Archive for the 'music' Category

Film moments #26: Silk Stockings (1957)

4 November 2017

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Silk Stockings comes almost at the end of the cycle of musicals from MGM’s Freed Unit. It stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. He is an American film producer who has persuaded a Soviet composer (Boroff, played by Wim Sonnefeld) to stay in Paris to write him a score. She is the Soviet agent sent to retrieve both the composer and the Soviet commissars sent previously, now living it up in a Paris hotel.

It is a remake of the 1939 Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka, which had been adapted in the mid-50s into a Broadway musical with a fine set of Cole Porter songs (I particularly enjoyed the lyrics). It lost money.

Here’s some quick thoughts.

  1. This is 1950s Paris, and therefore still, in the minds of 1950s Americans it represents the emblem of the exotic, probably still living in the afterglow of Hemingway, Fitzgerald etc. Obviously MGM captured this to excess in An American in Paris, but it’s also the theme of another Astaire musical, Funny Face, released the previous year. Unlike An American in Paris, however, there’s no visual evidence that the film ever escaped from the studio lot.
  2. 1957 is the start of the “Soviet moment“, as I discussed in my Sputnik post. Even though it is the middle of the Cold War, the House Un-American activities Committee is in decline, and although the jokes are at the expense of the Soviet Union, they are mostly affectionate rather than critical.
  3. There’s lots to like about the film: the lyrics are clever, the plot is well-constructed, the script is light and knowing, some of the dancing is fine. It’s a film that puts a smile on your face. But it’s impossible to believe that Charisse would fall for Astaire; she was 36 when it was released, he was 58, and he looks old throughout the picture. Gene Kelly, maybe: but his stock had fallen at MGM by 1957 after a series of flops.
  4. It was Fred Astaire’s last film as a dancer (if you don’t count Finian’s Rainbow). One review takes the moment at the end of the last dance in the film where Astaire crushes his top hat as a symbolic ending. Maybe. Certainly in some of the dancing sequences he’s showing his age. Astonishingly, it was also Charisse’s last film as a dancer, though that may say something about the decline of the musical.
  5. Because Astaire’s character is a film producer, *Silk Stockings* is almost a commentary on the American film musical, written in the medium of film right at the end of the ’40s and ’50s musical cycle. I have borrowed this idea from Jane Feuer’s book The Hollywood Musical. By way of example: the Russians (Charisse and the three commissars) confront Astaire when they realise he has taken the melody of the Russian composer’s piece and turned it into a jazz number. “In America,” Astaire tells them, “we do this sort of thing all the time.”
  6. There’s more than a nod towards Singin’ In The Rain as well. The adaptation of *War and Peace* that Boroff thinks he’s scoring turns into a Napoleon and Josephine musical called “Not Tonight” because Peggy Dayton, the none-too-bright star (played by Janis Paige, with a touch of [Lina Lamont](http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0008638/), doesn’t like the story or the music.

Here’s Jane Feuer:

The entire sub-plot of *Silk Stockings* ridicules elite art through a farcical contrast between modern serious music and modern popular music… Peggy argues that Boroff is “too square” whereas Canfield [Astaire] counters that he will “lend prestige to the picture”, just as presumably the inclusion of concert music lent prestige to the MGM musicals.

But it’s 1957, and the arrival of rock and roll has just rendered the whole discussion obsolete. So this is the moment. Fred Astaire’s last on-screen dance number, in a song specially written for the film version of Silk Stockings, which tries, completely unsuccessfully, to co-opt rock and roll for the film musical.

The whole film seems to be online here. If you want to know more about the film, Alan Vanneman has a sardonic narrative reading at the Bright Lights blog.

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Palaces of gold

22 October 2017

The English folk and blues singer Martin Simpson is touring at the moment to promote his latest record Trails and Tribulations. That’s not a misprint, though it plays havoc with Google; he once called a record Righteousness and Humidity after over-hearing someone say it in an American bar so perhaps has a soft spot for punning titles. He’s in his early 60s now, and after 40 years in the trade he’s almost certainly the finest folk guitar player in England. The new record is, as ever, a combination of traditional songs with fine new arrangements, versions of songes he admires, and some of his own compositions. (The record is reviewed here).

I went to see him in London last night at King’s Place. On stage, he talked about the Grenfell Fire, and explained that when he heard the news of it he resolved to play at every gig Leon Rosselson’s song ‘Palaces of Gold’, written as an elegy for the victims of the Aberfan disaster, until something meaningful was done about Grenfell. By chance, Aberfan happened 51 years ago to the day yesterday, but in 1966 the 21st October fell on a Friday, so 116 children and 28 adults were killed as a Coal Board slagheap rolled down the hillside and ploughed through the village’s junior school.


On Grenfell, where 80 people (or more) died, a firefighter who worked on the recovery operation after the fire told a meeting yesterday, in the spirit of Rosselson’s song,

“Why did Grenfell have flammable cladding and no sprinklers and only one dry riser? Because it was social housing and the decision makers don’t care about the social housing tenants… The minute rich people in Kensington and Chelsea decided they no longer wanted to look at an ugly building, those tenants’ fates were sealed.”

It happens that there’s a recording of Simpson singing the song a few years ago in Edinburgh that has been uploaded to Youtube, shared at the top of this post. And here’s Leon Rosselson’s version.

Films and music

20 September 2017

zbigniew_preisner

I found a note on film music in an old notebook on an interview with the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner, perhaps still best known for his work with Krzystzof Kieslowski. Here are a couple of extracts.

The question is why should we use music at all. The connection between the film and the music is completely metaphysical because you never see the music; you only feel it, and in my opinion the best music for a film is total silence. Most American films use a composer like John Williams, when there is music all the time to tell you what to think and how to feel. A bit of danger: some scary horns. A love scene: romantic strings. But the French writer Baudelaire was right when he said that the matter for the artist is not to describe what he sees, but what he feels.

And this. It explains in part why, despite his reputation, he has only worked in European cinema. The other part of the explanation is about what Hollywood economics does to artistic endeavour.

When I see most American movies, I think they are providing instructions for terrorists. I was in Poland when I watched September 11 on television, and at first I thought it was a movie. Sure, Independence Day is fun, but films like this are wishing for something to happen, like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And here, to troll the Brexiteers who are busy hating my recent Medium post on Brexit, is his ‘Song for the Unification of Europe’, from Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue.

Paying it back

24 July 2017


On the David Bowie documentary Five Years, made before his death, and rescreened recently by the BBC, his former bass player Trevor Bolding, one of the Spiders from Mars, says of Bowie and Ziggy Stardust

He’s good at stealing. You’ve only got to look at Ziggy, really, there’s a lot of Lou Reed in there, a lot of Iggy Pop in there, a lot of all sorts of influences in there. He would steal them. 

Bolding has a little bit of an axe to grind, since he was part of the band that was famously fired onstage at Hammersmith Odeon at the end of the Ziggy Stardust tour. But of course, he’s also telling the truth. Bowie was a magpie, albeit a magpie who seemed to listen to everything, and especially the stuff at the edges.

If he did steal from Iggy Pop and Lou Reed, he also repaid them both handsomely. He co-produced Transformer for Lou Reed, Reed’s most commercially sucessful record, though without much thanks. And as Hugo Wilcken reminds us in his book on Low, Bowie launched Iggy’s solo career by co-writing and producing The Idiot in the sessions in France that also produced Low.    

Image: BBC.  

Moment #11: North by Northwest (1959)

29 May 2017

Before the invention of VHS, it was an act of dedication to find and watch classic films; sometimes you would catch a ‘live’ TV screening, otherwise it was a trip to a cinema that cared enough about film to show them. Now, a film like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest*, with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) on the run and all at sea, can be found everywhere.

The theme of the “wrong man” who ends up on the run, both tying to solve the mystery and to clear his name, recurs in Hitchcock’s films. Think of The 39 Steps*. But in North by Northwest, in a way that is both more plausible,and more sinister, he’s being left out there as a decoy.

Most of its big set-pieces are well-known; the murder at the United Nations; the attack by the crop duster plane; the final set-piece among the American Presidents on Mount McKinley.

The moment: the sequence before the attack by the crop duster plane, which builds the suspense, and oh, so, slowly.

It’s worth breaking it down a little to see what Hitchcock did.

The sequence starts with a high static fixed shot, probably from a crane, looking back along the road. The bus that Thornhill/Grant is on appears in the distance, and the shot allows it to drive all the way, to the bus stop at the bottom, where Grant gets off, and the bus leaves again. We get the picture: this is the middle of nowhere. It runs for 48″.

There’ then a series of shots, also static, that intercut between Grant by the side of the road, the few cars passing on the road, and the flatness of the Plains. We (spoiler) still think that he’s here to meet “Kaplan”. This sequence runs through 27 shots and lasts 1’52”.

Now something happens. A car appears from a side road (more a track), and stops at the junction, on the other side of the road, where a man gets out. There’s a fabulous shot of the two men, on opposite sides of the road, the  horizon no more than a quarter of the way up the screen. Grant, eventually, eventually, walks across the road towards him; there’s an immediate contrast between Grant’s expensive grey Manhattan suit and the man’s cheap brown suit and hat. Ernest Lehmann’s dialogue is laconic, as we hear the plane for the first time.

NbyNW.001-001

The scene ends as it began, with a bus heading away along the highway, and Thornhill/Grant standing by the roadside. It is also worth mentioning the sound design, although it wouldn’t have been called sound design in 1959. The audio during this whole sequence is “natural” sound; the cars on the road, doors being opened and closed, Grant’s shoes clicking on the dirt as he looks around. No music. In fact, there’s no music until after the plane has hit the truck.

The sequence lasts for just over five minutes; longer, in fact, than the scene in which the crop duster plane attacks Grant. When we call Hitchcock the master of suspense, it’s because of sequences like this, which signal to the audience a sense of foreboding and makes the action more intense when it starts.

Most of the sequence is here.

Film moment #7: An American In Paris (1951)

10 May 2017

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Moment #7. Everything that can be said about An American in Paris has probably been said already. With On The Town and Singin’ In The Rain it represents the apogee of the American musical, and in particular of the work of Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM. It pushed the Hollywood dance sequence to new limits1–the 17-minute “American in Paris” ballet sequence, created by Gene Kelly, cost almost half a million dollars to make, in 1951 money–and the film won a hatful of Oscars.

I watched the film on DVD again at home in a back-to-back American in Paris multi-format experience immediately after going to see the latest stage version in London, which is a trumphant reimagining of the film.

The moment: the sequence early in the film when Henri Baurel, played by Georges Guétary, describes to the musician Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) the delights of Lise, (Leslie Caron), the young woman he’s in love with, and we see Caron perform a series of balletic routines. I’ve chosen this because it’s doing several things all at the same time.

It’s introducing the 19-year old Leslie Caron, spotted by Gene Kelly dancing in a French ballet company, to the Hollywood audience for the first time.

It’s showing us that she’s a proper dancer, and doing so without her having to talk (at the time her English was only serviceable).

It shifts the film from the realism of the narrative, and the browns of that narrative palette, into the colours of the dance musical.

And I think it does one more thing as well. It maybe conveys to us, quite early in the film, that Henri Baurel is maybe in love with an idea of Lise, rather than the actual person, which helps explain (spoiler) why he’s willing to give her up right at the end.

Here’s the clip.

Arthur Freed had tried to buy only the rights to the American in Paris Suite from Ira Gershwin (George had died in 1937) but Ira shrewdly insisted that all the songs in the movie should be Gershwin songs. I think Freed got lucky here, since it gives the musical a coherence and quality that a patchwork of songs by several composers would not have provided. And Kelly’s dancing shimmers in this smart adaptation of ‘I Got Rhythm’.


1. Although, of course, Powell and Pressburger’s British film The Red Shoes, made three years earlier, also had a long ballet sequence in it. Kelly screened the film for MGM executives before An American in Paris was greenlighted, according to imdb.

The Atkin-James song book

12 February 2017


I have been a fan of the songs of Pete Atkin and Clive James for all my adult life, ever since a friend turned up at a flat I was living in in my late teens with a copy of their second LP, Driving Through Mythical America. It was obvious at first hearing that these were songs of a different order, from the very first song, ‘Sunlight Gate’, a lyric about the Vietnam war which never names it and manages, at the same time, to be timeless. And that’s not even one of the best songs on the record, by some way.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading Ian Shircore’s book, Loose Canon on their lifelong collaboration. I wasn’t disappointed.

These lyrics aren’t a sideline for James: while I tend to think that his poetry is over-rated, the constraints of the song lyric seem to suit him well. As he said on the John Peel Show in 2000, “This is the work I’m known least for, but which is closest to my heart.” Atkin’s arrangements, which are given good consideration here, are often rich and subtle.
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Big band Christmas

30 December 2016

Guy Barker Big Band Christmas SpecialThe trumpeter Guy Barker must be well on his way to becoming a national treasure, at least in those parts of Britain where jazz trmpeters are treasured.

He’s played with everybody, of course, from Frank Sinatra to Georgie Fame to Sting, but he’s also a composer and an arranger. I’m particularly fond of his Soundtrack CD (2001) of themes for a couple of imaginaryfilms. I’ve seen him play a couple of times in the last year or so, taking the Bix Beiderbecke role in the Jazz Repertory Compay’s reconstruction of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, and with Mike Westbrook.

But the prompt for this post is his Big Band Christmas show at the Royal Albert Hall in mid-December. When I say, ‘big band’, I mean big: some 40 players on stage, including two drummers, two pianists, two banks of brass and an 18-piece string section. Barker was mostly conducting rather than playing, and the repertoire had a Christmas feel to it. A selection of vocal guests, including Kurt Elling, Wayne Peters and Vanessa Haynes, the vocal group Accent, and the saxophonist Soweto Kinch, appeared from the wings. The singer and broadcaster Clare Teal co-hosted with Barker and also sang some numbers.

guy-and-soweto-kinchOf course, there were some standouts. A fabulous version of ‘All The Way’, more or less a duet between Kurt Elling and the double bass; the recreation of Charlie Parker and Kenny Dorham’s bebop version of ‘White Christmas’, originally performed live on Christmas Day 1948, with Kinch taking Parker’s part and Barker playing Dorham; and Vanessa Haynes lit the place up every time she came onstage, notably on a version of ‘Heaven Help Us All’.

But mostly, the event was about the power of a big band being given permission to swing, in that way that jazz musicians can. You wonder how much time a band of that size has managed to find to rehearse, but the arrangements wer rich and the playing tight. And the musicians also seemed to be enjoying themselves.

Just before the end, just before they tipped some theatrical snowflakes on to the stage from the bridge for the final number, Clare Teal asked if we’d like the show to become an annual event. By then it already felt like a Christmas institution.

Images: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall.

‘Spoken not read’

14 December 2016
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Bob Dylan, by Kyle Legates


There’s no argument here that Dylan deserved to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, not least because he changed our expectations of the weight that a song could carry. I admired the way in which, in his acceptance speech (read out in Stockholm by the US Ambassador) he both managed to compare himself to Shakespeare while at the same time using this as a shield to deflect the critics who had suggested that the Literature prize should not go to a songwriter.

Near the beginning of the speech, Dylan writes:

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn’t have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I’m sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: “Who’re the right actors for these roles?” “How should this be staged?” “Do I really want to set this in Denmark?” His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. “Is the financing in place?” “Are there enough good seats for my patrons?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare’s mind was the question “Is this literature?”

Of course, this is also a reminder that several playwrights have also won the Nobel Prize since it was created in 1901–Pinter, Dario Fo, Beckett, Pirandello, Eugene O’Neill, Shaw–and that they have also wrestled with the same problems of words-as-performance, without attracting the same opprobrium.

And then, in the speech, he goes off on a little tour, talking about his personal history, the slow way in which confidence and ambition grows with success as a performer, nodding in a clever but flattering way in the direction of the Nobel Committee, before bringing it back to Shakespeare again:

But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. “Who are the best musicians for these songs?” “Am I recording in the right studio?” “Is this song in the right key?” Some things never change, even in 400 years.

Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, “Are my songs literature?”

So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

I was lucky enough, years ago, to hear Christopher Ricks do one of his lectures where he dissected several songs; the masterly construction of ‘Boots of Spanish Leather‘, with its alternate male and female rhymes (“made of silver or of golden“), and of ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll‘ (“now is the time for your tears”), contrasted with the thinner material that makes up ‘One Too Many Mornings‘. Ricks became a bit of lightning rod for other critics, partly because he insisted on saying that Dylan was better than Keats, which was a red rag to sections of the English literati. I don’t think that argument was worth spending time on, even then, but the scholarship in his lecture, and much more, eventually found its way into a long critical appraisal of Dylan’s language and lyrics, a quarter of a century later. As Thomas Jones notes in his review in LRB, Ricks’ says of ‘Hattie Carroll’ that ‘Here is a song that could not be written better.’

Ricks, who was an early champion of Dylan’s literary quality, has been vindicated by the Nobel Commitee’s answer to Dylan’s unasked question, and he was in the pages of the Irish Times (scroll down) after the announcement was made.

Some reminders, since one of Dylan’s powers is that of a great reminder.

First, that every artist, insofar as he or she is great as well as original, has had the task of creating the taste by which the art is to be enjoyed (Wordsworth’s conviction). Second, that the art of song is a triple art, a true compound. And it doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more “important”: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)

But in some ways Roddy Doyle catches the sentiment and the spirit better in the same Irish Times feature:

-I remember when me brother brought home Highway 61 Revisited, when it came ou’, like. Now, I love me music – always did. But, like, ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah’. I mean, there wasn’t much in the lyrics of anny o’ the songs back then. An’ then I heard, ‘They’re paintin’ postcards of the hangin’, they’re paintin’ the passports brown.’ It was amazin’. The start of my life, nearly. Even me da stopped complainin’ about the noise.

The image of Bob Dylan at the top of this post is by Kyle Legates. It is used here, with thanks, under a Creative Commons licence.

 

Toussaint’s American songbook

3 December 2016

  
A colleague was visiting New Orleans for the first time, and for the second time in a week I found myself extolling the virtues of Allen Toussaint, who was the beating heart of much New Orleans music until his death last year. I was lucky enough to see him play solo at Ronnie Scott’s shortly before he died. He had [turned to performing] relatively late in life, after losing much of what he owned in Hurricane Katrina, after years in the studio as a writer and a producer.

After Katrina, he co-wrote a record with Elvis Costello and toured with him.

Long before the collaboration with Elvis Costello, he had worked with everyone who was anyone in the New Orleans scene, from the Neville Brothers to Lee Dorsey to Betty Harris, and one of the reasons for this was that he had a wide range as a song writer, from an affectionate tongue-in-cheek song such as Fortune Teller, to danceable R and B such as Ride Your Pony or Working in the Coalmine, to a political song such as Freedom for the Stallion.

He learned from Professor Longhair, whose distinctive piano style had lit up the Crescent City in the 1960s, but the reason he got his first break, as a teenager, was that he was a fine technical player who was able to imitate the piano style of Fats Domino. At a time when Fats was on the road a lot, and most recording was done two-track, he’d play the piano part in the studio in New Orleans, and the tape would be sent to wherever Fats Domino was touring so he could add his inimitable vocal.

It happens that there was a final record in the works when he died, released earlier this year and which I stumbled across a few weeks ago. 

American Tunes (Nonesuch Records) is produced by Joe Henry, which is usually a mark of quality. The songs are played solo or with some fine collaborators, including Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks. The title is well-chosen: this an American songbook, but inflected with a New Orleans sensibility. As well as his own songs, he plays songs by Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Billy Strayhorn and Fats Waller, as well as the (almost) title track by Paul Simon.

As Joe Henry says in the sleevenotes, written after Toussaint died, 

Allen was a quiet radical, musically speaking, and a prince of sublime humility, national royalty, if this troubled country has ever known any such thing… American Tunes is visceral and earthy. The repertoire spans the structural foundation of all that we understand to be American music… Today, in the dim light of his untimely departure, it sounds like the promise made good on all the work he might still undertake.

Five to look up on youtube:

Southern Nights: the title track of best known full length record as a performer.

With Elvis Costello.

Get Out of My Life Woman, his 1968 single.

On Your Way Down, covered by Little Feat.

Toussaint plays Lipstick Traces, which gave its name to Greil Marcus’ book.

If you want to know more there’s a long interview on Quietus, done shortly before he died, which explores pretty much his whole carrer. Richard Williams’ post on The Blue Moment blog after Toussaint’s death is, as ever, succinct but rich.