Soundtrack Sundays #3: Tangerine Dream – Sorcerer

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While promoting The Exorcist in West Germany, director William Friedkin was introduced to Edgar Froese after being recommended to take in a Tangerine Dream show performed in an abandoned church in the Black Forest.

Despite the band having never scored a movie before, Friedkin asked them to have a go at doing so for his next film. Although at this point he had no specific idea on what his next film would be.

On the 40th anniversary bluray release of Sorcerer there’s a very informative and often highly amusing extra – Nicolas Winding Refn (yep, that man again) interviewing Friedkin. Here the American director speaks of being inspired by the music and how he first heard it while filming in the Dominican Republic. ‘It was mean and tough and rhythmic and powerful. What I had expected. No sentimentality.’

He cut the film to the music, and it proved absolutely integral to the project. Later, he wrote in his liner notes for the Sorcerer album that if he’d heard Tangerine Dream sooner he would have asked them to score The Exorcist. A tantalising thought.

Sorcerer quad poster

As sonic backdrops go, this is one of the best, an impeccably-crafted and mesmerizing accompaniment of chilly synths with that pulsing sound that Tangerine Dream perfected and which has remained influential to this day. It provides in some ways an unexpected heartbeat to the story – the music on its own suggests the autobahns of Germany or big city American streets late at night rather than the twisting, remote roads of the inhospitable jungle region where much of the movie is set.

It certainly ramps up the tension as the four lead characters undertake a high-risk journey, carrying a cargo of unstable dynamite – due to storage problems the nitroglycerin is prone to leakage, meaning any sharp movement could set it off. Not a comforting thought for anybody driving it through such a treacherous terrain.

While Sorcerer the film failed to win over too many admirers on its initial release, the soundtrack album went on to become one of Tangerine Dream’s biggest successes, spending seven weeks on the British album charts, where it peaked at #25.

It’s often been suggested that Sorcerer failed at the box office due to it being released at the same time as Star Wars but I doubt that tells the full story.

As I mentioned on here a few weeks ago, in the 1970s movies weren’t released the way they are today.

Annoyingly in Britain, American films would take maybe around six months to make their way across the Atlantic and when they did finally arrive here, even a potential blockbuster like Star Wars wouldn’t open and blitz cinema screens across the length and breadth of the country like today.

Instead, big releases would open in a select few London cinemas where they would play for a number of weeks before rolling out to other screens in London as well as other towns and cities, although even at this point, screenings would be initially limited to a single cinema chain.

Again using Star Wars as an example, when Lucas’ pop culture phenomenon eventually opened in Glasgow at the tail-end of January 1978, it was originally shown at only one cinema, the Odeon in Renfield Street.

So people like me with no interest in Star Wars had a big choice of alternatives on offer. And did filmgoers desperate to see the film somehow decide if it wasn’t playing locally that nothing else would do?

Other films like The Deep (which was the second highest grossing film in the States when released on these shores) seemed to perform well enough at the British box office.

At my local picture house incidentally, there was choice between Crime Busters and Mayday 40,000 ft. No I don’t remember any of these but they might well be better films than Star Wars.

Sorcerer certainly is. And I’ll also take some hypnotic and futuristic Tangerine Dream synth soundscapes over John William’s throwback score any time.

I reckon the main problem with Sorcerer was the lack of star names in the cast. Okay, still relatively fresh from the massive success of Jaws, Roy Scheider enjoyed a high reputation at the time but he didn’t open films. The other three main characters were unknowns by American (or British) standards.

Friedkin had originally offered the part of Jackie Scanlon to Steve McQueen, who loved the script but didn’t want to leave his new wife Ally McGraw for an extended period to shoot the film abroad. Having one of the world’s biggest stars in a lead role would have helped commercially although my guess would be that artistically, Roy Scheider was pretty much perfect for the part.

Another problem is that, even the standards of the 1970s, Sorcerer is bleak and the four main characters are deeply flawed to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine audiences strongly identifying with any of them.

Scanlon’s background is that of a New Jersey mobster; Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a coldblooded Mexican hitman; Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a crooked French stockbroker; while Kassem (Amidou) has just taken part in a bombing of innocent civilians in Jerusleum.

Another problem is the multi-language prologue of the film, where subtitles are used extensively. Not something that certain sections of the public ever seem happy about.

William Friedkin considers Sorcerer his finest work. If you’ve never seen it, I’d advise you to seek it out.

For more on Tangerine Dream: http://www.tangerinedream.org/

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Nightbirds & The Neon Demon

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Nightbirds & The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (2015) Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Nightbirds (1970) Director: Andy Milligan

In his foreword to the BFI Flipside’s release of Andy Milligan’s Nightbirds, Nicolas Winding Refn wrote about coming across Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough’s collection of Milligan film materials on eBay. This haul included many very rare prints, including the sole surviving copy of Nightbirds.

The Danish director forked out $25,000 for the lot.

Refn and Milligan are very different filmmakers and I was a little surprised when I discovered NWR was such a fan. Refn’s movies are as glossy as Milligan’s are grungey. When Refn actors speak, their words tend to be sparse and sometimes enigmatic while Milligan characters are verbose and their dialogue is exposition heavy. Refn employs Hollywood royalty like Ryan Gosling and Keanu Reeves while Milligan tended to utilize friends and contacts from his early off-off Broadway theatre days.

Dubbed ‘Times Square’s Militant Auteur’ by Bill Landis, who devoted a whole chapter to him in his book Sleazoid Express, Milligan was amazingly prolific, punting out a movie every couple of months during his heyday. Despite being associated with New York’s 42nd Street scuzzy grindhouse circuit, he did make a move to London in the late 1960s. Here he shot five films in a period of a year and a half.

The first of the batch was Nightbirds, which until salvaged by Refn had largely been forgotten. It only made its debut on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012 on the always interesting Flipside label.

Nightbirds was shot in 1968 but this was far from the Swinging London of Carnaby Street and Chelsea’s King’s Road. Set in the East End around Spittalfields – an area where Jack the Ripper once operated – this resembles Bronco Bullfrog and Up the Junction rather than the pop art paradises of the capital often portrayed around this time. Smashing Time here? Not very likely.

Dink (Berwick Kaler) is a hapless and homeless twenty year old man. When we first see him, he’s disoriented, staggering down a street. Soon he is puking openly but rather than ignoring him, passer-by Dee (Julie Shaw) tries to help. Good looking and with a verging on posho accent, she takes him to a local cafe and then back to her uber-dingy bedsit. This must be Dink’s lucky day. Later he even describes her as ‘a Florence Nightingale of the streets’ but it doesn’t take too long before we discover that she might have ulterior motives.

Nightbirds - Dink & Dee

Almost inevitably, a relationship ensues. This will be one of the most lopsided cinematic couplings I’ve ever come across. Dee is dominant in every conceivable way. She’s more sexually experienced than Dink and she’s smarter too. She’s also as manipulative as Dink is vulnerable and this points to a possible reason why she should choose him. He’s also naive to the point of being childlike for much of the time. A perfect victim.

To some extent, this relationship parallels the friendship between Ruby (Jena Malone) and Jesse (Elle Fanning) in The Neon Demon. Both Dee and Ruby display a vampiric viciousness when they fail to get their own way.

Nightbirds didn’t polarize critics. Critics never got to see it. Milligan’s work generally was often seen as a joke, unintentionally funny at best. Stephen King once went as far to dismiss The Ghastly Ones as ‘the work of morons with cameras.’

The Neon Demon also attracted plenty of flak from reviewers. The Daily Mail wanted the British Board of Film Classification to take action on the ‘sadistic horror show,’ calling it: ‘rancid, pretentious and downright creepy.’

You might reckon that would be the perfect recommendation to go out and see it for yourself but many liberal publications despised it just as much. According to the Observer it was ‘dumbfoundingly awful’ and Refn couldn’t direct traffic.

No mention of his great eye for composition or his startling use of super saturated colours – Only God Forgives from 2013 must be the ‘reddest’ movie since Dario Argento shot Suspiria – or his ability to conjure up an unforgettable scene: a mountain lion leaping around a cheap Pasadena motel, some stomach churning moments in a mortuary and the notorious shot involving an eyeball.

And could any other director have coaxed a better performance from Elle Fanning?

On balance, the Observer review somehow managed to be even more ludicrous than the Mail’s. At least the latter got it right with its ‘downright creepy’ description.

Neon Demon still

The Neon Demon is set in a world of equally narcissistic and superficial young women with the personality of automatons, all chiselled cheekbones and the kind of cadaverous bodies that look like they could do with a good plate of sausage, egg and chips.

‘I would never call you fat,’ Christina Hendricks, playing an demented but influential agent, tells Jesse during an early audition. ‘Others might, but I never would.’ This is surely both a very pointed putdown of the whole vacuous fashion industry and a comment on the real life, bizarre idea that Christina Hendricks is a chubster.

As I’ve written on here before when I chose the film in my 2017 Best Films of the Year list, agency heads and high end photographers uniformly adore Jesse and the more she is fêted the more she lets the flattery go to her pretty little head. Her looks, though, attract just as much jealousy as praise – rather than an exploitation film this is a film about exploitation. Mainly of Jesse.

Macabre and menacing, haunting and hypnotic, The Neon Demon is a far better piece of work than Milligan’s movie.

Discussing the merits of Nightbirds in the film’s commentary, Berwick Kaler noted: ‘It’s weird. It doesn’t really say much. It’s not that exciting but it sort of grips you.’ He’s certain that with more time and more money at his disposal, Milligan could have significantly improved Nightbirds.

I would guess he’s right. Maybe Milligan just tried to do too much himself and was unable to listen to advice. For his films he would generally write the scripts, cast the actors, scout locations, direct, assemble the soundtrack and edit. Even the outfits credit for Raffine is a reference to the boutique he owned back home in Staten Island. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he did his own catering but apparently he would send out for sandwiches between takes.

Oh the glamour of micro-budget filmmaking.

What unites Milligan and Refn is the fact that they both developed idiosyncratic directing styles early in their careers. In that aforementioned foreword, Refn speaks of how when you watch any of Milligan’s work you’re in no doubt whose film you’re watching and how he might not have been a conventional talent but how being unique is actually always more interesting.

Nightbirds is admittedly a tough watch at times. The sound is sometimes choppy, and the music selected by Milligan is never anywhere near appropriate. Kaler and Shaw put in decent, naturalistic performances but some of the other actors are amateurish. At times it closely resembles a play that’s been filmed.

During a 2015 interview with the Daily Grindhouse, Refn mentioned that he would be transferring his Milligan films to 4K and planned to bring more of his oeuvre back into circulation. Despite my reservations, I’ll likely seek some of these out. I’m sure any movie with a name like The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! or Fleshpot on 42nd Street can’t be any worse than the tsunami of summer blockbuster dross about to clog up my local multiplex.

For more on Nightbirds: http://www.bfi.org.uk/blu-rays-dvds/nightbirds

Woo-Hoo, Woo-Hoo-Hoo, Woo-Hoo, Woo-Hoo-Hoo (Soundtrack Sundays #2)

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Pecker & Kill Bill

The Rock-A-Teens / The 5.6.7.8’s: Woo Hoo
The Grid: Swamp Thing

Led by Vic Mizelle, The Rock-A-Teens were a rockabilly band based in Richmond, Virginia. They built up a following locally, a large part of their live appeal coming via a near instrumental originally known as Rock-A-Teen Boogie.

Mizelle certainly possesses a fascinating backstory. As a teenager he struggled to control himself and was known to bark like a dog and shout obscenities in public for no apparent reason.

Institutionalized, he was forced to undergo shock treatment. Luckily his family refused the option of a frontal lobotomy. It might seem strange now but it took until the mid-1970s for him to finally be diagnosed as suffering from Tourette’s Syndrome.

Music proved something of a saviour and by the time Rock-A-Teen Boogie was renamed Woo Hoo, life looked to be on the up.

Released in the late summer of 1959, Woo Hoo came out on the independent Doran record label, a subsidiary of Mart Records, owned by record shop owner George Donald McGraw.

The band jointly took the writing credit. Facts here are disputed but I think McGraw invented a story regarding a threatened lawsuit for plagiarism coming from Arthur Smith, the man who wrote and performed one of the great proto rock’n’roll records Guitar Boogie. And, yeah, Woo Hoo clearly bears a striking similarity to Smith’s 1945 song.

With the threat of lawsuit supposedly looming over them, the band were persuaded to sign Woo Hoo off to McGraw, who then awarded himself the sole writing credit.

Re-released on Roulette, a New York label with national distribution, the song now really took off nationally, spending twelve weeks on the Billboard charts in the second half of 1959. It peaked at #16.

The Rock-A-Teens began playing far outwith their Richmond base, one show seeing them share a bill with Arthur Smith, who reputedly claimed he knew nothing about any threatened lawsuit.

Two more singles and an album also titled Woo Hoo followed. These flopped and, within a year of the recording of their vinyl debut, The Rock-A-Teens disbanded.

Their biggest hit, though, has stood the test of time.

Ironically, The Revillos covered the song on their Rev Up album of 1980 where they changed its title to Yeah Yeah and claimed authorship too.

Woo Hoo was also selected for the soundtrack of Pecker, John Waters’ 1998 film which I’ve just watched for the first time since its release.

As we moved towards the millenium, Waters’ movies no longer struck many as that weird. Maybe the world had caught up with cinema’s great outsider.

While the Baltimore director was swimming in the direction of the mainstream and even talking about how he’d like to work with Meryl Streep, the mainstream itself was becoming a whole lot stranger. Just think of the success of The Jerry Springer Show and the celebrity status being accorded to the likes of John Wayne Bobbitt in the 1990s.

Independent films like Spanking the Monkey and Happiness made for far more uncomfortable viewing; Clerks was more potty mouthed and lo-fi while Something About Mary grossed millions at the box office and grossed out millions of movie-goers with a tale that was a million times more tasteless than Pecker.

And wasn’t Waters here just reflecting the feelings of the general public – that the art world is full of pretentious tossers all too eager to embrace the latest version of the Emperor’s new clothes?

With a whole new generation of independent directors like Quentin Tarantino on the rise, suddenly Waters was looking a little old hat even though films like Serial Mom and Pecker still made for entertaining viewing.

It would be Tarantino who would next boost the profile of Woo Hoo when he used it to great effect in his 2003 release Kill Bill Volume 1.

On first seeing this I suspected that the The 5.6.7.8’s might be a Q.T invention. Three supercool, identically dressed Japanese girls with a frenetic stage act playing an exuberant brand of surfabilly. Surely they were just too perfect to be real?

But no, they were a band. Formed in Tokyo in 1986, the track had been released back in 1996 on their Bomb the Twist EP.

Later the track was chosen for a number of high profile TV commercials, in America for Vonage and Chevrolet, while in Britain it featured in an ad (shot in Glasgow) for Carling lager.

Getting back to Pecker. Like many of his movies, it featured mainly music from Waters’ youth, here mostly American rock’n’roll era novelty tunes like Paul Evans’ Happy-Go-Lucky-Me and Leroy Pullins’ I’m a Nut.

The big musical number however was much more contemporary.

Utilised for a climatic scene where the New York art world find the urge to party with a bunch of blue-collar Baltimore eccentrics irresistible, this is The Grid and Swamp Thing. Time to embrace your inner hillbilly, folks!

Soundtrack Sundays #1

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Roy Ayers: Coffy (1973)
Don Ellis & Julie Driscoll: Moon Zero Two (1969)

Before Hollywood began barfing out an endless stream of Fast and Furious Transformers, before streaming and DVDs, before even VHS and Betamax videos were an option for anybody but the rich, cinema going was a very different experience to what it is today.

In Britain, multiplexes didn’t yet exist. Cinema chains would not be given the same access to new releases ensuring film openings would be staggered. My local picture house was a Caledonian, which meant it would usually be showing a completely different set of new films to, say, Odeons or ABCs.

Coffy lobby card

Of course, this meant if you really wanted to see something that was just out you’d sometimes have to travel. I can remember, for example, getting a bus into the old Muirend ABC (known as the Toledo in its former heyday) to see Sheba Baby, a blaxploitation favourite starring Pam Grier. Memories of seeing Coffy are hazier but I think that I must have had to travel into Glasgow city centre for that one. And I vaguely remember it was part of a double bill, possibly with a kung fu flick.

Yes, back then, cinemas hadn’t got round to ripping off their customers at absolutely every available opportunity.

You could accuse Coffy of being formulaic and terribly dated. But it’s also utterly watchable and fantastic fun. Pam Grier is irresistable in the titular role. Few women have ever looked so foxy and been able to kick ass so effortlessly. ‘The baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!’ as the publicity insisted.

She certainly has the most dangerous Afro in movie history. If you’ve seen the movie you’ll know what I’m talkin’ ’bout.

As with most blaxploitation movies, there’s a great soundtrack too. AllMusic claims it’s a ‘masterpiece on par with Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Isaac Hayes’ Shaft‘ which I reckon slightly exaggerates its value but vibraphone legend Roy Ayers does supply a steady stream of soul, jazz and funk grooves that complement the action very effectively. And that famous vibraphone of his does offer a very pleasing texture throughout.

Back then I doubt the score would have made much of an impression on me but all these years later I have to agree with Cullen Gallagher’s liner notes to the Arrow blu-ray re-release: ‘One can’t imagine watching Coffy without the music or listening to the album without seeing the film’s images in your head.’

Right on! This is Coffy is the Color:

Finally, a wee mention for drummer Dennis Davis, who provides the percussion here and would soon go on play with David Bowie and Iggy Pop on classic albums such as Station to Station, Low and The Idiot.

He was also sat behind his kit on many of Bowie’s live tours, including his final Reality Tour in 2003. Sadly, he died just a couple of months after Bowie, just over two years ago.

Moon Zero Two quad poster

Don Ellis & Julie Driscoll: Moon Zero Two (1969)

Hammer Films wasn’t all Count Dracula, Frankenstein, werewolves and creatures from the Black Lagoon.

Moon Zero Two attempted to exploit the success of sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey and the public obsession with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

If compared to Kubrick’s masterpiece, its psychedelic Pop Art vision of the future fails miserably. On the plus side is the booming John Barry-esque title track. Splendidly over the top and even slightly wonky in places – the music was apparently speeded up to better fit in with the animated opening credits sequence much to the annoyance of its composer, visionary Californian jazzer Don Ellis.

Julie Driscoll’s mesmerising, soul-searching vocals, though, save the day.

A cross between Twiggy and Aretha Franklin, psychedelic princess Julie will always be best remembered for This Wheel’s On Fire, a huge hippy era hit credited to Julie Driscoll with Brian Auger and The Trinity, a name that didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

As for what turned out to be the final Hammer release of the 1960s, well, Moon Zero Two flopped and no soundtrack album has ever been released, helping to consign the title track to undeserved obscurity.

Here is Moon Zero Two:

For more on Roy Ayers: http://www.royayers.com/

For more on Julie Driscoll: http://www.mindyourownmusic.co.uk/julie-tippetts.htm

Sid & Nancy (& Winston): Friday Night Film Club #6

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Sid and Nancy 30th anniversary

Sid and Nancy (1986) Director: Alex Cox

I like Alex Cox. The guy comes across as an engaging character and I always enjoyed his thought-provoking introductions on Moviedrome, a cult cinema series that introduced me to many obscure delights. How we could do with something similar on our TV screens today.

Alex Cox the director, though, isn’t someone I follow that closely. Repo Man was hugely popular with independent movie fans but it never quite lived up to the hype for me albeit it did display some real potential.

Rock biopics are a notoriously difficult type of film to pull off with the chances of pleasing avid fans of the act depicted and performing at the box office slim at best. When it was announced that Cox would be making Sid and Nancy, I reckoned he was as good a choice as any director to helm the project and his efforts would at least be intriguing.

Critics tend to rate Cox’s film highly. The New Statesman‘s Ryan Gilbey recently speculated on the possibility of Sid and Nancy being the ‘finest British film of the 1980s’. On the other hand Gary Oldman, who played Sid, admitted in an online interview that if he comes across the film while he’s channel surfing: ‘I wanna just throw the television out the window.’

Ouuch.

Sid and Nancy opens with a dazed Sid Vicious arrested in NYC. A sad and pathetic figure, strung out on smack and shocked by the murder of girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

We’re almost immediately transported back to happier times and Sid’s entry into The Sex Pistols. This is a cartoonish portrayal of punk. Life for Sid and his mate Johnny Rotten consists of drinking cans of lager in the streets, belching, spray painting a dominatrix pal’s living room walls and commenting on how boring everything is. If you had scant knowledge of punk and came across this then you could be forgiven for wondering what the fuss about The Sex Pistols was all about.

Oldman immediately convinces as the man born John Simon Ritchie but Drew Schofield completely fails to impress as Johnny. Ditto David Hayman in the role of Malcolm McLaren. It’s not long before inaccuracies begin to pile up too.

In his book Popcorn, Gary Mulholland lists many of these, even going as far as to include Nancy’s first meeting with Sid and Johnny, where she states: ‘I have all your L.Ps back home’. This being a time when they hadn’t released any albums. I liked the line myself, feeling it was typical patter from a junkie/groupie hoping to ingratiate herself. A moment later she mixes Johnny up with Sid. Such is life. If you’ve got a habit.

Chloe Webb does excel as Nancy Spungen, an instantly irritating wreck who whinges and whines throughout. Believe me, it’s not hard to see how she earned her Nauseating Nancy nickname.

Sid would have had to search long and hard to find a more toxic partner. A doomed coupling from the moment they got together.

Sid and Nancy still

There’s plenty of self-pity and self-mutilation but very little in the way of self-analysis. In Nancy’s case, the solution to just about every problem is to throw a hissy-fit, attempting to get her own way by guilt-tripping into submission anyone who won’t give her money or drugs.

Along the way, though, we’re shown more and more moments of tenderness between the pair and the scene set in the squalor of a New York alley with the couple kissing and garbage raining down around them in a slow-motion wide shot is truly memorable. I know because it’s been over thirty years since I watched the film and it has remained with me ever since – and I should mention here that I watched Sid and Nancy on a ‘Vintage Classics’ 30th anniversary edition blu-ray. A fact that makes me feel very, very old.

Sid and Nancy kissing

After the monotonous Johnny and Sid double act, there are plenty of comedic moments. At one point Sid is so spaced out he doesn’t know if it’s New Year or New York. He has an unexpected encounter with a plate-glass window. The recreation of the My Way video undoubtedly works too – the one moment where the real Sid Vicious got to shine. His way.

There’s also near constant heroin abuse, Sid taking a nasty beating and Sid dishing out some domestic violence against Nancy although Sid as a snotty-nosed mess on the subway line clinging desperately to Nancy managed to make the man oddly sympathetic. Momentarily anyway.

Then one of the strangest and most disturbing love stories in cinema history cops out with some sentimental surrealism as its ending. A flight of fancy too far that Cox himself later regretted.

Malcolm McLaren wasn’t a fan and Johnny Rotten dismissed the movie completely, going as far to claim that it glamourised drugs. I doubt myself a single person was persuaded to try out smack as a result of seeing it.

If you don’t mind a stream of anachronisms and dubious decisions like having Sid wear a hammer and sickle T-shirt rather than the swastika one that really was a part of his wardrobe, then you might well enjoy Sid and Nancy.

The re-created Sex Pistols music is pretty impressive. Probably because Glen Matlock played on it and even in his early days as a cinematographer, Roger Deakins already oozed talent. Sid, for example, looking out of the Chelsea Hotel on to bustling New York streets looks and sounds extraordinary.

The verdict?

A deeply flawed though generally compelling take on punk’s most high-profile couple.

Cox never again experienced the critical acclaim and interest that his two first features generated. His next feature, Spaghetti Western pastiche Straight to Hell, with a cast that included Joe Strummer, The Pogues, Courtney Love and Elvis Costello, proved a disappointment. Since then I’ve only seen one of his movies Repo Chick (where he was reunited with Chloe Webb). This was borderline unwatchable.

Oldman quickly became associated with what The Face dubbed the Britpack, a group of actors including Tim Roth and Miranda Richardson whose stars were on the rise in the mid-’80s. Interestingly Roth had declined the chance to play Rotten in Cox’s film. If he had accepted I’d guess the film would have been much improved.

Oldman’s next role was as another English rebel who also died young, Joe Orton in Prick Up Your Ears.

Nominated for an Oscar for 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, he finally scooped the big gong earlier this month for his turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. From a junky punk bassist to Britain’s wartime leader in just over thirty years.

No one will ever be able to claim he’s not versatile.

Melody & Alice (Friday Night Film Club #5)

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Melody & Alice

A Tracy Hyde Double Bill: Melody (1971) & Alice (1982)

British cinema in the 1970s often gets a bad rap. The way some commentators go on you’d think the entire decade had consisted of a parade of sexploitation comedies, cheesy horrors and unsuccessful big screen sitcom adaptations. But in the first two years of the ’70s alone, films like Deep End, Bronco Bullfrog, Kes, Get Carter and A Clockwork Orange demonstrated the quality that could be found.

Melody arrived during this time and although nowhere near a box-office success in Britain its reputation has risen steadily in recent years. This might have been aided at least a little by The Wondermints’ wonderful single Tracy Hide in tribute to the young first time actor who played the titular role. In the States, incidentally, its title was switched to S.W.A.L.K.. Apparently, at one point, it was to be named after the Bee Gees’ song To Love Somebody. A better idea by far.

Music plays a very important part in Melody and is largely supplied by the brothers Gibb. The screenplay was even written around seven tracks by that band. A young producer named David Puttnam obtaining a raft of cash that allowed the film to go ahead – on the condition that these tracks were used.

There’s also some Crosby, Still, Nash & Young thrown in too. Teach Your Children utilised in a scene where a bunch of kids get a more than a little anarchic. This is often praised for its irony but its Californian vibe doesn’t really feel appropriate for a film set in inner city London (Hammersmith and Lambeth mostly with short excursions to Soho, Trafalgar Square and even Weymouth).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film starts with a Boy Brigade march where two boys meet for the first time. One is a scruffy, little cheeky chappie called Ornshaw, the other a solidly middle class kid Daniel Latimer. Alan Parker, who penned the screenplay, has admitted his script was partly autobiographical, comparing himself with the Ornshaw character while suggesting that David Puttnam shared a number of similarities with Daniel.

Melody was heavily promoted on the partnership of the two young actors, reunited after their double act in the 1968 hit musical Oliver! and roughly speaking the first half features their developing friendship while the second concentrates the budding romance between Daniel and Melody.

Melody - Mark Lester & Tracy Hyde

Both these actors were only eleven at the time of the shoot and they do make a very sweet young couple while the adults represented range from well meaning idiots to complete wallopers. The movie has a go at persuading audiences that the viewpoint of children deserves to treated with the same validity as that of grown-ups.

Maybe in 1971 this idea struck some as a good idea – this being the time of the infamous Schoolkids issue of OZ and The Little Red Schoolbook – but if anybody thinks that it might be a good idea for eleven year olds to marry, they should definitely give themselves a good shake.

So, a silly premise but is this a film worth watching?

Well, Wes Anderson has called Melody ‘A forgotten, inspiring gem’ and this is a movie whose mere mention is guaranteed to get many children of the 1970s misty eyed with nostalgia. This doesn’t include me though albeit I found it enjoyable enough.

The story takes far too long to get started. ‘When it gets to the rag-and-bone sequence, where Melody swaps her parents clothes for a goldfish, the film kicks up a gear and takes off,’ Alan Parker later admitted. Since then he has always tried ‘to get to the goldfish’ as quickly as possible.

The direction is solid enough, though never that imaginative with Waris Hussein displaying a TV sensibility for much of the running time. And talking of running, how many times did we need to see schoolkids erupting out of their classes at the sound of the school bell?

The music is pretty good albeit twee – I do rather like The Bee Gees before the medallions and visible chest hair. Its use, though, is generally uninspired – such as To Love Somebody during the school’s sports day.

On the plus side, the acting is very good, particularly from Jack Wild (who was by far the oldest of the three central leads). Ornshaw was also the most interesting character of the three, like a junior version of the characters that Gary Holton went on to specialise in a decade or so later. In comparison Daniel was positively drippy.

Okay, the possibility does exist that I couldn’t enjoy Melody properly due to watching it on STV 2. Interrupted by an infuriating number of mind numbing ads – some of them urging viewers to enter some competition via a premium rate phone number – together with news reports and weather updates, this is hardly the ideal way to watch any film. StudioCanal released it on Blu-ray last year and here’s the trailer:

Alan Parker, of course, soon embarked on a career as a director himself. I’ve always found his work hit and miss. Midnight Express and Angel Heart were superb, The Wall and Angela’s Ashes belong squarely in the category of dreary borefests.

Puttnam next went on next to co-produce The Pied Piper, a disaster that starred Donovan and Diana Dors along with Jack Wild. More music related movies followed: Glastonbury Fayre (1972), That’ll Be the Day (1973), Mahler (1974), Stardust (1974) and Lisztomania (1975). You likely know the rest.

Jack Wild and Mark Lester both found the transition from childhood fame to maintaining adult success a struggle. Drink and drugs abuse followed and, sadly, Jack died in 2006, likely as a result of his excesses.

Bizarrely, Mark later befriended Michael Jackson and has claimed to have been a sperm donor for him, believing he might be the father of Paris Jackson. Wacko Jacko’s former lawyer Brian Oxman, though, has dismissed this idea, saying during a TV interview that: ‘The thing I always heard from Michael was that Michael was the father of these children, and I believe Michael.’

Yeah, sure.

Tracy Constance Margaret Hyde never fully realised her early potential either. Up until the late ’80s she still occasionally appeared in shows like Dempsey and Makepeace, and The Bill. She did star in 1980’s The Orchard End Murder (which I really must seek out) and she also teamed up once more with Jack Wild for Alice (Alicja), a 1982 musical-fantasy.

Alice - Tracey Hyde & Jack Wild

This was only a smallish role and maybe that was for the best. Yet another take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine how anybody could have imagined this was a good idea.

A European co-production shot in Poland, France and England with cast members from each of those countries, Alice failed on every level. There’s one marathon song in the middle of the film that feels as if the lyric writer was trying to concoct the most obvious – and therefore painful – lyrics in the history of the musical. Then there’s I’m A Psychiatrist. No song with that title could be anything other than dreadful, could it?

Sophie Barjac plays Alice, a twenty-something divorcee who works in a factory with her pal Mona, (Tracy Hyde) and Mock Turtle (Jack Wild), a biker obsessed with trivia. I have no idea why most of the characters are assigned names from Alice as they bear little or absolutely no resemblance to their Carroll counterparts.

The best thing about Alice is when Barjac sings but this is down to the fact that her vocals were dubbed by Lulu. Barjac’s co-star is Jean-Pierre Cassel, who in a long career worked with the likes of Claude Chabrol and Luis Buñuel. I can only guess what his old pal Serge Gainsbourg must have thought of his turn here.

Suneaters

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L-Space press-photo

Run by unpaid volunteers, Last Night From Glasgow is truly a label that is all about a passion for good music. In 2017, LNfG established itself as one of Scotland’s finest imprints with Sister John, in particular, winning over fans with their album Returned From Sea. Music bloggers uniformly loved it and the lead-off track, Thinner Air, made its way into my Best of the Year list.

This year looks like it might be even more fruitful with album releases earmarked for Bis, Radiophonic Tuckshop, Zoe Bestel and L-Space.

The latter act describes themselves as ‘a noisy dream pop band from the central belt of Scotland’ and their wonderfully woozy single Suneaters is just out and available on the usual digital outlets.

With a mesmerising sound that made me think of Dot Allison fronting a spacey Prefab Sprout, the track has already received a number of highly favourable reviews with Louder Than War, for example, hailing it as ‘a truly enchanting piece of work.’

Here is almost five celestial minutes of fragile vocals and misty clouds of noise accompanied with one of the most visually sumptuous videos you’re likely to see all year – directed and produced by Coconut Island Photography, Ben Rigley & Fabio Rebelo Paivo. This is Suneaters:

L-space will be playing several live shows in the very near future, to the extent they are even performing in Glasgow and then Edinburgh on the same day. Not quite Phil Collins’ journey from London to Philly for Live Aid I know but the music will assuredly be far better.

Here are some dates for your diaries:

11.03.18 (noon) – Glasgow, Art School (with Lake of Stars).

11.03.18 (7pm) – Suneaters single launch at Sneaky Pete’s, Edinburgh (with Pocket Knife and Beta Waves).

31.03.18 – Stereo, Glasgow. LNfG’s Bigger Birthday Bash (with Bis, Sun Rose and Stephen Solo).

28.04.18 – Snuffledown Festival, Larbert.

Look out too for label compilation The ABC of LNFG, which will consist of twelve songs from twelve different artists with a couple of remixes thrown in too. This will be released officially on 30/03/18 and available at the LNfG Birthday Party (see above).

For more on L-Space, click here.

& for more on LNfG, here you go.

Talking of a previous L-Space track Space Junk, Scots Whay Hae! speculated that, ‘If Nicolas Winding Refn is looking for a band to soundtrack his next movie then he should look no further.’

High praise indeed. And on the subject of that visionary director and going down the same road, if he’s on the lookout for some hypnotic sounds with an ominous edge to include in the forthcoming remake he plans to produce of Italian horror classic What Have You Done to Solange? I’ll throw Dirge by Death in Vegas into the hat for his consideration.

Featuring the aforementioned Dot Allison on guest vocals here is the track live on Later and wouldn’t this be perfect for a twenty-first century Giallo?

For more on Dot, click here.

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