Monday, January 21, 2013

DVD Review: David Bowie Under Review – The Calm Before the Storm: 1969-1971

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet
David Bowie Under Review – The Calm Before the Storm: 1969-1971
Executive Producer Rob Johnstone
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Sexy Intellectual
65 minutes, 2012

David Bowie has always been an enigma to me, quite frankly. Sure, I understood what he was doing, and how he latched on to what he wanted – even if it originated with someone else – and made it his own. While I respect that, he has always felt pretty contrived to be, especially from his theatrical Ziggy period onward.

And yet, I have always found his story interesting, and have followed his career somewhat over the years. Now at age 66 with a new recording about to come out, here is a British documentary in the Chrome Dream collection that starts at the very beginning of his rise to superstardom.

Of course, the problem with this DVD is that Bowie’s career has been so carefully documented in every possible medium, there really isn’t too much here that’s pretty common knowledge to a true fan. But as someone who is unaware of the pre-Ziggy career, this is a treasure trove, especially all the interviews which are new, and the clips, many of which are rare.

Bowie (often pronounced as Bow-wee on this) started his public career apparently not as a musician, but as an activist for a bogus group he started for the protection of men with longer hair, back in 1964. This managed to get him his first televised experience, a clip of which is shown.

We follow him through his less-successful folkish-mawkish period, influenced by the likes of Anthony Newley (1999), when he was supposedly inspired by Bob Dylan (I don’t see the root). But as journalist Chris Roberts states in an included interview clip, “He’s always had a good ear for musicians and a good eye for collaborators. He always surrounded himself with useful people.” A special talent indeed, and I mean that with no hint of sarcasm.

After the release of his self-titled album, which bombed when first released, he came up with his break-out song, “Space Oddity,” a true rock gem. Then with the help of the likes of collaborators like guitarist Mick Ronson (d. 1993) he began to evolve through the likes of the LPs The Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Honky Dory (1971), and he became more flamboyant.

The tone started changing when Bowie opened for Tyrannosaurus Rex, and started adopting more of Marc Bolan’s proto-Glam style. Friendship turned into jealousy as Bowie’s career began to eclipse Bolan’s, though they stayed friendlimies for the rest of the latter’s short life (d. 1977). The birth of Ziggy Stardust’s androgyny started to click in Britain. Apparently, star-maker and producer John Peel (who is shown here in a 2004 interview, shortly before his death that same year) never really forgave Bowie for his alleged treatment of Bolan, and states so explicitly.

And where did that fashion style originate? Mostly from a of a cast of New York-based performers that showed up to act in a gender-ambiguously play called Pork, namely Cherry Vanilla (the woman who single-handedly helped introduce and break Bowie to the American audiences), the lovely Wayne (now Jayne) County, and publicity maven / photographer Leee Black Childers. Personally, I think these three should have been interviewed on this film because David Bowie may never have become David Bowie if it weren’t for this amazing trio (testify, Jimi L!). Luckily, they are at least given credit by one of the journalists who are part of the commentary.

That kind of style “borrowing” and eclipsing would not historically end there with Bowie. One needs just look at Boy George’s appropriation of bands like Hayzee Fantayzee. But I digress…

The other half of from what was Ziggy Stardust formed was the Andy Warhol Factory group, where Bowie is stated here as essentially saying that he wanted ‘“the mind of Lou Reed and the body of Iggy Pop. Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s attempt to be that." Leee Childer’s once told one of FFanzeen’s writers in the 1980s that Bowie’s genius is knowing what to steal, and when. Very subtly, this DVD agrees.

There is a gaggle of journalists interviewed here mostly stating opinions, such as David Stubbs, Andrew Mueller, and Paolo Hewitt. As always, what fascinates me more are the people who are more intimately involved, like collaborators from the early years like Keith Christmas and Bob Solly. Shame they couldn’t get Angie Bowie, she certainly would have joyously livened up the volume on the DVD.

As always, there’s lots and lots of rare clips, both video and sound, from the entire period under discussion, including interviews with Bowie, of some of his influences (like Bolan and Donovan), and even a snippet of a telly advertisement in which he participated before his rise. Of course, all of these clips are short and incomplete; otherwise this would be five hours long.

In Chrome Dream fashion, this is a well-released and solidly-put together. It also feels a bit more even than some of the earlier histories, in that some interviewed are actually critical of the man at the center, rather than merely full of hyperbole (though some of that is here, too).

Now that I have finished this enjoyable history, I’m going to watch an alternative version with Velvet Goldmine.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

DVD Review: The Point (Harry Nilsson / Ringo Starr)

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet

The Point: The Definitive Collector’s Edition
Directed and animated by Fred Wolf
MVD Visual
74 min, 1971 / 2012

The 1970s was a key point in cinema animation, with works by Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Wizards), Martin Rosen (Watership Down) and Ralph Lafoux (Fantastic Planet. At the same time, weekly television cartoons went from 24 frames per second to 18 (e.g., The Jackson 5ive, Nanny and the Professor).

Undeterred by the growing maturity of the medium, The Point, drawn by Fred Wolf, was bravely released into the world and shown on ABC television as the first animated “Move of the Week” in 1971. Using simple line drawings that looked an Alka-Seltzer commercial from the ‘60s (which had been drawn by RO Blechman), it went out to touch a wide-reaching audience for various reasons.

But first, this message: Narrating the story-within-a-story is Ringo Starr, as the dad who reads the story to his young son, who is more into watching television (“my shows”) than books (sound familiar?). Starr’s easily recognizable voice rambles along, up and down tones in a slight sing-song manner that he’s known for, which is, of course, endearing Note, however, the original airing on television used Dustin Hoffman’s voice, and Ringo was added for the video release years later The songs that accompany the story is by Starr’s cohort and real-life close friend, Harry Nilsson (d. 1994), known for the likes of “Without You” and “Everybody’s Talkin’”. One from the film, “Me and My Arrow,” even became a somewhat hit. Nilsson also wrote and pitched the story idea. And in typical post-Beatles music-related animation, there is a bit of a psychedelic feel to the colors and flow. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it derivative as much as influenced.

The story told is about a little boy, Oblio, and his dog Arrow, who live in a land where everything and everyone has a triangular shape, or a point (for people, it’s at the top of their heads, possibly inspiring the Coneheads. And yet, no one’s pointy-headed life has any point Yes, the double meaning is purposeful in the story, especially when Oblio is born with a round head (like us). Nearly everyone else in the story is also The Simpsons-ish orange (perhaps Snooki?), though occasionally to make a point, some are other colors, such as a crooked politician being purple. Yes, it is very Yellow Submarine in that way, with the meanie being a darker hue of blue.

Due to the machinations of said politico, inspired by his bully of a son who is Oblio’s school mate, Oblio and Arrow are cast away into the “Pointless Forest.” There he meets a serious of people or creatures, some having some kind of trinity about them. First there is a slimy character with three heads who consistently points out that all those who Oblio meets in the forest is pointless, to which he disagrees. Then there’s three obese women bouncing around like beachballs (reminding me more of a post-blueberry Violet Beauregarde). Among others, there is a fashion industry manufacturer tree waiting to bring out the next season’s line (“Careful! Leaves don’t on trees, y’know!”) and an obviously African-American Rock man (“Dig?”) that has a rear-view mirror touch of Semitic and Black-hep stereotyping, among many others.

Oblio is voiced by 10-year-old Mike Lookinland, who is better known to that generation as the youngest boy Brady, Bobby. Other voices include animation stalwarts Paul Frees (who narrated many films and cartoons, as well as playing both John Lennon and George Harrison in the Beatles cartoon; d 1986), Lenny Weinrib (he voiced both Scrappy-Doo and H.R. Hufnstuf, among so many others; d. 2006), and voice-queen Joan Gerber (d. 2011); also child actor Buddy Foster (who played Mike Jones on both the Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry RFD; he’s also Jody’s older brother).

But the most important voice, however, is Nilsson’s as he croons the Greek-chorus songs that weave throughout the story. This can almost be seen as a happier version of The Little Prince meets Alice in Wonderland, where the child has many exciting and sometimes dangerous adventures on his way to find truth, meaning, and yes, the point of life. Then there is the consistent looking for the positive in everything like Candide.

And what happens when round-headed outcast Oblio returns to the pointed land? Well, that is the – err – point, isn’t it…

This really is a charming story and well told. It will appeal to children with the art and music, and there is enough double entendres that will keep the adults interested. And those Nilsson songs. Even with a few major hits, it is true that he was underrated for his voice and writing. This film, as a Nilsson legacy, is something to be treasured, even though it has become a bit dated over the years in some of its categorized characters. The story, however, remains true, and that’s what matters in the end.

The extra is a 27-minute documentary broken into four parts: “Who is Harry Nilsson?”, “Pitching The Point,” “Making The Point,” and “Legacy of The Point.” It’s consistently interesting, about how Nilsson brought the film to fruition. Some of the oral history is presented by the likes of director/animator Fred Wolf, Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, Terry Gilliam who animated Monty Python’s Flying Circus, John Lennon’s consort May Pang, and Harry’s last wife, Una and adult kids Annie and Beau. Shame they couldn’t get Lookinland to discuss his role.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

DVD Review: Ike & Tina: On the Road 1971-72

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2013
Images from the Internet
Ike & Tina: On the Road 1971-72
Directed by Nadya Beck and Bob Gruen
Carnage and Rouge Productions
81 minutes, 2012

Looking through the rear view mirror, Ike (d. 2007) and Tina Turner get lost in the legend of Ike’s abuse and Tina’s later “What’s Love Got to Do With It” period. Both are fact, but so is that Ike was one of the currently under-heralded originators of rock’n’roll, Tina was a fireball of energy and a strong songwriter, and together they brought some raucous R&B into the mainstream. They were a powerhouse as a multiple award-winning couple in the music field of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Likewise, Bob Gruen (and then spouse Nadya Beck) is recognized as a photographer of the early New York punk scene starting with the New York Dolls and going through his involvement/participation in the Sex Pistols tour of the United States in 1978. But, as with Ike and Tina, Bob’s career is also more than that, as his films have shown.

The last grouping of his and Nadya’s I saw was the Dolls’ Lookin’ Fine on Television [HERE], and now comes a collection of their filming of Ike and Tina shot on what appears to be early B&W video (reel-to-reel?), evidenced by the thick horizontal lines that show up on the occasion. There are also some color sequences that appear to be Super 8 or grainy 16mm. Thankfully, none of that detracts from what is happening at any time.

Actually, the title “On the Road” is only partially true. Yes, we open on I & T in the back of a car friendly arguing about a time past when Ike left Tina on the side of a road somewhere, but that’s the only hint of what would make the focal point of her autobio. After an in concert of the magnificent Greenwich-Barry “River Deep, Mountain High,” we are in a house (never explained whose) watching what could be any suburban couple and family on any weekend, which makes it historically interesting (for the first viewing, anyway).

After a taping of Carson (Johnny, not Daly), both musically and interview (wonder how this production got the rights), and a practice and recording session in the studio with the Ikettes, we do follow them on the road.

As great and many as the musical scenes are, they are equaled by the shots backstage as they banter and fool around, do promotion interviews and appearances, and just interact and practice with the rest of the revue.

One of the many successful aspects of this collection is that it shows that while Tina, Ike, and crew fall into a specific genre of R&B with the likes of James Brown and Joe Tex, they could also be working equally hard on the blues (“I Smell Trouble”, “A Love Like Yours [Don’t Come Knockin’ Every Day]” for example). And then there is the pre-Donna Summers/Andrea True sexy “I Smell Trouble” that is accompanied by a razor sharp Ike on guitar.

We also get to see some of the revue as themselves, sans the titular couple, as they practice, horseplay, and we get to see the Ikettes on stage by themselves performing a couple of numbers.

There are a couple of directorial self-indulgences (hey, even Hitchcock did it) that are forgivable, making this collection of performances – both partial and complete – an enjoyable viewing. And in what is a nice touch, we finish as we start, with Tina and Ike in the back seat of the car, but this time they are harmonizing as Ike strums an acoustic.

The extra is a long slideshow of Gruen’s photos of the tour that is totally enjoyable. There is also a thick booklet included with a lot of the images and text (dated 2012) by Bob Gruen that explains how the whole adventure began and impressions on the road.

Track List:
River Deep, Mountain High
Pick Me Up (Take Me Where Your Home Is)
Oh Devil
Gulf Coast Blues
Shake a Tail Feather
There Was a Time
Heard It Through the Grapevine
A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knockin’ Every Day)
Under the Weather
I’ve Been Loving You Too Long
Walking the Dog
You’ve Got to Get That Feeling
Try a Little Tenderness
Proud Mary
I Smell Trouble
Instrumental Theme Song
I Want to Take You Higher