Rock on Film

Ralph Bakshi’s “American Pop”: Where Musical Dreams Go to Die

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Ralph Bakshi, the iconoclastic animator/director who is still probably best known for the 1972 film “Fritz the Cat,” has certainly had a curious career. Born in 1938 to Jewish parents living in Haifa, Israel, his family emigrated to avoid World War II and Ralph grew up on the gritty Brooklyn streets of mid-century New York. A keen interest in illustration and cartooning developed at Manhattan’s School of Industrial Art (now the High School of Art and Design) lifted him above his self-admitted feckless teenage years, but the streetwise demeanor seemed to stick with him. After breaking into the business with the Terrytoons animation studio (creators of Deputy Dawg and Mighty Mouse), Bakshi worked for years to develop his own projects and when he did it met with instant success. “Fritz the Cat”, based on the R. Crumb’s racy comic strip, kickstarted the modern movement of adult animation, with a visual look of stylized realism and blatant themes of sex, violence and drug use that earned Fritz an X rating, which in turn only helped to boost the film’s profile. After that, though, Bakshi seemed content to coast on that initial hit, either re-treading the urban-jungle setting (Heavy Traffic) or indulging in the burgeoning animated fantasy genre (“Lord of the Rings” and “Wizards”). But with 1981’s “American Pop”, where he took on the far-reaching subject of American popular music, he created his biggest fantasy yet: that he knew anything about the topic he was making a movie of.

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“Hey man, what is this shit? You’re pulling Houdini and she’s pulling freak-out city!” “American Pop’s” hapless hippie band get saddled with a lot of the film’s tin-eared dialogue.

During the film’s 96 gear-grinding minutes, Bakshi traces the history of this vast genre from mediocre vaudeville performers in the 1910s to a coked-up poseur doing a hatchet job with Heart’s “Crazy on You” to an arena crowd at the end of the Seventies. Authenticity leaks through only occasionally, and inadvertently. The director uses the potentially interesting idea of tracing this musical chronology through four generations of one family. However, hardly anyone in this clan seems to have much talent, having more success as hoodlums and dope pushers than they do as songsmiths. The patriarch starts out as a Russian emigrant kid in New York City who somehow transforms into a Sicilian gangster—he doesn’t have time to learn an instrument but does hang out in nightclubs. He marries a run-of-the mill chanteuse whose affection for home-delivered pretzels leads to tragedy (don’t ask). But this is not before they produce a son who is supposedly a “genius” but never seems to advance past the piano lounge in his daddy’s restaurant. He in turn has a son named Tony (still with me?) who, despite being a dim-witted layabout, somehow manages to compose the classic songs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Maybe Bakshi figures that no one will care very much that Tony’s accidental inspiration in late-60s Haight-Ashbury comes several years after some guy named Bob Dylan wrote those songs in “real life.”

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I’m sorry, pal, but could you move? We’re trying to shoot the “Physical Graffiti” album cover.

Actually, Tony is almost likable in his unwavering ineptitude. He chafes against the conformity of post-war suburban America and, dressed like James Dean and talking like Brando on sedatives, he goes cross-country, unfortunately impregnating a corn-pone Kansas girl along the way (this progeny turns out to be the “Crazy on You” guy). In a brief lyrical moment, Tony jumps a train and performs a harmonica duet with a black hobo, a rare nod that Bakshi makes to pop music’s great indebtedness to African-American culture. Later, Tony finds himself fed up with the latest in a long line of dishwashing jobs and tells his boss he’s going to keep “moving out West” before being reminded that he’s already in San Francisco. That this applehead is writing a masterpiece like “Hard Rain” only moments later is perverse proof that America is indeed the land of opportunity that his grandfather fled czarist Russia to find.

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“American Pop” is based on such a lazy, checklist aesthetic that the only reason I can think of for its initial 1981 box-office success is a long-lingering “oh wow” factor left over from the Sixties. Just let it happen, man! Bakshi’s visual style still had a certain audience-drawing flair, though many elements (like the clunky “punk” montage see above) come across as third-hand information that should be laughable to any real rock fan. Pop history does matter so if you’re going to make a whole film about it, try to get within a mile or two of credibility. Instead, we’re asked to go along with the notion that Jimi Hendrix would open for the squabbling Frisco flunkies that are the movie’s excuse for a hippie band. (OK, Ralph, I heard you got a good price on the rights to use “Purple Haze” but really!). I get the feeling, though, that many of the true-blue fans I mentioned would have mentally checked out by then, long before “American Pop’s” absurdly anticlimactic, fist-raising concert finale. That would leave plenty of time to ponder just why Bakshi felt he needed to foist this clueless cartoon on the world.

My latest book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, is available now in paperback from Amazon and other online retailers, including from my author page at BookLocker.com. Click on this link for a 30-page excerpt:
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

“Rock Docs” Sampler #2, The Bests of the Fests

Rock festivals, especially those in the golden era of the late 60s and early 70s, are the source for some of the best filmed footage in pop music history. The primary reason for this is pretty obvious. The parade of musical talent for 1967’s Monterey Pop, 1969’s Woodstock and 1970’s Isle of Wight festivals is awe-inspiring, especially in retrospect: high-water marks of a genius era. But they are also great sociological snapshots of their time period and often the audience members are just as entertaining as the performers!

Below are five excerpts from my new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey about this important rockumentary sub-genre, with accompanying vdeo clips. For a 30-page excerpt and purchase information about this book, please click on the link below or on the book cover image in the right-hand column. Thanks, Rick Ouellette

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

From the review of Monterey Pop (released 1968, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)

There’s hardly a baby-boomer to be found who doesn’t know something of the quartet of near-mythic Monterey Moments: the Who’s pre-punk working class anthem “My Generation” ending in a cacophony of smashed equipment, Janis Joplin’s no-holds-barred belting on the bluesy “Ball and Chain,” soul singer Otis Redding’s electrifying set winning over the “love crowd” in a career peak just six months before dying in a plane crash, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix’s epic eroticisation of the hitherto harmless ditty “Wild Thing.” The Seattle native had gone to England to make his name, and here reintroduced himself to America with a stunning display of six-string mastery that culminated with the famous fiery sacrifice of his instrument.

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From Woodstock (released 1970, directed by Michael Wadleigh)

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.

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From Message to Love: The isle of Wight Festival (released 1997, directed by Murray Lerner)

With six hundred thousand rock fans ferrying over from mainland England in August 1970, the third annual Isle of Wight Festival was one of the biggest concert events in history. Unfortunately, the five-day festival turned out to be a financial failure, and the commissioned footage from director Murray Lerner’s crew did not emerge as a feature film until a quarter of a century later. Nevertheless, Message to Love is a documentary that deserves to sit up on the same mantle as Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter. It contains a wealth of great musical moments; especially notable are clips of both Jimi Hendrix and the Doors’ Jim Morrison shortly before their deaths as well as footage of the Who at the very apex of their career. It is also a clear-eyed view of an event that was supposed to be an English Woodstock but instead descended into utter chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.

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From Wattstax (released 1973, directed by Mel Stuart)

Every music festival film has at least one classic show-stealer and in Wattstax that moment arrives when Rufus Thomas, the perennial Memphis favorite duly advertised as “The Prince of Dance” on the L.A. Coliseum scoreboard, takes the stage. Appearing for all the world to see in a hot pink suit with short pants and white go-go boots, he works up the crowd to such a degree with “The Breakdown” that when he then instructs them to “Do the Funky Chicken,” thousands of dancers storm the football field to oblige him.

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From Glastonbury (released 2006, directed by Julien Temple)

The Glastonbury Festival in rural England holds a rather unique place in the annals of rock as being the one outdoor event started in the Woodstock era that has continued—despite a few missed years—straight into the present day, adapting and growing exponentially but still retaining much of its counterculture spirit. Rockumentary master Julien Temple has funneled this considerable history into a vibrant, if occasionally jumbled, film record of just under two and a half hours. He benefits from the availability of vintage early footage (some of it from 1971’s Glastonbury Fayre) and adds in his accounting of the modern festival (Temple shot there from 2002-05) with much attention to the event’s evolving sociology and an extensive sampling of live performances clips. What is just as memorable as this multi-generational musical cornucopia is the thirty-ring post-hippie circus that accompanies it: a freewheeling pagan arts fair and anti-establishment concave that equals or even overshadows what’s on the main stage.

A Hard Day’s Fight: In Troubled Times, the Clash’s “Rude Boy” Can’t Fail

Though it will never be regarded in the same zeitgeist-defining terms as the 1964 Richard Lester film, the 1980 Clash vehicle “Rude Boy” can be re-considered nowadays as a “Hard Day’s Night” of punk. Both films focus on era-defining bands in a format where documentary elements cohabitate with a lightly-fictionalized script. But whereas the Beatles quipped their way through a trend-setting capital city that was finding its post-war footing, the London Town that the Clash inhabit 15 years later looks a lot different. Grim high-rise council estates, economic misery and openly racist National Front rallies in downtrodden districts seem to be the order of the day. Of course, this is the backdrop from which sprang the punk-rock uprising in England a few years before. By the time of the events of this movie—-1978 and early ’79—-things only look worse and Margaret Thatcher, with the support of multitudes of aggrieved white voters, is poised to be elected Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the Clash—-who keenly identify with multiculturalism—-lash out against all this with their razor-sharp riffs and impassioned lyrics. But the film’s shiftless protagonist (played by Ray Gange) plays like a blank slate on which we are not sure what will be written. He’s like a low-information voter in perilous times, making the film retroactively relevant in this age of Brexit and a Trump presidency.

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And it is Ray who’s the more-or-less sole focus of “Rude Boy’s” first fifteen minutes or so. We first see him in an iconic UK image of the day: staring down disaffectedly on a grey cityscape from the upper floors of a council tower block. Down the stairs he goes past the KKK graffiti and on out to the unemployment office. Out on the streets of his racially-mixed Brixton neighborhood, the leader at a National Front rally is spewing a xenophobic tirade that would make the Donald look like a Rainbow Coalition spokesman. (Well, maybe not but you get the picture). Although he’s on the dole, Ray works (at least part time) at a dirty bookstore but spends the after-hours in gritty punk venues, eventually shuffling into his screenplay destiny to become a Clash roadie. He’s standing at the back of the club as Joe Strummer and the boys tear through their amped-up version of the reggae anthem “Police and Thieves” and starts to meet them soon after. Gange’s character gets it to a certain extent. Hung up between the long arm of authority and the general malaise, he is attracted to the Clash’s aspirational indignation—-especially so after getting a night in jail for walking down the street and then having the nerve to get “lippy” with an officer who stops him for no reason. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that this case of punk profiling takes places at the corner of Whitehall and Downing Street—-the seat of British of British government power.

Still, Ray makes it clear early and often that he has little use for “left-wing wankers,” making his scene with Strummer at the bar one of the more useful in the film. Ray reveals himself as one of those wishful-thinking “undiscovered millionaires” so beloved of Conservative Party and GOP strategists, while Joe’s rising tide would lift all boats. Strummer’s vision of what lies at the end of a blinkered pursuit of materialism is typically blunt and earnest, a touching up-close moment with the punk populist who died in 2002.

Politics aside, the main draw of “Rude Boy” would be the generous serving of concert clips from the Clash’s early prime. Though the tough issues are never absent for that long, there is still an unbridled joy in watching them bounce onto the stage at the huge Rock Against Racism rally at Victoria Park and get 50,000+ kids bouncing up and down in unison to “London’s Burning.” Jacked-up versions of “White Riot,” “Complete Control,” “I’m So Bored with the USA,” “What’s My Name” and “I Fought the Law” perfectly capture that era’s twin themes of sedition and disaffection. The stage performances work well with Mingay’s documentary street-protest footage: if you ever needed a real-life visual for “White Riot’s” admiring opening line (“Black people gotta a lot of problems/But they don’t mind throwing a brick”) you’ll get it here.

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Clash fans will be quick on the draw with the second half of that couplet: “White people go to school/Where they teach you how to be thick.” Which brings us back to Ray Gange. When one of his crew takes leave after the RAR rally, road manager Johnny Green pops into the sex shop to offer Ray a job on the band’s upcoming north-of-England tour. Internal and external forms of repression circulate: there are unnerving scenes (scripted or not?) of thuggish security men throwing fans out the side door, in the day when being a gate-crasher or stage-rusher could be very bad for your health. At one point, Ray intervenes on behalf of the kids and the bouncers give him a right pounding as well.

In a more genteel but no less disquieting moment, there is an intercut Thatcher speech. Any quaint notion of broad-based social justice is out the window here, replaced by the Iron Lady’s claim that (Caucasian) people “above all” want to be protected from the strangely omnipresent threat of “violence, theft and intimidation.” Joe Strummer captured this grim turning point in a way that echoes bitterly right down to the 2016 U.S. elections. In “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” the group’s jaunty reggae number sliced through with ear-splitting punk dynamics, Strummer sings of being one of the few palefaces at an all-star revue of Jamaican performers. He seeks solidarity but comes away dismayed at the perceived indifference to the looming political threat. In the live version seen here, Joe delivers the song’s famous climatic line while the camera hones in on Gange, crouched in the wings. “All over, people changing their votes, along with their overcoats,” Strummer cries out, his voice brimming with rage, “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway!” Ray’s expression stays neutral.

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Ray Gange in a recent photo. He received a Fine Arts degree in 1997 and has found some success as a painter and sculptor.

Well, they do say all politics are local and it’s in some of “Rude Boy’s” quieter moments that we see a bit of a breakthrough. Gange the inner-city kid appears seems genuinely moved while talking to lead guitarist Mick Jones after he completes studio vocal for “Stay Free,” his neighborhood narrative of meeting up with a childhood mate who’s just been released from Brixton jail after serving a 3-year burglary sentence. Other scenes are just gratefully played for fun: Ray holds the heavy bag while drummer (and martial arts enthusiast) Topper Headon works out, eventually turning his attention to the roadie whom he playfully pummels. In other scenes, Ray does a bit of the ol’ soft shoe while Strummer plays the rehearsal-space piano and Jones, Headon and bassist Paul Simonon are seen in their full rock-rebel glory in several scenes outside a courthouse while they were up before a judge after the air-gun shooting of some birds–who turned out to be expensive racing pigeons—-while their de facto manager at the time, Caroline Coon, also makes a cameo. The Clash are seen quite correctly as a band on the upswing with all that entails. “Things have tightened up,” Johnny Green tells the semi-competent Ray before he’s eased out a job and shambles off into Thatcher’s grave new world, while the band finish up with their mission-statement cover “I Fought the Law,” charging into the 80s as the conscience of rock.

Why in hell the Clash came to disavow this well-meaning and often vital film is puzzling at best. OK, so “Rude Boy” (unlike “A Hard Day’s Night”) will never be thought of as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies.” The documentary and fiction elements sometimes seem uncertainly cobbled together and the under-developed subplot about a group of black kids caught up in a drug sting would have been better off as a separate project. Johnny Green, in his entertaining and fair-minded 1999 memoir “A Riot of Our Own” says the band made it quite clear they wouldn’t attend the premier at the Berlin International Film Festival and that the same would go for people working for them. Green, who comes across as nobody’s fool, writes “I took delight in telling Mingay on the phone, within Mick Jones’ hearing, ‘See you at the airport.'” He and his road crew partner Barry Baker (who’s also in the film) sat in the balcony and afterwards came down the front aisle, to great applause, to be acknowledged. The film won an Honorable Mention and was playing in London the following month over the band’s objections.

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A recommended read for Clash fans.

As the giddy-up ska beat of Clash’s ebullient “Rudie Can’t Fail” plays over the end credits it’s not hard to re-live the enthusiasm of the Berlin festival crowd. It’s not like a lot of them were thinking “Well, someday this will be a valuable record of that era.” I like to think it was just them getting caught up in the film’s implied idea that when the outside world, with its endless perversions of power and money, brings all its pressure to bear and “You need someone for a savior” at least you can follow Rudie’s example, being “rude and reckless” while “drinking brew for breakfast” and in general caring fuck-all for what anyone else thinks because you’ll go it your own way. May it ever be thus.

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available on Amazon and through my author page at BookLocker.com Please click on the book-cover image (or the link below) to access the 30-page excerpt at BookLocker.
http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

“Rock Docs” Sampler #1: The Early Days

My new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey traces rock history through its depiction in documentary film. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a strong visual medium and movies based around it, like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Rock Around the Clock” and others with the “R” word in its title, were all the rage by as early as 1956. But it wasn’t really until 1964, with the Beatles’ seismic impact on the entertainment world, that this music started being committed to film by documentary producers. In the first of five themed samplers from the book, I look at those early days, accompanied by related video clips.

If you are interested in purchasing Rock Docs, please click on the image of the book cover in the right-hand column,it links to my BookLocker author page which contains a longer excerpt. Also, feel free to join my “Rock Docs” Facebook page. Thanks, Rick

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It was only ten weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. With the pall of national tragedy still in the air that winter, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles got a call from Granada Television in England saying a musical group named the Beatles were arriving in New York in a couple of hours and asking if they would mind heading down and maybe getting some footage? They arrived just in time to record that famous moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hesitated a moment at the top of the steps while leaving their plane, realizing that the hordes of people lining the balcony of the terminal were there for them and not some head of state as they first thought. And just like that, the Maysles brothers found themselves in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural moments.

From The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1964/1991)

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Produced by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham reportedly to get his rising stars used to the idea of film, Charlie is My Darling was the first documentary about the Rolling Stones. Back in the screaming-teenager epoch of the mid-1960s, the boys are whisked off to Ireland for a quickie tour hastily arranged to capitalize on the recent smash hit “Satisfaction.” It’s a bit of a revelation here to see the Stones in the first flush of their youthful success. They were already well known for the riotous audiences they attracted and by the end of the third number in Dublin the stage invasion is in full stride, memorably captured by Peter Whitehead’s in-the-wings camera.

From The Rolling Stones: Charlie is My Darling (1965)

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It’s been described as the ultimate Battle of the Bands—James Brown and the Famous Flames vs. the Rolling Stones. It definitely helped that both still had a lot to gain at this point in their careers. Brown coveted the crossover audience that so far eluded him and the Stones were fighting to crack into the American pop marketplace. Though Brown wanted to close the show the producers opted for a British Invasion finale. It hardly mattered: The Flames’ eighteen-minute set is justly hailed as one of the more thrilling concert sequences of the rock era. This in turn made the Stones step up their game and during all this the audience makes the final transformation from excitable to certifiable.

From The T.A.M.I. Show (1964)

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Although blues great Son House has been seen doing an electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and going over well with it) it’s another story when Bob Dylan plugs in with the same guys and launches into “Maggie’s Farm,” complete with a searing guitar solo by Mike Bloomfield. The reception is actually mixed, in contrast to the legend of him being booed off the stage. He is coaxed into coming back with his acoustic guitar, but the die has been cast. The authenticity claimed by folk fans earlier mentioned has shaded into defensive orthodoxy and Dylan, seeing the similarly gifted Beatles already becoming worldwide icons, was off to chart a new course.

From Festival! (Murray Lerner’s compilation film of the Newport Folk festival 1963-66)

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Cream was one of the first media-ordained supergroups and their final show, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November ’68, was one of rock’s first self-consciously grand events. There was an imperative to capture the talented but fractious band on film before the split. The non-concert segments have an oddly defensive tone, with the power trio’s music having to be compared to the “traditional arts” by the BBC narrator. Back then, the thought of a longhair band and their scruffy fans taking over the august Albert Hall was probably still a bit controversial. Even if they had “almost single-handedly given rock an authority which only the deaf cannot acknowledge”!!

From: Cream: Farewell Concert (1968)

“Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” Available Now!

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The T.A.M.I. Show. Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. Let it Be.
The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.

Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.

This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.

The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please click on the link below for my author page at BookLocker.com. The link also has a click-through where you can view a 30-page excerpt.

http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html

Documentary Spotlight: Jaco

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JACO
Directed by Paul Marchand & Stephen Kijak—2015—117 minutes

While viewing and reviewing the more than 150 films that are the subject of my upcoming book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey (available this fall), I came across several sad tales of musicians who have struggled with mental health issues while trying to make it in the hothouse business of touring and recording. This documentary about acclaimed jazz-fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius arrived a little late (2015) to fit into the book’s timeline, which is 1964-2014. Yet it follows a trajectory that is somewhat familiar—a talented but sometimes unpredictable person whose illness is slow to develop and hard to reconcile with when fully manifested.

Other musical bios of this ilk—What Happened, Miss Simone? and You’re Going to Miss Me: A Film about Roky Erickson jump to mind—seem to have this hurt and confusion built into their titles. Though this doc is simply called Jaco and is made with the protective approval of his family, it does not totally hide the pain in what is basically a straight tribute to a man who died in 1987. It’s produced by Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, who’s also one of the many musicians testifying here for a man much-loved by fans and contemporaries alike. Aside from the praise, Jaco’s story is interesting in and of itself. He grew up in south Florida, a super-energetic kid who played sports and loved music. Like his vocalist father, Pastorius was soon making the rounds as a player on the Ft. Lauderdale-Miami club circuit, first as a drummer then on the electric bass guitar.

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This lesser-known geographical scene is described as a place “with no musical prejudice” and it’s a compelling notion borne out with the recollections of family members and old bandmates telling of an absorption in styles like jazz, rock, Afro-Caribbean and even a little country. From there, two distinct life trajectories take hold. First, Jaco was married and a first-time (but not last time) father while still of high school age. He would be married twice and often described as a family man. There are numerous home videos and snapshots of him with spouse and kids, frolicking on the beach, cartwheeling, playing football or Frisbee. Yet his prodigious talent did not go unnoticed or unexploited. So by age 21, he was in New York working with the likes of Lenny White and Herbie Hancock, even getting some session work on an early solo LP by ex-Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter. This exuberant young man was a curious mixture of innocence and arrogance and he casually advertised himself as the “greatest bass player ever.”

Many fans and colleagues would soon agree. His playing style—elastic, expressive and often fierce—proved very popular outside the margins of the more traditional jazz fan base. The tendency to play fleet-fingered runs on his instrument’s upper register and his innate showmanship started drawing rock-audience crowds in 1975 after he joined the fusion band Weather Report with two Miles Davis alumni: keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. This electric atmosphere is seen in late 70s concert footage, both in WR band numbers like their signature “Birdland” or in his solo spotlights where both his unique approach to fretless harmonics and his Pete Townshend-like theatrics were given free reign.

But though Pastorius was a key member of Weather Report for seven years (while also releasing a couple of well-received solo records) the informed viewer just knows that there’s trouble a-brewing and it arrives in due course. Jaco and Zawinul are described as “two cobras inside a very small cage” and the bassist as someone who “respected his jazz elders but wasn’t above ruffling their feathers” (Zawinul was almost twenty years older). Likewise, Joni Mitchell, on the lookout for “originals” to help define her widening musical horizons in the late Seventies, says she found a kindred soul in Pastorius but also soon found he could be a bit much to handle. And when you lose that jazz-player balance between individual expression and teamwork, things can go sour in a hurry. Jaco found this out at the Havana Jam in 1979 when he we into “self-destruct mode” for what should have been a sure-thing fusion power-trio jam with drummer Tony Williams and guitarist John McLaughlin.

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Though Pastorius kept up his end for several years in the spotlight—living frugally on the road and sending money home to the family—substance abuse and extremely erratic behavior brought on by lingering mental health issues caught up with him in a big way. He was diagnosed as bipolar in 1982 and spent several weeks at NYC’s Bellevue Hospital. But without much of a support system (at least from reading between the lines here) he was soon busking for spare change in Washington Square and eventually landed back in south Florida, one and off his meds and sleeping in a park. His demise could hardly have been sadder: he died days after being severely beaten by a bouncer for trying to kick his way into a nightclub that his volatile behavior got him banned from. The culprit ended up doing four months in jail.

I’m not suggesting that Trujillo and his two directors should have dwelled on all this overmuch, after all this is a tribute film and a fine one at that. But in the end, the short shrift given to Jaco’s troubled later years is a bit baffling. Maybe after all this time it just seems inevitable that he was one of those destined to leave us early. Pastorius told a friend once that he expected to die at age 34 and ended up being only a year off. So while the testimonials come early and often here (Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Joni, Flea, Sting etc.) the full recognition of the mental health issue here seems lacking. His long-time bandmate Wayne Shorter grapples with this the most of anyone here, rhetorically asking “who’s to say that a chemical imbalance is a fault of nature” and suggesting it “ushers into action” a certain greatness otherwise unattainable. That has proven to be sometimes true but many fans may have traded a little less greatness for a longer life, and much more music-making, from Jaco the man. The legend could wait.

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A Tale of Two Walls: Looking Back in Anger at Pink Floyd’s Cinematic Sick Joke

Pink Floyd: The Wall
Directed by Alan Parker—1982—95 minutes

You see this: a political rally with a bellowing, puffed-up party leader and a chanting audience. There’s a primal impulse for all to do the same salute. The leader suggests that his followers can show support for his cause by weeding out minorities and other “undesirables” and he is only too happy to point some out in the crowd. They are promptly roughed up. Is this a Donald Trump event from earlier this year? No, silly—it’s a key scene from Alan Parker’s grim 1982 film version of Pink Floyd’s 1979 sourpuss double album The Wall. But really, what’s the difference? OK, given what we know of frontman Roger Waters’ politics (which includes environmentalism and work for the anti-poverty group Millennium Promise) it’s probably safe to say he’s not supportive of that sort of thing. The problem as I see it is more subtle and complex. We arrive at that scene after the protagonist (a rock star named Pink played by Bob Geldof) has spent about 80 minutes in a state of catatonic self-pity. Despite his success, he is unable to shake off childhood memories of cruel headmasters, a smothering mother and, crucially, a father killed in action in World War II. Though I am not insensitive to that fact (Waters father died in the Anzio campaign), the adult character’s complete unwillingness or inability to see that sacrifice in any other terms than his own lingering pain is bewildering at best. Especially so, when the ensuing mental stress leads to an indulgence in the fascist fantasies described above—in effect, identifying with the same horrible political force that his beloved dad died trying to defeat.

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“So you thought you might like to go to the show…” No thanks, I’m good.

I realize that The Wall is only one piece of work but all art matters when added in to the great scheme of things. Roger Waters wrote most of the album and is listed as the screenwriter here, so most of the blame game I am about to play is directed at him. When I recently watched this for the third time since ’82, I found it rather more inane than detestable. But in the context of the times, it now seems even more unsettling. Pink Floyd The Wall is just a little too indicative of the narcissism and low-information grievances that have led to recent political instabilities; in addition it has over the years been a flashpoint for some racist groups that have adopted bits of the film’s visual iconography. Nowadays, it’s hard for me to look at this film as anything but one of rock history’s great moral failings.


A montage set to the hit single made up the 1982 trailer, “The memories, the madness,” indeed.

Please don’t get me wrong: I like Pink Floyd. My musical coming-of-age was in the first half of the Seventies so you know I know. At age 13 I heard them for the first time, lying around after school when my local FM station played “Fearless” from 1971’s Meddle. I was swept up in its atmospheric daydream of a melody bookended by opening and closing sections of a stadium full of people mysteriously chanting and singing. A few years later I was pulled into the lunar orbit of a certain multi-platinum album, headphones clamped on tight, a slowly fading cloud of hashish smoke up near the rec room ceiling as a friend nodded sagely from his seat in a bean bag nearby. Not long after that we were grooving on Wish You Were Here and learning about ill-starred group founder Syd Barrett; we would get into Floyd’s early work in retrospect.

But those of us coming of age in that era, encouraging each other to Question Authority, often didn’t apply that to pedestal-sitting pop icons the way we did to the likes of Richard Nixon. When Pink Floyd’s songwriter, bassist and co-lead singer Roger Waters became disenchanted with the paying plebes in the audience during the group’s 1977 tour, he envisioned how much of an improvement it would be if he could play for them from behind a wall. To me, that kind of bunker mentality would be a clear sign that the artist in question needs to retire—or at least take a few years off to get his priorities straight. Instead, Waters insisted on using this feeling to create a humorless rock opera about a dissolute, navel-gazing rock star whose fame and fortune is negated by painful memories of himself as “the little boy that Santa Claus forgot.” Since this was 1979 and I was well into punk by then, I was only too happy to give The Wall a polite see-you-later after one listen, satisfied that its one undeniably great song (“Comfortably Numb”) would be on steady FM rotation until the end of time.

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But a few years later I was compelled by a roommate and a couple of his friends to hit the local multiplex to view Alan Parker’s film adaptation. As they oh-wowed their way through its grotesque and wrong-headed 90+ minutes, I sat there utterly appalled. This gut-level reaction has been reinforced many times over when you really look between the lines of even the most user-friendly scenes. Take “Another Brick in the Wall.” Please. Sure, it’s a catchy number with the children’s chorus and David Gilmour’s funky guitar riff but “we don’t need no education”? That’s fine, because I can match you up with a demagogue candidate who “loves the poorly educated.” I know it’s not pleasant to get whacked on the knuckles in class. But in the parochial school I went to, where we ate “dark sarcasm” for breakfast, the nuns could be cruel but you moved on and later saw it as a lesson in intestinal fortitude, not as a vision of you and your classmates walking off a ledge into a meat grinder. The sequences between the boy Pink and his overweight and overprotective mum also is clunky in its overstatement. The queasy Oedipal undertones in the song “Mother” are unintentionally telling as well. “Mother, should I build the wall/Mother, should I run for President?” Yes, you go right ahead, Donald—-er, I mean Pink.

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Maybe it’s not too late to transfer to a Montessori school.

One would have to give credit for Alan Parker for the expertly lensed WW2-era scenes and the animation sequences, such as the famous goose-stepping crossed hammers. These segments are vivid if consistently downbeat. Worst is the scene where the British population is depicted as a cretinous coward in the face of the Nazi bombing of England, a merciless 8-month campaign that instead of breaking the country’s will, dealt Hitler his first strategic setback of the war. Details, details. By the end, the dictator is revealed to be not Pink but a pathological imposter (a prank not all would appreciate) yet our troubled hero is promptly put on trial. Many would argue for leniency (say, mental health counseling and a suspended sentence) but by that point I’d wish for the lot of them—defendant, judge and witnesses—to be packed into a rocket and blasted off for a permanent vacation on the dark side of the moon.

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The stoic solidarity of the English citizenry during The Blitz helped plant the seed that Nazi Germany was not invincible, despite this ill-considered scene.

Oh, I know—it’s just a movie. Or is it? There are many different factors that make up the universal public dialogue and within that Pink Floyd: The Wall is more of a black hole than a shining star. It advances a notion that a perfunctory look inside one’s own psyche permits that person to position themselves at the center of the world. This in turn excuses a profound inability to be stoical or to relate in any meaningful way to the general population. When the citizens’ isolated impatience with global challenges and dangers, even incipient anger with incremental and imperfect democracies, turns into the politics of mutual hostility and extremism, then we’re all in trouble. No, the wall on the Mexican border is not going to solve your problems and neither will millionaire rock stars pandering to the worst sort of baby boomer self-centeredness, becoming the sort of thing we first set out to oppose.

Sure, Pink Floyd: The Wall was successful in a conventional way. Parker’s visuals were a good bet to lure stoned audiences who liked the #1 album, whether it was the trippy animation or its “cool” rock-star trappings: the smashed-up hotel rooms, the groupies, the uptight manager, the suicidal singer floating in a pool, etc. It continues to benefit from notable grade inflation from die-hard fans. Just listen to these glowing reviews from Rotten Tomatoes: “whiny, pretentious, muddled” (four stars), “uneven, hard to understand” (three and a half stars). But it carried its own sort of bad karma with it. The falling-out of Waters and Gilmour started with the film and the next year’s The Final Cut, essentially sides five and six of The Wall. That was the last LP with the two of them together as this concept ended up running Pink Floyd into the ground. Waters would go on to an undistinguished solo stint before taking The Wall on the road every few years in different and ever-bigger stage shows, while thankfully shifting the focus to an anti-tyranny theme and less of a bias towards “poor little Roger” (Waters’ own words). So people continue to pay good money to see it and, I’m certain, to sing or nod along to it’s curiously defeatist stanzas. Sorry, Roger, but I’m not another dumb-ass brick in the wall, so I’ll take a pass. Instead, I’ll think back to the first time I ever heard your old band and was lifted up by the rather more thoughtful strains of “Fearless.” Twenty years later, when I developed an interest in international soccer, I finally found out that the mysterious stadium chanting at the intro and outro of the song were fans of Liverpool F.C. singing the old Rodgers and Hammerstein chestnut “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which would become the official team song. I’ll sing along to that anytime, especially when the modern-world alternative seems to be walking around in isolation while carrying a chip on the shoulder the size of the wall of our own making.

My new book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be released in Sept. 2016

Rock Doc Round-Up for 2015

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The Damned, seen in their early incarnation as a barbershop quartet.

It’s been no secret that for many years now rock ‘n’ roll has been in love with its own history. Whether it be in books, box set liner notes, social media chatter or at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, pop fans can’t get enough of the personalities and stories behind the music, almost as much as tunes themselves. Especially notable in this phenomenon is the role of the rock documentary. While working on my soon-to-be-released second book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I had a close-up look at just how varied a field this can be. It can encompass concert movies, festival flicks, genre profiles, band histories or posthumous tributes to beloved stars.

Since the “50 year journey” of my book’s subtitle ends in 2104, this past year was the first one beyond its timeline. It was another good year for non-fiction films on rock subjects and as eclectic as ever. Since most rockumentaries are not blockbusters but smaller titles that are usually seen (initially, anyway) in indie theaters or on the festival circuit, I’m limiting this to a Top Five with some honorable mentions. Some notable titles I missed first time around and may just be getting around to online release or on DVD. I’ve got some catching up to do!

Amy (Directed by Asif Kapadia).

Only a year after Amy Winehouse death, film director Asif Kapadia was approached by her father Mitchell and her record company (Universal Music UK) to make a legacy documentary of the North London-bred retro soul singer whose “Back to Black” won five Grammys and sold in the millions. Kapadia was given use of Amy’s music and other materials but he was wary of being led into producing a “whitewash” film and crucially asked for (and was granted) complete creative control. Kapadia went out and made a film full of the soul-searching that should have taken place by gravy-train-riding parents and businesspeople while the talented but troubled Winehouse was still alive. Kapadia was greatly helped by the participation of two of Winehouse’s best girlfriends from her youth and esp. by Nick Shymansky, her first manager but also a teenage companion of hers: it’s Shymansky’s many camcorder clips that show a young, ebullient and astute singer-songwriter before she was caught up by her own demons and by the strangulating grip of modern society’s obsessive media machine, which began (as always) with an embrace.


My review was titled “Rehab Needed for Fame-Addicted Society,” which also seems to be the angle for this alternate trailer.

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll (Directed by John Pirozzi)

The freedom to live out a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, taken for granted by several decades worth of young people in Western nations, may never be regarded so lightly again after viewing John Pirozzi’s mesmerizing documentary. Whether or not the viewer realizes beforehand that Cambodia had a vibrant pop music scene in the 60s and early 70s will hardly matter once he or she is drawn into the film’s orbit. What most will know going in is that this thriving youth movement was destined to be crushed, along with all else, when the homicidal Khmer Rouge forces took over the country in a terrible offshoot of the Vietnam War. Using interviews with survivors, evocative period footage and vintage vinyl, Pirozzi conjures up a regenerative tale despite the historical horrors. It’s a case of mankind’s better nature, here in the form of musical enrichment, persevering even in the face of the worst fanatical impulses this sorry world has to offer.


Available to download now.

The Wrecking Crew (Directed by Denny Tedesco).

There have been several documentaries in recent years—like “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” or “Twenty Feet from Stardom”—that have told the tales of unheralded musicians and vocalists. “The Wrecking Crew” (which played at festivals in 2008 but didn’t get a proper release until last year) is one of the more high-spirited of this group. Whereas many of the principals in those other two films were ripped off and/or forgotten, the L.A. studio musicians here look back fondly at their heyday, when they provided the expert backing tracks for some of the greatest pop songs ever recorded. Names like Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine and Tommy Tedesco may not be household brands but they were well-compensated session pros (often with families to support) whose enthusiasm in explaining how they helped make musical history is intoxicating. Still, the old star-centric ways are hard to nudge and this film’s own theatrical poster only mentions the artists the Crew supported (the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, the Byrds, Simon & Garfunkel etc.) as well as one of their number (Glen Campbell) who went on to a high-profile solo career.


A nice clip from “The Wrecking Crew” featuring bassist Carol Kaye

The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead (Directed by Wes Orshoski).

As early as 1972, there was a book out called “No One Waved Good-Bye: A Casualty Report on Rock and Roll” with pieces by the likes of Lilian Roxon and Richard Meltzer. Early martyrdom is held in especially high esteem and 2015 saw the releases of several such remembrance films like the ones on “27 Club” inductees Kurt Cobain (“Montage of Heck”) and Janis Joplin (“Little Girl Blue”). Leave it to the irreverent British punk pioneers The Damned to gang tackle this issue and even name it out in the title of their very own rockumentary. Director Wes Orshoski—who previously made the excellent “Lemmy” about the Motorhead metal icon who, alas, died last month—seems to relish ornery, hell-raising characters and he’s got a handful here with Capt. Sensible, Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Brian James. The Damned had a gift for being both shambolic and crafty, and they were releasing records and touring the States before their more famous contemporaries in the Clash or Sex Pistols. One of the more entertaining band bios of recent years, “Don’t You Wish” is a giddy succession of archival hijinks, concert clips both past and present, interviews and memory-lane walkabouts, like when the Captain hilariously (and scatologically) revisits the site of his old job as a washroom attendant. It’s not all Knees-Up-Mother-Brown as the film does not shy away from the long Scabies-Sensible feud or the difficulties of musicians in survival mode long after their career highwater mark. A fitting tribute to a group of fearless originals, even if they still feel that their legend would have been more lucrative if one of them had just croaked along the way.


Let the F-bombs commence.

Lambert & Stamp (Directed by James D. Cooper).

Even with the most well-known bands, there seems to be this determination to find a fresh angle. A couple of years back it was the delightful insider’s-look “Good Ol’ Freda” about the previously unsung Beatles’ secretary and fan club president. In 2015, we got a new perspective on the Who via this appealing and incisive profile of their original managers. Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp were an unlikely duo: the former was the Oxford-schooled son of composer Constant Lambert and the latter grew up in London’s gritty East End and was brother of actor Terrence Stamp. They originally hooked up with the scruffy and still-unsigned band led by Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey so they could appear in a New Wave-style film on Mods that the pair wanted to produce. But after that was shelved they ended up being the group’s seat-of-the-pants managerial team, and their differing backgrounds helped develop that deft blend of high art and street sense that is the band’s enduring ethos. Cooper’s skillful debut film is a great mix of (often rare) period footage and extremely candid present day interviews, bringing back alive a world less rigidly corporate where such a group of disparate but highly creative individuals could help re-invent popular culture. Lambert died in 1981 and isn’t here to speak for himself but Stamp is interviewed (though he passed away shortly after filming) and Pete and Roger also get in their three pennies worth each and, in a segment where they sit down together, actually come to closure on a couple of contentious points that they seemingly haven’t brought up in decades. Don’t close those history books just yet.

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Honorable Mentions, Subjects For Further Study, etc.

A special mention goes out to the riveting The Case of the Three-Sided Dream about jazz shaman Rahsaan Roland Kirk. It came out in 2014 but I didn’t see it until a screening at the all-doc Salem (Mass.) Film Festival last March. At the Q&A, older attendees were much impressed that the young director, Adam Kahan, should choose as his subject a musician who lived from 1935 to 1977. He replied that when he came of age, it just occurred to him that he should start expanding his cultural IQ and in this process being enamored of Kirk. A nice reminder that learning and being smart is fun and that the knowledge gained does not discriminate about what’s old or new, that it’s all one long continuum for all to partake in.

Another film about a jazz maverick, What Happened, Miss Simone has been getting super reviews but unfortunately I haven’t got around to it yet. Both it and “Amy” have been short-listed in the Oscar documentary feature category and it’s quite possible that one of them may win. If so, it would make three popular music documentaries in the last four years to win that category, after 2013’s “Twenty Feet From Stardom” and 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man.” Before that, the only other rock doc to win was “Woodstock” way back in 1970.

Musical non-fiction films have really come of age and it’s only getting better. My catching up this week includes Janis: Little Girl Blue, The Revenge of the Mekons and hopefully, if I can get out that night, the new Elvis Costello concert film, Detour–Live at Philharmonic Hall. If there is any films in this category that I haven’t mentioned and that caught your eyes and ears in 2015, please let me know.

My new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, will be released in spring 2016.
–Rick Ouellette

“Help!” at 50: The Birth of Pop Modernism or Middling James Bond Spoof? Why Not Both?

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Help!
Directed by Richard Lester–1965–92 minutes

The Beatles’ first film, “A Hard Day’s Night”, gets the lion’s share of love when it comes to the Fab Four on the big screen. And why not? It arrived during the highwater mark of Beatlemania and gave it back to fans as the fully-formed global sensation it was: fresh, frantic, witty and full of promise for the grand new youth culture to come. Its B&W pseudo-documentary style, under the self-confident direction of American expat director Richard Lester, gave it a look that impressed more neutral viewers and critics alike (“The Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals,” Andrew Sarris famously proclaimed in the Village Voice.) Insatiable demand promised that another Beatle movie would soon follow.

Almost exactly a year later, along came “Help!” The two most noticeable differences, of course, was the vivid color photography and the conceit of having the boys being on the business end of comic villainy in a light satire of the Bondian action-spy flicks then coming into vogue. The latter element is often held up as to why this entry will never match up to “Hard Day’s Night” and that’s fair enough. Lester, who “got” the Beatles and had a good working relationship with the four, was on board for the follow-up and was not keen to repeat himself. Also, after a couple of world tours where they found themselves sequestered in hotel rooms as protection against ever-increasing hordes of Beatlemaniac girls, the band were not eager to reprise scenes of being chased through train stations by roving packs of delirious teenagers. (In fact, for greater realism, Lester let some of these scenes happen on location instead of staging them, leaving the band unamused). In fact, the only “fans” we really see come right at the band’s first appearance (not counting the filmed title song) where the boys are seen entering a rowhouse by four adjacent doors and a pair of admiring middle-aged housewives wave at them, agreeing that “Adoration hasn’t gone to their heads one jot.”

When the Beatles enter the house (which is a large one-room communal apartment) a viewer first gets a sense of a new mod era taking hold. The monochrome “Hard Day’s Night” still has the look of gritty post-war England but this way-out bachelor pad is something altogether different. John has a recessed bed area, George has an indoor mini-lawn and employs a gardener who uses a set of false teeth for mowing, Ringo has a row of vending machines and Paul has a console organ that rises up from the basement—with comic books on the stand instead of sheet music. It’s in and around this place that the band’s adversaries, a bizarre religious sect with claims to a gaudy red gemstone ring worn by Ringo, first show up. This pan-Asiatic cult needs this particular piece of jewelry as part of their regular ritual of sacrificing humans. They are joined in the bad guy department by an inept mad scientist who knows of the ring’s mysterious powers and wants to use it to “dare I say it, rule the world.” The plotline that follows is sketchy and fairly ridiculous, mainly consisting of implausible and elaborate attempts to capture the Beatles humble drummer. All of these attempts fail with remarkable precision. But the threat does get the band out of the house and into scenic locations like Salisbury Plain, the Alps and the Bahamas—the latter two places also doubled as brief R&R trips for the overworked quartet.


Dick Lester and actress Eleanor Bron look back in this recent making-of clip.

Though the film still gets its share of nitpicking and lukewarm reviews, after a half century you have to wonder why. Much of “Help!” is pretty hilarious on its own terms. Sure, the over-busy action mechanics make it sometime feel (as Lennon suggested) that the Beatles were supporting players in their own film. But it’s a great group to be occasionally overshadowed by. The great Aussie actor Leo McKern plays cult leader Clang and the exotic but personable Eleanor Bron is also good as the cult’s turncoat femme fatale. Victor Spinetti, the put-upon TV producer in “Hard Day’s Night” returns as the mad scientist and is well-teamed with Lester regular Roy Kinnear as the bumbling assistant.

The seven new songs here show that the still-zany onscreen Beatles were showing more emotional depth in their writing as they eased into their rewarding middle period, a satisfying sweet spot between teenybopper rock and psychedelia. In the urgent title song, the formerly self-assured narrator sees that his “independence seems to vanish in the haze.” The romantic resignation of John’s folky “You Got to Hide Your Love Away” and the stately but somber pop of George’s “I Need You” betray this more mature songwriting trend. More upbeat is the Alpine setting for “Ticket to Ride” which utilized real footage of the group taking a ski lesson, while also placing a grand piano on a mountain ridge at sunset, one of many examples of Lester’s wry directorial style. These visual set pieces, often using reflected light and colored filters, have long been celebrated for paving the way for the modern music video. In a special-features interview for a recent DVD release, Lester says he was once sent a letter from the Music Television network (on a parchment scroll, no less) declaring that he was the father of MTV. The ever-clever Lester says he “immediately cabled back and demanded a blood test.”


Cinematographer David Watkins and others discussing the film’s look.

In the end, it’s the native wit of Lester and the Beatles (along with the music, of course) that is lasting takeaway from “Help!” The blend of the silly and subversive had already been honed by Lester in his previous work with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, which brought him to the attention of the band in the first place. The playful wordsmithing of screenwriter Charles Wood was also influential and a repeat viewing reveals certain naughty nuances we may not have noticed as kids. (When the baddies try to saw under Ringo’s drum kit during a recording session, the engineer asks, “Boys, are you buzzing?” John’s reply: “No thanks, I’ve got the car”). The “So this is the famous Beatles/So this is the famous Scotland Yard” routine with Patrick Cargill as the Inspector also shows the insurgent younger generation was not going to take authority at face value any longer. This may be saying a lot for a movie that ends with a chaotic melee on a beach that is barely worthy of the Keystone Cops, but what happened in later years bear it out. Lester would go on to make Sixties signpost films like “Petulia” and “How I Won the War” (the latter starring Lennon). And “Help’s” crowish humor, stream-of-consciousness and extravagant visual gags seem to lead the way to the success of the Monty Python TV series, which debuted four years later. George Harrison, who would later help finance the Python film “Life of Brian” thought of Python as a continuation of the Fab Four and the influence of both appear to be inexhaustible. And up against later Bond-parodies like the Austin Powers series, “Help!” will remain irresistibly shagedelic for many years to come.

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Rehab Needed for Fame-Addicted Society: Between the Lines of “Amy”

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Amy
Directed by Asif Kapadia–2015–120 minutes

I never really got into Amy Winehouse that much while she was alive and it wasn’t because I didn’t recognize her talent as a vocalist and songwriter. It was just that the aura surrounding her was already that of a tabloid train wreck by the time I caught on and I didn’t want to be party to the plan. I wasn’t exactly predicting that it would all end in tears, but it did give the appearance of being the latest variation on the all-too-familiar narrative of rock ‘n’ roll self-destruction. By 2011, Winehouse was dead of alcohol toxicity, joining the dreaded (and sometimes romanticized) “27 Club” along with Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Brian Jones, to name just the most famous of those musicians who died at that age. Will this never end?

Only a year after her death, film director Asif Kapadia was approached by her father (Mitchell Winehouse) and her record company (Universal Music UK) to make a legacy documentary of the North London-bred retro soul singer whose “Back to Black” won five Grammys and sold in the millions. Kapadia was given use of Amy’s music and other materials but he was wary of being led into producing a “whitewash” film and asked for (and was granted) complete creative control. Kapadia went out and made a soul-searching film that looks way beyond the default image left behind of the soused, smoky-voiced singer with the beehive hairdo, tattoos and heavy mascara. He was helped by the participation of two of Winehouse’s best girlfriends from her youth and esp. by Nick Shymansky, her first manager but also a teenage companion of hers: it’s Shymansky’s many camcorder clips that show a young and astute singer-songwriter with sharp influences (Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett) and an ebullient personality. But she was also a girl troubled by her parents’ divorce, diagnosed with depression by age 13 and, crucially, admitted to being bulimic. Little was done about it, especially after success beckoned.

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The soul-searching for this poor woman needed to arrive a lot sooner than this film. The problem of pop stars with too much fame too soon, combined with psychological issues, their own lack of impulse control and too many enablers crowding onto the gravy train is world famous. Where was the help? In an early video clip, Winehouse says “I don’t think I could handle it (fame), I’d go mad” and later sings “my destructive side has grown a mile wide.” Unsurprisingly, Mitchell Winehouse has disowned the film, specifically for saying of his daughter “She doesn’t need to go to rehab,” claiming the director cut out the last three words “at this time.” But it was precisely at that point (on the cusp of the big time, before she was stalked by a voracious media machine) that would have been the best chance for her. And bringing up her own refusal to go, in the famous “No, no, no” refrain of her mega-hit “Rehab” just doesn’t wash. All the song proves is her cleverness as a writer; it is a perfect balance between a brag and a cry for help (“I don’t ever wanna drink again/I just need a friend”).

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Amy with her dubious dad

Winehouse’s popularity soon snowballed into obsessive fan and media attention, the kind of which less well-adjusted people have big problems with. Already a party girl, her substance abuse soared, especially after marrying the indefensible Blake Fielder, who had so thoughtfully introduced her to hard drugs. True, Amy was doing herself no favors but neither was there much selfless support. She is clearly heard in old recordings hoping for some guidance from her father. Even when she goes off to St. Lucia to get away from the cameras and the cocaine, her dad shows up with a TV crew, doing a reality show about HIMSELF.

Kapadia gradually and masterfully traces this sad story as the situation of everyone’s making spins out of control. That because someone is a good singer they can’t leave the house without being chased or assaulted with countless camera flashes going, speaks of an immature society that can’t help being bamboozled by fame and suffocate those who have achieved it. And sometimes the result of this unhealthy dynamic is what you see towards the end of this unflinching documentary: the horrific site of Amy Winehouse being carried out of her Camden Town house in a body bag, her frail frame, emaciated from an eating disorder, done in by alcohol poisoning. But the game goes on, even with the crushing finality of that scene. Leaving the theater I saw the tone-deaf blurb on an “Amy” lobby poster: “A star is born all over again!”
Will it never end?

My new book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” will be released later this year.