Mental Illness Comes Out of the Celluloid Closet

its_kind_of_a_funny_story

You feel invisible.  You feel like a ghost, and a ghost that nobody believes in.  There’s this sense of isolation” (Susie Bright)

There are lots of needs for art, and the greatest one is the mirror of our own lives and our own existence.  And that hunger I felt as a kid looking for gay images was to not be alone.” (Harvey Fierstein)

In many ways, the above quotes changed my life.  They are taken from the documentary The Celluloid Closet, which I first saw as a twenty-two year old closeted gay man back in September 1996 when it first aired on British TV.   This was two months before I started work as an admin assistant at the university with which I am still connected.  That six month contract lasted for nine years, before I called it a day and commenced my BA degree in 2005 at the same university.  Eight years later, I’m a few months from handing in my PhD – and a long way from that office where I used to work in the School of Computing.  Quite whether I would have handed in my notice and pursued a degree in film had I not seen The Celluloid Closet is something I shall never know, but that documentary – and, in particular, the quotes above – certainly got me interested in film history in a way that I had not been before.  While I had always liked old films, my eyes had been opened to what these films could tell us about our past (and our present), and there was a personal angle to film history: What did it mean to me?  And, as for those quotes with which I open this lengthier-than-usual post, well, they somehow described how I was feeling living in a small village, not out of the closet, not brave enough to enter a gay bar in the nearest city, and a few years before the internet became a common feature of our lives.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on a message board about the mass shootings that took place in America last year (bear with me, this will all come together eventually).  The issues being discussed were not just ones of possible changes to gun control in America, but also about mental health issues, particularly in the young, and the part these had had in the shootings.  What became clear was that mental health problems were still heavily stigmatised, and rarely discussed, and certainly not “normalised” for the most part (in parts of the USA), and thus many people who needed help were simply not getting it due to the stigma attached to admitting they had a problem.  There have been campaigns in the UK over the last five years or so to try to get mental health issues such as depression and schizophrenia talked about more within society and to try to educate people about these problems and remove the stigma attached to them.   While things are slowly changing in the right direction, it still seems odd that I fear the reaction to telling someone that I am bipolar more than the reaction to telling them I’m gay – especially having been a teenager at a time when homosexuality was largely not accepted by the masses.  In one area we have moved on so far (things aren’t perfect, but they rarely are), but in the other we haven’t progressed a great deal since I was diagnosed back in 1995.

The comments that Susie Wright and Harvey Fierstein made in that 1996 documentary don’t really hold true any more with regards to homosexuality.  That is thanks, in part, to the rise of the home video industry and, more importantly, the introduction of the DVD – a platform far cheaper to produce than VHS tapes.  A multitude of gay-themed films are now available to us – some good, some bad, some just plain ugly.  OK, most are independent or foreign language films, but Hollywood is making headway too.  And, more importantly perhaps, we are even finding LGBT characters in films and TV shows that are not actually about being gay or lesbian.   This goes further to “normalising” homosexuality far more than a gay film that seems to consist only of gay and lesbian characters and is solely about being gay.  Take the Robin Williams vehicle The Night Listener, for example.  Here is a film in which the sexuality of the character just is; it actually has little or no relevance to the narrative.  Or how about the US TV series The United States of Tara, in which the teenaged son of the family is gay, but there is no big coming out scenes?  The family already accepts him for who he is before the first episode even starts, and his various coming of age issues are much the same as those of any other teenager, gay or straight – except that his mother has a multiple personality disorder.  Although it is worth saying that the killing off of one of the gay characters in the series was an unwelcome harking back to the Hollywood of the past where gay men just were not allowed to be happy.  It was one of the few bad moves the series made in this area, and leaves something of a bitter aftertaste simply because of this throwback to earlier times.

If homosexuality has been normalised on our screens over the last fifteen years or so, depression and mental health issues have been conspicuous by their absence.  Which brings me back to those two original quotes at the top of this post – those with mental health issues are largely still invisible in film and TV, and until recently there has certainly been no mirror images for sufferers on the screen – especially if you are young.  A number of European films come to mind – Lakki: The Boy Who Could Fly (1992), The Man Who Loved Yvenge (2008) (both Norwegian), and Presque Rien (2000) all deal with depression and other issues.  Ben X (2007) deals with autism, and this and other movies such as The Suicide Room (2011) and The Class (2007) present us with characters who suffer either from alienation or depression, or both, depending on how you read the film.

The Suicide Room is worth discussing in more detail.  This Polish film tells the story of Dominik, a closeted gay young man who is dared at a party to kiss another boy at his school.  This is videoed and posted on line, and everyone takes it in the good humour in which it was intended.  However, a couple of weeks later, the two boys are involved in a judo bout during which Dominik accidentally orgasms.  This news also hits the social media pages, but this time Dominik is ridiculed and he sinks slower into a depression that sees him seeking solace in an internet chatroom, the “suicide room” of the title.  This is quite different in style and format to the American films I’m going to discuss later, in that this is a film about teenagers but squarely aimed at adults.

But in the UK and America, depression and mental illness has been sadly absent from our screens.  But finally, I believe that is slow changing thanks to  a slow but steady stream of recent films dealing with the issue.

It’s taken long enough.  Back in 2006, an article in the Journal of Health Communication called for a collaboration between the mental health sector and the film industries in order “to counter negative portrayals of mental illness, and to explore the potential for positive portrayals to educate and inform, as well as to entertain” (Perkis, Blood, et al, 2006: 536).  However, it took until 2013 for President Obama to encourage a collaboration in America between the health sector and the media.   An article in the Hollywood Reporter quotes the president of the Entertainment Industries Council as saying “Media and entertainment professionals can play a significant role in the public’s understanding of mental health. …Inaccurate portrayals of individuals living with mental illness can fuel misconceptions that could lead to subsequent discrimination and deter individuals from seeking help for mental health challenges.”  The timing of this is not coincidental, and is clearly wrapped up in the debates that have opened up following last year’s shootings, as mentioned earlier.

But things had been moving forward anyway.  For example, Dare (2009) is an independent film dealing with both issues of sexuality and mental health.  The film follows three teenagers as their lives intertwine romantically, with the film divided into three sections, with each one devoted to the story of one of the characters.  Johnny is the “bad boy” character that is at the centre of the film, and with whom both Ben and Alexa (the other two of the trio) become involved.  What we are perhaps surprised about when it comes to Johnny’s section (the last) is that underneath the bad boy image he is actually a troubled young man who sees a psychiatrist on a regular basis.   Johnny’s “issues” are never actually spelled out to the viewer, although we are led to believe that they are related to a sense of isolation, alienation – and depression.

Only last year, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) provided us with another character, Charlie, who is suffering mental health issues following the death of his friend.  This issue bubbles beneath the surface of the film for the majority of its running time, before finally erupting in the final reel, and yet it is still dealt with in a sympathetic and realistic way.   What’s more, Charlie puts into words exactly how it feels to be depressed.  “There’s so much pain.  And I don’t know how not to notice it,” he says.  This is one of the few times as a sufferer of depression and bipolar for nearly twenty years that I have felt my own experiences portrayed accurately on screen.  Depression isn’t about being sad or unhappy, it’s about somehow being affected by the sadness and unhappiness around us, and not being able to distance ourselves from it.

Charlie in Wallflower does have a distinct reason for his problems (which I won’t go into here in case you have yet to see the film).   However, the vast majority of us suffering from clinical depression really don’t appear to have a reason for being the way we are.  It’s not because a relative passed away, or the cat got run over, or because we got bullied at school.  All of these might be triggers for periods of depression, of course.  But, if I have learned anything about the illness over the last two decades, it’s that it just is and that there is no underlying cause.

This is where It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010) fits in.   In this fine film, Craig, a young man played by Keir Gilchrist (who, coincidentally played the gay son in United States of Tara), checks himself into a psychiatric ward when he fears that he might harm himself.  He thinks he will be in and out by the next day and back at school, but he soon finds out that he has to be admitted for a week – and also that the juvenile ward is closed, and so he will be kept in the adult ward.  There are some parts of the film that are slightly hard to believe.  For example, as a depressed teenager, Craig seems remarkably at ease in social situations and makes friends within the ward very easily.  However, this is a film – and ninety minutes watching a boy who doesn’t speak to anyone would make for relatively dull viewing.

What I found most remarkable watching the film from the viewpoint of someone who has suffered from bipolar for eighteen years, is that Craig isn’t depressed for any particular reason.  Sure, he has stresses from home and school and so on, but these are never really presented to us as the reason for his depression. He is simply a clinically depressed teenager – and, while he will have ups and downs, it’s something he will probably have to deal with for the rest of his life.  From this point of view, the film is something of a revelation.  After watching the film, my reaction was “At Last!”  Finally, my own experiences were being represented.

Despite these fine films, and better attempts at representing the realities or depression (or, at least, my reality), there is still a long way to go in both educating the public and making sure that these characters are the norm and not the exception.   Funny Story was well-received by the mental health sector, and praised for its portrayals of both patients and treatments, and yet the message somehow still failed to sink in in some quarters.   For example, A G Scott wrote in the New York Times review that “this hospital, Argeron, feels like an oasis where the sad can congregate in safety and do their best to make one another laugh”.   Despite watching the film, Scott has still come out thinking that depressed people are simply unhappy and can be cheered up with a good joke book.

Will films like  It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and other films covering these issues such as Dare and Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful To You (2011) (and a TV series such as The United States of Tara)  make a difference on how teenagers view depression and other mental illnesses?  Well, it’s hard to say, but it is even more unlikely that these issues will be discussed and somehow de-stigmatised if they remain buried and not talked about or portrayed in the media.  These are certainly not issues that are going to go away – but they are also issues that are difficult to include in films and TV series – how does one approach depression, portray it realistically, and yet also make it entertaining?  Thankfully, It’s Kind of a Funny Story manages to do this, but it is not in the majority.  To see the other side of the coin, check out the aforementioned tedious Lakki:  The Boy Who Could Fly.  The fact that this is about the only major issue affecting teenagers that a series like Glee has yet to cover in any depth suggests that are difficulties in doing so.

These are difficult issues.  But thankfully, slowly but surely, they are being portrayed in films and TV series aimed at young people – and that can only be a good thing.  However, we are at a crossroads.  This year has seen two contrasting TV series shown in America, both dealing with mental illnesses.  On the one hand we have Bates Motel, detailing the formative years of Norman Bates (although set in the present day), which deals with Norman’s character and his mental health issues in a sympathetic way – despite the fact he murders at regular intervals.  On the other hand, we have American Horror Story: Asylum, set during the early 1960s, which portrays the inmates of the asylum as a bunch of almost inhuman nutcases, and those treating them as sex-obsessed psychopaths who may or may not been involved in the running of the concentration camps during World War II.    While both of these programmes are horror stories, and not necessarily intended to be realistic, the likelihood is that they will be seen by more people than who saw a sympathetic portrayal in Wallflower or Funny Story, and therefore continue the misinformation that already stigmatises those with mental health issues.  We have come a long way in the last few years, but there is still a long way to go.

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This article was published on 22 February, 2013, and updated on July 2nd, 2013.

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The Lost (and rare) films of Lon Chaney

Some months ago I put together some ads and stills from some lost Jack Pickford films thanks to the wonders of the Media History Digital Library, and got some very nice comments from those of you mad enough to follow the blog.  Bearing that in mind, this entry makes a start on looking at the lost and lesser-known films of Lon Chaney in much the same way, along with some publicity shots that I haven’t seen elsewhere.  Enjoy. (and yes, I’m sure there will be a part two at some point).

Publicity Picture:

chaney 1929 photoplay

The Kaiser (1918)

Although Chaney doesn’t appear in the picture, I have included the article as the film is directed, produced, written by and starring Rupert Julian, pairing he and Chaney together seven years before Phantom of the Opera.

lon chaney mpw march 23 1918 1690

While Paris Sleeps (1923)

Film Daily magazine were seemingly obsessed with this movie, with these four pictures all appearing on front covers during early 1923.

lon chaney film daily jan 31 front page

lon chaney film daily front page

lon chaney film daily front page 3

lon chaney film daily front page 2

All The Brothers Were Valient (1923)

Staying with Film Daily, here is a review of the above lost film.  Sorry for the feintness of the print in places.

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Unknown (1922)

No, not the film featuring Chaney as an armless knife-thrower, but simply an unknown shot.  It’s from Movie Weekly in March 1922, but if anyone knows the story behind it, please help us out.

lon chaney movie weekly 25 march 1922 p21

Riddle Gawne (1918)

Riddle Gawne survives in fragment form, and sees Chaney paired for the only time with William S Hart.

lon chaney riddle gawne

The Grand Passion (1918)

Another Chaney film from 1918, although I’m not sure whether Chaney is in this pic or not – my guess is not, but interesting to have a still from another lost Chaney film nonetheless.

lon chaney mpw jan 12 1918, p 241

The Big City (1928)

One of the most regrettable of the lost Chaney/Browning collaborations.  This is Photoplay’s take on the film.

lon chaney photoplay big city

lon chaney photoplay feb 1928 p 6

The Miracle Man (1919)

Another legendary mostly-lost film.

lon chaney photoplay jan 1928 120

Alas and Alack (1913)

The following are screengrabs from the surviving fragment of this early Chaney short in which he plays both a fisherman…and a hunchback.

ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_06.05_[2013.02.20_20.21.04] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_10.59_[2013.02.20_20.19.58] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_11.06_[2013.02.20_20.20.11] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_12.49_[2013.02.20_20.20.29] ALAS AND ALACK.avi_snapshot_12.57_[2012.07.23_16.57.31]

Elvis Presley: Today (1975)

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If you have never heard of the album “Elvis Today”, then you are not alone.  It was released with little fanfare, with a bland title and an even blander cover.  Despite this, the album is one of Presley’s best post-1970 studio efforts, and comes as something of a surprise considering when it was recorded.

1974 had seen Elvis not enter the recording studio at all, with his only professional recording being the fun live album recorded in Memphis during that March.  Elvis is in fine form on that album, and considerably more animated and enthusiastic than in the “Aloha” TV special from the year before.  But 1974 was not a good year in general.  During the late summer and autumn, Elvis gave a series of ever more bizarre, disconcerting and embarrassing concerts.  While his singing was reasonably OK (if lacking in any subtlety) for the most part, his onstage monologues showed a man spiralling out of control as he spoke at length about his lack of “paunch”, his ex-wife, karate, liver biopsies and the “false” stories about his drug-taking.

However, after a lay-off of a few months, Elvis entered the recording studio in March 1975 to record what became the “Today” album, and it finds him in fine form as he tackles an all-country collection of songs.  One of the most arresting openings of any Elvis album, T.R.O.U.B.L.E. heralds an album in which Elvis sounds healthy, happy and in great voice. This opening song, the first out and out original rocker since Burning Love (since Promised Land was a cover), is a song that sounds as if it has come directly out of the Jerry Lee Lewis songbook. Indeed, Elvis infuses the song with a variety of ad-lib vocal sounds (ca-ca-ca chung) straight out of the unedited Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On recording from 1970. It is refreshing to here Elvis tackle a new rocker again and, in many ways, this is just as convincing as 1973’s Promised Land. Elvis sounds totally focussed on the song and sounds as if he is having a great time to boot.  Quite why RCA failed to put their full publicity machine behind the single when it was released is a mystery.
And I Love You So takes us back to more familiar 70s-Elvis material and, again, there is a thrilling combination of power and passion without the over-singing that was to mar the Jungle Room sessions of the following year. If anything detracts from And I Love You So, then it is the slightly over-the-top overdubs, but this is only really noticeable since a beautiful alternate take was released on the “Platinum” boxed set. That take is slightly more of a low-key performance but even more moving without the strings.  Presley is totally committed to the song, as evidenced by his careful breath control, delicately stringing long passages together with apparent ease.

Susan When She Tried returns to up-beat material – at least in tempo, if not in theme. If the two previous numbers had an undercurrent of country, then it is fully brought to the fore here. This is pure country – even more so than some of the arrangements on the 1970 Elvis Country album. Ernst Jorgensen writes that it was a struggle to convince Elvis to persevere with the song in the session but the effort is fully justified. Elvis is again in great voice and the song comes together perfectly.

The country theme continues with Woman Without Love.   Hardly the most politically correct of songs due to its chauvinist lyrics (“a man without love is only half a man, but a woman is nothing at all”), it still follows on nicely from the previous number and, again, it is a pleasure to listen to Elvis singing so well and with some beautiful phrasing. The waltz-time also reminds me a little of “Honky Tonk Angel” from the Stax sessions of 1973 and suits Elvis’ country-style perfectly.

Shake A Hand finds Elvis returning to a song from the 50s as he so often did in 70s sessions. The use of organ here is a nice touch, giving the song something of a gospel flavour. I find the arrangement a little heavy-handed with the drumming somewhat obtrusive. We get the impression again that Elvis is having a good time, however. His “one more time” and repeats of the chorus into the fade out gives us the impression that we are listening to Elvis just singing with his friends and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Pieces Of My Life is a beautiful performance. It seems to be a kind of country echo of the saloon songs of Sinatra in its introverted nature, sounding as if the singer is just talking to himself and regretting decisions he has made. We know that Elvis listened to the song around thirty times after it was recorded and it is hardly surprising – it is clear from his performance that he is fully immersed in the story.  Some may see it as simply an uninspired cover of the Charlie Rich version, but it is over a minute longer and ten times darker than Rich’s version.  If Rich is miserable over the mistakes he has made, then Elvis is in full-on despair.  What’s more, Presley’s phrasing is considerably better than Rich’s version, which suffers from too many lines broken up into small sections of two or three words making it sound affected.  Presley manages to take this away from being just a cry-in-your-beer country song and turns into a mini-autobiography.

Fairytale is perhaps the least well performed song on the album and yet the song itself fits the tone of the record perfectly. The use of a fiddle gives this a pure country feel that is refreshing, it is just a shame that Elvis chose to sing the song in such a high key causing a sense of strain on some lines during the middle of the performance. In fact the alternate take on “Great Country Songs” does seem to be a slightly better performance. This always seemed a slightly weird choice of repertoire to make it into Presley’s live performances, and yet he would go on to sing it regularly in concert until his death.

In contrast, I Can Help would probably have been a fun number to add to the concert repertoire and yet he only ever sang it once – in the studio, in one take. Considering the amount of songs from the 70s that were butchered by the editing of them, it seems slightly ironic that I can Help could have done with a minute off its running time and was issued without an edit! As with Shake A Hand, there is something of a jam session feel running through this number with Elvis making various “whoa’s” off-mic and there is even a feel that he is about to break into laugher at some points. The bluesy finish also gives the impression that it was improvised as well – and makes a welcome change from a fade out ending. All in all, the performance is really good fun with Elvis in total command.

Bringing It Back has a country feel, but the material isn’t up to the standard of the rest of the album, and Elvis fails to lift this track above mediocrity.  Still, it leads nicely into the final song of the album, Green Green Grass Of Home. It is interesting that Elvis does a pure country version of the song rather than trying to emulate the country/soul version that Tom Jones recorded and we are told Elvis loved so much. Again, Presley’s commitment is total and he puts in an emotional performance, aided and abetted by the short spoken section. A shame, however, that such a downbeat song concludes such a great LP – I personally think swapping this song with I Can Help would have benefitted the album somewhat. A rousing end number such as I Can Help would have given the album a bit more symmetry with a rocking opening and closing number.

For me, Today is the album that got away. It is full of great songs, all of which have a country flavour to them – the album could have been called Elvis Country 2. What is so pleasurable though is the performances. Even on the ballads Elvis refrains from belting the songs out in the way that he did in the remaining two studio sessions of his life, and through many of his concerts. Here he is singing so well, and in such total control of his voice that he doesn’t need to do this. The control of his vibrato, for example, is so much better on And I Love You So than in virtually any concert performance of the song. So many of Presley’s ballads in the 70s have bombastic arrangements to show off the pure power of his voice, whereas here the emphasis is on conveying the meaning of the lyrics and giving passionate, yet tender, readings of the songs.  It’s  sad that such a well rounded, enjoyable album containing such brilliant singing is virtually unknown outside of the Elvis world.

Presley would never venture into a recording studio again.  He rounded off 1975 with a seemingly never-ending mix of Vegas engagement and tours, with the vast majority finding Elvis in good, if not always inspired, form, and without the bizarre monologues and other on-stage behaviour of the previous year (with a couple of notable exceptions).  In 1976, it was impossible to get Elvis into the studio, so a studio was set up at Graceland, where Elvis recorded over a dozen songs.  Most were mediocre, maudlin ballads, that found Elvis in poor voice and seemingly bad health.  The tours continued right up until his death in August 1977, with his final tour being recorded for a TV special which was shown a few weeks after his death.  The programme is heartbreaking to watch, and finds an ill, out of breath Presley in nothing like the vocal or physical shape he must have been in when he recorded the Today album a little over two years earlier.

Endless Night (1972)

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The news was devastating.  In fact, I’m not sure that I have fully recovered.  But it appears that it is true:  the makers of Agatha Christie’s Marple are going to continue to ruin not just the Marple novels, but also the wonderful novels that do not feature any of Christie’s regular detectives.  Yes, they have done this before, somehow transplanting poor Miss Marple into stories where she really doesn’t belong and for no apparent reason and without good results.  But this year they are aiming for one of the greatest travesties ever to occur in a Christie adaptation – they are tackling one of Dame Agatha’s most unique and atmospheric novels and, more importantly, my own favourite: Endless Night.

If you have never heard of Endless Night, then you are probably not alone.  It’s a strange entry in the Christie cannon, but also one of the author’s best works and received great reviews (some of the best of Christie’s career) when it was published in 1967.   But, what is more worrying than the makers of Marple decimating a great book is the fact that the new adaptation is likely to make the really great film adaptation even more obscure than it already is.

It is almost impossible to talk about the plot of the film or book without giving away spoilers – and certainly don’t read the Wikipedia entries on either, as they give away the ending!  However, the basic outline is that a young man from a lower class background falls in love with one of the richest women in the world, they get married and build their dream home on a plot of land known as Gypsy’s Acre, but it is then that mysterious events start to take place which may or may not be connected with ancient curses.

It didn’t take long after the publication of the novel for the film to appear, and the resulting movie was one of the best Christie adaptations since the Rene Clair version of And Then There Were None back in 1945.  Unlike the entertaining-but-nothing-like-the-book Margaret Rutherford outings as Miss Marple, and Tony Randall’s disastrous attempt at Poirot which has to be seen to be believed, the film of Endless Night is a serious movie, and as much a dark character study as it is a thriller.  Sidney Gilliat directed, and the film was the last of his fourteen movies as director, and there is nothing quite like it in the rest of his filmography.  Some would argue that the classic Green for Danger comes close, but even that is a straightforward whodunnit and has more than a liberal dose of comedy, which is not present here.

Gilliat had a strong cast at his disposal, including the then-lucrative pairing of Hywel Bennett and Hayley Mills, Britt Eckland and a wonderful late-in-the-game performance from George Sanders, who committed suicide a few months before the release of the film.  The screenplay was written by Gilliat himself, but it is the look and sound of the film which helps to make this special.  It looks and sounds very much of its time, but this only adds to the haunting nature of the film.  And haunting is the right word for, for the most part, this is a horror movie.  The gaudy colours and larger-than-life performances of Hammer films of the period are not here, but there is something here that makes the film somehow a distant relative to The Wicker Man in that a warped corruption of a seemingly idyllic location and country life is at the heart of the film.   One doesn’t know until the end of the film whether the seemingly supernatural elements and curses are red herrings or not (and I don’t intend to give the game away) but, like The Wicker Man, there is an eerie, dreamlike quality to the whole enterprise, aided and abetted by the strange Bernard Herrmann soundtrack utilising the Moog synthesiser (his only soundtrack not to be released on CD or LP, so I understand).

I first saw the film when I was about twelve, a time when it appeared on our TV screens with regularity.  Recently, the film almost seems to have vanished, neither showing on TV nor available on DVD.  Despite this, I urge you – no, implore you – to go out and find the film before the whole story is butchered at the hands of the makers of Marple and you’ll never be able to see this classy but forgotten adaptation in the same way ever again.

HARRY CONNICK JR: SMOKEY MARY

smokeyDo you remember when Harry Connick Jr was fun?  I was an impressionable teenager when Connick came to the fore back in the early 1990s, and he was a young man who managed to make swing and big band music cool again, and made it fun.   Anyone who has seen Swingin’ Out Live and The New York Big Band Concert would be hard-pushed not to have a good time watching Connick on stage having a ball.  And the albums that came out during the period had wonderful invention in their arrangement, perhaps reaching their peak with Blue Light, Red Light.

Then everything went a little strange.  The first Christmas album, When My Heart Finds Christmas, was good in parts but was marred by dark, heavy orchestrations of the ballads.  Then came the two funk albums, of which She was a real blast, but Star Turtle was rather hit and miss and seemed to be stretching the concept too far.  But at the end of the decade, Connick seemed to find himself again.  Come By Me was a great return to the big band genre, with some wacky orchestrations to boot.  30 was easily the best of the Harry-at-the-piano series, and Songs I Heard saw Harry giving a batch of kids songs from films the New Orleans treatment:  Music to party to, and Connick at his best.

Then it all went wrong.  Well, not so much wrong as boring. Only You was OK for what it was.  But the arrangements of these 50s and 60s pop songs were far too heavy and seemed to lack the life and vitality that was so instilled in Connick’s best music.  And the voice itself had also got older, darker and deeper.  It was almost as if Harry Connick had got middle-aged overnight.  The DVD concert that accompanied that release showed more of the same.  Gone was the spontaneous sense of fun that I had witnessed when I had seen  Connick at the Royal Albert Hall a few years earlier, replaced with a more ballad-oriented set and little of the spark between Connick and his musicians.  Even the wonderful There Is Always One More Time failed to come alight, despite the wonderful performance on 30.  There were signs of life with the two “New Orleans” albums from 2007, but that was extinguished with Your Songs.  I’m sure it’s a fine album if you’re in an elevator, but it was fatally flawed not because it was ballad-heavy, but because it was simply boring.   The live album from 2011 did little to show that Connick was coming out of the doldrums.

Somehow, during the middle of the decade, Connick had become irrelevant as other young pretenders came along and seemingly stole his thunder.  While Michael Buble started his recordings for a major label with dull retreads of old arrangements, he soon started to have arrangements that were undeniably his, culminating in the Christmas album from last year which has become an instant classic and contains some of the left-field style of arrangements that Connick used to produce.  Meanwhile, Jamie Cullum was the next pianist-vocalist, and while he’s not as talented as Connick in either capacity, he has endless energy and invention, and is never afraid to transform a song in the least likely way.  Meanwhile, there was also success for the likes of Peter Cincotti, Peter Grant and Hamel.  Meanwhile, there was little sign of Connick regaining his form, despite the fact that he was far more prolific in the album department during this period than any of these young challengers.

Bearing all of this in mind, Smokey Mary, Connick’s latest effort is a pleasant surprise, returning to the funk style of the mid-1990s albums.  There are problems here, not least the fact that the album is a mere 45 minutes, and two of the numbers are reissues of songs from Star Turtle, but the nine new songs are surprising in that, for the first time in years, Connick sounds alive.   Considering how dark and sombre his vocals have been of late, I even wondered for a while if these were recorded ten or more years ago and left in the can only to be released now, but that isn’t the case.  This is Connick sounding young and vibrant again, and for that it is most welcome.

The material isn’t quite as strong as on the first funk album, She.  That said, this is an enjoyable upbeat album of originals (and devoid of the often-strange linking tracks of the earlier albums) that sees Connick’s songwriting coming to the fore once again, and his light, airy vocals are a sign that things are looking up for Connick fans.  There are some standout tracks here, including the title track, Angola (at the farm),  and the gospel-influenced S’pposed To Be.  Allmusic’s review concludes that this is “colorful, shiny fun”, and this is a good summation.  There’s not a great deal of depth here, but it is music that allows the listener to have a good time, and for Connick fans it’s been a long time coming.

There is still a rather scary reminder that Connick is now a middle-aged man.  On opening the CD case for the first time, one is presented with possibly the worst picture of Connick ever to emerge (see below, but  the uncropped image is a lot worse!).  He is pictured on what is presumably the mardi gras float that the album is named after, but Connick really doesn’t come out of this well as he grins uneasily at the camera whilst wearing a glittery costume and standing against what appears to be metallic flowers.  It’s as embarrassing as your Dad’s dancing at a wedding, and is a worrying sign that Connick is still likely to make some baffling artistic choices as he claws his way out of the doldrums.

  smokey 3

La Grande Histoire du Jazz & the Public Domain

histoire

Over a number of different internet forums, I have been involved in a number of heated debates over the last year or two about the forthcoming changes to the copyright law in the EU, which sees copyright in sound recordings being extended from 50 to 70 years in November of this year.  Many have berated the current situation, citing endless cheap and cheerful reissues of fifty year old hits and albums and suggesting that they are somehow demeaning to the work of Elvis, The Beatles, Cliff Richard and others.  And it is true that they add little to the legacy of these major players in the main.  But, to more discerning music-lovers, and those with an interest outside the obvious hit-makers, the law which brings recordings into the public domain after fifty years has been nothing less than a miracle.

This is particularly true if you are a jazz fan.  1950s jazz was about far more than Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.  It was also a time when many of the musicians who were around in the earliest days of jazz were encouraged to enter the recording studio once more and make recordings of their songs and arrangements in superior sound quality, recordings which, they would have been told, will cement them forever in the history of jazz.  Away from these musicians, and the big-hitters of the day, there were other, less well-known but often equally as interesting, jazz musicians who were recording on a regular basis.  The problem we have now is that these recordings are not re-released by the main labels as they would not be big sellers.  Other than that, we also have the so-called “orphan” recordings which, though in copyright in America, there is no way of learning who the recordings are actually owned by.  These are often from long defunct small labels of the period.

The so-called fifty-year-rule in Europe has allowed for this music to be heard once again.  Labels specialising in high-quality, well-mastered, releases of jazz obscurities from the period have prospered in the UK and mainland Europe and given jazz enthusiasts the chance to hear music that would otherwise be sitting in a vault and never heard again.  Many of these releases are relatively modest, such as those by  a label such as Avid, who release double disc sets by a jazz performer which contains remasters of 3 or 4 original albums for a price tag of around £6.  Other labels and releases aim higher.  One such release is La Grande Histoire du Jazz on the French Le Chant du Monde label, containing 1677 jazz performances over 100 discs split into four boxes.

If I was to vote for the best public domain release ever, it would be La Grande Histoire du Jazz.  This is a set which starts in 1898 and, in strict chronological order, presents the listener with over 130 hours of jazz taking us up to the end of 1959.  All the artists you would expect are here:  Basie, Ellington (LOTS of Ellington, one of the compilers was clearly a fan), Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker et al.  And, while there are some rarely heard recordings by these big names, it is with the forgotten artists that this wonderful collection comes into its own.  Who, even among jazz fans, have heard the names Billy Arnold, Gerald Wiggins or Herbie Harper?  OK, some of you no doubt have, but I certainly had not.  And here they are, present and correct, and their work does not pale into significance alongside their contemporaries.

Anyone who knows their classical music will know that the high status of one composer and the obscurity of another is often down to timing and luck.  As I sit writing this post, I am listening to a symphony by Raff, and wondering why that composer’s wonderful music is not as well known as that by Tchaikovsky or Liszt.  The same is very much true of jazz performers.  La Grande Histoire du Jazz attempts to right these wrongs, and those lucky enough to wade through these 100 discs will no doubt soon be going online to find out more about certain performers they know little or nothing about – and possibly purchasing a full CD…if one exists.

This is public domain releasing at its very best.  Andre France and Jean Schwarz, the compilers of this massive venture, are likely to already be known to European jazz fans for their previous compilations, but this set is really something else.  Yes, there are questions raised as to why one track was included over another, or why one performer is clearly favoured over another – after all, early 50s Ellington is hardly essential when compared to both his earlier and later periods.  And, despite finishing at the end of 1959, there is not even a nod to Nina Simone here, which seems a little strange, for example.  But these are minor quibbles, as are the questions of whether much of the music on the very first disc is actually jazz at all.  The set finishes at the end of the 1950s due to the copyright issue, although 1959 is as good a place to finish as any, being such a pivotal year.

Sadly the ending of the fifty-year rule means that there will never be follow-ups to this set, and the vast legions of lesser-known jazz musicians of the 1960s will find their recorded legacy all-but-forgotten.  If only we could ask these musicians the inevitable question:  “would you rather your music be heard, or would you rather it sit in a vault?  Royalty cheques won’t be forthcoming either way”.  The change in the law is, no doubt, going to be wonderful for Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney who will get richer with each cheque, but one can only wonder if they really had the best intentions of all musicians in mind when they pushed for this change.  Now instead of seeing their music on the shelves, or being able to release their music themselves (away from the label they recorded for), their wonderful sounds may well be silenced for good.

A plug for my novel!

This little post is simply a little plug for some work I have done elsewhere.

A novel I have written, entitled Breaking Point, is currently available for download for Kindle via Amazon sites across the globe!  The novel is about homophobic bullying and homophobia in schools in general.  It’s no masterpiece, but I’m rather pleased with it.

To celebrate LGBT History Month and the recent House of Commons vote which will hopefully lead to the legalisation of gay marriage, the book is available for free for the next four days.

So, if anyone is interested in seeing what I write elsewhere, please look it up.  A search for “Shane Brown Breaking Point” on amazon should take you there straight away.

Sorry for the plug, and back to normal schedules next week!