Do you want to watch an ambitious satire of the way we live now, circa 1973? Well, don’t watch O Lucky Man! It’s a terrible movie. But it does have an outstanding soundtrack by Alan Price, and I’d say that the songs pretty much make all of the points the movie wanted to make, but it doesn’t take three hours to make them. Capitalist society is a target, because or course it is. The funny thing being that in hindsight capitalism was just getting warmed up and looking back at a satirized 1973 it just looks as quaint as all get-out. But yeah, modern life is dehumanizing and every human emotion can be monetized and the military is evil and big corporations want to turn you into a human guinea pig – literally!
Now feels like a good time to revisit Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It has always been Floyd’s bleakest and most challenging record, and the accompanying film, well, it has always made my skin crawl. However, it needs to be seen again, because it has become relevant in ways its makers did not intend. It was, I think, intended as an inward-looking project, an attempt by its creators to come to terms with a chunk of history they were born on the tail-end of. Roger Waters was writing as a member of a post-war generation whose early life was imprinted by horrors they couldn’t remember or understand, who grew up dealing with the trauma and guilt of atrocities they had no part in. The Wall was supposed to be a generational reckoning, but it was dismissed in its own time as a rock star vanity project, then later as fodder for dorm room stoners who think they’re, like, deep, man. Today, unfortunately, it’s come to reflect reality, and it needs to be reevaluated as a work of art that has something to teach us. For one thing, it effectively illustrates the radicalization of a disaffected young man, a social problem that we’re grappling with and seeing the real-world effects of. Although it was made years before the technological leaps that have made radicalization so insidious and easy, it’s a story ripped from the headlines. A young man who is unloved, socially unsupported, mentally ill and at loose ends in his life quickly finds himself marching in lockstep just because it gives him a momentary sense of purpose and an illusion of control. It shows that self-destruction, violence and hate are, for many people, a natural reaction to feeling dehumanized themselves. A society that devalues humans and treats them as dispensable cogs creates people who want to burn down society and destroy themselves and each other. We are seeing it happen, in real time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.