Monday, December 28, 2020

Review: 'Stanley Kubrick Produces'

Stanley Kubrick is one of the most recognizable and revered film directors and arguably the one who most effectively and indelibly smuggled big ideas and experimental storytelling into mainstream cinemas. However, a close look at his career reveals that Kubrick put a lot more of himself into producing than directing. Over the final three decades of his career, he directed only five films, but he was constantly busy with distribution, marketing, home video releases, dubbing for foreign markets, etc. And he lavished all the attention on this unglamorous stuff that he expended on his directing. Ultimately, his obsession with every facet of production so consumed his time that he could direct only one picture in the final twelve years of his life.

I'm a major Kubrick fan, and I've read several books about him, but I didn't quite grasp why his career was as odd as it was until reading James Fenwick's Stanley Kubrick Produces. Bolstered with a tremendous amount of research in the Stanley Kubrick Archives at the University of the Arts London, Fenwick highlights how dedicated Kubrick was to maintaining control of his work from the very beginning of his career. It began with media spin in the days when he wanted to project the idea that he had more control than he really did and he tended to bungle his productions. He made the ultimate blunder when he and partner James B. Harris signed a contract with Kirk Douglas's production company that gave the actor far more say than it gave Kubrick. 

The interesting takeaway from Stanley Kubrick Produces that Fenwick doesn't overemphasize is that Kubrick's obsession with control was often about creating and presenting his work as well as he possibly could. It may seem crazy for a producer to get involved in how his movies are dubbed for foreign markets, which is a task usually farmed out to companies that specialize in that kind of work. However, anyone who has ever seen a film dubbed with flat, unengaged voices knows how integral voice acting is to the effectiveness of a film. Kubrick was rightly offended by attempts to market Paths of Glory as a blood and guts war movie or 2001: A Space Odyssey as pulp sci-fi and one can understand why an artist of his caliber would want to get involved in that side of the business for the sake of how the world approached his art. While the many mistakes documented in Stanley Kubrick Produces expose Kubrick as not as infallible as some fans consider him to be, and his attempts to subvert labor union rules were downright immoral, the infamous obsessiveness it also documents only highlights how complete his artistry was.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Review: 'The Rolling Stones'

For a band regularly derided as ugly and dirty throughout their nearly sixty-year career, The Rolling Stones' mugs have sure sold a lot of books. Originally published in 2014, editor Reuel Golden's The Rolling Stones was just the latest in a long history of Stones-centric photo books. Most of its images had been previously published, but since it's a Taschen book, it is atypically comprehensive. Its more than 450 pages are packed with pictures of them from their most photogenic days in the sixties to sessions for their most recent album at that time, 2005's A Bigger Bang. Half of those 450 pages focus on the sixties with a variety of publicity photos, album cover sessions, and recording studio documents. Surprisingly few catch them on stage in their most vital days, though concert pics become the dominant type when The Rolling Stones starts sucking in the seventies. Hilariously, and thankfully, the book sprints through the Stones' most execrable decade, the eighties, in just ten pages, while about twenty each are allotted for the inessential nineties and twenty-first century. 

Because so many of these images will be familiar to Stones fans, The Rolling Stones will be most valuable to fans purchasing their first Stones photo book or others looking to consolidate. I've seen my share, but some of these were new to me, such as a shot of Brian Jones holding a (presumably) psychedelic mushroom aloft in 1967 and a shot of Keith Richards's pre-Redlands living room, which is as Spartan as a hotel room. My favorite shots are the LP-cover outtakes, but that's just because I can never get enough of seeing Charlie Watts pal around with a donkey.

Taschen is now publishing an updated edition of The Rolling Stones, though the only post-2014 photos can be found in the memorabilia and discography sections. Perhaps more pics were added to the sixties and seventies. I doubt anyone would complain about that. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Review: 'Film Noir Style: The Killer 1940s'

Even with its multilayered mysteries and bizarre developments, film noir was always more about style than plot. No one can tell you what The Big Sleep is about, but everyone remembers Bogart’s rumpled trench coat/fedora combo and Bacall’s sharp houndstooth suit.

Kimberly Truhler surveys film noir style in her new book Film Noir Style. This is more than an analysis of the costumes the actors wore in films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Gilda, though it is that. Truhler occasionally discusses how lighting, set design, and camera angles fashioned the instantly identifiable noir aesthetic.


Monday, December 7, 2020

Review: 'Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture'

In the late seventies, The B-52’s magnetized the pop world’s attention to Athens, Georgia, where a new scene was starting to coalesce. There was no particular Athens sound. The-B-52’s kitschy retro party rock was nothing like Pylons angular avant-funk or Bar-B-Q Killer’s chaotic punk or Vic Chesnutt’s gritty songcraft or R.E.M.’s jangly Nuevo folk rock. But the fact that so much varied creativity was blossoming in a particular location was noteworthy and highly influential. That creativity expanded beyond pop as students and artists attracted to a bohemian oasis in the conservative state invented new ways to express themselves and hang out. They got inventive on the cheap with weird food-oriented art shows or made spectacles of themselves while people watching. Outside artists such as Matthew Sweet were drawn to the Athens to catch some of its magic.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Review: 'Portrait of a Phantom: The Story of Robert Johnson’s Lost Photograph'

In 2005, guitar salesman Zeke Schein found an original photograph depicting a man he was convinced was Robert Johnson on ebay. He won the auction after bidding $3,100 (the actual sale price was $2,176.56), passed the photo around to various bluesmen and a forensics expert, and not only amassed evidence that his picture is most likely the real deal (though it remains officially unverified), but identified the photographer and the second man in the photo: Johnson’s traveling companion and collaborator, Johnny Shines. The discovery of the photo was significant because there had previously only been two known photos of the man who was arguably the key figure in blues—more because he wrote timeless songs and developed a complex guitar technique than because of any cheesy Faustian bargain myth.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Review: 'Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues' on Vinyl

With The Blazers, Charles Brown created a smooth blues sound he put to fine use on his 1947 hit "Merry Christmas Baby". After Brown went solo in 1948, that hit solidified into standard and he became pretty associated with the holiday season. He penned another seasonal standard called "Please Come Home for Christmas" in 1960 that would be covered by everyone from The Eagles to Bon Jovi to Kelly Clarkson. Ummm, guess whose version is the best.

In 1994, Brown revisited those two classics and nine other numbers for Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues. If anything, the album is a bit too cool. Its slow, serene sound gets a little samey. But though his re-recordings do not have the vintage atmosphere of the originals, I like the way his voice has aged. Charles Brown at 72 wasn't quite as smooth as he was at 25, but his voice acquired a lot more character. His band stretches out for some pleasant, light jazz improv. Normally I'd rather hear that version of "Jingle Bells" by the barking dogs than any version of "Silent Night", but Brown infuses the corny hymn with fresh soul by playing with its sing-songy melody in his inimitable style.

Originally released on compact disc, Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues is now making its vinyl debut. It's amazing to think that such an organic sounding recording was made during the digital age. It sounds terrific on this release and will surely put you deep into a seasonal groove. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Review: 'Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year'

Judged solely on the quality of its music, 1984 wasn’t necessarily the best year of the eighties. It did have an unusually high number of blockbuster releases. While 1982 could claim Thriller, and 1983 had Synchronicity, An Innocent Man, and Pyromania, 1984 was the year of such single-spewing juggernauts as the Footloose soundtrack, Born in the U.S.A., Eliminator, Sports, Can’t Slow Down, Like a Virgin, Private DancerShe’s So Unusual, Purple Rain, and yes, 1984. So you can’t fault Michaelangelo Matos for making the year the subject of his new book Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year. 
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