It Might Get Loud

Here’s a strange one.  I’m reviewing a relatively recent documentary film about the electric guitar which should appeal to the very essence of my being.  When I first got into the electric guitar Jimmy Page was my absolute, top-dog hero.  I had a poster of his ’59 Les Paul on my wall.  I would watch The Song Remains the Same and soak up his out-of-this-world guitar solos.  I thought he could do no wrong and I would hold him aloft as a god at every opportunity.

This is a film that purports to be the recording of a meeting between three ‘guitar heroes’… Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White.  Now… let me first say that if you are into the guitar in a big way you will probably enjoy this documentary.  However… there are some notable flaws.  I’ll start with this one:  The film is built on very shaky ground.  This is supposed to be the meeting of three great guitar players?  So why does most of the film consist of separate interviews conducted all over the bloody place?  It might be interesting and all… but it’s a bit of a con.  If, like me, you really wanted to just see three (/two) iconic guitar players sitting down and having a chat about the where’s, when’s, how’s and why’s of the guitar you’re going to be pretty disappointed.  This film just isn’t focused.  It’s almost as meandering as this review!  Ha ha!

So we open with Jack White building a makeshift guitar… to prove you don’t need to buy one.  The suggestion is that we could all string together a couple of baked bean tins or sculpt our mantelpieces into instruments.  Well… this is a bit of a tall story.  ‘Cause let me tell you all right now – if you want to play the guitar… you’re going to need a damn guitar!!!  And if you don’t buy one then you’re going to have to steal one?!?  I can’t condone that!

The sections with Jack White and his mini-me remind me of the ‘character’ sections in Led Zep’s Song Remains the Same – the sections which as a teenager I found slightly embarrassing to watch.  (John Bonham just about got away with his bit… but the others?  Pretension beyond compare).  Perhaps this similarity is done on purpose? – that would certainly make sense given that much of this film is darkened in the shadow of Jimmy Page.

We are introduced to the three guitar players.  Now, here’s another flaw with this film – the choice of the guitarists.  Jimmy Page.  Fine.  Jimmy Page is an icon and a good choice to eavesdrop on a chat with.  He represents old school rock.  He represents virtuoso guitar skills and everything that was bloated about the concept of the ’70’s guitar hero.  He represents the evolution of blues playing and he is one of the ultimate blues/rock guitar players of all time.  Fine.  Boxes ticked… I’m relatively happy.

Jack White.  I think Jack represents in some ways the rebirth of the guitar in the last decade.  He seems to have the blues flowing through his veins and he does show how the blues has moved on through the decades.  But he is a very similar player to Page.  Both quite raucous in style and arguably (have to say arguably!) quite messy.  White comes across in his interviews as quite avant-garde and rebellious and whilst this is in some ways a breath of fresh air… it also sounds very similar in practice, to Jimmy Page.

Then we have the Edge.  Okay, I don’t own any U2.  I like a few songs and I’m sure I’d like more if I heard them.  I’m always slightly put off by the stadium pomp and coffee table sound, but most of all I’m put off by the singer.  This is probably the first time I’ve heard the Edge speak.  And I’ve got to say… he comes across as a pretty nice, down-to-earth guy.  Yeah… I know.  “Down-to-earth”.  I can’t believe it either.  Maybe it’s an act?  How can he have his feet on the ground when he hangs out with Bono?  But the Edge is here.  He is one of the three.  And the Edge isn’t steeped in the Blues.  The Edge comes from a more punk/new-wave background.  And that is good in a documentary which is supposed to be a chat about the electric guitar.  It should allow differences in style to be discussed.  Should.  Coulda, woulda, shoulda.  See… another thing.  The Edge is almost frowned upon by the others for his use of effects.  Perhaps over use of effects.  I don’t think it’s ever said… it’s just a feeling that I got from watching.  The Edge plays a very simple set of chords, and his delays do the work and produce a multi-faceted performance seemingly from nothing.  And people (well, guitar players) mock.  Well… that’s bollocks for a start.  A guitar, even with effects, will only play what your fingers tell it to play.  And if U2 have sold a trillion records then the Edge’s fingers must have been doing something right.  Bloody hell… I just stuck up for the Edge!  Ha ha!

Anyway… I was going off on a tangent there again.  So… the Edge uses effects.  And the other two come across in this film as blues purists.  Well… I remember the Death Wish 2 soundtrack which Page composed for Michael Winner’s ’80s film.  Using a guitar synthesizer.  For a while back there it appeared Page had lost faith with fundamental blues and was trying to push a few boundaries.  This does not even get hinted at in It Might Get Loud.

So, what’s my point?  Well… I just think the balance of the players is wrong.  And therefore the balance of the film is wrong.  A flaw which the film never recovers from.  This is a film in which the Edge often comes across as lost.  Gazing on with child-like eyes whilst Jimmy and Jack riff on the blues.  Jack should have been replaced with a different type of player.  You could have had Page represent the old guard… the Edge represent the FX-laden middle ground and… Well… we could argue all day about who the alternative third guitarist could have been (Satriani, Vai, Van Halen, Graham Coxon, Matt Bellamy etc).

Crucially, the film lacks conflict.  You have a guitarist inspired by punk who states he was sick of the ’70s guitar hero extended guitar solos.  That is one of the Edge’s most important statements.  A frame of mind that fuelled him in his youth to become the guitarist he is now.  And… so… the Edge sits next to Jimmy Page… LORD OF THE EXTENDED ’70’S GUITAR SOLO… and says nothing about it.  Nothing.  Not a question.  Nothing.  No “Jimmy, if you could go back in time would you have played any of those moments differently?”.  No “Jimmy… I thought your guitar solos went on too long and bored the shit out of me.”  Nothing.  Now… I’m not saying extended solos are good or bad.  I think some of Page’s were, in fact, inspired.  But this is a subject that should have arisen in a supposed conversation about the electric guitar between two so diametrically opposed players.  Don’t you think?

The film sets itself up as an ode to the electric guitar.  There could have been great conversation about what it is that is so special about the electric guitar.  Jeff Buckley always played electric.  Even for songs that practically the whole of the rest of the world would have played on acoustic… he played electric.  I saw an interview with him once where he said that the electric guitar can convey all emotion.  It can whisper and it can roar.  This kind of insight was missing in this film.  And how does the film end???  With a big final song from the three stars all playing acoustic guitars.  Yes… acoustic guitars.  In a film about the electric guitar.  Very strange, and again unfocused.  For me some of the best bits were not guitar related at all.  There’s a moment where Jimmy Page stands in the hallway where Bonzo recorded When the Levee Breaks.  This is a really cool part and is monumentally important in the history of rock drumming.  Drums not guitars.  And another cool bit is Page using the theremin to recreate some of the iconic sounds he pulled off in the Song Remains the Same (a legendary concert vid of a ’70s Madison Square Garden show that I keep going on about!).  The theremin is not a guitar.  Deviation.  See?

A strange film to give a verdict on really.  I already know Page’s life story.  So a lot of the anecdotes and footage were old hat to me.  I could have done without them.  However… if you haven’t seen the footage of Page as a kid playing skiffle, or you didn’t know he was a session musician… then this film may fire you up.  For me there was too much Jack White.  I honestly do appreciate his talent… and I am in no way denigrating any of his achievements… but it’s all just a bit too noisy.  Yes… I know… it might get loud.  Hmmmm.  Maybe they have a point?  And in White’s defense, to be fair, the little segment of Seven Nation Army is pretty cool!

The film could do with a re-edit.  Some of the ‘deleted scenes’ should be stuck back in and some of the introspection should be removed.  This film should have got right the one thing that I was looking forward to – the meeting of three great guitarists to discuss guitar playing.  On a positive note, I now hold the Edge in much higher regard as a person… and marginally as a guitar player.  I have the urge to buy a U2 album.  No… wait… the urge has just left the building.  Ha ha!  The Urge.  I might change my name to the Urge for future recordings.  Hang on… actually that reminds me of something.  In my first band, for a little while I was known as the Huge.  I think.  Or was it the Hedge?  No… I think it was the Huge!  Ha ha!  Yes… on our first tape we had our pictures with our names underneath and I’m pretty sure I was called the Huge.  Must have been a riff on the Edge even back then!  Ha ha!  Anyway… It Might Get Loud is only average where it should have been soaring.  Now… get that guitar out and sing the blues!

The Flaming Lips – The Fearless Freaks

The Fearless Freaks feels homely.  A documentary constructed from a wealth of archive footage.  The director had hung out with the band since the early ’90s and this friendship defines this film.  Grainy VHS tapes of early gigs… cine-cam of childhood exploits… in terms of hazy, sun bleached nostalgia this has it all.

I was turned onto the Flaming Lips when I first heard The Soft Bulletin.  One of those life changing albums, The Soft Bulletin made me re-evaluate everything I thought was good.  The opening drum beat of Race for the Prize is perhaps the greatest opening to any song ever.  The whole album was an eye/ear opener and spent months going round and round the CD player in my car.  Then Yoshimi was released and continued the momentum.  Two pretty much perfect albums in a row.  The point being that, although I know of the long history of the Flaming Lips, and I have read up enough to feign supreme life-long-fan-esque knowledge… I’m really coming to this documentary with very little in the tank.

The Flaming Lips kind of remind me of my first band.  Only in that we were friends first, band second.  We created home videos, went clubbing and hung out together every second of every day.  We would spend our time creating ‘stage-clothes’, writing set lists, producing fliers, writing songs, recording silly comedy skits and generally having a good time.  I’ll be honest, we did it without the drugs.  For drugs seem to weave their way throughout the story of the Flaming Lips.  And… when it comes to ‘band stories’… drugs seem to colour the life of the band and become almost ‘mystical’ in a way.  It’s good to see that the issue of drugs is treated so matter of factly in this documentary.  There is one scene in particular that is so ‘direct’, it feels like a punch to the face.  A scene that is almost worth the price of admission alone.  No flowering up here.  This is pretty raw.  A lot of these documentaries tend to gloss over points the band would rather you knew nothing about.  Will the Beatles ever release Let it Be on Blu-ray? Hmmm.

Anyway… I digress.  Those first bands, bands of friends, usually break up.  Or move on.  Fearless Freaks shows what happens when they don’t.  You get the Flaming Lips.  You get artists who feel completely confident to try whatever they want.  In comfort.  I think this may be key to the success of the Flaming Lips.  Although they probably faced similar record company hassles, I think the DIY ethic of the Flaming Lips pulled them through more so than your typical band.

Flights of fancy.  Wayne Coyne making his own movies – in his back garden.  Whether they’re any good or not isn’t the issue.  It’s the fact that he’s doing it.  Pure creative spirit.  I think being in the Flaming Lips must be a great outlet.  An opportunity to express yourself without having to worry about the trivialities of workaday life.  You want to make a movie?  No problem.  You want to record a 24 hour-long song?  No problem.  You want to record a song that lasts forever?  Yeah… give it a shot.  You want to dress as cuddly animals on stage and inflate balloons with the wind of a thousand virgins?  Make my day.  Perhaps being in any successful band allows these liberties… but none seem so straight-ahead outlandish as the Flaming Lips.  I suppose I look upon it all with a touch of jealousy.  Any artistic statement I wish to make must be played out within the confines of normal life.  You know… crammed in around ‘things you have to do’.  The Fearless Freaks stops short of the most recent period of the Flaming Lips‘ existence, but there’s still plenty of strange food for thought.  And so it is that I want to put the Soft Bulletin on again.  That is the album that lifts me.  That is the album that spawned a thousand clones.  Still, you can’t fail to be influenced.

I didn’t really appreciate the Flaming Lips‘ band dynamic.  I assumed Wayne Coyne would ‘be’ the Flaming Lips.  He looks the part –  mad scientist – and he has made long, greying hair cool!  He just looks like a man who has a hundred magical mystery tours in his head.  But, watching the DVD it dawns on you how pivotal Steven Drozd really is.  The man seems to be the human personification of ‘music’.  Music.  I’m now listening to the Soft Bulletin as I type.  This is a band that when at the top of their game really can rule the world.  And yet they’ve made at least one album that I own that I don’t like.  But to achieve perfection you have to make mistakes.  I’ve drifted from the Flaming Lips in recent years.  Rightly or wrongly I feel they became a bit ‘sugary’.  Too much peace and love… and cuddly rabbits.  But maybe I was just plain wrong.  A band that plays I Want You (She’s So Heavy) live is a band that will always win my heart.

RUSH – Beyond the Lighted Stage

I love watching band documentaries and I’ve really been filling my boots recently.  Here’s one I enjoyed.  ‘Beyond the Lighted Stage‘ brings the career of Canadian band Rush to life.  Let me just (perhaps sadly, perhaps not?!?) admit right now that I have never been a Rush fan.  In fact, it’s a credit to the film that I now just might seek out a few Rush albums.   Well… ’70s albums.  No matter how good this documentary, I’m still to be convinced about the ’80s synth albums!

So… this is a review of a Rush documentary by someone who knows nothing about Rush.  Okay…  I knew they were a prog rock band.  I knew the individual band members’ names.  I knew Geddy Lee had a big nose and could play incredible bass.  I thought Rush were a pretty light, keyboard-centric rock band.  But I honestly hadn’t really heard anything by them.  There were a couple of occasions during the documentary where I had moments of song-recognition.  But on the whole… nothing.  So am I the ideal, or worst person to comment on this film?  Hmmmm.  I think I might just be perfect. 🙂

There’s certainly an unusual amount of ‘home-filmed’ archive footage.  This lends an essence of authenticity to this documentary above and beyond the usual cash-in.  I should Wikipedia why and how some of this footage exists… that would be the right sort of thing to do when writing a review.  But, as a friend of mine said recently after making a truly bizarre sweeping statement.  – “Life’s too short for research”.  Ha ha!  Anyway… you don’t want Wikipedia’d nonsense.  You want my honest, expert opinion.

The first think that hits you in the face is the sheer level of musicianship on display in this band.  The three members are superhuman.  Geddy Lee, on bass, is an animal.  Basslines that make me re-evaluate what breakfast cereal I eat in the morning.  In fact… I actually eat breakfast cereal last thing at night.  So I actually eat supper cereal.  Hmmm.  …and his vocals, while not quite to my taste, are undoubtedly superb.  Alex Lifeson must be one of the most underrated guitarists of all time.  I have been a fan of the guitar, and the guitar hero, all my life and yet I rarely see Mr Lifeson make an appearance in any top-ten lists.  Well… I tell you… Alex Lifeson has some chops.  Oh yes… he has a whole butcher’s shop full!!!

I used to read ‘Rhythm‘ magazine at my old drummer’s house.  It’s not a porn mag… it’s a mag about drumming!  Neil Peart was a regular in the pages of that magazine.  So I have more knowledge of the type of drums Mr Peart uses than the average man on the street… and yet I still hadn’t really heard him play.  Well… let me say now that he certainly lives up to the reputation of ‘consummate drumming professional’ – ‘The Drummer’s Drummer’.  Amazing tom rolls that remind me of Maiden’s Nicko.   And above all, a well-read drummer who writes the band’s lyrics.  Bats away the drumming clichés!  So…. huge Kenny Everett thumbs up to the musicians of Rush.

Elements of the narrative of Beyond the Lighted Stage chime with my own life.  There’s a discussion of how ‘local’ bands were ignored by the locals (essentially Canadian bands in Canada). American bands would play Canada… hear Rush, and think they were the greatest thing since sliced bread.  The locals of course still thought “but they’re just a local band”.  People not seeing the bigger picture.

I used to play in a band that would routinely blow signed, touring bands off the stage.  They would genuinely approach me afterwards and ask what record label we were signed to and where we were playing next.  I would answer “we’re not signed”… and watch their jaws drop.  That’s ‘local band syndrome’.  It’s like a disease.  But the cure for this disease is building up enough of a following that the generals in charge of the ‘power of music’ can no longer ignore you.  This, unfortunately, is trickier now than ever before.  I once watched an interview with someone… I can’t remember who – some old rock star… and he said that if you formed a band in the ’60s and played your instruments relatively well…. you would be signed.  You would be famous.  This is no longer the case.  If watching these band documentaries tells me anything it’s that the game has changed completely.  It will be interesting to watch a documentary in 20 years time about a band making it big today.  The documentary will probably feature more about social networking, public relations, home recording and luck than it will licking Jack Daniels off a hooker’s tits in a LA studio.  Horses for courses I suppose.  It’s just a shame my ‘childhood’ memories of great rock are being struck over the head with a shovel and buried along with all the great albums.

This documentary, ‘rock’umentary if you will… shows Rush veering into Spinal Tap territory on more than one occasion.  They are obviously highly aware of this as I’m sure I spotted a tiny Stonehenge monument perched on one of Geddy Lee’s keyboards.  The usual ‘talking heads’ pop up to offer their ‘expert’ opinion… but it’s nice to see a few more unfamiliar faces (and no Lars Ulrich!).

Beyond the Lighted Stage is an excellently edited and expertly put together film.  I’ve seen some pretty muddled and amateurish efforts in my time and this isn’t one of them.  At times it is a window into the world of the care-free millionaire musician – but there’s enough heartbreak featured to bring the brick of real life careering towards that fragile glass.

Verdict.. I have been won over by the entity that is Rush.  I enjoyed this film.  What more is there to say… it’s nice to see three ‘normal’ blokes who make excellent, technical music.  This is not a film of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  This is a film of oxymorons.  A band with adoring fans and the wealth, fame and ability to do whatever they want in life.  A band that is completely unknown to the population at large.    Alex Lifeson sums it all up beautifully “A million monkeys typing on a million typewriters may eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare.  But who the hell’s going to clean those typewriters?”.  Geddy Lee: “We’re getting into a weird area here… monkey defecation.”

The Conversation – A Study of Ambiguity

A Tuesday morning… I sit here again with the kitten in my lap.  The flow of films which I have been casting my net over continues with, perhaps, an obvious choice. The Conversation.  This is a mid ’70s film starring Gene Hackman and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.  Actually, just saying “directed by” is doing Coppola a disservice.  He actually wrote, produced and directed this film.  For that reason this is a very personal film.  Now… you could google the film title and find out all you need to know about the workings and the worth of this film.  So I’ll just issue swathes of my own colour on the subject.

I’m taking a break from music at the moment.  I completed a couple of albums recently and I feel the need to recharge my batteries.  What better than to just discuss art that has influenced, or is influencing, my life?  You’ll get a vibe of where I’m coming from… and I may just find a nuance for my next mojo-period.

The Conversation is a very interesting film.  It has a pace that only ’70’s cinema seemed to allow.  A slow, dripping, rhythmical time frame.  The film’s plot concerns the intricacies of sound.  Therefore… this film could be viewed as a piece of music that happens to have been filmed.  Music as visual.  Sound as sight.  For me, this is the most important aspect of The Conversation.

Harry Caul is a professional eavesdropper. He uses the most modern methods of the time to record people’s conversations.  He inhabits the background of life.  He is a shadowy figure who is dedicated to his work at the expense of everything else.  Gene Hackman pulls off the performance of his career here, and you can again draw a line through the likes of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.  The ‘actor’ portraying reality rather than ‘acting’.

Harry Caul is given an assignment to record a conversation between two people in a busy city centre.  He does so, and then listens to the tape.  He believes he’s stumbled upon a murder plot and goes about trying to save the people concerned.  A very simple premise… made very complicated by the layers of impenetrable sound.  This film is the audio equivalent of the ’60s film, Blow-Up (which is a classic film in its own right!).

This film has rhythm… almost pulsating.  Not pulsating with ‘excitement’!  This is a film that washes over you like ambient music.  It’s not until the ending that the true ‘thriller’ nature becomes apparent.  For the most part this film is a character study.  In fact it seems I’ve been basking in ‘character study’ films recently.

The nature of the sound recording is fascinating to me.  Remember that I am a music producer.  The nostalgia, the clunkiness of the analogue tape reels.  The wires, the buttons, the dust… Harry Caul lives the life that I hanker for – but a life that no longer exists.  For we live in a different age.  Honestly, any of you could download software from the internet right now that would put all the equipment in The Conversation to shame.  But nevertheless… it still takes talent and dedication to derive meaningful sound from sub-par field recordings… and it is this time-consuming slog upon which The Conversation concentrates.  I love this film.  I remember seeing it when I was a teenager.  I was hooked by it. Hooked in a way that the general public wouldn’t be.  For, like the films I have reviewed before… this is no blockbuster.  This is a heartfelt, personal trip.  Coppola had just made The Godfather.  When asked by the studio if he would make The Godfather Part II, Coppola replied “Only if I can make The Conversation“.  He realised his personal flight of fancy on the back of a blockbuster.  For this I tip my hat in his direction.  This is a man who has made some of the greatest films of all time.  And The Conversation might just be the best of them.  I’m probably alone in that opinion… but as I say… this film has particular relevance to anyone who is interested in sound design.

A mention must be made to Harrison Ford’s performance.  He plays the ‘baddie’ to a very sophisticated level considering how little he is actually required to do.  A mesmerising performance and you can see how he rose through the ranks to be an international superstar.

So… I don’t necessarily feel I need to go any further.  I just wanted to give you a flavour of a film that has resonance with me and my life.  Only watch it if you enjoy slow, smouldering film.  Otherwise you will cry “BORING!”.  Ha ha!

Positives then?  Gene Hackman, Harrison Ford.  The study of personal freedom and loneliness.  The camera work which feels like surveillance.  At times you feel like you are a peeping tom looking into a man’s life where you have no place being.  The technology is fantastic.  The grime, the dedication, the obsession.  The drip, drip of plot.  The layering of detail.  Detail upon detail until a picture begins to emerge.  The sublime piano soundtrack (referenced years later in Zodiac – see the links? 🙂 ).  This film is a study in ambiguity.  There is a key line which Harry coaxes from his taped conversation, and depending on the way you hear the words – the inflections – depends on how you understand the plot.

The Negatives?  Harry plays Saxophone to relax.  I’m not a fan of the sax… reminds me of people at school who didn’t really like or understand music.  When asked what their favourite instrument was they would always say “saxophone”.  I wish Harry had played a bit of blues/jazz guitar.

There is a scene in the middle of the film where Harry brings a load of ‘friends’ back to his ‘secret’ sound studio.  They hang out and party.  This does not seem fitting for a character who has been established so strongly as a man dedicated to personal secrecy… to being unnoticed, to being a person with no ID.  The scene is necessary for plot development… so I understand its inclusion… and I don’t feel it is a huge negative.  I can kind of understand that Harry has been out for the evening with people who also work in surveillance and therefore people who he considers ‘friends’.. or at least ‘acquaintances’.  Perhaps it’s a reveal that Harry is perhaps a little human after all.

So… a beautiful, intriguing personal film made by a great director at the very top of his game.

The Conversation – 9/10

Zodiac – A Study of Obsession

A review of another film that I love.  Just me and my new kitten sitting here on a dreary Friday morning.  It’s either write a review… or write a song.  I’m not in the mood to write a song… so, I’ll try to convince you to watch another film that I think is worthy of your time.  That pretty much explains my consistent high scores.  I’m only reviewing films that I like.  If I was reviewing the latest releases you would see a whole different world of scoring pain.

Zodiac is based on the true events concerning a 60s/70s America based serial killer.  The distinguishing fact about this particular killer was that he chose to write letters to the papers, ‘Jack the Ripper’ stylee.  He also used coded messages that required deciphering. He named himself ‘Zodiac’.

The film opens with a shock first kill before the opening credits.  The first thing you notice is the gorgeous pastel shades and the beautiful lighting.  Make no mistake, this is a pretty film – a very stylistic film, almost fake looking in the way that Edward Scissor Hands was.  I’m watching on BluRay and the whole experience is stunning!  Zodiac is directed by David Fincher, a favourite of mine, and his hallmarks are all over every scene.  The opening credits warp you through a psychedelic 60’s drug induced haze into the film proper.  And the film proper is a piece of 1970’s American cinema.  The tone, aspects of the look, and especially the pacing are bang on 1970s modern American Cinema. This film is a kind of companion piece to movies such as All The President’s Men and The Conversation.

The film centres around the San Francisco Chronicle.  The office of the paper actually reminds me of the office in All The President’s Men… you kind of know the path this film is going to take immediately.  We are introduced to Paul Avery, the Chronicle’s crime reporter, played by Robert Downey Jr.  Avery is a troubled individual and Downey Jr plays him with downtrodden style.  I think this is a tour de force by Downey Jr.  He nails the role.

We are also introduced to cartoonist, Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Graysmith is an oddly introverted character and in this respect Gyllenhaal is an example of perfect casting.  Graysmith becomes obsessed during the course of the film with identifying the Zodiac killer.  In fact the book he eventually writes is the source of inspiration for this film.

I just have to hark back to the visuals again.  This is a stunningly shot film.  The effects work is superb throughout and is so subtly done that a lot of the audience would probably be unaware of its existence!  25 minutes into the film we are subjected to an awesome ‘original Grand Theft Auto-esque’ top down shot of a taxi ride.  This plan view tracking shot is like a living video game… absolutely phenomenal.   You can probably pick up on the fact that I like the look of this film!

Let’s mention the music.  Fantastic choices of rock music to indicate the passing of time and beautiful interconnecting piano pieces.  The soundtrack is consistent with the film’s 70’s leanings.

I mentioned the passing of time.  This film is very much about time.  The film spans decades and Fincher’s use of visual and audio techniques to show the passage of time is incredible.  Of course, with the passing of time comes the progression of character.  Avery disintegrates, Graysmith disintegrates and integrates … not sure that reads right!  Ha ha!  Graysmith’s life crumbles and yet his personal resolve builds.

On the police side of things we have Dave Toschi (played by Dave Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (played by Anthony Edwards).  At one point Toschi is wearing a Columbo style mac.  This film is just my kind of film!!!  The obsession with the Zodiac killer drives both men to despair.  You can see similarities between Avery and Toschi.  Personal destruction brought about by obsessive behaviour.  In fact you can almost think of this film as a study of obsession.

So… the Zodiac killer.  This film is similar to All The President’s Men in its depiction of the progress of a story based on fact.  There are also hints of Stone’s JFK in that Fincher seems to point us towards a suspect.  A suspect that is made out by the film to be the true suspect.  This reminds me of all those ‘Jack the Ripper’ documentaries that each purport to have finally identified the killer.  What, for me lifts this film above other ‘crime’ thrillers is the showing of the forensic detail.  This may be as a result of a decade of CSI on the television… but I believe that it’s really just Fincher wanting to present the case as is.  For me, this film presents the minutiae of the forensic case brilliantly.  Footwear mark evidence, so often to this day the ugly, neglected sibling of the fingerprint, is brought to the fore.  Fingerprints, ballistics, similarities in modus operandi and thorough research are shown in all their dry, drawn out glory.

What interests me the most is the weight of  ‘truth’ and ‘value’ placed purely upon questioned document evidence in the Zodiac case.  The film shows suspects being ruled out purely because their handwriting does not match the letters attributed to the Zodiac killer.  Even when a whole wealth of other circumstantial evidence would appear to make someone a prime suspect, the opinion of the handwriting expert is the be all and end all.  Okay, I accept that the police at the time only really had the letters as a solid link between the crimes.  The surviving witnesses all described different looking people as being the killer.  Also, there was no DNA evidence back then.  All the killer really had to do was wear a pair of gloves, be careful, and he would have had very few problems with evading capture.  But the killer chose to write those letters.  Therefore I do understand how those letters became so important in establishing a case against any suspect.  However, there are so many flaws with using handwriting evidence as a bedrock for an investigation.  I really found this aspect of the film rather good.  I was impressed by the fact that so much time was given to the discussion of this evidence – evidence that may have in fact hindered rather than helped all concerned.

In the end the film can be viewed in two ways:  One, as the accurate-ish depiction of behind the scenes work on a serial killer case. Two, as the destruction of people’s lives as the result of an obsession.

So, I feel like I should trot out my usual positive/negative paragraphs as I work towards a score.

Positives: Robert Downey Jr is superb.  I’m a fan of his anyway, but he does excel here!  The acting in general is just outstanding.  Brian Cox gives a mountain of a performance and all the leads act their hearts out!  I think I need to single out the actor who plays the ‘main suspect’.  He is terrifying.  Great job!  I love the visuals of the film and the marvellous representation of the passing of time.  I love the ruthless intelligence and the trust of the director that the audience will be ‘fit for purpose’ regarding the forensic detail.

Negatives:  Hmmmm.  If I’m going to be picky I’d rather Robert Downey Jr had actually talked during the film rather than mumbled.  On a 10th watch I have no problems with it… but recalling my first viewing I do remember shouting “What? .. WHAT?!?” at the screen a few times! 😉

I am not a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, so that should be enough to knock a point off right there.  However, I am man enough to admit that he’s good in this film… so… I’ll put that complaint on the back burner.

Also, a lot of the actors in the film have now cropped up on TV shows.  They are all excellent… and it’s not the film’s fault.  This is my problem!  I see the handwriting expert and think “Hey, it’s Larry David’s doctor!!!”.  This is my problem.  For example, in this specific case, the actor who plays the handwriting expert is an excellent old guy.  He is brilliant in this and Curb.  He improves the film.  Therefore this negative is my problem!  For me to live with and get over!!!

The end.  It’s kind of unsatisfying… but again, not really a fault of the film.  More a fault of reality!!!  I’ll also call a negative at a great scare towards the end which turns out to be a cinematic, story-telling trick.  The kind of scare a horror film throws at you when it just SUDDENLY SCREAMS REALLY LOUDLY in a quiet bit!  Ha ha!  But the scare in this film is at least carried out with some panache.  And if I was gonna re-cut the film I’d leave the section in… so, really, how much of a negative do I consider it?

So…  who was the Zodiac killer?  The film puts enough circumstantial evidence forward for their prime suspect – enough for me to buy into it.  However, having read around the case the whole thing is a bit of a minefield.  DNA evidence here, fingerprints there.  I think, to be honest, it’s all too long ago to ever get a handle on now… unless some new evidence is one day uncovered.

Hmmmm.  So, a score, a score…

Zodiac – 9/10

Raging Bull – A Study of Jealousy

Another day another review.  Another Martin Scorcese film.  Perhaps THE Martin Scorcese film.

Raging Bull opened the 1980s.  Filmed in gritty black and white and shot in an authentic documentary style, this film is an artistic marvel.  Scorcese is at his best here, filling every frame with total, uncompromising power.

This is a truly brutal film.  Physically and emotionally brutal.  There are devastating scenes of emotional and physical abuse… make no mistake, this is not a popcorn flick.  This film is no Shutter Island.  In fact it shares more with a film I have reviewed previously, Taxi Driver.  For this film too is like an essay on relationships and violence.  This film is, more specifically, a study of jealousy.

Raging Bull is, at face value, a film about boxing.  However, it is actually nothing of the sort.  Let me explain.  Raging Bull tells the story of middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta and his battles with the people around him, and most importantly the war with himself.  You see, Jake LaMotta is a jealous guy.  He is also an intensely unlike-able character.  Whereas, for all his faults, I could relate in many ways to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and find a modicum of  ‘goodness’ deep within,  Jake LaMotta is a more detestable prospect.  There are parallels between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and perhaps we are viewing portrayals of men with mental health issues.  These films are studies.  And for my money, Raging Bull is the ultimate character study.  Boxing takes a back seat.  Boxing is the vehicle used to forward the story, but this is not a boxing film.

I love the Rocky films.  I regard the first film in the series extremely highly.  And in some ways, Rocky wasn’t actually a film about boxing either.  Rocky was the story of a loveable loser who overcame the odds to make something of his personal life.  Raging Bull is the story of an unlovable loser who overcomes the odds stacked very much in his favour, to destroy himself.  I try to give nothing away in my reviews.  I want you to be able to watch the film and experience it for the ‘first time’.  Safe to say though that you can expect a rough ride with the story of Jake LaMotta.  The film is based on the memoir ‘written’ by LaMotta himself.  It has been adapted by Paul Schrader who also wrote Taxi Driver.  Between the recollections of LaMotta, the known facts, and the filter of Schrader’s very much opinionated mind we get one of the bleakest portrayals of a jealous man ever committed to celluloid.

The film’s opening titles are an amazing sequence combining classical music with a boxer in the ring.  The story itself is bookended by an older LaMotta, a cabaret LaMotta, going through the motions backstage at a comedy club.  This allows the flashback for the main film.  Robert De Niro plays LaMotta and this is probably De Niro’s best performance.  He is gripping, scary, brutal and awe-inspiring.  It is one of those ‘movie clichés’ that in preparing for the role, De Niro became so good at boxing that people suggested he could have won the middleweight title for real.  I don’t know about that… but I do know that I wouldn’t have wanted to have met Di Niro in a back alley in 1980!  (besides which, I would only have been 5 or something!!!).  This is truly De Niro’s film, his tour de force.  LaMotta’s intense violence is shocking.  De Niro’s playing of that violence is magnificent.  Who the hell could play a supporting role to this majesty of acting? Step forward one Joe Pesci.

Joe Pesci is absolutely outstanding in the role of LaMotta’s brother.  Anyone who has seen him in action in Casino or Goodfellas perhaps knows what to expect.  I think this is the first time Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci had worked together.  Joe Pesci is a frightening presence.  Even cowering in the huge shadow of LaMotta, Pesci’s character Joey is a scarily violent, knife-edge presence.  De Niro and Pesci are like a double act… a shocking double act.  In fact, for the two lead performances alone this film should be a 10 out of 10.  Hmmmm… 10 out of 10.  This film could be a 10 out of 10!

Brutal boxing scenes.  I haven’t even really mentioned the brutal boxing scenes.  These scenes of carnage litter the movie to advance the story – to show the onward march of LaMotta’s career.  They are filmed with so much trickery, so much magic. Scorcese is at the very top of his game.  The boxing is so real it hurts to watch.  The documentary style of cinematography is absolutely fitting for this film.  I have been watching the Blu-ray disc and I’ve got to say it looks superb.  The film grain and the searing black and white makes the film leap from the screen.

The scene where LaMotta asks his brother to punch him in the face is one of those classic moments of cinema.  10 out of 10 written all over it.  This film is a complete study of dysfunctional relationships, jealousy and violence.

So far so good… any negatives?  Hmmmm.  Well, I have to mention Cathy Moriarty as LaMotta’s abused wife Vicky.  I’ve just never been sure about her performance.  She’s stunning to look at… but, well… I just don’t know.  At the start of the film I think she’s supposed to be about 15.  I just don’t buy it.  Her acting seems out of sorts too.  I could draw comparisons to Cybil Shepherd in Taxi Driver – a similar kind of detached playing of a role.  But whereas I buy into Cybil Shepherd, I just remain unconvinced by Moriarty.  This is not a huge negative for there are points in the film where she excels.  I just don’t think she quite competes with De Niro and Pesci…. but then, realistically, who could?

Some of the make-up worn by De Niro throughout the film, the prosthetics perhaps rather than the make-up, to give him a beat up look do not always totally convince.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t gonna knock a mark off the score, and most of the time it looks excellent… it’s just that ‘sometimes’ it looks to me a little odd.

And… what is up with Joe Pesci’s hair?!?  Again, not enough to knock a mark off… but his hair is just mad!!!

I think my main concern with the film would be the pacing.  This is a slow film.  I like it.  I love it.  But I can imagine others finding it really tough going.  I would compare it to Bladerunner, a similarly slow film.  I love the building of layers in film.  I love the intensity created by having the freedom to linger on a subject.  The kind of lingering that was tolerated in 70s cinema.  But others won’t love the linger… they will just turn off.  Consider the type of films that you like.  If you like Transformers you will HATE Raging Bull!!!  I am not joking.  One of the best films of all time or not… you will HATE it!  For me, I would have liked the pace to have been tightened a little… but this is not a film you watch for fun.  This film is an educational experience!

Overall… this is a monumental film.  A work of art.  As I said with Taxi Driver… if you want to read the score as a 10 out of 10 then go ahead.  It really is that good.  However, due to Cathy Moriarty and the issues with pacing I have to knock two marks off.  Remember though… I use the whole scale.  I have no issue with giving a film 5 if it’s average.  I don’t know where the idea of only using the 7 – 10 range of a ten point scale came from?!?

Raging Bull – 8/10

Taxi Driver // Rain

It’s late and it has been a tiring few days.  Everything has caught up with me and I feel like I’m running on empty.  So it seems kind of apt that I’m about to write my thoughts on one of my favourite films, Taxi Driver.  Taxi Driver is one of those films that spawned a poster that adorned every teenage male’s wall.  Well, it was certainly on my wall!  Taxi Driver is a film that could in many ways be considered ‘cult’ and yet it is actually pretty mainstream.  It is a film that can appeal very specifically to the loners, the lost, the angry, the bitter, the disillusioned, the pessimistic, the betrayed, the ‘insert your descriptive word here’.  Taxi Driver is an extremely important film… but one that was lost to me for many a year.  I picked it up on Blu-ray recently and checked it out again.  I rediscovered it!  Taxi Driver is a very influencial film.  Taxi Driver is a film that I’m going to write about without giving too many spoilers.  You can read this and then watch the film in relative safety!!!  The basic story can be summed up as follows (without spoiling it!):  Loner played by Robert De Niro can’t sleep.  Gets a job as a Taxi Driver by night.  Falls for girls that are in different ways not right for him (to say the least!).  Tries to hurt/save the girls.  Ends up becoming a kind of vigilante character – the ‘typical’ loner who goes psycho.

First, and slightly off topic, I gotta say that the Blu-ray transfer itself is majestic.  Absolutely superb.  Anyone who has doubts about the difference between DVD and Blu-ray should simply take a look at Taxi Driver.  It just drips class.  The rain, the grime, the paintwork, the neon lights… just beautiful.  The darkness has never looked so alive.

The Taxi Driver I remember from my youth was a film that very much appealed to the unsocial side of me.  Let’s be clear here. Taxi Driver is a pretty dark film.  It has been compared to other ‘loner’ films such as Falling Down or First Blood.  But Taxi Driver is very much its own man.  It has so many levels… only one of which is the level that appeals to the teenage boy.  Taxi Driver is just as much a journey into the heart of darkness as Apocalypse Now.  Taxi Driver is a film that kinda defines the ’70s.  And you have to remember that the ’70s were already defined by grime and realism.  The ’70s marked a foray into great BIG meaningful, intelligent films.  All the President’s Men.  The Conversation.  Deliverance.  Even Rocky (if you don’t agree then you obviously haven’t watched it recently).  In fact, Rocky actually beat Taxi Driver at the Oscars that year – a decision that could drive home another whole article!

Taxi Driver was directed by Martin Scorsese.   I would find it hard to name my favourite director.  It would be like having to name a favourite band or album.  They are decisions that are affected by mood, time and space.  But Scorsese would certainly be in my top one or two!  Ha ha!  I think Taxi Driver is a defining Scorsese film.  Unlike certain other great directors Scorsese has many great films.  You could pick Raging Bull or Goodfellas for example and no-one would dispute their challenge for the title of “Greatest Scorsese Movie”tm.  But, whilst I would agree with their greatness, and possibly that they are even greater than Taxi Driver… I would still say that Taxi Driver is the defining moment of Martin Scorsese’s career.  I can already sense that my writing here is sloppy.  I’m drifting around the subject without hitting the facts home.  I’m not firing on all cylinders here.  Bear with me.  I’m just typing what I’m thinking.  Hmmmm…. key points of note:

1) The amazing score.  This was Bernard Herrmann’s final score, completed shortly before he died.  Herrmann was responsible for some of the greatest soundtracks in movie history.  I adore his work with Hitchcock, and even those who aren’t familiar with film would recognise some of his signature pieces.  His screeching strings from Psycho are perhaps the best known in cinema history (alongside Jaws‘?).  I love his work on Vertigo too.  But for me… nothing surpasses his final work.  The masterpiece that is the score for Taxi Driver.

2) Robert De Niro.  This is a tour de force performance.  De Niro plays the insomniac Vietnam vet Travis Bickle.  Travis is a loner.  De Niro gets the portrayal spot on.  He IS Travis Bickle.  There is no acting.  You get that ‘method’ thing.

3) Cybill Shepherd. Now, here’s the thing.  I’m pretty sure that Cybill Shepherd is generally derided as an actress.  But I’ve gotta stick up for her.  She was great in The Last Picture Show and I thought she was cool in Moonlighting.  But she is something else in Taxi Driver.  The criticism of her acting tends to be that if she was standing in a forest you really wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from amongst the rest of the trunks.  Saw her in half and you could probably count the rings.  Well… okay, in fact, in Taxi Driver she is indeed a little stilted.  But, and it’s a big but… she is totally radiant.  Absolutely stunning looking.  She plays the part of Betsy, a woman sooooo out of Travis’ league.  And she plays it well.  Betsy benefits from being slightly dislocated from Travis’ world.  I wouldn’t change Shepherd for anyone else. Pretty simple really.

4) Jodie Foster.  Foster was a good little actress.  I think she was only 12 when she played the part of Iris in this film.  12!!!  If you’ve seen the film you’ll know why I’ve put all those exclamation marks!  This is a really adult role.  And Jodie Foster proves that she had the makings of one of the greatest actresses of all time.  I’m not much of a fan of her to be honest, but in this film she is outstanding.

5) Martin Scorsese.  There are moments in this film that are directed with intelligence and beauty.  The phone call where the camera seems embarrassed to be eavesdropping.  It actually wanders off mid shot.  You’ll know it when you see it.  It’s touches of class like this that raise the bar with this film.

6) “You talkin’ to me?”  Say no more.

7)  The beautiful irony/madness of Travis’ outlook on life.  On the one hand he is so self-righteous.  He wants proper order.  He denounces the drugs and the criminality.  He comes across as such a moral guardian.  … And yet… he stays up all day and all night.  He basks in pornography and takes drugs.  He IS the seedy side of life that he so appears to despise! I like that Travis is such a difficult character to interpret.  Taxi Driver is a much more ‘difficult’ film than, say, Falling Down.

8 ) New York.  The setting, the scenery.  You can almost smell the grime of the streets.

9) The duality of Travis’ relationships with Betsy and Iris.  This is a man who wants what he can’t have.  And then when he can’t have it he wants to destroy it.  For better or for worse.  It takes some thinking about.  And it has taken me many viewings and many years to fully appreciate.

10) The ending.  This is a film from a time before ‘twist endings’.  Yet, there is certainly an intriguing end to the film.  The final moments make you question whether Travis is a hero or a villain.  And it makes you question the society that creates such a man as Travis, and then crowns him a hero.  Or a villain?  For you see the ending all depended on which of the father figures Travis succeeded on destroying.  Betsy’s or Iris’.  One makes him a hero, the other a villain.  Or do they both make him a villain?  I like the uncertainty of the film’s tone.

Hmmm…. I’m not keen on writing a ‘review’ as a series of bullet points… but I’ve started so I’ll finish.  It’s getting late and I’m knackered!

There are a few things about the film that I’m not so keen about.

1) The carnage at the end.  The censors apparently would not let the violence at the finale go without cuts.  So, instead Scorsese just drained the colour from the ending.  Drained the visceral red from the blood.  This was enough to satisfy the censors.  And when you hear Marty explain the colour drain you can both understand, and appreciate how in some ways it actually improves the end.  But… I’ve never been too enamoured with it… so it probably loses the film a point.

2) The ending.  As a teenager I never truly understood the very end of Taxi Driver – the coda after the violence.  I didn’t know if it was a dream sequence, some kind of heaven, some kind of hell, or just an unlikely reality.  Having watched it again on Blu-ray 5 times I can now appreciate that it’s probably meant to be taken pretty literally.  I think in the past I was trying to be too clever.  I was trying to project upon the film a whole host of levels that just weren’t actually there.  I now see that the ending is more a scathing social commentary.  I can appreciate the view that the film has an uncertain tone.  And yet I now think that the film is actually quite certain with its tone.  I think the film has a single point to make and it is all very simple.  And I now see that the film could be viewed as a recurring loop.  If you started watching Taxi Driver again as soon as it finished everything would make perfect sense!!!  Anyway… the film loses a point.

3) The forcing of the “Everything is viewed by Travis.  Everything is observed.”. Basically the film sets out to show everything as a kind of first person, ‘as happens to Travis’ point of view.  So when other events need to be seen, Travis is shown as ‘observing them’ in his Taxi – usually sitting outside where the scene we need to see is happening.  Marty has explained the need for this approach many times.  I’m just not sure that it actually works.  However, certainly not bad enough to knock a point off the final score.  And I’ve got to say that the scene between Iris and her Pimp is indeed probably necessary and quite touching.

Let’s be clear.  This is probably the closest you’re gonna get to a ten out of ten film from me.  So, if that’s what you want to read the score as I’m happy for you to read it!  This film is a towering work of art.  A dissection of a troubled soul.

Taxi Driver – 8/10

I used Taxi Driver as the source of inspiration for the opening track of my new album “The Galton Detail“.  The song is called Rain.  I think I’ve captured the essence of the film.