Music and the Movies: A Story of Children and Film

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In A Story of Children and Film, Mark Cousins’ engaging and wide-ranging cine-essay, the writer/director gathers clips from 53 diverse films to take the audience on a treasure trove of images and ideas.

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Cousins is best-known for the mammoth The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-hour, 15-episode compendium that was recently shown on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). In his latest rumination, an easy-to-digest 106-minute chamber piece, he begins by considering the view from Van Gogh’s room in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and the painting he made of it.

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“Art shows us again and again that if we look closely, openly at a small thing, we can see lots in it,” Cousins points out in his lilting, Belfast narrator’s voice. The “small thing” he looks at next is a scene of his niece and nephew playing together in a room in a house in the North of England. Out of their interaction he discerns several characteristics, like shyness (“wariness”), anger (“strop”), social class and showing off (theatricality).

Each observation sends his mind roving, through a myriad of cinematic images stored over years of moviegoing and note-taking, so that by the end of this fascinating journey we’ve glimpsed parts of 53 films.

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It’s a very musical construct, the way the content is assembled, diverse scenes made into a whole, in no small part sewn together by the sound of the filmmaker’s own melodic voiceover. And helped immeasurably by choice excerpts from the “Première communion de la Vierge” from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus performed by pianist Hakon Austbo. The filmic excerpts, of course, are served up with their own distinctive, if not memorable soundtracks.

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Cousins’ supple transitions take us from a wary child in Chen Kaige’s Chinese masterpiece, Yellow Earth, through the cautious expressions early in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to the open shyness of Children in the Wind (Japan, 1937) to Jane Campion’s anxious protagonist in An Angel at My Table, to what Cousins calls “the glint of shyness” in Ghatashraddah (India, 1977), to an early, beautifully-lit Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1961) and four more equally distinctive examples before we’re back in the room in England. Then it’s off to examine lives “railroaded by social class.”

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And more. Memorable in sum.

A Story of Children and Film is currently onscreen at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.


Visitors: A Collaborative Effort


feature 1 - visitors 2“You are the subject of this film.” – Godfrey Reggio

First came Koyaanisqatsi, on which filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass began working in the late 1970s. (It was released in 1983; its “life out of balance” theme resonated with an audience eager for anything not Reagan or Thatcher). Glass’ idiosyncratic variegated arpeggios and rhythmic repetitions riveted a public for whom the musician was mostly unknown.

Two more qatsi films followed over the next two decades, neither reaching the popular heights of the first. Reggio stuck to his unique vision and Glass extended his reach beyond the opera house and the concert hall into the mainstream by scoring commercials and Hollywood movies.

Read more: Visitors: A Collaborative Effort

AKA Doc Pomus and More

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AKA Doc Pomus, which opened November 29 at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas, is a befitting memorial for its subject, the legendary songwriter and genuine mensch, Doc Pomus. On braces and crutches after being stricken by polio at six in 1931, Jerome Felder (his birth name) loved listening to African-American music on the radio growing up in Brooklyn. His epiphany came around the age of 15, with Joe Turner’s record of “Piney Brown Blues.” Two years later he talked his way onto the stage of George’s in Greenwich Village. As he put it, “I was a white boy hooked on the blues – it was a midnight lady with a love lock on my soul.” After a handful of years, his recording career ended but by then Joe Turner himself had heard him and told Ahmet Ertegun to hire Pomus. Doc became a songwriter, one of the cornerstones of the legendary Brill Building writing for Turner and many more.

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AKA Doc Pomus is a straightforward biography told by ex-wives and lovers, sons and a daughter, musicians and writers (Peter Guralnick and Dave Marsh, most notably) and adding even more to the many candid moments of archival footage of the man, there is Lou Reed on the soundtrack reading from Doc’s journals.

The songs speak for themselves: “Lonely Avenue” (for Ray Charles); “Save the Last Dance for Me” (inspired by Pomus’ own wedding and immortalized by Ben. E. King); “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love” a piece of South Bronx blues encapsulated by Dion and the Belmonts (Bob Dylan said that everything you need to know is in that song). He wrote with Phil Spector and Mort Shuman, wrote big hits for Elvis (“Viva Las Vegas” and a host of movie vocals – when the King was under contract with MGM to make four musicals a year, each with ten songs) and Andy Williams (“Can’t Get Used to Losing You” taken from his own marriage breakdown). He worked with Dr. John, championed Lou Reed and little Jimmy Scott and taught Shawn Colvin and Joan Osbourne in his songwriting course. Dylan asked to write with him; John Lennon was a fan who became a friend. He was a denizen of midtown Manhattan hotels, the centre of revolving, seemingly never-ending musical evenings.

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Doc Pomus’ song ended in 1991; AKA Doc Pomus reminds us that the memory lingers on. His life was a work of art of his own creation.

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When you’re lost in Juarez these days, you’re in the murder capital of the world (3622 in 2010, for example – El Paso, Texas across the Rio Grande had five that year). Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura is a cinéma vérité look at the Mexican drug cartels’ pop culture influence on a narco corrido singer, Edgar Quintero, with stars in his eyes and bullets in his belt, set against a crime scene investigator who must mask his identity to protect his life in Juarez. The singer makes the brutal life of a cartel member glamorous; fans on both sides of the border eat this stuff up. One journalist puts it in perspective: “Narcos represent limitless power but they are a symptom of a dead society; 92 per cent of murders have not been investigated.” Quintero takes a trip to Culiacán, in the heart of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. Schwarz follows him into a beautiful cemetery with big tombs filled with young dead men. Schwarz’s camera indicts without prejudice making for compelling viewing.  Narco Cultura, which premiered in May at Hot Docs, returns to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for a brief run, November 29, 30, December 1 and 5.

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The Broken Circle Breakdown, a bluegrass musical and Belgium’s nominee for consideration as Best Foreign Language Academy Award, recently finished its brief engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This lovely film tells the story of Didier, a banjo-playing farmer, Elise, his tattoo parlour worker wife, their six-year-old daughter Maybelle and her battle with cancer. The narrative begins by flashing back seven years to the couple’s first meeting and their intense love for each other, which never ebbs.

Didier is enamoured of the settlers of the Appalachian Mountains, the dirt-poor fortune hunters who lived there mining the slate that was so difficult to crack. To combat their hunger and misery -- he seduces Elise with this story actually – they sang about their dreams of a promised land, about their sorrow and their hunger and their misery, their fear of dying and their hope for a better life. As Didier tells it, each immigrant group brought a specific instrument to the mix: the Spaniard, a guitar; the Jew, a violin; the African, a banjo; and the Italian, a mandolin. It’s the essence of folk music according to Didier and Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, is the greatest musician in the world.

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As the movie moves forward (and backward with its many flashbacks) we realized that it’s a country song come to life. Several country songs, in fact, in which love, joy, grief and blame play major parts, but the music is always tunefully sweet. Didier plays banjo in a classic bluegrass quintet; Elise becomes the lead singer and their performances punctuate and comment on the narrative, none more appropriate than Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Watch for The Broken Circle Breakdown at a rep theatre or  on video. It will take you to “the glory land.”

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Two other films now playing are worthy of attention. Philomena, the runner-up to 12 Years a Slave for the People’s Choice Award at TIFF 2013, benefits from an Oscar-worthy performance from Judy Dench, a rich screenplay by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan (who co-stars), a sensitive score by Alexandre Desplats and the remarkable Stephen Frears, who directs without show or artifice but always in the service of the humanism of the film’s riveting, true story.

Dench plays the title character, a retired Irish Catholic nurse whose pangs of regret, guilt and curiosity well up on what would have been her son’s 50th birthday to push her to find the child who was taken from her when she was under the care of the Abbey Sisters of Sacred Heart in Roscrea, Ireland as a teenager in the 1950s. Her companion in this search is a high-profile Oxford-educated ex-BBC television journalist and political scapegoat (played to acerbic perfection by Coogan). As the plot thickens, Desplats’ music (performed with subtlety and warmth by the London Symphony Orchestra) intensifies but never oversteps its bounds. The late John Tavener’s “Mother of God Here I Stand” makes a moving appearance near the end of this first-rate film that sensitively explores the bonds of maternal love, and the many facets of faith. Philomena opened November 29 at the Varsity and other theatres.

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Short Term 12 follows foster children in a treatment facility being cared for by former foster children who have overcome the kind of problems that have led their patients into the bungalow they now call home. These are teenagers, mostly, who have been abused or who could not find comfort in their previous domestic life. Thoughtful and compassionate, it’s no docudrama, but a powerful story of parallel lives, propelled by a tour de force of realistic acting (Brie Larson, Best Actress, Locarno Film Festival 2013).

Larson plays Grace, a counsellor whose memories of an abusive childhood experience are unlocked by a new patient, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). The staff’s regular modus operandi is to use empathy as a major tool of therapy, so it’s doubly intense when Grace makes it so personal with Jayden.

The movie begins and ends with anecdotes by Mason, Grace’s fellow counsellor and boyfriend, the second of which sends you walking out of the theatre on a high since it reveals a crucial piece of information about another patient who we’ve come to root for.

Joel P West’s instrumental soundtrack is minimal and serviceable but his songs and especially those rapped by Keith Stanfield (who has a key supporting role in the film) deepen the authenticity portrayed onscreen. Short Term 12 is playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Carlton.

Music & the Movies: Lee Daniels’ The Butler and The Grandmaster

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Two historical dramas, both inspired by true events, are appearing in Toronto theatres beginning August 16 and 23.  Lee Daniels’ The Butler (which opens first) follows the Civil Rights movement from the late 1950s tand the turbulent 60s right up to Obama’s election, all through the vantage point of a black White House butler, Cecil Gaines. Gaines’ character is based on Eugene Allen who served eight Presidents from Truman through Reagan (although the film has him beginning his service in 1957 to coincide with the first blast of the federal government’s interventionist role in Little Rock, Arkansas against the segregationist Governor Orville Faubus).

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These history lessons never get old, from lunch counter sit-ins to the Bloody Sunday of the Selma march, the Freedom Bus incident with the Ku Klux Klan through the assassination of Martin Luther King and the rise of the Black Panthers, even as they are all too often subsumed by melodrama. That the film’s narrative is never completely thrown off its dynamic trajectory is chiefly due to Forest Whitaker’s nuanced, dignified performance in the title role (Oprah Winfrey is awards season bait as his wife). And to be sure, having one of his sons (played by David Oyelowo) become a participant in the struggles of the 1960s adds a special perspective to balance the cloak of invisibility that Gaines must wear in order to do his job.

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The all-star cameo Presidential cast includes Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Schreiber as LBJ (memorable sitting on the toilet while conducting a meeting with his advisors), John Cusack (laughable as Vice-President Richard Nixon, but curiously believable as President Nixon) and Alan Rickman (seemingly constipated) as a duplicitous Ronald Reagan.

The period soundtrack is at its best when it turns to R & B hits like Faye Adams singing “Hurts Me To My Heart” (1954) or Shorty Long doing “Function At The Junction.” Dinah Washington’s take on “I’ll Close My Eyes” (1956) enlivens the transition between Kennedy and Johnson; Gladys Knight brings great depth to Lenny Kravitz’s “You and I Ain’t Nothin’ No More.”

But the classical excerpts, like Gerald Robbins and the Moscow Philharmonic with Kenneth Klein conducting Schumann’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Minor are too nondescript to make a significant impact, beautiful as the music may be intrinsically. Mozart’s C Major Sonata, K. 545 and his Rondo No 2 for Violin and Orchestra, K. 373 are a solid upgrade on run-of-the-mill movie music but act only as a way to class up the production. Bach’s Praeludium from his Partita No. 1 stands out (undoubtedly because the pianist is Maria Joäo Pires), as does Walter Klien’s all-too-brief moment with Mozart’s Piano Variations on ‘Ah, Vous Dirai-Je, Maman.’

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The Grandmaster conflates Wong Kar Wai’s best known film, the über romantic In the Mood for Love with his earlier martial arts homage to Sergio Leone, Ashes of Time. Warm strings and marching drums set up a kung fu match in the rain in Foshan 1936, a brassy orchestral combat between Gong Yutian the grandmaster of northern China and Ip Man (Wong favourite Tony Leung Chui Wai), from a well-to-do southern family. A piano solo introduces us to the Gold Pavilion brothel (which was a social club for martial artists) and to Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi). Lots of facial close-ups serve the iconographic landscape well. Operatic music in the vein of Lakmé follows the breaking of the cake dance, a marvellously well-choreographed battle of wits between Gong and Ip, which Gong wins.

The Japanese invasion is conveyed through the shattering of a Gong family portrait, like going straight to winter from spring. Meanwhile, Ip likewise refuses to collaborate and loses two daughters, moves to Hong Kong in 1950 to support what was left of his family bringing his Wing Chun style of kung fu A-game. (The film is filled with ritual and customs like Ip Man’s stylized acceptance of a cigarette from the “Tai Chi Master.”) The orchestral introduction to “Casta Diva” for a crucial knife fight shows the different use of classical music in the two films. Here it enhances, in The Butler it just fills space. We never hear the voice in the Bellini; Wong Kar Wai knows how to build and savour the romantic moment.

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Hyper romantic diffused images and the warmth of a cello set the scene for Ip’s second meeting with Gong Er, in Hong Kong where she is a doctor, having renounced martial arts but paying physically for her old injuries as a martial artist.

“How boring life would be without regrets,” she says. feeding Wong’s remorseful bent, as the soundtrack resonates with the action on the screen; in The Butler the use of classical music feels slapped on.

Wong uses excerpts from several Chinese operas, Deborah’s theme by Ennio Morricone from Once Upon a Time in America, Stafano Lentini’s Stabat Mater for soprano and orchestra and original music by Nathaniel Méchaly and Shigeru Umebayashi to enhance the rich imagery of his film. Meanwhile, the spirit of Wing Chun kept Ip Man going through the 1950s; his most famous pupil was Bruce Lee (an electrifying few seconds of a young boy smiling knowingly precisely capture his precocious talent).

Twenty Feet From Stardom

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Lou Reed’s iconic 60s anthem Walk on the Wild Side encapsulated the sound of the decade with the line “And the coloured girls go Doo do doo do doo do do doo.” Right off the top of Twenty Feet from Stardom (currently at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema) filmmaker Morgan Neville’s exuberant homage to the unheralded backup singers who were an integral part of the music of an era, Darlene Love, Janice Pendarvis and Merry Clayton have a joyful reunion where they spontaneously go “Doo do doo do doo do do doo.”

Neville’s instructive documentary then proceeds to illuminate the joys of music making when the people you need to make happy are the people you’re working for. Focusing on the signature voices of (mostly) women who helped make other people stars, the film is a breezy 90-minute jukebox that puts its subjects in a historical context, incorporates major talking heads (Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting and Stevie Wonder) and throws in some academic analysis from Dr. Todd Boyd who talks about “the transformative sound coming out of the backup singers.”

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Springsteen is more direct: “It [Phil Spector’s He’s a Rebel] was the sound of youth. You started to pick up that voice [Darlene Love at 18] and you started to have an allegiance to that voice.” Spector made Love the voice of The Crystals who lip-synched to their hits. Love and her girl group, The Blossoms, were the wallpaper of early 60s pop but she walked away from Spector in the 70s, no longer able to bear being exploited by him.

Forced to work as a cleaning woman, she found herself cleaning a house in Beverly Hills when her 1963 hit, Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), came on the radio. She realilzed that she needed to sing (and move to New York City), beginning a rebirth, a solo career and 25 appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman.

But the iconic Love is the exception.

“We come in and sing the hooks,” says noted backup singer and current associate professor of voice at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Janice Pendarvis. “To blend and mesh with the other voices is awesome,” she adds.

“All the harmonies ping,” says jazz singer Jo Lawry, who currently backs up Sting.

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“Some people will do anything to be famous, and then other people will just sing,” says Lisa Fischer, the revelation of the film. “I love melodies,” she adds, after scatting effortlessly. In Hounds of Winter, Sting described her as having an “extraordinary ghostly voice.” Trumpeter Chris Botti (with whom she has been performing jazz the last few years) calls her “a freak of nature” noting that Sting turned her “powerhouse voice” loose. She’s been on every Rolling Stones tour since 1989. (Her description of her audition for Mick Jagger was cut from the finished film -- when she started to sing, Jagger got up from his desk and walked over and began moving with her.)

Fischer explains her stunningly beautiful, lullaby-like version of Samuel Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night this way: “You just let yourself go. You never hit your head, you just land.”

She learned a lot about breath from Luther Vandross (who started as a backup singer himself). “Can you give it to me with more air,” he once asked of her.

Springsteen remembers being invited by David Bowie to Philadelphia in 1973 when Vandross was one of the backup singers in Bowie’s Young Americans band: “They bring a world with them,” Springsteen said.

The enthusiastic Waters Family seems happy with its backup role. According to Springsteen they secularized the gospel sound. You may not know them but you’ve heard them singing on the It’s a Small World ride at Disneyland/Disney World, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the theme from Growing Pains and even producing bird sounds for the movie Avatar.

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Led Zeppelin and Joe Cocker, among other Brits, wanted to sound black and needed backups to do so. Mick Jagger describes Merry Clayton’s work on Gimme Shelter this way: “She sings the lyrics right along with me with a lot of personality.” And when she sang “rape, murder, just a shot away,” Clayton had the good musical sense to go up another octave.

(Clayton willed herself to be a Raelette and then one day Ray Charles was waiting for the right note from her in his choir. Not getting it he punched it out repeatedly on the piano in front of 5,000 people.)

Why do they not make it as up front stars? Lou Adler simply says of Clayton: “Stardom eludes her.” Stevie Wonder is more articulate, talking about the importance of the material you choose and how you work with producers. Sting points out that “It’s not a level playing field, it’s circumstance, luck, destiny – I don’t know what it is.”

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But if it takes ego, self-promotion and an understanding of the business to break out, why not satisfy your love of singing and serve another master?


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