Sunday, August 31, 2008

Capsule Review: Rock On

Right away, let me say Rock On was a pleasant surprise. I went in mentally prepared for the bad GIR concert which a friend of mine was convinced this movie would be. Instead, what I saw was something in the Chak De India way - stay within Bollywood’s confines, but do it convincingly. If the girls in Chak De wielded a mean stick, the Rock On boys have you convinced that their air-guitaring and drumming is nothing as airy as one would expect from a genre whose previous cultural reference point in this regard was the soul-scarring image of Rajesh Khanna playing a guitar (in a discotheque!) only to throw it over to that other rock ‘n roll icon Mithun.

The ensemble cast turn in performances ranging from good to surprisingly good. The rhythm section is a great study in contrasts - Kenny, low-key and moving, Kohli, providing a vital comic kick whenever the pace threatens to flag. As leader of the band, Akhtar mostly glares a lot but lights up on stage, and Rampal, who is the real surprise of this movie, inhabits the role of the quiet, moody guitarist as if he had been waiting for it all his life. Its also refreshing to see the role of the free-loving minx go to Koel Puri instead of some bimbette, she takes the bit role and fills it with a knowing sex appeal and dancing eyes and a slow drawl. Only Prachi, pretty but woefully unhip as Akhtar’s wife, can’t quite shake off the soap star inside.

Despite the movie’s premise, its pace is reflective and the director gives his characters time to sort their heads out. In such a situation, had the onstage scenes fallen flat its likely the movie would have too. That doesn’t happen - the band is believable on stage, if slightly pansy by actual rock band standards (but perfect as a sort of English language Euphoria). The build-up to the final concert may be a shower of clichés, but that doesn’t alter its poignance a bit. Another thought struck me later – both this movie as well as Chak De were about chances wasted in youth and grabbed in desperation later. If, as these filmmakers seem to be saying, there are to be second acts in Indian lives, surely the time is due for a second wave, a new wave of movies made in India, with a scything originality and sureness of vision atoning for the sins of the past, and painting a visionary map for the future.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Uno, dos, tres, catorce

On March 17, 2005, Bruce Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. Though I'm not overly fond of U2, I have a lot of time for Springsteen. This very long induction speech of his is hysterically funny, and also enlightening in case you thought the Boss wasn't capable of making refrences to Public Enemy, telling stories about Pete Townshed and saying "Before James Brown there was Jesus" in the same speech.

Uno, dos, tres, catorce. That translates as one, two, three, fourteen. That is the correct math for a rock and roll band. For in art and love and rock and roll, the whole had better equal much more than the sum of its parts, or else you're just rubbing two sticks together searching for fire. A great rock band searches for the same kind of combustible force that fueled the expansion of the universe after the big bang. You want the earth to shake and spit fire. You want the sky to split apart and for God to pour out.

It's embarrassing to want so much, and to expect so much from music, except sometimes it happens -- the Sun Sessions, Highway 61, Sgt. Peppers, the Band, Robert Johnson, Exile on Main Street, Born to Run -- whoops, I meant to leave that one out -- the Sex Pistols, Aretha Franklin, the Clash, James Brown...the proud and public enemies it takes a nation of millions to hold back. This is music meant to take on not only the powers that be, but on a good day, the universe and God himself -- if he was listening. It's man's accountability, and U2 belongs on this list.

It was the early '80s. I went with Pete Townshend, who always wanted to catch the first whiff of those about to unseat us, to a club in London. There they were: A young Bono -- single-handedly pioneering the Irish mullet; the Edge -- what kind of name was that?; Adam and Larry. I was listening to the last band of whom I would be able to name all of its members. They had an exciting show and a big, beautiful sound. They lifted the roof.

We met afterwards and they were nice young men. They were Irish. Irish! Now, this would play an enormous part in their success in the States. For what the English occasionally have the refined sensibilities to overcome, we Irish and Italians have no such problem. We come through the door fists and hearts first. U2, with the dark, chiming sound of heaven at their command -- which, of course, is the sound of unrequited love and longing, their greatest theme -- their search for God intact. This was a band that wanted to lay claim to not only this world but had their eyes on the next one, too.

Now, they're a real band; each member plays a vital part. I believe they actually practice some form of democracy -- toxic poison in a band's head. In Iraq, maybe. In rock, no! Yet they survive. They have harnessed the time bomb that exists in the heart of every great rock and roll band that usually explodes, as we see regularly from this stage. But they seemed to have innately understood the primary rule of rock band job security: "Hey, asshole, the other guy is more important than you think he is!" They are both a step forward and direct descendants of the great bands who believed rock music could shake things up in the world, who dared to have faith in their audience, who believed if they played their best it would bring out the best in you. They believed in pop stardom and the big time. Now this requires foolishness and a calculating mind. It also requires a deeply held faith in the work you're doing and in its powers to transform. U2 hungered for it all, and built a sound, and they wrote the songs that demanded it. They're keepers of some of the most beautiful sonic architecture in rock and roll.

The Edge. The Edge. The Edge. The Edge. He is a rare and true guitar original and one of the subtlest guitar heroes of all time. He's dedicated to ensemble playing and he subsumes his guitar ego in the group. But do not be fooled. Take Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Neil Young, Pete Townshend -- guitarists who defined the sound of their band and their times. If you play like them, you sound like them. If you are playing those rhythmic two-note sustained fourths, drenched in echo, you are going to sound like the Edge, my son. Go back to the drawing board and chances are you won't have much luck. There are only a handful of guitar stylists who can create a world with their instruments, and he's one of them. The Edge's guitar playing creates enormous space and vast landscapes. It is a thrilling and a heartbreaking sound that hangs over you like the unsettled sky. In the turf it stakes out, it is inherently spiritual. It is grace and it is a gift.

Now, all of this has to be held down by something. The deep sureness of Adam Clayton's bass and the rhythms of Larry Mullen's elegant drumming hold the band down while propelling it forward. It's in U2's great rhythm section that the band finds its sexuality and its dangerousness. Listen to "Desire," "She Moves in Mysterious Ways," [sic] the pulse of "With or Without You" Together Larry and Adam create the element that suggests the ecstatic possibilities of that other kingdom -- the one below the earth and below the belt -- that no great rock band can lay claim to the title without.

Now Adam always strikes me as the professorial one, the sophisticated member. He creates not only the musical but physical stability on his side of the stage. The tone and depth of his bass playing has allowed the band to move from rock to dance music and beyond. One of the first things I noticed about U2 was that underneath the guitar and the bass, they have these very modern rhythms going on. Rather than a straight 2 and 4, Larry often plays with a lot of syncopation, and that connects the band to modern dance textures. The drums often sounded high and tight and he was swinging down there, and this gave the band a unique profile and allowed their rock textures to soar above on a bed of his rhythm.

Now Larry, of course, besides being an incredible drummer, bears the burden of being the band's requisite ‘good-looking member’, something we somehow overlooked in the E Street Band. We have to settle for ‘charismatic’. Girls love Larry Mullen! I have a female assistant that would like to sit on Larry's drum stool. A male one, too. We all have our crosses to bear.

Bono...where do I begin? Jeans designer, soon-to-be World Bank operator, just plain operator, seller of the Brooklyn Bridge -- oh hold up, he played under the Brooklyn Bridge, that's right. Soon-to-be mastermind operator of the Bono burger franchise, where more than one million stories will be told by a crazy Irishman. Now I realize that it's a dirty job and somebody has to do it, but don't quit your day job yet, my friend. You're pretty good at it, and a sound this big needs somebody to ride herd over it.

And ride herd over it he does. His voice, big-hearted and open, thoroughly decent no matter how hard he tries. Now he's a great frontman. Against the odds, he is not your mom's standard skinny, ex-junkie archetype. He has the physique of a rugby player...well, an ex-rugby player. Shaman, shyster, one of the greatest and most endearingly naked messianic complexes in rock and roll. God bless you, man! It takes one to know one, of course.

You see, every good Irish and Italian-Irish front man knows that before James Brown there was Jesus. So hold the McDonald arches on the stage set, boys, we are not ironists. We are creations of the heart and of the earth and of the stations of the cross -- there's no getting out of it. He is gifted with an operatic voice and a beautiful falsetto rare among strong rock singers. But most important, his is a voice shot through with self-doubt. That's what makes that big sound work. It is this element of Bono's talent -- along with his beautiful lyric writing -- that gives the often-celestial music of U2 its fragility and its realness. It is the questioning, the constant questioning in Bono's voice, where the band stakes its claim to its humanity and declares its commonality with us.

Now Bono's voice often sounds like it's shouting not over top of the band but from deep within it. "Here we are, Lord, this mess, in your image." He delivers all of this with great drama and an occasional smirk that says, "Kiss me, I'm Irish." He's one of the great front men of the past twenty years. He is also one of the only musicians to devote his personal faith and the ideals of his band into the real world in a way that remains true to rock's earliest implications of freedom and connection and the possibility of something better.
Now the band's beautiful songwriting -- "Pride (In The Name of Love)," "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "One," "Where the Streets Have No Name," "Beautiful Day" -- reminds us of the stakes that the band always plays for. It's an incredible songbook. In their music you hear the spirituality as home and as quest. How do you find God unless he's in your heart? In your desire? In your feet? I believe this is a big part of what's kept their band together all of these years.

See, bands get formed by accident, but they don't survive by accident. It takes will, intent, a sense of shared purpose, and a tolerance for your friends' fallibilities...and they of yours. And that only evens the odds. U2 has not only evened the odds but they've beaten them by continuing to do their finest work and remaining at the top of their game and the charts for 25 years. I feel a great affinity for these guys as people as well as musicians.
Well...there I was sitting down on the couch in my pajamas with my eldest son. He was watching TV. I was doing one of my favorite things -- I was tallying up all the money I passed up in endorsements over the years and thinking of all the fun I could have had with it. Suddenly I hear "Uno, dos, tres, catorce!" I look up. But instead of the silhouettes of the hippie wannabes bouncing around in the iPod commercial, I see my boys!

Oh, my God! They sold out!

Now...what I know about the iPod is this: It is a device that plays music. Of course their new song sounded great, my guys are doing great, but methinks I hear the footsteps of my old tape operator Jimmy Iovine somewhere. Wily. Smart. Now, personally, I live an insanely expensive lifestyle that my wife barely tolerates. I burn money, and that calls for huge amounts of cash flow. But I also have a ludicrous image of myself that keeps me from truly cashing in. You can see my problem. Woe is me.

So the next morning, I call up Jon Landau -- or as I refer to him, "the American Paul McGuinness" -- and I say, "Did you see that iPod thing?" And he says, "Yes." And he says, "And I hear they didn't take any money." And I said, "They didn't take any money?!" And he says, "No." I said, "Smart, wily Irish guys." Anybody...anybody...can do an ad and take the money. But to do the ad and not take the money...that's smart. That's wily. I say, "Jon, I want you to call up Bill Gates or whoever is behind this thing and float this: A red, white, and blue iPod signed by Bruce "the Boss" Springsteen. Now remember, no matter how much money he offers, don't take it!"

At any any rate, after that evening, for the next month or so, I hear emanating from my lovely 14-year-old son's room, day after day, down the hall calling out in a voice that has recently dropped very low: Uno, dos, tres, catorce. The correct math for rock and roll. Thank you, boys.

This band...this band has carried their faith in the great inspirational and resurrective power of rock and roll. It never faltered, only a little bit. They believed in themselves, but more importantly, they believed in you, too. Thank you Bono, the Edge, Adam, and Larry. Please welcome U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Hancock: The reluctant superhero movie which got mistaken for a movie about a reluctant superhero

This summer, with everyone busy raving about Dark Knight, not many realized that there was another superhero movie with comparable depth, originality and poignance in theatres at the same time. That movie was Hancock, and it made its millions by confusing viewers into believing that they were going to see a bona-fide summer action movie, with Will Smith doing his charm thing. What they got was a strange amalgam of big-budget blockbuster and low-budget character study, mixing scenes of crude humour and hard-won redemption, without bothering to make it look seamless. Hancock was, to say the least, an unsettling experience.

The first thing that stands out is the genuine hurt in Smith’s eyes, a change from his normal confident twinkle, and an indication that he may have approached this a lot more seriously than is evident. In the trailer, the scene where the PR agent calls a press conference and gives Hancock cards to read out is cleverly cut and presented as an emphatic, heartfelt moment; in the movie we notice the flat monotone in which the lines are delivered, and realise that 'You deserve better from me, I will do better" is a con, he’s past caring. He is taken to jail for destruction of property, and opts to stay in, even though he could break out anytime he wants. Finally the police call him for help, and he gets a new look, a new attitude, and a new suit. But just when redemption seems at hand and the audience settles down for some good-old-multi-million-dollar-digitally-enhanced-fun, the movie turns again.

The central twist in the tale is a masterful setting up and subsequent defying of audience expectations. We see the tension between Smith and Theron build in a series of impossibly close-shot, ridiculously tense shots, shading what would normally have been very normal scenes. Just when you think the filmmaker is going to hand the very sexy Charlize Theron the job of romantic foil to the uncharacteristically (and deliberately) uncharismatic Smith, he introduces a twist rife with apparent comic potential, and uses it instead for tragic effect. What follow are scenes of unexpected violence, which again deny the audience the simple pleasures (if they still exist beyond the realm of stupefying cliché) of a Hollywood action movie and bring the story to a jarring end. I know this may not be the best way to persuade people to see this movie. I can only say that this movie has been lingering in my mind (this despite my being blown away by Dark Knight that same evening) and still sits there today, obstinate and refusing to submit to audience expectations without a fight.