Sunday 26 June 2016

Bix: Singing the Blues by Robert Forrest

Bix Beiderbeck's life was a classic jazz tale: young, brilliant, talented and doomed. His story was the inspiration for the 1938 novel and 1950 movie Young Man With a Horn — a title which is likely to give rise to profane mirth in the UK (see definition 3.5 here).

Beiderbeck played the cornet, which was sort of the forerunner of the trumpet. It was much played in jazz circles, until Louis Armstrong switched to trumpet, and everybody followed suit. Bix was the only contemporary player who could begin to hold a candle to Armstrong — indeed Armstrong professed his admiration for the young white man.

Bix Beiderbeck never got the chance to be anything other than young, drinking himself to death at the age of 28. But he had a unique and lovely sound which was the forerunner of cool jazz and was an influence on the likes of Chet Baker and Miles Davis. So although Bix's life was wasted, his music very definitely lives on...

A point which seems utterly lost on the Radio 3 drama Bix: Singing the Blues by Robert Forrest. Now, Forrest is a distinguished dramatist, and he has written some terrific stuff. His adaptation of The Exorcist, for example, was a knockout. And his credentials, which include a version of The Great Gatsby, suggest that he should have a good handle on the period — 1928 here.

In the event Bix: Singing the Blues is pretty far off the mark in terms of period accuracy. It basically tells the story of an (imaginary) encounter between Beiderbeck and Louis Armstrong. (The two did indeed meet, but not like this.) And Armstrong is all wrong. His dialogue is way too modern. He uses terms such as "cool" — a piece of slang which, like so many others, was coined by Lester Young, who wouldn't be on the scene until the next decade.

But the basic problem is that the play depicts Bix as a whining, damaged, pitiful little pudding of pathos. There is absolutely nothing of his genius or his music in evidence (a brief snatch of his music fades out at the end of the play). This is not only depressing and monotonous, it simply ain't true.

The only reason Forrest is writing a play about Bix Beiderbeck, and the only reason people will be drawn to listen, is because of Bix's greatness as a musician. If only some of that had been evident in this drama then it would have made it both more accurate and more enjoyable.

The play also asserts that Bix was a depraved sexual predator. Now, for all I know, this might be true. But there was no whisper of it in Richard Sudhalter's excellent biography of Bix.

The BBC production is topped and tailed with some fine documentary material about Bix and his music (presumably to explain to listeners why the hell they should be interested — since nothing in the play addresses that issue).

My advice is to listen to the documentary snippets and then go and play some of Bix's classic recordings (and indeed some of Louis Armstrong's). Hearing the drama itself is strictly optional. But if you would like to, you can find it here for the next couple of weeks.

(Image credits: The purple image, which I've doctored considerably, comes from the Radio Times. The green image, also monkeyed with by yours truly, is from the Wikipedia page on Bix. The Young Man with the Horn poster is from the Wikipedia page about the movie and the book cover is from, you guessed it. The Sudhalter et al cover is from Bid or Buy.) 

Sunday 19 June 2016

The Kraken Wakes by Wyndham and McDermid

I've always enjoyed and admired the minatory science fiction of John Wyndham, particularly The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos. But I never read The Kraken Wakes. 

The Kraken is a mythical sea monster, a kind of giant squid, and I always assumed this is what Wyndham's book was about. Which is one reason I never got around to it. The giant squid notion just didn't appeal. But the title is misleading. It's basically a poetic parallel.

The Kraken Wakes is actually about aliens who send space craft into the deepest parts of the Earth's oceans, where their unseen activity eventually gives rise to lethal battle vehicles — "tanks" — which crawl onshore and begin to obliterate humanity.

But more than that, the aliens (dubbed "xenobaths") initiate a deadly climate war against the human race by melting the ice caps. Sea levels begin to rise, like global warming turned up to eleven.

I know all this only because of the superb Radio 4 adaptation of Wyndham's book, sharply scripted by the bestselling Scottish crime writer Val McDermid. This is a really wonderful piece of radio drama with outstanding music by Alan Edward Williams, played by the BBC Philharmonic live during the recording. 

Williams's music deliberately evokes the great scary science fiction classics of the 1950s, such as Bernard Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still, and it adds immeasurably to the impact of this production.

This is a genuinely frightening portrait of what happens to the human race when the seas rise. I had no idea, for instance, that we would lose almost all of the land we need for growing crops. Or that rising sea water would ignite dormant volcanoes which would shroud the planet in a deadly ash cloud.

Chilling, thought provoking, wonderful stuff. Listen while you can — I'm not talking about doomsday here — the BBC radio production is only available for a week! After that, like me, you will need to check out Wyndham's original novel.

(Image credits: The somewhat misleading image of the attacked ocean liner is from the Radio 4 Twitter feed. The more accurate depiction is from Skull in the Stars. The main illustration is from another Twitter link. The cover with the alternate title is from a very useful post by Gotterdammerung, which shows I was not alone in being confused by the Kraken title. )

Sunday 12 June 2016

The Nice Guys by Black & Bagarozzi

Shane Black is a huge favourite of mine. He wrote The Long Kiss Goodnight and wrote as well as directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (a bit of an oscular theme going on here) not to mention Iron Man 3. All films I love. Black is one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. 

And also one of the most highly paid. "That big paycheck," he recalls, "— on two occasions bigger than anybody had received for screenwriting in history — was a curse that ended up taking me out for a few years."

But during those years Black wasn't idle and cowrote a classic detective story with Anthony Bagarozzi. Now that script has finally seen the light of day under the title The Nice Guys. It's a dark buddy movie set in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The period setting is a boon, in all sorts of way. "First off," says Black astutely, "in suspense movies you lose cell phones, which is always great."

Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a guy who is paid to beat people up. He wears a very cool blue leather jacket. Ryan Gosling is Holland March (these are great names), a successful private eye on a self destructive trajectory. Healy is a reformed alcoholic. March is an unreformed one. Both have reasons to drink, and we learn both involve women.

These guys have issues with the female sex. For instance, March falls for a woman who is trying to kill him (Yaya Dacosta).

So far, so standard-noir. But in a stroke of genius, March has been given a 13 year old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice). She's a terrific character and gets some of the best lines. Plus she provides moments of riveting jeopardy.

Crowe looks genuinely battered and gone to seed, which adds immensely to his characterisation. Gosling shows an exhilarating, unexpected comic genius. March and Healy team up to investigate the case of a missing porn star (Margaret Qualley). When Black and Bagarozzi researched the seventies they found "this horrible combination of smog and porn, which had sort of assailed the city."

The smog comes into it, too. As does a hitman who is named after John Boy in the Waltons (Matt Bomer). The Nice Guys is a taut, beautifully structured script which is also very funny. Describing an old woman with poor vision, March says, "She's as blind as a bat. If you painted a moustache on a Volkswagen she'd say, 'Boy that Omar Sharif runs fast!' "

The Nice Guys is a wonderful film — crazily hilarious and utterly engrossing. It filled me with joy from the opening titles onwards. Save for a very dodgy Nixon prosthetic, it would be perfect. Its ending is breathtakingly dark — Healy starts drinking again and March joins him in a bar — but also uplifting, since it hints at a sequel.

It's also, like everything else in the movie, very funny.

Not to be missed.

(Image credits: Thank you, Imp Awards.) 

Sunday 5 June 2016

Maybe We're All Happy: Fat City by Leonard Gardner

'Fat City' is an expression that means the big time, the jackpot, paradise — when you reach Fat City you've really got it made. So it's a bitingly ironic title for Leonard Gardner's 1969 novel about small time professional boxers who are never going to get anywhere.

The novel is a low key masterpiece and I advise you to seek it out and explore it. It's slim, taut and highly readable. And it was made into a film which also qualifies as a small masterpiece, directed by John Huston. It's one of Huston's greatest pictures and is increasingly recognised as a classic.

It tells the tale of Billy Tully (Stacy Keach), a washed up pro boxer now hanging around skidrow and drinking himself into oblivion.  He meets a promising young kid Ernie Monger (Jeff Bridges) and hooks him up with Tully's trainer Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) — definitely a mixed blessing for Ernie.

The boxing bouts are peripheral, and our heroes mostly lose. There's one bitterly hilarious scene in which Ernie gets a flashy new robe. The first time he wears it to a match he takes it off as he steps into the ring and his trainer barely has time to carefully fold it before Ernie is lying on the canvas, knocked out cold.

The story also charts Tully and Ernie's relationships with women. Ernie's girlfriend Faye is excellently played by Candy Clark, but the real prize here goes to Susan Tyrell for her astounding performance as Oma, an even worse lush than Tully. Their woozy, drunken encounters are so beautifully observed, and so sad, that you don't know whether to laugh or cry. Tyrell deserved her Oscar nomination (however, Keach should have got one, too).

The screenplay is by Leonard Gardner, although some other uncredited writers might have contributed to drafts, including David Giler (also uncredited on Alien). The music, a canny selection of popular songs, is by Marvin Hamlisch, and the daring cinematography is by Conrad Hall.

The recent Blu-ray release on the smart little label Twilight Time does full justice to Hall's amazing photography — you step out of the blazing sunlight of Stockton California into the almost impenetrable shadows of a dingy bar; the fabrics of the characters' clothes just seem to glow, and every composition is perfect.

The ending of this movie, an inconsequential little encounter in a seedy cafe, is one of my favourite film moments ever. Tully, now deep in alcoholism, looks at the shaky old skeleton of a man serving them, and says to Ernie, "Maybe he's happy." Then he pauses and says, "Maybe we all are."

But that's not my favourite line. The best one is when a staggered Tully stares dazedly at his trainers after a battering ordeal in the ring and, trying to fathom what just happened, says, "Did I get knocked out?"

"No, we won!"

(Image credits: The Blu-Ray cover is from Twilight Time. The paperback cover is from Wikipedia. The yellow movie poster is from Gstatic. The great black and white shot of Keach and Bridges is from a fascinating article in the Sacramento Bee about Leonard Gardner's second novel — fifty years after the first!)