26 February 02005

More reviews of cultural 'companions'

Here are some notes that form another instalment in my occasional series of postings about commentaries and 'making of' features that aim to help people get more out of cultural works (albums, films, books and so on).

Previous postings in this series include

These notes are about two books I've read this year: Peter Biskind's Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, about the new Hollywood era of films that held sway between the late '60s and late '70s; and Douglas Wolk's Live at the Apollo, an account of James Brown's career-defining album of that name. As far as I'm concerned, Biskind fails and Wolk succeeds. Here's why.

There were lots of good reasons for me to read Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, apart from the fact that I managed to pick it up in a £10 bundle with the DVD of the same name from Fopp. Like many others, I've long enjoyed the films of Scorsese, Schrader, Altman, Rafelson and lesser known film-makers of the period like Monte Hellman — and with the National Film Theatre showing a two-month season of films that overlap almost exactly with Biskind's focus the book should have given me an ideal 'back story' to seeing some of them again. The reviews I'd read, and the reports I head from friends (even from the barman at the Artillery Arms when I took it in there), suggested the book was a corker. The back jacket carries a quote from David Hare (presumably this David Hare who is not given to hyperbole about popular culture) claiming it as "the most fascinating cultural work of the year".

I found this damning review closer to the mark in terms of what I learnt from the book, though I don't even agree with it's claim that "Biskind's cheap-jack assembly of tawdry details, skewed psychologizing, and lethargic sociological analysis is highly readable". After about 150 pages, the endless sequence of parallel narratives — "while film X was having production difficulties, film Y was turning into a smash hit/total flop at the box office, and then producer A finally gave director B the green light to make film Z, but screenwriter C was having drug/relationship problems" — becomes repetitive and tiresome. The praise for the book tends to focus on the 'revelations' that many of the movers and shakers in Hollywood at the time were not that likeable or well-behaved. So it was the '70s and people in L.A. were doing coke and sleeping around. Wow. How surprising is it that these characters have their flaws? Who in those creative industries that require extensive teamwork can claim none of their collaborators has a bad word to say about them? Biskind has edited all the bad words together.

And in so doing, he has remarkably little to say about the films themselves, the ideas and influences that informed them. The Scorsese and Schrader in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls are unrecognisable from those in Faber's Scorsese on Scorsese or Schrader on Schrader. The articulate people in the latter talk about their work, their ideas — which are missing from the former.

After writing the last two paragraphs, I went back to the DVD and found the bit in the 'extras' where a few of the protagonists in the book give their verdict on it. Dennis Hopper is contemptuously dismissive, as you might expect. Joan Tewkesbury and Peter Bart provide a more sober assessment of where Easy Riders, Raging Bulls misses the sense of fun, camaraderie and mutual support among film-makers that characterised the period. In interview on the DVD Biskind attempts unconvincingly to wriggle out of the accusation that he just wrote the 'gossip'.

The paradox that undermines Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is that it tells the story of the "directors' decade" in Hollywood, but it has little to say about the work of directors and much more about the production shenanigans and politics of the studios. As such, the one figure who emerges heroically from the book, notwithstanding the details of his alleged character flaws, is Francis Ford Coppola. He worked as a director but wanted to take over the means of production of films as well. When his first Zoetrope 'revolution' failed, and he bankrupted himself, he did not give up but set about making more money to reinvest in trying again. Next to this story, his marital infidelities and lithium intake are uninteresting.

Douglas Wolk's Live at the Apollo is one of eighteen (and counting) 'classic' album profiles in Continuum's 33⅓ series. This is one of those books, like Charles Shaar Murray's analysis of Jimi Hendrix, manages to pick apart the derivation of its protagonist's work without taking away his aura.

These are some of the good things Wolk does.

  • He traces where James Brown's repertoire borrows and steals from earlier songs in the R&B tradition.
  • He pokes gentle fun at some of the accounts of the Live at the Apollo period in Brown's two autobiographies, pointing out their inconsistencies from documented facts.
  • He encourage closer listening, second by second, to the album, noting details from bum notes in the horn section to shouted exchanges in the audience.
  • He looks forward from Live at the Apollo to future developments in James Brown's career, for example in how It's a Man's World later took over the centrepiece "protracted-ballad" role in JB's set that Lost Someone holds in this album.

Also Wolk makes great use of the historical gift of coincidence whereby Live at the Apollo was being performed and recorded at the exact moment that the Cuban missile crisis was coming to a near-apocalyptic head. By 'cutting away' from the action at the Apollo for just a paragraph or two (for example: "On October 24, 1962, [the day of the recording] John F. Kennedy, in a meeting with his cabinet, asked if there was any way in which the U.S. could evacuate its cities before an invasion of Cuba. Somebody at the table assured him that 'the only real protection' from nuclear bombs was cities"), Wolk is able to give an acute sense of the period and its psychological, geopolitical distance from the present day.

Douglas Wolk writes well on many areas of music, and maintains a blog linking to things he's published, as well as providing more informal commentary.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Curatorial, Reviews on 26 February 02005 | TrackBack
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