Reviews Roundup: Sing Street; Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton

IN CINEMAS

Sing Street

I know! It’s only rock n’ roll, but I like it. This film tries to capture the essence of what makes the genre so appealing to millions of people, including myself: it’s a type of music that allows us to project our fantasies onto it, to live out collective (if sometimes closeted) dreams of sexual triumphalism and societal transgression which all too often go unrealised in the normal circumstances of everyday life. Two minute blasts of fun by Sing-Street-Poster.jpgpeople who can barely read music or string coherent lyrics together are just the kind of pick-me-ups many of us need after the petty annoyances of work or school, because bewildering success in the face of amateurism is endearing and relatable. And when our favourite bands simultaneously stick it to the man and into the women (or occasionally men) at every available opportunity, it can seem like a pretty neat alternative to the common frustrations that us mortals experience in our daily lives.

Sing Street is inherently sympathetic towards this escapist element of rock n’ roll, indulging in lush fantasy sequences of imagined musical triumphs for the protagonist, which contrast with the grim reality of his everyday life in Dublin, where he faces institutionalised bullying and unrequited love at school, and an unstable family unit threatened by imminent divorce at home. In one telling moment, Conor gathers his brother and sister around a record player, blasting out music in order to drown out the noise of their parents arguing. Music has always been about escaping one’s troubles, and this scene is a perfect encapsulation of that urge.

John Carney, this film’s writer and director, manages to convey the working class roots of this music, and how it can provide one with the hope to escape the oppressiveness of one’s surroundings, a theme that can also be evidenced in his astonishingly successful debut Once. Carney also gets great comic mileage out of the amateurish nature of rock musicians and their Spinal Tap styled pretensions: at the start of this film, Conor can’t sing, write or even play an instrument, but those trivial details sure as hell aren’t going to stop him from letting a hot chick know that he plays in a band. He subsequently attempts to put one together for the singular reason of getting into her pants, a set-up comical enough to justify this film’s existence.

Where Carney fails is in drastically overestimating, and fatally sentimentalising, rock music’s potential as a means of oh-so-serious romantic expression. Quite understandably, at the grand finale concert Conor’s audience groans when they’re informed that they’re about to hear a ‘slow one’. But Carney wants us to hear it anyway, and it’s played out in full, supposedly giving us an insight into our hero’s 1458320580-sing-street-cast.jpgpsyche and his romantic longing. It does no such thing; it is badly written and sung in an ingratiatingly adolescent manner. Rock ballads have almost always been painful to listen to because when musicians who can’t write, play or sing attempt to sound serious they forefront their own limitations instead of overcoming them, as playing fast and loose will allow them to do.

The film’s initial wit and cunning in illustrating the escapist nature of rock music is therefore undermined later on by the director’s misguided belief in the genre’s rich potential for emotional realism; in actual fact this feat is rare and difficult to pull off due to the pomposity it tends to entail, and it requires an enormous amount of talent to do so (see, for example, Dylan and Clapton below), which Carney simply doesn’t display in his own mediocre songwriting efforts for Sing Street. Furthermore, the film ignores the more troubling (and frequently fascinating) aspects of rock n’ roll: the fantasies we project upon it can suddenly turn dark and dangerous, misogynistic and violent (see The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Eminem). But in the end, the most troubling aspect about this piece of fluff is that I honestly can’t tell if the script is joking when it praises Duran Duran’s bassist for being ‘funky’. I really do hope so.

3.0.png

 

ON SPOTIFY/iTUNES/AMAZON

Fallen Angels – Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan, to put it mildly, has never been renowned for the richness of his vocals. So it was a surprise for many last year when he released Shadows in the Night, an album full of old crooner classics from the Great American Songbook. This is a direct sequel, featuring a dozen more such classic songs from the 1930s and 40s, most of which were recorded and made famous by Frank Sinatra.

There was no need to be surprised: Dylan has always done whatever the hell he wanted Bob-Dylan-Fallen-Angels.jpgright from the beginning of his career, when he famously ditched folk music in order to pursue the electric forcefulness of rock n’ roll. In recent years he has been exploring the roots of American popular music, from country to the blues, in a string of impressive and surprisingly commercially viable albums. The latest phase in this series interprets the popular standards written by Gershwin/Porter/Mercer/Berlin etc., which in their simplistic language and chord changes, nevertheless unravelling in layers of meanings upon repeated listening, heavily inspired The Beatles and therefore the rest of the 60s rock movement, including Dylan himself.

Dylan’s versions of these songs, which have been covered by literally thousands of other artists, do manage to bring a unique perspective to their generalised ruminations on love: his craggy old voice makes no attempt to hide its antiquated nature or consistent struggle to remain in tune, bringing a grand sarcasm to such lines as ‘Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you/If you’re young at heart’. It is testament to Dylan’s trademark wit that he opens the album with these lines. The constant straining to reach the high notes and keep up with the rhythm paints the impression of a man aware of his advancing age and looking back on his former romantic glories, reliving them with a knowing twinkle in his larynx.

It’s good for a couple of spins and a chuckle then, which is all I believe Dylan intended it for, but to heap superlatives and five stars upon this album, as overexcited critics do upon every single one of the man’s releases, is to do him a disservice. Five stars would indicate that it is on a level footing with Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, Love and Theft (to name a few), some of the greatest albums ever recorded. Fallen Angels doesn’t even come close, but that’s because it isn’t trying to. It’s content with being a doff of the cap to some of the lesser known standards of the Great American Songbook. The laid-back, easy shuffle of the countrified music is the ideal background for this concept. Worth a go it may be, but not worthy of Sinatra or Fitzgerald’s far greater subtlety.

2.5.png

 

I Still Do – Eric Clapton

The most fascinating aspect about the blues as a genre has always been the dichotomy between the frequently depressive nature of the lyrics and the primal, powerful stomp of eric-clapton-i-still-do.jpgthe music. Eric Clapton, throughout his early career, pushed these contrasts to new heights in his work with Cream and Derek & the Dominos, especially in his masterpiece Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, where the rather ordinary expressions of
unrequited love and covers of blues standards were propelled to extraordinary heights by the explosively emotional and exhilaratingly complex guitar interplay between himself and Duane Allman.

But Clapton’s solo career has shown only intermittent flashes of brilliance amidst an ocean of mediocrity, failing to push the blues any further outside of his own comfort zone. He has a tendency towards laziness, both in terms of songwriting and guitar playing, and surrounding himself with subpar musicians. Yet he can display unexpectedly manic bursts of energy, as on the excellent live album with Wynton Marsalis called Play the Blues, which was released in 2011 and comes highly recommended.

I Still Do is emblematic of his post-Layla works in that there are sudden moments of clarity of expression, but these are lost amongst an overwhelming majority of characterless genre exercises. His love for the blues comes shining through on ‘Alabama Woman Blues’ and Robert Johnson’s ‘Stones in my Passway’, the two indisputable highlights of this collection which contain all the menace and gritty power associated with that genre, elsewhere entirely absent. ‘I Will Be There’ is almost as embarrassing as his earlier ‘Wonderful Tonight’ in its fey romanticism, whilst his own compositions ‘Spiral’ and ‘Catch the Blues’ simply fail to ignite. The tepid cover of Dylan’s ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’, meanwhile, robs that work of its richness through a mismatched midtempo rock setting.

So does Clapton still have it? I Still Do he boldly declares on this album, but the accompanying music fails to offer convincing evidence for such a claim.

2.0.png

Advertisements

Reviews Roundup: Heart of a Dog

IN CINEMAS

Heart of a Dog

Anthropomorphism is an interesting game – how can we ever truly know what goes on in the heart of an animal? Our cinema is continually fascinated by the attempt to explain the emotional reality of human beings, whereas animals are largely ignored, or commonly injected into films for merely symbolic or comedic purposes. That’s what makes this film heart-of-a-dog.jpgso special: like all of the best works of art, it is overwhelmed with the desire to ascertain an understanding of its central character, but its central character just so happens to be a terrier named Lolabelle.
Lolabelle is the filmmaker Laurie Anderson’s dog, and this film is a non-fictional recounting of her life and death. She is one of the most fascinating protagonists in recent film history – four-legged or otherwise. Her life is characterised by great trauma confronted with defiant playfulness: she’s attacked by hawks, turns blind, suffers a long and protracted death, yet none of these things are able to shake her spirited sense of fun. Despite not being able to see, Lolabelle is trained to play the keyboard and releases several recordings throughout her lifetime, including a Christmas single which Anderson wittily describes as ‘pretty good’.

We are shown video recordings of these performances, which are very funny indeed; the rest of the film consists of animations and Super 8 footage of Lolabelle in various surroundings. We are even treated to first-person camerawork showing the world from her perspective, all in an attempt to comprehend the life experiences of this little thing. Anderson is aware that such an aim is not entirely possible – we cannot ever truly, fully empathise with another species because the way they experience the world is so different from our own. Dogs, for example, as we are told early on, rely on their sense of smell to create an image of the world, as their vision is blurry and essentially blind to colour.

But Lolabelle’s experience of life must cross over with our own in one particularly crucial way: she must face up to decaying and dying, as we all must in the end. These scenes of her death are some of the most graphic and distressing I’ve seen on film, with photographs detailing the pain associated with this lengthy process. But Anderson is more concerned with the spiritual aspect of Lolabelle’s passing, vividly describing what happens to us after expiring according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It might be offputting to some, but these Buddhist teachings are how Anderson copes with the grief that ensues from her overwhelming loss, and as such are essential as a part of the film’s structure. Besides, as with all great films about faith, this one is intriguingly plagued with doubt: a Buddhist teacher instructs her to give something away every time she thinks about Lolabelle, to which Anderson achingly replies: ‘but then I would be giving something away all the time!’

This unquestioning love for her pet is brought into sharp contrast at the end of the film with her recently deceased mother who, it is revealed, she never felt any love for at all. This leads to a quest, prompted by the aforementioned spiritual adviser, back in time to her childhood to try and find a moment when said mother displayed an unconditional love for her. What she finds there is one of the most moving moments in cinema history.

I first encountered Heart of a Dog in the form of its soundtrack, which was released in England last year, and which consisted only of Laurie Anderson’s narration and the 20131105-loureed-x306-1383682646.jpghauntingly orchestrated background music. I knew immediately it was a great work: emotionally complex, vivid, memorable, dealing with issues of life and death in an entirely unpretentious manner. Seeing it in the cinema, with the beautiful, dreamlike and occasionally abstract visuals only serving to deepen its sense of purpose, my high opinion was reaffirmed. Laurie Anderson is one of the unsung heroes of contemporary culture; she is known to many as the wife of rock star Lou Reed, but her own performance art works have been consistently outstanding, both hilarious and profound and with a uniquely surrealistic voice.

This is her finest moment yet: a warm, rigorous guide on how to cope with death, which is dedicated to the memory of her late husband and finishes with one of his finest songs playing over the credits. It is a song about love and the reversal of time, two of the film’s defining themes. Superb.

5.0.png

Reviews Roundup: Son of Saul, Radiohead

IN CINEMAS

Son of Saul

What is it about the Holocaust that, over 70 years after its termination, it continues to draw the attention of so many writers and filmmakers around the world as a subject for exploration? I believe it’s because we have a fear, a profound and a terrifying one, that it will eventually be forgotten and slip away from the collective consciousness.

Son of Saul examines this fear in great detail: how do we preserve, for all eternity, the memory of those who have died? Is it even possible? This is explored through the narrative of a Sonderkommando (the name given to a prisoner who was granted an extra few months of life in order to aid and dispose of the gas chamber victims) who, with a grim son-of-saul-poster.jpgdetermination that begins to look increasingly insane as the film progresses, seeks to perform a religious ceremony and burial for his illegitimate son.

This obsession with the commemoration of his child reflects our own culture’s persistence in keeping one of the most heinous crimes in history from being forgotten. The collective instinct of society’s, to give this unimaginable event some meaning, can be seen in the Holocaust’s extensive coverage in schools, the compulsory concentration camp visits in Germany, and of course films such as Schindler’s List. Director László Nemes is clearly uncertain as to whether this eternal commemoration can be achieved; he shows that the rest of the camp members are, understandably, more concerned with survival than they are with preserving the memory of the dead, as we all are in our daily lives.

Any realist can recognise that no one person, and no one crime, is going to be remembered forever, given the vastness of history and the fleeting nature of human memory. The attempt is ultimately futile, and perhaps we should focus all our energy on resolving the current injustices in the world. But the film’s very existence shows that Nemes believes that our determination to remember the dead is worthwhile. He finds a heroism in Saul’s dogged pursuit of a proper burial for his son that is curiously uplifting, given the appalling context of the setting.

Nemes is not just interested in memorialising the victims of the Holocaust, he is also concerned with how they are memorialised. The film’s construction is entirely set up as a retaliation against the sentimentalisation of the subject in previous films. The unspeakable crimes we have grown accustomed to being shown in the cinema here take place on the peripheral edges of the screen, often completely out of focus, with the camera glued to Saul’s face in long tracking shots which prioritise the plight of the individual over the mass because it knows that the latter is impossible to portray. Similarly, the lack of a musical score is a key decision in trying to deliberately avoid exploiting the audience’s emotions: this is the reality, it is saying, and if you are human then you will be moved by it.

Except that the film is not quite successful in adhering to reality and avoiding manipulation; towards the end, as Saul’s quest grows ever more fraught with danger, it is guilty of using the terrifying reality of Auschwitz as a tool to build narrative tension in much the same way as Spielberg did in Schindler’s List, a film which Nemes is supposedly adverse to. That smacks just a little of hypocrisy, and prevents the film from attaining its intended status as one of the all-time greats. Still, for the most part it is a work of great subtlety, and its fight to preserve the memory of those lost in the Holocaust, despite recognising the ultimate futility of this mission, is an incredibly empowering lost cause.

4.0.png

 

ON iTUNES

A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead

It’s about time we faced up to the truth: Radiohead are terrible lyricists. Sadly, like too many art-rock bands, they aspire to reveal a poetic truth about humankind but lack the discipline to begin to work out what that might be. Instead they resort to lazy slogans such as: ‘Bring down the government… They don’t speak for us’. Or, as they announce in one pearl of wisdom from this latest album: ‘The numbers don’t decide/Your system is a lie’. Fine, but how is it a lie? Why does the government not speak for us, and what can be done about it?

Thom Yorke likes to deal in vagaries rather than specifics: most fans would claim that this is his artistic imperative and is because he would like to leave his words open to interpretation. But I strongly suspect that it’s because he lacks any real insight into the corruption of the so-called ‘system’. When Radiohead threatens the establishment it doesn’t even seem to notice (David Cameron once named ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ as one of his favourite songs). They don’t need to be afraid; Yorke’s ignorant, juvenile jibes are no 80020850eb0c665c416cc8d37449f6ca.620x620x1.jpgthreat to them. In fact, they might even sing along.

I’m being harsh because too many people take the band’s lyrics seriously, when they should be focussed on the far greater significance of the music. OK Computer was fatuous in its repetition of post-modernist clichés regarding technology, but truly remarkable in its fusion of electronica and rock: see for example the digitalised beauty of ‘Subterranean Homesick Alien’ and the disturbingly epic crescendo of ‘Exit Music’. Kid A and Amnesiac were utterly clueless as attempts to expand thematically into more overt political statements, but musically they were very focussed in their decision to travel further down the electronic wormhole.

A Moon Shaped Pool is not quite as successful as the albums aforementioned, but its subtle orchestrations and acoustic instrumentation help to give it a unique texture. There are some stunning achievements: ‘Burn the Witch’ and its aggressive strings section is one of their most powerful moments, ‘Decks Dark’ shifts between its segmented motifs with a grace reminiscent of ‘Paranoid Android’, and ‘Identikit’ has a refreshingly unironic choir and 80s synth interlude. Don’t let the hyperbolic reaction of the press fool you: this is no masterpiece, and many of the longer tracks such as ‘Daydreaming’ and ‘Ful Stop’ drift aimlessly away into the vapidity of their own concepts.

But then suddenly, at the end, comes the unexpected: a track that has something interesting to say not just musically but lyrically. ‘True Love Waits’ was written in 1995, but it is certainly no coincidence that it has finally emerged on record shortly after Thom Yorke’s divorce from his wife of 23 years. The opening couplet ‘I’ll drown my beliefs/To have your babies’ sounds more desperate than ever considering the circumstances, and is such a succinct summary of how love can be powerful enough to make one abandon personal morality that I can almost forgive the revelation later on that ‘true love lives/On lollipops and crisps’. Overall, the song is a rare insight into Yorke’s emotional core, which is too often shrouded behind deliberate affectations of opacity. Several times his vocals crack, faltering with emotion, and the final plea to ‘Just don’t leave/Don’t leave’ is utterly heartbreaking. A great and a perfectly timed moment: on the 100th chronological track in their studio discography, Radiohead finally manage to unite the majesty of their music to a compelling lyrical vision.

3.0.png

Reviews Roundup: Captain America: Civil War, Drake

IN CINEMAS

Captain America: Civil War

I’ll admit it: I have never much enjoyed superhero films. I can count all of the ones I love on one finger (The Dark Knight), although I have also greatly enjoyed some of the less serious ones (in descending order of preference: Kick-Ass, Deadpool, Avengers Assemble). My main problem with them is that they rarely (except for in the aforementioned Batman film) bother to deal with human nature, the most fertile area of cinematic imagination, beyond binarial extremes of good and evil. Their structure often reminds me of old Hollywood civilwarposterimh.jpgmusicals like Singin’ in the Rain: in those films the plot’s sole purpose was to set up the next big song-and-dance routine, with half-assed romantic and comedic interludes being strung together in order to boost the running time and provide an excuse for the next set-piece. Similarly, in superhero flicks the plot’s only aim is to precipitate the next punch-‘em-up routine, which are often equally as well choreographed as those musical set-pieces of yore, but not half as much fun.

I don’t mean to sound snobbish, I really don’t – I have nothing to gain from disliking an entire genre of films, and I’ve invested a lot of hours in trying to enjoy them. But when the directors seem so indifferent to building suspense, so absorbed in the boring minutiae of the endless, absurdly bloodless fights, I’m afraid to say that I find my interest waning just as rapidly as the Hulk’s temper rises.

Civil War initially offers something a bit different: unprecedently for Marvel, it has an interesting idea at its core. Just like Team America: World Police before them, the Avengers are confronted with the fact that instead of endearing themselves to the general public with their superheroic shenanigans, they’ve instead managed to piss off the entire world. They are ordered to sign an accord holding them accountable to the UN, or else risk legal action. This is an intriguing scenario with the faintest rumblings of a metaphor: it displays an awareness that US foreign policy might be causing more damage around the world than it’s resolving, and that instead of holding itself above the law the country should allow itself to be held accountable to the international community.

Instead, with the attention span of a toddler, the film loses interest in politics and settles for who-would-win-in-a-fight fanboy tedium that is standard fare in Marvel adventures. Admittedly, the battle scenes between the opposing superheroes are well made and far more invigorating than is often the case, shot throughout with a handheld camera and fuelled by frantic editing to achieve a kinetic energy that is reminiscent of the Bourne films; there is also a great deal of amusement to be had from seeing Ant-Man and Spider-Man arbitrarily tossed into the mix, bemused and confused as to their reason for appearing in the central melee. But these enormous fight scenes are also a way of opting out of thinking seriously about the situation it has engaged the audience with in its first third – the motives for those fighting on each side of the ‘civil war’ are reduced to lazy and one-dimensional notions of friendship, loyalty and (that most tiresome of superhero tropes) revenge, rather than any form of political consciousness or belief.

I realise that I shouldn’t take it so seriously – of course I don’t expect a Hollywood blockbuster to pierce the complexities of politics or international relations. But the problem is that the film takes itself seriously at first, establishing the initial conflict between Iron Man and Captain America in terms of political and moral dimensions, with the former arguing for integration with the UN and the latter against it, before abandoning these issues almost entirely later on after failing to find a tidy answer to them. I wish it had at least been honest about its limited intentions from the start, much like the childish but thoroughly enjoyable Deadpool from earlier this year. The scenes with Spider-Man in Civil War, in all of his nerdy and vivacious glory, are so much better than the rest of the film because they mock the delusions of grandeur that all too often permeate the proceedings.

So I have issue with this film’s muddled intentions, but not its execution – it is compellingly shot and the performances inject some life into the baffled and over-reaching script. Chris Evans, above all, deserves credit for preventing one of the dullest screen characters in recent memory, one which has managed to develop only in physical terms over the course of five films, from sliding irretrievably into mediocrity. Overall it is still a professional entertainment, to be enjoyed by the legions of fans who respond to its aesthetic, but it is far from the thought-provoking drama that it play-acts at being for its first half an hour.

2.5.png

 

ON SPOTIFY

Views – Drake

I’ll admit it: I have never much enjoyed Drake’s albums. Hip-hop is currently the western world’s most consistently inventive and exciting genre of music, but you wouldn’t believe it from listening to Drake, its most boring practitioner.

It’s not that he’s self-obsessed – there have been plenty of great artists whose primary interest has been in themselves: see Plastic Ono Band-era Lennon, Blood on the Tracks-era drake-views-album-cover.jpgDylan, Blue-era Joni Mitchell (not to mention Lemonade-era Beyoncé). But those complex artists deal with a whole spectrum of human emotions in their works, whilst Drake deals almost exclusively in glum melancholia. Hip-hop as a genre has always encouraged self-analysis, and Drake is merely the latest in a long line of rappers who look to themselves as their source of greatest inspiration. The difference is that he is simply not as interesting as, say, the hilariously verbose and impishly surreal Lil Wayne, who uses the metaphor of an alien to represent himself in his ceaselessly imaginative raps to great comic effect. Drake is decidedly earthbound: he rarely thinks beyond himself and his immediate surroundings, failing to interpret the complications of a troubled persona and how it is perceived by the rest of the world.

Drake is the Jerry Seinfeld of rap: endlessly fixated on trivial details in relationships that prevent him from forging real connections with the many women he loves to dismiss. On Views, for example, he criticises one of his exes for sending the ‘are you here?’ text without an invite. Apparently this is a serious case of ‘games bein’ played’. Much worse, he indulges in the yawn-inducing cliché of ‘girls, they just wanna take my money’ on ‘Controlla’; I’m sure that some women do, but I yearn for the subtlety of Kanye’s ‘Gold Digger’ which realised that men can be just as duplicitous and exploitative in relationships.

Drake’s music is equally as monotonous and morose as his lyrics, with sluggish beats and unimaginative samples forever cramping his relatively decent flow. Apparently Views was intended to represent the alternating seasons in his home town of Toronto, but almost every track comes across as wintry due to their downbeat tone and depressive aura. I generally have no issue with the use of autotune in music, which can be a fascinating tool when used sparingly, but Drake’s over-reliance on it to convey his feelings of loneliness and urban alienation throughout the course of the album’s excessive 80 minutes simply comes across as unimaginative and ultimately wearisome.

Like most pop stars of limited musical and lyrical ability, he fares much better on the singles than on the self-regarding album tracks, with the added commercial incentive inciting him into letting his (admittedly nonexistent) hair down and, for once, having a bit of a blast. ‘One Dance’ has some nice Caribbean undertones and African guitar licks, which for the only time on the album creates the summery tone that Drake had supposedly intended for half of the tracks. The infamous ‘Hotline Bling’ meanwhile, tacked on as a bonus track, is the light at the end of a dark and overly murky musical tunnel, delighting in the silliness of its chorus and funky freshness of its beat and having a good old time of it in the grand pop tradition.

This album’s cover is very much indicative of what is mostly contained within: Drake is sat atop the CN Tower in Toronto, but instead of celebrating the presumably staggering views laid out before him, the image is instead indicative of his inner turmoil, with the grey and gloomy clouds gathered around to imply his inner state. I sincerely wish he would look out at the world in front of him, notice the considerable beauty that is out there, consider his place within it, and then return to his own contemplations as a wiser and less melancholic man; then perhaps his music will gain the maturity and longevity he so obviously craves.

2.0.png