Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Film’ Category

‘Summer of Soul’

So much has been written about the documentary based on unseen footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that you won’t really be needing another recommendation from me. But among all the performances assembled by the director, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, from the series of concerts in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park — now known as Marcus Garvey Park — during that summer 52 years ago, there are some things in particular that I wouldn’t want you to miss.

The gospel sequence, which begins with the profoundly thrilling sound of Dorothy Morrison’s deep contralto leading the massed Edwin Hawkins Singers on “Oh Happy Day”, stands as the foundation of the whole thing. Its climax comes when Mahalia Jackson, feeling unwell, invites Mavis Staples to start off “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, which the younger woman does beautifully. But then Mahalia, evidently revived by what she has heard, comes forward to join Mavis — and you can sense the bedrock of Manhattan Island shaking to the majestic roar of their voices.

It’s like one generation handing the torch to another, and there’s quite a lot of that feeling throughout the film: the elaborate stage costumes of the Fifth Dimension and the straw-thin David Ruffin giving way to the hippie threads of Sly and the Family Stone being one example, the contrast between restrained mohair-suited blues of B. B. King and Nina Simone’s closing recital of a challenging poem by the Last Poets’ David Nelson being another. As someone says, this “was when the negro died and Black was born.” (Ruffin, by the way, had just left the Temptations and sings “My Girl” magnificently, wringing the neck of his extraordinary falsetto.)

The director uses standard documentary techniques — a strong gallery of talking heads and the deployment of newsreel footage — but there were times, particularly in the opening sequences, when I thought he’d been influenced by the video montages of Arthur Jafa, whose shows in London and Berlin I’ve written about. That’s a good way to go, although Thompson doesn’t overdo it. The stories parallel to the music are well chosen. The activist Denise Oliver-Velez talks about the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and Charlayne Hunter-Gault gives a shattering description of her experience in 1961 as the first black female student to be enrolled at the University of Georgia; she went on to become the first black female journalist in the New York Times newsroom.

Of course the deepest impression is left by the knowledge that here are black artists performing to black audiences numbered in the tens of thousands, on their home turf — something on a different scale from the Apollo Theatre a few blocks away. (Harlem was thought to be dangerous territory for white people then, and there are very, very few non-black faces to be seen in these vast crowds.) Sly Stone was also a star at Woodstock that summer, but you can’t watch his “Everyday People” in Harlem without thinking that this spine-tingling performance has gained an extra dimension from the context. And you can see very clearly why Miles Davis (who is not in the film) wanted this audience rather than those who came to see him in European-style concert halls, expecting to hear “My Funny Valentine”.

I remembered, too, the times I’d seen Nina Simone at Ronnie Scott’s or the South Bank, and been irritated and even infuriated by the distance she’d chosen to open between herself and her all-white audiences, expressed in bouts of brusqueness and truculence generally ascribed to a diva’s temperament. To see her in a Harlem park, gently crooning the brand-new “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” to her people, so centred, so serenely beautiful in her Afrofuturist hair and robes and jewellery, made me feel ashamed of those responses from 30-odd years ago. Sure, I loved the music in Summer of Soul, but I also came out of the cinema into a warm London night with a lot to think about.

* Summer of Soul is in cinemas and on the Hulu streaming platform now. Here’s the trailer.

‘Colour me gone, baby…’

The death of the film director Monte Hellman this month, at the age of 91, occurred exactly 50 years after the full screenplay to Two-Lane Blacktop, his best known picture, was published in the April 1971 issue of Esquire magazine. Its appearance preceded by three months the release of a film that starred James Taylor and Dennis Wilson as two hot-rod racers engaged in a cross-country contest between their ’55 Chevy and a Pontiac GTO with a fantasist played by Warren Oates at the wheel, their three lives complicated by the presence of a footloose hippie chick played by the 18-year-old Laurie Bird, in the first of her three films.

By the time the film was premiered, the published screenplay — by the novelist Rudy Wurlitzer and the actor Will Corry — had been stripped as effectively as the primer-grey Chevy. Quite a lot of it disappeared in the shooting. Some of it was replaced by improvised dialogue: “The wheels didn’t grab off the start” became “The tires didn’t bite out of the hole.” Even more was removed in the eventual studio-enforced final cut from three and a quarter hours to 100 minutes. No bad thing, perhaps, since it removed a lot of car talk; what remains is quite enough.

Far from being, as Esquire claimed, “the movie of the year”, Two-Lane Blacktop was a flop. Most film critics hated it. In particular, they hated Taylor and Wilson. I thought, and still think, that they were perfect for Hellman’s vision of an existentialist road movie peopled by damaged characters — none of them given a name — set in an America undergoing a cultural upheaval so profound that people could hardly communicate with each other. Look at it now and you see a couple of performances of considerable sensitivity by two musicians who had never acted before. The ill-fated Bird provides the perfect complement, while Oates is magnificent as a character caught in nervy bemusement between two eras, his use of already dated argot — including the phrase I’ve used for the headline of this piece — perfectly judged.

Other highlights include one “H. D. Stanton” as a gay hitchhiker who weeps when the GTO driver rejects his advances (apparently Harry Dean initially objected to his character’s sexual orientation). Wurlitzer himself plays a fellow with a ’32 Ford in an early drag-strip sequence shot in Santa Fe, while James Mitchum, lookalike son of Robert, can also be glimpsed in one of the racing scenes. The unresolved ending was something else the critics detested, but it’s exactly the one the film demands.

I bought the April 1971 Esquire when it came out and have hung on to it ever since. It’s amusing to leaf through it now and find a counter-cultural screenplay sharing the issue with a lavish colour feature on golf-course architects, Malcolm Muggeridge’s review of The Female Eunuch, a survey of men’s two-tone shoes for the spring season, and ads for Johnny Carson’s “Carson-eze” polyester/wool blend slacks and Flying Dutchman pipe tobacco (“Lead women around by the nose!”).

A few years ago I also bought a Universal Pictures DVD of the film; its extras include Hellman and Gary Kurtz, one of the film’s co-producers, giving a fascinating off-screen commentary as the film rolls. Among the things they tell us is that although Jack Deerson was credited as the director of photography, he was hired merely to satisfy the union, which had refused a card to Gregory Sandor, who was actually responsible for the brilliant cinematography. Only when two cameras were required was Deerson summoned from the hotel rooms in which he spent the vast majority of the shoot, which ranged from California through Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina. A much-requested DVD release of Hellman’s three-hour version was scuppered, they say, by the studio’s refusal to negotiate the rights to the extra music originally included.

Oh, yes. A last thing. Three ’55 Chevys were built: the first for interior shots, with camera platforms built in; the second with roll bars for stunt work, such as the sequence in which the car ends up in a field; and the third as a full-blown race car. I wonder where that last one is now?**

* Here’s the Two-Lane Blacktop trailer: https://youtu.be/Q4onX6ZDsZ0 And here’s an obituary of Monte Hellman by Ronald Bergan: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/apr/27/monte-hellman-obituary

** The answer: https://www.hemmings.com/stories/2014/11/26/two-lane-blacktop-1955-chevy-two-door-sedan-heads-to-auction

‘One Night in Miami’

Sam Cooke would have turned 90 today, had he not been shot to death by Bertha Franklin, a motel manageress, during a dispute in South Central Los Angeles on December 11, 1964, when the singer seemed on the brink of the kind of transition from popular hitmaker to cultural spokesman that the equally ill-fated Marvin Gaye would make with What’s Going On seven years later.

According to Franklin, his last words were: “Lady, you shot me.” She is one of the witnesses summoned to speak in The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, a documentary available on Netflix. Its director, Kelly Duane de la Vega, does an excellent job of piecing together Cooke’s story, although perhaps too much emphasis is placed on the conspiracy theories that accumulated after his murder.

His real last words, however, were the lyrics to “A Change Is Gonna Come”, the song that he was inspired to write by hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and which duly became an anthem for the civil rights movement when released as an A-side a fortnight after his death. A probably romanticised version of how he came to compose it is contained in One Night in Miami, a new filmed version of a stage play by Kemp Powers in which Cooke, the NFL star Jim Brown and Malcolm X join Cassius Clay in a motel room on the hours after Clay’s first defeat of Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964.

The meeting did take place, and the invented conversations between the four men are intense and compelling. Malcolm is on the brink of completing Clay’s conversion, but has yet to reveal that he himself is about to break with Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. In individual confrontations, the men challenge each other about how to proceed in their dealings with the white world. Brown wants to give up the NFL — in which he represents a role model for black kids — to become a Hollywood star. Cooke is told that it’s time to stop pandering to white audiences. Clay is hours away from becoming Muhammad Ali. But Malcolm, too, is confronted with his own issues.

I lost a bit of faith in the film when Malcolm pulls out a copy of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and plays “Blowing in the Wind” on a handy record player, telling Cooke he should be ashamed that it takes a white boy to write a song addressing their concerns. As far as I can see “A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded on January 30, 1964, a month before the first Clay-Liston fight. Here the dramatist’s imperative seems to have taken precedence over the actual truth, whatever that may have been.

Otherwise the film — available on Amazon Prime — is beautifully fashioned by its director, Regina King, deeply atmospheric in its mood and its detail, although traces of its stage origins remain. There are excellent performances from the four leads: Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm, Eli Goree as Clay, Aldis Hodge as Jim Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr as Cooke. Michael Imperioli — The Sopranos‘ Christopher Moltisanti — turns up as Angelo Dundee, Clay’s trainer.

I recommend it highly, to be followed immediately by The Two Killings, in which — among other things — we see Cooke’s attempts to retain ownership of his work. Dr Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African studies at Duke University, says of him: “What we know is that we never got to see him as a fully mature artist, thinker and activist who, had he lived, would have had a dramatic impact on the next generation of artists, thinkers and activists.” That seems plausible.

Another of the documentary’s talking heads, Renée Graham of the Boston Globe, considers “A Change Is Gonna Come” and remarks: “It’s the shame of this nation that this song should still be so relevant.” But you have the feeling that another generation, perhaps more than one, will come and go before the change of which Cooke sang becomes definitive.

* Some of Cooke’s recordings — including Sam Cooke at the Copa and Ain’t That Good News — are newly available on vinyl, released on the ABKCO label. His finest albums, Night Beat and One Night Stand! Live at the Harlem Square Club, were reissued on CD by RCA Legacy in 2005.

Seeing ‘Western Stars’

Western Stars

“This is my 19th album,” Bruce Springsteen says towards the beginning of the film Western Stars, “and I’m still writing songs about cars.” But then he excuses himself by explaining how cars can become a metaphor for all kinds of things, including travelling without getting anywhere.

Western Stars is a performance film, but much more than that. Recorded over two days in front of a small audience in the hayloft of the 19th century wooden barn on his property in New Jersey, it features the 13 songs from the recent album of the same name, played by around 30 musicians: a basic band of various guitars, keyboards, bass and drums, plus two trumpets, two French horns, a string orchestra of violins, violas and cellos, and four or five female backing singers, discreetly directed by the album’s orchestrator, Rob Mathes.

There are a few differences from the album versions, but the sound of Bob Clearmountain’s mix is so close to the lush Californian warmth of the original recordings that I found myself frequently checking for signs that the musicians were miming. An inability to spot anyone playing the glockenspiel part on “Drive Fast” provided the only evidence that post-production work had been undertaken.

Having seen the trailer, I worried in advance that the film — directed by Springsteen with his long-term collaborator Thom Zimny — would include too much footage of wild ponies cantering in slow-motion through desert landscapes beneath spectacular open skies, close-ups of silver and turquoise jewellery on weathered hands, and El Camino pick-ups raising dust on long, lonesome dirt roads. There’s some of that, particularly in the early sequences, but the visual clichés recede as more serious matters come to the fore in what Springsteen calls “interstitial material”, the snatches of home movies and found footage with voiceovers in which he introduces the songs and reflects on their themes of life, love, loss and longing.

On the face of it, the songs on Western Stars aren’t about Springsteen. One protagonist is a stuntman, another a fading movie actor. But, as he said during a Q&A session that followed the screening I attended this morning, “When I write a song in character, it’s a way of exploring your own life and struggles.”

After feeling initially indifferent towards much of the album, it came as a surprise to discover how rewardingly the film illuminates their qualities, both via Springsteen’s commentary and the performances. “Sleepy Joe’s Café” was a song I quite disliked until seeing it contextualised in a social setting. “Somewhere North of Nashville” acquires greater depth. “Stones”, sung as a duet with Patti Scialfa, his wife of 30 years, is now almost unbearably moving in its evocation of the undercurrents of a long marriage. (“I should have had Patti on the record,” Springsteen said during the Q&A.)

The songs I already liked gain a new lustre. “Moonlight Motel” adds a couple more shades of gorgeous soul-weariness. The soaring “There Goes My Miracle” is introduced with a rumination on “losing the best thing you ever had — the perfect formula for a pop song.” Or maybe it was “the formula for a perfect pop song”, which it is. Watching the string players tear into it with such joy, I thought of how I’ve always believed the special E Street secret is making every person in the audience feel as though they’re up on stage, playing in the band, sharing that special exhilaration; this lot made me wish I’d carried on with violin lessons.

* This weekend’s London Film Festival screenings of Western Stars are sold out. It will be in cinemas around the UK on October 28, three days after the release of the soundtrack album.

‘Upstream’

 

Upstream 1

When people say that we’ve got to take better care of the planet, my reaction is that the planet can take care of itself. For the next 7.5 billion years, or whatever the latest scientific estimate says, it will continue to absorb extinctions and other catastrophes, regenerating itself as it did after the Ice Age and whatever event accounted for the dinosaurs. There seems no reason why the Age of Man should not be just another passing phase, to be accepted by its host with a similar indifference.

Upstream, a new half-hour television film written by Robert Macfarlane and directed by Rob Petit, puts the viewer in the realm of that very different perception of time. It’s the result of half a dozen trips over three years to the Cairngorms, where Petit guided a camera-bearing drone over the River Dee from its floodplain to its source high in the mountains. Macfarlane, our greatest contemporary observer of landscape,  contributes an accompanying prose-poem, its spare, evocative lines murmured by the Scottish singer Julie Fowlis.

Filmed in black and white, the images exert a mesmerising and eventually hallucinatory effect as the camera tracks slowly and inexorably upward, the direction of travel never varying as the sense of rising takes hold. Edited together with great but entirely unobtrusive skill, the individual shots are taken from many heights and distances, the puzzle-shapes of harsh whites, blurred greys and soft blacks playing quiet games with the viewer’s perception of scale.

My excuse for writing about Upstream is that it has a soundtrack by the German pianist and composer Volker Bertelmann, who works under the name Hauschka. Violin, cello and piano are blended with electronics in a way that shifts in and out of focus, rooted in the abstract but drifting towards the concrete, underscoring the images with a musical commentary that bears an equal emotional weight. Snatches of Gaelic, spoken by the poet Niall Górdan, are added to the weave.

I was going to describe the film’s beauty as unearthly; that, however, would be the very opposite of what I mean. Yes, Upstream brings us closer to a sense of the eternal, but its gaze is fixed on the ground beneath our feet.

* Upstream is transmitted on BBC4 this Sunday, September 29, at 8:30pm, and will be available for a month on BBC iPlayer.

The Beatles in Twickenham

Beatlemania 1

Ailsa Avenue is an ordinary street in suburban Twickenham, remarkable only for having been the setting for a memorable scene in one of the Beatles’ films. It’s where the girls in the photograph are waiting for a glimpse of John, Paul , George and/or Ringo. This is 1964, Beatlemania is at its height, and the group are in the middle of filming their second feature film.

There was a time when the members of the Beatles spent more time in Twickenham than at their own homes. Twickenham Studios were the headquarters for A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, for some of their early promotional videos, for the promos for “Hey Jude” and “Revolution”, and for the early sessions for Let It Be. Ailsa Avenue was where, under Dick Lester’s direction, they shot the exteriors for the scene in which the Beatles enter four adjacent terraced houses, only for the next shot to reveal that, in a nice little piece of self-satire, the interiors have been knocked together and fitted with a sunken bed, a mighty Wurlitzer organ, a sandwich automat and other pop-star necessities. They hadn’t, of course. That bit was built at the studios. forever disappointing those Beatlemaniacs who turn up and knock hopefully on the doors of numbers 5, 7, 9 or 11.

The dark-haired girl with the duffel coat and the serious expression in the middle of the photograph is called Susan Kilby. She was about 14 years old then, and such a fan that she and her friends would get up at three o’clock in the morning to walk to Heathrow airport in order to welcome the group back from one of their foreign tours. She is one of those who have contributed their memories to an exhibition called The Beatles in Twickenham, which opened last week at the Exchange theatre, part of St Mary’s University, a few hundred yards from Ailsa Avenue and the film studios

The exhibition is mostly photographs and posters, plus a couple of pages from the shooting schedule for Help!, and some interesting testimony from witnesses to the events in question. But at the opening the other night there were film clips on show, including an amazing sequence from Let It Be in which Yoko does some free-form yowling while John plays the “Watch Your Step” riff and Ringo thunders away like the world’s greatest heavy metal drummer, and the “Revolution” promo, from which I learnt — very belatedly — that it was John who played the scorching Chuck Berry lead on his Epiphone Casino while George took the rhythm part. The 1965 promo films shot at Twickenham Studios included “I Feel Fine” and “Help!”, which broke barriers by having Ringo pedalling an exercise bike or holding a parasol instead of miming the drum part. I suspect they were the first clips of their kind in which the pretence of miming was completely undermined; no doubt someone will put me straight.

* The Beatles in Twickenham is at the Exchange theatre until August 16 (exchangetwickenham.co.uk). The Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn will be speaking on May 17, and there will be a screening of the tour documentary Eight Days a Week on May 21.

Michel Legrand 1932-2019

go_between_xlg

 

Last summer I discovered that Michel Legrand, who died on Saturday, was one of those interview subjects who present you with the problem of what to leave out. We had an hour together in his apartment in the Marais, an hour packed with stories. When I wrote the piece up for the Guardian, some of them had to be omitted for reasons of space and continuity. Here’s one that began when he talked about scoring movies.

When I write music, my music talks. It’s not a music that says nothing, a tapestry where nothing happens, like most of the composers. Such a bore. I always wrote adventurous, original, different. But it happened a few times that producers or directors…

He fell silent. I prompted him. They didn’t like what you gave them? May I have an example?

For instance, I did one score for Joseph Losey on The Go-Between. Joe called me. He lived in London, I was in Paris. He said, ‘I’ve finished a movie called The Go-Between and I’d love you to write the score.’ So I fly to London. I love the movie. I said to Joe, ‘It’s extraordinary. It’s the best film you ever made.’ So we go to his house and before we have dinner together he played a record for me, saying, ‘This is the type of music that I want in my movie.’ And I heard it. Strings, with a tenor sax screaming, bleeding, like the music in bordellos. So I said to Joe, ‘That’s what you want?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Goodbye!’ He said, ‘But what would you do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet – but that I would never do, because it’s not good for your movie at all.’ He thought for a bit and said, ‘Do it. Do what you want. I trust you.’

“So I go back home and write. Six weeks later I go back to record and the first cue he says, ‘No, it’s not for my film.’ I said, ‘Joe, I’ve finished. I recorded every single thing.’ I said, ‘I know you hate it, but you asked me to score your movie so in return you owe me to put it in your film. Call me and I’ll come back and if it’s really a catastrophe, we’ll find a solution.’ November, no news. December, no news. January, no news. Joe Losey never used the telephone. Much too modern for him. He communicated through telegrams. March, not a word. Then I see in the French papers that The Go-Between represents England in the Cannes festival. May, publicity everywhere. At the end of the festival, he wins the Palme d’Or.

“So the next morning I received a 100-line telegram saying, ‘Michel, this is exactly what the film wanted. I’m sorry for my behaviour.’ I send him back a huge telegram saying, ‘Dear Joe – I hate you. I used to love you. Not any more. I don’t want to work with you any more. Forget me.’ So what happened after that, some stars in London who worked with Joe, every time he showed the movie with my music in private screenings, everybody said the score’s extraordinary – and he hated it. Finally he said, ‘I might be wrong.'”

Did you work with him again?

“Yes.”

* Here is John Fordham’s excellent obituary. Here is my Legrand interview as it appeared in the Guardian. And here is the Go-Between music. 

New tango in Paris

jeune-femme.20171024032822

Léonor Seraille’s Jeune Femme is a funny, affecting and occasionally jolting film about what happens to an attractive but rather unfocused young woman (brilliantly portrayed by Laetitia Dosch) when she becomes untethered from her former life. She’s a character who, in the writer-director’s words, “chooses discomfort”. It won the Caméra d’Or award at last year’s Cannes Festival and was released in the UK a couple of weeks ago.

The soundtrack, by Julie Roué, is mostly clubby. However, to my surprise and delight, brief extracts from Gil Evans’s Las Vegas Tango pop up quite unexpectedly, its wonderful bass riff — borrowed from Maurice Ravel’s Pièce en forme de Habanera and played by Paul Chambers — and anguished upper-register horns adding a very different kind of exoticism to a couple of scenes.

Gil’s composition is a favourite of many. I’m also fond of versions by Robert Wyatt, who stretched and dismembered it on The End of an Ear, his first solo album, in 1970, and Michael Shrieve, the Santana drummer, who arranged a rather straighter treatment for a small band including the trumpeter Mark Isham and the guitarist David Torn on his album Stiletto in 1989. But the original is unsurpassable, as is the album from which it comes: The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve), which belongs, whether in its 1964 vinyl incarnation or as the expanded CD, in every home.

Arthur Jafa at Store Studios

Arthur Jafa 3

Perhaps you’ve already seen Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power at Tate Modern. If you haven’t, you should. It’s full of marvellous things, from the paintings of Romare Bearden, Wadsworth Jarrell and Bob Thompson to the photographs of Roy DeCarava and Beuford Smith via posters and murals and a vitrine full of covers of The Black Panther newspaper. One or two of the later rooms aren’t so compelling, and I was unpleasantly jarred by the mystifying inclusion of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Muhammad Ali. But the whole exhibition, curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, tells a great story and seethes with life.

On the other side of the Thames, there’s something strongly related. Installed in a black tent-like structure on the roof of Store Studios as part of Everything at Once, a kind of de luxe pop-up show in an old brutalist office building at 180 The Strand, overlooking the Shard and the National Theatre, Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message is Death is very different in nature and scale but, because of its contemporaneity, even more affecting.

This is a seven-minute collage of snippets of film from all kinds of sources, set to Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam”. For those, like me, previously unfamiliar with his 30-year career, Jafa is a cinematographer who was born in Mississippi, lives in Los Angeles, has worked with Spike Lee, directed a couple of the videos for Solange’s masterpiece A Seat at the Table in 2016, and exhibited earlier this year at the Serpentine Gallery.

His new work uses newsreel and found film of black Americans marching, worshipping, performing, dancing, and being threatened, beaten and shot by officers of the law. These images are juxtaposed with footage of heroes: Nina and Aretha; Martin and Malcolm; Miles and Trane; Louis and Jimi; the two MJs, Jordan and Jackson; Serena and Lebron; Ali and Louis Farrakhan; and a 17-year-old Biggie Smalls rapping on a Bedford-Stuyvesant streetcorner. Having started with a clip of Barack Obama at the funeral of the murdered Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina, it ends with James Brown in his ’60s prime.

The whole thing has the rawness of a crude assemblage of video grabs. Hardly anything lasts more than a few seconds, an exception being a harrowing sequence of a mother in distress as she’s ordered from her car by police at night and is handcuffed before her young son makes his way towards them with his hands raised. Jafa occasionally intersperses his chosen clips images with close-ups of the sun and footage from monster movies, whose relevance I don’t really understand. (There’s also a curious decision to include the famous clip of Derek Redmond, the British 400-metre runner, limping to the finish of the Olympic semi-final with a torn hamstring, supported by his father, in Barcelona 25 years ago.)

I suppose I could say that Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death doesn’t tell me anything really new, or make me feel any different. But the cumulative power of the collage is moving and shocking, and Kanye West’s spare, gospel-drenched piece provides the perfect musical accompaniment for the emotions evoked by the sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal images juxtaposed on the screen. In the Observer, the art critic Laura Cumming called it “a devastating ode to black America”, and I can’t do better than that. I watched it through several times without a break, and I expect I’ll go back for more before it disappears.

* Everything at Once, which is organised by the Lisson Gallery and the Vinyl Factory, also includes work by Ai Weiwei, Marina Abramović, Anish Kapoor, Richard Long, Julian Opie and others, and is on until December 10. Soul of a Nation closes on October 22; there’s a CD of music put together by the Soul Jazz label, featuring appropriate music from Don Cherry, Gil Scott-Heron, Joe Henderson and others. There’s a very good interview with Arthur Jafa here, from Interview magazine earlier this year.

‘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.