Monday, November 23, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #128 - Alice’s Restaurant (1969, dir. Arthur Penn)

Ostensibly a light-hearted adaptation of Arlo Guthrie’s folk-rock, FM classic song, starring Guthrie himself, nothing could be further from the truth about this historically accurate, heavy-hearted farewell to 60’s idealism that it actually turns out to be. Hot on the heels of his blockbuster Bonnie and Clyde, director Arthur Penn creates a heartfelt but ultimately melancholy look at the youth culture of the era. The story mixes the actual events of Arlo Guthrie’s life (such as the protracted death of his father Woody from Huntington’s Chorea) and his life as a struggling singer/songwriter trying to forge his own identity as an artist with events of his song “Alice’s Restaurant,” and Penn’s own screenplay to create a kaleidoscopic view of the late-60’s malaise settling in as the realization that “selling out” and “growing up” were essentially the same thing.

Arlo Guthrie himself is entirely charming as he recreates what are undoubtedly many of his own experiences coming of age with a very hip and famous last name in the 1960’s. We follow as he tries out college in Montana, gets kicked out for smoking pot and being a long-hair, and then drifts back to the East Coast, where he lands at the commune-like home of Ray Brock and his wife Alice (she of the restaurant). Ray and Alice are older than the large group of hippies who call Ray’s converted church home. They have cultivated a party-time, familial vibe, where not only are the kids sheltered and fed, but there is an unspoken understanding that their emotional needs will also be met. This kind of works out until, like in all utopian communities, the human frailties of the people at the top start to poison the well. Once Arlo gets back to the Connecticut commune, the movie takes on a far darker tone. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not. Like so many the best relics of the 60’s, I find them unbearably poignant because of the unwitting sadness they portray. The folly of my own youth and some of the less flattering aspects of the 1960’s subculture are meant to be seen as sympathetic or even heroic, yet it is their juxtaposition with the sad realities of the world as it actually exists today that give the movie its greatest resonance to a modern audience. All the ills of society exist in Ray and Alice’s world, it’s just that there are no parents telling you what to do. Ray and Alice nurture and care for the kids, but then things get a little weird when they sleep with some of them, and look the other way while another lapses into mental illness and addiction. During all this, Arlo goes back and forth to a hospital in New Jersey where his father, Woody Guthrie (played by Joseph Boley) lays mute in painful deterioration. We get a good sense of Guthrie’s love for, and confusion about his father. Between these two worlds, Arlo is seeing the disintegration of his biological family and his adopted group of peers. The film reaches its denouement as Arlo rushes to his father’s bedside only to miss his death by minutes, at the same time that his friend is being buried after over-dosing. Director Penn handles this beautifully and sets a bleak tone that sees the film through to its conclusion.

During the last third of the movie the majority of the events in Arlo’s famous song take place. These scenes, involving a small-town cop busting Arlo for littering on Thanksgiving Day and his subsequent adventures in jail and at the New York City Draft Board, are light hearted and probably account for the movie’s initial popularity, and its lasting status as a cult film. However, considering the last movement of the film, they seem almost irrelevant. The Brocks decide to renew their wedding vows in an attempt to bring themselves, and their adoptive family back together. The wedding ceremony starts as a glorious day filled with music, food, partying and dancing, but things start to turn sadly sinister as Ray’s drunken behavior becomes increasingly outlandish and hurtful to Alice. As the embarrassed kids start to drift away, Ray embarks on a futile speech intended to inspire his following. He panders to their utopian instincts, but it is too late…the dream is over, as Lennon would proclaim around the same time.

Alice’s Restaurant ends with a profoundly sad Alice Brock, standing alone next to her home, now literally and figuratively devoid of life and happiness. There couldn’t be a more effective metaphor for the end of the dream that was the 1960’s. While this movie may not succeed at the somewhat modest and unambitious goal of bringing Guthrie’s cartoonish song to life, it succeeds like no other film at bringing down the curtain on a tremendously important, but equally confusing decade in American history.
-          Paul Epstein

Monday, November 16, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #142 - Sun Ra - Angels and Demons at Play/The Nubians of Plutonia

If ever there were an artist in need of a "where do you start" type guide, it's Sun Ra. The legendary and mysterious jazz figure has been claimed as an influence by diverse artists from the Stooges and MC5 to Sonic Youth and Phish. He even popped up on MTV in the early 90s. So many folks who would otherwise never venture into the jazz section might be tempted to check this cat out. But what do you do when you get there? There are literally hundreds of releases by Sun Ra and his Arkestra. During his lifetime he released albums independently on his own Saturn label but also put out material on a variety of other labels. There have been numerous live recordings that have cropped up throughout the years, many being released after Sun Ra's death in 1993. And then there's the wide variety of music that Sun Ra composed and performed, ranging from traditional big band to early experiments with electronics and avant-garde works. Even someone well versed in jazz and/or experimental music can get intimidated by it all. Did I mention Sun Ra claimed to be a visitor from Saturn?

Recently, Strut Records has attempted to create a few entry points with compilations chosen by Ra associates and acolytes. Last year gave us In the Orbit of Ra hand-picked by longtime sideman Marshall Allen, who still leads the Arkestra to this day. Earlier this year came To Those of Earth...and Other Worlds, compiled by longtime BBC DJ and musicologist Gilles Peterson. I'd like to talk to you about my own first Ra purchase. I wanted to listen to Sun Ra but was clueless about where to start when I stumbled upon a compilation called Music Futurists that was put out by Wired magazine and Rhino Records. It had a bunch of artists I already liked, like Devo, Can, and Brian Eno, and had a Sun Ra track called "Plutonian Nights." I liked that track enough to seek out the album it came from, The Nubians of Plutonia. The CD release combined that album with another,Angels and Demons at Play. Evidence Records, primarily a blues label, released about 20 albums from the Saturn catalog on CD in the early 90s, many of them two albums on one disc.

Now I'd like to make clear that I am certainly no expert on jazz and can't really talk about the music in an academic or theoretical context. I can just tell you what I like - and I like all the music on this CD. The Angels and Demons album actually covers two separate recording sessions from 1956 and 1960. The first four tracks are from 1960 and are somewhat mellow but also show the Afro-centrist influence that has always been a part of the Sun Ra experience. The next four tracks, from 1956, are more traditional big band jazz, played with energy and joy. The remaining tracks are the Nubians album and show the beginnings of Ra and the Arkestra delving into African music and culture. This is particularly apparent on extended numbers like "Nubia" and "Aiethopia." I liked this album enough to dive into other Evidence releases, some covering a similar time period, like Super Sonic Jazz, and others from much later like 1978's Lanquidity. There are still many more miles to go on my trek through the Sun Ra universe but the Angels/Nubians twofer is where my journey began. Maybe it will be yours as well.

- Adam Reshotko

Monday, November 9, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #127 - Black Caesar (1973, dir. Larry Cohen)

                Black Caesar is the second film directed by noted independent/low budget director Larry Cohen, and also his second to deal with race and class. Viewed another way, it was his first “Blaxpolitation” film, a chronicle of the rapid rise and sad fall of Tommy Gibbs, an ambitious and ruthless black gangster, the “Godfather of Harlem.” Cohen has made a name for himself in the 1970s and 80s as a maker of quick, inexpensive exploitation films in disreputable genres (usually crime and horror films like It’s Alive, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff and others) but has always packed his films full of bigger ideas. And if he didn’t work so hurriedly and cheaply and in these genres – the very things that give his films their loose, rough charm – he’d probably be considered a major American stylist in the vein of Scorsese and his generation of filmmakers (which Cohen is, technically, part of). I once said to a few friends “I wish his films were just 17% better than they are because then they’d be considered masterpieces instead of just a lot of fun.” - but fun they are, no less for their ambition and reach than for what they actually put across in the final cut.

                As noted, the film chronicles the life of Tommy Gibbs (played by former football player Fred Williamson) from his young days as a shoeshine boy trying to hustle his way ahead and learn the ways of the mobsters who rule his neighborhood to his time as the man ruling that neighborhood himself. Early in the film we see a young version of Tommy helping out a hitman and running hush money to a racist cop who ends up beating him and giving him a permanent limp. Flash forward to years later when Tommy decides that he doesn’t need to see white gangsters ruling his neighborhood when he’s perfectly capable of the task. A great montage sequence about 15 minutes into the film succinctly shows his rise to power while the James Brown soundtrack does its work, setting the mood and commenting on the action. Once he’s at the top – or near it anyway – his past starts to come back to haunt him: his previously absent father returns to make amends in a particularly uncomfortable, weird, and sad scene, and this, combined with his mother’s passing, cracks the hardened and ruthless exterior Tommy’s displayed for the whole film to this point. And once he proves that he has humanity underneath that, he begins to unravel. His rise was swift but his fall is more protracted as everyone slowly turns their back on him.
What’s unusual – though not unprecedented – is the way that Gibbs is portrayed in the film as very nearly unlikeable and his slow defeat sucks any glamour out of the portrayal of the gangster lifestyle until he ends up, literally, surrounded by garbage. Cohen is telling a classic “crime doesn’t pay” gangland story with its rising and falling dramatic arc, but updating the material to 1973 standards with smarts and savvy, hitting contemporary topical issues along the way. And even now, over 40 years later, it still feels fresh because of Cohen’s techniques – using hand held cameras on the streets to achieve a documentary vibe of the times (NYC bystanders and pedestrians are often staring at either Tommy’s flashy style or at the camera, clearly unaware they’re about to be in a movie), hiring stunt players but still improvising things on the fly, as when he has a driver roll up on the sidewalk to escape potential assassins (in a previous edition’s commentary track Cohen claims he didn’t bother with permits, just drove on the sidewalk and got done filming before he could get in trouble). Fred Willliamson had starred the previous year in the minor hit Hammer but this one solidified his status as one of the leading tough guys of the Blaxploitation movement – the film was successful enough that Cohen shot and released a sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, before the year was out (and as a side note, shot that on weekends while spending weekdays working on his next project It’s Alive). And the film’s scenes and ideas have had an impact beyond strengthening Williamson’s cache – both the massacre of some Italian rivals (in a scene that feels more comic than horrific/exciting) and the confrontation of Tommy’s girlfriend and best friend flash forward to scenes in Brian De Palma’s Scarface remake (though they’re played out differently there).
And again, there’s a classic “crime doesn’t pay” story on top, but right there mixed up with it – not even bubbling underneath as subtext – there’s also a barbed look at class and race that’s most definitely sympathetic and understanding to Tommy even if he’s still portrayed as a bad guy. If a viewer were to note, for example, that a corrupt cop holding a gun on Tommy in a corrupt lawyer’s office decided to humiliate him by forcing him to again shine his shoes, and that right when he says “give me a shine like you used to” there’s an edit to the shoeshine kit underneath an American flag, and wanted to make the association that Cohen is perhaps suggesting that the law and corrupt money in American politics combine to keep African Americans down, one could certainly do that. Or one could watch the movie and leave that kind of reading alone. It’s one of Cohen’s best films no matter which way you choose to watch it.

-          Patrick Brown

Monday, November 2, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #141 - Phoebe Snow – Phoebe Snow

There is a phenomenon of the debut album. The theory is that many great artists have about oh…one great album in them, and that the process of developing into an artist is the gestation period that the one masterpiece in them needs to prepare for birth. This is obviously an oversimplification, which gives short shrift to the artistic process and to the ongoing accomplishments of many important artists. Yet, there does seem to be some abiding truth to the fact that some artists spend their early lives so deeply in visualization and preparation, that when the debut album does come out, it is an overwhelming and defining creative statement, containing the individuals’ most realized work. Such is the case with Phoebe Snow’s magnificent self-titled 1974 debut. She had a long and distinguished career with many highlights, yet she never seemed to transcend this first, fully-formed artistic statement.

Possessed of a voice that defies categorization or genre, she was equal parts Billie Holiday, Laura Nyro and Bessie Smith. Her tone is clear and perfect with a jazzy quaver, yet her performances are all deeply informed by the blues she loved so. Her writing produced heartfelt, poetic and intelligent songs of artistic ideation and lost love. Heartbreak is her constant companion, and would remain so for the rest of her life as she fought for the health of her daughter and eventually herself, in a career marked by tragedy and lost opportunity. And yet Phoebe Snow stands as one of the absolutely great first albums. There are no weak songs, including her two covers, “Let The Good Times Roll” and “San Francisco Bay Blues,” and the best of her originals – “Poetry Man,” “Harpo’s Blues,” “Either or Both,” “I Don’t Want The Night To End” and “Take Your Children Home” - succeed as poetry and song. Take for example “Harpo’s Blues,” her tribute to an early lover who died tragically. The lyrics are a beautifully sustained balance of reference and original thought:

I wish I was a soft refrain
When the lights were out
I’d play and be your friend
I strut and fret my hour
Upon the stage
The hour is up
I have to run and hide my rage

With her own substantial guitar chops and unearthly voice, she is accompanied by Zoot Sims, Bob James and others to create an unbelievably poignant and lovely recording. I don't usually buy into lists, but if I had to make a desert island compilation of songs, this one would be on it. It falls into a small category of gerascophobic songs, or songs about the fear of growing up. In the final verse she sings:

I'd like to be a willow, a lover, a mountain
or a soft refrain
But I'd hate to be a grownup
and have to try to bear
my life in pain

It's hard to put into words how strongly this song and this album affected me as a 17-year old, however the acid test here is that I find it even more affecting now. In fact, there has never been a time that I've listened to this album that I haven't come away with a deeper appreciation for the singer and her songs, and that is incredibly rare.

I don't think I'm alone in this, because “Poetry Man” was covered by many and remains a beloved folk/rock staple, however, because Phoebe Snow was forced to turn her back on fame, she has been forgotten by many and has been relegated to the historical back shelf. Her debut album is a stunner from start to finish combining a truly original voice, all the magic that professional recording studios and ace musicians of the era could bring, and a truly great set of songs, combining to make this one of the albums that built my emotional life and my store.

-                Paul Epstein

Monday, October 26, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #126 - Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)

Little Shop of Horrors is a film adaptation of an Off-Broadway musical adaptation of a grade “B” horror-comedy film from 1960 about a man-eating plant. It was directed by a person best known at the time for playing Miss Piggy, Yoda, and Bert of Bert & Ernie. If this all sounds like a mess, it serves as a reminder of how strange and unlikely the whole enterprise of this film was upon its release. Perhaps it’s time for full disclosure. I cannot stand most musicals, but I love this film and I have loved it since I first saw it in the theater at the age of nine in the fall of 1986. There’s just something wonderful about the chemistry of the lead cast, the incredible selection of supporting actors, and the choice of director that conjures a rewarding viewing experience with few equals in mainstream film of the last few decades.

            With strong leads complemented by Second City and Saturday Night Live alumni in cameos and walk-ons, this groups of players could be considered an all-star cast. As Seymour, the flower shop clerk who discovers a strange new plant species, Rick Moranis turns in the best performance of his career, elevating the kind of dweeby character for which he almost become typecast into a complicated and appealing underdog. Ellen Greene revisits the role of Audrey, which she pioneered in the original Off-Broadway production, and establishes a one of a kind leading lady and love interest. Audrey’s meek and insecure speaking voice falls away as she begins to sing and Greene’s powerful and passionate voice express everything the character is holding back and bottling up. Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops, provides the voice of Audrey II, and in doing so contributes a key ingredient in creating one of the most memorable movie monsters of the 1980’s. Stubbs’ voice, when speaking as well as singing, spans an impressive dynamic range giving Audrey II an intensity, dimension, and unpredictability that generates an unavoidable and irresistible screen presence. Vincent Gardenia’s layered, lived-in weariness brings humanity and depth to the role of shop owner Mr. Mushnik that could seem two-dimensional in the hands of a lesser actor. Sporting a leather jacket and a black wig, Steve Martin hands in one of his goofiest, most out-of-character, and most disturbing performances as Orin Scrivello, the sadistic, motorcycle-riding dentist and abusive boyfriend of Audrey.

            In terms of supporting characters, one of the most important elements of this film comes not from one character, but from three. Acting as a kind of Greek chorus that breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses the audience, Crystal, Ronette, and Chiffon (whose names all derive from 1960’s girl groups) set the scene with style while presiding over the action decked out in beautiful, era appropriate costumes. In these roles, Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell supply the film’s smart, energetic pacing.
  The cameos and walk-ons I mentioned earlier add to the film’s irreverent, clever tone by giving these comic talents opportunities to have fun with the story’s setting. With Christopher Guest as the enthusiastic, vapid first customer to see Audrey II, John Candy as the hokey morning radio DJ who brings Seymour and Audrey II onto his show, and James Belushi as the pushy franchise salesman eager to sell little Audrey II plants across the country, these characters round out the film’s world. Watching seasoned comedy veterans turn in these performances, you get the feeling that each of them is sending up the kinds of adults they grew up around in the early in 1960’s. Bill Murray’s inspired performance as the masochistic dental patient stands apart from these other bit parts and nearly threatens to steal the show, but ultimately builds on the film’s delightfully twisted spirit.
This was Frank Oz’s third directing job and his first apart from Jim Henson and the Muppets. Little Shop of Horrors makes extensive use of puppets but no one would mistake Audrey II, the audacious carnivorous plant from the far reaches of space, for a resident of Sesame Street. Oz’s background in theater and film production with the Muppets serves him well as he fabricates the fantastic, terrifying, and multi-faceted world in which these characters live, struggle, sing, and face death.
Admittedly, this film balances many distinct pieces and any one of them could have easily tipped the whole project toward disaster. Little Shop of Horrors’ disparate elements combine to make a final product that works far better than many other musical theater adaptations of the last thirty years. Like all of the best examples of Off-Broadway cult phenomena, Little Shop of Horrors creates an exciting, fun, and perverse viewing experience that speaks to the outsider in all of us.  

             - John Parsell

Monday, October 19, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #140 - Hayden - Elk-Lake Serenade

In my experience as a music lover, I have learned that sometimes I find albums and sometimes albums find me. Hayden’s fourth album, Elk-Lake Serenade, found me just a few years after its 2004 release and I am very glad that it did. At the time, I was going through a rough winter in a small Vermont town and this collection of songs helped me keep going. The loose, inviting, and natural tone of Elk-Lake Serenade creates a strong contrast to Hayden’s intense, arresting, and cathartic 1996 debut, Everything I Long For. Despite notable differences in overall attitude and vocal delivery, these two albums share many of Hayden’s hallmark artistic strengths including thought provoking varieties of subject matter, unusual song structures, and inventive narrative perspectives. With Elk-Lake Serenade, Hayden made good on the promise he showed early in his career by crafting a mature, distinct, and adventurous album that contributes to and advances the canon of great folk-rock albums.

Elk-Lake Serenade opens with a trio of songs that set the stage for the album’s well-paced mix of relatively brief songs of varying tempo and energy that cover a range of tones from warm, funny, and earnest to haunting, heart-breaking, and absurd. The album opens with “Wide Eyes,” a stately, surprisingly formal ballad decorated with string flourishes and anchored by a stern piano figure that serves as a reminder of Hayden’s knack for minimalist storytelling. Just as the last notes of piano fade into silence, “Home by Saturday” kicks into gear with a mid-tempo folk-rock arrangement, beautifully offset by a great pedal steel guitar part, that grants the speaker confidence as he reassures his lover that he won’t succumb to the lures of going on tour while addressing with empathy the challenges they each face while he is away. Beginning with a gentle, chiming guitar progression, “Woody” expands quickly into a sweet little folk song dominated by acoustic guitar strumming and harmonica. On the first listen, you might not catch that this song is about Hayden’s pet cat because the bemused, resigned, yet loving spirit of the song could just as easily apply to feelings toward a close friend or a family member. Closer to the middle of the set, “Hollywood Ending” provides the album its strongest uptempo number while taking the cake for oddball concepts by illustrating what could be a fever dream or just a clever rumination on the cultural obsession with mainstream entertainment. In the second half of the album, two songs offer unique perspectives on domestic life that highlight Hayden’s ability to eschew the platitudes common to many songs about life at home. “Through The Rads” clips along a pretty good pace with subtle percussion and textured instrumentation as the speaker describes the unease, conflict, and apathy he feels hearing his neighbors fight through the radiators of the house they share. “My Wife” features a driving tempo that balances nicely with the speaker’s defiant, protective, and scathing rebuke to an old friend visiting town who would benefit greatly from moving on and growing up. Both of these songs demonstrate Hayden’s brevity and concision as a writer that is consistent throughout the album. Hayden makes his point, moves on, and ensures that no song wears out its welcome. Somehow, despite the tonal shifts and seemingly abrupt changes in subject matter, the album’s center holds.

Hayden’s first album left a strong impression on a close friend of mine in the late 1990’s and I enjoyed the songs I heard from it, but I lost track of his music after that. When Elk-Lake Serenade found me, I felt like I had run into an old friend I hadn’t seen in years. In many ways, the differences between Hayden’s first and fourth albums bear the marks of his respective ages when he made each of them. Everything I Long For sounds like a smart, emotionally complex twenty-five year old working through, among other things, being an angry young man in much the same way that Elk-Lake Serenade sounds like a smart, contemplative person in his early-thirties taking a moment to reflect on the bizarre, beautiful, and confounding world around him. Elk-Lake Serenade found me in a lonely town during a harsh winter while I was working through a very challenging time in my life, but listening to these songs made those cold nights pass a little more easily. Listening to this album feels like sharing an evening with a good friend you haven’t seen for a while. The conversation rambles into directions you may have never predicted, but the stories are great and it all reminds you of why you have been friends for so long. I may have been short on friends where I was living when this album found me, but listening to it, then and now, reminds me of the tremendous value of both lasting friendship and wonderful music.   

            - John Parsell

Monday, October 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #125 - An American Werewolf In London (1981, dir. John Landis)

I love horror movies. To me, there is nothing better than the original Universal version of Frankenstein. It combines the best elements of storytelling, make-up, acting, music, shadow and light to create an unexpected, synergistic element of the unknown. It gives flesh to the promise of cinema in the first place. Unfortunately, when we moved into the color age, and the expectation for ever-more explicit thrills advanced, the art of fear became the act of shock, and much of the appeal of horror went away – at least for me. The modern era has exchanged fright for torture. Watching one human inflict carnage upon others is a different thing than jumping at shadows. It loses the element of fun. While An American Werewolf In London director John Landis does succumb to modern bloodlust, he also manages to make a classic horror film that is hilarious and both honors and advances the genre.

The story begins with two American college students starting a hitchhiking trip of Europe on the moors of Scotland. The action begins almost immediately as they get lost, attacked by a wolf, and one of them is killed. The other, unknown TV actor David Naughton, wakes up in a hospital in London. He is being attended to by a suspicious doctor (John Woodvine) and a gorgeous nurse (Jenny Agutter). He is tortured by horrifying dreams and then he is repeatedly haunted by his decaying dead companion (Griffin Dunne), who warns David that he was bitten by a werewolf and that he would now turn into one himself when the moon is full. This is all in the first 20 minutes of the film. Landis does not screw around. He gets right to the heart of the matter. Before you can say lycanthropy our hero has entered into a love affair with the nurse, is staying at her house, and finds himself alone as the full moon rises. And then comes “the scene.” There are some moments in film history that are so completely new and groundbreaking that they not only define that particular film, they actually come to represent an entire genre. In full, clear, neon light, David strips his clothes off and the camera does not flinch or look away as his body starts to stretch and change in front of our eyes. Hair sprouts from his torso, his limbs morph from arms and legs to haunches and paws, and in a final horror, his face stretches into a muzzle as he becomes a howling hellhound. It is an absolutely amazing scene, and even though 35 years of filmmaking has passed since this film was made, this scene has not been bested. It is a testament to make-up genius Rick Baker’s lasting impact on the genre. Baker represents the last great make-up innovator (the DVD comes with several excellent featurettes about Rick Baker and the special effects processes he pioneered). Shortly after this film, computer generated effects became the de facto method of showing the impossible and something very special about the art of film was lost. But that was AFTER this movie.

For the remainder of An American Werewolf In London however, we are treated to one thrill after another as our hero runs amok in London, killing people, and letting us see exactly what it would look like to have a real monster, fully lit, in a modern city. It is a true thrill. A scene in a deserted tube station is as genuinely chilling as any I can think of. The movie leads to its climax as David finds himself back in human form, sitting in a pornographic movie theatre, once again talking to a now skeletal Griffin Dunne, while a ridiculous porno plays. It is truly one of the more uproariously funny and surreal scenes in the horror genre. The scene ends with the inevitable, however, as David, once again goes through the transition, and wreaks havoc in the movie theatre and then moves out into a mobbed Piccadilly Square for the film’s climax.

All the boxes get checked with this film. It is fabulously entertaining, provides real shocks, breaks new ground and simultaneously pays tribute to the horror tradition. Director John Landis strikes the perfect balance between star-struck fan boy and seasoned insider, making the monster movie he – and we – always wanted to see.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, October 5, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #139 - Magnetic Fields – 69 Love Songs Vol. 1

Once upon a time in the 90’s there was this place in New York City called the Lower East Side. Along with its neighboring area, The East Village, it presented itself as an eccentric haven for artists, hipsters, punks, and bohemians of all stripes. Don’t go looking for it now because it’s been transformed into something else, but back then it was a land of dive bars, of art galleries, of weird little stores and great, cheap restaurants, a place that had a sketchy energy that’s totally gone now. And Stephin Merritt, the leader, songwriter, and primary vocalist for The Magnetic Fields, in the liner notes to the 69 Love Songs box set also calls the Lower East Side “the epicenter of songwriting history in the 20th century” – mainly due to the fact that Irving Berlin grew up there. And that’s a connection that resonates throughout the works of The Magnetic Fields – though the band recorded on the North Carolina indie rock label Merge, Merritt’s group is more an heir to the lineage of songwriters like Berlin and Cole Porter than part of the scene of indie rock and pop of label mates like Superchuck, Spoon, or even the artier Arcade Fire.

And though the magical wonderland that was the Lower East Side is gone now, The Magnetic Fields have left behind a document of that time and particularly of the people who populated it – the 3CD set 69 Love Songs. Merritt is quick to distinguish that only some of these songs are “true” songs – meaning that they’re about his own lived experience – but they’re most assuredly true in the sense that even if he hasn’t lived them, someone has. His characters bounce around this wonderland trying to connect, looking for love in 69 different ways (only 23 of which are, of course, documented on Vol. 1), many of them sad and bleak, which is Merritt’s métier, but all of them also imbued with a droll and deadpan sense of humor that keeps the songs out of the realms of the overly dolorous. For example, in “I Don’t Believe in the Sun” one of his lovers is unable to find a suitable object of romance since a breakup and notes “The Moon to whom the poets croon/has given up and died” which could easily pass for a couplet from some Goth band’s oeuvre, but then he adds (drolly and drily): “Astronomy
will have to be revised,” a line that would never occur to the gloom merchants. Similarly, “A pretty girl is like a violent crime/if you do it wrong you could do time/but if you do it right it is sublime” is hardly any kind of normal love song fare, but it’s part and parcel of The Magnetic Fields’ world. Musically speaking, Merritt handles synthesizer and ukulele duties, along with a number of other more obscure instruments he doesn’t list, while his cohorts appear on the more conventional support of piano, guitar, drums, banjo, cello and other instruments. And then there are the guests – friends picked up in and around the Lower East Side of the time brought in to contribute to the scene report herein. Some of them Merritt found in other bands, others working the door of bars he frequented – both of which are true of Dudley Klute, who contributes the entire set’s finest vocal performance in “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” (also noted in the lyrics as “the ugliest guy on the Lower East Side” who happens to have an edge on the competition because he’s got a car). The guests add variety to make the set what it is – Merritt’s own dolorous baritone is cut with other voices beyond even those of other members of The Magnetic Fields to make the funniest, catchiest, and far and away the best album ever essayed by this talented group.

Normally, we avoid recommending pricy
collections and films in I’d Love to Turn You On. Who are we to, on the strength of our words alone, suggest that you should drop 20 or 30 bucks sound-unheard on a record or movie? We try to keep it reasonable and cheap. But that, and only that, is the reason I’m recommending Vol. 1, rather than the entire 3CD set, which is really the proper way to experience this music (plus you get a great booklet with a lengthy interview with Stephin Merritt detailing each track). I count 12 great songs of the 23 included on this disc, with the other 11 ranging from amusing to very good. And it includes “The Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side” which is the greatest song of the entire set. Well, except maybe for “Papa Was a Rodeo” (one of Merritt’s faux-country tunes later covered by Bright Eyes, Kelly Hogan, and The Magic Numbers, among others) or “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure” (critic Robert Christgau’s favorite). Really – if you have the slightest interest, you’ll need the whole set, but if you want to dip your toes in to test the water first, Vol. 1 has the highest concentration of greats – Vol. 2 and 3 each count 10 great ones for me, though your personal mileage may vary. The whole thing is never less than entertaining, often far better than that, and great for 30 songs (by my count) out of 69, which as a batting average is better than the greatest hitter ever in MLB. Additionally, due to popular demand, Merge is reissuing the set in a limited 10”vinyl box set on November 6th, so you vinyl enthusiasts should mark your calendars.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, September 28, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #124 - The Fountain (2006, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

Izzi: "It's all done except the last chapter. I want you to help me. Finish it..."

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain is a sprawling narrative that spans the past, present, and future (perhaps metaphorical). In just a short hour an a half Aronofsky fully engages and seemingly works through the pain and mystery of death while simultaneously rejecting any attempt to fully grasp such a concept. This is a truly beautiful and moving film that seamlessly weaves back and forth between three vast narratives that are infinitely intertwined. While the three stories might at first seem unrelated they are in essence different incarnations of the same basic human struggle, coming to grips with the inevitable reality of death.

In an attempt to give you a brief snapshot of the immense story (or stories) within this film, I will try and boil each of the three narratives to its essence. In the main narrative, that of present day experimental medical researcher Tommy (Hugh Jackman) is racing to find a cure for a cancer that is rapidly consuming his beloved wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz). We follow Tommy as he makes headway and suffers setbacks in his research, but more importantly we see the struggle of both Tommy and Izzi as they work through the changing dynamics of their life as they come to terms with, or refuse to come to terms with, the inevitable. While Tommy buries himself in his work frantically looking for a solution, an answer, a cure, Izzi grows more serenely accepting of life and death. In the film Izzi has written a book entitled The Fountain, and this book provides the past narrative which follows Tomas (also played by Jackman) as he quests to find the "Tree of Life" that will provide him and his Queen Isabel (also played by Weisz) with eternal life. Driven by his love for his Queen, Tomas braves the treacherous South American rainforest where he encounters Mayan forces that bar his path to the infamous Tree. Then in the future (or more metaphorical narrative) we follow Tom Cero (also Jackman) as he floats through space in a clear sphere with a tree and his thoughts, dreams, and memories to keep him company on his journey to Xibalba the place where he believes he will be reborn and his tree will be saved. This narrative is often used to connect all of the narratives as Tom Cero seems to be almost haunted by visions of Izzi and Isabel. As he flies through space he rehashes certain pivotal moments that then shift back to the present or the past. All of the three narratives trace the arcs of Tom-Tommy-Tomas as he fights against, struggles with, and comes to terms with death.

Lord of Xibalba: "Death is the road to awe."

That is certainly a brief introduction to all three of the much more rich narratives that develop through this film, and I cannot stress enough just how beautifully each narrative is illustrated and the extraordinary way in which each of the stories are woven into each other. Through beautiful camerawork (shot by Aronofsky’s go-to cinematographer, Matthew Libatique) and an intense, almost Kubrick-ian, control of scene and setting The Fountain's story comes to life. There are many subtle, self-referential scenes and sequences that connect the story arcs not merely through narrative similarities but also through nuanced visual cues. Additionally the entire film has a very distinctive visual style that carries through the different stories, and all three are linked through the visuals of Xibalba, the dazzling, dying star. These visuals are yet another aspect of the film that sets it on a higher level. Rather than resting on the abilities of CGI graphics to create this realm, Aronofsky decided to film chemical reactions at a microscopic level and use these slowed down reactions as the visual representation of the mysterious Xibalba. The fact that he utilized this microscopic beauty to visualize something so macroscopic in scale and mystery adds an extra level to the aesthetic of the film, and keeps every aspect of the film grounded in the physical, terrestrial world.

However, none of this would matter if we as an audience don't care about our protagonists, and therein lies another incredibly strong aspect of this film, the acting. Both Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz prove incredibly versatile as they are forced to play a number of different characters. While Weisz is embodies her characters in a way that you can't help but fall in love with, Jackman's portrayal of Tomas-Tommy-Tom is really the star in this film. Through the different characters (or incarnations of the same character) Jackman is forced to confront, convey and successfully command such a range of emotion. A lesser actor might have overdone the subtlety necessary to embody the human condition, but Hugh Jackman came through hugely and the strength and weight of his performance cannot be overstated. On top of the beautiful and masterfully crafted visuals, intriguing interconnected narratives, and amazing performances from the actors, the film is also has a phenomenal soundtrack composed by Clint Mansell and played by The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai. The soundtrack is another uniting force through the narratives and is in essence one beautiful slow build throughout the film to an epic closing crescendo.

So just to sum all of this up – and I seriously haven't even begun to scratch the surface – this is a seriously one-of-a-kind film that investigates the human condition and the way that we struggle with and come to terms with the reality of what it means to be mortal. It is a beautifully shot and realized masterwork that conveys a strong and monumentally immense narrative in a very concise and emotional way. Why would I love to turn you on to this film? Because even after seeing it as many times as I have, I am affected by it as much now as I was the first time I watched it. You simply have to see for yourself, and after you do I highly recommend looking into all of the different theories about the meaning and the views on the characters and different narratives!
- Edward Hill


Monday, September 21, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #138 - 801 - 801 Live

In 1976, Phil Manzanera, of the temporarily disbanded Roxy Music, got together with his ex-bandmate Brian Eno (then still going just by Eno) to form a new band for a series of live shows. Dubbed 801, from an Eno lyric, the group included several members of the prog scene and young drummer Simon Phillips who would go on to be one of the premier session players in rock and jazz. The material came primarily from Eno and Manzanera's solo work as well as containing a pair of classic covers, cleverly reworked. Most of the live set (and resulting album) alternates between instrumental and vocal tracks with Eno singing lead. With everything Eno has accomplished in the years since, and with the reputation that has grown up around him, this album seems like an oddity to look back on. This is primarily a prog/fusion group and it may seem like heresy to some to hear a few of Eno's classic songs performed in such a fashion. But at the time, they were all part of the same scene and it's great to hear this excellent material performed by a highly talented group of musicians, even if Eno claimed to be a "non-musician."

The album opens with "Lagrima," a Manzanera solo guitar piece, which serves as an intro to a radical reworking of The Beatles' psychedelic classic "Tomorrow Never Knows." The song is turned into a funky, spacey workout with particularly excellent bass lines from Bill MacCormick. The complex instrumental "East of Asteroid" follows and is the album's most purely prog selection. Next comes the ballad "Rongwrong" which contains a surprisingly gentle vocal from Eno, who breaks out of his usual monotone style of singing. This leads to the first appearance of an Eno composition, "Sombre Reptiles" which originally appeared on Another Green World. The tape loop-enhanced original actually translates nicely to a full band format. Unfortunately, the time and space limitations of old LPs force the track to fade out before the performance is complete. Another Eno tune follows and "Baby's On Fire" get transformed from an intense slow-burn to an all out rocker. Manzanera takes center stage on "Diamond Head," the title track of his solo album from the previous year. This is a true guitarist showcase with Manzanera moving from clean melodic lines to fiery solos. "Miss Shapiro" was also taken from the Diamond Head album but was co-written with Eno and actually sounds more like an Eno track than anything else here. Just as "Miss Shapiro" reaches its musical climax, in pops one of the most recognizable riffs in rock, The Kinks' "You Really Got Me." The venerable classic is given a complete makeover that manages to be whimsical while still rocking out. The album concludes with a thunderous version of Eno's "Third Uncle" that finds the entire band charging at full speed.

801 Live may not be the first record that comes to mind when discussing the long and varied careers of Eno and Manzanera. It is somewhat of a relic from the time when prog and glam were fading but punk had yet to assert itself.  It's essential listening not just for Roxy/Eno/Manzanera fans, but fans of prog, fusion and art rock.
            - Adam Reshotko