Jim Jarmusch Via Germany, Part 2

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

In the previous article in this miniseries, I covered (through the medium of a Germany-exclusive blu-ray boxed set) Jarmusch’s early career up to Dead Man. That movie benefitted in part from an excellent country-industrial soundtrack by Neil Young, so it’s only fitting that Jarmusch would return the favour with a project focused on Young himself…

Year of the Horse

This is a documentary about Neil Young and Crazy Horse which isn’t entirely of Jarmusch’s own making; specifically, it mixes footage shot by Jarmusch on Crazy Horse’s 1996 tour with backstage footage from Neil Young’s archives from 1986 and 1976, to offer a glimpse of the musicians in three different decades. In principle, this should be an exciting prospect, because that happens to catch three very important but distinct periods in the group’s career. (It’s important to remember that Crazy Horse isn’t so much Neil Young’s backing band as it is an independent entity that Neil Young happens to play with regularly – they have made Neil-less releases, and on the documentary Neil introduces himself as the “guitarist with Crazy Horse” rather than the band leader or a solo artist or anything like that.)

To be specific, 1976 saw Neil at the height of his creative powers (and his closest physical resemblance to Neil from The Young Ones); the previous year had seen him release the epochal albums Zuma and Tonight’s the Night, the latter of which was recorded in 1973 as a response to the death by heroin overdose of Crazy Horse lead guitarist Danny Whitten and and Bruce Berry, one of Neil’s roadies. The two albums couldn’t be more different – Tonight’s the Night is the saddest entry in Neil’s sorrowful “Ditch Trilogy” along with Time Fades Away and On the Beach – whilst Zuma found him moving beyond the trilogy with a more tonally varied release and a new lease of energy.

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That’s the Hell of It…

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The mysterious Mr. Swan (Paul Williams) is a legendary record executive and producer – Mephistophelian in his bearing, Svengali-esque in his powers of persuasion, and Phil Spector-esque in pretty much every other respect. His current hit group, the Juicy Fruits, have spearheaded a nostalgia wave to the top of the charts, and his Death Records label dominates the industry. Now he wants to open the Paradise – his very own deluxe concert hall – and he wants the perfect music to open it with.

Enter humble Winslow Leach (William Finley), a skilled pianist and songwriter who’s written an epic rock opera based on Faust. Overhearing Leach performing some of his material, Swan sends his thuggish agent Philbin (George Memmoli) to acquire it – having done so, Swan and Philbin cut Leach out of the process entirely. As Leach tries harder and harder to get them to listen to him, Swan’s empire wrongs him more and more – first they throw him out, then they beat him up, then they have him arrested on trumped-up drugs charges and sent to Sing Sing, where the governor arbitrarily has his teeth removed and replaced with steel teeth. Flying into a rage when he hears a news report that Swan intends to have the Juicy Fruits perform his material, Leach escapes and goes on a rampage against Swan’s business interests, during which he incurs further horrible injuries, loses his voice entirely, and is thought to have died.

Under the circumstances, there’s only one thing to reasonably do: sneak into the Paradise, cobble together a spooky costume from the props cupboard, and do the whole Phantom of the Opera thing to terrorise Swan. Trouble is, Swan is difficult to scare – and very persuasive. On encountering the transformed Leach he offers to put on Faust the way Leach wants it, once Leach has rewritten it to suit a new vocalist. Having fallen in love with showbiz hopeful Phoenix (Jessica Harper in her first movie appearance), Leach agrees and signs a contract – in blood, naturally – on the condition that Phoenix be the lead singer.

Swan, naturally, reneges on the deal – leading to an escalation of the conflict between them that reveals supernatural twists to Swan’s history and culminating in a chaotic final sequence which is a triumph of carefully choreographed chaos. Characters die and hearts are broken – but the party’s so good and the music’s so hot that barely anyone notices. All this is naturally set to a great soundtrack – penned by Paul Williams himself – concluding with perhaps the best song of the lot over the credits, a catchy Elton John-esque number about how the fallen characters’ lives were totally meaningless and they’re better off dead.

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Not Just “Goin’ Through the Motions”

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

Amputee war veteran private detective Cormoran Strike’s business has been picking up after his last two cases, what with him being instrumental in solving the murders of supermodel Lula Landry and maverick author Owen Quine. Meanwhile, his employee Robin has moved on from being a mere secretary and actually undergone detective training herself, and has started to take on her own casework whilst at the same time getting really close to marrying her fiancé Matthew.

All this is thrown into confusion when someone has a human leg delivered to Strike’s office, with a note inscribed with enigmatic Blue Öyster Cult lyrics. This strikes home with Strike, whose supergroupie mother had been an enormous Blue Öyster Cult fan to the extent that she’d tattooed herself with some of their lyrics; the Cult reference here is a rather unambiguous sign that whoever is behind all this is out to get Strike, and the fact that the box the leg came in was addressed to Robin suggests that she is in the killer’s crosshairs too.

The police are convinced that the culprit is a gangland figure that Strike’s confidential testimony was responsible for putting away, but Strike reckons he knows at least three other people in his past who might just be inclined to send him a severed leg: two of them he had run-ins with in the army during his time as in the military police, whilst one was a failed thrash metal guitarist who, after being punted out of a string of bands and spiralling into irrelevance, had been the last lover of Strike’s mother before she died – a death that may not have been as accidental as the coroner ruled it to be.

At the same time, a blurted confession from Matthew forces Robin to reconsider her decision to marry him altogether and makes her open up to Strike about her past – and on Strike’s end, the apparent end of Robin’s engagement stirs feelings about her he tries to stifle for the sake of professionalism. Matters are complicated by the fact that Robin is intent on being fully involved with this investigation, no matter what anyone says – and when the investigation turns up some uncomfortable information Robin isn’t prepared to look away – whilst Strike is intent on keeping her out of trouble, particularly since all of the potential suspects in the case not only have no qualms about being violent towards women but actively welcome the opportunity. Solving the case might save the agency’s reputation – and Strike and Robin’s lives – but can their professional relationship survive the strain?

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Three Play Loud In Birmingham

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

The ringing is slowly fading from my ears as I write this, in the wake of Alice Cooper’s concert at the Birmingham NEC on the 10th November 2007. Supported by Joan Jett (known in this country for I Love Rock and Roll on the Guitar Hero soundtrack and… little else) and Motörhead (known for Ace of Spades and a million million million other songs which sound exactly like Ace of Spades), the show turned out to be a four-and-a-half hour celebration of loud guitars and distinctive lead singers. But are trashy New York punk, gruff British speed metal and heavy Detroit glam rock musical flavours which go well together?

The Venue

For those of you who’ve never been to a concert there, incidentally, the NEC Arena isn’t at all bad. Clearly signposted from the M42, it has plenty of conference facilities – which means you’ll usually be able to grab a moderately-priced and moderately-bland dinner before the gig if you’re hungry – and the arena itself is well-lit, has plenty of toilets, snack food stands and (most importantly) water dispensers, and for this gig offered both standing and seated tickets. It’s the hallowed ground where such cultural icons as Wolf, Shadow, and Panther reigned supreme in Gladiators, back before we realised that it was just a tame and less entertaining form of professional wrestling, and it doesn’t seem to have changed a bit since then. The floor is sticky, but not as sticky as, say, those in the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford. Some of the toilets are unpleasant.

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