Sunday, August 02, 2020

Movie Night: Blasts From The Past

We can't go to movies. We can't go to concerts. We can't even invite that loquacious and knowledgeable friend over to sit on the couch with us and watch something. We also might spend more time scrolling through choices on Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and Apple TV+ than we do actually watching anything! I am here to propose at least two solutions to these problems, which though decidedly "first world," are definitely having an impact on people's coping skills as we live through these perilous times. If you have the ability to play Blu-ray discs, here are two cracking suggestions to get under the laser ASAP.

Go Go Mania AKA Pop Gear (1965) This collection of colorful clips is a visual hit parade direct from the British airwaves of (mostly) 1964 to your living room. Don't get too, too excited, however, as that timeframe puts us just on the cusp of the revolution started by The Beatles. So bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, or The Zombies are nowhere to be seen. But besides the opening and closing clips of The Beatles playing She Loves You and Twist And Shout from their 1963 Royal Command Performance, these are all studio clips shot in eye-popping colors by world-class cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, Cabaret), so even the duff acts look spectacular in this spiffed up edition from Kino Lorber. Their fine work also makes those Beatles clips practically leap off the screen, with the Fabs locked in the groove heard around the world, Ringo swinging like a sledgehammer.

Besides the remastered visuals, Kino Lorber has also invited entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman and songwriter/journalist Jeff Slate to provide audio commentary, to which I highly recommend listening after your first pass at the flick. While I wasn't always sure which one of them was speaking, it's a great conversation - they both know their stuff and point out a wealth of fascinating details.

Beyond The Beatles, the rest of the "performances" - they're all mimed - are of a highly variable quality. Here are notes from me along with some tidbits I picked up from Reesman and Slate (R&S).

Billy J. Kramer & The Dakotas: Despite their connections with Lennon & McCartney, they still sound like the saccharine side of the 50’s, leading to a barely memorable appearance here. Slate has met Kramer, however, and asserts he is a true Liverpudlian wit.

Susan Maughan: I never heard of her or this song (Make Him Mine) but it’s pre-Fabs fluff. The set is awesome, even if it looks like it cost 10 pounds 5. R&S confirm that she never made an impression in the U.S. as she was too traditional ("We already had Doris Day.").

The Four Pennies: Their first song, Juliet, is sappy sappy sappy! They redeem themselves later with a fairly blistering version of Leadbelly's Black Girl, which you likely know from Nirvana's Unplugged In New York as In The Pines. R&S point out that they did write their own material, still a rarity back then. They also note how they weren't camera savvy, something which was also far from a given back then.

The Animals: They MEAN IT, even though they’re lip-syncing The House Of The Rising Sun, and Burdon plays to the camera like a natural actor. Camera blocking is also fantastic. When they return later on to play Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, it's a great relief after all the pap in between their performances. Slate has also met Burdon and affirms he's still an archetypal rock & roll bad boy.

The Fourmost: They at least sound post-Beatles but bubblegum and undistinguished. R&S explain they were a Merseybeat band managed by Brian Epstein, as were several of the acts in Go Go Mania.

The Rockin’ Berries: He's In Town is a decent Goffin/King song, with a folk influence and interesting arrangement by these guys - worthy of investigation. R&S also note how gorgeous their instruments are, all American, which were expensive and hard to get in the U.K. in those days.

The Honeycombs: Have I The Right is not a great song and their singer is irritating, but look! A female drummer: Honey Lantry, who looks like she can really play. All the boys are playing exotic and beautiful Burns guitars and basses, a feast for the gear-head's eye. I wonder if they had a sponsorship deal? The second song, Eyes, is truly terrible. R&S relate that they were a Joe Meek project, which at least adds interest to the sonics. Can't save those songs, though.

Sounds Incorporated: Rinky Dink is an apt name for the first song played by this Bar-Kays rip-off that not only lacks soul but is smug AF. R&S fill in the picture - Epstein-managed, they were the warm-up act for The Beatles around the world.

Peter and Gordon: I haven't listened to these guys in years and just read an interview in Tape Op with Peter Asher so I was curious - and pleasantly surprised how good World Without Love is. Great set, like a thrift-store Calder. I needed R&S to remind me that it's a Lennon & McCartney gem, mostly cooked up by Paul while he was dating Peter's sister Jane.

Matt Monro: This Sinatra-lite seems out of place, but he gets nice scenery. Walk Away is not his best song, either - check out My Kind Of Girl, used so effectively on the Scandal soundtrack. Mama, his second song, at least has a haunting quality but it is unqualified dreck. By the time he returned to sing the Pop Gear theme song, I hit fast-forward - sorry, not sorry. R&S wisely framed his presence by explaining he could make mom & dad comfortable after sitting through all that teen pop. They also reveal that he recorded three albums in Spanish, which may be the most progressive thing he did in his career.

Herman’s Hermits: At least I'm Into Something Good (another Goffin/King number) is catchy, making it stand out amongst much else here. Peter Noone was a good frontman but his teeth looked way better when I met him in a photo studio in the late 80's.

Tommy Quickly and the Remo Four: This tune, based on nursery rhymes, is an insult to audiences then and now. R&S have some interesting backstory but somehow fail to mention how godawful it is.

Billie Davis: She's quite mesmerizing, with a distinctive voice, well matched to Whatcha Gonna Do, the bluesy song she does here. Turns out she was a fashion icon as well.

The Spencer Davis Group: It's practically a cliché to say this, but when "Stevie" Winwood, all of 15 years old, opens up those pipes - WOW. As R&S point out, you can hear the future of the 60's a bit with these guys.

Nashville Teens: Immediately distinguished by a great rhythm section, this is a banging take on Tobacco Road, a very old song. I immediately wanted to hear more, then they returned with the lousy Google Eye. R&S give some interesting details on their career backing up legends of early rock & roll, from Jerry Lewis to Chuck Berry. They definitely had the chops.

There are also two dance sequences that are quite cringe-inducing if amusing in an Austin Powers-esque way. Worst of all is the presence of known pedophile and sex abuser, Jimmy Savile, who serves as master of ceremonies. Even if he didn't turn out to be a truly venal man, he's a bizarre presence.

Reesman and Slate fill out their chat with some fun riffing on The Eagles representing the death of rock and roll and a shout out to director Frederic Goode, who pulled this whole thing together on likely a shoestring budget. One of them also has a fine last word by stating, “This is what MTV was going to become, which is remarkable when you think of it.” Indeed - and a fun watch, but you'll probably skip through to the good stuff if you watch it again without the commentary.

That'll Be The Day (1973) I've long heard of this movie, starring David Essex (of Rock On fame) and Ringo Starr, but this was my first viewing. It's a knockout, sort of a blend of British kitchen sink drama (Billy Liar, etc.) and American Graffiti. Essex gives an understated performance, often pictured as an observer of the societal changes happening as the 50's came to a close. Ringo is even better, completely convincing as a carnival tough who shows Essex's character the ropes, including how to scam patrons of the bumper car ride where they work, which later has disastrous consequences. After a few minutes of Ringo's performance I pretty much forgot he was one of the most famous musicians in the world and just got into the character. Rosemary Leach, in her film debut, is also terrific. It's a quietly tough film, with fine direction from Claude Whatham and great cinematography from Peter Suschitzky, who later shot The Empire Strikes Back. I was absorbed completely in the drama, which had the ring of truth and the archetypal resonance of fable.

Kino Lorber's restoration is again beautifully done, although the sound is not as strong as the visuals. Reesman also gives a commentary track on the Blu-ray of That'll Be The Day, this time solo. While he talks very quickly, especially at the beginning, he is full of intriguing background, from the film being partially inspired by Harry Nilsson's 1941, to the history of the Isle of Wight and other locations, and on to pocket biographies of the main players. He puts the film in the context of the "20-year itch of pop culture nostalgia," cogently explaining the differences between the exuberant, almost cartoonish American take on the 50's (Grease, Sha-Na-Na) and this more downbeat approach. I certainly hope Kino Lorber brings him back should they decide to reissue the sequel, Stardust.

So, there you have it: the real 60's and the reimagined 50's, each providing a fine escape hatch from 2020.

You may also enjoy:
Fela On Film
Beats, Rhymes, Death & Life

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