Reviews Roundup: The Get Down; De La Soul, Frank Ocean; God Help the Child

ON NETFLIX

The Get Down

get_down.jpgFor fans of hip-hop, musicals, and Baz Luhrmann, this is a real treat: luckily I’m all three,
so I was down with The Get Down right from the start. The show is set in 1977, two years away from rap’s breakthrough into the mainstream with The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, at a time when the genre was being birthed on the streets of the Bronx. Mixing archive footage of the ’hood and his own (and other director’s) extravagantly filmed flights of fancy, Luhrmann tries to have it both ways: to achieve a documentary realism and a magical realism all in one, which is why the overall effect is rather messy. The concept itself is inherently confused – it acknowledges that gang violence and urban poverty were necessary ingredients for the emergence of hip-hop, but the musical moments themselves, when they come, are too studio-bound and clean to thrill in the right way or to reflect this raw reality. Even more confusingly the female protagonist, Mylene, who is trying to make it as a diva, apparently ‘invents’ another genre by splicing gospel and disco (read: religion and sex) together, although quite what this newfound genre and its place in history is The Get Down never quite elucidates – gospel was always a huge element in black music, and the idea that love of God and love of sex could be interrelated was a massive element of Marvin Gaye’s career, for example.

Still, where the show really triumphs is in its knowledge of hip-hop specifically, as it well should seeing as Grandmaster Flash appears as both an onscreen mentor to the male protagonist, Ezekiel, and his crew of wannabe rappers, and an offscreen mentor to Luhrmann and his crew (Flash took the role of Associate Producer). No other film or TV series that I’ve seen on the subject has given quite so much time or respect to the different avenues of hip-hop, which never has been just about rap: breakdance, graffiti, and DJ culture were equally important parts of an all-encompassing anti-establishment movement that would outlast, commercially and artistically, the punk aesthetic that was emerging at around the same time. The hard work and dedication that goes into DJing in particular can’t be denied whilst watching The Get Down, which shows just how tough it can be to succeed even at a street level in such a genre, and should hopefully help to dispel the insidious myth that it is all just about stealing other people’s music and talking over it. There is great artistry involved, immense creativity – and, in this show’s best moments, it captures the sheer adrenaline rush of these creative juices flowing, helping to explain why hip-hop is still a phenomenon inspiring working class kids around the world nearly 40 years later.

Only six episodes in and some interesting characters have emerged, but the central relationship between Ezekiel and Mylene is so far devoid of sexual tension, taking a back seat to the real romance of the show, which is with the music. Various hoodlums and politicians in the supporting cast have yet to distinguish themselves. One of the biggest surprises, though, is Jaden Smith, who gives a winning performance here as graffiti artist Dizzee, hinting at a latent homosexuality sure to be given expression by the burgeoning underground disco scene with which he is destined to become involved. But the truth is that The Get Down is filled with winning performances, which carry the energy of the show even when the writing sags. I look forward to more series, more revelations about the early  years of hip-hop, and much more excitement as we are shown how it explodes into a global phenomenon. You would do well to get down with it too.

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ON SPOTIFY

And the Anonymous Nobody… – De La Soul

and-the-Anonymous-Nobody-cover.jpgIn the late 80s/early 90s De La Soul established themselves as a viable alternative to the gangsta bullshit peddled by mediocre rappers like Dr. Dre, producing a sequence of classic albums which channelled soul, jazz, and funkadelic samples into a unique vibe they labelled the D.A.I.S.Y. Age. Fuck being hard, they said, we want to be complicated – even if they never tired of dumb skits or danceable beats, which is why Posdnous here describes their music as ‘the right amount of soul with a parallel amount of grit’.

20 years ago I would’ve agreed, but And the Anonymous Nobody… has next to no soul and barely a handful of grit. What has turned them into De La Soulless? The answer might surprise some of the uninitiated to hip-hop: it’s because they’ve rejected sampling in favour of live instrumentation. De La recorded this album in the studio with their friends and assorted musicians, but the jams they produced are timid and largely unfavourable to percussion, which means they meander and lack… well, grit. The group’s great strength was always their unerring ear for killer hooks, even if they were ‘stolen’ from other records, which gelled with their principled positivity and inventive rhymes. Here, though, they can’t deliver the goods because the live musicians just aren’t tight enough – except for on the rare occasions when the band gets down with the funk, ‘Pain’ and ‘Whoodeeni’ being the key examples, they don’t generate any surprise or excitement like the chopped samples used to do. Embarrassing detours into rock-rap are the most painful experiences on this record, with De La channelling the legendary rock star presence of, er, Justin Hawkins. Remember, from The Darkness? But then again even the genuinely great David Byrne can’t work out why he’s there. The overall confusion of direction, and hence the inevitably half-baked raps from De La Soul themselves, makes their boasts of ‘providing comprehensive substance’ and ‘Fuck! I can’t stop dancing!’ almost as ridiculous as anything to have emerged from Kanye’s mouth in the last year. Boasting is only arrogance if it’s false, after all. In which case, this is the first time that De La Soul have displayed any arrogance in their inspired history.

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Blonde – Frank Ocean

Buzzkill album of the year, and that’s saying something – Drake’s already released his. No Frank-Ocean-Blond-500x500.jpgjokes, no falsetto, no beats, no hooks: everything that made Ocean a pop sensation has been deleted, and we’re left only with the thing that made him a critical darling: soul-searching moody soundscaping. Which is fine by the critics, of course, many of whom have already proclaimed this a masterpiece. But they’re wrong: Blonde’s determined rejection of Entertainment in favour of Art is a sham with no clue how to back up such a move. If you’re going to plug for soundscaping instead of tunes, really Frank, you’d better make it more engaging than this: the spare instrumentation and lack of drumbeats with hushed, atonal synths and the odd guitar might be deliberate, but that doesn’t make it interesting, especially when self-pity is your primary lyrical concern. Ocean opts for a drugged-out, hazy kind of atmosphere, and he pulls it off, but that mellowness unfortunately brings more attention to the words: with no consummate skill, he lets us know about his nostalgia for lost summer days of childhood innocence (yawn) and the pain of several toxic relationships, plus the marijuana he needs to overcome these memories. After a week of concentrated listening, I began to feel some nostalgia of my own: for the wit and tenderness of his 2011 mixtape debut, Nostalgia, Ultra, which deviously outsmarted samples by Coldplay, Radiohead, and The Eagles (admittedly not such a difficult feat), and for the simple beauty of Channel Orange’s most successful love songs, ‘Thinkin’ ’Bout You’ and ‘Forrest Gump’. It’s a sad state of affairs when the highlight of Blonde turns out to be a guest spot, from Andre 3000 on ‘Solo (Reprise)’, a blitzkrieg attack of such intensity that it begins to stir up feelings of nostalgia all over again, this time for the propulsive brilliance of OutKast. Such a comparison exposes Ocean’s tortured genius act for the shallow shtick that it is, and leaves one with concerns for the immediate future of his career.

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IN WATERSTONES

God Help the Child – Toni Morrison

It might seem harsh to compare Frank Ocean to Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, but if god-help-the-child-109661329.jpghe wants to transform himself into a Serious Artist then he really needs to learn from the best. Like Ocean, Morrison’s primary fascination is with the past, about how it affects and haunts the present – so we have a murdered baby returning to its mother’s home in Beloved, or Macon Dead’s flight to the South to rediscover his family roots in Song of Solomon. But unlike Ocean, she elevates the ordinariness of this theme to extraordinary levels through imaginative license (ghosts, mystics, and moments that can only be explained by magic abound in her work) and a recognition of how romanticising the past can have far-reaching, unintentionally disastrous consequences.

Her latest novel, God Help the Child, is a sterling example of this: one of its protagonists, Booker, is struggling to come to terms with the murder of his brother decades ago when he was a child, a brother whom he regards as an ‘angel’. But this image of perfection means that he can’t reconcile himself to the flawed nature of the adults who surround him, those that love him the most. So he ditches his family and girlfriend and chooses to live in isolation, alone but for the memories of his beloved brother. It is only when the girlfriend that he has spurned, Bride, comes to confront him with his selfishness that he starts to realise the absurdity of clinging to such an idealised image of the past – after all, if his brother had had a chance to grow up, he would no longer have been an ‘angel’, for the simple reason that nobody can be; he would have grown up to be shaped by the world into as flawed a human being as everyone else. So Booker begins to unburden himself of that romanticised view of the past, primarily by attempting to rebuild his love affair – whether he manages this I won’t spoil, although it is the attempt that is important, for it demonstrates an intention to live in the present that was not there before.

Morrison is no fool – she knows that acknowledging the past is necessary, and that family and cultural links are important to observe and honour. But she also believes that this should never be done uncritically: by glorifying memories in a one-dimensional way, as Booker does with his ‘angel’ brother, or Frank Ocean does in Blonde. Such is the difference between genius and pretension, and the reason why I would recommend reading this novel over listening to that album any day, even if it’s not as shocking or as powerful as some of her past triumphs.

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Reviews Roundup: David Brent: Life on the Road; Dolly Parton

IN CINEMAS

David Brent: Life on the Road

As I’m sure you’re all aware (and if not – where have you been?) Ricky Gervais’ The Office is a classic and the best British comedy – TV or otherwise – released in the last 20 years. Wedavid-brent_poster-600x675.jpg all know that it’s funny, but Gervais and Merchant’s masterstroke was simply to ask us: why? What is it about someone, or something that is said, that makes us laugh? So they presented us with three comedians: Tim (Martin Freeman), who is intentionally funny and hence wins the girl; Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), who is unintentionally funny and hence the butt of all office jokes; and David Brent, who is unintentionally unfunny and hence doomed to social pariah status.

Gervais and Merchant conclude, through the interplay of these characters, that one of the key ingredients for humour is sadism: Tim endlessly taunts Gareth, and the show itself endlessly taunts David, even if it is in both cases with some affection. Laughing, we are shown, can be an act of cruelty, and it is easy to detect this everywhere in Gervais’ work: the hounding of Karl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad, the hounding of Christians on his Twitter feed, the hounding of Hollywood A-Listers at the Golden Globes. But that same cruelty can also be turned inwards, in the form of masochism: in Ricky’s best works, The Office and Extras, he is pointing the bullying finger and laughing directly at himself: the part of him that perennially needs to entertain celebrities (like Andy Millman) and work colleagues (like David Brent), yet also yearns to be taken seriously.

So in this film Brent and Gervais both make their bids for artistic credibility: the former through cashing in his pensions in order to go on the road and perform his music and the latter through the continuation of his most critically lauded creation. They do this, quite simply, to itch that desperate need for adulation, which Gervais is too smart not to appreciate that he shares with his fictional alter ego. I have nothing against narcissistic ambition in the arts, as anyone who has read my Kanye piece will know, as it leads to some of our most insightful and provocative entertainments; but a significant level of humour is required to pull it off, which is where this film falls short.

Predictably, many of the jokes stem from Brent’s un-PC outbursts, but these were so excruciating in The Office because he was in a position of power in an environment where decorum was so vitally important, and his employees couldn’t just walk away from him; in the bars and dingy student dives of this film, where Brent is just a pathetic middle-aged man of no meaningful influence, the effect is considerably less shocking. What’s more, as mentioned above, it was the interplay between the big man and Tim and Gareth, and occasionally the loathsome Finchy, that really allowed Brent to shine in the TV series: the supporting cast here fail to exert themselves in the same way as full-fledged comic foils, with their primary purpose being to tell us in interview how much they hate Brent and then, later on in the unconvincing narrative arc, how much they ‘actually quite like him’.

Another gripe I have with this film, that critically limits its comedic potential, is the music, so crucial to any mock-rockumentary: Gervais wants it both ways, to indulge his latent dreams of being a rock star and to make us giggle at the ridiculousness of such an idea, which means a shallow compromise: bland, overly polished performances that are neither toe-tappingly good nor amusingly awful. They sound like over-produced studio concoctions, which they are, and hence don’t suit the spontaneous, on-the-road settings of the film. Worse, much worse, is that the words are rarely as memorably embarrassing as they should be. The only classic here is ‘Equality Street’, which offers up this sage piece of advice: ‘Dwarfs aren’t babies/You can’t just pick ’em up’. Many thanks to the Brentmeister for those penetrating words of wisdom.

This is yet another disappointment then, in a summer that’s been chock full of ’em. There are a few touching moments at the end, the finest in the film, in which Brent struggles to come to terms with his own mediocrity. Gervais has been suffering from the same affliction recently, and I just hope that he will be able to overcome it.

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ON SPOTIFY

Pure & Simple – Dolly Parton

Pure & Simple.jpgHats off to David Brent, who in a rare moment of clarity acknowledged that Dolly Parton was more than just a pair of tits. People usually take a look at her curvaceous figure and smash hit ‘9 to 5’ and dismiss her as a naff novelty, but at her height in the 70s she was so much more than that. She was a truly terrific singer and songwriter, whose tremulous love ballads and ballsy sex sagas (check out the perverse ‘Traveling Man’ if you don’t believe me) made her a deserved star of the country music scene. Listen to her subtle, spare ‘I Will Always Love You’ and I promise you will never be able to stomach the Houston monstrosity ever again. Pure and simple was the name of the game, before she sacrificed both virtues for a bid at crossover pop success in the 80s and 90s, which due to her quirkiness and fragile voice she was never ideally suited for (even though it made her fortune). Yet here she promises a return to the Pure & Simple aesthetic once again.

A bit of a half-assed one in all honesty: whilst the tracks are mostly acoustic, centring around gently stummed guitars and mandolins (an instrument I’m always a sucker for), Dolly just can’t resist occasionally throwing in some heavenly backup singers and sentimental violas to yank at the heartstrings and augment the already treacly lyrics. Almost every song here is about love, which is fine – Dolly is celebrating her 50th wedding anniversary this year, and boy do we need documentation of such marital success in this day and age. But we really don’t need moments like these, saccharine to the extent of potential danger to diabetics: ‘Trouble clouds may fill our skies/It might even rain awhile/But the rain will go away/There’s always a brighter day’. That’s from a woman who once penned the ingenious metaphors of ‘The Bargain Store’ and ‘Coat of Many Colors’.

Still, there are always the sex songs, which for a 70 year old are remarkably vigorous: ‘It’s just a disgrace/These thoughts that I think!’ she reveals about her husband in a song where she’s ‘Head Over Heels’ in lust rather than love. In another she insists that she’s 16 – in mind, attitude, and sexual appetite, if not in age. It’s no accident that these two tracks are also the best musically, because they compel Parton to add some raunchy electric guitar and sing with a zest for life that is less apparent elsewhere. If you think septuagenarians should keep such horniness to themselves, you’ve obviously misunderstood the spirit of rock n’ roll, and I for one applaud it. But the saccharinity of the majority of the tracks bring the unfettered joy of these moments down, and it’s hard not to conclude that the album is merely an an excuse for the Queen of country to get back on the the road again and tour in front of her adoring fans. David Brent at least would understand.

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Reviews Roundup: The Little Prince; Dinosaur Jr., The Avalanches

IN CINEMAS

The Little Prince

For quite some time now, the best commercial feature films to be released by the major studios have been animated. Not just Pixar, as everyone knows, but also littleprince_poster.jpgStudio Ghibli, Aardman and most recently a resurgent Disney have been consistently releasing thoughtful, creative, and downright beautiful works of art – full of warmth, humanity and occasional profundity, they have a directness of focus that blockbusters made for ‘adults’ tend to elude. It is downright laughable that in this year’s Zootropolis we saw America’s schisms and particularly its racial identity issues explored with great sensitivity and intelligence, whilst in films apparently written for grown-ups such as last week’s Suicide Squad absolutely nothing was explored beyond Margot Robbie’s exposed cleavage and just how many CGI explosions they could cram into two hours. I am both encouraged and discouraged – we are urging our children to be more thoughtful, but our young adults to be more thoughtless. Still, there has always been terrible films being made for adults, whilst there has never been so many excellent films being made for children, our next generation of filmmakers, which overall should leave you with a cautious hope for the future of cinema.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic novella The Little Prince predated this golden age of kid’s culture by over half a century, released in France in 1943 when the country was facing one of the worst crises in its history, and offering a tender message of hope for its youth. In a war-torn, ravaged nation, where many would have witnessed the slaughter of loved ones, it is difficult to overestimate the sentimental impact of the book’s romantic notion of a Little Prince alive and well in the stars, even after his earthly body has been devoured by a snake. The narrative and the visual imagination, depicting the Prince’s journey across the universe from planet to planet, are of course important, but its immense popularity (it is one of the best-selling books of all time) can only be explained by the aching longing that oozes from every page, every sentence, every illustration: a longing, that is, to preserve the innocence of childhood long into adulthood and old age, and beyond that even into death.

That theme might sound familiar, and yes, it is unquestionable that The Little Prince is a decisive influence upon the works of modern animation studios, Pixar and Studio Ghibli in particular, which are frequently tinged with the worry of growing up and losing the sense of wonder and innate creativity of youth: transformation is a consistent fascination in their films and a manifestation of these fears, for example when the parents turn into pigs in Spirited Away or the toys are distorted into mutants in Toy Story: the horror of physical change is a deflection of the more hideous fears of deterioration, decay and death. So in its perceptiveness on these issues, it is rather surprising that it’s taken this long for a full-length animated film to be made of The Little Prince, but reassuring to see it finally done with such craft, such care.

Purists might be upset with the liberties that this version takes with the text: a framing narrative is introduced with a young girl befriending her elderly neighbour, who is the one that relates the famous story of the Prince as we know it. But I accept this additional setup, not just because the original is too slight to bear the weight of a feature film, but also because it gently serves to affirm The Little Prince’s central idea, which is that youthfulness is a state of mind and is not related to physical age. The old man is dishevelled, lives in squalid surroundings, and it is soon revealed that he is dying; the young girl is pristine, lives in a middle-class suburban haven, and has her whole life before her. But, after initial suspicions are overcome, they prove to be equally childlike, united by the stories of the Little Prince and his shining emblem of eternal youth; it provides them both with hope, love and an alternative to the tedium and cruelty of the ‘real’ world.

In order for this adaptation to capture the spirit of the book, it had to make the audience feel the same sense of wonder as its central characters – which it certainly does when the CGI scenes of the girl’s mundane life dissolve into gorgeous stop-motion sequences showing the Little Prince’s journey across space and time. The friends that he encounters along the way, from the rose that is the love of his life to a sage old fox, are remarkably well rendered and his bond with them undeniable. Meanwhile, in the English version, we are treated to a voice cast of great variety and delight: Ricky Gervais, Marion Cotillard, Benicio del Toro, and James Franco all throw their distinctive cadences into the mix, but it is Jeff Bridges who you will remember, as the old man whose faith in the importance of the imagination and human contact accompanies him all the way to his death bed.

The Little Prince is the perfect antidote to summer blockbuster fatigue: touching, wise, warm, and funny. It is absurd to me that such a film should be considered unworthy of cinematic release, ‘relegated’ to Netflix – are distributors really so scared of low-key, thoughtful films for children? Never mind, we should applaud Netflix for taking this ‘risk’, and the time, care and attention to detail that has gone into this adaptation.

Watch it here: The Little Prince (Netflix)

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ON SPOTIFY

Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not – Dinosaur Jr.

dinosaur-jr-give-a-glimpse-of-what-yer-not-album-cover-art.jpgFar from being a great band, Dinosaur Jr. disappointed by never living up to the grunge movement that they helped to inspire. Yes, they were influential, popularising the use of feedback within classic pop/rock structures in their 80s heyday and deploying the loud-quiet-loud dynamics that were subsequently made famous by the Pixies and Nirvana. But they simply didn’t have the majesty or the beauty to match either of those iconic bands, nor the boundless creativity and intelligence of, say, Sonic Youth. Inconsistent and prone to dismal, speed metal indebted guitar freakouts, their primary auteur J Mascis never displayed the same inspired madness that characterises the genre’s greatest voices: Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore, Stephen Malkmus etc. He is the Salieri to their Mozart.

Which is not to say he’s not talented: his band can conjure up a thrilling, rumbling mass of electronic noise at their best, which in the first two tracks of Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not they certainly are. ‘Goin Down’ and especially ‘Tiny’, very much improved by the dog in its video (see below), thrill to the bone, the guitars focussed in their attack and a joyful spirit of abandon, reminiscent of the punk music that inspired them, evident in everything but Mascis’ voice. For it is Mascis’ vocals that have consistently let the band down throughout their lengthy career, straining to convey the misery of the lyrics and, worse, failing to offer any alternative to it through the solace that music should provide. When he complains about walking for miles in a lovelorn haze or being ‘Lost All Day’ on this album it is difficult to empathise because his voice so resists unpacking the irony in these operatically daft situations – something that Will Toledo, for example, in this year’s Teens of Denial did so well.

Mascis constantly grinds down the decent work put out by Dinosaur Jr.’s rhythm section with songs revolving around his own lengthy guitar solos, which are as characterless as his vocals, making the deathly mistake, so common in lesser bands, of promoting technical expertise over melodicism. Combined with an inadequate songwriting streak, which runs out of inspiration on just the third track, Mascis sucks all of the potential joy out of Give a Glimpse, something that secondary songwriter Lou Barlow (of Sebadoh fame) cannot rectify with his own two lacklustre efforts. ‘Wasted time’, Mascis bemoans on ‘Mirror’. Tell me about it.

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Wildflower – The Avalanches

The-Avalanches-Wildflower.jpgIf anyone tries to argue with me that sampling in music is daylight robbery and not artistically valid, I point them in the direction of Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…., and finally The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, which usually shuts them up. The first three are masterpieces of musical collaging, and if The Avalanches’ effort is not quite in the same league, it is nevertheless distinct from them: the others incorporate older music specifically into the hip-hop culture, with an emphasis on big beats and postmodern humour, whereas the hundreds of samples deployed on Since I Left You were moulded into lush pop songs that seemed polished and worked perfectly well as background music, without calling attention to their own construction in quite the same way (which is not to say that they weren’t intricately, meticulously crafted).

That album was their debut and an immediate critical smash, gifting sampling with a new credibility amongst the white middle class; amazingly, it has taken The Avalanches 16 years to release a sophomore effort, and even more amazingly this Australian outfit’s extended sabbatical has not dulled any of the sunny optimism of their sampledelic pop music. Wildflower is nostalgic for the 60s nostalgia of their first album, with nods to The Beach Boys and Sgt. Pepper-era Beatles, songs with titles such as ‘Harmony’ and ‘Sunshine’, and a cover and title which references Wild Honey. The mood conjured is of the 60s not as it really was, but as we like to romanticise it: as an era of peace, love, understanding, and flower power. It has all of the utopian universalism of the 1967 live broadcast of ‘All You Need is Love’ across the world, with a variety of musical genres explored including calypso, disco, Big Band jazz, funk, and rock in a bid to bridge national and racial divides. This is very much in line with Since I Left You, which was a concept album on the theme of travelling around the world post-breakup, whilst having a multicultural party along the way.

It is possible to be sceptical of The Avalanches’ idealism and enjoy it at the same time – goodness knows there has been enough troubles in the world this year to allow for an hour’s worth of escapism, and Wildflowers satisfies that need in spades. But it also has a rich enough sonic palette to keep listeners actively involved, satisfyingly holding tedium at bay: you don’t have to be aware of the origins of each sample to be amazed at how fluently they are stitched together. Meanwhile, the use of indie artists and rappers performing over the top of their productions shows that The Avalanches have their eyes fixed on the future of popular music, rather than just simply wallowing in its retro glories. The old and the new are not always comfortable bedfellows, but Wildflowers just might convince you that they most certainly are the majority of the time.

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Reviews Roundup: Suicide Squad; Aesop Rock, Homeboy Sandman

IN CINEMAS

Suicide Squad

As those of you who have read my Civil War review will know, I’m not the world’s biggest Suicide_Squad_Poster.jpgfan of superhero flicks. But I was still looking forward to this – the cast was impressive, the trailers displayed a distinctive visual style, and the synopsis was intriguing. The smarter films in this, in my opinion, largely tedious genre suspect that our obsession with superheroes is more than a little disturbing, because these ‘heroes’ always insist upon operating above and beyond the law – they are, in essence, fascists. So The Dark Knight trilogy and the brilliant Watchmen comic (but not the insipid Zack Snyder adaptation) pose us troubling questions about our adoration for these superhumans who believe in violence as the ultimate form of justice, blurring the boundaries between good and evil in the process. Suicide Squad, with its cast of evildoers, promised to raise moral quandaries in a similar vein: is the only possible way we can fight evil with more evil? In a political climate where the only solution we’ve got to crises in the Middle East is to bomb the hell out of the region, that is an extremely pertinent question, and I had tentative hopes that this film would manage to be both entertaining and interesting.

Instead, as is sadly the norm, Suicide Squad aims to cater more for DC fanboys than anyone else, meaning that it has been quite rightly ripped to shreds by critics. The opening half an hour, in which we are introduced to each of the main antiheroes and ‘treated’ to their back stories, may be enjoyable for those who have read all of the accompanying comics, but for those of us not in the know it comes across, frankly, as one of the most baffling passages of cinema in recent memory. It is a rush of poorly edited images of death, mayhem and carnage intended to show us just how evil each of these imprisoned supervillains are, but, rather typically, the filmmakers get distracted and are much more interested in wanking over images of Margot Robbie in pornographic outfits and Will Smith blasting guns than in building any semblance of coherent characterisations. The introduction of each one is accompanied by groan-inducingly obvious song choices that are supposed to highlight their personalities, presumably so that director David Ayers doesn’t have to bother. Too busy orchestrating the explosions and bloodshed, you see. Far more important.

That it fails as thought-provoking drama may surprise you less than it disappoints me, but that it fails also as entertainment has proven unforgivable to most. Despite avoiding moral debate, it still had the potential to be a subversive and gleefully wicked black comedy in the vein of Kickass or Deadpool, but in this admittedly cynical viewer it only managed to raise a chuckle once, with Deadshot’s reaction to the miraculous survival of Viola Davis’ intelligence officer near the end.

So much talent is squandered: Will Smith as Deadshot, an actor who frequently outshines the dire films he chooses to make, and whose commitment here is unquestionable but drowned out by an overcrowded screenplay; Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, whose comic ability was demonstrated in The Wolf of Wall Street and briefly (but memorably) in The Big Short, and it is apparent again but this time hidden behind a one-dimensional portrayal of ‘craziness’ and cheap jokes about her physical attractiveness; and Jared Leto as the Joker, who is only tossed a couple of bones in the form of a few minutes of screen time, and unsurprisingly fails to leave a mark – if you think Heath Ledger was much more interesting as that infamous creation, you’d be right, but just consider how much better the script and director he was working with were and spare a thought for poor Jared. Other, less famous actors are also left for dead by the dull dialogue and pedestrian filmmaking – you certainly won’t be able to recall anything interesting about Captain Boomerang or El Diablo, given the thankless task of being brought to life by Jai Courtney and Jay Hernandez, after leaving the cinema.

At the end of the finale, which consists of CGI fighting itself for twenty long minutes, your patience will probably have been worn thin, and any residual excitement from the slick trailers and marketing campaign will have completely evaporated. I won’t get into the argument over whether the DC flicks need to learn some lessons from Marvel – I feel that recent outputs from both have been spoiled by a very significant failure: letting the fanboys dictate the films. Trying to please a very vocal minority, by cramming in as many characters, subplots and in-jokes as possible, and frustratingly feeling the need to provide every character with a lengthy origin story, is making Hollywood forget how to construct a pleasing, consistent, structurally coherent film, which for many of us is of primary importance.

But these films are completely critic-proof, and no amount of grumbling will prevent this film from making shedloads of money. So you can be sure that the same mistakes will be made again by the studios and mediocre directors, and no matter if audiences are mostly bored with what they see, they will continue shelling out for it. So be it: I will hold out hope in the coming years for more anomalous greats in the genre such as The Dark Knight, whilst dreck like Suicide Squad will dissolve into cinematic obscurity.

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ON SPOTIFY

Note: I discovered these two artists last year through an EP they released together online called Lice. It can be downloaded for free – it’s only 17 minutes long and pretty great, I’d recommend checking it out:

https://aesoprockhomeboysandman.bandcamp.com/album/lice

The Impossible Kid – Aesop Rock 

Aesop-Rock-The-Impossible-Kid.pngNew York’s underground king, Aesop Rock has been acclaimed on the alt-rap circuit for more than twenty years now, his reputation mostly resting on having the largest vocabulary going in rap, the most verbose style of music there is. His chops aren’t strictly lyrical – he loves big beats, obscure samples, and hooks a-plenty – but they are the primary reason for both his fame and, contradictorily, his lack of it. Aesop has earned great respect amongst hip hop aficionados for a multisyllabic flow that, because of its lack of compromise, will forever deny him entry into the upper echelons of mainstream rap glory. Not that I suspect he has any intention of ending up there: it both delights and pains him to be known as The Impossible Kid. My own relationship with Aesop is a mixed one: love the beats and the brains behind the words, but find those words often too obscurantist at the expense of raw emotional involvement in the music.

I believe The Impossible Kid is his most satisfying outing to date, and an ideal introduction, for the simple reason that the hooks-to-words ratio has been upped significantly, thereby balancing the thinking with the feeling for the first time. Hooks such as the oscillating synths on ‘Rings’, the yelped chorus on ‘Water Tower’, and the suave riff on ‘Dorks’ really do stick, whilst a dark, synth-laden musical palette unifies this work even more than the lyrics. Every track is rooted in personal experience, sometimes in a way that is alienating to outsiders, such as on ‘Mystery Fish’, about an alley where he used to live and which is too obscure in detail to be his ‘Penny Lane’, but other times in an inviting manner: I find myself absorbed every time by his relation of living in the woods for a year with his girlfriend on ‘Rabies’. I still think Aesop could make more concessions to popcraft without losing any of his trademark intellectual prowess, but hey, I just want to have a good time and be cerebrally challenged by music, a balance which some artists find difficult. But I respect him for trying, and I dare you to listen to ‘Supercell’ or ‘Lazy Eye’ without bopping around (if not then turn up that bass). Plus, The Impossible Kid contains the best rap song about a pet cat in existence: ‘Thanks Kirbs, looking like a milli/Keep an old man sharp, keep a cold Chantilly.’ How can you resist that?

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Kindness for Weakness – Homeboy Sandman

Homeboy Sandman is, like Aesop, easy to like but difficult to love. He represents all that is sandman-e1458749721697.jpgbest about hip hop currently as a genre: endlessly inventive musical collaging, endlessly extensive rhyming and wordplay, endlessly danceable beats. Rap is by far the most exciting and experimental form of music around, with artists such as Outkast and Lil Wayne, amongst many others, relentlessly spanning genres and time zones with their sampling in a never-ending quest for fun and layers of meaning. Homeboy fits in well with this mindset, as evidenced on 2008’s Actual Factual Pterodactyl, where he spat out rhymes to a backdrop of jazz, musicals, mambo, and Muse, all in a mad quest to try out everything on record, so long as it has some dope beats behind it. But this method frustratingly throws out quite a few misjudged moments – like The Life of Pablo, not all of the experiments work, and although it’s well worth digging through his oeuvre for the highs, it can be tough sometimes getting through the lows. So on Kindness for Weakness we have two instrumentals that are left undeveloped and seem reckless in their inclusion, as well as sung choruses on ‘It’s Cold’ that are just plain irritating, whilst a couple of neat ideas such as the fusion elements of ‘Earth, Wind, Fire’ and the Soul Sista sample of ‘Seam by Seam’ don’t quite coalesce in practice. But you also have the rapid rhythms of ‘Real New York’, the acoustic percussion of ‘Sly Fox’, the whistled nursery rhyme-styled chorus of ‘Speak Truth’, and the mellow 90s R&B vibe of ‘Heart Sings’, all confident productions well worth your time and scrutiny.

Whenever you focus on the words, too, Homeboy always emerges as an interesting character, scathing of all chart music and avowedly ‘Not Pop’, as he announced on 2010’s The Good Sun, but also highly critical of the underground circuit and the kinds of people whose respect he has gained, especially hipsters: ‘Hipsters love independent movies/Shit, I love independent movies!/Actually, I just like independent movies/So I think I’m cool there’ he jibed on 2014’s ‘Problems’. These themes emerge in full force again on Kindness for Weakness, as he tears into the ‘Fake ass posture’ of mainstream gangsta rappers on ‘Eyes’, whilst simultaneously dissing alt-rap fanatics on ‘Talking (Bleep)’: ‘please don’t ever in your life come to me with suggestions/You’ll get dismissed’. I share his aversion to the snobbery and superiority complexes of hipsterdom (although I do love independent movies), but not his belief in the worthlessness of all pop music (although I do hate most gangsta rap), which is a daft belief ironically shared by most of the hipsters he so firmly detests. This inherent hypocrisy, or at least a central confusion about what music should be about, perhaps explains why I have never completely warmed to the Sandman. But, like many rappers, he has a central belief that you should ‘speak truth instead of some shit that’s made up’, as a matter of principle, because there’s simply far too many people ‘Talking (Bleep)’ in the world, and even if his own brand of truth is not as piercing or as multilayered as, say, Eminem’s or Kendrick Lamar’s, it still brings great human interest to many of his tracks. It helps that his musical instincts are generally tight as well.

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