If you’re feeling generous you could call today’s episode a mash-up, or more accurately, the remnants of a couple of different music related ideas that never quite gelled into a full episode. It was resurfaced recently in the morass of my mind by the sad passing of rap-man DMX, rendering him unable to deliver to ya. Alternate delivery services must now be sought. He was also the poster child of an idea for covering films where the soundtrack is significantly better than the film it came from, but seeing as that is perhaps limited entirely to Cradle 2 the Grave, perhaps that’s best left to a Jet Li retrospective.
But it also brings to mind the crossover between musicians and actors, going back arguably to the dawn of “Talkies”, through the Rat Pack, The Beatles and Elvis up to modern times, leveraging their celebrity in one field for success in another. That’s a bit vague, though, but it does lead to the rat hole of musician’s vanity projects, also recently brought to mind by the opprobrium levelled at Sia’s Golden Raspberry winning film Music. There’s a little of the spirit of that in this selection of films, and the other primary thrust here is films where the artists life and career reflect in the film that they are in.
A shorter, but no less coherent introduction might simply have been to say “here’s a bunch of music related films”, but, gentle reader, I have no respect for your time. So tune in for our reviews of A Hard Day’s Night, Pink Floyd: The Wall, Purple Rain, Moonwalker, Honest, and 8 Mile.
A Hard Day’s Night
Envisioned by the studio, United Artists, simply as a quick and cheap cash-in (its budget was only £200,000) on the latest craze, in this case Beatlemania (which, of course, was far more than a craze), Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night itself had loftier ambitions. From a script by Alun Owen, who had an ear for Liverpudlian dialect and who had also spent time with The Beatles, the film tries to convey something of The Fab Four’s manic life, as they head to London for a TV performance, being shuttled from hotel to rehearsal to party to press conference, with exasperated manager, Norm (Norman Rossington), treating them like schoolboys on an outing and gradually losing his composure.
Also along for the ride is Wilfrid Brambell as John McCartney, Paul’s incorrigible and mischievous (fictional) grandfather, who delights in stirring up trouble, while trying to get the boys to sign photographs so he can copy the autographs and sell them in bulk to earn some money. Old John is also referred to constantly as a clean old man (“he’s very clean, isn’t he?”), a running joke that must have been very popular in the UK but no doubt baffled US audiences. (Talking of US audiences, a special slow clap for the United Artists executive who requested that the US release have The Beatles – THE BEATLES – dubbed with mid-Atlantic accents. What a clown, and very worthy of Paul McCartney’s withering response: “Look, if we can understand a fucking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool.”)
Beneath all of this runs a strong, but impish, undertone of social commentary, pricking the balloons of pomposity and social propriety, with critiques of the vapidity and cynicism of fashion and planned trends and an irreverence towards show business, with The Beatles themselves not above being skewered.
If there’s a downside, it’s simply the era of The Beatles’ career from which this comes: I enjoy the music, but their earlier poppy ballads are my least favourite songs, much preferring as I do the music from the Help! album onwards. (Can we all just take a moment here, please, to marvel once again at the very fact that we can talk about eras of The Beatles’ career when they only existed for a decade, and were only professionally releasing music for 8 years? They really were something special.)
However, when you get right down to it, A Hard Day’s Night, is basically 90 minutes of The Beatles fannying about, interspersed with some of their music. That’s really not as reductive as it may sound, and also is certainly not a slight: I like The Beatles. I like watching The Beatles fanny about. The Beatles fannying about is, it turns out, fun. I like fun, as I am not a monster. It is also very funny. I like funny. I recommending watching A Hard Day’s Night, and if this is your preferred era then you’ll probably like this even more than I did, and I liked it a lot.
Pink Floyd: The Wall
I’m not completely sure I was aware of the existence of this film, a companion piece of sorts to Pink Floyd’s 1979 album, until a couple of weeks back when the Internet’s least correct critic, Doug “Nostalgia Critic” Walker released an elaborate parody slash review that was roundly harangued for a complete misreading of the concepts and themes of the film. I was, I suppose, therefore kind of expecting The Wall to be a difficult and challenging work full of obscure symbolism and oblique messaging, whereas in retrospect I should have leant on what I knew to be true and proven many times over, namely that the Nostalgia Critic is an idiot.
Anyway, curiosity must be sated, cats be damned, so I sat me down to The Wall and it’s certainly a thing that I have now watched. I suppose you’re expecting a plot recap, but it’s not really that sort of film. It, in a lot of way, feels more like you are sitting in on a meandering psychoanalytical session of Roger Waters, whose traumas, attitudes and fears formed the basis of the album and now this, I suppose, adaptation of the album.
There’s three main threads, the modern day isolation of a rockstar from society and humanity, women in particular, inhabited here by a typically dishevelled Bob Geldof as Pink, a look at the early childhood that got him there, including the trauma of his father being killed during the war and critiques of society and the education system, and a weird fantasy sequence where Pink reimagines himself as a fascist dictator in front of rabid crowds, which is hard to read as much other than egotism run amok. Your music ain’t that compelling, Waters.
I suppose the question that kept me engaged throughout The Wall is simply this, who is this for? It’s not, after all, something that really passes muster as a film, in the dramatic sense. There’s little through line between the themes that are thrown out, and leaning on the album tracks to provide all the context of to the visuals may perhaps be intended as a more poetic way of storytelling, but it’s just ended up not telling much of a story.
So, perhaps it’s best left for the Pink Floyd fans, and as a largely Pink Floyd indifferent, this ain’t really for me. Even so, I can’t imagine it’s something that fans would choose to watch over listening to the album, except maybe once as an idle curiosity. Now, to be scrupulously fair, while overall I’m not recommending that anyone not already predisposed to liking this sort of thing seek it out, I did not hate my time with The Wall. While it doesn’t hang together at all as a film, a lot of the production design is very good, and as is commonly pointed out, the animated sequences are very well executed.
It’s just a shame that it is so frequently deployed in ways that are only just barely symbolic, to the point that they’re almost literal. It’s nice to see that it’s a script that’s fully Garth Merenghi approved, no cowardly subtext here, and in a way I appreciate the honesty on display here – Waters is not glamorising or softening his character flaws and weird attitudes, and I suppose recognition is the first step to changing them. What it isn’t, is a compelling reason for this to exist as an artefact.
Certainly not something I recommend or particularly enjoyed, but as a curiosity piece I suppose it holds some small value.
Minneapolis, 1984. Talented young musician The Kid (Prince) is struggling with artistic stagnation, a stressful and abusive home life, and the possible loss of his regular slot at the legendary First Avenue club. This last is exacerbated by Morris Day (Morris Day) disliking The Kid for plot reasons, and pushing the manager of the club to dump The Kid and his band, The Revolution (The Revolution), in favour of the new girl group he’s putting together.
There is also a new girl in town, Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), who instantly falls in love with The Kid, for plot reasons, even going so far as to pawn her only valuable in order to buy an ungrateful The Kid a shiny new guitar within days, or perhaps even hours, of knowing him, also for plot reasons.
After some travails, some self-inflicted (The Kid alienates The Revolution by being an arsehole, and alienates Apollonia by being an arsehole) and some external (Morris Day, incidentally also an arsehole, and his dad, far beyond arsehole), as well as an outright tragedy, The Kid and The Revolution take to the stage for their last chance, wowing the crowd with a song based on music written by two members of The Revolution that the egotistical The Kid had been ignoring for the whole film. That song is Purple Rain, and it is a good song, and lo! the crowd went wild.
Purple Rain was created to help “to showcase Prince’s talents”, or at least to polish his ego and let him be an actor, as he allegedly refused to sign a new record contract unless he got to be in a movie. Now, I know you’re thinking “Prince having some sort of contractual dispute with a record label? Preposterous!”, but that’s the story out there, hard to swallow as it may be. Fortunately, though, a vanity project as it may be, Purple Rain is certainly one of the better ones, and Prince is pretty watchable as, well, Prince (such things cannot always be taken for granted). Unfortunately, as The Kid is such an, well, I’m repeating myself here, but such an arsehole, and so much else of the film seems to have a lot in common with Prince’s life, the film was perhaps too successful in making me think that Prince was an arsehole.
However, Prince was also a great musician and performer and had bags of charisma and that, though it shouldn’t, goes a long way to ameliorating the whole “arsehole” thing. And the music’s good, which is just as well as the plot isn’t, not least because character motivation is lacking, particularly Apollonia’s, especially when the whole film seems to take place over two or three days. I enjoyed Purple Rain, but it’s far from a masterpiece, though if you’re susceptible to Prince’s smouldering stares (alas, I am not) you may like it considerably more than I: you’re certainly in for a lot of them.
(Super-desirable guitar as plot point was done far better in Wayne’s World, though.)
I believe Moonwalker was one of the VHS tapes that came with my parent’s first VHS machine, after fleeing the superior Betamax format, so I’ve seen this a few times more than may be expected. It might be expected to say, hey, this is weirder than I remembered, but, no, it’s pretty much exactly as weird as I remember, and that’s probably fitting given that this is from the mind of Michael Jackson, whom science has determined to be weird. At best.
I mean, it starts off much as you might expect, with film of a live performance, a very well done collage-style retrospective of his career with the Jackson Five, an an almost impossibly cute recasting of the Bad video with kids, and later the still pretty cool collage-style video for Leave Me Alone. There’s a taste of the strangeness to be fully embraced later between these last two with the extended Speed Demon section, featuring an altogether too long chase sequence around a studio backlot with a cast of claymation grotesqueries, and as much as I’m a sucker for the technique, this is perhaps a bridge too far.
Still, at this point, if it’s gone off the rails slightly, there is at least still the concept of rails present in the first place, which rapidly dissipates in the, what, hour long section where Jackson and his best friends, a group of little children (including a young Sean Lennon), go off into the woods (with hindsight, maximally cringe inducing) only to stumble across Joe Pesci’s underground criminal fascist drug-dealing arachnophile who plans to, I guess, control the world by having them all become addicted to drugs, which then happens instantaneously, for given values of world where world equals deserted studio backlot, but it’s okay because Jackson can transform into a car, and then a robot, and then fly away into space, only to immediately return to Earth. And at some point Smooth Criminal and Come Together get sung.
All of which prompts the question, “what?”, and it does not seem interested in providing any answer. It’s all very strange, and in a way critic-proof because it doesn’t seem to be intended to make any sense or have any meaning beyond some at the time mildly flashy effects work and indulging Michael Jackson’s whims. Which I suppose it does, but that’s no help for us poor schlubs in the audience that just want to see the Smooth Criminal video, which, as you’ll remember, is a 30’s speakeasy inspired piece that in no way fits in with this weird sci-fi dystopia setting of the surrounding framework. What a very strange and sadly quite boring section.
So, where would that leave Moonwalker, under ordinary circumstances? Probably more or less where it is now – much like The Wall, even for the most ardent fan there’s not much in the way of compelling reasons to watch this more than once as an idle curiosity, rather than playing an album. And after his trials for sexual abuse, where our legal department insist I point out he was acquitted? Well, I don’t hate it, but there’s not a huge number of reasons to dig up this piece of the past. Let it go. Let it go.
Honest was largely part of this episode as the representative sample of the musician’s vanity project, perhaps now the ur-example and a two-fer, as it’s directed and part-written by Eurythmics dood Dave Stewart and star three quarters of turn of the millennium Spice Girl alternatives All Saints, namely Melanie Blatt, Nicole Appleton, and Natalie Appleton, with Shaznay Lewis wisely passing on this “opportunity”. Perhaps she’s the only one that read the script before deciding.
This film, it says here and despite all evidence to the contrary, is a black comedy set in underworld of 60s Laaahn Daaaahn, and comes across like someone threw a rejected Guy Ritchie script and a unironic version of Austin Powers into a blender, then carefully removed all charm, drama, humour, and charisma leaving this long-forgotten husk we have unwisely chosen to resurrect. As such let’s not spend too much time on it.
The Appletons and Blatt play the thieving Chase sisters, robbing high value targets while disguised as men, and further disguised by wearing a mask. Belt and braces, I assume, not that it helps when the local kingpin, Corin Redgrave’s Duggie Ord, figures out they are behind the crimes, including one of Ord’s own gaffs. So he demands monetary compensation, or their lives, so the sisters hatch a plan to steal the stash of toff magazine editor and drug dealer Jonathan Cake’s Andrew Pryce-Stevens. This is complicated somewhat by one of the sisters, and I’m not ashamed to say I can’t remember which of them, developing a relationship with one of the magazine’s writers, Peter Facinelli’s Daniel Wheaton, on a gap year from an American law school. Comic caper hi-jinks fail to ensue.
That brief summation saves you from a fair amount of what’s best characterised as filler, particularly the “help, we’re accidentally on acid” sequence that lasts for approximately fifteen years, and also from a raft of performances that I suppose are technically acting in the strict meaning of the sense, but only very barely.
It’s primary crime is, of course, that it’s a comedy that is not funny in the slightest, despite the main writers of the film having a long and successful track record. It’s fair to say, I think, that this wasn’t their finest hour and a half, even before its mangled by some absolute honking delivery from our leads. The characterisation also falls completely flat, so the dramatic elements follow the comedic out of the window, leaving this film very little to offer. Unless, that is, you want to watch a film so male gaze-y that it’s more of a male leer.
Now, this was decried as “the worst British film ever made” on release, and I think there was more than an element of tabloid sensationalism and their typical desire to tear down successful people, women particularly, at the slightest excuse. Much the same happened a few years later with Sex Lives of the Potato Men, and to be clear both are execrable films and not worth your time or consideration, but worst ever? Only if you’ve seen a very limited selection of films.
It is really bad, though.
Like that of The Kid in Purple Rain, the story of Eminem’s Jimmy Smith Jr., known to his friends as “B-Rabbit”, takes place over a short time (about a week, more or less, though it’s a bit hazy), but unlike Purple Rain the events make sense over that scale.
Rabbit’s in a low place: he’s just broken up with his girlfriend, leaving her his car, and moved back in with his mum (Kim Basinger) and little sister, Lily, in a trailer park on the “black” side of 8 Mile, the road that separates urban Detroit from the northern suburbs.
He’s working a low-paying manual job, and feels rather trapped, and has pinned his hopes on cutting a demo and making it big in hip-hop. But when he chokes at a rap battle at a local club those hopes seem further away than ever, and potentially foolish. None of that may matter, however, if his contretemps with a rival hip hop group-cum-gang leads where it might and he ends up dead. Being dead is generally contra-indicated for a promising music career, though to be fair it didn’t seem to impede Tupac much…
8 Mile was the film I was most looking forward to watching for this episode, partly because I knew that I liked it, but mostly because it was about my favourite genre of music. On re-watching it, then, for the first time in many years, I was struck by how… small… the story is, and how little music is actually in it (at least as performance, rather than just the film’s soundtrack).
There’s some domestic drama (though Rabbit’s mother is painted much more flatteringly than Eminem’s own mother is in his music); some fallings out between friends; there’s a dame who does him wrong (yes, Slim Shady is now Sam Spade); and genuine threat from other young men, too hot-headed and full of testosterone for everyone’s good, but it all takes place within a limited world, with limited scope and limited stakes, and is all the more relatable for it.
The rap battle rematch, to which the film builds and with which it, quite satisfactorily, if conventionally, ends, is a rewarding moment, and feels earned, believable and appropriate. It also makes up for the surprising paucity of rapping in the rest of the film, which is only sprinkled here and there, and also showcases Eminem’s lyrical dexterity, were that ever in doubt.
Looking back at the review I wrote of this for theoneliner.com on its release (18 years ago, oh god oh god oh god I’mma die soon!), I described it as “like Rocky, but with lyrics instead of punches”: easy, flippant, clichéd, sure, but… also kinda accurate? At least in the broad strokes of the structure. I note that I also considered it a five-star film.
Today I’m neither quite so effusive nor quite so ebullient about 8 Mile as I was back then (apart from anything else, I’ve seen A LOT more films in the nearly… two… decades… since… ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod), but I still find it a very rewarding watch, with a surprisingly engaging and accomplished central turn from first-time actor Mr Mathers.
Playing a version of himself in something that’s more an Eminem creation myth than a biography, he’s helped by strong support from the likes of Mekhi Phifer and Omar Benson Miller as his friends, Future and Sol, and from the beginning this core group of friends feel authentic and likeable, even if Evan Jones’ Cheddar Bob feels slightly too broad and goofy. He is, however, called Cheddar Bob, and that counts for a lot. I’d also forgotten Anthony Mackie was in this, and it’s amusing to see him play a bad guy when he’s normally so likeable. And if anything I find the low-key, minor victory, ending more satisfying now than ever before.
In the end, 8 Mile is one of those fairly conventional films elevated by skill in front of and behind the camera, and with the added appeal of the parallels to its star’s life. It also features one of Eminem’s best tracks, the multi-award winning Lose Yourself, though I object to some of those awards on the grounds that a song that doesn’t appear in a film until the end credits ought not to count as a song from a film. And on that strange and individual hill, on which I wouldn’t die but might put up a half-hearted struggle, I will finish. 8 Mile is good.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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