Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #53 - Imitation of Life (1959, dir. Douglas Sirk)

            German-born director Douglas Sirk, who like many talented directors fled Germany during the rise of the Nazis to find work in America, created a series of masterful melodramas in Hollywood. At the time the pictures were considered pure fluff, dismissed with the derogatory term “Women’s Weepies,” but time has come to show Sirk’s mastery of film and his preoccupation with women’s issues – and in this case race – to be prescient. By the time of Imitation of Life, Sirk had made some 30 films in Hollywood and in many ways it’s his crowning glory, his ideas all at a peak of expression. The exaggeratedly melodramatic expression of the characters – he called it "dramas of swollen emotions" – may induce a chuckle here and there, but nobody’s laughing at the ideas, or at the way he sets up the devastating finale of the film.
            The film, a remake of a 1934 film of the same title based on a Fannie Hurst novel, centers on an ambitious actress, Lora Meredith (played by Lana Turner), and her daughter Susie (played by Sandra Dee), who take on a black woman named Annie Johnson (played by Juanita Moore) and her light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (played by Susan Kohner) to live in a spare room they have and help around the house. The first part of the film sees Lora and Annie and their daughters struggling to make ends meet (and also sets up the conflicts that will play out in the rest of the film) while the remainder shows the now-successful Lora Meredith and how her success has not brought happiness or fulfillment to herself or those around her. But the focus in the second half really shifts to the conflicts between Annie and her daughter. Sarah Jane finds that her race puts barriers between her and what she wants but is light-skinned enough to pass for white and does so whenever she has the opportunity, much to the chagrin of her mother who repeatedly tells her there’s no reason she should be ashamed of who she is.
            The film is fully centered on these women. Men play almost no part in the narrative except at moments of convenience, and it’s reflected in Sirk’s way of having Lora move in the film – note how often she’s separated from men in the frame, or facing or moving away from them. And when Lora’s on-again-off-again romantic interest Steve tries to tell her how she will live her life, he’s definitively rebuked. Men are there, but for Lora only as means to further her ambitions, and for the daughters as objects of unattainable desire. It would be a crime to spoil how things play out in the film, so suffice to say that Annie’s almost-saintly and long-suffering behavior with her daughter plays into Sirk’s best-ever ending, and that Lora’s ruthless and selfish ambition and Sarah Jane’s rejection of her race, hemming her in to only "busboys, cooks, chauffeurs" as potential romantic objects, combine to give the title more meaning than the glossy soap opera name it could be perceived as.
            Sirk is a master of composition and he’s abetted here by his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Russell Metty, creating dazzling Eastman Color (it’s not Technicolor just because it’s bright!) compositions that owe much to Sirk’s long-time interest in painting but also to his interest in using the frame to portray his characters as trapped and hemmed in by their worlds, blocked or separated from others by the things they’ve acquired. He’s also aided by a tight, no-nonsense script co-written by Allan Scott, responsible for many of the best of the Astaire-Rogers films, and certainly someone who knows how to use words sparingly and precisely. The film’s head-on depiction of race issues in the heating up time of the Civil Rights movement takes center stage in the film, making this unique amongst his “Women’s Weepies,” though it takes an equally strong stance about the women’s independence in the film and ices the whole cake with the generational conflicts between mothers and daughters. Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner both received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (which likely split the vote between these superb performances and gave the Oscar to Shelley Winters for The Diary of Anne Frank), and the film was ultimately Sirk’s biggest commercial success. Upon completion of the shooting, Sirk and his wife returned to Europe and he retired from filmmaking, living out the rest of his days in Switzerland and seeing belated acclaim for his brilliance finally come his way in the 1970’s and 1980’s. And while many of his superb melodramas of the 1950’s are worthwhile views – particularly All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Magnificent Obsession, and A Time to Love and A Time to Die – this one may well be his finest achievement. Keep the tissues handy for that ending though.
            - Patrick Brown

Friday, November 23, 2012

Several Species of Small Furry Thoughts - Springsteen, Neil Young and Black Friday

Another crazy week! Starting with Bruce Springsteen at The Pepsi Center. I just got a smart phone and took some movies of a few of the highlights. I have a complicated relationship with Springsteen. It goes kinda like this; Loved him, hated him, loved him again, lost interest in him, loved him, became ambivalent, and now, love him again. Bruce and his gigantic (now 17 piece) E. Street Band (including late sax player Clarence Clemons’ Nephew Jake Clemons filling his uncle’s shoes pretty amazingly) took no prisoners at this show. It was classic Brooce; an endless marathon of heartfelt, original material peppered with huge hits ("Born To Run", "Hungry Heart", "Dancing in The Dark", "Promised Land", "I’m A Rocker, Badlands"), covers ("Get Out Of Denver", "Raise Your Hand", "Across The Borderline", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town") and deep cuts ("E-Street Shuffle", "Spirit In The Night", "Bishop Danced"). It lasted three hours and it is safe to say that nobody in the joint left unhappy. It was exhilarating to watch this 63-year old legend deliver a show with more energy, guts and pure rock adrenalin than most performers half (a third?) his age. As I watched him I couldn’t help but think how I wish every young person could see this show before it is too late and there aren’t any performers with a genuine connection to the golden era left. Springsteen isn’t Dylan and he isn’t The Beatles, but he is probably the greatest exponent of a certain brand of uniquely American rock - the type that used to be played in small working-class bars throughout the country; fist-pumping, horn-blaring, top-down, cruising rock that people of limited means can enjoy and own as much as the president of a record company or the richest guy in the world. Bruce is an equal opportunity hero who speaks to all with an open heart.
Something you might miss out on if you didn't know about it is the Blu-Ray version of Neil Young’s new masterpiece Psychedelic Pill. On the last few Neil releases Neil has quietly snuck out a DVD or Blu-Ray version of his new albums that often have remarkable additional material on them. Psychedelic Pill not only sounds even better on Blu-Ray audio but each song has a video accompanying it. Some are mostly just a light show, like the kaleidoscope effect on opener “Drifting Back” while others Like “Twisted Road” and “Born In Ontario” are full blown videos with unseen images of Neil at home, on the road, in the past and now. In addition, there is a bonus track called “Horse Back” that is an amazing 35 minute free-form jam that morphs into the classic “Cortez The Killer” while taking the listener on a video tour of Neil’s recording studio, focusing on all his vintage gear and homespun accouterments. If you love this album as much as I do, do yourself a favor and pick up the Blu-Ray version.

We are almost 3 hours into this year’s Record Store Day Black Friday celebration and things are going quite nicely. About a hundred people in line when we opened and a nice convivial feel in the crowd. It looks like almost everybody is getting what they want. The early winners seem to be Primus, The White Stripes, The Grateful Dead and The Fat Boys Pizza Box. Come on down - we still have lots of stock on many items.

Happy Thanksgiving
Paul Epstein

I'd Love to Turn You On #69 - Tortoise - TNT

Sometime in the mid-1990s, amid the grunge/alternative explosion, something completely different emerged known as "post-rock."  This immediately became a case of "I can't define it but I know it when I hear it" for most who encountered the music.  Definitions have always been tricky.  I once read a description of post-rock as "using rock instruments to make music that is not rock," but that doesn't really work unless you consider the marimba a rock instrument.  Back in the 90s, if you recorded for the great Chicago label Thrill Jockey, you were probably post-rock, or at least labeled post-rock.  Tortoise was the best-known Thrill Jockey band of the time and, as a result, became the kings of post-rock.  Many consider 1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die to be their masterpiece and as great as that one is, my personal favorite is 1998's TNT.  This was the point where Tortoise began to incorporate electronic instrumentation much more prominently into their sound.  It was also their first album with guitarist Jeff Parker and last with multi-instrumentalist David Pajo..

The album opens with the title track and the first thing we hear are jazzy drums, reminiscent of Elvin Jones or Art Blakey.  A simple yet memorable guitar line chimes in and is repeated throughout the piece.  Slowly, more and more instruments are added, the sound getting fuller and fuller.  Also making an appearance here is cornet player Rob Mazurek who played with several Tortoise members in Isotope 217.  The propulsive "Swung From the Gutters" follows and then the absolutely gorgeous "Ten-Day Interval."  Multiple marimbas combine with piano in a piece that closely resembles classical minimalism.  "I Set My Face to the Hillside" moves in yet another direction, sounding like an outtake from a spaghetti western soundtrack.

The second half of the album is where electronic elements come into play even more.  "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls" has a title that recalls John Fahey but is actually one of the band’s more groove oriented tracks.  Several tracks toward the end all flow together and by the time we get to "Jetty" the band has developed a nice loungey vibe.  The closing track "Everglade" ends on a both a beautiful and majestic note.

I'll be honest, this is an album that's hard to put into words.  It really needs to be listened to.  It may not be typical of Tortoise or post-rock, but then again there is nothing typical about either band or genre.  It is what it is and what it is is one of the best albums of the 90s.
            - Adam Reshotko

Friday, November 16, 2012

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts - Three Cheers For Robert Fripp!!!

The mousy, bespectacled guitar genius and seemingly indefatigable leader and creative engine behind King Crimson has remained an enigmatic presence for over 40 years, consistently responsible for some of the most eccentric, precise and challenging rock music of the idiom. This month sees Fripp at the helm of two projects, one new and one archival, which just verify his standing both then and now. First is the King Crimson masterpiece Lark’s Tongues In Aspic which is one of the jewels of the already impressive King Crimson reissue campaign. Lark’s Tongues is being issued as a 2 CD or a CD/DVD package on November 27th or is available now as a super deluxe 15 disc set including CDs, DVDs and a Blu Ray filled with live shows, outtakes, surround mixes and videos compiled into an overwhelming monument to this overwhelmingly monumental album. Released in 1972, Lark’s Tongues finds one of the great Crimson lineups (Fripp, Bill Bruford on drums, Jamie Muir on percussion, John Wetton on bass and vocals and David Cross on violin and flute) at the magical crossroads of youthful creativity and mature instrumental mastery. This beautiful box set includes every note this particular band played together and it is a thrilling ride. Lark’s Tongues has everything that makes King Crimson great; melodic ballads (“Book Of Saturday,” “Exiles”), long, complicated works with tension-filled buildups and cathartic refrains (the title track), and the kind of skronky rawk that so many thick-bespectacled sci-fi nerds fell in love with in the 70’s (“Talking Drum” and “Easy Money”). King Crimson made the waters safer for thinking man’s music in the mainstream and Lark’s Tongues In Aspic is as good an example of this as any they produced.

Robert Fripp has recently produced an album with British jazz/classical horn player Theo Travis called Follow that shows him in a much more contemplative but no less experimental mode. Follow is a series of instrumental duets that have elements of ambient music, new age, electronic, world and jazz. Fripp, once again, shows he can do it all, playing thick textural backgrounds for Travis to solo over, or leading the way with his snakey electric tone and carefully constructing fills. He also revisits his concept of “Frippertronics” (layer upon layer of looped guitar phrases culminating in a literal wall of sound) on a song called, appropriately enough, “1979.” The CD comes with a DVD of surround mixes and video of the duo playing together in a church. This is far from the rock ethic of King Crimson but is a beautifully satisfying addition to the Robert Fripp canon and again shows him to be a master of his instrument no matter what the context.

-by Paul Epstein

Monday, November 12, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #52 - Velvet Goldmine (1998, dir. Todd Haynes)

No other modern filmmaker has traced the roots of queer iconography through the landscape of popular culture like Todd Haynes has. Every single one of his films wears the mask of different cinematic inspirations, from The Stepford Wives, B-horror films, and Fassbinder, to documentaries, to All That Heaven Allows (and the rest of Douglas Sirk’s lush canon) which provides a clever transition to a face of fascinating queer dynamics and dimensions underneath.
Following the arthouse success of his first two feature films, Poison and Safe, Haynes poured his all into a passion project that would tell the “unofficial” story of the rise and fall of glam rock called Velvet Goldmine. In the film Haynes borrows a genius plot device from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane as we follow British journalist Arthur Stuart (Christian Bale) who is assigned the daunting story of finding out what happened to glam rock icon Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) an influential David Bowie-esque rock star who inspired millions of fans to explore their sexuality in gender bending style. At the height of his worldwide success Brian faked his death on stage at a sold out concert, a move that alienated his fans and destroyed his career. But what led him to such career suicide? Was it living in the shadow of an inspiration like musician Jack Fairy, a queer enigma who seemed to come straight from outer space? Was it the burning fire behind his relationship, both professional and much more, with hard rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor)? Or was it merely the shock of becoming a rising star under the guise of a persona that the world loved but Slade despised?
The true pleasure of watching Velvet Goldmine is watching how Haynes allows his journalist to connect the dots from the cold present day to a shiny, glittery past. With Brian Slade having never been heard from again, Arthur sets out to interview those closest to him from his bitter and long suffering ex-wife Mandy (Toni Collette) to his flamboyant and conniving ex-manager Jerry Devine (a fits-like-a-glove performance from Eddie Izzard) and everyone in-between. All the while Arthur inserts himself into Slade’s history from the point of view of one of his biggest fans, a teenager who is coming to terms with a burgeoning sexuality that Slade’s lyrics, style and appeal begins to influence. It is through Arthur that Todd Haynes’ real connection to the film comes through. When we watch young Arthur try on blush and eyeliner and become turned on listening to Brian Slade’s album, while leering over the elegant nude photos of the artist within, we feel a connection to Haynes’ teenage years. We can imagine what an epiphany he felt listening to the likes of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Jobriath, the real artists whose stories and legends provide Velvet Goldmine its real glitter and we really hope that the fabulous legend that the filmmaker has brought to life matches the real life stories of some of rock’s biggest stars. 
These men who changed minds, music and the world for a delicious new better one also get paid tribute on the film’s explosive soundtrack that features some of the very songs that made that era infamous, covered by modern groups like Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, David Gray, Suede's Bernard Butler, and Roxy Music's Andy Mackay. The American musicians who played as Curt Wild's Wylde Ratttz on the soundtrack were The Stooges' Ron Asheton, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Steve Shelley, Minutemen's Mike Watt, Gumball's Don Fleming, and Mark Arm of Mudhoney. This great soundtrack features new songs written for the film by Pulp, Shudder to Think and Grant Lee Buffalo as well as many early glam rock compositions, both covers and original versions. The Venus in Furs cover several Roxy Music songs with Thom Yorke channeling Bryan Ferry on vocals, Placebo covers T. Rex's "20th Century Boy," Wylde Ratttz and Ewan McGregor cover The Stooges' "T.V. Eye" and "Gimme Danger," and Teenage Fanclub and Donna Matthews cover The New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis." Lou Reed, Brian Eno, T. Rex, and Steve Harley songs from the period are also included. Like the opening of the film disclaims: “Although what you are about to see is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.”
- Keith Garcia, Programming Manager, Denver Film Society

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #68 - Woody Shaw – Rosewood

There's a point in Ken Burns' 2-parts-enlightening-to-1-part-frustrating documentary Jazz where Branford Marsalis, who should know better, states that around 1975 "Jazz just kind of died." Even allowing that he rules Miles Davis' music of the era outside the jazz spectrum and has no use for the vibrant avant-garde scene of the time there's no excuse for him ignoring Woody Shaw, who in 1977 followed his rising star on a series of stellar albums for the Muse label (most notably the regrettably out of print The Moontrane and The Iron Men) to release Rosewood, his major label debut for Columbia Records. What Marsalis means is that as a commercial force, jazz had taken a definitive back seat to rock music and R&B and this is a true statement, but as a music between the New York's loft scene, Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and albums like Rosewood (plus Miles Davis’ music through 1975, I would argue), Marsalis shouldn't have been to quick to lament the demise of the music.
Woody Shaw spent the 1960's playing alongside such giants of the music as Eric Dolphy, Larry Young, Horace Silver, Pharoah Sanders, Art Blakey, Andrew Hill and others and learned from them how to incorporate all styles of music and subsume them to the jazz he wanted to make. So while this could easily be described as a kind of post-bop jazz record with all the bracing energy and tuneful forms of the style, Shaw is unafraid to use colors borrowed from Miles’ “fusion” advances (in the form of electric piano), and “free” music, in the form of following Eric Dolphy’s lead in playing “inside and outside at the same time.” Nothing here is too “out” to scare off unwary listeners and every tune sports a melody worth humming along to, in addition to great playing all around. Especially great are “Rahsaan’s Run” a tribute to another hugely underrated jazz player, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who did terrific work when jazz had supposedly “died,” and the lovely “Sunshowers.” But every track here showcases the sextet in peak form, with Shaw himself definitively leading things, though certainly allotting space to his worthy cohorts, particularly saxophonist Joe Henderson and drummer Victor Lewis. Included after the album reissue are three more tracks from a subsequent session for Columbia that’s unlikely to make its way to CD any time soon, but proves beyond a doubt that this man carried the torch of jazz – however you’d like to define it – in fine form.
            - Patrick Brown