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Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down: An Albert Finney Top Ten

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Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton

When compiling my list of best film re-issues of 2018, there could only be one winner. A nine disc collection released to mark the sixtieth anniversary of one of Britain’s most influential ever independent production companies, Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema contained three films that featured Albert Finney, who died on Thursday: The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960); Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960); and Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963).

Finney admitted later that could have went on playing Arthur Seatons for years, but he was keen never to be typecast. Instead, he went on to play an amazingly wide range of characters from Scrooge through to Luther in film and theatre. He was nominated for five Oscars and declined a CBE and a knighthood.

The following ten films should, hopefully, give some indication of the scope of this work.

Thanks for the memories, Albert.

Albert_Finney_-_Gumshoe

10. Gumshoe (1971)

The directorial debut of Stephen Frears, this is a noirish spoof that features Finney in the role of Eddie Ginley, a bingo caller with aspirations to establish himself as a club comedian and Humphrey Bogart style private eye. Finney is perfect for the part and Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay and Fulton Mackay offer top-flight support.

9. The Duellists (1977)

Often forgotten, this Barry Lyndon-esque historical drama is worth seeking out, even though Finney isn’t in a starring role. According to director Ridley Scott, Finney agreed to film a day’s cameo with his payment being a framed cheque for twenty five pounds. It was inscribed: ‘Break glass in case of dire need.’ I’m guessing he never had to.

8. Big Fish (2003)

Over the years, Finney collaborated with many fine directors like Stanley Donen, Steven Soderbergh and Sidney Lumet. Here he is cast by Tim Burton as Edward, a man of many tall tales, including once having caught a massive catfish by using his wedding ring as bait.

7. Erin Brockovich (2000)

Julia Roberts and her plunging necklines might have won the bulk of the plaudits in this absolute smash biographical hit but Finney was a joy to watch as small-town lawyer Ed Masry, the long-suffering boss of the titular character.

Albert Finney - Miller's Crossing

6. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

A noirish gangster movie that is densely textured and audaciously plotted – you better pay close attention. Finney here is Leo O’Bannon, the corrupt Irish kingpin of an unnamed American city during the Prohibition era. In one of the most remarkable scenes in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre, Leo’s mansion is attacked in a hail of bullets as he listens to the sound of Danny Boy.

5. The Dresser (1983)

A film that brought together two massive stars of 1960s British New Wave Cinema, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. The casting proved inspired and both performances earned nominations for Academy Awards, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes.

4. Tom Jones (1963)

An adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel, this ended up winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture. The success of this historical romp helped propel Finney towards Hollywood stardom and also, along with the success of James Bond, persuaded American production companies to start pumping cash into the British film industry.

Albert Finney - Charlie Bubbles

3. Charlie Bubbles (1968)

I did flick through a number of ‘Albert Finney’s Best Films’ lists in the wake of his death and this failed to appear in any of them. Here Finney plays a writer cut off from his working-class roots, who doesn’t fit into the swanky London life he has carved out for himself either.

Set in Salford and Manchester, this is a surrealist kitchen sink drama with a screenplay by Finney’s fellow Salfordian Shelagh Delaney (take a bow). This was Finney’s directorial debut and was made by his own production company Memorial Enterprises on a budget of £450,000. He never directed another feature film again.

2. Under the Volcano (1984)

Based on Malcolm Lowry’s semi-autobiographical 1947 novel that was judged by many to be unfilmable, this late period John Huston movie told the story of Geoffrey Firmin (Finney), an alcoholic British former consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead in 1938. Finney is immense and if you ever see an actor better portraying being drunk onscreen, please let me know.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).jpg

1. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Finney wasn’t author Alan Sillitoe’s idea of Arthur Seaton. The Nottingham born writer, whose novel the film was adapted from, reckoned: ‘My Arthur was taller and thinner in the face.’ Finney himself could see the author’s point and didn’t think he resembled Seaton either. ‘But I did know a few Arthurs in my boyhood in Salford: I’d also worked ten weeks in a factory to fill in the time before drama school.’

Almost sixty years since its release, it’s hard to imagine how controversial the film was – Warwickshire County Council even as far as to ban the already X-rated film – but it remains a landmark British kitchen sink classic, largely due to Finney’s astonishing powerhouse performance.

In 1999, the British Film Institute named the 14th greatest British film of all time. It should have been much higher.

Albert Finney. Born 9 May 1936. Died 7 February 2019.

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The Chicken Won’t Stop: Stroszek (New Waves #6)

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Stroszek.png

May 17, 1980. Britain has only three TV channels and one of them, BBC2, is screening Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. I can’t remember what I was doing that night but as it was a Saturday and I was in my late teens, I would likely have been out drinking or maybe seeing a concert. David Lynch, working in London on The Elephant Man, did tune in. So too, more famously, did Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.

It would be the last film he would ever see before hanging himself.
When this fact emerged, it made me search out Stroszek. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got to see this unforgettable 1976 release by one of the most important German New Wave directors, Werner Herzog.

As the central character Bruno Stroszek, Herzog chose Bruno Schleinstein (styled here as Bruno S.), a man who had spent the bulk of his early years in mental institutions and had been perfectly cast two years earlier in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, at which point he had no acting experience of any kind.

The script was penned in just four days. According to Herzog anyway, who you might want to believe or not on the matter. The film had been written specifically for Schleinstein – partly due to Herzog’s guilt at ditching him for the lead role in Woyzeck in order to accommodate Klaus Kinski at the last minute.

Stroszek would have a huge biographical element. The messy Berlin flat with the piano and glockenspiel was Bruno’s. The bar he drinks in was his local at the time. The courtyard where he plays his accordion is where he would often busk.

Bruno Schleinstein is the most fascinating actor to appear in any films of the New German Cinema era. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who hit him so savagely that he had problems with his hearing. At one point he even lost the ability to communicate. The beatings did eventually stop. But only when she dumped him into an asylum. The young Bruno was then subjected to a number of Nazi experiments and punishments. He recounts one of these ordeals, about being caught bed-wetting, in the only improvised scene of the Stroszek.

It’s almost inevitable that Joy Division fans will speculate that Bruno must have reminded Ian Curtis of at least some of the individuals that he helped find employment or access benefits when he worked as a Disablement Resettlement Officer in what was then known as a labour exchange. Not that I’m pointing any blame in the direction of Herzog and his film for the tragic end of Curtis’s life.

‘I wish this singer was still alive and hadn’t seen Stroszek at that moment,’ Herzog told Jason Parkes in a Q&A for BBC4. ‘Deep at the bottom of my heart I do believe that Stroszek was not the reason that he killed himself. I do believe that he must have had some very, very serious deeper other reasons and he may have, and I’m very cautious, he may have used the film as a ritual step into what he was doing.’

Stroszek -Bruno & Eva

Bruno prepares to leave prison and is warned by a well meaning warden to avoid alcohol and, if he should enter a bar, to order coffee and cake instead. Once free, he heads straight to Beer Himmel (Heaven) where he doesn’t order coffee and cake.

Eva Mattes (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant & Effi Briest), a future wife of Werner Herzog, was given the role of Eva, a prostitute beaten and humiliated by two thuggish pimps whenever her takings drop below their expectations. She takes up Bruno’s offer of refuge at his flat and begins an undefined relationship with him. Additionally, she befriends Bruno’s neighbour Herr Scheitz, a frail and elderly man with a passion for offbeat science, played by early Herzog regular Clemens Scheitz.

Herr Scheitz’s nephew Clayton has invited his uncle to join him and live in Railroad Flats in Wisconsin, and he has agreed to the idea. When Eva takes another brutal beating from her pimps, the trio hatch a plan to move together to the States. Clayton soon sources work for both Bruno (working in his garage) and Eva (who can become a waitress). Considering they are currently in Berlin, one of Europe’s biggest cities, they seem strangely excited about a move to the Midwest.

Stroszek - The Trio

This exodus of eccentrics arrives with their soon to be confiscated mynah bird and spend a day sightseeing in New York City. Using guerrilla style methods, Herzog managed to get arrested three times for filming without a shooting permit. Later, he became adept at forging this kind of thing.

They buy a wreck of a car to drive to Railroad Flats, a truck-stop town that is in reality called Plainfield. It’s no coincidence that this is the hometown of the serial killer Ed Gein, the man who inspired both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There are many scenes in Stroszek that will likely sear into your memory and never leave, like when a sympathetic doctor takes Bruno to visit a ward for prematurely born babies and demonstrates the astonishing strength of one baby’s grip. It’s almost disturbing and then oddly beautiful.

Then there’s the foreclosure sale where the auctioneer doesn’t just motormouth his way through proceedings but launches into some kind of bizarre hyper-speak that has a touch of Mongolian throat singing about it. Apparently he was a real-life world livestock auctioneering champion.

What makes this even weirder is that the auction is for the repossessed mobile home and belongings of Bruno and his friends. Ian Curtis is shown watching this scene in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control.

Stroszek - Mobile Home

Most memorable, though, has to be the legendary final scene, shot in a Cherokee run tourist trap in North Carolina. I’ll have to warn you at this point that the following paragraphs may include spoilers.

Here Bruno causes chaos. He vacates his truck and leaves it turning round and round in circles as it catches fire. He visits a very odd animal arcade with performing pets in metal exhibition cages. There’s a drumming duck, a rabbit fireman, a piano playing chicken and a dancing chicken who displays some nifty footwork as it tidbitts across its tiny circular stage, accompanied by some tinny and repetitive arcade music.

Next, Bruno takes a chairlift up to the nearby steep hill carrying a gun that until recently had belonged to Scheitz. As he ascends, Herzog pans his camera upwards. With Bruno below the frame, a shot is fired and presumably, he kills himself.

The last dialogue we hear is from a Cherokee officer who radios into his headquarters: ‘We’ve got a truck on fire, I have a man on a lift, and we are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off. Can’t stop the dancing chicken. If you send us an electrician, we’ll be standing by. Over.’

Words that inspired the run-out grooves on the 1981 Joy Division double album Still.

‘The chicken won’t stop’ (A1); Chicken tracks across the grooves (sides A2 & B1), and ‘The chicken stops here’ (side B2).

Herzog then cuts back to the dancing chicken and its epileptic little stomps soundtracked not only by the arcade din but by a manic version of Lost John by whooping bluesman Sonny Terry. With the rabbit’s fire brigade siren, the other chicken pecking its piano and the rabbit’s random drumbeats, this builds into one truly delirious cacophony.

What the significance of this final section is I cannot say for sure. It’s utterly preposterous but absolutely works. In his audio commentary, Herzog claims that everybody on the shoot hated the sequence. He can’t explain it. ‘It contains some part of me that escapes my own analysis. It’s this dream moment, like in soccer, when you score a goal from an angle that is theoretically impossible… I don’t ever regret filming these sequences.’

After both his collaborations with Schleinstein, Herzog ‘demanded’ an Oscar for Bruno. Predictably, the Academy ignored him.

Schleinstein died in 2010 and, in tribute, Werner Herzog remarked that ‘in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him.’

If you like Stroszek, then you might also like Fata Morgana. Although you might not.

Shot in the late 1960s and premiered in Cannes in 1971, this is ‘a science-fiction elegy of demented colonialism in the Sahara.’ According to Herzog anyway.

This is one of those obscurities that became popular with the hippy crowd whenever it was shown on the midnight movie circuit or student union film societies in the 1970s. Think Zabriskie Point and La Vallee. And imagine that audience happily puffing away wherever these screenings were taking place. And not all of that smoke being of a legal variety.

Fata_Morgana

Fata Morgana is a near abstract film. Herzog and his three-man crew shot footage with no real idea what this would ultimately become. Interpret as you like.

There is certainly some startling cinematography, particularly of desert landscapes with occasional striking images, often of abandoned vehicles and machinery, and dead and rotting animal carcases. There’s also some narration – reciting Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh – that only served as a distraction.

The most enjoyable aspect of Fata Morgana for me is the music, in particular, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and So Long Marianne, as well as The Third Ear Bands’ Ghetto Raga.

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.

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.

Best Films of the Year: Part Two (10-1)

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Best Films of the Year 2018

10. American Animals

True-crime documentary meets bizarre heist flick in George Layton’s inventively imagined drama which I reviewed here.

9. Under the Tree

The best thing about Icelandic hit Under the Tree is the performance of Edda Björgvinsdóttir as Inga, a spectacularly bitter woman with a heart as cold as a Rekyavik winter.

8. Nancy

Nancy premiered at Sundance and went on to receive generally good reviews although in a one-star review, Slant described it as American indie miserablism and a condescending fantasy. I’ve yet to see Nancy on another best of the year list and if I was writer/director Christina Choe, I definitely wouldn’t be getting my hopes up for any Oscar action.

I was mesmerized by it though, particularly by Andrea Riseborough in the lead role. Nancy is a fantasist but not an especially skillful one. She pretends, for example, to have recently visited North Korea as a tourist to make herself appear more interesting. Her co-workers aren’t impressed.

When she sees a news item about a girl who’s been missing for thirty years, she convinces herself that she might have been kidnapped as a child (or pretends this anyway) and that she might be the girl. The results of this will have the potential to wreak havoc on the emotions of the girl’s parents when she contacts them.

Some movies pulsate throughout with a dynamic verve. This doesn’t, believe me, I felt nauseous for large chunks of it but it did also keep me riveted throughout, to the extent that I failed to even notice that its aspect ratio apparently widened out in the middle of proceedings. A highly promising debut.

7. Cold War

I only saw Paweł Pawlikowski’s period drama a matter of days ago but it did make a big enough impact on me to decide on ditching one of the movies in my provisional top twenty list to make way for it. Sorry Disobedience, I do regret not finding a place for you here.

This is a decades-spanning romantic drama but one that is far from traditional notions of that genre and it’s loosely inspired by the lives of the director’s own parents. The first names of the two leads here, Zula (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) are even the same as Mr and Mrs Pawlikowski’s.

Cold War is shot in a boxy format and looks stunning, its rich black and white tones perfectly conveying the post-war bleakness of the Eastern Bloc. It also reminded me of some of the Czechoslovak New Wave films of the 1960s. This is one that I just know I’ll want to see again in 2019.

6. Shoplifters

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest takes a compassionate look at the plight of a contemporary Tokyo family (of sorts) that steals in order to survive.

Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the first Japanese Palme d’Or winner since 1997. In August, it was selected as the Japanese entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Oscars.

5. Mandy

Nic Cage in good film shocker! Dario Argento reds. Nightmarish David Lynch style imagery. Monsters of anarchy on motorbikes and chainsaw battles. Cage in his underpants downing a bottle of vodka while howling like a maniac.

You might not like Mandy but I’ll guarantee that the hyper-stylized, ultra-ultraviolent second film by Panos Cosmatos will linger long into your memory.

Andrea Riseborough is pitch perfect again here as Mandy – she’s had another great year, especially in films where she plays the titular character – and Linus Roache, as cult guru Jeremiah Sand, behaves in a way that you won’t see his father doing in his role as Ken Barlow in Coronation Street. Unless that show has completely changed since I last tuned in.

4. The Shape of Water

In my review of the Best Films of 2017, I wrote that I’d seen a preview of this, and it was ‘visually stunning’.

It is immaculately well-crafted, with the kind of amazing imagery you’d expect from a master like Guillermo Del Toro, who also coaxed fine performances from Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins and Octavia Spencer.

Okay, some have groused that The Shape of Water is nowhere near as magical as Pan’s Labyrinth but how many movies are?

My one complaint? I know it’s a modern fairy tale but the beastiality thang really should have been dropped.

3. Roma

Roma is set in the 1970s in the middle-class Mexico City neighborhood where director Alfonso Cuarón grew up. Seen largely through the perspective of a servant Cleo, Yalitza Aparicio in a jaw droppingly good debut, Roma is poetic and looks ravishing, Cuarón shooting it in 70mm in shimmering, silvery monochrome and making use of the kind of extended takes that are becoming less and less common on cinema screens. I watched it on one of those although most will see it for the first time on the increasingly influential streaming giant Netflix.

Was my money well spent? I’d say so.

2. Lucky

The cinematic swansong of the great Harry Dean Stanton, John Carroll Lynch’s directorial debut Lucky is a movie about human connections and mortality that eschews the kind of sickly sweet sentimentality that tends to blight films about very old characters. You may well find yourself imagining your own final days and how you might want to die as you watch the story of Stanton’s Lucky unfold. I reviewed the movie here.

1. You Were Never Really Here

Adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novella of the same name, the fourth film by Lynne Ramsay features the ever reliable Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hoodie wearing hitman with a liking for green jelly beans.

A lumbering and hirsute hulk of a man with deadened eyes, Joe is capable of extreme violence but also is shown to be a dutiful son, showing some real tenderness as he cares for his ailing mother (Judith Roberts).

When we first see the two together, Joe’s mum has watched Psycho on TV and she’s still scared, this scene becoming unexpectedly poignant later, when she comes across some ruthless men on Joe’s trail, although we don’t see her encounter with them.

We do witness plenty of violence elsewhere, when it explodes on the screen for only a matter of seconds. Sometimes we glimpse it from a distance on low grade CCTV screens, sometimes it takes place offscreen, at other points we are only shown its aftermath.

This, though, is not just a film about violence, with political corruption, trafficking, childhood trauma, post-traumatic stress disorders and redemption being explored too.

I’ve followed Ramsay’s career since her days in the 1990s when she began making a series of intriguing and acclaimed shorts such as Small Deaths and Gasman. She hasn’t put a foot wrong since then but this very uncomfortable watch that might be her best work to date.

You Were Never Really Here might also feature Jonny Greenwood’s finest ever contribution to the world of film. His score is mostly dissonant enough to grate nerves though occasionally, when the London Contemporary Orchestra’s strings come in, it can be gorgeous too – although as he told NME, they can also be quite brutal with their instruments. ‘Strings can do so much more than just be pretty.’

There’s also some found music utilized including, strangely enough, Eileen Barton’s fluffy post-war pop hit If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake and a burst Albert Hammond’s The Air That I Breathe, a song that Radiohead channelled in their breakthrough hit Creep (to the extent of giving Hammond and co-composer Mike Hazlewood a share of the writing credits).

I did admire Thom Yorke’s work for Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria ‘cover version’ but in the battle of the Radiohead men, Greenwood likely just edged it.

Best Soundtracks 2018

Also worth mentioning in the musical front is Mogwai’s work on Kin, although the actual movie isn’t one that I remotely thought about including here. Likewise Anna Meredith’s first cinematic outing, her score for Eight Grade impressed although the standout musical moment is when she sneaks in existing composition Nautilus for the disoriented entry of a socially awkward thirteen year old vlogger to a poolside birthday party where she isn’t particularly welcome.

I remember the first time I heard Nautilus, I felt disoriented myself.

Another of my favourite scores of 2018 was by celebrated Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for Mandy. His music was brilliantly in-sync with the constantly bizarre events onscreen, which only makes it sadder that he would die so soon after composing and recording it. He was only 48. A truly sad loss.

For more on Jóhann Jóhannsson, click here.

And for more on Jonny Greenwood, click here.

 

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