Vittorio Carli: Guide to Recent Music Films

There was a huge supply of fine music films released in 2005, both in theatres and on DVD. Here’s a list of some of the more substantial music films that I saw in 2005. I included a few 2006 entries (most of them opened somewhere else in the country or played at a film festival in 2005, so I included them. This guide covers music documentaries, music bio pics, music video collections, and musicals. I've included the traditional zero to four star ratings. Many of these films played at the Music Box or the Gene Siskel Center where they have regular film documentary festivals.

 

American Idol: The Best and Worst Zero- I sometimes have trouble differentiating between the "best" and "worst" on the show. To me, almost all of the performers are spineless mannequins aping the most superficial aspects of the least important star performers. With the exception of radio play lists; this show has done more to bring down the level of quality of popular music than any other single factor. This is the only DVD I couldn't watch all the way through. I couldn't bring myself to make it through the first 20 minutes but it was sheer torture.

 

 

Be Here to Love Me: A Film about Townes van Zandt ***- Solid but depressing portrait of an influential songwriter/folk and country singer who destroyed himself with alcohol. The story about how he missed a big gig is especially tragic.

 

 

Bile: When the Dead Come Home ***-Interesting collection of videos by a Ministry/Killing Joke inspired dark techno band. Some have dubbed their music as “demonic electronic.” Ugly and nasty but very exciting. Including the oddest version of “Love Stinks” you’ll ever hear.

 

Born to Boogie (1973) ***1/2- Campy and diverting rock concert film about the iconic glam rock band, T Rex features footage shot by Ringo Starr. Highlights include top notch performances of "Get it on (Bang a Gong)? “Telegram Sam," "Jeepster," and "Children of the Revolution.” but many people might know the cover versions of the songs (by Bauhaus, the Violent Femmes, and Marilyn Manson) better. This surprisingly surreal film includes some silly verbal horseplay. Some of the abominable, hallucinogenic footage looks like it was left over from "Magical Mystery Tour." T-Rex were not enormously successful in the USA, but they had a string of hits in the U.K. Their poppy music has dated far batter than the progressive dinosaur rock of the time (Does anyone still listen to ELP?) The late T Rex leader, Marc Bolan had confidence, talent, and style to spare, but the self-penned verse he recites in the film is even more puerile and juvenile than Jim Morrison's poetry. Bolin just may be the missing link between Tommy James and David Bowie. It features guest appearances by Elton John and Ringo Starr. Recently released for the first time on DVD. When are we going to get that long awaited film on The Sweet?

 

Bozo Porn Circus-Zero- Repellent, excruciating, and profoundly unerotic collection of videos featuring the music/erotic cabaret/ performance troop, Bozo Porn Circus. At times this is completely unwatchable, and the music is substandard Nine Inch Nails inspired techno metal. The mock rape scenario is totally disgusting. The videos look like outtakes from Showtime softcore films. But the fetish model/performer Candy XXX was great fun when she appeared on Messy Stench’s radio show.

 

Concert for Bangladash *** - This film may have been significant at the time, but in retrospect it seems very dated. Some highlights include George Harrison’s version of “My Sweet Lord” and Bon Dylan’s whole set (he blows everyone else away). Ravi Shankar’s work here is interesting, but I prefer his later collaborations with Phillip Glass. Leon Russell’s music is the most mundane (his unimaginative version of “Jump’in Jack Flash” is the film’s nadir. Eric Clapton appears just as he was starting his boring, mellow stage. The lineup could have used some funk, soul, or reggae. There are some good numbers here but this has less variety and the average quality of performances in “ Woodstock,” “ Monterey Pop,” and The Tibetan Freedom Concert” is much better. Remastered and released on DVD in 2005.

 

The Dick Cavett Show: Rock Icons ***- Includes some striking performances by Joni Mitchell, Jefferson Airplane,  Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Paul Simon, and a nifty Rolling Stones Interview (Mick Jagger prophetically says he can picture himself performing at 60.) . But Sly Stone steals the show with an incendiary version of "Thank You (Faletinme Be Mice Elf Agin). The post Woodstock chatter is banal and there is too much footage of some artists (Janis Joplin) and not enough of others (Sly Stone.) This features some pathetic counterculture jokes and a lame Tex Ritter segment that doesn't belong at all in the film. A hit and miss. But it’s great to watch Cavett skillfully navigate around a coked up Stone’s bewildering responses. Released on DVD in 2005.

 

 

 

The Dresden Dolls Live at Paradise ***- The Dresden Dolls are a fascinating duo that have been categorized as punk cabaret performers, but their music has more Kurt Weil than Johnny Rotten in it, Their short but cheap collection includes too many performances of the same songs. But the music videos for “Coin-Operated Boy” and “Girl Anachronism” are terrific. Released on DVD in 2005.

 

 

Extraordinary Machine *-This duel disk includes my favorite music CD of the year (Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine”) on one side (M.I.A’s first disc is almost as good). The other side some of the most routine music videos and boring performance footage I’ve seen in a long time. It’s not enough to just show Apple performing in a club without doing anything interesting with the camera. Save some bucks and get the CD only version instead

 

Flaming Lips: 1992-2005 ***-The wacky collection of videos by the semi-popular psychedelic influenced alternative band is very watchable. But the videos aren’t half as creative as the Lips’s wonderfully eccentric DVDs. Buy “Yoshima Battles the Pink Robots” or “ Transmissions from the Satellite Heart” today. Released on DVD in 2005.

 

450 F Street ***1/2-Penetrating documentary takes a revealing look at the various punk, art, and cultural movements that came out of a single building in Washington D.C. The scene gave birth to the straight edge movement, the anti sex, drugs and meat faction of punk. Fugazi/Minor Threat leader Ian MacKaye is a good interview subject is a good interview subject, but some of the more minor or marginal figures in the scene are just as fascinating. Are there any scenes this rich around today? Can anyone help me out? Played at the Gene Siskel Center in 2005.

 

 

Hold My Scissors ****- The talented Native Chicagoan, Usama Alshaibi, directed this stunning but disorienting video with Magic ist Kuntmaster (The Chicago performance artist, Camilla Ha was also involved). It features his partner in crime, the always exquisite Art Vamp, and it was shown at the 2005 Movieside Music Box Movie Massacre. The video can be seen in its entirety at http://insanefilms.com/?p=81.

 

 

Hustle and Flow *** 1/2- Some have attacked this film for romanticizing pimps, but Chicagoan Terrance Howard gives a gripping and undeniably strong performance, He richly deserved his Oscar nomination.

 

Kill Your Idols **** A lively, unpolished, and potent music documentary about the No Wave scene in New York, and performers that it influenced. The name is a variation of a title of the great Sonic Youth song, "Kill Y’r Idols.” No Wave (also called punk jazz) was a late ’70s movement that was inspired by punk rock and new wave, but it was even more radical, underground and revolutionary. No wave performers such as James Chance and Lydia Lunch rejected the blues base of punk, and they consciously tried to get rid of all traces of their influences. Many of them also used some non-rock instruments, and they experimented with avant-garde and jazz sounds as well as atonality. "Kill Your Idols" looks at the New York no wave scene of the ‘70s in a chronological. The film includes many classic clips of performances by No Wave bands such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, DNA, and the Contortions. There are also interviews with survivors of the no wave scene; as well as members of bands from the ‘80s, ‘90s and today that were influenced by the movement. Some of the new bands (such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) come off as shallow. Punk poet/ performance artist Lydia Lunch comes up with some of the film’s greatest lines especially when she trashes nostalgia. "Kill Your Idols" is just as powerful and disturbing as the music scene that inspired it. The film was made for less than $300 but it’s far more compelling and entertaining than virtually any of this summer’s big budget blockbuster movies. It played as part of the Gene Siskel Center’s new music film series. For my complete www.reelmoviecritic.com review go to

http://www.reelmoviecritic.com/rmc/K/kill_your_idols.htm.

 

Last Days *1/2- A drug addicted loser makes life miserable for himself, his band mates, and everyone who cares about him. Surprisingly this demoralizing, exploitative piece of trash was directed by the great American Indy film maker Gus Van Sandt (My Own Private Idaho.) His name is never mentioned but this is loosely based on the life of seminal grunge icon, Kurt Cobain.

 

 

New York Doll ***1/2 "New York Doll" is about the bass player for the glam/punk prototype band, the New York Dolls. Kane may have been a minor figure in music history, but "New York Doll" is more insightful and memorable than the new Johnny Cash film, which is about one of the all-time musical greats. But "New York Doll” is not so much about music as it is about the tragedy of unused potential and the loss of fame. But the Dolls tried to do too much too soon, and they broke up before they could taste any nation wide commercial success. After briefly tasting fame, Kane had a painful fall back to obscurity. But the Ex Smiths front man, Morrissey, who was a huge New York Dolls fan, set up a revival of the band even though the lead guitarist, Johnny Thunders had ODed. . The revival show was a glorious success, and it helped the terminally ill Kane (he didn’t know he had leukemia) go out in dignity. "New York Doll" is a touching and tender portrayal of creative man who felt like life had passed him by. You don’t have to be a punk or glam rock fan to identify with his situation. Featuring interviews with David Johansen, Sylvain Sylvain, Morrisey, Iggy Pop and Chrissie Hynde.

 

 

Neil Young: Heart of Gold ***1/2-“Jonathan Demme who has made great concert films about Robyn Hitchcock and Talking Heads chronicles a performance by one of the preeminent folk/country/rock singers. I’ve seen Neil Young in concert several times , but I still thought the film was still fresh and full of surprises. Unlike the Rolling Stones, Young do always rely on safe, familiar song choices. He plays some of his well known classics such as “The Needle and the Damage Done” and Cortex the Killer” , but he avoids his hard rock songs. He plays a generous amount of country-influenced numbers from his last CD, “Hickory Wind.” Young was mourning over his dad’s death in the film, and he dedicates a specific song and the whole film to him. Heart of Gold” will definitely satisfy longtime Neil Young fans, but it may even be good enough to convert some of his detractors.

 

Nine Songs *1/2 A tedious modern rock soft-core porn film about a young couple who seem to spend 95% of their time seeing concerts and having sex.  The above average concert clips feature The Dandy Warhols,  Primal Scream,  The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Super Furry Animals, The Von Biondies, and ho hum (Franz Ferdinand.) This might be worth buying on DVD if you can skip all the story parts and just watch the concert clips.

 

Nor Noise ***1/2-Fascianting examination of "noise music" also features some great music quotes and theories.

 

Not On the Lips ***1/2 Alain Resnais's pleasant musical comedy did not receive its due. It only played only one week at the Gene Siskel story.  This is a much better film than the criminally over praised " Chicago." Alain Resnais musical comedy "Not on the Lips" won nine nominations including best director and best films.

 

The Nomi Song ***1/2- An interesting documentary about one of the strangest performers to come out of the new wave movement. Klaus Nomi dressed like a transsexual extraterrestrial kabuki robot clown. He merged pop with opera and cabaret and sang both the male and female parts of songs equally well. Before he could gain much nationwide expose he was cut down by AIDS. This could have used more and longer live performance clips but the interviews (especially the one where he discusses having tea with a little girl who thought he was an alien) are priceless.

 

No Direction Home (2005)**** Martin Scorsese's first rate Bob Dylan documentary covers his early folk days up his plane accident. It's pretty hard to lose when one of the best directors focuses his attention on one of the greatest musical icons. Bob Dylan makes a reluctant and moody "voice of his generation," and after seeing this movie, it's easy to see why he would lose his cool when confronted with incredibly inane questions from journalists. At one point Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg admits that when he saw Dylan sing, he knew the torch had been passed. It's exciting to see people's extreme reactions to Dylan's going eclectic. It's hard to imagine any musician today stirring up that kind of extreme reaction. Scorsese's labor of love serves to humanize Dylan. This documentary is an interesting contrast to "Don’t Look Back" which makes Dylan look arrogant and unsympathetic. Excellent DVD was originally aired as a two-part PBS TV special, and the DVD adds some extra concert footage.

 

Punk: An Attitude-****-Highly engaging film gives an extremely comprehensive portrait of punk music and other areas influenced by the attitude of punk. There’s too much Jim Jarmusch (he’s a great director but he’s only slightly related to punk) and some important bands are slighted (like X, The Replacements, and Wire the short shift.) It also has some useful extras which examine women in punk, punk and art, and L.A. punk. The Slits interviews are terrific.

 

 

So to Speak***1/2- The ingenious Electronic dance duo DJ? Acucrack’s video was the winner of a Visual Effects Society Award for Best Music Video. I gave it w my Best Special Effects in a Music Video on the www.reelmoviecrtitc.com website for its great cyberpunk influenced visuals (see http://s38226.sites38.storefront-hosting.com/SearchResult.aspx?CategoryID=179). The music is pleasing and sensual Goth-metal blend, and the images are wonderfully sensual, provocative, and a little disturbing all at once. For more info on the duo and ordering info go to http://www.invisiblerecords.com/aotw/index.htm.

 

Stoned *1/2- A lackluster and rather demoralizing portrait of Brian Jones, the late guitarist for the Rolling Stones. The story is told in a non-linear fashion with many flashbacks. The film suffers immensely because it contains no Rolling Stones recordings, so we never get to see Jones work his magic in the studio. Instead we get some tunes that the Stones later recorded, but there are earlier versions by other artists, like Robert Johnson. We also hear some covers of songs associated with the Rolling Stones by the Bees and the White Stripes. Predictably, when Jones does acid, Jefferson Airplane’s "White Rabbit" blares in the background. After the film is over, viewers will probably be far less interested in Brian Jones than before. "Stoned" is even more boring and repellant than "Last Days," Gus Van Sant’s recent deconstruction of Kurt Cobain. Scheduled to be released at the Landmark Century sometime in 2006.

 

Tomorrow Show: Punk and New Wave ***- An uneven but rewarding cultural document. The DVD opens with a hysterical panel discussion of the emerging new wave/punk movement featuring Joan Jett, Kim Fowley, Paul Weller, Bill Graham and a glamified rock promoter, Kim Fowley who spends much his time promoting Helen Ready. Graham seems noticeably uncomfortable. He is obviously part of the old guard,

and has little appreciation for punk. This also features some great performances from the Jam, The Ramones, Elvis Costello, and Iggy Pop, but the quality of the direction is below par. It looks like they were shot through a soggy lens and the colors are garish. The Plasmatics’s music is an acquired taste, but their performance is wonderfully theatrical ( Wendy O. Williams smashes windows, spray-paints, and even blows up a car). There are also some interviews with a surprisingly benign Patti Smith, and the hysterically confrontational John Lydon and Keith Levine. They are delightfully annoying and they deconstruct the whole talk show format with their subversive and evasive answers. Snider just doesn’t get them, and never has the generation gap been this wide.

 

Walk the Line ***-Enjoyable but overrated biopic forces Cash’s life into a traditional strong-woman-saves-a troubled-man plot structure (similar to the one in (“A Beautiful Mind.”). But the real Cash was much more dark and complicated. I don’t mind fictionalization of real characters in films, but in this cast the fictionalization makes the subject less interesting. The film does not capture the tension between his religious side and his obsession with homicidal protagonists. Worth seeing mostly for Phoenix’s uncanny impersonation. Phoenix and Witherspoon were nominated for best actor and actress at the 2006 Oscars, but this did not make my list of favorite 30 films of 2005. Read Cash’s autobiography to get a more complete picture.

 

We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen ***1/2- A raw but riveting documentary about one of the top '80s hardcore bands, the Minutemen.   Fellow band member, Mike Watt is eloquent and touching when he discusses the late, D. Boon. This film is an ideal introduction to the band, but it should please longtime Minutemen fans as well. It played at the Chicago Underground Film Festival, and it had a brief run at the Gene Siskel Center.

 

Vittorio Carli teaches film at Richard J. Daley College, and literature at Moraine Valley Community College. Visit his web site at www.artinterviews.com. E-mail him at carlivit@yahoo.com

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