50 greatest music films ever

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Forest Whitaker in 'Bird'


10

Bird

(Clint Eastwood, 1988)Only a few minutes of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker in performance survive on film but, right from the opening scenes of Eastwood’s labour of love, it’s clear he has an absolutely firm grasp on the man, his music and their place in the world. The film was woefully underrated on its release but now, perhaps, when ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and the Iwo Jima diptych have accustomed folks to the director’s very special brand of dark visuals, non-linear storytelling and overall understatement, this biopic will be seen as the masterpiece it always was.For one thing, there are the entirely spot-on performances, particularly from Forest Whitaker as the driven, inventive and utterly unreliable bebop maestro, and Diane Venora as Chan, who puts up with his drug- and drink-fuelled betrayals thanks to her love and understanding of his art. Then there’s Eastwood’s unusually forthright fidelity to the music itself; in the end, Parker’s beautiful, inspired blowing is wisely allowed to tell much of the story, the surest index of its mercurial creator's talent, pain, pleasures and character.Wherein lies the core of the film’s particular greatness. This is that rare thing: an uncompromisingly honest account of creativity that never constrains itself to the clichés that usually define portraits of troubled genius. Eastwood and scriptwriter Joel Oliansky are as upfront about Bird’s damaged and damaging characteristics as they are about his strengths and virtues. Spike Lee criticised Eastwood for concentrating on a ‘negative’ black figure, but one need only check out his own take on the jazz life – in ‘Mo’ Better Blues’ – to realise that honesty is the best policy.For ‘Bird’ is also, as Brian Case’s TO review made clear at the time, the American movie that ‘at last has done black music proud’. Besides respecting the jazz itself, Eastwood shows how it emerged from and related to a society of appalling injustices and inequalities. Without preaching or lapsing into explicit overemphasis, he reveals the racist assumptions permeating the world in which Parker, Chan and their friends and colleagues lived, worked and played. Like Bird, Eastwood knows one needn’t always shout to make oneself heard. Geoff AndrewGreatest hit The long, bluesy montage of the Deep South tour.What Time Out critics have said about the film

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Portraits: Jagger, Richards

9

Cocksucker Blues

(Robert Frank, 1972)Choosing sometime Jack Kerouac associate and legendary photographer Robert Frank to document the Rolling Stones’ first post-Altamont US tour hardly guaranteed a rosy picture. Raw and sweaty concert footage aside, it’s a grim portrait, as boredom on the road breaks down into drugs, groupies and TV trashing. Significantly, the band have yet to sanction an official release. Trevor JohnstonGreatest hit ‘Why'd you film it?’ asks a groupie who’s just shot up on camera. Robert Frank, off-screen: ‘It just happened’.What Time Out critics have said about the film

8

Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould

(François Girard, 1993)We’re not short of strong documentaries about the great classical pianists. The Maysles Brothers’ delightful ‘Vladimir Horowitz: The Last Romantic’ capturing a true legend playing at home to his absolute dragon of a missus is one case, as indeed is music specialist Bruno Monsaingeon’s elegiac study ‘Richter: The Enigma’. Monsaingeon was also a close collaborator with brilliant iconoclast Glenn Gould, the prodigiously gifted Canadian pianist who gave up the concert stage to concentrate on the electronic media of records, radio and TV; yet his Gould projects have undoubtedly been overshadowed by what’s surely among the most inventive musical biopics ever committed to celluloid, French-Canadian François Girard’s brilliant 1993 offering ‘Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould’.What’s so distinctive about this multi-faceted hybrid of drama and documentary is that we never once see its subject tickling the ivories. You have to wait until after the end credits to see so much as a picture of Gould himself, though you do get to hear his frequently jaw-dropping records on the soundtrack, and actor Colm Feore does an uncanny job of capturing his distinctive speech patterns. Instead, the thesis is that Gould’s singular genius is simply unknowable on an emotional level, so we’re given a series of different outside views allowing us to put together our own mosaic of the man. Why 32 short films? To replicate the structure of Gould’s signature piece, his alpha and omega, Bach’s‘The Goldberg Variations’ – different versions of which launched his career in 1955 and unexpectedly closed it in 1981, a year before he succumbed to a stroke at the age of 50.The joy is that you never quite know what’s coming next, whether it’s a glimpse of the childhood prodigy doing his 87 times tables, the post- ‘retirement’ Gould making music in his own mind from intermingled voices overheard at a truckstop diner, abstract animation, or recollections from real people who knew him. It could have been chaos, yet it’s structured with such intelligent flair that even newcomers to the Gouldian universe can trace the outline of a maverick life and get a real feel for what made this polymath eccentric infuriatingly special. Trevor JohnstonGreatest hit Feore’s Gould in the studio, lost in music as he conducts to the playback of a Bach performance.What Time Out critics have said about the film

7

Be Here to Love Me

(Margaret Brown, 2004)‘I think my life will run out before my work does,’ Townes Van Zandt once said. ‘I designed it that way.’ Van Zandt is one of those men who, because he was a profoundly talented singer-songwriter rather than, say, a bus driver, managed most of the time to pass himself off as merely ‘troubled’. But it was much worse than that, as Margaret Brown’s superb film gently illustrates. He finally ran out of road on the first day of 1997 at the age of 52, after a series of deeper and deeper rock bottoms and decades of heroin and alcohol abuse. This isn’t an ordinary clips-and-quips documentary. There is no omniscient narrative voice: instead, the story is pieced together using songs, interview audio, still photos and old camcorder footage; wise, worldly eulogies from Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris; and the painful recollections of friends, ex-wives and children. Van Zandt appears throughout, arguing at one point that not all his songs are sad. ‘A few of them are hopeless,’ he grins. He juggles a bottle of bourbon, a can of Coke and a shotgun; he admits he goes through clinical ‘heart death’ once or twice or month; he goes on a bender with ‘Jimmy the Indian in a pick-up truck’; he sniffs glue through his socks so often that they eventually ‘take his socks away’. A handsome, intelligent Texan, by the end he looks for all the world like a scarecrow with a hole in the middle that his eyes – and his songs – make achingly explicit. When you learn that all his childhood memories were erased by the shock treatment he underwent as a teenager, something inescapable and defining slots into place. The pervading mood is one of unbreachable sadness, but Brown doesn’t revel in it. Instead, this beautifully underplayed film allows the story to unfold with mystery and humour, much in the manner of Van Zandt’s most famous song ‘Pancho And Lefty’. ‘Be Here to Love Me’ serves a useful double purpose: it’s a compelling introduction to the work of a man who never received due acclaim while alive. And it measures out, in unsparing detail, the price paid for pursuing a dream. Graeme Thomson
Greatest hit
Turning up in a wheelchair for a session with Sonic Youth after suffering a seizure.What Time Out critics have said about the film

6

Monterey Pop

(DA Pennebaker, 1968)The first great rock festival film, and still one of the best, DA Pennebaker’s doc captured for all time the warm, breezy spirit of the all-too-brief summer of love, along with a plethora of top-notch performances from an epochal line-up. Hard to select highlights, but they include Jefferson Airplane (albeit with confusion from the camera crew, which included Leacock and Albert Maysles, as to who’s singing ‘Today’), Otis Redding, The Mamas And The Papas and, very memorably, Hendrix. The laurels, however, are stolen by Ravi Shankar, whose closing 20-minute raga rightly wins an ecstatic ovation from the legendarily star-studded audience. Geoff AndrewGreatest hit Ravi Shankar and his tabla-player just getting faster, and faster, and faster, provoking shrieks of disbelief from a wowed crowd.What Time Out critics have said about the filmTop 50 index | 50-41 | 40-31 | 30-21 | 20-11 | 10-6 | 5-1

Author: Dave Calhoun. Written by Derek Adams, Geoff Andrew, Dave Calhoun, Wally Hammond, Michael Hodges, Martin Horsfield, Martin Hoyle, David Jenkins, Trevor Johnston, Eddy Lawrence, Sharon O'Connell, Chris Parkin, Graeme Thomson, Peter Watts

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