THE VOICE OF ENERGY VOL. 084
Happy Friday to you all. Gearing up to be a beautiful day outside here in Portland. Hope the same is true where you are at.
Let's talk briefly about getting older. It's happening to all of us. My 47th birthday is coming up fast, and I can feel the midlife crisis coming in and out of focus in my brain. It's not a fun feeling to be panicked about the latter half of my life, but what has kept me feeling positive about it is the bunch of shows I went to recently. It has been an interesting run of concerts by artists who are older than I am — some by just a few years, others by a wide margin. But watching Jon King of Gang of Four shudder around the stage at Revolution Hall or Russell Mael dance his little jig and continue to hit the high notes at the Crystal Ballroom or Jawbox's J Robbins throw the full force of his body into each second of their set at the Showbox or Terry Chambers remain nimble and powerful behind a drum kit at the Triple Door reminded me that there's a way to get old that doesn't involve slowing down and spinning one's wheels. I'm wholly inspired to keep creating and keep searching for fresh inspiration around every bend in the road. Do I sound schmaltzy? Then I sound schmaltzy.
This week, a new installment of my monthly feature Deeper Into Movies, wherein I explore the filmography of a music artist trying their hands at movie making. Previously, I've looked into the directorial efforts of Madonna and Frank Sinatra. This time around, by request of my beloved older brother, Anthony Newley is under the spotlight.
A quick reminder: the only way I can keep growing this little venture is with your help. Do feel free to share this missive far and wide via social media, or forward it to anyone you think might have an interest in this. If you're feeling bolder, consider becoming a premium subscriber. $5 / month gets you a separate weekly email with recommendations of stuff to watch and things to read and a free download. Last week, it was the recent reissue of J Dilla's debut solo release Welcome 2 Detroit. You also get put into a monthly drawing to win a free prize package curated by yours truly. I cater it to your tastes and interests. You won't be disappointed.
With that, let's get into it...
Deeper Into Movies #3: Anthony Newley
Who is Anthony Newley?
It’s a question you very well could be asking yourself right now, and for good reason. Unless you’re a committed Anglophile with a deep knowledge of the last 75 years of U.K. pop culture, Newley’s name is one that, if it has come up in your world at all, only slipped through your view tangentially. For readers of this newsletter, it was likely in relation to David Bowie, an avowed fan who covered some of Newley’s songs and borrowed the elder Brit’s music hall-meets-novelty-pop spirit on early efforts like “The Laughing Gnome” and “Rubber Band.”
But even if you don’t know the man’s name, you’ve surely heard some of Anthony Newley’s work. He and his longtime creative partner Leslie Bricusse are responsible for all the songs and music in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The pair also wrote the lyrics for “Goldfinger,” the theme for the 1964 Bond film. Or you may have seen Newley in one of his various film roles. He was the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of Oliver Twist. He was Matthew Mugg in the 1967 big budget adaptation of Doctor Dolittle. And, yes, he was Captain Manzini in 1987’s The Garbage Pail Kids Movie.
Newley’s work is still resonating throughout modern culture even if his name has faded from view. But during his creative peak in the ’60s and ’70s, his name and talent were inescapable. In his native England, that zenith stretched back further when he was a regular presence on movie screens playing war heroes, petty criminals, and, in his breakthrough role as Jeep Jackson in 1959’s Idol on Parade, a rock star about to join the British military.
As he landed pop hits in the U.K. and his star began to rise, Newley saw his opening and charged toward it full speed. He created The Strange World of Gurney Slade, a meta-fictional TV series broadcast in 1960 which presaged Monty Python’s Flying Circus and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show with its continuous breaking of form and self-referential touches like the fourth episode that finds the title character on trial for not being funny in the previous three. With Bricusse, he developed the stage musical Stop The World — I Want To Get Off that went from West End to Broadway and earned several Tony and Grammy nominations along the way. Another musical followed quickly in its wake (The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd) as did multiple film roles and TV appearances.
The thread that tied together so much of Newley’s work is the question that I started this piece with. The musicals that made him a sensation in London and New York often strove to find an answer, flecked as they were with details from his life and career. In his eyes, Newley was the lustful clown Littlechap in Stop The World just as saw himself as Cocky, the upstart trying to keep up with more well-heeled Sir in Roar. Newley came up with so many answers to the question of who he was — an imposter, an entertainer, a romantic, a lothario, an artist, a swindler, a candy man, a fool — but never seemed satisfied with any of them.
That discontentedness was the driving force behind Newley’s debut turn as a film director, 1969’s Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? The movie is a seriocomic self-referential layer cake of a movie that is often as cumbersome and ridiculous as its title. And it is a film in which Newley tries to both push the limits of cinematic decorum and get out ahead of anyone who would dare criticize those same choices. He knows this is his bawdy, psychedelic answer to 8 ½. So, he plants a Greek chorus of critics within the film’s awkward structure who make comments about the proceedings. “We’ve seen all this before haven’t we?” says one. “This pathetic search for identity wrapped in pseudo-pornography.” “I wake up every day and curse the name Fellini,” says another. “He started this whole autobiographical soul searching bit and now everybody’s doing it.”
They’re not wrong, and Newley knows it. Which is likely why he piles as much as he can atop the thin semi-autobiographical story. If he can’t make you feel pity for his thinly veiled character, the titular Merkin, he’s going to make you dizzy with his plotting that sets a film within the film, and has the producers and writers of that film-within-a-film arguing and making adjustments as it goes. Or he’ll just distract you with all the naked flesh on screen.
The film opens with Merkin on the seashore, surrounded by film cans and props that represent his life’s work. They’re about to be sent off to a museum, but seeing them together coupled with his 40th birthday has spurred a midlife crisis within the artist. So he uses the moment to reflect on his life and career, with his ever-patient mother and his two young children (played by Newley’s actual offspring) as his audience.
Merkin shows them filmed versions of moments from his life — from his earliest days following in the footsteps of his vaudeville star uncle to his own success to his lounge act years. Through it all, he feels a tug-of-war happening within his soul. The hunger to bed as many women as possible vs. the call to settle into a loving relationship and focus on other things.
Newley presents those dueling instincts in physical form. The devil on his shoulder is Goodtime Eddie Filth, a hustler played by Milton Berle who looks to be having the time of his life mining about the film and staring at the many young women he presents to Merkin. On the other shoulder is a character known simply as “The Presence.” Played by comic actor George Jessel, this figure pops up at key moments to dispense “wisdom” in the form of awful Catskills-style jokes.
Merkin’s two drives are also represented by two women in the story. The unfortunately named Polyester Poontang, played by Newley’s then-wife Joan Collins, is the sensible choice: sexy, willing, and committed to this mercurial creative force. The other is an underage siren named Mercy Humppe, played by model and actor Connie Kreski, who, as the title of the film reveals, Merkin longs for even after he has settled down and his two children are born.
The problems with this film are spelled out in the names Newley and his co-writer Herman Raucher gave to the characters. It’s hard to take any of this seriously when its creator doesn’t seem to be taking it that seriously himself. Even when tackling his first marriage and the death of his first child (which happened in real life to Newley and his first wife Ann Lynn), he undercuts it by reminding us that his fictional bride is named Filigree Fondle. The comedy gets in the way of the drama which gets in the way of the musical numbers — and the whole affair is nearly drowned under the weight of its pretentiousness.
In spite of it all, I was charmed by its overwrought qualities. Newley and editor Dorothy Spencer treated the footage to the run-and-gun style of Richard Lester and Jean-Luc Godard. It helped keep the energy of the film up even during its more affected stretches. The sets and cinematography are rendered like a curiosity shop reflected in a funhouse mirror. And I will never not love any artist that knows how to make fun of himself and his ego. One of the best moments is a grandiose musical number, staged like a religious epiphany with Merkin in a white robe on a rocky outcropping, singing to the sky, “I’m all I need.”
Neither Merkin nor his creator are shown in a particularly great light here. But as with Bob Fosse in All That Jazz and, yes, Fellini did with 8 1/2, knowing that it’s Newley directing the spotlight on his own flaws and failings makes it a little easier to stomach. I didn’t root for him but I did hope for a touch of redemption.
Critics and audiences were hoping for something even more than that. The film tanked at the box office, not helped by the fact that it was slapped with an X rating upon release. And the notices were brutal. Two particularly harsh assessments came from Michael Billington, who said, “The kindest thing for all concerned would be that every available copy should be quietly and decently buried,” and Rex Reed who sniped, “If I’d been Anthony Newley, I would have opened it in Siberia during Christmas week and called it a day.”
Somehow, Hollywood wasn’t quite finished with Anthony Newley, the director. Before focusing his energies solely on a career as a singer, he made another film: 1971’s Summertree. It’s a complete about face from Newley’s first as it is a quiet drama based on a popular stage play about Jerry, an idealistic young man (Michael Douglas) facing the prospect of being drafted into the Vietnam War.
There’s little that’s notable about the film, other than the bold use of news footage of the conflict in Vietnam as a backdrop to most of the domestic scenes and the film’s cast. Douglas brings a wide-eyed charm to his portrayal of Jerry, a tender soul who just wants to play his guitar, court a lovely nurse, and do his part by being a Big Brother to a young Black kid. It only makes his eventual conscription that much harder to stomach. Jack Warden and Barbara Bel Geddes play Jerry’s parents — a loving couple that tries to support their son’s desire for something beyond college, but bristle at his impulsive decisions.
Dotted throughout are other recognizable faces like a young Rob Reiner as one of Jerry’s college roommates, an uncredited Teri Garr as the girlfriend of another roommate, and the great character actor Richard Stahl as the director of a conservatory that rejects Jerry’s attempts to study music and continue his draft deferral.
Like Heironymus, Summertree didn’t attract audiences and quietly disappeared from theaters. Combined with the failure and fallout from his first film (it’s been suggested that the movie was a factor in Collins divorcing Newley) and Willy Wonka’s poor box office receipts, it’s little wonder that Newley only sporadically returned to the world of film — and never again would he do so behind the camera.
Unlike the other musical artists turned directors I’ve covered so far in this series, I really wish he would have tried again at some point before his passing in 1999, especially if he found a middle ground between the visual grandeur of his first film and the hushed drama of his second. Would it have made sense? Who cares. Newley spent his entire career making big swings like that. It’s said that toward the end of his life, he was developing a musical version of Richard III. Letting him take even healthier cuts as a filmmaker would have hurt no one but himself.
[MUSIC] Michael Bisio Quartet: MBefore (TAO Forms)
I've logged at least a dozen spins through this new album from bassist Michael Bisio's quartet and I'm nowhere closer to cracking its code. These spacious yet dense compositions and performances seem to be regenerating in real time, shifting and readjusting so they continue to elude my grasp and keep me locked out. That is to be expected from the players involved: Bisio, Mat Maneri (viola), Karl Berger (vibes), Whit Dickey (drums). None of these men have ever played music with the intent of easy access. That's what has kept me returning to MBefore again and again over the past few weeks. Dickey and Bisio create rhythmic patterns that feel like being squeezed within the sand of an hourglass, growing thick and heavy before dissipating and falling free. Berger and Maneri coil through it all with solos and melodies that are complementary but never want to truly harmonize. It's a point / counterpoint happening in real time; a spirited musical debate expressed through the careful applications of notes and drones. And just listen to what they collectively do to "I Fall In Love Too Easily," turning the standard into an exhausted lament with each slow groan of the viola and each drum / vibes prickle. A transporting experience from beginning to end. [Bandcamp]
[MUSIC] Various Artists: Black Lives: From Generation To Generation (Jammin'colorS)
This may be a multi-artist collection, with tracks recorded individually over the course of last summer, but the finished two-CD release is sequenced like a roundtable discussion happening in real time with one piece responding to the one before and moving the conversation forward. The subject, as the title of this set spells out, is the roots, current plight, and hopeful future of the global Black community. And the voices driving this musical discourse come from all over the map: America, the Caribbean, all the way to Africa (aka The Motherland). As such, some pieces making stronger, more coherent arguments than others. Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins pops up on the first disc for a pair of haunting duets with guitarist Marvin Sewell that explore and deconstruct familiar blues patterns, and bassist Reggie Washington has a playful repartee with turntablist DJ Grazzhoppa on two tracks that are dynamically contrasted via vocal turns from Alicia Hall Moran and Oliver Lake. Nearby though are blunt and awkward statements like Adam Falcon's overheated "Colored Man Singin' The Blues!" and the saccharine "From The Outside In," a piece from South African singer Tutu Puoane. What is never in doubt, even within this collection's faltering moments, is the collective power of these voices. Together, they've used this platform to rattle our collective cages, shatter our preconceptions, and ensure we never forget the names of the fallen. [Bandcamp]
That's all for now. Hope you enjoyed what you read today. Feel free to let me know one way or another. And don't hesitate to offer up suggestions for future Deeper Into Movies pieces (I'm thinking Serge Gainsbourg next time...) or anything else that I should be covering but ain't. Not sure what next week's edition will feature just yet. You'll find out soon enough. Until then: Do no harm. Take no shit.
Artwork for this week's newsletter comes from Lissa Karpeh's series For The Love of Liberty that was recently on display at Bockley Gallery in Minneapolis.