Saturday, August 6, 2016

#15 Scratch (2001)

It took a while, but I finally managed to pop the dvds from the "Scratch" / "Freestyle" double-box in the player. First up was "Scratch". A 15 year old film by now, but the enthusiasm and talent in it will never get old. What a joy seeing folks like Mixmaster Mike cutting it with a playfulness and inventiveness that in a way defies expectations of what is possible on a somewhat limited "instrument".

Not being part of the scene - living on the other side of the planet - I would have a hard time being informed on every single player in it. Also, I'm not even part of the "local scene" in Denmark. I do know several of them, the obvious being the likes of Afrika Bambaata, Mixmaster Mike, Qbert and DJ Shadow. The good thing is that the film serves as a great introduction to a whole line of other talents (and obviously, much has happened since 2001). Known or presumably pretty unknown.

The film knows it also has an educational purpose, so both history and techniques in scratching is explored. Sets a few facts straight and help the rest of us get a bit wiser on the artform. Still, of course mystery triggers creativity. Like the film exemplifies in an interview where Mixmaster Mike tells the story of the first time he heard the sound of scratching - without seeing it. He ended up recreating it on his tape recorder. There you go, he-he.

The music you take in in your teens stays with you forever. For me that was back in 1989-1991 with acts like Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and De La Soul etc. when these reached Danish shores. When it all went gangsta and bling with stupid aggression and superficiality I lost interest. The fire was rekindled around 2003 or so when I heard the album "Sloppy Doctor" by Bleubird. Although I was in on DJ Shadow's "Endtroducing" from the start in 1996, but I guess it spoke just as much to my taste for instrumental music then. Around 2003 I also got into the more progressive stuff from the Anticon label. I finally discovered that the genre still had plenty to offer.

Upon relistening the oldies I used to have on home-copied tapes I found that I still remembered every note, break and word (or the sound of the word). This time I even understood the lyrics! Sure, I sensed the lunacy in the Beasties and rage and urgency in Public Enemy, but the details were mostly lost on me first time around. Now I could appreciate it all over again. I was just a young countryside suburban middle class kid when rap and hip-hop first hit the world in all its creative glory. But it's stayed with me ever since. Which is partly why I of course enjoy a film such as "Scratch".

The films comes as a special edition 2-disc set in the box alongside "Freestyle" (so that's three discs in total). Disc 2 has various instructional extras and previous of other things. It also says it's a digitally restored widescreen transfer. Still, the film is a bit lo-fi... and probably all the more better for it. Keep it real, right?

/ Lars

IMDB - Wikipedia

Monday, May 5, 2014

#14 A Band Called Death (2012)

It seems there was always someone doing something before that someone you thought did it first... did it (is that even a sentence?). And the art of tracking the punk rock genre back further and further has become a bit of a sport. Now someone claims it to be a band called Death. And depending on how you label your music they were the earliest ones - that is, if you call Iggy & The Stooges "proto punk" instead of "punk", for instance. Anyways... one of the things that made Death special was that it was an all black band... playing "white boy music". And their name.

I saw "A Band Called Death" at the recent Spot Film Festival in Aarhus, Denmark. The film tells the story of three young black brothers inspired by The Who recording an album's worth of material - but only cutting a single - in the early 70s and not going anywhere with it (I'm wondering: They rehearsed, they recorded, but we never really hear of live shows. Maybe that was the problem?). Presumably they got turned down mostly because of their name. After years of rejection the band drifts apart and... yes, you guessed it: Many years later someone finds a 7-inch and before you know it you got a proper underground record geek hype on your hands.

In the film the two surviving brothers are sad about the loss of their brother, but seem very happy to finally tell their story. It does get a bit tiresome having them show you around saying: This is where we did this and this is where we did that, as if it all had significant meaning. And in true American fashion they of course "get the band back together" and go out and play again. But only after the film spends a lot of time telling their story. Maybe a bit too much, as it gets a bit longwinded after a while. But the protagonists in the story are genuine characters and very likable. Sweet old reggae musicians, actually. But the attention on the people themselves does overshadow the actual music. They cut a few good tracks. And maybe was punk before punk. But the film tries to cut the punk-before-punk angle so sharp that one wishes the director would ease off it a bit.

The story is the classic one of "overlooked genius" (not quite sure, but I'll go with "talented"). And the film tells it in the most formulaic way. And this is where the movie doesn't deliver completely. Both the subject matter and the way the film decides to present it is just too predictable. Overall the production is nice and professional, though. And yes, it's enjoyable. Producers of course couldn't resist the sensationalism. And therefore after the viewing the feeling is a bit flat. But if you love a "classic" rock'n'roll story, by all means, check it out.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

#13 Talking Heads: Chronology (2011)

I really like Talking Heads. But I came late to the band, as I was actually born in the year of some of the earliest footage on this dvd. Still, considering that I like this music now and didn't listen to it back then, I think it clearly shows its staying power. You didn't have to be there at the time to enjoy it. It's got more going for it than nostalgia. Lead singer David Byrne is still at it today at 61 with both music, books and art installations. All the while still giving off a vibe of being probably the most decent and likable man in the "rock biz". And yes, I think "Stop Making Sense" is one of the best concert films ever.

While "Stop Making Sense" was an amazing looking film, the material on this dvd is much different, but no less interesting. In short: The dvd is a collection of live performances and it takes its title quite literal. It starts at the band's humble beginnings in 1975. Back when phones didn't have video cameras and were not even mobile. When it took extra effort to capture bands on film. But luckily it did happen from time to time. There are songs filmed more or less bootleg style, but also tv footage. The dvd covers their entire career and you see how the film quality improves as the years go by, the venues get bigger and the band grows with additional musicians. And of course their musical development as well.

It feels like a historical document and it's nicely "objective" in its presentation. Besides the illuminating commentary done by the band (obviously not sitting in the same room while doing it) the dvd is free of any know-it-all retrospection. It's presented as-is.

The live collection is 66 minutes long. The bonus material is a 35 minute tv programme (The South Bank Show) and a 9 minute interview with David Byrne - delightfully quirky as he was back then. Not that at ease with the whole situation.

Getting down to brass tax: This collection is a treasure trove for any Talking Heads fan. The varied footage quality just adds to the mood of the whole thing. It has a nice "analogue" feel to it despite it being a dvd (just as "Stop Making Sense" has even on blu-ray).

There is both a standard and deluxe edition of this dvd. The standard also has the bonus material, but the deluxe is constructed as a book containing photos and a long written piece by legendary Rolling Stone music writer Lester Bangs done it 1979. All in all, a real treat. Check it out!

For additional viewing I would - besides "Stop Making Sense" - recommend David Byrne's other film projects, but also the more recent feature film "This Must Be the Place" by director Paolo Sorrentino - starring Sean Penn and with a major cameo by Byrne himself. An odd film, but one that's beautiful and moving and which feels like a painting in motion.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

#12 Low In Europe (2004)

I must admit I don't listen to Low as much as I used to. Taste changes and so do bands. But I still count the band's 1999 album "Secret Name" among my all time favourites. For an independent American rock band they have been fairly successful with their trademark slower-than-slow music rich with chiming guitars, hushed drumming and beautiful vocal harmonies.

A handful of years after "Secret Name" director Sebastian Schrade followed the band on tour for their shows in Germany and the UK. The result was a nice little 50 minute film.

It's a film from around when filmmaking was beginning to enjoy the same democratization of the medium as music had. Decent technology becoming available to the masses. In the last 5 to 10 years more and more independent documentaries have come out. Many with focus on music. Of course the sheer mass of material explodes and the quality varies.

"Low In Europe" is released through Plexifilm which has an impressive catalogue of fantastic documentaries. This film, though, doesn't feel quite up to scratch with the rest at Plexi. Maybe it has an easier time because it was the first film about Low (not counting the video material on their box set dvd from 2004). It feels like a "fan made" film. It mixes interview bits from hotel rooms, radio PR and backstage rooms with footage from the tour bus and from the shows. Not much else.

Visually the film is not so imaginative and soundwise it doesn't impress either. This in the concert footage where the sounds levels are a bit off. Sometimes the bass is inaudible, but vocals loud. Considering the few instruments played it should have been doable. But capturing things on the fly on tour can be hard. Needs lots of planning.

On the plus side - besides the good music - the band seems willing to give the film makers access, which is crucial. The interviews are pretty basic (about songwriting, sound, touring, politics etc.), but since this was the first film on the band that's excusable. The film makers could probably have benefitted from gathering more material, but there probably wasn't time on tour. It feels a bit rushed.

Still, for a 50 minute introduction to the band it's a good film. It might not be super exciting for people not familiar with the band, but for fans it will definitely be enjoyable. I liked it. There is some nice footage from the beautiful Union Chapel venue in London at the end of the film.

In retrospect the film has been devalued a bit by the fact another Low film called "You May Need A Murderer" was made later. It has a more professional feel to it and the film makers probably had more time and access for the job. I'll write about that one another time.

The dvd also includes bonus material in the form of radio show live recordings with an interview set to tour footage.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Watch "First You Close Your Eyes" online

This blog is not a personal blog like so many others. It's about music films. Today the lines blur a little. Today December 1st my music documentary is being "set free" online. It was shown at the Spot Film Festival earlier this year - which also happened to be in my favourite cinema Øst For Paradis (East Of Eden) in Aarhus.

The film "First You Close Your Eyes - Five Days In The Abyss" is about the making of the album called "The Abyss" by Danish singer Esther Maria in New York. Working hard for five days with her musical partner Torsten Stistrup Cubel and the legendary independent musician and producer Kramer (Low, Galaxie 500, Urge Overkill, Daniel Johnston, 22 Pistepirkko) they managed to record most of the album. It was a big project for me to do the film, but I was - and still am - very happy with the end result. The film turned out quite close to my original idea, which I am proud of.

I think the film - besides showing the origin of the album - also sheds some light on Kramer's philosophy on music recording and creation. It somewhat demystifies parts of the process and lets you see how little it takes tech-wise to do this. But at the same time it also clearly reveals how important it is to have years of experience and an uncompromising attitude to music that surely comes from a love of pure art.

Seeing as we now enter the christmas month the band and I figured we would give everyone a little present: The whole 30 minute movie streamed online. You can do that from either the film's website - where you will also find outtakes, videoblogs, an online book and other things - or straight from YouTube.

Please note: Part of the recordings took place in a dark environment and the clarity of the image greatly improves if you set YouTube's streaming quality to one of the HD settings. Also: There are subtitles in both English and Danish. Just click to turn on the captions.


/ Lars

Saturday, November 23, 2013

From 2013 to 2014 - a quick look in the bag

Maybe it is time to diversify a bit on this blog and not only write reviews. But of course... it will still all be about music films. December is coming up and every website known to man will do their top-whatever to sum up the year. This is not such a list.
While IMDB's list of "Most Popular Music Documentaries" reveals the flavor of the moment - you know them, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, One Direction and the rest of their ilk - it's still a nice list to trail through. Some oldies are still on it and also more recent ones that did well. Provided me with some reminders and some inspiration.

Before we move in let's just namedrop a few of the films that popped up in 2013 that we might have forgotten. I had to enlist the help of the world's biggest search engine whose named shall not googled, eh, mentioned. Quite a few films I haven't even seen, but remember hearing about.
There's "Good Ol' Freda" about The Beatles secretary. Squeezing the lemon? Maybe. But it seems this president of the band's fanclub must have had some stories to tell. 
Another one is "Muscle Shoals" about Rick Hall, the founder of FAME Studios and the so-called signature sounds he developed in songs such as "Brown Sugar", and "When a Man Loves a Woman". It came out this October, so still very new. Sounds interesting, but of course another of the more "historic" kind of music films.
Dave Grohl & Co's tribute to and resurrection of Sound City Studios was fairly well-received, as far as I remember, and also got plenty of attention (but in this day and age a buzz doesn't last for long, of course - hence a reminder such as this blog). "Sound City" attempted to tie the past to the present and it's still a movie I have not had the pleasure of seeing.
One that should get way more attention than it does is "Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer". Yes, a documentary about the shameless treatment of protest punk band Pussy Riot in Putin's increasingly worrying Russia.
One film that might not get a wide audience could be "Art Gods". But I love the narrow and odd angle of it: It's about the promotional displays that set the scene in each Tower Records store and how viewing them became a part of the record buying experience. A niche film, surely, but I got curious when I read about it. I wonder if it's one that will make the rounds so we can see it. There's a trailer here.
I know there were plenty more in 2013, but let's keep it short... ish.

In the Coen Brothers coming feature film "Inside Llewyn Davis" it looks like they yet again too a turn down the road to darkness. It's hard to tell from the trailer whether it's going to be good. But it certainly looks amazing. And they usually attract good actors while also trying out new talent, so my hopes are high. Even though it looks like a "struggling artist" story we have seen before.
A quick look on IMDB's list of coming music documentaries reveals some interesting ones.
There are already several films about rap and rhyming. And now comes another one. The title is "Check The Rhyme" and it features Chuck D, Ice T, KRS-One and loads of others. There there is also a few more: "Lee Scratch Perry's Vision of Paradise" (the reggae legend), "Shot: The Mick Rock Documentary" (famed rock photographer) and one called "Art Officially Favored" about Californian street musician and "bowhammers" player Michael Masley, which sounds like a nice story.

Anyways, just a quick look around the room. I'll post more non-review blog entries along the way when I come across something interesting. And of course write more reviews.

/ Lars

Thursday, May 23, 2013

#11 The Doors: Mr. Mojo Risin' - The Story of L.A. Woman (2011)

It seems there's a whole industry behind doing one-hour documentaries about old classics. Like the aptly named "Classic Albums" series. One was already made about The Doors' debut album. Although not named as being part of the series this film about "L.A. Woman" seems to follow the exact same recipe.

In order to enjoy these films you first off have to accept that what they do is reinforce rock'n'roll mythology. Not much in the way of critical reviewing. But therefore they can be enjoyable nevertheless - although never really getting neither too exciting or revelatory.

This film first gives a bit of band background and then it goes through the major songs on the album. The band members are seen playing parts and talking about how and why they chose to go "back to the blues roots". But in an hour we only scratch the surface with brief statements not given enough time (although some are expanded in the bonus material). Ray Manzarek seems especially caught up in The Doors myth and sounds like he's been telling this story word-by-word a hundred times before. It is enjoyable to see him playing the old stuff again, though. Exact replica of the albums - not much freeform. But he's like the old favourite uncle with the cool stories and you forgive him.

At some point during the film one does get tired of hearing people say how genius a songwriter Jim Morrison was. To some a brilliant poet, to others a pretentious art student. I fall somewhere in-between depending on the song. But doesn't the best art always divide the crowd down the middle?

Ray, Robby and John very often end up talking about Jim. And also all the trouble surrounding the band back then. All the stuff that has less to do with the music. That was also my problem with both Oliver Stone's 1991 bio-pic "The Doors" and the more recent "When You're Strange" documentary. This one does have more music in it.

In the end the film feels does like a - second - missed opportunity. Everyone is interviewed separately. And it's formulaic. The film would have been infinitely more interesting had they put the three surviving members in the same room. One wonders: Do they still do stuff together? Let alone talk with each other? Or are each of them just  feeding the rock myth - and the royalties it brings with it? If one googles current projects there seem to be some legal battles between band members. But that would not have been right to put in this film.

One thought is unavoidable: These folks are supposedly old hippies (maaan), but the stream of re-issues paint them in a rather capitalistic light. So, well, definitely real hippies 2013 A.D.? Wink wink nudge nudge.

This film doesn't present much new stuff, but it also doesn't at all ruin the enjoyment of an amazing album. One for the fans (who won't find many surprises) and one for the curious newcomer (hungry for a - celebratory - history lesson).

A final note: Right in the middle of writing this review over a few days Ray Manzarek died. It felt kind of strange while listening to all this. From an age when music was recorded live... by a band... in a room. You can still feel that when listening to the records. And it's without a doubt what is missing from most music today - which sounds assembled instead of played. It doesn't breathe the same way. And it does not require the same musicianship that Ray and the others had. These four very different musicians create something unique. Together. Thanks for every single note, Ray!