The Bluetones and their love of fine cinema

As a child, a fortunate trip to my local Blockbuster during a clearout sale meant I was able to blow every last penny I had on four albums that significantly changed the course of my listening habits.

The year was 1997 and I was a mere twelve years of age.

Amongst them were Blur’s eponymous fifth album, Kula Shaker’s ‘K’, Supergrass’s ‘I Should Coco’ and debut The Bluetones album ‘Expecting to Fly’. All four bands are still regulars on my stereo and I’ve followed them throughout their subsequent careers, with all their variously successful (and unsuccessful) side projects.

Of course, as life-changing events go this is quite indicative of my relatively burden-free upbringing. But it stuck with me, so just deal with it.

Fast forward to 2005 and I was writing for my university music magazine. Unbelievably, I managed to secure an interview with Mark Morriss, lead singer for The Bluetones. I will admit I was entirely unprofessional in my approach, basically because I was spending a good hour with one of my idols.

The topic of album track ‘Heard You Were Dead’ came up during the interview, which featured on their second album ‘Return to the Last Chance Saloon’. I hadn’t quite segued into an information-thirsty cinema lover by this point, so the title of the song was lost on me. Mark politely explained the reference to me – a repeated quote in John Carpenter’s 1981 dystopian action film ‘Escape From New York’ – and we had a chat about how much he liked the film.

Another fourteen years have passed since then and it has become apparent that their back catalogue is littered with unlikely references to the films they love. Listening to these songs again with a more complete love of television and cinema history, suddenly the references start to jump out at you.

Here are a few of my favourites.

1. Heard You Were Dead (1997)

As mentioned above, this is a reference to the insanely brilliant John Carpenter sci-fi action film starring Kurt Russell. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s well worth checking out. If you notice there’s a sequel set in LA, simply press play on the New York one again.

The lyrics to the song aren’t steeped in Snake Plissken references, instead focusing on a friend, seemingly lost to suicide (“It was over in a moment, you passed without a sound,
I know that you were shackled, but now you are unbound”). It’s a song that sits well at the end of the band’s second album, Return to the Last Chance Saloon, the lull before the brilliantly explosive and catchy ‘Broken Starr’ that closes that album, and whose name may itself be a reference to Belle Starr, the subject of many western films.

2. Thought You’d Be Taller

Not done with the Snake Pliskin references, the boys returned to the same source material to name this b-side to Autophilia. Somewhat wasted as a b-side, this track made a reappearance on the Rough Outline compilation a few years after its release, making sure it’s a bit easier to get hold of. It’s a tale about meeting a hero and being disappointed, so the lyrics sadly aren’t an out-and-out Pliskin tale.

3. Autophilia (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love My Car) (2000)

This track is one of my least favourite tracks released as a single by the band, but it remains a firm fan favourite. The lyrics are about a man’s overzealous love for his car. The video suitably parodies ‘Greased Lightning’ from Grease, whilst the name of the song title is inspired by the full title of Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’.

4. Zorrro (1999)

Apparently not scared of adding in an additional “r” into the title of their songs, The Bluetones opened their third album ‘Science and Nature’ with ‘Zorrro’. Zorro was a swashbuckling adventure character that has had several attempted reboots over the years, most famously with Antonio Banderas filling the boots in a disappointing 1998 film called The Mask of Zorro.

This track brilliantly kicked off their third album ‘Science and Nature’. If you’ve never heard it, you’re missing out. It’s likely the band were struggling for a name for this song since the lyrics have nothing to do with the Zorro franchise, instead concentrating on some mysterious celebration day. Indeed, it would have made more sense had it been called ‘The Wicker Man’, but then the band never liked to leave the crumbs out in the open.

5. Serenity Now (2005)

In 2005, The ‘Tones released a cracking four-track EP titled Serenity Now. The title track is arguably one of their finest pop singles and certainly one of their most underrated. A couple of years later I was working my way through Seinfeld and got to the Season 9 episode ‘The Serenity Now’. The episode features George Costanza trying to maintain his anger using a calming technique he learned from his father, who was advised to say “Serenity now!” every time he felt his anger boiling over. It’s a brilliant episode of a brilliant season of a brilliant sitcom.

The song is just as good. It kicks off with a twisting, memorable guitar riff from guitarist Adam Devlin, before firing itself into a vocal melody as catchy as anything Mark Morriss has ever committed to record. It has borrowed the title from Seinfeld as a homage, with lyrics focusing on the hatred towards a disruptive person (“Everybody you meet wants to knock your, teeth out”) and regret over not standing up to them sooner. My only issue is seeing George Costanza every time I hear the song now.

6. Hey Schmoopy (2010)

‘Serenity Now’ wasn’t the last time they showed their love of Seinfeld. Their sixth album ‘A New Athens’ featured a secret track. Titled ‘Hey Schmoopy’, it’s a reference to one of the best ever episodes of Seinfeld – The Soup Nazi. In the episode, Jerry has a new girlfriend called Sheila who he keeps referring to as “schmoopy’, much to the ire of George.

The song is a simple ukulele-led instrumental song, so it’s likely that it was finished on the same day as the band watched an episode of Seinfeld and they named it after that.

7. The Fountainhead (1995)

‘The Fountainhead’ was one of the band’s first ever singles, initially finding a home on the Fierce Panda label in 1994. The name is inspired by the novel of the same name, or more likely the film adaptation from 1949 starring Gary Cooperas Howard Roark. In it, a young architect wants to work in ‘modern architecture’, despite the film he works for tending towards traditional designs.

I had always thought this song was about a failing romantic relationship but with the knowledge of the film it is more likely to be about the storyline of the film.

“God knows I’ve tried to bridge the gap,
I’ve tried to be me and time after time I’ve lied,
Just to say the things you wanted to hear”

8. Castle Rock

‘Castle Rock’ is named after the fictional town that provides the setting of many Stephen King stories. They include ‘The Body’ (a.k.a. ‘Stand By Me’), ‘Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption’ and ‘Cujo’.

I can’t see any reference in the lyrics to anything in any of the films. I’m sure the chorus would have been improved with the phrase “I think I might be losing my way” being replaced by “I think that Chopper’s sicking my balls”, even though it wouldn’t have fit tonally.

9. After Hours (2002)

The lyrics aren’t any kind of reference to films (other than a glancing nod to Fred Astaire), but the Edgar Wright music video is a joy to behold.

It’s clearly inspired by 1976 musical comedy film Bugsy Malone. It’s a prohibition-era bar, serving milk rather than beer and starring children as the gangsters. It comes complete with dancing children and a punchline gag involving the band and some cream-firing guns.

Edgar Wright is good friends with The Bluetones and has regularly collaborated with the band throughout his career. He directed the music video for ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ in 2000. They starred in an episode of Spaced in 2001 titled ‘Mettle’, which centred around a robot wars tournament (in which the band competed). He featured their Science and Nature track ‘Blood Bubble’ in the trailers to promote the series. Later on, Sleazy Bed Track was used his film in Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

Their work together never got any better than the After Hours music video and it’s a real underrated gem.

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Well now I just want to listen to The Bluetones.

Film review – Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you.

Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.

Oh, Baby!

The titular Baby is played by the young Ansel Elgort, who many will recognise as Caleb Prior from the Divergent film series. Baby is a young man who suffers with tinnitus, a whistling hum in the ear, which he got from an initially mysterious childhood incident. He works as a getaway driver for a heist masterminder named Doc (Kevin Spacey), who counts amongst his rotating team of goons a highly-strung Bats (Jamie Foxx), passionate love birds Buddy (John Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González), Griff (Jon Bernthal) and Eddy No-Nose (Flea). Lily James also stars as a waitress named Deborah.

To drown out the noise, Baby has a series of iPods to suit his moods. These are essentially soundtracking his life with a mixture of classic tunes that also serve as the soundtrack to the film, from Beck to Sam and Dave, The Commodores to The Damned.

It is these playlists that also serve as the film’s soundtrack, with sounds and visuals perfectly in sync with one another. For fans of music, and in particular soundtracks, Baby Driver is an absolute dream. The music is the backbone, catalyst and cherry on the icing, all at the same time. It’s a remarkable achievement.

If the opening sequence seems familiar, Wright used the same scenario in 2003 for the music video he directed for the track ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale. This hit the music airwaves mere months prior to his directorial breakthrough Shaun of the Dead, but watching it now you can see he probably had the idea for Baby Driver in his head as a starting point.

One of the best examples of how perfectly it works comes during the opening credits, when the first job has been completed and Baby goes to pick up some coffee from a shop near to their hideout. As Bob and Earl’s ‘Harlem Shuffle’ is played through his earbuds and the backdrop becomes subtly flourished with graffiti, shop names and visual signposts, it was clear that something special was unfolding before my eyes. That this was done as a one-shot makes it all the more beautiful.

The film goes far and beyond being just a glorified music video. The car chases are breathtaking from the get-go, and there’s no let up as the story progresses. They’re believable and easy to follow, with no cheap cuts to hide poor editing and hide continuity – something of an epidemic in cinema in the 21st century.

Many of the actors are a little out of their familiarity zones with their characters, but it’s obvious that the likes of John Hamm and Jamie Foxx are taking great pleasure in being allowed to indulge their acting abilities. Kevin Spacey may be on more familiar ground, but it doesn’t make for poor viewing in the slightest.

I think her name is Debra! Or Deborah…

There’s a great use of the song ‘Debra’ by Beck in a scene that cements Baby’s relationship with Lily James’s waitress. They’re both stuck in a rut and in need of a route out, so their inevitable desire to be together is an expected story arc. Only Edgar Wright would, at this point, think it was a good time to drop in a song about a man wanting to have a threesome with two sisters. It’s a hilariously sweet moment that comes just at the right time in the film, softening up the audience before the rollercoaster second half of the story.

The fact that Elgart spends the opening thirty minutes dressed in an outfit that is very reminiscent of Han Solo shouldn’t be overlooked either. Elgart came close to being cast in Disney’s upcoming problematic Han Solo standalone film, before being overlooked in favour of Alden Ehrenreich. It’s clear that the coolness of Harrison Ford’s character is something Wright was trying to remind the audience of. However, Wright recently denied the connection in a Twitter Q&A, saying that the similarity was purely coincidental.

Similar to Han Solo? Wright is denying any links.

I just can’t be effusive of the film enough. It’s something I could watch time and time again and I’m certain I’ll be getting enjoyment out of it for years to come.

Baby Driver could well be the greatest film of Wright’s illustrious career. If you’ve not been taking notice yet, now’s the time.

Film review – Ant-Man (Peyton Reed, 2015)

The problem that many British viewers of this film will have when viewing this film is a pining for what could have been. Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish had for a long time both been attached to the film, the former as director and both as co-writers. Both are extremely well-known amongst the geeks of Britain and the fact they were teaming up was an absolute dream. Edgar Wright proved what he could do when given the freedom of the source material when he directed the excellent Scott Pilgrim vs The World in 2010. Whilst the Ant-Man series wasn’t as well known as the likes of X-Men and Spiderman, in the right hands it had the potential to be a great film.

Phenomenal powers, itty bitty living space.

Phenomenal powers, itty bitty living space.

However, it slowly became apparent that Marvel had a different idea of the direction it should take. In an interview with Mike Ryan of the Huffington Post, Edgar Wright said “It is pretty standalone in the way we’re linking it to the others. I like to make it standalone because I think the premise of it needs time. I want to put the crazy premise of it into a real world, which is why I think Iron Man really works because it’s a relatively simple universe; it’s relatable.” Clearly Marvel wanted the film to be set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the compromises required to slot it in with Thor, Iron Man and the clan didn’t sit well with Wright and Cornish. With not long to go before release date – 420 days to be precise – the pair (along with director of photography Bill Pope) co-announced with Marvel Studios that they were leaving the project, citing “differences in their vision of the film”.

So what are we left with? Well, Peyton Reed has come on board as emergency director. His previous work has been pretty much exclusively romantic comedies (Down With Love, The Break-Up) and the impression is that he was brought in to do what the studio needed rather than drive his own vision of the narrative. Ironically that makes him a kind of yes man. [1]

What’s really frustrating is that the script has some very Wright/Cornish-esque humour in there. One of the large scale fights near the climax of the film happens around a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train track. Anyone familiar with Joe Cornish’s route to fame in the 90s will see the likelihood that this was one from him. Or maybe Peyton Reed is a big fan of Series 2, Episode 18 of the original Thomas the Tank Engine series “Thomas Comes To Breakfast”, which first aired in the UK in October 1986.

The one saving grace of the film is Paul Rudd doing and excellent job as Scott Lang, the thief-turned-hero who wants to make up for lost time with his daughter. His humour and sharp wit make the journey through the film entirely pleasurable. He is a great comedic actor and the film has benefited from his presence on the rewriting team.

However, for all the good that is done by some great work in the cast (Michael Peña is hilarious throughout), we keep getting reminders that this is two films woven into one. The worst moment of the film comes when there’s an oblique reference to The Avengers, which sticks out like a sore thumb. Just as we are forgetting about it, Falcon arrives on the scene. Yes that’s right, Anthony Mackie has his very own cameo role in everyone’s eleventh-favourite Avenger (12th if you include Ant-Man, 13th if you include Nick Fury… who knows where by the time Civil War is released). It’s so pointless and so clearly an afterthought that it not only doesn’t help fit it in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe but rather actually just causes a detrimental effect on the absorbing world that was almost being created in this film.

It’s a shame that we will never see that Wright/Cornish film that never was. It must be said that it was unlikely to ever see the light of day without some serious compromises, but as two huge fans of Marvel comic books that was never going to happen. Instead we’re left with a reasonable film with some rewarding moments, which never really gets going because it is so disjointed.

Ant-Man is out at cinemas globally now.

[1] Yes I went there.