[Sound and Vision]: 20,000 Days On Earth

20000days “I feel I can control the weather with my moods, I just can’t control my moods is all.”

A life in the day.

As Nick Cave rises early from his bed and opens the shutters on a stormy day towards the beginning of 20,000 Days On Earth, he outlines his daily routine in a conspiratorial interior monologue: “I wake, I write, I eat, I watch TV”. This in itself is a fair synopsis of the film, which charts a fictitious day in the life of Cave as he drives around his chosen hometown of Brighton attending a therapy session, visiting his personal archives and dining with Bad Seed and right-hand man Warren Ellis (whose backwoods svengali appearance is an amusing contrast to Cave’s bank-clerk-cum-preacher manner) before returning home. However, as with much of Cave’s work, much more is conveyed during Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s captivating portrait of the mercurial musician than a simple synopsis suggests.

Lying somewhere between straight documentary and psychological drama, 20,000 Days is a mix of orchestrated events and spontaneous conversations, as Cave is placed in situations and conversations that allow him to eloquently muses on his memories, his fears and his creative process. Interspersed throughout are songwriting and recording sessions in Saint-Rémy de Provence for last year’s Bad Seeds record Push The Sky Away (The Grapevine’s Best Album of 2013), offering rare insights into the putative formation of these songs (including a gentle piano ballad which loses its mojo once Ellis notes its similarity to a Lionel Richie song). Elsewhere an enrapturing live performance showcases The Bad Seeds in full messianic flight, Cave seemingly transformed into a lightning rod of a man as a young audience hang enthralled upon his every word.

As Cave drives between encounters he has conversations with friends Ray Winstone, Blixa Bargeld (one of Cave’s primary creative foils over the years, along with Ellis and Mick Harvey) and Kylie Minogue, Cave’s duet partner on The Bad Seeds’s biggest hit, ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’. They appear unannounced in his car as if figments of his imagination or ghosts, as the film blurs the lines between past and present, fact and fiction. These shifting spaces and temporalities serve not only to relate Cave’s history with an engaging immediacy, but also allow Forsyth and Pollard to focus in on recurring themes of mortality, creativity and spirituality which seem to preoccupy Cave.

Equally as captivating as Cave’s magnetic onscreen personality is the spellbinding cinematography. Shots veer between eye-watering lucidity, vividly capturing subtle gestures and flecks of spray chucked up by a grey sea, and a ponderous, hazy gaze as street lights smear on Cave’s windshield. Simply put, the film is bewitchingly beautiful, and creates the sense that time itself is stretching and warping as the past impinges on the present.

Over the course of 20,000 Days Cave seemingly reveals a lot behind his imposingly slim figure: he explains his songwriting process (“It’s all about counterpoint”) and conveys his fears of not reaching a creative place he is satisfied with; a session with psychoanalyst Darian Leader focuses on his formative experiences with music, girls and the metamorphosing effect of his father reading and explaining the opening chapter of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to him; while scouring through the artefacts of his personal archives and talking to old cohorts allows Cave to reminisce on his career and relate anecdotes about Tracey Pew intercepting a pissing stage crasher at a Birthday Party gig, meeting his wife in an art gallery, and introducing a belligerent and terrifying Dr. Nina Simone at the Meltdown Festival he curated in 1999.

Forsyth and Pollard have not merely a created a documentary, but have crafted the most engaging and dynamic way of perceptively exploring what Nick Cave does and how the creative endeavours of mankind in general attempt to tap into something transcendent and beyond ourselves. But for an enigmatic artist whose work distorts the boundaries between the real and supernatural and who has long manipulated his own mythic persona, the question you’re left wondering as the camera floats away from Cave, standing solitary on a twilit Brighton beach, is whether you’ve actually seen behind the curtains, or if you have been speaking to the Wizard of Oz all along?

20,000 Days On Earth is in cinemas now.

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[Sound and Vision]: We Are The Best!

we-are-the-best-640 “What’s a chord?”

A punk prayer.

After a lengthy detour into experimental narratives and Christian allegories, Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson has returned to the effusive coming-of-age dramas of his early years in We Are The Best! (Vi Är Bäst!), based on wife Coco Moodysson’s comic book Never Goodnight.

Stockholm. 1982. Punk is dead. Or at least, that’s what everyone keeps on telling Klara and Bobo, two punk-obsessed best friends who are shunned at their high school. While boys are either listening to Joy Division or playing denim-clad rock and girls are dancing to The Human League, opinionated Klara (Mira Grosin) and mild-mannered Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are more interested in spiking their hair, creating dioramas of disaster zones and gossiping over punk fanzines. Reacting to their dislike of P.E. lessons and in an effort to annoy local rockers, the overly-macho named Iron Fist, the girls pick up bass and drums at their youth centre and write the song, ‘Hate The Sport’. The problem is neither of them know how to play. At all.

That’s where Hedvig, played by Liv LeMoyne, comes in, whom Klara and Bobo spot performing a classical guitar piece at the end of term talent show. More than her evident ability to play her instrument though, the girls are impressed by Hedvig’s resolve to continue playing undeterred by the heckles and jeers from the audience. She is a year older and, unlike Bobo and Klara, a devout Christian, but she is also an outsider and this forms the basis of an unlikely friendship as the girls introduce her to punk music and she brings actual melody to the band. Together they navigate the uncertain terrain of pre-adolescent life, cutting Hedvig’s hair (to hilarious consequences), crashing their first party (to embarrassing consequences), fighting over a boy in a neighbouring punk band and inciting a riotous crowd at a youth centre Christmas showcase along the way.

never-goodnight

A panel from Coco Moodysson’s original Never Goodnight

While this is just the bare bones of the story, what really brings We Are The Best! to life and sets it apart is its balanced mood and attention to detail. Moodysson catches everything with fly-on-the-wall type voyeurism, insinuating the personal dissatisfactions of adult life and the difficulties of being a high-schooler without ever hitting you over the head with it. You genuinely empathise with the punk trio and it is their childlike motivations and unwillingness to be ignored which makes We Are The Best! so funny and charming.

This is not a film about snotty punk rebellion, but more about the joy and liberation found in starting up your first band and the strong bonds formed when you do things your way. People may tell them how to look, how to behave and how to play, but Klara, Bobo and Hedvig do things their way and that is what truly makes them The Best.

We Are The Best! is in cinemas now.

[Sound and Vision]: Inside Llewyn Davis

inside llewyn davis“I wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave’s so long…”

In a New York state of mind.

The Coen brothers’ latest offering Inside Llewyn Davis is inspired by events in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, memoir of Dave Van Ronk, a lynchpin in the folk scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, NYC. On one level it is a week in the life of eponymous (anti-)hero Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer played by Oscar Isaac, and on another level it is a detailed, atmospheric snapshot of a collective phenomenon on the cusp of entering popular American consciousness.

The film starts with a song, a beating and a stray cat, and this really sets the formula for the next two hours. Llewyn goes from hardship to hardship (many of his own creation) in his endeavours to make it as a folk musician during what is only a week, but feels like a year. He is a compelling, if not completely likeable, protagonist who tackles loss, estrangement and lack of fulfilment with a rueful obstinacy, repeatedly making and burning bridges in the process. However, it is his unflinching honesty and flagging energies in the face of his youth slowly trickling away which endear us to him. Meanwhile, friends and basket-passing contemporaries wander in and out of the narrative, in some cases assisting him and in others berating him. Like Llewyn Davis who is not exactly Dave Van Ronk, many characters are amalgamations of performers of the time rather than specific counterparts. The folk-couple Jim and Jean, portrayed convincingly by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, equally evoke Jim Glover and Jean Ray as much as Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary. Meanwhile, background characters Troy Nelson, a green performer living out of Fort Dix but already tipped over Llewyn for glory, and Al Cody, a capable but struggling musician like Llewyn, bear resemblances to Tom Paxton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott respectively.

Jim&Jean

Like the Coens’ previous pairing with soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which housed a compelling cross-section of Depression-era folk songs and spirituals, Inside Llewyn Davis serves up an insightful and well-executed crop of songs that were doing the rounds of the coffee shops at the time. Some will be familiar (a new arrangement of ‘Dink’s Song’, entitled ‘Fare Thee Well’ and Justin Timberlake and Carrie Mulligan’s wistful take on ‘500 Miles’) and some will be revelations such as Oscar Isaac’s stark rendition of ‘The Shoals of Herring’. Particularly entertaining is the Columbia recording session for absurd pop-protest song ‘Please, Mr. Kennedy’, which is written and performed by the amusingly naive Jim and captures the essence of a time when people still believed that a song could change the world. Throughout the film the songs are delivered with care and are weaved naturally into the story in a way that doesn’t feel conceited in the slightest. Ultimately, it is the songs that survive and which keep the characters going. As Llewyn Davis aptly states ‘If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’, the songs still live over centuries and it is the nature of folk music that it lives on through rediscovery and reinterpretation. Van Ronk’s own career arc can be summed up by Llewyn Davis’s audition with Chicago producer Bud Grossman (Dylan manager Albert Grossman’s surrogate), who listens patiently to Davis’s aching rendition of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ before passing the succinct verdict: “I don’t see an awful lot of money here”. While Van Ronk garnered a considerable cult-legend status during his lifetime, with which he was content, his uncompromising brand of blues, folk and spirituals was generally considered too idiosyncratic and uncommercial for widespread release and so never gained the success of contemporaries Joan Baez or Bob Dylan. However, his influence on his cohorts cannot be understated and perhaps through the Coens’ reinterpretation as Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk and his songs might live again in this generation.

The film ends almost exactly the way it starts, with aforementioned song, beating and stray cat observed with a new perspective, and suggests an endless cycle of struggle as Llewyn endeavours to find success (or even just a bed for the night) in joints which range from the respected (The Gaslight Café, Gerde’s Folk City) to the nameless and miserable. It accurately portrays the harsh insularity of the Greenwich Village folk scene during the early 60s, and Llewyn increasingly finds his purist views hard to reconcile with his desire for success. However, as Llewyn exits the Gaslight at the film’s end there is a teasing glimpse of the back of a stranger’s familiarly bequiffed head as he starts his own nasally version of ‘Dink’s Song’. Llewyn’s attention is momentarily captivated by the performer before exiting and seems to acknowledge the turning point when a generation of Americans would awaken to the quiet rumble coming from Greenwich Village.

Inside Llewyn Davis is in cinemas now.

[Sound and Vision]: Let’s Get Lost

Screen shot 2010-12-15 at 7.49.46 PM

“Let’s defrost in a romantic mist / Let’s get crossed off everybody’s list.”

A portrait of the artist as an old man.

Well this article is going to be a bit different as I don’t often do film reviews, despite being a big film fan for most of my life. However, this documentary about Chet Baker really struck a chord with me. Rather than a detailed retrospective, Let’s Get Lost is more of an intimate portrait of the West Coast jazz prodigy who had it all and spent his final years as an itinerant speedball addict in Santa Monica, CA.

Filmed during the last year of Chet Baker’s life, Let’s Get Lost grew out of a photo shoot which director Bruce Weber intended for a short film called Blame It On My Youth. Weber had been interested in Baker since coming across a vinyl LP in a record store in Pittsburgh at the age of 16, becoming infatuated with his music and his iconic James Dean good looks. Over the course of the shoot they grew closer and Baker opened up to Weber, so Weber convinced Baker to make a longer film. Let’s Get Lost became a labour of love for Weber who funded the $1,000,000 production from his own money and filmed it only when he had the time and money to do so. The filming itself was marked by difficulty and spontaneity as Baker’s turbulent life during this period meant that filming plans quickly went out the window when he finally walked in the room: “It was like going to Marine boot camp,” Weber said to the Austin Chronicle. “You’d plan something, and it wouldn’t happen the way you planned it, so you had to adapt to it, just go with it. Sometimes we’d have to stop for some reason or another and then, because Chet was a junkie and couldn’t do things twice, we’d have to start all over again. But we grew to really like him.” Baker would later be found dead on the pavement on Prins Hendrikkade, Amsterdam during the film’s post-production, giving Let’s Get Lost an added poignancy.

The film is beautifully shot in black and white and Weber’s eye as a fashion photographer creates a sweeping and incredibly romantic aura around the whole film. The stars seem to twinkle in the night sky and the palm trees along the beach sway elegantly. Meanwhile Baker, who now resembles a Bukowskian barfly more than the Adonis of his youth, is still remarkably photogenic. The film meanders like a memoir, as Baker reminisces about his music, experiences and relationships while ex-associates and old flames tell their stories. There is little sense of chronology and with another subject such a film may fall apart, but Baker is such a beguiling and effortlessly enigmatic personality that he holds the film together, the linchpin in an otherwise chaotic tale. Let’s Get Lost does follow his career but at a cursory glance, briefly mentioning moments such as playing on Pacific, getting his teeth knocked out and his multiple incarcerations. This does not mean the music is neglected though, as Baker’s enrapturing and languid music is weaved throughout, blending seamlessly with shots of sleepy California and Baker’s escapades of the time. The film also features some incredibly intimate performances, the likes of which cause the hairs to bristle on the back of your neck. Despite the years, Baker’s voice is haunting and pitch-perfect, while his trumpeting is as moving and mellifluous as ever.

What I feel is Let’s Get Lost’s greatest achievement is conveying Baker’s charismatic personality. He is electrifying onscreen, not in an overtly energetic way but in the sheer magnetism he exerts over everyone, the viewer included. He is charming and good looking even after the ravages of substance abuse which make him look ten years older than he actually was at the time. You find yourself falling under his spell, even as his closest friends, lovers and relatives repeatedly disclose to us that he is selfish, unreliable and a great manipulator. But even those most burned by him still adore him, just as the viewer finds themselves drawn to such a lovable rogue. And this is Let’s Get Lost’s main focus: It’s not about setting the record straight, but about staring in awe at such an infatuating personality. As you watch Baker you sense the fascination of that sixteen year-old kid in Pittsburgh and the wonder of those who knew him. “There’s a line between love and fascination,” says ex-lover Ruth Young, quoting the Baker standard ‘My Foolish Heart’. “That’s mystique. But that isn’t necessarily real and that’s what takes a long, long time to figure out: To separate one’s gift from one’s self.” Perhaps Baker never did, and that is what Let’s Get Lost excels in showing.