Film review: The Big Melt (Martin Wallace, 2013)

For National Yorkshire Day, I opted to watch this documentary I impulse bought about half a decade ago in FOPP. It has been sat on my shelf since then, with a brief period inside a box, probably wondering if it would ever be unwrapped and why it was bought in the first place.

I was doubtless attracted to it due to Jarvis Cocker’s involvement, which to be honest was the rewarding side of it. I’ve been a fan of his music since my formative years – I was 11 when the seminal Different Class was released – and appreciate his intelligent take on life.

The Big Melt is essentially 70 minutes of carefully-selected archive footage of Sheffield, mainly involving the steel industry, backed by music performed live by a number of Sheffield-related musicians (and some of their friends).

It has the ability to impress but the overall impact is one you have to concentrate on and commit to if you want to get anything out of it. The music keeps on playing but there’s no narrative, so it’s easy to let your mind slip out of focus.

Often I realised I’d been watching the screen and listening to the music, but not actually absorbing what was going on. It had a meditative effect. Maybe that’s what they were going for.

There are interesting segments, including a young woman working in a bomb factory and a short animated film imagining a world without steel, but I’m struggling to deploy an alternative adjective to interesting, despite my misgivings of its use.

For a special occasion is was perfect, and it gave me the impetus to get my surround sound system fixed to enjoy the music properly.

It’s not without merit but only for people who have a genuine interest in the city.

Why La La Land probably won’t clean up at this year’s Academy Awards

The critical enthusiasm for La La Land has been matched, for good reason, by the audience’s outpouring of affection. The music is now firmly stuck in the heads of everyone who has seen it, with many of its devotees wondering what the odds are for it to clean up at the Oscars.

Here I’ll explain why this probably won’t be the case.

What’s the current record?

Three films have won 11 Oscars: Ben Hur, (1959), Titanic (1997) and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003). Titanic managed these with 14 nominations, whilst the final Lord of the Rings film achieved a clean sweep, winning 11 out of 11 awards. Elsewhere, All About Eve (1950) received 14 nominations, though it only won 6 of these.

For La La Land to get close to this, it’s therefore going to need 11 or more nominations, and win almost all of them.

Which awards does it have a good chance of winning?

La La Land has a great chance at winning in many or all of the categories available to it: Best Picture; Best Director; Leading Actor and Actress; Original Song; Original Score; Best Writing (Original Screenplay) will certainly be places it will be nominated, so assuming the swell of enthusiasm continues it will probably do well in what are considered to be the major categories.

So where will it fall down?

There are 24 categories that the Academy awards prizes in, but that doesn’t mean that a film can win in 24 categories. There are two awards for animated films, two for documentary films, one for a film in a foreign language and one for a live action short film. So that’s six prizes that can’t be won.

There are two prizes for Best Writing: one is for an original screenplay and one is for an adapted screenplay. Since La La Land is an original script, it is excluded from the adapted screenplay category. That’s another one down.

Perhaps the most glaringly-obvious problem it faces is that there are only two characters in the film: Mia and Sebastian. So whilst they will probably get the nominations for leading actress and actor, there isn’t anyone of note in the film that could be classed as a supporting actor or actress. The closest would be John Legend’s portrayal of Keith, the frontman for the jazz band Seb joins halfway through the story, followed by Rosemarie DeWitt as Laura (Sebastian’s sister). It seems unlikely to pick up nods in these categories. Two more down.

Finally, a few categories have already been announced and La La Land doesn’t feature in any of them. The long-lists Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Visual Effects excluded La La Land from their lists. Two more down.

So where does that leave it?

It only has access to 13 awards and will need a nomination in each of the categories if it is going to break records. It’s not unrealistic for it to achieve this, but it will require nods in the likes of Best Production Design (awarded for interior design for the sets) and Best Costume Design to get there.

However, with a weak field to compete against, it is quite possible that it will do. this anyway! Here’s hoping!!

Academy Award for Best Original Song – What could be nominated?

At 1:18pm on Tuesday 24th January, the nominations for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced. Whilst most of the categories are fairly open – albeit with a host of strong contenders likely to lead the field – some of the categories are long-listed ahead of the announcement.

One such category is for Best Original Song, which has a 91-strong long list out for all to see on the official Oscars website. Many of them simply won’t get a look in, even though it would have been great for Sausage Party’s “The Great Beyond” to have a giant spotlight shone on it.

Here I take a look at some of the likely contenders for the big prize. It’s worth noting that at the Academy Awards, only two songs from one motion picture can be nominated and only five can be nominated in total.

The Obvious Choices

There are a few songs that are almost certain to be included. It seems unlikely that La La Land won’t get at least one song in there, probably two. Those will most likely be Golden Globe winner “City of Stars” and the excellent “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)“. Sorry John Legend!

Elsewhere, it would be a bit of a shock if the best track from the wonderful Disney animation Moana, “How Far I’ll Go“, doesn’t get a nod. It would be fantastic if the 16-year-old breakout star Auli’i Cravalho was invited to perform too!

I can’t see a situation where Kim Burrell and Pharrell Williams miss out for “I See A Victory“. Great song, great performers and supposedly a very good film too. A no brainer.

Entertainment Value Choices

It’s not always the case, but most of the nominees will be performing on the night of the ceremony. As such, it’s likely there will be at least one choice that will boost the ratings by planting a big-named performer in the middle of the night. It would be great to see Justin Timberlake performing his summer smash “Can’t Stop The Feeling“from Trolls. Another good option would be “Faith“, the track from the animated film Sing as performed by Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande. P!nk’s “Just Like Fire” from Alice Through The Looking Glass would fit this bill too.

Sia’s gorgeous song “Angel By The Wings“, from the critically-acclaimed documentary The Eagle Huntress, is a great excuse to put her in front of millions of people and blow them away, though “Never Give Up” from Lion (same artist, different film) might be more of a crowd-pleaser.

The Outside Bets

I’d love to see “A Minute To Breathe” get a nod. The song, from “Before The Flood” and performed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, would be an unusual but brilliant choice, the song blending some understated backing that leaves the focus squarely on the lyrics. As he sings “We’ll all be judged by what we leave behind,” the hairs will stand up on the back of your neck.

Gary Clark Jr.’s “Take Me Down” might not be an obvious choice, and Deepwater Horizon probably isn’t going to feature heavily in the other categories, but it would be great to have a song in there for no other reason than it’s a great song. 

Finally, we can only hope that they give in to the luscious electronic indie of Sing Street and grant “Drive It Like You Stole It” some space at the biggest cinematic awards event of the year.

The story behind Shag Kava, the castle band in The Force Awakens 

For a brief moment in The Force Awakens, there was a huge shot of nostalgia when Rey, Han, Chewbacca and Finn walk into Maz’s Castle and we see a groovy band playing in the corner. It harked back to the same moment in the original Star Wars when the famed Mos Eisley Cantina Band were rocking out on stage to a couple of tunes, serving as the perfect backing music for one of the greatest scenes of the original trilogy as Han showed his cool nature and shaped his character for a generation by shooting Greedo before he had the chance to shoot first. The space opera had its cowboy, a real hero that audiences could relate to on a different level to the guy practicing his hokey religions.

The Force Awakens had another such defining scene, this time as Finn determined his future at a fork in the road. He could either choose a simple, anonymous life with some strange space creatures, or fight for the greater good with Rey on a much riskier path. Fortunately, for our sake he chose to the life of a “Big Deal”. More importantly, Rey makes a revealing discovery in the basement, with implications for the truth behind her mysterious past that will undoubtedly play out over the course of the planned trilogy.

The strange bunch of creatures and humans jamming out some reggae-inspired tunes on the stage was known initially as Maz’s Castle Band, though we have now learned that they are actually called Shag Kava.

Shag Kava was the brainchild of The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams and Hamilton writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, birthed out of a quick meeting in an intermission of the Broadway show. Half jokingly, Miranda told Abrams that he was keen to do the new cantina music, completely blind to the fact that there was already a planned equivalent scene.

They hooked up and created a couple of tunes: “Jabba Flow” and “Dobra Doompa”. It’s a nice Easter Egg for the film that won’t have been too obvious to those watching the film the first time around.

“Jabba Flow” is actually now available to buy from iTunes. It’s well worth checking out.

Film review – The Beatles: Eight Days a Week, The Touring Years (Ron Howard, 2016)

There is a single reason why The Beatles hitherto remain a subject largely untouched by documentarians. Quite simply, the story has been told to death. It is a well-reasoned argument that stems from the fact that a story is far more interesting if we don’t know the ending; even less so if we know the beginning, middle, end and every conversation along the way.

As a result, we have been treated to a flurry of fascinating documentary films in recent times on artists relatively unheard of to the general public: Rodriguez (Searching for Sugar Man), Anvil (Anvil! The Story of Anvil), under-celebrated back-up singers (20 Feet from Stardom); Phil Ochs (There But For Fortune). All excellent films that manage to capture the imagination of cinema-goers precisely because they tell a story as fresh as any fictional tale in the same media.

The Beatles are, however, one of the greatest bands of all time, taking over the world as clean-living heart-throbs that made radio-friendly sounds that were loved over the world. Their live performances were legendary and, at the time, revolutionary as they proved that rock bands could turn massive profits by putting in performances in large stadia.

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It’s a story that has been told many times over and it would take a brave director to try to tell it in an interesting way that didn’t feel like retreading old ground. Fortunately, the man at the helm on the clumsily titled The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years is the one and only Ron Howard, the genius behind the likes of Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Frost/Nixon.

It is a truly brilliant piece of documentary film-making, managing to tell the familiar story with a flurry of individual memories that bring to life again a rise to stardom that has not and will not ever be replicated. There are wonderful talking head contributions from the likes of Howard Goodall, Dr Kitty Oliver, Sigourney Weaver (who the editors managed to pick out from the crowd footage of the 1965 Hollywood Bowl performances) and Elvis Costello. It is Whoopi Goldberg’s retelling of her mother surprising her with a ticket to the Shea Stadium performance that really stuck out and showed the positive effect they were having on both small and large scales throughout their tours.

The real stars are The Fab Four themselves, and with hours and hours of footage recorded by a press hungry for a piece of them (a point touched on in the film by Paul McCartney), we are lucky enough to be able to build up a truthful story of what was happening to a level impossible for all other artists in the charts at the time. As Eddie Izzard points out, their ability to respond to heckling in press conferences puts them all up at the same level as professional comedians.

The film is centred around their live performances rather than their time in the studio and as such it was essential the largely bootlegged sound recordings from their gigs were remastered to a usable state. Up steps Giles Martin, son of the late George Martin, to ensure everything hits the mark. Audible for the first time in such high quality, these sound recordings are evidence that despite them not being able to hear themselves or each other play they still functioned as a wholly tight musical four-piece. All that hard work out in Hamburg seemed to have paid off, then.

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It is a shame that the film cuts off in the middle of 1966 as the band released Revolver. They wound up their US tour in California, and it was a tour they were glad to see the back of. John Lennon had to painfully respond to the “bigger than Jesus” comments, there were death threats from the Ku Klux Klan and ticket sales were in decline (a point unsurprisingly missed out of the film). As a result, whilst Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band gets partial coverage, the albums Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album), Yellow Submarine, Abbey Road and Let It Be are covered in about 30 seconds, before a welcomed clip of their Abbey Road rooftop performance rounds thing off with them revisiting their glory days just before bowing out.

The film is genuinely crying out for a sequel to do justice to these missing years and perhaps beyond, though many of this is covered by the much-celebrated Anthology series released in 1995 but sadly still awaiting a Blu-ray release.

If you’re a fan of The Beatles then put this straight on your Christmas list as it will be a perfect trip down memory lane to revisit the greatest band of all time.

Eight Days a Week is available to purchase as a special edition Blu-ray and a standard DVD.

Glastonbury Day Two: Wilko Johnson, Beans on Toast, Elle and the Pocket Belles, Silent Disco

The second day at Glastonbury is when the fun starts to get interesting. A few familiar acts start to pop up and by and by and nobody has a 50 minute pilgrimage with a 40kg weight strapped to their back to kick off the day.

  
Our first act of the day was Wilko Johnson on the William’s Green Stage. It was a short set (about 30 minutes) followed by a long interview (about 30 minutes) followed by an exclusive screening of the new Julien Temple documentary The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, ostensibly about Wilko’s battle with cancer as he was given ten months to live. It covers this period, then goes on to what he describes as “extra time” and then his miraculous recovery following some radical treatment. The film was a fantastic introduction to Wilko’s music (admittedly I’m not overly familiar with it) and a fascinating insight into people battling with terminal illness. Well worth watching when it appears later this year.

Later on we caught a bit of Elle and the Pocket Belles at Avalon Café. Their set was the perfect way to see in the sunny evening as they nailed a series of popular tunes with their own style of blended vocals and punchy brass backing. I think they’re playing elsewhere over the weekend so I’m hoping to bump into them again.

Beans on Toast was next on the Hell Stage in Shangri-La. It was heaving and it was obviously a hot ticket but it didn’t really resonate with me. It’s and act that has become a frequent performer at festivals though and if you like political statements in humorous song form then maybe you’ll be more inspired.

The evening became a bit of a blur after this, though I do recall dancing to Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” in the Park Silent Disco in the early hours of the morning. It would have been rude not to.