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Mean Streets (Soundtrack Sundays)

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If asked, I’ll say that The Ronettes’ Be My Baby is very likely the greatest pop song ever recorded. Not only that, its use on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets is one of the finest uses of any track in the history of cinema.

I’m guessing you’ve already seen the film. Harvey Keitel as Charlie wakes up. He’s alone in a spartan looking room where a crucifix hangs on the wall. Outside a siren blares and an interior siren seems to blare in his head.

Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets

Anxious, he rises, examines his face in a mirror and then goes back to bed. Scorsese gives us three rapid jump-cuts of Charlie’s face and as his head crashes back down on his pillow, Hal Blaine’s celebrated drum beat kicks in – three thuds of a deep bass drum, then another single hit on the snare, bolstered by some handclaps. Enter the startling vibrato of Ronnie Spector, cooing the opening lines: ‘The night we met, I knew I needed you so / And if I had the chance, I’d never let you go.’

As she sings, we see some handheld and grainy 8mm home movie footage of what we can only guess were happier times. A dapper Charlie at a baptism, hanging around with some buddies, and smiling while talking to a priest. All still soundtracked by The Ronettes.

Even in an age of Shirelles, Supremes and Shangi Las, Be My Baby stands out as something very special.

In his biography Good Vibrations, Beach Boy Mike Love wrote of the effect Be My Baby had on bandleader Brian Wilson: ‘When we’d go to Brian’s house, he would play that song over and over again, comparing it to Einstein’s theory of relativity.’

‘I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song and I never did,’ the man who wrote the music for California Girls, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and Caroline, No later admitted to the New York Times. ‘I’ve stopped trying. It’s the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one.’

He is likely right. There isn’t a single click of the castanets too few or too many. The record is perfection. I’d go as far to say that if you’re just embarking on a relationship and wondering whether to take things further, ask the person what they think about Be My Baby. If they don’t absolutely love it, forget them, make your excuses and say goodbye.

That’s the only relationship advice I’ll ever give on here.

Here’s some footage of The Ronettes, shot in 1964, in (very appropriately) Little Italy in NYC, the setting of Mean Streets – okay, much of the film was shot in L.A. doubling for the neighbourhood where the young Scorsese grew up.

On discovering that Hal Blaine had died last Monday, I immediately thought of Be My Baby and that iconic and much copied drumbeat, even though it’s estimated that over the course of his magnificent career he played on over 35,000 recordings, 40 of which made it to number one in America.

A version of Hal made an appearance in the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy – a far better film incidentally than Bohemian Rhapsody – where, during a break from recording, he tells the young Brian Wilson: ‘You name them, we’ve played with them. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Elvis, Phil Spector, Sam Cooke. Everyone. And we all studied at goddam conservatories for Christ’s sake but you, you gotta know… you’re touched, kid. You’ve blown our minds.’

‘More than Phil Spector?’ Wilson asks sheepishly.

‘Phil Spector has got nothing on you,’ Blaine replies, smiling.

Brian’s ecstatic. Instantly buoyed for when he returns to work on the session.

Here’s some more Hal, although that’s not him on drums on this clip, but rather Dennis Wilson, who looks like he hasn’t fully recovered from too much partying the nightbefore. But it is Hal hitting those drumsticks. From Pet Sounds, this is God Only Knows:

On hearing of his death, Brian Wilson observed: ‘Hal taught me a lot, and he had so much to do with our success – he was the greatest drummer ever.’

Ronnie Spector, who once said that she felt like she’d gone to heaven when she first heard Blaine’s drumbeat on Be My Baby, also paid tribute to the man, thanking him on her Facebook page for ‘the magic he put on all our Ronettes recordings… and so many others throughout his incredible career ‘.

Hal Blaine (born Harold Simon Belsky): 5 February 1929 – 11 March 2019.

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Across 110th Street (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Across 110th Street

The Blaxploitation era gave the world of cinema some of the its finest theme tunes. Three stand out, though.

Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning Theme From Shaft from 1971 with Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts’ uber funky wah-wah riff and those gorgeous Stax horns; Superfly, which showcased Curtis Mayfield’s honeyed falsetto coo and powerful anti-drugs message. Then there’s Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, which not only opened the film of the same name but also Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. And it closed that one too.*

A New York set crime drama directed by Barry Shear and released in 1972, Across 110th Street featured a number of other songs written and performed by Bobby Womack (and his band of the time Peace), as well as a soul-jazz musical score from J.J. Johnson, a man mainly known as a trombonist. I know little about Johnson, but it’s been said that he did for that instrument what Charlie Parker did for the sax.

A protege of Sam Cooke, whose voice obviously inspired his own vocal stylings, Bobby Womack delivers his finest moment here, his world-weary croon giving the lowdown on life in Harlem, ‘the capital of every ghetto town’, lyrics that reflect the world of central character Jim Harris. As he puts it himself: ‘Look at me! You’re looking at a 42 year old ex-con nigger with no schooling, no trade, and a medical problem! Now who the hell would want me for anything but washing cars or swinging a pick?’

Harris is one of two low-level Harlem criminals who, dressed as cops, rob the Mafia of over £300,000 in a daytime raid on a flat in a busy tenement flat. The heist goes wrong, and in the hail of machine gun fire, three local black mobsters and two Mafia footsoldiers will be gunned down, while in the aftermath, as the thieves make their getaway, two members of the NYPD will also lose their lives.

Two cops are central to the movie. The first is Captain Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn), a fifty-something cop hanging on to his job desperately, fearing he’ll be replaced by a younger man. His fists play an important part in any investigation, and he’s also shown to be in the pay of a Harlem crime kingpin who refers to himself as Doc Motherfucking Johnson, played memorably by a gravel voiced Richard Ward.

The other is Lieutenant William Pope (Yaphet Kotto), a younger and more even tempered cop, who is keen to observe police protocol at all costs and who has been put in charge of the case, largely because he is black. Yes, Matelli’s obviously the bad cop to Pope’s good. But the Italian-American is never one dimensional and, like Pope, he desperately wants to see justice achieved.

As this pair attempt to solve the case, the Italian Mafia – aided and abetted (sometimes grudgingly) by their local black gangster associates – also want payback. Sadistic mob lieutenant Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) is tasked to get the money back. He wastes no time in tracking down the thieves, first coming across weak link getaway driver Henry J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas), who draws suspicion on himself by immediately heading out for some flamboyant whoring and touring on the streets of Harlem with his ill-gotten gains.

He meets the kind of grisly end that makes you think that the remaining two thieves, Jim Harris (Paul Benjaman) and Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) might be better being caught by the cops.

Across 110th Street - still

Sometimes Across 110th Street resembles an old episode of Kojak, which maybe isn’t surprising as Barry Shear had forged his directing reputation on TV shows such as Police Women and Police Story. He does, though, demonstrate some real flair throughout the film and he excels at action scenes – and there’s plenty of those to enjoy. This is where Johnson’s score proves most effective too.

Despite the two songwriting sources, the music is unified nicely with Johnson tracks like Harlem Love Theme and Harlem Clavinette echoing the theme tune, while there are also an instrumental tale on it and an Across 110th Street pt 2.

Here’s Bobby solo on Jools Holland’s Later with the title track:

* In a different version of the song. It also was used by Ridley Scott in American Gangster from 2007.

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.

Did I Dream You Dreamed About Me? (Blue Velvet)

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Blue Velvet

On first seeing Blue Velvet in 1986, David Lynch’s fourth feature became one of those rare movies that I instantly judged as a classic. I once even went to watch it one afternoon a few years later on a double bill with David Cronenberg’s The Fly at the Glasgow Film Theatre and then went back that same night for more. The only time I’ve ever did this.

Many believed my enthusiasm was misplaced. Roger Ebert awarded it a one star review and railed against the onscreen humiliations heaped upon cabaret chanteuse Dorothy Vallens played by Isabella Rossellini. The New York Post branded it as ‘one of the sickest films ever made.’ In Britain, a disgusted Mark Kermode stormed out of the cinema before the film had finished.

It’s still a damn fine watch over thirty years later, albeit not as absolutely batshit crazy as it must have struck me on its initial release. Compared to Mulholland Drive, say, it’s almost mainstream viewing, a pretty much straight story.

Seeing it again this week brought up some interesting what if scenarios?

Recently I spoke on here about a documentary on Harry Dean Stanton called Partly Fiction. Here the actor talked about how David Lynch had originally considered him for the role of Frank Booth.

The part eventually went to Dennis Hopper, a man whose career had seemed to enter a decline due to his drink and drug abuse and subsequent reputation for hellraising. Lynch was warned against hiring Hopper by a number of friends but once he discovered Hopper was sober he had no hesitations in bringing him onboard. Hopper’s Frank went on to become arguably the most grotesquely maniacal villain ever appear on the big screen.

Much as I rated Stanton as an actor, I just can’t imagine how he could have bettered the performance of Hopper. You just can’t imagine him ever reading the script and declaring to Lynch, ‘I have to play Frank because I am Frank.’ And Harry Dean Stanton would have been unlikely to have ever hit on the idea of Frank huffing nitrate oxide.

Blue Velvet - Frank Booth

Next up, David Lynch originally envisaged the part of Dorothy Vallens going to Helen Mirren but she turned it down. Instead, he met Isabella Rossellini for the first time by chance in a restaurant, not knowing who she was. ‘You could be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter,’ he reportedly said to her when they were introduced. A matter of days later he decided to opt for Rossellini, who at this point was best known as a top model rather than an actor. She had only a single-acting credit on an American movie, 1985’s White Nights, where coincidentally, she shared screen-time with Helen Mirren.

Over the years, Mirren has won numerous awards for her acting, an Oscar, two Emmys, a Golden Globe and between 1992-1994, she scooped three Baftas in a row. Rossellini, on the other hand, has a couple of Razzie nominations. Okay, to be fair, she’s also bagged a couple of relatively minor awards herself.

So, who would have been better for the part?

Somehow Rossellini is perfect as the dazed and very, very confused Dorothy. She oozes vulnerability and mystery. Where does she come from? We’re never told. In the Mysteries of Love documentary that is included in the Blu-ray package of the film, Lynch noted that in his mind now, Rossellini is the ‘only possible Dorothy’ and while I’m sure Helen Mirren would have excelled too, I have to agree.

Isabella Rossellini - Blue Velvet

Finally, while Blue Velvet was in pre-production, Lynch heard a version of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren by The Cocteau Twins (under the name of indie label 4AD’s musical collective This Mortal Coil). He fell in love with it and rates the song as one of the most beautiful ever written, an assessment I wouldn’t disagree with.

According to Jeff Aston in his book on 4AD, Facing The Other Way, as the film was being shot Lynch and Rossellini would always be listening to the song before shooting a scene.

And not only did the director decide he wanted to use the track, he also envisaged Cocteau Twins Liz Fraser and Robin Guthrie miming it on stage during the party scene where Jeffrey and Sandy dance, kiss and avow their love for one other. As a big fan of the band at this point, I don’t think this was Lynch’s best ever idea. In Glasgow they were already playing largish venues like the Pavilion and Barrowlands and why they would end up playing some get-together for the straightest teenagers in the world is beyond me, a notion that’s strange even by Blue Velvet standards.

In the end, lawyers acting on behalf of the Buckley estate demanded $20,000 for the song’s use, a figure that torpedoed Lynch’s idea due to the tightness of the budget. He says this broke his heart.

He was forced to improvise. And he had luck on his side.

Isabella Rossellini was no singer and had to be taught how to perform her icy cabaret take on Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet (a song that Lynch found schmaltzy). Things didn’t go to plan with this idea and producer Fred Caruso suggested bringing in New Jersey based musician Angelo Badalamenti to help out.

Result.

That man Caruso also suggested that Lynch use some of the little sentences that resembled lyrics that he would scribble down while on set and let Badalamenti use them to write a substitute track for Song For The Siren.

The odds of a first-time lyric writer and relatively unknown music composer coming up with a song that could replace one of the finest singles of the 1980s and possibly the greatest ever cover version were huge.

But Lynch was impressed by Badalamenti’s musical idea. Especially when he heard the tune titled Mysteries of Love being sung by Badalamenti’s pal Julee Cruise, who had been influenced herself by Liz Fraser’s puirt-a-beul meets post-punk vocal delivery.

So pleased was Lynch with the resulting music that he utilised it again in the film once Frank has been dispatched and Dorothy reunited with her son and not only that, Lynch also asked Angelo to score the film act as music supervisor and, as Dennis Lim said in his Lynch biography The Man From Another Place: ‘In Badalamenti, Lynch found a partner who could do with music what he so often does in his movies: push cliches to their breaking point and find emotion in artifice.

Imagine no Badalamenti and Cruise in Lynchland. It’s impossible.

The better track for Blue Velvet?

Fraser has been called the ‘Woman With the Most Celestial Voice in Music’ although Julee Cruise’s ethereal croon makes her a serious rival in that department. Both songs would have been equally spellbinding for the scene.

This Mortal Coil’s Song to the Siren went on to feature on Lynch’s Lost Highway in 1997 although it didn’t appear on the film’s soundtrack album.

Thom Yorke : Suspiria (Music For The Luca Guadagnino Film)

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Suspiria (XL Recordings)

Dario Argento’s legendary supernatural masterpiece Suspiria was not only a stunning slice of atmospheric horror, it also boasted one of the great scores of 20th century cinema by Italian band Goblin (or the “Goblins” as they were credited on the film).

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake starring Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton is about to hit British cinemas next month, having recently premiered here at the BFI London Film Festival to reviews that generally agree the new film fails to match the breathtaking brilliance of its original.

Composed by Thom Yorke, the accompanying soundtrack – his debut feature length score – comes out today on XL. According to the singer, the music this time round takes its main influence not from Goblin’s disturbing but dazzling OST but from Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner. This is maybe most evident in the cold synth riff that opens Volk, and micro-short tracks like A Soft Hand Across Your Face, Synthesizer Speaks, The Universe is Indifferent and Suspirium Finale pt 2.

This, though, is a diverse listen. One minute you might think of a György Ligeti choir; the next some musique concrète experiment. The Balance of Things possesses a distinct eastern feel while Klemperer Walks momentarily made me think of the Wendy Carlos.

More often, a number of the tracks bring to mind kosmiche acts from the mid 1970s. The original movie was released in 1977 and this new ‘cover version’ as Swinton refers to it as, is set in that same year, a time when German electronic act Tangerine Dream scored William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Klaus Schulze provided the music for Lasse Braun’s Body Talk and Popol Vuh released their ninth album, the OST for Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass. It’s easy to imagine Yorke listening to albums like these as he commenced work on this project.

Suspirium itself, the first taster from the album, is one of the highlights here. A sparse song with elegiac piano melody, pastoral flute and the most plaintive vocals you’ll hear in 2018, this is vintage Yorke. Has Ended features a crisp drum tattoo (played by Yorke’s son Noah) and dreamy psychedelic drones; A Choir of One has a sinister feel, the prelude, I would guess, to some nerve shredding action. The piano on Unmade wouldn’t sound out of place on some middle of the road track and gives listeners some light relief during what is a sometimes unsettling listen.

Notably Yorke’s bandmate companion Jonny Greenwood has received much acclaim for his own contributions to the art of scoring in recent years although the Academy have so far failed to award him an Oscar. I haven’t yet seen the new Suspiria, so it’s impossible for me to say how effective this music will work in tangent with the visual flair of Guadagnino but I would guess Yorke’s work here would have to be seriously considered – along with Greenwood’s fine job on Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

I can judge this, though, as a standalone (double) album. There are many fascinating instrumental fragments that might be described as incidental music rather than as fully fledged songs. Not that this means I don’t admire them hugely anyway.

Best of all are the tracks where Yorke supplies that famous fragile falsetto of his on such as Has Ended and Open Again. Suspirium Finale is a take on Suspirium with strings supplied by The London Contemporary Orchestra, who also contributed to Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool. It’s as good as anything on that 2016 album.

Other pieces such as Sabbath Incantation obviously have a definite purpose in accompanying some specific narrative event on-screen, and these prove less successful as music you’ll want to listen to on any kind of regular basis. For the sake of album cohesiveness, Yorke might have been wise to drop some of these moments. Most fans will likely want to programme their own version.

Uneven but mostly engrossing.

8/10

To stream or buy the album click here.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties (Soundtrack Sundays #5)

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties UK poster

The Damned: New Rose (1977)
Xiu Xiu, Elle Fanning & Alex Sharp: Eat Me Alive (2017)

Back in 1977, I would buy or borrow a copy of NME or Sounds and read through them: the news items, interviews, reviews and letters pages. I would also diligently scan along the live listings, seeing who was playing across the country as if it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might just decide to dog off school for a couple of days and travel down to see some band like Wire or Slaughter and The Dogs play Canterbury or Bristol on a Tuesday night.

One name that would repeatedly crop up in these listings was The Greyhound in Croydon. This venue would regularly advertise shows, usually with cool acts like The Adverts, Buzzcocks and local favourites Johnny Moped. Seeing their ads convinced me that Croydon must be a bit of a hotspot for punk rock and that anybody living there was lucky.

Enn, Vic and John, the three schoolboy punks we’re introduced to here don’t feel the same way about their home turf. But, even during the brouhaha of Jubilee Day, they still manage to get at least some teenage kicks as they wind up their parents, local royalists and teddy boys, while somehow managing to make their way around town on a bicycle definitely not made for three.

All this soundtracked by The Damned – an act with a big Croydon connection – and the first, and some might argue, the best British punk single ever recorded:

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Shortbus) and based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, How To Talk To Girls At Parties is a coming-of-age science-fiction romcom that also attempts to straddle a few other genres while it’s at it.

The film starts off like a punky version of The Inbetweeners with Enn, played by Alex Sharp, in the role of Will. Enn (short for ‘Enry) contributes cartoons to a fanzine called Virus, that he and his pals put together.

They also like to visit a nearby Greyhound like bar to see local punk wannabes The Dyschords.

Afterwards, by accident, they gatecrash into a party (of sorts) where everyone is humming, dancing or performing gymnastic routines while wearing Vivienne Westwood meets the Teletubbies latex outfits. They look like some weird performance art collective rehearsing for a stint at the Edinburgh Festival.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties still

The boys speculate on who these strange people could be, guessing they might be kooky Californians involved in a cult. I doubt I’m giving anything away here but they are from much farther away and even more alien to teenage punks than yer average 1970s American hippy-dippy west coaster.

Enn meets and immediately likes Zan, played by Elle Fanning. She’s fascinated by his interest in ‘the punk’ and its anti-authoritarian attitudes. She displays a rebellious streak herself to her fellow extraterrestrials, an antiseptic bunch in the main, as conformist as Enn’s neighbours waving their Union Jacks earlier at their neighbourhood street party.

Unfortunately, Zan’s only allowed twenty-four hours in Croydon. In this time she makes a big impression, not only on Enn and his pals but on punk sculptor Queen Boadicea. Played by Nicole Kidman, who looks like a cross between Cruella Deville and Siouxsie Sioux out for a night in some New Romantic club of the early 1980s rather than a punk in the blistering summer of 1977.

This friendship results in Zan and Enn replacing The Dyschord’s singer for a show. Here’s a clip of what is supposed to be an entirely improvised performance:

After this, the film nosedives like a punk band that kick off live with all their best material but when they should be climaxing instead play a bunch of B-sides, bad cover versions and filler tracks from their album, never recovering the initial promise.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties becomes increasingly batshit crazy but not in a good batshit crazy way. Self-indulgence reigns. The Kidman character looks shoehorned in, and I suspect she’d maybe agreed to the part as an old pals act for the director. She’d previously worked with him on 2010’s Rabbit Hole.

By the time the punks, led by Boadicea, storm the townhouse where the aliens are staying, things have become even more excruciating than Kidman’s take on a Cockernee accent.

This is the film’s nadir and it never recovered. It’s probably significant that Gaiman’s short story ended long before any of this.

The debate between the aliens confused me. Or maybe by this point I was just too bored to make the effort to follow it. As for the soundtrack, after New Rose there are no punk classics, most of the music being electronic in nature and mediocre at best.

This is a shame. I liked the director defiantly choosing not to go down the dreary social realist path. This is definitely more Phantom of the Paradise than Rude Boy, believe me although not nearlyas good as that De Palma oddity. Actually a more ‘glam rock’ setting would have been more appropriate. Sci-fi and space travel being a much bigger part of that era. Just think of all those singles like Starman and Space Ace.

Much of the movie is shot beautifully too.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties - Sharp & Fanning

Easily the best thing about it, though, are the two leads even though Enn is obviously a fifteen year old with a particularly long paper round. I did look up his age online and wasn’t too surprised to discover he was well into his mid-20s when the film was shot. I also liked Abraham Lewis as Vic. He even reminded me at times of Tom Hardy.

On the whole the accuracy of the punk backdrop struck me as reasonably accurate if Boadicea is taken out of the equation. Okay, I’ll nitpick a little. Enn has a copy on the Never Mind the Bollocks cover on his wall months before it came out. I guess if you can accept visitors from another planet travelling to Croydon on a reconnaissance mission, then a little faux pas like that is the least of your worries.

File under: Probably sounded like a good idea at the time.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties is just out on DVD & Blu-ray.

To read the short story click here.

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

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Pecker & Kill Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big musical number however was much more contemporary.

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

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