A clogged LA freeway on a winter’s day, “Another Day of Sun,” cars backed up for miles on either side. Suddenly a spasm of frustration manifests itself not as shouting or horn-blowing, but as song, and the traffic jam erupts momentarily into carnivale, the humans caged in their rolling steel egoverses momentarily joining in shared celebration of the dreams and less glamorous reality that defines their lives. It’s the sort of absurdist set-piece I’m sure that has occurred to just about anyone who’s ever been stuck in such a traffic jam, and it retains a certain spiritual connection to the early dream sequence in that eternal touchstone of artistic self-appraisal in cinema, 8½ (1963), and even to the music video for REM’s “Everybody Hurts.” Damien Chazelle ultimately follows those models arcs towards melancholy reckonings with the gap between private passion and the dismay of modern living, but for the moment goes for big, raucous this-is-going-to-be-a-ride showmanship. It’s the sort of opening gambit that will surely split an audience right down the middle, between those who will be instantly swept up in the cued excitement and those who might uneasily gird themselves for what’s coming. I was amongst the latter. Not because ebullient outdoors production numbers annoy me per se, but this one did. Chazelle’s camera spins and twists and cranes with showy, athletic mobility. But the showiness of the camerawork is overtly strenuous, technique without actual purpose, distracting from the fact that what it’s filming isn’t actually very well staged or choreographed; it is in fact rather a hymn to its own existence, a “wow, can you believe I’m pulling this in 2016?” statement. People stand on their car bonnets and throw their hands up and down and fling themselves about in conga lines. This immediately lays down a template that the rest of La La Land follows studiously: approximation of classic musical style served up like the coup of the century, but which on close examination proves to be all sizzle and no steak.
Chazelle believes that the school of hard knocks is the path to greatness. This thesis he already explored in his scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash (both 2014), which purveyed the gym-coach mentality to artistic development: no pain, no gain, and never mind your pantywaist sensitivities. La La Land, his latest, depicts the exasperated romance of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), two Los Angeles wannabes. Grazing each other on the freeway at the start – he blasts his horn at her, she flips the bird at him – they soon find their paths repeatedly crossing, not always in the best of circumstances. Mia wants to be an actress, and works as a barista in a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. studio lot. As such, she’s surrounded by the legends of filmmaking past but entrapped within early 21st century economic impositions, pecked at by her boss and forced to watch actual famous people parade by whilst she develops contempt for the roundelay of fruitless auditions that is the rest of her life. Encouraged to attend a party by her roommate friends, Mia finishes up departing the disappointment and is forced to walk home when she finds her car has been towed. A salve for such sorrows comes as she passes by a restaurant and hears a beautiful tune being played, drawing her inside. The player is Sebastian, a talented pianist, whose love of classic jazz approaches religion: unfortunately he’s just violated the restaurant manager’s (J.K. Simmons) injunction to only play strictly timed Christmas tunes, and he’s fired summarily for this, leading Sebastian to furiously barge past Mia as she tries to thank him for the beautiful performance. Some weeks later, she runs into him again, this time playing keys in a ’80s pop cover band. Her chosen method of revenge is to request the band play A Flock of Seagulls’ “I Ran.” The duo’s grazing, sniping humour and Sebastian’s tendency to turn most encounters into some kind of confrontation gives way to sparks of attraction.
This moment was the only one in La La Land that really entertained me, although it treads terribly close to Saturday Night Live-style shtick, in large part because it’s one of the few vignettes that taps both Stone and Gosling’s ability to play comedy, and also because it offers a combination of joke and character moment that revolves around the cultural attitudes of the two characters, the disparity between Seb’s semi-messianic sense of duty by his chosen art form and the pop culture around him, and the infuriating way his and Mia’s attraction continues to manifest through apposite impulses. Stone and Gosling are both accomplished neo-wiseacres, and Chazelle arms them with a small arsenal of zingers and prickles to make them convincing as representatives of a knowing and chitinous modern breed. But once their surfaces are scratched, both characters are revealed as deeply, almost suffocatingly earnest. Sebastian’s dedication is seen first as monklike as he subsists in an apartment barely furnished, with a stool once owned by Hoagy Carmichael as object of veneration or seating depending on the moment’s need. His sister (I think) Laura (Rosemarie DeWitt) appears for one scene, offering La La Land a jolt of call-bullshit sarcasm that cuts through the single-mindedness of Seb and Mia’s obsessions. One quality La La Land badly lacks is a major secondary voice or voices to lend depth to the palette, the kind they used to get people like Oscar Levant or Thelma Ritter to offer, pipes of sarcasm to put some smog in the airiness. When the few alternate voices that do come in Chazelle’s script, they’re nearly strictly pitched as rhetorical devices to push our characters about, like Simmons’ cameo as the asshole manager who prevails upon Seb not to play “the free jazz,” and, later, John Legend’s Keith, a successful band leader who seduces Seb into playing with his band with a get-behind-me-Satan spiel about the need for jazz to evolve.
Part of this might be explained by the fact that both Seb and Mia bring their own snark, but only long enough to be halfway convincing as contemporary types before we get into more traditional romanticism. But the course of true love and successful lifestyle maintenance never does run smooth. Mia lives with three other young women (Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, and Sonoya Mizuno) at the start who form both her posse and chorus line, dragging her into action at the Hollywood party where the stage seems set for a good production number. Except no real production number arrives, just more of Chazelle’s spinning camerawork and background dancers throwing their hands in the air again. After a certain point, Mia’s pals vanish from the party, and then from the film. Her moment of transcendent bliss overhearing Seb’s playing, is his moment of self-indulgence for which he pays an instant price. I can handle the notion of a restaurant manager so oblivious that anything but straight-up tunes to wheedle diners’ ears will piss him off, even if I don’t really believe it, and I sense it’s just a device to set up Seb’s humiliation; what I can’t quite buy is the interaction of writing and vision we get here, the manager’s quip about free jazz and the slightly pompous but pretty anodyne piece of improvisation that costs Seb his job but charms Mia. It’s like the music supervisor had a slightly different copy of the script to the director and actors. Mia is suddenly seen to be saddled with a Chad Cliché yuppie boyfriend who turns up just in time for her to run out on him, heading instead to meet up with Seb at a screening of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a venture that segues into a tour of the Griffith Observatory where rapture blooms and the heavens open, a lovely moment that nonetheless seems to come out of a different film. Later, Seb tries to explain to Mia the value of jazz as active expression of America’s melting pot brilliance, the product of the constant shunt and shove of multiple voices.
This vignette is irksome on several levels, not least because Chazelle makes Mia the easily schooled avatar of an audience he presumes associates this beloved musical style with smooth jazz bilge, not the rocky, high-stakes art form he worships. And it’s not just the fact that the film turns into an NPR essay here. It’s that Chazelle backs away from finding any interesting conceptual way of exploring Seb’s love cinematically. In the end, the movie that proposes to revitalise certain classical precepts in the musical is just another contemporary film where someone talks too much. And it’s on this level that La La Land repeatedly and conspicuously fails, in weaving its use of the form with its subject, until one climactic sequence towards the end, in which Mia’s audition for a crucial role becomes a song number. There’s no pervading sense of jazz as the informing art here, nor of any other strong contemporary pop music form, although Chazelle evidently sees a connection between his understanding of jazz and his pursuit of giving new meaning to an old aesthetic in the musical form. His visual approach offers sublimation of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1966) insistently, aiming to recreate Demy’s skilful, deceptively rich blend of casual realism and stylisation, usually accomplished through careful redressing of real locations and employment of strong, colour-coded costuming and lighting. Sometimes, Chazelle succeeds, particularly in the shots of Mia and her gal-pals striding out to battle in their coloured frocks, her and Seb’s tentative shuffle before the mauve-hued sunset in the Hollywood hills, and a nicely quiet diminuendo scene where Seb sings to himself and dances on a pier at sunset, stealing away an old man’s wife for a moment of bewildered, good-natured dancing. Chazelle at least suggests schooling in the musical and its craft, avoiding the cut-on-the-beat style informed by music videos that’s infected the form since the early ’80s, instead going for long, lateral shots in the traditional musical manner to drink in physical context and the performers’ actions. And Linus Sandgren’s photography really is excellent.
Demy’s approach had hardly been forgotten to film history; in fact it was rather quickly assimilated and built upon by an array of American New Wave and Movie Brat filmmakers, many of whom tried their hand at fusing together the outsized fantasias of musicals with the kind of ragged, woozy, rough-and-tumble authenticity of their ethos. The 1970s and early ’80s produced a sprawl of gutsy crossbreeds in the wake of the musical genre’s official collapse as a mode following a string of huge-budget bombs. Some of these were deliberately frothy, like Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975), but more often these were sharper, grittier critiques of the genre’s usual detachment from the reality of love and coupling as well as society. Hence Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) and Francis Coppola’s One From the Heart (1981) focused on fractious romances raddled by human feeling in all its livewire anxiety, and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) turned Fosse’s own life and experiences as a choreographer into the subject of a superlatively sarcastic opus. One thing all of these had in common was their spiky, anti-populist emotional intensity, which made them the opposite of what musicals have come to be considered as the genre languishing in a permanent pop culture demimonde. In the past 20 years or so, every now and then we get a film that’s going to make the musical great again, be it synthetic pizazz like Chicago (2002) or full-on blazing shit like Les Miserables (2012). And if one apostatises with any of these, one will be told one just doesn’t like musicals. Or not as much as another person, who wants the form reborn in all its old glory and will greet any new, major, proper version of it as manna. In the same way, the new-wave musicals aren’t real musicals, because they’re not pretty and escapist and nostalgic. And of course, let us not speak of what happened to the disco musical.
Never mind the far more interesting examples of the oddball explorations of the genre in recent years, from the Outkast-scored and starring vehicle Idlewild (2006) to John Turturro’s suburban karaoke tragedy Romance and Cigarettes (2005), Jacob Krupnick’s On the Town rewrite Girl Walk // All Day (2011) and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), which commit the sins of using pop music and foregrounding artifice, and have moments your grandmother won’t like. La La Land has been quickly celebrated as a new-age musical blending frivolity and melancholy, but I find on many crucial levels it hit me as a betrayal of the legacy of the gritty musical, one that quietly gelds this movement even whilst proposing to revive it. Particularly considering that its storyline and basic themes represent a filch not on Demy but on Scorsese. In La La Land, as in New York, New York, the theme is the troubled love of a couple joined by mutual admiration but torn apart by diverging career intentions, revolving around the disparity between jazz performance and mainstream pop celebrity, climaxing with an extended restaging of the basic plot as a stylised, more pure kind of old Hollywood fantasy designed to illustrate the contrast between the way things turn out and the way we’d like them to. La La Land is squeaky clean in spite of its attempt to talk about some mildly distressing things as relationships that don’t work out and the pressures of money that make people do things they don’t want to, as opposed to the classic musical where, as Gilda Radner once memorably phrased it, people never had to work or buy food.
La La Land’s moments of bruising, disillusioning conflict are entirely contrived – the set-piece dinner table sequence where Mia and Seb first fight over Seb’s compromised artistry and Mia’s looming date with destiny, where mild peevishness substitutes for unforgivable words, and the subsequent scene where Seb misses her show, a moment that could have been avoided with the newfangled invention call the telephone. Compared to the scene in New York, New York when Robert De Niro gets dragged out of the club in a rage of stoked jealousy, this is so wet it would barely pass muster as dramatic development on a Chuck Lorre sitcom. Chazelle’s nominal assault on musical tradition is not to give a traditional happy ending where love conquers all. But he leavens the experience by giving his characters everything else they want, which just happens to be a successful LA nightclub, a period recording and touring with a popular musical outfit, and becoming an international movie star. Wow, some takedown of the Hollywood dream. Instead, La La Land is an ode to hermetic qualities. Chazelle turns the urbane strangeness and sprawl of modern LA into a depopulated stage for weak song-and-dance numbers featuring two cute but underutilised white-bread stars, replete with odes to bygone pleasures that often reveal a crucial misunderstanding about what those pleasures work. There’s nothing witty or sly or sublime or even particularly sexy about Chazelle’s approach, in spite of his mimicry of the styles he sets out to recreate. La La Land is a bright neon sign describing its own facetious charm.
This wouldn’t count for much if the film was successful simply on the level of musical experience, but this is where it’s most disappointing. The music score for La La Land is so brain-numbingly banal that apart from Gosling’s oft-repeated refrain (“City of stars, are you shining just for me?”) I couldn’t remember two notes from the film minutes after it finished. It bears no inflection of any musical style apart from the most flat-rate off-Broadway stuff—least of all the sinuosity and rhythmic complexity of jazz. Perhaps La La Land represents the total victory of the last decade or so of shows like American Idol and Dancing With The Stars, shows that have carefully trained audiences to whoop and holler wildly when blandly talented neophytes and familiar celebrities who can barely sing or dance make a show of their mastery of a few soft-shoe steps. I felt a certain empathy for Sebastian in many regards: like him, I’m a jazz fan, particularly of the genre’s heights from the 1940s to the early 1970s, and I have violently mixed feelings about what’s happened to it since then. Seb however never feels like a real person – neither does Mia, but for slightly different reasons. Even the more interesting modern branches of jazz fusion don’t seem to have registered with Chazelle – Euro electroswing for instance, which, with practitioners like Caravan Palace, is a vibrant and utterly danceable wing of the genre, and would have made a great pedestal for this project. Whilst the indictments of Seb as some kind of white saviour figure with his obsession with putting his talents to best use sustaining and helping reinvigorate jazz very quickly reach the end of credulity (the limit of his ambition in this regard is to open a jazz club, and thus provide a platform for artists like himself, rather than to become the king of all jazz musicians), it’s hard to ignore the strident, rather strained aspect to the dramatic development whereby he becomes a member of Keith’s ensemble and finds roaring success in a band that offers a squishy melange of pop, soul, and jazz.
Chazelle offers one major performance scene for this outfit, during which Mia glances about in bewilderment over the crowd’s enjoyment and Seb’s apparent selling out. Although this song isn’t anything particularly special either, it reminded me a little of the scene in Dreamgirls (2006) when “One Night Only,” the unctuously meaningful ballad, was restaged as disco schlock: the “bad” song is more entertaining than the “good” ones. Which might even be Chazelle’s point — I just don’t know. La La Land drops hints to a cultural thesis that it then keeps swerving to avoid stating in any depth. What it is officially is a bittersweet romance where Seb and Mia are pulled together and then apart by their aspirations, their mutual understanding of each other as artists who feed on creation and fade when caged but also knowing that life means compromise. Seb’s commitment to Keith’s band sees him forced to hang about for a publicity photo shoot whilst Mia performs the one-woman stage show he encouraged her to write, which seems to bomb badly, leaving Mia distraught enough with the state of her life to flee back to her home town. Seb tracks her there when he learns a casting agent saw her show and wants her to audition for a major part: Seb’s coaxing draws her back into action, and her audition piece is a testimony to the example of her bohemian relative whose life in Paris has inspired her ambition to be an actress. It’s a big-ticket moment that goes for all the feels and finally seems to flesh out aspects of Mia as a character even as it actually underlines how generic she is, and how carefully calculated this scene is.
Gosling and Stone’s chemistry, which first manifested in the otherwise dreadful Gangster Squad (2012), here at least gets some space to stretch its legs: they’re both very good at making you like them even when playing faintly insufferable parts, a gift that’s vital in selling Seb and Mia, particularly from Stone in her portrait of Mia’s squall of apocalyptic feeling following her seeming humiliation in staging her play. Whatever else it does, La La Land understands what movie stardom is about, its facility in transmuting loose ideas and assortments of emotional reflexes into creations of great power on screen. And yet I’ve seen other films that make far better use of both stars – take for interest Gosling’s other film of 2016, The Nice Guys, which allowed him to reference a host of classic comedic actors whilst also stitching together a dynamic portrait of a man lagging slightly out of reality’s time frame from a mixture of grief and booze. By comparison Seb never moves out of the status of a kind of human placard. The issue at the heart of the film, one that’s relatively original and specific, is slightly removed from the more familiar making-it concerns; it’s actually the attempt to delve into the problems that beset many show business relationships, the time spent apart enforced by asymmetric professional demands. This is the one theme attacked by Chazelle that doesn’t feel done to death. What’s interesting is that La La Land offers a kind of calculus to the modern audience about what it would find the hardest to deal with – career failure or romantic failure. The answer is given as both Mia and Seb gain everything they want except each other. So Chazelle skips forward a few years to when Mia is a success and married to some dude and has kids, and one night fate directs them into a club that proves to be Seb’s, his apparently very successful showcase for old-school jazz. Seb, spotting Mia in the crowd, plays the same piece that enticed her into the restaurant all that time ago, thus sending the film off into an extended fantasia that re-enacts their relationship more perfectly, to the point where they’re married with kids themselves.
This sequence finally blew my tolerance fuse with this film, as Chazelle here rips off the “Happy Endings” sequence at the end of New York, New York, in offering an upbeat restaging of the narrative as a full-bore, total-style facsimile of classic musical method. Except it’s been shorn of all the ironic meaning Scorsese offered his climax with, for “Happy Endings” converted the messy stuff of life into a vision that would seem joyful to some and a sour mockery to others, and also commented on the way Hollywood mines and distorts life, questioning the ways and reasons why we tolerate convenient lies. There’s no such subtext to what La La Land offers, in part because it’s avoided any dialectic between the false and real. For Chazelle, this is just another facet of his showmanship, sleight of hand pulled to suggest there was actually some depth to this coupling and to work his audience over. Meanwhile La La Land ultimately has nothing actually bad to say about Hollywood, the cult of celebrity or the problems of dreams deferred, except for the fact that the film industry tends to be so forward-looking that it has no time for the past – not a fault I’ve noticed besetting the Academy voters lately. Somewhat amazingly, although not a word was spoken in it, Girl Walk // All Day managed to say far more about the uneasy relationship between personal art and joy and capitalism and society, building to the wonderful moment when its heroine realised her seduction by consumerism was erasing her identity and she kicked off her store-bought finery, all scored to music that captured the vibrant clamour of modern pop culture’s manifold dimensions. By comparison, La La Land remains wedged in its comfortable, rather smug niche, challenging nothing, reinventing nothing.
Without getting sucked down the hole that is the Preminger Abomination, all I can say is that I wish John Cassavetes had directed The Man with the Golden Arm instead. Unlike the silver-spooned Teuton for whom the down-and-outers of Nelson Algren’s masterpiece were alien, inconsequential toys to serve his master plan to crack the Production Code, John Cassavetes was able to say about the fringe dwellers who populate Too Late Blues:
This is a film about people I know, the night people, the jazz musicians, the drifters and dreamers, the floaters, the chicks, the smilers, the hangers-on, the phonies, too much sex, not enough love—and they live in a world of too late blues.
Nelson Algren couldn’t have said it better, and as I watched this flawed, but sincere film, it reminded me so much of Algren’s book—indeed, his world view—that I almost felt as though I were watching the remake of the film that cries out most to me to get another shot at the big screen.
Too Late Blues tells the story of a Los Angeles jazz combo headed by John “Ghost” Wakefield (Bobby Darin) as they knock about trying to make a living without compromising Ghost’s musical vision. Stella Stevens plays Jess “Princess” Polanski, a troubled, would-be singer who captures Ghost’s heart and breaks it. There are a few capillary plotlines, for example, a record deal Ghost blows when Jess gives him the brush-off, but this film isn’t really about anything. In true Cassavetes style, the film concentrates on the booze-fueled rituals of men as they work, play, and pursue sexual and romantic fulfillment. His sophomore outing as director after his breakout debut Shadows (1959), Too Late Blues suffers from being a Paramount production; the necessity of a set script and a less controversial romance than the interracial couple in Shadows make what could have been a spontaneous flowering of volcanic emotion more like the forced bloom of a greenhouse plant.
The opening image is of an unsmiling African-American boy, the arms of his mother encircling his shoulders, as they stand in what looks like a home-based school full of children and watch a jazz combo perform. At the end of their set, saxophonist Reno (James Joyce) puts his horn down, and the boy instantly grabs it. Reno calls him a dirty name and chases him as the other children laugh and impede his progress. Finally, he catches the boy and asks, “Can I have my horn?” The young audience and the impotence of the band in dealing with them signal the low-rung, vulnerable men the film will portray.
The band heads to the traditional man cave—a pool hall—where they playfully harass its Greek owner Nick Bobolenos (Nick Dennis), taking his food and beer and skipping out on the tab. Nick is bombastic, loud, and indulgent, just I imagine Cassavetes’ father might have been, treating the musicians like wayward children, a status some of them chafe at. “I’m nearly 30,” says Reno, voicing the band’s general dissatisfaction with their going-nowhere careers and lack of money. Ghost, however, would prefer to play in a park to birds and trees than do covers or write more popular music.
When Ghost meets Jess, his agent Benny’s (Everett Chambers) new client and former lover, sparks fly. She has a high, thin voice that will never carry her out of her subsistence living as a chippy, but she is touched that Ghost won’t sleep with her their first night together and hires her for the band. They quickly fall in love, but when Ghost suffers a humiliating beatdown at Nick’s at the hands of an Irish-American bigot (Vince Edwards) who doesn’t like jazz musicians who mix with African Americans, Ghost rejects Jess’ ministrations. Hurt, she runs straight for the gutter as fast as she can; Ghost, for his part, quits the band right before they are to cut a record and sells out like a male version of Jess, playing lounge music at a night club and allowing himself to be kept by a rich woman (Marilyn Clark). The film’s denouement isn’t exactly hopeful, but it does see Jess, Ghost, and the band together again performing the song they were set to record, a tenuous link to their better dreams and selves.
The script of the film is arch, self-conscious, and striving too hard to be poetic and profound. Cassavetes and his coscreenwriter Richard Carr, a TV writer who worked on Cassavetes’ series Johnny Staccato, don’t have much talent for writing poetic dialogue that can also create character and forward a strong, cohesive plot. Scenes feel cobbled together and randomly motivated. For example, the record producer (Val Avery) hates the song the band wants to record, but does a complete about-face when the band starts to play it again. Seeing the band playing to no one in a park is the worst in arthouse conceit; when they fold up shop and join the kids who have been playing baseball in the background, the film suddenly fills with vitality and warmth. I can imagine that Cassavetes thought the impromptu baseball game would show how these men are still boys, but in fact, it shows that they have the life and spontaneity to be successful musicians and men if given proper motivation and opportunity.
Nonetheless, Cassavetes’ deep connection to human pain underlies most every scene. The acting is a very mixed bag, from the too-intense Chambers to Joyce’s straight shooter, the perfect runner-up for Jess’ attentions. Clark is quite good as the jewel-bedecked “Countess,” with a harder edge of sexuality that clearly defines her desperation regarding her fading beauty. Darin exudes musician cool and ardent love, a charismatic natural who is wisely allowed to be himself. One waits for the seasoned Edwards to emerge from the background to play a significant role, and he delivers a scary, violent racist from a sketchily defined motivation.
Stella Stevens is the most talented of the film’s cast, clearly offering a version of the Cassavetes woman usually played by his wife Gena Rowlands. But she infuses the self-loathing, insecure Jess with smoldering sexuality that moves just over the line into vulgarity, and her close-up work matches up with the best in the business. Unbelievably beautiful, she is able to show some of Jess’ ugliness, for example, when she balances two johns trying to pick her up at a bar in a series of two-shot close-ups that contrast the leering men with her smothered insolence. With her Polish last name, I became convinced that Jess was directly modeled on Molly “O” Novatny from Algren’s novel, and became excited by the idea that despite its flaws, Too Late Blues provides some vindication for Algren’s vision on the big screen.
Cassavetes would return to the raw, dark nights of the soul he pioneered with Shadows, but his experiment in trying to fuse his more documentary style with a traditional, set-bound Hollywood picture is an interesting failure well worth watching for the performances of Darin, Stevens, and Clark; Seymour Cassel’s brief debut performance as band member Red; and the music of such jazz greats as Shelly Manne, Benny Carter, and Red Mitchell. Too Late Blues was a necessary trial for Cassavetes that would lead to successively more polished hybrids that would reach their apex with Opening Night (1977).
Venus in Furs is one of Jésus Franco’s personal favourites from amongst his colossal roster of wild and woolly films. In spite of its widely known English title, it only shares that title and the name of the anti-heroine Wanda with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s infamous founding tome of masochistic literature, Venus in Furs. In fact, Franco’s film was inspired by a conversation Franco had with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker about counterculture mores, and was, in its early drafts, an interracial romantic drama. That aspect is still present in the narrative, and yet unenthusiasm by the producers caused Franco to rewrite the story along the lines of the theme he returned to obsessively in this phase of his career: the sepulchral femme fatale consuming her tormentors and lovers.
Venus in Furs was one of Franco’s close-to-mainstream works, sporting a fairly high-profile cast that included James Darren, Klaus Kinski, Franco regular Dennis Price, and singer-actress Barbara McNair. But it can’t be mistaken for anything other than a work by the era’s most wayward trash auteur. Structurally, Venus in Furs resembles many horror films exemplified by Dead of Night (1945), in its cyclical storytelling and bookending gimmick of an irrational, closed circuit-like entrapment in the zone between life and death. Whilst relatively restrained in terms of the sexuality that infests Franco’s later works like Vampyros Lesbos, there’s still plenty of sex and sadism here, albeit contoured more into the film’s oneiric, lapping, inherently fetishistic textures. Venus also contends with some familiar problems of low-budget European cinema of this era, particularly in the dubiously employed location footage of Rio de Janeiro and Carnivale, with Darren’s drippy voiceover droning on to give the dancing girls relevance, with such lines as, “Man it was a wild scene. If they wanted to go that route, it was their bag.”
Darren plays Jimmy Logan, a jazz musician who awakens from what is apparently a long drug binge in a seaside bungalow in Istanbul. He flees to the beach and digs in the sand, pulling out his buried trumpet case and blowing a few rusty licks before he spots a body rolling in the surf and pulls it onto the shore. He’s stunned to recognise the corpse as that of Wanda Reed (Maria Rohm). Addled by drug flashbacks and unable to properly discern hallucination from memory, Jimmy still seems to recall Wanda from some of the parties he played at, including one thrown by a kinky, wealthy art dealer Ahmed Kortobawi (Kinski), and his sensualist friends Olga (Margaret Lee) and Percival Kapp (Price). Jimmy had a crush on the beautiful, flighty Wanda, but one night, he happened to glimpse a terrible scene in which Wanda was cornered and brutalised by the sadistic trio, with Olga and Percival whipping and raping her and Ahmad cutting her with a dagger to drink her blood. Months later, Jimmy, now in the employ of Hermann (Paul Muller), a rich man who keeps him and a band on permanent party hire, is in Rio, back on an even keel and playing well. He’s soon startled not only to find Percival and Olga in town, but also to see Wanda walk into a gig of his one night.
Jimmy’s subsequent delirium-soaked trysts with Wanda are barely kept in check by his soul singer girlfriend Rita (McNair), as he ponders the metaphysics of the situation: “How can you run from a dead person unless you’re dead yourself?” Wanda keeps reappearing clad in furs and lingerie, drawing Jimmy into bed with her, commencing a completely corporeal affair, and yet the hysterical jazzman keeps fleeing her afterwards, utterly bemused as to what’s going on. Wanda’s casual presence at Hermann’s parties seems to reassure him that she’s very much alive and that he must have been mistaken about the body he found on the beach.
One night, Wanda appears to Percival and seems to taunt him with her ghostly, erotic presence, filling his mirrors and finally appearing in her mangled, post-mortem state, causing Percival to expire from a heart attack. Later, at one of Hermann’s parties, Jimmy is startled by both Olga’s and Wanda’s presence and positively alarmed when they start making out. But when Wanda later turns up at Olga’s photographic studio, she again transforms in her brutalised corpse, driving Olga to cut her own wrists in guilty sorrow. When Rita walks out on Jimmy, he and Wanda flee back to Istanbul, where Wanda soon enough appears to Ahmad.
Superfluous dialogue and clumsily inserted travelogue footage aside, Franco’s filmmaking here, when his luxurious visuals have a chance to play out, is boisterous and continually dazzling, replete with disorienting edits, slow motion, reflected images, ultra close-ups, and distorting effects, to conjure a fervent, dreamlike tone. In the bookend sequences that see Jimmy running along the beach to retrieve floating bodies, Franco utilises slow motion to offer a numbing study of the dreamland sensation of travelling without moving, as he closes the narrative’s looping structure. Franco’s intriguing fondness for dispelling standard gothic tropes, in favour of bright sunlight and lush colourings, is in full flower. His work benefits from a seemingly higher budget than he often gained, sporting fine photography and careful lighting that results in a truly sensual visual experience, a sprawl of bold reds and blues, hallucinatory daylight shots and inky darks.
Like few films I’ve ever seen, Venus in Furs captures the heady atmosphere of two underground artistic strains—fragments of S&M comics interwoven with a feeling of hipster alienation captured in effective visual terms (as opposed to the cornball hip-isms Jimmy speaks), reminiscent in places of other fly-on-the-wall period documents like Conrad Rooks’ Chappaqua (1966). That Darren’s Jimmy Logan is based on Baker is patently obvious, and the film seems to well directly from within Logan’s addled perceptions. Particularly the early scenes, as Jimmy claws at a window or digs into the beach to retrieve his instrument and conjure the drowned Wanda from the waves, possess a flavour that communicates a genuinely strung-out mind. Franco himself was a jazz musician, and his impressionistic scenes from the milieu of Jimmy’s playing are evocative (Franco even appears briefly as one of Logan’s pianists), whilst the totality of the film has an intricately musical structure.
The mostly jazz-inflected score, by Mike Hugg and Manfred Mann, is as striking as that for Vampyros Lesbos, and is more integral to the film, as musical motifs blend with and define the on-screen drama. Jimmy’s intimate, somehow solipsistic performance style—he’s often hunched over, lost deep in his solos—evoke his drifting out of touch with reality. Sequences of him and his band’s performing punctuate the story’s deaths, with the ghostly Wanda continuously returning to confront Jimmy on stage after her vengeful visitations, signing him to a kind of artistic contract to witness, evoking a shaman or bard, or the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, as he plays out Wanda’s death chant. Wanda’s killings are punctuated by a memorable soul theme that recurs like a dark mantra, with the promise that “Venus in furs will be smiling”, before McNair sings the full song as a triumphant hymn in the conclusion.
Although the resulting film isn’t fixated upon portraying a tragic, boundary-pushing new-age romance, as was his original notion, Franco’s initial idea is still present and important, realised in the failing romance of Jimmy and Rita, with Rita attempting to sit out Jimmy’s obsession with Wanda like very much the “black angel” of another alternate title, and yet finally driven off by his obsession. The intimacy between Jimmy and Rita is warmly, tenderly convincing, and stands in contrast with the rather less healthy intimacy Wanda engages in. Delicately yet feverishly erotic, Wanda’s killings are fascinating because rather than visiting her tormentors with violent wrath, she approaches them like a lover, giving them exactly what they want before reflecting the truth of their twisted psyches (Franco’s love of mirrors gets a workout), particularly in her tryst with Olga, which plays out as a tragic romance. Ahmad greets Wanda like he’s been waiting for her, and gets her to enact a part he thinks she has been conjured to play for him, the slave girl who turns the tables on her sultan, which leads to him dying in a perfect masochistic paroxysm, dangling from the ceiling. Rohm’s frigid beauty intrinsically suits the character’s passive malevolence.
Fascinating images abound, like a nearly naked Wanda descending a staircase painted in vivid white and stepping onto a floor carpeted in saturated red, leaving behind Olga in her white coffin of a bathtub, her lifeblood slowly staining the water, expiating her sins whilst begging Wanda’s forgiveness. This scene’s mix of conveyed physical pain, powerfully transgressive emotion, and expressionist use of décor clearly predict some of David Lynch’s pet effects, and confirm for me the impression I had in other Franco viewings of his influence on Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. This sequence’s visual motifs are predicted by a most bizarre and gorgeous moment: Olga first encounters Wanda at one of Hermann’s parties sprawled on a red couch, caressing a female statuette’s thigh, and encouraging Wanda to kiss her. Several party guests gather to watch, and one bends down to paint their cheeks, and another showers them with white pillow feathers as if sprinkling confetti on the newly-weds or spreading petals on his priestesses. The Olga-Wanda sequences in the centre of the film are almost a short film in themselves, a classic of sapphic-surrealist erotica.
Finally, when the police track Wanda to the hotel she’s sharing with Jimmy, the lovers flee, leading to a memorably off-kilter car chase. Wanda soon slips away and enters a cemetery, leaving her fur coat lying upon her own gravestone. Jimmy returns to the beach in the same frazzled state and discover another body in the surf: his own. Wanda and he were both ghostly remnants. By this point, the narrative form completely shatters, saturated colour effects infect the frame, and fragmented shots of Olga, Ahmad, and Percival locked in a red room (another Lynchian image) with Wanda’s savaged corpse, perhaps invoking their damnation. Franco zooms away from Jimmy’s discovery of his own body and quotes the same John Donne passage as an epigraph as was used in the Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim, leaving us to ponder a weird and ragged gem of subterranean cinema.
Pioneering jazz trumpeter Miles Davis has among his many quotable quotes this one: “You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads.” Davis proved that rejecting his comfort zone was the way to forge the future of a musical form that has been given up for dead more than once.
Chet Baker, on the other hand, loved ballads and settled into them like a cat on a warm pile of towels. You couldn’t call Baker an innovator exactly, but he brought something very unique to jazz. If you can imagine Billie Holiday’s voice coming out of the bell of a trumpet, you’re in Chet Baker country. Baker, like Holiday, achieved a sad, melancholic tone in his playing; his trumpet phrasing even seems to owe a bit to her vocalization style. And sadly, like Holiday, he had the jazz musician’s disease—a heroin addiction that he never kicked—and died tragically—falling (or jumping?) out of an Amsterdam hotel window.
In 1986, just two years before his death, Baker was filmed performing at Ronnie Scott’s, London’s famous jazz club. Very ably backed by pianist Michel Grailler and bassist Riccardo del Fra, with guest performances by Van Morrison and Elvis Costello (in full 80s persona), Baker sang and played with aching beauty and perhaps not a little struggle.
The set opens with the lovely “Ellen David,” signaling the warm cool of Baker’s California jazz that will characterize most of the set. Baker, in a faux-Hawaiian print pullover and black jeans tucked into knee-high cowboy boots, sits like a rickety folding chair on an amp, pointing his horn down into a mike or pressing his craggy, Okie face against another mike to sing. I’ve always noted Baker’s breathy style, but in this performance, he seems to be gasping for air at the top of his sung and blown phrases. It is only when his lungs fully engage that he works into the right notes and carries them long after most of us would be taking a breath. This is the paradox of Baker’s style, a tightrope act that generally settles into a mellow walk on the wire with more than a tinge of anxious emotion. Listening to Baker is both relaxing and a bit harrowing; he is never someone I can half-listen to as background music.
During the opening number and the following “Just Friends,” a fast number that Baker sings and scats, the camera work is pretty bad, jumping back and forth frenetically and focusing on pretty girls wearing the fashion disasters that date this film squarely in the 80s. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect that Rob Lemkin, who directed Nina Simone Live at Ronnie Scott’s two years before, must have wrested control of the production after that. The rest of the film is a textbook on how to shoot musical performances. “Shifting Down,” the third song of the set, settles in visually, tightening in on the performers, working magic with the color lighting on the stage to create relational tableaus of the musicians, and using a musician POV shot to light up the dark club with the bright yellow frock of a lovely black audience member.
The set goes a bit off the tracks when Van Morrison takes to the stage. He seems to have dropped in after a few too many at the pub down the street. Clutching a rumpled lyrics sheet, eyes clamped tightly shut, arm twitching a la Joe Cocker, Morrison delivers a version of “Send in the Clowns” that makes me wonder if he even knew how the song went. I love Van, but this was very far from his finest hour.
The set shifts back to the trio, and hits a very fine groove with traditionally rendered “If I Should Lose You” and “My Ideal,” and a funky “Love for Sale” that really shows off the talents of bassist Del Fra. The camera syncopates to the musical beat and later shoots straight up the neck of Del Fra’s double bass, showing his playing in minute detail and teaching me a lot about how such magnificent sounds are made. Indeed, Lemkin uses extreme close-ups to great effect, particularly in illustrating Baker’s reservoir of breath and sure valving. Baker’s vocals for “My Ideal” were so pain-filled; you could sense the tragedy of missed opportunities and wasted pursuits that certainly must have been a big part of Baker’s drug-scarred life.
Elvis Costello joins the trio to sing “The Very Thought of You” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” He seems to rush the first song and bends notes in a way more characteristic of his 80s punk-ska style. His tone and delivery are perfect, however, for the moving “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” blending effortlessly with Baker’s horn to tear at the heartstrings. This was easily my favorite number of the set. The film ends with “I’m a Fool to Want You.”
Short segments that have Costello rather clumsily interviewing Baker seek to shed light on Baker’s history. We learn he lived with his aunt in Oklahoma City from the age of one (a fact I haven’t been able to confirm with admittedly cursory research), a happenstance that seems to have bothered Baker. He says he visits his mother in Oklahoma once a year, but stays mainly in Europe, where jazz is appreciated. I thought he was a little hard on America, saying he had recently played Chicago for the first time in five years and lamenting the lack of jazz clubs across the country. I seem to remember at least half a dozen clubs I used to visit in the 80s to listen to jazz; while certainly not what it was in its heyday, jazz wasn’t exactly dead in my city. It’s more likely that Baker was not getting gigs because of his out-of-control heroin habit. He also reveals that he lost his front teeth in a beating in San Francisco and had to learn how to play the horn while wearing dentures—a truly amazing feat. It has been convincingly argued, however, that he actually lost his teeth due to his heroin use. His final comment, about trying to write his autobiography, but giving it up because “nobody would believe it anyway,” actually sounds about right. (The unfinished manuscript was published after his death.)
I don’t think we’ll ever know the real story about Chet Baker, but for me, that doesn’t matter. I’ve been a fan of his for many years, and all I need to know about him can be found in his music. Chet Baker Live at Ronnie Scott’s, formerly available only in VHS, was remastered for DVD and reissued in 2002 with a few DVD extras and the dubious box claim that this was “The Legendary Jazz Trumpeter’s Last Performance!” I’m happy to say that this accomplished film provides fans with a worthy record of an imperfect, yet impassioned performance by an unabashed jazz balladeer.
Victor Frankl’s famous post-Holocaust book Man’s Search for Meaning poses the question of how a human being who has had everything taken away approaches the project of life anew without giving in to despair or craven indifference. This philosophical dilemma is one that virtually all people will face at one time or another. For renowned jazz guitarist Pat Martino, the dilemma came after emergency brain surgery that saved his life but wiped out all memory of his previous life, including his knowledge of how to play the guitar.
Director Ian Knox, infatuated with the personal enigma and music of Pat Martino after hearing him live for the first time at Ronnie Scott’s in London, teamed with Paul Broks, a British neuropsychologist and author who had written about Martino, to create a document not only about a music legend but also about the very nature of identity itself.
Martino Unstrung introduces us to the slim, silver-haired Martino, built as elegantly as a classic Gibson guitar, as he goes through a very ordinary routine of breakfast at a local diner in his hometown of Philadelphia. He moved back with his parents to recuperate after surgeons in Los Angeles removed a massive tumor in his cerebral cortex that had been growing for at least two decades. Martino, seemingly gentlemanly and unassuming, is a well-liked patron whose notoriety in the jazz world was unknown to the diner regulars. One of the owners talks about how he nervously discussed a Japanese woman he had met on a trip and his plans to ask her to marry him on his next trip. “We didn’t know he was famous,” she said.
Knox, with Broks as his narrator, takes us through Martino’s life and rise in the music world. His Italian father told him never to touch the guitar underneath the bed, using reverse psychology to get Pat interested. He began playing professionally when still a teenager. Lloyd Price, whom Knox interviews, said he heard Martino once and signed him to his big band. After that, a move to New York put Martino together with some of the greats of jazz, including Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Bobby Hutcherson, and Woody Herman. Other friends and admirers interviewed include Carlos Santana, Pete Townshend, and Joe Pesci.
Interviews with Fred Simeone, Martino’s neurosurgeon, help us understand the nature of Martino’s malady, arteriovenous malformation (AVM), which Simeone describes vividly as a snake’s nest of blood vessels that feed off the blood of the surrounding brain tissue. Martino said he experienced seizures as young as 10 years of age. Later manifestations were described by Geri Taber, his first wife. He experienced explosive rages, behaved erratically, and drank excessively, alienating those who loved him and leading Taber to consent to shock treatments for him, something she says is the biggest regret of her life.
After Martino’s operation, his memory was almost entirely wiped out. He didn’t know his parents when he moved in with them. He saw photos of himself with friends and relatives, and it was like looking at his doppelganger. His father played his many recordings to him, telling him who he was in the world. All Pat could feel was alienated. His motor skills and musicality had not been injured during surgery, but he had to relearn the guitar. Virtually everyone says his playing is different now, more cerebral and cool. No longer, it seems, does he play so hard he breaks strings. Some like it better; some don’t.
I’ve been interested in the brain since I was a tween, and am a big fan of Oliver Sacks’ books. His A Leg to Stand On talks about his own ironic alienation from his leg after an injury “left him with the uncanny feeling of being ‘legless,’ and rais(ing) profound questions of the physical basis of identity.” For me, Broks picked up right where Sacks left off in exploring the fragility of identity. His observation that Martino lost a part of the brain that regulates emotion raises profound questions about whether he “feels” the music anymore. Neuropsychological tests Broks and his colleague run on Martino don’t answer the question, but they do find that other parts of Martino’s brain had been compensating for many of his early deficits when his AVM was in its formative stages. It would be easy to suppose his emotional centers could make a similar shift, but it may not be as simple as all that.
As a film, Martino Unstrung was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I’m not a big fan of British documentaries, which seem static and seek to dramatize the basic talking-head format in ineffective ways, like placing Dr. Simeone in a room full of light boxes and X-rays. The film often felt flat, as Knox seemed almost deliberately to portray the ascetic-looking Martino as a Martian, for example, shooting his face through a window reflecting the gaudy humanity of Times Square. I wanted more music, which, thankfully came faster and more dense as the film progressed and saved what had been a bit of a snore for me.
I’m a jazz fan, but Pat Martino, a musician’s musician, was barely a blip on my screen. Now, I’m seeking his before/after music and pondering what his story tells us about humanity. This is an interesting film worth your time. l
Interviews with Ian Knox and Pat Martino by Victor L. Schermer in All About Jazz can be found here. Pat Martino’s website is here.
It’s not often that a musician becomes a legend in both country and jazz genres, but Hank Garland was no ordinary musician. A South Carolina native, Garland went to Nashville to earn his fortune. He became a valued session man who played with Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, and others. By hanging out in blues joints, he became familiar with the roots of jazz. His successful tours of big northern cities netted him his beautiful wife Evelyn and a reputation as a jazz guitarist. A horrific car crash damaged his brain and robbed him of his ability to play. Eventually, he taught himself to play again and came back to play briefly near the end of his life. This is a life that has been long overdue for a biopic. Now we have one—Crazy, which won the Best Feature at the Big Island Film Festival.
Unlike some biopics that span many years of a person’s life, Bieber chooses judiciously from the momentous meetings and milestones of Garland’s life. Beginning with Garland’s first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, Garland (Waylon Payne) gets some advice from Hank Williams, Sr. (Steve Vai): “Start with a fast one. That always gets the audience going.” Hank’s fluid guitar picking instantly attracts a distracted audience, and he’s on his way.
His career in Nashville as a session man and ladies man is going well, and he befriends a number of musicians, including Billy Byrd (Scott Michael Campbell). However, his inability to get credit—and pay—as a player and a songwriter frustrates him and begins a long enmity with record executive Ryan Bradford (David Conrad). He decides to go on tour in the north. He meets Evelyn (Ali Larter), who quickly beds and bewitches him. Evelyn comes to visit Hank in Nashville a couple of months later, and they are soon married. However, Hank’s growing success—a regular on The Eddie Arnold Show, on-call musician for Elvis, jazz stints in New York—makes Evelyn feel increasingly isolated. She has sex with Bradford, Hank receives the pictures, and he violently confronts Bradford. Evelyn goes to Chicago with their young daughter, then calls Hank to come pick her up. On the road, another car—presumably sent by Bradford—rams Hank’s car repeatedly and sends him down a ravine, crippling and nearly killing him. His slow recovery in Florida leads to the denouement on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry legends tribute, where he plays his signature song “Sugarfoot Rag”.
There are many great moments in this film. For example, during Hank’s first appearance on stage, he notices that his pick guard reflects light into the audience. He uses the beam to choose his “date” for the evening. When he uses the trick on Evelyn and goes up to her after his set, she asks him if that always works on the girls back home. Nonetheless, she chooses him because of the light he projects from within to warm her empty life. In an inevitable scene in Hank’s hospital room, she tells him about this hope and then says she learned too late that the beam only shines when he plays, “and now you can’t even do that.”
I felt sympathy for Evelyn at times, but my heart truly went out to Hank, whom she betrayed to his near death and then abandoned. Bieber directs his cast from the inside out, palpably capturing the light inside Hank/Payne and the ugliness in the beautiful Evelyn/Larter. One very touching scene has Billy Byrd, now a troubled alcoholic whom nobody will hire, drive to Hank’s home and sit outside in his car, forbidden by Evelyn from coming around anymore. Hank climbs in the car, and Billy pleads with him to take his guitar—the guitar they both invented—and hold it. “It’s the most beautiful thing I own, and if I keep it, I’m going to sell it. I really don’t want to sell it.” The love between the two men is deeply felt, and the scene plays with great emotional truth. Other standout performances include Lane Garrison as Hank’s brother Bill and John Fleck as Lloyd “Cowboy” Copas, the leader of Hank’s studio band.
The outstanding music includes original recordings of “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and Payne as Hank Garland doing “Sugarfoot Rag.” The closing credits show the real Hank doing the song as well. The story does rather play like a standard country biopic, with a crazy and troubled woman at its core. Nonetheless, no matter how the script was embellished for dramatic purposes, the film largely reflects an emotional reality that felt true.
The hubby and I saw the film right after the music biopic of Darby Crash and The Germs, What We Do Is Secret. While I preferred The Germs movie, I must give Crazy its props. These two films are well-done musician biopics and are worth your attention.