Tag Archives: Martin Scorsese

Rocks In The Attic #842: Various Artists – ‘The King Of Comedy (O.S.T.)’ (1982)

RITA#842There’s an area of the internet that believes that Martin Scorsese’s The King Of Comedy is somehow a better film than Todd Phillips’ Joker. While it’s clear that without Scorsese’s film, Phillips’ film wouldn’t exit – it’s a key influence on Joker alongside Scorsese’s earlier classic, Taxi Driver – it’s also clear that Joker managed to take those key elements of The King Of Comedy and do something far more interesting with them. How much of this existed while Scorsese was initially attached to Joker as producer, before departing to announce that comic book films were the equivalent of theme park rides, is unclear, but one has to wonder if he was simply uncomfortable with referencing his own work so blatantly.

RITA#842aYou have to wonder what the point of The King Of Comedy is; what Scorsese is trying to achieve. After the success of Taxi Driver for Columbia Pictures in 1976, the director made a couple of lukewarm films for United Artists: New York, New York in 1977 and Raging Bull in 1980. While the latter has proven to be one of his strongest films, it wasn’t initially received as such, and only took $23 million against an $18 million budget.

Switching to 20th Century Fox for The King Of Comedy, it almost seems that Scorsese is trying to not only derail his own career but destroy his reputation with each of the major film studios. His cocaine addiction probably deserves some of the blame here. It wouldn’t be his first strange choice for a project, and it wouldn’t be his last.

Where De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver was to some extent an anti-hero, his Rupert Pupkin in The King Of Comedy is even more unlikable than Raging Bull’s Jake La Motta. He’s a wannabe stand-up comedian; more infatuated with the glare of the TV cameras than the audience he’s entertaining. It’s not widespread success he’s chasing, it’s merely the acceptance of Rita (Diahnne Abbott).

That was the one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb when I saw Joker in the cinema; that they had cast a black actress (Zazie Beetz) as Sophie, Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) love-interest. It seemed a little too on the nose, a blatant casting choice (the fact that Beetz looks so similar to Abbott doesn’t help matters). But to his credit, Todd Phillips does something far more interesting with the nature of his film’s central relationship.

Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s camera-flash free-frame used for the opening credits (and over a great Ray Charles song) is particularly well done. The other great shot is the image of Jerry Lewis’ Jerry Langford catching Pupkin’s hijacked monologue on a bank of TV’s in a store window after he escapes from Sandra Bernhard’s obsessed stalker Masha. Cinematic gold.

Times Square looks wonderful, and it’s nice to spot Blade Runner up on the marquee of one of the movie theatres. It’s also great to spot three quarters of the Clash – Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon – alongside Don Letts and their sometime manager Kosmo Vinyl, as extras in the scene where Masha confronts Pupkin. Topper Headon must have been busy.

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Not only did the film heavily influence Joker, but the scenes of Pupkin rehearsing / fantasising in his bedroom and hollering at his constantly interrupting mother (played by Scorsese’s mother Catherine) clearly influenced a similar trope in TV’s The Big Bang Theory.

I don’t think the needle-drops work spectacularly well in the film, but the soundtrack on its own is fantastic. Scorsese’s first collaboration with the Band’s Robbie Robertson as a de facto music supervisor sets the tone of most of the director’s soundtracks for the next three decades (right up to last year’s The Irishman): lots of blues based ‘60s and ‘70s rock interspersed with the occasional pop song.

Robertson’s own Between Trains exists as his first original song since leaving the Band, and the soundtrack also includes the only appearance of David Sanborn’s The Finer Things. Alongside Scorsese soundtrack regulars Van Morisson, B.B. King and Ray Charles, the soundtrack also features younger artists like the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, Talking Heads and the Pretenders. It’s the Pretenders’ song, Back On The Chain Gang, that feels so out of place, being such an evergreen radio hit.

Hit: Back On The Chain Gang – The Pretenders

Hidden Gem: Between Trains – Robbie Robertson

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Rocks In The Attic #763: David Bowie – ‘Pinups’ (1973)

RITA#763I just saw Martin Scorsese’s new documentary, covering Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder tour of 1975 – 1976. I’m not much of a Dylan-head, so it was all new information to me. I’d seen pictures of him playing with a face painted white, but I had no idea what that was all about. And I was surprised to learn that Gene Simmons and Kiss were partly to blame!

Another surprise was spotting a post-Bowie Mick Ronson playing in Dylan’s tour band. I’m not much of a Bowie-head either, so I wasn’t sure what Ronson ended up doing after he left Bowie’s employ. Turns out he was a very busy boy, recording two solo albums and essentially becoming a gun for hire.

Ronson appears in the Scorsese film a couple of times, playing some blistering lead guitar on a couple of songs on stage, and can be glimpsed walking around backstage and in some of more interesting off-stage sections of the film. It really made me realise how much I miss seeing him strutting around with his Les Paul. It was sad to hear Joan Baez recount asking Ronson what Dylan thought of him, and Ronson replied ‘I don’t know; Bob’s never spoken to me’.

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The highlight of the Dylan film for me was seeing Joni Mitchell playing Bob and his entourage the song Coyote, which she had written for the tour. Bob half-heartedly joins in, and you can see his face almost drain at Joni’s use of non-standard tuning and funny chords. It’s the same look of despondency he throws at a pair of CBS records executives when he goes in to ask about them releasing Hurricane as a single (to draw attention to the false imprisonment of boxer Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter). One executive immediately starts talking about markets and the possibility of airplay on black radio stations. Bob just doesn’t care and his face shows it.

My one very small criticism of Scorsese’s film relates to the only time I’ve seen Dylan play. At the end of the film, in the run-up to the credits, each of Dylan’s tour dates since the Rolling Thunder tour are listed, separated by year. I paused the 2018 list to have a look at the date I saw him play, in Auckland. Not only is the concert listed against an incorrect date, but it’s also attributed to Brisbane, New Zealand – an imaginary combination of locations in the Pacific. Jeez, Scorsese is such a hack director!

Pinups is probably the Bowie album I know the least from his early glam period. I don’t know why; I think I just avoided it in my youth simply for being a covers record. Whenever I do listen to it though, I really enjoy it. It’s nice to see the kind of mainly London-esque material that was making Bowie tick at the time – The Who, The Pretty Things, Pink Floyd, Them, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Mojos, The Easybeats and The Merseys. It’s actually a bloody strong LP, finding Bowie having a lot of fun, backed by Ronson and bass player Trevor Bolder from the Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane albums, and drummer Aynsley Dunbar. Nice to see Twiggy on the cover too.

Hit: Sorrow

Hidden Gem: Here Comes The Night

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Rocks In The Attic #671: Aimee Mann & Jon Brion – ‘Magnolia (O.S.T.)’ (1999)

150678 - SMALLER SPINECould Magnolia be the best film of the 1990s?

Rolling Stone rank it at a lowly #26, twelve places behind director Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous film, the arguably more accessible Boogie Nights. The magazine voted Scorsese’s Goodfellas at #1 (followed by a more esoteric run-down than you would expect from Rolling Stone: #5 – Pulp Fiction, #4 – The Silence Of The Lambs, #3 – Safe, #2 – Hoop Dreams).

A reader’s poll in Rolling Stone, ranking the twenty-five best movies of the decade, doesn’t even mention Magnolia, again with PTA’s Boogie Nights making the cut (faring a little better at #19). Not surprisingly, the poll’s top five are populist choices – #5 – Fight Club, #4 – The Shawshank Redemption, #3 – Goodfellas, #2 – The Big Lebowski, and #1 – Pulp Fiction.

RITA#671cBut who cares about polls and lists? They’re usually only there to provoke discussion – and quite why Rolling Stone could vote a three-hour documentary about basketball hopefuls from the inner-city slums as the second-best film of the year is anybody’s guess. I loved Hoop Dreams, but is it better than anything from Tarantino, the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas) or Fincher?

Even Paul Thomas Anderson’s first film – the casino-centric Hard Eight (1996), starring Philip Baker Hall, John C. Reilly, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson, deserves a look-in. It’s the kind of film that makes you want to inhabit a casino, let alone visit one.

A textbook first film, you can see a lot of the visual flourishes that are the hallmark of films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia before he started to move away to more static filmmaking. The easiest of his trademarks to spot is the fast dolly-in, usually as a character enters a scene or an object becomes the focus of the narrative. These shots define PTA as much as the inserts and birds-eye views of Wes Anderson’s films, or the tracking shots of Scorsese.

The number eight resonates strongly with Paul Thomas Anderson and Magnolia. He debuted with Hard Eight – the number on the dice needed by the craps-playing Philip Seymour Hoffman; he’s just released his eighth feature, Phantom Thread; and the number eight is a symbolic fingerprint of Magnolia – the film culminating with the threat of Exodus 8:2: ‘If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.’

RITA#671aSo Anderson spends the three hours of Magnolia interpreting Christianity and emerges with a delicious pun, insinuating that the biblical plague of raining frogs was caused by the producers of the quiz show who wouldn’t let Stanley visit the toilet. He would revisit the themes of religion more seriously later in his career, but this is where he put his toe in the holy water.

It could be claimed that nothing happens in Magnolia, that it’s boring and uneventful. And while it possibly does try to do too much, with too many characters – even Anderson himself has suggested that it’s overlong – its real strength comes from its pacing. I don’t think another film exists as dedicated to building tension as Magnolia. From its opening scene, until the aftermath of the frog-raining finale, the tension builds and builds, until the clouds break and we get a well-deserved resolution across each of the story arcs.

One important aspect, of course, is the music. The soundtrack is comprised of three key elements – pop songs from Supertramp and Gabrielle, together with snippets of the opera Carmen and Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra, a suite of original songs from Aimee Mann, and a lush original score by Jon Brion.

This new release from Mondo Records represents the first time that the soundtrack has been released on vinyl. Split across three discs, the first discs offers the Aimee Mann songs, while the remaining two discs offer the Jon Brion score.

The beautiful packaging also follows the themes of the film, with new artwork by Joao Ruas and the three discs coloured in (1) Sky Blue, (2) Cloudy Blue, and (3) Translucent Gold – in other words, clear sky, cloudy sky, and frog!

Hit: One – Aimee Mann

Hidden Gem: Stanley / Frank / Linda’s Breakdown – Jon Brion

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Rocks In The Attic #662: Brian Gascoigne – ‘Phase IV (O.S.T.)’ (1974)

RITA#662.jpgIf I walk into my local branch of the Warehouse (a general merchandise superstore chain in New Zealand), I can find practically anything. High-end TVs, underwear, plants, shoes, deodorant, children’s toys – there’s practically no limit to what they range.

In the last decade, they’ve started to stock LPs. I’ve had a few good deals from there over the years, but mostly they deal with common denominator titles. As soon as I approach the racks – usually very poorly displayed – I know what I’m going to see. Brothers In Arms sits next to every AC/DC studio album under the sun, three corner-dinged copies of Dark Side Of The Moon will be there, sat behind the latest overpriced Ed Sheeran record, but if I’m lucky there will be something that takes me completely by surprise (Aerosmith’s awesome 1973 Paul’s Mall bootleg being my greatest find so far).

In fact, I’ve seen so many copies of AC/DC records there, I actually think it might explain why Back In Black is one of the best-selling records of all time – the Warehouse made a stocktake error, and there are still eight million copies sat on their shelves.

It just goes to show that while the big chain stores try to get on the vinyl revival bandwagon, they’ll nearly always miss the needs of the niche record collector.

At the other end of the spectrum exists a boutique record label – Waxwork Records – founded by Kevin Bergeron in New Orleans in 2013. Their primary focus is the preservation and release of horror soundtracks – particularly cult films from the ‘70s and ‘80s – but their output so far has ranged from soundtracks as diverse as Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver, Éric Serra’s Leon: The Professional, and Barry Devorzon’s The Warriors, to original music like PILOTPRIEST’s Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (currently glued to my turntable).

RITA#662aTheir specialty however is sourcing out-of-print soundtracks or, in some cases, music from films that never had a soundtrack release in any format upon release. There’s a detective element to their work then (more information on which can be found here); a level of research that you would usually only see from archivists and historians on the behalf of major-label acts (the nth Beatle Mark Lewisohn, for example).

1974’s Phase IV is one such film that never had a soundtrack commercially released in any format. The score was therefore considered lost until Bergeron and team tracked it down and issued it as catalogue number WW008.

The film is probably best known for being the sole directorial work of legendary graphic designer Saul Bass – the man behind the artwork and title sequences of films by Otto Preminger, Alfred Hitchock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. It’s a little-known science-fiction horror, concerning the work of two scientists as they attempt to prevent the spread of killer ants.

What sets the film apart from other sci-fi and horror films are the sections showing the behaviour of the ants. Filmed in extreme close-up, the shots of these real ants are more natural history documentary than what you’d expect to see from a film in either genre, but the impact is more effective than any special effect could muster. In such close detail, the ants are as terrifying and horrific as any alien or movie monster could be.

The music, from composer Brian Gascoigne, is a synth-laden slice of 1970’s futurism fused with more traditional instruments which give the film a whistful, rustic feel. Split into four tracks, named after each section of the film – Phase I, Phase II, Phase III and Phase IV – the soundtrack feels more like a prog record in its attempt to evoke an eerie tone, rather than the traditional soundtrack approach of individual music cues.

One interesting sidenote is that Phase IV features the first cinematic depiction of a geometric crop circle (built, in this case, by the killer ants). The initial release of the film came a full two years before any news reports of crop circles in the UK, and is therefore seen as a potential influencer on those who started the practice in the late ‘70s.

Hit: Phase I

Hidden Gem: Phase III

Rocks In The Attic #623: The Band – ‘Music From Big Pink’ (1968)

RITA#623I recently saw The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s film of the final Band performance in 1976. I don’t know why I had avoided this for so long; perhaps it was the feeling that when you’ve seen one classic rock superstar concert line-up, you’ve seen them all. “Get Eric Clapton on the phone, we’re having a get-together.” Or perhaps it was the suspicion that Scorsese’s presence might taint the Band, just like his sycophancy for the Rolling Stones has left that band a little less dangerous.

Watching the film – which I enjoyed immensely – I was struck by the feeling of how inadequate my collection of Band records is. I have this, their classic debut, and I also have their self-titled follow-up, but that’s it. No more. Zilch.

Of course, I’ve been operating under the illusion that that’s all I needed, and that if I made the effort to check out their later recordings then I’d be disappointed. But watching the 1976 version of the group perform in The Last Waltz, it seems like the Band couldn’t write a bad song if they tried.

My favourite guest star in The Waltz was Joni Mitchell – another artist seriously under-represented in my record collection. I have Ladies Of The Canyon, Blue and The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, but I need more, so much more. I might grow my hair and start wearing flares this summer.

Hit: The Weight

Hidden Gem: Chest Fever

Rocks In The Attic #530: Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – ‘Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’ (1976)

rita530It’s a shame that the songwriting of Tom Petty hasn’t earned him a personalised adjective like other famous rockers. You could throw a couple of chords together and somebody might say it sounds Dylanesque, or if your song has a melodic walking bassline it could be accused of sounding McCartneyesque. But unfortunately if you write a song that has all the hallmarks of a Heartbreakers song, nobody says that it sounds a bit Petty. Maybe this does happen and all the recording studio bust-ups are over a simple misunderstanding.

I recently had a week off work. I caught a horrible virus from my four-year old, and felt like death for a few days. During that week – and you need that amount of time to set aside – I watched Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour Tom Petty documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been ill, but it was a really great watch regardless.

It’s become de rigueur for an all-encapsulating documentary to be directed by a big-name director. As well as Bogdanovich’s Petty-thon, there’s Scorsese’s doco on George Harrison, and Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam film. Concert films attract big names too – Jonathan Demme’s work with Talking Heads and Neil Young, Scorsese’s Last Waltz with the Band, Wim Wenders foray into Cuban music, Taylor Hackford’s profile of Chuck Berry, Scorsese’s and Hal Ashby’s work with the Stones. The list is endless, and probably driven by the fact that most film directors are big fans of music to begin with.

I can’t make my mind up about Tom Petty. I love his earlier material, like this album and the unequalled  Damn The Torpedoes, but his later work in the ‘80s, ‘90s and beyond stray a little too close to the middle of the road for my liking. Maybe I’m just being a little Petty in saying that.

Hit: American Girl

Hidden Gem: Breakdown

Rocks In The Attic #466: Various Artists – ‘True Detective (O.S.T.)’ (2015)

RITA#466That first season of True Detective in January 2014 might just be one of the greatest TV shows in recent years; good enough to rival the likes of The Wire and The Sopranos, both of which I’ve recently only gotten around to watching. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the second season of True Detective, which hit screens last year in 2015.

The outstanding first season, starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan, had everything. The story was engrossing, the music was great, the script and characterisation was better than most Hollywood films and the acting was superlative. In fact, the acing was so good, it almost seemed that Academy voters had this in mind when they awarded the Best Actor Oscar to McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club.

Every episode would kick off with the opening credits, soundtracked by The Handsome Family’s Far From Any Road. The opening bars of this sound so much like Del Shannon’s Runaway, that I would take this as my cue to sing As I walk away, I wonder, A-what went wrong with our love. I would do this at the beginning of every episode, for eight long weeks. I must be great to live with; Jive Bunny has a lot to answer for.

It wasn’t just the acting was a stand-out though. Episode four includes a scene where McConaughey’s undercover character robs a rival biker gang. The robbery takes a turn for the worse, and we see the events unfold in a six minute tracking shot without any cuts that is absolutely stunning. This made Orson Welles’ and Scorsese’s tracking shots in A Touch Of Evil and Goodfellas look like the work of a sixth form film class.

The second season didn’t work quite as well. The show is designed to be an anthology series, so the second season featured new characters, bearing no relation whatsoever to the first season. Thankfully, this also means that a third season will have nothing to do with the disappointing second season.

On paper, season two sounded great. My fellow True Detective fans at work joined me in rejoicing at the casting of Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn as the season’s two male leads. Unfortunately, it was not to be. The season was a slog to get through every week; and while Farrell’s anti-hero character was gorgeously likable for being so unlikable, Vince Vaughn just proved to the world that he was not meant for dramatic roles.

Rachel McAdams though? Her portrayal of an embittered cop, forced to partner up (in a tenuous bit of serendipitous storytelling) with Colin Farrell and Taylor Kitsch, was the standout performance of the season. The only other redeeming quality of season two was Leonard Cohen’s song Nevermind, which played over the opening credits. Featuring a different set of lyrics each week, taken from different verses in the song, Cohen’s dirty grumble combined with a wicked bassline was sometimes the best thing about the show.

Season two did have two great scenes though, to rival anything from the first season – a gun battle on the streets of L.A. in episode four, and Rachel McAdams’ drug-induced infiltration of a sex party in episode six – but other than this, we seemed to get a lot of scenes with Vince Vaughn talking about property development. Yawn. Those pornographic images of roads and highways featured on the opening credits and between scenes were way more interesting than Vaughn’s dialogue.

Hit: Far From Any Road – The Handsome Family

Hidden Gem: The Only Thing Worth Fighting For – Lera Lynn