Reviews Roundup: Me Before You; Paul Simon, The Monkees

IN CINEMAS

Me Before You

Me-Before-You.jpgI was sitting through the end credits to this film, as I always do, when I noticed something unusual. I wasn’t alone. Normally everyone is in a rush to exit the cinema, but this time there were others in the dark alongside me, contemplating what we had just seen. As the music died down, I noticed something even more unusual; the members of this select audience were mostly sobbing, some of them quite hysterically. My first reaction was incredulity – how could they possibly have been emotionally affected by such a dreadful film, one which shamelessly deploys disability and euthanasia as mere narrative devices for sentimental effect?

Yet sitting there and listening to their instinctively emotional responses I realised that I was perhaps too jaded and cynical, that my impulse to catch the film out on its flawed construction had prevented me from being touched by its sole and humble purpose, which is to reduce one to tears. Who was I to begrudge the film for having achieved its goal, or the audience for having been won over by such blatantly manipulative tactics?

I believe they were moved by the age-old concept of doomed love that the film invokes, of beautiful people tragically unable to requite their love due to an immovable barrier: in this case the severe physical disability on the part of the handsome Will (Sam Claflin), a former womaniser who has been left paralysed after a motorcycle accident. It quickly becomes evident that the most troubling aspect of Sam’s incapacitation, at least in his mind, is the negation of a fully functioning sex life. His impotence is felt all the more keenly due to the radiance of Lou (Emilia Clarke), a caregiver attending to his every whim yet causing feelings of emasculation through unwittingly drawing attention to his inability to sleep with her.

A great director like Hitchcock would have realised, as he did in Rear Window, that this young man’s disability/impotence reflects our own paralysis in the cinema, unable to rise from the seats we are glued to and fulfil our sexual desires for the absurdly good-looking people onscreen. Such an implication would’ve taken a more assured hand at the director’s helm, some cunning and wit, but this film is content with using the disability/impotence theme to imply why life might not be worth living any more for our hero.

Impotence is indeed a frightening thought and trying to imagine, as this film wants us to do, a love affair that can never be satisfied sexually is stifling. The solution? Perhaps voluntary euthanasia, the film wonders clumsily. This could release the obligation of the able-bodied participant in the relationship, even if leaving them perpetually emotionally scarred. This could potentially be shocking or at least morally challenging, but Sam’s contemplation of taking his own life is portrayed in strictly heroic terms, designed to inspire in the audience romantic considerations of the nobility of sacrifice within a relationship. Oh, and tears of course, lots of tears.

To me, Me Before You is a travesty: appallingly scripted, acted, and directed, a deeply silly film that foolishly believes in, or at least romanticises, a binary contrast between freedom and disability (whilst being blithely unaware that such a contrast might cause offence to disability activists, as of course it has done).

To you, it could be a moving, even a life-affirming experience, as it proved to be for my companions in the cinema. Such is the subjective nature of film. But the nature of writing about film strictly places me before you, which is why I’ve ultimately decided upon the rating below.

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ON SPOTIFY

Stranger to Stranger – Paul Simon
paul-simon-stranger-to-stranger-album-cover-art.jpgOne of the great paranoid, self-conscious wimps of the music industry, Paul Simon can perhaps be seen as rock’s answer to Woody Allen (and indeed he played a minor part in that director’s Annie Hall), with slightly less jokes and slightly more angst. This is a man, after all, whose career famously kicked off with the line ‘Hello darkness my old friend’, delivered without the slightest trace of irony, on a track complaining about ‘The Sound of Silence’.

Over the years he has managed to loosen up a bit, first by ditching the angelic presence of Art Garfunkel and then by wholly embracing world music; the reggae textures of certain songs on Paul Simon and the South African guitar and rhythms on his masterpiece Graceland animated him quite a bit more than the self-satisfied smugness of the acoustic folk tradition from which he had emerged. Still, the arty abstractions and miserable tenor of his lyrics persisted, until 2011’s So Beautiful or So What, an album that managed to combine the beauty and the ‘so what’ attitude of rock n’ roll, with more jokes and less angst for once. No other artist has matured with such grace and ease, shedding a predilection for despondency and blossoming into a man with a universally humanist outlook in both his words and music.

Stranger to Stranger continues in that vein but is not his strongest work, crippled for the most part by the meandering ‘Proof of Love’, coming halfway through the record and providing no such thing. Meanwhile, two instrumentals come and go without leaving much impact, and the first one is an embarrassing metaphor for the encroachment of death. It’s called ‘The Clock’.

But for the most part it still sounds like a party to which the whole world has been invited, with echoes of Simon’s eclectic past in the West African guitar licks of ‘Cool Papa Bell’, Brazilian samba grooves of ‘In a Parade’, and American blues and gospel mash-up ‘The Riverbank’. Even more excitingly, the first three (full-length) tracks are collaborations with Clap! Clap!, an Italian electronic dance artist who animates our eternal wimp into producing some of the best music of his career. ‘The Werewolf’ uses vocal samples and drum machines to thrillingly conjure up images of an apocalypse ready to devour us all, from the rich who ‘Eat all the nuggets, then order extra fries’ down to the poor. ‘Wristband’ uses a looping acoustic bass line in a circular arrangement that teases the rock star of the lyrics, a man who can’t get back onstage because he doesn’t have the circle mentioned in the title around his wrist. ‘Street Angel’ distorts a gospel choir sample beyond all recognition as the artist’s words become increasingly surreal. They’re all wonderful, invigorating and fresh, with sure-handed, conversational vocals from Simon. He’s always sounded best when at his most relaxed and playful, pushing the boundaries of his art with a casual ease that is at once alarming and inviting.

The title of the album could refer to the beginning of a love affair, or to a prayer with God, but it could also refer to the nature of music, which transmits emotions from the heart of one stranger into the bodies and minds of others. To fail to create any sort of meaningful transaction between the music and audience is any rock star’s greatest fear, and Simon is only guilty of it on a few tracks of this generally excellent album. Give it a go; it might just make you forget for a moment that the werewolf is coming to bite.

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Good Times! – The Monkees

the-monkees-good-times-cover-art-final-1200x1200.jpgThe Monkees have too often been at the receiving end of jokes and jibes about the commercialisation of music, with humourless critics claiming that their manufactured image, moulded after The Beatles for the sake of a popular TV show, demonstrates all that is wrong with the world and the capitalist reclamation of art. Me, I’ve never had a problem with the commercial side of rock n’ roll, always an inescapable aspect of a form of music that tends to appeal directly to the emotions rather than the intellect. Let the children boogie.

Good Times! could be the title to any number of 50s and 60s rock albums, from Chuck Berry to Elvis to early Beatles, in which the rhythmic thrill and adrenaline rush of the music was the primary attraction. The Monkees were indeed a business venture intended to exploit this sudden craze, brought together by a television production company based primarily on their looks. But it was a very good business venture, utilising great songwriters to craft songs such as ‘Last Train to Clarksville’, ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’, which stand up as rich and compelling commercial products to this day. Anyone who denies their cohesion as a unit, listen to Headquarters, where they played their own instruments for the first time. Anyone who imagines that they’re soft, listen to ‘(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone’, where they rival the Stones for venomous spite. Anyone who thinks that they’re bland, listen to the subtlety of Micky Dolenz’ vocal performance on ‘I’m a Believer’, one filled with desperation and yearning.

Despite all of this, anyone who suggests that they are on a par with The Beatles are most likely being deliberately obtuse: their vocals were never as effervescent, and they never managed to craft a consistently pleasurable album, as the Fab Four did time after time.

Good Times! continues the hit-and-miss approach to crafting music that was their wont, or at least was the wont of their managers and production team. It is carefully constructed as a tribute to their former glory, with such retrograde musicians as Noel Gallagher and Adam Schlesinger contributing songwriting duties. But it ends up as more of a tribute to the weakness of The Monkees’ full-length approach, which would typically consist of singles-plus-fillers. The title track, ‘You Bring the Summer’, ‘She Makes Me Laugh’, and the pretty ‘Me & Magdalena’ are the obvious singles here, well-crafted homages to the 60s rock sound with crunchy guitars, cymbal-heavy percussion and inventive harmonies. The urge to get up and dance is still present in almost every note: Austin Powers would love it.

The fillers, however, are disappointingly frequent: ‘Our Own World’, ‘Little Girl’, ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’, ‘I Know What I Know’ are all fairly tedious, as shallow as a puddle lyrically and not much more interesting musically. ‘Love to Love’ regenerates the sadly deceased Davy Jones on the vocal track, but he never really had the pipes, so it comes across as woefully pedestrian. Still, in our digital age these can be easily skipped or programmed out, leaving behind a terrific little portrait of old-timers whipping up a good old-fashioned rock n’ roll barnstormer.

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