BBC’s Arena celebrates one of the great modern film makers.

Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell's Performance.

Mick Jagger in Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s Performance.

Nicolas Roeg has only made 13 films in total, but the first seven of them makes up one of the most important bodies of work in European cinema.

He began in the camera department, and by the 1960s he was the cinematographer on some of Britain’s most iconic films, working on Lawrence of Arabia, Far From the Madding Crowd and Doctor Zhivago, though he remained un-credited on that last one after a falling out with David Lean.

Then in 1970 he made his directorial debut Performance, which, unusually for a British film, he directed together with Donald Cammell. Roeg concentrated on the look of the film, and Cammell worked with the actors and on the script. The gifted but troubled Cammell then made Demon Seed in 77, but when the studio mangled their cut of his Wild Side in 1995, he committed suicide.

Julie Christy in Don't Look Now.

Julie Christy in Don’t Look Now.

Although the world of Performance is very much the one that Cammell inhabited, with its heady mix of the Mayfair set and gangster London, it looks and feels like a Roeg film. And the casting of Mick Jagger in one of the leads would be followed subsequently by Roeg with David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing.

Walkabout, his first film proper, was next in ’71. A startlingly original take on the clash of civilizations as a white boy and girl are left to fend for themselves in the Australian outback after being abandoned there. But it was Don’t Look Now in ‘73 that really caught the world’s attention.

Donald Sutherland and Julie Christy are in Venice trying to come to terms with the death of their child. The film unfolds with an elliptical, almost casually poetic moulding of time, and it is this more than anything that characterizes Roeg’s work.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

David Bowie as The Man Who Fell To Earth.

This strikingly lateral, almost anti linear sense of time, and one of the most memorable and grown up sex scenes in modern cinema woke the world up to a serious European film maker.

The Man Who Fell To Earth followed in ‘76, Bad Timing in ‘80, Eureka in ‘83 and then Insignificance in ‘85. All are criminally over-looked. They each manage to be dazzlingly original in their look and feel as they tackle existential themes with a deft lightness of touch. Intellectual depth explored with visual brilliance, panache and originality, so that form and content perfectly merge.

Teresa Russell in the criminally overlooked Insignificance.

Teresa Russell in the criminally overlooked Insignificance.

If you’ve yet to see any of them, lucky you, it’s all ahead of you.

Castaway was something of a damp squib in 86, but Track 29 in 88, scripted by Denis Potter was a return to form. But his film of Roald Dahl’s The Witches in 90 was another mild disappointment, falling somewhere in between a children’s and a grown up’s film.

And that alas is pretty much it. There have been three films since, but they are hardly worth mentioning in the context of what had come before. And ever since, Roeg has been talking to various producers and financiers about making a comeback. So the Arena profile, aptly titled It’s About Time on BBC4 was something of a mixed blessing.

Gene Hackman in Eureka.

Gene Hackman in Eureka.

On the one hand, it was finally some sort of recognition for, arguably, the most important, and certainly the most original film maker that Britain has ever produced. On the other, if felt like an admission of defeat as far as any future projects are concerned.

Watch the Arena profile. And then treat yourselves to one of those first seven films of his.

Rather like David Bowie’s six albums between Young Americans and Scary Monsters, those first seven films of Roeg’s manage to be at once extraordinarily varied and yet visibly, distinctly crafted by the same brilliant hand.

In the meantime, here’s the trailer  for Don’t Look Now. And this by the way is how you cut a trailer. Every studio head in Hollywood should be forced to watch this at least once a week.

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Bowie as ever bucks the trend.

David Bowie "Nothing Has Changed".

Double-vinyle edition.

Like Reader’s Digest and tinned spaghetti, greatest hits albums are a cultural affront. By taking the original out of its context, and reducing and re-packaging it with such shameless cynicism, you hopelessly devalue it whilst insulting the intelligence of those you are trying to appeal to.

Invariably, they’re something the record label releases behind your back, and as such, most artists want nothing to do with them. As ever and as usual, David Bowie appears to be the exception to this.

Something about the man seems to give everything he does an irresistible sheen. And of late, he’s pulled off the remarkable feat of making even his money making schemes look chic. After he issued his Bowie Bonds in 1997 for a cool 55 million pounds Sterling, and whenever another ad appears propped up by one more of his (albeit re-mastered) tracks, we all applaud, impressed.

The triple cd and the one to get.

The triple cd and the one to get.

Instead of lamenting that one of the giants has joined the great unwashed to spend what remains of his precious time in pointlessly dredging through his back catalogue to needlessly generate yet more un-necessary money. We congratulate him on treating the monetization of his back catalogue with as much imagination as he would the creation of a new album.

And now he’s pulled off the same feat with (another) greatest hits collection, Nothing Has Changed.

Perhaps it’s just that when an artist does take a personal interest in a greatest hits album, we’re so unused to it that it feels like they’ve called around to our house to talk us through it personally.

The fact of the matter is, the tweaks that he has made to this one probably amounted to no more than a one line email dictated to one of his assistants.

Yet there’s no getting away from it. Nothing Has Changed feels like Bowie has personally overseen it. And as such, it feels so much more substantial than a conventional collection. Once again, and as ever, we’re impressed.

The 2-cd edition.

The 2-cd edition.

There are three different versions, each (again) with their own bespoke cover art. And, as noted by the boys from Pitchfork who give it an 8.8 here, you can ignore the two more conventional double albums, and go straight for the impressively dynamic triple cd version.

It sounds like only a small thing, but going through his career as it does in reverse order is inspired. Instead of wearing out the first cd, returning to the second, and only occasionally dipping into the third, you listen with rapt attention to all three as it builds and builds.

It’s not that there’s been nothing of worth since 1990. But truth be told, the gems have gotten fewer and further between. So the fact that a number of the more recent tracks have been given a re-mix helps to bolster the earlier (ie chronologically later) tracks.

But even here, you sense his personal presence. When James Murphy references Ashes to Ashes in his Love is Lost, and then the Pet Shop Boys give Space Oddity a nod on their Hello Spaceboy it’s impossible not to imagine the great man standing behind them at the mixing desk, overseeing matters.

In the midst of those 5 extraordinary years.

In the midst of those 5 extraordinary years.

But what really makes the whole thing so captivating is the confirmation that Bowie has a Mozart-esqe ability to churn out impossibly memorable melodies at the drop of one of his many hats. What this means is, that he is at once an albums artist, and a singles artist.

On the one hand, there’s the Bowie who made, arguably, the most impressive and outrageously diverse 6 albums ever produced, over a six year period between 1975 and 1980, beginning with Young Americans and culminating with Scary Monsters.

From total immersion in Philly soul, to the forefront of the electronic avant-garde, and on into the second wave of punk. And all just two years after being the newly crowned king of glam rock.

And yet at the same time and during all of which, he can produce a never-ending string of outrageously hummable tunes that pull unashamedly at the heart strings. From Life On Mars and Drive-in Saturday in the early 70s to Everyone Says Hi in 2002 and Where Are We Now? from last year’s otherwise (whisper it) hugely disappointing The Next Day.

It’s this combination of artistic ambition, and an ear for the perfect melody that makes Bowie so beguiling, and keeps us all so consistently impressed. And that’s what raises this collection up so thrillingly.

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Brian Eno teams up with Underworld’s Karl Hyde for “Someday World”.

Eno, left in  Roxy Music.

Eno (left) with Bryan Ferry (centre) in Roxy Music.

In 1979, Brian Eno sat down with a can of fizzy pop and a packet of Hula Hoops to idly watch an episode of Mork and Mindy. It was the last uncreative thing he ever did. Since then, he’s been forever doing something.

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts.

After leaving Roxy Music and inventing ambient music, he worked on Bowie’s seminal Berlin trilogy, produced three of Talking Heads’ best albums, all of the best U2 albums, and pioneered sampling with David Byrne with My Life in The Bush Of Ghosts back in 1981.

He’s worked on soundtracks, installations and albums with Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, Daniel Lanois, Robert Fripp, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wyatt and James Blake, as well as Dido, Coldplay and Microsoft. Despite the fact that he only works on a Mac.

In other words, he’s both intimidatingly prolific, and consciously catholic in his choice of collaborators. His last two albums are happily more of the same.

His latest offering is Someday World, which he produced with Underworld’s Karl Hyde. It’s an infectiously upbeat, anthemic album that will provide the perfect backdrop for your next trip in a car or on a train. But truth be told, even though it’s a little bit better than the 6.2 it gets from Pitchfork  here, it is just a little underwhelming.

Bowie, Bono and Eno in '02.

Bowie, Bono and Eno in ’02.

Much more satisfying is his 2012 offering, Lux. Harking back to his earlier, purely ambient work such as Music for Airports in 1978, or Apollo, the piece he did with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois in 1983, Lux as its title suggests is both calm and intimate, yet warm and expansive. Somehow, even monumental.

It is yet another remarkable addition to a staggering back catalogue. You can hear a sample from Lux here.

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Janelle Monae’s New Album Razzle Dazzles.

Electric Lady.

The Electric Lady.

The Electric Lady is the much awaited follow-up to Janelle Monae’s debut The Archandroid from 2010. Like its predecessor, it’s not so much a concept album, as it is one that inhabits a musical landscape in much the same way that Bowie planted himself in the world of Ziggy Stardust.

If anything, this is an even more impressive affair than her debut. Not unlike Bowie, despite borrowing and imbibing voraciously from any number of different sources, what she ends up producing somehow manages to have a remarkable musical coherence.

Bowie as Ziggy.

Bowie as Ziggy.

There are echoes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, oodles of Sly and The Family Stone, and a hint of Booby Womack. But most of all, the album nods, genuflects and embraces the figure of Prince.

Correctly – and significantly – the album kicks off with a duet with him. Before subsequent tracks see her joined by Erykah Badu, Solange, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding as she fuses and melds jazz, funk, soul and RnB with hiphop. And all of it drowned in her sumptuous melodies and soaring vocals.

“Categorize me, I defy every label.” Q.U.E.E.N.

The boys from Pitchfork gave it an 8.3 here. If it doesn’t make your end of year top 5 list, I shall eat an item of clothing of your choice. You can see the official video for Q.U.E.E.N. here.

Skip the opening 50 seconds and head for the song proper. And you can hear the sensational title track Electric Lady  here.

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