geezer cinema/film fatales #86: relic (natalie erika james, 2020)
death in venice (luchino visconti, 1971)

music friday: phil dellio, you should've heard just what i seen

This book is one where the subtitle tells you a lot: "Pop Music at the Movies and on TV". Phil covers a lot of ground, from the first three chapters on Mad Men to the last chapter on Donovan (yes, that Donovan), inspired by the appearance of "Hurdy Gurdy Man" in Zodiac, a movie he loves. Phil Dellio is the right person for this book, because he has lived the movies and the television and the music for a long time, and he worked as a teacher so he knows how to get our attention and then sneak a little learning in with the enjoyment.

Funny thing is, as much as I love Phil's writing, he starts off with something that I've always disliked. He's trying to decide how Mad Men will end, which a lot of us were, to be sure, myself included. But then Scott Woods emails Phil with an idea, and "as soon as I read it, I realized [it] may even be more important to me than what happens to Don: what song does Mad Men go out on?" I once had an essay published about the show House, where I complained that the series was not top notch because it always fell back on what at our house we called "The Song", something to emphasize what we had seen, something I inevitably found unnecessary and even insulting (what, we don't get it without help?). It's no coincidence that my all-time favorite show, The Wire, relied almost exclusively on diegetic music with the exception of an end-of-season montage.

But, as I knew would be the case, none of this matters when reading the book. Because Phil has things to say about the music and the films or series, and those things are interesting, and the ways he connects the music to those films and series is enlightening, regularly showing me a new way to think about the music, the visuals, or both. Sometimes the connections are startling, like when he finds that Diana Vreeland reminds him of Pauline Kael. Vreeland is a good example for another reason ... I have no interest in her, didn't know the movie he was talking about, but have been thinking obsessively about the Vreeland/Kael comparison since I read it.

Which is one way of saying that it doesn't always matter if you aren't familiar with a particular text, because Phil will get you thinking about it anyway. I knew most of the music, and especially with songs that have been overplayed over the years, it's a pleasure just to read someone putting those songs into a different context. The chapter about Donovan is one of my favorites, because I was a fan back in the 60s, and have long felt that he was underrated due to his spacey-hippie image. Phil jumps on this, calling it a "misguided caricature" that hippie music "was all sunshine and light", followed by a discussion of Donovan. The obvious starting point for me is "Season of the Witch", one of the truly frightening songs of that era. But Phil talks about "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman" and "Hurdy Gurdy Man". "Season of the Witch" only sneaks in when Phil quotes Greil Marcus, who shares my feelings about that song. What this does is send me back to other Donovan songs ... I'm still certain "Season of the Witch" is his masterpiece, but now I'm listening to Donovan's entire catalog with a different ear, all thanks to Phil Dellio and Zodiac.

To top it off, Phil and Scott Woods are building a "clipography" on YouTube. You can find it here. It's just two long-time, opinionated friends talking about music and movies. It's quite casual, and you might not want to binge-watch all the videos at once. But it's fun to watch. Here's their talk about Almost Famous:

And here, for the zillionth time, I post the clip they refer to:

I realize I've never written about Almost Famous. Not sure why ... I certainly think about it a lot. My feelings intellectually about the movie are in line with what Phil says about Greil Marcus in their Clipography: Cameron Crowe, god love him, was an example of what went wrong at Rolling Stone. And the way Crowe works Lester Bangs into the story ... well, I suspect Philip Seymour Hoffman got him right, and for all I know, Bangs and Crowe were good buddies, but Lester Bangs was not about the Rolling Stone of the post-Crowe era. I love Almost Famous because I love Hoffman as Lester ... I am irritated by Almost Famous because of what it does to the Lester I admire.

Meanwhile, if I did a book like Phil's, then sure, 'Tiny Dancer" would have to be there. I'd have to watch movies for a specific reason if I was going to create a long list, though ... what would I include? Mick Jagger as Turner singing Robert Johnson in Performance? Virtually the entire movie Mean Streets? Fred and Ginger dancing cheek to cheek in Top Hat? My brain hurts just trying to come up with examples, which shows just what a remarkable feat Phil Dellio has pulled off in his book.



Now you all got me thinking about Almost Famous. I love it for many reasons but I’m not sure I share the read they (and Marcus) offer that’s it’s criticizing the anti Bangs position. It’s not justifying the “other” position either. I always thought it’s just framing it as what it is in a both/and kinda way. Fun to think about in any case.

Steven Rubio

I may have been too vague. The problem as I see it is that the movie does not criticize the anti-Bangs position, but celebrates it. It's complicated because Lester is clearly loved in the movie, but the puff pieces Crowe wrote (and I read 'em and liked 'em, don't get me wrong) were key to the gradual move of RS into a friendlier relationship with big artists and, eventually, big companies in general. Lester warns William (the Crowe stand-in) not to get friendly with the stars, and at the end, he says "Aw, man. You made friends with them." And later, "I know you think those guys are your friends. You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful." So Lester gets his say, but the story of William's coming of age is so wonderful, we can't help but be happy for him. (Unrelated, but one of Lester Bangs' most famous "relationships" was his love/hate thing with Lou Reed ... this is all tied together somehow. I better watch Almost Famous again!)

Phil Dellio

Once again, Steven, above and beyond...I understand exactly what you mean about reliance on "The Song"; it did, in a way, become a convenient shortcut for Mad Men at a certain point (sometime after the two Dylan-closing episodes), and while they often mitigated that with offbeat songs, they even had a few obvious ones ("Piece of My Heart"). I'm just so hard-wired to respond to that, I'm sure that's part of why The Wire sits somewhere below Mad Men and The Sopranos for me. Weird to think back to WKRP in Cincinnati, where pop music on TV was such a rarity that even a show about a radio station had next to none (and I think the little they had was removed at some point because of copyright). Just finished this odd show I Am Not Okay with That, which started off promisingly on the musical front (the Kinks, Karen Dalton, Captain Beefheart) but never followed through. Thanks again for all your thoughts.

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