A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 428 – Wigstock: The Movie

Wigstock: The Movie – May 2nd, 2011

Tonight we watched the last episode of this season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race (congratulations, Raja!) and we’d saved this movie just for tonight to mark the end of the season. It’s got RuPaul in it, after all, and a huge number and wide variety of drag queens and performers and artists and everything you can imagine. I’d never seen it before and I’m so glad that I have now because it was fantastic.

The problem is, it’s supposedly a documentary but it’s not really great as one. I’ve seen some fantastic documentaries, like Paris is Burning from a couple of weeks ago. And this lacks a little something as a documentary. Yes, it gives a decent look at the 1994 Wigstock festival in New York, but I feel like it was far more a concert movie than a documentary. Maybe it’s that I can’t help but put it up against Woodstock, since that’s the inspiration for the name of the festival and there’s definitely a ‘do what you want to do’ vibe going on among the participants and audience. Heck, one of the performers even sings Woodstock midway through the movie. It’s not nearly on the same scale, but I think it’s a fair comparison.

Unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to it as a movie. This has nothing to do with the festival itself, which appears to have been a total blast. But the movie itself is a little on the sloppy side, as if it can’t decide if it wants to showcase the performances/performers or the festival as a whole. There are a few short interview segments with a couple of performers (Mistress Formika, RuPaul and Lady Bunny in particular, plus a number of people at a wig stylist’s shop), but they’re not all identified and really only Mistress Formika goes into a whole lot of detail on drag and sexuality and the festival as a way to bring people together. In terms of the history of it all and how it came to be and the 1994 festival in particular, well, it just doesn’t touch on it that much. Which I found frustrating so long as I looked at it as a documentary.

So I had to switch gears and watch it as a performance. Instead of finding out about the festival and the people involved I had to go at it more like how I watched Pulse. It’s a spectacle and one I wasn’t present for in person. And aside from the interview segments, well, it does give a good view of the overall atmosphere of the festival. There’s the main stage, of course, where there seems to always be some sort of performance happening. But there are also the attendees, who range from totally mundane looking folks in t-shirts and jeans to folks in costume but not necessarily drag and then drag in so many different forms and levels and types it’s impossible to describe them all. Men in skirts, wigs, full drag, butch drag, big beards and fake breasts. Women in suits, dresses, wigs as big as anything the queens were wearing. It’s this fantastic mix of gender expression and sexuality and people having fun being who they want to be. There’s a great bit where they talk to an older man who looks to be like someone just passing by. Like they stopped him on the street and pointed to the drag queens and said “Hey, what do you think?” And he talks about how hey, they’re not hurting anyone so who cares? And then we pan back and he’s wearing a frilly black and white polka dotted skirt himself.

He’s somewhat of an exception though, because for the most part the shots of attendees are mostly to let them show off what they’re wearing or doing or representing. And oh, the things people put together for this festival are just amazing. Multi-tiered wigs and gigantic bouffants and dresses and costumes and it’s sort of like a big drag convention. It’s fairly clear that the audience is part of the appeal of the festival. It’s not just the acts up on stage, it’s the people strutting their stuff down on the ground as well. The attitude of the crowd is wonderful and positive and upbeat, and given the time this was filmed, in the mid-90s in New York, that’s fantastic. It’s wonderful to see.

The performances themselves are a bit of a mixed bag. They’re everything from performance art to lip syncing to drag performers singing live to non-drag performers singing live. There’s dancing and comedy and nudity and costume changes and wigs. Wigs wigs wigs. My exposure to drag performance is limited to what can be considered fairly mainstream drag. RuPaul, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. That sort of thing. And I know that’s very limited. Just look at the balls and pageants, which have a relatively large following, and yet they’re not as much on display as the gown-and-lip-sync drag that’s probably what comes to mind for most people like myself (i.e. straight and fairly square, alas). There are whole swaths of drag culture I simply don’t know and this movie, showcasing this festival, definitely touches on them.

Despite my criticisms of this movie as being a little on the messy side in terms of its intent, I really did enjoy it. Regardless of its intent or its structure (or lack thereof), it does manage to capture the spirit and experience of the festival, at least on a small scale. There’s no way an hour and a half long movie could truly showcase the whole thing, but it does an admirable job of trying. It could perhaps have gone further in one direction or another. I wouldn’t have minded hearing more of Mistress Formika talk but I also wouldn’t have minded seeing more of the performances overall. But I would call it a success simply because it made me want to go back in time and be there.

May 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wigstock – The Movie

May 2, 2011

Wigstock: The Movie

I don’t want to review this tonight. I want to just enjoy it. Absorb it and let it wash over me. Tonight’s reunion show represents the end of another season of RuPaul’s Drag Race and we’re ending it with a crazy chaotic look at the 1994 Wigstock festival. It’s a delightful combination of concert DVD and documentary that shows interviews and performances from the stage.

This movie is pure joy for the most part. Yes, it takes place in New York in the nineties at the heart of the AIDS epidemic, and it has to acknowledge that. But it is that very sense of oppression and dread that makes Wigstock so very necessary. Some of the people interviewed talk about how they just want a day of frivolity when they can dress up and forget everything else. A day when folks can let their hair down – or put it up – or cover it with an enormous crazy teased up wig.

This is a celebration of drag, of course. The Lady Bunny emcees a cavalcade of amazing drag acts for our delight end entertainment while the cameras roam through the crowds seeking comment and looking for folks attending the festival in their various drag. Which highlights one of the things that intruiged me most about this movie. It has so many people playing with the concepts of gender roles. There are bearded guys in wigs and dresses. There’s a fantastic interview with a nice older gentleman who talks about how it does nobody any harm for a bunch of guys to dress up in women’s clothes, and then the camera pulls back to reveal that in solidarity he’s wearing a little skirt. There are professional drag queens in full make-up. There are some people that could be men passing as women or could be trans-sexuals or could be genetic women from birth and frankly it simply doesn’t matter what their gender is because they’re just part of this whole mad party atmosphere. “Let go your preconcieved notions,” the film seems to say, “they have no place here.”

The many fantastic drag acts captured on the main stage are fascinating too. It seems that the Lady Bunny and the other organizers have made an effort to feature as wide a range of performers as they can. There are carefully choreographed lip syncing displays. There are performers who actually sing, some of whom have simply astonishing voices and range. There are camp acts like Dee-Light who are not necessarily drag in and of themselves but who are accepted by the drag world. There is a woman who sings in male drag. There are edgy concept acts like the strip tease to Mark Almond’s What Makes a Man and the simulated birth on stage (which seemed to me to be an homage to Female Trouble and the inimitable Divine.)

This was the first time that I had watched the film tonight and I was caught up in it and enjoying it so much that I didn’t take notes like I should have so that I could address specifics. There is so much amazing talent on display here that it seems unfair for me not to talk about specifics, but the truth is that I wasn’t watching it to review it tonight. I was watching it for the spectacle and the joy of it. Maybe tomorrow, while Amanda is at work, I’ll watch it again and try to be more analytical.

To be continued?

May 2, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl

November 30, 2010

Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl

We had intended to watch a completely different movie today, but when we put it is we were much chagrined to find that it was under fifty minutes long. (The box lied to us.) That’s far too short for the spirit of our movie project since it hardly qualifies as a movie, which left us in somewhat of a bind since we were therefore unable to start watching our movie until after ten PM, which hardly left us time for a movie before the night is over. So as an emergency backup movie we’ve thrown in this live performance by the crazy lads of Monty Python from back in 1980. It has two things in its favor: one it is also short (although long enough in our minds to qualify as an actual movie.) And two it is a complete joy to watch.

As with And Now for Something Completely Different this is just a collection of popular Monty Python sketches, but this compilation has the advantage of a live, and very appreciative, audience. Most of the moments I really love in this move are a result of the spontaneity of a live performance. During the sketch with the dead bishop on the landing the cast crack each other up, particularly when Terry Jones’ wig falls off. When, during an intermission, John Cleese goes out into the audience to sell an albatross several of the people he passes know the sketch and ask him loudly what flavor it is. There are people in the crowd with handkerchiefs on their heads Mr. Gumby style.

By far my favorite bit in the entire performance is when Eric Idle, as Mr. Smokestoomuch does his rant about the evils of package tours. It’s much expanded from the version in the television show, and as he goes on and on he runs down from the stage and escapes through the crowd pursued by John Cleese. He even bursts back out and continues his tirade over the start of the next sketch.

They also feature a lot of filmed bits from the special episodes recorded in German such as the odd Olympics and the philosophy football game. I love that they have the little red riding hood sketch, but am saddened that they do not include the rapists that live in the forest. To either side of the stage they have giant monitors (barely seen in the film version) that must have allowed the audience to see the actual show, since otherwise they would have been tiny little ants way in the distance. Most strange of all is that there are two non-Python songs from Neil Innes. Yes, he wrote many iconic Python songs, but his bits of the film tend to grind things to a complete halt.

All in all it’s a strange assortment of sketches. I suppose they had to figure out what would read on a tiny little stage from the back of the amphitheater. I further suppose that there were some sketches (the Parrot sketch in particular) that they were rather tired of being asked to perform. So we have the Whizzo Chocolate Factory, but no cheese shop. There’s the Bruces singing about drunken philosophers but no Spanish Inquisition (which, contrary to expectations, I HAD been expecting.) The cheer when Eric says that he always wanted to be a lumberjack is enormous.

It was quite enjoyable to watch this again. I love watching the Python guys (and Carol) clearly having a great time doing what they do. I love the early eighties crowd of long haired drug addled Python fans. I kind of wish that my family had been in California at the time that this was filmed, because I could totally see my father taking an eight-year-old me to see Python live. Sadly, it was not to be. I will just have to satisfy myself with the DVD of the concert.

November 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 212 – Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson – September 28th, 2010

I had never heard of Laurie Anderson before I met Andy. This was clearly something that had to be rectified and in short order I’d heard a few of her pieces and fallen in love with her bizarre mix of singing, spoken word and eerie instrumentals. But I was also fairly limited in my options for obtaining music. This is pre-Napster, okay? My family’s internet connection at the time was the super 1337 dial-up AOL where one got an hour a day and then paid through the nose for every minute thereafter. I was not downloading performance art music to my family’s ancient PC. I was borrowing it from friends and buying the one CD the local Strawberries had in stock: Bright Red. And I listened to it over and over and over. I could probably recite Puppet Motel from memory on the spot if asked (alas, no one ever has) and to this day I can’t read any version of the Owl and the Pussycat out loud at work because of Anderson’s rendition in Beautiful Pea Green Boat. But neither of those are in this concert. I’m just illustrating a point, which is that I adore Anderson and find her work fascinating, so I was incredibly thrilled when we got ourselves a copy of Home of the Brave.

You need to understand something about Laurie Anderson, and that’s that she isn’t strictly a musician. She’s a performance artist. And I don’t mean the sort of pretentious performance art they make fun of in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged). I mean the sort of performance art where she takes brilliant music and combines it with visuals and spoken pieces and dance and melds it all into something where the music isn’t the only point of the show. There are chunks of the show with almost no music at all. And Anderson wants to entertain, but also wants to provoke. And in my opinion she succeeds at both.

There’s a wide variety of pieces in this concert. They vary from fairly normal songs to instrumentals to dances to experimental sounds and often they segue from one to the other before you know what’s happened. A short spoken piece about being annoyed by a bug while you’re trying to write gives way to an instrumental piece where a string instrument is played with a fork and knife (and it sounds amazing, so I won’t criticize it for being a gimmick). Anderson takes a moment to call her keyboard player on the phone while they’re both on stage and the two chat for a bit about nothing in particular until the keyboard player excuses herself, since she’s kind of busy and in the middle of a concert. There’s the Drum Dance, where Anderson plays drum pads in her suit by dancing and tapping them. There’s a folktale and a game show and some sampled William S. Borroughs played on a special electric violin modified to play MIDI files when the bow touches the strings. It’s a little all over the place, but that’s Laurie Anderson.

If I had to name a theme for this concert I think I’d say it’s about communication. It’s not so obvious in every piece, but it keeps coming back. Many of my favorite bits from the concert tie into it, so maybe that colors my perception. Zero and One is a spoken piece at the beginning of the show and features Laurie Anderson in a mask reminiscent of El Santo, her voice electronically modified, lecturing the audience about binary and showing them lots of ones and zeroes. When we got the VHS of this concert we popped it in to make sure it was in good shape and I was shocked and amused to realize how much of Anderson’s performance with the voice modification reminded me of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight Returns. It’s bizarre. But that’s how things start, with some talk about communication and the representation of language and computers and then some cultural stuff too, going into doing away with the negative and positive meanings for zero and one, respectively. It’s a great way to really get things going after an instrumental introduction.

My other favorites are the aforementioned Drum Dance, which isn’t precisely earth shattering but is a quirky little piece and done very well. Anderson just seems to have so much fun playing with sound and movement. I also love Smoke Rings, which begins with a game show and is frequently referenced in our home. Que es mas macho? Pineapple? Or knife? Smoke Rings was the first Anderson song I ever heard. It was on a mix tape Andy had when I met him and I listened to it endlessly. Late Show is another communication piece, using a quote from William S. Burroughs (who appears in the concert) and the MIDI violin to great effect, repeating the word “listen” over and over. I have a fondness for Sharkey’s Day and have since the first time I saw this concert while I was in college (we had a copy at the video store we worked at). And then near the end we get Sharkey’s Night, which has more of the voice modification. Before that there’s Language is a Virus, which obviously plays into the communication theme, and Difficult Listening Hour (as opposed to easy listening), which just amuses me.

There are plenty of other fantastic parts to the concert, of course. Anderson cavorts around the stage and is obviously having a grand time presenting her vision for everyone watching, but she’d got a great crew to back her up. Her back-up vocalists are fantastic, getting into the whole performance, and the same goes for her keyboard player, who has a wonderful 80s punk hairdo going on. All of the other musicians and performers seem to be totally keyed in on Anderson’s aesthetic and mood. The stage is bathed in blue light and the set pieces are minimal. The scrim in the back of the stage is used a lot, but people move in front of it all the time anyhow. It doesn’t seem like a bad thing, just part of the show to have things always moving and going.

Of course this isn’t a typical concert. It seems low key compared to something like Pulse, or even the small venue TMBG we’ve been to. It’s got more people on stage than Weird Al Yankovic Live! but seems more subdued most of the time. And yet it’s engaging and impressive all the same. Mostly, I think, because Anderson is the type of artist who can fill a stage on her own, and then she goes and fills it with other impressive artists as well, because she can, and because it makes the show that much stranger and that much better.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

September 28, 2010

Home of the Brave: A Film by Laurie Anderson

This was another discovery I made in college. I made it a point my freshman year to show up every Friday night in my dorm common room for our weekly movies. I don’t recall who it was that chose what we watched, but it was a very strange collection. We went through a John Waters period at one point, concentrating on his earlier and more edgy films (Female Trouble in particular was stranger than anything I had experienced at the time.) We watched Koyaanisquatsi. We watched the infamous X-rated cut of I Spit on Your Grave. Whomever it was that was making the movie watching decisions (I think it might have been my HR Jay) had a knack for finding edgy stuff that none of us had seen before.

Thank goodness for the internet, without which we would have a hard time gathering movies like this into our collection. This is not even available on DVD, so we had to buy a used copy from a purveyor of hard-to-find cassettes. There is a treasure trove of VHS tapes out there from little independent video stores that went out of business in the nineties. I have this picture in my head of warehouses full of undiscovered treasure, just waiting for me to request them. If only I knew what to ask for.

How does one describe Laurie Anderson to the uninitiated? You could vastly simplify things and refer to her as a performance artist, but that doesn’t begin to encompass what she does. The term “performance artist” conjures up pictures of crazy dissonance and art that is more about what is going on in the performer’s head than what you see on the stage. Laurie Anderson mixes a mesmerizing performance with fun and playful music. You can listen to the music without the visuals and still enjoy it (we own a couple of her CDs for example.)

You could also call her a digital pioneer. She talks about ones and zeros as the building blocks of the digital age at the start of this movie. She had digital supplements to her CDs (CD ROMs and such) before such things were heard of. In this movie she makes extensive use of a midi-based electric violin that was, according to the internet, of her own invention. This movie is full of creative uses of new instrument technologies to find new ways to make music. (A prominent example – she at one point has a sort of electric drum kit she wears as gloves and performs a drum solo by dancing and striking her chest, arms and legs.) In my mind she was performing nerd-rock before any such thing existed.

In the concert featured in this movie Laurie Anderson plays a lot with percussion, with tempo, with pacing. She dances with broad exaggerated poses. She has surrounded herself with an eclectic collection of talented musicians who all seem to be enthusiastically along for the ride. Behind her is a giant projection screen on which a series of slides and animations are projected to complement what’s going on on the stage. The lighting is also part of the show, with her bright white suit.

I love this movie. I love the craziness of it and the off-kilter feel of the whole production. I love Laurie’s sense of humor and general inventiveness. I don’t know if I can really describe the whole production too well, though. It’s too far outside of the realm of what I’ve normally experienced. Which is exactly the appeal.

September 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment

Movie 194 – Pink Floyd: Pulse (concert)

Pink Floyd: Pulse (concert) – September 10th, 2010

I have only been to a small handful of non-classical non-school concerts in my life. I was in my high school’s orchestra (perpetual second violin, thanks to poor luck with violin teachers and an aversion to practicing for people who didn’t give a shit about me), so I’ve been to more than my share of orchestral concerts, both school-based and professional. Not that I mind. I like classical music and we’ve been trying to work on going to see live performances more recently. But I can count on one hand the concerts I’ve been to otherwise. And they’re both They Might Be Giants. Weird. I would have seen Nightwish, but their instruments got stuck in Mexico. Alas. Otherwise it’s either just been poor timing or I didn’t know someone was going to be around in time to get tickets.

I missed this Pink Floyd concert due to being too young when it hit Boston. A number of my friends went, but the sad part is that I didn’t know them yet. They were AV crewsters, and I was a nervous little freshman who hadn’t gotten up the nerve to join. Not that I think I would have been allowed to go anyhow. So I missed it. And, well, that sucks. It sucks a lot. It is a fantastic concert, and I was told so more than once later, by friends who’d gone. Including Andy. Damn him!

I cannot help but sing along to this concert. I know every song, even if I’ve never seen Pink Floyd live. I love this band. I love their music. And I have listened to this concert’s album so many times I’ve lost count. I bought it in England when I was in high school on an exchange program and the little LED in the box pulsed steadily for at least three years after I bought it. Pink Floyd, The Beatles, They Might Be Giants and Nine Inch Nails were my staples through high school and well into college. For Pink Floyd my go-to album was Wish You Were Here, followed closely by The Division Bell and Dark Side of the Moon. Sure, I love The Wall, but well, I prefer to listen to it in its entirety. Why yes, I am a snob about that.

My mother shares my love of Pink Floyd. When we’re in a car together, if Pink Floyd is in the CD player or on the radio we will sing along with it together. I bought her this album for her birthday one year and she played it incessantly until my brother hid it. The thing is, while I know that The Division Bell didn’t get great reviews, we both loved a lot on it. Certainly the songs included in the first portion of the Pulse concert are ones we love. And mixed in with some of our favorites off of earlier albums it ends up serving as sort of a live ‘best of’ album. But I realize I’m reviewing the album, not necessarily the concert. I’ve never sat down to watch it with my mother. I have watched it with Andy before, which is nice, since we both love Floyd and it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see the surviving members together on stage, and certainly with Richard Wright gone and, we won’t see this.

There’s a lot of melancholy in the later Pink Floyd material. Yes, it’s there in the earlier stuff too, but the earlier pieces do stand out in this concert as being a little snarkier. A little angrier. A little more like the melancholy of a bunch of smartasses. Contrast Another Brick in the Wall (pt 2) with Keep Talking, which is played just before it. Contrast Shine on You Crazy Diamond, which opens the show, with High Hopes, which is just one song (Learning to Fly) away. One of These Days is an entirely different creature from anything off of the later Gilmour albums. It’s an interesting lineup, especially knowing that this concert was at least partially to promote The Division Bell. Of course songs from that album feature prominently, and personally I enjoy them. But then they’re contrasted with some interestingly chosen classics. And then there’s the entirety of Dark Side of the Moon as the latter half of the concert. Not that I’m not thrilled to watch it and see the entire album played live. It’s one of the best albums of all time, in my opinion. But it does rather dominate everything else, you know?

I really don’t mind the lineup for the concert. I like it. There’s not a single song played that I don’t enjoy and some of the performances – particularly the three encores – are amazing. Knowing the Division Bell songs as well as I do, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the little differences in their live versions. Now, I’ll admit, I don’t necessarily put in a concert DVD to watch it. I do watch in pieces, but since my focus is always on how the music itself is performed, I look away a lot too. I don’t think I’m really qualified to say whether this is a good concert in comparison to other groups or other performances by Pink Floyd. I simply don’t have the background. I do know I enjoy it, and that while they don’t look terribly involved with the audience, Nick Mason and Richard Wright certainly played well. David Gilmour, of course, has center stage here, and he is very into it. So that’s fun to see. And then there are the rest of the band doing more keyboards, more percussion, more guitars, the backup vocals and saxophones. They’re all fantastic, but I have to give standout credit to Dick Parry on the saxophones, who I seemed to catch whenever I looked at the screen, and the three female vocalists, Sam Brown, Claudia Fontaine and Durga McBroom. If you know Dark Side of the Moon, you know it’s got some demanding bits for a singer to perform and Sam Brown and, I believe, Durga McBroom split the biggest part of it and they are phenomenal.

Watching this, hearing my favorite songs, I feel the need to go restructure my iPod’s playlists to feature more Pink Floyd. I’ve got some odd tastes in music at times and I’m sad to say I don’t listen to as much Floyd as I used to. But watching the encore performance of Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb and Run Like Hell makes me wonder why that is. Perhaps I need to load up the live performance versions, since they certainly refreshed my love of them tonight. I only wish I’d been there to see them myself.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , | Leave a comment

Pink Floyd: Pulse

September 10, 2010

Pink Floyd: Pulse

I have been to exactly four live rock concert shows in my life. I saw a very intimate show of King Missile in the Whisky-A-Go-Go in LA where I was about three or four feet from the stage. (I had to crane my neck through the whole show because the band were slightly above me, obscured by the waving arms of two rows of fans packed into the space in front of me.) I saw Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel, also in LA. I saw They Might Be Giants at Haverford College in 1998 in a theater that probably held about 300 people. And back in 1994 I saw Pink Floyd’s Pulse concert in Foxboro Stadium.

I suppose I should say that Pink Floyd, after the Beatles, are probably my second favorite band of all time. I discovered them just before my first year of college back in 1990. Oh, sure, I had been hearing them for years on the radio and my good friend Mike had been obsessed at one time with the Dark Side of the Moon album, but it wasn’t until I was just out of high school that I remember beginning to collect the CDs and really get into the music. My grade school best friend’s mother (and my mother’s best friend) died the next year and I remember practically deafening myself playing Wish You Were Here over and over at maximum volume with my headphones on. I remember how completely blown away I was when I first saw the movie version of The Wall in college. I was writing a contacts database for my mother’s business in 1991 (using Foxfire as I recall) and my musical fuel was exclusively Floyd. Mostly Pipers at the Gates of Dawn. I have vivid memories attached to many of Floyd’s albums. My wilder days when I wandered lost after dropping out of college are to the soundtrack of The Final Cut. I once discovered the Ummagumma two LP in my friend Christine’s parents’ collection. I was spending the week with her in her parents’ house and she was working at the time at Disneyland so I had hours to kill while she was at work. I spent them blasting Pink Floyd, dancing madly around her living room and watching their collection of Blackadder.

By 1994 I had only been obsessed with Pink Floyd for a few short years, but they were tumultuous and influential years that had a lot to do with what kind of person I ended up being. Floyd was part of who I was at that point and had carried me through some pretty tough times. So when the opportunity to see them live arose there was no question whatsoever that I was going to go. I went with a group of friends from high school – who were all about six years younger than me. Indeed if I remember correctly I signed Matt and Jeff out of their dorms and had them spend the night with me so they could attend the concert – so I was their responsible adult chaperon. I borrowed my parents’ Ford Torus and drove down to Foxboro with Matt, Jeff, Caroline and Rachel. I think. My memory is fuzzy. My memory of the concert itself, however, is quite vivid.

It was the only stadium concert I have ever attended. Indeed the only event I’ve ever attended at all in a stadium (sporting events not really being my cup of tea.) It was lightly raining. I remember that security confiscated my umbrella as I was going into the stadium before the show. (I joked at the time that they must have thought it was a strangely shaped bong – which was based on some of the other confiscated paraphernalia.) Our seats were down in the center of the stadium just about dead center, just a little to the left. Not that anybody sat. Everybody stood through the entire concert bouncing and dancing in place and singing along at the tops of our lungs. Intoxicating clouds rolled over us from those in the audience who had gotten their pharmaceuticals past the guards at the gates. I remember reading that the band had a giant blimp-sized pig that was supposed to float over the stadium during the show, but that it was grounded by the damp weather.

Most vividly of all I remember Comfortably Numb. It came near the end of the show and the whole crowd was blissed out to some extent by then. A giant disco ball rose out of the center of the stadium (slightly behind us and to the right) and the reflected white lights from it played over all of us. Down in the floor and along the seats lining the stadium walls. For the length of that one song it was as though we were a part of the show, drawn into the music and joined all together by it. It was a moment that transcended all barriers for me and left me deeply moved.

I realize that none of this is really a review of the movie we’re watching tonight. But this is what this movie is for me. A conduit down which I can slide into these memories of days long gone. The actual concert captured here on film is a treat on its own I’m sure, but the music and the visuals are so evocative that they cannot be untangled from these bits of my history.

I do like having a much more intimate and up close look at the performances here. When I saw the show the band were tiny specks in the distance. Here the camera gets right down on the stage with them. I love seeing David Gilmour at work in particular. He isn’t concerned with dancing about or giving a great show. He’s just sort of laid back in jeans and a black t-shirt, belting out these tunes that are such a familiar place for him. You can see in his eyes that this is just what he does, what he is. The music is effortlessly flowing though him and out of him. Richard Wright rarely looks up from his keyboards. Of the three lead members of the band it is Nick Mason who is the most animated – as he would have to be driving the entire performance with his precision drumming. The three of them are surrounded by a much younger and yet still wonderfully talented group of performers. Bassist Guy Pratt is a lot of fun to watch, jumping and dancing about as he plays. Gary Wallis is enclosed like Mason in a second entire drum kit. Behind Gilmour sway the trio of powerful backup singers. There’s also Dick Parry on sax, Jon Carin providing extra keyboard work and Tim Renwick with additional guitars. Mostly, though, it’s Gilmour, Mason and Wright – three elder gods of prog-rock weaving this spell that they know so well. Doing what they were born to do. Surrounded by a huge complex light show and watched over by a giant circular video screen.

It’s so sad to think that these three guys will never again tour together in this world. That I can never take my wife to a concert like this one. All these moments are lost now in time, with only video records like this one to preserve them. I suppose that this will have to suffice. Certainly it has made for a very mellow and enjoyable night this evening. I’ll take this journey whenever I can.

September 10, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 125 – Woodstock (Director’s Cut)

Woodstock – Director’s Cut – July 3rd, 2010

Our movie starts with an interview with an older man who lives nearby, talking about the festival. He says “It was too big for the world!” How true. We don’t start with the musicians, or even the music. We don’t see anyone who might have attended the festival in the first interview. We get there slowly, seeing the farmland surrounding the festival location first, and the building of the fences. A few people here, a few people there. Long hair and long whiskers. The stage half-finished while Crosby, Stills and Nash sing Long Time Coming. Watching it as we are, from the present, looking into the past with scenes of people preparing, we know what they don’t. We know what the man in the first interview knows. This was big. Bigger than big. Event of a lifetime big. Not my lifetime, of course. It’s a little under a decade before my time. The closest I can get to this time period is the music and movies like this.

I grew up listening to what is now termed “classic rock” on vinyl. My parents have a fantastic record collection and among their albums are a lot of the bands that appeared at Woodstock. Crosby, Stills and Nash, Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane and Santana, to name a few. I’ll be honest, much as I enjoy Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, and love their segments in this, my very favorite part is the one number from Santana, followed closely by Sly and the Family Stone. Maybe it’s because I have a from-birth fondness of Santana (my mother sang one of their songs to me the first time she held me). Maybe it’s seeing Carlos Santana so young and so brilliant even then. I don’t know, but him and Sly and the Family Stone will make me dance in my seat (or out of it) every time.

But then there’s also The Who, whom I love and not just because Daltrey was in the Highlander series. He’s got this fantastic fringed shirt during his performance at Woodstock that immediately reminds me of Judas at the end of Jesus Christ Superstar. There’s Joe Cocker singing With a Little Help From my Friends, which is one of my favorite versions of this song ever. It’s frenetic and sort of desperate and pleading and beautiful. Really, that frenetic quality is present for a lot of musicians in the film. They let the music carry them along. Even the bands that seem calmer on the surface sometimes have some wild drums in the back, or a guitarist who’s really into the whole mood. It’s not just wild, it’s exultant.

The music is fantastic, but what makes this a documentary instead of simply a concert, and what made Woodstock a cultural phenomenon instead of simply a festival is everything that happened off the stage. Interviews were conducted throughout the course of the festival, both with the townspeople in the area and with the attendees. There’s plenty of footage not just of the stage but of everything else. We see the cars and the crowds. We see people milling and policemen directing traffic. We see people bathing in the streams. We get interviews with volunteers and attendees. And as the movie progresses, things get more crowded and confused, but also more exciting. The announcements being made get a little weirder and start mentioning things about the size of the crowd. It gets clear just how massive it all is.

We watch as a thunder storm sweeps through and everyone hunkers down under tarps and blankets and umbrellas and tents and plays in the mud and sings together while they wait for the rain to end. The Army sends some doctors in to help with medical needs. A young woman at an information booth talks about how she’s lost her sister in the crowd. The sister has to be in court the next morning and the young woman has her tickets home. She seems a little annoyed, but not panicked or truly upset. She’s resigned and hey, if you had to be stuck why not there? Some townspeople talk about it being a mess while other ones talk about donating food. A group of festival-goers go skinny dipping and clean up. We meet the guy cleaning the public toilets and find out one of his two sons is at the festival while the other is in Vietnam.

Given, with 500,000 people in attendance, it was going to be messy. There are certainly detractors in among the townspeople, and a few representational instances of the problems inherent in such a large crowd with inadequate supplies and no easy way out. A woman breaks down crying as she’s overwhelmed by the press of people around her. A man in town talks about the whole thing being a disgrace. Then again, the local chief of police says how upstanding all the kids are and how America should be proud of them. But the overall mood of the film, the picture it gives of the music and the people there and the three days and everything that happened there is one of hope and peace and a vision of how people can get along even in large numbers. Contrast this with the later Woodstock concerts and the mass chaos that erupted at them. Anecdotal stories from college friends involved fires and mobs fighting. Not the same sort of thing, you know?

I know someone who was there. He’s a patron at my library. He says he knows he was there but doesn’t remember any of it. My parents weren’t there. I seem to recall my mother telling me they’d gone to some other event somewhere nearby and missed it entirely. It wasn’t really their scene, even if they did love the music. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to have that experience instead of just a documentary, albeit as wonderful a documentary as this one is. Would I have been at the pond, skinny dipping? Would I have stuck it through the rain in the mud? Or would I have panicked, confronted by huge crowds and no way home? I think it’s even odds on either direction, though I’m quite certain I’d have abstained from any drugs then (not just the brown acid) like I do now. It’s a moot point, really. This was a unique moment in time. My generation and the ones after mine just aren’t in the same mindset as the Woodstock generation(s). It is, like so many other things that make me cry, a thing whose time has passed. I can get a tantalizing taste of it through this film and the soundtrack albums and maybe some day the gigantic collector’s edition that’s got even more performance footage, and that will have to be enough.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music

July 3. 2010

Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace and Music

Today we embark on the longest movie in our entire collection – which is also one of the first DVDs I bought. I suppose I should be glad that I own the 225 minute Director’s Cut rather than the 40th anniversary version with its two hours of additional performances. (Though some time I will probably end up getting that 3 disk set, because I really want to see some of those extra bits.) I discovered this movie when it was broadcast on PBS for its fifteenth anniversary (and simulcast on the radio for those of us who wanted the music in stereo.) I taped it on my VCR and watched it over and over and over again. That would be in 1984 or 1985.

As with many people of my generation I have a fascination with this time period and this hippie movement. Of course Woodstock itself took place shortly before I was born, so there is no way I could remember this time myself. Instead I’m presented with artifacts like this movie which present the time period in a sort of idealised light. Nobody remembers Woodstock who was there, I think. But this movie of the event crafts from the music and the performances and the crowds and interviews an epic story. Who knows if there’s more than just a seed of truth to it, but it’s a beautiful story and one that people would LIKE to be true. That people could gather in celebration of music and peace and simply be together.

I can’t really offer a review of any sort, so I’m going to attempt a running commentary as we watch the movie through. Maybe in the same way that the movie tells a story through showing a series of musical performances I can write a coherent review. But probably not.

Canned Heat:

The Film Makers set the flower-power mood for the movie with a montage of carefree hippies in an idyllic setting. It’s all long flowing hair, and smiling kids dancing in a field. There’s a story to this film, like I said before. Part of the story is the before and after. The evolution of this New York farm from a peaceful field to a muddy wasteland. This is the before story.

Crosby Stills & Nash:

Through a split screen effect we are presented with images of cars arriving at the festival. More and more. This segues into a some documentary footage of interviews with the local townsfolk as the kids arrive. And keep arriving. An unstoppable tide of human flotsam fueled by chemical enhancements and goaded by the promise of a place where they will belong.

Richie Havens:

This is one of the performances that I think of when I think of this movie. Richie Havens is a man posessed by his music. All frenetic strumming and screamed vocals. I love that if you look at his guitar you cans see this huge worn pattern from his pick where it has removed the varnish from the face. It’s as though the music has taken over his arm, and I feel as though if left unchecked he’s literally play through his guitar, strumming after the strings had all snapped away across the empty box and through the wood itself.

Canned Heat:

Some great blues-inspired rock here. It’s all loud, simple, pure rock and roll. I’m pretty sure my parents had some Canned Heat albums (Along with some CSN and Country Joe and the Fish) which I liberated from their collection to listen to up in my room on my ancient record player.

Joan Baez:

Now we’re going to get political. Joan Baez dives right in with Joe Hill. Folk music has often been the tool of the proletariat. Here Joan uses a tale of people organizing to fight the “mill bosses” to stir anti-war sentiment in the crowd. Very much preaching to the converted methinks.

The Who:

Oh! The fringe! Once in a while the film makers get to indulge in a little bit of iconic imagery, and Daltry here presents them with some great film to work from. It’s a combination of the lighting, the music and his wardrobe to make for a great concert performance.

Part of what is so cool about the whole Woodstock concert is what a wide variety of performers they had on stage. There’s acts like Canned Heat performing in T-shirts, Richie Haven in his mu-mu, and now The Who with their outrageous stage costumes. The Who prove themselves to be showmen, used as they already were at this point to playing for arena sized crowds.

Sha-Na-Na:

This is a great contrast to The Who just before this. Sha-Na-Na does a show of their own with a lot of choreography and such. But I have to wonder how it read on a tiny stage from that vast, vast crowd. I’ve always felt that this routine felt like a throwback to a less revolutionary and less drug addled age. Then again, maybe they were doing it in an ironic way as a form of parody. I’m not sure.

Joe Cocker & The Grease Band:

As with Richie Havens, I feel like Joe Cocker is a man for whom the music is more than just singing. He stumbles about on stage like a man speaking in tongues. It’s a wonder to behold and a further wonder that even today he’s out there still doing this. He’s not one of those candles that burned so bright and so fast.

Country Joe & The Fish:

After some fun in the rain and mud we get to Country Joe and the Fish at last. It’s introduced as “Rock and Soul” music, and I guess I can see where it’s coming from. The keyboards certainly have a lot of soul to them, and then we get some good rock guitar and lyrics about rainbows. I enjoy the strange juxtaposition if nothing else. Sadly the perormance in the movie is quit short so there’s not much time to get a feel for how it works. My parents had a Country Joe album and I did steal and listen to it, but I can’t remember anything about it now.

Arlo Guthrie:

I actually discovered Arlo Guthrie more through his novelty songs than through his more traditional folk music. Things like the Pickle Song and of course Alice’s Resturont. As a fan of Doctor Demento show I had a love for such strangeness, so it was natural that I would enjoy this music. Of course from there I fell in love with his other music.

The film makers take advantage of Arlo’s Coming into Los Angeles to display a fair amount of illicit drug usage. I do wonder how prevalent pot and acid actually were. Certainly the documentary presents them as a major part of the festival, and perhaps they really were as omni-present as they appear to have been. Or maybe it’s just that the controversy of such things made for good film making.

Crosby, Stills & Nash:

Back to CSN in their pre-Young days. I listened to their self titles debut album ceaselessly for many months after first discovering it in my parents’ collection. I just get carried away by their harmonies. It’s great music. They sort of became the mascots of this movie, being as they are the soundtrack for the opening montage and the closing credits. So somebody else must have been really into their sound too.

Ten Years After:

This is one of my favorite tracks from the Woodstock soundtrack album. I love the frenetic pace – the insane lead guitar, and the simple repeated refrain. Many has been the time in my past that I’ve cranked this song up and danced sarcastically around my apartment. It just gets inside you, this music. It’s infectious.

Jefferson Airplane:

Ahh Jefferson Airplane. I do enjoy their kind of mellow trance music. I used to play their greatest hits CD on the VLM on my old Jaguar CD all the time. The psychedelic feedback of the VLM was a great fit for their music. Just turn off your mind and enjoy. (My absolute favorite thing ever to come out of Jefferson Airplane though are the White Levis ads they did. You have to feel a little sorry for whatever suited ad executive gave money to these guys in the hope they could tap that youth market. An almost perfect depiction of the generation gap in the 60s portrayed in a series of 15 second clips.)

John Sebastian:

More folk music now. From the very laid back frood John Sebastian this time. It’s a slower and more cerebral bit of music about the futility of attempting to overcome generation gaps.

Country Joe McDonald:

Yeay! What are we fighting for? When I was in college in the early nineties and the US got involved in the first Gulf War this song was still an anthem for peacenicks on campus. That’s a refrain with true lasting power.

Santana:

You know from here through the end of the movie the music is just pure joy from people who were gifted beyond all rational expectations with music. Music such as has no right to exist on our Earth. Listening to the amazing things that this wiry little kid can wring out of his electric guitar is astonishing. And Santana, unlike Joplin and Hendrix who round out the movie, has gone on to become a huge cultural and musical force. Who knows, maybe if they hadn’t died they too could be.

I love Santana in the modern day most for introducing me to new artists. I buy his albums because he’s Santana, but his latest works have been collaborative efforts that show him to be a sort of statesman of modern rock. Were it not for him I might not have discovered will i am or Dido. Santana is a gateway drug to a wider understanding of music across all cultural divides. And here in the Woodstock movie we see him as he was just beginning to attain the kind of popularity that would later give him the reach he has today.

Sly and the Family Stone:

The fringe returns for an encore, this time with Sly and the Family Stone. I often comment to Amanda that we don’t have enough soul music in our collection. (I may have touched on that when we reviewed Muppets From Space.) This number is a perfect example of why we need it. If those horns and that beat and that energy desn’t just get into you and make you come alive than you desperately need help.

Janis Joplin:

That infamous raspy voice is instantly recognizable anywhere. Man, the damage this woman must have done to her vocal cords every time she performed must have been unbelievable, but still I love her for it. Like Joe Cocker she’s all over the stage as she sings. Music seems to be a religious experience for her. Here she is at the peak of her game. Taken like so many great artists before her time.

Jimi Hendrix:

Speaking of which: Here’s the man acclaimed even decades later as the greatest electric guitar virtuoso of all time. It’s plain to see here that he was able to coax sounds from a guitar that it was never designed to make. That unmistakable wah-wah, and the way that he manages to play along with himself, melding base rhythm and lead guitar into one instrument, is breathtaking to behold. His guitar talks. It’s simply inhuman.

And that’s all the musical performances. The movie ends with images of the farm and the devastation left behind and more Crosby Stills & Nash. This image, of the churned up muddy fields strewn with garbage, is what always comes to mind for me when I head The Who’s Baba O’Riley. This is the Teenage Wasteland.

I’ve often thought that if I ever invented a time machine Woodstock would be one of those things I’d like to experience firsthand. I don’t know if in reality it would live up to the iconic event depicted in this film. But it might be fun to go anyhow. Lord knows nothing like it has ever taken place since, and probably never will.

July 3, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 93 – “Weird Al” Yankovic Live!

“Weird Al” Yankovic Live! – June 1st, 2010

I don’t really go to concerts. I can count the actual concerts I’ve been to on my hands. Not my fingers, my hands. That’s two, for those bad at math (like me!) and they were both They Might Be Giants (I almost saw Nightwish, but their instruments got stranded in Mexico City). Part of my lack of concert-going experience is that I don’t like crowds and the other part is that I am enormously skilled at getting vicious headaches. It’s a super power, what can I say. All that being said, I would go to see Weird Al. I would love to see him live because he is fucking awesome. So yeah, this is as close as I’ve gotten so far.

But wait. Why are we doing a concert DVD? Because we decided to count movie-length recordings of live performances. We’ve got a couple. This, Pink Floyd’s Pulse, Woodstock’s kind of a grey area, but then there’s Into the Woods and The Reduced Shakespeare Company Presents The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged, which are theatrical productions. So yeah, concerts? Sure. Why not. And let’s face it, Weird Al (and Pink Floyd, for that matter) puts on a great show. There are costume changes and props! And it’s Weird Al.

Song-specific notes: The Night Santa Went Crazy – inspiration for Robot Santa in Futurama, y/y? Did you know that the lead singer of Devo has said he thinks Dare to Be Stupid is more Devo-esque than anything Devo ever did? I find that hilarious. The Saga Begins almost makes it worth watching the Star Wars prequels. I’d love to have heard full versions of classics like I Love Rocky Road and Another One Rides the Bus, but I understand that for the sake of a concert and an artist like Weird Al, playing all his awesome older stuff and his awesome newer stuff would make for a week long concert, so I’ll suck it up and enjoy the medly. After all, he does medlies so well, as evidenced by the ever-present polka medlies on every album and the beginning of this concert. While I normally do enjoy Weird Al’s style parodies (I honestly think Frank Zappa would have loved Genius in France, and I have genuinely mistaken Everything You Know is Wrong for an actual TMBG song), I find his NIN parody, Germs, kind of weak. Which is sad, because I loved NIN at the time that this concert took place and I’d have adored a really good style parody of them. It’s not bad, it’s just not as spot on as I’m used to the style parodies being. Eh. It’s one weak number in the middle of an truly fantastic concert.

I accurately nailed the year this took place. 1998 or 1999, I said to Andy. 1999. The reason I can do that is because of the pop culture references. Star Wars Episode I? Alanis Morisette? Those would be my college years. Early college years. So yeah, I can pinpoint that. Which is kind of neat. Not that I don’t enjoy his older or newer stuff. I still love his Michael Jackson parodies, and White and Nerdy is a work of genius. But the year this came from, and the years just before and after, those are special years in my heart. I admit, I owned Alanis Morrisette’s first album and listened to it repeatedly. I never owned any Spice Girls, but they were on the trailer reel at the Blockbuster I worked at over the summers, and yeah, they did catchy stuff. I don’t usually tune into current pop, but I know what’s out there. So there’s a boatload of nostalgia in here, listening to things like Bedrock Anthem and It’s All About the Pentiums. And obviously, with so many costume changes (seriously, he’s in something different for almost every song, as is his band), there was more to this concert than got recorded. I do wonder how that works live? Does he do so many costume changes? There is an art to a fast costume change. I’ve done enough theater to know there’s lots of tricks you can use. But this is above and beyond. So was this concert done with pauses, staged specifically for recording? Or is there filler in between numbers that require costume changes, with videos playing or something? I mean, they play the intro to the Fat video (not my favorite song in the world, but the intro is a great Michael Jackson parody and I’m going to have to watch the videos after this) before he comes out in a full fat suit, but that’s not the norm for any of the other numbers. I’d be curious to know. Anyone who’s seen him live, clue me in?

Regardless of how this specific concert was put on versus any other concerts he’s done (alas, none in the Boston area this year and they’re almost all sold out anyhow), it’s a fantastic show. The costume changes, the manic energy, the crowd interaction, the song selection, the Star Wars-themed encore, it’s all great. Weird Al managed to pack in classics and new stuff and stuff in between and polka and style parody and full parody and I wish I’d been there. I really really do. Some day.

June 1, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments