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Posts from the ‘Film’ Category

‘When You Read This Letter’

Quand tu liras cette lettre 1To be frank, I went to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s Quand tu liras cette lettre (When You Read This Letter) at the BFI last night simply out of curiosity to see what sort of a leading actress Juliette Gréco was in 1953. Screened in a beautifully restored 35mm print, the film is an old-fashioned melodrama in which Gréco plays a novice nun who leaves the convent in order to look after her younger sister, the naive victim of a handsome, libidinous rotter. There’s a rape, a murder, an accidental death under the wheels of an express train, a very nice Cadillac Series 62 convertible, and some lovely scenes of the Cannes waterfront before it all got spoiled.

There’s also a soundtrack, featuring harpsichord doodling and sepulchral church organ. It was composed by Bernard Peiffer, a French pianist who worked with Django Reinhardt and many big American names in Paris in the early ’50s before emigrating to the US in 1954, where he settled in Philadelphia and earned the praise of critical heavyweights such as Barry Ulanov and Leonard Feather. Kidney surgery preceded his death in 1976, at the age of 53, two years after his final appearance in New York, at the Newport Jazz Festival. He had spent the last years of his life teaching piano — among his students was the young Uri Caine — and performing in clubs in his adopted home city.

I was familiar with his name, but I’d never really listened to him. So I went on to YouTube, and was immediately entranced by his versions of “Lullaby of Birdland”, made in Paris just before he left Europe, and “All the Things You Are”, a late recording from Philadelphia. Here, then, is another fine French jazz pianist of the post-war years, to rank with René Urtreger and Martial Solal, with a profound gift for improvisation and a technical imagination and a highly chromatic sensibility that may have been set free during his early studies with Pierre Maire, a student of the great Nadia Boulanger, and later at the conservatoires in Marseilles and Paris.

Thanks to the programmers at the BFI, then, for an unexpected bonus from their excellent Melville season. This was the second and last screening of Quand tu liras cette lettre, but the programme continues through September and includes the director’s classics: Le Deuxième souffleL’Armée des ombres and Le Samouraï.

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‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’

 

Nick Broomfield’s documentary on the life and death of Whitney Houston is both profoundly affecting and rather disappointing. What Whitney: Can I Be Me does have to recommend it is a quantity of intimate backstage film shot (by Rudi Dolezal, who gets a co-director credit) during a tour of Germany in 1999, when the singer was on the brink of disaster: still in her ultimately catastrophic marriage to the singer Bobby Brown (with whom she shared addictions), bringing their small daughter on stage to perform in a gruesome cameo, and surrounded by laughing sycophants and worried-looking assistants in charge of make-up, hair, and so on. That daughter, Bobbi Kristina, would died of an overdose in 2015 at the age of 22, three years after her mother was found dead in her bath at the Beverly Hilton, and to read that information in a caption before the closing credits is to experience perhaps the most dismaying of the many sad moments punctuating the film’s 105 minutes.

Early on we are shown Houston as a 12-year-old prodigy singing a solo with a New Jersey gospel choir, encouraged by her mother, the session singer Cissy Houston, and then as the 19-year-old protégée of Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, who — as one of his former employees attests — found in her the kind of malleable diva material that Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick had been simply too old and set in their styles and images to provide when he signed them in their middle years. The film holds up Davis’s decision to groom her as a black pop star for white people as a factor in her tragedy, which makes it odd that — during a Q&A session after a screening in London this week — the director said that he had chosen not to interview the  veteran executive because he had not wanted to make a controversial film. Those familiar with Broomfield’s previous output will find this a curious claim.

It’s clear, of course, that he can’t wait to get the short years of golden success — the hugely successful debut album, the starring role in Bodyguard, the worldwide smash with “I Will Always Love You” from that film’s soundtrack, the countless awards — out of the way in order to reach the stuff of tragedy, and there is certainly no shortage of that. Her mother’s desire that her daughter should fulfil her own thwarted ambitions is a subtext; Cissy appears in the film, as do the two older brothers with whom Whitney is said to have shared drugs during adolescence. We are told about her close relationship with her father — but when we learn towards the end that John Houston was suing his daughter for $100m shortly before he died, we are not told that he and Whitney’s mother had already gone through an unpleasant divorce.

It’s a classic story of success tearing a family apart, but the emotional heart of the film is its portrayal of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, the schoolfriend who became her companion and probably her lover until being removed from the picture during the Brown years. Again, Bloomfield claims that although he had Crawford’s number, and although she knew about the film, he declined to talk to her out of feelings of discretion.

The most dramatic testimony comes from David Roberts, a Welsh former policeman who was her bodyguard from 1988 to 1995 (we glimpse him in the background in several sequences), and who claims to have tried to get people to do something about her addictions, without success. Several of her musicians and backing singers, notably the saxophonist Kirk Whalum, speak movingly about her prodigious qualities as a singer and her warmth as a woman. All of them would like to have seen a different outcome but were powerless to intervene.

The music itself is barely discussed. I always found her voice technically impressive rather than emotionally moving, but that may have been a consequence of the decisions taken early on by Davis and his chosen studio operatives. It would have been interesting to know what an old-school soul/R&B producer like Jerry Wexler, Dave Crawford or Allen Toussaint would have made of her.

There are so many holes in the narrative that I began to think only an eight-hour multi-part treatment like the recent O. J.: Made in America would do proper justice to the many facets of Houston’s story. (There’s not a word, for instance, on what she did in the five years between her divorce from Brown and her death.) But I’m grateful to Bloomfield for unearthing — via the testimony of the record producer David Foster — that the decision to get her to sing the first verse of “I Will Always Love You” without accompaniment was made at the suggestion of The Bodyguard‘s other star, Kevin Costner. Maybe everyone else in the world already knew that, but I didn’t.

* Whitney: Can I Be Me is in UK cinemas from June 16.

Mind on the Run

hidden-orchestraIt was with regret that I had to leave Hull after only 24 hours of Mind on the Run, the weekend festival celebrating the life and work of Basil Kirchin, the visionary composer who spent three decades in the city, working in complete obscurity until his death in 2005, aged 77.

When the Guardian asked me to write a piece about the event, the first call I made was to Brian Eno. I had introduced the two men in 1973, while preparing the release of the second volume of Basil’s World Within Worlds on Island’s HELP label. Eno immediately recognised the value of his work with manipulated tapes of organic sounds, and more than 40 years later he was happy to talk about the impression it made.

The festival, held in the City Hall as part of Hull’s 2017 UK City of Culture programme, was quite brilliantly curated to include contributions from Matthew Herbert, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory (with a contingent of the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by Clark Rundell), Wilco’s Jim O’Rourke, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs of Saint Etienne, Evan Parker with Adam Linson and Matt Wright of his Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and Ashley Wales and John Coxon of Spring Heel Jack, and a DJ set of Kirchin’s library music by Jerry Dammers.

On the first evening I heard a spirited set by a local five-piece band led by DJ Revenu (Liam van Rijn), heavy on imaginative electronics. That was followed by the High Llamas’ Sean O’Hagan with a piece inspired by several of Basil’s themes and performed by an nonet — including the outstanding harpist Serafina Steer — in a style that made me think of what might happen were Steve Reich to get it into his head to reinterpret those miniature tone poems that Brian Wilson used to drop into mid-period Beach Boys albums: things like “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter” from Smiley Smile and the title track of Pet Sounds. O’Hagan’s music was minimalist, lyrical, unhurried and unrhetorical, with a fragile charm. (Just after it had finished I told a friend that I was particularly attracted to the way the music felt, even now and then, as though it might be about to fall apart; during a conversation an hour or so later O’Hagan mentioned, unprompted, that this was precisely the effect he’d been after.)

I enjoyed taking part in one of the panel discussions, alongside Bob Stanley and  Jonny Trunk, and listening to another that featured Matt Stephenson, co-director (with Alan Jones and Harriet Jones) of a 45-minute documentary film which did an excellent job of summarising Basil’s extraordinary life through interviews with those who had known him at various stages of his career. It also featured a wonderful film clip of the Ivor Kirchin Band in the early ’50s, with the leader’s young son as the featured drummer, from a time when dance band musicians wore cardigans and sensible slacks. (When someone in the audience likened Basil’s skin-pounding, cymbal-flaying antics to those of Animal from the Muppet Show, Matt was able to regale us with the priceless information that the real drummer of the Muppets had been the great session man Ronnie Verrell — who, in an earlier incarnation, had replaced the man who replaced Basil on the drum stool in Ivor’s band…)

Trunk, who has done so much over the past decade to create interest in Basil’s work, also mentioned that the handful of CDs released on his label represent no more than a glimpse of the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come from the archive of Kirchin soundtracks and library music.

Among Basil’s credits was the score to The Abominable Dr Phibes, the truly bizarre 1971 British horror film in which Vincent Price played the eponymous villain, who celebrated his dreadful deeds by letting loose on a pipe organ. The film was screened on Friday night, with the figure of a caped Alexander Hawkins emerging through a gauze screen from time to time, playing the music live on the City Hall’s mighty organ: the third largest in England, it is said, and the possessor of a massive 64ft pipe which, if unleashed at full volume, would probably turn the Victorian building’s foundations to dust.

Before leaving Hull I also managed to creep into the soundcheck of Joe Acheson’s Hidden Orchestra (pictured above), and was beguiled by the grooves and textures of a band featuring two drummers, violin, cello, harp, trumpet and keyboards. If you want to know more about that performance, and others, read Tony Dudley-Evans’s report for the London Jazz News website.

It was interesting to discover how Hull, a victim first of the Luftwaffe and then of the Cod Wars, is making use of the opportunity to present a new face to those lured by the year of cultural events. There are five excellent Francis Bacons on temporary loan at the refurbished Ferens Gallery in the main square, which is dramatically spanned until March 18 by a 75-metre aluminium wind-turbine blade created by Nayan Kulkarni. An exhibition devoted to the story of COUM Transmissions, the renegade art collective founded in Hull in the early ’70s by Genesis P. Orridge, Cosey Fanni Tutti and others, is at the Humber Art Gallery in the streets of the former Fruit Market, where all sorts of hipster enterprises are springing up.

It’s not all great, of course. Take a bow, “Sir” Philip Green, for the vacant hulk of the striking early-’60s building until recently occupied by British Home Stores. But if you can imagine a cross between Copenhagen and Hoxton, that seems to be how Hull is attempting to reshape itself, and the audiences who flocked to Mind on the Run demonstrated the potential of this culture-led Humberside renaissance. I hadn’t been to the city since a single visit in 1965. Now I can’t wait to go back and do some more exploring.

‘Eight Days a Week’

beatles-eight-daysTowards the end of Eight Days a Week, Ron Howard’s Beatles new documentary, all reason and proportion briefly fled and I was overpowered by a sense of rage. Those bloody Americans: it was all their fault. With their idiotic 50,000-seater stadiums and their imbecilic urge to misconstrue a perfectly innocent remark about Christianity in a John Lennon interview, they ruined the whole thing.

Not entirely true, of course. The dream was always going to end sometime. But you can see very clearly, in a film that purports to concentrate on the group’s touring years, how the pressure exerted by their immoderate success in the US in particular drove them to fall out of love with what life on the road had come to represent, once the novelty faded. After 1963 they were never able to perform live in an environment that allowed them to show how good they were. All four of them felt that frustration. The Plastic Ono Band, Wings and George’s stint with Delaney and Bonnie were among the consequences.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened had America not taken to them. Beatlemania in the UK and Europe would have died down a little, perhaps enough to allow them to continue touring together in more helpful conditions. Would they have been able to spend so much time in the studio, concocting Sgt Pepper and the White Album? Probably so; that’s the way they were heading anyway.

There are many cherishable moments in the film, not least a version of “I Saw Her Standing There” that shows what a blazing little band they were. The picture above, which I’ve grabbed from the trailer, is from that sequence; it captures the feeling. And the final sequence of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Got a Feeling” from the concert on the roof of No 3, Savile Row on January 30, 1969 — the first time they’d played live together in public not wearing a band uniform since Brian Epstein became their manager, as well as being the last time they played live together in public at all — is, as ever, deeply sad for the same reason. Imagine if they’d had the sort of rock-concert facilities they lay just around the corner.

As for the film itself, it’s a shame Ron Howard hasn’t learnt the lesson of the great documentary director Asif Kapadia’s work on Senna and Amy: at all costs, avoid showing talking heads on the screen. They slow it down and clutter it up. Elvis Costello and Whoopi Goldberg (particularly) are among those who have genuine insights to impart, but we don’t need to see them when there’s such a richness of archive footage available. But, of course, Eight Days a Week is not to be missed.

Between the world and the Black Panthers

Out to LunchOthers will be better qualified to talk about the substance of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Stanley Nelson’s documentary, which is currently showing in London. I found it extremely moving. There’s an initial sense of exhilaration at the spectacle of the human spirit responding to adversity with pride, resilience and creativity, only for that spirit to be crushed by the relentless efficiency of J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI.

Nelson modulates the tone of the film to match its narrative arc with great sensitivity, and that is where the soundtrack plays its part. At the start of the story we see the Chi-Lites singing “(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People” in ruffled costumes on Soul Train and hear Billy Paul’s “Am I Black Enough For You”, Philadelphia International’s most confrontational moment. These are reminders of how the ideas represented by the Panthers were able to gatecrash mainstream culture. Later the musical backdrop is supplied by the stripped-down street-funk of the early ’70s (“Express Yourself” by Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band being a good example). At the close, with the Panthers’ unity and sense of purpose destroyed by police bullets (notably in the assassination of Fred Hampton, the eloquent, charismatic 21-year-old who Hoover feared would become the movement’s “messiah”) and internal rivalries (the post-prison Huey P. Newton versus the exiled Eldridge Cleaver), the profound darkening of the mood is expressed through the voice of Gil Scott-Heron, singing “Winter in America”.

I’ve been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a recent best-seller which takes the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son, relating Coates’s own experiences as a black boy growing up in America. His grandfather was a research librarian at Howard University in Washington DC, with a profound love of books: “…all over the house, books about black people, by black people, for black people spilling off shelves and out of the living room…” His parents were radicals: “We would not stand for their anthems. We would not kneel before their God.” His father had been a captain in the Black Panther Party.

The book is a brilliant analysis of the journey taken by several generations of African Americans, always facing the same enemy. Coates was born in 1975: “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth,” he writes, “was to be naked before all the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease.” He was 11 years old when another boy pulled a gun on him. His son’s reality is the Black Lives Matter movement.

Nelson’s film contains another music-related moment that made me catch my breath. We see photographs of the room in a Panther house on Chicago’s West Side where Fred Hampton was gunned down by police in December 1969, its layout revealed to them by an FBI informant. Amid the blood-spattered debris lying on the bedroom floor, it’s possible to glimpse the sleeve of Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. On its appearance in 1964, Dolphy’s album represented a high point in the African American research project that jazz had become. It’s still being analysed and copied today. And to me it’s an affirmation of some sort that Out to Lunch was part of the soundtrack of that Panther household, and — or so we may infer — of Fred Hampton’s short life.