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Breaking Through the Inertia with The Inertia Variations – a Look at the Creative Process through Matt Johnson, of The The

March 25, 2017
bradspurgeon

The Inertia Variations

The Inertia Variations

COPENHAGEN – For the 15 years prior to the film “The Inertia Variations,” musician Matt Johnson, the lead guy in the British 1980s-90s band, “The The,” had not performed any music, had not finished writing any songs – although he had started a lot of them – and for many years had even ceased to touch his guitars at all. That sounds like a lot of inertia. His absence from the music scene has resulted in his Wikipedia entry referring to him as “the reclusive” Matt Johnson.† But in this new film, made by his ex-wife, Johanna St. Michaels, – which had its international premiere at the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen Thursday night – while we see that he is certainly something of a loner, not only has he been occupied with many other projects – photography, writing those unfinished songs, working on a book – but above all, creating a radio station in his home in London that broadcasts the old-fashioned way – with an antenna – to try to communicate with and inform people about politics in a way that they are not exposed to in the mainstream media. So how reclusive can that be? And for that matter, how much inertia could it all entail?

In fact, questions of inertia are woven throughout the film, with much existential questioning in the many different perceptions of himself both by others and from within himself about who he really is and what he really wants to do in life, and they make up the main, driving thrust behind this film. It remains interesting from beginning to the end through what amounts to raising such universal questions about the creative process and the question of identity that affect us all.

The film centers around a 12-hour nonstop, live radio show from his home station – Radio Cineola – during the British election, and clearly, for Johnson this aspect of his life is the most important thing at the moment. Obviously, for fans of The The, and for his former – and to a degree – his current, wife, there is the lingering question: “When will you make more music?!” Part of Johnson himself clearly wants to create more music too. The film shows that there is even an aching part of him that has been wanting to continue to create and play new songs for a while now. But he can never finish anything, and part of him, he says, is quite lazy. Others say it too. And in some very bizarre ways, we see codes he creates in his life to make it simpler that could also be considered a form of laziness: He shows off, and explains, that he always wears the same type of pants and shirt, a whole series of which he has had tailor-made for him to avoid having to make a choice on what clothes to wear (this reminded me of Steve Jobs, by the way). In fact, this “lazy” part of his personality echoed in my mind the comical Oblomov character from Russian literature.

But what the film ends up making very clear, and what really becomes its focus, is the horrendous battle that Johnson appears to be undergoing with what a fiction writer would call “writer’s block.” And there is a touch of what he himself wonders about in a conversation with his father: A fear of both success and a fear of failure. Given that The The was a successful band with music that has profoundly affected generations of fans – even if it is far from being a household name, and the songs themselves never broke into the popular global consciousness – Johnson has a reputation to live up to if he is to “replicate” the kind of success he had in the first couple of decades of the band, before his split from music.

The Inertia Variations trailer

Part of him is happy living the clearly comfortable life he has. He has all the material needs anyone could want, he has lots of recording and playing equipment in his home; he has the radio station (with the science-fiction-like antenna that he mounted on the roof of his building); he apparently owns the whole building, and he is constantly fighting against developers who want to buy it to put up more high-rises – referring to himself as a conservationist. He is also a bit of a landlord, renting out parts of the building – it seems. He still has projects involved with the rights to The The. This is a full, and to most people in our world, enviable life.

So for me, the film is, above all, the story not only of a man’s creative process, but also of the difference between his own creative needs and expectations of himself, as opposed to the expectations that others have of him. That takes us back to the idea that he is a recluse just because he is no longer making music.

But, I feel, the key to understanding him lies in the book-ends of important deaths in his family: The death of his brother, Eugene at age 24 in 1989 he said changed his view of life, and affected him profoundly. It seems to have affected the momentum of the band, The The. And 10 years later, his mother, heartbroken with Eugene’s death, died. That coincides with the final The The album, NakedSelf, in 2000.

Then, while the film was being made, another of his brothers died – in January 2016 – and this was Andrew, the artist who did some album covers for The The and other bands. Matt was actually working on a book with Andrew, and is clearly shattered. It is this death that drives Matt Johnson to actually, and finally, once again, finish a song. A song for Andrew. The film ends in a deluge of emotion as Johnson finally performs the song, at his home in front of people, in front of the cameras, on his radio, in what was his first public performance in 15 years. And it is shocking just how good the song is, and how his voice, despite years without use, remains fabulous.

It also turns out that the song, called, “You Can’t Stop What’s Coming” – which features the guitar work of Johnny Marr, who played with him often in the past – will be released as a single on April 22. So could it be that Matt Johnson finally managed to write a song simply because the song had to be written?  Could it be that the need to write a song for his brother overshadowed any need he had to match his own high achievements of the past that he feared not being able to live up to?  That only one thing mattered, and that was to express himself for Andrew, through a song – no matter the quality?

That, in any case, is the way that I read it. Whatever the reason, whatever the story behind the motivations and workings of his mind, this beautiful and intimate film, which uses fictional film techniques, is a tender, thought-provoking tale from the beginning to the end. The Inertia Variations is also beautifully filmed, and has a wonderful soundtrack – by The The – a real treasure, so thank goodness Johanna and Matt have managed to remain friends and he allowed her to make this film that had been on her mind for many years.

Thanks goodness also that Matt – as he said in the talk after the film – just left the concept of the film up to her rather than doing what he would have liked to do, which was to really promote his passion of the moment by putting in more about the political messages he is trying to convey with his radio station….

UPDATE, 26 March 2017: Here is a podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels. I have kept the 15 minutes in the Q&A (which I recorded with my Zoom recorder sitting on my lap), but I have cut out the further 20 minutes of talk where the public asks questions.

UPDATE, 27 March 2017: Here is a second part to the podcast of the post-premiere Q&A in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX with Matt Johnson and Johanna St. Michaels with the questions from the audience. I had decided not to put up this portion of the Q&A – which is just as rich as the first part – but after a request from a reader/listener, I decided to put it up as well:

Actually, it is the Wikipedia page for the band, The The, that refers to him as “the reclusive Johnson”….

Accidental Spectator Discovers Why; Two Important Films on Hate at CPH:DOX (and Tindersticks vs. Minute Bodies)

March 21, 2017
bradspurgeon

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

COPENHAGEN – Somehow, I ended up in the wrong film at the CPH:DOX festival. I did not choose this film and it was not the film I came to see, it was not the film written on my ticket, although it was the right cinema, and the right auditorium. But then, immediately, as the film began in its strange manner, I decided that it could be a very interesting exercise to watch a documentary that I did not choose to see. And by the time it was over – even before that – I realized that it was a fabulously synchronistic thing to have had happen. The night before, Sunday night, I had seen another film that in fact fit in perfectly with this film. So I realized I had something to write about these two otherwise completely different films: They both deal with some of the biggest problems of our day – but in completely different ways – namely: Ideology, intolerance, hate, lack of love, rejection of people who are different from us, and above all, ignorance.

While I came to Copenhagen mainly to watch the music documentaries in the Sound & Vision festival-within-the-festival I was going to at least see some of the non-music films. Sunday night’s film was the first of those that I attended, the very powerful “I Am Not Your Negro,” directed by Raoul Peck, and based on an incomplete book, “Remember This House,” by James Baldwin about his relationships with his three murdered friends, Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. The other film, where I found myself by accident, was “The Devil’s Trap,” about a man who grew up in a Christian cult that rejects anything to do with the world outside the cult. The film is by the Canadian Mitchell Stafiej, and it follows 25-year-old Lane, who found the strength to reject the church of his parents, brother and sisters, only to find that he had been permanently rejected by his family.

I Am Not Your Negro trailer

In each film, we find these problems of hate for anyone who is different, intolerance over the differences, and above all fear. Fear of the consequences of living with people of different beliefs, races, colors, creeds. Throughout “I Am Not Your Negro,” I was thinking about how the film answered for me my questions about the current situation in the United States. How could there be so much hate in this country now with Donald Trump’s (mostly white) voters asking for an America that closes out the rest of the world, refuses to accept diversity and refuses to acknowledge that human beings, in order to survive, need a moral standard that cannot include lies and hate?

Watching the “Baldwin-narrated” – an actor speaks Baldwin’s text, and the film tells the story through historic footage – of the history of black people in America answers that question of “how” can things be like this now. Because many of the white American people – not all of them – have been this way through most of their history. As is said at one point in the film, the history of America is the history of black people in America, and you can use the way black people are being treated as a barometer for the health of the whole country.

It’s a stunning, powerful film. James Baldwin was more than a front-row observer, more than a witness of that history of the second half of the 20th century. He was friends with these three prime voices in the battle for black peoples’ rights – or as King said, “duties” – and he himself, as the film shows, made some very clear and powerful statements.

I have always felt close to Baldwin as an expat writer who lived in Paris in the 1950s. He returned to the United States in the 1960s because he missed the people, then spent the decade there in the height of the civil rights battle, before moving back to France in 1970, and settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence until his death in 1987 at age 63 from stomach cancer.

Baldwin had never wanted to be taken as a “black writer” first, which is one of the reasons he moved to France – to write from outside the context of his situation in life in the U.S. During his battles in the civil rights movement, he spoke about how he was raised on the same white culture as his white countrymen and women were raised on, and only once he hit a certain age – still as a child – was he stunned to realize that he was in fact considered by the white people in the same role as the Indians were that John Wayne was killing in the films he grew up watching. He, suddenly realized in his innocence, that he was a target.

The film shows not just the past, but it shows how the problems still exist today, with an appearance or two of Trump’s face and words, and there are references to Black Lives Matter, and other current events and murdered black people.

I left the cinema feeling I understood the current situation with Trump much better – because it has so long been woven into the American psyche.

And then the accidental part of this story with The Devil’s Trap

But the next day, Monday, I ended up by accident in this film about Lane and his family’s devotion to the cult of the Exclusive Brethren. To quote from Wikipedia, this cult is “a subset of the Christian evangelical movement generally described as the Plymouth Brethren. They are distinguished from the Open Brethren from whom they separated in 1848.”

Lane and his family, it turns out, are Canadians. They attended the church in Montreal, where Lane grew up controlled by the doctrines of this church, through his parents’ application of the codes on the family. The film, in fact, takes us across the border to various cities in the U.S. as well, including Washington D.C., where his family now lives.

The Devil’s Trap trailer


I am a Canadian, born and raised, and as I heard Lane speak, I felt I heard my friends and family – eh? So my thoughts about “I Am Not Your Negro,” and the U.S.-specific hate and intolerance came into a different perspective.

Lane tells the story of how he grew up indoctrinated by the principles of the cult through his parents in such a strict way that he felt like a complete outsider in Canadian society. (Although he never used such a national distinction.) He could not watch films, had no right to listen to music CDs, if he swore his father would wash his mouth out with laundry detergent. And when he dared decide to leave the church, his family and eventually join the military, his family not only disowned him, but refused to speak to him. No one paid much attention when he told them that he had been raped at age 13 by a church member at the church.

His parents never want to see him again. First, though, so convinced were they that there was something wrong with Lane, that they took him to the Mayo Clinic for several days of physical and mental examinations. The overseeing doctor at this respected clinic told him after all the tests that he was an entirely healthy teenager, both physically and mentally and he should not let anyone tell him otherwise. That helped him realize that despite hearing that he was mentally ill from his family for years, his inclinations that there was a problem rather with his upbringing were right.

He broke away. But the film shows how he makes a final effort to try to see and meet, and share the life he deserves with his family, travelling to Washington to see them. It is only in this culminating scene that I became entirely convinced myself that Lane was not exaggerating, or perhaps even lying, about the extreme nature of the treatment by his family. We learn through a concealed recording he made of his meeting with his brother – whom he had not seen in years – that his parents would not come and meet him, that it would be too difficult for them to take emotionally. These parents were, however, dying, feeling completely destroyed, by the departure and betrayal against the church and its beliefs, their beliefs, of their son.

In short, their cult religion, their beliefs, were more important than their love for their child. Oh, no, sorry, Lane they do love. But they would only welcome him back home and come to see him, make him a member of the family again if he accepted the dictates of the cult. Only if he sacrificed everything to the cult as they did would they accept that he was worth loving and associating with. Otherwise, he was to be shunned, closed out, shut up, disowned, considered dead.

One difference between the treatment of Lane and the treatment of the blacks in racist America is that at least it would appear that the members of the cult do not intend to actually physically kill those who are different from them, as is the case through the history of violence and hate against the blacks in America. There is, of course, the mental torture his family inflict from their intolerance and ignorance and hateful actions – but at least there is no murder, in this case.

But for me, these two films sum up the depths to which humanity appears to be going at the moment with the extremism that Trump represents. One of the most interesting elements for me, also, is that these people in the cult who hate and refuse to live with those who are different than them, including their own family members, they are from an affluent middle class. We are not talking about physical poverty here – only mental poverty. Most of Trump’s voters, while perhaps being from a lower-income part of the population, are not exactly starving and dying from exposure either. We are, in both cases, talking about people whose basic needs have been met, and now they are free to hate through extreme ideologies. Why is it that with the most common challenge facing humanity being the very survival and feeding and housing of the 6 or 7 billion of us all, we have to try to destroy one another based on ideologies and beliefs? Could fear and cowardice be the answer to that?

Anyway, this has to be one of the most run-on posts I’ve ever done, and I’d probably do much better to stick to writing about the music films at CPH:DOX. But I was affected by both of these films.

And then there was Tindersticks vs. the amoeba

To finish on a lighter note, I also attended briefly the multimedia event of the weekend, the concert by the group Tindersticks, playing at the festival headquarters while overhead some strange video showed of sped-up-motion nature shots of plants and amoeba etc., in Minute Bodies. Don’t bother asking me what it all meant. Check out my video of a minute or so of that concert, if you want to understand. Then get back to me on your theories….

Tindersticks at CPH:DOX

https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=ceZb4f0R7Uk

A Couple of Kunst (?!) in a Bunch of Kunst – A Sleaford Mods Doc

March 19, 2017
bradspurgeon

Sleaford Mods

Sleaford Mods

COPENHAGEN – Rather than trying to look hip, cool and with it, I will admit here that before I stepped into the world premiere of Christine Franz’s film at the Empire Bio at the CPH:DOX festival last night I had no idea who the Sleaford Mods were. Then, as the film began, I quickly concluded that they were just a couple of kunst. As the film rolled on, the couple of kunst reminded me less of Derek and Clive, and more and more of the reason Britain voted for Brexit. And more and more, I grew to feel sympathetic and warm to the two stars of Bunch of Kunst, coming out feeling finally that I may not – as Iggy Pop says toward the end of the film – understand much of what they are saying (thanks to that strong British accent) but I can understand the reason they exist. And though I always thought the Brexit vote was an illness, I can now understand a little better through this film the nature of that illness.

Having said that, I don’t think the word Brexit was mentioned a single time in the film. And in a talk in the cinema at CPH:DOX after the film, Franz said she specifically did not want to make an overt political statement in the film. It turns out there has already been another documentary about the Sleaford Mods, called Sleaford Mods: Invisible Britain, and that one was very political. So no doubt Franz wanted to avoid what had already been done.

So who the fowk are the Sleaford Mods anyway??? Well, a couple of guys who had musical ambitions, one of whom played in several bands without success, the other of whom was a DJ doing his own thing. They met one night at a show, and the guy who speaks the rap and writes the lyrics, Jason Williamson, got together with the man who does the DJ thing, Andrew Fearn, and they began to do some shows in bars, raging against the machine that is working class life in middle England. At their home in Nottingham, they decided to set up a little studio and record some albums.
Bunch of Kunst Sleaford Mods trailer

This was in the late 2000s, and they stuck things out in bars for years, through failed album after failed album. Eventually, the chicken-factory worker – Williamson – (well, seems that job lasted six weeks) and the unemployed man, Fearn, met up with a guy who had a solid job, driving a bus for 14 years, and he became a fan and had a vision. These two modern day punk rappers, he thought, could get their act together and do something relevant and cool.

To draw the story short, they ended up doing bigger and bigger venues, finally playing in Glastonbury, and then, as the film shows, ultimately signed a record deal with the legendary Rough Trade label. (There is a shot at one moment that shows the first Rough Trade album, Métal Urbain, a French punk band of perhaps equally unlikely people in the 1970s, famous for a song called “Creve Salope,” (“Die Bitch” among others.) And, as I mentioned, the Sleaford Mods also ended up garnering the attention of Iggy Pop and many others.
Sleaford Mods video

The film was shot over two crucial years, from 2014 to 2016, and takes us from their lives in the pub performances to Glastonbury to the signing at Rough Trade.

What made these performers a success is clear: The nasty, angry, bad, expletive-full lyrics that speak the anger of the English working class in a language and emotion that they understand. “They speak for me,” says one of the gig-goers, a man who also appears to be in his 40s, like the two members of the “band.” But the language is so strongly couched in English argot that it is, as I said, nearly incomprehensible to an outsider – and that is also one of the main factors that makes it popular to its tribe.

And yet this deep-rooted cultural whatever did not stop the duo from gaining at first a slightly greater following in Germany before they developed one in England! (Which partly answers for the German director – although Franz also pointed out that she had attended Birmingham University, and so was steeped in a little bit of this culture herself.) We are also taken on a trip to see the German fans celebrate and react to the Sleaford Mods, and to sing along with their lyrics – which was as surprising to the Sleaford Mods as it was to anyone.

They are now about to embark on a visit to perform in the United States, and it will be interesting to see how they are received. While my first impressions were entirely softened by my “getting to know” these guys through the film, I still have to add that had I seen them in an open mic somewhere, anywhere, around the world, even in middle England, I am sure that I would have still had the impression that they were just a couple of kunst. Had I seen them in front of one of their raging audiences in England, on the other hand, I might have wondered what world I had stepped into … just the way I did when I saw my first ever performance by a punk band, the Viletones, in Toronto in early 1977. In fact, the ambience was very, very similar…and as I write these words, I realize it was exactly 40 years ago that I had that strange experience of seeing the Viletones in the Colonial Underground, and wrote about it the moment I returned home, as I did last night this post….

So if you want an experience like seeing the first punk bands in the 1970s, take a look at this film.

A Couldn’t-Keep-My-Eyes-Dry Joe Cocker Film at CPH:DOX

March 18, 2017
bradspurgeon

Joe Cocker

Joe Cocker

COPENHAGEN – My second day at CPH:DOX started off just great: Wet eyes throughout the documentary “Joe Cocker : Mad Dog With Soul” by John Edginton. And did it help that Mr. Edginton was in the audience and spoke to us before and after the film? Well, yes, actually it did: I learned what might seem very obvious, but that is that with a small budget, and huge constraints on the copyrighted clips of other people, without any interviews by the director of his subject, it is still possible with a strong enough story and subject matter to create a film that fills our eyes with tears for 90 minutes.

A few times during the film – this was its international premiere – I made the comparison to “Amy” by Asif Kapadia, since he too used clips made by other people and never interviewed Amy Winehouse. But Amy was done, according to Edginton (who also directed “Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here” and “Genesis: Together and Apart”), with a much bigger budget. So it was possible for Kapadia to procure all of the material he needed, or that was available. I assume – he might say differently. Whereas Edginton explained that with Joe Cocker: Mad Dog With Soul there were many interviews he could not do, many clips he could not buy, that he would have liked to have. And one that he DID have – a hugely touching moment between Ray Charles and Cocker – that he said would have cost half the budget of the whole film had he said “yes” to the first asking price!

Anyway, let’s forget those negatives: This film is a fairly traditionally assembled documentary about Cocker, with interviews with his brother, former early band members, managers and his wife Pam. The very few times we actually do see Cocker talking, are enough, though, to understand the many, many times we hear from other people – including Glyn Johns – about what a sweet, kind and gentle man Cocker was. Oh, he also had a very nasty streak, ending friendships or business relationships – out of the blue – and never speaking to the people again.
Joe Cocker in Woodstock

But in some ways, I am reminded of Amy Winehouse, another drug addict and doomed personality, who is washed along through life by the forces outside of them – other people – without the strength to stand up for themselves. And you just want to reach out and help them. And in both cases, they nevertheless had their exceptional careers thanks entirely to the ethereal talent they possessed. Cocker, on the other hand, did find a kind of happiness and equilibrium that Amy never did.

And it is precisely that talent, and that personality of Cocker that made this film hold me from the beginning to the end, and kept those tears in my eyes. From a horrendous-looking neighborhood of row houses in Sheffield where he was a plump little gas-fitter – like a plumber but for fitting up gas – to an icon of the 1960s singing “A Little Help From My Friends at Woodstock” and through to his huge hit songs of the 1980s while in his 40s, rising up from addiction and failure and breakdowns time and again, it was just such a touching story. And all the more so, no doubt, in that I could not really see Edginton’s craft at work – he was not, as far as I could tell, employing techniques to grab the viewer’s emotion. He didn’t need to. Cocker did all that.

At the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival – What a Sight & Sound!

March 18, 2017
bradspurgeon

Syd Barrett

Syd Barrett

COPENHAGEN – I arrived yesterday afternoon in Copenhagen for a weeklong experience of attending the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival – CPH:DOX – and found myself in a world I was made for. The first good omen was to discover that my hotel is planted right beside the winter circus building near the central station (which my previous post gives some sense to as a statement) as well as being within a few minutes’ walking distance from most of the festival venues. Then, the first two films and events I attended foreshadow a week of fabulous experiences. It’s hard to say which of the two films I liked better: The Mumford & Sons in South Africa one, or the story of Mick Rock, the rock photographer! But let me backtrack….

I decided to come to the festival partly as an educational experience as I finish up my own documentary – Out of a Jam: the worldwide open mic adventure – since, as it turns out, CPH:DOX has a vast, fabulous section called “Sound & Vision,” which is all about music documentaries.

Aside from that, CPH:DOX is one of the top documentary film festivals in the world. Founded in 2003, it quickly became a major event in the documentary film industry, showing more than 200 films each year. This year, in addition to the Sound & Vision part of the festival, there are some very interesting filmmakers and films that are being presented, showcased and premiered. And it is not just films, of course, but panels, workshops, seminars, and happenings. There are many personalities present from within or outside the documentary film industry world, like even Bernard-Henri Levy, the French writer and philosopher, here to talk about his film The Battle of Mosul, which is making its world premiere at the festival. There is Kirsten Johnson, the camerawoman who is here to talk and present her film, Cameraperson.

Mumford and Sons

Mumford and Sons


And there are bands, bands, bands, and music films, music films, music films. So it was that I saw the fabulously interesting film called, Mumford & Sons: We Wrote This Yesterday, that documents a tour in South Africa by the band Mumford & Sons. But what makes the film most interesting, and gives it its title, is the middle section, where they write and record an album in two days in Johannesburg with some African musicians, in a freaky weird looking, claustrophobic recording and practice studio. It is full of insight into the creative process.

Mumford & Sons: We Wrote This Yesterday trailer

I found it interesting how the film had very few actual musical performance of the band, as it consisted mostly of voiceovers of the musicians seen in action creating their music, or touring or living life on tour. I had expected it to be a concert film. But it is anything but. I suspect that the point of that was that the producers, director – it was directed by Sam Wrench – figure that most of the people who will want to see the film already know Mumford & Sons music, or can play the albums. So the film serves a different purpose. And, by the way, the absolutely breathtaking views of some of the cities – Cape Town comes to mind – also make the film an excellent introduction to a visual idea of what South Africa can be, for people who have no idea….

And then there was…Mick Rock and the evening of rock photos, music legends, another rock photographer and a Danish band

The beauty of this festival is that you can run from one cinema to another within a few minutes – practically. Having said that, my Samsung Galaxy has been on zero battery (thanks to having to use GPS all the time) almost since I arrived in Kierkegaard’s city, and I have been in a state of existential madness trying to find places to charge between my various moments of this gruelling, grinding schedule on Day 1….

Mick Rock

Mick Rock

But, with the Mumford & Sons film being a theoretical 6-minute walk away from the venue of the next place I had on my schedule, I was nevertheless delighted to be able to race through the brisk air – I went from summer in Paris to winter in Copenhagen – over to the Bremen Teater to have three-part night: A talk by a Danish rock music photographer followed by a film by the No. 1 rock music photographer, followed by a performance by a Danish rock band.

Trailer for Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock

To focus on the film Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock: Mick Rock was no doubt rock music’s most famous photographer. If you think of the iconic images of David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, and many more, then you will have to turn your attention toward Mick Rock to find out how they were made. Rock (whose real name is Rock, and clearly works well in the title of the film) kind of fell into the photography game, after a classic British education that culminated in attending Cambridge University. Then all the rest of his life went entirely haywire.

This film, SHOT! works on so many different levels. It is a joy to watch to see the various rare, intimate moments of many of the subjects – and they go from Bowie and those others mentioned above all the way up to Father John Misty – but also to the engaging contact with the “narrator” who is Rock himself. His narration of his own dissolute life in both the sense of his understanding his life, and the way he looks from the outside, may not be entirely something that the spectator agrees with – although he himself says that at the worst moment of his life he felt a complete failure. It is engaging because we have an educated man observing the world of rock & roll of the last nearly 50 years with that intelligent and cultivated mind. But at the same time, he shows himself to be a “victim” of the period – the excessive drug use, not sleeping for seven days once, excess again….

And the film combines both directorial devices, a kind of fictional story-telling as it tries to recreated and use as the pivotal moment of Rock’s life his three heart attacks and quadruple bypass surgery in 1996 while only in his early 40s along with some exceptional recordings that Rock apparently made on cassette tapes of conversations he had in the 1970s with his friends David Bowie and Lou Reed.

It proved also to be exceptionally interesting and almost troubling, to have had before the film started the talk given by the Danish rock music photographer Søren Solkær – who has photographed people like Damon Albarn, Amy Winehouse, Bjork amongst many others, (i.e., the Arctic Monkeys from their beginnings) – but who seemed to want to kill his predecessor in the classic way of the mentors’ pupil needing to come into his own…. In his talk beforehand, he talks about when he met Mick Rock, in a somewhat disdainful description: He said Rock went about yelling that his subject was about to be photographed by the great, legendary Mick Rock, etc. And he described how comic it appeared to see Rock doing various Yoga exercises before a shoot – a ritual later confirmed in the film itself.

In any case, it was a fine talk – all in English! – and made for a good critical backdrop before the film so that we are not, as an audience, too sucked into the legend that Rock himself wishes to portray in the film.
Shiny Darkly at CPH:DOX

After the film I wandered up into the room outside the auditorium, the entrance bar to the cinema – a grand old cinema complex, by the way – to listen to some of the music of the Danish band – a band that Soren has photographed – called Shiny Darkly. I did some videos of that with my Zoom, as my telephone as I previously mentioned, was without battery most of the afternoon and evening, and so I could not record with my new Osmo, which I really wanted to do, since it depends on the use of the Samsung for both the vision and software.

In any case, speaking of “vision,” I think this festival is going to be full of some fabulous days ahead, which I will try to document daily on this blog….

A Not-Film-Review: Asif Kapadia’s Documentary: “Amy”

July 9, 2015
bradspurgeon

Amy

Amy

Because I believe in Ernest Hemingway’s dictum about writers not criticizing other writers in print as reviewers – “You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,” he said – but because I love to read good books and listen to albums and talk about them, I have started up two column categories on this blog, one dealing with albums (CDs) and called, “Brad’s Morning Exercise Music Rundown,” and the other called, the “Not-Book-Review,” in each of which I talk about the latest music or books I have listened to or read, but not as a critic, just as a guy reading or listening to music, and saying what it triggered in me. Today, due to seeing the film “Amy,” by Asif Kapadia, I have decided to start a new occasional column along the same lines, called, “A Not-Film-Review.”

I had been looking forward enormously to seeing Asif Kapadia’s documentary film about Amy Winehouse for many for strong reasons. One was because I had become a fan of Kapadia’s work through his film about Ayrton Senna, from 2010, which I had been drawn to and wrote about in my professional capacity as a journalist of Formula One racing, but not as a critic, and I was very keen to see what Kapadia would do as a follow up to that. My interest there was that having interviewed the filmmaker at the time of the Senna film, I remembered strongly him describing how one of the biggest challenges and pleasures of making the Senna film was that he was forced to use footage that was all taken by someone else, as Senna had long since died.

So here was a filmmaker who also said that one of his biggest concerns in making a film was an overall “look” to the film, using television footage, family footage, and just whatever footage he could get – press conferences, etc. – to string together a dramatic narrative and to somehow make sure that the whole held together as if emanating from the same central source. With Amy, I realized as soon as I heard about it, Kapadia would have the same challenge, except with a completely different subject matter, and at a much later time in history, when there would likely be a lot more better quality footage than there was of Senna, given the spread of handheld personal cameras, cell phone cameras, as well as the amazing TV and concert footage that would have existed surrounding one of the most popular pop stars of the last decade.

But obviously, I had another thing that interested me here, and that was that this was a musician as subject matter, and one whose music and voice I love, and whose life and death touched me, as I knew it through the media, and videos, etc. In fact, I recalled the day I learned of her death, when I had just arrived in Cologne, Germany, for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, in July 2011, in that same year that I was carrying around several cameras and recording devices with me to record my year on the worldwide tour of open mics and jam sessions, and creating the footage I am still editing today, for my own documentary!! (That day I put up on this blog the only post ever in which I said absolutely nothing, giving it the title: “A Blog Post of Silence for Amy Winehouse.” Today I’m making up for the silence with far, far too many words.)

I was also, therefore, very keen to see how Kapadia would make a music documentary, as well, using music footage – and crappy quality videos by friends and family – and blending the whole thing together into a comprehensive narrative.

Amy publicity photo

Amy publicity photo

So there were so many reasons to see this film, not the least of which being my own desire to see what had gone wrong in the life of such a talented singer, and a woman who could have lived on so much longer and done so much more, had she managed to escape whatever it was that was pulling her down. At least, those were the thoughts I had since her death, and I was eager to see if the film would provide any answers. (There is a great, tragic quote from Tony Bennett near the end of the film in which he says something to this effect (as a not-film-review, I saw no need to take notes during the screening, which I saw on the film’s release in Paris last night at a Gaumont cinema by the Opera(!!!): “If I had seen Amy again, I would have told her: “Slow down, Amy, life will teach you how to live it, if you can just live long enough….”)

So how did it all pan out, then, in terms of fulfilling my expectations, or giving me things I did not expect, etc.? The first thing I want to say, is that like the Senna film, I will definitely go back to watch Amy again, and maybe even more than once. Unlike with the Senna film, I will be doing that with Amy simply because I enjoyed the film and really want to experience it all again to further my understanding of her, of the film, and simply to live it all over again. Quite simply because I know I loved the film. With the Senna film, as someone who knew the subject matter as a professional Formula One journalist, knew the subject matter like the back of my hand, and who already had copious opinions of my own about Senna, and the Senna-Alain Prost battle, and someone who had seen much of the actual footage over the years before it was shaped into a dramatic film, it took me several viewings of the film to decide that I did really indeed like the film. It had been highly rated everywhere, and when I first saw it, I admit to a little bit of a let down, in terms of, “Why has there been so much fuss about this??” I believe the reason was because for me Senna was not news, but for the general public, he was a sudden discovery.

With Amy, on the other hand, there are probably a lot of people who were close to her who have criticisms of the film, and surprises, and things that they expected to see that are not there, etc. But I could not have those ideas, not knowing anything about her. Well, except for a few general gut-reactions, such as, for instance, is it really possible that a diva like Amy could be such a “nice” character? She is only really nasty once in the film, when she has been let down by her father who appears on holidays with a camera crew, and all she wanted was to see him; so when he asks her to sign an autograph of a couple of tourists, she does so, but makes a nasty, cutting comment to the couple. I just find it a little hard to believe that such a complicated and emotional character as Amy did not also have some very nasty, angry, cutting sides to her in her personal life – and we don’t see them. On the other hand, I’m ready to accept that she was just a doll, a victim, a sad person manipulated by everyone around her, who finally succumbed to her helplessness.

That’s possible; and her hopping from guy to guy even while married is certainly not a sign of a pleasant character, but it remains unexplored in the film.

Kapadia weaves together an incredible narrative in Amy with “found footage”

Having said that, those were really my only expectations that were let down, and the beauty of this film is that Kapadia has gathered together in an even more masterful manner than with Senna the film footage and woven together a story that makes us feel really like we are living intimately with Amy Winehouse in her world. There are many moments in this film where we feel as if the scenes were shot by a director for the purpose of the story. It is exceptional for a film made of “found footage.” I’m talking, for instance, about intimate moments of film footage in cars with friends, just playing around; or when she is with her husband Blake, and talking in front of the camera as they walk down the hall of some building about the great moment to come of escaping to a toilet to make love. (The language is more raw than that, by the way.) It really feels like you’re with her, in the life of Amy.

The way he used the various qualities of footage was also a revelation for me, or no, not a revelation, but a reassurance: As someone said to me a few years ago when I was depressed about the lousy quality of some of my documentary’s footage, it’s the story’s subject matter that counts the most in a documentary, and the audience is ready to forgive a lot of bad quality if the subject is interesting enough. That person said something to the effect of what was the most electrifying, most watched and crappiest film footage that ever existed?: Neil Armstrong taking a first step on the moon in July 1969.

And that is what really shines through this documentary for me from beginning to end; the story is riveting. It is a tragedy, it is a success story, it is a beautiful woman with a giant talent, and unrealized potential. Dying young, at 27 (yes, like Joplin, Morrison, Hendrix, and others), like Senna at 34.

And the music in all of this? The moments of Amy singing just shine through in a way that feels as if there is a kind of light from somewhere else in the universe that suddenly materializes and carries us away through her enormous vocal and emotional talent, shining in and cutting through the chaos and horror and sadness that was her daily life. A victim of a bad upbringing, a crappy boyfriend, manipulative father, well-meaning managers who just didn’t have a clue, through it all came this electrifying, pure and monumental voice and music.

General feelings at the end of the Amy Winehouse film by Kapadia

Which is made all more exceptional when we see her incapable of being able to sing on a stage in a concert she did not want to do after a period of good health and during a moment when she no longer wanted to sing the same songs from “Back to Black,” but wanted to advance and move forward. And the extraordinary footage with Tony Bennett when they are recording and the first thing she sings comes out sounding like some of the great female vocals of all time, and she stomps off, saying something like, “Oh, I can’t do this, I’m sorry, it’s terrible…” He rassures her, and she says, “I have to get it right….” It reminded me once again about how little good great talent ever did to the possessor of it….

The end feeling for me was, “if only.” Yes, I ended up feeling after the film the same way I did in July 2011, “If only” some little thing had happened that led her to an insight into how to live a liveable life, but still to produce great music. It makes you wonder if that is possible, but the answer is that she wrote Back to Black in a period of lucidity, not in a time of drugs to the point of overdose, and partying in Camden Town amongst the destructive “friends” who were incapable of doing anything to help her find her way.

OK, this blog post is really, really rambling now. The best thing to do is to go and see this film. Maybe you will agree with my thought that another thing this film has over the Senna film is that Amy Winehouse’s soundtrack is certainly more accessible to a larger public than the music of a Formula One engine from the 1990s….

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