College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 49 – 47

49 world.jpg

49. Tears for Fears, “Everybody Want to Rule the World”

Bands beholden to major labels are often told they need to buckle down and try to write a hit song. As they were prepping material for their 1985 album, Songs from the Big Chair, Tears for Fears were given even more specific instructions than that. They were charged with writing a single that would appeal to the U.S. market. That single was “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” “We did the song to have an American hit,” Roland Orzabal, guitarist and vocalist for the band, conceded at the time. “It’s got the right beat and feel.” When pressed about whether or not that route to creativity was crassly opportunistic, Orzabal replied with logic that’s difficult to totally discount. “If you’ve got the talent to do it, why not do it?” he posed. Even though the song was penned with the U.S. market in mind, the band initially disagreed with the label’s decision to make it the lead single. “Which is interesting in retrospect, because it was one of those times when the record company was right and we were wrong, because for America, yes, it was a better first single,” Curt Smith, the other half of Tears for Fears, conceded later. Of course, it would be crazy to argue otherwise. “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” topped the Billboard chart for two weeks in the summer of 1985, and was a mighty driver to Songs from the Big Chair going platinum five times over. It’s all pretty impressive for a song that’s hardly a chipper pop confection. “The concept is quite serious — it’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes,” Smith noted.

 

48 big.jpg

 

48. That Petrol Emotion, “Big Decision”

Irish songwriter John O’Neill had only recently departed from the band the Undertones and started the band That Petrol Emotion with his brother Damian when he heard the song “Naked as the Day You Were Born,” by the Weather Prophets. The first line of that song — “Sometimes you have to make a big decision” — hit him hard. “I thought, ‘God, that’s a great name for a song,'” O’Neill recalled. He was further inspired by realizing the same line appeared in the Velvet Underground song “Heroin.” By O’Neill’s admission, he nicked the basic sound of the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It,” and he was off. The resulting song from That Petrol Emotion offered a spirited call to arms for those who wanted to agitate for change. “The 1981 hunger strike had happened, and I had become more politicized,” O’Neill explained. “I was fully behind Sinn Féin.” He noted that his prior band had avoided politics, but the time seemed right to take advantage of the natural platform he had a performer who could command at least a little swatch of the airwaves. The track was released as a single in 1987.

 

47 safety.jpg

 

47. Men Without Hats, “The Safety Dance”

The sillier a pop song, the more music fans and observers are going to rush in to impose supposed profundities on it. That helps explain why “The Safety Dance,” by Men Without Hats, has been tagged by outsiders as a metaphor for nuclear war or other highfalutin’ topics. The bands members, though, insist it’s about something simpler and right in line with arguably the most enduring theme in rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about the broader concept of nonconformity. Perhaps appropriately, it began with the attempts to clamp down on a ruckus in a rock club. Supposedly it all began with the band members taking umbrage with bouncers who tried to shut down pogoing shows. “I was telling people, ‘It’s OK, you can slam dance if you want to,'” explained Ivan Doroschuck, the lead singer of Men Without Hats. Released, in 1983, as the second single from the band’s debut album, Rhythm of Youth, it became a worldwide hit, making it to #3 on the Billboard singles chart and — appropriately enough — topping the dance chart.

 

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

From the Archive: Mirrormask

mirrormask

The review, first posted in my former online home, is absolutely jam-packed with the affectations that I eagerly adopted when I started seriously writing for a digital platform, including an overturned Lego crate worth of hyperlinks and a correctly formatted trademark symbol. Almost every original link was now dead, but I did my best to rebuild them accordingly. I’m especially pleased to note that I’m fairly certain that I corrected determined the hideous comic book covers I opted for to accompany “other material sharing space.” It is perhaps easy to intuit that the reasoning behind plucking this particular review from the archive is the pending debut of the Starz television series American Gods, adapted from the book that I offhandedly refer to in noting Neil Gaiman’s status, then fairly new, as a “best-selling novelist.” 

Mirrormask is the sort of dreamplane you encounter when falling asleep while staring at a Ernst . Or (hey!) maybe a McKean. Dave McKean is a noted illustrator and graphic artist who’s primarily made his name in the field of comics, providing distinctive art for some relatively high-profile projects. Perhaps most notably, McKean regularly provided covers for Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed series Sandman. McKean’s efforts demonstrated that the old adage about judging books may not apply to comics as the striking covers accurately announced Sandman as literate, complex and utterly different from the other material sharing space on the comic shop new release rack.

Agggh. Enough links!

Okay…there’ll be one more.

For his feature-length directorial debut (he’s got a couple shorts to his credit), McKean drafted his old pal Gaiman, now carrying the added cachet and credibility that comes with being a best-selling novelist, to help him realize a story about a young girl who finds herself in a fantastical land when her family life is beset by a dire situation.

It’s really a big, dark fairy tale. While movies like this aren’t usually my cup of pennyroyal tea, Mirrormask largely succeeds through the clear conviction of the creators and the seeming strength of the collaboration between McKean and Gaiman. McKean layers the screen with astonishing imagery and Gaiman (I’m guessing) keeps things grounded in story. It’s easy for a film that this to get too enamored in the wild worlds being created and become self-limiting. The art design eclipses all other purposes of the film and the viewing experience becomes little different from flipping through a collection of very pretty, oh-so-arty postcards. While Mirrormask doesn’t completely avoid this, it generally manages to remain engaging due to undercurrents of real thought and satisfying thematic explorations. The lead character, a teenage girl named Helena whose life has been filled with more fanciful distractions than she’d care for, is well-drawn and engagingly played by Stephanie Leonidas.

And here’s where Gaiman’s influence seems to register most apparently. One of things that Gaiman excels at doing is establishing the mundane within the fantastical and vice versa. There’s a unique solidity here. The film takes time to explore the fallibility of humans and the ache of loss rather than being about little more than a succession of startling images. The imagery enhances the story when it could have easily subsumed it.

In the end, it’s still a fairy tale and follows well-established pattern to get from “once upon a time” to (spoiler warning!) “happily ever after.” Sometimes it’s hard to dance expressively when you’re following numbered footsteps painted on the floor. And then there’s the subtext which seems to tell fifteen-year-old girls that everything in the world is bad if they’re getting angry with their parents, kissing boys and wearing Goth ClothesTM. There’s something discordant about a deeply creative film advocating (even softly and inadvertently) obedience and conformity. But while the story remains predominant, these quibbles do fade quickly when the splendor of McKean’s projected imagination asserts itself.

One for Friday: Sister Carol, “Wild Thing”

wild thing

I’ve written about Jonathan Demme quite a bit this week, but I’ve only briefly touched on one the most celebrated elements of his work: his use of music in his movies. While tagging him a strong director when it comes to music might seem obvious considering his oversight of Stop Making Sense, a film unlikely to ever be topped in the pantheon of concert films, Demme’s ability to integrate pop songs artfully into his fiction efforts was dazzling. Martin Scorsese arguably stood as Demme’s only real competition in this often underappreciated facet of filmmaking, but the latter’s far more esoteric taste made his efforts more interesting. Scorsese uses familiar Rolling Stones songs well, but only Demme could turn over several minutes of screen time to the Feelies covering David Bowie’s “Fame,”  making it one of the pivotal scenes in the movie, to boot.

The scene featuring the Feelies appears in Demme’s 1986 film, Something Wild. This was at the height of the soundtrack era, when studios were desperate to get a tie-in record for every last movie that moved through the multiplex. There was major money to be made (the Top Gun soundtrack, released that year, went platinum nine times over), and there was the important ancillary benefit of the free promotion the came from landing a clip-heavy music video into heavy rotation on MTV.

Demme may have been concerned with the business wrinkles that came with building a soundtrack, but I doubt it. Sure, there are the occasional moments when a track plays ever so briefly from a car radio to help justify its inclusion on the accompanying soundtrack album (that’s the case with “Liar, Liar” in Married to the Mob, if I’m remembering correctly), but mostly Demme seemed to opportunistically leverage studio cravings for music-packed films to purposefully integrate the songs and performers he loved into his narratives in meaningful ways.

And sometimes those songs are also delivered playfully, upending the conventions of film because it’s fun to do so. Most movies have a song underscoring the closing credits. But why let the screen fade to black, when the performer can share the screen with the procession of hard workers that helped carry a notion all the way to a piece of film history that will live forever.

So let’s pan the camera one more time, settling on Sister Carol is front of a graffiti-dappled, red wall, and let her sing of the pleasure that comes if we choose our own paths and “just make it fine.”

Listen or download –> Sister Carol, “Wild Thing”

(Disclaimer: I believe the Something Wild soundtrack is out of print as a physical object that can be purchased at your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that properly compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artists. It is with that understanding that I am sharing this file in this space at this time. Even though I feel this should fall squarely within the legal concept of fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this song 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.)

The Art of the Sell: “Stop Making Sense” trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

Jonathan Demme said he preferred to call Stop Making Sense a performance film rather than a concert film. The reasoning behind that is clear. He captured Talking Heads live on stage in a manner markedly different from most predecessor films in the genre. The film is dynamic and enthralling, intensely focused on the swerving rhythms of a band in sync with each other and the added visual trappings they brought to their show. Demme wasn’t trying to make a memento, a mere duplication of the the experience of standing the midst of a concert crowd. He was making a proper film, with all the demands that implies.

So how is that resulting cinematic creation sold? It requires a trailer that’s just as fearlessly challenging and innovative, promising a spectacle that’s simultaneously discombobulating and thrilling. Set aside all expectations, it asserts. This is what a concert film — what a performance film, rather — can and should be.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

Jonathan Demme, 1944 – 2017

900full-jonathan-demme

Among great film directors, there were none whose artistry was more humane than Jonathan Demme. Other filmmakers revel in the form, spinning visual wonders and engaging in dynamic editing in restless attempts to embed their personality on the screen. Demme wasn’t adverse to such creativity. His films were often striking in their novel use of technique, finessing the grammar of cinema until the shape of his storytelling was a another story itself, or at least another layer.

But Demme didn’t employ such maneuvering to call attention to his personal creativity. Those choices weren’t about him. Instead, they were about the characters. One of his best tricks involved giving a standard point of view shot a wandering movement that more accurately reflected how people look at the world. In Philadelphia, the audience sees Tom Hanks’s character, a gay lawyer ill with AIDS, from the perspective of Denzel Washington’s character, a fellow attorney being sought as representation in a court case alleging discrimination by a former employer.  The camera doesn’t stay put as Hanks talks, dutifully taking in the important dialogue. It flits around, scrutinizing the visible manifestations of his devastating ailment or pointedly catching the little gestures as Hanks touches items on the desk, a detail someone fearful of the spread of a disease might anxiously notice. Demme uses his technique to take the viewer deeper into the mind of the person whose sightline is being borrowed. There is purpose.

The commitment to the people in his films is the gratifying common denominator in a filmography that accepted no boundaries. Demme made measured documentaries and concert films, heavy dramas and loose, sprightly romps. He could travel in succession from the Spalding Gray performance piece Swimming to Cambodia to the vivid comedy Married to the Mob to the riveting thriller The Silence of the Lambs, with each film standing as an utterly distinct piece of work and yet simultaneously all clearly belonging to the same artist, an individual with a singular, compelling voice.

The Silence of the Lambs, adapted from a novel by Thomas Harris, won Demme his Best Directing Academy Award, and it may reasonably stand as his finest achievement on film (though I would not wage an argument against any who claimed the superlative is more accurately assigned to Melvin and Howard or Stop Making Sense). What could have been purely a genre exercise is instead resonant and true to Demme’s commitment to believe in the people he puts on film. The truth of that is perhaps best evidenced by the reasoning he gave for his aversion to participating in follow-up efforts.

”If you can be in love with fictional characters, I’m in love with Clarice Starling,” he told The New York Times. ”And I was really heartbroken to see what became of her during that passage of her life in Hannibal. I have a funny feeling that Tom Harris may feel like our culture has become so corrupt that someone with Clarice’s qualities is doomed to fall from grace. There was no way I could go along on that journey.”

That appreciation of people extended to Demme’s collaborators. He often talked about how much he loved actors and marveled at their craft. His charming and underrated The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, was partially undertaken because he wanted to build a showcase for Thandie Newton, after being dazzled by her talent while making the uneven but fascinating Beloved. He didn’t exactly have a stock company like some other directors, but when major actors eventually cycled back into one of his casts (such as Melvin and Howard standouts Mary Steenburgen and Jason Robards showing up in Philadelphia, or Ted Levine, Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, nabbing a comic role in The Truth About Charlie) it inevitably felt like a warm gesture, another manifestation of the sweet camaraderie that was routinely cited as one of his most admirable personal qualities.

The undercurrents of those professional reunions were just one piece of the exuberance that could be found in his films. If the text of films themselves wasn’t necessarily joyful, they always had an inner spirit that reflected the pleasure in creation taken by the man behind the camera. Rachel Getting Married, his last truly great film, could have easily curdled in its litany of familial slights, disappointments, and grievances, even with the glum humor built right into Jenny Lumet’s screenplay. Demme had the ability to avert such tonal dangers through his persistent belief in the elevating power of honesty. He could be wry, but never cynical. There was always some amount of heart to be found.

My favorite single moment in any Demme film comes at the end of Stop Making Sense. After scrupulously avoiding the padding and safety of audience shots through the bulk of the Talking Heads concert performance, Demme closes with a montage of reveling crowds. Among the sequence is a shot of Demme standing by one of the cameras, boogieing to the music just like anyone else in the house. He was at work, but what a grand job he had.

All that devotion to his craft surely made the disappointments sting more sharply. A graduate of Roger Corman’s informal school of low-budget moviemaking, Demme had one of his first real experiences with the Hollywood studio machinery on Swing Shift, a story of women entering the manufacturing workforce during World War II. Intended as a drama primarily about female friendship, the studio heads wanted to capitalize on the tabloid fodder burgeoning love affair between co-stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and turn the finished product into a more straightforward romance. It was essentially taken away from Demme.

Years later, the director was shooting Philadelphia in that city, frequenting the movie rental shop TLA Video in his spare time. Without any notice, the store managers found a handwritten note affixed to their copy of Swing Shift. It read: “There was a much better version of this picture before Warner Bros recut it, junked our score, and added some ridiculous new scenes, completely changing the whole thing. Thanks, Jonathan Demme.”

The note from Demme was taken off the video box and put in a more secure location in the store, though still clearly on display. An assistant manager explained the reasoning for that adjustment in placement with clear logic.

“We want to keep an eye on the note so nobody takes it and makes Jonathan Demme their own,” she said.

No one could blame those running the store from taking steps to prevent the note from becoming a random patron’s pilfered memento. Besides, anyone who tried to do so would be indulging in an unnecessary act of greed. Through his films, Demme had already expressed himself so generously that any who watched with the proper openness and attention could reasonably consider him their own.

My Misspent Youth: Doomsday by Marv Wolfman

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

ff doomsday

I can’t overstate how magical it was the first time I walked into a comic book shop. My age was barely into double-digits and it was an era when most comics were sold at supermarkets and drug stores, given plenty of real estate over by the magazines, so it was a strange notion, this whole storefront devoted to nothing but these colorful periodicals populated by super-powered beings.

Thrilling as it was to see the new comic books meticulous arranged alphabetically (as opposed to shoveled randomly into a spinner rack) and the piles upon piles of old issues, I think what impressed me most was the array of ancillary products decorated with popular superheroes. At the time, it was a humble lot. There were no bankbook-breaking statues or life-size replica character accouterments. Still, these were items that I’d never seen before and couldn’t imagine finding anywhere else.

On one of those first trips to the comic book shop, I picked up a slender and enticing paperback featuring my favorite characters: the Fantastic Four. It was part of the Marvel Novel Series, which gave some of the most prominent writers employed by the publisher an opportunity to try out some straight prose rendering of the wildly imaginative adventures that set the fictional universe churning. Written by Marv Wolfman, the book was entitled Doomsday. I can see with a slightly mortifying level of certainty that is the one novel that I have read repeatedly in my lifetime.

johnny

The story pitted Marvel’s first family against their chief adversary, the malevolent, megalomaniacal Victor Von Doom. The ruler of Latveria was known the world over by his shorter, more pointed moniker: Doctor Doom.

Wolfman’s tale was filled with details I loved from the Fantastic Four comics, including a pronounced sense of the shared fictional history (Doctor Doom’s staging of a college reunion figures into the plot, as does his fierce desire to retrieve his deceased mother from the netherworld) and a crackling commitment to the well-developed character, particular the familial foursome with a penchant for saving the planet from evildoers.

grimm

Wolfman was writing the Fantastic Four monthly title when this novel was published, in 1979. He structures the story with a welcome commitment to honoring who these characters are, teasing out what made them foundational to Marvel, even if they’d long since been overtaken in popularity by other denizens of the wondrous world.

As I noted, the Fantastic Four were my favorite characters, so the fully recognizable depiction of them was important to me. It gave me another avenue to connect with them, to revel in their heroics. And there was the added benefit that it was the written word rather than dialogue and narration layered atop drawn images. I’d get grouched at if I opened up a comic book in class, but this little paperback — simply by virtue of its format — represented acceptable recreational reading.

And read it I did. I lost count of the number of times I returned to the book, rereading and savoring every last bit of it. I eventually picked up other entries in the Marvel Novel Series from that same comic book shop, but none of the others commanded my attention — fully and repeatedly — like Doomsday.

back cover

The images for this post were found elsewhere and used with gratitude. 

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

14

2017 finish

My crafty clan of cohorts has a certain place in The World’s Largest Trivia ContestTM. For the second year in a row — and the third time in the past four years — my team, the Cakers, finished in fourteenth place in the fifty-four-hour exercise in mental mayhem. Considering this placement is among three-hundred sixty competing teams, it’s an accomplishment the stirs up a little bit of silly pride.

With that piece of personal reporting complete, I’ll get back to non-Trivia content tomorrow.