From the Archive — The Last King of Scotland

last king

I don’t have much to add about this review, originally written for my former online home. I’m a little surprised it’s as long as it is, given this is a film I’ve barely spared a thought for in the years since, even if it was responsible for Forest Whitaker winning an Academy Award.

I would argue that film has a greater capability than any other medium to forcefully depict the unthinkable acts perpetrated by humanity against itself. The shock of visually seeing something awful can transcend even the most intricate descriptions of the same act, and the immersive quality of film — that settling into a theater seat and allowing the images to create an overwhelming experience — can lock out distractions that would otherwise blunt the impact. Whether in a documentary or a fictional depiction of actual events, filmmakers can make the desperate horrors of the world more real to those of us removed from them than they would be otherwise.

Idi Amin was took power in Uganda in 1971 and remained the president until deposed in 1979. During that span, as many as 500,000 were murdered under his regime. In the new film The Last King of Scotland, those deaths are reduced to a few photographs scattered onto a table in front of the the protagonist. The movie is about Idi Amin and his rule, but the missed opportunity to make us feel the damage of his rule, perhaps even the abdicated responsibility to bring us the emotions and fear and terrors of that time and place, suitably encapsulate everything that is wrong with the film.

Strangely enough, director Kevin Macdonald’s previous film, the reenactment-aided documentary Touching the Void, was all about recreating and conveying the emotions of the story he depicted. That film related the tragic consequences of a duo’s mountain climbing adventure in the Andes, and every agonizing bit of their dilemma is there on the screen. With more freedom in Last King, Macdonald counter-intuitively winds up with a final product that is far less impactful.

The film is based on an award-winning 1998 novel by Giles Foden. The story centers on a fictional Scottish doctor who impulsively journeys to Uganda for relief works, and finds himself drawn into Amin’s circle as a personal physician and political confidant. Not only does this follow in the sorry filmmaking tradition of examining the history of Africa through the eyes of white lead characters, but it ostensibly provides a conduit to reasonably accessing any facets of Amin’s rule that the film wishes to examine. If the character is completely invented and established as close to Amin, he can get anywhere, see anything the filmmakers want him to see. He is also, theoretically anyway, always in danger. The film decisively establishes Amin’s volatility, but there’s little tension. Moments that should be harrowing are instead distant. James McAvoy does a passable job with the role of the doctor, but he’s given little to do beyond pine after married women and spiral into guilty despair over the history he’s witnessed. His character is there to build some contrived conflict into the film (a largely unnecessary conceit given that the region itself is already rife with conflict) and spiral into guilty despair when a third act is needed.

Forest Whitaker is admittedly a powerful presence as Idi Amin. Whitaker captures the swagger in Amin’s self-composure, the boldness in his public pronouncements of dedication to the people. Without every compromising the undercurrent of madness in the dictator, Whitaker manages to demonstrate how he could be a compelling figure. He shows why Ugandans would initially cheer for this man. He digs as deeply into the character as the film and the script will allow, but when he largely disappears for significant stretches — at one point doing little more than play the accordion during a crucial stretch in the middle of the film — it’s hard to buy into the enveloping quality the man had, and harder still to understand him as a full-blooded character. It’s nice work by Whitaker, to be sure. It’s just a shame that the film builds in so many buffers to keep us from feeling the performance and the horrible touch of the man he portrays.

One for Friday — Keith Richards, “Take It So Hard”

keef

Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1988, Keith Richards released his debut solo album, Talk is Cheap. Under any circumstances, the first out-on-his-own record released by the lead guitarist in one of the biggest and most important rock ‘n’ roll bands in the history of the of the form was likely to draw enthusiastic attention, but Richards got even more press — perhaps not through calculation, admittedly — by leaning into the very public melodrama then defining his relationship with Rolling Stones bandmate Mick Jagger. The pair were feuding, largely due to Jagger prioritizing his own fledgling solo career over the group that made him famous and was still fully capable of raking in millions at the drop of a tour schedule.

“You Don’t Move Me” is the track commonly cited as direct put-down of Jagger, but the whole album comes across as a surly rebuke. By his own account, when Richards finally relented to working on a solo album, he opted against raiding unused material he’d developed for the Stones and instead started from scratch, co-writing new songs with drummer Steve Jordan, who also served as producer. The track listing has ample evidence of the preoccupation Richards surely had with the fractured professional relationship: “Struggle,” “I Could Have Stood You Up,” “Make No Mistake,” “How I Wish.” Calling the album Talk is Cheap even feels like a snarl directed at Jagger.

The album’s lead single, “Take It So Hard,” is an extension of that heart-hardened sentiment. Built on a classic Richards guitar riff, it has a quick familiarity, but felt just tough enough, raw enough, new enough to make it feel like a suitable addition to a college radio playlist. As someone who was new to the left of the dial at the time of the album’s release, I appreciated having something right there in the new music rotation that spoke to my rock ‘n’ roll radio upbringing, providing me a sort of air lock as I transitioned to the wilder — and better — stuff on the shelf. That’s not to imply the track was merely compromise. Back then, it sounded damn good. It still does.

Talk is Cheap was far more well-regarded than Jagger’s solo albums, which may have reminded the famed singer of the value delivered by his longtime collaborator. Lessons learned, the Rolling Stones were recording together again by the spring, and the resulting album, Steel Wheels, arrived in the summer of 1989, less than one year after Talk is Cheap.

Listen or download —> Keith Richards, “Take It So Hard”

(Disclaimer: I believe Talk is Cheap is unavailable as a physical object that can be purchased from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said business. I’m sharing this under the legal principle of fair use. I don’t intend to impede commerce. In fact, I mean to encourage it. Go buy some music from that record store. Richards gets plenty of money from old Stones records if you’d like to help him shore up his recent financial losses in the New York real estate market. Or buy something else, but get new music. It’s good for your soul. Also, I must note that I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Your Song”

These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.

stewart song

By 1991, discerning music fans with perspective that ranged back a few decades already felt embarrassed about what Rod Stewart had become. As lead singer for the Jeff Beck Group and then Faces, Stewart was a world class rock ‘n’ roll belter, filling songs with careening vocal performances that could evoked a whole journey of emotions in a single line. His first few solo albums were equally impressive, but then the curdling pop culture of the nineteen-seventies took hold of Stewart. Hits came in bunches for Stewart. Some were perfectly fine songs, but he eventually learned he could make a lot of money with absolute garbage, a lesson reinforced during the following decade. Why struggle and scrape for good material when any old song would do.

And the nineteen-nineties was when Stewart really locked into the idea that old songs, the more familiar the better, were the key to keeping his bank account stuffed full. He was always an interpreter of songs and never shied away from giving well-known numbers a spin, but he eventually become little more than an overqualified karaoke singer, churning out an endless series of painfully generic compendiums of drably crooned standards.

Before that factory line fully fired up, Stewart’s instinct for tepid covers converged with the nineties trend of haphazardly conceived tribute albums, bringing together an array of artists to record their own versions of another act’s songs. Often, these comps drew in up-and-coming bands, taking advantage of the helplessness both college radio and the emerging new alternative rock radio felt when confronted with a ragged, raucous take on a bygone favorite hit. Two Rooms, a tribute to the songwriting duo Elton John and Bernie Taupin, was a whole different mess. I’d have to do some digging to confirm, but I don’t think there are that many other releases that include tracks from Kate Bush, the Beach Boys, Sinéad O’Connor, and Jon Bon Jovi. (In an act of kindness and self-preservation, I have only included a link to one of those songs.)

Stewart was right in the middle of the scrum, with his version of the treacly mainstay “Your Song.” It’s precisely as bad as expected, scrapping the spareness of John’s original — a quality that lends it at least some sincerity — in favor of twinkling studio glop. Released as a single, it just missed the Billboard Top 40.

It feels like the sort of track that represents the end of an artist’s relevance, but Stewart managed to cross the threshold to the hit side of the chart five more times in the following few years, including a three-week run in the top spot as one part of a trio. Consistent with Stewart’s uncanny gift — or perhaps ruthless strategizing — for staying fully aligned with the most dismaying pop culture trends, his final chart-topper was connected with one of the most terrifying and unavoidable of nineties musical artifacts: soundtrack contributions by Bryan Adams.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.

Playing Catch-Up — T2 Trainspotting; Game Night; RBG

t2 train

T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017). From the moment it was announced, director Danny Boyle’s choice to develop a sequel to his breakthrough film, Trainspotting, seemed highly suspect, a seemingly desperate creative retreat for a filmmaker whose recent projects — even when generally well regarded — just weren’t quite clicking. I was wrong. In peeping back in on the Scottish hooligan drug users twenty years later, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (working with characters created by novelist Irvine Welsh) craft a cinematic effort of stinging emotional bruises, grimly wise humor, and marvelous visual invention. The dabs of nostalgia, in the form of imagery echoes and musical cues (in one perfect moment, literally presented as a needle drop), are consistently presented with jolting ingenuity. It also helps that the various returning actors have all grown stronger at their craft. T2 Trainspotting is equal to its predecessor. It might even be better.

 

game night

Game Night (John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein, 2018). This comedy is essentially a riff on The Game, David Fincher’s 1997 feature that trapped Michael Douglas’s wealthy misanthrope in an enjoyably ludicrous LARP of dangerous riddles and mounting conspiracy. The regular gathering of board games and generous wine pours hosted by married couple Max and Annie (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, respectively) is infiltrated by Max’s hotshot brother (Kyle Chandler), who wants to add a little excitement by hiring a company that specializes in elaborately dramatized mysteries, a little like an escape room place that makes house calls. Then the make believe mayhem coincides with real thugs storming, but the genial suburbanites think its still a harmless diversion. Mark Perez’s screenplay is clever and well-constructed, and directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who were shockingly artless in their approach to the Vacation update) handle the plot’s complexities and splintered perspective with admirable skill. It’s the cast that really sells it, though, led by Billy Magnussen, who nails the requisite dumb guy role, and especially Rachel McAdams, who works wonders in a bar scene in which her character is delightfully invested in the whole affair.

 

rbg

RBG (Betsy West and Julie Cohen, 2018). Rather opportunistically, this documentary grabs ahold of the Supreme Court Justice who’s surged to unlikely superstar status in recent years and squeezes tight with lots of love. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career merits reverence as much for the gender discrimination cases she argued as an attorney before the highest court in the land as it does for her decades served as a justice. Initially a pragmatist, Ginsburg has become a bulwark for progressive values as new colleagues have skewed far to the right. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen deliver a survey more than a deep consideration on Ginsburg’s work and legacy, which sometimes keeps the film at such a surface level than it’s almost glib. Despite the flaws, Ginsburg — who gave the filmmakers ample access — shines through as a vital, inspiring presence.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #844 to #841

belew rhino

844. Adrian Belew, Lone Rhino (1982)

When Adrian Belew released his solo debut, Lone Rhino, he already had a resume heavy with time served alongside iconoclastic geniuses. In the prior decade, he’d been a showcase guitarist alongside Frank Zappa, David Bowie, and Talking Heads. One year earlier, he joined the lineup of a revived King Crimson. It was his work with Talking Heads offshoot Tom Tom Club that brought Belew into the orbit of Island Records head Chris Blackwell. A record contract was offered, and Lone Rhino followed in short order.

In accordance with his famed collaborators, Belew delivered music that was deliriously odd. With his guitar, Belew was like a magician on acid, wringing out sounds that made it seem as if the neck and strings of the instrument became molten at his touch. His kinship with other musicians was clear, and he often seemed close to alignment with the prevalent experimentation of the era. And yet there was a unique discomfort to Belew’s soundscapes.

“Big Electric Cat” is vividly off-kilter, stapling together an electrified beat and probing instrumentation, recalling Peter Gabriel’s pushes into the sonically surreal, but with a much weirder vibe. “Hot Sun” is a mere nibble, but so infused with electronic simmering that it fascinates. With music pitched somewhere between Rockpile retro pop and loopy white funk, “Swingline” recounts peeping on the backyard existences of Midwesterners during a long train ride (“Look at that kid over there with no underwear/ And a silly dog who doesn’t care”). Belew’s probing sometimes threatens to devolve into drab electronic noodling, as on “The Man in the Moon,” but he’s more often truly compelling as he cracks open his songs and cavorts in the resulting shower of shiny notes. It’s almost more of a surprise when a comparatively straightforward song — such as “Animal Grace” — pops up on the playlist.

Following Lone Rhino, Belew continued to be ridiculously productive, releasing a new solo album every year or two which serving as a highly skilled hired hand. Before the nineteen-eighties were over, he founded and fronted the Bears, appeared on two more King Crimson efforts, and played on albums by Laurie Anderson, Joe Cocker, Jean Michel Jarre, Cyndi Lauper, and Paul Simon.

 

 

crenshaw mary

843. Marshall Crenshaw, Mary Jean & 9 Others (1987)

Mary Jean & 9 Others was the fourth full-length album from Marshall Crenshaw, and it provided some evidence that the crisp style of his songwriting was increasingly out of step with the studio polish so prominent in nineteen-eighties music. The same year, Crenshaw played Buddy Holly in La Bamba (in what knowledgable music fans widely considered inspired casting), which only accentuated the idea that he was best suited to another time, when easy tunefulness was more valuable than an expansive pliability that allowed for the adding stuffing of all manner of synthesized elements.

Sometimes, the melding of styles works fairly well. “This is Easy” has one of Crnenshaw’s terrific hooks grounded in vintage rock stylings, and the pristine studio work helps it shine like cherry candy. And “Wild Abandon” is straightforward but engaging, an example of a song’s charms being accentuated by the fulsome attention of producer Don Dixon. On other tracks — “Mary Jean” is a prime example — the same thick strokes approach obscures Crenshaw’s creative personality almost entirely. The slower songs arguably fare worst. The ripe yearning of “Calling Out for Love (at Crying Time)” nearly redeems it, but “They Never Will Know” is drippier than a cake left out in the rain. Then there’s the Peter Case composition “Steel Strings,” which peppers in some many sonic notions — a Bo Diddley hear, some Caribbean tones there — that it turns into a exhausting muddle.

It’s possible Crenshaw was starting to get a little bored with the grind of delivering a new set of songs every couple years. His next album (Good Evening, released in 1989) was largely comprised of songs written by or cowritten with others, and he started to tackle projects that allowed him to rummage through the archives of vintage music. Within a few years, Crenshaw assembled the honky tonk compilation Hillbilly Music…Thank God! and penned the book Hollywood Rock,a survey of pop stars in the movies.

 

 

pet please

842. Pet Shop Boys, Please (1986)

According to legend, the title of the debut album from Pet Shop Boys was chosen in a deliberately effort to inject a bit more politeness in the world. The theory was that interested music buyers would head to their local shop and say to the proprietor some variant on “I’d like the new Pet Shop Boys album, Please.” It’s unlikely that the gambit affected a major shift in cultural mores, but the album itself can make a fair claim at revolution.

Now that “West End Girls,” the album’s lead single, has entered the canon of era-defining hits, it’s more difficult to convey exactly how different the song sounded at the time. That its place atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart was bracketed by Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” and Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” provides some idea. Pop hits at the time (as is the case now) were often pushy and obvious, putting any nuance in music and lyrics aside to better capture the fleeting attention of listeners who were expertly conditioned to gleefully embrace material that was superficially new but safely familiar. “West End Girls” was almost painfully restrained, couching its lyrical observations about the constant pressures endured by the lower class in arch synth-pop seemingly indifferent to whether or not it lured anyone to the dance floor.

The smash hit single was properly representative of the whole album. Please is consistently distant and alluring, wise and impulsive, insistent and relaxed. “Love Comes Quickly” is as seductively icy as some sly come on from Sade, and “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)” surges, churns, sparks and practically glistens. The latter track pushes back against the duo’s reputation for chilliness. There is an abundance of feeling animating the cut, expressed through the richness of its construction. That’s also found in “I Want a Lover,” a synth epic of grand drama and billowing layers, like Pet Shop Boys are claiming the Scott Walker legacy as their own. The complexities crafted with evident ease by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (abetted mightily, no doubt, by producer Stephen Hague) are also well expressed by “Why Don’t We Live Together,” which is sweet (“We’ll find a home together/ And sleep there every night”) and tangy (“I may not always love you/ You may not care”) at the same time.

Impressive as it is, there are minor flaws to be found on Please. Musically, “Suburbia” sounds a little too much like it was built around a salvaged theme for a nighttime soap. And “Violence” is arguably the gentlest sounding song that could conceivably be given that title, which could have created an intriguing contrast, but instead comes across as a drab mismatch. These are the least offensive of exceptions, though. Mostly, Please has the sharp ring of a band redefining their chosen genre with unabashed confidence.

 

 

pete xl

841. Pete Shelley, XL1 (1983)

In 1983, Pete Shelley was already a legend in certain circles. He had devotees from his time as frontman of the Buzzcocks, of course, and he also picked up a cadre of supporters from his more synth-oriented proper solo bow “Homosapien” (which preceded the album of the same name), in no small part because an oblique lyrical reference to gay sex combined with Shelley’s uncommon openness about his bisexuality to cause the BBC to band the song. Nothing creates the cachet of important rebelliousness like an official rejection by the cultural powers that be.

And yet, Shelley’s second solo album, XL1, was probably less notable for any of the music in its grooves than an extra item packaged within the shrink wrap. The album was bundled with a computer program, compatible with the home computer ZX Spectrum, that provided visual accompaniments to all of the songs. The computer animation was rudimentary, but simply thinking to include such a component was strikingly forward-thinking.

Removed from its gimmick, XL1 isn’t particularly successful. Moving away from the brash punk authority of his previous band, Shelley favors a style of synth pop that is painfully dated, overly enamored of studio craft over sturdy song stylings. To note that “If You Ask Me (I Won’t Say No)” hews perilously close to the Wet Wet Wet model or that “I Just Wanna Touch” sounds like a slightly edgier Howard Jones is as cruel as it is accurate. There are signs of where Shelley could have taken the material in more satisfying directions. “You Know Better Than I Know” is sprightly enough to intrigue, and “Millions of People (No One Like You)” is one or two good choices away from turning into a brilliantly trashy glam rock song.

Unsurprisingly, XL1 was met with indifference. Shelley’s label, Arista Records, dropped him, and there would be only one more solo album before he reassembled the Buzzcocks, which has remained his primary artistic avenue ever since.

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

 

From the Archive — Lars and the Real Girl

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As Ryan Gosling blasts into theaters as Neil Armstrong, I’ll take advantage of this space to look back to when he was still venturing on occasion into a different kind of character role. I think this might still represent his strongest acting to date. The review here was originally written for my former online home. 

Lars and the Real Girl has an absurd premise. Withdrawn to the point of being socially maladjusted, Lars is an office drone in a small Wisconsin town. He’s paralyzed by the plainest pleasantries from his coworkers and practically runs away when his sister-in-law tries to coax him from his tiny garage apartment to a family dinner in the main house. He begins to open up a bit when he gets a new girlfriend. Unfortunately, he gets her by ordering from a Website. She’s a life-size plastic doll that he’s dubbed Bianca. To Lars, Bianca is completely real. She communicates with him, often showing a hearty inquisitiveness about him, and has a full life story that precedes the time she came into his world via a packing crate.

It is a delusion, but it enlivens Lars and the local doctor advises his family to play along. Eventually the entire community has willingly bought into the illusion of Bianca, showering her with appreciation and affection as a means to embrace Lars.

For any of this to work at all dramatically requires delicate, thoughtful work from all involved, and that’s exactly what’s on display in Lars. The actors have a particularly heavy load. It must be tempting to approach this material with an air of condescension, pushing the comedic elements. It’s easy to imagine this transformed into a broad, hateful Adam Sandler comedy, and what a woeful beast that would be. Instead, everyone onscreen makes a supreme effort to find the emotional truth in the scenario. Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, as Lars’ brother and sister-in-law, adeptly play the frustrated caring that would reasonably lead them to accommodate the delusion. The integrity of the performance in the lead role is even more important, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Ryan Gosling is absolutely stellar. He burrows into the physicality of Lars, capturing the sorts of pained, twitchy movements that are a signal of extreme discomfort in the company of others. He makes Lars a touching portrait of someone lost in pain and finding an unlikely path to emerge from it. To Gosling, it seems, the character is as true and potent as any you would find at the center of a heavy drama.

The script by “Six Feet Under” writer Nancy Oliver is shrewdly constructed, not only mixing its comedy with warmth and pathos, but also building in a psychology that makes sense. With a few deft scenes, it becomes understandable how Lars could reach this strange point, how his only way to reach out is through an inanimate companion. She “tells” him the things he cannot tell himself, that he has never mustered the strength to hear from anyone else. That none of this ever comes across as contrived is an astonishing accomplishment. The script is incredibly kind-hearted and director Craig Gillespie captures and accentuates that tone.

In a way, Lars and the Real Girl is everything last year’s beloved misfire Little Miss Sunshine was striving to be: charming in its very goofiness, affectionate towards the idiosyncrasies of its characters and finding unexpected comedy in the details (the heinous winter coats that cocoon the characters are sadly accurate). While Sunshine was in love with its own offbeat sensibility to an unappealing degree, Lars and the Real Girl is in love with every person, even the plastic one, that populates the film. It’s a far healthier affection, and it definitely led to significantly better movie-making.

One for Friday — Fairground Attraction, “Perfect”

fairground

Thirty years ago, in 1988. Fairground Attraction released their debut album, The First of a Million Kisses. The band hailed from the U.K., where they managed to top the charts with the very first single they released, the aptly titled “Perfect.” That occurred in the spring of the year, and the album’s release followed shortly thereafter. The song didn’t really take hold in the U.S. until the fall, when it managed to make appearances on three different Billboard charts: the Hot 100, the newly established Modern Rock Tracks tally, and, somewhat perplexingly, the Hot Country Singles roundup.

As referenced above, there has rarely been another instance in which a song had a more appropriate title. “Perfect” is perfect, or at least as close to perfect as a pop song can get. The hook is cheery and elegant, and the whole song is built on instrumentation and production as light as well-spun sugar. It swoons, it swings, it snakes along with snappy purpose, and it’s all wrapped up in three-and-a-half minutes. This is the sort of song that demands to be described as a gem.

Listen or download —> Fairground Attraction, “Perfect”

(Disclaimer: I honestly haven’t checked to see if this Fairground Attraction song is currently available on a physical format that can be purchased from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said shop and the original artist. Even if The First of a Million Kisses is officially out of print, I believe this cut has been scattered across countless compilations, as if Johnny Appleseed applied his orchard distribution strategy to wonderful pop creations. I am not sharing this song in this space at this time to impede commerce that supports record stores and musicians, but instead as an encouragement to go out and put your money where your taste is. Go buy some records, people. Although I believe I am operating under the legal concept of fair use, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)