Movies

Feats of Strength: Tabu and “Be My Baby”

The quality that I appreciate the most about Netflix is the sheer breadth of its library.  As much as I loved spending time at local video stores, poring over their collections, the range of their selections paled in comparison to Netflix.  It is easy to pick up on unexpected gems which slipped under the radar, like I did a few weeks ago with the film Tabu.  While it was appreciated by many cinephiles, unfortunately for the most part the Portuguese movie went unnoticed by filmgoers here in the States.

I highly recommend that you check out Tabu at some point, but I wanted to highlight one of the most powerful scenes in the film and specifically how the careful use of music help contributed to its potency.  The story mainly centers around a long-ago love affair between a married woman and young drummer, set in the backdrop of colonial Mozambique.  Throughout the film, the director peppers in performances of the drummer into the story, splicing in clips of old Phil Spector classics and syncing them up with the actors, and providing an intriguing juxtaposition with the African setting.  The use of these oldies helps contribute to a feeling of nostalgia in the viewer, enhancing the narrative recollections of the drummer of his long-lost love.

The classic song “Be My Baby” has been used several times over the years specifically for evoking those feelings of nostalgia, most memorably in Dirty Dancing, but in this particular scene the director Miguel Gomes is mining the pathos inherent in the music.  In this scene, the couple has decided that it would be best to end the affair, though both are heartbroken by the decision.  We first see the result of the breakup through the eyes of Aurora, as she hears the song playing on the radio; we are then taken to the studio where the song is being performed, with Gian-Luca drumming along.  It is an emotional moment, as neither person can finish the song without crying–and because the scene is so expertly constructed, neither can the viewer.

The use of old Phil Spector songs is one example of the film’s several interesting and sly comments on colonialism.  For example, the version of “Be My Baby” from the climactic scene highlighted above is not the original song from The Ronettes, but a Spanish cover by the group Les Surfs.  Les Surfs were a family act from Madagascar that achieved their greatest fame from covering English hits in different languages, reversing in some ways the earlier scenes of the colonial musicians playing songs in their original form.  The central love story between the Portuguese colonizers ends up being a footnote in the revolution that would soon take place in Mozambique, with the narrator mentioning in passing how the events help spark the initial fighting.   And in fact the title of the film is a direct reference to Murnau’s silent film of the same name which explores colonialism from an earlier perspective.  There are many layers to Tabu, all of which are worth exploring.

The True Terror of “It Follows”

One of the surprises of the spring season in the film industry has been the success of the low-budget horror film It Follows.  After weeks of buzz and strong word-of-mouth, the movie expanded to wide release and made back its budget several times over.  As a fan of horror, I eagerly anticipated seeing the film as soon as it swung by my neck of the woods, and was glad to hear that an original vision was getting so much praise and was being commended for actually being “scary.”  While I appreciated the skills displayed by the director and actors, and found it to be a well-crafted film as a whole, I felt It Follows ultimately failed to deliver on the terror that had been promised; perhaps the reason my assessment was so harsh was because of how impressed I was with another recent horror film, The Babadook, and felt that It Follows suffered in comparison.  Nevertheless, if there is one aspect of It Follows that I can unquestionably recommend for any prospective viewer, it is the film’s masterful and brutally effective score.

The music has long been an essential part of creating a successful horror film.  Who can think of The Exorcist without recalling its theme “Tubular Bells”, or remember Psycho without Bernard Herrmann’s whirling strings, or recall Halloween without John Carpenter’s unsettling and menacing piano score?  Even terrible movies have become classics in part due to their memorable soundtracks, like the goofy sound effects that serve as an alert that you are watching some part of the Friday the 13th franchise.  Last night, I even ended up doing an accidental experiment that helped confirm the specific power that music has in horror movies.  I saw a trailer for the upcoming Poltergeist remake in the theater, and chuckled a bit at the supposed scares, but those chuckles became full-fledged guffaws when I saw the trailer again later that night, but on mute.  There is nothing like seeing a silent killer clown toy trying to attack a little kid without the sound on.

In time, I believe that the score for It Follows will be recognized along with those legendary performances mentioned above.  Unlike those other examples though, it is impossible to single out a definitive theme or melody from It Follows; instead, the score is built on well-placed accents and unsettling motifs that help ramp up the suspense and build up a sense of dread as to what may happen next.  Disasterpeace, the score’s composer, does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension for long stretches of time, before punctuating the music with jolts of terror.  The score is so effective in startling the listener that even after multiple listens I find myself being caught off-guard when my attention drifts elsewhere.

Disasterpeace does an excellent job of giving the soundtrack a retro feel without falling into the potential trap of sounding derivative; the brilliant use of synths helps evoke memories of the 80’s, much like the soundtrack to Drive, and the unnatural sounds and tones help instill terror in the listener.  The score also does a great job of manipulating dynamics, lulling the listener into false feelings of peacefulness and security, before exploding in sudden shrieks.  There are also moments where Disasterpeace vamps on a particular dissonant chord or riff, then suddenly shifts into a relentless, pulsating figure, which instead of releasing the previous tension, amplifies it to an even greater degree.

I am not sure when I will see It Follows again, but I know I will be revisiting its soundtrack time and time again.

The Brilliance of The Wrecking Crew

The session musicians were the unsung heroes of the early days of rock and roll, often breathing life into the hit records that made up the soundtrack of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.  The singers were the stars who got all the glory and attention, while the people who provided the backing music that drove the songs remained relatively faceless.  What audiences did not realize was that it was mainly only a small group of highly talented musicians that were behind most of the big hits of the era, a loose collective that would become known as “the Wrecking Crew.”  They were never a formal group, but together they played on hundreds of songs and provided the instrumentals for stars like The Righteous Brothers, Sonny & Cher, The Ronettes, and more.  To be sure, most people realized at least in the backs of their minds that someone was playing on those records, but they almost certainly did not know that these same musicians were also laying down the tracks for the albums of other touring bands, like The Beach Boys.

These fantastic musicians are finally getting some long-overdue recognition with the release of the documentary “The Wrecking Crew”, a project that has been years in the making and is finally seeing a release in theaters and online.  The film was directed by the son of one of the Wrecking Crew’s guitarists, Tommy Tedesco, and features interviews not only with several of the members of the “group” but with many of the artists and producers as well.  And of course the movie is filled with tons of great music, a veritable jukebox of legendary songs that you had no idea had this common connection.

The film does an excellent job of providing excellent insights into the dynamics of the music industry at the time as well as the recording process, especially the mechanics that went into creating Phil Spector’s famed “Wall of Sound.”  We get a chance to see the insides of his legendary recording studio, and see how all the musicians would crowd together in the same tight space with dozens of microphones perched all over the place. One of the nuggets that we learn is that an essential component to the sessions was running the musicians through hours and hours of takes, so that in the end the feel had just the right amount of looseness and raggedness to feel effortless.  It was also fascinating to learn that although most of these musicians are expertly trained in jazz, they earned their places in the Wrecking Crew because unlike the previous generation they were willing to work on this “dumbed-down” form of music; many of the musicians successfully make the argument that it really was not much of an artistic sacrifice at all, that “work was work” and that they still performed at the highest level.

Along with various great moments from Tommy Tedesco, the documentary provides multiple in-depth looks at other performers, including the legendary drummer Hal Blaine and the brilliant bassist Carol Kaye.  I always love learning about the work of Blaine, especially his memorable performance on the classic “Be My Baby”, and he is an especially engaging presence in the film.  I would have preferred an even more extensive look at the song which features the most memorable drum intro of all-time, but then again the story of its recording could probably fill up an entire documentary on its own (for some additional information, here’s a great article that provides even more details about the recording of the song).  The interviews with Kaye are also a highlight, as not only does she pick up her bass and shows an example of how the Wrecking Crew would come up with their own arrangements from what was written, she also illuminates some of the intra-group dynamics, including the fact that she was treated as “one of the guys” as a fellow musician.

“The Wrecking Crew” does have some flaws, namely that for the most part it lacks a definite structure and a sense of flow, and is more of a hodgepodge of engaging anecdotes.  To be fair, other recent music documentaries suffer from this problem, most notably recent Best Documentary winner “20 Feet From Stardom.”  But the passion is apparent on the screen, and the numerous wonderful stories that the performers provide make it a film worth watching for any music fan.

“Whiplash” and the Fine Line Between Genius and Madness

We’re going to make this an impromptu Theme Week (we can call it Rust Is Just Right Goes to the Movies if absolutely necessary, but we’d rather not formalize this detour) and continue looking at films from last year, pivoting from our praise for the score for Birdman to analyzing the themes of Whiplash.  In our piece yesterday, we claimed that 2014 had few great films but a lot of solid ones, and though I would end up slotting Whiplash into the latter category, there are several scenes that nearly elevate the film into the “great” category.  Even with that caveat in mind, I would still recommend that anyone who enjoys the creative process or just watching fantastic musicians perform amazing technical feats should check it out.

The film delves into the twisted professor/student relationship that develops between dictatorial jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and ambitious drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), who is determined to do whatever it takes to be remembered as a jazz legend.  Simmons is rightfully receiving Oscar buzz for his portrayal, even if it is in some ways a variation of his usual schtick, and Teller keeps pace with the veteran and delivers a remarkable performance of his own.  It’s a story whose beats should be familiar to most, playing off an extreme version of the mentor/protégé relationship, but the actors elevate the material by digging deep and finding real nuances in their roles, often subverting expectations and reversing course at the drop of a hat (especially Simmons, who can alternate between sympathetic and terrifying in an instant but remain believable throughout).

For the musicians in the audience, there’s a real joy to be had in watching the actors go through the nuts-and-bolts of performing jazz at an extremely high level, and see the sacrifices that each player makes for what ends up being for little recognition.  It was an amusing game on its own to see how much of Teller’s playing lined up with the soundtrack, and it was a marvel to realize how much preparation an actor went through to convincingly play drums at such a high level.  Though the movie should probably have been titled “Caravan” because of the importance of the double-time swing section in that standard to the plot, it was also great to see other classics get some recognition as well.

As much fun as it is to just watch the pure musicianship on display, the film’s greatest strength is its ambivalent approach to the central conflict.  While it’s clear from several moments in the film that Fletcher’s methods to coax “genius” from his students go far beyond what is acceptable behavior, it’s the fact that the movie doesn’t paint him as merely an antagonist to Andrew that is truly thought-provoking.  As the film progresses, one begins to wonder if Andrew is complicit in his own downward spiral, that his belief in an anecdote about a cymbal being chucked at the head of Charlie Parker was really what created the legend of “Bird” instead of practice and talent is as much to blame as Fletcher’s antics.  The movie doesn’t necessarily paint this as an internal struggle, but is instead one that the audience must confront.  The climax of the film is a show-stopping drum solo, and while it in some ways validates Fletcher’s brutal tactics, they still have irrevocably damaged Andrew at a fundamental level.

Or, if you don’t want to get too philosophical about the movie, just enjoy it for all the pyrotechnic drum solos (even if realistically they are a bit too showy).  Then go home and watch some old Buddy Rich videos on YouTube.