20 Feet from Stardom

71QJju2iOQL._SL1425_Whenever my younger daughter and I get telly time to ourselves, we tend to watch music and music-related things. This weekend, we watched a few documentaries and some YouTube stuff.

First up was Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which was a fascinating look at how a band with a great sound, universal acclaim, and tons of talent can still fail to make it because a record label fucks up, or goes under, or for some other reason fails to promote or distribute them correctly. It’s a sobering film, really. Fascinating, but disturbing to think how few records Big Star sold, no matter how many music journalists obsessed about them. If you are or have ever been a music journalist, it should be especially sobering: what exactly are you for, if this can happen?

In similar vein, the brilliant film 20 Feet from Stardom was both uplifting and tragic. To hear, first hand, the story of how Merry Clayton came to make her extraordinary contribution to “Gimme Shelter”; or to see colour footage of Ike and Tina Turner with the Ikettes, including Claudia Lennear; or to see Judith Hill singing “Desperation” solo at a piano – all of this was brilliant. But then there are the stories about the other side of the business. How attempted solo careers stalled due to industry or public indifference; how being a great singer wasn’t enough, you had to be sexy too; how modern cost-cutting trends mean that the work dries up.

The record industry has a long history of exploiting and discarding talent, of course, but there’s something especially poignant about the difficulties experienced by the likes of Darlene Love, whose contract with Phil Spector kept her out of the spotlight for too long, and who, when she was finally free of him, found that her next manager was somehow persuaded to sell her contract back to Spector. The same Spector, of course, who kept his own wife Ronnie a virtual prisoner in their home for five years. Darlene Love, who had to work as a cleaner to make ends meet. Or Claudia Lennear, whose one solo record, Phew, was pretty damn good (including Ry Cooder on guitar and production from Allen Toussaint) but failed to do much in the charts.

That was the next step, to give that record a listen. It really is pretty good. She sounds not unlike Tina Turner (hardly surprising) with some Jagger mannerisms (who borrowed from whom, who knows). Cooder’s guitar makes a lot of it sound like Taylor-era Stones.

Our third music doc of the weekend was I’m Not in Love: the Story of 10cc, which was very interesting. I wasn’t aware, when they were a thing, of the band members’ prehistories. In today’s music industry, Godley and Creme  could have had their side projects and the band could have taken two, three years off at a time, but not in those days. The actual story of “I’m Not in Love” is itself mind-blowing.

Finally, we watched this 55-minute snippet of The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert, featuring Bruce Springsteen with a slew of guest stars, including Darlene Love. So good. And I was in floods of tears watching an obviously unwell Clarence Clemons play his wondrous “Jungleland” solo. So great.

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Undisclosed episode 2

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 08.27.05First things first: I thought the audio quality of the second episode of Undisclosed was much improved, and I didn’t notice any of the presenters talking too fast this time, so thumbs up to that.

As the first was about Adnan’s day, this episode was about Hae’s day, and called into question many, many of the things we’d been assuming were true. If it’s about anything so far, Undisclosed is about the unreliability of memory and the ways in which witnesses can’t really be trusted to have remembered the facts.

None of this is terribly surprising, but when the legal system (and this case in particular) is so determined to keep relying on sworn witness statements, it’s good to be reminded of it. In fact, Serial itself might well have spent more time on this – made it more of a theme – because the very first episode began with the notion that Adnan Syed is in prison because he couldn’t remember what he was doing in one twenty minute period six weeks before he was asked about it.

The first episode of Serial began with that question: could you remember what you were doing six weeks ago, if asked? Obviously, it depends on whether you were doing something particularly memorable; or whether your life is pretty regular and has routines.

Say, for example, you remember the day vividly because you happened to be co-coaching the school wrestling team, and you wanted the more experienced coach to be at the match with you, but they didn’t turn up? You’d remember that, especially if it made you anxious, vividly. This was one of the key points in the original trials, and in Serial itself. Why did nobody check, then, whether there really had been a wrestling match on January 13? Turns out, there wasn’t. The match that Hae didn’t turn up to was the week before, on January 5th. That’s your ineffective assistance of counsel, right there.

What does this mean? It means that our ideas about the time-line of Hae’s last day are wrong. It means that a witness was mistaken. It means that there was a pattern to Hae’s behaviour, that this previously reliable and responsible girl suddenly let a friend/colleague down. Why? Maybe because of her intense involvement with her new boyfriend?

One thing that does interest me was that there was apparently a teacher who was the liaison between staff, students, and police. This teacher was close to Hae and was apparently planning a trip to France with her. This, I want to know more about. Was it a school trip? With a group of students who would by then have graduated? Or was it a private holiday? A teacher with a student? I think we need to know.

The famous local news clip, showing Hae posing for indoor hockey footage and being interviewed, was also supposed to have taken place on the 13th. Only nobody mentioned it, talked about it, or remembered it. Turns out, that was almost certainly the week before, too.

We still don’t know what happened. But we do apparently know that a lot of what we thought we knew is wrong. Which throw loads more reasonable doubt into the case, but doesn’t provide Adnan with anything convincingly exculpatory.

Los Angeles Plays Itself

This 2003 documentary by Thom Andersen was finally made available for the home video market in the autumn of last year. I’ll confess that I hadn’t heard of it. I’m pretty up on things, generally. I mean, I knew about the Helvetica and Linotype documentaries. I knew about Side by Side. But not this.

So maybe it was my head in the sand, maybe it was something else. It all seems to have been a little hush hush. You don’t need to think very hard to come up with a reason why it took more than 10 years for the film to appear on DVD. And the same thought will explain why, even now, you can’t buy a Region 2/European version.

Rights. Clearances. You’d think the media conglomerates would be friendlier towards education and more supportive of academic work or film historiography. This film does shade towards a personal polemic, but it is still fascinating, detailed, brilliantly done.

But although I looked, I could only buy an imported Region 1 DVD or Blu-Ray, and I couldn’t find a legitimate download.

I could find an illegitimate download. It was low resolution (640×480) and looked soft and painterly when displayed on my HDTV. When I first played it, the sound was not just a little out of synch, but a good minute, playing the voice-over over completely the wrong pictures. Using different playback software fixed this problem. My daughter complained that the voice over was monotonous, and it certainly can be at times. But I found it interesting enough to watch all the way through. It reminded me of Adam Curtis documentaries. The clips were there to support the polemic.

The complaint in the film is that Los Angeles is often distorted or misrepresented in films. Cars turn corners in the movies and are suddenly 30 miles away. Characters exit a building to find themselves on a street 15 miles away. Los Angeles is often called upon to play other cities, or different countries: New York, Chicago, Switzerland. People are portrayed as living either in the hills above the city or on the beach. Rarely do we see them in the midst of the vast suburban sprawl where most of the inhabitants live. There are some wonderful modernist buildings in the city, examples of progressive, utopian architecture: but they are usually depicted as the homes of crime lords and drug dealers: only evil people choose to live in modern buildings.

My favourite sequences in the film were

  • the one about the Bradbury Building and all its appearances in film (including Blade Runner, which I’m going to see again tonight);
  • The Bunker Hill history, showing how its gradual destruction and disappearance was recorded in the movies;
  • The Chinatown sequence, discussing the background to the script, and the way in which the film’s fictionalised and temporally transposed story of water corruption serves to conceal the real scandals of Los Angeles history;
  • and the LAPD sequence, discussing how the police are seen as an occupying force, working against the interests of the people they’re supposed to serve: are they the only police force whose motto is in ironic quote marks?

There is much, much more. Street corners, diners, motels, locations that turn up again and again. Things that get knocked down and rebuilt as simulations. The film puts to bed a lot of the myths about Los Angeles. It complains that it is the only major city known by its initials – and blames the movies. The idea that ‘nobody walks’ and that ‘everybody drives’ is exposed as an example of a white privileged viewpoint. In Steve Martin’s LA Story, there are only two black characters with speaking roles: they are both in the service industry.

It was interesting to see excerpts of forgotten, independent, neo-realist films such as Killer of SheepThe Exiles and Bush Mama, depicting the Los Angeles ‘hidden’ by the movies, or only ever viewed through the lens of the privileged cop point-of-view, which sees brown people as the enemy within. These are ‘foreign’ films made in the heart of the city largely ignored by the film industry that is based there.

This page lists the films excerpted in the documentary, in order, including their repeated appearances. If you can get hold of a copy, highly recommended, rights be damned.