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Random thoughts about sound and vision.

Dancin' In The Key Of Life - La La Land review

You can't judge a songbook by its cover.

Take a glance at the poster. Watch the trailer or see the clips on TV. Surely it's all the evidence you need that La La Land is writer/director Damien Chazelle's valentine to the glorious Cinemascope musicals of the 1950s. And it is - clearly, unabashedly, unashamedly. To the film's benefit, however, Chazelle's love for them is not unconditional. 

After a rousing opening number (don't be late taking your seat), we meet the leads. Ryan Gosling is a frustrated jazz pianist. He's either playing standards to an unappreciative bar audience or slumming it in an '80s covers wedding band. Emma Stone works in a film studio cafe, dishing out the coffee and cookies whilst dreaming of starring in her own, one-woman show.   Boy meet-cutes girl and lo and behold, love is in the air. Gosling and Stone then dance and sing their way, in dizzyingly long takes, through L.A.'s most Kodak moment worthy locations, 

Credit: Dale Robinette

Credit: Dale Robinette

La La Land is a rarity - a film musical, with original songs, that hasn't come from Broadway and isn't animated. A musical stands (or falls) on his songs. Fortunately, Justin Hurwitz has composed a soundtrack packed with memorable tunes, the kind that you'll be humming all the way home. And then all the way back to the cinema for your second (or third or fourth) viewing.

What ultimately makes La La Land work so well is that, for each Technicolor fantasy moment (a hillside duet here, a gravity-defying waltz through the stars there), there's a sobering measure of back-down-to-earth reality. Two shots of happy, one shot of sad. It's most clear when late on in the film, Gosling and Stone come across a fork in the yellow brick road of their careers. The route that they choose is not one that would have been taken by the musicals of the '50s. It's this blending of sky's-the-limit fantasy and modern-day reality that makes La La Land such an irresistible movie. Chazelle doesn't shy away from real life - the joy and pain of being in a relationship and how that special person in your life can either raise your craft or hold back your ambitions.   

Truly wonderful, La La Land is a rush of sunshine, perfect for this wintry time of year.

Credit: Dale Robinette

Credit: Dale Robinette

For whom The Bell tolls

Another day, another legend gone. Alan Rickman - the man who was Hans Gruber, Marvin the Paranoid Android, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Professor Severus Snape - has passed away

All magnificent performances. But there's another, lesser known one. In 1992, Mike Oldfield brought out Tubular Bells II, a sorta-sequel to his '70s prog-rock masterpiece. It's bland, inoffensive and not terribly memorable...except for one track.

Coyly (and anonymously) billed in the sleeve notes as "A Strolling Player", Rickman takes over the Master Of Ceremonies duties from the original's Vivian Stanshall. As Oldfield piles them on one by one, Rickman drolly introduces each instrument as it appears in his own imitable manner. No one else could make the word "glockenspiel" sound like it was emanating from the heart of darkness itself. I have no idea what "the Venetian effect" is, but Rickman makes it sound so sinister and foreboding, it ought to be slapped with a public health warning.

There have been many tributes paid today but this one rang particularly true:

Loving The Alien

To misquote Karen Carpenter: rainy days and Mondays - and hearing about the death of David Bowie - always get me down.

I'm not good enough a writer to sum up in a blog post the icon that was - is - David Bowie. It's like trying to condense the glory of the Grand Canyon into a single tweet or distilling the euphoric rush of your first love onto a Post-It note. Bowie's contributions and impact on art are immeasurable and will continue to influence it for decades to come.

I've written before about how I first discovered Bowie, so I won't cover that ground again. What I want to mention is this mixtape.

It was given to me back in the mid '80s by Linda Murrish, who I used to work with at Exchange & Mart magazine. Linda was a huge Bowie fan and was amazed that my knowledge of the Thin White Duke only extended to the Let's Dance and Tonight albums, plus a handful of singles. It was time to educate me about the wider world of Bowie. Linda skilfully put together a mixtape of album tracks, B-sides and rare mixes and presented me with it. I listened to that mixtape repeatedly back in '86 and it was that cassette that turned me onto Bowie.

I don't listen to cassettes any more. Most have been thrown out by me over the years but I've kept back those that mean something special to me. Linda's tape is one of those. A quick rummage in the loft and there it was. I lost contact with Linda many years ago but I wish that today - of all days - I could thank her again for making this tape and making me aware of the genius that was 

David Bowie - RIP. It may be Monday but I'll love you till Tuesday...and every day after that.

Behind The Sandpaper Curtain - An Appreciation Of Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan's latest record - Shadows In The Night - is the #1 album in the UK. A collection of Frank Sinatra covers, it's the next surprising move from a singer-songwriter who's made a career out of doing whatever he damn well pleases.

Robert Allen Zimmerman - to give his birth name - polarises popular opinion like Marmite. I first really came to know his work back in the summer of 2002. I had recently started a new job and was going to be driving between Bournemouth and Southampton, spending the best part of an hour each way in the car. Some new music was definitely required. I went down to HMV and browsed the racks, looking for inspiration. Whilst I was rummaging through the bargain bins, I came across an unfamiliar CD at a very nice price. I decided that I could afford to risk three quid on this particular album album, though it would probably just confirm what I suspected all along. That this "Bob Dylan" bloke couldn’t sing and was criminally overrated.

So I took the CD, threw into the car stereo and started the drive home. I listened to it. And then on the way to work the next day, I listened to it again.

And I thought it was great.

Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" (1966)

Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" (1966)

The album was Blonde On Blonde. There’s no hit singles on it but what is does have is Dylan classics such as “Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again” and “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat” and “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”. The Dylan anorak in me is forced at this point to tell you that when this came out way back in 1966 it was a double album – one of the very first. And “Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”, which is 11 minutes long, took up an entire side of one of the two records that made up the album. 

In my humble opinion, this is one of the very best folk-rock albums ever made. This is not just a collection of songs but a proper album, with a beginning, middle and end. It’s also a very enigmatic record - there are no photographs available of any of the recording sessions, no film has ever been released of Dylan in the studio  – which is pretty unusual.

This is the kind of detail that makes Bob Dylan so fascinating to me. He’s been releasing albums for over 50 years now– 36 studio albums, 11 live albums and many, many compilations. For many people, it's the Dylan voice that's the problem. He doesn't have a great singing voice - a sandpaper curtain that unfortunately obscures his genius for some. But get over your initial misgivings, dive in, and there's a wealth of tremendous lyrics and powerful music to discover. Full disclosure: whilst many of his records are works of genius, others are complete crap. No, really. Unlistenable. Lend an ear to 1988's Down In The Groove for a start.

And it’s not just his records that can be infuriating – it’s his live performances as well. I’ve seen Dylan play live on several occasions, each time going with a different person – because at the end of the gig, they invariably turn and say “sorry mate - that was rubbish”. They complain that he croaked his way through each and every song, that he played classics like “Blowin’ In The Wind” or “Like A Rolling Stone” in versions that hardly sound like the original at all. And they’re right. The band is good – the music is always good – but Dylan barely acknowledges his audience. He just gets on stage, does a couple of hours and goes.

But once in a blue moon, sometimes clicks. Out of nowhere, he suddenly delivers a terrific performance or does something you’re not expecting. Last time I saw him, he had a stack of music sheets on top of his keyboard. He was peering at them, trying to read the words as the sheets kept slipping off. In exasperation, he glanced around, picked up something nearby and used it as a paper weight. If you looked really hard, you could see what the improvised paperweight was – the Best Song Oscar he won in 2001, for "Things Have Changed" from Wonder Boys.

I’m now passionate about Bob Dylan – the music, the lyrics, the man, everything. If you’re a fan, he can really be exasperating at times but like with a good friend, you’re always prepared to forgive the odd indiscretion. 

And by the way, his Frank Sinatra album is terrific. He even sings it well, the contrary old bugger.

Hell: The Freeze

The Spandau Ballet documentary SOUL BOYS OF THE WESTERN WORLD is out on DVD/Blu-ray this week - and it's one of the films of the year.

Really? I hear you cry in disbelief. Spandau Ballet: The Film up there with 12 YEARS A SLAVE, CALVARY and GONE GIRL?

Well - yes. Director George Hencken has diligently ploughed through hours and hours of old footage of the band. There's plenty of music videos, TV interviews, in-the-studio footage and rare 8mm film shot by the band themselves. What emerges is a riveting account of how five have-a-go boys from London stormed the pop charts and became music stars around the globe.

For a decade, the Spandaus surfed the wave of success but come the '90s, the fickle music-buying public started to look elsewhere for their pop thrills. Heated arguments broke out and abruptly, Spandau Ballet was no more. Then came that court case...

The likelihood of Spandau band members shaking hands and drawing a line under all of this was about as likely as hell freezing over. Fortunately, Satan's homestead did undergo a sudden temperature drop and Spandau Ballet ascended phoenix-like from the ashes of friendships and flop records. Come 2009, (SPOILER ALERT!) the band is back together again, new songs are recorded and a sell-out tour takes place.

To its credit, the documentary pulls no punches about the rise, fall and rise again of the band. Songwriter Gary Kemp is painted (unfairly) as the black-hatted bad guy but by the end, all is forgiven. It helps if you like their music (full disclosure: I do) but if you don't - no matter; there's more than enough to keep even the casual viewer hooked. The story of how the New Romantic movement appeared in the early '80s and made Spandau Ballet its frilly-shirted figureheads is a fascinating one.

If you're old enough to remember those halcyon days of the early Eighties, you'll love SOUL BOYS OF THE WESTERN WORLD. And if you're not - give it a go anyway.

It's terrific. I know, I know that much is true...

Er - sorry.

Nik Kershaw - Me, Myself & I gig review

"So - what's The Riddle about then, Nik?"

A pause, a reflective stroke of a beard - then a grin.

"Actually, it's a load of bollocks."

Nik Kershaw on stage at The Regent Centre.

Nik Kershaw on stage at The Regent Centre.

Welcome to Nik Kershaw live, 30 years on from first appearing in the pop music charts and now on stage at the Regent Centre in Christchurch. It's the last night of his "Me, Myself & I" solo acoustic tour and he's busy answering questions from the audience. Those cryptic lyrics to his November 1984 smash "The Riddle" ? Only meant to be temporary but the rushed production schedule meant he never had the chance to change them to something sensible. Cue a thousand anguished cries from Kershaw fans who have been desperately trying to decipher their meaning for years.

Kershaw is being rather modest with the description of this show. Whilst, yes, it is just him solo on stage, he is joined by an Apple laptop and a battery of foot pedals and effects. There's also behind him a triptych screen, neatly showing a crossword puzzle that's gradually filled in by the titles of songs when he's performed them.

Ah, the songs. This is one of two major revelations tonight. Shorn of their synths and '80s production, his early hits - "Wouldn't It Be Good?", "I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me", "Human Racing" - show that they are Proper Songs and not reliant on production gimmicks. In particular, his oh-so-Eighties hit "Dancing Girls" is stripped down to the bone to great effect.

Kershaw's songwriting obviously didn't finish when the hits dried up. "Red Strand" is a highlight - a charming account of a night on the beach with his future wife. "Have a Nice Life", from his '99 album "15 Minutes", was written for his young son and his hopes of a bright future for him. There are skilful covers of Bowie's "Drive-In Saturday" and Stevie Wonder's "I Wish"...and "The One And Only", the song he wrote for Chesney Hawkes that finally in 1991 gave Kershaw a number 1 record.

The other revelation is Nik Kershaw - Raconteur. I had him pegged back in the day as the "snood with the mood" but how wrong I was. Kershaw is self-deprecating, being devastatingly honest about his faults. He exhibits a dry wit that regularly cracks the audience up between songs. It's clear that at 56, he's rightly comfortable with his life, his songwriting, his performing and the legacy of those '80s hits.

Meeting his fans after the gig.

Meeting his fans after the gig.

At the end of the gig, he warmly thanks the audience then promptly heads out into the foyer to sign autographs and pose for photographs with fans. Nik Kershaw is clearly more than just a bunch of fondly-remembered singles - it may well be that his post-Eighties catalogue will finally get some proper recognition. Wouldn't that be good?