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!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

#10 Grandma Lo-fi - The Basement Tapes of Sigridur Nielsdottir (2011)

I think I first heard about this film in 2011 when it was shown at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. Didn't see it then, though. This May (2013) it was featured - as part of the new film program at the Spot Festival in Aarhus - along with my own music documentary "First You Close Your Eyes". So I finally had to chance to check it out.

The film is about Sigridur Nielsdottir who at 70 started making music with a simple Casio keyboard and stuff from her kitchen, as well as toys and her pets. In seven years she manage to record more than 600 songs on 59 homemade albums. The young musicians on Iceland caught wind of this and the film tells us she somehow became a bit of a local cult sensation.

We hear about her life, her lost love, her travels and experience how she makes her music. Whether you like the music or not her enthusiasm is definitely contagious and it's impossible for the filmmakers not to end up with a sweet and very heartwarming film.

The homemade aesthetic of her music is mirrored in the film's visual style using picture collages and grainy super-8 and 16 mm footage. So indeed the whole lo-fi grandma theme saturates the film. Her fans among the younger Icelandic bands also perform her songs and tell her story through them in little sections of the film.

It might be difficult to put one's finger on the Icelandic "thing". Their whole approach to music and art. But you can sense it. It's tongue-in-cheek, but serious. And yes, everything Icelandic is hip. Still. Even grannies!

It might seem like a fun "fad" that these musicians liking this music. But I don't really doubt their love and/or fascination with Sigridur Nielsdottir. Her music is honest, it comes straight from the heart and doesn't cater one tiniest bit to what is called the music business. She doesn't have to. She doesn't care. She is totally free! But the music itself must be what some call "an acquired taste". And the context - knowing her - surely must help with the enjoyment of the music. This film will certainly do that job to a certain extent. Still, it feels like its balancing on a tightrope. That is also one way to enjoy the film. Challenging your perception of what music is and can be. Remind you that everything is subjective. Bottom line is, though: She did what she loved to do, even though she came to it very late in life. But anyone having that spark within themselves well after 70 is an inspiration.

Because of the film festival I watched this film two days in a row. At the first viewing it felt somewhat longwinded about two-thirds in. But at the second viewing it didn't feel as long. I of course knew what to expect, but it also allowed me to catch more details in it, which was nice. In short: Recommended viewing.

Friday, May 17, 2013

#9 The White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights (2009)

More than once I've wondered why I've never really gotten into The White Stripes. I share Jack White's love for the old blues guys from way back. When at the end of their career the band chose to release a live album that included a nice-looking documentary I figured maybe this might do the trick. Well...

This film follows the band on tour in Canada - in various small towns. We see the band behind the scenes and rocking away on stage - shot in both black and white and in a contrasted colour style that enhances their red, white and black image nicely.

The band seems to want to look "down-to-earth" (small gigs, simple live set-up etc.), but they still don't mind going the limo and private jet route. The film contains many funny moments, but for the most part it feels as if we're just scratching the surface. Also, some moments seem rather awkward as if they were staged a bit too much. Or maybe the film does not give those moments the time they need. But how could it? Then it would get overly long. Maybe it wants to do too much - and ends up doing very little?

On the positive side the sections containing concert footage seem to capture the band's stripped down style and energy rather well. But I'm still not that much wiser regarding what Jack White really wants to say with his music. So contrary to my expectations the film sadly didn't win me over.

I would say that this is a film for the fans. Nothing in the world wrong with that. That's just how it is. For the rest of us I personally feel there's less meat on the bones to hold onto for a genuine and unforgettable musical movie experience. Although, cinematically we can enjoy the nice cinematography and musical energy.