These Days (Nico 1988)

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Nico 1988 Poster & Premiere

The latest in the increasingly frantic conveyor belt of rock and pop biopics, Nico, 1988, has just received its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where it opened the Horizons strand.

At this rate we’ll soon be running out of singer’s stories to be told. I fancy seeing a Billy Mackenzie movie myself – with the opening scene consisting of The Associates being dropped in the London offices of their record company and then cutting to Billy as he steps into a taxi, explaining to the cabbie that this will be his last free ride on the company tab. Before telling him where he wants to be taken. Dundee.

Anyway, so far, there haven’t been too many reviews of Nico, 1988 but there is evidence of a buzz building and I dare say I’ll be heading out to have a look myself when it arrives in Britain albeit I’ll be going with, at best, moderate expectations. Decades of experience have taught me that this is the best strategy to employ when going to see any biopic.

Directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli (that’s her in the middle of the photo top right), the film stars Danish actor Trine Dyrholm, who was very impressive last year in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune. Trine started out as a singer herself and it’ll be particularly interesting to hear how she tackles Nico’s unique vocal style, which many have likened to a foghorn.

I’ll give you she can often be off-key but I adore that bleak but mesmerizing baritone. Her version of The End makes The Doors’ original sound like a cheery ditty but that colder than Alaska in wintertime intonation is the perfect accompaniment to her music. And timeless too. You could imagine a chanteuse in Weimar era Berlin sounding like that, or even in a peasant woman in medieval times in the Alps with that voice entertaining her fellow villagers during a local celebration. Well, I can imagine that kinda thing anyway.

From Nico’s debut album Chelsea Girl this is one of the most beautifully melancholic songs you could ever hope to hear:


Born Christa Päffgen, Nico was a model, working with the likes of Coco Chanel; an actor – she participated in some of Lee Strasberg’s method classes – along with Marilyn Monroe if the legend is true – and was given a walk-on role in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita before moving to NYC and hanging out with the Andy Warhol crowd and starring in his experimental Chelsea Girls. She was also a muse to the likes of Brian Jones and Jim Morrison but where Nico really shone was as a singer and musician.

She may still be best remembered for the three songs she sang on the greatest album ever recorded, The Velvet Underground and Nico, but her solo work can be spellbinding too. Particularly on her second and third albums, The Marble Index (1968) and Desertshore (1970).

Nico x 4

Nico, 1988, though, examines the tail end of her career, think Tony Wilson’s Factory rather than Andy Warhol’s. Grit rather than glamour. This is the era of a scagged-up singer washed up in Salford and Manchester, playing to limited audiences for little money, that money inevitably being quickly spent securing smack from some scumbag dealer. No Lou Reed, no Edie Sedgwick, no Bob Dylan but instead a number of far less famous faces like her manager and local scenester Alan Wise, a key figure in post-punk Manchester.

Nico_1988_still_2

John Gordon Sinclair plays Wise although here he seems to have been renamed Richard (he was also renamed Dr Demetrius in James Young’s Songs They Never Play on the Radio). Nico, 1988, is based to some extent on interviews with Wise, who sadly died in 2016, Peter Hook calling him: ‘A true Salford legend’ and also claiming ‘God now has a great promoter!’

Now if I happened to be the casting director whose job entailed finding an actor to play the man, I must admit Sinclair wouldn’t be someone that would immediately spring to mind for the role. The idea being even less likely than choosing his old Gregory’s Girl co-star Clare Grogan to portray Nico.

Nicchiarelli, though, is aiming for the spirit of the characters rather than going down the mimicry/lookalike route.

In an online interview for Fred TV, she stressed that her intention (together with Trine Dyrholm) was: ‘Never to imitate the real Nico or never to be blocked by reality, by the fact that it was a true story. We tried to invent, we tried to be free… At the same time with the respect that is due to a true story.’ She also stressed that she wasn’t attempting to tell the whole story.

So, if you want to see a very linear tale of Nico from her childhood through to her final days, shot with the kind of slavish veracity that New York Times fact checkers would approve of, then this is not the biopic for you. But bear in mind that factual accuracy seldom helps make a film more dramatically successful.

Here’s a little taster for the film:

 
A UK release date is yet to be confirmed. The Venice Film Festival ends on Saturday.

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Late Night Shopping (The Scottish Connection #2)

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Scottish Connection Logo

Directed by Saul Metzstein in 2001, Late Night Shopping tells the tale of four unfulfilled twentysomethings trapped in tedious jobs and working night shifts, their work hours dictating that their social lives barely extend beyond meeting up at an open all hours cafe for a coffee and chat.

Don’t expect a Ken Loach bleakfest though about alienation and the evils of globalisation. Late Night Shopping is a comedy and a rather sharp comedy at that.

Late Night Shopping cover

So, what are these tedious jobs you may be wondering – and even maybe wondering too whether you might share the same job description?

Well, Jody (Kate Ashfield) works on a micro-electronics assembly line, Sean (Luke de Woolfson) is a hospital porter – which doesn’t strike me as that bad a job; Lenny (Enzo Cilenti) earns his crust as a call centre enquiries operator while Vincent (James Lance) stacks shelves in a supermarket.

As Vincent’s workmate Joe puts cheerily puts it: ‘Lovers leave. Parties end. Bad jobs go on forever.’ This wasn’t actually true back then in Britain anyway but recent governments seem to reckon it’s the way to go. Watch that retirement age continue to grow, folks.

The main premise of Late Night Shopping, it would have to be admitted, doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. But before going into that, a word on our quartet of slackers.

Lenny is hopeless with women. Asked by Jody whether he finds her attractive, he can’t answer. The correct answer being ‘highly’. He also suffers from porno reactions but I won’t go into that here. Womanising Vincent strives to be shallow as possible; Jody is feisty or at least tries to present herself as feisty and Sean’s more than a little hopeless.

Okay, the premise. Sean lives – or at least thinks he lives – with Madeline (Heike Makatsch). The couple haven’t though spoken in three weeks. After a row, Sean began trying to avoid her and this proved easy due to their conflicting shift patterns. Now he’s not even sure if she’s moved out or not so checks items like soap and towels for any signs of life.

I doubt very much Miss Marple would be required to solve this particular mystery but remember, this isn’t social realism, this is a comedy with the humour ranging from the wry – like Jody wearing an ‘On the Road’ T-shirt for the gang’s visit to the seaside – to the belly laugh funny. You might remember in a recent post I mentioned a hellish situation where, much to the annoyance of the passengers, a car radio gets jammed on an AOR station. Cue the likes of Kayleigh by Marillion, Foreigner’s I Want to Know What Love Is and China In Your Hands by T’Pau.


And now a word on the locations. Late Night Shopping is set mostly in a nocturnal neon-lit city that could be just about anywhere in Europe but is mainly Glasgow with some shots of London thrown in too. The cafe where the group of pals chew the fat is the Variety Bar on Sauchiehall Street, well the exterior anyway but other than that there’s no attempt to utilise any iconic Glasgow landmarks and this is exactly what the filmmaking team wanted.

Seeing Shallow Grave was a huge influence on writer Jack Lothian. ‘A Scottish film which is modern and contemporary and it’s not about being Scottish, it’s just actually a story, it just happens to be set in Scotland.’

Glasgow is never named in his film and none of the four leads are Scottish.

A good idea? Here I’m screwing up my face a little as I type. At least it would never be deemed necessary to subtitle the dialogue in the English speaking world outside Scotland which might help out at the box office and yeah, big cities are becoming more and more homogenised but I hate the homogenization of our towns and cities and would consequently rather see somewhere with a very individual character onscreen.

Not that the entire film is set within the boundary of a city as I hinted at earlier.

In cinema’s illustrious history many great films have made use of fantastic locations across the planet and even outer space for their climaxes.

Here Sean, Lenny, Jody and Vincent pile into a car and drive down to Light Haven (which is mainly Saltcoats), a little coastal town whose main attraction appears to be a crazy golf course adjacent to two giant King Kong inflatables. Sadly, these were built by the film’s art department especially for the shoot.

Saltcoats

Late Night Shopping is a bit like an old friend. I watch it every three or four years and always enjoy it and always laugh at the AOR tracks, although it must have been an expensive gag with a reasonably significant chunk of the budget being spent securing the rights to all that musical dross.

I should mention here that there’s an amusing commentary too as an extra which makes a change from the usual praising every single person that stepped on to the set bollocks that is guaranteed to bore me rigid. The director even has a gentle jibe at a minor cast member Nigel Buckland, the ex-presenter of Vids and the Welsh Barry Norman – well if Barry had been a potty mouthed, madcap peroxide blond, prone to sarcastically slaughtering films while wearing only Y-fronts or being pushed around in a shopping trolley.

Buckland plays Vincent’s boss and Jack Lothian himself also puts in a few blink and you’ll miss him appearances in the background as one of Vincent’s co-workers.

He was probably an ideal choice as he used to work in my local Safeway – a fact that generated some incredulous local press at the time, along the lines of ‘how amazing that someone who’d had a crap job could be capable of writing a film script let alone one that might be worth watching’.

Which Late Night Shopping definitely is.

Lenny and Vincent - Late Night Shopping

Trivia:

Saul Metzstein worked on Trainspotting, part of his job entailing him helping to find the Diane character. This task called for him to walk up to girls in Glasgow streets asking any potential Diane if she would like to be in a movie. And here I’m conjuring up an image of some gallus lassie on Argyle Street giving it, ‘Aw, never heard that wan before,’ before striding on and muttering, ‘Creep.’

And speaking of that film, the shot of Jody and Sean drinking milkshakes is a hommage to the scene in Trainspotting with Spud and Renton, where Spud has a little dab of speed before a riotous interview.

Finally, when Metzstein first met Jack Lothian, the latter was working on a novel called Last Exit to Anniesland.

Whip It & Adventureland (Friday Night Film Club #3)

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Whip It (2009) Director: Drew Barrymore

The directorial debut of Drew Barrymore, Whip It spans a number of genres: comedy, coming of age and sports drama.

I’m not generally a fan of againt the odds sports dramas with their accompanying clichés – the team of losers miraculously galvanised, the star player with a problem and the seemingly unbeatable (and highly arrogant) opponents. Not forgetting the last gasp incredible win. Or crushing defeat with lessons learned.

Whip It does incorporate some of the above but quickly proves infectious anyway. Small town Texan gal Bliss Cavendar (Ellen Page) is highly likeable and who wouldn’t identify with a teenage girl choosing roller derby over taking part in grotesque beauty pageants?

Nobody worth bothering about anyway.

The Hurl Scouts, the team she gravitates towards, are a likeable bunch too, fond of banter, bevvy and brawling on the roller derby track and they have some terrifically badass nicknames like Eva Destruction, Smashley Simpson, Bloody Holly and in the case of Bliss, Babe Ruthless. And, believe me, she really is Ruthless and fearless and whips it real good on the track.

Whip It - Find Your Tribe

A little research incidentally informs me that Glasgow has a number of roller derby teams including the Irn Bruisers (a clever play on the name of Scotland’s other national drink), Tyrannosaurus Wrecks and the Glasgow Dangers – okay I made that last one up – with skaters known by monikers like Hadrians Brawl and Spin Diesel which at least sound more a lot more fun to watch than Scott Brown and Kenny Miller.

Whip It also has a very decent soundtrack that includes The Ramones, The Raveonettes and Radiohead. Curiously, like Boogie Nights, the movie takes its name from a song that is not part of the film’s soundtrack which is a pity but instead of Whip It by Devo, here’s a track that does feature, a 1990s indie classic by The Breeders:

 
There’s a number of subplots here too, notably Bliss’s relationship with her controlling, pageant obsessed mother and her romance with indie singer/guitarist Oliver but they’re never as fresh as the moments on the roller derby track.

So, does the long losing streak of the Hurl Scouts end? Does our star player sort out her problems? And how will the climatic league championship game go?

You’ll have to watch and see.

For more on Roller Derby in Glasgow – & mon’ the T. Wrecks by the way! – click here.

Adventureland

Adventureland (2009) Director: Greg Mottola

Okay, it’s the suburbs of Pittsburgh in 1987.

Jesse Eisenberg plays James Brennan, a young man with two immediate ambitions: to tour Europe with his pals during the summer then move to New York where he’s been accepted to study journalism by Columbia Uni.

Neither of these plans work out, though, due to his family’s sudden economic downturn.

Instead of smoking joints in Amsterdam and elsewhere, he’s forced to take on a summer job at the local amusement park Adventureland, where the games are rigged and the prizes tatty – an oversize felt banana with cartoon eyes glued on, anyone?

But he does get to smoke a bit of weed there.

And he gets to smoke that weed with new pal Joel (Martin Starr), a pessmistic intellectual with a wry sense of humour; Lisa P (Margarita Levieva), a gum chewing Madonna wannabe who the theme park males routinely lust over and Em (Kristen Stewart), a sometimes sullen girl who wears a Lou Reed Transformer T-shirt and whose bedroom is decorated with Buzzcocks and Bowie posters.

At one point James compiles Em a mixtape, describing the tracks as ‘truly miserable, pit of despair type songs. I think you’ll love it.’

Presumably many of these tracks are the songs featured on the film’s soundtrack and if that’s the case then she should absolutely adore the tape.

Before Adentureland‘s opening credits have rolled we’ve already heard The Replacements and Bastards of Young and before too long we’re treated to The Velvet Underground and Here She Comes Now.

There’s also Bowie, solo Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, Big Star, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Nick Lowe, Husker Du and a standout original score provided by Yo La Tengo.

Woah.

Occasionally the music is a little on the nose for my liking – when Pale Blue Eyes plays in the car, James lingers on Em’s pale blue (or maybe they’re actually green) eyes, while when he seems to begin to fall in love with her we hear I’m in Love With a Girl.

Saying that those are two of the most beautiful songs ever recorded so maybe I’m being a little mean here complaining about their use.

And here’s a warning: while Adventureland utilises some stunningly good music, the song you hear most during the film is that annoying Rock Me Amadeus track by Falco which is okay as it’s used is a joke, a pretty good joke actually although maybe not quite as amusing as when the characters in Late Night Shopping had to drive in a car where the radio was jammed on a AOR station.

Adventureland still

Adventureland is a consistently funny film although never quite belly laugh funny. Well, apart from the boner in the pool joke.

The characters are all beautifully drawn and Eisenberg and Stewart are perfectly cast. As is Martin Starr, who when told by potential flame Sue O’Malley that she can’t go out with him because he’s Jewish and her parents are strict Catholics, protests: ‘But I’m an aetheist. I mean more of a pragmatic nihilist, I guess, or an existential pagan, if you will.’

I doubt they were ever going to make it long-term as a couple anyway.

Kristen Wiig appears here in a small role and, like her turn as Maggie Mayhem in Whip It, she’s excellent and Ryan Reynolds also excels as Connell, the park’s repair guy. He’s married, manipulative and might just have jammed with Lou Reed once upon a time, providing guitar on a bunch of Lou classics like Shine a Light on Love.

A few moments didn’t strike me as entirely convincing including Connell’s song title faux pas and while I don’t want to give away the ending completely, I’ll just say that sometimes the climax shouldn’t be what the audience wants, sometimes it should be the ending that they really don’t want.

But I did enjoy the first ninety or so minutes so much that I still reckon Adventureland is right up there with the very best films about the trials and tribulations of first love made so far this century.

Utilised in a great scene with dodgem cars, here’s the song that helped break The Cure big in America. This is Just Like Heaven:

 
For more on the films, here are the trailers for Whip It and Adventureland.

‘They’re not very good, and they know that, right?’ (A 20th Century Women Two for Tuesday)

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20th Century Women quad poster

I recently watched 20th Century Women, a poignant film set in California at the tail-end of the 1970s. I would definitely recommend it as it’s beautifully written and directed by Mike Mills – the man behind videos for everyone from Yoko Ono to Air, who even named a song after him on Talkie Walkie. There’s also a great ensemble cast that includes Annette Bening, Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon), Billy Crudup (Alien: Covenant) and Greta Gerwig, once dubbed ‘the Meryl Streep of Mumblecore’ although Gerwig has appeared in a lot more good films than Streep has managed in recent years.

Come to think of it so have Bening, Fanning and Crudup.

Bening is particularly strong here as Dorothea, obsessively overanalyzing everything and obsessively smoking too – to the extent that Don Draper might even believe she should cut down. She’s sarcastic but supportive; anti-authoritarian but keen to daily check her stocks and shares. She owns a sprawling and messy house that sometimes resembles a mini commune – she has given a home to budding photographer Abbie, who is fighting cervical cancer and who dyed her hair red after seeing The Man Who Fell to Earth, William a hippy handyman and, at nights, Julie, who Dorothea’s fifteen year old son Jamie fixates on.

Together these five central characters form a kind of makeshift family.

Dorothea gave birth to Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) late in life and as he likes to points out ‘she was raised during the depression’ as if this was an entirely different world.

As ancient as she is, though, Dorothea retains an open mind and investigates a punkish local club and evaluates her feelings about bands like The Raincoats. She attempts to make sense of young people and the ways they have changed since she was a girl although Jamie, Julie and Abbie often remain a mystery to her – just as I don’t get teenagers of today getting excited about a ringtone or the latest Xbox release – she’s 55 (the age I am now) in 1979, while the Julie character is seventeen (the age I was then).

Here are her thoughts on hearing The Raincoats for the first time:

Dorothea: They’re not very good, and they know that, right?

Abbie: Yeah, it’s like they’ve got this feeling, and they don’t have any skill, and they don’t want skill, because it’s really interesting what happens when your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it. It creates this energy that’s raw. Isn’t it great?’

Actually one of the things I think I like about The Raincoats is the clash within their ranks of the musically accomplished (violinist Vicky Aspinall had been playing since she was five and had a classical training) with the intuitive (the rest of the band).

The Raincoats have always been a band that people tend to love or hate. Danny Baker utterly slated them after seeing them play live early in their career; Kurt Cobain adored them and when, in late 1993, the band’s three studio albums were re-released, he happily agreed to supply some liner notes.

Like The Raincoats, 20th Century Women also split opinions. In the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘exasperatingly supercilious and smug – unfocused, self-consciously cute, nostalgic and empathetic, but never properly funny’.

Ouch.

Bradshaw isn’t a fan of anything indie and quirky and I while I struggle myself with uber kooky efforts like Napoleon Dynamite and Eagle vs Shark, I obviously found the film far more enjoyable than he did and while Bradshaw detested the stills, intertitles and archive footage that punctuate the movie I thought their use was often inspired. We see stills of Debbie Harry and Humphrey Bogart, typographic quotes from Judy Blume and Susan Lydon, we see Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech and even a little sequence from Koyaanisqatsi.

There are also multiple-narrative voiceovers, usually rotating between mother and son but with each of the five main characters contributing.

From the spring of 1979 and released (almost inevitably) on Rough Trade, this is The Raincoats and Fairytale In The Supermarket:


Just like a recent and similarly themed film, 2015’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, this has a fantastic soundtrack. No Television, T.Rex or the Dwight Twilley Band but Neu! and Suicide, Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Buzzcocks. I never could have guessed that Why Can’t I Touch It? would play over the end credits of a film nominated for two Golden Globes and an Oscar.

Amazingly enough Roger Neill’s score – utilising early synths of the period with a Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 synthesizer to the fore – failed to garner even a nod from the Academy. Slant even went as far as to decry it as ‘ambient music of the yoga-clinic waiting-room variety’.

Me? I reckon it is one of the very best scores I have heard since the end of the 20th century – yeah, that good, full with the kind of wonderful ambient washes that Eno can only dream about nowadays.

And speaking of Brian Eno, here’s another track from the soundtrack, co-written by Bowie, Eno and Carlos Alomar. If The Raincoats split opinions, Bowie as much as just about any artist living or dead unites the musical tastes of Joe Public. Here he is with DJ from his 1979 album Lodger:


For more on The Raincoats, click here.

Big Gold Dream: Play To Win (The DVD)

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big-gold-dream-dvd

Just out in DVD this week is Big Gold Dream, the feature length documentary that I reviewed in roughcut form back in the autumn of 2015.

To the surprise of the team behind the film, the first batch of DVDs completely sold out in just over 30 minutes and when a second, larger batch was put together it sold out in under 24 hours. Deservedly so as this really is a must-see ninety minutes for anybody with an interest in the punk/post-punk/independent scene that developed in Scotland during the late 1970s and 1980s.

As Neil Cooper puts it in his blurb on the back cover of the DVD: ‘Everything you hear today, tomorrow and knocked into the middle of next week started here. Indie-Disco, Art-Rock and Difficult Fun are all in the mix.’

If you want to purchase a copy, here’s your link and if you want to hear about the sequel of sorts made by the same the team, click here for my interview with director Grant McPhee.


Here’s a re-post of my review:

Big Gold Dream: Scottish Post-Punk and Infiltrating the Mainstream

I’ve rewound to the early days of 1979. By this point independent music labels have started springing up in Scotland; there’s Sensible and Zoom in Edinburgh for instance, Boring in Glasgow, NRG in Dundee and No Bad in Dunfermline but they’re still a real rarity.

I’ve rewound to the early days of 1979. By this point independent music labels have started springing up in Scotland; there’s Sensible and Zoom in Edinburgh for instance, Boring in Glasgow, NRG in Dundee and No Bad in Dunfermline but they’re still a real rarity.

In an NME article titled Product Packaging, and Rebel Music, I read about the most high profile addition to this trend, Edinburgh’s Fast Product, whose first releases, singles by The Mekons and 2.3, had came out around a year earlier.

Bob Last, a former architecture student and theatre set designer at the Traverse, is interviewed and writer Ian Cranna concludes that: ‘Last has the potential to be what Brecht was in theatre,’ a statement that sounds mightily impressive even though at this point in my life I know as much about concepts such as Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect as I do about quantum mechanics.

Nowadays I’m reasonably up to speed with Brecht and, although I’m still pretty mystified by the science behind the big bang theory, I think I can at least say that according to the new feature length documentary Big Gold Dream, the nearest musical equivalent of any big bang exploding the whole punk and independent movement in Scotland into life would be The Slits and Subway Sect performing on the Edinburgh Playhouse date of The Clash’s White Riot Tour.

‘It was a real Year Zero moment,’ Davy Henderson explains in the film. ‘It was incredible.’

Many young fans were certainly galvanised that evening and a bunch of them would quickly gravitate to the artistic hub of the Keir Street tenement flat of Bob Last and Fast co-conspirator Hilary Morrison, where they would discuss music and literature, try out some William Burroughs style cut-ups and eat a lot of toasties.

Fireengines_KeirSt_sittingroom

Fire Engines, Keir St. Sitting Room: Photo by Hilary Morrison

‘Glam punk’ Morrison is an always particularly entertaining presence in the film, talking of her delight at Johnny Rotten telling her that he despised her when she asked him to sign a Sex Pistols single in Virgin Records in Edinburgh and recalling the tale of having to break into somebody’s uncle’s remote Borders cottage in order to record the first single by The Mekons. I won’t though spoil the ending of her very amusing story about a photoshoot that involves various Fire Engines, £15 worth of meat from Safeway, baby oil and a visit regarding a break-in unrelated to any recording session.

Alan Rankine also made me smile while relaying a meeting between American impresario Seymour Stein and The Associates, where the Sire head honcho offers them the moon unaware that Billy Mackenzie was far from the average rock star and more interested in whippets than whopping advances, especially if the money involved world tours.

Fast Product release a string of stunningly inventive tracks by The Mekons, Gang of Four, Human League, Scars, Dead Kennedys and even as part of their one-off Earcom series, Joy Division. They also turn down any chance of Joy Division signing to Fast due to their problematic name, turn down the chance to release Human Fly by The Cramps and somehow manage to sell rotting orange peel. The label mutates into Pop:Aural and brings out records by local acts including a Fire Engines single called Big Gold Dream.

A new kid on the block independent makes its presence felt very quickly in Glasgow and the inter label rivalry between Fast/Pop:Aural and Postcard Records is explored. Yes, both labels share the belief that Scottish acts shouldn’t have to up sticks and move to London in order to have a shot at success but they disagree about so much more with Alan Horne branding Fast ‘pathetic’ in one music press interview – although Bob Last denies the feud involved him sending any death threats to his west coast adversaries.

Glad to hear it.

Notably, Alan Horne, a kind of West End of Glasgow Warhol in the early ’80s, passed up on the chance to appear here and I’m sure that, if he is even anything like the spectacularly acerbic young man of the Postcard era, director Grant McPhee could have had great fun intercutting between the pair as they aimed a few digs at each other – like the footage of Alan McGee and Kevin Shields in the documentary Beautiful Music.

‘He was condescending and dismissive of musicians’, Campbell Owens of Aztec Camera complains although David McClymont from Orange Juice remembers him as being ‘a lovely guy’. But only very ironically.

A happier relationship existed between Bob Last and Tony Wilson with Last even offering Wilson advice when he was setting up Factory. It would have been interesting to learn Wilson’s thoughts on Fast but at least we get to hear what the ever reliable raconteur Peter Hook has to say about the two men.

Scars doing pix for single sleeve2

Scars doing pix for single sleeve: Photo by Hilary Morrison

Anyone who read my Scottish Post–Punk Top Ten a few weeks back won’t be too surprised to learn that I’m very happy that Scars are one of the most heavily featured acts here, with Douglas McIntyre of Creeping Bent Records going as far as to argue that Horrorshow and Adult/ery were Scotland’s Anarchy in the UK but if there is a heart of the documentary it’s probably Fire Engines singer Davy Henderson, later also of Win, Nectarine No. 9 and The Sexual Objects. Henderson is always fascinating, often funny and obviously still haunted by his decision (urged on by Bob Last) to break up Fire Engines. ‘One of the biggest regrets of my life,’ he admits.

Around this point it’s time for the infiltrating the mainstream part of Big Gold Dream, some of the film’s participants achieving this ambition more successfully than others.

Win seem to be on the verge of a real commercial breakthrough after their uber-pop single You’ve Got The Power is used in a very imaginative ad for a third-rate Scottish lager but they’re cruelly denied a place in the top 40 due to the track being chart weighted as such a high percentage of sales were concentrated in one part of Britain.

Aztec Camera, Strawberry Switchblade and The Bluebells fare better as do Orange Juice, who move from Postcard to Polydor, while Alan Horne is offered his own label by London Records which he names Swamplands – the cutesy pussycat Postcard logo replaced by a prowling panther (something I’d strangely never picked up on until Allan Campbell mentioned it here).

It’s Bob Last, however, in his role as manager (or Executive Manipulator) of The Human League and Heaven 17 who is involved in the most stratospheric success aided greatly by his decision to help split the original Human League line-up in two and bring former Rezillo Jo Callis into the shiny new version of the band and later insisting that the shiny new version of the band release Don’t You Want Me as a single despite pressure from Phil Oakey not to.

Despite the global success of Dare and the undoubted influence of Fast Product, Bob Last didn’t go on to equal in music or any other medium what Brecht did in theatre, which is hardly a disgrace. And he did also go on to co-produce one of the most magical animated movies that you could ever wish to see, The Illusionist, which also incidentally features music by Malcolm Ross and Ian Stoddart – who both appear in Big Gold Dream – and Leo Condie in the guise of beat combo, Billy Boy and the Britoons.

Big Gold Dream won the Audience Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and so far reviews have been highly favourable: my fellow blogger the Vinyl Villain, for instance, calling it ‘a joy to watch’.

Richard Jobson, though, isn’t much of a fan, tweeting: ‘Just watched Big Gold Dream rewrite history to fit a story and Bob Last’s ego – fuck off.’

I thought myself that at least some mention of The Skids could have been made – likewise Johnny and the Self Abusers/Simple Minds, but just don’t ask me what I would have cut to make room for these suggestions as there are so many great interviewees here such as Fay Fife, Billy Sloan, Jill Bryson, Vic Godard and Tam Dean Burn to name only a handful.

The film is a vast improvement on the fatally flawed BBC Scotland doc Caledonia Dreaming (no Hue and Cry and Wet Wet Wet for starters). In fact, it is easily the best documentary on Scottish music I can think of and one of the best music documentaries made in the last decade or so and the good news is that a sequel Teenage Superstars: The Fall of Postcard and the Rise of 53rd & 3rd Records will follow on, hopefully in the not too distant future.

Friday Night Film Club #1 – CBGB & Summer of Sam

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cbgb-summer-of-sam

CBGB (2013)
Director: Randall Miller
Cast: Alan Rickman, Malin Åkerman, Johnny Galecki

CBGB, the last I heard, was somehow being transported to New Jersey where it is to be relaunched as a restaurant in Newark Airport, which is kind of like re-opening the Glasgow Apollo as a hairdressing salon in Airdrie. Well that idea isn’t that much dafter surely?

I did promise to review CBGB back in 2013 but after watching the film I found it difficult to muster up the necessary enthusiasm.

Alarm bells had began to ring when I caught Malin Åkerman promoting the movie on Craig Ferguson’s chat show where she told Craig that she was playing Blondie. Not Debbie Harry but Blondie.

Unfortunately at times CBGB resembles that show where Matthew Kennedy brought on members of the public to imitate their singing heroes. Tonight Matthew, I’m Going to be Iggy Pop/Cheetah Chrome/David Byrne etc etc. Except at least on Stars in Their Eyes the contestants did actually sing rather than lip-sync their impersonations.

Promoted with the tagline ‘50,000 Bands and One Disgusting Bathroom’, CBGB promised to be the American 24 Hour Party People but was just too mainstream and predictable – the exact opposite of acts like Television, The Ramones and Patti Smith that became synonymous with the venue.

CBGB bombed at the box office with a total U.S. theatrical gross of only $40,400 and critics were largely dismissive, Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times for example branding it ‘merely a mess of caricatures.’

If you haven’t seen the film, it might be an idea to just watch the trailer which contains the only line that I laughed at (regarding Ramones’ song titles). Or, even better, watch any of the many documentaries that examine the club and its influence.


Summer of Sam (1999)
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino

CBGB was also featured as a location in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and it would have to be said that painstakingly detailed research into his subject matter do not feature as one of Lee’s qualities as a filmmaker. Seeing SOS gives the impression that for him punk was something that only really happened in London where Sid Vicious sang with that band The Sex Pistols.

Now I can’t claim to have been a CBGB regular in 1977 (or at any other time) but I have watched a fair amount of footage from the venue and the crowds really bore no similarity to what Lee presents here with his motley crew of extras who all look like those awful so called punks that hung around the King’s Road in the early ’80s, hoping that a tourist would slip them 50 pence so they could be photographed with them. And no Spike, you wouldn’t have seen tongue rings and septum piercings in the summer of 1977 either.

Despite the anachronisms, SOS is not the total flop that CBGB is. Lee was a breath of fresh air in the American independent cinema scene of the 1980s and since his early days he’s always been able to construct a memorable set piece scene.

SOS also tackles some explosive subject matter – a real life serial killer whose murders raise tensions across the city, including an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx. All to the backdrop of the disco phenomenon and emergence of punk.

The cast is very good here too, especially John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way & Kick-Ass 2) who plays Vinny, a disco dancing hairdresser who classes women into two categories, Madonna or Whore – his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) being the former while her pal Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) is the latter.

summer-of-sam-still

There’s also some great music, The Who’s Baba O’Riley, Chic’s Everybody Dance and Got to Give It Up by Marvin Gaye being just three examples, but Lee never combines these tracks with his imagery with the same imagination as, say, Lee’s bete noire Quentin Tarantino, which is no crime but I do have a slight problem with some of the songs being so nail on the head obvious, like when Dionna is packing her bags and walking out on Vinny, Lee feels the need to spell things out with Thelma Houston’s version of Don’t Leave Me This Way.

And of course, he couldn’t resist including Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer either, which is heard in a cafe in the background on the radio, the DJ obviously having been given an advance copy to play as the scene is set in the middle of summer and the track wasn’t released till the middle of September on the album 77, while as a single it wasn’t released in the States till December.

Okay, I’m being a little pedantic.

More worrying is the fact that while Spike Lee has always been quick to condemn any stereotyping of black characters in cinema, not for the first time he could be accused of racism himself for his portrayal of a New York Italian community. In SOS, if your surname ends with a vowel then in probability you’ll be a special kind of stupid, the guys usually women hating bullies with a side helping of homophobia and distrust of anyone different – because he’s a punk rock freak, some of these idiots somehow get it into their heads that Ritchie (Adrien Brody) might just be the Son of Sam.

SOS is a long film and just not compelling enough to justify its length of 142 minutes. Unlike American Hustle, where David O. Russell arguably out Scorsesed Martin Scorsese, Lee’s move into similar territory only makes you wonder what the great man would have conjured up utilising the same subject matter.

If you want a better serial killer film try Zodiac and if you want a better disco movie Saturday Night Fever is for you.


Trivia: John Turturro (The Big Lebowski and Do the Right Thing) supplies the voice of Harvey, the black dog who order Sam to kill.

Best of the Year – Cinema

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Before I start on the good stuff, some words on the dud of the entire year.
In the lead up to the American Presidential election, Robert De Niro lashed out against Donald Trump, admitting in a video: ‘I’d like to punch him in the face,’ and explaining that he was very worried that about the direction his country might take under Trump.

Well done you may say although I would rather De Niro concentrated on the direction his own career has taken over the past two decades or so. From Goodfellas to Dirty Grandpa. That’s a career decline every bit as severe as McCartney going from A Day in the Life to that Frog Chorus nonsense but at least Macca had the excuse that We All Stand Together was aimed at children.

It’s not that I object to the infantile humour on display in Dirty Grandpa – I laugh every time I see Brian projectile vomiting on Family Guy and even found the inside the humping elephants scene in Grimsby pretty amusing – but this was just rather sad and the script’s unfunny grossouts really aren’t helped by some sanctimonious claptrap that the De Niro character dispenses to his uptight grandson.

Misconceived from its first scene through to its last, Dirty Grandpa as entertainment, rated somewhere between being forced to watch the boxset of the complete Mrs Brown’s Boys and sitting through a Westboro Baptist Church lecture about God hating fags. Maybe a Golden Raspberry would remind the greatest actor of his generation to consider putting his reputation before potential paychecks.

*

2016 was far from a vintage year for films set in Scotland although some Scots did excel in the world of cinema and played a part in four of my favourites over the last twelve months. Kate Dickie put in a pitch perfect performance in one of the year’s most unsettling films, The Witch, while the ever reliable Tilda Swinton shone in her brief appearances as Thora and Thessaly Thacker (yes, you read that correctly) in the seventeenth Coen Brothers movie, the dazzling Hail, Caesar!

Karen Gillan didn’t impress quite so much in In a Valley of Violence but director David McKenzie (Young Adam, Hallam Foe) deserves to receive some attention from the Academy for his latest offering, Hell or High Water but probably won’t this time around. I expect Jeff Bridges to be more fortunate and earn a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars although Mahershala Ali is a stick on to win that category for his performance in Moonlight. Put your money on it.

Okay, the top ten.

10. Deadpool: A surprisingly entertaining watch for me, albeit I did enter the cinema with far from high expectations. Yeah, it goes out of its way to show how clever its creators are but hey, that’s preferable to most of the lowest common denominator formulaic rubbish that regularly hits cinema complexes. Ryan Reynolds is perfect for the self-referential superhero (of sorts) and lines like his one about David Beckham and good looks had me chuckling loudly.

9. 10 Cloverfield Lane: A far more interesting film than Cloverfield with John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in very good form.

8. In a Valley of Violence: Although not a spaghetti western, this does have a definite pasta-ish feel and John Travolta puts in possibly his best performance since Pulp Fiction. And if there was an Oscar for best animal actor, then Jumpy as Abbie would be taking home the gong.

7. Hail, Caesar!: Fans of the Coen Brothers will lap this up, in fact, fans of cinema should lap this up, especially for the exquisite pastiches of 1950s Hollywood on display: a Noël Coward drawing room drama starring a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich); Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid in a lavish Busby Berkeley style aquatic production; a very entertaining song and dance number from the kind of musical that usually starred Gene Kelly called No Dames, where a bunch of sailors mourn the fact that they won’t see a woman for eight months after they report back for their next voyage (but after seeing their superbly choreographed routine I think they’ll be fine) and a Biblical epic Hail, Caesar! that stars George Clooney. A swell way to spend 100 minutes of your time.

hail-caeser-poster

6. De Palma: Watching this documentary in the GFT a few months ago reminded me of just how many great films Brian De Palma has directed over the years such as Carrie, Scarface and The Untouchables. I’m now even tempted to give Bonfire of the Vanities another chance.

5. The Witch: Watching The Witch, or The VVitch as it is styled, got me thinking of the way that even all this time later there are still parts of the world where religion reigns totally; where men are thrown off buildings for being gay, where women are forced to marry men who rape them and, even in one case I read about early last year, a Iraqi teenager was publicly beheaded for listening to Western music. The Witch is a harrowing watch but also a very worthwhile one.

4. Sweet Bean was never going to cause any stampedes in the queuing areas of cinema chains but this Japanese film about an elderly lady finding fulfilment in a job making the filling for pancakes was one of the most satisfying watches of 2016. My review here.

3. Hell or High Water: A neo-Western heist thriller by David MacKenzie, a director who has always chosen the music for his movies wisely. For The Last Great Wilderness he persuaded The Pastels to provide the soundtrack, for Young Adam he turned to David Byrne while this time around its Nick Cave, along with Warren Ellis, who supply the score.

2. The Hateful Eight: Released in America last Christmas but Britain had to wait until January to see the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino hence its appearance in this list. My review here.

the-neon-demon

1. The Neon Demon:

Warning: Spoilers

A surprise number one I would imagine, having been booed at its Cannes premiere. It also failed to get anywhere near the Rotten Tomatoes top hundred films of the year and polarized critics yet managed to unite many conservatives and liberals, pissing them off equally, mainly due to a lesbian character indulging in some necrophilia and the most grotesque scene involving an eyeball since Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali gave the world Un Chien Andalou.

According to Rolling Stone, ‘The Neon Demon is a special kind of awful’ while the Telegraph’s Tim Robey called it ‘the most offensive film of the year.’

Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who is best known for Drive, the 2011 film where Ryan Gosling drives fast and says little, The Neon Demon is hyper-stylized and drenched in startling, super-saturated blues and reds with every frame obviously being shot with the utmost care by someone with an artist’s eye for composition.

Just as impressive is the brooding electronic score by Cliff Martinez, that recalls Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream’s soundtracks back in the 1980s.

Set in the superficial world of fashion where a bigwig designer can declare without contradiction: ‘Beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing’ and where young models talk about getting plastic surgery on their ears so they can wear ponytails in the same way they would discuss what they’re having for dinner (which, incidentally, probably consists of a stick of celery and a few grains of boiled rice).

At the centre of the film is Jesse, played by Elle Fanning (Super 8), just turned sixteen and beginning a career in modelling.

Agency heads and high end photographers uniformly adore her and the more she is fêted the more Jesse 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.

The plot isn’t the best quality of the film and elements of it might even have David Lynch scratching his head. Like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, The Neon Demon plays out as much like a dream – or, more precisely, a nightmare – than a realistic drama.

There’s also some Lars Von Trier style surreal sadism in the mix and the kind of triangle symbolism that would give Kubrick a run for his money.

Macabre and menacing, haunting and hypnotic, The Neon Demon reminded me in some ways of my experience of seeing Under the Skin for the first time. At times I was borderline bored but as soon as I stepped out the cinema I couldn’t stop thinking about the film and almost immediately wanted to see it again.

The Neon Demon might not be the best film of the year but it is the most memorable one.


Finally it was good to see two splendid British films re-issued, namely Kes and Psychomania. The former a social realist masterpiece about a boy and a kestrel, the latter a horror tale of an English biker gang coming back from death with the aid of a frog. Sons of Anarchy it definitely wasn’t.

That series had shootings, stabbings, stranglings and general mayhem. Psychomania had bikers acting like a bunch of brattish schoolboys in a suburban mini-market. Both Kes and Psychomania featured scores by John Cameron, who, strangely enough, went on to play on the old Top of the Pops – Whole Lotta Love theme tune.

The best re-release of the year, though, has to be Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, which came out on Blu-ray for the first time in Britain during the summer. An anti-war classic and right up there with the director’s best work.

For my review of Kes, click here and for my review of Paths of Glory, click here.

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