Monday, September 24, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #201 - Willie Dynamite (1974, dir. Gilbert Moses)

You’ve seen films in the “Blaxploitation” genre before undoubtedly, and while Willie Dynamite has all the trappings of one - the story centers on a pimp, it has a funk-centered soundtrack (courtesy of the great jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson), drugs and violence are commonplace, there are corrupt white cops - it’s got things going on that I’ve never seen in another film in the genre. Namely: it draws an explicit parallel between pimping and capitalist enterprise early in the film, and when a social worker and a Muslim cop work to bring down Willie Dynamite for the good of the community, the film doesn’t invest its energy in just seeing the downfall of a bad man, it’s interested in seeing what happens to him after his fall as well, in seeing if he can be rehabilitated.
            Pimping is paired with American business in the very first scene, as the Martha Reeves title song introduces us to Willie Dynamite on the soundtrack while Willie’s “stable” fans out on-screen into a business convention in New York City. The film cuts back and forth between Willie’s “stable” working their territory and a television monitor in the convention center extolling the virtues of small business enterprise, explicitly linking them together. Later, when one of Willie’s younger star performers, Pashen, hasn’t met her quota, Willie admonishes her with a combination of threats and coercion, noting “This is a business baby, a production line. And just like GM, Ford, Chrysler, Willie’s comin’ through!” Pashen is subsequently busted and while in jail a social worker, Cora, tries to convince Pashen to exit the life of prostitution she’s entered - and tries even harder to try to bring down Willie, stating to her D.A. partner “I wanna see him finished. Wiped out!” Outside of this, the leading pimp in the city, Bell, holds a meeting of the city’s pimps. With heat coming down hard on all of them from the police, he offers to break up the city’s territory so there are no conflicts over turf but Willie declines to participate, gunning for the #1 position himself by saying “Man, I thought we was all capitalists. Free enterprise, you dig?”
Willie is at no point softened or made likeable by his behavior, and yet we hold an interest in him in his efforts to retain control of his territory despite the encroachments by Bell and the other pimps, the pressure exerted on him by the police, and Cora’s efforts to undermine his “stable” - we’re instinctively prepared to watch a flashy and ostentatious bad guy take a fall in a film like this. But what we’re not prepared for is the coda to that, in which Willie learns again how to be a human being, thanks to the dual efforts of Cora and the Muslim cop Pointer, who both admonish him through the film for the damage he does to the black community. The acting is above par all around - Willie is played with the exact right amount of arrogance, confidence, and anger by Roscoe Orman (a face probably most familiar as Gordon, from Sesame Street); Cora, played by Diana Sands (Beneatha Younger in the famous filmed version of A Raisin in the Sun), mixes a checkered past into her earnest and driven social work; and Pointer is a small but pivotal role played by Albert Hall (Malcolm X, Cry Freedom, Ali, Apocalypse Now). Others fill out the more typical roles of the Blaxploitation genre with aplomb, and sometimes (especially in the case of Roger Robinson’s Bell) an extra-memorable flair.
Produced as the first picture by the partnership of Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who’d go on to produce two early Spielberg films, The Sugarland Express and Jaws, and a string of big hits in the 80s, the film is treated not as the bargain basement affair or exploitation quickie that afflicts many genre films. Though it bears all the marks of Blaxploitation, the core of the film remain the arc of Willie’s fall and what happens next, not flashy action scenes or stylized cool. In the end, does he still have his dignity? Is he still a human being? Yeah, the film says, and that's why I think it's pretty great.
Patrick Brown

Monday, September 17, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #214 - The Residents – Fingerprince

When I was in junior high school MTV made its debut, but we didn’t have cable so it was just something I heard about or occasionally got to watch at friends’ houses. Instead, here in Denver on KBDI, the public TV channel 12, there was a locally produced program called Teletunes that actually started before MTV and ran music videos, most of them centered on the burgeoning New Wave and post-punk music that was coming out in the video era - and definitely a weirder bunch of tunes than MTV’s pop star-centered approach. If you’re around my age and grew up in or near Denver, you’re probably thinking right now of either King Crimson’s “Elephant Talk” or The The’s “I've Been Waiting for Tomorrow (All of My Life),” which ran under the show’s opening credits and meant you were about to be treated to an eclectic mix of music. It’s watching this program through junior high and high school that I first heard music by Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Devo, Joan Armatrading, Art of Noise, R.E.M. and dozens of other bands whose careers (or sometimes just individual songs, the 80s being a great time for one-hit wonders) would impact on my burgeoning tastes. Mostly these were artists who were being missed by both MTV and mainstream American radio alike (at least at the time) so this was the only way I got to hear them regularly (until I got my own stereo). Oh yeah, and it’s also where I first heard the weirdo, eccentric, frequently dissonant, almost always humorous art band The Residents - and their like-minded guitar-slinging pal Snakefinger, too.
When I got to college, I started reading a lot more about music. The Rolling Stone Record Guide felt hopelessly outdated to me, mostly stuck in the idea that nothing good ever happened after the 60s (unless it was by artists who’d started there). But then I found The New Trouser Press Record Guide, a book of music criticism that largely ignored the classic rock era (Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, Dylan, Zeppelin - none of them were reviewed in its pages, though all got mentioned in reviews of the many bands that owed to their sounds) and focused instead on being an overview of punk rock and its many fallouts in post-punk and new wave, plus a few select forefathers who’d laid the groundwork for this music. It also featured lengthy writeups on every one of the folks mentioned above that I found via Teletunes, and happened to give The Residents more ink than any other band in its pages, which kept me wondering exactly why they got so much space - and what they sounded like.
Cross-checking against the Rolling Stone Record Guide made it seem like their second album, the 60’s-skewering/homage The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll was the place to start. Trouser Press loved it, Rolling Stone gave it 3 out of five stars and warned that it would be dissonant (correct), but familiar due to its many covers of 60s tunes (correct) and an easier in because of that (incorrect). Turned out that it could be pretty tough going in its many parts - but there was still something entertaining and humorous (and musical) in its two side-long suites that engaged me. So I tried the debut Meet The Residents (Rolling Stone gave it four stars, Trouser Press found it solid yet with some longueurs), home to more playfully disrespectful nods to the 60s in its cover, title and its lead-off demolition of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” It was also home to something musically even stranger, yet more accessible, somehow more... Residential, if you will. Here was the band in its truest form. Still a challenge, but still intriguing. And so entered into my collection the group’s third official album, Fingerprince.
            Immediately on picking this one up I noticed a difference. Not in ideas per se, this was still an oddball take on pop music, but there was a marked uptick in the recording quality and clarity of the music. Their simple, catchy melodies stood out more, instruments and voices were craftily deployed across the stereo spread, and it sounded (gasp) almost like the musicians knew how to play their instruments and chose to use dissonance freely rather than simply not knowing how to play in tune. In this, they’re aided by Snakefinger’s guitar - just check his slide work on the opening “You Yesyesyes” and the march-like “Tourniquet of Roses” (the original title of the album) or his delicate picking on “You Yesyesyes Again,” all of which cut their synthesized weirdness just enough to make it all feel something like pop music. In short, the crudity of the earlier releases was gone, replaced by a cleanness that would mark their albums from this point forward.
The lyrics still inhabit their own weird, jokey world, but they were couched in far more listenable surroundings. And to be honest, listening back to them now 30 years after I first bought the record, they sound less like the bizarro outsider art or missives from another planet I took them for then and more like actual commentary on the real world. Certainly given an eccentric skew, but these still read like things human beings experience - relationships mostly, though “Godsong” shows the same playful insouciance toward its subject that their covers of the 60s pop canon did on their previous albums.
All of this applies to the first half, the fragmented pop tunes that make up the former A-side, just like on Abbey Road, or Bowie’s album of the same year, Low. The B-side is something else altogether, and a leap forward for the band, musically speaking, taking their larger-scale works to a new level. The instrumental, Harry Partch-influenced “Six Things to a Cycle” takes up the entirety of the second side of the album, and it’s a wonder to behold, introducing new ideas and instrumentation throughout its length, never staying in one place long enough to stagnate. It’s rhythmic enough for their claims that it was written for a ballet troupe to seem plausible (their pronunciamentos about their own music and history are always to be taken with a grain of salt), and it pushes the limits of what they’d done thus far with the unschooled yet intuitively musical talents they’d developed. Adding to the ambition of “Six Things to a Cycle” is the remainder of the material on the first disc. Allegedly conceived as a three-sided album, four songs appeared the next year on an EP entitled “Babyfingers,” and that rounds out the first disc of this set. The second disc contains various outtakes, demos, and other pieces that will produce a warmly familiar glow for Fingerprince aficionados, but may be of more limited use for the casual listener.
From Fingerprince, the group moved into “pop” (quotation marks necessary) tunes for the EPs “Duck Stab” and “Buster and Glen” (compiled on the Duck Stab album), and began work on their masterwork Eskimo, which was three years in the making and which caused a lot of unreleased product (including the stellar Not Available) to hit the shelves to keep things going for them. During this run, from 1974 through the rest of the 70s and even into their first pair of 80s albums - the cheekily titled The Commercial Album and the industrialized Mark of the Mole - the band never stepped wrong. For me they stayed good through the 80s before things began to drift, but even their later material has its passionate supporters, just as I enjoy some of their late 80s work more than the diehard fans of the 70s' work. And that’s because even if the music has changed, the group never stopped speaking to the outsiders, the oddballs, the eccentrics. They inhabit the same world of American originals as Partch, Sun Ra, Captain Beefheart, and others. 1974-1981 was a particularly fertile period, and Fingerprince gets my vote as the easiest way into their world.

Patrick Brown

Monday, September 10, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #200 - Novocaine (2001, dir. David Atkins)

            All through the 1980s and part of the ‘90s, Steve Martin was one of the biggest comedy stars in the world. If there was one thing that I could always rely on growing up it was that pretty much every year of my life, I would get to watch a new Steve Martin comedy with my father. It was one of many things my dad and I would bond over when I was a kid. Not only that, but his stand-up comedy records were some of the first records that I ever owned. However, by the 1990s and early 2000s, my super-fandom had waned considerably. Not only had my interest in film pivoted more toward a focus on independent filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Noah Baumbach and the like, but Steve was also doing a lot of “family-friendly” dreck like Cheaper by the Dozen and Bringing Down the House that you couldn’t pay me to watch. I mean, even if I was still a comedy-hungry kid during this period, there’s no way I could have justified sitting through a viewing of Bowfinger.
            However, for all the bullshit that Martin attached his name to during this era, he would occasionally still shine through with some truly great moments. 2001’s Novocaine is one of these occasions. Martin plays Dr. Frank Sangster, a dentist whose mostly straight-laced life becomes anything but when a new patient, Susan Ivey (played by Helena Bonham Carter), arrives in his office. Frank is immediately attracted to Susan, even though it is revealed that she is clearly there to scam him out of painkillers. As their relationship begins to develop, Frank is pulled into a web of crime that involves drugs, deceit and murder. His once quiet life now turned upside down, Frank finds himself a fugitive wanted for murder. Normally I would say more about the plot here, but there are so many subtle plot twists that I really don’t want to give anything away.
            The first thing I noticed about the film was that it looked amazing. First time director David Atkins, evidently coming from a family of dentists, uses a montage of dental x-ray shots during the opening credits that continue as scene wipes throughout the film. Novocaine is pure noir, with its combination of banal scenes from inside the dentist’s office (symbolizing Frank’s boredom with his life), intercut with intense, almost Hitchcockian scenes of intrigue (revealing what might have been if he’d chosen a different path), all underscored by Frank’s voice-over narration and a phenomenally eerie score by Steve Bartek (with the help of soundtrack veteran Danny Elfman). Instead of shadowy back alleys, however, this film’s chief location is the sterile, brightly-lit Dr. Sanger’s office, which brings to the forefront the shadowy secrets and desires of the main characters.
The film also gives us plenty of glimpses into Martin’s comedic past, as we get to see him do both physical and verbal comedy without rendering any of the scenes silly, which is something my younger self would have appreciated. Another unlikely source of comedy relief comes in the form of Dr. Sangster’s hygienist and fiancée, Jean, played flawlessly by Laura Dern. Jean is the kind of overly-peppy that can often be terrifying in a fellow human being. She is devoted to Frank to a fault, helping him cover up crimes he’s involved in after continuously lying to her. She runs her life and her work with an OCD-like precision, which seems to act as a coping mechanism for her when things in her life get intense.
Novocaine did terribly at the box office, probably because of Martin’s aforementioned aimless drifting from one forgettable picture to the next during this time. I wish that I could say that it’s become a cult classic since then but, reading reviews recently, it doesn’t appear that the public’s reception is generally favorable. But there is no denying that the plot is a true original, blending mystery and intrigue with comedy in a way that just isn’t done much, if at all. Trust me when I say that if you are now or have ever been a fan of Steve Martin’s work, Novocaine is a picture you must see. I wouldn’t exactly call it a return to form, save for a few moments of slapstick here and there, but it’s not exactly much of a departure for him either.
-         Jonathan Eagle

Monday, September 3, 2018

I'd Love to Turn You On #213 - Wolfmoon – Wolfmoon

          I discovered the Wolfmoon record years ago while working in a small record shop in Iowa. As a vinyl-obsessed collector, I was immediately drawn to the cover art. Who was this purple cloaked cosmic warrior, palming the planet Earth like a basketball? Prince before there even was a Prince? Was he some long-lost fuzz-funk disciple of Funkadelic? Perhaps a forgotten psychedelic soul singer that I could brag about discovering? I had to know. To my surprise, Wolfmoon was all of these things and none of these things. The music on the record was a beautiful combination of gospel and Southern soul with occasional brilliant flourishes of funk, rock and even country. Upon further research, I discovered that he was associated with the legendary producer and songwriter, Swamp Dogg, of whom I was a big fan. I bought it sight unseen and it’s been in heavy rotation at my house ever since.
The story of how the Wolfmoon record came about is almost as interesting as the music itself. In the early 1960s, Tyrone Thomas began a successful career as an R&B singer in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. A teenager at the time, Thomas, who was calling himself Lil Tommy (pre-Soundcloud rapper days), quickly established himself as a talented performer with his various backing groups, including the Teenagers, the Parakeets and the Out of Sights, and securing opening slots for such international acts as Fats Domino and Sam Cooke. It was around this time that Thomas decided that it was time for him to go solo. This decision led him to his first national tour at age 14. However, it was a hometown gig with fellow Richmond artist Brooks O’Dell that perhaps changed the trajectory of Thomas’ career for the better.
O’Dell was immediately impressed with the young Thomas and decided to introduce him to his friend Jerry Williams Jr., aka Swamp Dogg. If you’re a fan of southern soul music at all, no doubt you’re familiar with Swamp Dogg, whose first three albums are considered classics of the genre and solidified Swamp as a cult figure and legendary performer. But the Swamp Dogg persona would not come to be until a few years later. Williams began writing and recording songs for Tyrone Thomas starting as early as 1964. The relationship was tumultuous almost immediately. Williams invited Thomas to live in his house for a while and, according to Williams, he wore out his welcome very quickly. The first two songs they recorded together were “I’m Hurt” and its B-side “Lov’h,” which Thomas immediately took back to Richmond and submitted to local record producer Mr. Wiggles and, according to Williams, tried to pass them off as his own. Still, Williams believed in Thomas’ talents enough to work with him again.
In 1969, Williams, who was just starting to cultivate the Swamp Dogg sound and image that he would become notorious for, signed a deal with Canyon Records and was looking to pad his new label with like-minded artists, of which Thomas was to be the newest. Swamp Dogg re-dubbed Thomas as Wolfmoon and the pair recorded the ten tracks that would become the first and only Wolfmoon record; seven original Swamp Dogg compositions and three cover versions. However, the album would not see the light of day for another four years, as the Canyon Records deal fell through and the two were left without a label. Finally, in 1973, the small Fungus Records imprint released the Wolfmoon record.
Still not much is known about the actual man, Tyrone Thomas himself, apart from what Swamp Dogg has said in interviews and in print which generally tends to paint him in an unfavorable light. In one recent interview, Swamp said of Thomas “this motherfucker has no integrity… It’s all about him” and citing multiple occasions of feeling taken advantage of by Thomas. Personal animosity aside, the two managed to put out an incredible piece of R&B history. The songs range from the spiritual (“God Bless,” “If He Walked Today”) to the funky (“My Kinda People”) and many other styles in between. An epic 8+ minute sendup of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” showcases the multi-instrumental talents of Swamp Dogg while the piano ballad “Treasures That I Found” allows Wolfmoon to demonstrate his incredible vocal range.
Unfortunately, the record went almost completely unnoticed and it remained an obscure gem among record collectors for decades. Original copies were being sold for high sums of money for quite some time. That is, until 2013, when garage pop label Alive Natural Sound out of Los Angeles gave the album (and a handful of other Swamp Dogg releases) a proper CD and vinyl reissue, thus reintroducing the world to Wolfmoon. And let me tell you, this reissue sounds amazing. The only digital copies that I was able to find prior to the re-release were clearly vinyl rips that sounded kind of terrible. Alive presents the record with fully cleaned-up audio plus new detailed liner notes written by Swamp Dogg which alone is well worth the price.
-         Jonathan Eagle