Rock on Film

Rock Docs Spotlight: A Kouple from the Kinks

Is it “a small observation of a big thing” that makes The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, the group’s once-ignored and now-cherished 1968 album, so special? That comment by XTC frontman Andy Partridge is one of the more interesting takes in this vivid and engrossing new documentary of the iconic band’s “lost” masterpiece. Echoes of a World: The Story of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society features interviews (and two recent duet performances) by founding Kink brothers Dave and Ray Davies, as well as their drummer Mick Avory. Typical of rock docs nowadays, there is a parade of well-known musician/acolytes, including Paul Weller, Noel Gallagher, Natalie Merchant, Graham Coxon, and Suggs from Madness.

There is also a lot of archival footage of both the band and the North London locales so central to their songs. A nice added touch is B&W filming in nearby Highgate Wood, where a young actor playing Ray delivers his thoughts on the record’s beguiling depictions of small-town Britannica. Overlooking the districts he would write about, actor Ray says that the album was a chance to “speak from inside myself.” This device works esp. well within the idea that the album was “not nostalgia but time travel.”


“I’m glad we stood our ground.” The simulated young Ray Davies mulls over the making of his unfashionable tour de force.

But oh, for those small observations of big things (actually, the inverse of that saying is probably more accurate). In late 1967, the Kinks’ released a single so great that Partridge (a pretty dang good songwriter himself) freely admits “I spent my whole life chasing that song.” This was “Autumn Almanac” a hit in the UK which preceded (and pointed the way to) the Village Green. The song, inspired by Ray Davies’ gardener, celebrated the prosaic joys of lawn work, a Sunday roast, a beach holiday in Blackpool and neighbors who will love you ‘til you’re 99. Not exactly the hippest subject matter during rock’s psychedelic era. Although “Autumn Almanac” would reach #3 in the UK charts, the band’s popularity started to fade as they went further down their rabbit hole of ethereal old-timeliness.


The last 11-minutes of “Echoes of the World.”

The Village Green album, which followed in the fall of 1968, doubled down on that lost sense of community and shared spaces. The title and lead-off track (one of the two tunes that the Davies are shown performing in a parlor) extols the virtues of Tudor houses, custard pies, George Cross medal recipients, obscure British pop-culture figures like Desperate Dan and Mrs. Mopp, and even virginity itself. The society is also quite clear on what they are against (“We are the Skyscraper Condemnation Affiliate”). More poignantly, the brothers also do “Do You Remember Walter,” a bittersweet ode to the lost ideals of youth.

Echoes of a World also looks back fondly on the albums rich picaresques. The family remembrances (“Picture Book”), the indifferent-universe hymnal (“Big Sky”), the exquisite rural escapism of “Animal Farm.” Just as memorable are the inhabitants of Ray’s “dream space”: the rebel “Johnny Thunder,” the local temptress “Monica,” the legendary “Phenomenal Cat” and the neighborhood witch, “Wicked Annabella.” These people and places are so ingrained in the minds of fans that several of the interviewees here—including Partridge, Natalie Merchant, record producer Greg Kurstin and even Dave Davies—proudly show hand-made illustrations of various tunes.


“American tourists flock to see the village green” A picture of your humble blogger in 2016 in the Kinks Room at the Cliswold Arms pub, where the Kinks did their first show. Ray and Dave grew up directly across in the Fortis Green/Muswell Hill area.

In an age of social disconnectedness, the yearning for a solid sense of place and community is only enhanced. Maybe that is one of the reasons that Village Green Preservation Society took so long to be fully appreciated. Paul Weller likens it to “a longing for something that wasn’t really there.” True, the fraternity may be amorphous but it is still there and still vital. As it says under the credits on the back cover of the original album: “You are our friends for playing this record.”

Another Kinks-related piece that has been made available for Amazon streaming is 1985’s Return to Waterloo, a 57-minute fictional film directed by Ray Davies. Its title suggests the band’s signature ballad “Waterloo Sunset,” but the urban romance depicted in that beloved Kink Klassic gives way to a grim premise here.

The mostly dialogue-free story stars Ken Colley as the dark-eyed, haunted “Traveler” who goes to and from work on a commuter train whose terminus is the iconic station of the title. There is a serial rapist at large and our man bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the police sketch of the suspect. It is never made quite clear whether he’s the guy or not, although the lockdown stare he gets from Ray himself (as a subway busker) is ominous enough. Return to Waterloo functions more as a downbeat tone poem, encompassing feelings of disconnection, loneliness, parent-child alienation and disheartened nostalgia, in contrast to the mostly nourishing nostalgia of the Village Green album sixteen years earlier.

I know it doesn’t sound very chipper, but the strong songs here by Ray move along the story. (A few of the tunes from the soundtrack also made it onto the Kinks’ latter-day highlight Word of Mouth, released in 1984). An evocative piece like “Expectations” can stand on its own as a pensive commentary on Britain’s post-empire decline and seems esp. relevant now in the UK’s post-Brexit era. As one can tell from the video below, Return to Waterloo boasts excellent production values. The cinematographer here is the acclaimed Roger Deakins, still early in a career that would see him be the director of photography for such movies as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men and Blade Runner 2049, among many others.

Return to Waterloo can be a bit of an odd duck in the viewing of it. It veers rather unsteadily between realism and the Traveler’s elaborate fantasy world. Everyday situations, like an encounter with a group of punk rockers, can shift into overdrive very suddenly (look for a young Tim Roth as one of the punkers). Elsewhere, a Pythonesque wit takes hold, as a matronly woman (within earshot of the Traveler) discussed her strategy if confronted by the rapist: “I’d give him a swift kick in the bollocks, that would sort him out.”
So while maybe not the thing to watch if you’re in the mood for a feel-good film, but a must for Kinks fans and clear-eyed Anglophiles. Make a note in your own autumn almanac to view one or both of these fine forays into the Kinkdom.

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 also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Documentary Spotlight: Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959)

This summer, bereft of the outdoor music concerts so beloved at this time of year, is the perfect time to catch up with the classic festival films. So what better time to begin at the beginning and discover (or rediscover) the one that started it all. Famed New York commercial/fashion photographer Bert Stern came to Newport in 1958, with a somewhat different project in mind. According to film critic in his Boston Sunday Globe documentary page, “Stern initially planned to have the festival serve as a backdrop for a fictional narrative.” Apparently, he found the 1958 edition of the Newport Jazz Fest was far more interesting as a primary subject. How could it not with a line-up that included Louis Armstrong Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Dinah Washington, Chuck Berry and other greats?


Louis Armstrong in full flight.

With its scene-establishing prologue, exciting close-up views of the performers and scanning shots of distinctive audience members, Stern’s film would be a table-setter for several notable rock festival documentaries to come: Woodstock, Monterrey Pop and Gimme Shelter being the most famous. It not only captures the giants of their genre in a live setting but also serve as sociological snapshots of their era. In the era that preceded those big rock music events, it was the annual Newport Jazz Festival that was the place to be for city hipsters and savvy suburbanites alike. While Jazz on a Summer’s Day doesn’t have the momentous vibe of those three rock films, Bert Stern’s work is a star-studded look back to a time when postwar jazz was at the height of its popularity and a partying youth culture was starting to butt up against the genteel high society of this Rhode Island resort.


Shades of summer: Fans at Newport ’58

Stern quickly establishes the breezy carnival atmosphere of the 1958 edition of the festival as a moderately rebellious beatnik crowd blends into the gauzy, Eisenhower-era comfort zone with relative ease. There’s some wild carousing at an oceanfront rental and a recurring theme where a roving Dixieland combo promotes the festival by showing up all over town, blaring from the back of an antique car or serenading on a moonlit beach. (This may be leftover footage from the aborted feature-film idea). The actual concert footage starts with Anita O’Day entertaining an afternoon crowd of more-formally dressed folks with some wild scat singing during her elaborate deconstructions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Tea for Two.” Be-bop, the preeminent branch of the jazz tree back then, is represented with fine segments featuring Sonny Stitt and Thelonious Monk. Unfortunately, the intercutting of yachting footage (that season’s America’s Cup trial runs were also taking place) proves to be a considerable distraction during Monk’s number.

Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is on stage as the nighttime segment starts and things begin to loosen up with a younger and more integrated crowd taking over. A few of them even look like they’re on drugs (the very idea!). Bluesy belters Dinah Washington and Big Maybelle wow an audience that’s all about dancing and singing along, and the good vibes peak with a sublime medley from the immortal Louis Armstrong. He starts with a tender “Lazy River” and finishes with a rollicking “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and along the way there’s at least one of Pop’s stratospheric trumpet solos. The only miscue in the performance clips is Chuck Berry doing a rather lackluster version of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It hints at a tendency the Newport promoters would later develop when tastes changed and non-jazz performers became less of an exception.

But all is set right as Saturday night passes into Sunday morning, when Mahalia Jackson closes the film with a rousing gospel set. The ritual of a cross-section of people enjoying music al-fresco on a summer’s weekend would become a lot more common in the decades to come, but here it still seems new, which makes Stern’s idea of filming the fans as intimately as he does the performers feel prophetic. It’s something we’re all missing now and for maybe some time to come. The audience here at Newport—-the ones in cat’s-eyes glasses and plaid pants mixing with those in berets and turtlenecks—-didn’t “change the world” like those at the ballyhooed rock mega-festivals a decade later. But they and the musicians fed off each other in a communal rapture of the type that may feel new all over again once we ever get back to it.

For more info on the virtual re-release of the digitally restored Jazz on a Summer’s Day go to kinomarquee.com

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 also contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.
rick.ouellette@verizon.net

Tinseltown Rock #3: “Godspell” (1973)

The musical Godspell certainly came into the world at the right time, during the height of the early Seventies “Jesus Rock” mini-genre. Although the concept album Jesus Christ Superstar had hit the stores in 1970, this Stephen Schwartz-penned production hit the stage first, debuting Off-Broadway in March of 1971 several months before the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice blockbuster raised curtain on the Great White Way. At the same time, the AM stations were sprinkled with hit songs like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” The idea of Jesus as a sandal-footed advocate of selfless human values had firmly caught on with many in the counterculture as the Sixites gave way to the new decade.

Meanwhile, in my own little corner of the world, this musical trend played out during my last two years (7th and 8th grade) of parochial school. There had been a marked change during the eight illustrious years I spent at St. John’s School in downtown Peabody, Mass. The earlier years were marked by a grim catechism and vestiges of corporal punishment—ear-pulling was still a go-to tactic of the older nuns (luckily I was spared). By the time I hit sixth grade, the modernizing Vatican II decrees were in place, and there were hippie-ish nuns and younger priests with acoustic guitars at “folk mass.” By seventh grade, we were listening to Jesus Christ Superstar in class, our homeroom sister tittering at the use of the term “J.C.” to address the Messiah.

Although our tastes were running more to Rod Stewart and the Stones, we dug JCS. It was a straight-up rock opera, musically compelling and contemporarily astute in its retelling of the Passion of Christ, with anti-hero Judas at the center of the action. In the eighth grade (1971-72) it was all about Godspell, with a field trip to Boston’s Wilbur Theater in the offing to see a performance by the touring company. The record, with its familiar illustration of Jesus against a red background, was ubiquitous and the single “Day by Day” hit #13 on the Billboard charts. But this was a different proposition, a more traditional (and largely plotless) musical based on a series of parables adapted from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Godspell also seemed to tap into the so-called “Jesus freak” scene of the time, with its ragamuffin characters exuding relentless good spirits and hamming it up in such a way as to convince the world that vaudeville was not dead after all. Still, we 14 year-olds ate it up, debating our favorite songs and having a ball at the Wilbur Theater. It was my first time at seeing a big-time theater production and though I could sense the corniness of it all, the in-your-face eagerness and enforced audience involvement, it was a spoonful of sugar that helped the last year of my Catholic medicine go down.

By the time this film adaptation hit the screens in 1973, that overweening flower-power jauntiness must have seemed to many to be past its shelf life. It doesn’t take long for the film to give you this feeling. Shot entirely on location in the Big Apple, it begins with John the Baptist (David Haskell) pushing a cart over the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian boardwalk into Manhattan and into cinematic immortality of a sort. He cases out eight potential disciples in a manner that may nowadays seem a little creepy. He then blows his fanfare trumpet from the top of the Bethesda Fountain and, after a quick Friends-style baptism, it’s showtime!

And so it goes for most of the film, until the betrayal and death of Christ is quickly taken up near the end. Jesus is played by the wispy Victor Garber whose face paint and mime-like outfit, complete with stylized Superman t-shirt, is like an open invitation for skeptics. But hey, I’ve always considered myself a fair-minded critic and I will say that the early parts of the movie are the strongest, before the relentless mugging and prancing becomes too much. “Save the People” exudes a certain poignancy, Garber’s plaintive tenor is just right as he ponders “Shall crime bring crime forever?” and pleads for the exaltation of everyday people, “not thrones and crowns.” The camera’s telephoto shot of massed skyscrapers neatly show the concentration of power and money that have replaced those thrones and crowns, never mind the fact that when it pans down to the street the troupe are playing leapfrog on the empty avenue. The J-man and the Baptist lead the apostles, now all dubiously attired in patched-up glad rags, light out to their new HQ on Randall’s Island. They take on a purposeful, march-like gait under the multitudinous (and cathedral-like) support beams of Hell Gate Bridge, apparently prepared to set the world to rights.

But there’ll be no fishes ‘n’ loaves action here. From here until the end credits you’ll hardly see another soul. The ten-member cast proceeds to sing and tell parables amongst themselves in a strangely de-populated New York City, strange that is until the recent scenes of a ghostly Gotham in the throes of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, this insularity derives from it being a play with humble beginnings (Godspell was conceived and first staged by Jean-Michael Trebelak at Carnegie Mellon Univ. as his masters’ thesis). But the insularity, along with the suffocating positivity, soon gives the group an almost cult-like demeanor, starting with the clip below.


The troupe put a fresh coat of hippie paint to their new scrapyard base of operations, set to the new version of “Day by Day”, here sung by the tomboyish Robin Lamont (all the apostle actors retain their first names in character)

Rather than go out into the world and do good deeds as the historical Jesus probably would have wanted, director David Greene retains the let’s-put-on-a-show impetus and “opens up” the stage musical by using his Columbia Pictures budget, and an oft-used zoom lens, to stage scenic production numbers all over the city: Lincoln Center, Times Square and the top of the nearly-completed World Trade Center are just three of the famous sites used in a single song, “All for the Best.” A nice “get” was the interior of the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, used as the setting for Joanne Jonas’ solo turn a la Mae West in “Turn Back O Man,” petitioning mankind to give up its foolish, materialistic ways.


The late Lynn Thigpen, who some may recall for her role in the Carmen San Diego TV series, does a bang-up job with “Bless the Lord” though the all-fall-down ending points up the film’s reflexive silliness.

Stephen Schwartz’s songs, with their appealing melodies and soaring choruses, can only support this movie so long with all the troubadour triteness going on. A lot of one’s receptivity to Godspell depends on how much one accepts the built-in artificiality at stage musicals. My receptivity became very limited very quickly after seeing the Boston production in 1972, by the mid-70s my idea of a touring company was when Jethro Tull or the Allman Bros. Band hit the Garden across town. Things improve a bit when the mood turns serious at the end, esp. with Katie Hanley singing “By My Side” and the vaulted supports of Hell Gate Bridge make a great setting for the “funeral” of Jesus.

But to what end? Does Godspell have something to say today, even for us secular humanists? There is if you stretch your imagination, and the kindness espoused does stand in stark contrast to the callous evangelists of today, who more closely resemble the money-changers Christ went ballistic on way back when, the ones who now defy state orders and recklessly urge their hapless parishioners to congregate during a pandemic, lest they miss even one week of the collection box. But for that we may need a new kind of righteouness, leaving the Godspell movie as the “patches and face-paint” relic it was even in 1973, never mind today.

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

Rock Docs spotlight: “Echo in the Canyon” (2018)

The nostalgic Echo in the Canyon, directed by Andrew Slater and hosted/executive-produced by Jakob Dylan, trains its rose-colored lens on L.A.’s musical community of blithe spirits that created the Californian pop and folk-rock sounds that captivated fans in the mid-to-late 1960s. A documentary like this has a certain built-in success rate for baby boomers. The tone is set early when the Byrds’ “Wild Mountain Thyme” is set to vertiginous aerial shots of steep-sided Laurel Canyon, with its funky houses in a asymmetrical jumble. This stuff is baby-boomer catnip and the producers spread the appeal by also featuring performers of younger generations, discussing this music’s impact and performing some of these chestnuts in new arrangements.

As expected, the Byrds figure heavily here. The type of 12-string hollow-body Rickenbacker guitar that Roger McGuinn played on many of the group’s hits (most notably their version of “Mr. Tambourine Man”) adorns the DVD cover. The film starts with Tom Petty (who later also employed a Rickenbacker) discussing the instrument’s distinctive jangly sound. Only a few other groups are given wide coverage: the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds era), the Mamas and Poppas and Buffalo Springfield. There are some glaring omissions (no mention of Joni “Ladies of the Canyon” Mitchell??) and Jakob Dylan’s strange reticence in the casual interview segments with such notables as David Crosby, Michelle Phillips, Steve Stills and Jackson Browne is a decided drawback.


Tom Petty shows Jakob Dylan Laurel Canyon’s weapon of choice.

So while I would not hesitate to recommend Echo in the Canyon to its target demographic, it does have a tendency to coast on the ready-made appeal of its subject. This does not make it unique among Rock Docs, but a little more imagination could have yielded a film of more staying power. The cross-pollinating of influences and friendly one-upsmanship between the B’s: Beatles, Byrds, Beach Boys and Bob (Jakob Dylan’s dad, that is) is a well-travelled road, travelled once more. More compelling here is the localized narrative of the pixie-dust effect you got with closely-grouped creative types in a (then) semi-rural enclave that was just up the hill from the Sunset Strip with its music clubs, sound studios and record label offices. Another nice touch is Slater’s inclusion of choice clips from the 1968 Jacques Demy movie Model Shop; it was shot in the vicinity and gives a great feel for the era.


Cros to Jakob: “You know, I knew your old man five years before I ever saw him smile. But you, kid, you’re all right.”

Presently, we get the tribute renditions of the related classic songs. Some of these are informally done in the studio. Brian Wilson sits down at the piano and there’s a tuneful duet between the younger Dylan and Nora Jones on the Association’s “Never My Love.” Towards the end the action shifts to the concert stage with a band led by Jakob that mostly features relative newbies like Regina Spektor, Beck and Cat Power. Your reaction to these concert clips may depend on how you feel about the individuals involved (I guess I’m destined not to be a Fiona Apple fan) but there’s another issue at play. These songs are culled from a “genius era” and that magic is hard to match. While the Byrd’s 1968 version of Carole King & Gerry Goffin’s exquisite “Going Back” was a transformative experience, here it’s just nice. Still, Echo in the Canyon is a fairly good valentine to a golden time, place and sound. As Graham Nash says at one point, “Historians will remember us 200 years from now. I’m not letting this go.” And neither are we.

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

“New Killer Star”: David Bowie’s astute 9/11 testament

9/11/01 “See the great white scar over Battery Park.” So begins “New Killer Star” the outstanding lead-off track to David Bowie’s 2004 Reality album. Reality, indeed. In the wake of history’s worst terrorist attack, musicians naturally jumped into the rhetorical fray soon after the initial wave of shock, anger and profound sadness in the following weeks. These songs ranged from chauvinistic revenge fantasies like Charlie Daniels’ “This Ain’t no Rag, It’s a Flag” (awesome title, huh?) to Neil Young’s Flight 93 re-enactment “Let’s Roll” to the thoughtful human dramas on Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising.

Bowie, a long-time New York City resident, came out with this lyrically subtle and musically uplifting tribute three years after the fact. It certainly has a carry-on vibe to it (“Let’s face the music and dance”) and a keen sense of the lasting dread in the 9/11 aftermath, reflected in the song title. But its vision its expansive. It touches upon the elusive concept of universal understanding (“I never said I was better than you”) and a look ahead to a time beyond our own (“All the corners of the buildings/Who but we remember these?”). Sure, all this was probably flying over the heads of many in the audience when Bowie and his crackerjack band performed “New Killer Star” on the subsequent tour (the only time I got to see him in concert). But the incremental enlightenment of great art works in mysterious ways, building up over extended periods of time to inspire people to become fully engaged in the world, instead of settling for the unfocused rage and bigotry of the Charlie Daniels’ song, attitudes more recently fermented in your typical Donald Trump rally. As David sings it himself here “I got a better way/Ready, Set, Go!.”

–Rick Ouellette, 9/11/2019

Rock Docs spotlight: “Woodstock” (1970)

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair, held fifty years ago this month in upstate New York, was such a monumental event that there is little that hasn’t been said about it at this late date. Each significant anniversary has seen the media gorging on remembrances, reissues and reponderings of history’s most famous rock music festival and its relevance to the social sea change it brought on, or at least reflected. But still, now 50 years later, they have nothing over Michael Wadleigh’s sprawling, indispensable filmed record—a project that almost never got off the ground. Festival promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld initially had no luck finding an investor to fund a camera crew to cover an event that no one thought would draw more than fifty thousand people. The only one willing to take a chance was newly minted Warner Brothers studio executive Fred Weintraub, a New York hipster who had owned the famed Bottom Line nightclub. Over the objections of others at WB, Weintraub advanced one hundred thousand dollars to finance the filming. When the humble “Aquarian Exposition” turned into an epic long weekend that attracted nearly half a million young folks, the demand for the finished film went through the roof. The only rock documentary to ever win an Academy Award (until 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man” and the following year’s “Twenty Feet from Stardom”), “Woodstock” eventually grossed over fifty million dollars in its theatrical release and has enjoyed a long afterlife on home video, especially in the expanded 230-minute director’s cut introduced in 1994.


Premiering nationally on PBS is the excellent “Woodstock: 3 Days That Defined a Generation.” This trailer may lapse into cliche but this new documentary is a fresh look at the long ago events in upstate NY from a more sociological angle, with all the visuals being archival footage from the event, matched with the voices of those who were there (along with a smattering of key musical moments).

Wadleigh and his hastily assembled seventy-man crew, organized by a young assistant director named Martin Scorsese, spread out over the vast scene, diligently covering every aspect of that long weekend. The music and the hippie idealism are in great supply, of course, but as part of a microcosm of a time that sees past the expected clichés that have long since taken hold. Ironically, a lot of those clichés stem from this very film as well as from the soundtrack album with which it often overlaps. It starts with the warning about the brown LSD that’s “not specifically too good” and goes from there. “New York State Thruway is closed, man!” “If you sing really hard, maybe we can stop this rain!” “There’s always a little bit of heaven in a disaster area.”


“Blind Faith is a groovy group.” A popular clip in the Internet age is the “Emotional Colors” girl, later identified as the late Jeanette McCurdy of Buffalo, NY.

The frequent use of split-screen images showed the multiple perspectives of a situation that the crew saw as an unfolding story that could turn out either way. The “Biblical/epochal” scene described by a joint-rolling Jerry Garcia is established in a twenty-minute prologue before Richie Havens wows the first day crowd with his improvised-on-the-spot anthem “Freedom.” What follows is a steady stream of outstanding (and often career-making) musical performances by the likes of Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, Ten Years After, Joe Cocker, the Who, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and others.

The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.

What is just as impressive is the tolerant, even admiring, attitudes towards the crowd from many “straights” in the surrounding area, especially considering the whole county was brought to a virtual standstill because of the event. There’s the genial portable-toilet cleaning man (“glad to do it for these kids”) speaking fondly of both his son at the festival and the other one in Vietnam; the chief of police pronouncing that the hippies “can’t be questioned as good American citizens;” the visibly moved Max Yasgur proclaiming that the legions camped on his farm “have proven something to the world;” and the middle-aged gentleman who suggests to another that he should care more about the kids dying in ’Nam and lay off criticizing the ones smoking pot and sleeping in the field. These people suggest there was too much emphasis on the generation gap back then and too little on the value of good character, regardless of demographics.

Michael Wadleigh would eventually become disillusioned with the film business, making only one more movie (1981’s Wolfen) and eventually turning to environmental activism. Sensing that these “3 Days of Peace & Music” were destined to be the high water mark of the counterculture, the director picked up a camera on Monday morning and filmed scenes of the muddy, garbage-strewn aftermath that he has said were directly influenced by T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland. Because of the weekend’s many delays, the music was not over: When headliner Jimi Hendrix hits a cataclysmic guitar chord that introduces his decade-defining deconstruction of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the camera pulls back to reveal that the cheering audience now numbers around thirty thousand.

In an artfully presented sequence, Wadleigh first stays close to Hendrix as he transforms the national anthem into an implied antiwar protest with an astounding series of explosions, shrieks, and moans coaxed out of his white Stratocaster. He sticks with him as he roars through his monster hit “Purple Haze” (“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?”) then switches to the dazed stragglers picking through the debris for the odd scrap of food or a pair of discarded sneakers. Hendrix finishes with an elegiac guitar solo that gives the film its soft landing. This thoughtful and somewhat sober ending underlines the feeling that if Woodstock the music festival was the brightest point of light for the ideals of the 1960s youth generation, Woodstock the film was the greatest advocate of those ideals.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Tinseltown Rock #2: 1956, The Year Rock Hit the Silver Screen

From all the way back to its earliest days, rock ‘n’ roll has been almost as much of a visual medium as an audio one. First, second, and even third generation fans, when asked about the pioneering days, will likely mention Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, Chuck Berry’s duckwalk or Jerry Lee Lewis attacking his piano. Right from the get-go, the look of rock was closely tied to the impact of the music. In the 1950s the “jukebox movies” starting arriving almost as soon as the genre had a name. Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock, Rock Baby Rock It, Rock Rock Rock and Jailhouse Rock all saw release by the end of 1957. These teen movies were usually uneasy alliances of the new youthful spirit of the times and hackneyed Hollywood plot points featuring head-scratching adults. The wild dancing, the Alan Freed cameos and the spotlight performances by everyone from Elvis to Johnny Burnette to LaVern Baker and the Platters, give these films a certain historical value—if you can sit still through the wooden acting and tired show-biz scenarios.

Take Rock Around the Clock. Considered by many the first rock ‘n’ roll hit, it makes sense that Columbia Pictures would build a movie around it, right from the get go. In fact, the song had already played over the opening titles of 1955’s Blackboard Jungle and would later perform the same service for 1973’s American Graffiti and the hit TV series Happy Days. The plot is a very fanciful notion of a rock & roll origin story. Big band manager Steve Hollis (played by Johnny Johnston) is convinced that the music he is promoting is on the way out and he heads back to the big city with his aptly-named sidekick, Corny. They stop in a hick town called Strawberry Springs, where is just so happens that a rock ‘n’ roll subculture (led by the local house band, Bill Haley and His Comets) is taking hold. At first they are flummoxed (“Hey, sister, what’s that exercise you’re getting?”) but soon realize they may be on to the next big thing.

All this looks so squeaky clean, making the scandalized reactions of the town’s old hags even more unintentionally funny. The dancing is energetic but hardly an affront. Everyone’s in evening wear and the action on the dance floor is led by professional partners Lisa Gaye and Earl Barton. It is Gaye’s character who gets romantically involved with Steve Hollis, enraging the Ice Queen NY booking agent who has a thing for Hollis and who is liable to destroy everyone’s chance at rock ‘n’ roll immortality, just for revenge. (Spoiler Alert: Hollis calls in a favor with Alan Freed, playing himself).

While the actors and the dancers in Rock Around the Clock are reliably Caucasian, the roll call of musicians and singers are a welcome mix of white, black and Hispanic performers. They all appear together in a final stage number. This diversity of performers (some of them true rock innovators) is the best legacy of these early pictures, even though they are cobbled together with the studio’s play-it-safe scenarios.


The Platters with their classic “Only You.”

For instance, Rock, Rock, Rock! starts out with two swingin’ numbers. One is over the opening credits where the featured performers are shown (Chuck Berry, La Vern Baker, the Moonglows, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers etc.) and another for a dance scene at the malt shop. But the air quickly goes out of the room (cinematically speaking) when Dori (Tuesday Weld, only 13 at the time) is asked if some boy has asked her to the (middle school?) prom. After replying “not yet” she is quickly compelled to leave her seat and regale us with a soapy ballad. But naturally, the various acts lip-syncing to their hits is the big feature here, a highlight being the two numbers by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, seen below.


Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, introduced by Alan Freed, in “Rock, Rock, Rock!”

And so the formula went. These jukebox pictures made for good business, so were churned out on a set schedule. Don’t Knock the Rock followed in Dec. 1956, still with Bill Haley and the Comets topping the bill (as “The Kings of Rock”) but Little Richard couldn’t help but steal the show with his two numbers towards the end of the flick.


Little Richard lets it rip with “Long Tall Sally.”

Of course, Elvis was the biggest of all back then and Colonel Parker’s scheme to make his client (and himself) rich included making as many movies as possible and Jailhouse Rock, released in fall of 1957, was already his third film vehicle. But it was the first straight-up blockbuster, both with earnings (its box office take was comparable to The Wizard of Oz) and because of its racy subject matter. As jailbird-turned-pop-star Vince Everett, Presley is a punch-happy, manslaughtering, girl-grabbing, ego-driven SOB of an anti-hero. “Cheap, unpleasant, tasteless,” were a few of the reverse compliments it earned from critics. It’s stage performance of the title song is an indelible image of the genre, despite the many far less potent films that would follow. The die had been cast and from here straight thru to Bohemian Rhapsody, the movies have been rocking ever since.

Portions of this post were taken from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey. Click on the book cover above, or the link below, to see a 30-page excerpt. Thanks, Rick
https://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

A Cheap Movie Holiday in Other People’s Misery: 40 Years of Brit Punk on Film (Part 2)

Sally Sedition, 1979: “My granny lives up there on the 12th floor and ‘alf the time the lift’s broken. It’s a travesty, that is.”

Text by Rick ouellette/Illustrations by Eric Bornstein

Never underestimate the symbolic value of the hated “tower blocks” of working-class London as rhetorical ammunition for punk rockers in their skirmish with the UK establishment of the late 1970s. On their second LP, This is the Modern World, the Jam posed under the same shadowing underpass as Sally did in the above drawing, with the same applied animus of inhumane council estates. This perceived cattling of the populace was immortalized in songs like the Clash’s “London’s Burning,” Chelsea’s “High-Rise Living” and XTC’s “Towers of London.”

In reality, not a ton of these early punks actually lived in these dreaded high rises, many coming from more outlying London districts or suburbs (the Jam hailed from Woking, 23 miles from the Charing Cross measuring spot). An exception was Clash guitarist Mick Jones, who indeed lived way up off the ground with his granny. The group made a point to be filmed looking out from an outdoor balcony down to the elevated Westway and the city beyond. This footage made it into Julien Temple’s 2007 posthumous docu-pic Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten. In that film, Jones is seen on the same balcony and says, “All you have to do is look out there to write a song. It’s all out there.” That “roar of the city” that Jones refers to can be absorbed by anyone who wants to experience and understand it, regardless of their origin. Joe Strummer himself was born in Ankara to a foreign-service family and went to a private boarding school for a while. But he absorbed the street and its varying forms of the human condition to be able to write about like few had done before.


By the time of the Sandinista! album, released in late 1980, the Clash’s critique of high-rise public housing had advanced from rabble-rousing phrases to more of a news editorial bent. “You can’t live in a home which should not have been built/By the bourgeois clerks who bear no guilt” Mick Jones sings The song’s somber eloquence is reflected in the montage of this fan-made video, which includes the band-on-balcony footage mentioned above.

The creative impulse to strike out in anger and protest, an indignation often leavened with raffish humor, is a British tradition dating at least as far back as Jonathan Swift (Johnny Rotten has been likened to a modern-day Artful Dodger). In 1979, Julien Temple showed his debt to radical French director Jean (Zero for Conduct) Vigo when he made the 19-minute short subject Punk Can Take It. He recruited the conversant second-line punk outfit the UK Subs (along with a couple of carryover characters from his filming of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle) in creating a cheeky parody of Humphrey Jennings’ acclaimed 1940 newsreel London Can Take It. The wartime documentarian made several skillful morale-boosting works, showing the English population banding together in the face of Luftwaffe attacks. In Temple’s version, the band (and the safety-pinned kids in general) have to withstand the bombardment of an uptight establishment that would suppress and/or co-opt them. The pithy narrator mimics the authoritative tone of Jenning’s source material. He assures us that the big noises we here “are not Hollywood sound effects” as we join the Subs regaling a sweaty, pogo-happy club crowd with such two-minute buzzsaw bursts as “Stranglehold” and “I Live in a Car.”

Sally notes the prominent role played by “poxy politicians” in the attempted demonization of punk, rivaling the role of the tabloid newspapers as they chronicled the “foul-mouthed yobs” and their “rock cult filth.” Notable among these officials was then city-councilor Bernard Brook-Partridge, seen below.

Punk Can Take It hints at a punk purism, dispensing with hippies and even neo-Mods with cartoonish violence. But the new scene was diverse even in the early years of 1976-77. The Jam wore sharp suits and slashed away at their Rickenbackers, evoking mid-Sixties Who and Kinks, but with an extra dose of sneering. In the 2015 doc, The Jam: About the Young Idea, director Bob Smeaton (who also helmed Festival Express) shows how kids from the outlying “satellite towns” embraced an image that was less confrontational than the Kings Road early adopters, who were often marks for bobbies and skinheads. Although the songs of frontman Paul Weller were more thoughtful than many others, the delivery system was just as fierce, as seen in this 1980 version of “Private Hell” from the German music show Rockpalast (the full show is available as a bonus disc on some DVD editions of About the Young Idea).

Most Brit punk documentaries focus on a few of the same elements that gave rise to this new contentious sound that rattled the status quo in Old Blighty. Primary causes were the nation’s social and economic upheavals of the mid-70s, the blandness of mainstream culture and the perceived pomposity of arena-rock groups. Bands like Yes and Pink Floyd came in for a right bashing. As Sally tells it: “Before punk, it was all prog-rock tossers and 20-minute guitar solos. That’s boring, innit?”

Don Letts, who had made the seminal Punk Rock Movie in 1978 (discussed in Part One), joined up with Mick Jones after he left the Clash, forming Big Audio Dynamite. Letts latter returned to film making and produced the excellent wide-view documentary Punk: Attitude in 2005. Instead of slagging off anything that came before the Pistols, Letts see the outrage of the Class of ’77 as part of an evolving struggle against complacency—even a “spiritual thing within,” as Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones puts it. Here, the survey of that attitude stretches back to Woody Guthrie, the Fifties’ rock & roll pioneers and even the war-protesting hippies that the punks were aligned against. Letts has directed several other music docs as well: for the purposes of this post, the 2000 Clash profile Westway to the World is also recommended.

In the 21st century, the punk spirit can be re-lived and hopefully spark new inspiration in younger generations through the flock on related films that have been released in the last two decades. Sometimes they are not documentaries: maybe the two best cinematic depictions of the vibrant Manchester is the brilliant feature film Control (directed by Anton Corbijn, 2007) about the life and tragic death of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis and the wildly entertaining 24-Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) starring Steve Coogan as the city’s punk-scene impresario Tony Wilson.

Among the newer notable docs is Don’t You Wish We Were Dead, the alternately hilarious and sobering profile of the UK’s irreverent trailblazers, and The Slits: Here to be Heard about the fearless forerunners of riot girl bands. Meanwhile, Julien Temple has gone on to become a virtual Sex Pistols documentary cottage industry. He filmed their 2007 concerts in London to mark the 30th anniversary of their classic Never Mind the Bollocks album. Their pariah status long behind them, they came across like modern English folk heroes, playing their nuts off for a mult-racial and multi-generational crowd for whom the lads’ “God Save the Queen” is now an “alternate national anthem.” Another recent Temple production, Christmas With the Sex Pistols (2013), is even better. Combining his old footage with new interviews with the band and attendees, Temple creates a heartwarming (yes, really) remembrance of the band’s secret holiday party that they threw for the children of striking firefighters on 12/25/1977. Naturally, the kids have no problem getting into the anarchic frame of mind, covering Johnny Rotten’s head in frosted cake, mid-performance.


From the 1980 film “Rude Boy,” the Clash front-line (from l to r, Paul Simonon, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones) are seen performing at a Rock Against Racism concert in London’s Victoria Park. The offending tower blocks loom in the background.

The punks’ visceral suspicion towards the concept of public high-rise housing came to a horrifying realization in June 2017 when the 24-story Grenfell Tower in West London erupted into a shocking conflagration that killed 72 people. The shoddy, cut-rate cladding and lax attitudes towards safety regulations and upkeep were major contributing factors to how a simple fridge fire quickly engulfed the entire building. The rhetorical aggression of punk rock pales in comparison to the “passive violence of civilized life” mentioned by the narrator of Punk Can Take It.


The Grenfell Tower inferno, June 14 of 2007.

Few rock songwriters would have understood this better than Joe Strummer, who died suddenly from a congenital heart condition in December of 2002. He and Mick Jones wrote a song for the Clash’s first album called “London’s Burning”. Naturally, it was not a call for mass arson—after all, London was burning with “boredom”—but instead was one of many songs coming from the UK at that time calling for a unity among kids to combat the de-personalizing nature of modern society. Joe, lost late at night in a housing project sings, “The wind howls through the empty blocks looking for a home/I run through the empty stone because I’m all alone.”

In Julien Temple 2007 Strummer doc The Future is Unwritten, the cinematic auteur of British punk, used a repeated motif of having groups of people (bandmates, friends, celebrity fans) sitting around bonfires sharing their stories of Joe and lauding his sense of globalism and social justice. One can only imagine Strummer’s reaction to today’s political climate of nationalism, bigoty, authoritarian rule and the whole Brexit folly. But no matter what the current conditions, it’s always best to remember his parting words from an old taped interview: “You can change anything you want to. People are out there doing bad things to each other because they’ve been de-humanized. It’s time to take humanity back to the center of the ring.”

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

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. Photo Copyright: Chris Weston

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

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.