[NOTE: This review if for the theatrical release of That Thing You Do…The director’s cut now available as an extra on some DVD packages is a classic example of more amounting to less.]
Except for a couple of key moments, That Thing You Do, Tom Hanks’ breeezy homage to the garage band ethos of the 1960s, exists entirely on the surface. And that’s fine, because, this time, the surface carries a real story and because great care is taken to present it in all its glory.
My favorite moment on that surface, comes when Steve Zahn’s guitar playing wiseacre and general layabout who can’t get a date, hits on the receptionist at the record company his band, The Wonders, has been signed to, and not only ends up with a date, but a quickie marriage in Vegas to a former Playboy bunny who doesn’t forget to hang on to her cigarette for the wedding photo.
If that doesn’t make you laugh, this movie’s probably not for you.
If this movie is for you, then by the time you reach that scene, you’ve been treated to literally hundreds of sharply observed details of Life in America during its most recent Great Upheaval. For once, the focus is on the lives that the maelstrom was meant to disrupt and discard, rather than the movers and shakers. It’s like an inversion of Baby It’s You (the greatest movie about the Sixties).
There, the future is always present–a permanent, nagging challenge to all the conventions that were about to be cast aside. Here, the future doesn’t matter. Not the nation’s future, or–despite an American Graffiti-style coda (to speak of movies that carry the weight of the future) to catch us up on what happened to everybody–those of the characters themselves.
That’s appropriate, too, because, beyond those under-the-skin moments I mentioned (about which more in a minute), all the characters are on the surface of the surface.
They could be anybody.
And that was the Rock and Roll America genius of the garage-band moment itself. The idea that anybody–literally anybody–might have a great record in them. In Garage Band America, it happened over and over, enough to generate enough entries on the Billboard Hot 100 (which plays a prominent role in threading the plot together in That Thing You Do) to fill it for at least a week, but cult-like devotion–even to records that didn’t make the chart–that has lasted and grown over half a century and, occasionally, in the manner of all great American passions, reached extremes about equal parts ridiculous and sublime.
If you laughed at the Playboy bunny holding a cigarette while she married the guitar player of the latest national sensation, The Wonders, from Eerie, P-A in Vegas, then this movie’s for you, even if it doesn’t transcend antecedents like Graffiti and (I’m told) The Commitments. It’s a story worth telling from more than one angle, and this telling doesn’t overplay its hand.
It may be so careful in that last respect that it can’t help representing a shallower take than those others. Such accusations have been made and they aren’t without merit.
But it cuts deeper than its main intention on a couple of levels:
One is the reminder (not always kept at the forefront of the Garage Band Narrative, especially when it’s being referenced as a forerunner of something Really Important like Punk) that, in every band who made it, there was at least somebody who wanted to make it–wanted to live something closer to a dream than a reality without forgetting that it’s the people stuck in boring old reality (be it your dad’s appliance shop or the military) who make all dreams possible.
Two: Those key moments I mentioned above, both of which belong to Liv Tyler.
Once, when she’s the first person to hear the band’s song come on the radio for the first time and takes off down the streets of downtown Eerie, P-A, with a fusion of personal and communal joy that is no longer possible and barely imaginable in this land our dreams have made.
And then, near the end, as the joyride comes crashing down and she finally says You stay away from me to the boy whose love she lost to the band’s brief moment of glory because, in The Wonders, he was the one who wanted to make it.
Those are moments any good actress would treasure–what they meant to Liv Tyler, the daughter of people (Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler and groupie extraordinaire Bebe Buell), whose lives represented the willful abandonment of the cultural norms so lovingly portrayed here as completely as Trump Tower’s golden toilets define the obscenities of excess, is anybody’s guess.
I hope she’s proud of them. They’re more than enough to keep That Thing You Do from floating away on a sea of nostalgia–and to make it worth watching forever.
Reflections, The Definitive Performances: 1964-1969. is a collection of period videos from the vintage years of the Supremes. It’s part of a series Motown put out about a decade back which included similar tributes to the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Marvin Gaye.
They’re all worth owning. What makes this one stand out is that it is just the videos. The others come with narration, structure, context. This is just the Supremes: Diana, Mary, Flo and a little Cindy, performing, as it were, naked, no matter how spectacular the gowns are.
The performances are all from period television (with a couple of turns from a stage show in Stockholm real standouts–in one of them they prove you can dance the “The Happening” which is on par with repealing the laws of gravity). Thus, the usual mix: Live vocals and backing. Straight lip-synching, with one or the other of the backing singers not always bothering to move her lips being just one of the tells of the massive tensions that simmered inside the group almost from day one). Live vocals to studio tracks. Live lead vocals to studio tracks including studio vocal backing. Promo videos. You name it.
If you like to have fun figuring out that sort of thing, this will keep you hopping. If you are looking for one stellar vocal or visual performance after another, I can suggest you stick with the other titles in the series, especially the one on the Temptations.
If you want to be thrown into an impromptu journey through the glory and chaos that was “the sixties,” this lays the others to waste.
Just be sure to hit “Play All.”
Rest assured, there are glories to behold, the aforementioned Stockholm performances and their “Love Child’ on The Ed Sullivan Show, featuring ghetto fabulous outfits, bare feet, and Diana wearing a tee-shirt that reads “Love Child,” principle among them.
Also, be sure to check the “Studio Audio” version of “Baby Love” from Shivaree, which jumps, and the way they redefine too-cool-for-school on the promo for “My World is Empty Without You,” standing next to a white orchestra in a recording studio that, through the magic of video, psychically connects white teenagers gobbling up albums in a record store with the auto assembly lines everybody at Motown would have been working on if Diana Ross’s beau ideal, Berry Gordy, Jr., had never been born.
But the essence is limned by the extremes.
This version of “Come See About Me,” where, for once, the glamour drops away, and not only are they still the sexiest things walking, you get to hear the neighborhood harmony that was the real reason they were able to fight their way from the streets to the palace–why Gordy, the anti-Phil Spector, who believed his artists should be stars who outshone him, couldn’t stop believing in them through all the months-turning-to-years of the “No-Hit Supremes” back-story that would have underpinned the obvious narrative if the DVD was designed to tell their story. Sure, Diana slept with the boss. Don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the goods:
Then watch the pure joy of performance devolve into the spirit of anarchy…in a promo, no less, the kind of thing which was invented to suppress every suggestion of unease or disorder…this is the closest I’ve seen to them being allowed to act out. It almost doesn’t matter what song is playing under it.
Unless the song is “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”….
Mary Wilson wrote in one of her memoirs about the pressure the group was constantly under to be “blacker” and what a ridiculous and de-humanizing limitation that was–as though one’s blackness could only be authenticated by adherence to preordained expectations.
She was right.
But Gordy wanted to get all the way to true integration, all the way to the main part of the mainstream, the one place where a new America could finally be forged out of the old one, rather than in lazy, nihilistic opposition to it.
He thought the Supremes, and only the Supremes, were his ticket…and America’s.
He was right, too.
If it didn’t quite work out all the way–if we hove within sight of shore and then, inexplicably, with the harbor in reach, chose to steer back toward the wild, gloomy sea–that’s our fault, not his. Great and successful as all the other Motown acts were, the Supremes, with more #1 pop hits in the sixties than all those other acts combined, were the ones who cashed the ticket on Gordy’s very Rock and Roll dream.
So, in a way, the bare bones approach of this up and down collection is, as the kids used to say, right on time.
I imagine the real reason there’s no narration/context is the permanent tension between Gordy, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.
But you could also look at it this way:
Given what’s here, what could anyone possibly add?
Pirate Radio is about two things: Pirate Radio and Coming of Age.
Thanks mostly to a well-chosen, if historically challenged, soundtrack, the Pirate Radio part works well, sometimes beautifully. The Coming of Age part works less than well, never rising above the mundane and occasionally sinking below it. Like a couple of more famous movies, Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (which I wrote about here), it’s a sort of semi-autobiographical tale of boyhood which doesn’t capture any of the significant qualities of an actual boyhood (It’s interesting, for instance, that, in these films, a boy’s first sexual experience is always a dewy, Hallmark-style experience, bereft of guilt, angst, fumbling around, or even basic horniness…how so many talented filmmakers have managed, over and over, to leave all of that out, says something about what the audience is primed to expect, but also about the unwillingness of the director/auteurs involved to challenge those, or any other, exepectations).
That leaves this movie, like those others, to stand and fall with the grownups.
On that level, it’s about as good as Almost Famous (to which it is also linked by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his curmudgeon mode–let’s just say the mode was fresher the first time around, playing Lester Bangs, than it is here) . Certainly there is no one as compelling as Patricia Arquette was in Boyhood. But given its essential lightheartedness, not to mention light-headedness, the movie probably benefits. The presence of anyone playing a real grown-up, as opposed to someone who has merely attained legal age, would sink this movie much faster than the stuffed shirts from the BBC manage to sink the ship on which most of it is set.
With that much of a wormhole in its heart, how good can a movie be?
Pretty good, actually, and that’s a testament to how great its subject is,and how much fun a few of the actors have chewing the scenery.
First and foremost among the latter is Kenneth Branagh, as the censorious fussbudget from hell. He plays it balls the wall, complete farce, and it works. He’s the closest thing to an actual human in the whole show and if it’s not a very attractive sort of human, you still might not mind being in a foxhole with him, as long as it was the foxhole at the end of the world.
The best single scene, though–one that nearly redeems the whole movie–is shared by Hoffman (at his best) and Rhys Ifans. They are playing the two coolest, most gifted DJs. Hoffman’s a super brash American (what Lester Bangs might have been, if he’d been a DJ). Ifan’s the super cool Brit (returned from exile, with all the additional cool that accrues to the prodigal). The tension between them is what the movie really should have been about. In any case, its value as a subplot is at least fully exploited in a scene where they start out one-upping each other in a series of trivialities that rings very true to life and end up balancing at the top of ship’s mast, their lives finally in real danger, each still determined not to be outdone–to be the big dog on this small, secluded island.
That scene, and its wonderful payoff, makes up for a lot: the cliches, the tired in-jokes, the broad overplaying balanced by the bland underplaying which each actor (except Branagh) dares not take over the top or under the floor, lest life break in, the fact that Curtis lets several other promising scenes play either way too long or just a little too short, unable to find a rhythm to match all that wonderful music or the confidence to simply bring it forward.
I’m not sure if these small but real virtues are enough to get me to watch it again some time.
Might get the soundtrack though.
And, hey, if you think this scene is as funny as it wants to be, you’ll probably like the movie better than I did.
Or, as someone said on some appropriately famous occasion: Oh the humanity!
Well, so some people think. I’ll just have to set them straight.
First off, I like that they didn’t call it Grease! That was a stroke of genius right there. Somebody must have thought, If we’re gonna underplay one thing and one thing only, let’s have it be the title. Leave off the *&^# exclamation point why don’t ya?”
Second off: Here’s the plot of Grease in seven frames.
Sandy and Danny…
I was a jerk…will you go with me?
…No, but, will you go with me?
And if you do, can we live happily ever after?
Yes…Yes we can!…In our flying car.
That’s a classic structure folks. Shakespeare didn’t do better with Romeo and Juliet...or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
There are, admittedly, several subplots, all done in equally primary colors–the drag race, the pregnancy that turns out to be a false alarm, the dropout who goes back to school, and so on and so forth. Not a spot of nuance anywhere, or a dropped stitch…or a missed opportunity to mock something or other that probably meant a lot to somebody once upon a time. Add in that the leads were 24-year-old John Travolta and 29-year-old Olivia Newton-John, backed up by 28-year-old Jeff Conaway and 24-year-old Stockard Channing, all playing high school seniors, and the result should have been as slick and empty as the title (! or no !), and as sterile as the show’s Broadway-Does-Rock-N-Roll roots.
But it’s not. It’s way too goofy for any of that and just because everybody’s a little long in the tooth for their parts doesn’t mean they’re not perfect. Complaining that they’re a little too perfect–as in so perfect no mere Broadway casting call could have matched them in a thousand years–misses the point. If these characters had been played as anybody identifiably human the whole thing would would have gone poof, probably accompanied by a socially impolite noise that would have ripped every Dolby speaker in America apart along about the summer of ’78.
Instead it went over like gangbusters.
I confess I missed it. The phenomenon, I mean. I saw the movie in the theater that very summer. In high school, I used to take my mom to afternoon movies because she couldn’t drive and my dad didn’t like going to movies (especially the part where you had to pay to get in). She loved Grease, thought it was a hoot. I was an English major in training, possessed of superior taste, so I admitted I liked it okay (which I did), but I didn’t see what the big deal was.
Twenty years later, when the anniversary edition was released to theaters, I went to see it again, mostly out of affection for the memory of one of her last uncomplicated happy experiences and, even in an empty theater, with nobody to share the laughter, I found myself enjoying it immensely. And the main reason was that I finally got it. When I saw it in ’78, I didn’t know Edd “Kookie” Burns from Adam or Eve Arden from the original Eve. I had heard Sid Caesar’s name and Frankie Avalon’s, too, but I didn’t know either of them by sight. I didn’t get half the in-jokes or verbal puns. With all that I was missing, I’m not even sure I got the truly perfect Dinah Manoff’s Marty being asked her last name by Byrnes’ on-the-make dee-jay, and saying, “Maraschino…You know. Like in cherry?”
It turned out my lack of common culture knowledge–subsequently filled in by my later obsessions–had cost me a few dozen laughs. By 1998, time had made up the difference and a few dozen laughs (most of which still make me laugh again every time I watch it now, whether because anything is actually funny or because I feel a little guilty for not sharing the laughs with mom while she was still here or just because looking back on my ignorance is liable to make me shake my head a little in wonder, I don’t know) are the difference between not knowing what the big deal was and understanding it perfectly.
So while I recognize every possible objection my taste-filter should have to something that can so easily pass for “camp” (a concept I normally find contemptible), I still have to admit that, when it’s time to watch Grease, I always get a slightly giddy, light-headed feeling, not unlike the once-a-year ritual where I sink into happy oblivion and watch Abba videos for half-a-day. It’s a feeling of glad anticipation, and specifically the knowledge that my jaded soul will be skipping by the time the last two numbers play…And the wait’s always worth it…
…Oh, forgot. It’s a triple high when you add the closing theme. It was by Frankie Valli. Him I knew. Even in ’78.
[Note: I shopped this briefly but, alas, no takers. Hence it wasn’t ultimately written with the usual screen grabs in mind and, except at the very end, I’m not up to inserting them. So let your imagination (or memory) run wild!]
The first time I saw Baby It’s You was on VHS, shortly after it’s 1983 general release and box-office death. I rented it a year or two later with appropriately modest expectations and it blew by me like a cool breeze.
The second time I saw Baby It’s You was on DVD in the Year of Our Lord, 2015, and it ran over me like a truck.
Here with my nose pressed to the pavement, struggling mightily to rise, shaking my head to clear it, I can see how I sidestepped it earlier…or it sidestepped me.
At twenty-four, I wasn’t ready to let it get under my skin and if Baby It’s You isn’t under your skin it’s just a movie.
If, on the other hand, it is under your skin, its absolute lack of reassurance let’s it run around in the bloodstream, equal parts depression and liberation, intertwining mythic space and human space so deftly one becomes indistinguishable from the other.
Always a heady place to be, that.
I better write about it before I have time to reassemble my defenses, here in my own little human space.
It should be easy. I mean, John Sayles wrote and directed it. I haven’t seen a lot of Sayles’ movies but the few I have seen, including Eight Men Out, which is the only one before now that I’ve seen more than once, are enough to make me feel like I know what I’m getting when his name comes up under “Directed by.”
I know it will be tasteful. I know it will be meticulously crafted. I know it will be more readily admired than loved. I know it will be good for me.
What could be easier to digest, dissect, defend against than one of those?
Except Baby It’s You is none of those. Not even meticulous. No movie that breaks free and runs down lost roads, trucking the unwary, like this one can be limited that way, even if everyone involved threw themselves into getting all the details associated with craft just right.
And, for all I can tell, they did just that. All of the minor characters–the nerdy high school professor, the bullying, “get-to-class-right-now-mister” principal figure, the clueless parents, the caring drama teacher, the various high school and college friends and acquaintances–are stock and played that way. Never with anything less than finely nuanced sensitivity mind you, but they aren’t running free down lost roads. They’re in a John Sayles movie, one and all.
I won’t say it doesn’t matter. All that craft doesn’t go to waste. It’s the woop and warf of the structure after all and a fine one at that.
But this movie is only about two people: Rosanna Arquette’s Jill Rosen and Vincent Spano’s Albert “The Sheik” Capadilupo. Everyone else is a shade. Any brief attempt to give them real-life dimension, as opposed to abstract force, now temporal, now ghostly, in the lives of the two principles, comes a held-breath cropper. The more any one of them tries to care about Jill or the Sheik–no one’s ever really concerned about both–or otherwise threatens to stand out, the sooner they fade to black.
And the more it’s possible for us to care.
I can’t say the caring is imperative. I’m not forgetting this barely ruffled my hair when I was close enough in age to fall for Jill myself and spare a sneer for pretty-boy Sheik, so clearly going about it all wrong!
So, no, not imperative. But possible.
Twenty-something or fifty-something, that isn’t a chance many movies offer.
And there’s where time has come around and run me down from behind.
I stuck a movie in the DVD player and now, suddenly, at what was supposed to be a safe distance, I find myself caring about Jill and the Sheik. Two characters in a movie. Two characters I have next to nothing in common with, as it happens, but that’s not the sticky wicket here.
The part that won’t go down is, I care about them….and I have no idea what happened to them.
Disorienting to say the least.
Caring and then knowing are the fuel movies–or maybe just narrative art–run on. Knowing who they are. Knowing why you care. Knowing they have arrived on some safe shore, even if it isn’t the shore you wanted them to reach, or that, if they went down, they went down with a purpose even if the purpose was purely cautionary, a life lesson for those watching from the cheap seats or the beach.
I mean, if you’re not going to tip the balance toward the comforts of assurance–Jill will be fine even if she really sheds the Sheik and the acting thing doesn’t work out, the Sheik won’t steal any more cars, knock over any more liquor stores, stage any more fake kidnappings, get himself thrown in jail finally–then at least give me some of the usual convention of false ambivalence. That’s well enough established as a narrative trope that it carries its own assurance.
So okay, I’m in an art movie. Nothing wrong with that. I’m not entirely immune to art for srt’s sake.
But it doesn’t get under my skin.
Normally, no one is better at pandering to my near immunities than your average indie film-maker in general unless it’s John Sayles in particular. I mean, when he bitched about having the editing taken away from him on this one because it had a Hollywood budget, I sort of assumed he found the final product insufficiently ponderous.
Oh, maybe his preferred cut was even more of what Baby It’s You ended up being: maybe it was even looser, bolder, freer to associate, freer to not associate, more prone to run right off the rails and then be set straight back on by the particular way the Sheik (or is it his partner, the Rat?) throws down on the owner of the store he’s robbing when he should have been taking Jill to the prom and then refuses to shoot him, or the pregnant pause when Jill asks the “I-wasn’t-blonde-then” girl who used to be in her gym class if she’s “been going out with…Rat, long?”
Those little half-pauses are everything.
This movie runs on beats. Sharp, quick rhythms that eventually turn into elongated rhythms that reach the breaking point without quite snapping. Rock and roll into rock into a lost country. Sam the Sham into Procol Harum into the Velvet Underground, with the Shirelles on the title track joining the Supremes and Dusty Springfield and whoever else could be properly licensed (the Toys in the original movie credits, the Chiffons on the present soundtrack and it’s all perfect) providing continuity and a constant, gentle-but-firm push-back against those consummate invaders of the movie’s intimate girl talk space. That would be Jersey boys Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, each, of course, completely incongruous in a movie that’s not only set in the sixties but very specifically about the sixties. and, oh-by-the-way, each as completely, absurdly, perfect as the Shirelles.
And that’s just the soundtrack, cruising along underneath dialogue that sounds like the kind songwriters make songs out of. Did “Everything’s fine Ma, go back to bed,” come out of “It’s alright Ma, I’m only bleeding” or was it the other way around? Did the school guidance counselor intoning “Every year we have one or two tragedies,” make “Leader of the Pack” inevitable or merely imaginable?
Baby It’s You doesn’t bother to answer those kind of questions. But it keeps asking them. Then it let’s us ponder the possibilities. And keep right on pondering.
Me, of course, while I’m trying to recover from being trucked. Easing up on my elbows, ever so gently.
The central question, of course, as in all Beauty and the Beast stories, is what exactly they see in each other? Oh, we know generally what every Beauty sees in every Beast and vice versa. But what about this particular scenario. What does Jill Rosen, sixties-era Jewish American Princess swept up in her times, see in Albert Capidilupo, fifties-era Italian Sheik, caught out of time?
And vice versa.
The movie doesn’t give answers. It gives clues.
We know their worlds don’t collide (and not just because they never meet each other’s parents…heck, I didn’t even register that little detail until the movie made me actually think about it, slow it down, hit the pause button so I could write down the dialogue I just quoted).
Jill dreams of being an actress and The Sheik isn’t going to acting class. Not unless he barges in on rehearsal, unannounced, uninvited and unwanted, just because Jill’s there.
His father isn’t a doctor.
He isn’t applying for college.
The movie tells us these things, eventually, but they’re all knowable right off, long before any given scene codifies them. It’s there in the way he carries himself. A loser trying to be a winner just by acting like one, knowing all along that she’s his way up, if only he can make her believe he’s her way out.
What the movie does reveal, what isn’t available in the first scene, where the Sheik stares at Jill like she’s from a dream he’s been having and she hurries off, surrounded by smart-ass girlfriends who act like a shield against everything the boy staring at her is likely to stand for, is whether the Sheik is bound to keep on losing.
He is as it turns out.
And it’s possible Jill not only knows it but knows it before we do.
After all, everybody in her world is telling her it’s so, telling her to be sure and stay on track, to not let this loser (nobody uses the word, not the girlfriends or the parents or the acting teacher, but they don’t have to and they know they don’t have to because Jill is one of them and the loser is a loser in part because he isn’t one of them and never can be) derail her!
But she’s drawn anyway. Resistant to the beats at first, then…not.
So how does she relate anyway?
Maybe because she senses what he sees in her, the part nobody in any group she already belongs to really gets:
“The object isn’t to have the biggest part,” Jill’s mom says.
“Yes it is,” Jill says, the day before she gets the biggest part and finds the Sheik in the parking lot, standing next to his hot rod (the Rat has the pink slip, it’s not even the Sheik’s style, but it’s his anyway, in the moment, because, like him, we don’t yet know how deep his losing streak will run), saying it’s too bad she didn’t get the lead.
“Kitty is the lead,” Jill says.
Five minutes later she’s handing her car keys to one of her waiting girlfriends, saying “You better drive,” because she and the Sheik have taken the first step on their journey, a whirl in the Ratmobile, and the air’s already getting thin.
But the way Rosanna Arquette says “Kitty is the lead,” is the key in the lock. There’s no hint of arrogance or dismissal of the Sheik’s ignorance. Jill senses instantly that the boy who spotted her in the hallway and stalked her in the lunchroom gets how important “the lead” is, in a way that her mother–and by extension, her mother’s world–doesn’t. She knows you can’t reach a dream by settling for second best and the boy who doesn’t know Kitty from catnip is becoming interesting because she’s starting to realize he wants her the way she wanted Kitty.
So it’s not “Kitty is the lead” you moron or “Kitty is the lead” how could you not know that. It’s “Kitty is the lead”….how did you know how much it would matter if she wasn’t?
It wasn’t an accident that plenty of smart people assumed Arquette would be the Actress of the Age based on this performance and neither she nor they can be faulted for not realizing, in 1983, that there would be no Age, that the new boss would simply go on being the old boss and the Eighties would never be allowed to either breathe or end. To see her here isn’t so much to cry for the career she might have had (a pretty good one actually) as for the world we might have had if we hadn’t been frozen and debilitated by a series of events which Baby It’s You implies does not necessarily preclude those common versions of “The Sixties” so often romanticized.
Unlike a lot of look-back movies made before and since. including Sayles’ own TheReturn of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It’s You isn’t nostalgic for lost idealism or even lost youth. It can’t be, because its characters not only don’t yet have a past to lose (that was true of American Graffiti, among others) they aren’t even certain the future will have a shape (as Graffiti’s did, even if that shape included real tragedy).
That future is all they can lose.
This being the case, nostalgia loses its appeal and even its considerable, if dangerously seductive, worth.
Baby It’s You isn’t merely alive to memory. It’s alive, period.
Given all that, I don’t know if there’s a certain irony in Arquette, a child of the sixties who literally played in the mud at Woodstock, embodying someone who is struggling to keep pace with a culture that’s changing at light speed, who senses how stunted and unfulfilled her world will be if she doesn’t manage to hold what the times have brought within her grasp.
It might be that having Woodstock in her memory bank was the key in her own lock. Baby It’s You takes place in 1966 and ’67, the last moment before the world Jill Rosen grew up in divided itself into a past that was closing in on itself and a future that never quite arrived, a division that was already clearly irreconcilable when Baby It’s You was being made and has only sharpened in the decades since.
Watching the movie now, it’s hard to miss the sense that this division was unavoidable. That the dreams Jill and the Sheik were nurtured on were unsustainable at any speed, let alone the headlong rush with which the culture Jill wants to join and the Sheik is determined to reject is not merely changing but falling apart.
Certainly the film does not let the sixties off the hook. By putting its finger on that precise Summer of Love moment when the first wave of era-defining Proper Nouns had passed (March on Washington, JFK Assassinated, Beatles on Sullivan, Dylan at Newport) and the cataclysm (Tet Offensive, RFK and MLK Assassinated, Chicago ’68, Days of Rage, Woodstock, Altamont) was still a held breath away, Baby It’s You let’s us in on the decade’s secret. There were a whole lot of Jills and not a few Sheiks, who lived their lives being hit by those events and whose own lives, liberated and betrayed in equal measure, were defined by their inability to hit back.
Just how remote that Official History could be is evident from none of these events being mentioned in a movie that defines the sixties like no other–as something not merely experienced or remembered but deeply felt and impossible to shake off, in either the individual or collective sense. Just how close by that History can still be is evident from our awareness of what the movie feels no need to mention.
To that end, the most poignant moment may not be the ending, when all of us, Jill, Sheik and anyone who’s been trucked in the watching, have to accept that dancing to a bad bar band’s version of “Strangers in the Night” at the Sarah Lawrence Spring Mixer with the crazy guy who was into Sinatra in high school and definitely going places until he realized he couldn’t even cut it lip-synching for the blue hairs in the Miami Beach resorts Jill’s parents once vacationed in, might be the best memory either one of them will ever have.
That scene is lovely and mysterious and open-ended, as fine as any not-quite-ending you’ll ever see. But once I started treating the movie like a favorite album, keeping it next to the DVD player for quick reference when the playback in my head started to skip or blur, it’s another scene, the one that’s most purely joyous on first contact, that soon becomes the saddest.
It’s just after Jill and Sheik’s first date. She’s driving those smart-ass girlfriends around and they start teasing her about the new guy, the hot guy, the mysterious guy, the guy who’s not part of their world (who, I should mention here, Spano plays with a verve and heart that guarantee Arquette will always have something to play against, no matter how deep she goes). Finally, they get around to chanting “Go-ing to the chap-el and we’re gon-na get ma-a-a-a-ried.” After a chorus, Jill joins in and the look on Arquette’s face goes every place. “Ridiculous!” that face says. “Not in a Million Years!” that face says. “As if!” that face says.
“Maybe…” that face says.
Maybe a moll? Maybe somebody who can ditch high school and make the big bad world her oyster? Maybe somebody who could let her girlfriends in on the dizzying whirl from the metronomic haze of high school geometry to “Oh, come on, what am I supposed to be afraid of?” to “You are such a dope!” to “Come on, Rat’s waitin’ on us,” to “You hardly said two words to me all night,” to “You never been out with anybody like me, huh?” to first kiss to “See you in school then?”
Maybe somebody who won’t be a virgin too much longer if she can figure out how to keep the adults out of the equation?
Turns out that last part takes a year and not just any year but the one where you start out accepting that if you don’t find your dreams in high school there’s always college, and then discover that if you don’t find your dreams in college the world might turn out to be a whole lot bigger and badder than a place where the worst that ever happened was your girlfriend, who looked like a Shangri-La, tried to slash her wrists on prom night before confessing she slept with your boyfriend the night you played Kitty-the-lead.
Yeah, she finally makes it with the Sheik in Miami, by which time the beats–her life’s and the movie’s–have begun slowing down. And, instead of quickening, they begin to falter. Soon after, and not by coincidence, Jill’s back at college, getting high and banging frat boys she knows in her heart can’t hold the lip-syncher’s coat and banging even harder on him (“He’s such an asshole!”), using him for motivation in the therapy sessions led by her acting class’s Visiting Director (“one of the people who is reshaping American theater!”), who could care less if she makes it or gets the biggest part, just as long as she forgets everything she learned in high school before he cashes the semester’s last check.
Having seen the movie more than twice, that moment when the “maybes” are still in the air now lingers over everything. The limited dreams of going to the chapel, once deemed within every girl’s reach, have been replaced by the unlimited dreams which are bound to be reached by only a few and are no less enticing for that because, just like the small dreams, the big ones are kept right next to the nightmares, even if the sixties aren’t going on all around you.
And, as all of us, boy, girl or country, have discovered in the long night since, anything you survive, fades to gray with time.
Baby It’s You is definitely in my head.
I think I’ll try to get up now.
Maybe get back to watching old westerns and Gloria Grahame movies and reassembling my defenses.
(Warning: As usual for my reviews there are SPOILERS! so please beware if you haven’t seen it.)
Having not seen Grace of My Heart in seventeen years, what I carried with me was one scene and Illeana Douglas’ smile, which managed to be both sly and vulnerable in a self-reinforcing manner that was unlike anyone else’s slyness or vulnerability.
I first saw the movie a couple of years after it was released, so, back then, I already knew it wasn’t going to make her a star. I also knew if that role didn’t make her a star, nothing could.
The common line on Douglas in Grace of My Heart is that she’s playing a version of Carole King and that’s certainly true. But, watching the movie from this distance, it’s a little clearer that she’s also playing something like the secret spirit of the sixties, the lynch-pin of an era as re-imagined by director Allison Anders, who, being a decade older than Douglas herself, could work at least partly from memory.
Fortunately, neither woman restricted herself to the memory of what actually happened, interesting as that might have been. Grace of My Heart is more like the memory of what might have been. Hence its unique ability to slip the bounds of docudrama or even film a clef and cast a warm glow that lingers even through the scene I remembered and which I’ll get to directly.
“Might have been” works so well here in part because it’s not really an escape.
Carole King really did survive and triumph in much the same way Douglas’ “Denise Waverly” does here (the name is made up on the spot in a recording studio by John Turturro’s Joel Millner, a Phil Spector-like hustler/producer, and serves to conceal the character’s “Edna-Buxton-of -Buxton-Steel” ruling class background). So that part’s both true and more or less factual.
Phil Spector, on the other hand, did not turn out to be a hustler-with-a-heart-of-gold, as the movie imagines, but a twisted sociopath.
And Brian Wilson, represented here by Matt Dillon’s Jay Phillips, did not take the path so many ghouls wished for him (to ease his pain of course–the ghouls always have their reasons) and walk into the Pacific Ocean.
Taken only as a clef, then, the movie can throw you. It certainly threw me the first time around, mostly because I was seeing it only as “The Carole King Story,” on which level, thanks to lots of genuine love for the period exhibited all around and Douglas’ mesmerizing performance (not to mention presence, that indefinable quality which even Hollywood can’t quite kill in the very few people who really have it), it worked.
It just didn’t quite work all the way.
I mean, it got saved in the end. It got saved by that scene I mentioned and which I’m still gonna get to. But I kept thinking it might have been better if it had stuck closer to the facts.
Well, things change.
In the years since, Phil Spector–the one we have, not the one we wish we had–actually killed somebody and went to jail for it.
In the years since, Brian Wilson has had a career resurgence and a lovely, mostly factual, movie made about him.
In the years since, Carol King has become a well-feted institution and Illeana Douglas has become a character actress on television.
Suddenly this thing looks more like a miracle and the choices Anders made with her vision (a vision that started out as an attempt to do a film about the Shangri-Las, which we can all still dream she, or somebody, gets to do some day before all the dreams fade) have been validated.
The movie was/is really not so much about King or Spector or Wilson (or Eric Stolz’s Howard Cazsatt, standing in for Gerry Goffin, or Bridget Fonda’s Kelly Porter, standing in for Lesley Gore or any number of other stand-ins you might have fun spotting) as about the dreams the audience once shared with the people who ended up defining those dreams, definitions no audience has really shared with any dreamers since (given that having enough bling to look good at the club and surviving the work week aren’t really dreams, just impulses).
I mean, somebody might be living this…
or this (where, let me just say, appropos of nothing, Douglas does more for hip-huggers and bare midriffs than anyone since Helen Reddy pulled it off singing “I Am Woman” on The Midnight Special in the dream-clinging seventies)….
They might even be living this…
Or, at long last, making the complete journey from this…
…Yes indeed, somebody might be living some or all of that. Every bit. Taylor Swift, maybe, God love her.
But wanting and dreaming are not the same thing and, whoever’s wanting and getting some or all of those things now, they’re not really dreaming it.
Neither are we.
And, even if we are or they are, we’re not dreaming it together and nobody’s dreaming it with us.
There’s a reason there have probably been more biopics, clef and otherwise, about rock and rollers than all other musicians (and maybe all other entertainers) combined. And it’s not because boomers rule the box office. That hasn’t been true for a long time. It wasn’t true when Grace of My Heart was in theaters, which is why even some cinephiles haven’t seen it. And yet they keep coming, good, bad and indifferent.
Hard to let go of an old dream when there are no new ones.
Which leads me, finally, to the scene I remembered.
It’s near the end and it’s completely fake and completely real.
“Denise” has taken to some sort of communal living. Evidently, it’s the sort that isn’t entirely resistant to royalty money (or maybe Buxton Steel money) because she’s got a really nice pool to mope by while she’s communing with her lost soul mate (the dream Brian Wilson having done the decent thing and offed himself, leaving the dream Carole King to contemplate the cosmos and dig turnips when the California sun is out).
It’s that digging turnips that gets to Phil Spector in this particular dream, and instead of holing up in his mansion and watching Citizen Kane every night with his imprisoned wife, he comes to comfort the grieving and the lost, to do, in person, what the real Phil Spector’s music once did.
The scene is beautifully played by two exceptionally fine actors. But it’s also far beyond craft.
He kneels down, pointedly, almost monk-like, refusing the lotus position or any other comfort.
Then he starts jabbing her.
The real Phil Spector might have done God knows what. Pushed her in the pool? Stabbed her with a lit cigarette? Who knows?
But the dream Phil Spector can settle for talking it out. As long as he gets to keep jabbing. What’re ya’ doin’ with yourself? Why are you throwing your talent away? The guy’s dead. Move on. Like that. The exact dialogue hardly matters. It’s the tones that are really clashing. She’s Zen. He’s New Yawk, come to the coast just for her, even if he knows there might be something in it for him, too.
And, finally, he jabs once too many, and she lets loose.
Not just with what “Denise Waverly” or Edna Buxton has been holding in the whole movie, though, or with whatever Illeana Douglas might have been holding in her whole life, but everything the distaff dreamers had held in for the entire rock and roll era until somebody named Carole King sold ten million copies of an album called Tapestry and stepped out of the shadows.
And then kept right on holding in.
Right up until the moment the dream Carole King, who has smiled through everything, death, betrayal, dreams broken and fulfilled, lets loose on the dream Phil Spector and burns a hole in the movie and the dreams…
It’s the strongest scene I’ve seen in any movie made in the last twenty-five years (a shade stronger than Michelle Williams’ truly frightening “I can’t bear it” moment in Me Without You, because it’s just as raw and connected to something much larger than any individual performance or film or even life, something that stretches straight back to whatever Arlene Smith and Darlene Love and Mary Weiss and a hundred others had tried to let out, sometimes with the real Carole King’s help, in the years just after Anders was born and just before Douglas was, and for which those singers-in-the-shadows had long since paid every kind of price, dream-wise).
“FUCK YOU!” she screams, over and over, and for the only time in the strictly narrative history of the modern collapse, it actually means something.
There was a reason the scene stayed with me for seventeen years, you see.
The same reason it took me seventeen years to watch it again and to actually get it this time around. To have the rest finally sink in while I was just waiting for that scene where the movie doesn’t end, just the common dreams.
In the dream, we should be just about ready for life to begin by now.
Compared to that, having my first car wreck, in 1981, while trying to remember the lyrics to “Caroline, No,” is chicken scratch.
For some of us, car wrecks come and go. ’71 Mavericks come and go. But you only get one chance at The One.
Oh sure, other factors were definitely involved. Maybe he just “helped” cost me The One.
The One had a boyfriend after all. And they were engaged. So that made two mighty impediments. My honor and hers.
Plus it was summer and summers are short, and I wasn’t the sort to make short work of pursuing anyone, let alone The One.
Especially if she had a boyfriend and they were engaged.
Which I didn’t yet know they were on the second night of my summer–not, as it happened, the second night of her summer or the boyfriend’s, me being a late arrival to the Southern Baptist Conference Center due to Florida’s Junior College system, exactly one year away from reform, still being the only college system in the entire south that was on a different schedule from the rest.
So the second night–my second night–it was.
The night of the Talent Show.
I’d already met The One by then. Lobby of the Girls’ Dorm. Rainy day. She noodling on the piano and singing “You Light Up My Life,” me politely inquiring for the person the front desk had told me would assign me a room in the Boys’ Dorm.
I didn’t know she was The One by virtue of her being good-looking or singing “You Light Up My Life.” In 1979, whatever degree of interest the first factor drummed up was bound to be mitigated by the second.
In 1979, the ubiquitous presence of “You Light Up My Life” in the Air of Everywhere, was one of many, many factors that had me regularly contemplating slitting my wrists.
No, she didn’t become The One until our eyes met, ever so briefly, and I saw somebody who was in the same kind of trouble I was in.
Which meant I immediately started thinking of her as The One who could get me out. And of me as the one who could get her out.
And I didn’t give up hope when I saw her walking around with some guy the next day.
Hey, it didn’t mean they were engaged!
I even got my hopes up that evening when we all showed up for the Talent Show and filed into the auditorium from opposite ends and, in a crowd of maybe two hundred, I found myself walking down the fourth aisle straight toward The One, who was, I immediately noticed, sans boyfriend.
So how much of a boyfriend he could be (me not knowing they were engaged) huh? How much of a boyfriend could he be if he wasn’t even willing to accompany her to the Talent Show?
We sat next to each other and while there was little chance for actual conversation, we both laughed at all the same things. How could we not, she being The One and all? Others may have laughed, too. Probably did. Probably at the same things we did. But who cared? What was important was the building of the first small bond.
All that serendipity. I couldn’t possibly have asked for more, two days in.
Then, to close the show, the Elvis Impersonator came on.
Guy named Eddie.
He had the sideburns (permanent fixture). He had the rhinestone cape (borrowed for the occasion, God knows where). He had the screaming girls patting down his forehead (all in good fun). He had the scarves (proving he meant business).
He was clearly taking it seriously even if nobody else was and I was prepared to be generous.
And, yeah, interested to see how The One would take it.
Now, I already knew Eddie was the only guy in the Boys’ Dorm who had brought a record player with him (he might have been the only one who knew they were allowed). I also knew that one of the records he had with him was this one:
What I didn’t know–what I don’t think too many people knew–was that this was the only record he had with him.
So when the scarves had been distributed among the faux-faithful and the faux-screams had all died down and one of the girls on the stage went over to Eddie’s record player (which had us all wondering why it was there as the previous acts came and went), and, after carefully checking that Eddie was ready for his cue, prepared to drop the needle, I sort of expected a young man who had taken due care with all those other facets of Elvis Impersonation to, you know, sing–or at least lip-synch–an Elvis song.
Which he might have, if he had actually possessed an Elvis record.
Instead of, say, Endless Summer.
Call me immature. Call me crazy. Call me no longer prepared to be generous.
But even at the all-in-fun Talent Show for the 1979 summer staff of the Southern Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina, I wasn’t ready for an Elvis Impersonator to lip-synch to the Beach Boys.
And, even if I had been somehow ready for that in theory, I certainly wasn’t ready for the Elvis Impersonator to, in fact, start lip-synching to “I Get Around.”
Everybody else laughed. Including The One.
Which was okay. I was raised in church. I knew man was born in sin and nobody was perfect. There was nothing to forgive. It was between her and God.
Well, her and God and everybody else in the place, who did what you naturally do when “I Get Around” comes on (whether an Elvis Impersonator is involved or not) and started bopping in their seats. You know, bop a little to the left, bop a little to the right.
Clap your hands.
Let your body sway.
In time with the music.
Everybody, including The One.
Everybody except me.
In that moment I was a Clanton at the OK Corral.
Yes, I was in what turned out to be my rather brief “rock snob” phase, but I was only in the early stages of my Elvis fandom, still not quite sure how far that thing would go.
I could have stood Elvis being mocked.
But the Beach Boys?
No. That was a bridge too far.
“Surfin’ Safari” maybe. “Catch a Wave?”….maybe.
“I Get Around?”
Elvis was one thing.
Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al?
Those were my brothers.
I stayed stock still. The literal stick in the mud.
The One noticed.
After about the third bop to the right she didn’t bop quite as far, presumably because she didn’t want to keep bopping into my cold rock of a shoulder.
And as the song neared an end and the bopping gradually ceased, she leaned over and whispered something to her girlfriend (truly gorgeous and the one girl in the place everybody but me thought was better looking than The One, and they were inseparable right up until one particularly high social occasion in the middle of the summer when The One decided to, just once, and ever so casually, let everybody know otherwise, after which I never saw them together again, but that’s another story for another day).
In the moment, her girlfriend whispered back, at which point the music stopped entirely and I heard every word.
“Maybe he doesn’t know who they are,” she said.
Did I mention that I spent a lot of time in those days contemplating blades and wrists?
I didn’t really contemplate them less as the summer wore on.
And the funny thing was, it was otherwise a great experience.
You know, otherwise than having my best chance at really bonding with The One totally blown, and having her walk around thinking I must be the jerk of jerks, and an ignoramus to boot on the one subject where I wasn’t. All because Brian Wilson had produced a piece of music that put me past reason, a record that had come on the radio the summer I got that ’71 Maverick and helped teach me what freedom was, thereby leaving me permanently honor-bound to defend him as best I could even–or especially–in the strangest and most inconvenient of circumstances.
But, of course, she did not stop being The One. Not ever.
Not when I found out a day or two later that she was engaged (these things get broken off, don’t they?). Not when I barely saw her for weeks on end and found no chance whatsoever to speak with her at any length beyond hi-and-bye. Not when I joined the choir because I heard she was in it and it turned out I couldn’t get next to her because we were rehearsing a cantata and she had a speaking part and so was always at the front of the stage, separate and apart, even at practice.
Not when I found myself sitting next to her boyfriend on the bench at a softball game between innings, just past Summer’s midpoint, and somebody came up to him and asked him if it was true he and The One had broken up and the boyfriend said yeah and I said, ever so casually, “Wow, you guys had been going together a long time hadn’t you?” and he said “Naw, I just met her the first week we got here.”
The week I was still back in Florida. Attending classes at the only college or ju-co system in the entire south that let out a week late.
Just in case you think this absurdist story has some sort of resolution or happy ending, or even an unhappy ending, you may rest easy.
The story that began with me believing The One was engaged, and therefore off-limits, even if the whole “I Get Around” episode hadn’t made things indisputably awkward, had no ending.
Too close to the end of the summer, I said, there on the bench, just past Summer’s midpoint.
Too much chance she, now on the rebound, will shoot me down for too little reward, I said (and don’t forget the “I Get Around” incident…I said).
Besides, hey, I only just left home for the first time. I’m all of eighteen. There’s lots of time.
Probably once you get away from home this happens on a pretty regular basis. I said.
The One. Hah!
So that was my version of an ending, really. Just me watching her the rest of the summer. Watching her go through the motions. Watch her start skipping choir practice even though she was one of the key performers, while, I, of course, kept going, kept watching through windows and seeing her pop up in the distance, kept watching her wear, from that distance, the same mask of careful reserve that I was wearing and present the same absolute determination to let no one know just how much trouble she was in, that I was presenting.
Watching her prove beyond all doubt that I wasn’t wrong that very first day when I looked her in the eyes and knew what we shared.
Watching her, knowing we could save each other if I made a move, if I dared to reveal myself. And then wondering if what we would really do was destroy each other, knowing what we shared.
So yes. I talked myself out of it–out of even approaching her.
But the one remaining time I got close to her by accident, I didn’t walk away. I didn’t leave.
Which was why the story never really ended.
Because all we ended up doing was sitting at a breakfast table, with maybe six other kids, maybe two weeks from Summer’s end and she said something and somebody else said something and she said something back and I, as I periodically did in those days, thought of something clever to say and went ahead and said it and everybody laughed really loud.
Everybody except The One.
The One’s head snapped around and she stared at me and what it sure looked like was the stare of somebody who knew she was looking at someone who was in the same kind of trouble she was in.
Somebody who could save her.
Or go down with her.
Two weeks to go in Summer.
It took me three whole days to talk myself out of going anywhere near her again.
Though if she had showed up at one more choir practice? If we’d still been having choir practice?
But probably not.
I was running scared by then. And time was short.
Maybe she wasn’t The One after all.
She never did get that thing about “I Get Around,” did she?
You could say I was very romantic and you’d probably be right. You could say it was no big deal. You could say it was kid’s stuff.
You could say you could never really know, on the basis of such thin reasoning and thinner experience, that she was The One.
You could say that.
But then I’d have to say this.
I never dated her, barely even spoke to her. I never married. And I never forgot her, the way I forgot everybody else.
And I never stopped hoping that she, too, somehow got past the trouble she was in. That she didn’t go down.
After which, I’d also have to say something like:
“You want to know how you know The One was The One?”
All of that happens. All of that I just described.
That’s how you know.
So, yeah, Brian Wilson owes me.
I owe him more.
* * * *
Maybe not my life. Maybe not quite.
It wasn’t his music I was listening to in 1984 when the clouds finally rolled away and I knew I was going to survive. It was somebody else’s music.
Somebody he had inspired pretty directly as it happened and maybe I’ll write about that some other day, too. But the thing is, it could have been almost anybody who made music after a certain point because after a certain point almost everybody was inspired by him…pretty directly.
Just going through my usual, general listening the day after I saw Love & Mercy in the theaters for the first time, I heard him in Stevie Wonder, in Bob Marley, in the Beatles’ Revolver, all over Fleetwood Mac’s classic period, where, listening to acolyte Lindsey Buckingham’s version of “Farmer’s Daughter” on the disc of outtakes for Tusk, I was especially struck by how naturally it fit in with everything the band had done since Buckingham joined.
One could go on.
There are a lot of books on Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, plus a number of documentaries. I haven’t read or seen every single one. But I’ve read and seen my share. All of those combined don’t come close to telling how much it cost to make that soul-saving music as Love & Mercy does.
That’s the film’s great achievement.
You could nitpick it as art, maybe even as craft.
When I saw it the first time, in my local theater, the sound system wasn’t up to snuff. The dialogue seemed to be coming out of one speaker, which was working fine, but the music was coming out of a second, damaged speaker, and barely audible.
Pretty big handicap that. Not being able to hear the music too well in a musical biopic about a man whose particular genius was hearing the world slightly differently than everyone else and whose life story was the struggle to both mediate and communicate that difference.
It didn’t matter, though. Not in the least.
That’s how good Love & Mercy is. With the foreground music (mostly by the Beach Boys themselves) almost inaudible, the background music completely so (as I found out a day later when I had a chance to see it in Birmingham, with a sound system that worked, and could actually hear the period music that lent depth and scope to several key scenes), and me wondering whether it was a stylistic choice meant to reflect Wilson’s near-deafness in one ear, the movie still left me overwhelmed, staggered even, unable to leave my seat until the ushers finally came through sweeping the trash.
So maybe Paul Giamatti’s evil psychiatrist is a little over the top, even for Eugene Landy. Maybe I wish the other band members (besides Mike Love, generally regarded as a heavy, who is well and sensitively represented here) could have played a slightly bigger role. Maybe the balance between Wilson’s first wife, Marilyn, and his second, Melinda Ledbetter (played with a wonderful style of good old American can-do optimism by Elizabeth Banks), could have been a little more even. Maybe a few of the more conventional scenes do look a bit awkwardly expository and pedestrian sprinkled here and there amongst the sheer lyricism of the recording studio bits, the jolt of Wilson’s famous airplane breakdown (where Paul Dano manages to communicate real terror, the genuine spectre of death, in a circumstance where we know, as Brian Wilson did not in that moment, he’s going to survive and a moment the rest of Dano’s astounding performance has to measure itself against), or the dream-like disorientation of the late scenes where Dano’s baby-faced Boy-Man and John Cusack’s ravaged Man-Boy, finally fuse as one with a power and immediacy that’s only achievable on film, that, for once, uses the medium to go beyond the capacity of page or stage.
Like I say. Take all those maybes and throw them away.
The movie could be less good than it is–and, frankly, it’s remarkably good by even the usual standard–and still retain its power, as long as it kept the main ingredient, which is the triangulation of Dano, Cusack and Wilson himself, into a whole that is far greater than the sum of its considerable parts.
Yeah, I know how that sounds.
A movie that ain’t gonna clear 20 mil at the box office made Brian Wilson larger?
I’ll get to that.
But first, I better offer some assurance that I know at least a little bit…..
I know who the Beach Boys were/are (yeah, that really sets me apart).
I know they have a fan base that is even more curiously divided than the Beatles’ fan base when it comes to which version of the band matters most. (Shorthand–“I Get Around” or Pet Sounds?)
And I know if you put a gun to my head I’ll have to call up my memories of finding freedom behind the wheel of that ’71 Maverick and leave no doubt which side I come down on.
Not the side Love & Mercy celebrates as it happens. Those marvelous studio scenes involve Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” and not much else. My least favorite Beach Boys as it happens, which doesn’t mean I don’t love them, too.
Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
Because I also know these choices are pretty silly. Maybe the sillier the more intensely they are felt. I don’t know too many people who really love early “fun” Beach Boys (or Beatles) to the exclusion of what came later, or vice versa. And, if you really do put that gun to my head, I might just go ahead take Wild Honey over Pet Sounds or “I Get Around.”
Heck, on a given day, I might take this:
…All of which I now know are pieces of Brian’s story, written and sung, respectively, by Carl, Dennis and Carl again before those particular parts of that story actually came to pass. And if they are pieces of Dennis’ and Carl’s stories, too, well, maybe that’s one of the things brothers are for and maybe sharing an abusive dad creates a bond that defies easy exegisis.
So I might indeed take any one of those, or any of a few dozen others, over any of what’s more generally celebrated, in Love & Mercy or elsewhere.
On a given day.
Which goes to show just how underwhelming these debates can be.
Because me and pretty much every other real Beach Boys’ fan would fight you to the last breath before we gave up any of it and feel a hole in our departed souls forever if we lost even one song that doesn’t mean a rip to us personally.
So far so good. We’d do what any lovers would do for the art that sustained them. Good for us.
And I know a few things.
Good for me.
But the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson also belong to that rare group of artists who matter far beyond any personal reaction/relationship you or I might have to or with them or their art.
Which obvious statement having been made, it may now be worth reviewing just how their particular relevance came to pass.
It came to pass, in short, because between about the summer of 1962 and some time around the end of 1967, Brian Wilson had a run of creative and commercial success matched by few American artists in any medium before, during or since.
In five years, working with a series of collaborators, not one of whom ever came near matching the achievements they had with him in any other context, he wrote and/or produced (sometimes uncredited) thirteen studio albums (about half of which now routinely and deservedly rank with somebody or other’s version of the greatest ever) that yielded twenty-eight chart hits (most of which became instant and permanent radio staples).
As a producer, he was a legitimate rival of Phil Spector and the Motown giants. As a vocal arranger, his only peers were Smokey Robinson and John Phillips. As a falsetto tenor, he was in a league with Robinson and Frankie Valli. As a songwriter/composer he drew comparisons to everyone from Benjamin Britten to Duke Ellington all whilst being the main American push-back against John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with whom he managed a close run despite never having any collaborator who could do for him what they could do for each other.
He did all that while carrying the scars of severe parental abuse (from his father), deafness in one ear (which may or may not have been caused by that abuse), auditory hallucinations which wouldn’t be properly diagnosed for decades, the predilection for drug addiction that could probably be deemed inevitable with such a background, and, oh yeah, the likelihood that the already tenuous aspects of this little psychic collective would be made manifest when an accident of geography and the sheer enormity of his talent placed him in a spot his basic personality was spectacularly unsuited to deal with, i.e., at the epicenter of “Los Angeles in the Sixties.”
Not to mention a band that wanted to keep having hits while he was pursuing his ever more elusive muse. Hits they could play in front of the live audiences who would pay the bills, call the radio stations, keep the legacy alive.
You want to make a movie that enlarges that legacy, you have to go some.
Love & Mercy goes some.
It escapes the boundaries of whatever might have been rationally expected because, using two actors who look nothing alike, jumping back and forth in time from the eighties to the sixties in a style that certainly flirts with incoherence, it turns Brian Wilson into something no version of his real self ever quite managed, which is to say a Character.
However close they remain to the facts–and Love & Mercy is, by most accounts, pretty darn faithful–bio-narratives, be they film or some other fiction, are never really about those facts. They’re about the story. They’re about the story the same way Brian Wilson’s music is about the sound.
Not the lyrics (or the dialogue), however relevant. Not the music (or the plot), no matter how idiosyncratically brilliant, or transcendently familiar.
The SOUND…and the Story.
Love & Mercy is what it is because it gets the supreme relevance of its story the same way the man it’s about got the supreme relevance of his sound.
And what the film makes abundantly clear, finally unmissable, is that the music Brian Wilson once made did indeed define certain aspects of our cultural psyche that would otherwise beg definition. Yes, the Southern California division of the American Dream. Yes, the “California Myth.”
All of that.
But not just that.
Any Beach Boys’ fan who ever listened at all closely (and it’s one measure of Wilson’s genius that you could genuinely love the band without doing so, that the experience of smiling every time they come on the radio and leaving it at that, is no less valid, no less definitive, than dropping acid while you listen to your bootleg copy of Smile, or, if you like, SMiLE), knows that summer, as Brian Wilson defined it, was really two seasons.
Summer…and End of Summer.
He didn’t take forever to lay down the distinction.
His first top ten hit was this…where it’s always the first of June:
His second top ten was this…
…Where it’s always the end of October.
Over time, certainly over the entire stretch of the Beach Boys’ ride at the top, Summer and End of Summer would bleed into each other, become almost inextricable in the collective imagination.
And, because Brian Wilson was who he was–because his End of Summer was bound to finally dominate his Summer, hit after hit, permanent radio classic after permanent radio classic–his End of Summer became our End of Summer.
Love & Mercy catches that quality like nothing else I’ve read or seen. Like nothing except Wilson’s own music, which this movie really does makes larger because, consciously or otherwise, it places his life and work–a life and work that were hardly unfamiliar to those of us most eager to see this movie–in that larger context, leaves him not just any Character, but a Character in a story that’s bigger than either artist or audience could ever be while that Character (which is, finally, related to, but not bound by, Wilson’s actual life) was yet undefined.
There’s no way I can overstate the improbability of this.
The director, Bill Pohlad, is no proven auteur. It’s his second feature as director (he’s an accomplished producer). His first, two decades back, was a flop. Paul Dano was evidently previously known for playing heavies (as someone who doesn’t see a lot of modern movies, I confess I’d never heard of him). John Cusack has, by all accounts and every piece of evidence I’ve seen, been coasting for years. Brian Wilson himself has been written and talked about, endlessly, obsessively, some might say far beyond the normal constraints of mere sycophancy, going all the way back to the Sixties, without ever being remotely pinned down or having his edges truly defined.
And without all those people somehow landing on the same page at once, none of the movie’s other strengths–a uniformly excellent cast (just because Giamatti’s over the top doesn’t mean he isn’t genuinely scary, though nowhere near as scary as Bill Camp’s finely wrought banality as Murry Wilson, the father who would rather choke on a thousand bones than accept that his son is better than he is at the only thing he himself was ever any good at), a strong, poignant script, a deep feel for the physical and emotional details of two periods that, in the real world, were actually made for the express purpose of rejecting each other and forcing a choice between Summer and False Summer, a choice we’ve never quite been up to making–would really matter.
As it lays, with the essentials firmly in place, everything in Love and Mercy reinforces everything else. The memory of the movie’s flaws, whatever I think they are, are already, after two viewings, flowing around and through and over the overwhelming memory of its strengths, in the same way a cut that would never work on its own suits a great album because it simply….fits.
As to what no filmmaker–and no genius seeking form for his life, even in an era he helped define–could ever arrange?
We live in America.
In America, the Sixties one day became the Eighties.
And, in America, the Eighties never ended.
Summer became End of Summer. And since End of Summer never ended, Spring isn’t going to come around anymore.
Neither is Summer.
So this Summer, you can sit in a movie theater and watch Paul Dano define the spirit of the young man who is terrified, more than anything else, of becoming the older, irreparably damaged man John Cusack finally knows, in a climactic scene that’s genuinely heartbreaking and somehow simultaneously cathartic, as though he’s finally accepted he’s taken the world’s last punch and is still standing, can never re-capture what he once was.
All he can do is face the worst and live his life.
Maybe with the help of The One who found him in a car dealership.
Which is, of course, how it worked out in “real life.” (And, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I don’t know what Melinda Ledbetter looked like in the eighties, but if she looked anything like Elizabeth Banks in tan jeans and an uber-coordinated sweater, she might have given anybody second thoughts about having The One be anyone but her.)
All great for Brian Wilson.
No one could be other than terrifically relieved and genuinely happy that he, too, made it through. That against very long odds–odds that took so many of his contemporaries and both of his brothers–he got to live his life.
But that’s not why Love & Mercy is a great movie. Not because it shows that, too, and let’s us share that happiness and relief.
It’s a great movie because, in its bones, it knows what the scared kid who ruled L.A., the loci of our last great romance with ourselves, at the last moment when that was worth anything, knew all along.
Summer is short.
The End of Summer, when it comes, is forever.
So no, I haven’t forgotten what happened in the Summer of 1979.
I haven’t forgotten that Brian Wilson owes me.
But, there’s something else Love & Mercy helped me remember.
It helped me remember that he warned me, too.
He warned all of us. And kept insisting the storm could be endured.
Eventually, some of us, even me, learned to listen. And most of us survived the trouble we were in.
I don’t have time right now to write about the new Brian Wilson biopic at length. On the basis of several raves on the internet from people I trust, I had made up my mind to see it in a theater and that decision tipped me into a weekend trip to Birmingham (where I knew it was playing) tomorrow and Sunday.
Of course, since I went ahead and planned the trip (don’t worry, there’s a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Alabama Theater just ahead of Harper Lee’s upcoming “prequel” which already had me leaning that direction…I don’t go off entirely half-cocked) Love and Mercy showed up in Tallahassee today.
I went to see it in order to save myself the trouble of searching out the theater in Birmingham.
Let’s just say I’m going to be searching out that theater anyway.
I’ll also be writing about the movie–and my history with the Beach Boys–at length. Maybe some time next week, when I can get my head at least partially around the experience I already had and the one I hope to repeat tomorrow evening.
One thing I can say off the cuff, though.
I’ve held a theory for about thirty years that a certain song was Brian’s version of “Hellhound on My Trail,” and I’m happy to report that I now have the best new movie I’ve seen in a theater in I don’t even know how long to back me up.
Nice to know, even if, in the context of the movie itself, it’s just part of a much, much larger narrative. So, meanwhile, for laughs…sort of:
A Family Band: The Cowsills Story
Louise Palanker and Bill Filipiak, directors (2010)
[SMALL ANNOUNCEMENT: I haven’t updated my Rock and Roll Cinema category for a couple of years. Along the way, I decided it would be better the call this category Rock and Roll Screenings, so I can write about television or other video formats under the same umbrella…not saying I will…just saying it’s….possible.]
[NOTE: H-m-m-m-m…The Jackson 5, Julie Brown, Tommy James and now, finally, my long-promised review of the Cowsills’ documentary. It must be “Naked Truth Week” at The Round Place In the Middle. I’ll have one more post in the next few days tying it all up. For now…]
[2nd NOTE: Oh wait….Previous thoughts on/links to all things Cowsill here. I especially recommend that newcomers search for the Playboy After Dark clip, which I’m pretty sure is the only clip I’ve ever posted twice. Okay, on with the show…]
Rock and roll certainly gets in the blood.
Take Louise Palanker, who apparently decided to spend a decade or so chasing down the story of the Cowsills and putting it on film.
On the surface, that is a strange obsession–and it becomes a little stranger when you watch the result and realize that, while its self-deprecating tone might win a few converts, it is not especially aimed at doing so. If you come to this film thinking, as one (admittedly deeply misguided) reviewer put it, that the Cowsills were the most meretricious band of the sixties, then there’s not much chance this film will change your mind.
It might stick with you, though, even then.
Not that I was among those who needed convincing–I loved “Indian Lake” the first time I heard it on a crappy sounding TV-special oldies’ collection back in the late seventies, and, a thousand spins later, hearing Billy Cowsill moan about being forced to record “this piece of shit” doesn’t diminish my love one bit!–but this particular labor of love has certainly stuck with me.
The claims for the Cowsills’ “importance”–that overused, very sixties-style word–are, I think, a good deal more significant than the film acknowledges…or maybe just has time for.
They pretty much invented a certain approach to teen-pop–both as music (thanks to the inordinate talent of the kids) and marketing (thanks to the inordinate obstinance of their horribly abusive father)–which took a deep hold in American life at the very moment their own band (and family) were disintegrating. That approach, carried on by so many others, has never really gone out of style since.
Several commenters in the film espouse (without contradiction) the view that the Cowsills’ stopped having hits because their time had basically passed. I’d argue that, by the time the events recalled elsewhere in the film had wrecked their career, their true moment had finally come. One semi-tragic element of their story (mostly unexplored here)–is that they weren’t allowed to participate in the mini-Pop Explosion they made possible.
So what’s not in the film is this: Within six months of their last major hit–1969’s “Hair” (brilliantly produced by Bill and Bob, the great story of how they got it released against their record company’s wishes is both fully told in the film and well worth remembering if you’re under any illusion that the barriers to the Cowsills transitioning to adult stardom were any way musical)–falling from the charts, the next family of talented kids waiting in the wings entered those charts for the first time.
That was the Jackson 5.
Starting in January of 1970, the Jackson, Osmond and Cassidy (aka “Partridge,” for whom the Cowsills were the very direct inspiration) families spent eighteen of the next fifty-four weeks at #1 on the Billboard pop chart. Those other families–real and imagined–maintained a semi-iconic cultural presence for decades to come, and, of course, produced the biggest pop star of the post-Beatles era.
Meanwhile, The Cowsills themselves–pioneers of the concept and (excepting Michael Jackson) likely the most talented of the bunch–entered the oblivion zone.
Whatever the reasons, the market for families of cute kids with teen idol looks drying up wasn’t one of them.
Semi-tragic, as I mentioned. Quite possibly a great movie there.
But, as I also mentioned, that isn’t the tale Palanker and the Cowsills chose to tell.
So I guess the very fair question going in, is “Do they have another tale worth telling?”
You bet they do.
For the surviving Cowsill children, it’s pretty clear that, from this distance, making sense of their lives meant more than making sense of their career.
This the film does beautifully. Not by providing easy answers (or, in some cases, any answer) but by continually asking the right questions and giving us an up-close-and-personal view of the results.
The framework has Bob Cowsill, the band’s putative leader since their father kicked brother Billy out in the immediate aftermath of “Hair,” going back and interviewing various record men and family members. The parents, Bud and Barbara Cowsill, were both deceased by the time filming began, but there are several aunts available and their responses are, by turns, frustrating, poignant and infuriating. “I spanked my own kids,” one of Bud’s sisters says.
It’s not clear that she grasps the long difference between spanking your kids and doing what Bud Cowsill did.
What he did in the beginning was manage his own kids’ musical career well enough to get them on the national stage with a family-oriented pop image that was far removed from the garage band ethos the older boys wanted to pursue. What he did in the end was wreck every single opportunity he made–multiple lucrative recording contracts, an unprecedented ten-show contract with the Ed Sullivan Show, a chance to be participants in (or at least compensated inspiration for) the Partridge Family TV show–by his boorish, paranoid, ultimately incompetent personal and managerial behavior.
What he also did, from beginning to end, was relentlessly mete out virtually every form of physical and psychological abuse known to fatherhood.
The damage shows. Bill, Barry and Richard (the only sibling not allowed in the band–dad’s decision again and, according to Bill, not a good one) all struggled with various addictions and have passed away since filming began (Bill and Barry before the film was finished, though, fortunately, both were interviewed extensively).
For the rest, there was a troubled but ultimately inspirational (in the best sense) journey of individual and collective discovery.
It’s that journey Palanker chose to focus on and one of the film’s great strengths is that–through some really skillful editing (and given how long this project took, and how small its budget must have been, I mean really skillful–this thing flows)–the basics of the musical story manage to rest easily inside the family’s tortured narrative. Bob Cowsill is a genial presence, gently probing his relatives and other principals (like the band’s first producer, Artie Kornfeld, and Partridge mom, Shirley Jones, both genial presences themselves and a welcome relief from the often grim family drama), without becoming abrasive or judgmental.
The film benefits enormously, too, from the simple fact that the charisma of the first “first family of pop”–that is, the elements, beyond their considerable talent, that made them stars–still comes through: Bill’s ferocity, Barry’s sly wit, Susan’s spunk, even John’s essentially laid-back little-brotherness (to which I can relate). It’s not hard to see why they made it big–and it’s easy to lament what might have been even if they’ve understandably grown long-ago-and-far-away philosophical about the whole thing themselves.
I’m not sure there’s anything here that a victim of an abusive parent would call revelatory, but that’s part of the point. It’s a too-common family story told uncommonly well. If I have a quibble with the film, besides perhaps selling their historical significance a little short, it’s a relative paucity of music clips–I assume that was a rights issue, but the Cowsills were often superb on period television and I thought there were a few places where a well placed video could have added to the impact of the familial story as well as beef up the musical one.
There’s always YouTube, though (see below), and, in any case, this particular lack is more than made up for on DVD by the inclusion of a second disc of truly extraordinary “extras.” There’s a great musical tribute to Barry (who died in Hurricane Katrina, and which should be included in the links above), and several excellent full-length interviews that were edited for clips in the film.
Most of all, there’s a long clip with Barry and Richard–the son who was sent to Viet Nam instead of the Ed Sullivan Show–riding around in a darkened van, reminiscing, coping, fending off demons. At some point Richard takes over with a monologue about his experiences that beats every “Viet Nam” movie ever made as a primer on the enduring damage done to the national soul.
In the end, Palanker, Bill Filipiak and their team, plus the Cowsills themselves, made a fine film against what I take to be next-to-impossible odds.
The end product is rather like the Cowsills themselves.
Not perfect, just vital.
Oh, and about that musical thing (not from the film, but it could have been…and, if you’ve been here before, you know how I feel about singers):
During his days doing commentary for NBA games, I recall basketball great Bill Russell once being asked to compare the relative physical strength of two players. I don’t remember who the players in question were, but Russell’s answer has stuck with me: “Strength is like money. Once you have a certain amount, it doesn’t really matter anymore.”
“Greatness,” is sort of the same way. Once you reach a certain level, ranking it is pointless.
Like a lot of people, I think the first two official albums released by the Band reached that level.
Also like a lot of people, I don’t think they did more than occasionally flirt with transcendence thereafter. Fine music, yes. Immeasurable greatness? Not really.
The Last Waltz is an extremely famous, much-lauded documentary of the star-studded 1976 concert that effectively served as the group’s swan-song.
It’s a measure of just how great those first two albums (and their work backing Bob Dylan’s early electric phase and joining him on The Basement Tapes) were, that they were still hip enough half-a-dozen light years later–rock and roll time moved so differently back then that 1976 was very much further removed from 1970 than 2012 is from, say, 1984 (Orwell’s or Reagan’s)–to call on Martin Scorcese to direct the proceedings and also to have the concert itself attract an amazing array of talent.
Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Butterfield, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton.
I first saw the film some time in the eighties, then again on an intriguing VH1 double-bill with Abba: The Movie some years later.
Just recently I watched it a third time and had the same impression I had the first and second times.
A lot of good music, a lot of arty camera work, a sense of thankfulness that certain things had been preserved for the record–and the inescapable conclusion of having been asked to accept a very disturbing premise.
A kind of spiritual divide had been opening up in rock and roll’s relationship with the large and small screen at least as far back as A Hard Day’s Night–likely the first movie to take a stance that treated the music’s audience with as much suspicion as affection. In those heady days, some of the darker implications of that division were obscured because the Beatles’ female fan base took matters in their own hands, screaming and carrying on in theaters as though the Beatles themselves were present. (“Just in case you thought your band was cool,” Steven Van Zandt has said “the girls were running down and kissing the screen.”)
But Beatlemania had another, less effervescent side. It was the main catalyst for a sort of youth intelligentsia (hardly made up solely of young people) that developed side by side with the music. And that intelligentsia, along with the musicians who inspired and guided it, found itself confronted by a difficult question: How could the music be cordoned off from the malign aspects of mass acceptance?
This sort of quasi-reactionary thinking eventually reached its natural apex with Kurt Cobain’s suicide but it had represented a real dilemma all along. If there was going to be a rock and roll intelligentsia it was going to have to come to terms with two groups of human beings intellectuals tend to recoil from reflexively in all times and places: Young women and the insufficiently hip.
These were, alas, the two groups that just happened to give rock and roll its central place in the culture to begin with.
I discussed some aspects of this tricky relationship here but The Last Waltz is a more direct evocation of the problem.
It’s the first important concert movie to treat the audience watching and listening out there in the dark–whether of a concert hall or a movie theater hardly mattered–the way dorm-boys and other tribalists had done all along.
As both the unofficial enemy and an afterthought.
This latent hostility cuts deeper than it might have because it’s a fair bet most of the audience actually present for the filmed concert of The Last Waltz was made up of precisely the right sort of folks. Mostly white and–if not all boys–at least people who tended to read the right books (a point emphasized by the presence of beat poets on the bill).
I think I know this group pretty well because I am them–exactly the audience the film’s movers and shakers had in mind.
But the film’s inherent elitism still creeps me out a little. It presents the audience in the hall as an inner circle–and then presents the performers as a circle within the circle.
The general experience is as stratified as a frat house or a Wall Street bank.
Of course, for mitigation, there’s some wonderful music and a few truly electrifying performances (Muddy Waters and Van Morrison in particular). Heck, even the poets are entertaining. But the overall impression I’ve had each time I’ve seen it is along the lines of: “If you really mattered, I guess you’d be up here on the stage with us.”
How much of this attitude sprang from the Band’s own Zeitgeist, how much from Scorcese’s and how much from a meeting of kindred spirits, God only knows (the sentiments expressed by Scorcese and Robbie Robertson in the feature documentary about the making of the film are contradictory to say the least, but Scorcese does probably give the game away when he says he wanted it to be about “what was happening on the stage,” a clear implication that what happened in the rest of the hall was secondary at best).
No doubt some of this just came from the fact of Scorcese being a major film maker whose usual concern was with mastering and representing his art form’s fourth-wall abstraction–something an actual concert, which links performer and audience in ways film can’t, inherently denies. Still, looking at the film world that had preceded it and even the one that surrounded it in the late seventies, The Last Waltz stands–for all the wrong reasons–as a disturbing portent.
The landmark concert films that had come before–The T.A.M.I. Show, Monterey Pop, Woodstock–had all made their audiences central to the experience. So, for that matter, had Abba: The Movie, which came out around the same time. They derived their considerable power–a power The Last Waltz ultimately cannot lay claim to–from the assumption that we’re all in this together. That’s not just a basic rock and roll principle–exemplified not just by those films, but also by the important television appearances of Elvis and the Beatles, participatory dance shows like American Bandstand, and natural prime-time variants like Shindig and Hullabaloo!–it’s a basic human ideal. Music is, after all, the most inherently participatory art. There’s a cost for rearranging its hard-won, life affirming rituals.
And, to be fair, there are moments in The Last Waltz when it feels like those rituals are on the verge of being reaffirmed: in the loose, off-beat feel of the poetry readings; in the slightly abashed, honored-just-to-be-here smile on the face of Neil Young–the man whose priceless advice Kurt Cobain would eventually misinterpret–when he walks on the stage (and in the awkwardness of his departure, as if he knows he has given the only performance of the night that will feel like it came from something deeper than craft and isn’t quite sure he did the right thing); even in the ready-made video insert of the Band performing “The Weight” with the Staple Singers, where Mavis Staples makes a better vocal foil for Levon Helm than anyone in his own group ever could and Scorcese–here in his true element, with the audience being imagined rather than felt–creates a nice basic textbook for the next decade’s music video directors to study.
So the film has worth–the question is how much its very real strengths matter when weighed against the airless spirit its overall approach pioneered.
These days, I can rifle through my video collection and pull up concert items from all over the ensuing decades–Earth, Wind and Fire, Tom Petty, Lulu, Cyndi Lauper, Prince–and the wall The Last Waltz built between the stage and the first row feels ever-present and impenetrable.
The Band and Martin Scorcese had started their respective careers as promising extensions of an opposing spirit–leaving every indication that they were going to pick up where Chuck Berry and John Ford left off. This film feels, more than anything, like a retreat from that promise, a document of the moment when that oppositional energy entered a state of exhaustion and collapse.
Whether the Band and Scorcese were perpetrators or victims, whether the collapse itself was real or imaginary, cynical or sincere, a bit hokey or genuinely painful, are questions that are probably bound to blow permanently unanswered in Bob Dylan’s wind and I know I can’t entirely dismiss the film’s best moments.
But I can’t quite embrace its central ethos either.
It feels too much like it’s rebuilding the very tribalism rock and roll was always meant to tear down. And, in its core concert footage at least, too much like it succeeded.