Monday, May 29, 2017


Chuck Movie Review

Chuck Wepner was never my type of boxing hero. The underdog who gave Ali a pretty hard scrap and even scored a shitty knockdown before Ali beat the crap out of him, never really grabbed me. I didn't care about his self-deprecating wit, or his ability to bleed like he'd been shot in the face, or the fact that, as we've been reminded every day for forty years, he inspired Stallone to write Rocky. Of course, my failure to embrace this lovable loser is akin to sacrilege. Sports writers insist Wepner represents me, though I've always aimed higher than to be a liquor salesman who moonlights as a punching bag. No, I don't relate to Wepner at all. (I'm more the Riddick Bowe type, talented but inconsistent, and not as funny as I think I am.) So I didn't go into Chuck, which stars Liev Schreiber and is showing in scattered art cinemas before going direct to ePix or HBO2, with much enthusiasm. But I enjoyed it. Like a McDonald's burger, it didn't fool me into thinking it was high quality stuff, but it was OK. It filled the hole.

When we meet Wepner, he's in a ring that looks like it was probably once used for jello wrestling. He's squaring off with a bear for charity. Known as the toughest son of a bitch in Bayonne, New Jersey, Wepner usually enters his local pub to a round of applause, though he secretly fears what most people really think of him. Schreiber narrates as Wepner, and though some have compared this to Ray Liotta's voice-over in Goodfellas, it's too cutesy, too Rodney Dangerfield. Wepner is drafted to fight Ali because the champ hopes to generate publicity by facing a white guy. "I don't care if Ali's purple," says Wepner, which is as deep as the movie goes on the race topic. Because Chuck is set in the '70s, director Phillipe Falardou goes full Boogie Nights on us, with a disco soundtrack and a lot of fur coats. I've never equated Wepner with the sounds of Hot Chocolate, but the funky music gives the story a boost, like an ammonia capsule under the nose.

It's very much a standard sports bio, no better or worse than recent pics about Roberto Duran, Vinny Paz, and "Spaceman" Bill Lee. What we learn is that Stallone actually did Wepner a favor by depicting Rocky Balboa as a sort of heroic man-child. The real Wepner was a coke-snorting womanizer, and to the credit of Chuck, we see him not as some granite chinned, working class hero, but as a frail human. Elizabeth Moss plays Wepner's first wife, and she's brilliant when she tells one of Wepner's bimbos that ol' Chuck simply goes after any woman who smiles at him because, deep down, he feels like a stooge and needs approval. It's the best scene in the movie, and Moss is great, though Wepner ends up with a mouthy bartender played by Naomi Watts. (Schrieber's former wife, by the way.) As Linda Wepner, Watts is funny and has big hair, which is movie shorthand for Wepner living happily ever after.

Schreiber is a good actor, but he doesn't quite capture Wepner's essence. In dog terms, Wepner is a St. Bernard, Schreiber is a Doberman. But Schrieber also served as a producer on the movie, helped with the screenplay, and probably assisted with catering. This was a personal project for him, a labor of love many years in the making, and he turns in a solid, commendable performance. We believe him as a decent guy who was waylaid by his own hype - he's especially good in the scenes where Wepner hunts down Stallone and auditions for Rocky II - and fell from grace. Falardou even inserts snippets from Requiem for a Heavyweight, in case we're too dumb to get the message. Falardou, however, does a nice job mixing in vintage footage of fights and press conferences, which enhances the movie's feel for the era. Still, Chuck is hampered by two things: a self-conscious cuteness, and a surprising lack of energy. There are too many scenes of Wepner partying, and Wepner's prison hitch after being popped for cocaine possession doesn't amount to much in terms of drama. Finally, I was bothered by  Schreiber's voice. He didn't really sound like the Wepner I've heard on old clips. I may have imagined it, but to me he sounded more like Stallone.

Thursday, May 25, 2017


We all loved John Belushi at that time. We'd loved him during four years of Saturday Night Live, and we'd loved Animal House and The Blues Brothers. We quoted him endlessly, one of our favorite lines being, "That's the most fun you can have with your pants on." Even serious movie critics were falling for him, comparing him to Harpo Marx and other comedy madmen. As much as people loved Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, and others, I don't think any comic actor since then has been loved the way we loved Belushi. When we heard he'd died of a drug overdose at age 33 - I was in a pizza shop in Canton, Massachusetts when I heard the news - we were devastated. He was supposed to go into the '80s and '90s with us, and be the colorful eccentric that Bill Murray became.

Now the name Belushi draws no reaction from moviegoers. He's a vague ghost of the '70s. The comedies that came in his wake are considered gauche, causing critic James Wolcott to grouse in a 2012 Vanity Fair article that "Hollywood comedy has become a plague, a blight, and an affront to humanity." Belushi's movies now lurk in a kind of on-demand graveyard, usually in the free section next to titles like Ford Fairlane and She-Devil. But if dead rock stars can continue to inspire musicians, Belushi should, at least, be brought back into the conversation now and then.

His final movie, Neighbors, is fascinating to me, though it's generally dismissed as a major misfire. Even though I fully acknowledge its flaws, I love it.  I chuckle over David Ansen's review in Newsweek where he called Bill Conti's music "the year's most offensive score," and panned the movie as "a sour case of creative indigestion." Roger Ebert gave it a more sensible review, calling it "a truly interesting comedy, an offbeat experiment in hallucinatory black humor." Ebert added, "It grows on you." Honestly, it's no worse than any recent movie starring Seth Rogen.

It tells the weird tale of Earl Keese, played by Belushi, who was trying to shed his comic image. With his conservative wardrobe, fancy prescription glasses, and the way he sank into his favorite chair to watch television, he was the embodiment of the suburban male, circa 1981. We watched him closely, trying to read him, looking for signs of the comic lunacy we'd come to crave.  Conti's music, a mix of jaunty trombone and variations of the old Twilight Zone intro, only confused us. New neighbors have moved in next door - Keese's family live on a curious dead end road where only two houses stand - and Earl is leery. "No kids," he says, relieved.

Thomas Berger, who wrote the novel on which the movie was based, had written a fast-moving but offbeat story about a man whose stable life is interrupted by the strange couple next door. It was a sort of fable, darkly comic and unsettling. Berger was saying something about the precarious nature of our lives and the things we hold dear; we may think we're one way, but we could easily be another way. Earl grows to love the people responsible for destroying his life.

The movie is less interested in the book's themes and merely wants to make use of the team of Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Aykroyd is Vic, the new neighbor, a shady loudmouth with dyed blonde hair and the mannerisms of someone who had attended too many "swinger" parties. Earl knows Vic is untrustworthy - he even accuses his wife of staring at Vic's "unit" - but he's intrigued. Meanwhile, Vic's saucy young wife, Ramona, keeps popping up in various states of undress, filling Earl's head with nasty thoughts.

John Avildsen, hot from directing Rocky, took a lot of flack for Neighbors. How could he fail with the powerhouse pair of Belushi and Aykroyd? Even during shooting, Belushi tried to have him fired. Watching the movie recently alerted me to what may have been wrong -  no one could decide exactly what sort of comedy was being made. Ramona has a filthy mouth, and can't say anything without giving it a sexual overtone. As played by Cathy Moriarty, it's as if she'd stepped out of Carnal Knowledge. Then there are  scenes where Ramona is hiding in a bedroom, and Earl tries to keep his wife from seeing her, as if Avildsen is going for an old-fashioned screwball farce. Meanwhile, Aykroyd plays Vic as if he's already thinking of Doctor Detroit. Too many styles were butting up against each other.

Still, some of it works. Moriarty, in her first film since her Oscar nominated debut in Raging Bull, is delicious as Ramona. Only 21 at the time, she seemed to be channeling women from another era, Lauren Bacall, maybe, or Lizabeth Scott. As Vic, Aykroyd is a wonder of elastic expressions, postures, and growls. We never know if Vic is a good guy or a bad guy. Aykroyd seemed to enjoy keeping us guessing. Belushi huffs and puffs, caught in the whirlwind of it all. He'd originally been cast as Vic, but convinced Avildsen that he should play Earl. Belushi thought it would be a better showcase for his acting talents, but he's only half-successful; despite whitening his sideburns, he can't hide that he's still a nimble young man. At times he looks like he's playing an older character in a TV sketch.

The only quiet scenes for Belushi involve him watching television, where ugly news stories, horror movies, and commercials for funeral parlors keep him slightly dazed. The TV spots, incidentally, are voiced by Aykroyd, as if whatever had been keeping Earl satiated on the tube had been unleashed and was living next door. The news items are always tragic, with people dying in grisly ways.

Is death coming for Earl? Is that what Vic and Ramona are all about? Earl fights them at first, hates them, in fact, but he gradually accepts them, just as we do with impending death.

Legend has it that Belushi and Aykroyd took Larry Gelbart's adaptation of the Berger novel and rewrote it, desperate to inject this offbeat story with some laughs. (Gelbert filed a complaint with the Writers' Guild, but nothing came of it.) A bit where Earl overhears Vic threatening to dismember Ramona with a chainsaw sounds like Aykroyd's mind at work. ("You promised me! Just one leg!") And the climax, where Earl picks up his TV set and smashes it against the wall of his living room, feels like a too-little-too-late nod to fans of Animal House

What is usually forgotten in the folklore of Neighbors is that the movie turned a profit for Columbia. Belushi and Aykroyd had, as Belushi biographer Bob Woodward wrote, "turned Berger's dark piece of chamber music into a semi-rock concert," but no one can say the movie lost money.

Belushi was miserable during the making of Neighbors. He fought constantly with the director and producer, mostly over his demands for a punk rock soundtrack. It was here that he reportedly picked up his drug habit again after having kicked it, and caused several delays in filming because he was blitzed in his trailer. He'd be dead in less than a year. Yet, none of this is apparent in the movie. Maybe his talent was such that he could give a decent performance even as his body was loaded with drugs. Ironically, the filmmakers changed the ending of the book, where Earl dies. In the movie, he rides off to a new life with Vic and Ramona. It was the last time we'd see Belushi on film, and there he is, sitting next to his buddy Dan Aykroyd, looking to the future that we were supposed to share with him.

Monday, May 22, 2017


The D Train Movie Review

I don't remember much about high school. People think I'm lying when I say that, but it's true. Grades one through six are more vivid to me. By high school I was twiddling my thumbs, in a hurry to get on with my life. I was never too concerned with who was popular and who who wasn't. Some people, like the ones portrayed in The D Train, find high school to be a kind of melting pot of anxieties, with many poor unfortunates tripping over themselves to gain entry in one elusive clique or another. As for high school reunions, I've never wanted to attend one  because I think I'd be bored. I do, however, enjoy movies about class reunions. There are some basic truths in them - most of us don't mature much beyond the age of 16, and even the best of us can be driven to distraction by petty shit. For some, high school is comparable to the measles or the mumps, a childhood illness with lingering effects in our adult years.

Jack Black plays Dan Landsman, a regular fellow who is part of his graduating class' 20-year-reunion committee. By most measuring sticks, he's done pretty well in life. He has a nice wife, a son, a home in the suburbs, and a good job. But Dan, deep down, is still plagued by the insecurities that made his high school years a nightmare. He even warns his son to not trust a girl who likes him in case it's a prank. Worse, Dan still talks in the kind of faux hip hop style of the 1990s, addressing everyone as "bro" and "dude" and "wassup dawg," which sounds ridiculous coming from a man 20 years out of high school. How he was able to marry and spawn is the movie's real mystery, but The D Train doesn't want to explore Dan Landsman; it wants to punish him a little. When he learns that the most popular kid in his class, Oliver Lawless (played by James Marsden in full James Franco mode), is now in Hollywood appearing in sunscreen commercials, he decides to lure Oliver to the reunion and become popular by association. 

It's also a bit of the old "be careful what you wish for" scenario, as Dan bluffs his way to Los Angeles, charms Lawless into attending the reunion, only to find himself quickly absorbed into Lawless' life of partying and reckless sex. It's not clear how Lawless went from being the star of his high school basketball team to a coke-snorting bisexual, but this movie doesn't care enough about its characters to investigate such a thing. It offers a few cheap jokes, plus one or two scenes that are meant to shock us, but little else. It exists solely to trumpet the sophomoric idea that male bonding is a front for homoerotic longing. By the end, Dan Landsman "lands his man," so to speak, but the lesson he learns, you can't be something you're not, dude, feels like something from a high school essay. It all ends happily, because high school reunion movies must. Call it the Romy and Michelle rule. 

Black is very fine as Dan, and as he showed in Bernie (2012), and intermittently throughout his career, he's brilliant as characters who walk the line between likable and not. Watching him struggle to lure Lawless to the reunion, and then swaggering at Lawless' side as they navigate through the L.A. nightlife, just about makes the movie worth watching. It also leaves one frustrated. So cocky is The D Train, so in love with its own cheap tricks and plot twists, that it never uses Black to his fullest, the way Richard Linklater used him in Bernie, where Black played a funeral director  who worked his way into the life of a wealthy widow.  Linklater, who directed Black in School of Rock many years ago, knows that Black is one of those comedic actors who, like Robin Williams or Jim Carrey, can shrug off the manic side to reveal something grim. Since Black's comic persona is wearing thin, it's comforting to know he can still be around for years to come, playing seedy guys, inept criminals, and Ponzi schemers. If Martin Scorsese can give Jonah Hill the role of a lifetime in The Wolf of Wall Street, there must be something similar out there for Jack Black. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017


Hounds of Love Movie Review

Ian Brady, a very bad man, has died. Though his name doesn't mean much to Americans, the Brits certainly knew about him. He and his girlfriend Myra Hindley committed some terrible murders in the 1960s - their crimes involved the killing of five children, ages 10 to 17 - and they were as nationally reviled in Britain as any number of murderers you can name in America, perhaps more so. I've always suspected a small part of England's disdain for Brady and Hindley had to do with their looks - he was a ferret-faced git with sleepy eyes, she was a bottle blond with a jaw shaped like a shovel. Their mugshots howled degeneracy. She died in 2002. He died this week, just as Hounds of Love, an Australian picture about a couple similar to Brady and Hindley, was opening at my local art cinema. To my surprise, the tiny screening room was nearly half full on a sunny weekday in May. This had less to do, I imagine, with any advance word, and was more because people are fascinated by sex and violence. It sold newspapers in Brady's day, and it can sell some movie tickets now.

It isn't a horror movie, per se, any more than Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a horror movie, though some of it is horrifying. It's a suspense thriller, really. It's about a married couple that abducts teen girls to torture, rape and kill. It could've been served up like The Last House on the Left, but writer/director Ben Young was aiming for something more. Hence, John, the husband (Stephen Curry) is shown as a bit of a weasel in the outside world, a schlep who owes money to some local thugs. Evelyn (Emma Booth) is his wife, a long suffering mom whose previous husband is keeping her separated from her own kids. She weeps a lot, and seems to live in fear of John, but she's also a bit psycho when she needs to be. Early on the pair lures teen Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) into their home with promises of good weed. (This, of course, is proof that marijuana leads to worse stuff!)

Vicki ends up drugged, and as "Knights in White Satin" plays on the stereo (the movie is set in the '80s, for some reason) she's dragged into the couple's spare room and chained to a bed. Then we watch her pissing and shitting herself, as well as being strangled, threatened with a knife, and slapped around. Vicki is resourceful - she tries to find Evelyn's weak spots in hopes of creating an ally against John. Meanwhile, John skulks around the house, being abusive and mean and kicking the dog. Mostly, there's a lot of crying and screaming. We also get a lot of Vicki's mother (Susie Porter), who cries and screams, too. The mother, a tough single mom - is there any other kind in the movies? - receives a sort of ransom note written by Vicki and from it deduces where the girl is being held. Then there's more screaming and crying, as if Young thinks this will elevate the movie above its sleazy pedigree.

Young tries hard. He uses a lot of super slow motion, sometimes to great effect, but after a while it feels silly. Directors who use slow-mo are kind of like guys with weak chins who grow beards. They're not fooling anybody. Emma Booth, though, is quite good as Evelyn, snarling like Charlize Theron in Monster. She's also very moving in scenes where she's being told that she can't see her children, and when she's pleading with John to be kind to her. She does what she can with the part, and makes the movie watchable all by her self. Stephen Curry, too, is creepy and interesting as John. Ashleigh Cummings spends most of her time handcuffed to a bed, but she's quite remarkable in a scene where she's eyeball to eyeball with Booth, unable to speak, with a knife to her throat. It's a riveting moment in an otherwise forgettable movie. Hounds of Love wants so desperately to be appreciated as some sort of thinking person's sleazefest that it steps on its own foot. Perhaps it seemed like an interesting idea to portray psychopaths as being human, to show their tears, but it short circuits the story. There's no doubt that some truly despicable people can demonstrate a human side. I'm also sure Ian Brady would dismiss this movie as fluff.

Monday, May 15, 2017

PIT STOP (1968)

Bowman doesn't trust anybody, which in most movies would be his flaw to overcome. Even Jolene, his doting teen girlfriend, gets on his nerves after a while. He gets cranky the night before a big race and accuses her of latching onto him because she wanted to be with a winner. Jolene, played by Beverly Washburn - who with her pixie haircut and false eyelashes looks like she just stepped out of a Laugh-In party scene - was the only kind person in the movie; when Bowman yells at her, we know he's an ass.

And consider the scene where Bowman and Hawk first meet. Hawk goes on a rambling monologue about how the racing business takes a certain kind of crazy character to succeed, and Hawk, because he's the craziest of 'em all, always wins. "When they see me coming through that intersection," he says, "they just naturally back off, cos they know I ain't gonna stop for nobody!" When Hawk is done with his tirade, Bowman quietly asks, "Where can I get me a car?" Is Bowman stirred by the idea of competition? Or does he just want people to know he's crazy, too?

Sid Haig plays Hawk as a near sociopath, stealing the movie every time he's on the screen. Stalking through his scenes like a prehistoric bird of prey, he eventually takes an axe to Bowman's car, though Haig's teeth look big enough that he could've bitten Bowman's Fairlane 500 in half. If you only know Haig for more recent films like The Devil's Rejects, or for playing dirtbags in various Pam Grier movies, his performance in Pit Stop is a revelation. According to legend, Haig didn't even know how to drive, but Hill stuck with him. Smart choice.

Hill and cinematographer Austin McKinney make the figure 8 races, shot at the Ascot Park Speedway in Gardena, California, look nightmarish. In fact, this is one of the most stunning black and white movies to come out of the late '60s, with some scenes shimmering like the best film noir. The black and white caused difficulties with distribution since drive-ins at the time had adapted an all-color policy, but this is one sharp looking movie. A scene at an automobile graveyard, where broken car parts are stacked up like a mountain of bones, looks haunted and surreal, as does a parade of dune buggies shot at the Imperial Sand Dunes in Glamis. The dive bars, liquor stores, and seedy hotels where the drivers congregate look like glowing markers on the road to hell.

There's a sexual dysfunction in the movie, too, with the drivers often leaving their women adrift in order to focus on racing. Sure, Hawk is usually seen on the dance floor with one or two women, and he's bold enough to yank a go-go dancer right off the stage, but the ease with which Jolene leaves him for Bowman suggests there wasn't much in their private life worth preserving. And Bowman eventually leaves Jolene cold, too. The wife of a hotshot driver, played by a very young and lovely Ellen Burstyn, complains that racing has taken her husband "body and soul. And I emphasize body." Willard has no woman; he only has eyes for young men he can throw into the deadly figure 8 course.

Bowman eventually reveals himself to be as cold-hearted as Willard, and as demented as Hawk. All of the drivers working for Willard are simply addicts. They're addicted to action, they're addicted to danger, and they're addicted to winning. Willard, devious and manipulative, plays one against the other, until they're all out for blood.

Though Davalos plays Bowman with a punk's swagger and his hair swept up like James Dean's in Rebel Without a Cause - indeed, he'd played Dean's brother in East of Eden, and at certain angles he even bears a resemblance to Johnny Depp  - he was already 36 by the time of Pit Stop. Seasoned by years of television appearances, he walks a fine line between clean-cut leading man and jerk. When he befriends a much older driver with hopes of learning some tricks for survival, it looks like he may be a nice guy, after all. But it's not that sort of movie.

Hill purportedly saw figure 8 racing and thought it was so loony that he wanted to make a movie about it.
Years later he would tell Ultra FilmFax, "The action scenes were the real thing. Not staged. It was a real slice of Americana." His enthusiasm shows in the racing footage, which has the bluntness of bare-knuckle boxing. He'd go on to make several movies in many different genres - he's most revered for his two Pam Grier features, Foxy Brown and Coffee but Pit Stop may be his best feature. His other films are sometimes marred by corny jokes and slapstick. Here, he's dead serious.

I like that it's in black and white. The races take place at night, and the spotlights on the track make the proceedings seem ghostly. The men may or may not have death wishes, but like astronauts and bull-riders, they know their passion comes with a possibly fatal price. "Everybody I raced with is dead now," says one old timer. There's a sense of shame in his admission, as if to survive in this racing world is a kind of insult to those who don't.

Pit Stop moves like an old juvenile delinquent film of the '50s, as if filmed by a Godard wannabe. I haven't even mentioned the excellent musical score, all grinding guitar riffs by the remnants of a Seattle psychedelic outfit called The Daily Flash, or that the project was financed by Roger Corman, who was making a lot of hippie movies at that time to grab the youth  market. By not looking or acting like other films of its era, without a flower child or draft dodger in sight, Pit Stop feels more subversive than other movies that tried twice as hard.    

Thursday, May 11, 2017


Sitting in tall cotton with Bobby Keys
By Don Stradley

Bobby Keys gets the nod. He's the official "unofficial" Rolling Stone. His saxophone  can be heard on some of their best albums - Let it Bleed, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goats Head Soup, Emotional Rescue - and he was a regular on their tours since 1972 or thereabouts. You might not recognize him in a police lineup (and he was in a few, I'd guess) but you'd know him on the stage. He was the husky guy with the lank blond hair, the one who looked the least like a Rolling Stone, the one who was born in Texas and brought to the band a bit of that larger than life American recklessness, not that they needed any help in that department, and not that other "unofficial" Stones like Nicky Hopkins or Ian McLagan or Ian Stewart weren't sufficiently rebellious or capable of causing trouble. Still, when filmmakers were looking for some "rock 'n' roll action" during the '72 tour, it was Keys who helped Keith Richards throw a TV set out a hotel window. As we learn in his earthy 2012 memoir Every Night's A Saturday Night, Keys regretted that the Stones' rowdy reputation often overshadowed their music. Keys died in 2014 at 70 from liver cancer but he'll always be remembered for his tough sound, and for showing a generation of horn players that there was a place for them in rock 'n' roll. The business with the TV set will probably get a mention, too.

Keys was a typical kid from Slaton, Texas, born just after the war years, growing up with rock 'n' roll on the radio and in the atmosphere. The Slaton High School band provided him with a saxophone; his musical beginnings were no more complicated than that. The idea was to get into a band and hit the road and never look back. He played little gigs locally, mingled with older musicians, and before you know it he was appearing on sessions for Elvis Presley, and touring with Buddy Knox. He weaseled his way into studios and seemed able to get work without much effort. He must've been one hell of a likeable guy. The tone is one of the lucky hick, the guy who spent some nights sleeping in a Mexican jail, but ended up playing with the Stones and enough rock royalty to sink an ocean liner, including various Beatles, Joe Cocker, and Eric Clapton. He portrays himself as a jolly primitive ("I just stuck my horn in my face and started to  blow.") and is fond of down home doggerel like, "I'm shittin' in tall cotton, and fartin' in silk sheets."

Still, few books of this sort can be written without becoming a cautionary tale, and Keys' life wasn't without some horrifying moments. He became "handy with a syringe," and one particular overdose had a disastrous effect on his short term memory. He often forgot where he lived and, sometimes, wasn't sure if he was married or not. That he somehow was able to keep playing sessions and touring during the '80s and '90s is amazing. The real gems in the book are the small observations about the musicians he knew, like how John Lennon once sat with him in a stairwell and patiently coached him on how to play "Whatever Gets You Through The Night," or how Charlie Watts was "a man who folds his socks," or how Delaney and Bonnie and Friends were, according to Keys, "better than the Stones, man for man." It's also interesting to learn that Keys started out as Mick Jagger's pal and roommate - he was best man when Jagger married Bianca - but ended up as Richards' running buddy.

The underlying story, though, is how Keys managed to stay in the Stones even after a period where he'd made a botch of things. During the band's twilight years, Richards made sure that Keys remained in the lineup, even if it meant paying him out of his own pocket. Jagger, Keys writes, would go through entire tours without saying a word to him. Still, Keys never stops reminding the reader of how lucky he was to be with the world's greatest rock band, comparing the first tour with the Stones to "entering the gates of rock 'n' roll heaven." It wasn't so much the women and the drugs, though he did his share of imbibing, but the kid from Slaton was walking among the kings of entertainment, traveling the world with unique, brilliant men he genuinely admired. An encounter with Hugh Hefner not only illustrates how it felt to be in the Stones' powerful presence, but provides the book with perhaps the ultimate line in any rock 'n' roll memoir: "He loaned us his jet even after we'd burned down his bathroom."

Thursday, May 4, 2017


Never Complain About the Air-Conditioning on a Private Jet
Pleasant Valley Sunday, my ass
By Don Stradley 

Michael Nesmith was the cool kid's favorite Monkee. He had the playful wit, the slight Texas drawl, and a stance that assured you he was smarter than the people around him. While The Monkees were decidedly locked in a kind of teeny bopper vortex, he sang his country-tinged songs in a distinct voice that bordered on a Hank Williams yodel of lament. The Monkees' other hits were fine, delicious pop confections, but Nesmith's songs were weird and unique, hillbilly music howled down from another planet. Add to this what was perceived as his indifference about the old show, and Nesmith became the Monkee we loved most, the crafty one, the introspective one, the one who invented MTV, the Internet, Repo Man, and Garry Shandling. I'm not sure if Infinite Tuesday: An Autobiographical Riff is the memoir I've always wanted from Nesmith, but when has he ever given us exactly what we'd wanted? Besides, it's nice to hear from him.

Nez fills us in on some important early experiences, such as his struggles at school, and seeing Bo Diddley at a small club in Dallas. When Bo cut loose, Nesmith tells us, "the rhythm roared like a wind-driven rainstorm on water." Then there was the time in 1964 after The Beatles  performed for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show. Nesmith was in Corpus Christie, taking a break from his collapsed career as a folk singer, and noticed people were staring. They were convinced he was George Harrison. One girl broke out in tears. "The world," he writes, "had gone crazy." By then, Nesmith was already married with a child, and trying to make a buck as a Bob Dylan wannabe. This was hardly the raw material for pop stardom, but through a series of seemingly haphazard connections he was invited to audition for a new NBC show about some unemployed musicians. The program was an unexpected  success and made Nesmith the unlikeliest of teen idols. Still, the show's two year run interrupted his progress as a singer and songwriter, and left him with only a fragile sense of how he might fit into the whole music business.

This isn't exactly a tale of how money-grabbing showbiz  types exploited a marvelous talent. Instead, it's the story of a guy who was never quite comfortable anywhere. When Nesmith found people who excited and inspired him, he often felt unable to establish permanent links. "I was almost desperate to land my little plane in their field and play whatever games they were thinking up," he writes of a fading friendship with the trio of  Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, "but some grace flagged me off. I flew away into my own countryside." The Monkees, too, seemed an awkward fit. "They broke into halfhearted, meaningless fistfights at the drop of an insult," he recalls of Peter, Micky, and Davy. "The set would turn into a playground of entitled eight-year-olds at a private school."

What we can gather from this thoughtful book is that Nesmith's life has been a protracted battle, not only with the movie and music industries  - even PBS turned out to be a bunch of snakes - but also with his own ego, his own "Celebrity Psychosis." Nesmith's mother is a major presence here. A  single mom who found herself wealthy after inventing Liquid Paper, she set the bar for him as far as tenacity and resourcefulness. Perhaps his obsession with technology and patents brings him closer to her in spirit. He's forthright about his infidelities and broken marriages, but some may question why Nesmith says more about the death of John Lennon than of his own bandmate Davy Jones (of which he says nothing). It's as if Nesmith's mind is so packed with  the teachings of Christian Science and his favorite yogis that there's no room for easy sentiment. He's candid, though, and not afraid to be heavy. You never thought a Monkee would write,"Buried within the life of all mortals is one resounding and echoing heartbreak after another - one despairing moment repeating and repeating - even if it is unrecognized." Don't misunderstand - the book isn't, as Nez might've said in the '60s, a "stone drag," but he doesn't even mention the wool hat.

Monday, May 1, 2017


For two weeks in 1964 Buster Keaton found himself in a strange little art film directed by Alan Schneider and written by, of all people, Samuel Becket. It was called, simply, Film, and had been conceived by Grove Press founder Barney Rossett as part of a showcase for Grove authors. As history would have it, Becket's was the only one that saw fruition. Depending on your point of view, it was either a tremendous way to bookend Keaton's legendary career, a shameless piece of existential fluff from Becket, or both. Notfilm, a 2015 "cinema essay" by Ross Lipman,  isn't likely to help you decide, though it is occasionally fascinating.

Keaton seemed ideal for Beckett, who was best known for Waiting for Godot, a groundbreaking theater piece that consisted of some people sitting around, waiting for something to happen. By the time Godot premiered in America in 1956, Keaton was scraping out a living by appearing in circuses and on television. The Keaton rediscovery of the 1960s was still a long way off.

Notfilm tells the story of how Keaton - in ill health and less than two years away from his death - was brought into the production (after Charlie Chaplin had bailed out), how Schneider the stage director fumbled his way into his first movie, and how Beckett stood by looking pensive and craggy. There's a rather academic dismantling of Film,  and some interesting footage that was thought to be lost, but a lot of Notfilm is static, and heavy. Lipman can make this documentary jump into life by showing a clip from one of Keaton's old silent films, particularly Sherlock Jr and The Cameraman, but those merciful breaks don't come often enough. Beckett, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1969, is dead weight here. Clips from his plays feel pretentious, and his fear of being photographed or recorded means we have to rely on the memories of others to describe him. Since most of the people interviewed are quite old and their memories are shot, we don't get much.

In a way, the faulty memories of the people questioned create a sort of Beckett play within a Beckett play. Instead of Waiting for Godot, we're waiting for a clear recollection. Fortunately, veteran character actor James Karen shares some poignant memories of an ailing Keaton suffering through the humid New York weather, while historian Kevin Brownlow and cinematographer Haskell Wexler offer some interesting asides. Lipman has artsy pretensions, and occasionally lets the narrative ramble, though he can usually bring it back with a striking image, Beckett's haggard face, for instance, or Keaton's, the stoic hangdog.

Lipman put extensive time and research into this project, and the idea of Keaton and Beckett working together is tantalizing and certainly worth a documentary. The downside is that both are men are deserving of ample coverage, which means the movie runs about 20 minutes too long. Lipman, ultimately, seems less interested in telling the story than in swimming in the middle of it. He's like a deep sea diver who went in search of treasure, but got sidetracked by a couple of squids.

Lipman makes a tactical error in narrating the movie himself - his voice isn't suited for the job. Beckett, too, comes off as rather weedy. His eyesight was beginning to trouble him, and his notorious shyness made him a less than colorful figure. Lipman spends time with actress Billie Whitelaw, but her vague digressions about acting in Beckett plays amount to little.

As for Film, it was a 20-minute short featuring Keaton as a mysterious figure walking through the backstreets of New York's Upper West Side and near the Brooklyn Bridge, trying to avoid being seen. A few people notice him and grimace in horror; he ends up alone in his shabby, empty apartment where he smashes old pictures from his past. Keaton, as always, makes it watchable. Film garnered attention at various international film festivals, and though many agreed with critic Andrew Sarris that it was "a dreary exercise," it was part of the big Keaton renaissance that included him appearing in a beach party movies and cheesy spectacles like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The impression we get from Notfilm is that Keaton wasn't impressed by Beckett or Film. It was a paid gig, no different than the detergent commercials he was doing in those days. According to Tom Dardis' Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down, Keaton made $5,000 for two weeks' work.

"It's one of those art things," Keaton says in a clip from a talk show of the time. He says it with disdain. He was a comedy genius, and an innovator in the early days of Hollywood, but at heart he was a simple guy who liked beer and baseball. He didn't like Film. I don't think he'd like Notfilm, either.

Notfilm is currently playing on Fandor, and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films.