Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall
If only every great artist could have a film made about them like Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to Off the Wall. Instead of trying to tell the entire Jackson story in one long novelistic film, Lee wisely concentrates on a few chapters, which allows him to really dig deep. Like the Martin Scorsese doc Bob Dylan: No Direction Home that spent over three hours telling the story of the folk icon’s period only up until the late '60s, Lee’s film focuses on the relatively brief period from the late '60s to ’79. He takes on Jackson’s newfound stardom as part of The Jackson Five, culminating in the making and release of his pop/disco masterpiece album Off The Wall. Lee throws everything he can at the screen, creating a dynamic hodgepodge of images and commentary. In his growth from child to young man, Jackson's world was full of musical influences and there is a plethora of archival footage from Fred Astaire to fellow Motown artists to Studio 54 to illuminate Lee's points. The amount of material documenting Jackson’s personal and creative growth is staggering. There are all those Jackson 5 music and television appearances, collaborations with Motown, studio work and even a Saturday morning cartoon show. Lee incorporates a "then and now" bookend by weaving in footage from the later Jacksons Victory Tour, giving us a chance to see Michael interpret his songs as both a boy and a man.
All the on-screen witnesses speak of the young Michael’s ambition, watching closely and questioning the adults he was surrounded by. That ambition led to the family leaving Motown while Michael was in his teens; the group became the more disco-infused The Jacksons and paved the way for Michael to slowly take on a stronger role in shaping the music his own way. He ventured away from his brothers first by recording the theme song for the killer rat movie Ben (and getting an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song for it) and by appearing as the Scarecrow in Sidney Lumet’s film adaptation of the Broadway smash The Wiz. Eventually everything he gleamed along the way led to the Off The Wall album.Continue Reading
Super Duper Alice Cooper
Finally a quintessential documentary on Alice Cooper, rock’s original shock master, titled appropriately enough, Super Duper Alice Cooper. Unlike the usual quickie music doc (Behind The Music, etc.), this is a film edited with style and a totally engaging visual flare similar to the wonderful Robert Evans doc The Kid Stays in the Picture, with those three-dimensional cut outs and old-timey film footage mixed in to help tell the story. And Cooper himself, an engaging story teller, narrates. Of course I’m the target audience; I had a couple of his records as a kid, I went to an Alice Cooper concert in Detroit when I was in middle school and I have nostalgic pangs that get me a little giddy when I see those '70s clips. But I’m also thrilled to report that I watched this with a woman who was born long after Cooper’s heyday who had little previous knowledge about him or interest, and she thoroughly enjoyed the movie, too. Again, stylishly and narratively it can satisfy the old-school fan and intrigue a newbie.
As told by the film, Cooper’s story is the usual "sickly kid dreams of more and beats the odds" ode. Born Vincent Furnier in Detroit, Cooper’s pastor father and mother moved him out West to Phoenix to help his extreme asthma. He grew up a churchgoing all-American type, but like many kids in the '60s inspired by The Beatles, their music (and spoofing the Fab Four at a school talent show) led to him and his buds forming a band. Even as a bunch of suburban squares they found some success in their hometown under the name The Spiders; later encouraged by a message from a ouija board they changed the name of the band to Alice Cooper (slowly Vincent would actually take on the name himself and later legally change it when he dumped his bandmates) and set out for hippie filled Los Angeles. In California they fell under the tutelage of super weirdo Frank Zappa and became the brother act to his all-girl band The GTO’s. Besides giving pointers on partying, the fashionable ladies also helped them update their look (with thrift store women’s Ice Capades costumes). Though they signed with manager Shep Gordon (a pot dealer, for whom managing music was just a side gig) they didn’t find the success they craved and were even jeered at for their growing onstage theatrics. The band took off for middle America, playing small gigs until they finally settled in Detroit, a working class city that liked to rock and appreciated a hard-hitting band with a strong work ethic. Playing alongside bands like The MC5 and The Stooges, it has been said that this garage rock scene was the beginning of Punk Music (and Johnny Lydon AKA Rotten, adds his voice to the narration later, giving credence to this by admitting what a big influence Cooper was on his band, The Sex Pistols). The Alice Cooper act grew more and more outrageous and when they got to open for John Lennon at a music festival in Toronto, an incident that led to a chicken being murdered made them famous. They eventually broke big with hits “I’m Eighteen and then “School’s Out”, but Cooper fell deeper into a dark hole of alcoholism and celebrity trappings. Finally he dumped his high school pals and went solo, where his shows became a sorta vaudeville horror act, complete with a boa constrictor, a guillotine and dancers. (He married a young pretty one.)Continue Reading
Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park
At the height of their superstardom in 1978 it was time for the Kabuki make-up sporting rock band Kiss (Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, Ace Frehley) to branch out into the movies. After all, it was the same year that The Bee Gees starred in the super dud, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Instead of going the way The Beatles did 14 years earlier when they hooked up with an acclaimed young director, Richard Lester, to helm their little masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night, Kiss wanted an easier cash-in, or so the story goes. So instead of doing an edgy film to keep up with their violent, hard rockin’ persona, they hooked up with TV cartoon producers Hanna-Barbera (The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, etc.) in the hopes of selling their products to a much younger audience and ended up with a disastrous TV-movie that the band has more or less disowned. Though not as campy as The Ramones in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School or as weird as The Monkees in Head or as boring as Neil Diamond in The Jazz Singer, it is a few levels better than The Village People opus, Can’t Stop the Music. Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park is truly one of the great oddities in the mixing of rock stars and celluloid; it can be hard to find on DVD as it’s only available in different bootleggy editions (and surprisingly a European cut is on a Kiss anthology DVD), but as a pure piece of cultural fascination and laugh-out-loud absurdity it’s worth seeking out.
The opening credits include Kiss performing their mega-hit “Rock and Roll All Nite,” but then they take a breather, absent from the movie’s incredibly long-feeling first act. California’s Ma...
As opposed to being a dated period piece from 1984, Purple Rain is more like a time capsule from another planet. A truly ambitious film debut for funk ‘n rock star Prince, the success of both the film Purple Rain and its soundtrack helped send Prince’s career into another stratosphere. This kinda sorta autobiography of Prince’s early days playing at Minneapolis music venue First Avenue focuses on the struggles of the brooding and mopey musician as he tries to navigate his domestic abuse impulses and his love of frilly shirts. Though completely entertaining it’s actually maybe more depressing than the Eminem flick 8 Mile though not even close to the mental anguish that the Bjork film Dancer in the Dark can cause. At the time of release Purple Rain was a massive hit but it was also justly scorned for its misogynistic attitudes towards women. Luckily now the film feels so over the top that instead of being offensive it plays more like a glammed-out cartoon.
Prince plays “The Kid,” and though his band The Revolution seems to have a loyal following, the club owner (Billy Sparks) thinks they aren’t drawing the crowds they should be. He seems to side with The Kid’s chief rival, the zoot-suited Morris Day and his band The Time. He wants the Kid to stop doing that “one song shit” and making the kind of music that only he understands, or he’s going to be axed from the club’s roster. When a foxy new Russ Meyer-esqe babe, Apollonia shows up on the scene, The Kid woos her with motorcycle rides and by ogling her from behind his oversized sun glasses. Strangely he still lives with his parents, where his washed-up musician father (Clearance Williams III of...
The Beatles Anthology
The Beatles Anthology is everything you need to know about The Beatles. For die-hard fan it seems to have a clip from almost every recorded performance of theirs. And for the casual fan it tells the Fab Four’s back-story and then that incredible run of music from ’63 to ’70, it’s such a huge story for only seven years of life. The three surviving Beatles - Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison - are exhaustedly interviewed with very candid memories (Harrison passed away after this was made), and preexisting interviews with John Lennon are incorporated. Also of interest, adding to the conversation is their long time producer George Martin who seems to set the record straight when the boys are confused about a recording fact. It really is amazing that these four lads from modest backgrounds in Liverpool, England were able to have such a giant impact on popular culture all over the world and create some of the still greatest music in rock 'n roll history.
Originally airing on television, The Beatles Anthology was released in conjunction with a massive book and CD set covering the same ground. The documentary is told in eight episodes, each covering a year or two and each running over an hour, putting the whole thing at over ten hours long. Like a Ken Burns film (The Civil War, Baseball), it uses still photos and archival footage to set up The Beatles in their youth, but quickly jumps right into the formation of the band and their early career playing Hamburg nightspots. The first two episodes may be for the fanatics as there is a lot of rare material (recording demos and British television appearances) but by the end of Episode Two the Beatles have become a phenomenon in the UK. Then Episode Three begins with their famous landing at JFK and first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; their conquering of America is when things get really fun.Continue Reading
Michael Jackson Number Ones
After Michael Jackson's tragic death, it was interesting to hear about young kids who were exposed to him for the first time (no pun intended). The magic of his personality and performances, as well as the simplicity of his music was easy enough for another generation to grasp and embrace. Like The Beatles, Jackson potentially is an artist who will be able to find a new audience starting with the very young for decades to come. Though I would argue that while The Beatles may have two dozen or more songs that are still considered standards, MJ only has five or six tops.
The DVD Number Ones, which has 15 Michael Jackson music videos, may not be enough for the hardcore Michael Jackson fan. I'm sure they could complain about what's missing (mercifully we are spared those songs he did with Paul McCartney, but it's also missing "Scream" with Janet Jackson and "Remember The Time" with Magic Johnson at his most magical). The DVD has no extras, no frills, just an easy menu that says, "play all."Continue Reading
Blur: No Distance Left to Run
You will never convince me that there was a more definitive group for the 1990s than Blur. With a manifesto to astutely chronicle pre-millennial anxiety in sharply observant pop songs such as "For Tomorrow," "Girls & Boys," and "The Universal," they were three impossibly good looking young men (plus possibly good looking drummer Dave) with wildly different personalities who created some of the most memorable songs of the last decade of the 20th century. As is so often the case with the best bands their personal clashes made for some wildly explosive creative tension. In Damon Albarn they had a singer who looked like Leonardo DeCaprio reconfigured as an anime character—Britpop's very own Astro Boy; he of the vintage Adidas zip-up, artfully messed up hair, and burning ambition to front the biggest band in the world. His good looks and arrogant attitude were coupled with an extraordinary talent for writing catchy tunes that were every bit as good as their obvious influences—Bowie, Scott Walker, The Kinks, Syd Barrett, The Buzzcocks, et al. In Graham Coxon they had "the most talented guitarist of his generation," the indie kid obsessed with American hardcore who played raggedy chords that bled emotion and aggression all over Albarn's sterling compositions. Graham gave Damon’s songs soul and in his shy demeanor and anti-pop tendencies was seen as Albarn's main adversary within the group. Alex was Blur’s jet setting bon vivant bass player. He was gorgeous, tall, gave the best press quotes, and seemed determined to cultivate a reputation as a champagne Charlie always looking for a good time with people equally famous and beautiful. Simultaneously detestable and wholly endearing at the height of his explorations into the decadence of celebrity culture, he was also the most charming member of the group. Dave the drummer was just lucky to be there, I think, though his egghead presence gave Blur some of their singular cache as the thinking boy and girl’s pop star pin ups.
Cute boys writing old fashioned pop songs may seem kind of typical now but circa 1993 when Blur became Blur as we know them it started nothing short of a British pop cultural revolution. They hit their stride by railing against grungy yank dominance and waiving a Union Jack as a slightly ironic act of defiance. Their third record Parklife was a massive hit and their fantastic songs showcasing a scrappy post modern grab bag ideology was as influential in Britain as the first wave of punk. It was all downhill from there of course and they disappointed themselves and their original fans with a hollow if massively successful follow up LP called The Great Escape. After a year or so despairing about spawning the xenophobic watershed of Cool Britannia they managed to redeem themselves and even win over the U.S. in the process with a moody and reflective self-titled fourth album that harkened back to their scruffier beginnings. Two more records followed the last without contributions from Graham who had left the group or was kicked out. No one is absolutely sure what happened. At that point Blur was over and no one expected them to return. But rumors started circulating last year that they were going to reunite for some summer shows in England. No Distance Left To Run is a documentary chronicling their reunion shows and finds time to tell their story from their Goldsmiths Art College origins to the rise–fall–redemption– reunion story arc the band dutifully followed.Continue Reading
Voltaic: Paris, France
Not being a fan of most concert films I usually watch them with a large grain of salt. I tend to find myself let down. However, in the case of Bjork’s newest release, Voltaic, I found myself pleasantly surprised.
Voltaic has been released in various packaging. You can find it solo on CD, a CD/DVD package and a Limited Edition two CD/two DVD version as well. FANCY! I would highly recommend the Limited Edition package for the most Bjork for your buck. It contains the studio recording, the Volta mixes [featuring mixes by RATATAT, MODESELEKTOR and SIMIAN MOBILE DISCO], two concert films [Paris, France and Reykjavik, Iceland], and the Volta music videos.Continue Reading
Antologia: Su Historia y Sus Exitos
Los Prisioneros formed in 1982 in San Miguel, Chile. This DVD covers the span of their career (before their reformation) from their early, ska-inflected, electro-punk pop songs to their lush, synthdance mega-hits that they made at the dawn of the '90s. Also included is an interview with singer Jorge Gonzalez and a few extra features that connect the contents with his narrative commentary.
The DVD begins with the band miming their song "Sexo" (with Jorge playing a broom instead of guitar) at his mom's house. The nattily dressed trio ham it up for the camcorder in what must've seemed like a goof to the inexperienced but talented band. For some reason they leave of the video for "La Voz de los '80" (one of their best) which they later performed on Sabados Gigantes which, at the time was still based in Chile (as well as pluralized) and helped catapault them to stardom.Continue Reading
Yes, it’s silly. For their second film with director Richard Lester, the Beatles abandoned the black-and-white, documentary-derived naturalism of A Hard Day’s Night for luscious color and a goofy plot spoofing the secret agent thrillers of the day. But Help! exhibits the energy and charm of its predecessor, thanks to its musical stars, who get a chance to cavort on some exotic locations.
The outline of the droll script may have been written on the back of a postage stamp. The Fab Four, playing “themselves” as before, are stalked by members of an Eastern cult, whose sacrificial ring has fallen into the hands (onto the hand?) of one Ringo Starr. An inept but nonetheless thoroughly mad scientist also covets the gem. The Beatles run from London to the Alps to the Bahamas in a fruitless attempt to elude their pursuers, abetted by a smitten priestess of the cult.Continue Reading