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