Documentary Spotlight: “My Generation” (2018)

I am fated to go to my grave as an unreconstructed Anglophile and that’s OK. From seeing the Beatles and Stones on TV at an impressionable age, to Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” inspiring me to try writing, to Monty python, to the early punk years to my later incarnation as an English Premier League nut, it’s never let up. Not even now, at the height of the whole Brexit fiasco—with its echo of the same disturbing societal trends that gave us Trump on this side of the Atlantic—has it wavered much.

So it’s not a big surprise that I’m giving a big Reel and Rock recommendation for last year’s nostalgic “My Generation,” co-produced and hosted by Michael Caine and now available online and on DVD. This is not strictly a music documentary, but you can’t make a film about Britain’s post-war generation without rock & roll being a huge part of it. Just in the introductory section you get two Kink Klassics (“Dead End Street” and “Waterloo Sunset”) and the Who’s titular anthem. The soundtrack is a continual parade of classic Brit rock, from the Beatles and Stones to the Small Faces and Thunderclap Newman.


This “My Generation” trailer is followed by a short clip from the film.

But it’s also about fashion, film, photography, pop art and even hairdressing (Vidal Sassoon got his start in Swinging London). Caine, a veritable rock star among actors, is a great host with his everlasting Cockney charm. When the music takes a break, he’s doing new, audio-only interviews with Twiggy, Paul McCartney, David Bailey, Roger Daltrey, Marianne Faithfull and mini-skirt inventor Mary Quant. while the intoxicating period footage plays over it. This is not a particularly in-depth social study (if you want to do deep-diving on this subject check out Shawn Levy’s excellent book “Ready Steady Go”) but it’s a highly entertaining primer and a valuable one too as its subjects are well into their seventies by now.


Twiggy, Twiggy, Twiggy: A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Director David Batty does not play the “Debbie Downer” card; there is a bit about the era’s social divides and a sidebar towards the end about how the drug scene got a bit out of control (a section on Brian Jones’ death and funeral strikes a brief minor chord). But overall the tone doesn’t stray much from “wasn’t it all so great?” But for here, that’s OK. Let’s put away he uneasy thoughts about the unfocused grievances, latent (or blatant) bigotry and foreign-agent manipulation that has left us in such a precarious state that it makes us nostalgic not just for “My Generation” but for the highly-imperfect but reasonably-stable systems of government that we were rebelling against at the time.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Make Mine a Double #13: The Bee Gees’ “Odessa” (1969)

From their humble beginnings as a family singing group, the Bee Gees went on to become one of the biggest selling popular music groups of all time. The three Gibb brothers reached their commercial zenith as the dominant act on the 1977 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which has sold some forty million copies worldwide. Although their early AM hits and the iconic disco workouts of Fever remain in steady rotation in various radio formats, little if anything from Odessa graces the airwaves anymore. This lushly packaged double LP hit the stores in early ’69 and although it did achieve a measure of success (#20 in the U.S., #10 in the U.K.) the album was hindered by the lack of a monster single to sustain its reputation. In fact, a dispute between two of the brothers over what song to release as a 45 caused a fissure in the band that would take a couple of years to patch up. An impressive set of progressive pop compositions beautifully sung and performed, Odessa could be a fresh discovery for those who have long extolled the virtues of the much-worshiped Pet Sounds. Like that classic album from the Beach Boys (also a family-based group) Odessa elevates a teenage art form into a sophisticated new realm without ever seeming pretentious.


“First of May” was the only single released from the double album and only got as high as #37 in the U.S.

Born on England’s Isle of Man, older brother Barry and twins Robin and Maurice honed their close harmony style from an early age. Their family moved to Australia in the late Fifties but after topping the Down Under charts in 1966 with the immortal “Spicks and Specks,” the brothers headed back to England. They fell under the auspices of impresario/producer Robert Stigwood, who heavily promoted the band and helped them hone their signature style on yearning, melancholic ballads like “To Love Somebody” and “Massachusetts.”


The Bee Gees in 1969, with drummer Colin Petersen, second from right, still a full member with the Gibb Brothers.

By the end of the Sixties, with high-aiming records like Sgt. Pepper and Days of Future Past all the rage, the Bee Gees made their move. The curtain-raising title track clocks in at 7:30 and features Maurice’s Spanish guitar and solo cello by guest Paul Buckmaster. The nautical imagery and historic references presage the work of artists like Al Stewart and (much later) the Decemberists. The boys even work in a new wrinkle on their usual theme of dealing with romantic setbacks, courtesy of the eyebrow-raising refrain, “You love that vicar more than words can say.”

But with seventeen songs to work with, there is no shortage of the Bee Gees’ stock-in-trade balladry, that keening heartache delivered by the famous high-pitched voices and insistent vibrato. Because tunes like “I Laugh in Your Face”, “Sound of Love” and “Never Say Never Again,” (“You said goodbye/I declared war on Spain”) sound familiar despite their relative obscurity, Odessa sometimes seems like a template for the elegant pop songcraft of a lost era. This craft extends to the musical performance. Drummer Colin Petersen kicks into gear when the group stretches stylistically, especially on an early foray into funk at the end of “Whisper Whisper.” There’s also a fun homage to The Band (“Marley Purt Drive”) a jaunty hoedown (“Give Your Best”) and an eccentric ode to Thomas Edison.

Despite the album’s long string of top-notch lead vocals by Barry and Robin Gibb, it may be the “quiet” brother Maurice who’s the unsung star here. Playing a variety of keyboards in addition to his bass duties, he comes to the fore on the loftier second disc, his grand piano leading the way on the orchestrated instrumental “Seven Seas Symphony.” He also takes full advantage on his one vocal showcase: “Melody Fair” is maybe the loveliest tune on a record chock full of them. Despite his reputation as a stabilizing presence in the midst of two more ambitious siblings, Maurice (who died in 2003) couldn’t prevent the rift caused when Barry’s “First of May” was chosen as the single while Robin’s “Lamplight” was relegated to the b-side. Robin (who passed away in 2012) was out of sorts over the notion that his older brother was being pushed out to center stage and split for a solo career.


Maurice Gibb’s delectable “Melody Fair” gained popularity two years after its initial release when it became the de facto theme song for the movie Melody starring Tracy Hyde.

Although Barry and Maurice carried on as a duo (Cucumber Castle, anyone?) the trio eventually re-united and re-defined themselves for the Seventies, leading to an outbreak of white leisure suits, exposed chest hair and those little spoons hanging around the neck. After Saturday Night Fever the excesses of the decade caught up with the Bee Gees, as Robert Stigwood insisted that they star with Peter Frampton in a mega-movie based on the Beatles most famous album. Seized by what was reported to be a sort of collective cocaine psychosis, cast and crew turned Sgt. Pepper’s Lonelyhearts Club Band into a garish and silly film musical that was universally loathed. It is worlds away from the classy accomplishments of a work like Odessa, where ambition was happily married to good instincts.
—Rick Ouellette

Rock Doc spotlight: “Both Sides Now: Joni Mitchell at the Isle of Wight 1970”

Directed by Murray Lerner—1970/2018—76 minutes

We are just a few months away from the outpouring of tributes and remembrances marking the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. A lot of that of course will focus on that weekend’s legendary line-up of performers. But what of one artist who didn’t end up on that stage in Bethel, New York, even though she wrote the definitive anthem of the event? Joni Mitchell was scheduled to play for the masses gathered on Max Yasgur’s famous field. But as travel logistics to and from the festival got worse, Joni was held back at the urging (or insistence) of David Geffen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. They wanted to make sure that they had at least one guaranteed performer for a scheduled post-Woodstock edition of the Dick Cavett Show. This left a very disappointed Ms. Mitchell to write her brooding but beatific “Woodstock” after watching news coverage of it from a hotel room.

But Joni would appear at a larger multi-day festival the following summer. The 1970 edition of England’s Isle of Wight event (where attendance topped out at some 600,000), was marked by an acrimonious struggle between radical elements of the audience and what was perceived as greedy owners who cordoned off the grounds and had the audacity to charge admission. Anyone who has seen Murray Lerner’s exemplary documentary of the festival (Message to Love) will know of the fence-busting and the rhetorical fireworks emanating from the stage by both sides. And they would also recall Joni Mitchell’s segment from the film, where she is interrupted by a man trying to borrow her microphone for an impromptu rant.

Both Sides Now faces those troubles head-on, beginning with a sneak preview of Joni doing the famous title intercut with scenes of the general turmoil. The line “it’s life’s illusions I recall” takes on a new meaning here. Symbolically, the 1970 Wight festival was the smudging of the rose-colored lenses thru which Woodstock’s Aquarian ideal was viewed. The commodification of the rock music marketplace, with its vast legions of potential consumers, was well under way. Murray Lerner, who died in 2017, produced several single-artist offshoot videos from his extensive footage, including those of headlining acts like the Who, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. But this edition, graced with the astute reminisces of Mitchell from a 2003 interview, stands with the best of them both musically and thematically.


Everywhere there was song and celebration… and insurgency? The 1970 Isle of Wight festival as seen from the top of the non-paying section dubbed Desolation Row. Many would try to bust in thru the fencing.

Certainly, fans of Joni should not pass this one by, either by viewing the full set on YouTube or by obtaining the keepsake Blu-ray edition. Right from the top, as she straps on her acoustic guitar and starts into the lovely “Song about the Midway,” you can tell this is some special stuff. At this point, she had three albums worth of her uniquely introspective and romantic songs to draw on and her star was on the rise, her current single (“Big Yellow Taxi”) hitting #11 on the U.K. charts. Mitchell was a seasoned performer, confident enough to do three songs from her future classic album, Blue, which wouldn’t come out until the next summer.


Joni performs “Song about the Midway” and “Gallery.”

Joni, whose father’s ancestry was Norwegian, was famously described as a “Nordic princess” in Sheila Weller’s popular 2008 book Girls Like Us, was a luminous presence in her long flaxen hair, tangerine-colored maxi dress and turquoise necklace. The cameramen, after days of shooting hairy guys in hard-rock bands, couldn’t get enough of her. Even when there’s a flub she makes something out of it; after a couple of verses of “Chelsea Morning” she tells the crowd she doesn’t feel like singing that much, but not before finishing the abbreviated number with an impressive flurry of her distinctive open-tuned guitar stylings.

But playing solo acoustic to such a huge and restive crowd proved a little dicey: in Message to Love we see a glib Kris Kristofferson getting nearly booed off the stage. For Joni, the trouble starts when a man who seems like he’s on a bad acid trip is extracted from the crowd close in front of her. She has sat down at the piano for a couple of tunes, singing about a street musician playing “For Free” while her world consists of limo rides and “velvet curtain calls.” Then she tries in vain to get the crowd to sing “we are stardust, we are golden” in the chorus to “Woodstock.” When a man who had been sitting behind her tries to borrow her mike he is all but wrestled off the stage. With the masses ready to erupt, Mitchell exhorts the crowd (at the 2:00 mark of the video below) to give the musicians “some respect” while the man, freaky as he may seem, tells the organizers at the end of that clip that we are indeed “caught in the devil’s bargain.”


Joni Mitchell SINGS “Woodstock.” Then, though visibly nervous, she confronts the unruly isle of Wight crowd after having her performance interrupted by the head of the Committee to Paint the Fence Invisible.

In the interview segments, Joni reflects on just how unnerving the experience was for her 26 year-old self. She remarks on how the 1970 Wight event was the “Hate-the-Performers Festival” and that some of the stars brought it on themselves by arriving in luxury cars or in custom caravans. The event was running behind the schedule and she agreed to play in the tension-filled afternoon instead of at night, in effect being “fed to the beast.” The trouble was stirred up by a faction (which included a pack of French anarchists) called the “Free Festival Radicals.” They were camped out on the hillside behind the site and spent much of their time trying to tear down the fence. The idea that music is some sort of natural occurrence, like the sun setting over an ocean, instead of the end result of a laborious creative process, was a thing at the time (also evident in the film Festival Express, filmed the same year). It is as galling as the idea of illegal downloading that started with Napster and that has made life nowadays even more difficult for musicians not in the upper echelons.

Also in the interviews, Mitchell explains her revelation that a large audience is like a giant dragon with the first five rows like the head. If you placate that part of it, it will send a calming message back down to the rest. Joni finished the set to a won-over audience and one of the best shots Lerner has is the sight of her running back onto the stage for an encore. Yes, the beast of a mass-market rock ‘n’ roll marketplace was about to take over and Mitchell would be one of its most visible jet-setting stars. But in this case, it’s because her talents were rewarded by paying fans who allowed her to keep doing her thing. In view of the lowest-common-denominator, computer-enhanced pop stars that dominate today’s scene, we have indeed paved paradise and put up a parking lot.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Stairway to Purgatory: Greta van Fleet in an age where baby boomers still walk the earth

Back in 1971-72 when I was still in my early teens, there was a guy named Bob Hegarty who did an FM freeform-style radio show on a small station in Danvers, Mass. He also wrote about rock music for a weekly arts-and-entertainment paper called North of Boston. I semi-idolized this guy. His radio show was pretty awesome: he was spinning all the great stuff of the era: the Who, the Stones, Cream, Bowie, Hendrix, Tull etc. as well as some blues and jazz. I was probably one of his younger fans and would call in a request almost every week and always be included in his roll call of regular listeners that he would read off at the end of the show: I was the proverbial “Rick from Peabody.” His weekly record reviews in NOB were erudite and free-wheeling. He liked all the stuff that I was getting into at the time with one big exception: to him, Led Zeppelin were a no-go zone.

Of course, as a 13-year-old American male I loved them and already had Led Zeppelin IV on cassette by the time Hegarty’s review of it showed up in NOB. And it was a doozy. Bob did have nice things to say about “Battle of Evermore” and “Stairway to Heaven” and even paid Jimmy Page a nice back-handed compliment on the latter, saying that the guitar solo on “Stairway” showed that “Page can still play his axe.” Hey, thanks! As for the rest of the LP, to him it was the same old stuff: so loud “that it doesn’t even matter what they’re playing.” In fact, by the time he got halfway thru the closer “When the Levee Breaks” Hegarty was so fed up that he wanted to take the platter off the turntable and smash it to pieces, “until I remembered I just paid FOUR BUCKS for it.” Classic. Despite my LZ fandom, this didn’t make me mad. It made me want to become a writer, too.


The Greta van Fleet of their time? Led Zeppelin raising the roof at Madison Square Garden in 1973. From the film “The Song Remains the Same”

Which brings me to Greta van Fleet. The young Michigan quartet have been the beneficiary of much press in the last year or so, much of it along the lines of them reviving the dormant genre of heavy rock. (Dormant to the hype-spinners, of course). Their guitarist has admitted he taught himself every riff off the first two Zeppelin albums and let’s just say it shows. Those two LZ albums got panned in Rolling Stone by John Mendelsohn, in prose that toggled between dismissive and sarcastic. (This is the same Rolling Stone that recently did a fawning teenybopper-style piece on GVF). Of course, a lot of that was generational (inter-generational, really). The first wave of baby-boomer rock freaks had a chip on their shoulder about Jimmy Page and Co. (a real creation of the 70s), believing the band were bulldozing the cherished blues foundation upon which rock ‘n’ roll was built, all to appeal to their younger siblings with volume and bombast. Sure, some of this is the old generational certitude that your era is better. But there is more to it now, which I will get to in a bit.

Greta van Fleet had been making a bit of a splash for months but it all came to a head when they made their high-profile appearance on Saturday Night Live. Audio-wise, their first number, “Black Smoke Rising,” showed them to be a capable if derivative hard rock act. But there was one big problem: you were looking at them as well. Granted, I’m not the band’s target demographic but I find it hard to think that even today’s teenage girls would be ga-ga over their mismatched patterned cast-offs, sandals and the type of satin jackets that haven’t been in style since Blue Oyster Cult fired their first publicist. But that’s just me, I guess. Singer Josh Kiszka’s self-conscious yelping and arm-waving, not to mention the awkward and vaguely inauthentic stage moves of his two brothers (guitarist Jake and bassist Sam), bordered on self-parody, if that were possible this early in a career. When they returned later for the ballad “You’re the One” (a decent song in search of a credible singer), Josh spent most of the song posing like an eight-armed Bodhisattva with six of them missing.


GVF singer Josh Kiszka. Even the Rock & Roll Fashion Police were left speechless on viewing this.

With a band like this, acting dorky almost on purpose while riding the sonic coattails of a beloved classic-rock icon like Zeppelin, the social media backlash was as fun as one could hope for. I was too happy to pile on, dubbing them “Greta van WTF-R-U-Wearing” and clicking on the Ha-Ha icon when someone declared “Every generation gets the Led Zeppelin they deserve” or asked “Why is the singer dressed like Greg Brady’s bedroom door?” But there was also the backlash to the backlash, with people getting dubbed “haters” (does that mean nothing is open to criticism?) or just boring old farts. Apparently, some people in my age group have convinced themselves they like GVF and that’s their prerogative.


“Highway Tune,” a sort of learner’s-permit variation on Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” was one of the songs on their Grammy-winning Best Rock Album. Or as the voters probably thought of it, Only Rock Album.

But what is ignored (or,frankly, not even realized) is that standards were simply a lot higher then and many boomers have stuck to them. Fans and reviewers alike were a lot more discerning and that was for the better. Despite their exaggerations, Hegarty and Mendelsohn were not that off base in their anti-Zep attitudes. Parts of Led Zeppelin II in particular sound grating nowadays and they were taking songwriting credits that should have (and in some cases eventually did) go to the blues greats they were emulating. But they grew by leaps and bounds over the next few albums. Some people suggest using similar patience with GVF but I’m not holding my breath. We may joke about “Stairway to Heaven” (remember the guitar-shop scene in Wayne’s World?)but if they ever wrote anything with 10% of the eloquence of Robert Plant’s lyrics to that song, I would probably drop dead on the spot.

No, it doesn’t seem to be in the DNA anymore. Today, “we walk on down the road/our shadows taller than our souls” for real. In the one issue of North of Boston that I still have there is one of those State-of-the-Rock articles that were popular once. The writer, one Mike Howell, begins by stating, “The question of whether or not rock has lost its vitality is very much in the air today. Huh? This was 1972, the same year of Exile on Main St./Ziggy Stardust/The Harder They Come/Eat a Peach/Close to the Edge/Transformer etc. So now is the time to keep your own to your own. I’m not upset that Greta van Fleet won the Grammy for best album instead of what would have been my choice: Merrie Land, the stirring post-Brexit concept album by The Good, The Bad and the Queen, the group led by Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon. Why would I be, they don’t even reside on the same plane of existence. So if you’re looking for something young and new in rock & roll, dig a little deeper (I would suggest someone like Nashville’s All Them Witches). But the important thing is to keep thinking for yourself: in other words, to be a rock and not to roll over for the kind of bargain-basement hype that is Greta van Fleet.

Tinseltown Rock #1: “Masked and Anonymous” (2003)

My 2016 book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey was ultimately conceived as a parallel history of pop music thru the prism of documentary film. Before I settled on that I had considered something of broader scope but decided the inclusion of rock-centric fictional feature films was too heavy a load. But that left me with a lot of unused notes, unused that is until now! Here is the first in a series of what I left behind.

“We live in a tawdry and vulgar age,” says an unscrupulous concert promoter looking to stage a charity concert in a Third World country, all to bolster the image of a heavy-handed regime. The planning of this televised benefit gig is the main premise of this loosely-plotted fantasia, directed by Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Borat) starring, and co-written by, Bob Dylan. Masked and Anonymous veers close to vanity project territory and was widely planned on its initial release in 2003. But its entrenched depiction of a dystopic place where the hopelessness of geo-politics meets the implied futility of idealism, is worth a good second look. If things were tawdry and vulgar back then, just look at us now. The absurdities of the Trump Age make it seem like this film was ahead of its time.


“What, another movie critic? I’ll take care of this one, Bob!”

After an opening montage dealing in images of global conflict and protest (set to a cover of Bob’s “My Back Pages” in French) we meet the shady promoter played by John Goodman working well within his wheelhouse. He has promised the ruling regime that he will deliver a star act for the benefit show. Hypocritically, the proceeds are meant for civilian victims of violence in the strife-torn nation. After getting the cold shoulder from the likes of U2, he goes to Plan B and gets living legend/has-been Jack Fate (Dylan) to agree to perform in return for being let out of a near-by jail, where he is being kept for unspecified crimes. Jack then rides in a ramshackle bus thru scenes of hard times in the outskirts of the capital to the soundstage where the event will take place. Ostensibly, the tension of the film lies in the moral dilemma of doing such a gig “for a barbarian that can barely spell his name.” Hmm…

The main problem here is that as an actor and a personality, Dylan is far too wily and inscrutable to make much hay out of this. Granted, he did get a lot of big name Hollywood stars to join in and work for scale, but it’s a mixed bag. Aside from Dylan and Goodman, the main players are Jeff Bridges as cynical but conscientious journalist doing a story on the show and Jessica Lange as the steely network honcho with her eyes set on the bottom line. There are a lot of other big names here, but folks like Penelope Cruz (as Bridges’ ragamuffin girlfriend) and Luke Wilson (as Jack Fate’s musician pal) are underused, while others (Ed Harris, Val Kilmer, Christian Slater) are barely noticeable. And until I saw Masked and Anonymous I never imagined that I would be viewing a cinematic love scene between a sexagenarian Bob Dylan and Angela Bassett. But it’s that kind of flick.

On the plus side? Well, the promoter hooks up his star with a Jack Fate (i.e. Dylan) tribute band and the music kicks in with a garage version of “Down in the Flood” from their sideshow stage. There are strong renditions of “I’ll Remember You” and “Cold Irons Bound” as well as a few sweet surprises such a young black girl’s a capella rendition of “The Times They are A-Changing” which raises a half-smile from Uncle Bob. Much of the film is shot inside a hangar-type building, sectioned off into different stage sets, not unlike Frank Zappa’s film vehicle 200 Motels. The carnival ambiance sometimes evokes the feel of such Dylan evergreens as “Desolation Row.” This feel is enhanced by the sharp art direction and evocative location work. When Mr. Fate hops a bus to “Quadrant 4” it looks like it could be bedraggled Venezuela though the whole movie was shot in Los Angeles. Which sort of tells you something right there.

And that is where Masked and Anonymous begins to get under your skin. It’s atmosphere of slow, creeping dread, of being caught up in a dream world of absurdities where heroes are hard to identify,that makes it seem more relevant and relatable now. Dylan himself was one of those heroes for a lot of us growing up but now he looks as bewildered at us moving thru this landscape of “toil and blood, where blackness is a virtue and the road is full of mud.” He may be as sphinx-like as ever but as he meets our gaze as he rides way at the end, we feel he’s at least still there with us on the side of the angels. Long may he mumble.

“American Dharma” Bum: The New Errol Morris Film on Steve Bannon Gets a Cold Shoulder

Lock him in! Lock him in! The Quonset hut at the closed South Weymouth Naval Air Station in Massachusetts. Photo by Rick Ouellette

I took the photographs in this post on January 2, 2017—after the election but before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The building in the picture above was one of the sites where Academy Award-winning documentarian Errol Morris interviewed former top Trump adviser Steve Bannon, the subject of his new film called “American Dharma.” It was a sort of stage set up for Bannon, who first rose to prominence (or infamy, as many of us would have it) as the executive chairman of Breitbart News, the alt-right, conspiracy-mongering website that is a favorite of the gullible current occupant of the White House.

A feature story in the arts section of the January 25th Boston Globe pointed out that the much-celebrated Morris has not found a distributor for the film, which has yet to see the light of day since it debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year. (There will be a screening at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center on Feb. 1st, just down the way from where Morris has his office). Part of the problem, might be in the blasé attitude that would let Morris indulge the highly controversial Bannon by having him blab away in the hut which resembles the one in his favorite World War II movie, “Twelve O’Clock High.” For Morris, the WW2 film title that probably best sums up his problems with his new documentary is “A Bridge Too Far.”


When I posted this photo of abandoned housing in early January of 2017, a friend wondered if it were a preview of “post-Trump America.”

That’s because “American Dharma” can be seen as the third entry in a loose trilogy of Errol Morris films about contentious men who were Presidential advisers or Cabinet secretaries: and they can also be seen as offering diminishing returns on the director’s artistic investment. (Like most people, I haven’t seen “American Dharma” and this post is about the idea of doing it in the first place). The first, 2003’s “The Fog of War,” was about Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the 1960s under Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Ten years later, Morris came out with “The Unknown Known” about the longtime Republican operator Donald Rumsfeld, who first came to the national spotlight as chief of staff and defense secretary in the mid-1970s under President Gerald Ford and, of course, held that latter position under George W. Bush during the calamitous invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s.

“The Fog of War” was an exceptional, riveting film that deservedly won Morris an Oscar for best feature documentary, an award that many thought he should have received fifteen years earlier for “The Thin Blue Line.” Robert McNamara was born in 1916 and in an early scene he tells of his first memory, watching victorious American soldiers in a parade after the end of World War I. Morris makes the film so much more than a filmed profile of the man who had recently published a book that was a semi-mea culpa about his role in escalating the disastrous Vietnam War. It expands into an incisive examination into nearly a hundred years of an increasingly mechanized and brutal evolution of warfare (McNamara used his exceptional analytical skills to increase the efficiency of the Air Force’s firebombing of Japan near the end of WW2). At the end, McNamara is dodgy when Morris presses him as to why he didn’t voice his grave misgivings about Vietnam policy to Johnson but, aesthetically anyway, he is not let off the hook. As we hear audio of a phone interview of McNamara declining a last chance to come clean, we see the now elderly man driving around Washington in inclement weather, the hard rain of history beating down on his windshield.

“The Fog of War” was one of the first projects on which Morris use his patented “Interrotron” which (Wikipedia definition) “projects images of interviewer and interviewee on two-way mirrors in front of their respective cameras so each appears to be talking directly to the other.” And by extension, it makes it look like the interviewee is making eye contact with the viewer. But if one thinks this method will necessarily out the truth, that notion is quickly dispelled by the ceaselessly obstructionist style of Rumsfeld in “The Unknown Known.” If you can get past his weasly double-talk (naturally, the film’s title is his own phrase) and the shit-eating grin, you might get something out of this film. But if you were someone outraged at Rumsfeld’s key role in the simplistic invasion plan in Iraq (“intellectually bankrupt” in the words of one general) that left the country in tatters and was based on a flimsy premise (the evidence-free accusation of Saddam Hussein’s involvement in the 9/11 attacks), or were upset at the policy of U.S. troops standing by during the wholesale cultural destruction of the Iraq Museum looting (“stuff happens,” said Donny) or revulsed at his enabling of the heinous treatment of detainees, many of them innocent, which devolved into the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib prison (aka “enhanced interrogation techniques”), the film will leave you cold. Rumsfeld doesn’t feel exposed, he is allowed to go on and on in the current fashion of unaccountable yammering. To him and us, it’s just another day in the grinding machinery of the media-industrial complex.


America’s favorite slovenly sociopath? Steve Bannon in 2010.

Can you blame potential distributors for thinking that “American Dharma” is more of the same, esp. in view of Bannon’s “toxic reputation” (in the words of the Boston Globe)? Breitbart is now all but the communications arm of a mindset that is not out of step with the Klu Klux Klan and neo-Nazism. I have no problem with Bannon having his say, but for God’s sake wasn’t he a top White House advisor, feeding his xenophobic notions to the already unscrupulous, spiteful and easily-manipulated Trump? That’s say enough. Any further exposure is just fodder for the ever-spinning media merry-go-round. But if you need further confirmation of what you already know, “American Dharma” will likely see the light of day in some form or the other. In the Globe article, Morris says “I think as the country becomes less angry, particularly the left, then it would be possible to look at the movie as a movie.” After Morris confirmed that Steve Bannon had seen the film and was asked what he thought, the director said “He likes it” and, according to reporter Mark Feeney, “barked out a laugh.” Forgive me if I’m not amused.

Make Mine a Double #12: Derek and the Dominoes’ “Layla” (1970)

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is one of the most beloved and critically lauded of rock albums and it’s not hard to see why. It conflates two of the form’s most cherished devices—red-hot electric guitar solos and verses filled with vivid romantic disappointment, and achieves high-water marks in each, especially on its titanic title track. Most true-blue rock fans already know that as the Sixties drew to a close Eric Clapton was deep in the throes of a hopeless infatuation with Patti Boyd, already married to his close friend George Harrison. And that by 1970 Clapton was at a career crossroads. He had made his name as one of rock’s most exalted guitar heroes not long after moving to London from his native Surrey, first with the Yardbirds and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, then especially with groundbreaking power-trio Cream. But Clapton soon grew disillusioned with the lengthy (and often overblown) jamming and psychedelic left turns of the virtuosic threesome—not to mention its fractious mix of personalities.

After Cream’s famous farewell concert at the Albert Hall in November of 1968, Clapton was at a bit of a loss. Hard-wired to a belief in the overarching integrity of American blues and averse to the type of adulation that would have hippies tagging London walls with the catchphrase “Clapton is God,” he rummaged around for the right musical fit. Next up was Blind Faith and although Eric may have been musically and personally simpatico with co-leader Steve Winwood (the group also included Cream drummer Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech) the band collapsed under the weight of its own supergroup industry hype after only one album. By the end of 1969, Clapton was content to be a sideman with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, playing his searing lead guitar lines from sidestage while the group’s namesake married couple held the spotlight. His first, eponymous solo LP came out soon after but before this became his chosen career path, there was one more go at working within a group format. Recruiting three members of the Delaney & Bonnie touring group and settling on a band name that obscured his role as frontman, the newly christened Derek and the Dominoes repaired to Criteria Studios in Miami during the summer of 1970. Soon after arriving their producer Tom Dowd suggested they check out a hot new group from Georgia who were playing a gig nearby, a specific request from their Cream-fan lead guitarist.


“Duane should be right along.” From l to r: Eric Clapton, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle

Even without the addition of a second guitarist of equal high standing, the Dominoes would have likely enjoyed a good measure of creative success. Clapton’s three full-time bandmates—keyboardist/vocalist Bobby Whitlock, bassist Carl Radle and drummer Jim Gordon—were a highly skilled supporting cast well versed in the soulful, Southern-fried rock and gritty R&B impulses of the Delaney & Bonnie/Leon Russell/Joe Cocker axis so popular at the time. But after seeing the Allman Brothers Band in concert, a mightily impressed Clapton quickly befriended (and recruited) lead guitarist Duane Allman, adding a whole new dimension to a project with a lot of upside already. Although the Allmans, like Cream, often pushed songs past the twenty-minute mark in concert, the jazzy blues improvisations of the Macon-based outfit seemed more organic and less show-offy than the famed British trio. Allman was, according to Clapton in his 2007 autobiography, “the musical brother I never had” and this was borne out by their complementary styles. The stinging tones of Clapton’s trusty Stratocaster meshed perfectly with Allman’s distinctive bottleneck slide sound and of course there would also be the sort of scintillating, fleet-fingered dual soling that would pass into guitar-geek legend.

Allman’s inspiring presence was timely. Clapton admitted in his book to going into the Layla sessions with only a couple of originals (eventual LP opener “I Looked Away” as well as a rough draft of the title cut) and a few blues standards he was keen to cover. But the material came fast and furious over that late summer and fall until it filled four sides with some of the most passionate rock music ever recorded. “I Looked Away” opens the album with a lilting country-rock groove that belies the emotionally-fraught soundscapes ahead, but it doesn’t take long to get a taste. The one-that-got-away lyric isn’t exactly groundbreaking but the vocals, with Clapton’s tenor trading verses with the deeper and somewhat gruff voice of Whitlock, are a marvel. This gambit (nearly as crucial to Layla’s success as the Clapton-Allman alliance) was said to be in emulation of Memphis R&B greats Sam & Dave, quite plausible considering the Stax Records background of fellow Memphis native Whitlock.

One can imagine the legions of guitar-loving rock fans, in the fallout of the psychedelic Sixties, having their ears prick up to this earthy and emotionally direct new music, especially after the two great tracks that follow it. The charming alliteration of “Bell Bottom Blues” came to Clapton after Patti Boyd’s request that he buy her a pair of designer flares when he got to the States. From that we get an absolutely tortured depiction of a spurned lover so in thrall to a woman that he would “crawl across the floor” and “beg you to take me back” for just one day so as not to completely perish from the scene, complete with a delicate upper-register guitar solo so heartfelt that its highlight are the notes almost too painful to play. But self-encouragement soon follows in “Keep on Growing” with Clapton and Whitlock again singing alternating lines of love lost (and offering supportive shouts of “yeah-yeah” when it’s the other’s turn) before the hopeful chorus and a liberating instrumental finish where an army of overdubbed Erics (there’s no Duane on this and two other tracks) lead the charge with the other three in full gallop close behind. In light of the originality of these three tracks, the side one closer—a conventional cover of the blues standard “Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out”—can’t help but pale in comparison.

But in the “Assorted Love Songs” of these four sides, fresh approaches far outnumber the inveterate twelve-bar tendencies that once prompted Rolling Stone critic Jon Landau to dub Clapton the “master of the blues cliché,” a comment that deeply upset the guitarist, then still with Cream. The other three Clapton-Whitlock collaborations (“Keep on Growing” was the first) add new hues to the old blues, the vibrant vocal tag-teaming and lofty instrumental constructions don’t let up thru the determinedly soulful “Anyday,” the chugging rocker “Tell the Truth” (a much faster version produced by Phil Spector had been released as a single) and the tour de force “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad?” In this Southern-style rave-up, a near-frantic Clapton rails against romance’s age-old injustices, as well as its confusions: “Won’t you show me a place/Where I can hide my lonely face/I know you’re going to break my heart if I let you.” Most anyone with a pulse has felt at least once in their life “like a song without a name/I’ve never been the same since I met you” though it’s one of the tunes that seems most specific to Patti Boyd: “I can’t keep from singing about you.” With volume levels that could have stripped the paint off Criteria’s studio walls, Duane solos throughout the song with an intensity that is almost superhuman. When Eric joins in, the notes seems to be coming at you twenty different directions and it all ends with a decelerated, Allman’s style outro, a sweet-toned reprieve after the cathartic emotions are fully exorcised.


This YT video of “Why Does Love Got to be So Sad” features lyrics on the screen and a fine photo montage of band members as well as Patti Boyd.

What’s amazing is that all this creative outpouring took place against an admitted background of such prodigious alcohol and hard drug intake that in our own relatively temperate age it would practically constitute a national crisis. Clapton was by now well down the road to the heroin addiction that would derail his life and career pretty much until 1974. And when the original songs ran out the covers that sat beside them were mostly first-rate as well. Their amped-up version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” may lack some of the gentler appeal of the original but the heraldic power chords, ardent vocals and Jim Gordon’s complex drum fills transform it into stirring tribute to Eric’s friend who died during the making of the album. The nine-minute take on Big Bill Bronzy’s “Key to the Highway” is more guitar-duel nirvana and the country seasoning added to Chuck Willis’ R&B stroll “It’s Too Late” made it the perfect choice to perform when the Dominoes made a well-received appearance on the Johnny Cash TV show. The best straight blues here is probably “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” with Clapton’s torrid between-the-lines soloing and its relevant love-triangle lyrics that, though written by Billy Myles, seem to cut straight through to the Eric-George-Patti situation: the obsessed but conflicted narrator backs out of a potential affair with his best friend’s old lady.


Live on the Johnny Cash Show in 1971 doing “It’s Too Late.”

Patti Boyd was first seen by the greater public when, as a young London-based model, she got to play one of a group of uniformed high-school girls flirting with the Beatles on a train ride in A Hard Day’s Night. George asked her out on the set but had to wait a few days for a yes. A toothy, girl-next-door blond beauty who was never quite exotic enough for significant modeling success, Boyd was top shelf as a rock-chick muse. Married to Harrison in 1966, her husband’s deepening devotion to Eastern mysticism may have strained the relationship but they remained married until ’74 and Boyd was the inspiration for several George-penned Beatles tunes, most notably “Something.” Although Eric was convinced the couple were on the outs by the time he and Boyd met and although feelings may have been mutual, it would a long agonizing wait for him.

“What’ll you do when you get lonely/And nobody’s waiting by your side,” began the song he wrote about Boyd that he came to Miami with in an unfinished state. Although directed at the object of his desire, Clapton could just as easily be talking to himself and the mix of self-pity and admonishment in “Layla” is made even more urgent by the relentless repetition of the song’s famous signature riff, reinforced with a reputed six tracks of guitar. Tom Dowd was a key player throughout these sessions and not just for his incandescent production. He was a fatherly facilitator for the self-doubting Clapton and helped build what began as a ballad into a rock juggernaut, especially after Allman came up with the totemic seven-note figure. The missing piece of the puzzle was found when an elegiac piano piece written and played by Jim Gordon was added as the instrumental “coda” (it takes up more than half of the seven-minute running time) renowned for its aching beauty.

In the documentary film Tom Dowd and the Language of Music, the late producer sits in front of his mixing board and deconstructs the song, isolating elements like Allman’s ghostly slide guitar sound and noting that both he and Clapton were playing notes that were “off the top of the instrument.” The quieter second section suggests that the spurned lover of the last four sides finally turns away from the woman who has “turned my whole world upside down” and heads off alone into the sunset (listen for Radle’s “walking” bass line) while Allman sounds his famous “bird tweets” in a majestic fade to black. But wait, there’s more. As if playing over the closing credits of a movie, LP closer “Thorn Tree in the Garden” makes for a fitting and intimate ending, a melancholic acoustic-guitar ballad by Bobby Whitlock that Dowd recorded by having the group sit around a single open mic.


Master producer Tom Dowd on the making of “Layla” from the highly-recommended documentary “Tom Dowd: The Language of Music”

If ever an album had a postscript—or, indeed, many of them—it’s Layla and Assorted Love Songs. First off, the album did well initially (#16 in the U.S.) but the title track only achieved its status as a ubiquitous radio classic after several fits and starts and re-releases over the next few years. The LP didn’t even get its own review in Rolling Stone, instead being twinned with the Allman Brothers’ Idlewild South in a write-up that betrays the higher critical standards of the day (“Bell Bottom Blues” is “filler”?!). Duane Allman, who was only able to squeeze in a few dates with the Dominoes on their subsequent tour, died in a motorcycle accident near his home in Macon less than a year after Layla’s release and a month shy of his 25th birthday. Carl Radle kept in contact with Clapton during the latter’s three-year layoff while battling drug addiction and was with him for the 461 Ocean Boulevard comeback album and tour in 1974—then succumbed to liver disease in 1980 after being unable to conquer his own substance abuse demons. Jim Gordon, the golden-touch session drummer whose voluminous list of credits ran the gamut from Bread to Frank Zappa, developed a severe case of (undiagnosed) schizophrenia and murdered his mother in 1983 in a delusional state that was discounted at trial due to changes in California law—as of January 2019 he is still serving a sixteen-years-to-life sentence. Thankfully, nothing tragic happened to Bobby Whitlock, unless one counts the fizzling-out of his Seventies solo career; he’s still in fine form whenever he resurfaces.


The only other official D&D release was this live album released in 1973, two years after the band broke up.

And what of Mr. Clapton? Everyone knows of his successful run as a solo artist and his elevation to one of rock’s elder statesmen. He got together with Patti Boyd soon after her divorce from Harrison and the two were wed in 1979, an era that produced perhaps the last well-known ode to her, the hit single “Wonderful Tonight.” But in her own autobiography called “Wonderful Today,” Boyd doesn’t pull her punches in recalling how quickly the union hit the rocks, the bottle quickly replacing the needle as Eric’s habit of choice. Her husband certainly has not denied just how far he fell during that period and the couple divorced in 1989, the final straw being Clapton fathering a child with another woman (Boyd was unable to conceive). Still, the ideal of the song she was most famous for inspiring stayed resilient: even his tepid “Unplugged” performance of “Layla” on MTV couldn’t kill it—indeed, it snagged Clapton one of the six Grammy awards he won in 1993. (Co-writer Jim Gordon shared the award but of course was not in attendance, neither was he mentioned in the acceptance speech). Many have commented over the years about the permenance of great art and its ability to rise above the many vagaries of its creators and creation and so too will Layla and Assorted Love Songs forever stand tall over the inauspicious circumstances that trail behind it.

You can check out an excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan”: Spending the Holidays with some “basically good” people

Cover illustration by Pierre Le-Tan for the Criterion Collection DVD.

“Metropolitan,” Whit Stillman’s beguiling Upper East Side comedy of manners, is classic in more ways than one. But since it became an indie sleeper hit upon its 1990 release, it has never been considered a holiday perennial. This despite its classic New York look (aside from a few giveaways, like the taxi roof ads, this could be mid-century Gotham) and the fact that the events of the film take place over the course of a week where Christmas falls right in the middle. The trees and the stores are decked out and the film starts with a snippet of holiday music, before slipping into some self-consciously (yes) classic jazz. Yet the event that is December 25th is barely mentioned by the characters and the season is more like a seductively twinkling backdrop. Still, the setting and Stillman’s unshowy compassion for his leads makes this a nice alternative viewing at this time of year, especially if you’re looking for a break from the yearly repeats of Scrooge and the Grinch.

The story concerns a group of young and wellborn Manhattanites, most of whom seem to be home on the winter vacation of their freshman year at Ivy League colleges. Stillman’s stand-in would be the less well-of Tom Townsend, a red-headed Princeton newbie first seen leaving a posh hotel alone after a society dance and who is mistaken as a competitor for the same cab with a group his own age. This mixed group of friends is the self-named “Sally Fowler Rat Pack” (SFRP) and before you can say “after party” Tom has fallen in with them, finding himself in the spacious parlor of her family’s Park Ave. penthouse. What follows is the first of the many hyper-intellectual and often catty group conversations which are “Metropolitan’s” main claim to fame.


The Sally Fowler Rat Pack convenes.

Here, the sophistication goes way deeper than the surface appearance of tuxedos, evening gowns and a parlor filled with old-money furniture. An almost ridiculously erudite skull session is underway as outsider Tom reveals a left-leaning world view and admits to being a “committed socialist” as the talk quickly turns to French philosopher Fourier, of whom he is a fan. Despite some doubts about this, the group decide that Tom is a “basically good person,” a high form of praise with this crowd.

The group comes into focus. The bespectacled Charlie is a self-appointed defender of the positive values of the old WASP aristocracy, even though he (like some of the others) recognizes its decline. The bookish and wispy Audrey has a sharp intellect and a love of Jane Austen; she soon develops a crush on Tom, to Charlie’s chagrin. She stands in sharp relief with Jane, the tall and confident brunette as well as with the fair-haired Sally Fowler and Cynthia, who would probably be mean girls if they weren’t so well-bred.


Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi), Nick (Christopher Eigeman) and Sally (Dylan Handley)

The real standout, however, is the handsome, dimpled and (seemingly) impertinent Nick. Unabashed about his privileged status and easily seen as rude, Nick (as brilliantly portrayed by Chris Eigeman) is the de facto leader and conscience of the SFRP. Nick breaks down Tom’s resistance about returning the following night, and senses Tom’s insecurity about the cost of his rented tuxedo and his lack of an overcoat (though his raincoat “has a lining” as he is obliged to explain to the others). These scenes between Nick and Tom (played by Edward Clements) are a highlight of the film. The cajoling may start out because there is a “severe escort shortage” at the start of debutante week, but turns into something more. With the group clued in to Audrey’s feelings, Nick informs him that he has made a “big impression” on the girls and that he should drop his moralistic objections to high society and enjoy the amenities. Check out this well-played scene between Eigeman and Clements.


Nick and Tom parry in the vestibule in my favorite scene from “Metropolitan.” Come for the debs, stay for the “hot, nutritious meals”

The famous good advice to authors to “write what you know” is assiduously followed her by the writer-director. Stillman based his Oscar-nominated script on a similar experience he had on his first Christmas back from his own freshman year at Harvard in 1969. This rarefied upper-class milieu of society balls and formal fashions is not the most readily sympathetic subject matter but Stillman owns it with panache. He deliberately amped-up the cultivated banter for comic effect and takes semi-satirical delight in arcane details. Charlie (played by Taylor Nichols) name-drops Averell Harriman and earnestly comes up with a more accurate acronym for the WASPs, namely the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (UHB, or “The Ubbs” as Nick would have it) while Audrey would defend the old-fashioned virtues of Austen to the ends of the earth. Oblivious to her affections, Tom still pines for Serena, his ravishing but flighty ex-girlfriend who he hasn’t seen since “Yale game weekend.” Nick details at novelistic length the alleged sex crimes of his arch-nemesis, the conceited Rick von Sloneker, an actual baron. It keeps “Metropolitan” likably light on its feet even as the characters, suspecting that this is last real debutante season, see their way of life fading.


A photo from a recent reunion of the “Metropolitan cast and director Whit stillman (far right).

“Metropolitan” can’t help but suffer a little when Nick departs the scene with about a third of it left to play out. (Chris Eigeman would delightfully reprise this character type in two later Stillman films, 1994’s “Barcelona” and 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco”). Shortly after a confrontation with the young baron goes awry, Nick catches his train upstate to his dad’s place, where he’s sure his evil stepmother has plans to murder him. In case he doesn’t return, Nick makes Tom and Charlie promise to uphold the tradition of the UHBs. Although it would have sounded corny, he could have suggested they uphold the principles of the “basically good” people, especially in light of the Rick von Sloneker’s of the world. The UHBs certainly had their flaws but their straight-laced civic-mindedness and charitable tendencies stand tall in contrast to what we get with the infamous 1% of today’s economic upper strata. Nick describes von Sleneker as “tall, rich, good looking, stupid, dishonest, insolent and possibly psychotic.” Take out the “good looking” part and it sounds suspiciously like the current occupant of the White House. Who knew this would combination would be so “irresistible” to so many voters. Nick’s righteous indignation at the baron (also the name of Trump’s youngest son), misunderstood by many other characters, sounds impeccably prophetic today.

METROPOLITAN, Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, 1990


Audrey and Tom look to better days. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Now available: The complete “I Was a Teenage Proghead” comic book!

 

Comic Book

Postage included (even outside the USA), please provide mailing address in PayPal

$5.00

Spin yourself back down all the days to…
Wilsontown High School, 1974

It was a time when the hair was long and so were the musical attention spans. That fall the mellow vibe of Wilsontown High gets disrupted by a mysterious rich-kid bully. But he makes a “sad” miscalculation when he focuses his grievances on Sean and Paul—two know-it-all aspiring rock critics—and their two new friends: clairvoyant Jane Klancy and kung-fu enthusiast April Underwood. Things are going to get personal in a hurry…

It’s here! The complete 32-page “I Was a Teenage Proghead” is now available in a shiny new standard comic-book format. Text is by me (Rick Ouellette) and artwork is by Brian Bicknell. The recently added 8-page epilogue catches up with the kids in the summer of 1975, a year after the events of Part One.

This project is 100% author-funded. If you would like to support indie, rock ‘n’ roll-inspired comics, you can purchase your own copy (and/or buy one for a friend) for only $5, postage included. It’s the perfect (and perfectly affordable) stocking stuffer or Merry-Christmas-to-Me item. Tell your Mom about it, too!

Thanks, Rick Ouellette

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: A Punter’s Guide to 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film, Part 1

Illustration by Eric Bornstein

In June of 1977, much of Great Britain was celebrating the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, who had ascended to the throne in 1952. At the same time, the punk rock uprising—which had been a disruptive presence in English society since the previous year—was reaching the apex of its notoriety. The Sex Pistols were certifiable public enemies by that time. They spent Jubilee Night on a hired Thames riverboat, sailing past the Houses of Parliament and railing against what they saw as an artificial figurehead looming over a fractured society and a declining economy. When the boat docked after this open-air shindig, the police were waiting…

Almost as soon as bands stared forming and a scene coalescing, Punk was being filmed. On the riverboat that night, camera in hand, was Julien Temple. While at university he became enamored of the French anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo and in 1976 befriended the Pistols. Also on the scene in these days, with a newly purchased Super 8mm camera, was Don Letts, the dreadlocked DJ at London’s Roxy club. He filmed many bands during the famous 100-day period in early ’77 when the Roxy was an all-punk venue. This footage included performances by the Pistols, X-Ray Spex, Billy Idol and Generation X, the Clash, Subway Sect, the Slits and also American acts Johnny Thunders and Wayne County. He edited together his best clips of bands and fans at the Roxy as well as on the seminal White Riot Tour and released the endearingly primitive “Punk Rock Movie” in 1978.

The film ends with an electrifying 5-song clip of the Sex Pistols playing at The Screen on the Green in April ’77, their first performance with Sid Vicious. It’s an invaluable depiction of a revolutionary band as yet unburdened by their own infamy or by the Machiavellian manipulations of manager Malcolm McLaren.

Around the same time, a fledgling German filmmaker named Wolfgang Buld set out for London and shot many of the same bands as well as others like the Jam, the Adverts and Chelsea. Buld also paid homage to the first-column punk followers in several scenes, and for contrast ventured into a club chock full of conservative Teddy Boys (1st Ted: “One of them (punks), he had a dog collar on. There’s nothing good about that, is there?” 2nd TED: “That’s why we give them a good hiding every time we see ‘em.”) Buld also captured some bands playing live in their practice spaces, most notably X-Ray Spex and their dynamic singer Poly Styrene.


X-Ray Spex singer Poly Styrene in a still from “Punk in London”

The resulting “Punk in London” (like “Punk Rock Movie”) closes with an extended sequence of a top-line punk outfit. The Clash rip thru several of their politically-charged numbers on a spacious well-lit hall in Munich, making this one of the better filmed documents of the group’s early years. Both these movies show punk in straight-up mostly cinema verite form. It was a homegrown protest calling out Britain’s faded postwar promise and a raucous reaction against a stale pop music scene.


The Clash, “Garageland” Live in Munich 1977

Punk’s real Days of Rage started December 1st, 1976, when the Pistols where hastily invited to appear on the early-evening “Today Show” when the guys in Queen cancelled. A drunk and condescending host named Bill Grundy questioned the equally soused group and four members of their Bromley Contingent fan group. When one of them, future star Siouxsie Sioux, gets propositioned by Grundy, it’s more than guitarist Steve Jones is willing to take.


Forty-thousand pounds gone “Down the boozer”: The Grundy affair gets hashed out in Julien Temple’s 2000 doc “The Filth and the Fury

The British tabloids went off their nut. The Pistols had just released “Anarchy in the UK” their Molotov cocktail of a debut single and the uproar that followed the “Today” broadcast instantly gained them a national infamy. Glen Matlock, the band’s bassist and songwriting contributor, was soon after replaced by the less talented but more volatile Sid Vicious, born John Beverly and a friend of Rotten’s. This fit well into the game plan of the Pistols’ rakish manager, Malcolm McLaren, who wanted to exploit this growing sensationalism for maximum shock effect and easy money. It worked only too well. By the spring of ’77, Sex Pistol gigs were getting banned in several cities and anxious record companies were signing and then quickly dropping them amid the general moral panic. Their status as media Public Enemies was no joke: both Johnny Rotten and drummer Paul Cook were viciously attacked by London street thugs. What was overshadowed in all this was that the band’s “God Save the Queen” single was a true cultural turning point in UK history.


The semi-fictional propaganda hodgepodge that was “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle” was released in 1980 as some sort of twisted Malcolm McLaren testament. Rotten had long left the band and despised the idea of it but the movie (directed, in a sense, by Julien Temple) had its moments, including a couple of nice bits of animation.

Although vilified by the press and misunderstood by large portions of slightly older rock fans, punk did find an early ally of sorts in the person of left-of-center artist/designer/director Derek Jarman. His cult film “Jubilee” was shot in ’77 and released a year later. He used punk singers and personalities like Toyah Wilcox, Jordan, Adam Ant and the Slits alongside players who were more identified with Jarman’s Warholian London art clique.

The film was a dystopian fantasy where Queen Elizabeth I, curious to see what the future holds for her country, is transported by her in-house sorcerer to an England where a social breakdown has left a blighted urban landscape where fascist police battle politically radicalized punk gangs.

At the gang’s dockside they work up militant manifestos but also aspire to be pop stars despite a global media machine as represented by an all-powerful impresario, the cackling Borgia Ginz. “Jubilee” was didactic arthouse fare that was not widely-loved when it came out in 1978. Many punk rockers were pissed off at the film’s implicit idea that they were callous and violent by default, booing at the premiere at a scene of one of the impresario’s hangers-on being tied to a lamppost with barbed wire.


Just another day in the dystopic Docklands of “Jubilee”

Today, Jarman’s movie looks more astute, pre-figuring the divisive Thatcher years and the modern media-industrial complex that marginalizes true rebellion by feeding the general public an “endless movie.” Speaking of which, the establishment got into the game by 1980, most notably with “Breaking Glass.” The script seemed to emanate from the boardroom instead of the street, although the sole credited writer-director was the BBC-trained journeyman Brian Gibson.

It starred the strident vocalist Hazel O’Connor playing a singer whose rise to messianic status defies both logic and musical greatness. Even the solid presence of Phil Daniels as her original manager/love interest doesn’t help much (Gibson, to his credit, would gone on to make two much better fiction films of real iconic female singers: “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Josephine Baker Story”). The year before, Daniels had starred in Franc Rodman’s brilliant screen adaptation of the Who’s rock opera “Quadrophenia.” The film was embraced by the punk community and showed in a way that this new cultural uprising was also part of a longer continuum and would eventually be looked on with the same sort of nostalgia it was then detesting. But more of that in Part Two.

You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net