Saturday 23 October 2010

Still Crazy

Made in 1998, the band movie Still Crazy doesn't appear to have been heralded much or be well-known. Hopefully one day it might get the acclaim it deserves.

I'd always thought The Commitments would forever remain my favourite band movie as it has everything. It has great writing in which every character is memorable and believable, even if they have only a few lines, along with a perfect mixture of comedy and drama, all culminating in an avoidance of the Hollywood style ending. And it has superb music too (Here's The Dark End of the Street). I was therefore pleased to accidentally come across Still Crazy recently and after watching it a couple of times I reckon it is at the very least as good as Alan Parker's film. What's strange is that even though I like the work of pretty much everyone involved, I'd somehow never been aware of it before.

The story is a familiar one. The Strange Fruits were a 1970s rock band. They never achieved the fame they reckoned they should have got, mainly because their lead singer and only talented member died (in a Little Chef) and the new lead singer turned out to be a pretentious idiot. Artistic differences split the band and they all vowed never to play together again. 20 years later a concert organiser, who is putting together a nostalgic concert of old bands, bumps into the keyboard player, who is doing his current job of filling a condom machine, and suggests he puts the band back together. Everyone has gone their separate ways, mainly downhill and outside the music business, or is dead. When the survivors meet up a spooky sign from beyond the grave (involving sheep and their song Tequila Mockingbird) encourages them to try again, but it's not long before their initial enthusiasm dies out and all the old arguments that tore them apart resurface. Added to which is the problem that they're all too old to be rock gods again, they weren't that good in the first place, and the practice gigs they land are all in terrible venues. So can these broken-down has-beens who never were anything much in the first place somehow overcome their failings to pull together for one last triumphant performance…? Can they, heck!

The slightness of the story doesn't matter as it's not that sort of film. Written by the two giants of realistic British drama / comedy Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, this is a film, like most of their other works, about ordinary blokes bickering, being a cross between their previous The Commitments and Auf Weidershen, Pet. From Pet there's Jimmy Nail and Timothy Spall, both of whom play characters that are the direct opposite to their Pet roles of headcase Oz and lemon Barry. Nail plays the sensitive and sullen guitarist who thought he should have been the lead singer, while Spall plays Beano, the all-farting all-boozing wild man drummer. On the other hand there are some obvious similarities with the reunion series of Pet with the theme of characters getting back together after years apart as well the minor part of the European wife (Ingrid in Still Crazy & Tatiana in Pet) being pretty much the same character. Also in the mix of well-known faces is Bill Nighy (who also appeared in the reunion Pet series) playing the dim-witted lead singer doing his usual off-centre performance where it's hard to tell if he's a terrible actor or a brilliant one. And there's keyboard player Stephen Rea who still pines for ex-groupie Juliet Aubrey, narrator Billy Connolly, and the legendary Bruce Robinson in an appropriately enigmatic cameo as a man who was too fragile to cope with fame.

Most of the film follows them travelling around Holland, playing badly and getting on each other's nerves while delivering the great dialogue and interaction you expect from the people who did The Likely Lads and Porridge. There's plenty of well-judged satire about music and nostalgia from Nighy and his obsession with big hair, platform soles and all the trapping of bad glam rock while Nail encourages a more pared-down musical style. Even the clunky bits such as Juliet Aubrey being too young to play an old groupie, the occasional terrible line like, 'let's bury the past before it buries us.' and Jimmy Nail's singing are excusable in such a good-natured film. Actually I'm joking about the latter as I don’t subscribe to the traditional view that Nail was a joke figure in the music business. He along with Bill Nighy sing very well and the original songs get the flavour of 70s rock just right with bombastic guitar solos, pretentious lyrics and the occasional genuinely tuneful rock anthem. But having said that the music is secondary to the main point of the film, which is about friendship, getting old, insecurities, regrets and listing all the bands that are named after body parts (Cockney Rebel gets two points).

Anyhow, youtube has the last scene, so don't click if you don't want to find out if the Fruits stop arguing for long enough to come back from the dead and ensure there's not a dry eye in the house by delivering one last gut-wrenchingly emotional rendering of the song they vowed never to play again The Flame Still Burns.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Sunday 10 October 2010

Saturday 9 October 2010

Beat to a Pulp - Round 1

The best anthology of pulp short stories you'll read this year is published today and is now available to buy. Most of the stories are original and written exclusively for the anthology with a few having seen print on the Beat to a Pulp e-zine. There's sci-fi, horror, fantasy, westerns... well, there's something there for everyone. I'll report on it later when I've actually read the stories (including my own, which as usual I haven't been able to bring myself to even glance at since I wrote End.).

Anyhow, for now roll on over to David Cranmer for the details of where you can buy, and a big well done to everyone involved for all their hard work.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

Goodbye, Mr Pitkin

The veteran British comic actor Norman Wisdom died yesterday at the age of 95. He had a long and memorable career starting back in the 1940s and continuing up until a few years ago, and that longevity means that in an odd way another bit of my childhood now feels gone forever.

Norman was one of the comic film actors I loved when I was young along with Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, WC Fields, The Marx Brothers, Will Hay. And I'm happy that I can still enjoy their superb comic timing and their innocent, inoffensive humour. But most of those actors were long dead before I was even born and yet Norman kept on going, still somehow running around and doing comic pratfalls well into his 80s.

The two facts that are always quoted about him are that Charlie Chaplin thought he was a better clown than himself (he was, but then again that wasn't hard) and that he was Albania's national hero. I've always hoped the latter was an urban myth, but bizarrely it was probably true. Albania didn't allow any foreign films to be shown except for Norman's films as his Mr Pitkin character represented something deep and political about the downtrodden proletariat ridiculing the ruling classes. I suppose this only goes to prove you can read anything into anything. Who knows, maybe one day the French will hail Jerry Lewis as a film auteur.

What was more obvious was that his films belonged to a bygone age that didn’t rely on gross-out humour or that feeling of smug, emperor's new clothes that I get with most of what claims to be comedy these days. The films usually involved Mr Pitkin in an ill-fitting suit falling over a lot, gurning, laughing, singing for no good reason, throwing buckets of paint around and shouting 'Mr Grimsdale' at his comic foil Eric Chapman. I can still sit down whenever one is on and I have no trouble in raising a smile, even if the films are very dated. In fact his films were deemed dated by the mid 60s. People didn’t want simple humour, apparently, even back then and so Norman made a couple of efforts at more grown-up comedy staring in The Night they raided Minsky's and an odd adult British comedy before he went into semi-retirement.

In later years he occasionally turned up in serious roles and he was always very good. Only last weekend I watched an episode of the cop show Dalziel and Pascoe where a 90 year old Norman turned up playing an old bloke in a sanatorium. Effectively playing against type he turned out to be the killer, and yet he still found time to do his trademark infectious laugh and comic fast turn away from the camera. Anyhow, RIP, Norman and one last time for old time's sake:

Mr Grimsdale! Mr Grimsdale!