Strike A Pose (2016): An Interview With Co-Director Ester Gould

71e6e7c242045b1aefaf0a5aa90969f0In the late summer of 1989, Madonna held a series of dance auditions for her Blond Ambition world tour, eventually choosing seven virtually unknown male artists: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, José Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn and Gabriel Trupin. 

Camacho and Gutierez were possibly the best known of the group, members of the Harlem House Ball that became famous for ‘voguing’ (as seen in the ‘Paris Is Burning‘ documentary and Madonna’s ‘Vogue’ video).

The heightened environment of the Blond Ambition tour forged a bond between Madonna and the dancers but also conjured up some demons. ‘In Bed With Madonna‘ (AKA ‘Madonna: Truth Or Dare’), Alex Keshishian’s hugely successful 1991 film of the tour, had ramifications for the dancers too – three filed a lawsuit against Madonna, claiming she had invaded their privacy.

A fine new documentary ‘Strike A Pose’ catches up with six of the dancers nearly 30 years on (Trupin sadly died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995), investigating the impact that instant fame had on their lives and unveiling the deep, personal traumas that haunted many of them before, during and after the tour.

Co-directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, it’s a powerful, sometimes moving meditation on ageing, artistic integrity, celebrity and identity. I caught up with Gould to chat about the film.

MP: Where did the original idea for ‘Strike A Pose’ come from and was it easy getting the funding?

EG: The original idea was co-director Reijer Zwaan’s: he was 11 when he first saw ‘In Bed With Madonna’ and was immediately blown away by these seven dancers and the film’s bold, liberating message. For the first time in mainstream media, there was this wild, loud, fun-loving troupe of dancers who were being themselves – gay and happy. Over the years, Reijer wondered what had happened to those men. When he told me about the idea for the film, I immediately loved it. We did some online research and found out that there was an entire generation out there thanking these guys for helping them dare to be themselves. At the same time, it wasn’t till we met each of them separately in summer 2013 that we knew we had a film. Our premise was that these paragons of pride and self-expression had each, in their own way, struggled with shame and self-doubt. We always wanted ‘Strike A Pose’ to be more than a ‘where are they now?’ story. We were looking for a larger narrative. It took us about 18 months to finance the film mostly with Dutch government funds. There were questions about whether Madonna would be on board and how she’d be depicted; it’s strange that when there’s a celebrity in the picture there are always forces who want to attack or uncover some dirt. For us, it was never about that.

Was it difficult tracking down Luis, Oliver, Salim, Jose, Kevin and Carlton? And were they easily sold on the idea?

Thanks to social media it wasn’t that hard to find them, but it took some time to get some of them on board, specifically José and Luis. They were tired of people asking them to gossip about Madonna – how could they know we were any different? There was also some fear going back down memory lane perhaps because it had been so hard to move on with their lives after such an impactful experience. What persuaded them was our genuine interest in telling their stories.

The film is a powerful statement about the devastating physical and mental issues around HIV and AIDS, and also the social stigmas surrounding them. In that respect, ‘Strike A Pose’ feels just as relevant today as ‘In Bed With Madonna’ felt in 1991. Was it your intention to make a ‘statement’ or just tell an interesting story about these attractive, fascinating people?

We did want to make a statement, but for us that statement isn’t solely about HIV and AIDS. It was about the emotional consequences of hiding a part of yourself, of feeling unworthy of being loved. It’s really hard to dare to be yourself, to fully accept yourself, if you feel different for whatever reason. Because we all want to belong – it’s deeply engrained in human nature. Of course, gay rights and AIDS awareness have improved since the early ’90s. On another level, it’s one thing to be loud and provocative when you’re young, it’s another to accept yourself on a deeper level when you get older and reality kicks in.

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the 'Strike A Pose' premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

Reijer Zwaan and Ester Gould at the ‘Strike A Pose’ premiere, Tribeca Film Festival, New York City, April 2016

At any point did you seek a contribution from Madonna for the film, and has she made any public or private comment?

We did successfully reach out to her management and lawyers to secure the rights to use fragments of the original film. We also thought a lot about asking her to be part of ‘Strike A Pose’ but always felt like her presence could overshadow the whole film. In a strange way, she was the elephant in the room, because even if she had turned up at the reunion dinner, wouldn’t that somehow ruin the point that these young dancers have moved on, matured and become grown men? We did have one specific scene in mind, almost a title sequence at the end, which was to see these men and Madonna performing ‘Vogue’ once more on stage. We wrote to her about the scene but never got a reply. We do know that she has seen the film and liked it.

What’s your favourite scene in the movie and why?

My favourite scene is the one with José, his mother and her disappointment that he never managed to buy her a house. It’s really hard-hitting and there’s something painfully beautiful about the fact that José is translating what his mum is saying in Spanish, and at the same time he’s moved by what she’s saying, by her sadness that he’s messed up his professional career. We see two broken people and it’s such an honest scene about shattered dreams.

I agree. Your film reminded me a little of ‘Anvil! The Story Of Anvil’ in its depiction of fast fame and then the return to ‘normal life’, but you don’t go into much detail about the dancers’ professional lives after the Blond Ambition tour – was that a conscious decision or one forced by time constraints?

I would say it was mostly forced by time constraints but also for us it was more about this larger narrative that the individual facts. We wanted the film to be cathartic but it was quite hard to interweave all these individual life stories into one film. Also, the reunion of the dancers kind of got in the way of shedding more light on their current lives. Hopefully you do understand that they all still dance or teach dance and have overcome their darker moments. We end with the power of dance rather than talk about their lives today.

‘Strike A Pose’ has enjoyed a limited but successful run at the Dochouse in London but what’s next for the film? Will there be a DVD release?

The film will very soon be released on digital platforms in the UK. And then later this year it’ll be on Netflix, so there are lots of chances to see it.

This is a golden era for documentaries and ‘Strike A Pose’ is a fitting addition. Have you got another project in the pipeline?

I’ve just finished a six-part documentary series for Dutch public television, co-directed by Sarah Sylbing, which was a great success. It’s about the debt problem. We set out to make it as exciting and compelling as fiction, looking at ‘The Wire’ for inspiration. I’m still busy with the impact of that series. I’m also cooking up new ideas but it’s too early to say anything concrete. What I can say is that I love documentary filmmaking and have a lot of faith in its narrative power to reach audiences, especially since there is much more freedom now with genre and form.

‘Strike A Pose’ is still being shown at selected cinemas, details here.

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Fuzzbox: Self! Self! Self!

fuzzbox_big_bangThe 1980s are littered with bands who started out with the noblest of indie intentions, but then got seduced and/or corralled into major-label action. And they didn’t come much more indie than We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, the Birmingham-born-and-bred, all-female, John Peel-endorsed quartet which formed in 1985.

By 1988, though they had enjoyed a lone top 40 single, you probably wouldn’t have put much money on them making a claim for serious stardom. But against all odds, they spent most of 1989 as proper pop stars…

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Too young to appreciate their early stuff, I had only ever known their ‘pop’ period. But I hadn’t thought about them for over 25 years until the other day when I heard their 1989 single ‘Self’ on Absolute 80s. I was immediately impressed and intrigued; an irresistible slice of post-Frankie, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink pomp-pop, ‘Self’ features swooning synths, powerhouse drums, strident, Claudia Brucken-esque vocals, a brilliant chorus and even a saucy Brian May guitar solo. How did they do that?

It was all so different back in ’86. Their first UK single, a double A-side of ‘XX Sex’ and ‘Rules And Regulations‘, appeared on Vindaloo Records and reached number 41 in March of that year. In December, debut album Bostin’ Steve Austin was released, spawning hilarious first UK Top 40 single ‘Love Is The Slug’.

Further single releases included ‘Rocking With Rita (Head To Toe)’, featuring a version of ‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini’ on the B-side, and even a cover of ‘Spirit In The Sky’.

Clearly a change of direction was needed. Apparently it was WEA A&R gurus Rob Dickins and Bill Drummond who masterminded the band’s assault on the charts, recommending a shortening of their name to Fuzzbox, bringing in songwriter Liam ‘Walk Like An Egyptian’ Sternberg, putting more focus on lead singer Vickie Perks and recruiting session keyboard player Andy Richards to produce the Big Bang album.

Richards’ credentials were exemplary – prior to ’89 he had played on no less than eight ’80s UK number ones: Frankie’s ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’, George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’, Chris De Burgh’s ‘Lady In Red’ and the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘It’s A Sin’, ‘Always On My Mind’ and ‘Heart’. He had also recently produced Prefab Sprout’s ‘Hey Manhattan‘.

And, in the short-term, Richards did a sterling job – Big Bang went top 5 and Fuzzbox were pop stars. Three singles from the album got into the top 30 – the infuriatingly-catchy Sternberg co-writes ‘Pink Sunshine’ and ‘International Rescue‘ as well as ‘Self’. But the fourth single, a cover of Yoko’s ‘Walking On Thin Ice’, flopped, as did later stand-alone single ‘Your Loss My Gain’. Warners pulled the plug, probably prematurely.

But the story doesn’t end there. Fuzzbox made a comeback in 2010 with a spiffing cover of M’s ‘Pop Muzik’ but sadly lost founding member Jo Dunne in October 2012. After a brief hiatus, they reformed again in 2015 and have just finished touring with The Wonder Stuff. Their YouTube channel claims they are officially the most successful British all-female band. Dispute it at your peril…

Lovesexy Meets Ligeti: Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection

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ECM Records, released January 1989

9/10

It’s probably a good thing for a record label to have a USP, a recognisable visual concept and/or sound. It has certainly stood Blue Note, Impulse and 4AD in good stead. When one thinks of ECM, images of fjords, mountains or trees probably come to mind, alongside a certain sonic quality, a kind of rarefied ambience (producer/owner Manfred Eicher’s choice of reverb units are apparently almost as ‘secret’ as Colonel Sanders’ chicken recipe…).

The ECM formula worked for two decades. But then along came Terje Rypdal’s The Singles Collection in 1989 to throw a spanner in the works (though, admittedly, it does feature mountains on the cover…or are they fjords?!). Though the title is a joke – there are no ‘singles’ on the album – you wish more pop music was as bold as this collection which explores hard rock, early-’60s-style balladry, techno-fusion and even Prince-influenced funk to exciting and sometimes amusing effect.

The shorter tracks start out sounding a bit like Living In A Box jamming with Jeff Beck, before completely changing gear a minute in and turning into dark, introspective mood pieces with Messiaen chords and ethereal fretless bass. They chuck in the whole kitchen sink, as if desperate to avoid a boring listening experience. The ploy works. And, yes, it cannot be denied – this is the ECM album whose first track is titled ‘There Is A Hot Lady In My Bedroom And I Need A Drink’…

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Rypdal’s album feels very much like ECM’s black sheep of the family, despite coming from an artist was very much part of the furniture – the Norwegian guitarist/composer appeared on Jan Garbarek’s Afric Peppperbird from 1970, only the label’s seventh release.

Influenced by Hank Marvin, Beck, Bartok and Ligeti, and still very much active today, Rypdal is a weirdly unheralded figure, even though his Strat-with-distortion-and-whammy-bar sound and use of guitar loops are occasionally detectable in players like David Torn, Andy Summers and Allan Holdsworth.

The Singles Collection was the third album in a row where Rypdal hooked up with The Chasers, a cracking bass and drums team comprising of Bjorn Kjellemyr and Audun Kleive. But a vital ingredient here is the addition of keyboardist Allan Dangerfield who contributes three compositions and all manner of weird textures, stereophonic Synclavier drum/sequencer patterns and unhinged, hysterical Hammond organ solos very much in the style of Prince.

‘Sprøtt’ (Norwegian for ‘crazy’) sounds like an outtake from Jeff Beck’s Guitar Shop album with its chugging rockabilly rhythms and blistering lead guitar (in fact, the whole of The Singles Collection is very Guitar Shop-influenced).

Luscious noir ballad ‘Mystery Man’ will be familiar to fans of the Michael Mann movie ‘Heat’. If Mann hadn’t bagged it, you can bet David Lynch wouldn’t have been far behind. Maybe Dave can still put the gorgeous, glacial ‘Somehow, Somewhere’ to good use.

Elsewhere, ‘U’n’I’ fuses rockabilly and free-jazz beats with fusion bass, Ligeti chords and Van Halen guitar styles to thrilling effect. ‘Steady’ features some serious funk/rock riffing and another nutty Dangerfield solo.

The Singles Collection is also surely one of the least-streamed albums in history. The above clip is the only one to be found, even though it’s by no means representative of the album. Who knows, maybe ECM are keeping this Frankenstein’s monster under lock and key for as long as humanly possible… But if you’re intrigued, you can get The Singles Collection here.

Movie Review: The Rachel Papers (1989)

rachel papersHere’s a late, almost completely forgotten contender for the pretty short ‘film better than the book’ list. Writer/director Damian Harris’s ‘The Rachel Papers’, based on Martin Amis’s 1973 debut novel, crept out in May 1989 to mediocre reviews and underwhelming business.

At the time, the post-‘Mission‘, pre-‘Four Weddings’ British film industry was in its latest rut, unsure of its place in the global marketplace and reeling from massive government cuts.

But somehow ‘The Rachel Papers’ movie remains true to Amis’s irreverent, adolescent, sweary, very ‘London’ vision, while understandably playing down the overt racism, sexism and druggier aspects of the novel.

The plot centres around Charles Highway, a precocious, upper-middle-class tyke on the cusp of his 20th birthday. He’s no virgin (the title alludes to the secret ‘research files’ he keeps on all his previous conquests) but is desperate to sleep with an older woman before he hits his twenties. The lovely, intelligent, well-bred Rachel seems to fit the bill perfectly, but Charles gets a lot more than he bargains for when he pursues her. Falling in love wasn’t part of the plan, etc, etc…

He also has to contend with Rachel’s on/off American boyfriend DeForest. Charles does a fair bit of learning and ‘growing’, but with an agreeable lightness of touch. Most importantly, the movie rattles along at a good lick.

rachel papers

Ione Skye and Dexter Fletcher

I came across ‘The Rachel Papers’ completely by chance in the early ’90s when I was almost exactly Charles’s age, and it rang a lot of bells. Watching it again recently, I was pleased how well it stands up whilst obviously being very much of its time. The movie lives or dies by the casting of the Charles character – lead actor Dexter Fletcher carries it off with some aplomb. Often breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to camera, Charles is a fusion of Ferris Bueller and Alfie, basically a cocky, rather spoilt little prick with, as it turns out, a few deep-rooted insecurities. Fletcher (the recent director of ‘Eddie The Eagle’) brings just the right level of ratty, insouciant charm to Charles.

In Amis’s book, Rachel isn’t American – the casting of Ione Skye was apparently a studio-imposed decision, but it doesn’t upset the balance of the film at all. She does a great job in an underwritten role. She’s a fresh, natural, uplifting presence, carrying on from where she left off in the classic ‘Say Anything‘. James Spader delivers a typically superb performance as DeForest, mining the same smarmy, condescending schtick he so memorably employed in ‘Pretty In Pink‘.

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Skye, Spader, Fletcher

The film is also chock-a-block with other memorable character turns – Jonathan Pryce, Michael Gambon, Lesley Sharp, Aubrey Morris, Gina McKee and Claire Skinner do some great work, particularly Gambon as an amusingly-off-hand university interviewer. Ian Dury’s right-hand-man Chaz Jankel does a decent job with the soundtrack on top of some choice contributions from Shakespears Sister and John Martyn.

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Jonathan Pryce in ‘Rachel’

In the final analysis, ‘The Rachel Papers’ is the only Brit romcom I’ve seen that approaches something like ‘The Sure Thing‘. It’s irreverent and unpretentious but certainly not dumb. It’s a fairly accurate portrait of late-’80s London, bringing an appealing cheerfulness to the city without resorting to picture-postcard clichés (there’s not a shot of Big Ben or Trafalgar Square in sight). The sexual politics and shenanigans are also refreshingly upfront.

It’s surely due a remake, possibly with a bit more emphasis on the seedier aspects of the plot – the recent ‘Don John’ seems to touch on similar areas but looks like somewhat of a disaster area if the trailer is anything to go by. Don’t judge ‘The Rachel Papers’ by the trailer either, though, by the way…

Sly Meets Scritti: Tony LeMans’ 1989 Debut Album

downloadPaisley Park/Reprise, released 29th September 1989

Bought: Mr CD, Soho, 1992?

7/10

This is an intriguing, very promising, almost completely forgotten debut album by a young singer and songwriter who very sadly died only three years after its release.

I came across Tony LeMans completely by chance at the Mr CD shop on Berwick Street, Soho. It had piles and piles of albums at five quid a pop, quite a steal by ’90s standards. You just never knew what you would find, in the days when you would take a chance on an album just on the strength of the label, cover, musicians and/or producer. Me: I saw the words ‘Sylvester Stewart’, ‘David Gamson’ and ‘Paisley Park’ on the back and had to have it. I’m pretty sure I’d never have read about it in a magazine or seen it advertised on TV.

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Gamson plays keyboards and produces beautifully, fresh from Scritti Politti’s Provision. Tony LeMans was released on Prince’s Paisley Park Records – rumours were abound of the Purple One’s involvement, but he doesn’t appear.

But other ’80s funk masters do: Bernard Wright supplies some cracking wah-wah clavinet to a few tunes, though bassist Marcus Miller and guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. are fairly nondescript. Prince cohort Boni Boyer adds occasional back-up vocals alongside Michael Jackson collaborator Siedah Garrett (phenomenal on the opening ‘Higher Than High’).

The sonic clarity and mastering of Tony LeMans are outstanding; it would make a brilliant CD for auditioning a hi-fi. It’s also a real relief from the over-loud, over-compressed music of today. Musically and lyrically, it initially comes on like a ‘standard’ late-’80s pop/soul/funk album, but closer inspection reveals a strong psychedelic flavour. Mainly though, due to Gamson’s total involvement, the album sounds like Provision-era Scritti fronted by Sly Stone.

tony lemans

The opener ‘Highest High’ fuses the synth hook from Prince’s ‘Lovesexy’ with Sly’s ‘The Same Thing’ (though neither get a songwriting credit) to great effect. ‘Forever More’ is a luxuriant ballad with a fine falsetto vocal from LeMans and some classic Gamson chord changes, while ‘Good For You’ is an infectious, catchy slice of doo-wop-influenced pop.

There’s a bit too much filler on side two, but the closing ‘Different Kind Of Thing’ is possibly the stand-out and the nearest thing to a Prince song (very much influenced by ‘Erotic City’), though it was only an extra track on the original CD release.

LeMans toured the album in the States, sometimes supporting MC Hammer (!), and was recording his second Paisley Park album at the time of his death. It was due to feature a Prince composition called ‘Fuschia Light’. Sadly, we’ll probably never hear what it sounds like.

You can get hold of Tony LeMans and listen to it here.

Story Of A Song: Everything but the Girl’s ‘Driving’

drivingThe 1980s are littered with Brit pop bands going ‘across the pond’ to work with US producers and musicians – Aztec Camera, Scritti Politti, Love And Money, Wet Wet Wet and Simple Minds spring to mind, but the list goes on and on. It was almost a rite of passage, or – according to some music critics of the slightly more cynical persuasion – a desperate attempt at credibility.

You could hardly level that accusation at Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, AKA Everything but the Girl. They were headhunted by legendary producer Tommy LiPuma, who had just put the finishing touches to Miles Davis‘s Amandla, and their ‘Driving’ single (released in early 1990 but recorded spring 1989) seems a near-perfect marriage of US and UK sensibilities.

I confess I hardly knew anything about EBTG when my brother first played me ‘Driving’. I just heard something extremely classy, with intriguing chord changes, a great singer and strong jazz flavour. I didn’t know Tracey and Ben had spent much of the ’80s building up a considerable rep as ‘indie jazz/folk’ darlings of the music press and enjoying not inconsiderable commercial success too, but I was possibly vaguely familiar with Tracey’s gorgeous vocals on The Style Council’s ‘Paris Match‘, a favourite of my dad’s muso mates back in the mid-’80s.

Taken from The Language Of Life album, the song was recorded in LA at the famous Ocean Way and Sunset Sound studios with pretty much the finest session players money can buy (Omar Hakim on drums, John Patitucci on bass, Larry Williams on keys/arrangements, Michael Brecker on tenor). But, according to Tracey’s superb memoir ‘Bedsit Disco Queen‘, the American musicians were totally ignorant of the fiercely independent English scene from which Tracey and Ben had emerged. When Larry Williams found out that EBTG had recently recorded at Abbey Road, he blurted out: ‘Wow! Abbey Road! The home of the Beatles!’ Tracey’s reply? ‘God, I HATE the Beatles.’ There was a pregnant pause. Eventually Williams spluttered out: ‘You h-h-hate the Beatles?’ But you can imagine such ‘musical differences’ were all in a day’s work for EBTG.

‘Driving’ obviously sounds more like Anita Baker (I’d love to hear her cover it) than, say, The Smiths. It’s sophisticated but still has bite, with rich chords, an intriguing ABAA structure and glorious Brecker solo (inexplicably with a different, inferior take on my 7” vinyl version). Ostensibly a song about ‘cars and boys’ (though written solely by Ben Watt), maybe one could read it as a clear concession to the US marketplace. Or is it the un-ironic response to Prefab’s ‘Cars And Girls‘?

tracey thorn

‘Driving’ became somewhat of an airplay hit in the States (though surprisingly only reached #54 in the UK), and led to several high-profile US gigs which nevertheless unfortunately seemed to precipitate a crisis of confidence for Tracey. The live band, which included future smooth jazz star Kirk Whalum on sax, whipped the crowds into a frenzy night after night, but there wasn’t much space for her subtle, low-key vocals any more. Cue a few years of soul-searching and a distinct change of direction exemplified by 1994’s Amplified Heart.

But re-reading Tracey’s book and listening again to the sublime ‘Driving’ have given me a new admiration for her writing (and music), and a keenness to check out a lot more of Everything but the Girl’s ’80s work. Only took me 25 years.