 1970s, he took up bodybuilding and as a baby-faced blonde youth, he showed some promise. What he really wanted to do was entertain however, and so he went to Las Vegas where he starred as a nude waiter in a Vegas revue – until someone with a bigger package took his spot.

So Jon picked himself up, dusted himself off, went back home to his native Canada and put together a band. I mean, doesn’t everybody? The strange thing was, this band had talent. They had potential. They had a contract with RCA in Canada. The band called itself Thor, after Jon’s onstage persona. And on the eve of their debut album release, a dispute erupted between the record label and the band’s management company. And in the middle of all this, Jon disappeared. Indeed, he was kidnapped – or at least he says he was and while perhaps you might be skeptical as you see him discussing this early on in the documentary, as the film wears on you come to believe that Jon Mikl Thor is a lot of things but he isn’t a liar.

This incident alone could have sustained a documentary but Wise, who followed the band for 15 years, instead focuses on the band’s attempts to break out into mainstream prominence. In many ways, it’s a heartbreaking portrait of a man on a mission who at every turn sees his mission prevented. And the hell of it is, Thor is actually a pretty damn good band. They actually deserve to have some fame, and yet it eludes them. That doesn’t mean that Jon and his bandmates have given up on the dream, or more importantly on themselves.

Now on the over side of 60, Jon continues to chase the rainbow of success. He keeps up a cheerful and optimistic attitude, perhaps to the point where he might be considered delusional. I have to admit that at first, I thought he had a problem distinguishing reality with desire, but the more I got into the movie, I began to realize that he still believes in the dream and knows full well the uphill battle he’s fighting. He also understands the inherent ridiculousness of a man putting on fake armor and battling fake monsters onstage.

Indeed, Thor is an engaging and charismatic guy. Not only does he have plenty of onstage presence, enough to grab the attention of a gigantic rock festival crowd, he also is humble and likable offstage (which is his Canadian heritage showing, eh?) which helps make this a fascinating view. I had no problem spending an hour and a half with Jon Mikl Thor and wouldn’t have minded hanging out with him for a much longer time.

Thor’s live show is, even by metal standards, something to behold. Many of Thor’s bodybuilding feats are displayed, from blowing up a hot water bottle through his own lung power until it explodes, to bending steel bars to having concrete blocks broken on his chest. Thor is an impressive entertainer and he is canny enough to surround himself with some superb musicians, particularly Price and Favata.

I have to admit that while I like heavy metal and listen to it from time to time, I’m not much of a fan and while I was semi-aware of who Thor is, I didn’t really expect much from this documentary. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised that this is not only entertaining but poignant. You end up rooting for a man who seems to be a genuinely nice guy who’s had more than his share of bad  breaks. Against all odds, I became a fan which is a difficult achievement for any band these days given how many bands I’ve heard in my misspent days as a rock critic and since as a listener. So, rock on God of Thunder. Long live Thor!

REASONS TO GO: Thor is an engaging and charismatic personality. A look behind the trailer park of rock and roll.
REASONS TO STAY: Heavy metal isn’t for everyone.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During his bodybuilding days, Thor once finished as runner-up in a bodybuilding contest to Lou Ferrigno.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paul Williams: Still Alive
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cartel Land

Jersey Boys


Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

(2014) Musical (Warner Brothers) Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, Johnny Cannizzaro, Michael Lomenda, Lacey Hannan, Joseph Russo, Erich Bergen, Mike Doyle, Donnie Kehr, Freya Tingley, Erica Piccininni, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Michael Patrick McGill, Annika Noelle, Renee Marino, Allison Wilhelm. Directed by Clint Eastwood

There are those that say that legends are born, not made. There are those who insist that it’s the other way around. The truth is when it comes to music, it’s a bit of both.

In Belleville, a mostly Italian enclave in Jersey in the early 50s, young Tommy DeVito (Piazza) works as a driver and general go-fer for mobster Gyp De Carlo (Walken) by day and a budding musician with a doo-wop band by night.  He’s also friends with Frankie Castelluccio (Young), who would later come to be known as Frankie Valli. Castelluccio is a young man with an angelic voice who De Carlo sees stardom written all over. DeVito insists that Frankie do his vocal exercises and take singing lessons. He also has Frankie act as a lookout man on a botched robbery for which DeVito takes the fall.

After getting back from jail, DeVito – now with Frankie a full-fledged member of the band – along with Nick Massi (Lomenda) – seems content to play pizza parlors and bowling alleys in Jersey, although he knows as well as De Carlo that Frankie could very well be his ticket to the big time. They just need the right songs. Cue Joe Pesci (Russo) – yes, that Joe Pesci – who is friends with DeVito and happens to know a great songwriter named Bob Gaudio (Bergen) who wrote the novelty hit “Short Shorts” for the Royal Teens back when he was 15. Now out of that group, he’s looking for the right fit for his musical future. Introductions are made and the band, then called the Four Lovers, take the name the Four Seasons after a bowling alley where they unsuccessfully auditioned to play.

DeVito also introduces Frankie to Mary (Marino), a loud, brash woman who has no trouble figuring out that the talented Frankie is her way out of Belleville. The two eventually get married. In the meanwhile, Frankie and Gaudio head to the Brill Building trying to find a producer. They run into Bob Crewe (Doyle) who also hails from Jersey and knows Gaudio somewhat, but has met with some success as a producer. He’s flamboyantly gay (in an era when Liberace was considered “dramatic”) but he gives the four kids a break. Before long they’re singing back-up on an array of forgotten songs.

This doesn’t sit well with the group who were promised a demo of their own. Crewe is willing to produce it but he needs $1500 in order to do it and a radio-friendly song to promote. DeVito provides the cash – borrowing from loan shock Norm Waxman (Kehr) – and Gaudio provides the song – a little ditty called “Sherry.”

The song explodes and is the first of three number one hits in a row for the group. They become one of the most popular groups in the country with appearances on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. However, everything isn’t cake and roses; the constant touring has estranged Frankie from his children and his wife, who has become an alcoholic. Tommy has been gambling heavily and is in debt to Waxman for a lot more than $1500 – nearly ten times that amount, as well as having been embezzling funds from the band. Tommy is also incensed at the growing closeness between Frankie and Gaudio, who have formed a separate partnership outside of the band. Things will have to come to a head sooner or later.

This is based on the Tony award-winning smash hit Broadway musical and features Lloyd who originated the role of Valli on Broadway and won a Tony for it. Several other actors in the cast were in either the Broadway or touring company of the show. Eastwood, who would seem on the surface to be an odd choice to do a musical (although his biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, Bird, remains one of those unheralded classics) wanted stage actors familiar with the material more than he did Hollywood name actors (although he did cast Walken as the genial mobster De Carlo).

There’s a stagey quality here which isn’t entirely due to the acting. While the actors frequently break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience – part of the original show’s conceit is that it was divided into four parts with each band member “narrating” from his own point of view – that doesn’t harm the movie much. In fact, I found it to be one of the elements that worked best.

Part of the problem is there’s a surprising lack of energy for a musical; that’s because most of the music is not performed in staged numbers. For the most part, they are depicted in the recording studio or on TV programs. It leads to a bit of frustration on the part of the audience who is expecting more music from a musical. Only the last number, essentially a medley of hits that starts off from the original band’s final performance together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990 (Massi passed away from cancer in 2000) has that energy and performance that one expects from a musical.

So we have here a cross between a 50’s set goombah period piece and a screen version of a Broadway musical with elements of both filling the screen. I’m not sure which one works best but I think that both could have used a kick in the pants. I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled although Da Queen was enthusiastic for her love for the movie.

The music itself is good and Lloyd does an amazing job of creating Valli’s iconic falsetto, one of the most recognizable voices in the history of pop music. It must also be said that I have a sense that those who have seen the musical either on Broadway or in one of the touring productions will more than likely be disappointed by this effort as I was, even though I haven’t seen the musical as of yet.

This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; I just had higher hopes for it that weren’t met. The production values are spot on and although there are a few anachronisms (Valli is depicted singing his hit “My Eyes Adored You” to his daughter as a lullaby fully ten years before the song was actually written) they capture the period and place nicely. There is a bit of Italian-American stereotyping but not as much as you might think. For the most part, it’s entertaining; it just isn’t the kind of film you’ll want to see over and over again – at least not for me.

REASONS TO GO: Some great music. Young captures Valli’s voice nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy. Looks stagey. Occasionally anachronistic.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of salty language, or what they call in Jersey “tawkeen.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the conclusion of the film, Tommy DeVito says that he’s working for Joe Pesci these days. Pesci played a character named Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas based on a mob associate of Henry Hill, but not named after the ex-Four Season. The Pesci character during this film says “Funny how?” at one point, a reference to the same line Pesci utters in GoodFellas.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That Thing You Do

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Life Itself

The Other F Word


Lars Frederiken still knows how to swing.

Lars Frederiken still knows how to swing.

(2011) Documentary (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Jim Lindberg, Lars Frederiksen, Tony Escalante, Fat Mike, Art Alexakis, Tony Hawk, Mark Hoppus, Matt Freeman, Ron Reyes, Flea, Brett Gurewitz, Mark Mothersbaugh, Jack Grisham, Josh Freese, Tony Adolescent, Rick Thorn, Greg Hetson. Directed by Andrea Blaugrund Nevins

Cinema of the Heart

It is the nature of misspent youth that we rebel against the things our parents held dear. Maybe the ultimate rebels in that sense were – and are – the punks, who turned their collective tattooed backs on everything our commercially-oriented society held dear.

Those punks though are reaching middle age and have wives, families and mortgages now. This documentary captures these guys at a crossroads where their idealistic youth is colliding with the reality of life and in nearly every instance ideal is giving way to the needs of one’s children, which are considerable.

Jim Lindberg, in particularly, is at a crossroads. The lead singer for Pennywise, one of the most successful punk bands out there, he like many musicians has been forced to spend increasing amounts of time touring in order to make ends meet, but that’s becoming more and more of a problem for his family obligations. He clearly loves his family – but he clearly loves his band as well. Something is going to have to give and it isn’t much of an issue. He announces that he’s leaving Pennywise.

Lars Frederiksen of Rancid still sports leopard-patterned hair and tats but has a sweet boy that is his entire world. He looks far more dangerous than he is – but when he enters a park to play with a son the other parents leave pretty quickly. That’s okay with Lars – he doesn’t mind getting some one-on-one time with his son and having no lines at the swing set is only an extra added bonus.

Duane Peters of the mid-level band U.S. Bombs has several children but his son Chess was his oldest. When Chess died in a car accident, Peters – a veteran skateboarder and singer with a variety of bands on the skate punk scene – fell apart. He became suicidal and when discussing that period in his life, it’s obvious the wound is still raw.

But mostly it is about guys outside the mainstream trying to provide a life that’s as close to normal as their kids as is possible. Most of these guys had childhoods that were far from that and they’re determined to give their kids the support and love that they didn’t get themselves. You get a sense that while yeah these guys can be aggressive about their ideology and look pretty damn intimidating, they’re still basically nice guys.

We get a pretty wide range of punks and extreme sports guys from the famous (Tony Hawk) to the largely unknown outside of the punk rock community. The relationships with their kids varies; some of these guys are surprisingly disciplinarians while others are kind of new age in their child-rearing philosophies.

We see the dads in their punk rock lives (although some of them, like Black Flag’s Ron Reyes, has moved on from music and gone to different professions) and also in their home lives. There are a lot of interviews, like Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers talking about the birth of his daughter inspiring him to give up drugs and alcohol.

Some of the movie is pretty lighthearted but a few scenes are truly moving. Throughout there’s a kind of goofy charm. Sure there’s that fish out of water element where we see punks adjusting to the real world (which seems to piss off some critics who don’t get that people change as they get older) but that’s not all that this movie is about. What it really is about is how kids can change even the most out there of people – people who reject even the most basic of society’s norms can have their hearts changed in an instant by the birth of their child.

The mother-child bond is often idealized, particularly in the movies and there’s no doubt the power of a mother’s love may well be the strongest relationship there is. However, the bond between a father and his children is often overlooked. For many little girls, their first valentine is their daddy and indeed the affections of a dad for his kids, while often expressed poorly, is no less deep or lasting.

This is one of those movies that remind you about that bond and that guys, doofuses though we may be, have it within us to be surprisingly sweet. Those moments can keep you ladies coming back to us guys for more, even though we may forget our anniversary date or need help finding where the extension cords are. In my book that makes this movie something to be treasured.

WHY RENT THIS: A really good look at fatherhood in unusual circumstances at times. Lindberg and Peters are distinctly moving.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might put off some punk rock fanatics.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a pretty fair amount of cursing and some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The making of the movie was inspired by Lindberg’s book Punk Rock Dad which is referenced somewhat here.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some performance clips for a number of the bands presented here (including Lindberg’s post-Pennywise project Black Pacific) as well as some pretty interesting outtakes, including one involving Dr. Drew Pinsky. There’s also a 15-minute Q&A session from South by Southwest that I wouldn’t have minded going on longer.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $53,714 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this movie wasn’t profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: The Pianist