Aretha, Otis, The Stones and the Musical Marvel that is Muscle Shoals.

Alicia Keys in "Muscle Shoals".

Ali­cia Keys in “Mus­cle Shoals”.

In 1967 the 25 year old Aretha Franklin was a spent force. She’d been with Colum­bia for over five years and they hadn’t known what to do with her. So in des­per­a­tion she left Colum­bia and signed up with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records.

Wexler sent her down to a Mickey Mouse stu­dio in Hicksville USA at the back end of beyond. He’d fallen in love with the sound he’d stum­bled upon down there. It had a mus­cu­lar depth and a pri­mal res­o­nance that was unlike any­thing he’d ever heard before.

Muscle Shoals.

Mus­cle Shoals.

The first song she cut down there was I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You). Its B side was Do Right Woman. A lit­tle later they recorded her ver­sion of Otis Redding’s Respect. And then (You Make Me Feel) Like a Nat­ural Woman.

Wexler sent the fiery Wil­son Pick­ett down. He arrived incan­des­cent with rage to dis­cover that this Palookav­ille stu­dio was, lit­er­ally, next door to a cot­ton field. What’s more, inside he found five skinny white guys who looked like they’d be more at home behind a bank desk than in a record­ing stu­dio. These were the guys that were sup­posed to be mak­ing that sound! And then they started to play. He recorded Land of 1,00 Dances, Mus­tang Sally and his extra­or­di­nary ver­sion of Hey Jude. He was sold.

"The Swampers", the white guys that made that black sound.

The Swampers”, the white guys that made that black sound.

So was every­body else who arrived there. Otis Red­ding, Etta James, Candy Sta­ton and Clarence Carter. The Stones recorded Wild Horses and Brown Sugar there.

When Wexler encour­aged the rhythm sec­tion to set up a rival stu­dio across the road, far from caus­ing its down­fall, Mus­cle Shoals now had two com­pet­ing stu­dios des­per­ately look­ing for the next hit. And every­body wanted to record there.

Dylan, The Stones, Rod Stew­art, Paul Simon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the All­man Broth­ers, Jimmy Cliff, The Osmonds, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Any Williams, Linda Ron­stadt, Willie Nel­son and more recently George Michael, Band Of Horses, The Drive-By Truck­ers and The Black Keys. And many, many more.

Peter Guralnick's "Sweet Soul Music".

Peter Guralnick’s “Sweet Soul Music”.

Rick Hall was the skinny white kid who set up Fame Stu­dios in Mus­cle Shoals, Alabama in 1963, invit­ing four or five of his white friends in their early twen­ties to come in and record with him. It became a rare racial haven in the heart of the South. And, together with Stax and Atlantic Records, they pro­duced some of the best and most impor­tant Amer­i­can music of the 20th century.

You can read about it in Peter Guranlick’s sem­i­nal Sweet Soul Music (you should read any­thing you can get your hands on by him), which mar­ries social and musi­cal his­tory to per­fec­tion. And you can see and hear about it all in the won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary “Mus­cle Shoals”, which is part of the BBC’s Sto­ryville series. You can see the trailer here.

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s “The Trip To Italy” on BBC2.

Series 1, The Trip.

Series 1, The Trip.

Few peo­ple noticed when The Trip slipped unob­tru­sively onto our screens in 2010. A cou­ple of quite famous come­di­ans are sent off on a brief drive around Eng­land to knock off a cou­ple of celebrity restau­rant reviews. In ret­ro­spect, as an idea, it was pitch perfect.

Super­fi­cially, it pro­vides an excuse for a cou­ple of gen­uinely funny come­di­ans to strut their impres­sions. But beneath that, and much more inter­est­ingly it was a por­trait of two men in the lat­ter stages of their mid­dle age try­ing to get their head around the unbridge­able gap between what were once their hopes and dreams, and what they’ve actu­ally done with their lives.

No longer on the menu alas.

No longer on the menu.

This is made all the more fas­ci­nat­ing by the fact that for many of us watch­ing, what we dream of is end­ing up exactly where they are. On the other side of the screen. They have made it. What was so won­der­fully dark about that first series was its explo­ration of what exactly “it” is, and whether the two in ques­tion really have got there.

The sec­ond series kicked off on Fri­day. Inevitably it wasn’t quite as sharp or as dark as the first. The Trip to Italy is no longer the secret it once was and the bud­get and expec­ta­tions have shot up. So there was a ner­vous­ness to the first episode as it tried just a lit­tle too hard to please.

But at the very end of the episode they both stood there look­ing over at a cou­ple of pretty young girls. They’re not even threat­ened by us, they mused. We’ve become uncle mate­r­ial. What was so impres­sively dark about this, was that it was deliv­ered absolutely straight.

Series 2, now in Italy.

Series 2, now in Italy.

It was com­pletely and gen­uinely free from any sense of irony what­so­ever. And yet at the same time, you just knew with­out in any way hav­ing to be told, that deep down nei­ther of them believed it. When some­body next asks you what you mean by less is more, these two per­for­mances are as good an exam­ple as you’ll have to offer.

Bril­liantly acted and unob­tru­sively directed by Michael Win­ter­bot­tom, series two promises at the very least to be con­sis­tently if gen­tly amus­ing. Hope­fully, nice and qui­etly, it’ll con­tinue to be as bril­liantly dark.

The Trip To Italy is on Fri­day at 10pm on BBC2. Here’s a brief clip.

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Farhadi’s “The Past” Boasts Immaculate Performances from Young and Old.

The Past.

The Past.

Asghar Farhadi is one of the few gen­uinely excit­ing film mak­ers work­ing any­where in the world. The Past is his sixth film and the first he’s made out­side of his native Iran.

After the huge and entirely mer­ited suc­cess of his pre­vi­ous film A Sep­a­ra­tion, reviewed here, The Past was one of the most keenly awaited films at the 2013 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. But it only ended up get­ting the con­so­la­tion prize of Best Actress for Bérénice Bejo. Quite cor­rectly Blue Is The Warmest Colour won the Palm D’Or, and was reviewed here

The good news is, The Past is a lot bet­ter than that would sug­gest. Bejo has asked her estranged hus­band to come back to France to sign the papers on their divorce, with­out fill­ing him in on the details as to why she now needs it.  And over the course of the next few days he and we slowly learn of why it is that Bejo’s teenage daugh­ter is so unhappy with her mother, her new man, and how they came together.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

Blue Is The Warmest Colour.

As with About Elly and A Sep­a­ra­tion, Farhadi’s abil­ity to care­fully tell his story, slowly reveal­ing its metic­u­lously posi­tioned plot points is unri­valled. And all the per­for­mances are out­stand­ing. Bejo, who shot to fame in 2011 in the inex­plic­a­bly lauded The Artist reviewed here, is a rev­e­la­tion. Ali Mossafa is superb as her for­mer hus­band, but most remark­able of all is Alyes Aguis who plays the 5 year old son of her new man.

All three chil­dren – the two chil­dren plus the teenage Lucy – give the kind of extra­or­di­nary per­for­mances that French cin­ema some­how excels at. And The Past is part of that proud tra­di­tion of films from the likes of Fran­cois Truf­faut and Louis Malle which explore the world of adults through the eyes of chil­dren, ren­der­ing their vis­tas all the more mov­ing  because of the per­for­mances they man­age mirac­u­lously to coach from them.

Truffaut's The 400 Blows.

Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

But it would be disin­gen­u­ous to pre­tend that The Past weren’t ever so slightly dis­ap­point­ing. The momen­tum dis­si­pates in in its final quar­ter as the focus shifts from the for­mer hus­band to the new man. And instead of build­ing to some sort of con­clu­sion, it qui­etly comes to a halt.

By any other stan­dards though, this is a must see. Even if in years to come it’ll be looked back at as a minor Farhadi, rather than one of his key works.

You can see the trailer for The Past here.

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BBC4’s “The Walshes” is Mesmerically Unfunny, But Don’t Worry, it’s British.

Irelands' Richard Harris...

Ireland’s Richard Harris…

For many years the best and bright­est from Ire­land enjoyed dual cit­i­zen­ship in Britain. So, after his per­for­mance in say This Sport­ing Life, or A Man Called Horse, Richard Har­ris was referred to in the press there as “British”.

But when the fol­low­ing week he was arrested after yet another drunken brawl in a seedy pub, he was described by the same august organs as Irish.

Decades were spent gnash­ing teeth and cry­ing into innu­mer­able pints curs­ing per­fid­i­ous Albion for its cul­tural rape and pillage.

But times have changed. Money, Sky Sports and Ryanair have all con­tributed to a change in our atti­tude to our friends across the way. And we’ve mostly man­aged to shed the chip that had weighed so heav­ily on our shoulders.

Indeed, recently we’ve been return­ing the com­pli­ment. So Daniel Day Lewis is plainly Irish. And The Wal­shes, like Mrs. Brown’s Boys before it, is clearly British. It has noth­ing to do with us. Seriously.

The Walshes, as the fella said, shit on a stick without the stick.

The Wal­shes, as the fella said; shit on a stick with­out the stick.

On the face of it, it’s made up of exactly the same ingre­di­ents as Father Ted. Stock char­ac­ters in con­trived sce­nar­ios behav­ing in an all too pre­dictable way. One cliché after another.  But the char­ac­ters – and there­fore the per­for­mances – in Father Ted were all really appeal­ing. And it was this that made their sit­u­a­tions comic. None of the char­ac­ters in The Wal­shes are remotely attrac­tive, and many of them are vaguely unpleasant.

There was a split sec­ond, after a scene in which the da sits chuck­ling at an episode of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, when I won­dered if I’d got it all wrong. Maybe it’s meant to be this unfunny. Per­haps this is the most bril­liantly sub­ver­sive sit­com ever made. And they’ve ruth­lessly wrung any­thing that could in any way be con­sid­ered comic, never mind an actual joke, from every sin­gle scene, to bril­liantly decon­struct the very notion of what we under­stand by the term “sitcom”.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the underrated The Age Of Innocence.

The plainly Irish Daniel D in the under­rated The Age Of Inno­cence.

But there’s no get­ting away from how vis­i­bly pleased every­one involved is with what they’ve cre­ated, and how funny they all seem to find it. You can almost hear the guf­faws ema­nat­ing from the set. Which is to put it mildly baffling.

Still, not to worry. Like I say, it has noth­ing to with us. BBC pro­duc­tion. It’s British through and through.

Unless of course… It’s all part of a bril­liantly exe­cuted post mod­ern joke. What do you think?

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Not Even Scarlett Johansson Can Inject Life into “Under The Skin”.

The pulchritudinous Scarlett Johansson.

The pul­chri­tudi­nous Scar­lett Johansson.

Under The Skin has divided crit­ics straight down the mid­dle, with some declaim­ing it a mas­ter­piece, and oth­ers tear­ing their hair out. Which is odd. As it’s pants. Nei­ther remotely inter­est­ing nor in any way offensive.

It’s per­fectly styl­ish, and com­pe­tently shot, as you’d expect from an accom­plished com­mer­cials and music video direc­tor. And Scar­lett Johans­son is as tal­ented as she is allur­ingly volup­tuous, so the whole thing is sig­nif­i­cantly more engag­ing than it has any right to be. But once again we find our­selves back with Gertrude Stein’s famous com­ment on Cal­i­for­nia; there’s no there, there.

All you get are a num­ber of scenes that a beau­ti­ful alien drifts in and out off that sug­gest any num­ber of pos­si­ble narratives.

Nicole Kidman was similarly wasted in "Birth" ('04).

Nicole Kid­man was sim­i­larly wasted in “Birth” (’04).

When you’re mak­ing com­mer­cials or, espe­cially music videos, pre­sent­ing arche­types and sug­gest­ing nar­ra­tives is won­der­fully evoca­tive and end­lessly appeal­ing, as his video for Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out) ably demon­strates here.

But when you’re telling a full story over 90 min­utes or more, merely sug­gest­ing a num­ber of pos­si­ble nar­ra­tives that involve arche­types drawn with big, bold brush­strokes becomes bor­ing, tedious and even­tu­ally irri­tat­ing. As Ben Wheat­ley showed in A Field In Eng­land, reviewed ear­lier here.

This is Glazer’s third fea­ture, after the dis­ap­point­ingly con­ven­tional, bog stan­dard mock­ney gang­ster flick Sexy Beast in 2000, and the icy Birth in 2004. As with the lat­ter, Glazer once again pens the script. And as Michel Gondry and so many oth­ers have demon­strated, if you want to grad­u­ate from com­mer­cials to fea­ture films, you really have to hook your­self up with a proper screen­writer. You need some­one to give a body on which to hang your pretty clothes.

So how do you account for some of the stel­lar reviews Under The Skin has got? What are we to make of what Don­ald Clarke, one of, in fact the only film critic worth read­ing in Ire­land, had to say in the Irish Times here?

Godard declaimed here in his 1967 film' "the critic is as close to the artist as the historian is to the man of action". Godard of course began as a critic on the Cahiers du Cinema.

Godard declaimed here in his 1967 film’ “the critic is as close to the artist as the his­to­rian is to the man of action”. Godard of course began as a critic on the Cahiers du Cinema.

Well, film crit­ics watch films under very spe­cific cir­cum­stances. They go to at least 3 or 4 screen­ings a week, for free obvi­ously, and in the process they inevitably become pally with the dis­trib­u­tors, and often the actors and film mak­ers themselves.

So on the one hand they are much more blasé about the films they see, and on the other they try to find some­thing nice to say about them. The few reli­able film crit­ics, and Clarke is one, spend a great deal of time and effort guard­ing against this. But I respect­fully sug­gest  he’ll be a tad embar­rassed about this review in years to come. If at all he ever thinks about it.

For most peo­ple, watch­ing a film involves a rit­ual and a plea­sur­able amount of time and effort. Whether that means get­ting up and going out to the cin­ema, get­ting your hands on a dvd or going to the trou­ble of down­load­ing it. That invest­ment of time and effort deserves to be rewarded. And any­one that invests 3 or 4 hours of their life in get­ting to and then watch­ing Under The Skin is going to be thor­oughly irri­tated. And some­what surprised.

You can see the trailer for Under The Skin here.

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