“American Epic” watch, listen and marvel

American Epic

American Epic is an extraordinary window on to the roots from which American music sprang. And it provides therefore the key to understanding all subsequent genres that popular music went on to spawn throughout the course of the 20thcentury. Essentially, it’s in two parts.

The first, American Epic, is the three part documentary series produced by BBC4’s Arena, and the 5 cd box set that that produced. The second is The American Epic Sessions, which is a documentary feature (effectively episode 4 of the series), and the two cd box set that that generated.

Jack White and The American Epic Sessions.

The whole project revolves around the technological revolutions that were going on in sound at the beginning of the 20thcentury, and the cultural waves that those ripples produced. For the first couple of decades, the music industry had been an exclusively middle class enterprise. Phonograph recordings were manufactured so that opera arias, classical music and Broadway show tunes could be played in well to do homes.

But the invention of radio in the 1920s seemed to have dealt a fatal blow to that nascent industry. Anybody with electricity could listen to any amount of music, all day long. So, in desperation, the recording industry sent scouts out into rural America to record the sorts of music that people without electricity – and therefore a radio – would be interested in listening to on their hand-cranked phonographs. 

Charley Patton.

They then went back to headquarters with these stacks of discoveries to fuel the most powerful medium of the day, radio, with the same thing that all media are always in search of; content.

What this did, crucially, was to connect the urban radio listeners and the industry that served them, with an entire country of rural communities that had, up until then, existed in effective isolation. 

In many ways, it was the field recordings that came out of the 1920s that moulded and created a United States of America. And it was these recordings that laid the foundation for what would become the blues, country, bluegrass, soul, RnB, gospel, rock n roll, hip hop and each and every conceivable kind of pop.

The second part, The American Epic Sessions, focuses on the technology that made all of this possible. In 1925, Western Electric made a portable recording apparatus that could be powered by battery. Scouts were quickly sent out to scour the country to record anyone who had a song to sing and wanted to have it memorialised on wax. 

Lead Belly.

Overnight, a host of nationwide stars were born. The Carter family, the Memphis Jug Band (because they used jugs in place of the instruments they couldn’t afford), Charley Patton, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, Lead Belly, Jimmie Rodgers and Robert Johnson to name but a paltry few.

Depressingly, the US government melted down the vast majority of these 78s in the course of their second WW effort. The shellac that records were made from before the advent of vinyl was needed for the production of camouflage paint. So by the time the folk revival kicked in in the 60s with its celebration of all things Americana, incredibly few 78s were left in existence. And none of Western Electric’s recording pieces had been preserved for posterity.

The Cater sisters.

Until now. Because over the last couple of decades, sound engineer Nick Bergh has managed to get his hands on the individual bits and pieces that the apparatus was made of, to painstakingly reconstruct a single, functioning recording piece. 

And he and programme maker Bernard McMahon decided that the best way to re-master all the original recordings that go to make up American Epic, was to invite current performers to record a song on wax, using the original, recreated Western Electric recording apparatus. That way, they would all gain an unrivalled understanding of exactly how it had functioned. 

So Alabama Shakes, Elton John, Taj Mahal, Nas, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Raphael Saadiq, Rhiannon Giddens, Los Lobos and Ashley Monroe got together with producers Jack White and T Bone Burnett to record an album, which they documented on film. 

Monroe by the way penned one of my favourite lyrics, with her autobiographical Like A Rose, which she wrote with none other than Guy Clark.Ran off with whatshisname when I turned eighteen…” which is quite simply the perfect kiss-off.

Rhiannon Giddens.

Documentary wise, the 3 episode American Epic is the one to watch. The Sessions is basically an added bonus. Conversely, musically speaking, unless you’re an aficionado, you should go for the 2 disc American Epic Sessions, rather than the 5 disc American Epic box set. As the former is that bit more expansive, made up as it is of original as well as traditional songs. Obviously though, if you can, watch and get both.

Taken together, the whole enterprise is nothing short of monumental.

Watch Los Lobos here

And Alabama Shakes here

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

HBO’s Our Boys

Our Boys is the sort of thing many people will feel they ought to try and see, rather than something that they actually want to watch. Well, I’m happy to report, though perfectly understandable given its subject matter, that reticence is entirely unwarranted.

Co-created by the Israeli showrunner Hagai Levi, who’d previously made In Treatment, and the Palestinian writer, Tawfik Abu-Wael, Our Boys was picked up and shown on HBO, and was met by almost universal acclaim.

Predictably, hardliners on either side of the Israeli Arab divide were equally furious, offended and outraged. Which, needless to say, strongly suggests the show hits absolutely the right note.

The story that the drama depicts takes place at a very specific moment in time. Three Jewish boys have been kidnapped and murdered by Palestinians, but Our Boys begins in the immediate aftermath of that horrific event. 

In other words, it doesn’t focus on the deaths of the three Israelis, but on the kidnapping, killing and burning of the Palestinian boy that a trio of fanatical Israelis take their revenge on.

Our Boys.

What’s so gripping and endlessly fascinating about the show is the way it delineates each of the layers that sub-divide both sets of communities. Giving each and every faction its own weight, and its characters a chance to explain themselves from their points of view.

Despite focusing on two very narrow tracts of land on either side of what is effectively the current boarder, each community is endlessly split within its own walls. So there is the divide amongst the “settlers”, between the Ashkenazim and the Mizrahim. 

And then between the more, and the less pious, in both of those groups. And, amongst that former group, between those who are more peaceably inclined, and those who feel that enough is enough, and an eye demands an eye, as the bible clearly states.

Gabriel Byrne in HBO’s remake of In Treatment.

Likewise, amongst the Palestinians, the boy’s father wants to press the Israeli police for justice and attend the court proceedings that follow, once the perpetrators have been apprehended. But all that does, he is angrily told, is to acknowledge the Israeli’s right to jurisdiction over them, and to absolve them of the continued and perpetual mistreatment that the Palestinian people are forever the subject of at their hands.

What’s so depressing, and of course so familiar for anyone who’s ever spent any time north of Dundalk, is that, despite all these subtle and nuanced distinctions, absolutely every discussion, conversation, argument and fight ends up being about one thing. Either you’re with us, or you’re with them. Which is as true for the Israelis as it is for the Palestinians.

Ultimately, the show triumphs by refusing not merely to take sides, but to in any way judge. The result is a series that is continually illuminating and endlessly gripping.

You can see the trailer to HBO’s Our Boys here. And you can read the slightly longer appraisal in Harretz, the admittedly liberal (in the context of Israeli politics) journal here

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

HBO’s triumphant Watchmen: cinema V television

Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen.

First things first; Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen is something to behold. It’s Back to the Future directed by Lars von Trier on a particularly good day, and scripted by Dennis Potter. Except it’s been fused in a parallel universe on the other side of the looking glass, so that race and gender have been reversed.

We’ll come to that in a bit. But to begin with, how has this succeeded where so many others have failed?

Scosese’s Raging Bull.

As has been well documented, two fundamental changes have taken place across the media landscape over the last couple of decades. On the one hand, we’re in the midst of a proverbial golden age of television. And on the other, the world of cinema has become completely polarised. 

Superficially speaking, that polarisation has always been there. 20thcentury cinema was made up of Hollywood films, and independent films. But those two canvases produced a wide variety of different kinds of films. Hollywood could mean Double Indemnity, The Godfather or Raging Bull. Independent could give you The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Amélie, Babette’s Feast or Prospero’s Books.

Amelie.

It’s impossible to imagine any of those being made today with the aim of screening them primarily at the cinema. Because there are only two kinds of films that you’ll find in the cinema today; franchise products, and really low budget, genuinely independent fare.

That’s what Scorsese was complaining about in those series of interviews that he gave towards the end of the year just gone, and which culminated with that op ed piece in the New York Times, here.

He can’t connect, he says, with any of those superhero movies, because there’s nothing at stake. How could there be? They’re superheroes. And none of the people making those movies have the room to take any kind of risks. Because there’s just too much money involved in the franchises they fuel. Which is why, if you’re an adult hungry to explore grown up themes and ideas, it’s to television that you today turn to. And not, alas, cinema.

So what would be the biggest risk when exploring the comic book landscape?

The Wachowskis V for Vendetta.

Ignoring the super of your heroes and viewing them instead as grown ups dressed in masks. If they don’t have their superpowers, then there’s no need for all that green screen nonsense. And when you don’t have that to fall back on, you’re forced to explore instead the relationships between your various characters, and how they fit in in the world in which they find themselves. What would drive an articulate, intelligent person to put on a mask and fight crime?

That was why V for Vendetta worked so powerfully, and it’s why Lindelof’s Watchmen is such a triumph. The DC universe of masked crime fighters allows him, and the Wachowski siblings before him, to explore individuals whose time is out of joint and who feel cursed to set it right. Not because they’ve been arbitrarily gifted with some nebulous super power. But because they can do no other.

And what, if you are a 21stcentury American, are the two most pressing personal and societal issues? Race and gender. So here we are in Watchmen, presented with a cast (and crew) who are predominantly black, and female. And older.

Lindelof’s The Leftovers.

Interestingly, both V and Watchmen originated with the perennially grumpy Alan Moore, who, predictably, has disowned them both. I tried reading (is that what one does with a graphic novel?) his Watchmen, and I have to confess it sailed serenely over my head. I just found it flat, and static, and all too black and white.

Lindelof’s Watchmen is so much more dynamic. And relevant. 

You can see the trailer for Watchmen here.

And if you haven’t already, you should watch Lindelof’s The Leftovers, which I reviewed earlier, here.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

HBO’s Chernobyl.

Chernobyl.

So, who wants to watch that new series on Chernobyl”, has to be pretty much the least enticing invitation imaginable. And yet, remarkably, HBO’s Chernobyl is comfortably the most exciting and the most brilliantly realised television series of the last four or five years. 

On one level, this oughtn’t to have been a surprise. We all know, at least in theory, that stories have nothing to do with their unadorned content, and depend entirely for their success on how they are told. The base material is irrelevant, what matters is how they are moulded into being.

Mad Men.

After all, who wants to watch a series in which the police department of a nondescript, US city tries to deal with its inner city drug problem, and all the social issues that that creates? Or one about a bunch of privileged, white, mostly unpleasant marketing professionals, worried about what to spend their inflated salaries on, and who next to be unfaithful with, at the turn of the 1960s? And yet.

Nevertheless, the prospect of spending five, hour-long episodes watching the Soviet Union dealing poorly with the accident at one of its nuclear power plants in Ukraine, in 1986, was an especially unappealing one. How wrong I was.

Jared Harris in Chernobyl.

The first mistake was to assume that I knew what the story had been. Like, I imagine, the vast majority of people, I actually knew next to nothing about what had actually happened at Chernobyl. And the first thing to say is that Chernobyl is meticulously, indeed exhaustively researched. Because of which, it constantly surprises. 

But even more impressive is how cinematic it is. There is a visual confidence and ambition to the directing that matches the tension and drama created by the script. So that episodes frequently nod to some of the genres that have most successfully populated our screens of late, like the zombie flick and horror in general. 

The eerily deserted streets of Pripyat.

But when you see the eerily deserted city streets in episode 2, it’s rendered genuinely unnerving because you know that this is not some genre piece. This is what actually happened to the city of Pripyat. Its 50,000 inhabitants were forcibly evacuated in less than two days. And that creature in the bed is not some fiendish ghoul or invading extra terrestrial, it’s a human being in the later stages of extreme radiation sickness. 

There are a constant stream of wonderfully subtle, visual flourishes. As we leave on one of the myriad buses that are transporting the people of Pripyat to God knows where, a dog bounds down the street behind us. Someone’s family pet is trying forlornly to join them and jump on board. 

That nondescript US city police department show.

As – the excellent – Jared Harris steps up to give his evidence at the trial that the series culminates with, the camera drunkenly tilts in slo mo. Partially, this is because his own radiation sickness has begun to kick in, and partially this is a reflection of his nervousness at the prospect of having to give evidence at a Soviet show trial. But they refrain from lingering on this tricksiness, and they quickly move on to the evidence itself. 

Nothing is overdone, and everything is exactly as it should be, which is what makes it such a triumph. And its director, Johan Renck, and writer, Craig Mazin, are names to be watched. 

You can see the trailer for Chernobyl here

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very Best and Worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Catch 22, perfectly pretty candyfloss.

Catch 22.

Catch 22 is the new George Clooney project and the latest attempt to transfer Joseph Heller’s acclaimed novel to the screen. Like the Handmaid’s Tale, it’s a co-production between Hulu and Paramount and is clearly an attempt to replicate that show’s success. 

Unfortunately, it’s precisely when compared to something like the Handmaid’s Tale (reviewed by me earlier here) that the core problem with Catch 22 becomes obvious.

Margaret Atwood’s futuristic depiction of a dystopian society, which she published in 1985, was rendered terrifyingly prescient after the election of you know who, in 2016. In contrast, Heller’s novel, which he published in 1961, clearly comes from another century.

The Handmaid’s Tale.

For thousands of years, the world was divided into two groups; peasants, and the aristocracy. But the turn of the twentieth century ushered in an age of meritocracy. And in this world, you were either an ordinary (and still probably manual) worker, or, you were part of a tiny elite, and one of the very few who had an actual career. 

This latter group was made up of doctors, lawyers, bank managers and anyone lucky enough to be part of the government, the church or the army. These people were unimpeachably honest, trusted and universally revered. 

Hugh Laurie in Catch 22.

So, if you wanted to know if, say, the harvest was likely to be delayed this year, or whether or not the great powers were going to go to war, you would ask one of these august gentlemen (they were all men of course). And whatever they told you, you would take as writ. And you would then plan for the rest of your year accordingly. 

So when Heller’s novel came out in ’61, his depiction of the army was thrillingly subversive and genuinely satirical. The officers in this army were every bit as venal, petty, dim-witted, thin-skinned and self-centred as the ordinary privates forced to carry out their orders and to service their every whim.

Orson Welles in Mike Nichol’s Catch 22.

But by the time Mike Nichols released his film of the novel, a mere nine years later, in 1970, that world had been turned on its head. The sixties had rendered pillars of society, figures of authority and all institutions, especially the army, hopelessly suspicious. 

Now, half a century later, the idea that the army, and of all things, the American army, might once have been respected and even revered, rather than the object of ridicule, seems almost literally unimaginable. 

So when the latest Catch 22 depicts a scene in which an army private on the make tries to sell a truck load of clandestinely acquired tomatoes to his superior, it doesn’t read like a caustic critique of universal values subverted by the pursuit of person profit, and the sacrifice of ideals at the altar to capitalism. It just looks like a young guy selling a slightly older guy a few crates of tomatoes. 

George Clooney in Catch 22.

It all looks sumptuous, and the acting is uniformly superb. And, as wonderful as it is to see Giancarlo Giannini given something grown-up to do, against the backdrop of a pristine and Acadian southern Italy, it lacks any real substance. As Gertrude Stein said so memorably of California, “there’s no there, there “.

You can see the trailer to Catch 22 here

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every month on All the very best and worst in film, television and music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.