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Bad Times at the El Royale (Soundtrack Sundays)

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bad times at the el royale

We open in an empty hotel room in the late 1950s.

A man in a trilby and trenchcoat enters and begins to cram all the furniture to one side of the room. Then he rolls up the carpet and begins ripping up floorboards. He hides a duffel bag under the floorboards and then restores order to the room. He answers a knock on the door, a gun in his hand. It isn’t a fellow guest to complain about the noise. Moments later one of the two men is dead. The camera remains static throughout this series of jump-cuts.

Fast forward ten years and a Studebaker Commander enters the driveway of the El Royale accompanied by Edwin Starr and Twenty-Five Miles, a top ten Billboard hit in 1969, later to become a Northern Soul favourite. I’m really liking this movie already.

Once thriving, the hotel is now on the slide. Smooth talkin’ vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) gives a potted history of what was once ‘Tahoe’s best kept secret’ to two other guests waiting to sign in. These are a kindly priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo).

This trio are soon joined by a hippy chick Emily Summerspring played by Dakota Johnson. Peace, love and understanding, though, aren’t uppermost in her mind during her stay. She’s not alone in this respect.

It’s safe to speculate that writer/director Drew Goddard watched Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight as he began work on his screenplay. It has a definite Tarantino feel: hyper-stylized, non-linear, with sudden bursts of shocking violence and a fine ensemble cast playing characters who aren’t always who they claim to be. And, of course, a killer soundtrack including America’s second biggest selling single of 1967. Here’s a very young and gravelly voiced Alex Chilton fronting Memphis quintet The Box Tops with The Letter:

Once ensconced in his room, Sullivan phones his wife and talks (in a completely different accent than before) to her and his young daughter. As he does so, he begins to disassemble the phone. He is checking for bugs and not just in the phone but across the whole room.

Before too long, he has discovered a secret passageway that looks into a line of rooms via a series of two way mirrors. He walks along it and observes the other guests. Not surprisingly, none of them have their feet up relaxing.

When Sullivan’s stay is ended prematurely, the film begins to go slide downhill. And there’s still a long, long time before the closing credits start to roll.

Much is made throughout the film of the fact that the California/Nevada state line runs right through the El Royale. It’s a hotel of two halves with rooms on the California side a dollar more expensive per night. Likewise, the film is a film of two halves.

We get flashback after flashback and not all of them are essential to pushing the plot forward. Just one example: Did we have to see an obnoxious English producer giving Darlene an ultimatum over her career? As Elmore Leonard once put it: ‘All explaining in movies can be thrown out, I think.’

Goddard even breaks up a crucial action sequence to give us a flashback concerning a character who has so far hardly spoken.

By the third act when Thor, I mean, Chris Hemsworth rocks up as barechested cult leader Billy Lee, attempting to channel Charlie Manson and Jim Morrison in equal measures, I was losing interest fast. Great abs, shame about the one-dimensionality.

‘I’m just tired,’ Darlene tells Billy Lee before a spin on the roulette table that will have more serious consequences than a few dollars changing hands. ‘I’m just bored of men like you.’ I’m bored by this man too. I’m bored by the whole film at this point.

I’m bored by this man too. I’m bored by the whole film at this point, even by Cynthia Erivo’s much praised voice when Billy Lee forces her to sing. She’s good but far from exceptional. And if you want to know what an exceptional soul singer sounds like, the El Royales’ jukebox supplied just that earlier, when Darlene chose to play Bernadette, sung by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops.

Goddard’s dialogue never sizzles like Tarantino’s. He obviously doesn’t believe in the old screenwriting maxim that there shouldn’t be more than one big coincidence in a film. Worst of all, the movie is just far too long at 141 minutes.

It does look fantastic throughout, though, and why Seamus McGarvey’s neon noir cinematography didn’t earn an Oscar nomination remains a bigger mystery to me than the identity of the politician filmed surreptitiously at the El Royale – clearly designed to kickstart a heated debate much like the contents of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction.

In the acting department, there are a number of fine performances. Best of all is Jeff Bridges, who is superb as he confesses to Darlene that ‘My memory isn’t quite as it was,’ even though he claims his mother and her father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at a point when that disease was not known to the general public.

Hopefully Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will be a more successful realisation of the late 1960s in America as the hippy dream was plunged into disillusionment and fear.

Here’s Deep Purple and their cover of Billy Joe Royal’s Hush, a track selected from the jukebox by wildchild Ruth Summerspring.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will be released July 26.

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The L-Shaped Room (New Waves #5)

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the l-shaped room

The L-Shaped Room: Bryan Forbes (1962)

As the film opens, we see Jane, a French woman in her twenties, wandering around a West London that is equally seedy and dilapidated, in search of somewhere to stay.

She rents a top floor room (L shaped obviously) from an obnoxious landlady called Doris (Avis Bunnage). Its walls are paper-thin, the meter swallows up pennies at a rate of noughts and worse still, an infestation of bugs scurry around the mattress of her bed at night-time.

There are a couple of prostitutes ensconced in the basement flat – one, Sonia, played by Coronation Street legend Pat Phoenix, the other also named Jane, a young Hungarian who’s fled Communism. Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge), a washed-up music hall entertainer also rents a room, as does Johnny (Brock Peters), a young man from the Caribbean, and Toby (Tom Bell), an easy-going writer, who’s fond of a quip and is instantly attracted to Jane.

tom bell & leslie caron - l-shaped room

At this point none of the residents know that Jane is pregnant and she’s in no hurry to make the fact common knowledge. This is pre-pill, pre-Abortion Act Britain and there’s still a stigma surrounding single mothers from the unenlightened.

She visits a condescending private doctor who assumes that the father of her child doesn’t want to marry her. She has no desire to marry him. The doctor also jumps to the conclusion that she must have already decided to definitely have an abortion. Wrong again.

On the plus side, she befriends her flatmates to the extent that they begin to resemble a surrogate family. Most significantly, she embarks on a relationship with Toby but this brings out a prudish streak in Johnny that, up till now, had been disguised by his cheerful disposition. He reveals Jane’s secret to Toby and this leads to complications. Toby’s insecurities and occasional temper surface as he struggles with the idea that the woman he loves is having another man’s baby.

The L-Shaped Room is unusual for what is often termed a kitchen sink drama. Its London setting is in contrast to the provincial Northern settings favoured by the likes of Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz around this time.
The main protagonist is notably not only middle-class but foreign too. And Leslie Caron was already an established star when cast. Forbes – who was originally only adapting the book into a film to be directed by Jack Clayton – welcomed the decision as it would lift the film out of what he called in his autobiography, ‘the parochial kitchen sink rut.’

It does challenge the social conventions of the day, though, and like the defining films of the British New Wave it had recent literary antecedents – in this case, the 1960 novel of the same name by Lynne Reid Banks. It also displays a freshness and urgency that was a feature of the era, features young lead actors and certainly embraces many types of characters who had been largely ignored or stereotyped in British cinema previously.

The L-Shaped Room is overlong, but it’s a shame that it is sometimes overlooked.

It did witness a revival in interest in the mid-1980s, when The Smiths incorporated a clip of Mavis’s Christmas Party turn Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty into the title track of their The Queen is Dead album. I seem to remember the film being shown on British TV a year or so before, so would guess Morrissey must have been taking notes. More recently, it was screened at the London Film Festival in 2017.

cicely courtneidge l shaped room

The two leads deliver very strong performances. Caron picked up a Bafta and Golden Globe for her efforts, while many might have been tempted at the time to put money on Bell emulating the success that contemporaries like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates would go on to enjoy. Sadly, he didn’t, although he did have a very solid career in both film and TV.

A special mention too for Cicely Courtneidge. She’s a vital presence here too as Mavis and the scene where she explains why she never married and speaks about her ‘friend’ is especially poignant. ‘It takes all sorts, dear,’ being the closest she can get to admitting that she’s a lesbian.

If you like The L-Shaped Room, you might also enjoy The Whisperers from 1967, also directed by Bryan Forbes, who since The L-Shaped Room had helmed a further three films and turned down an offer of £800,000 to produce, adapt and direct Casino Royale.

Set in Oldham, this is a real antidote to the cycle of Swinging London movies that had by this point become more fashionable than the kitchen sink/new wave genre. This was released during the Summer of Love but don’t expect a Smashing Time.

You might not know this film. An unflinching exploration of senility, poverty and loneliness, it flopped at the box-office to the extent that it failed to even recoup the cost of its prints and advertising. It did, however, earn lead actress Edith Evans a Bafta and a Golden Globe for her performance as well as her third Academy Award nomination.

Forbes forged his filmmaking career with Whistle Down the Wind, a film with a cast consisting primarily of children but he certainly had the knack too of getting the best from older actors. Evans is staggeringly good here. You could argue it’s one of the finest pieces of acting in 1960s British cinema.

If you begin watching the film and feel it’s just too bleak, I’d advise you not too switch off as it just might slowly draw you in (although I couldn’t guarantee it). The Whisperers doesn’t appear to be available to buy anywhere which is a pity but it can be viewed on YouTube.

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Whenever I hear this piece of music, I’m transported back to my childhood in the 1970s every bit as much as when I hear Get It On, All the Young Dudes or Rebel Rebel. Those were all singles that I’d buy, hear on the radio several times every day and see performed on Top of the Pops.

Funky Fanfare by Keith Mansfield wasn’t available to buy at my local Woolworths or any other record selling outlet. It wasn’t released as a single. I never heard it once on the radio and never saw it being performed on Top of the Pops.

I did though hear it – or, more accurately, an eighteen second clip of it – often enough on visits to the cinema, usually accompanied by the sound of popcorn being munched and Kia-Ora slurped. Even today, if I listen to it, it brings up in my mind’s eye that red, pink, orange, green and black swirling psychedelic background and animated white text that I must have seen hundreds of times as I’d wait expectantly to watch some double bill of kung fu flicks or American B-movies in my local – and long demolished – Caledonian cinema, with plumes of cigarette smoke rising from the right-hand (smoking) side of the theatre. Yes, the cost of admission and snacks was reasonable, and you often got two films for the price of one, but there were negatives about the film-going experience back then.

I had no idea who was behind the track and hadn’t yet heard the term ‘library music’. I’m still no expert on the subject but I do now know that this was a parallel musical universe where anonymous tracks were produced by work-for-hire musicians as a cheaper alternative to hiring a composer or using pre-existing music by known artists who owned the copyright to their tunes.

This suited many film production companies and TV and radio shows, but I reckon it’s safe to say that nobody chose to work in the field of library music (sometimes also referred too as stock music) to achieve fame and fortune. And not only that, their music could be used in some godawful movie in a way that its composer considered inappropriate.

These composers could surely never have imagined that some of this work would live on and still be appreciated decades after being recorded.

Albums of this speculative music were only ever pressed in very limited quantities to be sent off directly to potential clients. Nowadays these are prized possessions for crate digging enthusiasts and prices on eBay are soaring. Songs have been sampled by big name artsts. Albums have been compiled by companies like Trunk and Recur. A documentary on the subject is on its way and books written about it, such as David Hollander’s Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music. Such was that book’s success that an album has recently been released to accompany it on Anthology Recordings.

It kicks off with Funky Fanfare, which, if you’re younger than me you might recognise as being one of the few tracks be used in more than one film by Quentin Tarantino. In Kill Bill: Volume 1, it’s heard just after the appropriation of the Shaw Brothers’ SB logo against the frosted glass backdrop. It also opens Death Proof.

Before Keith Mansfield had forged his reputation in British library music circles, he had worked largely as an arranger, working with everyone from Robert Plant’s first band Listen to Roy Harper and Dusty Springfield.

keith mansfield

He also issued material available to the public such as his All You Need is Keith Mansfield album from 1968. This mainly featured his covers of big hits of the day like All You Need is Love and A Whiter Shade of Pale but also a few of his own compositions, Soul Thing and Boogaloo, the former being an early, less polished version of the track that became Funky Fanfare.

Mansfield might never have appeared on Top of the Pops in person, but he did have a hand in creating hits that were showcased on that high-profile programme.

In January 1968, sales of The Love Affair’s second single Everlasting Love shot through the roof. This later proved a little controversial as the band, apart from singer Steve Ellis, didn’t play on the record and later admitted this live on TV. Instead, Ellis sang along with a backing track supplied by the Keith Mansfield Orchestra.

The tune went on to become a British #1 and it wasn’t to be Mansfield’s last involvement with a chart-topper.

He also arranged Marmalade’s take on a Beatles’ track from the White Album, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da. This became Britain’s first new number one of 1969. It isn’t a favourite of mine so, instead, here’s an earlier Mansfield arranged track, Marmalade’s breakthrough single Lovin’ Things:

Sadly, Marmalade singer and guitarist Dean Ford passed away on the final day of 2018, due to complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Dean Ford (born Thomas McAleese) 5 September 1946 – 31 December 2018.

Morvern Callar (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Morvern Callar Soundtrack

Morvern Callar (2002)

After naming You Were Never Really Here as my favourite film of 2018, I thought I’d start 2019 taking a look at another Lynne Ramsay film, her second feature film Morvern Callar, in particular, the music utilised in the course of its 93 minutes run time.

Already known for her use of professional and non-professional actors, this was the first time Ramsay had worked with someone with a marketable reputation, Samantha Morton having recently worked with Woody Allen on Sweet and Lowdown and with Steven Spielberg on Minority Report.

In Scotland at least, some critics did criticise the fact that Morton was English and spoke with an English accent – one of a number of changes from the novel by Alan Warner – although Morvern Callar had been brought up as a foster child (as had Morton).

And talking of the 1995 novel, a buzz had been building up about it before it had even been published. Warner had a number of connections with Irvine Welsh. Occasional drinking buddies, they’d shared the stage at many readings and the pages of the many of the same litzines. Both had been featured in the Rebel Inc. anthology Children of Albion Rovers and Sceptre’s Disco Biscuits in 1997. And both their debut novels were made into movies by up-and-coming filmmakers.

Some in the media even began touting Ramsay’s film along the lines of the next Trainspotting, or the female Trainspotting. I’m not sure if any of the folk responsible for this hype had ever read Warner’s novel.

They were very different books, and they would be very different kinds of film. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting begins with a frenetic chase down Edinburgh’s Princes Street with Iggy Pop’s visceral Lust for Life accompanying the action together with Mark Renton’s Choose Life monologue. Morvern Callar starts with a near static female lying on a floor and caressing the back, bloodied wrist and hand of a man who we will soon discover is her dead boyfriend. Lights from a Christmas tree blink on and off, her face in darkness every few seconds. The only noise a whirring hum from the CPU fan of her computer, which displays a READ ME message on its screen.

Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar

This film is nowhere near as plot-heavy as Boyle’s film although, despite claims to the contrary, there is a storyline to Morvern Callar, albeit it is more of what Ramsay has called a ‘psychological journey’.

As Warner warned The List just before its premiere: ‘The first twenty minutes of the film are brutal; the seats’ll be snapping up at Cannes, I tell you. I really don’t see it doing a Billy Elliot; it’s too good a film.’

Morvern Callar is the story of a young Oban – although that town is never named in either the novel or film – supermarket worker who prints off a manuscript of her dead partner’s novel and sends it off to a publishing firm. But not before she deletes his name and adds her own.

She also empties his bank account and blows a chunk of the cash on visiting a tacky resort on the south coast of Spain with her best pal Lanna. But Morvern infuriates live for the moment Lanna with her distinct lack of any ‘mad for it’ hedonism once there. Indeed, it’s not too long before she decides that exploring the hinterlands of Almeria might be a more rewarding way to spend her time than with young lager-lager-lager Brits on tour.

Morton does a fantastic job portraying Morvern’s interior conflict throughout all this. The fact that she reveals so little only encourages viewers to concentrate harder in attempting to read her thoughts. Is she grief stricken and vulnerable? Or an amoral chancer? Or a bit of both?

I’ll go for the latter, but it’s hard to be sure. Ramsay has never been a director to offer everything up on a plate to audiences. Morvern Callar is a memorable character, but she’s far too inward, too elusive to ever dent the consciousness of a generation in the way Mark Renton, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy managed to.

Music did play a big part in both films, though. Trainspotting featured a mainly indie and dance music soundtrack with a lot of big names like Blur, New Order and Underworld, while Morvern Callar, favours more generally left-field sounds, drawing heavily on the catalogue of the Warp label’s catalogue (Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin and Broadcast) along with German experimentalists Can and their bassist Holger Czukay – who Warner had dedicated his novel to – in a couple of solo outings. These are among the acts collected in the mix-tape cassette labelled ‘Music For You’ that her partner has left for her.

We’re also treated to the skewed pop sensibility of Stereolab, some Ween (the one track that fails to work for me) and even a dash of Gamelan drumming.

Some older acts, who the hipsters of the day would have approved of, are additionally thrown into the mix. The Velvet Underground’s perky oddity I’m Sticking With You is used to audacious effect (I won’t spoil it for you but just mention that the song’s title isn’t literally appropriate for the action). Reggae pioneer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry makes an appearance as does my favourite ever duet, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood’s Some Velvet Morning, which masterfully soundtracks Morvern in slow-motion, as she makes her way to the fruit and veg counter where she’s about to start a shift.

I’ve featured this one on here before, where I described it as ‘a hypnotic and surreal masterpiece that’s even a little disorientating and also to my mind a lot more psychedelic than anything the likes of The Grateful Dead ever recorded.’

The ending of the film, not surprisingly, is open ended with Morvern, seemingly alone in a noisy club.

Has she returned to Spain? Or is she still in Scotland? Could this even be a flashback? Again, Ramsay lets the viewer work this out for themselves.

In an echo of the opening scene, strobe lights flash across her face. Instead of any dance music, though, we hear the sun-drenched harmonies of The Mama and Papas’ Dedicated to the One I Love, which she listens to on her Walkman. Why? I have no idea but since it’s one of those songs that always make me feel happy I sense it likely suggests some kind of optimistic future for the character.

Sadly this track isn’t part of the soundtrack album issued by Warp and sadly too, the sync on the video below is slightly out here but the song is so glorious that I couldn’t resist including it here:

Quentin Tarantino has spoken recently of limiting himself to only ever directing ten movies. He’s currently working on his ninth.

Ramsay has made four full length features, her first Ratcatcher, in 1999. I would dearly love if she was more prolific but her oeuvre is so exceptionally consistent that I can’t complain. Quality over quantity and all that.

Hopefully, she’ll make more than ten films eventually although to do so she might require a similar kind of career longevity to Agnès Varda, who’s been making films since the mid-1950s and still going strong.

If you want to find out more about Alan Warner’s book Can’s Tago Mago, click here.