Thursday, April 20, 2017

Documentary Review: For the Love of Spock

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

For the Love of Spock
Written and directed by Adam Nimoy
455 Films / FilmRise / Gravitas Ventures / MVD Visual
111 minutes, 2016

As I am assuming is true with most people other than die-hard trekkers who are bulletin-boarded to the pulse of all things Star Trek, I first heard about this documentary about Leonard Nimoy, the Prime (first) Spock, from an episode of Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon is interviewed by Leonard’s son, the director Adam Nimoy.

As for Spock and Leonard, I was 11 years old when “Star Trek” first started playing on television. Even though I missed the second season due to being banned from TV for a year thanks to lipping off at my dad, of course over the years I caught up to all the episodes. Back when they were first run, and I was a pipsqueak, I didn’t realize the social implications of the stories (e.g., “I am black on the right side… Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side!” from the “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode), so it was just as enjoyable a sci-fi show as “Lost in Space.” By my mid-teens, I knew better (but still liked both shows).

In 1972, thanks to then-new pal Bernie Kugel, we went to the very first Star Trek convention, held at the Hotel Pennsylvania (then known as the Statler Hotel). The doors were late opening and there was a larger crowd than expected by the organizers jammed in together at the ballroom door, testily held waiting. Bernie, being Bernie, out of nowhere and with lack of context (i.e., bored) turned to me and in a loud voice said, “What do you mean, ‘Nimoy, who?!’” I could see the heads of people turning in my direction with daggers. There was no harm, but I did get sharp glances the whole day. Now I’m completely amused by it, and Bernie remains Bernie and a BFF, I’m happy to say, and yes I still have the convention’s program in a box somewhere.

So, the point is that when I heard about this documentary on Nimoy was in the works, it made me happy. And now I get the chance to review it!

As the film starts, the launching point is Nimoy’s death in 2015, and works its way back to the beginning. A key component is the director placing himself into the story. I find this doesn’t always work in other films, as it tends to misdirect the attention away from the subject in an egotistical way (much like the beginning of this review), but in this case, Leonard is not just a subject that the director is focused on, being his son he is integrated into the story, and so it works.

The early part delves into the start of Nimoy’s career rather than his childhood (a good move), which includes an interview with his brother. Funny thing is, his brother bears a strong resemblance to his Spock friendemy, Dr. McCoy/DeForest Kelley. Most of the family, in fact is represented here, including Adam’s sister (though not Leonard’s widow/second wife).

Y’know, I’m not gonna go into super detail here, because even at nearly two hours, this kept my interest throughout, except for the exceptionally long list of Kickstarter contributors during the final credits, because I have a life, but it still made me smile knowing that so many people wanted to be involved with this project (i.e., hundreds of names).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This incredibly inclusive film has tons of interviews, with previous cast members, writers, etc., of various “Star Trek”/Star Trek releases, from the television shows (including William Shatner, George Takei [aka the great Mr. Meme], Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig) and films (such as Chris Pine, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg and of course Zachary Quinto). There’s also Jason Alexander, who is apparently a “Star Trek” expert!

There are lots of film clips, from public and private speaking engagements, and conventions (including by fans and cos-players). The production also wisely alternatives between the linear and themes, so we learn about how the iconic “Spockisms” came about, such as the eyebrow-raise, the Vulcan neck pinch, the mind meld, and of course the “Live long and prosper” Vee symbol. Also, Adam nicely mixes information of Nimoy the actor and Spock the character, showing how they intertwined.

There is room for another documentary here on things that were mentioned in passing, including his music career, his books (e.g., I am Not Spock; I am Spock; collections of poetry), his photography art (some of his images are shown, but as they are not Spock related, and due to time I’m sure, they are merely glanced upon, again rightfully so).

Personal information about the Nimoys abound that I did not know, such as Leonard being an alcoholic and a sometimes absent father, but by having a gentle and personal touch, Adam makes him out to be a human rather than a monster (see Mommy Dearest, for example of the latter), and is also willing to take some of the distancing between them upon himself.

While Shatner is the central character and lovingly ribbed in modern culture for his line delivery, Spock is arguable the most influential of the roles from the original program, and I certainly believed the most beloved due to his part-alien/part human “Other” nature. This is also well touched on in the documentary, as is his stimulus on some people in the present NASA space program and the likes of scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson (who also appears here).

Extras are legion here, starting with the basic chapters and captioning in multiple languages. Then there are the featurettes. It starts off with the 28:37 “Leonard Nimoy’s Boston,” also produced and directed by Adam. It had been recorded for PBS as part of a series. It’s a really fine annotation to the feature film, because where the main documentary is a bit shy of early pre-Leonard history, this certainly makes up for it in an interesting way. We follow Adam and Leonard as they walk around the city, especially the West End where Leonard was raised, and we see the before neighborhood through pictures, and the after of the urban renewal that just about wiped out the entire area. It’s both a great autobiographical history as well as a lesson on the culture of Boston and what happens when the government uses eminent domain, as New York and Robert Moses did with large sections of the southern Bronx. It was shot four months before Leonard passed.

Next is the 9:15 short “On the Set of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’” which intertwines the post-mortem-Leonard appearance of Adam on the television show. Interviewed are the cast and crew who discuss not only Adam’s role, but the influence of Leonard/Spock on the series writ large. Continuing this theme is the 15:25 “Tribeca Panel,” where Adam, Quinto, “Access Hollywood” producer Scott Mantz and the Nimoy film's executive producer David Zappone appeared for questions at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 after the showing of the documentary. Then there is a 4:24 “Trivia Time with Jason Alexander,” a fun piece of fluff as he answers trivia questions about all things “Trek” from both television and film versions (though mostly the original series).

The 5:54 “Kickstarter Gallery” is a series of pictures of people who contributed to the campaign. Following this are two trailers, for the Tribeca Festival and the Theatrical one. Last is the full-feature-length commentary by Adam, Zappone, and Mantz. It is one of the better commentaries I’ve heard in a while. The three participants are respectful of each other and the topic at hand, never talking over each other or trying to showboat, they discuss anecdotes about both the film and the original television show, talk about the personalities of the actors on the set, and little known trivia (outside of Trekkers, of course).

As a side note, I was noticing how much Leonard looked like David Bowie towards the end of Nimoy’s life, and how one of the songs over the final credits is Bowie’s “Spaceman.”

Adam did an amazing job with this “Spock doc,” as he calls it in the commentary, keeping the interest of the viewer by not sticking on a single style of theme, yet keeping it cohesive and sensible.

Monday, April 10, 2017

PANTHER BURNS Stalk New York [1983]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1983
Introduction and photos by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Videos from the Internet

The music of the Panther Burns was interesting in that it deviated from a formula. In fact, it was the same rockabilly-blues paradigm that the Cramps built on, but the Burns went in another – albeit equally minimalist – way. They used dissonance, changed the rhythm, and included a bunch of “tricks” that would warp the sounds without veering that much away in order to keep it “electric” without it being “electronic.” To give you some idea, past members of the group included Alex Chilton (d. 2010) and Jim Dickinson (d. 2009)  

I saw the Burns play once (though for the life of me I can’t remember where) around the time of this interview (The Ritz perhaps?), and saw Tav Falco once more in 1996 in a solo gig at Mercury Lounge after an interview there for the Videowave cable access show (see at bottom) The rest of the band here also went on to other bands that achieved cult status.

Meanwhile, Falco moved to Europe towards the end of the last century, and continues to front a version of the Burns.

This article / interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #10, dated 1983. It was written by the Managing Editor of the magazine, Julia Masi. – RBF, 2017

The Panther Burns saunter out of a small rehearsal studio on East 8th Street and Avenue A, ready to make their way across town. Just as they begin to pile themselves and their instruments into a friend’s car, lead guitarist Jim Duckworth [who would join the Gun Club - RBF, 2017], the most loquacious and animated Southern gentleman imaginable, announces that he’d rather walk and “get some of that good Greenwich Village, Manhattan air.” A flimsy excuse to pursue his favorite New York pastime, looking for copies of the Panther Burns’ latest, their first big budget 12” EP, Blow Your Top (Animal Records), on the city’s street corners. “I love the adoration,” he calls from afar as he and drummer Jim “Voon” Sclavunos slip off in the direction of St. Mark’s Place.

About a half hour later, Jim and Voon arrive at bassist Ron Miller’s apartment for the interview. Of course, Jim is anxious to relay his experiences: “It was pretty exciting, seeing the record in the street. But the thing to do now is to go to street corners and ask for the Panther Burns’ record.” His voice becomes deeper and he slightly squints one blue eye. “You have the Panther Burns’ EP?” You see, it’s not cool to go into the records store. That is the first thing you do. You wanna see it in the stores. But when you get really hip, you wanna see it on street corners.

“We didn’t really acknowledge that it was us. We just asked him how much he wanted for it. He wanted two dollars for it. But the interesting part of the story is that when we walked back over there, every street corner was sold out of our record! So that’s a really good sign. We’re impressed with that. It’s on the streets. It’s in the stores. It’s even in Memphis. But it’s not on street corners in Memphis. Nobody sells stuff on the street in Memphis. Well, actually, they do, I take that back. They sell those ceramic Elvis busts. And those velveteen tapestries with the ship, always with the ship. And jeans. Jeans all the time. And inflatable frogs. It’s not like it is here (where) they have shoes and things you can use, like Panther Burns’ records.”

 Aside from an infatuation with street hawkers, Jim is slightly less than enchanted with New York City’s Northern hospitality. “I’ve been thrown out of everywhere I’ve ever stayed (in NY). I slept in a Volkswagen seat least night, and I’m not in a very good mood from it. I get to sleep in the Volkswagen again tonight, but then I’m thrown out of there, too,” he laments.

Fortunately, he’s not taking such petty annoyances to heart. Especially not in light of the fates that befell his musical heroes when they relocated to the Big Apple. “All those guys – Jimmy Rogers, Buddy Rogers – died almost on the train goin’ out to Coney Island. They brought him up here to make some last records. They carried him up on a cot. And then he says,” Jim lowers his eyelids, stretches out his arms in a crucifixion pose, his voice a crackling whisper, “’Oh, no-o-o-o-o-o.’ And that was it! He was a goner, Jack!

“Buddy Holly comes up here, and on February 3rd [1959] he dies in an airplane crash.” So why do Southern boys like Duckworth care to flirt with fate and not only play, but record their EP on jinxed turf? One of the lures of the big city was that the band was able to work at Plaza Sound Studio in Radio City Music Hall, which left them only feet away from the space where the legendary Rockettes rehearsed. “I’ve only heard about them all my life,” recalls Jim. In fact, he was so anxious to meet a real live Rockette that he hung up signs around the building saying, “Singers Wanted,” hoping that a hoofer or two would be willing to sing back-up on the EP. His scheme didn’t work out as planned, but he frequently got to see some of the dancers in and around the building.

“I just love tap dancers. They’re just – “he smiles and stares into space. “There are just hardly any left.” A big fan of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (he’s even seen some of Robinson’s videos in slow motion) and Fred Astaire, he and Ron wax nostalgic about the dancers they’ve worked with while touring in jazz bands. “I played a gig with a tap dancer jus last winter, as a matter of fact,” remembers Ron. “There was a tap dance concerto with Honey Coles (one of Jim’s idols), and this girl named Brenda Bufalino. It was an orchestra gig. Morton Gold wrote this thing with a rhythmic tap dance part that’s mainly improvised. And an orchestra.”

“There’s two black guys in Pittsburgh who can’t get nowhere,” sympathizes Jim. “I remember I played with them when I was in the Jazz Workshop All-Stars. I was playing one night in Tunisia, and the next thing I know – these guys were so neat! They just came out on stage, dancin’ like this – “; he gets up and does a pretty impressive shuffle step across the room. “They were just having the greatest time tappin’ and doin’ solos, cuttin’ each other, and doin’ fours! And I remember when they got off, they just tapped off! And I was watchin’ them in the wings, tappin’ and slappin’ each other on the back, and doublin’ over with laughter. I just thought it was wonderful. They’d just been doin’ this for about 40 years. Saxie Williams. And I forget the name of his partner.

“There was a period when all these guys in Pittsburgh would try to tap in the kitchen, late at night, doin’ the timestep.” He confesses that he can’t tap, as he demonstrates his own competent version of the dance. But the dancer of the group is said to be lead singer/guitarist Tav Falco. He’s known in some Southern Arthur Murray Dance Studio circles for his very classy tango.

“This is a studio record,” Jim continues on the original subject. “This thing was done in Plaza Sound. This thing meets the requirements of everybody. The last one was the garage record [the 45 produced by Alex Chilton on Frenzy Records – Ed., 1983]. And the one before that, that was done in the closet.

“We tried to keep a raw sound by recording the rhythm section first, (then) guitar, bass and drums, so, we could have that “feel.” We didn’t want to do it, like, drums, and then puttin’ stuff over it. We wanted it to sound like the group playing.

“I think rock’n’roll is continual,” he explains. “There was rockabilly, then there was another kind of music, and then there was the ‘60s, and it just keeps changing. Anything you do is going to include the whole tradition.”

And tradition, or just a desire to reinforce the roots of rock’n’roll, is one reason why the Panther Burns have chosen to resurrect some of the classics of rockabilly. They bring a fresh, timely originality to the material that they revere. “There are just so many great cover tunes,” answers Jim, when asked why the band doesn’t incorporate more original material in their repertoire. “What’s the difference if it’s a cover tune anyway? We just play the music the way we feel it anyway. Ron makes his own bass parts and we generally change the music around to fit us.”

“Why must performers do original tunes?” asks Tav. “You know, Frank Sinatra didn’t write a lot of the material he did. Yet people didn’t ask him to write songs. ‘Why aren’t you writing songs, Frank?’ It was his voice. He had the voice. And Elvis didn’t write much of his songs. I think that’s a thing from the ‘60s. Buddy Holly was a good songwriter, and there were a lot of singer-songwriters like that. I personally have never concentrated on songwriting. I look at this as a body of work that can be shared. I think rock’n’roll is a genre, and you participate in that body of work. Now, if we contribute something, write a song and something comes out, fine. But personally, I’m not trying to get down and be a songwriter.

“I like working out of a tradition like some of the blues work we’ve done so far. Especially the blues. We’re bringing into the modern world music traditions that we were exposed to, that we grew up with.”

But Jim does think it’s necessary for artists to do original work, “Because that’s what moved the American musical tradition on, the need to write new tunes. Be-bop; they could have reused the harmonic basis of the standard tunes, but they would have lost money, so they wrote these incredible melodies on top of them. So, original music is where all of this stuff comes from. It’s necessary to go in and write original tunes if you have something you want to say. If not, go and do cover tunes. The reason we do so many cover tunes is that there are so many great ones to do. And it’s not a constriction. It’s not black and white: ‘cover tunes are constrictions; originals are freedom.’ Sometimes it’s the opposite.

“Take the first song,” he points to the cover of his EP on the table, “I’m a Rocket. “ “The original was acoustic guitar and voice. This one has all sorts of things happening to it. We gave it an ensemble. The whole group is playing. We have drum parts, bass, guitar parts. It has the same words at the original. It has the same rhythmic feel, but Voon has opened it up a lot. It has feedback and all sorts of stuff.”

“I just think that the music we’re doing is a product of the atomic consciousness of the ‘60s,” offers Tav. “You know, like after 1945 and the atomic bombs that were dropped. Like this song,” he pauses to listen to part of Arthur Pruitt’s “Gonna Dig Myself a Hole,” coming from the stereo in the next room. “When he comes out (of the hole), there won’t be any more wars around. So, in a way, music has a sort of political strata. People think that this music is very primitive. Blues and early rock’n’roll are very primitive. However, there is a subversive quality about it that comes out of the absence of any really strong labor movement in this country. It’s kind of a product of that, because it’s not about joining in. It’s not about filling the American Dream. It’s not about that at all. So, people think this kind of music is very Rightist and a celebration of all the American values, but it’s not. It’s carried on in spite of that.”