Wednesday, January 18, 2017

'La La Land' by Damien Chazelle

18 January 2017

Damien Chazelle’s much praised and garlanded film ‘La La Land’ has been pre-occupying me since we saw it last Saturday. This modern take on the old-fashioned Hollywood musical is beautifully done. It opens with a truly stunning set piece – an infectiously upbeat dance number that had me beaming with delight. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both charming and the film is a loving homage to classic Hollywood musicals, with great music by Justin Hurwitz. And yet … I’m not sure it completely works. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say our natural yearning for the two leads to fall in love is satisfied surprisingly quickly, with the minimum of jeopardy. There is then a lot of film left to go and what little jeopardy there is revolves around the difficulties of maintaining a relationship when faced with the challenges of careers and money. While this is refreshingly realistic and modern it feels too serious a topic for a musical. In trying to make a mature, self-aware film Damien Chazelle has lost some of the comedy of the musical-comedy. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not outstanding singers or dancers but they have clearly worked really hard on their performances and the film showcases their talents very effectively. Ryan Gosling learned to play the piano in three months for the film, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04p6drs?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=thetodayprogramme&ns_source=facebook. Emma Stone’s audition scenes are painfully believable and reminded me of Naomi Watts in David Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ (another film that uses the Los Angeles skyline to great effect). Nevertheless Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone end up giving us neither screwball comedy nor virtuosic song and dance. And ‘La La Land’ relies almost exclusively on its two leads: after the first fifteen minutes there are are hardly any big ensemble numbers. Maybe my expectations had been unrealistically raised by the brilliant reviews but the film felt too long and, after its explosive opening, didn’t seem to know where it wanted to go. Each of the component parts was very high quality but somehow the whole felt less than the sum of those parts. If you’ve seen ‘La La Land’ I would welcome your thoughts on it – and if you haven’t I really hope you get a chance to watch the brilliant opening.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' by Max Landis

12 January 2017

In 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' Douglas Adams broke every one of my rules of detective fiction in a glorious subversion of the genre. I loved the two published Dirk Gently novels and the unfinished third novel (published posthumously in ‘The Salmon of Doubt’, reviewed here in October 2009). There have been three dramatisations of Dirk Gently, with Harry Enfield’s portrayal of the detective in Dirk Maggs’ two BBC Radio 4 serials (reviewed here in October 2007 and October 2008) the closest to the character in the novels. The BBC Four TV version starring Stephen Mangan strangely stripped out the supernatural elements of the stories. The result was gentle and quirky but had nothing like the impact of the original. In the new TV adaptation by Max Landis for BBC America, which I have just started watching on Netflix, Samuel Barnett is nothing like my mental image on Dirk Gently but it really doesn’t seem to matter. Landis has created a completely new plot which takes Gently to Seattle (though there are a couple of nods to his previous cases from the novels). This version of 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' has a very high death count: like Noah Hawley’s splendid ‘Fargo’ TV series many characters you assumed were going to be central to the plot are brutally assassinated before the end of the first episode. The slaughter is simultaneously sickeningly real and somehow hysterically funny – watch through your fingers. Elijah Wood is great as Dirk’s reluctant ‘Dirk Watson’, his eyes permanently wide with stunned bemusement but I think my favourite character is Richard Schiff’s laconic Missing Persons cop Zimmerfield. 'Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency' is incredibly confusing, completely bonkers and entrancing: Douglas Adams would have loved it.

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Friday, January 06, 2017

'Tules Maas Vedes Taivaal' by Tuuletar

6 January 2017

Tuuletar are a young Finnish female a cappella quartet whose music combines Finnish folk traditions with pop, beat-boxing and percussive clapping. Their first album ‘Tules Maas Vedes Taivaal’ is an engaging, varied collection of catchy, cheerful songs. Tuuletar means "goddess of the wind", and the album title promises songs "on fire and earth, in water and air". The all-female harmonies sound a lot like the great Finnish folk/rock band Värttinä (reviewed here in August 2006) but Tuuletar are a younger generation – more pop/folk than folk/rock. Indeed they have invented their own terminology, describing their music as ‘vocal folk hop’. Some of their wordless backing noises reminded me of the album ‘Music Hole’ by the French vocal gymnast Camille Dalmais (reviewed here in May 2008). And the mixture of female close harmony a cappella singing and beatboxing made me think of London-based five-piece The Boxettes (reviewed here in August 2011). Tuuletar’s music is beautiful, funky, modern and distinctly Scandinavian, never taking itself too seriously.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

'The Secret Place' by Tana French

20 December 2016

It was earlier this year that I first discovered Tana French’s superior detective novels featuring the Dublin Murder Squad. Having enjoyed ‘Broken Harbour’ (reviewed here in May 2016) I was looking forward to ‘The Secret Place’, which I have just finished reading as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Stephen Hogan and Lara Hutchinson. Set in an expensive girls’ boarding school outside Dublin, ‘The Secret Place’ is told through the eyes of Detective Stephen Moran who first appeared as a minor character in one of French’s earlier novels ‘Faithful Place’. Although characters recur and there are references to previous cases, each of the Murder Squad novels works as a stand-alone story. ‘The Secret Place’ takes place on a single day as Moran and his new partner Antoinette Conway question girls at the school about the murder of a teenage boy a year ago. In-between chapters narrated by Stephen Moran we also get flashback chapters revealing events leading up to and following the murder, which gradually bring us back to the present day investigation. It’s a beautifully written novel: when the detectives first enter the headmistress’s room Moran notices a “heavy framed oil painting of a nun who was no oil painting”. And when he observes a tension between Conway and the headmistress, who have met before, he notes “history there, or just chemistry”. Said in a different accent these phrases could pass for Raymond Chandler. ‘The Secret Place’ is a meticulous police procedural, cleverly plotted, carefully constructed and exquisitely written. As with ‘Broken Harbour’, alongside the murder mystery the novel is as interested in the new partnership between the two detectives – each weighing the other up as potential long-term colleagues. I’m really looking forward to reading Tana French’s new novel ‘The Trespasser’ which features the same two detectives but shifts the point of view to Antoinette Conway.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Northampton Symphony Orchestra concert

14 December 2016

The annual Northampton Symphony Orchestra ‘Christmas Cracker’ concert always feels like the proper start of Christmas. This year’s Sunday afternoon performance had an animals theme, featuring ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’, ‘The Pink Panther’, ‘The Thievish Magpie’, ‘The Teddy Bears’ Picnic’ and ‘The Flight of the Bumblebee’. We always include a narrated piece  and this year locally based actor and director Dan McGarry gave a splendid debut performance with the orchestra in Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’. As you may know, the French horns portray the wolf in the story but when we played an extract at the start for the young members of the audience to guess which animal we represented, we were slightly perturbed to hear someone shout out “an elephant”! The programme also saw us revisiting two of the British composers we featured in concerts earlier this year, with performances of John Barry’s music from the 1991 film ‘Dances with Wolves’, and the ‘Christmas Overture’ by Nigel Hess. It was a lovely concert – a Christmas Quacker!

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The Blockheads

14 December 2016

Regular readers will know we are fans of The Blockheads (reviewed here in July 2007, December 2012, November 2014 and April 2015 – if you missed it do look up the story of my encounter with Ian Dury). On Friday night we were at the MK11 venue in Kiln Farm, Milton Keynes to renew our acquaintance with this wonderful band. Their show is always much the same but I love the band’s enthusiasm: they all look like they are having a ball. Songwriter Mickey Gallagher – one of the less demonstrative Blockheads – sits quietly at the back of the stage behind his keyboards wearing a cheeky grin throughout the performance, whereas bass player Norman Watt-Roy is in constant movement and must lose pounds of weight at every concert. Reasons to be cheerful!

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Friday, December 09, 2016

London Symphony Orchestra concert - John Adams at 70

8 December 2016

On Thursday I enjoyed a real musical treat – watching the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican celebrating the 70th birthday of the American composer John Adams. Adams conducted pieces by Bartok and Stravinsky, illustrating some of the traditions in which his own very modern musical style is rooted. You could hear distinct echoes of John Adams in both Bartok's folk music-inspired 'Hungarian Sketches' and Stravinsky's eerie evocation of ancient Greece in the music from the ballet 'Orpheus'. But the main attraction was the performance of Adams' latest composition 'Scheherazade.2' - a piece for solo violin and orchestra, premiered in 2015. Adams explained to the audience that, rather than calling the work a concerto, he had taken the idea of a 'dramatic symphony' from Berlioz and had created four movements which follow a rough narrative, telling the story of a modern, feminist Scheherazade who "speaks truth to power".  Instead of charming her captive to avoid death, this Scheherazade stands up to her tormentors, falls in love, defends herself in a trial and flees to sanctuary. The piece was written for the Canadian violinist Leila Josefowicz and it was a privilege to see her perform it, conducted by the composer. Adams described Josefowicz as "the Lisbeth Salander of the violin" and she definitely displayed a punk-like flair, her restless energy causing her to pace back and forth while waiting to play. Her violent playing sometimes seemed to pull her feet across the stage. This was the violinist as rock star, her stance reminding me of the defiant pose of Martha Wainwright (reviewed here in July 2008). Like much of Adams' music, the symphony was incredibly entertaining – complex and quirky but never inaccessible, with some beautifully serene moments. The narrative structure, unusual soundscapes and character soloist reminded me of Jan Sandström's 'Motorbike Concerto' which I saw Christian Lindbergh perform with the Halle Orchestra about 20 years ago (if you don't know it do look it up on YouTube). Thursday's LSO concert was a similarly wonderful experience that will also live long in my memory. You can see John Adams and Leila Josefowicz talking about 'Scheherazade.2' at: https://youtu.be/kN5SEJSqknc.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

John Cooper Clarke and Hugh Cornwell

30 November 2016

Harpo Marx’s autobiography was famously titled ‘Harpo Speaks!’ – a witty play on the one thing you thought you knew about Harpo. (It’s a great book by the way, which taught me much about both croquet and chess.) Saturday’s gig at The Junction in Cambridge might similarly have been billed as ‘John Cooper Clarke Sings!’. The punk poet of Salford (who we saw last year supporting Squeeze – reviewed here in October 2015) has recorded an album of classic rock ‘n’ roll songs (‘This Time It’s Personal’) with Hugh Cornwell (former lead singer of The Stranglers) which they are now touring. I had expected it to be more of a double act but Cornwell, and his excellent band, were clearly backing John Cooper Clarke who was very much the main attraction. His surprisingly strong baritone voice worked well with the punkish interpretation of well-chosen classics including ‘Johnny Remember Me’, ‘Wait Down Yonder in New Orleans’ and ‘It’s Only Make Believe’. And, although, the welcome discovery that John Cooper Clarke really can sing gradually gave way to the realisation that he can’t sing that well, his engaging personality made for a fun evening. He has a very dry sense of humour and a great way with words, dedicating ‘Spanish Harlem’ to that late great ‘Spanianista’, Fidel Castro, and suggesting his version of the Ritchie Valens song ‘Donna’ was being offered as reparations to the Mexican people for the damage done by Marty Wilde’s interpretation. And his rendition of ‘MacArthur Park’ (made famous by that other non-singer, Richard Harris) was a highlight of the evening, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZBH-ArhhyY.

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