Tag Archives: music

Why I thought Prince was The Joker

1partyfingerWhen I was eight years old, I thought Prince was The Joker.

Allow me to explain this childhood delusion: The year was 1989. Tim Burton’s glorious and groundbreaking Batman movie was yet to hit our VHS libraries, and this was a time before teaser trailers and trailers teasing teaser trailers. All we had to go on with, before watching Jack Nicholson own the character, was a name and an audiocassette. And Jesus, what a soundtrack it was. Again, I was eight, sure, but there was something thrilling me beyond the Batman icon emblazoned across the cover as I looped that tape over and over, as I listened to Michael Keaton’s soft, sampled voice declaring himself the caped crusader only to instantly find that character eaten up by the magnificent howls of a singer cutting glass with his falsetto.

It’s one helluva soundtrack, with irresistibly saucy songs like Vicki Waiting, Scandalous, the smash-hit Batdance and my favourite, the absurdly groovy Lemon Crush. But what misled me into believing Prince was a mere abbreviation for The Clown Prince Of Crime was a music video — one of the few things that showed up before the movie — and this was for Partytime, the coolest supervillain song ever. In that phenomenal video, Prince wears purple — like The Joker — and half his face is painted white, half his mouth has loud lipstick and half his hair is sulphuric green. His energy is electric, his manic movements the stuff of Looney Tunes cartoons, and — as he lethally spikes a punchbowl, swings off a chandelier and lights exploding cigars for Jessica Rabbit lookalikes — the spirit of Mistah J is entirely, deliciously captured by this performer. It’s magic.

I might never get over one particular moment from the video where Prince’s half-Joker literally makes a monkey out of Batman. He sidles elegantly over to a chimpanzee in a Batman tee-shirt and, shyly, hands him a banana. Prince shields his face with his hand and melts away coyly as the chimp accepts. The chimp peels said banana which turns out to be empty of fruit, with the word “PSYCHE” written in big, marquee capitals inside it. It is a nutty gag, cruel and pointless and juvenile and impossible not to love, wonderfully encapsulating all things Joker.

2princemonkey

Yet despite the pranks, what really comes through in that brief but vivid glimpse is the performer’s grace. And the way he, in those times without Parental Advisory stickers, held our kiddy hands and took us down dark alleyways with his songs. Vicki Waiting, for example, opens with an awfully ribald joke about organs and cathedrals, and gets far too dark and too damned sexy. Sexy.

It is the no-holds-barred sexiness of Prince’s vibe that tore into my imagination, taking me from that Batman album to his Love Symbol album. He was yet to turn himself into that very symbol, an unpronounceable (and pointy) yin-yang sign that would befuddle record labels and journalists and award-show presenters, but that white-hot album already held too many clandestine thrills. Not least of which was the instantly mythical Sexy MF, the song so perfectly, ear-scorchingly profane we had to listen to it a million times over, giggling while Prince entered our bloodstream and made us cooler without us even knowing it.

The Artist Formerly Forever Known As Prince.

He was a wonder, wasn’t he? That lopsided smirk. That thin moustache, equal parts John Waters and Jafar. That eternally flawless hair. That high, piercing falsetto, a voice that brimmed with love and anger and urgency, forever a cross between a tantrum and an orgiastic shriek.

Those words, words that sang of revolution and those songs that delivered it to us, always ahead of time. The way he made pianos cry out in bruised, purple pleasure. The way he struck up insanely melodic arpeggios in a way that still makes me wonder how fretboards didn’t dice up those furious fingers while he played like a guitar god.

The way he owned a goddamned colour.

Heartbreakingly enough, he’s gone now. And we owe it to that legend to go at least a little bit crazy, to go out on a limb, to leap without safety-nets and to hope the audience will catch us and carry us along on their shoulders. To look for our very own purple bananas.

3princepartytongueWe owe it to him to listen, like we always did whenever he commanded us, regardless of whether we were old fans or those who’d never heard him before: the mention of his name made our hearts snap their fingers, our ears perk up, our feet restless and our expectations rocket past the roof.

For his name is Prince, and he was Funky.

~

First published Rediff, April 27, 2016

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The Best Hindi film songs of 2015

It’s been quite a year for music in Hindi cinema. Wherever you turn, there is earthy flavour, there are clever young wordsmiths, there are audacious beats, there are vibrant new voices. I reached out across social media and asked friends and readers to chime in with suggestions, and the results were far-ranging, eclectic and showed off immense range. This might be a contentious list, dear reader, but it is mine and you will have yours, and we should celebrate how rare a feeling it is to be this spoilt for choice.

Honourable Mentions:

Here are ten great, inventive, cool songs that could well have made the cut — in fact, one may even argue that these ten are more fun than the ones that made it to the points. Gulaabo from Shandaar, Insaaf from Talvar, Behroopia and Naak Pe Gussa from Bombay Velvet, Jeena Jeena from Badlapur, Mata Ka Email from Guddu Rangeela, Bezubaan from Piku, Maati Ka Palang from NH10, Bandeyaa from Jazbaa, Sooraj Dooba Hai from Roy. Solid stuff.

10. BannoTanu Weds Manu Returns

Some believe it’s about a particularly attractive sweater, and this song — by new composers Tanishk and Vayu, and written by Vayu — has a groove that just won’t take no for an answer, no matter what you might think the lyrics are. ’Swagger’ might not be a common word, especially in a Punjabi-laced shaadi song context, but both the song (and heroine Kangna Ranaut) pull it off with flair.

9. Byomkesh In Love – Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

Dibakar Banerjee’s film was all about anachronism, which is why this unlikely alt-rock song about late night laments fit in quite beautifully atop his vision of Calcutta from the 40s. Originally composed in 2012 by Mumbai-based band Blek, the song was spiked with thumri vocals by Usri Banerjee to really give listeners a kick in the head.

8. Ka Kha Ga – Bombay Velvet

Every song from Amit Trivedi’s exceptional Bombay Velvet soundtrack is worthy of reflection and applause, but some of them get deeper under the skin and linger longer than others. Neeti Mohan sings it like a weary jazz pro, and Amitabh Bhattacharya’s words, about the language of love and how it reduces each of us to amateurs, are gorgeous.

7. Moh Moh Ke Dhaage – Dum Laga Ke Haisha

It’s been a while since we heard something truly magical from composer Anu Malik, but there are few others who could capture the 90s aesthetic better for Sharat Katariya’s evocatively crafted film. The heavy-lifting, however, is done by lyricist Varun Grover, who finds much common ground in this song about two opposites. “You are day, I am night, come let us meet like dusk.”

6. Judaai – Badlapur

Rekha Bhardwaj and Arijit Singh take turns making the heart ache with this mournful song about regrets and time gone by. Written by Priya Saraiya and Dinesh Vijan, the Sachin-Jigar track is built on old-school instruments but is structurally innovative, particularly in the way both vocalists are made to contrast against each other instead of find a joint rhythm. Until the end, when the voices dance their own sad tango.

5. Mann Kasturi Re – Masaan

Magic. Indian Ocean take Varun Grover’s fine, fine words — “Ageing is a mystery, and old people have told us this” — and spin them into gold, making for a glittering song that is both earthy and sophisticated, a poetic song unafraid of its lofty ambitions. The sound is classically Indian Ocean, certainly, and distinctive as the band always is, but the fragility of the verses lends them new wings.

4. Zinda – Talvar

The screen fades to black at the end of Meghna Gulzar’s fantastic film and Rekha Bhardwaj’s voice washes over the audience, making sure we’ll walk out of theatres haunted. Gulzarsaab’s words about reaching out and finding life are perfectly crafted, and composer Vishal Bhardwaj — slowly, assuredly escalating the guitar-plucked rhythm — creates a song that wouldn’t feel out of place in a nightmare. Or a dream.

3. Journey Song – Piku

Anupam Roy’s soundtrack for Shoojit Sircar’s film was wonderfully unspectacular, underscoring the film and its moments while never clamouring for attention. This (unambigiously titled) song, composed, written and sung by Roy is the kind of easy-breezy song where you wouldn’t change a thing, from the simply elegant words to the perfectly poised, yet stray, Bengali lines. The lines Roy sings — about thrilled hearts and being out on the road — apply to both Irrfan Khan, driving the car, and Amitabh Bachchan, heading home, while the Shreya Ghoshal bits — ostensibly mentioning green eyes, but, really, city-wary eyes refreshed by the green outside the car window — immediately situate Deepika Padukone’s character and define her context.

2. Tu Kisi Rail Si – Masaan

Standing on the shoulders of giants is never an easy task, which is why it’s astounding how well Varun Grover has managed to build a song around one magnificent couplet from a Dushyant Kumar ghazal. Indian Ocean haven’t sounded this great in a while, but the words are the leading man here. The idea of a lover shivering like a bridge is almost less incredible than that of a bridge shivering like a lover, and it is this striking imagery that carries the spirit of Masaan, this idea of a girl passing by, unstoppably, like a locomotive and of the helpless man waiting to feel the thrill of the shiver.

1. Dhadaam Dhadaam – Bombay Velvet

The heart wants how the heart wants.

In an essay about this song, one of the most remarkable songs our cinema has seen in a while, I wrote about how many songs speak of the heart as a percussive organ but this one strikes harder: “This is not a still or enchanted heart but an enraptured one, beating with ribcage-rattling vehemence, using a sound usually reserved for cartoon violence: dhadaam-dhadaam.”

Lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya builds the elaborately written song around the word Malal, a feeling of despondence, defeat and overwhelming melancholy. Neeti Mohan cries as she gamely, impressively conquers the trilling high-notes. And composer Amit Trivedi hits his jazz beats forcefully, making sure that while we listen to the song, all else is forgotten.

All except that goddamned, hard-dhadaaming heart.

~

First published Rediff, December 23, 2015

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Why the 2015 Oscars are worth celebrating

The good guys won.

Actually, it was bigger than that. I’ve annually whinged about and berated the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shortsightedness and predictability in columns like these for far too many years now, and this is the first time I sat back through the Oscars — occasionally tense with fingers crossed as often as befits the occasion, naturally — but with a smile on my face. It was very clear that despite the eight nominated films, there were only three frontrunners this year, and each was majestic.

I loved ‘em, I loved ‘em to bits, these brave and visionary and beautiful films: Birdman, which I reviewed breathlessly, Boyhood, which I reviewed with moist eyes and lumpen throat, and The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I reviewed with jaunty fingers and a candied grin.

And this was their year.

inarritu1Just let that sink in for a moment. That the three films tipped to win, the three films that held the most nominations and got the most awards, the three directors singled out for career-revolutionising triumph… were all masterworks. They were all brilliant and incredible, films any cinephile around the world should be proud of. The fact that it was these three films who led the pack and battled for the spotlight — instead of some dastardly Academy-friendly choice that upset a great yacht —  made this year’s Oscars a spotlight worth sailing through.

There was no King’s Speech to mug The Social Network, no English Patient to shoot Fargo in the foot, no Crash to rob Brokeback Mountain, no Forrest Gump to hold up, unforgivably, both Shawshank Redemption and the revolutionary Pulp Fiction. No, this year, instead of the big, the gun-toting, the maudlin, the British — and, most criminally, the obvious — films, the cool kids this year, the ones tipped to win were a Boy, a Bird and Budapest. How can you not love this year?

Sure, signs pointed to a Birdman/Boyhood split, with Alejandro González Iñárritu possibly taking Best Director for Birdman and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood taking Best Picture, or vice versa, a peace treaty that would leave the filmloving world in peace, but that wasn’t, alas, to be. As Iñárritu said while picking up the Best Director trophy, moments before he picked up Best Picture, “We’re talking about that little prick called ego. Ego loves competition, right, because for someone to win, someone has to lose.”

And that’s possibly why it hurts us, the film fans. Because we don’t want to see Linklater win over Iñárritu, or Budapest director Wes Anderson leave the other directors in the dust, or even young Damien Chazelle, helmer of the electrifying Whiplash, be left behind or spoil anyone’s party. We aren’t used to seeing these underdogs competing at the top of the heap; we just want ‘em all to enjoy playing together and all go home happy.

To a large extent, they did: Boyhood won for Patricia Arquette, Whiplash for JK Simmons, The Grand Budapest Hotel for everything to do with how beautiful films look. All while grumpy veteran Clint Eastwood sat grouchily, his American Sniper not showing up to ruin our film-lovin’ fun, while Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris wagered he’d do a Kanye West and disrupt the proceedings.

As for Neil Patrick Harris, alas, he didn’t sparkle. He started with a terrific musical number about the love we have for ‘Moving Pictures’ — as I’ve written elsewhere, rhyming “Brando” with Sharon Stone going “commando” is a moment of genius that will linger forever — but the rest of the evening he was flat and unfunny and just not very good.

But — and here’s the thing — are we expecting the wrong thing from an Oscar host? Earlier the Oscars were the only show we’d all watch, and we’d eat it up because it was the only choice. So we’d love Steve Martin and tolerate David Letterman. Now, not only do we have far more wicked and irreverent, alcohol-aided shows to watch, from the Globes to the Independent Spirit Awards (which, seriously, is must-see), but we’re all tweeting and pronouncing judgement immediately, rating a joke on a sliding scale before we even get through with the show.

Last week I assembled a list of the best ever Oscar hosts, an amusing (albeit cumbersome) process that made me realise something. In this age of sharp, biting jabs — started by Globe host Ricky Gervais and surpassed by Amy Poehler and Tina Fey — we’re too quick to dismiss anyone who doesn’t immediately match up. That Frank Sinatra opening monologue from 1963, for example, one of my very favourites, would be ripped apart mercilessly on Twitter.

The Oscars are in a quandary: they’re classy, they’re big, they’re universal and they need to be family-friendly — otherwise morons like Seth MacFarlane sing about breasts. It’s clear they can’t be like other wilder award shows. Perhaps they just need to concentrate on the class and the charm and leave out the comedy, except in little unscripted bits and occasional dance numbers. No matter what people say about too many dances, this year’s top moments had to include the touching Glory performance and Lady Gaga’s Sound Of Music tribute. Pomp, done well, shines bright at the Oscars. Leave the jokes to the other shows who can perch out farther on the limb. Let the grandeur do the talking instead of the gags.

wes1Overall, as I said, it was a show to celebrate. Because with every gunfighter on our side, we’re all winners.

~

First published Rediff, February 24, 2015

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Review: Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” says Terrence Fletcher, the black-clad perfectionist conductor driving his orchestra insane with his demands. Fletcher wants more, always. Emotion, excuses, bloodied hands, commitment: none of it impresses him unless accompanied by actual greatness. And it never is. “Good job,” words many an American parent uses to condition a child, a verbal pat on the back for tying shoelaces or finishing a plate of spaghetti, thus, is naturally something that isn’t quite Fletcher’s tempo.

But then what does measure up? Fletcher demands the best, and his students bend over backwards trying earnestly, dutifully, vainly, suicidally to give it to him while he bites their heads off like an easily irked dragon. JK Simmons plays Fletcher with firebreathing abandon, using awful verbal guillotines every bit as lethal as the cymbal that almost decapitated Charlie Parker and spurred him to become the legend known simply as Bird. Near-death, Fletcher seems to feel, gave Parker his wings.

IMG_5430An unforgiving silhouette teaching at New York’s famed Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Fletcher’s longstanding dream of finding a Bird and letting him loose seems all but impossible till he runs into Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man craving to be pushed to perfection, one who fanatically sees himself as one of the greats, one who deserts romance because it may possibly distract him from the drums some day. After all, as the Buddy Rich quote on his wall screams at him, “If you don’t have ability, you wind up playing in a rock band.”

Director Damien Chazelle’s stunning and absorbing Whiplash takes these two freaks – this old man with a tongue made of daggers and this youngster with alarming amounts of focus – and pits them against each other in a delicious, deadly battle of jazz. They glide toward unscaleable peaks forsaking their lives, their careers, their families, their sanity… and all for what?

Whiplash is a sexy, sexy film, strikingly shot and beautifully paced, a film that captivates right from the start and reels in the viewer in that seductive way only the finest jazz can. The music is jawdropping and works its magic regardless of how unschooled the viewer may be, perhaps because of how Fletcher makes them play the same sections over and over again, especially the Hank Levy piece, ‘Whiplash,’ that lends its name to the film’s title.

Teller, playing the surly, self-absorbed Andrew, does spectacularly well as a character impossible to like, not to mention a phenomenal banger of the drums, a man savaging drumheads as if he were doing kung fu with chopsticks. Simmons, playing the maniac, is even better, all quips and one-handed quietening and the single-minded focus of a fascist who truly believes in himself. Scary good.

Chazelle’s film starts brilliantly and soon turns brutal, and it can be construed by some as a romanticisation of tyranny, a film that gives far too much importance to unrealistic standards and puts striving for them on a pedestal, but my reading is that Whiplash doesn’t idealize either of its two leads – though it is at times a tad sympathetic toward them – but rather shines a glaring, (mostly) unforgiving spotlight on both sets of unreasonable expectations, a spotlight that is best witnessed flashing across Simmons’ eyes at the very end of Whiplash.

We dream different dreams, and if two men tear their own lives apart in pursuit of something they treasure above all else, then who are we to dictate the price they ought pay? As a certain Mr Inarritu will attest, there’s something to be said about embarking on an impossible hunt for a Bird.

Rating: 4 stars

~

First published Rediff, February 20, 2015

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Review: Birdman, by Alejandro G Iñárritu

What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman?

It’s hard to know where to begin, for this is a film that makes us gasp, a breathless, rapturous, stream-of-consciousness fever dream, a film which unfolds dizzyingly and dramatically and takes us on a journey that, while a deeply personal journey for a character, holds so much for each of us to take back and so much to seduce us, to suck us in, the narrative visuals tugging us along as if we’re reading a novel that doesn’t allow pause – a novel disgusted by the idea of pause, even, a book that makes sure we can’t look away – and yet a book that makes us wonder about ego and life and self-importance, and perhaps fixating on the film’s novel-ty is just what director Alejandro González Iñárritu intended, with this singular comedic masterpiece surpassing all his previous, occasionally overwrought works, in fact surpassing most modern movies with a freaky flourish and with such gorgeous, gorgeous audacity… Allow me here to suggest that you think of these ellipses here in this piece not as breaks in flow but as drum solos, as wondrous bursts of force like the ones punctuating the film courtesy of stunning drummer Antonio Sanchez and his terrific score which lets us glory in all the magnificent detail Birdman offers, for example, Riggan Thomson is told he has a baby on the way, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him as much, which is somewhat understandable considering the fact that he, an actor best known for a superhero franchise he left behind two decades ago but can never quite shake off, not in any coherent way at least, is sticking his wrinkly neck out and putting it on the line by creating a Broadway showcase for himself, adapting a Raymond Carver short story, no less, in a bid to earn himself legitimacy as an actor and finally exorcise his superhero demons, but then is his spandexed alter-ego a hindrance or something he needs, a ridiculous but essential raison d’etre, one that defines him and holds him together even as he aims to spread his wings into the unfamiliar in order to more keenly etch out his own celebrity status, trying to make sure he leaves behind a legacy – a quest, it seems, that matters more to him than his pregnant girlfriend or his surly ex-junkie daughter, a bright girl burying her exceptional eyes under gothic layers of kohl and one who seems catastrophically attracted to Mike Shiner, a Broadway superstar who is literally potent only when on stage, stage, his arena of invincibility, but despite being a quotable, sharp, spectacularly talented actor who always thinks he knows best, Shiner is actually perhaps even more oblivious about his sense of self, but he is Iñárritu’s entertainer, his jack-in-the-box, the man we enjoy following around the most, at least when Birdman begins and we’re gathering up our fallen jaws at the way the director and master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki make the whole film look like one shot, with clever, canny editing making long takes merge into one-another with magically few seams showing, a modern day take on Hitchcock’s Rope but on digital steroids, the kind of miraculous gimmick that could have been tiresome in the wrong hands but here the flight is a marvelous one, the film going from night to day without looking away – one shot with Shiner and Thomson’s daughter Sam on the roof of a theatre, the theatre most of the film takes place in, has the two talking and then the camera cants upward to the sky, following a swirl of cigarette smoke and then, after staying there for just a moment, the night melts into day and the camera swooshes down onto the bustling midday street, and this shot, with its poetry and its radical beauty, melted my mind and just typing about it is making my keyboard-drumming fingers tremble – and this is what Birdman does painstakingly but seemingly casually, using the tools at hand today to craft something previously impossible and present us with a film worth watching twice because the first time viewer is liable to just ogle this work of staggering genius; I, for one, watched it thrice in a week the first time I got the chance to watch it, and remain bowled over, besotted, enchanted, and who wouldn’t be, with the kind of actors on display here, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton and Emma Stone – who each come with superhero-movie baggage of their own, sure, but happen also to be people who have been replaced or killed off in superhero movies, movies notorious for nobody really dying or staying dead – and they each dole out virtuoso acts, with Norton showing off obvious mastery (while playing an obvious master), Stone gliding on the edge of ineffability with a crucial role and perhaps the film’s most important lines, and Keaton himself playing it close to the bone, playing his near-mythological hero with vulnerability and style while also putting on the bird-suit and rocking it good, but then, but then, everyone is so good in this film, from each of the screenwriters to Andrea Riseborough to the man playing a disgruntled Indian cabbie, everyone is at the very top of their game, everyone is poised to strike and to surprise, and by the time the film ends with a moment of heartbreaking perfection, the eyes have it – as do the ayes, for what good is a critic who remains closed off from the unobvious conjuror, a critic who can’t delight in this magical a wingspan, this film neatly putting us all in our place – and I don’t just mean us professional nitpickers and recommenders of movies – but each and every one of us with opinions that could be wiped out in an instant, for, as a sign in Thomson’s dressing room says so astutely, ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.’

What do we talk about when we talk about Birdman? Everything.

Rating: 5 stars

~

First published Rediff, January 30, 2015

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Review: The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis

1961. The sixties but not quite The Sixties just yet. America had picked up a revolutionary new guitar but was only beginning to learn how to strum, plucking at it tentatively as genres and heroes and venues were birthed and discarded in blinks of sleepless eyes. Within the outstretched canvas of limitless hope there lies many a dead-end of bleak disillusionment.

llewyn1It is here that we meet our dour leading man, Llewyn Davis, without a home or a winter coat or any genuine prospects. He gets by with a little help from… one would say friends, but he doesn’t have any. The only one, his musical collaborator, Mike, has thrown himself (non-traditionally) off the George Washington Bridge. Llewyn might not have triggered the suicide, we never get details, but from what we see of his disposition — and his ability to turn everything to shit, “like King Midas’ idiot brother” — he isn’t likely to have helped matters much.

And so we smile drily as canny storytellers Joel and Ethan Coen give us a stumbling, unheroic protagonist and rigorously zoom in on every wart. Everything about Davis is almost cartoonishly miserable except when, eternally against the odds, he picks up his six-string and sings. The film and its viewers, the leading man and his listeners, are immediately changed by what is simple and sublime, graceful but grounded. For all his scratched and blemished life, Davis happens to be a flawless musician, a troubadour who deserves ears and cheers.

Yet, as we see at the beginning and the end of the film, as Llewyn Davis winds up a stunning set and a 20-year-old Robert Zimmerman sits down to begin his passage toward immortality, even this irascible, ever-dismissive protagonist feels his jaw drop and realise that — while standing so close to the real thing, on a night that could have changed everything — he is but a talented doodle in the margins, not fit even to be a footnote.

Instead, he gets socked in a back-alley.

Davis is played with remarkable ease by Oscar Isaac, an actor who marvellously blurs the line between performance and documentary-like realism. He’s tired and disgruntled and so jaded his stoniness seems obvious. He needs a night’s sleep, but — nomadically going from couch to couch in an era before websites and hipsters made it cool — that is easier said than found. A professor and his wife do indeed welcome him unconditionally and with open arms, but he snaps at them and loses their cat. (The cat, by the way, is called Ulysses, like the book based on The Odyssey, a book Joel and Ethan once turned into the magnificent O Brother, Where Art Thou? This new film, in case you’re wondering, has a soundtrack even richer than that great musical.)

The Coen landscape is characteristically populated by oddballs, and all of them in this one are tied to volume. Davis’s ineffective manager, Mel, lives in a dimly lit office, likes attending funerals and gets into loud exchanges with his ancient secretary. “You got Cincinatti?”, he yells. “You want it?”, she barks back. “Could I have it?”, “Should I bring it?” and so continues the hard-of-hearing tango. A young soldier denounces comfort and eats cereal loudly, and proves — despite his Llewyn-frustrating squarishness — to be a better-liked musician than our befuddled beardo. A big-time producer squelches as he walks into a music hall past upturned chairs.  A beat poet called Johnny 5 lies about his cigarettes and sits in near-defiant silence, while his companion, a jowly jazz musician named Roland Turner, is introduced to us by the sounds he makes when he wakes up with literal squeaks and gasps.

Turner, played by Coen favourite John Goodman, is an uproarious character, a cane-wielding weirdo who cuts off his own stories to start new ones, always obnoxious and quite regal in his pushiness. He’s worth a movie all his own, and — like the music — single-handedly makes Llewyn’s life (and ours) infinitely more interesting. But Davis doesn’t care, and in this destructive, all-encompassing derision lies the Coen’s masterstroke: his antipathy toward the world makes him loathsome but fascinating. Joel and Ethan and Llewyn never let up, and we watch and smirk and commiserate and feel the despondent stupor descend upon us, sliced occasionally by the music, shining in like sun streaming into a dank attic.

llewyn2Davis doesn’t even sing to reach his audience. To a Chicago music producer, he sings an English ballad, The Death Of Queen Jane, about one of King Henry VIIIs doomed wives. In a line hilariously echoed by the Merchant Marines when he goes to sign up, he’s rightly told he’s not current. It’s a catastrophically bad decision to pick a miserable lament while pitching to a man used to selling out venues, but on some level Davis believes — and this may well be all that Llewyn believes — in the purity of the song. And how it can transcend everything.

He isn’t wrong. When we sit alongside the producer, played by the wonderful F Murray Abraham, the song transports us to a different plane. As does this fantastic film. It might just be A Mighty Wind in extreme close-up, or the Coens filling in another blankly open-ended tale as brilliantly as only they can, but the thing to remember about Inside Llewyn Davis is that while it might not be new, it never gets old.

Rating:  Four and a half stars

~

First published Rediff, January 10, 2014

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A lyric for Lou Reed

(Because paragraphfuls of prose just didn’t feel right.)

 

 

He stumbled and he rumbled, 

                          he fumbled and he humbled 

and he did it all drunk as a monk. 

 

He sailed and he failed, 

                         he smiled and he beguiled, 

but above all he worth-our-while’d.

 

O, how he made us genuflect

                        As he broke his guitar’s neck

And took over our cassette deck.

 

How helpless he made us feel

                       As our brains he did steal:

That genius, hid behind a yellow peel.

 

He assaulted us with a flower

                       And furry-legged fe-male power

And made us awestruck Spiders cower.

 

He did reflect and he did tease

                       Brought critics to their knees

(Though, sometimes, it was just a wheeze.)

 

There were whiskey songs and meth songs

                       Songs for rights; more songs for wrongs,

                      (A couple of songs for ding-dongs)

And even as he leaves us the jukebox… prolongs.

 

He taught and he fought

                      And was often overwrought,

But nothing could make him not

                      Stir the pot.

 

And when we hear it all

                     The glory and the downfall:

The messy guts spilled out in plain view

And the songs that spoke, to me and to you.

 

The words look cleverer in the light of sad today

The truth is clearer as we prepare goodbyes to say:

 

That Lou?

                     He flew.

 

 

~

First published Rediff, October 28, 2013

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