Monday, May 25, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #116 - The 39 Steps (1935, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)

“How old is Mae West?!?”

            The world may never know how old Mae West was (or rather they will, as this IS the age of the internet), but this film is packed with a wide array of other perplexing mysteries. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps is widely considered to be one of the integral films that sparked the Master of Suspense’s career, and with good reason. While he had been making films for some time (this being his 22nd), The 39 Steps was one of the great films that catapulted Hitchcock into the spotlight and paved the way for his later masterworks. But that’s enough about the prophetic nature of the film. Let’s get down to brass tacks – this movie is fantastic! From the beginning of the opening sequence until the very end Hitchcock strategically places his audience in a tense state and he never fully reveals exactly what's going on (or does he...?).

            Put very simply the film’s plot is about a grave accusation of murder landing upon a completely innocent bystander. Hannay, played by Robert Donat, comes in coincidental contact with a mysterious female spy, "Miss Smith" (Lucie Mannheim). Providing her asylum in his apartment overnight he awakens to find her stumbling into his bedroom after being stabbed in the back and warning that he is next. After a brief commotion he realizes that he is now the target of her murderers as well as the police who have been alerted to the murder in his apartment. From this point, out of sheer necessity, Hannay himself becomes entangled in the espionage that got Miss Smith killed in the first place. Picking up where she left off he rushes to Scotland in an attempt to solve the mystery and exonerate himself. Along the way he runs into an obstinate yet beautiful woman on a train, Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who turns him in to the authorities. After narrowly escaping the police at this turn, he seeks who he believes to be a friend of Miss Smith’s who as it turns out might not be so friendly. At this point in the plot everything becomes beautifully convoluted and the mystery enters its ascent to the climax. Needless to say much of what we know at this point changes and our obstinate beauty, Pamela, will certainly return to become an integral part of the film.
            While this is most certainly an early film for Hitchcock, originally released in 1935, it provides the viewer with a perfect roadmap into the mind of an amazing and enigmatic auteur. The viewer is left with a good number of questions at the end and spends the entirety of the film on the edge of their seats. Aided by the shadowy noir-ish cinematography, the use of odd close ups that seem to allude to something (dun-dun-duuuunnnn!), and the lack at any point of a FULL reveal, Hitchcock is able to build tension like no one else. In addition to the brilliant building of tension and the constant suspense, in true Hitchcockian tradition the director completely breeds a deep audience mistrust of all of the characters on screen (aside from the hero of course). These techniques, which will become vitally important to Hitchcock’s oeuvre, are perfectly demonstrated in this early classic.

            But what makes this film, as well as other early/early-mid Hitchcock films, so magnetically engaging is the fact that while he perfectly weaves tension and mistrust into the psyche of the viewer there remains a healthy dose of sly comedy. While we know very little about the hero of this story, Hannay, one thing is sure – he is a quick wit and an amusing gentleman. For example, as Hannay has been captured and rides in the back of the detective’s car, they run into a flock of sheep in the road at which point he quips, "Hello, what are we stopping for? Oh it's a whole flock of detectives." With such amazing and well timed sarcatic one liners the viewer is provided with just enough comedy to catch them off guard when the next plot twist drops (and there are more twists dropped in this film than bass drops in a Skrillex song).

            So what else can I say, you simply must take this ride for yourself. Ride the rails though every twist and turn and see if you can put together the puzzle that is The 39 Steps. What exactly is/are the 39 steps? Who is the real "bad guy"? Who can Hannay and Pamela trust? What will happen in the end? How old is Mae West?! What causes Pip in poultry?!?! These questions and many more are proposed by and possibly answered in this fantastic film from the mid 30's; do yourself a favor and check it out.

- Edward Hill

Monday, May 18, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #129 - Steely Dan – Countdown to Ecstasy

Once upon a time, there was a band called Steely Dan. A real band, with a regular lineup, they even went on tour. The era of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker crafting exquisite studio-only productions was just around the corner, but in 1973 they were as close to being a regular rock & roll band as they ever were. Though plenty of studio musicians still augmented the albums, the core was not just Becker and Fagen but guitarists Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and Denny Dias plus drummer Jim Hodder. This was the lineup that cut the second Dan album Countdown to Ecstasy. I'll say this is my personal favorite Steely Dan album but I won't say it's their best. That's because their initial run of 6 albums in 6 years, 1972-1977, from Can't Buy a Thrill to Aja, is absolutely perfect. Every song, every arrangement, every note played and sung, everything is exactly as it should be. Yet there's still passion, verve, and even soul behind the slick sounds and ironic detachment of the lyrics. The best is whichever one is playing at the time. But I can only write about one, so Countdown it is. 
The album starts off with what just might be the most kick-ass rock track in the Dan repertoire, "Bodhisattva." As Fagen croons cheesy westernizations of eastern philosophy, the band kicks up a blues-rock ruckus highlighted by some blistering guitar from Skunk Baxter. After that things quiet down a little bit for the jazzy "Razor Boy." This one takes on a more traditional feel than the smoothed out jazz that would dominate the group's later work. The pace is slowly built back up with the building climax of "The Boston Rag." More cryptic lyrics from Fagen, apparently chronicling some sort of drugged out debauchery, are married to a slow building rocker that leads to a great sing-a-long chorus. The bottom drops out for a piano break, then builds again to a dramatic finale. Next it's time to jam, with "Your Gold Teeth" providing a funky, latin-jazz dance party. The musicians have a chance to spread out on this one, keeping a loose vibe while still hitting all the notes like a Steely Dan combo should.

The second half kicks of with the slide guitar of guest Rick Derringer and another of the Dan's more rocking numbers, "Show Biz Kids." Fagen calls out the privileged and self-obsessed culture of fame while making self-referential mention of "Steely Dan t-shirts" and even dropping an f-bomb for added emphasis. On "My Old School," Fagen and Becker reminisce not so fondly about their days at Bard College. This is probably the best-known track on the album and with its jaunty horns and catchy chorus, it's easy to see why. "My Old School" is one of the best examples of Steely Dan's oft-noted penchant for melding biting lyrics to infectious tunes. Another breather comes with the gorgeous "Pearl of the Quarter." Could this actually be a straightforward love song? Is there something more going on that I'm missing? Either way, it's another brilliant, catchy song. The album concludes with "King of the World," as propulsive synths end things with a futuristic vibe. Of course, that future is surely of the dystopian variety.

  As previously noted, Steely Dan would continue their streak of perfection throughout the 70s. Yes, things would get a lot slicker but the quality of songwriting and performance were never overshadowed by the production. Cracks started to show with 1980's Gaucho, which still had a few great songs but also seemed to show Becker and Fagen running out of gas after their greatest success. Steely Dan would then disappear for a while with no activity at all throughout the super-slick 80s, an irony surely worthy of a Donald Fagen lyric. Then, miracle of miracles, Fagen and Becker reunited in the mid-90s and, in another great irony, turned Steely Dan into a touring machine who have been active ever since. They even played this year's Coachella festival. Yes, the strange and winding career of Steely Dan could all really just be the subject of a Steely Dan song. Chew on that for a little while. And listen to Countdown to Ecstasy while you're doing so.
            - Adam Reshotko

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #115 - Fresh (1994, dir. Boaz Yakin)

Back in 1994, this film arrived with a bit of a buzz from the awards it won at Sundance. It was being marketed in the wake of gangsta films like Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society (because that’s what distributors do with films is cash in on what’s popular), but, reviews noted, there was something different about this drama. True, our central character, nicknamed Fresh (played by Sean Nelson), is a 12-year old runner for drug dealers around town – particularly Esteban (played by Giancarlo Esposito), a heroin dealer who takes a nearly paternal interest in Fresh’s development because he can see his maturity and intelligence – but even so, this film has very different aims from the juiced up melodrama of the so-called ‘hood films of the early 90’s.
The film was the brainchild of writer-director Boaz Yakin, who, after working on mainstream Hollywood films (The Rookie and The Punisher, for example) for years, decided that he wasn’t doing what he wanted to in the industry. Instead of fighting in the system to scrape forward toward a compromised version of his vision, he moved to Paris, vowing to return when he had something to day and was able to exercise a reasonable amount of control over how it got made. And though maybe he wasn’t able to continue that principle later in his career (he’s also credited with writing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which makes me sad), he got it right here for sure. The film constantly feels emotionally dead-on and has a great ear for street dialogue, both at the adult level and of the kids in the film.
Fresh is a smart kid alright, but he’s helped immeasurably by his alcoholic father (played by Samuel L. Jackson) who Fresh mostly finds hustling chess in Washington Square Park. He’s the anchor for Fresh, teaching him to think strategically, plan ahead, to watch and listen rather than leap into action. So when he has to make his own way because his aunt can’t handle raising 11 kids in her small apartment, when a friend is murdered in front of his eyes, when his sister’s drug habit starts to endanger her life, Fresh uses his dad’s lessons to try to extricate himself from the life he’s found himself stuck in.
In addition to Yakin’s terrific script, he’s gotten terrific performances from almost all the central kids in the plot, from Jackson, and especially from Esposito, who combines the right touch of human tenderness with his violent ruthlessness. And then there’s Sean Nelson as Fresh himself – a kid who seems wise beyond his years often from the simple act of keeping quiet, listening and letting other people (meaning the adults around him) show their hand. I’m not sure how much is the writing and how much is Nelson’s work, but the role is great.
The film is intelligent, tense, gritty, and sporadically violent (but not excessively or graphically so). It’s shot by cinematographer Adam Holender, who’s something of an NYC grit specialist, having shot Midnight Cowboy, Panic in Needle Park, Smoke, and Street Smart, to name a few. He knows the streets of the city from before the Guiliani whitewash of New York that makes it feel so different today compared to the era of this film. And at pretty much every level, it feels like the love and care Yakin took to make a film that meant something to him is shared by cast and crew alike, because all the participants turn in A-level work here.
If you feel like you’ve seen enough “hood” films but haven’t seen this one, make room for one more, because it’s not like any of the others. If you’ve seen it, but like me coming back to this, it’s been 20 years or so, it’s most assuredly worth revisiting – it hold up beautifully. A great, small, personal film of the type that made indie cinema such an exciting idea once upon a time.

- Patrick Brown

Monday, May 4, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #128 - Miles Davis - Agharta

The first sounds you hear on this two-disc live set are notes from Miles’s Yamaha electric organ before they’re joined by a dense, chugging, funky groove from the rest of the band until about the 1:30 mark when Miles blasts the sound with a dissonant cluster of notes on the organ. In this opening, a far cry from the delicacy of “So What,” the textured beauty of the orchestral albums with Gil Evans or even the fractured bop stylings of the second quintet, you get an immediate sense of what kind of sound you can expect from this record. Even if you’ve been following his notorious 1970’s electric period through to this point, this record still provides something new and challenging compared to the murky strangeness of Bitches Brew, the relentlessly nagging rhythms of On the Corner or the muscular bravura of Live-Evil. I own every record Miles released in the 70’s and I like this one better than any named above – and almost any of his albums of the electric era, period (though 1970’s Tribute to Jack Johnson or 1969’s In A Silent Way might give me some pause). Miles changed quickly at this time in his career and never looked back, so liking one record gives you no guarantee that the next one will be to your tastes. And that first couple minutes will let you know right away if this work is for you. It won’t tell you everywhere it’s gonna take you on the ride, but you know from the get-go that the protean Mr. Davis has changed his sound drastically yet again here.
As always, what Miles is doing is much more than just playing trumpet and writing or adapting musical themes – as much as any bandleader in jazz, he’s utilizing the unique skills of his players and “playing” the ensemble. So after he comes in and solos relatively quietly through a wah-wah pedal for several minutes starting around the 2:30 mark – hardly the delicate beauty of his 50’s solos or the robust open horn playing of only a few years before – he hands the reins over to Sonny Fortune’s alto sax. It’s something he’s unafraid to do throughout the record (and throughout his career, actually) – allow other players to take the spotlight even knowing that they may outshine him. And Fortune sounds great here, though after a bit Miles decides that his solo is done by signaling with another blast from the organ that tells Pete Cosey it’s time for his guitar to come in. Let’s talk about Cosey for a minute.
Prior to joining Miles’s group in 1973, Pete Cosey was a session man at Chess Records, playing on records by Fontella Bass, Howlin’ Wolf, Etta James, and Rotary Connection, among others. But the only one that really gives an inkling of the music that would start coming from his guitar under Miles’ tutelage is the much-maligned Muddy Waters album Electric Mud, where the untamed noise he’d soon be issuing started to peek its head out. Among Miles aficionados, the septet that Miles worked with from 1973 until his temporary retirement in 1975 is often referred to in shorthand as “the Pete Cosey Band” because of the prominence of Cosey’s scouring guitar solos, compared in one stroke by jazz critic Greg Tate to both Hendrix for his use of distortion and effects and Cecil Taylor for his harmonic construction and the “out”-ness of his soloing.
So Fortune comes in and solos, but not without Miles continuing to work with the rest of the group, shifting the dynamics behind him and pulling the rest of the musicians out entirely at one point, leaving Fortune solo in the truest sense of the word. And then Cosey comes in and something else happens. The dense funk behind him is suddenly on fire – if the electric sounds leading up to this point were operating at a strong 100 volts, Cosey pushes it to 500 – probably not enough to kill you, but enough to break the skin for sure. And his solo here is a marvel, a wild, bluesy, psychedelic, noise-drenched beast with the band tightly wound underneath him. Once his excoriating turn is done, a mellower groove kicks in, with Davis’s prickly keyboards shining out through the ensemble before he picks up his horn again.
After more of the lead cut, the band moves into “Maiysha,” a piece that first appeared on the 1974 album Get Up With It, and it lessens the intensity a touch as Fortune switches to flute – but Cosey still rips into it with a solo even more “out” than the freaky one he derails the studio version with. And even so, “Maiysha” provides a beautiful, laid-back groove over which Miles takes a more lyrical solo than on the previous track – before Cosey steps in, of course. The piece then tails off towards texture and quiet near the end of the disc.
Disc two – a continuous medley of music broken into two titles here – kicks off at a rocketing tempo with the “Theme From Jack Johnson” (mislabeled as “Interlude”) and shortly works into a Fortune alto solo. Percussionist Mtume is much more prominent here than the first disc, especially when Miles is soloing. The two had a close musical kinship and when Miles solos, it’s worth putting your attention toward how sensitive and responsive Mtume is to Davis’s playing. The beat unexpectedly changes to a shuffle behind a Cosey solo then cools down for Miles’ solo, probably his best and most lyrical on the record, a reward for those who’ve been waiting to hear him solo like this after so much sound and fury – including much interaction with Mtume up in the mix. Miles ends his solo a little after the 13-minute mark, when bassist Michael Henderson drops in the bass riff from “So What” as Pete Cosey takes on a milder and also more lyrical solo, proving that he’s not just a noisy effects man. “So What” is repeated more obviously after the 17-minute mark before Fortune starts a flute solo and the band moves into an eerie, slower part of the music full of jungle menace and weird synth sounds. (I listened to it once at the Tropical Discovery exhibit at the Denver Zoo and it was the perfect soundtrack!) As it gains rhythmic force, they hit a new groove, and there’s a brief guitar solo that may be rhythm guitarist Reggie Lucas (I haven’t been able to confirm this with any of the Miles scholars I know, but I believe it to be true). Things cool back down again for a textural interlude before a majestic, heavy, and melancholy Cosey solo. This corresponds very closely to one Cosey plays in about the same spot on Agharta’s companion piece PangaeaAgharta documents an afternoon concert, Pangaea was the evening show – and the Pangaea solo is probably the best bit of Cosey’s work of all four discs (followed closely by Agharta’s first disc one solo). The record mellows again after that, with Miles on organ getting funky for a little bit a little after the 44-minute mark until the band closes the whole thing on a mysterious fade out with Cosey’s sparking feedback, Fortune’s floating flute, and Miles having left the stage.
            I understand those who don’t like this music – it’s too noisy for some, too difficult to discern the structure of the long, loosely organized pieces for others. Critics at the time mostly reacted badly to it as well, though it’s gotten a reappraisal lately (even by some who initially trashed it) and is rightly seen as a highlight in a career filled with many transcendent peaks. But here’s the deal – it’s ensemble music, not necessarily soloist’s music, despite my descriptions above of many great solos. It’s a dense weave of sound that challenges the way we’re supposed to hear “jazz.” Is it even jazz at all? Who cares!? If there’s a problem there, it’s with the word “jazz,” which isn’t broad enough to contain music like this, not with the music herein.

            - Patrick Brown