Thursday, August 25, 2016

DVD Review: Louder than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Louder than Love: The Grande Ballroom Story
Produced and directed by Tony D’Annunzio
74 minutes, 2016

When most people think of music from Detroit in the ‘60s to ‘70s, the first bound to come to mind is Motown. Great stuff, no doubt, but there was more to the city than that. Out of the industrial city came a thunder of guitars, unprecedented attitude, and attack-mode rock from a venue called the Grande Ballroom. The title of the documentary comes from the music of the Grande being more voluminous than another club called Love a few blocks over, but I also think it could be interpreted as being louder than most of the other music from either Coast during that Summer of Love. The MC5, the Stooges (with Iggy Pop), Alice Cooper, the Frost, and even the Amboy Dukes rose out of the Grande to change the face of music and prepare the way for the punk movement that was to come nearly a decade later out of New York.

The Grande Ballroom (pronounced Grand-ee), however, was not the “Detroit CBGBs,” but more like an explosive Fillmore (pick East or West), in which many of the touring rock bands, such as the Who, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Cream would play on their way across the States.

Though actually only around for a relatively short while (1967-1972), the effect on American – and British for that matter – music is undeniable. Sure the Stones had Toronto as their fave place, but the Who were so enamoured with the Grande that they premiered Tommy on its stage. Alice Cooper points out here that the talent level on that stage so was high that it was either get better to get lost. To inspire bands, the crowd was known to shout out, you got it, “Kick out the jams, motherfucker!” which is the origin of the MC5’s infamous and ground-breaking call to arms.

The amount of interviews throughout the documentary are staggering including nearly all surviving members of the MC5, Roger Daltry, Alice Cooper, Dick Wagner (d. 2014), BB King (d. 2014), Slash, Lemmy (d. 2015), Grand funk Railroad’s Mark Farner, the omnipresent Henry Rollins (who was 11 years old when the club closed, but is acknowledged to be a huge Stooges fan), Stooges’ second guitarist James Williamson, and even scuzzbucket right wing nutcase Ted Nugent (while I didn’t necessarily need to hear anything he had to say, the Amboy Dukes were an amazing band). No Iggy, though, FYI.

For me, one of the important interviews was with Russ Gibb, who was the owner and founder of the Grande, on the level of Bill Graham without the ego. Well, him and most of the staff of the place are interviewed in detail with lots of anecdotes. Which brings me to:

There are three themes in this that are worth nothing. First and foremost are the interviews, including with Ruth Hoffman, a self-described groupie who tells a tale of getting drunk with someone and comparing men’s butts, only to find the person get up on stage and it’s Janis Joplin. Or, the stories of the whole audience participating in loading up a band’s gear so they can make it to the airport. Then there’s someone bringing Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker to their parents’ home for supper. There are these, along with the “The Stooges!” “Alice Cooper!” “The Who!” meshugas.

Second, there are the images. I am not talking about the talking heads interviews, I mean both the live footage and stills from the day that show just how extreme the entire scene quickly became. There’s everything from onstage action to, well, Eric and Ginger at the family supper.
What I found also interesting was the juxtaposition shots of what the Grande looked like then and its condition now, but more on that later.

For me, the weakest spot is the use of music. Listen, I understand that if all the music discussed would be played as a focal point, this film would be about 20 hours long. That being said, most the sounds you hear are in the background; it runs through the whole film, but little of it is identified except in the song credits at the end. Also, in most cases, it’s snippets… well, probably, because it is in the background under the dialog, so it’s hard to pay attention to it except peripherally. But if that’s the biggest complaint I have, it’s a mere four bars considering the magnitude of the story behind it.

There are a number of really nice extras. The first, at nearly 16 minutes, is “Grande Tales,” which is further interviews (with no indication of who is talking, so watch the film first). At nearly a half hour, you can see what their infamous light shows looked like (sans sound… or mind altering substances). After the 5-minute long trailer, there’s “Dave Miller Grande Wedding,” at nearly 4 minutes. Dave was the MC, and his wedding show was infamous among the inner circle; he wore outrageous make-up that makes Alice Cooper’s look moderate, and it’s also silent, as is the next 10-minute long “Dave Miler’s Home Movies” (I’m guessing 16mm), where he shoots various band members at his parent’s house. It’s a lot of fuzzy fun. Last up is “Belle Isle Love In” (1967), another silent home movie lasting over 5 minutes that focuses in on the audience (especially the women) as much as the bands.

When the Grande closed in 1972 (though there is no mention of why here), the building was abandoned and is in a state of severe disrepair. Watching the comparison shots of the place then and now is both fascinating and heartbreaking. Personally, I’d love to see it become a heritage building, and have the Detroit government not only fix it up, but turn it into a museum. But, of course, Detroit is broke, so that’s not gonna happen anytime soon.

Considering the number of talking heads, the stories are fascinating enough to keep the viewers’ interest for the entire time, and D’Annunzio keeps his ego in check to make this just the right length to do that. A must for anyone who is into rock history, the nascent beginnings of punk, or just love to hear stories about that period. A visual kicking out of the jams.

Bonus video (not on DVD):

Saturday, August 20, 2016

DVD Review: Janis – Little Girl Blue

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet

Janis: Little Girl Blue
Written and directed by Amy J. Berg
Disarming Films / Jigsaw Productions /
FilmRise / MVD Visual
103 minutes, 2015 / 2016

If you look at the director’s credits, most of Amy Berg’s films are documentaries about children and women who have been abused by the system, especially by those in power in a religious setting. It kind of makes sense why she’d choose this topic because Janis Joplin’s life was also a series of failures on the part of support systems as she reviled in the church of Rock and Roll.

For anyone who grew up listening to her music, the stories of rejection in high school and in the town of Port Arthur, Texas, resonates. That’s part of why the cult of Janis started, because people of her generation and beyond heard and saw in her the pain, which gave voice to their own, possibly for the first time; this is especially true for women.

Now, there have been umpteen books and documentaries about Joplin over the years since her death in 1970, and even Bette Midler’s film, The Rose is somewhat based upon her, but most try to paint her as a victim, be it of her culture, of the time of drug experimentation in San Francisco, of bad management (such as Albert Grossman), of other musicians, of the music lifestyle, record producers, a failed relationship, whatever. Despite “Little Girl Blue” in the name, Berg takes a somewhat different and more even-handed approach, which makes it a better film.

Berg does not shy away from anything, be it Joplin’s bisexuality (though barely), her drive to fame and success, her fragile ego, and her substance ab/use, which makes the film all that more compelling. She paints Janis as a human, not just a myth. Part of the way she does this is by vocalizing some of the letters she wrote over the years to her family in Texas, spoken by Chan Marshall (better known as musician Cat Power), who gets the tone and intonation spot-on, without it being a caricature impression.

Actually Berg makes many good choices throughout. For example, she hits the high points in Janis’s rise, such as Monterey and Woodstock, but also doesn’t dwell on them by looking at some questionable choices, giving some balance to her life and career.

There are many archival images and videos, both as a young’n and throughout her famed career, both onstage and off. I’m a fan of Joplin’s music and talent, but I would be hard pressed to say I was an expert on her. I’ve seen lots of performances, thanks to YouTube and the like, but there were a lot here that I had never seen before, including some interviews both on national and local television (e.g., Dick Cavett) and regional press.

Along with that, there are numerous interviews with those who were there with her, including her family, childhood (and beyond) best friend, members of all of her bands (Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Kozmic Blues Band, Full Tilt Boogie Band), Kris Kristofferson, Country Joe MacDonald, Dick Cavett, Clive Davis, and so forth. But rather than the standard talking heads, she makes the talker seem more intimate with strong close-ups, and by incorporating what they are saying into archival footage rather than just watching them jaw.

There are also some cool extras, so even if you have seen the airing, it may be worth checking out anyway. First one up is titled “Avalon vs. the Fillmore,” at 4 minutes. Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead), among others, discuss the difference in atmosphere between the two clubs, and how Janis got kicked out of one of them (not telling which). At nearly 1-1/2 minutes, the remaining members of BBHC get together for this film in “Big Brother Acapella,” and do a modified version of “Papa-Om-Mow-Mow.” It’s almost surrealistic (but no pillow).

Especially powerful is the next 5-1/2 minute “Influences,” in which women musicians (Chan Marshall, Pink, Melissa Etheridge and Juliette Lewis) talk about what Janis meant to them, and what it is like to give all and then be alone at the end of the show (Melanie Safka has a great song about this phenomenon called “Leftover Wine,” FYI). For the last extra, the 4-minute “Walk of Fame Ceremony” follows Janis’s brother and sister to Hollywood in 2013 to see Clive Davis uncover her star. As one fan rightfully states, “The Olsen Twins have one and it took them this long for Janis? Shame.”

This documentary has been heaped with praise since its release and airing on PBS’s “American Masters” program. I’m not surprised, as it’s one of the better rock bios I’ve seen in a while. It clearly shows Janis as a flawed human without either excusing her behaviour, or pointing a finger.

Monday, August 15, 2016

DVD Review: I Need a Dodge! – Joe Strummer on the Run

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

I Need a Dodge!: Joe Strummer on the Run
Directed by Nick Hall
Tin Dog Productions / Cadiz Music / MVD Visual
67 minutes, 2015

If you have to ask who Joe Strummer is, well, you’re reading the wrong blog post. Honestly, he was the only one of the Clash I actually thought was cool (though Paul Simonon had his moments). That being said, the Clash started out as one of the biggest punk bands out of the English phase, and turned into one of the biggest disappointments. London Calling was a mixture of amazing work and commercial dreck, and by the time Combat Rock came out, I couldn’t listen to their stuff anymore. It was almost a relief when Strummer left the group around 1985.

Thanks kind of where this documentary really starts to pick up. I didn’t realize that Strummer headed for Spain; he had a fling with an Iberian woman early in his career, learned some Spanish, and fell in love with the country.

While there, Joe hooked up with a band in Granada called the 091. This seemed ironic, since his first recordings in England were with the similarly titular number-oriented and underrated 101ers. Pre-Joe, the 091 considered themselves punk, but musically I would say they were closer to the New Romantics pop, along the lines of Simple Minds or Tears for Fears (at least in the short clip we see of an early incarnation of the band). Gathering a popular Spanish band called Radio Futura, he then recorded with them as well.

Most of the members of these bands, and other friends from that period and before, are interviewed in the film, which is mostly recorded in Spanish in oral history mode, meaning there are no questions heard to be asked, just the participants telling their stories. There are some nicely done captions in English with a few other languages available. Also included is a Spanish version of the film on the DVD as one of the extras, which I did not watch.

And where does the title of the film come in? Joe Strummer bought a Dodge (or Spanish knockoff, depending on the storyteller) while in the country, even though he had neither licence nor registration (in someone else’s name) and somehow he lost it by forgetting where it was parked. During a radio interview in Madrid, he mentions how he wants to find it, and there is the premise. It’s kind of a slim one as it’s not discussed all that much at the beginning, but that’s fine. What we get instead in a post-Clash Strummer who was mostly out of the Western Hemisphere’s eye, and this fills in the gaps quite nicely.

Most of the early part of the story is more of Joe’s involvement with the musicians, including trying to produce their LP and battles with the ill-equipped record label that was more used to classical Spanish music than anything as raucous as Joe would tip is toe into.

I like that the story has a few different layers, like a history of Strummer (d. 2002) in Spain, the involvement of the car, and also Strummer’s working with the Spanish bands. All these threads are conveyed by those who were there, rather than a third party, such as a journalist who had written about it.

At first, the car comes into the conversation on occasion, focusing more anecdotally of his involvement with the 091 and Radio Futura, but as the tale plays out, the focus lingers on the titular subject more. We watch the director become the focus as he looks for the mystery car. Does he find it? Well, I’m not tellin’.

There is a lot that is formulaic about the formatting of the film, with multiple talking heads, but it remains interesting because they were there, and stories about Joe tend to be never dull. Also, Nick Hall is wise enough to know that most likely the audience for this film will not know these musicians and friends, so the title captions for each person come up pretty often. Thank you for that.

Another smart choice is that Hall keeps the film relatively short. Rather than dragging it out, he gets to the point in a mostly enjoyable roundabout way, not focusing merely on the car or the musicians, but edits it in an ever growing arc that keeps the interest level high.

There are a bunch of extras that go with the DVD, including a stack of deleted interviews that are mostly around a minute long, with a couple being around 3 to 5 minutes, and a 25-minute one with Pete Howard and Nick Sheppard, two members of the reformed Clash (who talk in detail about Joe’s troubled relationship with manager Bernie Rhodes). Taking these out were right, but so was adding them into the extras.

Another two bonuses are audio tracks of interviews with Joe, one being 13 minutes from 1984, and the other is also 13 minutes, from 1997. Both are in Spanish with subtitles. As an extra bonus sweetener, this is interview is also on a cassette (you read right) that is included with the DVD box. Sure it takes up more space on the shelf, but hell, it really is cool, proving once again what Marshall McLuhan said, that replaced technologies come back as art. In this case I might say art as fuck.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Ming, 1998-2016

Text and images (c) Robert Barry Francos

Yesterday, we had to put down our precious Ming. She had a fast growing mass in her gut, and had lost nearly a third of her body weight. It was all very fast, and she let us know it was time to join her litter-sister, Memphis, who passed in February 2014. In just over a month, Ming would have been 18 years old, which is 90 in cat years (we looked it up).

Ming was an affectionate kitty who liked to curl up between us at night, or rest with her head on some part of our body (usually the one trying to get things done, like type or write). She would headbutt us to ask for a rub, and was very kind tempered, especially as she aged. She seemed to take an instant like to my dad, though he was not impressed with pets, but she was insistent. Ming was strong willed and usually got what she wanted.

Sleep well, little one, you are missed and loved.

You can find of more her and her sister's story HERE.