Monday, September 29, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #100 - European Vacation (1985, dir. Amy Heckerling)

I don’t care if European Vacation is the second worst rated of the National Lampoon Vacation series, it’s my favorite. I’m not saying it’s the best—by all objective measures, the first installment is. That epic of the Griswolds’ journey to Wally World has a delicious mix of silly stupidity and outright darkness, like when the family forgets to untie their dog from the bumper before heading down the highway and the mutt goes bouncing along in tow, or when their grant aunt sits dead in the back seat while Clark Griswold, the dad, played by Chevy Chase, drives for hundreds of miles before anyone notices. When they finally do figure it out, they wrap her in a tent tarp and tie her to the top of the station wagon. Great stuff! But the sequel, the Griswolds’ romp through the Old Country, has stuck with me longer, coming as it did in the height of the Reagan years and when my critical sense of the United States was really beginning to take shape. I first saw it in a crowded dorm room freshman year and at some point one of the more patriotic people in the room said in disgust, “This is just propaganda.” Without missing a beat, my good friend Chuck replied, “Yeah, but it’s good propaganda.” It’s been a guilty favorite of mine ever since.

The movie begins with our heroes dressed up like pigs, going head-to-head with a family of geniuses in a TV game show. By a stroke of truly dumb luck, they win the grand prize: an all-expenses-paid tour of Europe. And for the next hour and half they bumble across England, Germany, France and Italy, proving every stereotype about ugly Americans and inventing a few more along the way. Not even Stonehenge survives. In England, they keep crashing into poor innocent Brits, accidents so bad that the poor victims hobble off with broken bones and bleeding flesh wounds, smiling and apologizing for getting in the Americans’ way. At a restaurant in France, Clark shouts out for a waiter, pronouncing garçon as “garkony,” and the waiter, in his politest French, compliments Mama Griswold’s tits, Daughter Griswold’s ass and says, “I’ll serve you toilet water. You won’t know the difference.”

The family is as disfunctional as ever – Clark lets an X-rated video of his wife Ellen (Beverly D'Angelo) fall in the hands of Italian pornographers, and their kids, Audrey (Dana Hill) and Rusty (Jason Lively), are all caught up in hormones: Audrey pining constantly for her boyfriend back home; Rusty hitting the prostitute scene in Paris. (As an aside, Lively’s Rusty looks to me just like a young Thurston Moore, and I like to imagine it actually is the Sonic Youth guitar god in a pre-rock-star roll.)

Don’t get me wrong: this is a silly, goofy film. But it’s got enough deep jabs to make it a solid spoof of our beloved U.S. of A. (driven home, I might add, by the ultra-patriotic images that accompany the closing credits). And in this way it still holds up. Watching it again in post-George W. Bush America, I was amazed at its prescience. The gags of apologizing, battered Brits and sneering Franks seems in retrospect a perfect metaphor for our alliances and non-alliances going into the Iraq War.

            - Joe Miller

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #113 - The Congos - Heart Of The Congos

Like many genres of music, Reggae has become a shadow of what it once was. What happens in modern music is; things get absorbed into the larger global community, and the regional, ethnic and artistic beauty gets squeezed out of styles of music as the form becomes what everyone can universally recognize as “pop.” Once upon a time though, Reggae was a force of musical, social and spiritual strength for many and it was also a totally unique style and culture. It reached its popular and artistic zenith in the late 60’s through the late 70’s and some of the greatest recordings of the era came from producer Lee Perry’s Black Ark Studio. Perry, an eccentric genius with extremely singular views on sound (think Phil Spector in a cloud of ganja smoke), created albums that are sonically dense and powerful. His ability to manage layers of drum sounds that dance around a mind-crushing, rock-steady bass line is unmistakable. Perry helped guide the careers and helped sculpt the sound of many important figures in Reggae - no more so than Bob Marley - but I believe he found his ultimate foil and created his supreme masterpiece when The Congos entered Black Ark in 1976 to create what might be the greatest of all Reggae albums. Yes, I know that is quite a claim. But Heart Of The Congos has simply got it all and unfolds with such a singular aural palette that it remains without peer.

Begin with the vocals. In the tradition of The Mighty Diamonds, Culture or The Heptones, The Congos are a vocal group (Cedric Myton and Roy ‘Ashanti’ Johnson) with a distinct edge. Cedric Myton has the most glorious, hypnotic, mesmerizing falsetto voice this side of Aaron Neville. His voice soars above the music staying a true representation of the simple yet profound Rasta lyrics. His vocal blend with Johnson seems so effortless and has such a soothing effect it actually works as an advertisement for Rasta beliefs. Listening to songs like “Solid Foundation” or the indescribable Lee Perry tour-de-force “Ark Of The Covenant” makes one yearn for the moral clarity and “ital” lifestyle hinted at. Perhaps the most defining quality about the album is Lee Perry’s groundbreaking production style. Piling tracks upon each other to create a “wall of sound” effect, he takes great care to keep the vocals perfectly floating above the mix; pure and clean, everything in the production reinforces the beauty of the voices and the lyrics. How rare - an album in harmony with itself. Perry also brought a who’s who of Reggae greats to back the singers: from guitar genius Ernest Ranglin to vocalists Earl Morgan, The Meditations and Gregory Isaacs to Sly Dunbar on bass, it is a Reggae all-star team from the golden era.

The overall effect is spellbinding from start to finish. It took over a year to create this album, originally released in 1977, and the craft shows in every cut. Perry’s methods occasionally caused hiss, echo and reverb to become their own force, but like Exile On Main Street, Blonde on Blonde or Sgt. Pepper’s the mix is in some ways the star of the show. Through the blending of The Congos’ raw vocal talent and lyrical purity with Perry’s mad genius and a once-in-a-lifetime conglomeration of players, Heart Of The Congos creates one of the essential albums to own, Reggae or otherwise. Many of the songs are definitive representations of what Reggae should be. “La la bam-bam” is a joyous exercise in melodic and lyric simplicity, “At The Feast” draws back the curtain to the Rasta lifestyle and states with clarity and poetry the mindset promised. The album builds its own momentum, each track acting as supplication for the ears, a bass-heavy balm for the modern world, because like most great music, these songs seem to tap into a primal state of mankind’s evolution. It is the soundtrack to an evolutionary step forward, or backward, or upward.

In a few short years, The Congos would split up, Marley would die, Tosh would be executed, and in many ways the momentum started to seep out of the music like a wisp of smoke from the chalice. There are many great Reggae albums from the classic era, but very few have the magical ambience and superlative musical qualities that pour forth from every second of Heart Of The Congos.

- Paul Epstein

Monday, September 15, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #99 - Night Moves (1975, dir. Arthur Penn)

The 1970’s and the New Hollywood movement produced a lot of fascinating work rooted in the turmoil of the times. The changing milieu of mainstream cinema allowed for films that reflected the distrust, paranoia and cynicism – and also the good humor and thumbing noses at authority – of the younger generation(s) of the time. It was director Arthur Penn’s own Bonnie and Clyde (1967) that is often cited as being a landmark film that ushered in the movement. Hated by the old school film critics and the studio heads that financed it (including, but not limited to, Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, who released the film), it was shuffled on to B-movie billings and drive-ins at first, but it spoke loud and clear to a younger generation with its edgy editing style influenced by international art cinema, its ambiguous morality, and its far less chaste take on sexuality than recent blockbusters like The Sound of Music and it eventually earned millions for the studio and became a hit. After the film opened the doors for more financial successes like The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, and MASH, Penn went on to make the counter-culture classics Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man before taking a break for several years.
He returned to feature filmmaking with this film, released in 1975 and considered a failure on its first release. Where Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man had been fairly major hits and Alice’s Restaurant had been a small-scale success, and even in a year where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day Afternoon were hits, Jaws reclaimed for Hollywood the blockbuster style of filmmaking they were used to and set the path for filmmaking that persists to this day. There was very little room then for a small downer of a film like Night Moves that did not go for a major statement (as did Cuckoo’s Nest and Dog Day) but instead mined a darkly resigned personal drama, even if it hearkens back to another era and genre of Hollywood films – the films noir of the 1940’s. Where film noir mined the repressed sexuality of the day with grim crime films and sparkling dialogue, the more open 1970’s allowed for an up front examination of many of the same topics – here again sexuality and debauchery are linked to the failures of our lead man, the no-bullshit-taking Harry Moseby (played brilliantly by Gene Hackman), a former football player turned low-rent private eye specializing in divorce work. He’s having marital problems of his own and is hardly happy with his work as he’s belittled by his wife and others for having retreated from his former glory and not doing something more reputable. It’s a very human version of the P.I. story, not the distanced cool associated with a Bogart-styled character. But Harry’s got integrity, something decidedly lacking in everyone else around him, from his friend who buys Central American antiques on the cheap to turn a huge profit, to his cheating spouse, to the washed-up former actress who hires him to find her missing daughter but is more concerned with looking glamorous and laying Hackman than locating her missing daughter. And in true noir fashion as his investigation shifts from L.A. to Florida to find the missing girl, he uncovers a far bigger mystery, and as he gets closer to the truth all his leads start disappearing or turning up dead.
The film kicks off gloomy with his bad relationship before he’s ever even found the girl Delly (short for Delilah) or the first of several bodies that turn up, or even really begun his investigation. She’s played by a young Melanie Griffith, a wild kid in trouble (a year before Jodie Foster’s similarly street-wise and daring turn in Taxi Driver). Between his rocky relationship and the way the film’s shot – all dark tones when it’s night (as it often is in the film) and muted brightness in the daytime (even on the sunny shores of Florida) – and edited, much in the same unusual, off-kilter manner as Bonnie and Clyde, it sets an unsettling vibe from the get-go. And then there’s dialogue like this, as Harry watches a football game on TV at home, in the dark:

Ellen: “Who’s winning?”
Harry: “Nobody, one side’s just losing slower than the other.”

Or once he’s found Delly and is still trying to piece together the parts that don’t add up, there’s her simple, to the point statement: “I think people are shitty. But you’re OK.”
            Like many classic noir films (The Big Sleep comes to mind), the plot is dense and convoluted – there are so many connections, double crosses, and loaded dialogue that means more only later once you see the bigger picture that it requires multiple viewings to sort it all out. And the worldview is sour for sure – also in line with the grimness of much film noir. It’s easy to see how in the summer of Jaws, where the big bad guy is defeated in explosive, exciting fashion, that this film – gloomy, insecure, inconclusive – wouldn’t have been a hit, or even a moderate success. And the other films produced out of the counter-culture of the day provided exhilarating revolutions, even if they failed. This one shows the vice grip of corruption and debased behavior on its characters and doesn’t let fly with glib statements to reassure anybody. But it’s a classic, a worthy heir to masterpiece of The Big Sleep from the writing to the stellar performances across the board, to the superb filmmaking that updates and touches back to the classic noirs without overtly mimicking them. It’s a gem in Arthur Penn’s catalog, rivaled (for me) only by Bonnie and Clyde. And some days this one feels truer than even that film.

            - Patrick Brown

Monday, September 8, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On #113 - Wilco - Being There

Wilco are rightfully acknowledged as one of the best and most important American rock bands currently making music.  This consensus seemed to develop around the time of their landmark 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the publicity surrounding its release (or lack thereof).  That story has been recounted many times (see the documentary I Am Trying To Break Your Heart if you're unfamiliar) and YHF is a great album.  But for my money, Wilco's true masterpiece came a little earlier in their career with the 1996 double album Being There.  Wilco came to be after the breakup of pioneering alt-country band Uncle Tupelo.  Jeff Tweedy led the new group and their debut A.M. was a pleasant slice of soulful country rock.  Tweedy and co. seemed well on their way to becoming a latter day Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with a little Gram Parsons thrown in.  But they had other, grander plans.  This became evident with the release of Being There, a major statement album that kept a good deal of the alt-country sound while expanding in a wide variety of directions.

Probably the biggest statement Tweedy and the band made with the album was releasing it as a double CD.  Its 19 songs clock in at about 76 minutes, which could easily fit on one disc.  But then it would be just another overstuffed CD in an era full of them.  Two discs puts it in the same category as landmarks like Blonde On Blonde and Exile on Main St. and it's no coincidence that Being There plays like a stylistic hybrid of the two.  The first disc kicks off with a blast of noise like nothing the band had produced before and settles into the powerful anthem "Misunderstood."  Everything about this epic tune announces that Wilco is going in an entirely different direction.  Tweedy even co-opts a lyric from late, great Cleveland punk poet Peter Laughner.  Yet, as if to reassure fans that they still have one foot in the alt-country wilderness, they follow with the twangy acoustic number "Far, Far Away."  Next up is "Monday" which hits with a hard blast of rock & soul horns that you'd swear were recorded by Bobby Keys in the basement of Keith Richards' chateau.  "Outtasite (Outta Mind)" is a super catchy rocker that became a little hit.  A different version of the song shows up on disc 2 with a Beach Boys-inspired arrangement.  The band pulls off a superb transition as the closing piano chords of the melancholy "Red-Eyed & Blue" are repeated as the guitar intro to upbeat rocker "I Got You (At the End of the Century)."  Disc 1 concludes with the bittersweet yet infectious "Say You Miss Me."

It's tempting to say disc 2 kicks off the same way as disc 1, but while "Sunken Treasure" bears some resemblance to "Misunderstood," it's a masterpiece all its own.  It's got an uneasy sway, like a boat lost at sea, backing one of Tweedy's best sets of lyrics.  I particularly like the part in the second verse where the backing vocals sing the lines just ahead of Tweedy's lead.  Disc two generally has a quieter, sadder tone than the first disc with tunes like "Someone Else's Song" and "Why Would You Want To Live."  But there's a break midway through for the laid-back soul of "Kingpin."  After the quiet beauty of "The Lonely 1," a tribute to the beautiful sadness behind every great artist, the disc and album concludes with the raucous "Dreamer in My Dreams."  It's a great studio jam that always seems on the verge of totally falling apart but manages to hold it together just long enough.  It's the perfect conclusion to an album filled with equal parts joy and sorrow.

Wilco's road after Being There would get a bit rocky.  Multiple lineup changes came through the years with Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt being the only consistent members and the only members of the Being There lineup still in the band.  The break with multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett was particularly rough.  But they persevered to take their place as one of the definitive bands of our time.  Many great albums have come since and the road to greatness starts with Being There.

            - Adam Reshotko

Monday, September 1, 2014

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #98 - To Sir, With Love. (1967, dir. James Clavell)

I saw To Sir, With Love the year it came out in 1967. I was almost 10 and it had a profound effect on me. In fact it altered the course of my life. After I walked out of the movie I remember telling my brother “I’m going to be a teacher.” I did. I taught for about 10 years in public high school, and from the day I saw the film until the day I went into the music business, my entire mindset was that of “Sir.” I wanted to make a difference, and it was the influence of a film that caused this desire within me. How many movies can one say that about?

It is almost impossible to discuss To Sir, With Love without talking about the illusion and the reality of the 1960’s. The illusion was the myth of youth, the power of idealism, and the belief that the future was wide open. The reality of the 1960’s was that the decade essentially served as the adolescence of the American 20th century. If adolescence is the period where a young person finds their sense of morality and builds the foundation of the person they will become, often through a series of innocent idealistic and possibly foolish experiences, then that fateful decade was this country’s teenage years. Benjamin Button-like, we were adults in the 1940’s and then after World War II the soldiers came home, had historic numbers of babies and those babies collectively threw our country into a prolonged period of childish and exhilarating social experimentation that we are still reeling from.

Like no other movie, To Sir, With Love captures the giddy idealism and the cultural feel of the times while proving itself to be painfully difficult to rectify with the way things actually turned out. Sidney Poitier, impossibly handsome, impossibly cultured, everything a young liberal audience wants to believe in, is young teacher Mark Thackery, just given the unenviable job of teaching a bunch of low-class high school seniors in a tough North London neighborhood. In one minute of this black man being in front of a white classroom all issues of class, race, youth and revolt are on the table. Poitier simultaneously represents the new idealism and the old guard. The kids see him as a square adult, the other teachers see him as a young upstart, and he finds himself at the crossroads of his own belief system and his need to make a living. Throughout the movie we are made aware that Mr. Thackery is also seeking a career in engineering, and that the lure of the paycheck may overtake his sense of societal obligation. The main thrust of the movie however, is the struggle Poitier faces with the students. This was an era when bad kids wore their hair long and played juvenile pranks. It is an eye-opening comparison to Sandy Hook or Columbine. Our schools are a much more lethal place than they used to be.
The real pleasure in To Sir, With Love comes from the nostalgia it evokes. This nostalgia is not the depiction of an era for the sake of fooling the audience, it is the actual item we are seeing. The young actors depicting the schoolkids, particularly Judy Geeson and Lulu, are actually young people in the 1960’s, looking and acting the way young people did. The dress, styles and depiction of a mid-60’s London are spot-on. The movie also contains what has to be one of the first rock videos as the title song (sung by Lulu) is set to a montage of still images of the kids on a field trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. All this cultural window dressing frames the action of the story nicely as Poitier slowly wins the students over by treating them as adults instead of children and his character slowly comes to the realization that his path lies in service to others. It is beautifully calculated to make the impressionable young mind swoon with the possibilities of doing the right thing with his/her life. It certainly had that effect on me.

Ultimately, this is what the 1960’s were about for so many people. It was the naïve, mistaken impression that changing the world was a simple a matter as wanting to do so. It ignored all the bothersome adult realities that come with a more mature understanding of the ways of the world. I hate to recognize this fact and ultimately hate that I’ve had to toe the line, but a two-hour trip to a more idealistic me is always available in To Sir, With Love. It takes me to a place when art had the ability to make me strive to do more with my life. At the end of the film, as the kids acknowledge Mr. Thackery and Mr. Thackery comes to peace with his future, it is impossible to not be struck by an uncomfortable twinge. One chuckles at Thackery’s optimism for a better future, then one looks in the mirror and feels ashamed.

- Paul Epstein