CHAPPAQUIDDICK (At the Multiplex: April, 2018)

Chappaquiddick (2017)
D. John Curran

It’s almost fair to ask whether Hollywood is growing a pair or merely pulling a face.

A few months back, they took on the CIA. Now–a mere eight years after he died and barely less than half-a-century after the event that made him famous for something besides being Jack and Bobby’s brother–the burning issue of Ted Kennedy’s behavior in the incident that got a small island in a toney part of Massachusetts its own Wikipedia page and a pass on spell check has been turned into a more-than-reasonably honest look at what, these days, we call the Swamp, or the Deep State.

Aka: The American Political System.

About time.

Of course, it’s  a lot safer to take these things on at a distance. We’re now decades into the Frozen Silence for which the lives of wretched men like Barry Seal and Ted Kennedy did so much to grease the skids.

But I hold this truth to be self-evident: It’s better than nothing.

The first thing to note about Chappaquiddick is that, even now, nobody was so bold as to cast a movie star in the lead or any other part. Hey, for Jackie, we can get Natalie Portman.

For Barry Seal–Barry Freakin’ Seal!–we can get Ton Freakin’ Cruise.

For Ted’s little adventure?

Will Ed Helms do?

Yes, he’ll do. Nicely in fact. At least in the period depicted–the car crash that killed campaign volunteer Mary Jo Kopechne and the pertinent events just before and after–Ted Kennedy was a kind of anonymous blob. Whatever one thought about his doomed older brothers, there was no denying they had the charisma to create a disturbance in the force of history. Following, as he did, their combustible mix of war heroism (Joe and Jack), presidential ambition (Joe, Jack and Bobby) all around ball busting (Bobby), and representation of lost dreams (Jack and Bobby), it would have taken a far stronger person than Ted Kennedy (or likely you or me) to stand on his own two feet, let alone rise above the circumstances.

For capturing that forlorn quality, Ed Helms’ performance could hardly be beat. Whatever star quality the youngest Kennedy brother had was reflected glory. Nothing manifests that so completely as a good actor who doesn’t quite have “it” himself.

The question worth asking about such a figure, in fiction or fact, is whether things might have been different.

Of course, the easy way out is an alternative universe where Jack and/or Bobby, or even the Hitler-loving Joe Jr., lived long enough to take the heat off him. In that case, his being a drunken lech who made enough friends in the Senate to get his name on some important legislation (most of it “bipartisan” and therefore pro forma back-slapped and approved by the Swamp he came so swiftly and fully to exemplify–the same Swamp Jack had threatened to destroy and Bobby had at least threatened to expose).

That not being available the movie digs into what’s left. You know: History. Facts. That sort of thing.

As Helms plays him, the bonhomme the youngest Kennedy brother developed over time–so obviously fake his closest friends probably never knew whether to laugh or vomit–is, at best, a nascent, still-developing quality, one of many the man who ran his car off a bridge and left its other occupant to suffocate and drown would develop in order to live with himself, keep besotted voters sending him back to the Senate, term after term, and, most crucially in the context of the movie, maintain himself as a viable “last chance” for the Kennedys to have a true political dynasty of their own instead of serving as a role model for various Bushes and Clintons.

We know now, how it all worked out. But, as Helms plays him, the Ted Kennedy of this movie, the one reeling out of the water and leaving the crucial minutes when Kopechne gasped out the last twenty minutes of her life a black hole, doesn’t quite know.

Mind you, he has his suspicions.

He can feel it–his being doomed to life as the second-rater he suspected he was anyway.

He can feel all of it, every variation: The relief of having both blown his chance and removed his burden. The shame of having shown himself–the brother of war heroes–a craven coward in every respect imaginable. The wonder at realizing he might–just might–get out of this unscathed. The high that comes from being able to throw his weight around (isn’t this sort of thing what a family name and a seven-figure bank account are for, after all?) and the confidence that begins to reassert itself when that weight falls just so–and on everyone from the local cops to the national press–to drag the hopes and dreams he’s neither man enough to fulfill or strong enough to forget back onto the table. And, finally, the realization that his father (as played by Bruce Dern, easily the biggest name in the cast, a Joe Kennedy Sr. paralyzed by a stroke, barely able to croak a word and corrosive evil personified) considers him a mental midget who must be led by the hand and never let out of anyone’s sight.

Helms gets all of that and the script is sharp enough–both as entertainment and insight into the culture of sycophancy as it exists when the real demi-gods are no longer around to suck up to–that it would probably carry a lesser performance anyway.

Helms and Dern stand out, then. But everything else is plenty good enough to make you wish someone had possessed the guts to make this movie in 1977, right after All the President’s Men. With movie stars. Post mortems this honest are useful and good from any distance. But, at such a late date, even this fine movie is small justice for Mary Jo Kopechne–and even smaller for the nation that the kind of men who hover over Ted Kennedy’s shoulder have spent the intervening decades running off the rails, hiding in such plain view that only now can Hollywood, brave Hollywood, acknowledge their existence.

ALTERNATIVE VISIONS (Segue of the Day: 11/26/15…Thanksgiving Edition!)

LAYLA1

JACKIE1

I’ve been playing around for awhile with a concept I’m calling Modern Disintegration Blues, a kind of record in which artists from across the musical spectrum, acting with or without premeditation, capture the Zeitgeist that best represents the arc of the developed world in my lifetime.

Yes, it’s just as much fun as it sounds.

Anyway, I’ve been limiting it to records from this century and up until the listening jags inspired by my pill-induced stupors of the last two weeks (and boy does this disintegrating world offer up the pills!) I had discovered a nice round number of two: Patty Loveless’ Mountain Soul II  (2009) and the Roots’ Undun (2011), which, for the last year and half or so, I’ve taken to listening to almost exclusively in tandem

I should mention that the concept is also limited to records by artists who have or have had some kind of following. No cult acts allowed, however brilliant.  You want to define a Zeitgeist, I want you to at least have a gold record or two on your wall, even if they don’t include the MDB albums themselves.

I should also mention that, given my lack of engagement with the music of this century generally (a lack enforced more by budgets and time than a willingness to keep up, though a little of the latter has crept in of late), there could be dozens of such albums out there, yes, even by popular acts, that I simply don’t know about.

Maybe I should also mention that every time Marcus or Christgau suggest something that sounds like it might be up this little alley, I rush to YouTube. Let’s just say the results have not inspired me to make out new budgets.

Anyway, during the early stages of my semi-convalescence last week, I developed an acquaintance with Tom Petty’s Echo, which pretty clearly pushes the concept back to 1996. It has the same kind of “better stop dreaming and concentrate strictly on survival” vibe and, except for a couple of cuts, is delivered as a dirge. In 1996, that was pretty visionary for a guy known for hooks, hits and staying on the surface.

So I started wondering just how far back the idea might stretch. And while I can’t say I’ve thought of anything else that fits all the specifics of my little concept, I’m currently sold on Sly and the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On (1972) as a likely starting point and definite subject for further research. Like, maybe I don’t know it as well as I thought!

I might write about any or all of those albums later and I might develop the concept a lot further or not at all. Who can say where the mind will wander if I manage to wean myself off of my ibuprofen habit?

What I want to write about today, though, as a kind of tangent, was where the search led me next, which was a place where I was listening to Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) and Jackie DeShannon’s Jackie (1972), partly because I was already groping around in the early seventies, partly because I love both albums unconditionally and think they’re among the greatest ever made (one acknowledged, one unacknowledged and you probably already know which is which, though if you  don’t and follow this blog, you can definitely guess), and partly because they sit right next to each other on the CD shelf, which means every time I pull one, I’m reminded of the other.

Mostly, though, I wanted to write about them because, in their current incarnations, they represent an aspect of modernity that need not be depressing.

There’s certainly room for disagreement on this–God knows I love vinyl–but the ability to turn a four-sided double-LP like Layla into one long, uninterrupted listening experience seems an unmitigated good. And the ability to change a really good album like Jackie (released as one LP with twelve cuts back when) into a monumental, seamless 24-cut epic is basically a godsend.

Both albums seem bigger frankly (and I wouldn’t have thought, back in the day, that Layla could seem bigger) because of what modern technology–not a small factor in the Disintegration Blues–has made, or remade, of them.

There’s a sense of loss, of course, deep in the bones of both LPs, whatever the format. Eric Clapton made the best music of his life, the only sustained music that was truly free, because he told his best friend’s wife if she didn’t leave her husband, he would become a heroin addict, which he proceeded to do.

That the woman in question and the friend in question, this woman and this friend as it happened…

PATTIEBOYD

were Pattie Boyd and George Harrison and that she eventually did leave him for one Eric Clapton, who then actually married her only as an extremely cheap and nasty publicity stunt (you can get the details in her autobiography, which I reviewed here), gives the story an epic sheen, of course. But any gossipy glamour has long worn away and what’s left is a man who sounds like he won’t get out of this moment. Just about everybody has acknowledged that “Layla” sounds like that, just as absolutely everybody knows “Layla” is specifically about Pattie Boyd.

What’s weird is how obvious it is that the whole album sounds like that and the whole album is about her–including the covers–and how little that is acknowledged. I mean, to read Wikipedia these days (and think what you want, but it does an excellent job of reflecting the common wisdom), you’d think Boyd was only tangential to “Layla” itself, forget “Bell Bottom Blues” or “Anyday,” or pretty much everything else. And forget that Eric Clapton never sounded like this, before or since, for more than a minute or two.

What’s doubly weird is that I could imagine pushing the date back another couple of years and making Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs the foundation of my Modern Disintegration Blues concept. Even knowing that Eric Clapton was basically a jerk and his mad love was as much an ego-driven whine as a desolate blast of passion doesn’t take the edge off. It’s always possible the world’s disintegration can emerge from one man’s version of it within himself.

Which kind of makes this woman even more valuable…

JACKIEDESHANNON1

I’m not sure where she would place in a carefully considered “sanest person of the sixties” list, but I bet it wouldn’t be outside the top three.

She was just as sane in 1972 and ’73, when the tracks that now make up the Rhino Handmade version of Jackie were recorded. It didn’t do much business in its time (the second set of tracks was supposed to comprise a new album which Atlantic promptly shelved) and it hasn’t done much since. Nor did it yield one of DeShannon’s periodic hits-for-others.

And its not really disintegrative. More like a restorative. The kind of album you listen to after Layla or There’s a Riot Goin’ On or Echo or Undun or Mountain Soul II.

That’s weird, too. Because it aches from every groove or chip or beam or whatever mechanism now applies. And yeah, it’s probably the best album she ever made, but it’s of a piece, too, with her entire luminous career.

She didn’t need to blackmail her best friend’s husband to reach her version of transcendence. She just needed to be.

You can guess which artist is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and which is still waiting.

Then you can join me in wondering where the Modern Disintegration Blues really begins.

Happy Thanksgiving!