Saturday, April 23, 2011

OLD MOVIE NIGHT. Saw a coupla rock docs recently -- Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) and Lemmy -- as well as the Ian Dury bio Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll. I just now noticed the pattern, and that I'd been missing music. Yes, music is all around, but some years back, when I put down the instruments and set to work at the writer's trade, I sort of deafened myself to it -- abandoned my stereo, didn't follow new bands, stopped paying attention. (This is consistent with a psychological quirk of mine best explained by Uncle Tupelo.)

But my time in Texas, where I was surrounded by a less familiar kind of music, must have re-sensitized me; time and solitude have probably done their work too. Now I find myself responding emotionally, even outsizedly, to songs, including crap ballads played in the supermarket. The heart is a garden, I guess, and flowerings come and go with the seasons and conditions of the soil.

The three movie subjects are among my very favorite musicians, but for the most part the movies disappointed me. As I've observed before, biographies don't often ascend to the higher level of art, so we can only hope to have the story of a person's life presented in pleasing dramatic form. The makers of the Dury pic, unfortunately, muck about a lot. For instance, there are semi-animated sequences which are meant, I guess, to mirror Dury's garish style, but still play like misguided efforts to liven up the film for the benefit of video addicts.

There's also a peculiar extension of the movie's focus to Dury's troubled son. The best excuse for this would be that Dury, too, had father-abandonment issues, and these are recreated in his kid. But as is common in the disturbed-genius genre, Dury is shown to have problems with responsibility, and it's mostly left to his loved ones to be understanding and make adjustments; it's not satisfying to show the hero's struggle to be a good father if he doesn't actually change to accomplish it.

Finally and frankly, I didn't rent the movie to see the Baxter Dury story. I wanted to see something of what the great man was about. The best thing about Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll is its believable picture of Dury as a romantic character, a nobleman/shit defiantly dancing his rickety leg to the front of the stage and the Top of the Pops. Andy Serkis pushes the Richard III a bit too hard, but I bought that his brave front bonded people to him, even after they'd seem him snap. The portrayal gets right, too, Dury's vision of sex magic as folk wisdom. But overall I'd have been better off listening to 90 minutes of the real Ian Dury.

The Nilsson and Lemmy docs share some common problems. The pleasure we get from hearing our idols eulogized by famous people is really a cheap kind of pleasure, isn't it -- aimed at our insecurities about our own opinions. I think that's why comedy roasts are so popular -- constantly seeing toffs jerk each other off at banquets and on talk shows offends our better natures so much that it's a real pleasure to hear them insult one another. Still, it's bearable to hear someone like Randy Newman or Van Dyke Parks praise Nilsson, albeit with a remarkable lack of eloquence -- watching Lemmy get his ass kissed by the likes of Dave Navarro and Lars Ulrich is just repulsive, and watching them act out their admiration by playing with him is even worse. (The redeeming feature in Lemmy's case is that he doesn't seem too excited about it.)

Nilsson has the advantage of being dead and thus spared the obligation to play along. The sound and video clips of him are very nice, especially rarities like his demo for Popeye's "Blow Me Down"; the glimpses of his childhood are tasteful and of real interest. Over time, though, I got the dispiriting sense that I was being sold Harry Nilsson. I realize not everyone knows a lot about him, but I don't think even novices would appreciate the film's slightly pushy way of trying to convince you that the guy was a genius with awards and celebrity endorsements.

Lemmy's doc is more gross that way, and also throws in testimonials about his drinking and drugging prowess. But at least the man himself has real dignity. When the filmmakers put him on camera with his late-acknowledged son, Lemmy doesn't seem to pay him much mind -- he's aware of the absurdity of the situation, and that it requires his interest but not his effusions. And if the film can't make anything interesting out of Lemmy's random enthusiasms -- video poker, Nazi paraphernalia -- his attitude makes clear that there's nothing to make of them: He's a simple person who likes things because he likes them. As his songs reveal, Lemmy's a philosopher but not a deep thinker, and the thing he's most serious about is not taking things too seriously. This is refreshing, but it also invites us to ask ourselves why we're watching a movie about him in the first place.

UPDATE. Lots on interesting reflections in comments on music appreciation and the effect of age and disappointment upon it. I've known people all along the spectrum, from early abstainers to guys still crunching away at bands into middle age. How we get where we get with music would make a fascinating study. The caprices of Euterpe are hard to figure, but I understand she responds well to tickling; the bitch goddess Fame is less easily appeased.

No comments:

Post a Comment