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Something in the Air

Apres MaiIt wasn’t really a surprise that so many British film critics greeted Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air with such a grudging response on its release last month (among the honourable exceptions, inevitably, was the Observer‘s Philip French). The film’s French title, Apres mai, is a reference to the disturbances of May 1968, and on this side of the Channel there is always a tendency to sneer at the youthful idealism that lay behind les evenements. Some form of cultural and/or generational jealousy at work there, I imagine.

Please take it from me that this is no two-star film, as some seemed to think. It may not be a five-star classic, either, but the director succeeds completely in achieving his aim of portraying the uncertainties of a group of young French people who were leaving school and starting a college education two or three years after the historic events in question, hoping to emulate their predecessors but discovering that the world had changed — and not in the way that such soixante-huitards as Daniel Cohn-Bendit or Jean-Jacques Lebel might have hoped.

As far as this blog is concerned, however, the point is that Assayas makes the soundtrack an integral part of his film, and he gets that right, too. For his party and bedsitter scenes (see the still above) he uses the kind of music that would have been heard at UFO or the Round House in that era: the early Soft Machine, Nick Drake, the Incredible String Band, Dr Strangely Strange, Amazing Blondel, Captain Beefheart (“Abba Zabba” from Safe as Milk) and Tangerine Dream. There is a very amusing scene in which the young protagonist flicks through his album collection: Blind Faith, Electric Ladyland etc. The Soft Machine’s “Why Are We Sleeping” makes a particularly powerful contribution to the evolving drama, and Kevin Ayers’ “Decadence” forms a resonant coda. (The song from which the film’s English title is borrowed, Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air”, doesn’t feature.)

I’m afraid, however, that in terms of sheer enduring quality one piece of music blows the rest of the soundtrack into the weeds, and it comes from almost a decade earlier: the freshness, clarity and authority of Booker T and the MGs’ “Green Onions” make this simple riff-based 12-bar-blues sound as though it was recorded last week rather than in 1962. If you were being cynical, or perhaps a British movie critic, you might argue that the post-psychedelic “progressive” music of the late Sixties and early Seventies mirrored the fumbling evanescence of the political ideas and movements to which it supplied the accompaniment. But I’m not the one to trample on all that idealism, social or musical. See the film, anyway; thanks to those discouraging reviews, it probably won’t be around much longer.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Napper #

    There was a good performance of Green Onions by Booker T and the MGS on BBC4 last weekend as part of the Stax concert.

    June 4, 2013
  2. There certainly was. Also great to see Booker, Steve, Duck and Al behind Arthur Conley, Eddie Floyd, Sam & Dave and Otis.

    June 4, 2013
  3. Paul Tickell #

    The documentary on BBC4 about Otis Redding was also worth watching if only for the interviews with Cropper and Jones.

    June 4, 2013
    • Phil Shaw #

      “if only for the interviews with Cropper and Jones”? Blimey, Paul, you’re hard to please.

      June 4, 2013
  4. Paul Tickell #

    Phil, it’s the Carlisle in me – didn’t mean to come over so low-temperature: it was a good film! Apart from the band you got manager Phil Walden, Stax execs and Redding’s family.

    June 4, 2013
  5. John Pidgeon #

    I comment not as a soixante-huitard (which I was, in Aix-en-Provence, where a sit-in at the end of the Cours Mirabeau put a post-demo pastis within arm’s reach), but as a firm believer that there’s no piece of music which gives more resonance to a scene on screen than ‘Green Onions’, hence its repeated use. Fifty years after I first heard its sinuous groove, it still hits the spot every time.

    June 5, 2013
  6. Mick Steels #

    Maybe a bit unfair to compare ‘Green Onions’ with any popular music produced over the last 50 years, it is going to wipe the floor with most contenders. However often it is used, commercials,soundtracks, its freshness remains undiminished.
    A bit akin to comparing every subsequent jazz work to Louis Armstrong’s unparalleled recorded output of the 1920s.

    June 5, 2013

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