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Monday, 27 May 2013

Films - The Great Gatsby - directed by Baz Luhrmann

Star rating - 6/10

Like a good recipe it has all the right ingredients, but this version of F Scott Fitzgerald's classic, brilliant novel misses a beat, or rather, it has altogether too many beats  to create the right rhythm. Baz Luhrmann is a genius of a director, and his body of work is fabulous and dazzling, including perennial favourites Strictly Ballroom and Romeo + Juliet. But his vision of the 1920's cautionary tale of lost love and materialistic values does not chime with mine, as Luhrmann has forced his unmistakable imprint into every nook and cranny of the story.

The terrible reviews had lowered my expectations somewhat, which is often a good thing, but the opening scenes were terrible, with a Disney-like quality which threatened to overpower the whole story. And there was far too much background music, much of which felt out of place, with the notable exception of Lana Del Rey's lovely Young and Beautiful, which fitted perfectly, but outshone the accompanying action. As it progressed it did get slightly better, but not much.

There is one exemption to this general criticism, and that is the ever wonderful Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire who has risen from poverty and created an aura of dazzling enticement, all to win back the heart of Daisy. They were in love five years before when he emerged from the war dashing and uniformed but penniless, and his poverty meant their romance was hopeless. So he created a fortune from illicit dealings in the shady 1920's  - all to win her back. She is by now unhappily married to old moneyed Tom across the bay - and the tussle commences. 

DiCaprio is perfect as the shady, charismatic Gatsby, who charms Daisy's cousin Nick, the narrator of the tale. Possibly even better than Robert Redford in the far superior 1974 version. He throws lavish parties - which are admittedly perfect for the Luhrmann brand of excess, but the rest of the action should be more nuanced and subtle, not words usually associated with Luhrmann's style. Carey Mulligan is not quite right as the beautiful, sad, fool Daisy; she appears too insipid even for the character's undoubted frailties. And her foolish cousin Nick is unrecognisable from the idealistic person Fitzgerald created, his written words appearing across the screen in a totally unnecessary embellishment.

Whenever DiCaprio is not on screen it seems somehow empty, despite the lavish sets and excesses on display. I can't imagine how over the top it would seem in 3D, even in 2D is was too much, and but for DiCaprio would have sunk without a trace of Fitzgerald in sight. 

Friday, 24 May 2013

Gigs - Lana Del Rey - Manchester Apollo

Star rating - 8/10

Everything about Lana Del Rey screams star. Her stage set is a large scale sumptuous art deco palace complete with two big lion statues and palm trees. Her thousands of young fans were screaming for her long before she slinked onto the stage, and they carried on screaming wildly throughout her polished, and unexpectedly endearing performance. The giddy atmosphere resembled  what I imagine it was like at a Beatles gig in the 1960's.

Her opening song, Cola ,was just about audible over the crowd over exuberance, and in truth it could have stood being a bit louder to really appreciate her beautiful smooth voice and intelligent, poignant lyrics over the din. She continued with sweeping songs from her two albums including majestic sweeping strings on her Blue Velvet cover; Born to Die which showcased her undeniably fabulous voice with this sad tales of lost innocence and wild love; and the new song for The Great Gatsby movie Young and Beautiful. It was lovely, and although I haven't seen it yet my guess is that the song is far better than the film itself.

She oozed movie star charisma, with the fragility to match, as she wandered amongst her adoring fans signing autographs from the off. It might be churlish of me but I feel that she really should have been doing a bit more singing and a bit less mingling - although to be honest I am probably in a tiny minority with that opinion.

There was a slightly self indulgent video about her 'journey' so far mid set, and to be fair the video backdrop throughout the set was very watchable. Video Games was the inevitable brilliant highlight of the evening. It was followed by the last song National Anthem, which in truth was part number, and part more mingling and taking photos of the audience on her phone, and having hers taken back in return.  It was a bit of a love-in all round.

Lana Del Rey is clearly a phenomenon who means a lot to young women of a certain age, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I couldn't help but warm to her charm and undoubted talent, although the screaming I could really have managed without. 

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Film - Beware of Mr. Baker - directed by Jay Bulger

Star rating - 8/10
You don't have to know much about legendary drummer Ginger Baker, and you certainly don't have to love his music either, to appreciate this fascinating documentary about his hell raising and quite sad life.
Named after the sign that greeted visitors to his gated South African ranch, American director Jay Bulger explores his genius, flaws and failings. And there are many. Baker is famous for being the drummer in 60's super group Cream, alongside Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. Many thought of them as a rock group, but Baker's influences were more jazz than rock. The venture only lasted a few years, as Baker was either impossible to be with for any length of time, or he walked away of his own accord. It is a poignant moment when he describes Clapton as still his best friend, when it was clear that, whilst caring about him, Clapton obviously does not reciprocate that depth of feeling for his old pal. 

Baker had a hard working class London childhood, and was obviously deeply traumatised by the death of his father in the Second World War. A letter from his Dad written before his death and opened after it, advised him to use his fists when he needed to and not to let others bully him. Baker seems to have taken this to heart a touch too much, and has fought his way through his life, either physically or verbally, ever since.

But it is the musical genius of the man which really shines though this film, his drum battles with famous jazz drummers of the day; his magpie-like collection of musical influences across Africa and other continents. As he says - drumming is all about time - and timing is something that no-one can deny he has is abundance. His drum solos still having the power to mesmerise until just a few years ago.

Now in his 70's and stony broke again, with a trail of failed relationships of all sorts in his wake, he is still angry at the world. Even director Bulger himself gets on the wrong end of a lashing from Baker. But it's hard to see how his musical genius could have been created if he had not such a compulsive personality in other areas - be it in polo horses, wives, or heroin. This is a fascinating documentary about a real one -off character. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Film - Journey To Italy - directed by Roberto Rossellini

Star rating - 8/10

This newly restored black and white classic 1953 movie from Italian director Roberto Rossellini is a stylish treat. It stars George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman as a respectable well-off couple whose marriage is in trouble, driving through Italy to tie up the sale of a late relative's villa. The tension between them grows increasingly to bitterness as the journey progresses, which must have been painful for both Rossellini and Bergman, whose own real life marriage was in trouble at the time.

The breakdown in relations increases with the beautiful bay of Naples as a backdrop, and Bergman makes a poignant visit to Pompeii, whilst her husband is frankly bored with looking at ancient stuffy relics. The acting is first class, the clothes and fifties styling exquisite, and watching Ingrid Bergman is, as always, an absolute pleasure.

If you are a fan of Brief Encounter, I can guarantee you will love this less romantic, and more modernist story of a troubled relationship from a master director. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Gigs - Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell - Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Star rating - 9/10

Being one of my very favourite artists I have seen Emmylou Harris perform live many times now, but her current tour with Rodney Crowell really was a special treat. They, together with their 5 piece band, played their hearts out in two separate, long sets; the first a collection of songs from their shared history, and the second from their new album Old Yellow Moon. Their infectious sense of fun and enjoyment at being on stage on this, the first night of their tour, transmitted to the crowd, and it almost felt like intruding on a private, joy-filled, jamming session.

Harris and Crowell are old friends, he having joined her Hot Band way back in 1975 as a rhythm guitarist. And their voices blend together beautifully, but then Emmylou is an absolute magician at wrapping her voice around others, especially male ones, and making harmonies so sweet it is startling. Of course the most famous vocal duets she created were with Gram Parsons, and the evening kicked off with a very special rendition of his Return of the Grievous Angel, followed by more Parsons treats in the shape of Wheels and Luxury Liner. The latter featured some stunning electric guitar picking by Australian Jedd Hughes.

There were also some of my favourite numbers from Emmylou's own back catalogue including Red Dirt Girl, with its sad story of the unbelievably hard life and early death of a working class girl named Lillian, who dreamt hopelessly of a better life. Covers of the beautiful Susanna Clark song I'll be your San Antone Rose, a friend whose death last year obviously touched Harris. As did the death in 2010 of Kate McGarrigle, and the simple solo acoustic version of Darlin' Kate was truly moving. Crowell also  contributed some of his own lovely songs including The Rock of My Soul and Earthbound.

Their second set included the Louvin Brothers classic The Angels Rejoiced Last Night, and Leaving Louisiana with its gorgeous pedal steel accompaniment. But it was mainly a show case for their new album, which was clearly a labour of friendship and love.  Hanging Up My Heart is a great Hank DeVito cover; Invitation to the Blues an old country shuffle; and Back When We Were Beautiful a hauntingly beautiful song about lost youth and growing old. Harris lovingly recounted how she first heard Crowell sing, at the end of a dodgy batch of demo tapes that had been sent to her, his Blueberry Wine caught her attention, and fully deserves its place on the new record.

This talented group of musicians were clearly having fun as a band, playing country and rock n roll and everything in between. Crowell described Emmylou as having 'the soul of a poet, the voice of an angel, and heart of a cowgirl.' It's hard to disagree. It was a treasure of an evening, and the first time I have not heard her sing Boulder to Birmingham live (my all time favourite song by anyone). They left us with the lucious Sin City, and such was the quality of the night that there was no room at all for disappointment.