Pinball Wizard

If you’ve only ever heard this on the radio, you may be missing out on the bizarre freakout that is Tommy. The Who’s hit single still pops up a lot on those radio stations that claim they play anything, but it’s barely a trace of the weirdness from whence it came. The mother album was weird enough – a rock opera about a deaf, dumb and blind pinball prodigy loosely inspired by the teachings of Meher Baba. It was a mountain of terrible ideas pulled off through sheer conviction, birthing the concept of concept albums on the way. But was that enough for The Who and their vision? No, they had to have their vision visualized, so they made a movie, with schlock auteur Ken Russell. That’s when things got really weird. You can enjoy it a lot more if you think of it less as a feature film and more as a very long music video. Also if you’re drugged to the gills. It’s certainly a feast of surreal images, and unexpected guest performances of various quality (Tina Turner, thumbs up; Jack Nicholson, not so much.) Ann-Margaret earned herself an Oscar nomination, presumably for the scene where she’s doused in baked beans. Roger Daltrey was not nominated for any awards, despite being very limber and blue of eye. Elton John’s guest appearance is another highlight. Sir Elton is no actor, but that’s not what the role requires. It’s the perfect Elton John cameo; it suits him both musically and aesthetically. It’s exactly the perfect collision of talent that could only happen in the musical wild west of the mid seventies, when movies of concept albums could get made and earn awards.

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People Like Us

David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories is an exercise in speculative social anthropology. In it Byrne, the quintessential New York art school egghead, ventures into Texas to goggle dryly at how small town folks be living. Not much happens besides some comical vignettes of what Byrne gleaned about midwestern life from reading its newspapers. Whether you find it amusing or condescending depends on whether or not you’re already inclined to view people in the flyover zone as exotic and undercivilized. Obviously, Byrne is not much of film director, nor much of an actor, but he did provide enough music for the film to fill a Talking Heads album. And if he did one thing right, it was casting the eternally scene stealing but not yet well known John Goodman. In the movie’s only cogent storyline, Goodman is a bachelor looking for love (SPOILER: he finds it) and, predictably, steals the film. His performance of People Like Us is the showstopper, and though it may be intended as a pastiche of good ‘ol boy country pride, it’s still moving.

O Lucky Man!

I like a lot of cult movies but I don’t like this one. Good thing you don’t need the movie to enjoy the soundtrack. In context, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! is one of a pack of experimental counterculture movies that have, despite initial lack of success, become touchstones, from Easy Rider and Harold and Maude on the high end of popular, to Nicolas Roeg’s Performance on the far side of cult. Like those movies, this one stands out for its then-radical use of rock music as part of the narrative. It’s actually one of the greatest original pop soundtracks, with songs by former Animal Alan Price. The synergy between story and music is perfect, and the music also stands alone. I’m not sure what else Price has done with his solo career, but no doubt this is his brightest moment. Today, using pop songs to add depth and emotion to movie narrative is a cheap ploy, a crutch for lazy filmmakers who don’t know how else to keep the ball rolling, but in 1973 it was groundbreaking. This is one of a few pioneering collaborations in film and pop music, that showcased how much the two forms could enhance each other. Again, I can’t stand the movie (because of reasons), but I love the songs, and can’t I deny it as a trailblazer.

New York, New York

 

No string of New York City tributes would be complete without this classic theme from Martin Scorsese’s gritty and depressing 1977 musical of the same name. (Scorsese may be a poet of violent machismo, but he’s a fish out of water in the world of musical theatre.) Liza Minnelli, the quintessential Broadway baby, occupies a very different corner of NYC cultural life than Nina Hagen, or Suzanne Vega, which serves to illustrate the vast range of worlds that all coexist on one small plot of land. In this take, we see it as the city of dreams, the road to which (according to the movie) is paved with alcoholism and dysfunction. Which, ironically, only goes to make the dizzy heights seem more glamorous. Liza Minnelli, spawn of Hollywood, hardly embodies that narrative every step of the way, but she’s certainly a case study in the contrast of wild success and personal turmoil. She’s song-and-dance-ed her way through thick and thin, and remains a trouper of the old school. There’s nothing more New York that a show that must go on.

Mrs. Robinson

The mellowest indictment of soul crushing conformity. Just because Simon & Garfunkel are mellow doesn’t mean they’re not socially conscious. If anything, it makes their words more resonant. Paul Simon wrote this song at Mike Nichols’ behest, for the now classic soundtrack of The Graduate. At the time, serious rock musicians were not expected to dip their toes into the world of Hollywood, even in peripheral ways, because selling out and stuff. But the counterculture embraced The Graduate, with the music being a large part of its appeal, and the movie’s popularity helped nudge Simon & Garfunkel on to greater fame. That film, though certain punchlines now sound dated, has held up well; being bewildered and frustrated by the expectations placed upon you by milieu that raised you is a near universal part of growing up. Most of us go through a Benjamin Braddock phase of aimless ennui. For me, as I’ve grown older, my sympathy has shifted towards the character of Mrs. Robinson, the glamorous cougar who drinks and screws away her bitterness at having relinquished the best years of her life to a man she doesn’t love, a child she never wanted and a life of material comfort that brings her no joy. The unhappy conformity of the Robinsons was a nascent feminist catalyst for a generation of women determined not to make Mrs. Robinson’s mistake. Unfortunately, a lot of people still do, and the American suburbs are still filled with wives and mothers who would trade all the creature comforts of the middle class for a chance to take back their youthful autonomy. We may have more options in life than Mrs. Robinson did (or Benjamin for that matter) but we don’t necessary grasp them, and the pressure to choose a ‘good’ life over a fulfilling one hasn’t gone away either. The figure of Mrs. Robinson remains relevant.

Memo From Turner

No context necessary, as I assume you’ve all seen Performance. It’s only the single greatest movie ever made, so of course you would at least have heard of it. If you haven’t, it’s the briefly banned 1968 freakout in which Mick Jagger plays a version of himself that fucks so hard with the fabric of reality that everyone who worked on the movie either died, became a drug addict or went insane, or some combination of the three. Except Mick Jagger, who, the story goes, felt so comfortable with the role of Turner he went on playing it for the rest of his life. True story. Director later Donald Cammell committed suicide, allegedly asking his wife for a mirror so he could watch himself bleed out from a gunshot wound. Anita Pallenberg abandoned her film career to spend the next decade addicted to heroin; years later, in an eerie parallel to the end of the film, she would awake after a bender to witness her lover’s death by gunshot. Michele Breton became a heroin addict and OD’ed shortly after the film was completed. James Fox had a nervous breakdown, joined a religious cult and didn’t return to acting until the 80’s. True stories, all.

Mein Herr

The Liza Minnelli song that’s served as lifelong inspiration. Maybe neither the character of Sally Bowles or Liza herself seem like the greatest role models, but I see a lot to look up to, not least fashion goals. Sally Bowles appeals to me because she’s such an unrepentant train wreck. The glamour lies not only in the spangles, but in the insistence upon leading the life you want, even if it’s not a socially acceptable one.