Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Sneezing and Monica Bellucci - Reviews #47

Malena (Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000) is an arresting but slightly insubstantial film from the creator of Cinema Paradiso, as village looker Malena becomes village hooker Malena, while remaining an angel in the eyes of eternally masturbating adolescent Giuseppe Sulfaro. It's really a coming-of-age story, but atypical of such films in its refusal to offer easy answers, or indeed any concessions to sentiment whatsoever. Beginning his film in 1940, with Italy on the brink of war, Tornatore displays his usual strong grasp of the Sicilian period setting: all white stone, crowded squares and appalling cattiness. And he's aided by a pair of very attractive central performances, along with cinematography and an Ennio Morricone score that are just glorious. Sadly though, while the script provides two memorable characters and considerable emotional engagement, it suffers from lurches in tone and is let down by repetition - essentially offering the same scene of Malena walking through the town over and over again - and an inability to tie up its loose ends. The narrative is augmented by a handful of very well-observed movie pastiches, but these are largely squashed into the first half. Malena is an honest, appealing, sometimes very funny film, but a touch light in the writing. (3)


Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943) - There's surely no genre on earth as ripe for rehab as the romcom. Well this is how it used to look, before that debilitating addiction to formula filmmaking: clever, distinguished, witty and wise, with a focus on love, lust and the nature of being rather than, say, shoes. Don Ameche is the recently-deceased man about town who presents himself "where so many people had previously told him to go" - Hell. There, His Excellency (Laird Cregar) invites him to recount his story, from a youthful dalliance with a French maid, through elopement and marriage to the sweet-hearted Mary (Gene Tierney), then onto acceptance of his place in the world. On third viewing, it appears greater and more masterful than ever, blessed by Lubitsch's matchless handling. The performances he draws from the cast are superb across the board. The leads are delightful, legendary child stars Scotty Beckett and Dickie Moore play the young Ameches, while Charles Coburn is magnificent as the crusty, genial grandfather and Allyn Joslyn unexpectedly moving as Mary's "solid" suitor. Look also for celebrated character comics Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main, as Tierney's constantly-warring screen parents. A wonderful film. (4)

Trivia note: It's interesting (to me, at least) how involuntary bodily functions play such a big part in bringing lovers together - or pulling them apart - in Lubitsch films. In That Uncertain Feeling it was hiccups. Here it's sneezing.


And this is the Pixar short playing before Toy Story 3:

SHORT: Day & Night (Teddy Newton, 2010)
is moralistic and a little light on laughs, but boasts some tremendous animation. The plot, such as it is, features cartoonish blobs representing day and night, who show one another just what they can do - namely showcase the very best of their respective worlds. The first is big on scantily-clad sunbathers; the other displays Vegas all lit-up. Eventually the familiar-looking blobs (I can't place them) learn to overcome their fear and prejudice, and understand the other, leading to a satisfying wrap-up. Mid-range Pixar, but we've been spoiled lately, to be honest. (3)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Toy Story 3 and the French Heat - Reviews #46

CINEMA: Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
is perhaps the best of the series - and that's saying something. Andy is now 17, and heading for college. Clearing out his room, he earmarks cherished childhood toy Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) as a travelling companion, but consigns the rest of the gang to the attic, foolishly stashing them in a bin bag. One hair-raising encounter with a refuse lorry later and Buzz, Rex, Hamm, Mr Potato Head and the others decide they've had enough - turning themselves in to the nearest playgroup. There, they deal with obstacles both physical (terrifying toddlers, a psychotic bear) and intangible (love, mortality, the transience of being), as existential ruminations jostle for space with brilliant jokes and wildly-imaginative chase sequences. Benefiting from the leaps in digital animation over the past 12 years, this richly rewarding film adds further depth to this fully-realised world - not least in its subtle, sure-footed use of 3D - while the terrific scripting taps into both the mythology and the absurdity of toys. It's there from the spellbinding, ridiculous opening sequence, set in Monument Valley, to the masterfully-conceived running gag that sees Buzz (Tim Allen) turn Spanish - not the tired non-sequitur you'd get from any other studio, but an inspired riff on the peculiarity of mass-market electronics. That intelligence and invention is underscored by an effortless humanism that informs the whole piece, bursting through the surface during the terrifying landfill set-piece and the ending, which is just sublime. One could legitimately quibble with the excessive repetition in the earlier parts of the script or argue that the new characters can't quite match up to the returning favourites, but it really does feel like splitting hairs. This is a massively ambitious, remarkably successful third outing: mature, invigorating and deeply, deeply moving. (4)

For reviews of Toy Story and Toy Story 2, please click here. For write-ups of WALL-E, Ratatouille, Cars, Finding Nemo and a selection of Pixar shorts, just click on the name. Reviews of other Pixar shorts are dotted about the site - for our full list of contents go here.


36 Quai des Orfevres (Oliver Marchal, 2004), named after the police headquarters in Paris, is an entertaining but flawed thriller, loosely based on real events. Jean de Florette co-stars Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu play rival officers - and former friends - striving to bring in a gang of ruthless bank robbers. It is a case that will define their careers and change their lives forever: one for better, one for worse. The characters, that is, not the actors. Former cop Marchal is good on the day-to-day details, but his forays into fiction are largely unsuccessful, striving for epic tragedy and finding only melodrama. The dovetailing of twin narratives, in the vein of Murder, My Sweet or Le Doulos (referenced overtly in the character of the informer Silien), is similarly disappointing, creating a resolution that's too pat, smug and downright predictable to satisfy. This has been described as the French Heat (it's about cops and robbers, it has two famous stars) and while it's not as infuriatingly self-important as that damp squib, its shortcomings are all too apparent. Auteuil's performance, the glossy cinematography and the fast pace are the main draws. (2.5)

Friday, 23 July 2010

Rick's O2 Media Awards adventure

This is essentially what they gave me, but for writing.

I don't usually write about myself, as movies are just so much more interesting. After all, I've never masterminded a heist. Except that one time in Madrid. But following such celebrated posts as that one where I pretended I was raised by the Wolverhampton Wanderers squad and that one where I kept boasting, I've decided to tack up a few self-aggrandising lines about last night's O2 Media Awards for Yorkshire and the Humber.

I didn't win an award - a couple of deserving folks scooped the gongs - but I was highly commended in the Digital Journalist of the Year and Young Journalist of the Year (Weeklies) categories. And at risk of appearing the raging egomaniac I secretly am, here's what the judges said:

Digital Journalist of the Year
Rick Burin has an insatiable thirst for maximising the web, and his efforts are paying off. He’s launched his own film review site, uses Twitter and Facebook to uncover and disseminate news and sports stories and created a blog which when snow and ice hit his home town became an invaluable source of information for stranded residents.

Young Journalist of the Year
Here’s a journalist with a mature writing style that belies his years. A potential star of the future.

I'm really chuffed with that. And it was a great night, full of friendly people and veggie sausage sandwiches. Thanks to everyone who gave me their good wishes beforehand. For a full list of winners, please mosey on over to the O2 site.

June Allyson, The Lone Wolf and Cinema Paradiso uncut - Reviews #45

Cinema Paradiso: Director's Cut (Giusseppe Tornatore, 1988/2002)
is longer, bleaker and more troubling than the uplifting 'international version', which scooped countless awards (including the Oscar for Best Foreign Film) and won the hearts of the world. The set-up is the same, with silver-haired moviemaker Salvatore (the excellent Jacques Perrin) looking back on his childhood and adolescence - most of it spent at the local picture palace - following the death of his mentor Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). Sadly, life has afforded no Hollywood ending to the deadened director, who remains haunted by the spectre of lost love, a doomed romance with the middle-class Elena (Agnese Nano). And through it all, Ennio Morricone's sensational score dips and soars.

Rather than a self-indulgent splurge or a cash-in job, as many extended cuts are, this one is the real deal, an expanded take on the original version of the film that toured Italy in 1988. As well as restoring the 31 minutes that were lost in the re-edit, deemed necessary after disastrous box-office receipts, this definitive cut includes an extra 15 minutes of material. So what's new - or rather old? Well, Toto, for one thing. He's old for much longer. In the shortest cut, we get just a handful of scenes showing Perrin as the grown-up Salvatore, still lamenting his betrayal by the only girl he ever loved. Here, there's a full-blown reunion between the former lovers (sadly the older Elena is played by Brigitte Fossey, who's quite poor), along with a stunning, thriller-ish sequence (composed of masterful jump cuts) that reveals the identity of her husband.

Crucially, this release also reveals why the love of Toto's life apparently left without saying goodbye, substantially changing the character of Alfredo from an avuncular, grizzly old duffer to a possibly misguided puppet-master. These are the extra sequences which were bafflingly shown in confusing and meaningless silent snippets over the end credits of the international version! As with that more familiar cut, the best scenes remain those featuring Noiret and the young Toto (Salvatore Cascio), both of whom are just magical, but here they're lent yet greater resonance by the devastating pay-off. In any form, Cinema Paradiso is a richly evocative movie that radiates a love of film and scales some unforgettable heights - the exam set-piece, the outdoor screening, the montage of kisses. This remarkable cut turns much of what you think you know on its head, twisting the film back from a crowd-pleaser to an upsetting, uncompromising artistic statement. See it. (4)


Passport to Suez (Andre de Toth, 1943) - Warren William's final appearance as jewel-thief-turned-crimebuster The Lone Wolf is light on comedy and has almost no mystery. Surprising, then, that it's still a pretty snappy thriller, with our hero (I trust he's your hero too - why wouldn't he be?) getting mixed up with Nazi spies trying to steal secret plans. The Lone Wolf series was a staple of '30s and '40s Hollywood and after a superb, glossy outing with Melvyn Douglas (The Lone Wolf Returns) and a surprisingly sprightly one featuring Francis Lederer (The Lone Wolf in Paris), Pre-Code favourite Warren William took over as solo operator Michael Lanyard. His first appearance was in The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt, a matchlessly enjoyable fusion of thriller and screwball romance, before the series settled into an agreeable if unexceptional groove with movies like The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady and The Lone Wolf Keeps a Date. Those earlier sequels are certainly the best, full of nice interplay between William and his doting valet Eric Blore. By the time studio Columbia began shoving Lanyard into WWII propaganda flicks like Counter-Espionage (so steeped in patriotic fervour it feels slightly bossy) and One Dangerous Night, the entries were looking a touch thin. Which brings us to Passport to Suez. It's unusual to see William's character so out of his depth as he appears for the most part here, trying - and largely failing - to stay one step ahead of the Axis agents. Eric Blore is good value as ever, playing valet Jamieson, though the introduction of his screen son is a little wrong-headed. The support cast is somewhat enlivened by Ann Savage, the femme fatale from the classic PRC no-budget noir Detour, who has an intriguingly strange face/head, if not a great deal to do. (2.5)

For a review of the previous film in the series, One Dangerous Night, please go here.


The worst drawing of Joel McCrea the West has ever known.

Four Faces West (Alfred E. Green, 1948)
is a genuinely offbeat Western, in that no bullets are fired at any stage, though the gunpowder inside is used to cure two sick border children of diptheria. The film begins as a manhunt, with 'bankrobber' Joel McCrea (he leaves an IOU, but does point a gun at the manager) tracked by sheriff Pat Garrett (Charles Bickford). Then it adds some romance and a touch of history, before taking an inspired left-turn. McCrea's Westerns are a mixed bunch. He was a marvellous actor and from 1946 made nothing but oaters. Odd, then, how few were worthy of his talent. Of the 15 or so I've seen, only Stars in My Crown (is that a Western?), Ride the High Country and Colorado Territory really made the grade. This is definitely above-average, improving as it goes along, with a moving, reflective final 30 that comes out of nowhere. The supporting cast includes McCrea's wife Frances Dee as the love interest, and Maltese actor Joseph Calleia, playing against type as a kind-hearted gambler. This moodily-photographed outing isn't a masterpiece, but it does something different, and that's a welcome change in a genre heavily populated by formula films. (3)


These women look a funny shape. Can't they get some better artists in Hollywood?

The Opposite Sex (David Miller, 1956) is a disappointing remake of The Women that adds colour, songs and men, but somehow loses the essence of the original. Perhaps the plentiful cuts to plot and dialogue were to blame, though the lacklustre direction and unimaginative incorporation of the numbers doesn't help. June Allyson plays Kay, a former chanteuse who finds that her husband (Leslie Nielsen) has strayed with chorus girl Joan Collins. She's cut up about it and heads for Reno, but the chance of reconciliation is always there. Amidst the disappointment, there are some positives. Allyson was an underrated, distinctive actress and she's very good here, well-supported by Sandy Descher (as her daughter), Ann Sheridan - delivering the best performance of the bunch - and the legendary Joan Blondell, whose part is sadly far too small. June also contributes a couple of musical highlights: Young Man With a Horn, complete with trumpet solo by Harry James, and Now Baby Now, with its explosion-in-a-pastel-factory colour scheme. The latter is an exuberant performance, with staging that clearly informed Elvis' Jailhouse Rock (made at MGM the next year), though it inescapably features Allyson in a light blue jumpsuit, somewhat failing to transmit the desired sex appeal. The film's a bit of a damp squib, all told, though worth sticking with if you do start it. The last third is the best. (2)

Thursday, 15 July 2010

It's not always fun to visit the '40s - Reviews #44

"I seem to spend the better part of my life saying 'What are you doing here?'"
She Wouldn't Say Yes (Alexander Hall, 1945) is not to be confused with She Couldn't Say No, the Jean Simmons/Robert Mitchum mess presided over by the obsessive Howard Hughes. Rather, it's a tail-end screwball comedy that veers all over the place - sometimes going where we wish it wouldn't - but provides a few laughs along the way. Especially with that joke about the policeman. Rosalind Russell is a psychiatrist who (literally) bumps into clumsy cartoonist Lee Bowman and spends the rest of the film trying not to fall in love with him. Adele Jergens, hamming terribly as a Garbo-voiced actress with a heap of neuroses, also has eyes for moustachioed Bowman, leading to complications that are often too offensive to be funny, while lacking an internal logic. Like Bowman tricking Russell into marriage by telling the judge she has learning difficulties. Or her outrageously ill-conceived joke about asthma. If you can stomach those elements, and I found it tough, the film isn't a complete write-off. The performers are bright and there are a smattering of good one-liners, while the production design by Van Nest Polglase (head of art direction at RKO during the Fred and Ginger series) is eye-poppingly luxuriant. Check out the door panels in Russell's apartment - massive plaster of Paris discs apparently styled after Roman coins. Add to that the peculiar propagandist opening, the chance to see Bowman in a rare leading role (he's essentially a less charming Brian Aherne), the pleasant wrap-up and the novelty of having a heroine who's a vegetarian, and classic comedy buffs will probably want to give it a look. But it remains a reminder that despite the awesome movies the '40s were a somewhat less enlightened time, and it's easily the weakest film in the excellent Icons of Screwball Comedy sets. (2)

Trivia notes: 1) If you think you recognise the voice of the plump chap who gives up his seat on the train to Ros, you're right. Arthur Q. Bryan was better known as a voice artist. His primary meal ticket? Elmer Fudd. 2) The slapdash nature of the production is epitomised by a sign on a hospital door in the opening scene, which reads: "CHIEF NEURO-PYSCHIATRIC BRANCH". "Pyschiatric"? Really?

Monday, 12 July 2010

Anvil, The Leopard and Fred Astaire - Reviews #43

“I can tell you in one word. No, two. Three words. We don't have good management..."
Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2008)
is a sweet little documentary about the forgotten '80s metal band, seen playing to audiences in double figures, still waiting for the break that never came. It's been hailed as one of the best films of recent years and the best documentaries of all time, which is frankly pushing it, but it's a fine film, with plenty of heart alongside the abundant humour. And though it begins like a spoof - drummer Robb Reiner even shares his name with the director of This Is Spinal Tap - by the end you'll be willing the group to succeed, rather than smirking at their increasing ill-fortune. The film's focus is on frontman Lips - an eternally optimistic dreamer who rocks by night, but delivers children's school lunches by day - and childhood pal Robb, the band's drummer. As they tour Europe then travel to London to record their 13th album, we pay witness to their deep and lasting friendship, punctuated as it is by bouts of yelling and violence.

There's one particularly telling, hilarious moment when Robb speaks about the gold drumsticks he wears round his neck, given to him by his father, an Auschwitz survivor. "My father was a jeweller and he gave these to me when I was 13 years old, as a gift. And I've never had them off from round my neck since they were given to me," he says. "Except the odd time I've had a few scraps with Lips and he's ripped them off my neck and stuff, but I've always repaired it, you know." Later on, they come to blows in the kitchen of their recording studio and Lips decides he's had enough, petulantly telling the director that Robb is "fired". They're a likeable pair, with a passion for music that's truly invigorating - even inspirational. A particularly memorable passage has Lips bothering his heroes at a rock festival. "Do you remember that? I played with a woman's vibrator," he tells guitarist Michael Schenker, in a way that somehow makes those words endearing. Schenker gives him a bemused smile.

Directed by fan and former Anvil roadie Gervasi, the film also finds time to meet the band's loyal followers. They include a sales executive - responsible for sponsoring Lips' short, unhappy sojourn into the world of telemarketing - and the Swiss-Italian Tiziana, who appoints herself as the band's manager via email and organises the European tour, complete with a gig to just 17 people and another where payment comes in goulash. Their fervour - like that of the band - is truly infectious, backed up by insightful interviews with the group's families. The scene where Lips' elder sister forks out the money for their new album, saying that all she has ever wanted "is for him to be happy", adds further weight to a film positively crammed with pathos.

The whole thing climaxes in truly winning fashion. I didn't go in expecting to find myself desperate for a happy, heartwarming ending, but having been through the wringer with the band, I was. My only real quibble is with the brevity of the film: more than 300 hours of footage condensed into 80 minutes. It covers the main ground well, sometimes delving deeper than you might expect, but is slightly lacking in context, detailing little of the band's decline from 1984 to 2005, and is inconsistent in where it decides to elaborate. Despite that slight shortcoming, Gervasi has collected a veritable treasure trove of footage and is a skilful storyteller, transcending his film's apparent limitations to confound non-metal fans (myself included) with his portrait of hopeless, dildo-wielding dreamers. (3.5)


And then I watched three films that I'd seen before...

"If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."
Il Gattopardo (Luchino Visconti, 1963) aka The Leopard - For around an hour-and-a-half, you might struggle to see what all the fuss is about, as Visconti's huge, meticulously-devised adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa's novel unfolds at a snail's pace - albeit in sumptuous style. It's not just the slowness, either: there's the convoluted Sicilian politics, and the unwavering focus on Burt Lancaster's prince, a "vigorous" adulterer living in opulence as his subjects survive in squalor. But as in a later masterwork where the power games of Sicilians were soundtracked by the incomparable Nino Rota - The Godfather Part II - so the slow-moving, slightly aloof first 90 turns out to have been groundwork, a foundation to be laid so the stunning second half could exist. Then, when the curtain falls, that first section too appears elevated, its events coloured by what has come since: resonant and important, echoing through time.

It is 1860 and Sicily - like Italy - is changing, the middle class coming to eclipse the old order. As Lancaster and his impoverished nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) realise, the aristocracy can only survive through compromise, whether that means joining Garibaldi's marauding forces, who are agitating for change, or marrying into the nouveau riche. A chameleon in both the personal and political spheres, Tancredi can ultimately write-off his former comrades as easily as break the heart of the girl who loves him. Lancaster himself, while acting as matchmaker for Delon and the loaded, faintly bawdy Claudia Cardinale, appears to view the new world with quiet detachment. But it's just an act, his facade evaporating behind closed doors in the utterly extraordinary 45-minute ball sequence that ends the film. There he laments the changes, shedding tears for the loss of an age, and for his departed youth.

Il Gattopardo is a remarkable movie, loaded with symbolism and significance, while being as far away from the groundbreaking neorealist films that made the director's name as it's possible to be. Well, almost as far. While Senso appeared to completely jettison Visconti's preoccupation with the working classes, he does acknowledge them here, suggesting that the upper classes protected the church and therefore the poor, while the nouveau riche would have no such lofty role. A Marxist and an aristocrat, Visconti oscillated between those apparently contradictory states, drawing heavy fire from left-wing critics after this one for supposedly revealing his true colours. But it seems curious to suggest that a socially-conscious filmmaker should only be allowed to make pictures within a narrow thematic and polemic framework. The world would be a poorer place if Il Gattopardo didn't exist, and no-one could have made it quite like Visconti.

Quite aside from its breathtaking ambition, its glorious score and the exquisite cinematography, the movie scores as a human drama, perfectly blending the grandiose and the personal as all great epics do. That's largely down to the acting, much of which is simply superb. Lancaster, Delon and the great French character actor Serge Reggiani are all dubbed, but expertly so, with even Burt acknowledging that the Italian soundtrack essentially completed his performance. Delon, pretty enough to turn even the most macho reviewer a little bit gay (and I am far from being the most macho reviewer), is utterly seductive. Tancredi must draw on charm in his slippery quest for greatness - Delon makes him irresistible. Cardinale too is at the peak of her powers, superbly cast as his swarthy, widely-idolised lover. And Lancaster is towers above all, giving perhaps the most deep and nuanced performance of his illustrious and varied career. Admittedly Rina Morelli is annoying and one-note as his constantly-sobbing wife, but one can't have everything. (4)


Station West (Sidney Lanfield, 1948) is a noir with Western trappings, as smart-mouthed investigator Dick Powell pries into the murder of two soldiers - and finds pouty mogul Jane Greer probably had something to do with it. The script views the story as secondary, not even bothering to fashion it as a whodunnit, instead exerting its energies on the dialogue, which is pungent, bitter and breathlessly funny in the best noir tradition. Powell, a musical lead before he reinvented himself as a violent smartarse with 1944's Murder, My Sweet, made a heap of cracking crime pictures throughout the '40s and early-'50s. If this one isn't quite in the top bracket, it's still high-grade entertainment, lit by his classic, sardonic persona and boasting a bloody tussle with Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams that's one of the Golden Age's toughest. Greer is also good value, following her definitive femme fatale performance in Out of the Past (see #74), while Agnes Moorehead and Burl Ives offer support - the latter providing an on-camera song score. (3.5)


The Belle of New York (Charles Walters, 1952) - There's no denying that this is a lesser Fred Astaire flick. I've seen 31 of his 32 musicals (Dancing Lady has evaded me thus far) and this would be in the bottom five. That's really down to the weak script and uninvolving story, which pits affable womaniser Fred against mission house worker Vera-Ellen. Though it's fun to see Astaire reprising the man-about-town image upon which he lent so heavily in the '30s, the story is completely lacking in dramatic drive, with scenes that don't go anywhere and hardly any good jokes (one notable exception is Fred's peanuts/diamonds routine, which Vera-Ellen rebuffs so effortlessly). As ever with these minor Fred musicals, it's partially rescued by the numbers. Though there was little chemistry between Astaire and Vera-Ellen when they played dramatic scenes in their previous film, Three Little Words, they sparked memorably as a dance team. They're at it again here, performing three joint numbers full of exuberance and invention, even if the music itself is below Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer's usual standard. The solo routines are just as good, set to the movie's two best songs: Naughty but Nice - performed in vampy style by Vera-Ellen (before being reprised by chinless comic foil Alice Pearce) - and Fred's simple, delightful I Wanna Be a Dancin' Man. For added insight into his consummate skill, check out That's Entertainment, Part III, which shows the number in both its original form (with Fred dressed as a waiter) and this re-shot version. They're virtually identical. All in all, you can see why The Belle of New York flopped on release, but Fred fans will want to catch it, primarily for the hoofing. (2.5)


... before another new one:

The Doctor Takes a Wife (Alexander Hall, 1940) - This is another fun screwball comedy from Columbia, the studio boasting in the trailer that it had recently been responsible for such fine films as The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and His Girl Friday - and rightly so. Loretta Young is cast against type as a hard-boiled authoress, who pens a manual for fellow singletons, the idiotically-titled Spinsters Aren't Spinach. Forcefully hitching a lift with single-minded, old-fashioned research scientist Ray Milland ("romantic Ray Milland", as he's billed in the trailer), events quickly take a turn for the ridiculous, and soon the pair are having to pretend they're married, as bosses, friends and lovers come to visit. Gail Patrick is a bit under-used as Milland's real girlfriend, and Reginald Gardiner rather one-dimensional as Young's suitor and publisher, but the leads are great fun, with Milland showing a real flair for comedy. I've seen very few funny drunk scenes - Frank McHugh's belligerent daredevil act in I Love You Again (see #29) is surely the best on record - but Milland's is a belter, an ideal ending to a hilarious routine that sees him stealing Young's possessions to the value of $4.95. "Ten years old," Milland says approvingly, sizing up a vintage bottle of whisky. "That's more than I can say for you," replies Young. The film is a little wild, its characters' behaviour not always coherent, but the set pieces are fine and there are great lines scattered all over the place. "He's a prowler," Young tells reporter Charles Lane, after he enquires about the man in her bedroom. "Lady, I don't care what your husband does for a living," he replies. Arf. It's also great to see the underrated bit player Ed Gargan as a suspicious doorman. Very enjoyable stuff. (3)

Trivia note: As well as being an entertaining example of Golden Era marketing, the trailer includes a few snippets of scenes cut from the final release, with more footage of Patrick at her engagement party, an amusing line about Wallace Beery and Young being presented with a large wedding cake. It's always worth checking out these classic trailers for such nuggets - or for alternate takes of famous scenes - if you're a bit of a geek like me.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Sweding and shadows - Reviews #42

Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008)
- Jack Black breaks into a power plant for a spot of late-night sabotage and gets comprehensively zapped. Returning to the video store his friend Mos Def is looking after, the newly-magnetised Black accidently wipes every tape in the place. The solution? To recreate the lot, from Ghost Busters to Robocop, King Kong to Driving Miss Daisy. In the process, their "sweded", sub-30-minute remakes turn the pair into superstars, promising to save the ailing shop, owned by tall tale teller Danny Glover. But they can't demolish the place anyway, can they? Jazz maestro Fats Waller was born there. It's a very entertaining film, writer-director Gondry infusing the Purple Rose of Cairo-style narrative with his 'homemade' leanings and bizarre, disarming sense of humour to create another singular comedy-drama, though it lacks the consistency of his previous film, The Science of Sleep. The absurdist, elliptical opening is superb, setting up a cracking first 50, while the Waller-biopic wrap-up is affecting and imaginative, but in-between the interest somewhat wanes, with a lack of focus and a dearth of jokes. Still, it's hard to be too critical of a film that reverses everything I ever thought about spoofery (isn't it supposed to be tired and lazy?) - or encourages its protagonists to shoot night scenes by turning their camcorder onto 'negative' and then wearing photocopies of their own faces. (3)


The Big Combo (Joseph H. Lewis, 1955)
is perhaps the visual apex of film noir, with truly astonishing cinematography by the pioneering John Alton, working alongside cult B-movie director Lewis. The story isn't too shoddy either. Obsessive cop Cornel Wilde fights to bring down crime lord Richard Conte, while battling for the soul of the gangster's girlfriend (Jean Wallace). As they tussle, Conte's second-in-command (the great Brian Donlevy) plots a coup, trying to enlist his boss's gay hitmen (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman) to snuff out his former underling. Wilde is powerful in the lead and Conte a wonderfully slimy villain, while the subservient hoods are perfectly cast. And though this thriller may lurch from one stunningly-shot scenario to another, serving up a hatful of duff lines alongside the great ones, its high spots remain truly unforgettable. That means Donlevy's downfall, of course - one of the best death scenes in cinema - and the offbeat ending. But it also means the moody credits, the sickening torture sequence and the attempted hit on Wilde, complete with a gutting cut to a smoking cigarette. In his classic 1950 noir Gun Crazy, Lewis had displayed innovation to the point of showboating, shooting an entire bank robbery from the back seat of a moving car. Here his wizardry is more subtle, characterised by confident stylisation and a single concession to inspired gimmickry (I'm thinking of a hearing aid being wrenched out). In that way it's more mature, though the loss of his freewheeling sensibility makes it less energetic and arguably less exciting. It's still a mightily impressive, distinctive work, a punchy premise given sumptuous, often dazzling treatment despite the erratic script. (3.5)

The Hess story - in Ian's own words

Ian Bailey in 1941 and 2005.

In 1941, senior Nazi Rudolf Hess embarked on an ill-fated 'peace mission' to Scotland. After crashlanding in Glasgow, he was guarded by schoolteacher and trainee soldier Ian Bailey. This is the story, in Ian's own words:

“I joined up in 1940. I went into the Scots Guards and I was commissioned the following year into the Highland Light Infantry, City of Glasgow Regiment.

“In the early months of 1941 I went up to Glasgow to the depot, waiting to be posted to a battalion. On May 10th 1941 I was the orderly officer for the day. I went to bed at midnight. At about half past one in the morning the duty officer came up to my room and said, ‘A German prisoner’s been brought in – get up!” ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘Hell.’ So I had to get up and get dressed again; and then I went into the barracks. It was a moonlit night, and there was a man with his arms around the necks of two of our soldiers, limping.

“When I hoved into sight, one of the soldiers left him, and the fella put his arm around my neck – little did I realise whose arm it was. We hurtled along to the little place we had to look after sick men. The doctor was roused, because this fella had hurt his foot when he parachuted.

“We took his boot off, and he made very Germanic noises, and we thought, ‘A Brit wouldn’t make noises like that’. I thought, ‘I hope they get rid of him, because I want to get back to bed’ – it was cold, and I hadn’t got my overcoat on. They said, ‘There’s a room upstairs, you can guard him.’ So I thought, ‘Damn’.

“Well, a Corporal was laid on as well and we took this chap up to this room and watched him get undressed, and he had very nice long johns on, I remember – very nice clean long johns. Then he got into bed and I put the Corporal in the corridor outside with his rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition, and I sat down in an armchair beside his bedside.

'The poor devil'

“But he didn’t go to sleep, he put his hands behind his head, and just gazed into the distance and I really felt quite sorry for him. I thought, ‘The poor devil, he’s in the bag for goodness knows how long’. And at about half-past five in the morning he got out of bed and started doing knees full-bend exercises, groaning all the while! So, I went outside into the corridor where this Corporal was and said, ‘Get the doctor out again’.

“The doctor was very cross at being roused twice out of his bed by a German, so he sent one of his minions with a Mickey Finn to put him out, and then he was quiet for the rest of the evening. At about half-past eight we gave him some breakfast and I was relieved and the next orderly officer came and took over from me, and so I went to bed – this was Sunday – and I got up later on in the evening, and spent the evening with some relatives I had along the South side of Glasgow, and I remember saying, ‘I had an interesting evening, I had to sit with a German prisoner – they brought in an airman.’ He’d given his name as Alfred Horn and he wore the rank of the equivalent of a Captain on his coat.

“On Monday evening, in the mess, when I went in for dinner that evening, there was a bit of a buzz that that German who’d been brought in on the Saturday night was no ordinary German, and then on Tuesday morning in all the headlines in the papers: ‘HESS LANDS IN GLASGOW!’ I thought, ‘Of course it was Hess' – but you didn’t expect to see Hitler’s Number Two in the barracks in Glasgow!’”


“They often told the story of Hess landing in Glasgow, but they hardly mentioned Maryhill. It was important to me because I’d looked after him. Then, the next move was May 10 1981, forty years later. I woke up early in the morning. They were saying on the radio, ‘We’re going to have a talk by Mr MacRobert’, and Mr MacRobert came on and said, ‘I wonder if my listeners realise that forty years ago today, Hess landed in Glasgow’ – well I woke up!

“He continued, ‘... and he was taken to Maryhill barracks’. And I thought, ‘Here we are – instant fame!” ‘… where he was guarded by Second Lieutenant Ian Bailey’? ‘… where he was guarded by Corporal Willie Ross!’ I thought, ‘To hell with this’ – there was a Corporal, but I put him in the corridor – I was looking after Hess!

“So I stormed into school [Manchester Grammar], and I saw the High Master [headteacher] and I said, ‘Where’s Radio Highland?’ – which is where this talk had come from. ‘Inverness.’ So I wrote to Mr. MacRobert in Inverness and I said, ‘Very interesting talk you gave, but as a matter of interest, it was Second-Lieutenant Ian Bailey who looked after him, not Corporal Willie Ross.’ Just to put the matter straight, you understand.

“And I got a very nice letter back. He said he’d met Corporal Willie Ross after the war was over and he had told him this. And where had he met him? In Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh where the business of Scotland is done. And what was he then? Secretary of State For Scotland in Wilson’s Government! And when he retired he was given a peerage and finished up as Lord Ross of Marnock. I’ve got a book called ‘Famous Scottish Soldiers’ – one is Lord Ross of Marnock. Why? Because he ‘guarded Hess’ in 1941! Sometimes there ain’t no fairness in the world! Corporal Willie Ross, Lord Ross of Marnock! Yes, they didn’t do fairly by me at all.”

- Interview with Ian Bailey, January 2006

This is a full transcript of the interview with Ian. For all the background on the story, see the main article here.

Ian's war mementoes

When Hess came to Scotland

Something a little different now: a feature about Rudolf Hess' ill-fated 1941 'peace mission' to Scotland, based on an interview with the soldier who guarded him.

Hess (left), his wrecked plane and Ian Bailey in 1940.

With its cast of Glaswegian farmers, duplicitous dukes and one high-ranking Nazi, Rudolf Hess’s disastrous solo flight to Scotland remains one of the most extraordinary episodes of the 20th century.

Schoolteacher Ian Bailey was the only man to stand guard over the fallen statesman the night he parachuted into farmland near Glasgow.

Hess was appointed the Deputy Fuhrer of Nazi Germany in 1933. He had known Hitler since May 1920 and was his closest confidante, having edited Mein Kampf from his cell in Landsberg prison after being jailed for his part in the Munich Putsch. Despite becoming alienated from senior figures in the party during the first years of the Second World War, Hess retained Hitler's ear and was an influential player in the Third Reich.

On May 10th 1941, Hess fell out of the sky into a Glasgow field. How he got there - and what happened next – remains shrouded in controversy. Claiming to represent Nazi Germany, Hess – calling himself “Alfred Horn” – asked to see the Duke of Hamilton, who lived about 10 miles away. He had got close to his target, the Duke's estate, then bailed out of his plane as it spiralled out of control.

Germany was on the brink of war with Russia. Hess hoped to negotiate a peace settlement with Britain that would ally the two nations against the communist state. The wreckage of Hess's planeBut historians remain divided over whether Hess’s mission had been sanctioned by Hitler and whether senior British aristocrats including the Duke of Hamilton had invited Hess for talks.

Even the nature of Hess’s initial detainment is unclear. Some sources say he was captured by soldiers on patrol, others that a lone farmer with a pitchfork performed a citizen’s arrest. Soldiers from the Highland Light Infantry were quickly onto the scene, taking Hess – whose identity was to remain undiscovered for 36 hours – to the Maryhill barracks.

Secret history

The history books say that Corporal Willie Ross, later Lord Ross of Marnock, guarded Hess throughout that fateful March night. But, interviewed in January 2006 shortly before his death, Ian Bailey, former Second Lieutenant of the Highland Light Infantry, City of Glasgow regiment, told a different story.

“There was a Corporal,” the 92-year-old schoolteacher said, “but I put him in the corridor – I was looking after Hess!” And so unfolded the incredible story of how the mild-mannered young teacher came face-to-face with one of the most reviled and feared figures in modern history.

“On May 10th 1941 I was the orderly officer for the day," he said. "I went to bed at midnight. At about half past one in the morning the Duty Officer came up to my room and said, ‘A German prisoner’s been brought in – get up!'. ‘Oh,’ I thought, ‘Hell.’ So I had to get up and get dressed again; and then I went into the barracks. It was a moonlit night, and there was a man with his arms around the necks of two of our soldiers, limping.

“When I hoved into sight, one of the soldiers left him, and the fella put his arm around my neck – little did I realise whose arm it was. “Well, a Corporal was laid on as well and we took this chap up to this room and watched him get undressed, and he had very nice long johns on, I remember – very nice clean long johns.


“Then he got into bed and I put the Corporal in the corridor outside with his rifle and fifty rounds of ammunition, and I sat down in an armchair beside his bedside. But he didn’t go to sleep, he put his hands behind his head, and just gazed into the distance and I really felt quite sorry for him.

“On Monday evening, in the mess, when I went in for dinner that evening, there was a bit of a buzz that that German who’d been brought in on the Saturday night was no ordinary German, and then on Tuesday morning in all the headlines in the papers: ‘HESS LANDS IN GLASGOW!’

“I thought, ‘Of course it was Hess' – but you didn’t expect to see Hitler’s Number Two in the barracks in Glasgow!"

Upon learning of Hess's arrest, Hitler issued a statement saying Hess was mentally ill, suffered from hallucinations and had acted of his own accord.

Hess was detained by the British for the rest of the war and stood trial at Nuremburg in 1945. He was imprisoned for life in Spandau Prison in West Berlin, where he died in 1987.
Read Ian's full account of his meeting with Hess here.

Ian bequeathed his life-savings to the school where he had taught, and attended as a boy. For more on that story and his life, click here

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

How does it feel/To be on your own

The review of Bob at Hop Farm has attracted quite a bit of attention, so I thought I'd tack up the following for you. I'm usually to be found writing about movies rather than music. This review of Scorcese's celebrated Dylan doc has a bit of both; I penned it as part of the old Films on Friday column.

Bob Dylan - wouldn't even show you his right hand. Oh wait, there it is.

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (Martin Scorsese, 2005)

Bob Dylan polarises music fans like no other artist. There are those who regard him as the great musical force of the second half of the 20th century - a poet, a pioneer, a genius. And then there are those who say he's overrated; his lyrics are pretentious, his voice is nasal. "Wrong", we call them.

No Direction Home is a portrait of the artist as a young man: described variously as "a sponge", "a shaman" and - yes - "a genius". Focusing on the period 1961-66 (with a little flashing back to his childhood), the three-and-a-half hour film presents his transformation from hero to outcast, as he defined, then rejected, the socially-conscious "folk revival" scene of the period.

The first thing to say is that the concert footage is spectacular. There are various outtakes from the notorious Eat the Document - a 1966 documentary shot by D.A. Pennebaker and never really finished by would-be editor Dylan (though bootleg copies exist), alongside rare material from civil rights events of 1963 and his three, explosive sets at the Newport Folk Festival, culminating with his going electric in '65. Best of all is (incomplete) film of the concert at Manchester's Free Trade Hall in which Dylan responded to cries of "Judas" with a blistering, snarling take on Like a Rolling Stone that remains one of the most extraordinary things I've ever heard.

There's great music from a selection of key influences too, including Odetta's Water Boy and an immensely moving version of If I Had a Hammer, in which Pete Seeger's voice is drowned out by his audience of black workers, singing along.

Then there are the interviews, with contributors ranging from Greenwich Village folkies to beat poets and journalists. Allen Ginsberg offers an appraisal rooted in free association, saying that Dylan had become "a column of air" by 1966, everything concentrated on his breath - and the words pouring out of him. Joan Baez is likeable and self-effacing, while Dave Von Ronk - a key influence on Dylan in 1961 New York - is affable and thoughtful, whilst possessing the greatest laugh in the world. Bob Johnston, who produced Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde is a sweary, bear-like man who proclaims, guffawing: "I think that God instead of touching (Dylan) on the shoulder, he kicked him in the ass."

Interviews with Dylan, conducted in 2000 by his manager, Jeff Rosen, are used throughout the film. On first watch I found his contributions somewhat unilluminating, but on second watch - and having read 'Chronicles' - they seem revealing and honest. That's more than you could say for his answers to the barrage of stupid questions fired at him throughout the mid-'60s footage. "How many of the people who labour in the same musical vineyard in which you toil are protest singers?" one reporter asks. "I think there's about 136," Dylan says. Could he please suck his glasses for the camera? "Suck 'em?" Dylan replies. "Do you want to suck 'em?" The man declines. Dylan turns to the press gang. "Does anybody want to suck my glasses?" Another journalist asks to look at his left fingertips, imagining they've been toughened by playing electric. "I wouldn't even show you my right hand," Dylan fires back.

Booed at every concert by folkies appalled by his new direction, he appears to relent. "This is a folk song. I want to sing a folk song now," he says. There is rapturous applause. "I knew that would make you happy," Dylan says. "This is called 'Yes, I See You've Got Your Brand New Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat'." He is, frankly, hilarious. But the fun is evaporating fast, as Dylan is hailed repeatedly, against his protestations, as the spokesman of his generation, the conscience of Young America. He looks miserable, exhausted, trapped.

And still the spirit rages through him, face pinched beneath that mop of curly hair, wailing into the mic as the boos ring in his ears, until at last he can take no more.

This definitive Dylan doc is an exhilarating ride - insightful, gripping and electrifying. (4)
No Direction Home is available on DVD for around £5.

Fans may also want to check out Dont Look Back (a somewhat unedifying portrait), The Other Side of the Mirror and Eat the Document.

The Free Trade Hall show (known colloquially as "The 'Royal Albert Hall' Concert") is my favourite record. Make your life immeasurably better by picking up a copy. We don't usually do orders, just recommendations, but I'm afraid this is an exception.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Review: Bob Dylan at Hop Farm Festival

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Here's a bit of a feature about my six hours spent at the Hop Farm Festival yesterday. There's some stuff about Ray Davies, Mumford & Sons and Seasick Steve, but the accent is on Bob Dylan. If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, I'm sunk.

In a fug of weed smoke, in the baking heat, where water was like gold dust, festival bonhomie was in short supply. But some of the music was sensational.

We came down for the day, skipping the early acts to catch up on sleep and fill up on water. Delicious, delicious water.

To us, this is a Bob Dylan gig, with a couple of support acts. Our shuttle bus from Paddock Wood station zooms into Hop Farm just as promoter Vince Power is welcoming Seasick Steve to the stage. Clip – fluorescent wristband on. And in we go...

On our right is a massive stage, watched by 15,000 people – stood, sprawled or else sunbathing on tatty-looking blankets. Almost everyone is stripped down to the bare essentials. Nearby, a village of portable toilets start to quietly hum. The periphery of the field is wall-to-wall stalls. We go to investigate and to get veggie burgers, soundtracked by Seasick Steve’s boogieing, fast-fingered blues – a fun intro.


Then the crowd parts and we get in, 25 rows back for Mumford & Sons. The rest of the newsdesk has been raving about them, but I’ve gone under-prepared, having heard just two of their songs.

They’re pretty good: nice tunes, odd syncopations and an air of ecstasy that they are on this bill at all. “Does anyone else think this is the best line-up of the summer?” enquires singer Marcus Mumford. Naturally, it’s got Bob Dylan on it, and some other people. Keyboardist Ben Lovett is similarly wide-eyed: “What have we done to deserve this?” he asks. “We’ve fooled them all.” Their 'slow sensitive bit/fast with odd rhythms' formula never gets tired – at least in this hour-long set – even if they’re ultimately upstaged by a pair of boobs. That big-screen flasher elicits laughs and applause, and temporarily throws the band off their stride. During the same song, Seasick Steve distracts the sun-addled crowd by poking his head out from the wings. “What were you laughing at?” asks Lovett. “Steve!” shout some people. “Cheese?” he asks. “Titties!” yell some others. “Everybody likes those,” Lovett acknowledges. It's a good set, with Marcus a compelling, impassioned frontman and the four-strong band displaying strong interplay and chemistry, lined up as they are across the stage. The title-track of their 2009 record, Sigh No More, goes down particularly well.


A few people disappear and we edge forward. A loo break takes half-an-hour, when you factor in the queues and having to negotiate the labyrinthine, tightly-packed crowd. I’ve just about given up hope of finding my girlfriend or ever seeing my home or family again when I hear shouts from my left. Ah, there's the girl I came with, in a white sun hat. Hurray.

Seconds later, Ray Davies takes to the stage and a guy in front of me threatens to punch out an equally bad-tempered chap, who’s been trying to shove in. That epitomises the easy-going atmosphere, not dissimilar to a pressure-cooker. “Welcome to Hop Farm Festival. Peace and love. Now get your head out of the way, or I'll thump you, I’m trying to see Ray.”

The former Kinks frontman and songwriter delivers a varied set that ignores the previously-maligned Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur – now being reappraised as his masterpieces – providing instead a mixture of ‘60s and '70s hits (You Really Got Me - as great as ever - backed up by Dedicated Follower of Fashion, All Day and All of the Night, Sunny Afternoon, Low Budget and the cod-Caribbean Apeman) and recent tracks (The Tourist and the anti-American Vietnam Cowboys), along with the odd nondescript rocker. I like the fey, headily-English Ray Davies, who didn’t seem to care what anybody thought of him as he peddled an idiosyncratic, individualistic furrow. Conversely, the Ray Davies we get here tells us he’s “sex-crazed, ha ha ha” before spraying beer all over the stage. Well good for him.

He also delivers an apparent broadside at Dylan, suggesting the headliner lives in a “gated community” and starts slagging off Vince Power for being “rude” – after he’s asked to leave the stage early. Davies quickly backtracks in sheepish fashion, dedicating a song to the organisers of the festival and saying that he hopes it will “go on forever”, a theme he returns to later. He adds that he used to pick hops as a boy, prompting some 18-year-old girl in the audience to start patronising the 66-year-old borderline genius. “Aaaaah,” she coos.

His (shortened) set is good, with one moment of utter greatness, a near-definitive version of the wistful, wonderful Days that carries us all away. Davies ends with Lola, though the contention that he’s “not the world’s most physical guy” is at odds with his pumped, surprisingly muscular performance.


A 20-minute wait (including more screenings of the most typo-ridden Powerpoint presentation in living memory: “AFTER BOB’S BE ON WHATS THE HURRY”, “ITS HOT IS SUNNY ITS FUNNY”…), then the main attraction appears.

Dressed in white cowboy hat, grey suit, sparkly pink shirt and pink bow-tie, trailing his smartly-dressed band, the titular wizard Bob Dylan strolls onto the stage. This is the fifth time I’ve seen him over the past eight years and every one - to differing degrees - has been a joy, with the two Sheffield shows (2007 and 2009) standing out as being among the most memorable concerts I’ve attended. If this gig can’t consistently scale those heights – and is three or four songs lighter than a standard Dylan show – it has some glorious moments, and it’s great fun to see Bob outdoors, singing direct to the crowd and grinning as – despite his best efforts - Like a Rolling Stone becomes a mass sing-along.

Before we begin, let’s first acknowledge a fact and explode a myth. The fact: Dylan doesn’t talk to the crowd, except to introduce the band. Don’t like it? Then go see someone else, or affect a Dylan voice and talk to yourself. As for the myth: I heard a festival-goer on the train back saying the guy can’t sing, or never could. Well there isn’t anyone one earth who can sing a Dylan song like Dylan, and from his eponymous 1962 record to Modern Times, taking in such differing material as The Times They Are A-Changin’, Blonde on Blonde and Good As I Been to You, his back catalogue is littered with stunning vocal performances. He has a one-of-a-kind voice and it’s among the most distinctive, singular and important within the whole spectrum of popular music. He doesn't sound as he did in 1966, but his changing musical style, along with chain-smoking, playing around 100 gigs a year and the fact he's now 69 (rather than 25) will have that effect. Following four stages that we can roughly classify as folk/rock/post-'accident'/bleating, he has entered a weathered fifth that I think's pretty damn great, defined by economical phrasing and the odd broken growl. That's how he's sounded for a good 10 years now.

He kicks off with a knowing Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35, its central refrain of “everybody must get stoned” serving to further encourage that guy with messy auburn hair who’s chain-smoking weed directly into my face. Dylan strung the song out (pun intended) to 25 minutes in Manchester in 2002. Here it’s done in seven. Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right – from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan – is given a faithful (albeit electric) reading, as is Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again, the vocals somewhat drowned out by the band. Three of the first four numbers are from Blonde on Blonde and Bob seems to enjoy everyone joining in with Just Like a Woman, though they give it a touch more welly than he does, before he marches through a fairly functional Honest With Me.

It isn’t until Dylan delves into his seminal break-up album, 1974’s Blood on the Tracks, that the concert really catches fire. His touching take on Simple Twist of Fate signals – perhaps a little belatedly – that Bob has brought his A-game, though it’s what happens next that’s truly exciting. High Water (For Charley Patton), perhaps the key track on Love and Theft, is simply breathtaking – approaching the classic live version on Tell Tale Signs. It’s punchy, despairing and comical in turn, like a monochrome Depression-era disaster movie, its diverse vignettes playing out as the flood levels rise. It comes complete with Dylan mugging to his band as he implores a boat’s passengers to throw their panties overboard.

It's the highlight of the gig, along with the follow-up track, Blind Willie McTell. The version left off 1983’s Infidels and finally released eight years later on The Bootleg Series Vol. 3 is a peerlessly atmospheric, dystopian fusion of nostalgia and bitter observation as Dylan wanders the haunts of the old bluesman, imagining plantations on fire as the spectre of slavery tempers the crumbling grandeur and sensory overload of the Deep South. He said the song hadn’t turned out as he wanted. It turns out that what he wanted was the simpler blues the song has now evolved (devolved?) into, its chorus of “And I know no-one/Can sing the blues/Like Blind Willie McTell’ adapted into the less poetic though admittedly rhyming: “And I’ll tell you one thing/Nobody can sing/The blues like/Blind Willie McTell”. It sounds fantastic: regretful, respectful, tender; justifying that howl of delight I let loose as the opening line rang out.

It’s followed by a decent Highway 61 Revisited – not the ebullient, organ-led stomper that even Dylan began dancing to at Sheffield ’09, but pretty fun. After that there’s a fine, plaintive reading of Workingman’s Blues #2, a song presumably inspired by Dylan’s upbringing in a mining town featuring the memorable pay-off line “some people never worked a day in their lives”, which I’ve always considered might be self-critical. Thunder on the Mountain, formerly a staple of the singer’s encores, is now a feature of the main set. It’s an unexceptional version, though lit – as ever – by the lyric’s amusing preoccupation with Alicia Keys. He follows it with a blast from the past, a laid-back reading of the excoriating Highway 61 Revisited album track Ballad of a Thin Man, memorable as the penultimate howl of his 1966 tour, a warm-up for the paint-stripping Like a Rolling Stone. It leads into that song here too – albeit with a brief pause – as Dylan exits, then returns almost immediately for a two-song encore.

Despite Bob’s staccato singing of his most popular song, which borders on the conversational, the crowd – fingers pointing stagewards – stick doggedly, loudly to the original version, adamant that this is going to be the defining moment of the festival. I’d go for that guy threatening to deck that other guy, but it’s a close one. There’s time for an introduction to the band, followed by just one more song, and it isn’t the one with which he finishes every gig, All Along the Watchtower. Instead, it’s Forever Young. “May God bless and keep you always...,” Dylan begins. “Oh no way,” says a guy a short distance away, shaking his head in awe. A few people who’ve apparently wandered in from an Elton John gig get their lighters out, as Bob opts for a timeless reading of the set-closer, written for his son Jakob. It’s a bit of a mawkish song, but no matter how much I tell myself that, it still speaks to me – and to just about everyone else here. A Chinese lantern sails through the sky and Bob comes to stage front, taking a bow with the band. “More,” we humbly suggest, but the great man has gone - and the mis-spelt Power Po!nt be returnd.

We all file out, walking along the main road in the pitch black to Paddock Wood station. And I go home, tucked up in a hotel bed by 1.30am. I'm not really the festival type.


Setlist for Bob Dylan:

1. Rainy Day Women #12 & 35
2. Don't Think Twice, It's All Right
3. Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again
4. Just Like a Woman
5. Honest With Me
6. Simple Twist of Fate
7. High Water (For Charley Patton)
8. Blind Willie McTell
9. Highway 61 Revisited
10. Workingman's Blues #2
11. Thunder on the Mountain
12. Ballad of a Thin Man
13. Like a Rolling Stone
14. Forever Young
To read about the definitive Dylan documentary, directed by Martin Scorsese, please clicky here.