Netflix have scored another hit with this impressive 80s-set Gothic tale about thedisappearance of a young boy and the plaguing of a community by a hellish monster. It is a compendium of references to classic late 70s/early 80s horror/sci-fi/fantasy movies, with its plot being lifted from elements of The Thing, E.T., The Shining, Poltergeist, Carrie, The Evil Dead, and many others. The difficulty with this approach is that it is easy to slip into pastiche, i.e. empty nostalgic tributes to past glories, and Stranger Things certainly falls into this trap on occasion. The chilly synth soundtrack, for instance, is less a throwback to John Carpenter’s famous scores than an outright rip-off; the monster’s lair is almost identical to the one so memorably depicted in Aliens; government officials chase kids on bikes like in you-know-which family favourite. Nods like these to the audience are overplayed so that they practically headbutt the screen.
Still, the heart of this drama is the child actors who, indisputably, are the reason for the show’s success. Dorky, funny, generous, vulnerable, confused… they are, in a word, loveable. To get such warm performances from pre-teens is no mean feat, and the Duffer Brothers deserve enormous credit for it: each one is a distinct, rounded personality. Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is the nerdy ringleader, Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) the comic sidekick with brains and a no-bullshit attitude, Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) the sceptic who fears the demise of their friendship group. Most remarkably of all, there is Millie Bobby Brown as ‘Eleven’, a child who is gifted/cursed with psychic powers and who looks uncannily like Renee Falconetti in the silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc; terrifyingly (the actress really is only 11 years old) she is able to summon, on occasion, equally tortured expressions of existential dread.
The wider cast is uniformly excellent, with teenagers and teachers and cops all joining together to search for the lost boy, successfully creating the illusion of an interconnected small-town community in jeopardy. This is how good fantastical drama should be made: I felt a greater concern and empathy for its characters in 8 episodes than the much-lauded, much-inferior Game of Thrones has mustered up in 6 series. Of course in Stranger Things there are deaths and other big shocks, but you can really feel the emotional damage and traumatic ramifications of such events upon a family, upon a community. Police Chief Jim Hopper is so much more engaging as an action hero than Jon Snow will ever be, because we are allowed to glimpse his flawed and complex nature, scarred by the past and devastated by the death of his daughter, and we get the feeling that the fight he has picked with the monster is also a battle within his soul. Jon Snow is only ever a cardboard cutout, Jim Hopper is a human being; Game of Thrones is a childish orgy of violence, Stranger Things a look at painful human insecurities.
I make such comparisons not just to puncture Game of Thrones’ inflated reputation, but to illustrate how great an entertainment I consider Stranger Things to be; not only is it slickly edited, gorgeously shot, atmospheric, and eccentric, but it’s also thoughtful and filled with ideas. The funniest and sweetest of these is the implication that the very strangest thing in these kid’s lives might not be the existence of ghouls and the supernatural, which they accept with implacable calm, but the notion of burgeoning romance. No matter how he tries, Mike just can’t seem to work out the extent of his feelings for the elusive Eleven, and meanwhile his older sister can’t determine whether she is in love with a jock or the elusive stranger who photographs her at night. Yet when these siblings are confronted with a carnivorous monster they know exactly how to react. Love is a scary business for some youngsters, perhaps even more so than a flesh-eating creature from Hell. As Eleven says to Mike, tearfully: ‘maybe I’m the monster.’
Netflix has renewed Stranger Things for another series, and it’s hard to see where they will go from here. The danger is that they will plunge deeper into the route of pastiche, forgetting that it’s the characters that make the show. But as long as they remember that this is, in essence, a coming-of-age parable about the terror and confusion of growing up, then it could be the start of something really special.
A successful documentary should make you see things in a new light, and this one certainly startles: the 13th amendment to the American Constitution, Lincoln’s great coup abolishing slavery, is frequently touted as a high watermark of the nation’s history, but here its signification is revised to show that the wording has actually helped to enslave African-Americans throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. The key concession is a seemingly throwaway phrase: ‘Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.’ This documentary compellingly argues that such a concession has led to the criminalisation of black people in America, in order to justify their incarceration and subsequent deployment as slave labour in an increasingly corporatised prison system.
As it’s quick to point out, cinema has played a major role in the association of young black men with criminality, The Birth of a Nation being a particularly egregious example and a subsequent totem for the Ku Klux Klan; therefore the recontextualisation of the black persona within 13th is welcome indeed. Impassioned, interesting, intellectual, and eloquent, the academics and activists selected for interview here frequently illuminate much-discussed historical events, such as the Jim Crow laws, Civil Rights Movement and Ferguson riots, with fresh perspectives, which is not easy, but even more impressively the fractured voices coalesce into a convincing and consistent line of argument demonstrating how the word ‘Criminal’ has come to be associated with ‘Black’.
When Donald Trump describes himself as the ‘Law & Order candidate’, we should be clear that he really means the ‘anti-nigger candidate’, and 13th doesn’t shy away from this. But it doesn’t believe Hillary would help much either – the system of black repression is too entrenched in American culture, its interviewees argue – so it can’t be dismissed as a cheap attempt to sway the upcoming election. Instead, it’s an affirmation of the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement, a delineation of its existence within a tradition of protest that goes back to MLK and beyond, a howl of righteous anger against the centuries of unspeakable violence perpetrated on a people still shackled by the colour of their skin.
It doesn’t, in my opinion, go far enough in outlining the positive contributions of black Americans to society, which would be an effective refutation of their reputation for criminality – because they’re infinite. The most important of all, of course, is music: blues, jazz, rock n’ roll, funk, and hip-hop, a.k.a. the most influential genres of the 20th century, were all African-American innovations, and though they’re alluded to on the soundtrack, they’re never explicitly referenced. Still, the film reminds me of the lyrics to a Sam Cooke classic: ‘It’s been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will’. That was over 50 years ago, and it hasn’t come yet. But it will.
Jeffery – Young Thug
One amusing aspect of being a white hip-hop fan is the recognition that in most cases you’re not the target audience, not by a long shot. An outspoken member of the infamous Bloods gang, Young Thug’s lyrical shots are so extraterrestrial to my sensibility that I’ve failed to connect with his gangsta schtick on any level, including musically – until this moment. Because there’s no denying it: Jeffery is a whirling dervish of fun. Perhaps it’s the relative lack of threats n’ street warfare that opens it up to my palette, even if I sympathise with the moralists who will be unable to get past the bitches n’ bling that still permeate proceedings. But as an aural box of Thuggish delights, this works a treat. Addictive moments accumulate rapidly: the down-low reggae groove of ‘Wyclef Jean’, vocal sample hook of ‘Swizz Beatz’, jazzy piano rolls of ‘Kanye West’, and Radiohead atmospherics of ‘Guwop’ all get the pulse going.
Then there’s Young Thug’s vocal ability as a rapper, trumping his lyrical shortfallings so often here, an adventurous and downright bizarre MC to rival Lil Wayne in the game. He cites Future (‘Future Swag’), Rihanna (‘RiRi’), and Kanye as influences, and their presence can certainly be felt, but Thug is from a different planet altogether. Squawking, squealing, yelping, growling, rumbling, roaring, screaming, and croaking his way through, this really is the definition of vocal acrobatics. When he sings the word ‘earn’ on ‘RiRi’ he sounds just like a dying puppy; at the end of ‘Harambe’ he sounds not like a dying gorilla, but Otis Redding beamed in from outer space: you’re never sure where his voice is going to take you next.
So Jeffery is worthwhile, even if you find thuggery hard to handle. And if you like your hip-hop with a pinch of progressiveness, try the album cover, which finds our young gangsta in an Alessandro Trincone dress. As he explained in a campaign video: ‘In my world it don’t matter: You could be a gangster with a dress or you could be a gangster with baggy pants… I feel like there’s no such thing as gender’. Which is something like progress.
Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown
Another alien life form to my sensibility, Danny Brown is a loud-and-proud dopehead, with his love of the herb inflecting almost every piece of music he produces. I can understand the appeal of grass, yet when Danny says on this album that ‘Mary Jane be the love of my life’ I find it concerning rather than cute. Still, maybe Danny does too, and that’s what I like about him; witness the bridge to the same song: ‘Problems of today/Smoke it to the face/It’s only for a moment/But the problems go away’. The key here is ‘it’s only for a moment’, because it’s a temporary solution, it’s an escapism rather than a resolution to life’s problems. The same could be said for booze, casual sex, harder drugs, and even music, all of which Danny indulges in – which is not to deny the fun in any of those things, but the problems will still be there when you inevitably come down, and maybe their distractions help to contribute towards a ‘Downward Spiral’. Only music offers a more permanent solace to the pessimistic Brown, because his profession has lifted him out of poverty and because ‘these songs that I write/Leave behind my legacy’, not just giving him an in-the-moment buzz.
As suggested by these lines, Danny Brown is a very self-conscious rapper, and he’s always had an exaggerated concern for his critical reputation and long-term standing as an MC. This self-consciousness leads to some amusing moments, such as in ‘Today’ when his rapping begins to sound like an aural déjà vu of Andre 3000, which is promptly acknowledged when he quotes a line from OutKast’s classic ‘B.O.B.’. I don’t think that Danny has reached the heights of his heroes yet, certainly not in vocal ability, for his Jekyll/Hyde trick of using a high freewheeling madcap voice on some songs and a low passive melancholy one on others is a bit too neat: he has yet to conjure up the subtlety of Andre’s or Chance’s or Kendrick’s timbres, for example.
The compartmentalisation of his albums is a bit too neat as well: Atrocity Exhibition is divided into thirds, with tracks 1-5 forming the industrial-sounding Joy Division tributes (plus posse track), tracks 6-10 the wild party anthems, and tracks 11-15 the comedown into spare atmospherics. The journey goes from needing a drag, to blazing up, and then finally mellowing out – as I said, the herb is everywhere in this music. Luckily, inspiration is also everywhere, and the middle tracks in particular sound like nothing else in music, thrusting avant-garde brass and polyrhythmic percussion and African choruses into a Wall of Sound of Rap. Gone are the grime inflections and commercial EDM moves of his previous album Old, and in their place is a feverish collision course of submainstream genres and sounds, at its best in the lunatic ‘Dance in the Water’. So if you’re into the Green then give Brown a shot; but if you’re into out-there music then give him a shot too.