Monday, October 28, 2013

Move Me Brightly – A Documentary Concert Film Celebrating Jerry Garcia's 70th Birthday

In general I have avoided too much Jerry-ana. I loved Jerry's singing and playing, and found him an endlessly compelling thinker and talker, but I have a problem with the cult of personality that has grown up around him. Many are incapable of seeing the feet of clay on their heroes. Either way, his body of work stands as its own judgment. Move Me Brightly is a heartfelt and musically rewarding tribute to that body of work, and to a lesser extent a nod to the personality as well.

Led by Garcia's loyal sidekick, Bob Weir, Move Me Brightly finds a revolving cast of Garcia contemporaries paired with a tasteful group of younger players immersing themselves in some of Garcia's best songs. Weir, Donna-Jean Godchaux, Phil Lesh and Mike Gordon are joined by Jonathan Wilson, Cass Mccombs, Harper Simon (Paul's son) and members of The Hold Steady, Vampire Weekend, Ryan Adams and The Cardinals, Black Crowes, Yellowbirds and others for a hypnotizing couple of hours of truly great music.

Weir comports himself with dignity and generosity as he lets each guest shine on vocals or their respective instrument. Many times he guides the assembled into an ensemble wall-of-sound utilizing up to five guitarists on stage at the same time. Because of the careful rehearsal that went into this event, along with the beautiful sound achieved, there is almost no stepping on other people's solo, and each instrument is beautifully clear and adding to the whole. And the whole is an emotionally and musically satisfying event. There are many highlights, including Jonathan Wilson's haunting version of “Mission In The Rain,” and Neil Casal's overwhelmingly emotional reading of “Ship Of Fools.” Weir tackles “The Days Between” and “Shakedown Street” with just the right blend of ownership and borrowing, a balance he has increasingly struck with authority.
I kept waiting to be let down, but I never was. The playing was phenomenal throughout, and the taped interviews with four of Jerry's daughters, ex-wife and brother are illuminating as well as humanizing. Other musicians like David Hidalgo, Carlos Santana, both Dead drummers, Perry Farrell, Dave Schools and Mike Campbell all spill their love for Jerry without getting sappy, and the overall feeling one is left with is profound dignity. It is hard to imagine that a movie without an actual appearance by Jerry Garcia could say so much about his music and legacy, but Move Me Brightly does just that. Not to be missed!
- Paul Epstein

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #76 - Re-Animator (1985, dir. Stuart Gordon)

In the opening scene of this film, set at a hospital in the University of Zurich, two policemen are lead by employees of the hospital to investigate the source of crashing sounds and unearthly screams emanating from Dr. Gruber's locked office. The police break in to find Dr. Gruber seizing on the floor, with Herbert West (played with terrific zeal by Jeffrey Combs) hovering over him with an empty syringe. West is pulled off by the police, shouting that he needs to record the data of Gruber's vital signs and that a vital experiment has been interrupted. Gruber screams, squeezes his head until his eyeballs burst and then collapses on the floor, dead. One of the employees accuses West of killing him, to which he calmly responds "No I did not. I gave him life." Herbert West is a little cracked. Maybe more than a little. But with his calmly clinical attitude he’s also the man you want in your corner when the shit hits the fan, as it most assuredly does later in the film.
Re-Animator is an over the top horror film with tongue planted firmly in cheek, based on a series of stories by H.P. Lovecraft but just as equally indebted to the Grand Guignol theater in its depiction of graphic horrors with very little in the way of any moralizing. Providing the film’s moral center is the couple Dan and Meg – Dan (Bruce Abbott) is a promising medical student at Miskatonic University (an invention of Lovecraft’s), an ivy-league college in New England, and Meg (Barbara Crampton) is the daughter of the dean of the school. This is our normal couple about to enter into the maelstrom and madness unleashed by Herbert West. After the tragic demise of Dr. Gruber, West relocates to Miskatonic, bringing his re-animating solution that can give new life to dead tissue – a scientific research gone awry as he pursues results further and further afield (at one point he’s hovering over a recently deceased corpse yelling at Dan’s qualms about reviving the corpse with a curt "Every moment that we spend talking about it costs us results!"). Rounding out the central characters are Meg’s father, an old-fashioned, out-of-touch fuddy-duddy, and Dr. Hill, the school’s star brain surgeon and “grant machine,” played as a perfectly arrogant, slavering creep by David Gale. Conflicts between Herbert West and Dr. Hill are set up from the get-go as West accuses Hill of stealing Dr. Gruber’s ideas, and Meg has an understandable and immediate dislike of West’s cold and creepy demeanor when he asks to move in with Dan and set up a crude laboratory in the basement of his house.
As West demonstrates the effectiveness of his re-animating serum to Dan, things quickly begin to slide downward for everyone involved and before long we get to witness a re-animated head, several severed limbs, mind control via laser brain surgery, and many other ghastly horrors, all delivered in a spirit of gleeful excess by director Gordon (a founder of the noted Organic Theater Company) and his cast, who do the film a great service by playing it completely straight. It’s to their credit that despite the film’s panoply of grotesque (and funny) horrors they also make sure that its characters read as true – too often horror films populate their casts with clichés just waiting to be bumped off so it’s always nice when one spends the time to make us believe the people we’re watching, even if we know that they’re actually going to play second fiddle to a shambling headless corpse at some point.
Along with other horror films of its time like Evil Dead 2 and Dead Alive, Re-Animator marries comedy to the horrific proceedings in a perfect mixture and would certainly be a lesser film if it merely went for scares. And though they pay homage to Lovecraft’s spirit, they take his ideas pretty far out in a way the author himself never did in his preference for horrors insinuated and alluded to rather than displayed. And that’s where it comes back to the Grand Guignol’s displays of excess and gore. And despite being very much of its time in the spirit of what other horror films were doing, there’s just something about its rootedness of Gordon’s work with his actors and his experience on stage that makes even the most outrageous effects and scenes of the film seem like they’re as natural as the characters they’ve made. It’s a spectacularly entertaining film, certainly not for everyone, but if you’ve read this far, it’s most likely a film for you.
- Patrick Brown

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #91 - Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band - Doc at the Radar Station

Maybe you know the good Captain’s music, maybe not. There probably ought to be two separate reviews for those who do and those who don’t, because your approach to this album will be different based on whether you know what you’re getting into or not. Those in the know can skip ahead a bit; those who don’t have any Beefheart in their heads yet should read on.

Captain Beefheart’s music has a reputation – completely earned, of course – of being weird and difficult. This is, in part, due to the reputation of the titanic 1969 double album Trout Mask Replica, an album I have a hard time listening to all the way through without getting a headache (even though I enjoy it in smaller doses) and one that is often the album people come to first to hear his music – sometimes never to return. It placed #60 on Rolling Stone’s 2003 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and is a regular feature of other such lists. Encouraged by his producer and friend Frank Zappa to indulge his wildest musical and poetic impulses, Beefheart and his crack band essayed a bizarre combination of guttural Delta Blues, experimentally primitive rock, surrealist poetry and psychedelia that certainly sounded like nothing else that existed at the time, and still sounds like nothing else except the Captain’s own music. He’d make a slightly more user-friendly version on his next album and continued to make more accessible work over the next few years. But by the later part of the 70’s he was again on track with an album that hit a good middle ground between his compromises and his artistic impulses (1978’s terrific Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)) and that leads us right to this 1980 album. Realizing that his watered-down versions of Beefheart weren’t making him any more money than the undiluted Beefheart, he stripped his music of the pop trappings (psychedelia had long since fallen by the wayside) and left only this corraded version of his music, winnowed down to its weird and exciting core of blues-influenced art-rock.
Where Trout Mask and its immediate follow-up Lick My Decals Off, Baby flaunted their jagged and shifting rhythms and colored their ensembles with fruity instrumentation, spoken word interjections and sound effects, by the time of Doc, Beefheart et al had streamlined their music to an efficient machine and Beefheart’s own production managed to make even the most challenging rhythms and strangest poetry and vocal inflections here sound like they flowed naturally. Take "Sheriff of Hong Kong" here: it never settles into a groove that lasts more than a few bars, the Captain screams and growls his head off, uses weird words and dissonance at will, and yet set alongside some of his challenging earlier works it sounds positively rocking, as opposed to some aural art piece to be appreciated by connoisseurs and hipster cognoscenti and closet surrealists only. And though there are frequent and unexpected Mellotron intrusions throughout the album, the art quotient here seems subservient to the rock values, which makes it a fine entry point into the Captain’s catalog for the uninitiated. Even though it doesn’t sacrifice its basic weirdness and angularity, somehow the jaggedness grooves here where it's at cross purposes on Trout Mask, highlighting the alienating strangeness of it all. And it doesn’t hurt that it kicks off with four killers in a row – “Hot Head” and “Ashtray Heart” are simply two of the Captain’s finest songs, period, while “A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” gives a lovely breather for keyboard and guitar and “Run Paint Run Run” again finds the band in a rocking groove that you could even dance to, if so inclined. They run through two artier numbers and the first side is done. Second side kicks off with another killer in “Dirty Blue Gene” with its rocketing guitar riffs and double-tracked screams and then moves into the oddly optimistic “Best Batch Yet.” Next up is the uber-paranoid “Telephone” and another gorgeous interlude with Gary Lucas’ solo guitar piece “Flavor Bud Living” before the six-plus minutes of “Sheriff of Hong Kong” move us up to the finale – the utterly bizarre and profane “Making Love to a Vampire with a Monkey on My Knee.” And that’s it – a cool 38 minutes and change, not the nearly 80 headache-inducing minutes of Trout Mask Replica. And though the band’s back cover/insert photo looks like they’re daring you to give the album a try, none of them smiling, it’s actually quite absorbing and accessible – well, within the Captain’s weird world, anyway.
Maybe there will be another album in his catalog that speaks to you more – Trout Mask’s uncompromised weirdness certainly has many admirers and even I tend to lean toward the friendlier Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) or Clear Spot when I want to play something that other people can enjoy more readily, but Doc at the Radar Station is, for me, the perfect mix of the Captain’s best artistic impulses and his ability to allow others a view of his weird world that won’t scare them completely off.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #75 - A Fish Called Wanda (1988, dir. Charles Crichton, John Cleese)

"Don't Call Me Stupid!"

As the credits for A Fish Called Wanda begin and we realize that John Cleese and Charles Crichton co-wrote and directed what we are about to see, what follows should be a guaranteed comedic masterpiece. A glorious melding of minds that gave us Monty Python and what is probably the masterpiece from the Ealing Studios, The Lavender Hill Mob. With these two geniuses at the helm, what could go wrong? The answer of course (and in the most British manner) is everything!
The story fools us right away, posing as a typical heist film. We quickly meet all the characters as they prepare to steal a large stash of jewels. The actual heist lasts a few minutes at most, as it quickly becomes apparent that the film is far more interested in the absurd idiosyncrasies of its irresistibly naughty characters as they constantly try to rip off and one up each other.
I will reveal very little plot, because this perfectly oiled machine offers up rapid paced hilarity that will keep you giggling and guffawing throughout its breezy runtime. Pay close attention to the smaller side characters throughout the film as they deliver some of the best lines.
A Fish Called Wanda is the ultimate refresher for those tired of typical American comedy. It’s no surprise coming from John Cleese that the characters, on paper, would read as simple stereotypes. But, in the hands of these gifted actors, they become living, breathing train wrecks that we simply cannot take our eyes off. Cleese himself plays the pompous, uppity barrister who is simply hopeless if a pretty girl with cleavage bats her eyes. Said girl is played pitch perfectly by Jamie Lee Curtis (in what I would argue is her finest role). She plays Wanda, the gorgeous American girl duping Englishmen left and right and doing whatever she pleases, all with a beautiful smile and a healthy dose of glee.  Michael Palin plays the fish obsessed (he gets to deliver the titular line), stuttering man who is terrified of the foolhardy American man's sexual advances (Kevin Kline giving his career best). Kline's character is my personal favorite, a wonderful over-exaggeration of the insecure American man. When he needs to "think" he fires a gun, when he needs to relax he stares at himself in the mirror as he plays with delightfully phallic swords (an hysterical pre cursor to the opening of American Psycho, which offers up skewering satire about half as well) and an absolute obsession with not being called stupid under any circumstances.
A Fish Called Wanda is break-neck paced comedy unlike any I've seen before or since. Unlike the typical comedy we see nowadays (formulaic crap like The Hangover or Date Night), nearly every moment is jam packed with substance, subtext, creativity, ingenuity, expert comedic timing, Buster Keaton-esque slapstick and vicious, biting satire. This film fears no one and gives us some delectably disgusting humans to cozy up to. Certainly an influence (whether conscious or not) on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and any comedy that attempts fast paced, witty dialogue. If you like your comedy a little amoral and a good amount dark, look no further than this 1988 masterpiece. 
            - Will Morris, House Manager, Sie Film Center

Friday, October 11, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On #90 - Rick Wakeman - The Six Wives of Henry The VIII

In the world of music appreciation there is the silly, pointless and irresistible game of: “who is best?” If you are a lover of an instrument you are drawn to those who have given themselves over to its mastery. Right?  Ahem, I, of course, am above such petty squabbling. I understand that different players excel and innovate in different areas of musical accomplishment whether it be composition, precision, speed, improvisation, accuracy or any one of the dozens of other variables that qualify as greatness, but secretly, we all, even I, have “our guy.” For rock music, and especially the sub-genre known as progressive rock, I must admit, I have no other guy: Rick Wakeman is it! No other player comes close or is even in the same arena for my money. I have to go to jazz or classical to find any other player with Wakeman’s chops and intellect. When he is great, he is magnificent. When he is not, he is um, er, kind of an embarrassment. Like all my favorite guys, I can think of major parts of the careers of Coltrane, Miles, Dylan, Zappa, Lennon, Hemingway, Kerouac, Crumb, etc., etc. that are just plain bad. That is part of reaching for the stars: sometimes you bump into the moon. Rick Wakeman has had plenty of absurd moments in his long career, but when he finds the right context, he is sublime. He found the right context on the first three or four Yes albums he appeared on (Close To The Edge, Fragile, Tales From Topographic Oceans, Going For The One) but perhaps showed his greatness as a player most efficiently on his 1973 solo debut The Six Wives Of Henry The VIII.

It came as a shock to many Yes fans upon its release, being an entirely instrumental album. A highbrow, Anglophile, concept album about the unfortunate women who married the bloody Tudor, the music on this album is a heady mix of rock, jazz, classical and funk loaded with guest musicians from Yes, The Strawbs and other corners of England’s musical geography. But the star is Wakeman’s unbelievable manual dexterity and battery of keyboards (at least 15 are specified in the liner notes). Each piece is driven not only by Wakeman’s proficiency and expertise on this fortress of instruments but, more importantly, by his genuinely wonderful sense of melody and composition.

A classically trained musician, Rick Wakeman proved with the Strawbs, Yes and on countless other historic sessions that he had the greatest understanding of the entire history of keyboard music of any musician of his generation, and he takes it a step further on Six Wives. His regal pipe organ playing on “Jane Seymour” or his jazzy piano on “Anne Of Cleves” or “Anne Boleyn, and his crazed synth, moog and mellotron work on “Catherine Of Aragon” and “Catherine Howard” provide satisfaction for fans of his work with Yes as well as those who yearn for something even more focused and accomplished. Much of the music on the album will be familiar to fans of Yes because Wakeman incorporated many of the most memorable bits into his solo segments of their live shows over the years, but the album taken as a whole is an entirely rewarding and unique musical experience. By the time you get to the final wife, “Catherine Parr,” Wakeman has pulled out all the stops creating a memorable, stomping beauty of a theme that he drives home with soaring synth lines, organ fills, church bells and a Copland-esque finale that will have you cheering in the aisles. At his best here, Wakeman combines virtuosity, taste and an irresistible, wink-wink attitude toward genre rules that can only be born from true mastery. He is the best and this is his best album.

            - Paul Epstein