Netflix Recap: Leigh Majors

In my orgasmically entertaining 2011 Oscar prediction post, I revealed that I was rooting for Mike Leigh to win Best Original Screenplay for Another Year, even though I hadn’t seen it. Based on the consistent excellence of his previous work, in which the writer/director developed characters in quiet, organic ways, I figured that Another Year would be yet another relatively profound study of everyday human beings.

Well, I have finally seen the thing. And wouldn’t you know it, I don’t just agree with my February 2011 self, I applaud me! Because Another Year is more than the latest reminder that Leigh is one of our finest storytellers – it’s his best movie in a while. A look at four seasons in the life of the happily married couple Tom and Gerri (no surnames are mentioned in the film, which could be a comment about the balance that’s essential to a great relationship, or more likely I’m overthinking things because I’ve had a few beers), Leigh’s creation is the rarest kind of movie in the 21st century – a commentary on the power of love that in no way resembles the plot of a Taylor Swift song. Tom and Gerri – portrayed with gentle confidence by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen – are seemingly the lone signpost of warmth and positivity in the lives of their friends Mary and Ken; their easygoing, loving natures bringing both characters to tears in heartbreakingly believable scenes.

Lesley Manville gets the Oscar-baitiest role here as Mary, Gerri’s hopelessly adrift co-worker who is painfully alone, yet prefers a fantasy relationship with Tom and Gerri’s son Joe to the very real (and very awkward) proposition from the comparably miserable, compulsive eating Ken. But where, say, Darren Aronofsky would wring every last drop of melodrama out of a character like Mary – full of crying jags in the shower and screamy nervous breakdowns during traffic jams – Leigh leaves it all up to his great actress. When Joe brings his new girlfriend home for the first time, the look on Manville’s face is all you need to learn just how far gone she really is.

Over the four quadrants of his movie, marked by scenes of Tom and Gerri lovingly tending their garden plot, Leigh shows us the unhappiness of regular folks, dealing with sadness, disappointment and death through the eyes of two of the lucky ones. It’s a movie about how beautiful it can be to grow old together, without ever forcing its graying characters to act young and spunky in the name of a cheap laugh. Which is light years more meaningful, and genuinely more entertaining, than the eventual winner for Best Original Screenplay, The King’s Speech.

With the afterglow of Another Year still washing over me, I re-watched Topsy-Turvy, Leigh’s 1999 Gilbert and Sullivan biopic that remains his closest attempt to a big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Of course, it isn’t one of those, despite the faithful recreations of several of the duo’s productions, full of inspired costumes and ornate set designs. But it is a different experience from all of the other Leigh films I’ve seen, its compelling studies of the two leads competing with charming behind-the-scenes glimpses of the inner workings of late-19th century theater. Its two-and-a-half-hour running time and extended chunks of Gilbert and Sullivan productions make it sound like an insufferably boring thing, but as in Another Year, Leigh’s ability to draw honest performances from his actors turns something bland into meaningful entertainment. Especially wonderful here are Broadbent and Manville, playing against their Another Year roles. Broadbent is the blustery one here; his Gilbert is the epitome of a bitchy artist – fuming over negative reviews, complaining about the trappings of high praise. Manville, as Gilbert’s wife Lucy, delivers a performance full of the pursed looks and defeated sighs of a neglected spouse. In Topsy-Turvy’s penultimate scene, Lucy shares her idea for a play with her husband, as he sits on the side of her separate bed. It’s a deft depiction of a withered relationship before one last song and dance, a snapshot of Leigh and his actors at the top of their game.

Franz List: Oldies But Newies

Last week saw the release of Rave On Buddy Holly, a lovingly slapped together collection of artists interpreting the work of one of rock history’s most enduring phenoms. Which got me thinking about where these covers rank alongside other great versions of classic tunes. Here’s my list of the top 10 oldies covers of all time (we’ll classify “oldies” as stuff originally released in the ’50s and ’60s). One Rave On track moved me so much, it threatened to be #1.

10. Elliott Smith – “Because” (1999)

Of all the crimes that American Beauty has committed (portraying women as nagging psychos, portraying homosexuals as murderous psychos, etc.), slapping this heartbreaking performance from Elliott Smith over the end credits is one of the worst. (If you aren’t sure if Sam Mendes takes himself too seriously, here’s your proof.) “Because” might be the most “spiritual” song in the Beatles catalog, one that asks huge questions in the humblest ways. But Smith, a patron saint of loneliness in pop music at the time, delivered these lines with less wonder and more existentialist dread. While the mid-song instrumentation is loyally aped, it doesn’t provide much of a catharsis. Because at the core of it all is Smith, building four-part harmonies all by himself, singing gorgeously into the void.

9. Elvis Costello & The Attractions – “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” (1980)

There’s usually nothing more throwaway than a punked-out version of a slow-burning oldie. But there’s nothing usual about The Attractions, whose caffeinated take on Sam & Dave’s 1967 torch song is one of their most aggressively catchy recordings. Factor in Costello delivering those man-scorned lyrics in his beautifully bitter tenor, and you’ve got a cover that’s the opposite of disposable.

8. She & Him – “I Should Have Known Better” (2008)

You could argue that a Beatles cover is actually the coward’s way out – if you nail it, then you’re a genius who can reinterpret The Beatles. If you flub it, it’s a Beatles song, what did you expect? On their debut album, She & Him might’ve played it safe with this dreamy hula cover of my sixth-favorite Fab Four cut. But boy did they nail it. It’s a recording that’s perfect for the seaside, but thanks to a slower tempo and some shoegaze vocals, it never crosses over to the twee-side.

7. The Black Crowes – “Hard to Handle” (1990)

When the Black Crowes released this fiery sendup of an Otis Redding gem as the third single off its debut album, the mix of ’60s soul and Southern bar band boogie inspired me to make Shake Your Money Maker the first compact disc I ever bought. Considering that my earlier purchases included Natalie Cole’s “Pink Cadillac” cassette single, this cover will always sound like a profoundly new experience to me.

6. Nina Simone – “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (1971)

One of the finest interpreters of popular music takes a typically hazy Bob Dylan song – a guy goes to Juarez at Easter time, gets tired of making oblique literary references down there, and decides to go back to New York City – removes the jocular sneer, and replaces it with a gentle, sympathetic tone. Over light percussion and delicate jazz guitar, Simone digs deep, turning some of Dylan’s more sarcastic lines into deeply tragic moments (e.g. “My best friend the doctor won’t even say what it is I got.”).

5. David Bowie – “Let’s Spend the Night Together” (1973)

On this Aladdin Sane highlight, Bowie manages to make one of the Rolling Stones’ perennial come-ons sound even more coked-out, combining frantically mashed piano chords and blast-off synths with a lightning tempo. The hypercharged arrangement makes the narrator sound less confident, more desperate, and leagues sexier.

4. Cat Power – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (2000)

Much like Simone did to Dylan, Cat Power does to the Stones, turning their iconic ode to unquenchable desire into a stripped, vulnerable folk song, exposing the constant pursuit of happiness for what it really is – a symptom of sadness and isolation.

3. Gram Parsons – “Love Hurts” (1973)

Before Nazareth screeched all over this tender Boudleaux Bryant original, people didn’t think of it as a regrettable one-night stand they had in the ’70s. The Everly Brothers captured its ache accordingly on its first recorded version. Roy Orbison crooned it over swelling strings and cooing backup singers, in the way only he could. And Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris did it best, accompanied by a light acoustic arrangement that allowed their ragged, magnetic vocal chemistry to carry the day.

2. Patti Smith – “Words of Love” (2011)

Rave On Buddy Holly includes plenty of mimicry and experimentation, and as usual, the latter approach is more rewarding. But the finest moment of the compilation falls squarely between those two categories – Patti Smith’s delicate take on “Words of Love.” The artist had Holly’s greatest melody to work with, yet opted to deliver it simply and directly, over a dreamy, meditative soundscape. It’s a work of stunning beauty, and a clever one at that, fading out to the reassuring whirr of crickets in the evening.

1. Klaus Nomi – “Lightning Strikes” (1981)

It’s easier to appreciate something truly unique when it’s placed in the context of something we’re already comfortable with. Such is Klaus Nomi’s cover of this 1965 Lou Christie smash. The original’s melodramatic delivery was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and its narrator was a straight-up sexual deviant. But Nomi transforms it all into a refreshing blast of avant garde pop, shifting between heavily accented song-speak and delirious bursts of falsetto over a chilly new wave beat. From note one of this cover, there’s no doubt who the original artist is.

[Oh, and for the record, the worst song in this category is James Taylor’s version of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” which manages to suck all of the joy out of the Marvin Gaye original, leaving behind a polished corpse of naptime folk. If Taylor can’t sound lovestruck with such generous source material, he must think a gift of drugstore perfume is guaranteed to get him laid.]

I’m Loyal to My Little Friend: Breaking Bad Season Three

For four years now, I’ve known the glorious freedom of life without cable, a life that doesn’t include any mandatory weekly viewing of our favorite shows. My wife and I just wait for them to come out on DVD, then do it in a glorious marathon session. After which, we watch the DVDs. (Thanks for reading, angel.)

We finished up Season Three of Breaking Bad this week, and if there’s a better show on TV right now, my farts smell like freshly baked bread. Walt is too deep in the drug game to exit gracefully, his wife has left him, and his psyche is so shaky, he can go from gently singing “Horse With No Name” to getting maced for threatening a police officer in a matter of minutes. Bryan Cranston continues his masterful portrayal of a family man in a tough squeeze; you root for him thoroughly, no matter the depths he reaches, because every questionable move he makes involves sticking his neck out for Jesse, his depressed ex-junkie of a partner. But for the first time on the series, Cranston’s been one-upped. Giancarlo Esposito was introduced in season two as Gus, the clean-cut proprietor of a fried chicken fast food joint and the most calculating, cold-blooded drug lord you ever did see. Season three has him welcoming Walt into his fold, setting him up with an ingeniously hidden lab and treating him like the most benevolent of bosses. Esposito’s measured performance outshines everything around it – when he realizes his main rival has been vanquished via cell phone, he registers a quick, Cheshire smile, and it’s enough to give you chills.

Breaking Bad has always been satisfying as an allegory for the importance of conscience – as the 21st century Southwest border version of a father stealing a loaf of bread for his kids, Walt is the ultimate antihero, a guy whose middle fingers to authority make you want to stand up and cheer. By the end of this season, however, a do or die mentality takes over, and you start to wonder if Walt’s moral compass is finally starting to lose its magnetism. Which makes his desperately brave actions of the last five minutes downright exhilarating. This season might’ve been about the draining nature of divorce proceedings and the horrifying world of drug cartels (complete with bad-ass sociopathic gangsters in sharkskin suits), but Breaking Bad remains, first and foremost, a morality tale. And that’s what has me chomping at the bit for next summer’s marathon of season four.

The Sign of IV

Beyoncé just released an excellent new record. It’s her fourth, and it’s called 4. In August, Lil Wayne is scheduled to drop the fourth installment of his Carter series. It’s called Tha Carter IV. And my script for the next Look Who’s Talking movie is called Look Who’s Talking IV. It’s about four babies sent to Earth by God to battle the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Instead of “rapture,” they way “wapture!” Anyways, in the midst of all this four play (sorry), I thought it’d be fun to look back at some other notable fourth albums from artists who were too lazy to come up with a decent title:

Led Zeppelin – Led Zeppelin IV (or Zoso, or whatever)

The IV to rule all IVs. On top of mastering the fusion of metal and blues in ways both guttural and poetic, IV was also the ultimate Trojan horse for nerds – after the crazy sexy swagger of the opening cuts “Black Dog” and “Rock and Roll,” you get a mandolin-fueled ode to Tolkien’s Battle of the Pelennor Fields, the songbird and hedgerow reverie of “Stairway to Heaven,” and a track with “Misty Mountain” in the title.

Scott Walker – Scott 4

Another masterful fourth record, this one from a tortured U.S. expat whose stint as a teen idol and popular crooner in Great Britain left him feeling uncomfortable, and determined to bust out of his MOR shell. It was by far his worst selling album when it was released in 1969, but Scott 4‘s vivid imagery and gorgeous arrangements cast an enchanting gloom, one that profoundly influenced rock iconoclasts to come (Bowie, Pop, Cave, etc.). And if this one isn’t quite dour enough for you, Walker’s 2006 horror-opera masterpiece The Drift (#41 in my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s) makes Scott 4 sound like the Aladdin soundtrack.

Foreigner – 4

Well, so much for good fourth albums. But as far as Foreigner goes, their 1981 smash possessed some of their more tolerable singles, especially “Urgent,” a decent bit of faux R&B that features one of the better rock and roll sax solos of a decade that was lousy with ’em. But you know what? Fuck Foreigner, because whilst doing research for this piece, I learned that they rejected the original Hipgnosis artwork for this album because it was “too homosexual.” The offending shot? A sleeping man with binoculars hovering over his head. Apparently, if it was up to Foreigner, they would be called “straightnoculars.” So, yeah, another reason why Foreigner sucks.

Blues Traveler – Four

As a 16-year-old in 1994, it was in my contract to buy this album. And it wasn’t a bad move, especially when you consider that I purchased Jagged Little Pill a year hence. Blues Traveler were always better experienced live, where their knack for segues resulted in a show that kept the jam-band crowd happy while still pleasing those with actual musical taste. “Run-Around” remains a pleasant enough pop tune, but its follow-up single “Hook” was a more rewarding assemblage of fluttering harmonica over a cheerful Afro-pop guitar riff. Not revolutionary listening, but after many hours spent with Tesla in my Walkman, Four taught me that light and fun can sometimes trump heavy and dumb.

Winger – IV

When asked why he decided to get his band back together in 2006 to make this album, Kip Winger explained, “One day I just woke up and heard the new Winger record in my head.” A fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.



Godsmack – IV

Godsmack might be even bigger dicks than Foreigner. Here’s drummer Shannon Larkin, talking about why they named their fourth album IV: “We have this security guy, a big, tough guy named J.C. He’s another Boston guy. And in Boston it’s ‘fou.’ … He’d be hanging around backstage and chicks would walk by and he would rate them from one to 10. But if it wasn’t a 10, there was no one, two, three, five, six.  It was always you were a 10 or a fou. He just pulled the funniest things. Sometimes, he’d just hold up four fingers and wouldn’t have to say it anymore and we’d all just bust out laughing. And then the funniest one, this guy walked by with a chick on each arm and he goes, ‘Hey, bub, two fous don’t make an eight!'” Ah, J.C. Always pulling the funniest things, like telling women that they’re ugly.