geezer cinema/film fatales #59: blinded by the light (gurinder chadha, 2019)

The latest movie in the weekly trip to the theater that my wife and I have started since she retired. This was my choice, although I was really just making good on a plan we hatched with a friend back when Blinded by the Light was first announced, that we would go see it ASAP.

On seeing the film, Springsteen reportedly said, "I don't want you to change a thing. It's perfect." Which reminded me of an anecdote Pauline Kael told about the 1940s musical Night and Day, a biopic about Cole Porter.

"William Bowers, one of the three scenarists, said later that he was so ashamed of this picture that about a year after it came out he called Cole Porter, whose biography it purported to be, and told him how sorry he was, and Porter said, "Love it. Just loved it. Oh, I thought it was marvelous." Bowers says that he told Oscar Hammerstein how puzzled he was by this, and Hammerstein said, "How many of his songs did you have in it?" Bowers answered "Twenty-seven," and Hammerstein said, "Well of course he loved it. They only turned out to be twenty-seven of the greatest songs of all time. You don't think he heard that stuff that went on between his songs, do you?"

It's hard to imagine a subject for a film that would be more appealing to me than the story of a person transformed by a love of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, I had read enough advance reviews to know that Blinded by the Light would probably be kinda sappy, which isn't my favorite thing, but c'mon, it's Bruce! It has lots of his songs! He liked the movie!

And there was even an added attraction I had somehow missed: among the cast is Hayley Atwell!

It started out OK, although it takes awhile to get to Bruce. We learn about the hardships of growing up Pakistani in the England of Maggie Thatcher. We learn about how Luton appears to Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenage resident (it sucks). We learn about the struggles of Javed and his hard-nosed father. It's a good setup for the scene where Javed is introduced to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Most people tell him he can't relate to Bruce, a white American who sings about girls and cars. But the setup makes it all obvious ... it's not just that Bruce is universal, it's that he speaks to Javed in ways that are quite on target.

It's when Javed's life is changed by Bruce that the film goes downhill. Granted, this is a good example of Your Mileage May Vary, because most of what I didn't like about the movie related to the style of the film. It's almost as if Chadha and writer Sarfraz Manzoor took this Made for Steven concept and used every trick in the Steven Hates This book.

I like that Bruce's songs inspire Javed, and the movie does a good job of showing that. But for some reason, it didn't occur to me that at times, Blinded by the Light would turn into the kind of musical I hate. It's one thing for Bruce's music to play while Kalra's face shows us the connection, and I even liked the way the lyrics sometimes turned up on the screen. But I really didn't need characters inserting Bruce lyrics into their conversations. It was enough to hear the music and see the actors working with the concept. It was over the top when those characters said things like "tramps like us, baby we were born to run".

Some of the joy Bruce brings to Javed is contagious, and effectively presented. But I didn't need to see "Born to Run" turned into a song-and-dance for Javed and his friends.

So figure it's just me and my taste preferences, and go see Blinded by the Light for yourself, because you'll probably think it's harmless fun. I'd watch a movie with nothing but Bruce Springsteen singing songs. But the last thing I want to see is a musical with other people singing his songs.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

sleater-kinney, the center won't hold

My review of the new Sleater-Kinney album, The Center Won't Hold, can be found on the Souciant website:

Call the Doctor

"I want to check in a few albums down the road when it will be clearer whether The Center Won’t Hold began a new, positive, direction for the band or marked a dead end. It’s an album where 'I’m not sure I wanna go on at all' co-exists with 'Tired of bein’ told that this should be the end'."


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018

revisiting easy rider (dennis hopper, 1969)

I thought to remember Peter Fonda by watching one of his movies, and I had a Blu-ray of Easy Rider on the shelf that I hadn't watched yet, so I decided to revisit that film.

At this point, 50 years on, does it even matter if Easy Rider is any good? If you were teaching a history of cinema, you'd want to include it. If you were teaching U.S. popular culture of the late 60s, you'd include it (although, having taught more than one course like that, I tended to use Wild in the Streets). Easy Rider mattered then, and so it matters now. But I'd argue that its importance never had much to do with whether it was actually any good. It struck a chord with young audiences who made it a box office hit, and that did matter. 

Wikipedia claims that "Critics have praised the performances, directing, writing, soundtrack, visuals, and atmosphere." Well, three out of six ain't bad. Outside of Jack Nicholson, the performances barely exist. The general slack acting and often aimless feel are not a reason for me to praise the directing. And no one has ever been able to ascertain who wrote what, or even if the movie was "written". On the plus side, the music is excellent, and the visuals (hat tip to cinematographer László Kovács) are the best thing about the movie (Thelma and Louise's beautiful travelogue is the most notable of many ways the two movies are connected). As for the atmosphere, it's true that few movies do as good a job of drawing the audience into the milieu of hippies, communes, drugs, etc.

But Easy Rider drags, and while its We Are Martyrs theme is certainly a big reason for its popularity at the time, that theme is not as in-your-face as I remembered (final scene excluded, of course). Jack Nicholson delivers a monologue, Peter Fonda praises "doing your own thing in your own time", and all the southerners act like rednecks. That's it. When Fonda says "We blew it", it comes out of nowhere.

And women? There are the earth mothers at the commune, the teeny boppers in the cafe, and then Karen Black and Toni Basil turn up as whores. This definitely isn't Thelma and Louise, which at least allows for a couple of interesting male characters.

I'm not sorry I watched Easy Rider again, but it wasn't life changing. #414 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Criterion released it in a box set with Head, Five Easy Pieces, Drive He Said, A Safe Place, The Last Picture Show, and The King of Marvin Gardens. It's not the worst film in the box.