Unforgettable hero and trailblazer.
Unforgettable hero and trailblazer.
Looking at the trailer and publicity for James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau biopic ‘The Disaster Artist’, it’s hard to ignore the ‘King Of Comedy’ comparisons. Featuring Robert De Niro’s fascinating and detailed turn as anti-hero Rupert Pupkin, Martin Scorsese’s classic black comedy was released 35 years ago today.
If Wiseau didn’t actually exist, Hollywood would probably have to invent him. Recent American cinema is full of Wiseaus and Pupkins – desperate characters, probably a few cards short of a full deck, who will do almost anything to make it.
Pupkin passive-aggressively stalks celebrities for their autographs, but then comes to believe that he is owed a shot at fame. Talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is his passport to success – Pupkin and disturbed rich-girl Masha, brilliant played by Sandra Bernhard, kidnap him. Pupkin then demands the opening monologue on Langford’s nightly TV show.
If ‘The King Of Comedy’ had been made today, it would probably be hailed as a modern classic, a fable for our times, a coruscating attack on narcissism, celebrity culture and unchecked ambition. It’s ‘Nightcrawler’ meets ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. But it stiffed on its original release (not helped by a substandard trailer – see below), grossing barely $3 million against a $19 million budget.
The studio didn’t know how to market it, trying to sell it as a knockabout comedy. Scorsese sensed the bad vibes gathering around the film long before it was released, telling writer Peter Biskind, ‘A close friend of mine told me “The buzz is bad.” I hate that. When the buzz is bad, people don’t want to be associated with the picture. But they were right – the film was a bomb. It’s called “The King Of Comedy”, it’s Jerry Lewis, and it’s not a comedy. Already it’s a problem…’
Yes, it sometimes feels like a succession of skits strung together, almost in the style of Brian De Palma’s early films ‘Greetings’ and ‘Hi Mom’. And it would be nice to get a bit more access to Pupkin and Masha’s backgrounds. But Scorsese, Lewis, De Niro and Bernhard, working instinctively from ex-Newsweek film critic’s Paul D Zimmerman’s slight but intriguing story, create something toxic and completely memorable.
Scorsese fills the screen with significant minor characters, mainly playing themselves and recruited from the ‘real’ TV world, and he obviously has deep respect for Lewis and all he stands for (though has less respect for the all-pervading, gossipy influence of TV culture). Bernhard, prodded by De Niro, is superb, given free rein by Scorsese to improvise freely: ‘I cover the waterfront, remember that!’ she bawls at Pupkin, just before one of the director’s typically bracing cuts.
There are many excruciating moments: Pupkin’s arrival at the Langford house (De Niro apparently screamed antisemitic abuse at Lewis to elicit the correct level of outrage in his response to having his golf game interrupted) and Masha’s ‘seduction’ of Langford. Is his violence towards her justified? Over to you. I’m not sure. And then there’s Pupkin’s monologue, shown in one long take with no cutaways – Scorsese and De Niro dare us to laugh at this schmuck, and it’s unsettling when one or two of his gags hit the spot.
‘The King Of Comedy’ is the De Niro/Scorsese collaboration I return to the most. Nobody gets killed, but a lot of people get hurt. Very hurt indeed. And it bears repeated viewings: recently I noticed an intruder in the restaurant scene where Pupkin tries to persuade his ‘girlfriend’ Rita to accompany him to Langford’s. Check him out. He’s behind Pupkin, mocking him throughout. I take it he’s supposed to stand in for the entire film-going audience.
The films of Alan Clarke generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file. Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shined a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.
Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work between 1978 and 1989. And what a pleasure to discover another lost classic inside: David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play. For some reason, it was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances – a serious oversight.
Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (‘cosy’ Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), ‘Baal’ was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen. According to producer Louis Marks, he didn’t take much persuading to play the role, jumping at the chance to portray the ultimate ‘super-punk’ and also already being a fan of Clarke’s work. He was also reportedly undemanding and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.
Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour. Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic ‘alienating’ Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence. He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent ‘Baal EP’, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.
‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing, but their comments make for amusing reading. It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after it was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.
Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly
14th April 1982, Westlake Studios, Los Angeles: the recording sessions for Thriller commence. Producer Quincy Jones gathers his ‘crew’ – including mixing engineer Bruce Swedien, MJ and chief songwriter/arranger Rod Temperton – for a pep-talk. ‘We’re here to save the music business’, it begins…
It might sound a bit dramatic but the global recession of the 1980s was very much impacting a post-disco, pre-Madonna/Prince recording industry too. The team-talk worked: Thriller – released 35 years old today – is by far the biggest-selling non-greatest-hits album of all time.
For some, it’s bland, over-familiar and inferior to Jackson’s previous album Off The Wall. For this writer it’s the last truly great example of song-led, musician-crafted, post-disco R’n’B, beautifully produced, arranged and mastered. And Jackson was absolutely at the top of his game and still relatively ‘normal’.
Thriller was the soundtrack to 1983 and 1984 in my corner of London, loved by geeks, sporty kids, BMX riders and B-Boys alike. But sometimes it feels so familiar that it defies analysis. Here are a few aspects that jumped out during a recent reappraisal:
13. Michael’s lyrics. These are disturbing, ominous visions. ‘You’re a vegetable!’ he sneers on opener ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’. ‘Billie Jean’ is about a deranged stalker, though Jackson claims she is a ‘composite’ of many obsessive fans. Is it any wonder he struggled with fame?
12. The African chant in ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, stolen from Manu Dibango’s superb ‘Soul Mokassa’.
11. Paulinho Da Costa’s African percussion and cuica on ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’.
10. Jerry Hey’s string arrangements on ‘The Girl Is Mine’ and ‘Billie Jean’. He supplies superb horn parts throughout Thriller but his strings are often neglected.
9. Tom Scott’s Lyricon interjections during the chorus of ‘Billie Jean’, a contribution that has sadly been left off the credits of many subsequent reissues.
8. The brilliant rhythm guitar playing throughout from David Williams, Paul Jackson Jr. and Steve Lukather.
7. For me, ‘Beat It’ is the weakest song on the album by some stretch (despite the great guitar riff and brilliant solo), but intriguingly it was apparently Jackson’s response to a Quincy remark that Thriller needed a ‘black version of “My Sharona”’!
6. Rod Temperton’s compositions throughout, and also his superb vocal arrangements – check out how he uses Michael’s stacked background vocals.
5. Greg Phillinganes’ superb Rhodes and synth bass work, particularly on the title track.
4. Ndugu Chancler’s drums, enhanced by Bruce Swedien’s sonic mastery. Have there ever been better-recorded drums than on ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘PYT’? According to Swedien: ‘I ended up building a drum platform and designing some special little things, like a bass drum cover and a flat piece of wood that goes between the snare and the hi-hat’.
3. Steve Lukather’s gorgeous guitar counterpoint throughout ‘Human Nature’, particularly in the closing 20 seconds.
2. Michael’s vocals. On ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, he sounds like three or four different singers. His backups throughout are also pretty special, and he takes ‘The Lady In My Life’ out.
1. Quincy knew that every song would have to be a killer, covering all styles. Around 30 compositions were considered. Among the many demo’d but scrapped included ‘She’s Trouble’, ‘Niteline’, ‘Carousel’ (only binned at the eleventh hour), ‘Got The Hots’ and ‘Hot Street AKA Slapstick’. These were all new to me until this week, but I’ve developed a particular liking for the Quincy/Jackson co-write ‘Got The Hots’:
I don’t know if it was sparked by reading MOJO’s recent article about the 40th anniversary of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, but everything’s going punk round my way at the moment.
I’ve been enjoying Steve Jones’s hilarious autobiography, revisiting Jon Savage’s essential ‘England’s Dreaming’ and the superb BBC doc ‘Punk And The Pistols’. Then I was pleased to find myself near the site of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s Sex shop during a King’s Road sojourn last week.
There’s a unifying factor joining all these aspects that I’d never noticed before: Croydon. Yes, Croydon. For those readers outside the London area, it’s a large town just to the south-east of the capital (and these days officially a London borough) with a pretty bad rep as far as popular culture is concerned.
David Bowie possibly spoke for many in 1999 when he told Q magazine: ‘I’ve got this thing about Croydon. It was my nemesis. It represented everything I didn’t want in life, everything I wanted to get away from. I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about somebody or something: “God, it’s so f***ing Croydon!” I haven’t been back in a few years but I guess things take on a certain beauty if there’s distance…’
But maybe Bowie got it totally wrong. Maybe Croydon has various claims to hipness. After all, the opening chapters of ‘England’s Dreaming’ outline what an influential place the Croydon School Of Art was in the late ’60s: key Sex Pistols agitators Malcolm McLaren and Jamie Reid studied there, as did future ‘Pop Muzik’ star Robin Scott who described it as ‘like nowhere else’, adding that ‘the Saturday morning market in Surrey Street was full of intrigue and corruption, very lurid.’ All three were involved in various anarchist/Situationist hijinks during their time there, laying the foundations for the Pistols.
But it’s ex-Damned bassist Captain Sensible who perhaps best evokes l’essence de Croydon. This song, performed hilariously in the aformentioned ‘Punk And The Pistols’, kickstarted his ’80s solo career. I have nothing but good memories of his music around this period and I’ll be revisiting it. It’ll be hard to top this affecting little number though – about all our hometowns.
Produced by Marvin Gaye
Recorded: December 1981 – August 1982
Estimated worldwide sales: 2.5 million
Album chart positions: #7 (US) #10 (UK)
Marvin Gaye: ‘I wasn’t going to peddle myself like I was some new kid on the block. I didn’t want to hear about any rejections, so I went about it differently. I decided what I wanted – to be with the biggest and best record company in the world – and I made it happen. No matter what, I couldn’t come up with another art album. After all, CBS was digging me out of a hole, paying off the IRS, Anna (Gordy, his ex-wife), the feds, the whole works. I felt like an old vet, a seasoned ballplayer who’d been traded to another team that still had faith in him. I owed CBS something – at least a couple of grand slams…’
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