Music

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

First Hit: Brings to life some of the mystery surrounding a deeply complex man who expressed himself best through the music he created.

Miles Davis created a unique, inventive, and improvisational form of jazz. In doing so he emotionally moved people in ways they never knew before. As Miles’ pushed his soul to create his live music, the audience was discovering new feelings in their soul while listening to him play.

This movie is narrated by Carl Lumbly, whose raspy voice was equivalent to Davis’ voice post-surgery. This throat surgery did not affect his playing, only his voice.

We are presented with a quick overview of Davis’ upbringing and I was surprised to learn that his family, specifically his father, was a self-made wealthy man, the film states. He was one of the wealthiest black men in all of the United States. His father was a dentist but also ran an income producing farm outside St. Louis. The film also points out that being a child of a wealthy man didn’t stop him from racial injustice both as young boy and as a grown man.

One nugget from his youth is that his mother wanted him to play the violin but Miles wanted to play the trumpet and as with most things in life, he got his way.

In his late teens, he signed himself up to Julliard to learn about music and music theory while also spending his nights sitting in on the jazz bands lining each side of 52nd Street. Sitting in with some of the greats, he quickly found his stride and was able to contribute to the band’s sound.

Starting his own band, he quickly became an audience draw through his extemporaneous innovations and arrangements. He loved experimenting and learning more about music and his soul through the music he created.

I was drawn to the section in the film when he made his first trip to Paris. He was shocked to be in a culture that lacked the kind of racism he found in his own country. For the first time he felt free of his color. Coming back to the United States was such a racial shock that he started to spiral down. All this lead to the part of the story where he ended up on heroin.

His life became all about finding the next score. Broke and nearly living on the streets, his father came to New York and dragged him back to St. Louis where he got clean. The film also chronicles his later issues with cocaine and alcohol.

The film documents the development of his sound through the 60’s and 70’s with the various bands he fronted, the albums he made, and how he made them. He wanted the musicians he gathered to play deeper from their soul than each of the band members ever played before and he pushed each one to stand out to make their sound. He wanted collaboration.

There is a fair amount of homemade film footage of Miles as well as photos and the montage of putting this all together worked really well. Additionally, Director Stanley Nelson used interviews with fellow musicians that ended up being enlightening about Miles and heartwarming to the film watcher. We see old film footage of these musicians as young men, then on the screen being interviewed, older, wiser, and still in awe of what happened when they played with Miles.

The film also chronicles his various marriages and girlfriends while including interviews with three of his former wives.

The film does an excellent job of letting some of the various types of music Miles created to flow in and out of the scenes. Some of the music we hear live, as they were creating it in the studio or on stage, and other times, the music is from what he recorded.

Miles comes across as a troubled man who was steeped in finding ways to express himself in the only medium in which he felt safe, music. And in this realm, he was a genius.

Nelson did a great job of putting this story together. Lumbly did a wonderful job of speaking for Davis

Overall: Although I’m not a jazz aficionado, in a quiet dark room, hearing Davis’ music takes me to places I’ve never been before.

Wild Rose

First Hit: A more realistic version of a star being born.

I’m old enough to remember seeing two of the four most noted theatrical versions of “A Star is Born” in movie theaters: The recent 2018 version with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (given name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), and the 1976 version, with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. I have also seen a television replay of the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, and the 1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. In these films, it was always the feeling at the beginning of these films that a star would be born, and their name would appear in lights - everywhere.

In Wild Rose, the feeling is different. In so many turns, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) acts out in un-mindful ways. She just doesn’t seem to get it that her impulsive, loud, party-like, good time girl behavior and impressive singing voice isn’t enough to make her a country singing star, especially being from and living in Glasgow, Scotland. We get why she says, “I should have been born in America.” She appears to have little understanding of what it takes to become this idealized dream she has for herself.

The film opens with her packing up her map of Nashville and personal belongings because she is getting out of prison after being incarcerated for twelve months. Part of the restriction for her release is that she’ll have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet. We know this is going to become an issue in the film.

We see her first go to her boyfriend’s house. After a physically impassioned visit, she heads to her mother’s home where she is coldly greeted by her mother, Marion (Julie Walters). We also learn that her mother has been taking care of Rose’s two children, Wynonna, and Lyle (Daisy Littlefield and Adam Mitchell, respectively). Marion has been taking care of the children during the time Rose-Lynn was incarcerated, and we get the sense, many other times as well.

Upon seeing their mother, Wynonna is distant towards Rose and Lyle is expressively happy to see his mom.

It wasn’t lost on me that Rose’s love for country music was also expressed in the names of her children as they are named after country music legends Wynonna Judd and Lyle Lovett.

Having to begin to take responsibility for her children, she finds a cleaning job at the home of a wealthy woman named Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who has two children herself. Susannah’s children hear Rose sing while she’s working and tell their mom. Her mom convinces Rose to make an electronic recording on their computer which eventually makes it to the BBC country music radio host Bob Harris.

Bob invites her to London to meet with him. She is excited about this opportunity but ends up getting drunk while partying with a group of blokes on the train and then discovers that her purse, phone, money, and ID have been pinched. Rose tries to blame the train personnel, the woman sitting across from where she left her bag and her lot in life. She doesn’t get that she’s her own problem. One of the themes of this film.

Leaving the train station, she runs through London and ends up being late for her meeting with Bob Harris, but Bob meets with her anyway. He asks her if she plays an instrument or writes a song to which Rose says “no.” He says she’s got to have something to say to be a singer. This is the first clue that she may not make it as her dreams had hoped she would.

Slowly, Rose starts taking responsibility for her children and her life. She makes a home for her kids and begins taking an interest in their lives. The children feel this change of heart and start warming up to their mom.

The film continues with wonderfully staged scenes where Rose gets the opportunity to grow and learn about being a parent and her wish to be a country star. There’s the undying support from Susannah, then the talk with Susannah’s husband in the car, multiple discussions with her mother, including one where her mother takes a chance on her daughter. There’s are beautiful scenes in Nashville, where she really sees that being a country singer is a lot more than “three chords and the truth” (references a tattoo and belief on Rose’s arm).

The ending scene is filled with deep emotion and the realization of what it means to be both a mother and an outstanding country singer.

Buckley is sublime as Rose-Lynn. She encapsulates in both action and heart this young woman who has a dream but has to learn how to grow into her life. When Rose looks through her children’s knapsacks, my heart was warmed. When she started partying on the train to London, I felt myself saying, oh no, this isn’t going to turn out well. Walters was earnestly compelling as Rose’s mother, who also had to learn the difference between being responsible and a child’s hope. Littlefield and Mitchell were great as the children. I thought Littlefield’s slow growth towards trusting that her mom would be there for her was insanely perfect. Okonedo was terrific in her role as Rose’s boss and inspired supporter. Nicole Taylor wrote an outstanding script that told a compelling story of growth, responsibility, and understanding. Tom Harper made all the characters come alive and have a purpose in this story.

Overall: This film was indeed about a human star being born.

Yesterday

First Hit: Thoroughly enjoyable film and story, especially if you like “The Beatles” music.

In my sophomore and junior years of high school, Jim Golden and I sat in his or my bedroom playing Beatles songs over and over again. Jim was one year younger than me and much better on guitar and singing. However, I knew how to harmonize, and together, we sang the shit out of those songs.

In my junior year (1967), Jim and I joined a band and one week after the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album came out, the group sang three songs from this album in the second of our band’s total of three public performances. My contribution was singing lead on “A Day in the Life,” and I’ll never forget it. The proof is that today, I can still play and sing this song.

In this film, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) wanted to play his music in front of people. His manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), met him and fell in love with him at age 17 when he performed Oasis’ Wonderwall song during a high school performance. From that time, she worked tirelessly to get him gigs in local bars and establishments near their small English town of Lowestoft. When he’s not performing his songs at these joints, he’s working in a food warehouse.

When he plays, most people in the audience talk or just go about their business, and no one really listens except Ellie and a small group of friends that request their favorite Jack Malik songs.

One day Ellie brings him good news and bad news. The good news is that she got him a gig at a big-time music festival. However, the bad news is that it’s in a remote music tent. When we see Jack perform in the tent, his most attentive audience appears to be four children, Ellie, and a couple of other friends. It’s at this moment he decides to give up on his music career.

While riding his bike on the way home, there is a worldwide blackout, and during the outage, he gets hit by a bus. Waking up in a hospital with two missing front teeth, Ellie is there by his side. Getting out of the hospital, she gives him a new guitar because the old one got run over by the bus. While testing out the guitar, he sings, The Beatles “Yesterday.”

The three friends sitting with him ask him when did he write that song? And he says, he “didn’t, The Beatles did,” and they say who? This is a hilarious scene, especially when they bring up Coldplay. But the fantastic thing about this scene is that the audience, at least I did, hears this song as if it were really a new song. The focus is on the words, and they reflect Jack’s current situation, just as they reflect the circumstances in our own lives.

This then becomes the setup of the film. Did The Beatles exist? Did they ever exist? Jack goes home and searches the internet for The Beatles and finds nothing, except beetles.

Thinking that no one knows The Beatles songs, he begins to recall them and begins to write them down. When he performs them, the audiences love the songs and believe that these songs are Jack’s songs. Through the greatness of the songs, he becomes the new world singing and songwriting sensation.

He records the songs and with the help of Ed Sheeran and a new obnoxious agent who is appropriately named, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon). She gets him all caught up in the demands of the music business, including how he looks. The scenes of the marketing team coming up with album titles and imaging are hilarious.

Meanwhile, Ellie tries to tell Jack that she’s more than someone who used to manage him, she’s in love with him and has so since she was seventeen. She asks him to make a choice.

This story is about making choices about the love of a person or a career. It is about honesty through the songwriting. It is about fame, money, and the downsides of all of it. However, for me, it was mostly about the songs I grew up playing with Jim Golden. I loved singing The Beatles songs then, and I loved lip-syncing the songs while watching the film. “I Saw Her Standing There” (She Was Just Seventeen) had extra meaning because of Ellie. The background music as Jack was hit was the music crescendo from “A Day in the Life.” Watching Jack work on remembering the words to “Eleanor Rigby” along with the remembering of the other songs shared in this film was exquisite.

The film had so many out-loud funny bits. Including that “Coke,” Oasis (the band), and cigarettes didn’t exist, were both entertaining and amusing each time they came up. I thought the pacing and sequencing of the scenes were divine, and when Jack drives out to a lonely beach house and meets an artist who tells him what is important in life, I wept silently.

Patel was fantastic in this role. I felt him in his character through my own experience as a young boy in a band wanting to sing songs. James was beyond wonderful. I loved her attempts to share her feelings with Jack, but it’s her looks when she just watching him that made her perfect. Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s old friend, and roadie after he gets discovered was hilarious. McKinnon slightly overacted her role at times, but overall was good. Sheeran as himself did an excellent job of acting in a role he would know. Richard Curtis wrote a fantastic screenplay from a story co-authored with Jack Barth. Danny Boyle did a superb job of creating a thoroughly enjoyable version and filled my heart with memories and joy.

Overall: This is a feel-good film.

Rolling Thunder: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

First Hit: Little insight into Dylan, a lot of insight to the surrounding people and how they made music together.

Bob Dylan has always been an enigma to most of his audience. His music does his talking for him.

Watching this film about the 1975 tour, I was hoping to learn more about Bob, having grown up with much of his music being available to me. I was never a big Dylan fan, but there were songs I’d listened to that I loved and spoke to me, those were my Dylan songs. For many people, all of Bob’s songs were their songs. For others, when Bob went electric, they shuttered and thought him a traitor to the folk movement of the early 1960s.

What I admired most about Dylan was that he sang his own tunes his way, and for that, he deserves all the respect in the world.

This film talks with James Gianopulos the concert promoter of this concert tour, a number of the musicians including Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, and Scarlet Rivera. Additionally, there was a dialogue with others including Allen Ginsberg, filmmaker Martin von Haselberg, reporter Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Patti Smith, and Sam Shepard.

Many of the interviews were with this group of people in current time and back then, while other discussions were just from the 1975 tour.

Haselberg’s footage is used for the historical sequences, including the performances. While Scorsese shot additional interview footage, including with Bob. Haselberg did an excellent job of getting shots of the band before, after, and during the performances.

What this film did point out was that Bob Dylan does what he wants. Watching his critical eye while on stage, looking at his band, guiding them with slight gestures from his eyes or a head nod was mesmerizing. The tangent discussions that resulted in how people were added and removed from performances were interesting. “How do we fit Ginsberg in?” Will Joni get enough stage time? What about Joan?

The performances were held in small venues which allowed the film to reflect the closeness Dylan had with his audience. I was enchanted by the stage presence and violin playing of Scarlet Rivera, a highlight as was watching McGuinn playing the twelve string.

However, what was truly amazing was the during the credits, Scorsese listed all of Dylan’s concerts from 1976 on by year through 2018. This man never stops working.

Scorsese did a fantastic job of creating a drop-in, slice-of-life feeling, of what it was to be on this tour. An amusing touch was seeing Bob behind the steering wheel multiple times, driving the motor home to each of the locations – he was an engaged man.

Overall: Although I didn’t learn much about Dylan, I learned how he liked to make music.

Echo In the Canyon

First Hit: Although not great in a lasting way, I loved this film because it brought me home.

I was fortunate enough to be interested in and excited by the music developed during the mid-1960s. I had gotten a guitar at age 12, and by 1965, at age 15, I wanted to be a rock and roll star. Music, popular music, was changing radically during this time and up and through 1970 a profound change was taking place both culturally and musically. I wanted to be part of it. It never happened, but watching this film, I got to see how the music I loved got brewed.

This film endeavors to put some context to the change that was happening and specifically, the LA music scene. To do this, Jakob Dylan (Bob’s son), uses his interest in how music changed during this time to discover more about what happened. He interviews a number of those musicians, producers, and through archival footage, we are taken back to what happened.

There is a canyon in LA called Laurel Canyon, where musicians lived, hung-out together, but more importantly, played music together. Founding members of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield,, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, The Beach Boys, Mamas and Papas, and several other bands and musicians all lived at some point in Laurel Canyon.

Because I grew up in Southern California, I was aware of the scene on Sunset Blvd and the clubs these bands played. The Whiskey a Go Go, The Roxy, and the Troubadour and others were where these bands publicly tried out their material.

The interviews in this film I found fascinating. David Crosby, Steven Stills, Eric Clapton, Roger McGuinn, Graham Nash, Tom Petty, Michelle Phillips, John Sebastian, Ringo Starr, Brian Wilson, Jackson Browne, and Lou Adler were illuminating and brought forth fantastic memories.

Vintage footage of these bands playing pulled at my heart. I cried as my own memories of this music flooded my soul.

Jakob staged a concert playing some of these songs, including some of the lesser-known numbers (Buffalo Springfield’s “Questions” to name one) to an enthusiastic audience. And although he put his, and his group of musicians, own wonderful flavor on these songs, I was really only hearing the original music in my head and wanted to sing along all the songs. Alas, I was in a movie theater and didn’t – my heart did.

And that’s what I loved about this film. I reminded me of my youth, the importance of music, and my relationship with these songs. This movie gave me a more in-depth perspective of the music I grew up on.

What didn’t work for me? I would have liked less of Jakob’s band playing the songs in the studio and on the stage. But I get why this is part of the film. It is a potent reminder that these songs can be carried on by younger generations. Watching Fiona Apple, Beck, Justine Bennett, Nora Jones, Jade Castrinos, and Jakob Dylan sing these songs from their hearts was outstanding as well.

Eric Barrett and Andrew Slater have the writing credits, but it was some of the responses by musicians that grabbed me. Slater did an excellent job of taking me back home, musically.

Overall: I quickly accessed beautiful memories and feelings while watching this film.