Tag Archives: music

George Michael’s Time Out outing

26 Dec
george-michael

George Michael. RIP

As a little George Michael footnote, I believe Time Out was the first mag to “out” George Michael, back in the early ‘90s. One of our journalists was in a taxi, and the driver said to them: “I had that George Michael in the back of my cab last week, and he was really cut up, going on about how he thought he was gay but didn’t know what to do about it.”

This was floated to me as a story for the “Sidelines” news/gossip pages. I went over several considerations before printing:

  1. Was it true? The journalist swore that the taxi conversation took place; that they believed the taxi driver; and that the driver had no vested interest in telling an untruth. It was also plausible: stories had been circulating.
  2. Was it libellous? Jason Donovan had just successfully sued The Face for saying he was gay, but the damages were not for the allegation, but for implying he was a liar – Donovan having previously denied it. There was no test case that it was libellous in itself to call someone gay. On the other hand, legal action was possible: George Michael’s management sued Time Out in the late ‘80s for reneging on a promise (by a previous editor) to put him on the cover – which is why we no longer ever guaranteed covers even to the likes of Bowie or Prince.
  3. Was it likely to cause needless harm to George Michael? Hard to know. I wasn’t a fan of the Peter Tatchell-style forced “outing” that was then in vogue – it seemed to me to be doing The Mail’s dirty work for them. At the same time, a small Sideline seemed to me a gentle push, a testing of the water for George, a controlled experiment: I didn’t think it likely to cause him damage, more to make it easier for him to come out if he was inclined to do so.

So we published. It was a small story, a “quite interesting”, not a big headline. I doubt it made a huge impact. But many years later, in 1998, when George Michael was caught propositioning an undercover police officer in an LA public lavatory, he was confident enough to “own” the resultant scandal. His riposte to the shock-horror tabloid headlines was to come out whole-heartedly, even filming a music video for Outside in a glitterball disco urinal.

As ex-Time Out music critic Peter Paphides writes in his superb appreciation of the recently deceased star, “it might have been the coolest thing any pop star did in the 1990s”.

Different times. Is Tom Daley less loved by the public for being gay? Is Sam Smith? To quote that great philosopher, Shrek: “Better out than in, I always say.” Or, in George Michael’s own greatest words: “Guilty feet have got no rhythm.”

It’s hard for young folk today to remember that, just 20 years ago, being openly gay was considered career suicide. And it’s pioneers such as George Michael they have to thank for the change.

 

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Starman in the sky: Ziggy Stardust memories and David Bowie/Brian Eno interview

11 Jan
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From Gavin Evans’s Time Out cover shoot with David Bowie, 1995

The consummate showman, David Bowie even managed to make his death a surprise. When I sat down to work at the Guardian today, my colleague was staring at the homepage. “Iconic rock star David Bowie dies of cancer at 69,” it said.

“That’s a spoof, right?” was my first reaction.

“You mean you hadn’t heard?” She must have seen my face crumple. “I’m sorry,” she said, with the solicitousness reserved for deaths in the family. I headed off silently for a weep in the Gents. I haven’t cried for a rock star since Bob Marley died.

I don’t envy the task ahead of the newspaper obituarists. Bowie didn’t just pack a lot into his life, he lived several lives: young mod, would-be Anthony Newley, starry-eyed hippie, inventor of glam rock, godfather of punk, young soul rebel, big-trousered ‘80s dance colossus, washed-out corporate shill, and back to middle-aged experimentalist. More than 50 years after he began making music, he’s still pushing the frontiers with his new album Blackstar. And somehow he found time and energy for a long and successful film career, an early prescient embrace of the internet with Bowienet, floating himself on the stock market in the form of Bowie bonds, as well as painting (I bought one of his prints for my godson when he was born) and a position on the board of Modern Painters. Before he died, he was even working on a musical.

I wouldn’t know where to begin: all I can say is what he meant to me, to us. He’s the only rock star whose face I’ve hung on my wa-wa-wa-walls; the only one who’s visited me in my dreams (he picked me up in a limo; we discussed Japanese culture); for two years I played all of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars literally every single day, like a mantra, like an article of faith. He showed every sexually confused teenager, every outsider, that freaky can be good; that there was always a place for us with a Couple of Kooks.

Paul Burston, Time Out’s erstwhile Gay Editor, put on his Facebook page that Bowie saved his life. I believe he means this literally. The song Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide often moved me to tears in my teens: “Oh no love, you’re not alone/You’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair/You’ve got your head all tangled up/But if only I could make you care…” He ends with a repeated phrase sung with such raw emotion it’s almost a screech – “Just turn on with me and you’re not alone” – that culminates in a single note from a violin, the greatest ending to any album since the 40-second piano chord of Sergeant Pepper’s.

I did my best to return the favour, in my small way. I watched for my chance to put him on the cover of Time Out, back when Bowie’s cultural stock was low and he was considered creatively bankrupt, a laughing stock. It came with Outside, and I leaped at the chance to interview him and Brian Eno together about drugs, art and the roots of creativity. The interview was recently reprinted in a book, Bowie on Bowie. You can read it below.

I also found that Bowie never scored highly in Time Out’s polls of the greatest albums of all time, and felt that this was because he’d done so damn many brilliant albums that they split the Bowie vote. Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, Young Americans, Station to Station and Low would all vie for a place in my top ten. Others might include Aladdin Sane, Heroes or Scary Monsters. These days I would want to add Heathen. And so, for Time Out’s 30th anniversary issue, I initiated a poll of the greatest music artists of all time (solo or groups), rather than the greatest albums. In this poll, at last, Bowie rightly came out on top.

Sigh. So long, Dave. It’s been quite a ride. Thanks for letting us hang on to yourself. And now there really is a Starman waiting in the sky.

[PS: As I had typed these final words, my son Sam called to check I was okay, which was sweet. He told me all his friends at university had been saying for the last few days how brilliant Blackstar was. With all due respect to my profession, sod the critics’ five-star reviews – the fact that he can still energise a new generation young enough to be his grandchildren is the best epitaph Bowie could receive.]

s-l225My Time Out cover interview with David Bowie and Brian Eno, for the release of ‘Outside’ in 1995

David Bowie: Could I just ask you first, do you mind terribly if we also tape this? Just for our own usage.

Dominic Wells: So you can sample me and stick me on your next album?

DB: Actually, it is likely. I nearly sampled Camille Paglia on this album, but she never returned my calls! She kept sending messages through her assistant saying, ‘Is this really David Bowie, and if it is, is it important?’ (laughs), and I just gave up! So I replaced her line with me.

Brian Eno: Sounds pretty much like her.

So, how did this album come about?

DB: A pivotal moment for us was actually at the wedding.

BE: It’s absolutely true, that’s where we first talked about it.

DB: I was just starting the instrumental backings for the ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ album and I had some of them, just as instrumental pieces at the wedding, because it was written half around the idea of the marriage ceremony. Brian at the time was working on ‘Nerve Net’, and we realised that we were suddenly on the same course again.

BE: That was quite interesting, because it was the wedding reception, right, everybody was there, and we started talking and Dave said, ‘You’ve got to listen to this!’ He went up to the DJ and said, ‘No, take that off, play this.’

DB: And then we both rushed off to our individual lives knowing it was almost inevitable we’d be working together again. Because we both felt excited about the fact that neither of us was excited about what was happening in popular music.

It seems strange that on your last album you went back to Nile Rodgers, with whom you had your greatest commercial succcess (‘Let’s Dance’), and now you’re going back to Brian…

BE: With whom you had your least commercial success!

…With whom you had some of your greatest critical successes.

DB: Funnily enough, the things I said to Nile were much the same things that Brian said to me: look, we’re not going to make a stereotypical follow-up to ‘Let’s Dance’. I’d just come out of the Tin Machine period, which was a real freeing exercise for me, and I wanted to experiment on ‘Black Tie’. I love doing a hybrid of Eurocentric Soul, but there were also pieces like ‘Pallas Athena’ and ‘You’ve Been Around’ which played more with ambience and funk. Then there was an interim album for me which was very important – ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’.

BE: That was the one I got really excited about. In fact I wrote you a letter saying this record has been unfairly overlooked. I felt because it was a soundtrack, as usual people were saying, ‘Well it’s not real music then, is it?’ It’s so incredible to me that the critical community is so unbelievably restricted in its terms of reference.

I went to the ‘Warchild’ exhibition at Flowers East [where Eno persuaded dozens of rockstars to auction off their art works for Bosnia], and you made a very good little speech about that. And in fact my magazine was one which had printed a snide, snipy little thing in Sidelines.

BE: Yes, I remember that. Do you, David?

DB: Which snide was this? Ha ha. I’ve had at least a couple in my life.

BE: It was, ‘If these people are so concerned why don’t they give their money over instead of just massaging their already enormous egos.’

DB: I remember that line! Yes, but it’s perfectly understandable. It’s a very British thing, isn’t it? The same’s true in America, isn’t it?

BE: No. You’re allowed to take pleasure in, enjoy and actively even benefit from the act of helping somebody else. Here, if you want to help somebody else it’s got to be directly at your own cost.

DB: It’s got to have a halo attached.

But it’s not just the charity, is it? It’s an assumption that rock musicians shouldn’t be doing art shouldn’t be acting and shouldn’t be writing books.

DB: It’s like saying journalists shouldn’t be doing television shows – which in some cases is probably very true!

BE: In England, the greatest crime is to rise above your station.

DB: There are more and more people moving into areas they’re not trained for, especially in America. I’ve just been doing this film with Julian Schnabel [‘Basquiat’, in which Bowie plays Andy Warhol], and he’s making movies, having just made an album. . . I think that’s fantastic.

What’s the album like?

DB: It’s Leonard Cohen meets Lou Reed. Lyrically, I think it’s really good.

A good dance record then?

DB: Ha ha. I think it’s as good as a lot of other records that came out that week. Not as good as others that came out that week.

BE: One of the reasons it’s possible now is that for various technical reasons, anybody can do anything, pretty much. I can, sitting in my studio, put together records with basses and drums and choirs, or I can put together a video in a similar way. So the question then becomes not, ‘Do I have the skill?’ It’s not an issue.

DB: The skill hasn’t been an issue in art for 50 years. It’s really the idea.

Damien Hirst once said something to the effect that if a child could do what I do, that means I’ve done it very well.

DB: Picasso said, I think, when someone said to him a child of three could do what you’re doing he replied, ‘Yes, you’re right but very few adults.’

BE: Einstein said, ‘Any intelligent nine-year-old could understand anything I’ve done; the thing is, he probably wouldn’t understand why it was important.’ That’s the other side of that coin: to be free and simple and child-like, but to be able to understand the implications of that at the same time. To be Picasso is not suddenly to become a three-year-old child again, it’s to become someone who understands what’s important about what the three-year-old child does.

It says in the blurb about your album that much of it was improvised, and that Brian would hand out cards to different musicians saying things like: ‘You are the last survivor of a catastrophic event and you will endeavour to play in such a way as to prevent feelings of loneliness developing within yourself; or: ‘You are a disgruntled member of a South African rock band. Play the notes they won’t allow.’ Is that to strip everything down, remove everyone’s preconceptions and start again from scratch?

BE: There are certain immediate dangers to improvisation, and one of them is that everybody coalesces immediately. Everyone starts playing the blues, basically, because it’s the one place where everyone can agree and knows the rules. So in part they were strategies designed to stop the thing becoming over-coherent. The interesting place is not chaos, and it’s not total coherence. It’s somewhere on the cusp of those two.

The rhythm is very strong throughout the album. That’s what holds things together…

DB: Something we really got into on the late-’70s albums was what you could do with a drum kit. The heartbeat of popular music was something we really messed about with. And very few people had done. It was, ‘Right, bass and drums, get them down, then do all the weird stuff on top.’ To invert that was a new idea.

I did a lot of walking around with the album playing on my headphones, and often you would get noises from the street – a bicycle bell, beeps from bus doors – and wherever they came in the songs, whatever noise it was, it fitted right in, you could absorb it into the song and it would work because the layers were so strong you could add anything on top.

DB: The great thing about what Brian was doing through much of the improvisation is we’d have clocks and radios and things near his sampler, and he’d say find a phrase on the French radio and keep throwing it in rhythmically so it became part of the texture. And people would react to that, they’d play in a different way because these strange sounds kept coming back at them.

BE: Yeah, and he was doing the same thing lyrically. We had a thing going where David was improvising lyrics as well; he had books and magazines and bits of newspaper around, and he was just pulling phrases out and putting them together.

DB: If I read some off to you, some of them you’d find completely incomprehensible.

I did try that, in fact. I read the lyrics sheet out loud and thought, ‘He’s gone off his rocker.’ Then when I heard it with the music, it made sense.

DB: Exactly. There’s an emotional engine created by the juxtaposition of the musical texture and the lyrics. But that’s probably what art does best: it manifests that which is impossible to articulate.

If an English student, on a poetry course or whatever, sat down and tried to analyse your lyrics, would they be wasting their time?

DB: No, because I think these days there are so many references for them in terms of late twentieth-century writing, from James Joyce to William Burroughs. I come from almost a traditional school now of deconstructing phrases and constructing them again in what is considered a random way. But in that randomness there’s something that we perceive as a reality – that in fact our lives aren’t tidy, that we don’t have tidy beginnings and endings.

So you’d be very happy if I and another journalist had different ideas of what the songs were about?

DB: Absolutely. As Roland Barthes said in the mid ’60s, that was the way interpretation would start to flow. It would begin with society and culture itself. The author becomes really a trigger.

In rock music, the lyrics you hear are sometimes better than they turn out to be. In one of your early songs, ‘Stone Love’, a line I adored was ‘in the bleeding hours of morning’; I finally got the lyrics sheet and discovered it was ‘fleeting hours of morning’, which is much more prosaic.

DB: That’s right. For me the most fascinating thing was finding out after years that what Fats Domino was singing was nothing like… I’d gained so much from those songs by my interpretation of them. Frankly, sometimes it’s a let-down to discover what the artist’s actual intent was.

You’ve now got a computer program, apparently, to randomise your writing. But you’ve been doing cut-ups since the ’70s, inspired by Burroughs.

DB: As a teenager I was fairly traditional in what I read: pompously Nietzsche, and not so pompously Jack Kerouac. And Burroughs. These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life, and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live…’

It’s a drugs thing as well, isn’t it? When I was a student and took lots of drugs, suddenly all kinds of things would make sense that otherwise wouldn’t; or rather, you’d see connections between things you otherwise wouldn’t.

BE: That’s what drugs are useful for. Drugs can show you that there are other ways of finding meanings to things. You don’t have to keep taking them, but having had that lesson, to know that you’re capable of doing that, is really worthwhile.

DB: But you know, I think the seeds of all that probably were planted a lot earlier. Think of the surrealists with things like their ‘exquisite corpses’, or James Joyce, who would take whole paragraphs and just with glue stick them in the middle of others, and make up a quilt of writing. It really is the character and the substance of twentieth-century perception, and it’s really starting to matter now.

BE: What I think is happening there is it removes from the artist the responsibility of being the ‘meaner’ – the person who means to say this and is trying to get it over to you – and puts him in the position of being the interpreter.

DB: It’s almost as if things have turned from the beginning of this century where the artist reveals a truth, to the artist revealing the complexity of a question, saying, ‘Here’s the bad news, the question is even more complicated than you thought.’ Often it happens on acid I suppose – if I remember! – you realise the absolute incomprehensible situation that we’re in… [Bowie, who has been gesturing with dangerous animation, knocks an ashtray full of chain-smoked Marlboros on to the carpet] … like this kind of chaos! [Eno kneels to sweep up the ash and butts from Bowie’s feet.] Why are you doing that, Brian? That’s immensely big of you.

BE: Just so you can finish your sentence.

DB: I didn’t need to. I illustrated it! [Hilarity] The randomness of the everyday event. If we realised how incredibly complex our situation was, we’d just die of shock.

There’s a lot in the short story that accompanies your album about artists who indulge in self-mutilation: Chris Burden, who had himself shot, tied up in a bag and thrown on to the highway and then crucified on top of a Volkswagen; Ron Athey, an HIV-positive former heroin addict who pushed a knitting needle repeatedly into his forehead until he wore a crown of blood, then carved patterns with a scalpel into the back of another man and suspended the bloody paper towels on a washing line over the audience. You seem to have this morbid fascination. It’s also the most literal expression of the old idea that art can only come out of suffering.

DB: Also it has something to do with the fact that the complexity of modern systems is so intense that a lot of artists are going back literally into themselves in a physical way, and it has produced a dialogue between the flesh and the mind.

BE: Yes, it’s shocking suddenly to say, in the middle of cyberculture and information networks, ‘I am a piece of meat.’

And is shock also a necessary part of a definition of art?

BE: At some level I think it is, yes. It doesn’t have to be only that kind of shock.

DB: The shock of recognition is actually more what it’s about, you know. I think that’s what it does to me, anyway. That, for me, is Damien [Hirst], of whom I am a very loyal supporter, it’s the shock of recognition with his work that really affects me, and I don’t think even he really knows what it is he’s doing. But what there is in the confrontation between myself and one of his works is a terrible poignancy. There’s a naive ignorance to the poor creatures he’s using. They’re cyphers for man himself. I find it very emotional, his work.

Have you been collaborating with him?

DB: We did some paintings together.We took a big round canvas, about 12-foot, and it’s on a machine that spins it around at about 20 miles an hour, and we stand on the top of step-ladders and throw paint at it.

BE: You should see his studio!

DB: It’s from a child’s game; you drop paint on and centrifugal force pushes the stuff out.

You’re on the editorial board of Modern Painters, along with the likes of Lord Gowrie, and actually they’re not so modern. You must be like the man in the HM Bateman cartoon, saying, ‘Actually, I think Damien Hirst is rather good.’

DB: The magazine is changing. But why write for, say, the Tate magazine, which is full of people already on one side of the argument? At least on Modern Painters there’s a chance of opening up the magazine a little bit. I love the idea of combining some ideas from the Renaissance with ideas that are working now; not to make some kind of . . . editorial point, but because of the pure. . . fun of creating those hybrid situations.

A lot of people were shocked by you doing a wallpaper.

DB: Well, it’s not very original. Robert Gober and a number of others, even Andy Warhol, did them. It’s just part of a tradition.

You also had your first solo art exhibition recently. It must have been frightening to open up your work of 20 years to public scrutiny and to the critics.

DB: No, it wasn’t at all.

Why not?

DB: Because I know why I did it. Ha!

BE: The thing is when you show something, or you release a record, you open it up to all sorts of other interpretations which don’t belong to you any longer. I have millions of tapes at home I haven’t released. I feel quite differently about those than if I put them out on to the market and suddenly there they are, filed in the racks, after the Eagles. Suddenly I imagine someone who isn’t at all sympathetic, who’s actually looking for an Eagles record happening on mine, and I start to hear the thing through what I imagine are their ears as well. So by putting something out you actually enrich it, I think, and you enrich it for yourself. You get it reflected back in a lot of differently shaped mirrors.

DB: I was just a bit late. The reason I wasn’t afraid, either, is I’m an artist, a painter and a sculptor. Why should I be afraid? Seemingly the only other thing I’m supposed to be afraid of is whether other people thought it was any good or not, but I’ve lived that life ever since I began, publicly, of whether I’m any ‘good’ or not, for nearly 30 years, so that comes with the territory.

Does it hurt you if a lot of people are walking around London saying, ‘David Bowie, what a pretentious tosser’?

DB: I don’t know of a time when it was never said, though. What’s the difference? It’s just a different colour overcoat. Not at all.

BE: You know for sure that in England, if you do something different from anything that you did last time, there is going to be a band of people who’ll walk around saying you’re a pretentious tosser but after a while you just have to accept (Bowie is laughing too), both of us just have to accept that we’re good at what we do. The record proves it. We’ve both influenced a lot of things, and a lot of things that are going on can be traced back to what we did, as we would trace ourselves back to other people.

DB: The history of any art form is actually dictated by other artists and who they are influenced by, not by critics. So for me, my vanity is far more interested in what my contemporaries and peers have to say about my work. A lot of it just comes from pure pleasure, you know? I work because it’s such a great way to escape having to work in a shop – to be a songwriter, and a musician and a performer and a painter and a sculptor – it’s so cool to do all this stuff, I can’t tell you how exciting it is. It really is great.

The revolution starts here: Toronto Open Tuning Festival

20 Jun
Mr. P's Ukulele Jam at the Open Tuning festival. Photo: Monica Gupta

Mr. P’s Ukulele Jam, Open Tuning Festival. Pic: Monica Gupta

I’ve just travelled 3,000 miles to see the second annual Open Tuning Festival in Seaton Village, Toronto. (If I were being boringly pedantic, I might specify that I travelled 3,000 miles to see my old friend Ian Sinclair, who happens to be helping put on this festival today, but why let that stand in the way of a good opener?)

It’s a lovely idea: a community-based free festival, using local shops, parks and houses for venues, where anyone who wants can turn up and play. There’s bluegrass, blues, punk, rock, and the brilliantly named ukulele band, Uke Till You Puke. A guy in his fifties played solo by a corner shop with an amp and a guitar, at first to just two people; a group of teens showed with their skateboards, and amazingly stayed to listen for a few songs, despite him ignoring repeated requests to play Smells Like Teen Spirit. A beautiful young girl with an Afro walked past, too cool to change expression, but she nodded to the beat as though signalling approval.

My friend Ian joined him on the bass, then went on to join the Raisins and Grapes a cappella choir, the pitched roof of the porch they sang on giving the effect of a tiny church. At 7pm he’ll be joining his old friend Frank in a jam at the Yoga Sanctuary on the corner of Clinton and Bloor. Genuine Canadian star Jane Siberry will provide the 9.30pm finale in Vermont Park.

This is a festival as it should be: no mud, no hassle; all smiles. You’d think it might be sad to see these men and women, some young but many in their fifties, even sixties – estate agents now, probably, or businessmen, or builders – dusting off their instruments and rekindling the fires of youth. But it’s not. It’s uplifting, and a helluva lotta fun. Because for them, as for most, it was never about the fame or the fortune or the fanfare of big audiences. It was simply because music moved them to pick up the guitar and create songs, and the music moves them still.

The brilliance of the Open Tuning festival is in realising that just as every garage can be a rehearsal space, so every porch can be a stage, and the lawn in front of it a mini-festival. Every town should have a free festival like this. But for now, the revolution starts here: in Seaton Village, Toronto.

The Duke of Burgundy: Q&A about “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”

27 Feb
Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen and director Peter Strickland at the Duke of Burgundy Q&A. Photo: Habie Schwarz

One of the most fascinating British films in some while is out now, and I caught a Q&A at the Curzon Soho with the director, Peter Strickland, and his leading lady, the fabulous Sidse Babett Knudsen of Borgen fame.

The Duke of Burgundy is most easily described as “the thinking person’s 50 Shades of Grey”, though any comparison with that film does The Duke of Burgundy a serious injustice. It’s beautifully shot, in saturated colours and at a leisurely, European pace, and though it is about an SM relationship between two women, there is no nudity, and the SM is figurative as well as literal: it’s about the shifts in power that occur in any relationship.

I won’t tell you any more about the plot, because it will spoil the film to know too much. But do go and see it (though perhaps not with your mother), as it’s a remarkable piece of work. No surprise, incidentally, to find Ben Wheatley on the Executive Producer credits. At the Q&A, the shy director was clutching a glass of whiskey and clearly roaring drunk, though still suprisingly coherent. The moderator said it’s the most Strickland has ever talked. The luminous Sidse Babett Knudsen was appropriately dressed for the occasion in fishnet stockings and burgundy-coloured velvet ankle boots. Here are the highlights:

Director Peter Strickland on the genesis of The Duke of Burgundy: “I met Andy Starke, the producer, who runs the DVD label Mondo Macabro with the wonderfully named Pete Tombs, when Pete wrote a book called Immoral Tales (on European sex and horror movies). We wanted to take some elements of Jess Franco films – female lovers, sado-masochism – but it ended up more as a domestic drama in the writing.

“It’s about SM on one level, but it could be any activity that one person finds distasteful, but that you go along with to keep the other person happy. It’s about the nature of compromise in a relationship.”

Duke of Burgundy 2

Mind games forever: Sidse Babett Knudsen and co-star Chiara D’Anna in The Duke of Burgundy

Sidse Babett Knudsen: “The SM element came to me a bit late. I read the script and thought there were so many recognisable things in it about ‘Will I lose myself, my dignity?’ As to the lesbianism, Peter said he didn’t want a man and a woman because then it would be about a power game between the sexes. I took everything as figurative, a way of exaggerating things in a relationship.

“Peter told me that at the beginning he wanted it to seem like porn, like just bad acting, and then after ten minutes the audience realises [what’s really going on]. That was the scariest thing about doing the film, that deliberately bad acting!”

Strickland: “There was one screening where the audience walked out in the first ten minutes, and you want to go ‘Come back! Come back! It all changes!’

“I wanted it to be this fantastical world where there are no men – there’s a strange power shift if you put men in there – and where these niche tastes are the norm. I wanted to normalise it [the SM and lesbianism] because when you normalise it you don’t question it. Also these films always have a bloody back-story – a crack-addict mum or something to explain why they are as they are – but I didn’t want to go into the psychology. I just wanted to look at the dynamics of that relationship, that push-and-pull, where one person wants something that the other doesn’t.”

On getting an 18 certificate, despite the absence of nudity: “It is what it is, it’s their decision. I do find it odd that you can show mutilation and violence to a 15-year-old kid, but not two mutually consenting adults pleasuring each other.”

On whether he would ever “sell out” by doing ads or taking the Hollywood dollar: “The reason I live and make films in Hungary is because I can’t afford anywhere else. But I’m home-sick for England; and I’m not going to live in a one-bedroom flat paying all the money I have to a landlord just to please you fuckers!”

We’ll take that as a “yes”, then.

Peter Strickland’s films, including The Duke of Burgundy, are available to watch online through Curzon Home Cinema.

Get On Up: James Brown’s got a brand-new movie bag

20 Nov
Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown through the Get On Up shoot

Like a sex machine: Chadwick Boseman stayed in character as James Brown throughout the Get On Up shoot

Another week, another musical biopic: hot on the Cuban heels of the Hendrix biopic comes James Brown, the trouser-splitting Godfather of Soul. Hollywood seems to love the genre. Stars thus immortalised include Elvis, John Lennon, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Liberace, Ian Curtis, Sid Vicious, the Jersey Boys, Bob Dylan, Notorious B.I.G., Charlie “Bird” Parker, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles. Projects in development include Janis Joplin (already played in fictionalised form by Bette Midler in The Rose), Elvis again (by Baz Luhrmann), Kurt Cobain and Freddie Mercury (with Sasha Baron Cohen no longer attached).

Why so? They arrive with existing “brand equity”, ie a previously recognisable name, saving a fortune in marketing. Stars love them: it’s a chance not just to slip into someone else’s skin, but show off their singing and dancing, too. Joaquin Phoenix (Johnny Cash) and Angela Bassett (Tina Turner) were both Oscar-nom’d; Jamie Foxx won as Ray Charles. And these biopics all come with a ready-made arc, the same one as in sporting movies such as Rocky or Raging Bull: youngster triumphs over adversity to find success; throws it away again, along with their friends, through the pressures of fame and the ravages of drug abuse; and eventually (though occasionally real life conspires against this ending) finds redemption.

But that’s also the great problem with them: they are familiar and predictable; the ending is known. So kudos to Get On Up, the James Brown biopic that opens in the UK tomorrow, for at least attempting something different.

As scripted by the brothers Butterworth, Jez and John-Henry, the time periods leap all over the place: Brown’s dirt-poor upbringing with parents who both abandoned him; his time in jail; his trip to play to the troops in ‘Nam; the rampant narcissism that alienates his band; his troubles with the tax man. We slip back and forth more bewilderingly than Mathew McConaughey inside a black hole, with only ever-changing hairstyles to guide us.

Though I applaud the ambition, I can’t say it’s totally successful. The lack of a clear narrative arc, together with Brown’s habit of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly, are disengaging. It would take an auteurial vision on the part of the director stronger than Tate Taylor can manage – a Nic Roeg, say – to pull this time-shifting off. The whole thing feels rather stagey, not surprisingly given the Butterworths’ origins as playwrights. The lighting and cinematography are more TV than movie, and there are a few too many lines that play to the gallery: “Don’t tell me when, where or for how long I can be funky”, he tells an officer in ‘Nam who tries to cut his show short; and when his plane gets shot at, “Do you want to go down in history as the man who killed the funk?”

Get On Up is always watchable and occasionally thrilling, however, both for the music and the extraordinary central performance by relative unknown Chadwick Boseman. He sings, he dances, he does the splits; at one stage during production he had to play a teenaged Brown in jail in the morning, and switch to Brown in his sixties on the same afternoon. He kept in character throughout the shoot. To me, Boseman never quite goes beyond impersonation and into inhabitation of the character – Dan Ackroyd as his kindly manager gives more of a sense of an inner life behind the eyes – but it is an astonishing tour de force. He’s destined for blockbuster fame as the Black Panther in Marvel’s superhero flick, slated for November 2017.

The new folk hero: Al Joshua’s showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s

14 Jul

Al Joshua press picAl Joshua, who plays a showcase gig at Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on Tuesday (July 15) that you’d be foolish to miss, is one of the cleverest, funniest, charmingest, bolshiest, stubbornnest people I’ve met. He had a promising music career and strong cult following a few years back as Orphans & Vandals, but has been out of the limelight for a while – working on new songs, and writing the screenplay for Set The Thames On Fire, a dystopian sci-fi buddy movie directed by Ben Charles Edwards which finished shooting a couple of months ago.

A few years is a long time in the music biz. Al’s comeback gig at the Notting Hill Arts Club a few weeks back was attended only by his new manager and a few friends.

Yet it was one of the most mesmerising gigs I have witnessed.

How to describe Al’s songs? There’s a dash of Tom Waits, a sprinkling of Bob Dylan. But they sound raw and fresh and achingly lovely. Though delivered by just one man with a guitar sitting on a stool with a black rapscallion hat perched on his ginger hair, they don’t seem retro at all. These are songs of loss and longing, distinguished by a rare linguistic dexterity. Songs to be listened to. And, in typically stubborn defiance of the conventional wisdom about attention spans getting shorter, they’re mostly about ten minutes long. You wouldn’t want them any shorter.

Al’s signature tune, perhaps, is I Love You Madly. You can play it on Soundcloud here, but it’s especially hypnotic live – the phrase, when it comes, repeated again and again in urgent but subtly different ways like a mania, a mantra, a plea, a prayer.

His manager, an industry veteran with a strong track record, told me after the gig that he had had no desire to take Al on. He didn’t exactly seem like the most commercially lucrative prospect. But then he heard the songs… “And damn him, I just couldn’t not say yes.”

Click here for discounted tickets to Ronnie Scott’s Upstairs on July 15.

 

Video

The Presence LDN: a Cosplay post-punk rockapocalypse

5 Jul

Sometimes, a critic must set subjective judgement aside, and just say: this is TOTALLY FREAKING AWESOME!

The video above, released just today, is one such time. It’s a compilation of Cosplay footage that will get any comic-book fan pressing the Replay button again and again, set to a two-minute hit-seeking missile of a song. It’s put together by the frontman of new band The Presence LDN, a man who seemingly now wants to be known as just “SWP”, though my personal nickname for him is “Occult Steve” due to his habit of… how else can I put it… materialising in unexpected places.

A former horror film director and composer whom I first met thanks to omniscient film critic Kim Newman, SWP has since manifested at three club events I attended as well as a Shoreditch street corner. Usually while I was thinking of him.

Ageless under a shock of white hair, resembling a much handsomer brother of Johnny Rotten (indeed, former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock played bass in his last band, King Mob), SWP and The Presence have even been immortalised on their website by cult comic artist Shaky Kane…

As I say, totally freaking awesome.

‘Like’ the band on Facebook here: http://on.fb.me/17SpmDo