Perhaps the pinnacle of Robert Altman’s style, Nashville is truly a great work of American cinema. How many other filmmakers have the confidence and guts to put together a movie with not one, not two, but 24 major characters? Even more staggeringly, Altman pulls it off without barely a hitch, stuffing his film with layer upon layer of minor revealing details, aided by actors who were every bit as invested in the project as he was. In addition (and its easy for me to say this as I do love me some country music), the songs are fantastic too; mostly written by the cast, they function as revealing moments of character development themselves, all part of a larger tapestry of an America that was then standing at crossroads between the cynicism of Watergate and the lost promises of Carterism. A stone-cold masterwork.
Based vaguely on Frank Sidebottom, the British musical comedy character popular in the 80s, Frank follows Jon (Domhnall Glesson), an aspiring musician who finds himself invited to record an album with the mysterious titular character (Michael Fassbender) and his band. Fassbender, despite being encased inside a giant paper-mache head for most of the film, is by far and away the best thing here; shorn of its star’s most recognisable trait, his performance is a masterclass in acting with bodily gestures and the voice, and the supporting cast, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal as a jealous, psychopathic theremin player are superb too. However, Frank‘s biggest misstep lies in Gleeson’s performance. Normally an excellent actor, here he plays Jon as an awkward, talentless, fame-chaser, the result being too abrasive and jarring with the rest of the film’s tone: it’s hard to believe that such a musically bland guy would be invited to play with such an otherwise experimental-sounding band.
Put simply, This is Spinal Tap remains one of the laugh-out loud funniest, most engrossing, and most quotable comedies of all time. The trick? Roger Ebert once wrote of another great comedy, Dr. Strangelove, that “a man wearing a funny hat is not funny. But a man who doesn’t know he’s wearing a funny hat…”, and the same principle applies to Spinal Tap. The performances of the cast are so wonderfully clueless and deadpan that it is impossible not to simply piss oneself laughing at so many classic moments, but more than that, it is that these guys are actually kind of likeable – the boys that make up Spinal Tap are complete idiots, but they’re our idiots, and we get to laugh at them. What else do you need for a great comedy?
For all its experimental edges – from the off-kilter drumbeats and horn stabs of opener “From the Air” to the vocal pitch-shifting on “Example #22” – there’s something warm and comforting about Laurie Anderson’s Big Science. The two standout tracks, the title track and “O Superman”, both display a strange, beguiling ability to lull and relax whilst being every so-slightly unnerving, as if nudging one to keep listening. Minimalist though Big Science may be instrumentally, Anderson doesn’t let this detract from her cinematic musical senses, using scraps of stories and the musical tools available to produce an album that feels as visual as it is musical – unsurprising given her background as a multimedia performance artist. Kate Bush was probably listening.
Speeding along at about roughly the 300bpm double-time swing that its terrifying music teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) forces Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) to play repeatedly until his hands are bleeding, Whiplash is an engrossing thunderclap of a film. Though there are more than a few moments that don’t make sense (how does he lose that music chart?!), Whiplash bottles past far too quickly for the viewer to stop and notice, the editing and cinematography keeping the breakneck pace up. At its heart, there are two fantastic performances by two fantastic actors, who bring a lot of life, vitality and empathy into two characters who are, at their base root, completely and utterly unlikeable.
Big Bill Broonzy is perhaps one of the more underrated of the old Delta Blues singers and players of the 1920s up to about the ’40s or the ’50s. He doesn’t have the myth of a Robert Johnson or the tough-as-nails backstory of Leadbelly, but what he does have is a damn good sense for how to phrase and play his songs. Big Bill Broonzy was one of the few acoustic blues artists who was around both in the South during the ’20s and ’30s and later in Chicago in the ’40s and ’50s when electric blues was beginning to take off. This album, recorded in 1951 and 1952 though not released until much later, showcases how his music sits between both worlds in many ways.
While he may be accompanied by none other than his acoustic guitar, Big Bill has an incredible sense of rhythm. His playing grooves and shuffles, much like the burgeoning electric bands of the era but of course, Big Bill doesn’t have them behind him. Listen to “Baby Please Don’t Go”, how Big Bill slinks and grooves along to the rhythm. Plenty of the acoustic bluesmen just ignored such notions of timing and metre, instead just changing chords and singing the next line whenever they damn well felt like it. Broonzy on the other hand, keeps to the rhythm. You can sense it. You can dance to it.
His voice too is quite soulful. He lacks the lonesome whine of a Robert Johnson or the shat-on, spat-on grit of a Son House, but oh boy, can he belt one out. There’s a wonderful clarity and passion to the man’s voice. His pained calls in “Low Down Blues”, the powerful declarations of “Stand Your Test in Judgement”, and the bellowing rabble-rousing of “John Henry” (incidentally, one of my favourite songs about the mythical train-worker), his singing is a towering pillar on which his music hangs much of his power.
This record’s main problem is the same problem with so many other acoustic blues records. It’s repetitive, with most of the songs following the 12-bar blues pattern that we’ve all heard so often. There are a couple of complete duds, especially the rambling “Hey! Bud Blues”, but the album is at its strongest when Big Bill takes on songs outside of the 12-bar blues pattern. Hence, the spirituals “Stand Your Test in Judgement” and “Down by the Riverside” are highlights, as is the aforementioned “John Henry”, and the soulful “When Did You Leave Heaven”. Of the many blues artists rediscovered in the 60s and onwards, Big Bill Broonzy is one of the best, and you’d be hard pushed to go wrong with just about any half-decent compilation or reissue of his.