The last day of the cinema: “Nocturnal” (2019), “White Riot” (2019), and “Bill and Ted Face the Music” (2020)

I will review these together as I saw them all on the same day (though not at the same tyme). Three films in one day? Had i gone mad? Perhaps, but if so I had been driven mad by the cruel world in which we live. Rising Covid-19 cases in Dublin meant that we were being put at Level 3+ of our restrictions map – it was announced on Friday 18 September that from midnight restaurants and the like would be closing, but also cinemas! The horror. If taking a half day off work so that I could see three films before the screens went dark means that I am mad then put me in a straitjacket. Though I should note that never having seen three films in a row before I was wondering whether I would enjoy the experience or perhaps suffer from massively declining marginal utility. Read on and see how this astonishing experiment panned out.
Nocturnal is set in a coastal town in Yorkshire. Pete, a handyman working at a running track, sees Laurie, a teenage girl, training and starts staring at her. She spots him staring at her and calls him out on it, but they somehow strike up a conversation and start hanging out together (despite dark jokes from the girl about how her photo wiil be appearing on Crimewatch and from the guy about disposing of bodies in hydrochloric acid). You might find yourself imagining where this story is going, but it doesn’t go that way (unless you are very good at guessing the plots of films, in which case maybe it does go the way you are imagining it).

Someone did say that part of the appeal of Nocturnal is that it is like an entire film based on Morrissey’s ‘Every Day Is Like Sunday’ – not the plot, but the feel of a seaside town as being kind of shit. It is the kind of place that anyone with half a brain leaves as soon as they can (though we soon learn that Pete is somehow stuck there and Laurie has been brought back). The way Pete and Laurie are presented is interesting, with the handyman inarticulate and unexpressive, something accentuated by the way for much of the early part of the film we barely see his face, and Laurie considerably more confident. Yet they are both outsiders to a degree, Pete a loner who struggles to connect with people (for all that he seems to be able to charm women, he is unable to maintain relationships with them) and Laurie a blow-in from exciting cosmopolitan Dublin who is now stuck in this provincial kip among locals who see her as stuck up and looking down on them.

And so it goes. Maybe the film is a bit slight and the reveal a bit predictable, but director Nathalie Biancheri has put it together atmospherically and the two leads, played by Cosmo Jarvis and Lauren Coe, deliver strong performances, so I recommend.

After a short break I had film number 2, Rubika Shah’s White Riot, which was about the Rock Against Racism movement that emerged in late 1970s in response to the increasingly prominent and confident National Front and the uttering of far-right or far-right-adjacent opinions by a number of musicians (notably Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and David Bowie). Starting life as small group of people putting together an anti-fascist fanzine, Rock Against Racism became a nationwide movement, putting on gigs, organising demos and eventually combining the two with a rally in Trafalgar Square followed by a big concert in Victoria Park.
The film is entertaining, focussing on the activists themselves. It avoids having Bono show up to tell us all how amazing RAR was – while there are musicians giving their side, they don’t take over the narrative. I particularly liked that they had the least famous member of the Clash giving his self-effacing but interesting spiel (this may have been making a virtue of necessity, of course).

The most interesting thing about the film for me was the evocation of that period of crisis in the 1970. I know we talk about the far right being on the rise now, but back then the National Front was marching proudly through British streets and looking like it was on the brink of an electoral breakthrough. Moreover, there was nothing dog-whistley about the NF’s racism, with its leaders upfrontedly campaigning on a platform of expelling all non-whites from the country (“What about people who don’t want to go?” an interviewer asks a National Front leader at one point, to which he smugly replies “Oh they’ll go”). The film is also interesting for the friendly relations between the NF and the cops who were assisting them in their marches and demonstrations, something that attendees at RAR counter-demonstrations were often shocked by (somewhat surprisingly though, the 1979 murder by cops of anti-racist activist Blair Peach is not mentioned, though I suppose it did not happen at a RAR event). But you also get that sense of the 1970s as a time of general ferment, with schoolkids passing out anti-NF leaflets to their classmates and a general interest in all kinds of politics.

There’s a lot of music in the film, as can be imagined: reggae obviously but also various punk tunes. ‘White Riot’ gets a look in but the acts whose mentions are most interesting are the Tom Robinson Band and Sham 69. Perhaps unfairly I think of Tom Robinson as a bit of a second or third division punker, right-on politics disguising some pretty mediocre music. The film though makes clear that he was an important player in the RAR movement and someone who leant his support early when it was neither profitable nor popular. The film largely climaxes with a big RAR concert in Hackney; one of the organisers talks about how although the Clash were playing and were a bigger and probably better band, she stuck her neck out to insist on Tom Robinson headlining, as he had done so much for RAR and played the kind of positive music that would bring people together (there’s a nice bit where Topper then says “Well obviously we weren’t used to not headlining, but it wasn’t all about us so we took it on the chin”).

The other band were Sham 69. Again, I think of them as another second or third division punk band, the kind of act who came into being because the first thing they heard was the Sex Pistols and not all the people who had influenced them. Some of the RAR people talked about how Sham 69 had acquired a bit of a yobbo following, some of whom were a bit far right adjacent. Some of the RAR people were saying that Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 was wary of directly denouncing the far right, as people had been doing too much lecturing of the kind of the people who made up the band’s yobbo following, though part of the film’s story is him deciding to play the big RAR gig and nail his colours to the mast. I am reminded here a bit of how back in the day Madness had a bit of a far right skinhead following, reputedly because i) skinheads loved Two Tone music and ii) Madness were the one big all-white Two Tone band; Madness wanted to bring their bad followers along to the light rather than lose them by preaching at them, though I suppose not wanting to alienate the people buying your records must also play a part here.

Anyway, the film has a happy ending — the efforts of Rock Against Racism successfully unite the kids against the National Front, whose legitimacy fades to the extent that the NF fails to make an electoral breakthrough in the 1979 election before fading away as a political force, the end. Post 1979 events are largely not covered.
And finally we have Bill and Ted Face The Music, a sequel to their excellent adventure and bogus journey. In this one Bill & Ted are older but a bit washed up, having failed to actually unite the world with a cover version of a KISS song at the end of their bogus journey. Then it turns out that not merely the world but the entirety of the universe, past present and future, is about to end unless they finally come up with a song that will unite humanity. So they travel forward in time to meet their future selves in the hope that they will tell them how the song goes, but this means they meet increasingly strange alternate Bills and Teds. Meanwhile their daughters (yes, they have daughters) are travelling backwards in time to recruit the greatest musicians of human history (including Har Mar Superstar, obv) to be Bill & Ted’s backing band.

It’s a lot of fun and just the kind of thing to see before they close the cinemas again and the world goes to hell in a hand basket again. The stuff about older Bill & Ted (and all the even older Bills & Teds) is entertaining and at times touching, while the daughters (Billie & Thea, played by Brigette Lundy-Paine & Samara Weaving) are both totally awesome female analogues of Bill & Ted, but kind of more together than their Dads but not in a way that plays to stereotypes of paternal incompetence. I hear there is talk of some kind of Billie & Thea spin off series and that would be astounding. There’s lot of funny stuff in it too, like the killer robot or the woman from Flight of the Conchords (her name is Kristen Schaal), and Dave Grohl.
One of the things that is really appealing about the Bill & Ted films is that they are both very likeable. They are two blokes but they never feel blokey. The characters are older and craggier but they’re still keeping on. I must admit though, I am still somewhat unclear as to which one is Bill and which one is Ted.

I must admit that I enjoyed my cinematic marathon, with the three films being sufficiently different from each other to make me feel like I was experiencing many different aspects of what films have to offer. Hopefully the memory will keep me through the dark times in which the cinemas remain closed.

images:

Nocturnal (Scannain: “Wildcard to release Nathalie Biancheri’s Nocturnal in Ireland and UK from September 18th”)

Paul Simonon of the Clash at Victoria Park (Observer: “White Riot review – whistle-stop tour of a 70s London uprising”)

Dude! (entertainment.ie: “The first reviews for ‘Bill & Ted Face The Music’ are in”)

Billie & Thea (Slashfilm: “Bill and Ted Face the Music Shifts Back to August 28 as a New Featurette Shines a Light on Bill & Ted’s Daughters”)

The spice didn’t flow: “Jodorowsky’s Dune” (2013)

This was shown in the Irish Film Institute as the opening film in their season of films by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Unlike the others however this is not a film directed by the crazy Chilean but a documentary made by one Frank Pavich about Jodorowsky’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to film Frank Herbert’s novel Dune in the early 1970s. The film recounts how the art house success of The Holy Mountain put Jodorowsky in a position where he could choose whatever he wanted for his next project, and he choose to film Dune, despite not having read the book.

Jodorowsky seems to have been a persuasive fellow and managed to assemble an impressive if not entirely conventional team to serve as the film’s cast and crew, with Moebius, H.R. Giger, and Chris Foss providing conceptual art, Pink Floyd and Magma signed up to do the music, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, and so on. Orson Welles was recruited to play Baron Harkonnen (lured in by the the promise that the chefs of his favourite restaurant would be on hand to cook his meals) and Salvador Dali was to play the Padishah Emperor. Dali insisted that he would only appear if he was to be the highest paid actor in the world, so Jodorowsky offered him $100,000 per minute of screen time and then made plans to limit the screen time used to the bare minimum and arranged for the creation of robot Dali that could double up for the artist. David Carradine, Mick Jagger and Gloria Swanson were lined up for other roles. And Jodorowsky’s 11 year old son was to play Paul Atreides, because why not.

An enormous amount of pre-production work appears to have gone into the project, including the creation of a huge book of storyboards and notes on how shots and effects would be realised. But no footage whatsoever of the film was ever shot. To be made the film needed Hollywood onboard, but none of the studios were willing to entrust the big budget required to an art film weirdo like Jodorowsky. Somewhat ironically, in the early 1980s they entrusted a much bigger budget to David Lynch, a different art film weirdo, whose version of Dune was a commercial flop (though it has its admirers).
So Jodorowsky’s Dune was never made and vies with Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon for the title of greatest unmade film of all time. The project seems not to have been a complete failure, however. Jodorowsky and Moebius recycled ideas they had developed for the film into the enormously successful comic The Incal. For H.R. Giger involvement in Jodorowsky’s Dune was his entree into the world of cinema art design and the wider fame and fortune that came his way through his work on Alien. And allegedly the book of notes and storyboards was ripped off for every Hollywood science fiction film of the later 1970s and 1980s. The documentary may perhaps be over-egging its claims here, but it does have some striking juxtapositions of storyboard images with scenes from Star Wars and others.

This then is an engagingly made documentary about another film that does not exist. It helps that Jodorowsky is so engaging and that they have the original Dune concept art to animate to good effect. The music (by Kurt Stenzel) is also very evocative of the 1970s.

image sources:

Chris Foss spaceship (vocal.media: Jodorowsky’s Dune)

Moebius story board (Open Culture: Moebius’ Storyboards & Concept Art for Jodorowsky’s Dune)

film: “Matangi/Maya/M.I.A.” (2018)

This is a documentary about popular musical artist M.I.A., with the title being her real name, an abbreviation of her real name used by her family, and her stage name. She is something of a documentarist’s dream as before her musical career took off she was interested in pursuing a career in documentary filmmaking and was filming herself obsessively before this was something every young person was doing. She also appears to have grown up in a family that liked recording itself. So there is plenty of “before she was famous” footage and indeed lots of home video footage from after she became famous, such is her interest in self-documentation. The film uses all this footage to good effect, combining it with more standard musical artist footage to present a fairly conventional version of M.I.A.’s musical career and life, from fleeing Sri Lanka as a refugee (partly thanks to anti-Tamil riots, partly thanks to parents’ involvement in the shady Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), growing up in a London council estate, going to art school, becoming a musical sensation and then becoming mired in controversy.

The controversies are both interesting and at times surprisingly funny. M.I.A.’s sense of herself as a Tamil and a refugee seems very important to her and her work often references both a sense of Tamil oppression (and fighting back against that oppression), a more general struggle against oppression, and then the refugee experience. Her lyrical concerns touch on global issues, particularly with reference to the global South, rather than purely with the marginalised First World experience more commonly seen in hip-hop. Her breakthrough in the USA with her second album, Kala, unfortunately coincided with the brutal end of the civil war in Sri Lanka, when the Sri Lankan army crushed the Tamil Tigers but used such levels of indiscriminate violence that non-combatants were killed in enormous numbers. In interviews, videos and social media posts M.I.A. attempted to push back against this and bring the horrific levels of human rights abuses taking place to a wider audience. For this she became something of a hate figure to members of Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese community, both there and in the Sri Lankan diaspora, as they saw her as an apologist for the terrorist Tamil Tigers spreading calumnies about their country. I found that instructive with regard to the elusive nature of truth in civil conflict situations.

What seemed a bit more unsavoury was an interview and long profile piece the New York Times did with M.I.A., where she was dismissed as a faux radical playing with Third World revolutionary slogans from a position of First World privilege (the New York Times made much of the father of her child and then fiancé being the super-rich heir to some big fortune). That seemed unfair, as M.I.A. had been sticking her neck out attempting to raise awareness of the massacres taking place in Sri Lanka, which are actual terrible events and not some kind of yeah-man facile cause célèbre du jour. Yet I can almost see where the New York Times was coming from – although M.I.A. was the child of refugees, grew up in a South London council estate, and had people spitting in her face and killing her a Paki, her self assurance and media savvy make it easy to see her as being in some way inauthentic and mysteriously privileged. That may say more about the New York Times‘ prejudices, however, as it amounts to thinking that the offspring of real refugees can’t go to art school and are only authentic if they remain picturesquely poor and inarticulate.

Those controversies are downers, but more roffletastic was the one that ensued when she performed with Madonna in the interval of the Superbowl in 2012. At some point she gave the finger to the camera, which then turned into a monumentally big deal because America is full of uptight crazy people. The film presents a montage of television commentators talking about how outraged they are by this terrible occurrence, lending support to the idea that right wing Americans are all butt-hurt man-baby snowflakes (and also dipshits, particularly the guy who started moaning about how Madonna should have picked American musicians to perform with). At one point the NFL was demanding some $15,000,000 from M.I.A. in a lawsuit arising from the incident, later offering to settle for 100% of any further income earned by her should her lifetime earnings ever go over $2,000,000 (her then manager, Mr Jay Z, apparently advised her to accept this). The suit was subsequently settled on terms that have not been revealed but the whole episode was an astonishing exercise in people taking things way too seriously (something that I fear may be America’s national past-time).
My liking for the film is not however without reservation. While I salute M.I.A.’s attempts to raise awareness of human rights abuses perpetrated against Tamils in Sri Lanka, I found her uncritical support for the Tamil Tigers deeply troubling. The Tigers were an unsavoury bunch whose supposed struggle for Tamil rights led them to their own acts of indiscriminate violence against Sinhalese civilians and were led by a sinister figure who constructed a personality cult around himself. I think the film could have interrogated her beliefs in this regard. It should be possible to oppose the widespread large-scale massacres of Tamils that took place in Sri Lanka without falling into the trap of supporting terrorist violence against Sinhalese civilians: I do not think either justifies the other.

That is little more than a quibble, and I would still say to see this film, particularly if you can see it in a cinema. The music in it is great (obv.), not just the M.I.A. music but also some storming footage of Elastica that appears early on (in the Britpop era M.I.A. somehow fell in with Justine Frischmann and was at one stage shooting footage of Elastica for a possible documentary about them; in the film M.I.A. talks about how this was a miserable time for her as Frischmann’s bandmates all hated her). The other great thing about the film is that M.I.A. looks amazing, by which I do not just mean that she is rowr (of course she is, she’s M.I.A.) but that that she oozes charisma and is always wearing cool clothes. Her moves are great too and if you want big M.I.A. moves you need to see this on the big screen.

More M.I.A. action.


image sources:

M.I.A. (Irish Times review of film)

M.I.A.’s middle finger (The Globe and Mail)

Still from Born Free video (jenesaispop: El mensaje de M.I.A. en ‘Born Free’)

FILM: “Gimme Danger” (2016)

And now a review of a film from some time ago. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, this one deals with popular band The Stooges. It tells the story of their relatively short career through a combination of interviews and archival footage. Iggy Pop, their lead singer, proves to be a particularly engaging interviewee. The film takes an interesting approach, focussing more on the music than on the more colourful aspects of the band’s behaviour (i.e. Mr Pop’s tendency to pop out his lad on stage is barely mentioned, Ron Asheton’s habit of wearing an SS uniform on stage is covered almost in passing and the band members’ prodigious drøg habits receive scant attention). Some have criticised this, accusing the film of missing the point by adopting a reverential approach to the band. Perhaps so but the more garish aspects of The Stooges are so well known that focussing on them would have meant the film dwelled overly on material with which there is broad familiarity.

I suspect many readers know a lot more about the Stooges than I do, but I was surprised to learn that Mr Pop had a pre-Stooges musical career as a drummer, playing with various local blue bands and filling in onstage in other outfits. He says that one reason why he gave up drumming was that he got fed up of looking at singer’s arses (though once said arse was that of Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, which he admits was not so bad). I was also struck by how his family background appeared to be relatively functional, while modest, and not the boo-hoo poor me broken home background of many other larger than life rock stars. Generally though his thoughtfulness and erudition was very striking, a world away from the cartoonish image he may have built for himself and acted out in his wilder years. He was also strikingly generous with regard to the contribution to the Stooges’ success of the other band members and also other bands, notably the MC5, though he was dismissive of much of the music of the late 1960s, which he saw as bullshit attempts by The Man to co-opt youth culture and head off revolt (political and aesthetic), with Crosby, Stills and Nash particular offenders here.

Some odd features of the film were its decision to merely hint at some big issues in the Stooges history, such as the reshuffle on the third album that saw Ron Asheton moved to bass and James Williamson recruited to play guitar. Iggy Pop just describes this baldly as having happened with no explanation, though I understand from my colleague Mr W— that there were Issues behind this change. The film also hints without stating directly that said third album, Raw Power, is the duff one. I cannot judge this myself, not having heard it, but I think its being credited to Iggy and the Stooges rather than The Stooges is a warning sign, as its tendency to appear in new remastered and remixed editions every couple of years. [People have since claimed to me that actually Raw Power is the best Stooges album, but they would say that.]

I was also interested by the detail that it was the film Velvet Goldmine that provided the impetus for the reformation of the Stooges back whenever they reformed. Mike Watt put together a band to play Stooges songs in the film, which featured Ewan McGregor as an analogue of Iggy Pop, and this somehow morphed into a touring band for Iggy Pop with Mike Watt then encouraging the reformation of what was left of the original Stooges. Fascinating. That James Williamson (now a retired Silicon Valley executive) was recruited once more to replace Ron Asheton when the latter died was both an amusing and poignantly ironic twist of fate.

The other thing I learned about the Stooge more from people talking about the film than the film itself is that ladies love Iggy Pop. I mean, I had always had the idea that he had more muffs than I’ve had hot dinners (and I’ve had a lot of hot dinners) but I reckoned that was in the general sense that music performers often find that their musical prowess opens romantic doors. But no, it seems that women really like Iggy Pop, with it apparently being quite common for ladies to dress up when going to see this film in the cinema, on the basis that you need to look your best for Iggy. God bless him.

image source (Guardian: Gimme Danger review – Jim Jarmusch plugs into Iggy Pop’s raw power)