THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 070
Allow me the indulgence of adding to the chorus of folks praising Neil Young for walking the walk as his music was removed from Spotify in protest to its continued decision to prop up misinformation font Joe Rogan. In one open letter, Young forced Spotify to show its hands and offer up the proof of how little they actually care about the artists who the purport to love and support. If you love music and the people that make it and can still swallow having a Spotify account knowing a) how little they pay musicians per stream, b) that Daniel Ek has invested some of his mega-earnings in the business of making machinery to kill people, and c) that the company is fine with putting people's lives at risk through Rogan's anti-science bullshit... you may be subscribing to the wrong newsletter.
As promised, I'm kicking off a new regular feature here where I look at the movies made by people best known as musical artists. It's long been a fascination of mine as it feels like the kind of side hustle that only a person who has performed in front of millions of people around the world would think to take on. If you can hold an arena full of fans in the palm of your hands, why not try to do the same with a film crew? The movies these musicians make are, with some exceptions, multi-million dollar boondoggles — ego strokes that fizzle out at the box office and leave a blotch on their permanent records.
I put a call out on the VoE Twitter account, looking for some direction on where to begin via a poll and you monsters chose Madonna, the person responsible for two infamous flops — both of which I watched and both of which I reckoned with below. I hope you enjoy what I wrote.
With that out of the way, I can start thinking about part two. Right now, I'm leaning toward tracking down Frank Sinatra's 1965 WWII film None But The Brave or Bob Dylan's humble oeuvre. But I'm always open to suggestions. Feel free to reply to make your argument for a different musical auteur.
If you like what I have to say during this or any of my previous newsletters, feel free to share it with your friends and loved ones. And, if you haven't already, consider becoming a premium subscriber. You get an exclusive email every week that includes some recommendations of things to check out, free music, and other goodies. If I get enough subscribers, I'm going to start giving away free vinyl records to people and other treats. Plus, you'll help navigate the current uncertain state of arts journalism with a little more comfort. I ain't looking to get rich off of this, just to offset the cost of renting movies like Filth & Wisdom.
Before I forget, do try to read all the way to the end. I have a little giveaway for you.
Deeper Into Movies #1: Madonna
As dominating a cultural force as Madonna was in the ’80s and ’90s, her impact has dulled and diminished since the turn of the century. She can still sell out arenas around the world and is still being namechecked as an influence by the current generation of daring pop stars, but she doesn't hold the sway in the popular consciousness as she once did. She seems to know it, too, and, as a result, has been overcorrecting her actions in the public eye. The most telling image of Madonna in recent years came from her appearance at a 2015 press conference announcing the arrival of the supposedly artist-centric streaming service Tidal. She joined the likes of Jay Z, Jack White, and Alicia Keys in signing a ridiculous declaration of solidarity. And when it came turn for her to jot her name down, she nonsensically threw her leg on the table in some bizarre yoga pose to show that, while she was pushing 60 at the time, she's still as limber as the young bucks on the dais with her.
It's the kind of ridiculous try hard maneuver typical of celebrities who once generated headlines by shocking the delicate sensibilities of viewers and listeners, but can't move the needle anymore now that they've gotten older.
The same can be said for Madonna's late career transition into the role of filmmaker. The two feature films that she has made to date — 2008's Filth & Wisdom and 2011's W.E. — trade coherence for blunt force provocation and desperate feather ruffles. Madge surrounded herself with talent in front of and behind the camera, working with the likes of Oscar Isaac, Richard E. Grant, The Lives of Others cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski, and costume designer Arianne Phillips, but hobbled their fine efforts with a scattered mise en scene and crushingly dull stories.
In the case of Filth & Wisdom, that doesn't reflect well on Madonna herself. In interviews surrounding the film's European release, she explained that her four main characters represent elements of her personality. There's A.K., a musical genius played by Gogol Bordello leader Eugene Hutz. When he's not striving for musical stardom and funding his efforts by serving as a dominatrix for sexually-repressed London men, he's pining after his flatmate Holly (Holly Weston). She's a ballet dancer who decides to make the rent as an exotic dancer. They both live with Juliette (Vicky McClure), a chemist's assistant who has run away from her awful childhood home and steals medication to help fund African relief efforts. They all live below Professor Flynn (Grant), a blind poet who never got his due.
If you know even a little bit about Madonna's life story and artistic journey, the inspiration behind these weird archetypes isn't hard to suss out. As she told a French journalist, "I'm making fun of the characters, but I also love all the characters and have a connection to them." Even so, she and her co-writer Dan Cadan paint these figures like cartoons with big and small moments of slapstick nonsense or groaning attempts at poetic profundity. "Life is a paradox. But is it really?," A.K. tells the camera at one point. "Is the contradictions in and around us really a form of dissonance, or just another word for 'accord' in a language we are yet to discover? A language we are yet to learn. A language we have been deprived of."
Of the film, Madonna said that the title represents "the ultimate duality. It sounds like they're at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum. In fact, they're not that far apart. ... You can find wisdom in filth and vice versa." How she translates that on screen is through a completely blinkered view of sex work. The scenes with A.K. fulfilling his client's fantasies are different shades of ludicrous and don't seem to draw out any actual pleasure from the men being dominated. Later, when Holly auditions at a club, the DJ incongruously spins David Rose's "The Stripper" as she stumbles through a routine. Her journey continues to get played for yuks as she struggles with pole work to frustration of her new co-workers. It's all capped off by an infuriating statement by A.K. about how all sex workers eventually learn to hate what they do for a living.
The rest of the film is a series of pointless scenes shot and edited with a shaky uncertainty that Madonna and Cadan try to give weight to through Hutz dropping pearls of bullshit in voiceover or in direct camera address usually given as he lolls in an empty claw foot bathtub. For all Madonna's straining efforts, it never adds up to much of anything. None of her characters are particularly interesting enough to give a shit where they are headed or whether they reach some kind of goal or enlightenment. The stray moments of comedy are either awkward or awful, and the drama is nonexistent. It's a flat soda of a film offering nothing refreshing nor bubbly nor sweet nor energizing.
In interviews following its release, though, Madonna already had her mind on her next project. A "historical story about two people who existed in history and a fictional story about a girl in New York obsessed with this love story," she told an interviewer. At the time, though, she wouldn't reveal what historical couple she was referring to. A savvy move as the subject of her second directorial effort W.E. turned out to be Edward VIII, former king of England, and his wife Wallis Simpson. Were that information made public before she made the film, there might have been a justifiable uproar about the fact that the couple were allegedly Nazi sympathizers and Simpson had a penchant for referring to working class English citizens using the n-word. Best to get the movie made and suffer the slings and arrows after the fact.
The chatter about her choice of Edward and Wallis as the anchors to her timeline jumping story wound up being minimal because no one went to see W.E. after critics castigated the film and her distributor (The...um...Weinstein Company) gave up on it.
W.E. has a slight advantage over its predecessor in that Madonna actually had a handsome budget to work with and poured it into set design, costuming, and cinematography. For all its copious faults, the film looks fantastic with Bogdanski rendering New York in various shades of steel grey, black, and deep brown and the European locations of the past bursting with color.
In that same interview referenced above, Madonna laid out the plot of W.E. enticingly. The girl obsessed with Edward and Wallis "thinks that if she had that [relationship] she would be happy. But the journey wasn't what it was portrayed to be. That kind of love doesn't really exist." By the time she got around to making the film, though, that log line got completely lost. Instead, we are stuck with Wally, a former Sotheby's appraiser dealing with a crumbling marriage to a philandering doctor and an inability to become pregnant. When the personal effects of Edward and Wallis are brought out for exhibition and auction, she spends all day mooning over them and getting into a slow burning affair with a poetic Russian security guard (played by Isaac). Whatever inner yearnings she has are represented through awful scenes of her failing to seduce her husband and staring blankly at table settings.
The other half of the film follows the infamous love affair and the uproar it caused when Edward decided to abdicate the throne to be with Wallis, an American. The seams holding their relationship being to fray and the great love affair turns out to be not so wonderful below the surface. Not a terribly original hook to hang this film on, but Madonna and her actors (Andrea Riseborough and James D'Arcy) fail to find a way to make this oft-told tale compelling. They sure do try. One infamous scene finds the couple hosting a screening of some Charlie Chaplin films that has become so tiresome that Edward decides to spike all their drinks with Benzedrine. Soon, Wallis and some diplomats are dancing the Charleston to the tune of... Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant."
I'm still baffled as to why Madonna burned through so much time and money to briefly bring W.E. to the big screen. I want to say it has something to do with her working out her conflicted feelings about her second marriage to filmmaker Guy Ritchie, but that would be giving her a tad too much credit. The whole thing feels like sleazy glamour porn, right down to the wooden acting, odd editing choices, and awful music cues. Not even the sumptuous sight of upper class Brits dining in fine frocks could wipe away the ugly feeling it left in my guts.
What is clear through both films is that Madonna has no sense of cinema's history despite her insistence that she's a longtime fan. In the press conference following Filth's premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, she was chuffed that one journalist referenced Godard and called herself an admirer of the director's work. But when it came down to discussions of why she wanted to make movies, the answer seemed to be: simply because she could. "I was trained to be a dancer and became a singer," Madonna said. "But I spent so much time around filmmakers making videos and documentaries, I got up the courage to say, 'Well, why can't I make a film?'"
In spite of the proof that she might not actually know how to make a movie, film producers of the world are still willing to indulge her. A few years ago, The A.V. Club reported that Madonna had signed on to direct an adaptation of Michaela DePrince's memoir Taking Flight as well as an adaptation of best-selling novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells.
I can't help but think about the thousands of people, many of them women, BIPOC, or LGBTQIA, with original ideas and a true passion for the craft that would throw everything they have into making a movie. Or the dozens of directors from marginalized groups who were never given a second chance because their otherwise great debut films tanked at the box office. As they wait in the wings, Madonna gets a blank check from MGM based solely on her celebrity.
That's a refrain I'm sure to keep hitting as this series rolls along (particularly when I dive into the murky waters of Fred Durst's directorial career), and one that I should probably have gotten over at my advanced age. We should have a lucky star that allows us to dabble in the multi-million dollar business of the moving pictures and walk away from the wreckage of their efforts unscathed.
[FILM] Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (2021, dir. Celeste Bell / Paul Sng)
Of all the documentaries about musical artists that have been released in the past two decades, I Am A Cliché, a film that explores the life and work of X-Ray Spex vocalist Poly Styrene, might be the quietest of the bunch. Co-directors Celeste Bell — Poly's daughter — and documentary vet Paul Sng frame everything in opposition to the usual tropes of films focused on the punk era. It flows with a meditative, almost dream-like pace, even as it works in footage of X-Ray Spex performing their wiry power pop on TV or its members bounding through the streets of London. The artists and family members providing context to the story, including DJ Don Letts, Lora Logic, members of the Raincoats, and Poly's sister, are heard and not seen. It's only Poly who is seen on screen speaking, defending her art and ideas to skinny male interlocutors. The searching quality of Cliché feels appropriate as the film's framing device is Bell finally digging through her mother's archives of drawings, press clippings, and journals (entries of which are read by actor Ruth Negga) five years after Poly's death from breast cancer. All this time later, Bell is still striving to understand her mother, especially her struggles with mental health, the racism she faced as a mixed race child, and her spiritual leanings. While I could have done without so, so many slow drone shots of Bell slowly walking onto the stages and places that her mother once haunted and staring wistfully off into the distance, but I do get why she and Sng chose to include them. She's looking for answers or a sign that never arrives. They never really do, do they? (in theaters for one night only on Feb 2; available on demand Feb 4)
[BOOK] Ugly Beauty: Jazz In The 21st Century by Phil Freeman (zer0 books)
As a critic and journalist, Phil Freeman is concise and pointed, approaching his subjects with strong theses and well tuned bullshit detector. Which is why it feels so off putting to find that almost none of those qualities and strengths are evident in his latest book Ugly Beauty. This series of short chapters on artists ranging from guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Linda May Han Oh to trumpeters Jaimie Branch and Ambrose Akinmusire is a disappointingly shallow dive into the current pool of jazz artists written with the word count stuffed feel of a term paper typed out minutes before its due date and the shagginess of a series of blog posts. Thorough rundowns of every person who played on a particular album fill paragraphs, and there are frequent diversions that rarely serve Freeman's purposes. The chapter on harpist Brandee Younger and drummer Makaya McCraven opens with remembrances of seeing Fela Kuti and his longtime drummer Tony Allen on separate occasions with the thin connection being that Younger opened up the latter gig. Too, when writing about Halvorson, Freeman begins by remembering waiting outside a coffee shop to meet the guitarist without realizing she was already inside — a splash of unnecessary color that adds nothing to what follows in the chapter. What kept me reading, and what keeps me returning to Freeman's work in The Wire and on Bandcamp, is his remarkable skill at evoking the sound of a piece of music, and his impressive memory of live performances he's attended (which are often used as the entry point into each chapter). Here he is, writing about a 2020 performance by pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and Oh at the Jazz Standard: "The first piece was a strutting vamp... Sorey took a big solo, Oh a shorter one. This led into a gentle ballad, with the drummer switching to brushes at first, but halfway through, the music erupted, leaping into double time and getting seriously loud. Oh was dancing with her bass, and Sorey's attack was astonishingly precise, but as forceful as death metal." In the latter sections of the book, Freeman hits a firm stride, combining important biographical details, historical context, and clear-eyed readings of the work of an artist's work. His portrait of Kenyon Harrold, a trumpeter born in Ferguson, Missouri is particularly vivid as the musician reflects on his family's history in his hometown and the effect of Michael Brown's murder on his music and mindset. But far too much of the rest of the book stalls out as Freeman looks back at gigs that he's seen or squeezes in a quick snapshot of other artists that leave much unsaid.
[TV] We Need To Talk About Cosby (dir. W. Kamau Bell)
Recent interviews with W. Kamau Bell look and sound like he's bracing for an assault. Or at least mentally and physically preparing himself for some harsh words directed at him by one of his comedy icons. It's not Bell's usual mode, as he has spent much of the past two decades bravely and sometimes defiantly exploring difficult subject matter in his standup and on his TV shows Totally Biased and United Shades of America. He looked more confident walking on to a KKK compound in the latter show than he does waiting to hear how Bill Cosby might respond to being the subject of Bell's nuanced yet unflinching new four-part documentary series. We Need To Talk About Cosby covers much of what we already know: how Cosby went from a popular standup and actor to one of the most recognizable faces in America via his NBC series The Cosby Show and the self-appointed angry conscience of Black America — and through it all allegedly drugging and raping dozens of women. But Bell and his team cover a lot of complex, less-talked-about ground along the way. In particular how generations of Black Americans have been torn by the stories of these sexual assaults. Can they celebrate the work Cosby did putting Black culture in front of millions of viewers as well as bolstering HBCUs with donations and support while also decrying the man for his crimes? Bell doesn't dare trying to leave us with a definitive answer, especially as, when the series was set to finish filming, news broke that Cosby was being released from prison on a legal technicality, a mere two years after being convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault. The most important work being done with We Need To Talk About Cosby was continuing to amplify the voices of the women who have come forward with their stories of being raped by Cosby. Bell keeps the cameras fixed on these brave survivors as they relay the harrowing details, never once cutting away to archival footage or newspaper headlines. It was a striking choice and one that insists that we take these women at their words. Bell believes them. You should too. It's also important to note who doesn't speak up in this series. Bell struggled to get people on camera, including many of his fellow comics. A notable absence is Hannibal Buress, the standup whose onstage excoriation of Cosby in 2014 helped bring renewed attention to the rape allegations. As well, no one from the main cast from any of Cosby's TV or film ventures dared to face Bell's camera. Disappointing as it is, their presence clearly wasn't needed. Bell and the folks who appear on camera deliver a complex and profoundly moving study of an multi-layered issue that, sadly remains unresolved. (premieres on Showtime on January 30)
Thanks for reading and making it all the way to the end of the line.
Now... the giveaway.
The nice folks at Holocene have offered me a pair of tickets for one lucky reader to see Old Time Relijun, the fantastically skronky Olympia band led by Arrington de Dionyso, and Portland noise-psych ensemble Descending Pharoahs live on February 17. I've seen both groups in concert and they give every inch of themselves to the live experience. It's a perfect pairing. If you are interested in attending, reply to this and let me know. Or if you're reading this outside of your email client, drop me a message at the Voice of Energy Twitter account. I'll choose the winner on Valentine's Day. Awwwwww... how sweet.
That's all for now. I'll see you premium subscribers on Monday and everyone else on Friday with an interview with the experimental duo DunkelpeK and much more. Until then: Do no harm. Take no shit.
Artwork for this edition of the newsletter is by Nelson White whose exhibition Tukien (Awaken) is on display at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia through February 21.