Category Archives: Various Artists

Rocks In The Attic #806: Various Artists – ‘Inside Llewyn Davis (O.S.T.)’ (2013)

RITA#806“What does the ‘N’ stand for?”

Inside Llewyn Davis is another latter day gem from the Coen brothers. Coming straight off the success of 2010 western remake True Grit, this film finds them exploring the pre-folk explosion music scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

Oscar Isaac plays the titular character, a down-on-his-luck folk singer earning just enough to keep him going from couch to couch, while he chases a lucky break. The Coens paint a painfully bleak picture of New York heading into winter, as life and responsibility begin to take their toll on Llewyn.

RITA#806aThe soundtrack, produced by the Coens with T. Bone Burnett, is, as usual, superb. The starting point for the character of Llewyn Davis is Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Bob Dylan, and so the soundtrack features several songs associated with Van Ronk, many of which are performed by Isaac. The cover of Davis’ poorly selling solo album, the Inside Llewyn Davis from the title, is a direct replica of Van Ronk’s album Inside Dave Van Ronk, minus the peeking cat, and the film strikes just the right balance of Davis just missing out on stardom as Van Ronk did. Right place, wrong time.

It has been reported that the Coens view the music of Inside Llewyn Davis as a direct descendant of the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s not hard to hear this connection: there’s definitely a country folk / travelling tale ethos in the songwriting; pure folk from the well, before folk-rock muddied the water. The music is so beautiful, and well performed, that it’s almost heartbreaking to see a despondent Davis catch a glimpse of Dylan in the film’s closing scene. The folk music world is about to turn on its axis, and Llewyn Davis, like Dave Van Ronk, is not going to be at the forefront of the charge.

I’m a huge fan of True Grit and The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, but Inside Llewyn Davis is definitely my favourite of the Coens’ output from this decade. Hail, Caesar! didn’t do anything for me, and we’re unlikely to see another film from them until their adaption of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Coen-alumn / spouse Frances McDormand, which is only in pre-production at the time of writing.

RITA#806bIt is the bleak and gloomy atmosphere of Inside Llewyn Davis that resonates with me the most. This onslaught of misery only lets up for a brief couple of minutes when Davis is contracted to play and sing on a studio session – the side-splitting novelty song Please Mr. Kennedy – alongside Justin Timberlake’s effervescent Jim Berkey and Adam Driver’s no-nonsense Al Cody. It’s the film’s rare moment of illumination, and potentially a lucky break for our protagonist, but his circumstances dictate that he takes a one-off payment for the work, thereby writing off any chances of receiving any of the song’s eventual royalties.

Like a lot of the Coens’ work, the film has a weird streak running through it: the elusive ginger cat echoes the peeling wallpaper of Barton Fink or the pencil-strewn anxiety of Jerry Lundegaard’s falsified loan form in Fargo; a small obsession that ultimately means nothing. And perhaps most interesting of all, the Coens’ mastery of character and narrative expertly maneuvers an unseen character in the film: the cruel hand of fate that leads Llewyn Davis in one direction and opens the door to somebody else.

Hit: Hang Me, Oh Hang Me – Oscar Isaac

Hidden Gem: Please Mr. Kennedy – Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac & Adam Driver

RITA#806c

Rocks In The Attic #799: Various Artists – ‘Go (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

RITA#799Following hot on the heels of his breakthrough hit Swingers, Doug Liman’s Go is a quirky little film dealing with youth culture at the end of the 1990s. It borrows liberally from Quentin Tarantino, in particular the time-switching of Pulp Fiction, as it intertwines three stories set in one day in Southern California and Las Vegas.

In the first story, a group of supermarket workers head to a weekend rave and get caught up in a drug deal that goes bad, in the second story one of their co-workers heads off to Las Vegas with another bunch of friends, and the final story covers the tale of a pair of TV actors forced to take part in an undercover drug sting.

As much as I admire 1996’s Swingers, the film that made a star out of Vince Vaughan and boosted the profiles of Jon Favreau (also its writer), Heather Graham and Ron Livingston, I’ve always found it quite bleak. For a Vegas (and Reno!) film dealing with the seedier side of the city, away from the neon glamour of the tourist traps, I much prefer Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, released in the same year.

RITA#799aI found 1999’s Go to be much more of a fun ride than Swingers, although admittedly not as groundbreaking. It has an ensemble cast, featuring both Timothy Olyphant and Katie Holmes in early roles, and I’ve always wondered whether this was the film that Tom Cruise saw before he set his sights on Holmes. Or maybe he was just a Dawson’s Creek fan.

Sadly, Swingers and Go were the last small-budget indie films that Doug Liman directed. His talents were obvious and his subsequent filmography shows how much he impressed Hollywood with these two films. His next project after Go was 2002’s The Bourne Identity, and he followed this with similarly-sized blockbusters as 2005’s Mr. And Mrs Smith, 2008’s Jumper, 2014’s Edge Of Tomorrow and 2017’s American Made. He’s currently in post-production on a sequel to Edge Of Tomorrow, taking its name from the alternate title of the 2014 film: Live, Die, Repeat And Repeat.

The soundtrack to Go is very much of its time – all big beats and samples, typified by the inclusion of Fatboy Slim’s Gangster Trippin’. When I first heard the soundtrack was getting a vinyl reissue, I thought that it was another example of record companies scraping the barrel, and so I sat on it until I was able to pick it up in a sale. I’m so glad I did, as it’s chock-full of gems. No Doubt’s New and Len’s Steal My Sunshine get top-billing alongside the Fatboy Slim track, but it’s the lesser-known tracks that I’m here for.

Jimmy Luxury’s Cha Cha Cha, featuring a sample of the Tommy Rowe Orchestra, is a funky little gem, Air’s Talisman is one of the many highlights of Moon Safari, and Lionrock’s Fire Up The Shoesaw is just fabulous, not only for its stuttering sample of Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made For Walkin’, but more for it’s delicious sample of Fight At Kobe Dock from John Barry’s score to You Only Live Twice (the title song of which, of course, was sung by Nancy Sinatra).

Hit: Steal My Sunshine – Len

Hidden Gem: Fire Up The Shoesaw – Lionrock

RITA#799b

Rocks In The Attic #781: Various Artists – ‘Easy Rider (O.S.T.)’ (1969)

RITA#781Peter Fonda died on the weekend. The original Captain America from 1969’s New Hollywood hit Easy Rider, he co-wrote the film alongside Terry Southern and director and co-star Dennis Hopper. It almost seems like fate that Fonda would pass away on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival. You’d be far pushed to find a more appropriate icon of that period in American counterculture.

All weekend I listened to WXPN’s live stream of the ’69 Woodstock festival, aired as close to ‘real time’ as possible, including all of the stage announcements and weather delays. It seemed to be streaming about 24 hours ahead of time, as they were streaming it by date rather than sticking to the Friday to Monday morning timeframe. Still, it was great to tune in to listen to most of the sets.

RITA#781aNot only were there quite a lot of forgettable acts early on in the festival, it also sounded very chaotic with the stage announcements offering a glimpse at the bedlam going on between sets. Lost thyroid pills and lost people, broken limbs, bad brown acid to avoid, and hitchhikers hoping to get back into the car they arrived in to get their ‘medication’. The coming of the huge storm minutes after Joe Cocker’s set sounded like the end of times.

Of the dozens of bands who missed out or turned down playing the festival, the funniest story is surely that of Iron Butterfly. Stuck at an airport, they sent a telegram to the festival: ‘We will arrive at LaGuardia / You will have helicopters pick us up / We will fly straight to the show / We will perform immediately / And then we will be flown out.’ Production co-ordinator John Morris sent a telegram back in reply: ‘For reasons I can’t go into / Until you are here / Clarifying your situation / Knowing you are having problems / You will have to find / Other transportation / Unless you plan not to come.’ The first letter of each line of his acrostic reply spelled out his true feelings.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Easy Rider. It’s one of those films that obviously needed to happen, as an important stepping stone in wrestling power away from the studios and into the hands of writers and directors, but as a piece of art I don’t think it’s dated terribly well. In fact, after the opening thrill of Steppenwolf’s Born To Be Wild, the rest of the picture is a bit of a slog. It probably works better when you’re high?

But if this film opened the door and led to Coppola making The Godfather, or Friedkin making The Exorcist, and ultimately to Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars, then it’s more than alright by me.

Hit: Born To Be Wild – Steppenwolf

Hidden Gem: The Pusher – Steppenwolf

RITA#781b

Rocks In The Attic #779: Various Artists – ‘FM (O.S.T.)’ (1978)

RITA#779Is there a worse film with such a great jukebox soundtrack? I don’t know what went on with the production of this film, but they managed to amass a who’s who of AOR tracks – courtesy of many different record labels – on the soundtrack.

It’s amazing to see the ident of the film studio, and the opening credits roll over a Steely Dan track. Their title track is one of the band’s only tracks not to appear on any of their studio albums, and serves as a great reason to own this soundtrack. Within the bands discography, it falls between the recording of 1977’s Aja and 1980’s Gaucho. The instrumental reprise of the title track, unavailable anywhere else, makes it essential for any diehard Steely Dan fan.

The plot of the film – a hit radio station staffed by a plucky bunch of rebels, faced with interference from their corporate owners – is about as interesting as the trade dispute storyline from The Phantom Menace.

The cast – of mostly unknowns – aren’t particularly bad, or unlikable, it’s just that the story is so damn uninteresting. It plays more like a soap opera than a feature film, and the claustrophobia of the radio station offices is really only punctured by two concert performances, by Jimmy ‘Great Spread’ Buffett and Linda Ronstadt.

RITA#779aWhat a corker of a soundtrack though. Alongside the Dan’s FM, we also get their groovy Do It Again, the Eagles’ Life In The Fast Lane, Foreigner’s Cold As Ice, the Doobie’s It Keeps You Runnin’, the Steve Miller Band’s Fly Like An Eagle, Tom Petty & The Heartbreaker’s Breakdown, Queen’s We Will Rock You and the full 8-minute cut of Joe Walsh’s Life’s Been Good To Me. It really is the American Graffiti of late ‘70s rock music. My only criticism is that it’s comprised entirely by white singers and bands, and I can’t imagine any radio station in the late 1970s being so blind to African-American artists.

In fact, the hits come so thick and fast, the film feels more like a 2-hour trailer for a much better film, given how used we are to hearing big songs flip between one to another so rapidly. It’s just a shame the film doesn’t live up to the quality of the music.

No static at all, but a whole load of white noise.

Hit: More Than A Feeling – Boston

Hidden Gem: FM Reprise – Steely Dan

Rocks In The Attic #768: Various Artists – ‘Ghostbusters II (O.S.T.)’ (1989)

RITA#7681989. 11-years old. Painful disappointment at the cinema. Thankfully, the same year also gave us Tim Burton’s Batman just two months later, so all was not lost. It still hurts to think about how disappointing Ghostbusters II was though.

It should have been a sure-fire hit. Five years after the runaway success of the first film, director Ivan Reitman had managed to reunite the original cast – a post-Aliens Sigourney Weaver, a post-Scrooged Bill Murray, and a post-Dragnet Dan Aykroyd. No mean feat in itself. Reitman also managed to secure a script by Aykroyd and fellow co-star Harold Ramis, much like the first film. The same cast, the same writers and the same director, working with a larger budget? What could go wrong?

I watch Ghostbusters II every five years or so. I always want it to be better than it is, but I’m always let down. It just doesn’t have the spark of their first film. The humour isn’t as subtle, the characters aren’t as likable as their 1984 versions, and the story doesn’t have the same David and Goliath / us versus them sensibility.

RITA#768aThe soundtrack itself is a disappointment too. It’s heavily dependant on New Jack Swing, a genre of music that lasted all of a fortnight at the end of the ‘80s. As a result, it sounds incredibly dated. Only Howard Huntsberry’s timeless cover of Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher, used as diagetic music blasted out of a walking Statue Of Liberty in the film, can raise a smile.

Ghostbusters II, Hudson Hawk, Super Mario Bros. As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, Hollywood went through a seemingly aimless phase of producing big-budget genre films and turning them into flops. Big expensive turkeys – dry and disappointing.

Those who defend Ghostbusters II are deluded. They’re the same misguided fools who defend Spielberg’s Hook. Nostalgia is not, and never will be, a substitute for quality filmmaking.

Hit: On Our Own – Bobby Brown

Hidden Gem: Higher And Higher – Howard Huntsberry

RITA#768b

Rocks In The Attic #756: Various Artists – ‘Stax Does The Beatles’ (2008)

RITA#756This year’s Record Store Day was an embarrassment of riches. Not only did it deliver a bunch of sought-after soundtracks, but the funk and soul fan in me was well looked after too.

First released digitally back in 2008, a now double-LP of Stax artists doing Beatles covers sounds like something I’d make up in my dreams. Two of my favourite musical pillars colliding, the only thing that would beat this would be the unearthing of a secret LP of Stax songs recorded by the Fab Four themselves between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s. I’ll keep dreaming about that one.

In fact, it doesn’t take much to imagine what Stax Does The Beatles sounds like. Much of the material collected here is available on the individual Stax releases they’re culled from, with only one or two hard to find tracks included. Probably the most famous cover, Otis Redding’s Day Tripper, is presented as an alternate take that’s just as rocking as the well-known version found on his Dictionary Of Soul from 1966. Another gem is a cover of And I Love Her, a b-side by Reggie Milner who only recorded two singles for Stax.

RITA#756aStax house-band Booker T. & The M.G.s  – once going so far as to record an entire LP in homage to the Beatles – turn in the highest number of performances on the album, responsible for four of its fifteen tracks (five if you include guitarist Steve Cropper’s solo effort of With A Little Help From My Friends, the title-track of his 1969 album).

The album’s liner notes make reference to the little-known fact that Brian Epstein once scouted the Stax studios as a potential place to record the Beatles. His visit to Memphis in March 1966 ultimately led to nothing – Epstein abandoned the idea due to fears over security – and the resulting album, 1966’s Revolver, was recorded back at Abbey Road like the majority of their work. It sounds like a match made in heaven though. “Who knows what it would have sounded like had we recorded it at Stax,” ponders Cropper.  Paul McCartney’s soulful Got To Get You Into My Life, covered here by Booker T. & The M.G.s, remains Revolver’s only glimpse of how close the Beatles came to recording a soul and R&B-influenced album in 1966.

The liner notes do make a glaring omission, however. Of all the records in the world, this really was the place to mention that John Lennon used to jokingly refer to the Stax house-band as Book-A-Table & The Maitre-D’s.

Hit: Day Tripper (Alternate Take) – Otis Redding

Hidden Gem: Something – Isaac Hayes

RITA#756b

Rocks In The Attic #752: Various Artists – ‘Cruising (O.S.T.)’ (1980)

Cruising-Gatefold-FINAL-1024What was Exorcist­-director William Friedkin doing in a hardcore gay bar, in the middle of the night, dressed only in a jockstrap, socks and shoes?

Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1977, Friedkin was one of the most successful film directors of the decade. 1971’s The French Connection earned him a Best Director Oscar, and he was nominated for the same award for 1973’s The Exorcist. 1977’s Sorcerer, a remake of 1953’s The Wages Of Fear, firmly established him as an exciting renegade director who didn’t play by the rules, and who switched genres for each film.

RITA#752aLooking for his next project, Friedkin originally turned down a film adaptation of the novel Cruising by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, first published in 1970. Telling the story of a New York City cop working undercover to find a serial killer in the gay S&M clubs of Greenwich Village, Friedkin found it outdated and difficult to connect to.  He believed the gay scene had changed tenfold since the book’s release, and was now far edgier and more complex.

Friedkin then started to see news reports about a string of unsolved murders around the S&M clubs in the West Side of New York. Over the next two years, plastic bags containing body parts were found floating in the Hudson River.

In 1979, Friedkin read a newspaper headline claiming that the murderer had been caught. Next to the article was a photograph of the suspect, a man he recognised. Paul Bateson, a 39-year old former radiology technician, was ultimately found guilty of murdering journalist Addison Verrill, a regular at the Mineshaft, a popular leather bar. Bateson was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and although he boasted about being responsible for the ‘bag murders’, he was never officially charged for those killings.

RITA#752bFriedkin had recognised Bateson from a scene during the filming of The Exorcist in 1972. In an attempt to explain her daughter’s strange behaviour, Chris MacNeil agrees for Regan to undergo an invasive medical procedure called a cerebral angiography. The scene is extremely disturbing, and just as unsettling as the film’s later horror scenes. The murder suspect, Paul Bateson, had been an extra in this scene, acting in his capacity as a radiology technician. Friedkin remembered him for wearing an earring and a studded bracelet, both of which was rare to see at the time, particulary on a medical professional.

After meeting with Bateson while he was on trial, Friedkin changed his mind about adapting Cruising, thinking that an updated version loosely influenced by the ‘bag murders’ would be an interesting proposition. He originally cast Richard Gere as the undercover cop, but reneged on this – much to his regret – when Al Pacino read the script and asked to play the part.

By that point, Friedkin already had a history of pushing filming to the limits, to attain the ultimate in authenticity. In The French Connection he had filmed the film’s iconic car/train chase for real, without blocking the streets off or notifying the authorities. In The Exorcist, he had fired guns with blanks to unnerve actor Jason Miller, and pushed for special effects to feel as real as possible, leading to Linda Blair and Ellyn Burstyn suffering from back injuries after being yanked around violently in harnesses. For Cruising, Friedkin, still pushing for authenticity, wanted to film the bar scenes in the Mineshaft, the gay S&M club where Bateson met his victim(s).

RITA#752cThe Mineshaft and other gay bars were owned by Matty ‘The Horse’ Ianello, a member of the Genovese crime family. Friedkin approached Ianello, asked permission to film there, and in turn Ianello put him in touch with the bar’s manager, Wally Wallace.

After Friedkin outlined his plan to film inside the bar, and use the bar’s regulars as extras, Wallace smiled. ‘Well, you’ll never get actors to simulate what our members do,’ he replied.

That weekend, Friedkin attended the club to scout the location, accompanied by a retired Police detective. ‘Wally and his enforcers welcomed us at the door,’ Friedkin writes in his liner notes to Waxwork’s new reissue of the soundtrack. ‘But we had to check our clothes, like all the other members, and strip down to jockstraps, shoes and socks.’

‘We were the two ugliest guys in the room and nobody hit on us. Participation in any of the activities was by choice. We hung around for a couple of hours, drifting and watching. Even knowing what to expect, we left in disbelief. Don’t take this as judgemental – I was in my early 40s – but we had never seen anything like this. We went back several times before the start of filming and we got to know the regulars. Few had any problems appearing in the film and the sex scenes were all real. Pacino was there for most of it.’

It definitely makes for a strange film and not the obvious choice for a filmmaker with two mainstream hits under his name. Pacino plays the role relatively understated, exactly at the halfway point between his earlier, softer presence and the later, gruff-voiced Pacino which he would start to perfect in Brian De Palma’s Scarface a few years later in 1983.

RITA#752dIn film class at University, our lecturer played us a very odd clip from the film. Pacino sits in a room being interviewed by the Police, who are unaware that he is working undercover. Out of the blue, a black man wearing only a jockstrap and a cowboy hat walks into the room, slaps Pacino and exits. The short scene serves no narrative purpose and has stuck with me all these years for its utter randomness. I had thought that the film might have another scene, either an earlier scene feeding it, or a later scene explaining it, but no. When I eventually saw the whole film, it’s just as baffling as watching the scene in isolation. How marvellous.

RITA#752eI recently tracked down Interior. Leather Bar., James Franco and Travis Matthew’s 2013 documentary in which they attempt to film the 40 minutes of gay sex scenes that were cut, and eventually lost, from Cruising. In the hands of a comic actor like Franco, the project is quite difficult to take seriously, and while they are successful in enlisting actors and filming such scenes, the resulting scenes don’t match the sleazy aesthetic of Friedkin’s 1980 film.

The original Cruising soundtrack released in 1980 featured ten songs that appear in the film by Willy DeVille, The Cripples, The Germs, John Hiatt, Madelynn Von Ritz and Rough Trade. Waxwork’s recent 3 x LP reissue expands the soundtrack significantly, featuring a further eighteen songs. The label worked closely with William Friedkin, Sony, and Universal Pictures to locate and unearth the original masters that include the original Jack Nitzsche score sessions, the full recording sessions by the Germs, and all music recorded for the film.

There’s lots to like on this collection – the rock and roll sleaze of Willy DeVille, the post-disco new wave of Rough Trade and the hypnotic bass jazz of Barre Phillips and Ralph Towner. Probably most important, given their lack of available material, is the unearthing of five Germs songs recorded (but not used) for the film.

Hit: It’s So Easy – Willy DeVille

Hidden Gem: Shakedown – Rough Trade

RITA#752f