A mini-update, with an iffy play, some disappointing films and one hell of a TV show.
Festival Express (Bob Smeaton, 2003) - Well this is highly underwhelming. In 1970, a bunch of rock and psychedelic heavyweights travelled across Canada by train, partying hand, jamming endlessly and playing three huge open-air shows along the way. Stuck in a vault for 30 years, footage of the venture was eventually spruced up and edited into a movie which went over big with the classic rock crowd. But while there are some incredible things in Festival Express, this frustrating, disjointed documentary is neither one thing or another, an unfortunate and shambolic melange of short-sighted social document, hagiography, backstage musical, corporate statement and concert film.
The good stuff is mostly on stage: the Grateful Dead doing an impromptu Friend of the Devil free in a park (a pragmatic move to stop kids breaking into the $14 Toronto show nearby), an explosive Buddy Guy introducing us to his brand of rock ‘n’ soul, and The Band playing three really great numbers – Slippin’ and Slidin’ (by Little Richard), The Weight and I Shall Be Released, Danko and Helm bringing it and Robbie Robertson playing some spectacular licks while showing off a beard that makes him look like he’s wearing a bad disguise. And then there is Janis.
I work in a music venue and have been to hundreds of gigs over the past 20 years, but she is simply the most exciting live performer I’ve ever seen, even just on the telly. Her voice, her sexual charisma, her oneness with the music, her ease in her skin once she’s centre-stage, her passionate presence: naturalistic yet stylistic, a hurricane of angst and renewal, occasionally finding tranquillity in the eye of the storm, but more often gripped by a sort of urgent, furious grace, her hair always twisting and blowing in the breeze, even when nothing else on stage seems to be moving. She’s both flat and mesmeric singing Cry Baby, probably pissed as she consistently fails to hit the high notes, which is noticeable because she’s commanding your entire attention, but obscured because everything else about her performance is so astounding.
I’d seen a clip of a jam on the train in the recent doc, Janis: Little Girl Blue, with the lovely Jerry Garcia telling her, “I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you”, after a boozed-up Ain’t No More Cane that’s kind of magical and kind of frustrating: miraculously talented musicians singing a great song, but so far gone that they’ve become irritating, incoherent buffoons. There’s precious else here that’s actually worth seeing, really just Garcia and Sylvia Tyson’s duet on Better Takes Jesus’ Hand, a beautiful old spiritual.
That footage is interspersed with contemporary talking heads who say nothing of note or historic value, most notably promoter Ken Walker, as a film about the counterculture gives endless time to a bitter, intensely dislikeable entrepreneur boasting about what a big (and generous) man he was (though the revelation that a lot of young people thought they had a right to free entertainment shows that there is nothing new under the sun, not even the justification for illegal downloading). While some of the festival footage is amazing, a lot of it’s not: a post-Gram iteration of the Flying Burrito Brothers play a mundane version of one of their least inspired songs, Lazy Days, enlivened only by “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow’s pedal steel, several of the Dead’s numbers are colourless and dull, and Sha Na Na’s Rock & Roll Is Here to Stay is fucking dreadful, a novelty item drowned in its own ridiculousness. How many great recordings were neglected so we could see that?
Then Janis sings Tell Mama, and you don’t care about anything else, the greatest blues singer of her generation working herself up into a frenzy and ripping the lid off her voice as everyone else on the Festival Express is simply left in the dust. The movie’s worth it for that number alone (and it’s worth picking up the DVD for two bonus Janis numbers, Kosmic Blues and Move Over), but the overall impression is of a massive missed opportunity, as a great story, documented almost endlessly, becomes an erratic, incomplete, self-serving and often not even particularly interesting film. Hard to believe it's from one of the directors of The Beatles Anthology. (2)
The Winning of Barbara Worth (Henry King, 1926) - A slow, superficial but good-looking silent Western, with wealthy easterner Ronald Colman turning up to help irrigate a desert, being predictably misjudged and then naturally having to ride to the rescue after much improbable plotting. E. J. Ratcliffe is his duplicitous mentor, insinuating his money-grabbing tentacles into every part of town life, Vilma Banky is Barbara Worth - the strong pioneer kid who still needs saving every now and then - and a young Gary Cooper plays the mopey suitor Colman’s trying to win her away from.
There’s some wonderful imagery – a makeshift cross shunted to one side of the frame; a Stetson crawling with flies; a heartsick Cooper standing disconsolately outside a dance – some technical ingenuity (King interrupting his overly static direction with a succession of dazzling tracking shots), and a truly flawless print in which to enjoy those efforts, tinted either orange or blue to stunning effect.
But while the story is fascinating as an indictment of corporate capitalism and has a couple of bravura moments as Colman turns from misjudged zero to matinee hero, it isn’t terribly inspiring, and nor are the performances: Banky has the best of it, but Colman is unexceptional, Cooper uncertain and Ratcliffe uninteresting. The famous flood sequence is also a washout: there’s some daring stuntwork in there, but it’s almost all done with miniatures, so you rarely see any people and any water in the same shot!
It's worth a look for fans of the stars or the era, but King's Tol'able David is infinitely superior, and for silent Westerns I'd suggest starting with one of John Ford's classics: The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men. Barbara Worth's irrigation scenes too pale alongside those in King Vidor's enduringly controversial and radical independent film, Our Daily Bread (1934), the most left-wing movie to come out of classic Hollywood. (2)
*A FEW MINOR SPOILERS*
CINEMA: Suburra (Stefano Sollima, 2015) - A functional, uninspiring Italian crime film from the Gomorrah team, set against the backdrop of 2011’s political and religious turmoil. As the nation turns itself inside out, and the rains teem, Suburra tells inter-connected stories about a corrupt politician swimming in drugs and hookers, a brutal, up-and-coming immigrant crime family, an omniscient, unshowy veteran called Samurai, and a bald, tattooed young hood with a junkie girlfriend and a thing about individuality.
It’s reasonably diverting, but also over-familiar and lacking in distinction, recycling the aged tropes of its genre while delivering neither a bruising reality check nor the shimmering, pulsating artifice of a thriller. Its main problem, though, is that as an unstinting indictment of Italy, it offers no alternative and little humanity: these are dislikeable people doing indefensible things, motivated only by avarice or self-preservation.
There are three really good scenes: a showdown in a church in which psychopathic crime lord Adamo Dionisi asks callow club owner Elio Germano to betray the woman he loves, a brief, terse meeting between Samurai (Claudio Amendola) and Number 8 (Alessandro Borghi) – which the film doesn’t seem to regard as its climax, but which in thematic terms undoubtedly is – and a conventional but impressive sequence near the close, as exceptionally dodgy MP Pierfrancesco Favino fights his way through a crowd, towards a departing prime minister. The best thing about the film, though, is the magnificent synth score, reminiscent of Drive, which drenches everything in terror, foreboding and import, no matter how familiar.
Elsewhere it’s just grisliness and cliches, from an opening sequence set in the Vatican to a man being fed to a dog. (2)
Life on Mars, Series 2 (2007) - I loved the first series, but this one is even better: more confident, more seamless and even more emotionally resonant, upping the ante and the eeriness as accidental time traveller Sam Tyler (John Simm) interacts with younger versions of his auntie, his nemesis and his mentor, gets sideswiped by uncertainty, and tries to keep afloat and alive while battling unreconstructed DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), an unrelenting Manchester crime wave, and the incompetence of his medical team in the present day, a shortcoming that lands him in Camberwick Green (an outrageously brilliant diversion). There were a few false notes in the first series, but here Glenister is completely in control of his characterisation, Simm is in the form of his life, and both the overarching narrative and the individual storylines are extraordinarily gripping and immersive, as well as rooted in a completely credible, enveloping world. The first and last episodes are about as good as TV has ever got. Incidentally, I was concerned that a series wrapped up in '70s pop culture might contain some unfortunate references, viewed through the prism of Operation Yewtree, et al. For the longest time, it's reassuringly free of retrofitted clangers, then Simm pleads with Jimmy Savile to save him. (4)
Show Boat (New London Theatre, 27 July 2016) - This West End version of Jerome Kern's legendary 1927 musical sailed into London on a sea of five-star reviews before proceeding to die quietly on its bustled arse. It will close next month after weak sales that have seen ticket prices cut by more than 40 per cent.
Based on a novel by Edna Ferber - who wrote both pungent, celebrated comedy-dramas for the stage with famed wit George S. Kaufman, and also extremely long-winded family sagas in print, like this one - Show Boat is often heralded as a groundbreaking musical for dealing with issues like miscegenation and addiction, but its treatment of the themes is so brief, so muted and so melodramatic that these don't make any impact at all. It's a show that hints at the appalling conditions of black workers and the ruinous hypocrisy of prohibiting interracial relationships, but isn't really about those issues. In fact, it isn't really about anything at all.
The show's big numbers are spectacular, from a choked-up Ol' Man River - muscular, poignant and powerful - to a spirited, almost joyous Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man (an ode to the mystery of love that's probably my favourite standard) which brilliantly incorporates the black cast, perhaps unrealistically eroding the race barries of the time but paying off in spectacle. The staging is often vibrant, the choreography incisive and inclusive, and the singing absolutely out-of-this-world, from Gina Beck's exquisite, virtuosic soprano to the more jazzy, sensual treatments offered by Rebecca Trehearn, whose Bill is a tender, heartbreaking showstopper. When it needs to be rousing, it is, from Danny Collins' rubber-limbed hoofing to Alex Young's Martha Raye-ish delivery, and Emmanuel Kojo and Sandra Marvin's big-voiced characterisations as the African-American Joe and Queenie, melding cliche and a dynamic modernity. Those virtues, though, extend only to the musical passages.
The rest of it is a turgid, incomprehensible mess, full of terrible accents (special mention for Malcolm Sinclair's Captain Andy, whose sub-am-dram stylings include an accent best described as 'Donny Aussie'), laughably outdated comedy, and plot strands that are often just left abandoned. Characters act - or simply disappear - with no good reason, and since we don't feel we know or understand any of them (even in the unlikely event we're aware where they're living and working, or indeed with who), we also couldn't care less what happens to them. Intelligent settings, including a mamnoth moving boat set and monochrome projections onto slatted wooden walls, are all very well, but you need something else to put on them besides a handful of impressive numbers.
People may be staying away because the material is so old-fashioned, but if it was selling out I think it'd be leaving a lot of audience members nonplussed and perhaps even a little embarrassed. (2)
Thanks for reading.