Not quite a gig in the usual sense, but close enough. Now in its 9th year in Barcelona, the annual Festival of Music Documentary Cinema feels as big a part of the festival circuit as Sonar, Primavera Sound, The Mercè and the Jazz Festival. The cues tell their own story: around the block half an hour before entry in the pouring rain. I didn’t attend a single session that didn’t seem full and that is saying something for big cinemas like the Aribau Multisalas that pack in plenty. The concept is addictive even for many who would be more passive “users” of music. With a subscription you can go to a session for as little as €4, so why not see something a little more periphery or go on a whim with a friend? As it happens, the festival seems to highlight just how fertile the music documentary field is, showcasing an extremely broad range of themes, styles and of course characters. Record companies looking for new revenue streams might think more carefully about this aspect of the business in the future.
Queen: Days of Our Lives (2011. Dir: Matt O’Casey)
This film actually started life as a two part BBC TV series in the UK and was spliced together to make a full length film. It is not the made-for-TV aspect as such that facilitates the rushed feel to the film, but rather the number of details that must be addressed in the allotted time. Aiming for the global view necessitates a certain amount of skimming across the surface and while fascinating, it all feels slightly superficial by the end. Perhaps if aiming for a cinema release or DVD they can afford to add in a few more minutes, because at times the film skips from myth to incident to anecdote without indulging details and in rapid fire succession. For example, in 1982 around the time of the “Hot Space” recordings in Munich, Freddie Mercury came under supposed “bad influences” but no more is said of this or the real impact. Albums and tours come and go. There is also the slight sense of bias since bass player John Deacon does not appear in the film, and at times the voices of Brian May (still the worst hair in music) and drummer Roger Taylor seem a little too cosy. Space for a little more analysis wouldn’t go astray. Nevertheless, some new footage for die-hard fans and a fascinating story for the neutrals makes it a great primer of the band.
Two highlights were seeing some of the videos for the solo work that the members did during their bad tempered hiatus in 1983. Brian May’s “Star Fleet Project” featuring Eddie van Halen is totally hilarious, the video somewhere between Battlestar Gallactica, Transformers and Thunderbirds all rolled into one.
Freddie Mercury’s solo career was marginally more successful, better when it was remixed as this 1992 version of his 1985 solo track “Living on my own” from the “Mr Bad Guy” album shows.
Tangent: Lost in translation.
All of the films shown at the festival are subtitled in Spanish. An unusual, but useful side of this is that they also translate the song lyrics into subtitles, when it does not interfere with dialogue. So you get Bowie singing “Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles, I'm feeling very still” coming up as “Aunque he pasado 160 000 kilometros, me siento muy tranquilo” with the joke being the imperial to metric conversion.
But there was also more trouble with Queen. How do you translate “We will rock you” into Spanish? I have seen the verb “to rock” conjugated as “rockear” and it does exist on the internet and was indeed used in one of the films I saw in a similar context. But “Os rockeraemos” or “vamos a rockearos” doesn´t sound right. The subtitle used was “Vamos a estremeceros”. Google translator would interpret this as “Let’s shake” bizarrely, but a more literal translation would be “We will shake you”. I asked my work colleague today how he would translate the phrase and he replied “But what does rock you mean?” He suggested another possibility which is “Vamos a sacudiros” which is a similar verb to “estremecer”, to shake, but with more connotations of physically violence.
Returning to the previous post of La Balanguera: I cut the original poem at four lines, but after discussing with my colleagues in a similar vein of translation issues of rock lyrics I thought it worth to expand on that. The entire first verse is:
“La Balanguera misteriosa,
com una aranya d'art subtil,
buida que buida sa filosa,
de nostra vida treu lo fil.
Com una parca bé caviŀla
teixint la tela per demà
La Balanguera fila, fila,
la Balanguera filarà.”
The full translation would then be:
“The mysterious Balanguera
Like a spider of subtle art,
Emptying to empty her wheel,
Removing the thread from our lives.
Like a brooding Parca
Weaving the fabric for tomorrow.
Spin, Balangura, spin.
The Balanguera will spin on.”
Decima (Greek Lachesis), who measured the thread of life with her rod;
Morta (Greek Atropos), who cut the thread of life and chose the manner of a person's death.
Note also the mathematical aspect to the names.
“I will drain him dry as hay:
Sleep shall neither night nor day
Hang upon his pent-house lid;
He shall live a man forbid:”
Here in Roman Polanski’s version of the opening scene starting at 1:10.
Macbeth forever struggles for his goodness and will to power, only to lament at the end “I bear a charmed life, which must not yield/To one of woman born”, but all too late. The emphasis on fate is played out throughout the tragedy whereas in Hamlet for instance, the ghost plays a different more eternal role. Macbeth’s refrain at the end seems to highlight is acceptance of outside influence, of the Parcae reclaiming his thread, and he is never drawn to Hamlet’s existential queries nor concerned with the haunting within. Akira Kurosawa reinterprets the three witches as a single entity in his samurai adaptation of Macbeth, “Throne of Blood” from 1957 with Toshiro Mifuni as the ill-fated Macbeth character Taketoki Washizu. Here the witch symbolically uses a loom (but not a distaff) to maintain the connection.
High on hope (2009; Dir: Piers Sanderson)
They call it acid (2009; Dir: Gordon Mason)
Piers Sanderson’s film of Blackburn warehouse parties won a prize at last year’s festival and for this reason was shown again this year where it worked well alongside Gordon Mason’s “They call it acid. The latter’s global view and galaxy of celebrity interviewees (narrated by none other than Robert Owens) complemented the more local and down to earth reality and characters of “High on hope” and yet both champion the same history.
“They call it acid” opens the story in Chicago, Detroit and New York, with only a teasingly short insight into the local cultures that fractured the original homogenous electronic disco sound into its three first schools of style. The story here is not the music anyway, but the culture surrounding it. The gay black and Latino discos of the US become the warehouses and clubs of England via their most tropical seed in Ibiza in the late 80s. There is a tip of the hat to Manchester’s Haçienda and far too much interview time with Noel Gallagher, while the Blackburn parties are mentioned in passing.
Sanderson film works then like a budding off of the main story, where the parties and the planning are shown in detail, courtesy of the archival footage of Preston Bob. The highlight of the film comes in the middle. Tommy and his colleagues describe how it all worked: finding the venue, heading off as both decoy and convey, breaking in, connecting the power, setting up the decks and letting in as many as possible before the police came so they couldn’t close it down. The frenzy of images and the clear enthusiasm from the various narrators as they retell their version of the story builds to a crescendo. Suddenly the lights drop and the music kicks in with Age of Love (I think). The collective sigh in the cinema was almost as big as it was in Blackburn up on screen. “They call it acid” then ends the show with the Freedom to Party demonstration in London, January 1990 as Margaret Thatcher’s years were coming to a close.
Age of love: proto-trance from 1990
Hardcore Uproar’s 1990 track “High on hope” features a sample of an angry Tommy saying “I’m not on anything I’m high on hope” in response to a mindless and obviously socially primed TV commentator during a live debate on the phenomenon back in the day.
The importance of both films is their reinforcing of the strong cultural significance at the roots of acid house and also the precursor sounds in the US and what it meant for minority people of race and sexuality. Tommy in “High on hope” in particular seemed hell bent on a revolution which in some ways bore fruit, although perhaps not as he expected it. But the importance is the climate of the time, with poor economy, unemployment and repressive social tactics from the government. There are several parallels that could be made with the recent “Indignado” movements in Spain, and similar protests elsewhere, including the protests against the London Stock Exchange and the blockade of the Port of Oakland and the Stock Exchange on Wall Street.
Of related interest are two recent or upcoming releases. First up is Strut Music’s collection of dance remixes and assorted 12” obscurities from the Factory label called “Fac. Dance”. While historically interesting and collecting together some legends of the time, the collection somehow misses its own point. The dance in the title is the biggest problem. Many of the tracks here are arguably not entirely dance floor, like X-O-Dus’s 100% dynamite reggae track “See them a’come”. The following track is The Durutti Column’s dreamy “For Belgian Friends” which is more come down or wake up than “dance”. The confusion is compounded by the liner notes which say in the opening line “This is the story of how Factory Records shook off post-punk sobriety and found its dancing feet” as if you were about to enter an electronic compilation. And after listening to Section 25’s staggering opening, the megamix of “Looking from a hilltop”, you wouldn’t be a surprised if it was. That most of the compilation is actually “sober” post-punk funk or fringe dance floor then feels slightly strange, especially after reading the veiled barbs against this type of music in the notes. Royal Family and the Poor’s “Art On” is one of the better examples of this, with its toxic cut-up poetry intoned monotonously over funk bass and distance drum machine. Conceptually not clear, but a great collection of diverse tracks.
This year I have been a bit anti to the retro house craze that seemed endemic at times (see a great pair of recent posts by Josh Meggitt on his blog about the interpretation of house in 2011). Not least when Steve Bug made a Resident Advisor podcast in May (Mick Huckaby’s mix soon after wasn’t quite as bad). Before delivering a set of retro house Steve Bug (SB) had this to say:
“RA: Is house music revivalism here to stay?
SB: I don't know, it is around since a while now and it seems to become bigger, but usually every little hype is over after some time. The good thing about this is that these are the roots and somehow they will always be a part of modern dance music. Sometimes more, sometimes less.”
Steve Bug’s Poker Flat label will release a follow up to “Forward to the past”, called “Forward To The Past 2 - The Acid Flashback”. As the name suggests, the new volume pays tribute to Acid House whereas the first volume was a tribute album of sorts to Chicago house. Despite the derivative concept, the results are actually pleasing.
Cracked Actor (1974; Dir: Alan Yentob)
The Sacred Triangle (Bowie, Iggy and Lou 1971-1973) (2010; Dir: Alec Lindsell)
Famed Bowie documentary “Cracked actor” also started life as a BBC TV show and captures the actor between the under recorded “Diamond Dogs” tour and the plastic soul of “Young Americans”. Bowie is clearly paranoid and suffering from cocaine-fuelled delusions and over work, being little more than a well-dressed bag of bones. The infamous scenes in the back of his limousine as Bowie was driven around LA and the US were a direct inspiration for Nicolas Roeg’s film “The man who fell to earth” that stared Bowie and even his driver as they sought to recreate the same alienation (see the mythical scene of Bowie high and drinking low fat milk starting around 4:30 in the video below). Apart from the uncomfortable proximity to Bowie that the film offers, the footage affords an impressive comparison between the Ziggy Stardust years and his newest stage incarnation which are remarkably different in visual aspect, but also in how they add layers of interpretation to the music.
"The Sacred Triangle" is potentially a critical film for fans of music as its subject is one of the most important stories of cross-influences and cataclysm in modern music. However, Alan Yentob’s film is somehow too starstruck and reverential to deliver a compelling argument and several conceptual leaps are not addressed at all. The focus of the film is essentially David Bowie, which is historically true as he was the centre of the relationship as, in the end, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop had precious little to do with each other. However, Bowie is made to look a mere copyist, incorporating The Velvet Underground’s street lyricism and Iggy Pop’s savage stage presence into his Ziggy Stardust character. But the reverse influence of Bowie on Reed and Pop is poorly addressed. For example, while Bowie’s and Spiders From Mar’s guitarist Mick Ronson are shown correctly to play a big role in the production of Lou Reed’s “Transformer” album, there is little mention of Reed’s somewhat discomfort at adopting glam’s tropes of eyeliner and bisexuality during this period.
Mick Rock’s famous album cover (and the related shot of the hammed up “Rock n Roll animal” live album) come from somewhere. Similarly, the cover of the Stooges "Raw Power" was shot at the same time in the same style. Bowie’s influence on Pop, who seems rather peripheral to the film at times, is left at his mix of “Raw Power” with no critical comment about its merits versus the final mix and, more surprisingly, there is no follow up to the Berlin period where Pop and Bowie worked so closely together. Moreover, Yentob’s reluctance to enter into this later period leaves Bowie seeming to be the imitator as his most influential and original albums per se are from this period and not from the two years addressed in the film. Worse is the short shift shown to Marc Bolan who could easily replace Iggy in the title since his rivalry with and influence on Bowie during the same period was critical. Finally, the film presents the often told story of Bowie being the first in the UK to hear the Velvet Underground’s first album and immediately copy its influence, most notably in the track “Little Toy Soldier” which literally lifts lines from Reed’s “Venus in furs”. But surprisingly, during all the talk of Reed, Warhol and the Factory influence on Bowie’s early work, there is never once use of his track “Andy Warhol” from “Hunky Dory”. One last criticism which is unlikely to be the fault of the director, but rather the triumvirate of stars, is that none of the three are newly interviewed for the film and only appear in archival footage. The narration and storytelling is left to knowledgeable journalists and managers which limits the primary source material of the film.
The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2010; Dir: Marie Losier)
This biographical film is at face value a simple love story between Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P Orridge and Lady Jaye (Jacqueline Breyer) as they attempt to become each other physically through surgery and performance. But once the film is over and the images and the ideas start to coalesce inside it becomes something more than the sum of its parts. The story telling has a lot to do with this. There is little recourse to names and dates and the whole story could be days or weeks when in fact is years. Sound from one scene is often overlaid with alternative scenes to create a sense of disorientation as a composite memory is generated. While the focus is on Genesis, Lady Jaye becomes more mysterious and mystical by her absence. Her death in the end almost elevates her to the status of phantom or spirit as well as muse and lover. The genius of the film is however, its tender portrayal of what are potentially brutal events: scenes of COUM Transmission shows become the violent force of TG live and then the intensity of elective cosmetic surgery. Add on to this buried ideas of pandrogyny, sexual fetishism and the potential stigma of social prejudice and it is a miracle at all that Losier is so easily able to suggest a path for your intuitions to so freely embrace all the possibilities proffered in the film
Miles Davis: A different kind of blue (2004; Dir: Murray Lerner).
Murray Lerner’s celebrated footage of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival was the focus of the homage section of the festival this year. I only saw the concert footage of the famed Miles Davis show given on August 29th 1970, but also on offer was The Who, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Jimmy Hendrix as well as the festival overview “Message to Love”. What makes “A different kind of Blue” stand out is that the concert footage of around 40 minutes has essentially been doubled with archival and contemporary interview footage from all the players from the show and the different groups Miles used at the time. The story is fascinating and shows again the creative genius of Miles as well as the deeply ingrained prejudism against change inherent in jazz critics at the time, especially Stanley Crouch. Indeed, parallels should be made to the same problems facing Dylan at the time and Joni Mitchell is shown on stage earlier during the Isle of Wight festival remonstrating with the audience for their reluctance to embrace the new electric sound. “Isle of Wight is a masterpiece” says guitarist Carols Santana and indeed it is.
Check around 2 mins for percussionist Airto Moreira’s humorous and impressive homage to Miles Davis.