The Crap Movie Club: Heaven’s Gate (1980)

It’s difficult to view a film like ‘Heaven’s Gate’ these days shorn of all the hoo-ha that accompanied its troubled production and disastrous cinematic release (outlined in the definitive book and documentary ‘Final Cut‘). But let’s give it a try.

It was of course the notorious movie that destroyed United Artists and pretty much ended the New Hollywood ideal of director-as-auteur; the $44 million turkey which grossed just $1.2 million at the box office. Writer/director Michael Cimino went looking for ‘the poetry of America’ in his film about the Johnson County War of 1896, when the Wyoming Stock Growers’ Association decided that new settlers – mainly poor, immigrant homesteaders – were stealing cattle, decreeing that 125 of these so-called thieves be hunted down and either hung or shot.

Though Cimino’s film ends with a battlefield bloodbath (including many horses in apparent physical peril which led him into a further unwanted lawsuit), history records that ‘only’ two people lost their lives in the Johnson County War. But, defending his screenplay and movie to the end, Cimino clung steadfastly to one of his directing/writing credos: ‘I use history freely’.

But, historical license aside, how much of a turkey is ‘Heaven’s Gate’ really? Can any movie starring Kris Kristofferson, Jeff Bridges, Christopher Walken, Brad Dourif, Mickey Rourke, Sam Waterston, John Hurt and Isabelle Huppert really be such a dog? Yes. ‘Heaven’s Gate’ is that special kind of crap movie, the indulgent folly that spews elongated scenes out all over the place in the hope that something will stick.

Vilmos Zgismond’s camerawork is of course gorgeous; grainy and sepia-tinged, frequently reminiscent of the era’s stills photography. The movie frequently delivers the awesome image, including one famous panning shot across immense smokestack chimneys and hoards of wandering, displaced immigrants. The Oxford-filmed opening graduation ceremony is also plush, striking and gloriously evocative.

Jeff Bridges. Isabelle Huppert and Kris Kristofferson

But then there’s the inaudible dialogue and strange, schizoid reaction shots. As the film progresses, Kristofferson becomes more and more inactive and dramatically impotent, while Bridges, Dourif, Hurt and Rourke are chronically underused. Huppert is virtually incomprehensible in a fairly thankless role (turned down by every major female star of the era including Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton).

Cimino’s war metaphor in ‘The Deer Hunter’ was Russian roulette, but this time it’s endless cock-fighting, waltzing and rollerskating. He clearly feels that the film says something important about America’s treatment of its poor and disenfranchised (and it’s certainly interesting viewing that aspect through modern eyes), but unfortunately the scenes of political wrangling/bargaining are interminable.

Pauline Kael memorably said that it was easy to think about what to leave out of ‘Heaven’s Gate’ but hard to think what to leave in. That’s the impression left with this writer too. Quite frankly, apart from the stunning photography, one of the few pleasures watching the film again was spotting the gorgeous Rosie (‘Roseanne’ in the credits) Vela’s small but important cameo (see below). ‘Magic Smile’ indeed.

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Movie Review: Command And Control (2016)

cmd-ctl-movieThis is a golden age for documentaries, and, in its own way, ‘Command And Control’ may just be as powerful as 2012’s BAFTA-winning ‘The Act Of Killing’. As nail-biting as any Hollywood thriller and carrying a terrifying message, it’s also a remarkably timely film given this week’s Theresa May Trident controversy.

Based on the book by acclaimed journalist and author Eric Schlosser (‘Fast Food Nation’, ‘Reefer Madness’), Robert Kenner’s documentary looks in detail at the notorious accident of September 1980 at the Damascus underground nuclear base in Arkansas, when the fuel tank of an idle Titan II missile was damaged – with disastrous consequences.

Meticulously researched and beautifully paced, the film expands into a shocking and riveting exposé of the US nuclear industry. Testimonies of the accident survivors are heartfelt, often surprising and occasionally moving, describing a world where human error can be catastrophic and is usually the result of an unreliable – and sometimes unjust – system.

Any event which leads to loss of life can hardly be classed as a ‘near miss’, but Damascus could easily have been a lot worse – we learn that Vice President Walter Mondale and Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton were just 46 miles down the road at a Democratic convention in Little Rock when the accident happened. They would have been pulverized if the warhead had exploded, along with thousands – if not millions – of other citizens.

The scary facts pile up: during the Cold War, it was believed that the US needed between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons to keep up with the Soviet Union – there are currently around 7,000 nuclear weapons on US soil and surrounding oceans, including approximately 500 primed and ready to go. And some experts estimate that 1,000 similar accidents to the one at Damascus have occurred in the US since the advent of nuclear weaponry.

According to Schlosser, the fact that there hasn’t been more loss of life is down to the excellence of the weapons designers and bravery of the (mostly very young) site engineers. But mostly it’s down to luck. And the thing about luck is that it eventually runs out, as ‘Command And Control’ so harrowingly depicts.

 

 

The Crap Movie Club: One-Trick Pony (1980)

paul simonBy his own admission, Paul Simon had some very lean years between his 1975 classic Still Crazy After All These Years and 1986’s multi-million selling, multi-Grammy-winning Graceland. His 1983 album Hearts And Bones was a major flop despite featuring some fine songs and great musicianship.

But the real nadir was ‘One-Trick Pony’. I stumbled across it very late at night on British TV in the late ’90s and was instantly gripped. It’s that special kind of crap movie – the ‘rock star’ vanity project with a gallon of overreaching ambition. To say it hasn’t aged well would be a huge understatement, though, as with most genuinely bad films, it features a myriad of guilty pleasures too…

In 1980, Simon clearly wanted to celebrate his new Warner Bros record contract with a bang (he’d just jumped ship from CBS) but who persuaded him that a self-written, autobiographical movie was the answer? His screen persona was hitherto based pretty much on one (admittedly superb) cameo in Woody Allen’s ‘Annie Hall’.

But in ‘One-Trick Pony’ he tried to carry an entire movie with just two default settings: he’s either bopping around the stage, sweaty and somewhat bug-eyed, trying desperately to ‘rock’ (in Joe Queenan’s memorably cruel words, Simon is ‘too short to rock’n’roll, too young to die’), or he’s sulky and morose, peering doe-eyed into the middle distance, desperately trying to be adorable.

Simon plays Jonah Levin, a once-popular folk-rock artist who has fallen on hard times (see what he did there?) and now reduced to hawking his band (Steve Gadd, Tony Levin, Richard Tee and Eric Gale) around the Midwest, supporting bands like the B-52’s (who are held up as an example of the ‘hideous’ way the recording industry is going, but whose schtick is so much more vital and life-affirming than Simon’s supposedly ‘raw’ music…).

Jonah’s relationship with his estranged wife – Blair Brown in a completely thankless role – is terminally dull, with undramatic longueurs and clunking one-liners. There’s also some excruciating stuff with Jonah’s ‘cute’ son. You know the kind of thing – lots of ‘whatever happens, Daddy loves you, OK?’-type dialogue and cloying shenanigans with baseball mitts and copying Daddy shaving at the mirror.

From a muso perspective, you might well ask how a movie so heavily featuring superstar players such as Gadd, Gale, Tee and Levin can be outright crap. Well, the novelty effect lasts a few minutes but after that you can only feel for these gents – they’re given pretty thankless roles, playing a fairly tasteless ‘dead pop stars’ quiz in the car, reading out gig reviews and endlessly checking into dodgy hotels. Poor Richard Tee and Eric Gale look the most uncomfortable.

Jonah’s dealings with the record-biz ‘suits’ in ‘One-Trick Pony’ are presumably based on Simon’s disagreements with his previous employers CBS Records, and they produce the only enjoyable sections of the film. Rip Torn is reliably gruff though resolutely uncomical in his impersonation of legendary CBS hatchet man Walter Yetnikoff, but Lou Reed clearly relishes his cameo as a jobsworth producer; he’s desperate to add strings, horns and backing vocals to Jonah’s stripped-down tracks. Cue a lingering close-up of David Sanborn letting rip on alto, though we’re never sure if this is meant to be a Bad Thing or even a joke – to this viewer, it seemed like the first bit of decent music in the movie.

Oh yeah. The music. The soundtrack of course did a hell of a lot better than the movie – great single ‘Late In The Evening‘ featured a Steve Gadd groove almost as influential as ’50 Ways To Leave Your Lover’ and even made the top 10 in the States.

To be fair to Simon, he had sorted out his screen persona by the time of the ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video in 1986, settling on a kind of faux-naif ‘everyman’ figure with some aplomb. He was also pretty funny in Steve Martin’s ‘Homage To Steve’ short from the same year. But let’s just rejoice that he hasn’t returned to the world of feature films since (or has he? Ed).

The Pop Group: Where There’s A Will…

pop groupPunk’s tributaries reached far and wide post-1976. Save country and classical, there was barely a music genre that wasn’t affected by it (someone should write a book about the number of early Pistols, Ramones, Clash and Damned fans who went on to form bands).

But one of the most singular and unclassifiable collectives to emerge from the punk boom was Bristol’s The Pop Group, who just for a few years fused all their passions – reggae, dub, free jazz, funk, Erik Satie, Beat poetry, Dadaism, Situationism – into a gloriously chaotic unit.

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I don’t know a better band for annoying the neighbours. At their best, The Pop Group sound a bit like an avant-garde jazz band trying and somehow failing to play like Chic with a psychotic politician screaming over the top, all passed through Adrian Sherwood’s dub effects. But they are pretty damn exciting in small doses and offer textures that are genuinely surprising. I usually turn to them as an antidote to the Ed Sheerans and Ellie Gouldings of this world. They also came up with some of the best cover artwork of their era.

The Pop Group emerged from a gang of West Country teenage music fans called The Bristol Funk Army who apparently would wear zoot suits and brothel creepers and listen to heavy ’70s funk. Meanwhile, vocalist/lyricist and Last Poets fan Mark Stewart was getting a serious political awakening, hellbent on documenting his research into consumerism, nuclear power and US foreign policy.

The band’s lifespan was pretty brief, limited to two albums (the debut Y was produced by UK reggae legend Dennis Bovell) and three classic singles – ‘She Is Beyond Good And Evil‘ (not about Thatcher, according to Stewart), ‘We Are All Prostitutes‘ and ‘Where There’s A Will’, which was released as a double A-side with The Slits’ ‘In The Beginning There Was Rhythm’ in March 1980.

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They apparently lost thousands of pounds of revenue by mainly playing benefit gigs for Cambodia and Scrap The Sus (stop and search law). It was a very volatile time and they definitely put their money where their mouth was – they once even had to do a benefit for themselves to raise some cash! Their last gig before an amicable parting of the ways was the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament benefit in Trafalgar Square on 26th October 1980 in front of 250,000 people.

Mark Stewart spent the rest of the ’80s pursuing a fascinating solo career, of which much more later, while Gareth Sager and Bruce Smith formed Rip Rig & Panic (later featuring Neneh Cherry on vocals), and Smith has also been PiL’s drummer since the mid-’80s. The Pop Group’s sound has also been massively influential on a host of punk/funk bands over the last 20 years or so including Radio 4, Primal Scream and LCD Soundsystem.

And guess what – they are back among us again. They released a superb comeback album in 2015 – Citizen Zombie, produced by Adele helmer Paul Epworth – and have played live fairly regularly since 2011. It’s a pleasure to report that the rage and weirdness are very much still there.

But back to ‘Where There’s A Will’. This recently unearthed clip has become a favourite of mine (I love the studious Belgian host attempting to make some sense of this insanity), an antidote for anaemic, safe music everywhere. Not even Chris Morris could have come up with anything more grippingly bizarre.

For much more about The Pop Group and early ’80s music, check out Simon Reynolds’ excellent ‘Rip It Up And Start Again‘.

Story Of A Song: Bill Bruford’s Palewell Park

The 1980s were a pretty good time to be a songwriting drummer; Sheila E, Phil Collins and Don Henley all flourished, and probably a few more too.

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Bruford in 2008

Not that masterful Yes/King Crimson sticksman Bill Bruford – one of my all-time favourites – had any particular desire to match their commercial standing as the decade got underway. He was quite happy gaining harmonic knowledge (with the assistance of keyboardist Dave Stewart), making sizeable contributions to the percussion community and composing incredible pieces of music like ‘Palewell Park’.

In a way, it was the culmination of his work with the Bruford group which had released three studio albums between 1978 and 1980, two featuring the brilliant Allan Holdsworth on guitar.

Palewell Park, East Sheen, London

Palewell Park, East Sheen, London

This track has a special resonance for me as Palewell Park was a childhood hangout, site of many great cricket, tennis and football games as well as a fair few teenage hijinks. Bruford apparently lived nearby during the piece’s recording at Surrey Sound in Leatherhead (also the studio The Police used for their first two albums) and wanted to write a little ode to the area. I couldn’t have written a better one myself!

Someone on YouTube very aptly described ‘Palewell Park’ as ‘a contemporary piece for piano and bass’. It doesn’t fit comfortably into any genre, but it’s a pretty remarkable composition coming from the pen of a ‘drummer’, and one who doesn’t even feature on his own composition (Stewart played the piano)!

Jeff Berlin, Jon Clark, Dave Stewart, Bill Bruford in 1980

Jeff Berlin, Jon Clark, Dave Stewart, Bill Bruford in 1980

The 26-year-old Jeff Berlin lays down one of the great pieces of post-Jaco bass playing. With just a touch of chorus pedal, he sticks to the pretty treacherous melody in the first half and then stretches out to play a fantastic solo over the changes, a total lesson in melody construction, with no gimmicks.

I wish I could unreservedly recommend the rest of the Gradually Going Tornado album – there are certainly a few other corkers (‘Joe Frazier‘, ‘Gothic 17′, ‘Land’s End‘) but in general Berlin’s vocals are a bit of a hinderance.

Next up for Bill was a reunion with Robert Fripp and one of the great albums of the ’80s, King Crimson’s Discipline, which we’ll return to soon.

The Dude Abides: Johnny Guitar Watson’s Love Jones

johnny guitar watsonDJM Records, released 1980

When it comes to the arts, ‘nobody knows anything’, as screenwriter William Goldman famously claimed. But the music biz sure knows a good formula when it sees one. And in the late-1970s and early ’80s, formulas didn’t come much more successful than Johnny Guitar Watson’s. His fusion of funk, blues, disco, jazz and R’n’B even gave Parliament/Funkadelic and Earth, Wind & Fire a run for their money.

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He was simply one of the coolest musicians ever to walk the planet. A Texan blues master who influenced many guitarists including Frank Zappa (the two would collaborate regularly in the ’70s and ’80s), Watson relaunched his sound with Ain’t That A Bitch in 1977, a superb marriage of hilarious lyrics, double-tracked vocals, cool Stevie/Sly/Curtis grooves, ambitious horn arrangements and searing guitar solos.

It was a big success and Watson spent the rest of the ’70s repeating the formula with minor variations and, to be honest, diminishing returns. But on 1980’s Love Jones, Johnny expanded his sound to include influences from P-Funk (which he had started flirting with on the previous year’s What The Hell Is This), gospel, bebop, bossa-nova, Afro-beat, hip-hop and even country, and the result is one of the weirdest but most interesting albums of his career. A lot of it sounds very rushed, as if his mind wasn’t really on the job, but that sometimes works in its favour!

Johnny_Guitar_Watson_1977Ain’t That A Bitch hooked me right away. My dad had a knackered old cassette copy which came in a really horrible silver-and-yellow design, but for some reason I was fascinated by it. There was something seriously dodgy about the cover photo, title and…everything, really. But then I listened to it. By the late ’80s, I was getting into Sly, Stevie and The Isleys, so Bitch fitted in like a dream and became an essential soundtrack to summer 1989.

With hindsight, Johnny should be included alongside Sly, Prince, D’Angelo, Stevie and Lewis Taylor as one of soul music’s finest multi-instrumentalists – on his great albums of the 1970s and early ’80s, he plays all the keyboards, bass, guitars and some drums, as well as producing and arranging. His keyboard playing gives guys like Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann a run for their money, and he even once recorded a whole album of piano/vocal ballads, 1963’s I Cried For You.

Love Jones kicks off with the infectious ‘Booty Ooty’, powered by the great, unsung drummer Emry Thomas, which adds a touch of P-Funk to Johnny’s classic horn-driven sound. The title track is a fairly cheesy soul ballad, while ‘Goin’ Up In Smoke’ continues his strand of state-of-the-nation political funk/blues tunes which began with Ain’t That A Bitch‘s title track in ’76. ‘Close Encounters’ is just plain odd, a bossa-nova with some funny lyrics about a mistaken love affair – ‘It was close encounters of the wrong kind’!

His update of ‘Lone Ranger’ is a classic, featuring some outrageous vocal scatting and some nutty electric piano and bass solos. The gospel curio ‘Jet Plane’ has a criminally-out-of-tune bass, badly-recorded keyboards and amateurish drums (presumably played by Johnny), but it still works. Ditto the seriously weird ‘Children Of The Universe’, a country-rock coming-of-age piece which sounds like The New Seekers backing Sly Stone.

But Love Jones‘s centrepiece is of course the mighty ‘Telephone Bill’, oft cited as one of the first rap tracks. In 1994, Watson was asked if he had anticipated the hip-hop movement: “Anticipated? I damn well invented it! And I wasn’t the only one. Talkin’ rhyming lyrics to a groove is something you’d hear in the clubs everywhere from Macon to Memphis. Man, talkin’ has always been the name of the game. When I sing, I’m talkin’ in melody. When I play, I’m talkin’ with my guitar. I may be talkin’ trash, baby, but I’m talkin’!”. Yessir, but more importantly the track features his best guitar solo on record, an amazing mash-up of bebop (check out the ‘Salt Peanuts‘ quote), blues and angular fusion.

Compared to the lush, meticulously-arranged Ain’t That A Bitch, Love Jones sounds like a series of demos but it still works, like pretty much all of Johnny’s music. He carried on touring and recording right through to his death in 1996. I wish I’d seen him play live. See ya, Johnny.