Sunday 24 February 2008

TV Thrillers

Johnny Gregory's TV Thriller Themes is one of those fabulously fortuitous finds. It's a classy collection of US and UK Crime Jazz from the mid -1960's

Featuring a bold and brassy big band sound that belies its British origins, TV Thriller Themes, includes such US Crime Jazz staples as Route 66, 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason and Johnny Staccato plus less familiar gems like M Squad and Tightrope, alongside forgotten Brit crime themes like Top Secret, Echo Four Two and Ghost Squad. Of special interest is the inclusion of the original Avengers theme.

The man behind TV Thriller Themes, Johnny Gregory, was the son of band leader Frank Gregori, whose band was a regular fixture at Quaglino's restaurant in London during the 1930s and 1940s. Johnny Gregory became a prolific record arranger with Philips and the BBC Radio Orchestra’s principal guest conductor. An Ivor Novello Award winner Gregory wrote the music for some 27 films, and accompanied singers including Matt Munro, Anthony Newley, Connie Francis and Cleo Laine.

TV Thriller Themes is another great addition to my current fave Crime Jazz collections Jazz From Great TV Shows and Like Wild!.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Welcome to the Cotton Club

Inspired by Jim Haskins' pictorial history of the notorious Harlem nightspot, Francis Ford Coppola's Cotton Club from 1984 looked like a sure fire hit. A top director, a screenplay by Mario 'Godfather' Puzo, a cast including Richard Gere, Bob Hoskins and Gregory Hines and a soundtrack by John Barry - how could it fail? Alas the mysterious death of a financier dogged the production and the mobsters and music format left punters confused resulting in an expensive flop which all but destroyed producer Robert Evans' career and did nothing for American Zoetrope's fortunes.

Clunker or Classic? Opinion is divided about The Cotton Club. Personally I love it once you get used its slightly schizophrenic mix of stunning onstage dance numbers blurring into the sometimes visceral action off stage which blazed a trail for productions like Chicago.

At over two hours, it's a long but nevertheless glossy and stylish production with some fine performances though Richard Gere and Diane Lane are a bit wooden and lifeless. Horsefaced Nic Cage is whiny and annoying and James Remar is a scenery chewing villain, but the double act of Bob Hoskins and Fred Gywnne is inspired while Gregory and Maurice Hines dazzle on the dancefloor. Laurence Fishburn turns up as a young mobster, Tom Waits plays it straight as the Cotton Club's MC while ex Warhol star Joe Dallesandro of Lou Reed's Walk on The Wild Side fame ("Little Joe never once gave it away") simmers as Lucky Luciano.

The Cotton Club soundtrack is a good accompaniment to the movie and features thirteen stunning recreations of jazz classics of the era by Bob Wilber though sadly only two examples of John Barry's evocative and deeply romantic score are included. There are some excellent performances though including Lonnette McKee's heart breaking Ill Wind, Sandman Williams' solo spot interspersed with the death of Dutch Shultz and the instrumental The Mooche which opens the movie with its dazzling dance sequence by the Cotton Club lovelies.

The CD release is a straight lift from the vinyl released at the time of movie and therefore reflects the limitations of an LP in terms of time, consequently many fine performances get lost. Notwithstanding most of John Barry's score, other casualties include Larry Marshall's enthusiastic version of Cab Calloway's Jitterbug and The Lady With The Fan; Sydney Goldsmith's bawdy rendition of Lucille Brogan's Barbecue Bess; Diane Lane and Richard Gere's charming Am I Blue? and Gregory and Maurice Hines supercharged and emotional performance of Crazy Rhythm - there's lots more missing. I suppose that because the movie tanked at the box office, no-one at Geffen Records is going to bother to expand the score which is a shame for Jazzoholics like me.

Moans aside, what you do get is great. John Barry shines and Bob Wilber should be applauded for his attention to detail in creating the spirit and feel of the great dance music of the 20's and 30's without the pops and crackles of course.

Saturday 16 February 2008

J'aime beaucoup - A Bachelor in Paris

With the radiant Marion Cotillard picking up BAFTA's, Golden Globes and Oscar nominations for La Vie En Rose, we honour her artistry with A Bachelor in Paris. C'est un grand easy cheesy compilation where lounge legends like Les Baxter rub les epaules avec Nelson Riddle, Elmer Bernstein et Billy May.

This wonderfully eccentric compilation represents the naughty Paris of Gigi, Pepe Le Pew, Gay Puree, Le Moulin Rouge and The Aristocats. There's even a "ver zexi Mamzelle" linking each track with a commentary about "Parees en lerv" It has little to do with current movies per-se though Sam Butera's bouncy good time version of La Via En Rose was used for the Ratatouille teaser trailer.

So, mes petits choux a la cremes A Bachelor in Paris is a great fun cocktail compilation that would even have Edif Piaf cracking a smile. Cheer up Love ..worst things have happened at sea.

Monday 11 February 2008

That Wonder-Full Thing You Do!

Tom Hanks 1996 writing and directorial debut, That Thing You Do! was the delightful account of the Wonders - a Pennsylvanian pop group who hit the US No 2 spot in August 1964 with their self-penned hit, That Thing You Do!

No doubt recalling his own experience of bands as a drummer in the 60's, Hanks creates a thoroughly enjoyable story of the one-hit Wonders and their rise from talent contests to package tours leading to National TV and the inevitable break-up due to musical differences.

There are some clever and well observed scenes like The Wonders' debut of That Thing You Do! at a talent contest; switching on every radio in an electronics shop when their single is played on the radio; and their first and final TV appearance.

Hanks direction hits all the right buttons and he gets some good performances out of the cast and in addition, plays the part of Mr White, The Wonders' implausibly nice guy manager. Hanks lookalike Tom Everett Scott plays Guy the cool be-shaded jazz loving drummer, Johnathon Schaech plays moody guitarist Jimmy Mattingly, Steve Zahn is goofy guitarist Lenny Haise while Ethan Embry is T. B. Player the dorky bassist destined for military service. A luminescent Charlize Theron plays Guy's blonde bouffanted girlfriend, while Liv Tyler is wasted as Jimmy's doe-eyed squeeze who seems resigned to sitting round looking mopey and useless. It all turns out for the best in the end though and the film closes with an American Grafitti - style 'what happened to' end title sequence.

Of course the Wonders never really existed but watching them and listening to the soundtrack of this fun film, you'd almost believe and wish they did. The titular single is especially good. Like the movie, the music in That Thing You Do! is a masterpiece of intricate detail. From the iconic Play-Tone label to the selection of songs from a number of imaginary bands, made real with biographical sleevenotes that recall the best 1960's label collections. Apart from the six excellent Beatley Wonders' tracks and a James Mattingly 'solo hit', you also get the Mitch Miller styled Norm Wooster Singers, The Spectoresque girl group The Chantrellines, a bunch of surf style instrumentals, some torch singing, a bit of modern jazz and much, much more.

Whilst That Thing You Do! may lack the saltiness and realism of that other great band movie The Commitments, it is a happy feel good film that reminds you what it feels like to be young and with a band.

North By Northwest - the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures

There are few Hitchcock movies that feature so many iconic images as his 1959 thriller North by Northwest. There's Saul Bass' famous title sequence; Bernard Herrmann's fandango inspired theme; Robert Burk's glorious cinematography; Cary Grant being buzzed by a Crop Duster; the Mount Rushmore finale and the cheeky end coda where the train euphemistically enters a tunnel as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint get cozy in the railway carriage!

Written by the great Ernest Lehman, North by Northwest is a classic tale of mistaken identity, with Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, an innocent man on the run from the authorities and a secret organisation led by James Mason and his rather fey assistant played by Martin Landau. Whilst being pursued across America, Thornhill encounters the sexy Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) a government agent in the employ of Leo G. Carroll as the Professor - a sort of proto Mr Waverley from The Man From UNCLE.

Cary Grant is his usual debonair self with sensational shades and a suit that is almost as cool as Connery's silver grey number in Goldfinger. Eva Marie Saint looks gorgeous and James Mason provides a performance so iconic that Eddie Izzard employed it in his stage act.

Composed and orchestrated in 51 days, Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack is part of movie score legend and needs no introduction. The theme's unusual adoption of South American rhythms must have seemed strange at the time for a thriller set entirely in North America. However the urgent dancing rhythms perfectly convey the film's driving chase theme. Elsewhere Herrmann's signature low register reeds and brass create a tense and atmospheric backdrop accented by his shrill slicing strings immortalised in Psycho.

There's little to fault North by Northwest and it is understandably considered Hitchcock’s greatest film. Although it never won any awards, North By Northwest is number 40 on the American Film Institute's all time top 100 list and is a much loved favourite by film fans worldwide.

Fragment of Fear - Johnny Harris' Movements

Richard C. Sarafian's 1970 creepy psycho drama, Fragment of Fear is based on a novel by John Bingham and adapted by Paul Dehn. It stars David Hemmings as Tim Brett, a reformed drug addict turned writer investigating the death of his Aunt Lucy played by Flora Robson. In between meeting up with the delightful Gayle Hunnicutt, Tim comes into contact with a mysterious organisation called the Stepping Stones. After that things get decidedly nasty.

This cult thriller featured a memorable jazzy score by arranger / composer Johnny Harris and top session men including guitarist Chris Spedding, bassist Herbie Flowers and flautist Harold McNair, whose screaming flute features on the classic club floor filler Stepping Stones. Re-recorded for Harris' legendary 1970 album Movements, Stepping Stones was used as part of Levi Jeans' 1997 ad campaign where it accompanied a Kung Fu themed TV ad.

Movements is one of those truly great LP's that richly deserves its legendary status. Like a good wine it has aged well with its three rerecorded cuts from Fragment of Fear, an interesting selection of cover versions and the filmic Footsteps on the Moon which the BBC used for their moonshot coverage. Included on the CD reissue of Movements is the groovetastic theme to the Lulu show which is a welcome addition and replaces my scratchy old 45 version. Ignore the rather bizarre cover art and investigate the riches within.

Sunday 10 February 2008

Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush - Sex in the Sixties Stevenage-style

Released in the latter part of 1967, Clive Donner's Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush was a colourful adult drama/comedy starring Barry Evans as a sex starved teenager desperate to lose his virginity against the backdrop of the permissive society of the 60's. Something of a fixture in 1960's youth films, Judy Geeson provided the romantic interest alongside dolly bird Adrienne Posta and future Bond girl Angela Scoular.

Adapted from journalist and Beatles biographer Hunter Davies' novel, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush in its filmic form transferred the action from the gritty North, to the concrete jungle of Stevenage in Hertfordshire - hardly the epicentre of the Swinging 60's but it was suitably modern and therefore a reflection of the times. By today's standards, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush seems a little tame with its rather genteel view of the sexual mores of the 1960's, but its semi-psychedelic soundtrack has withstood the passage of time remarkably well.

Despite being asked by Davies to contribute the theme to the movie Paul McCartney deferred soundtrack duties for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush to The Spencer Davis Group and Traffic who along with Andy Ellison, the former vocalist with John's Children, turned in a notable soundtrack that exudes extreme, supreme Sixties grooviness.

Quadrophenia - a very British way of life

Released in 1979, Franc Roddam's screen adapatation of The Who's 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia was a landmark film. Criticised at the time for its scenes of violence, Quadrophenia was possibly the last great British teen rebellion movie and helped spark the Mod revival.

Quadrophenia featured the cream of the hot young British talent from the late Seventies including Phil Daniels as Jimmy the Mod, Sting as the Ace Face, Leslie Ash as Steph, the great Ray Winstone, punk princess Toyah Willcox, Gary Holton, Timothy Spall, Phil Davis, Mark Wingett, Daniel Peacock, Gary Shail and John Altman (nasty Nick Cotton).

After the bloated theatrics of Ken Russell's Tommy, Quadrophenia was a breath of fresh air. Roddam wisely avoided Pete Townshend's complex four-way split personality (Quadrophenia) narrative and concentrated on the Mod vs Rocker battles of the 1960s.

As musical director, The Who's John Entwistle oversaw the sequencing of the soundtrack and pared down the original 1973 synthesiser drenched Quadrophenia album tracks so that they did not sound incongruous with the film's 1960's setting. However the Who's music adds punch to the title sequence where The Real Me accompanies Jimmy astride his accessory encrusted Lambretta making his way to a club as a gang of Rockers loom behind him. Another knockout scene shows a pilled up and mascara'd Jimmy out of his brain on the train to Brighton underscored by the titanic Who single 5.15. To give the film a period feel, a smattering of popular hits from the era including The Kingsmen's Louie Louie, The Cascades' Rhythm of the Rain and Booker T's Green Onions were scattered around the soundtrack.

Whilst it captures the spirit of the age, Quadrophenia does however contain a few visual gaffes. In one scene Jimmy gives Steph a lift on the back of his scooter where he changes gear constantly including slipping into first gear with no discernable jerks and a poster for the 1978 remake of Heaven Can Wait is clearly visible in the background. During a party scene, the album cover for The Who's A Quick One can been seen above a Dansette - an LP that would not be released until after the time the film was set. There is also a scene where an InterCity train not seen on British Railways until the next decade, thunders past Jimmy's garden shed window. These are minor quibbles because Quadrophenia still looks great and by capturing the zeitgeist in some ways echoed elements of the punk scene.

There's a palpable thrill and a sense of being part of the protective cocoon of a gang when a convoy of scooter mounted Mods invades Brighton. There's also a great jazz club scene where Sting proves what an utterly crap dancer he is bobbing around like a deranged marionette to Louie Louie when Phil Daniels (mercifully) upstages him - priceless! The film like the movement it portray, created its own mythology to the extent that fans from all over the world still make pilgrimages to Brighton to visit the alleyway (off East Street) where Jimmy and Steph have a surrepticious knee trembler.

It is interesting to note that another gang movie was on general release at the time in the form of The Warriors. When that film was released in the US it is said that gang fights erupted at screenings, leading UK cinemas to increase security at early showings. Of course it was hype and while The Warriors was entertaining with comic book violence, it was Quadrophenia that captured the imagination of post punk British youth in the late seventies and was a major call to arms in the revilatisation of the Mod movement in the late 70's.

The BBC recently broadcast an excellent one hour documentary about the Mod Movement on its archive hour entitled Mods. Narrated by Phil Daniels, this well researched documentary covers Mod's origins and influences and features archive interviews with Mod prime movers including Pete Townshend, Andrew Loog Oldham and Carnaby Street monarch John Stephen. Mod's influence continues even today and it is fair to say that without Mod, Punk, Two-Tone and Britpop would not have happened in the way we know them.

Monday 4 February 2008

The Transporter - never change the deal, no names and never open the package

Produced by Luc Besson and directed by Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen, The Transporter is a no-nonsense action adventure movie from 2002. Former stuntman and Olympic standard diver, Jason Statham plays Frank Martin, a gravel-voiced "transporter", who moves certain items from one place to another, according to a strict code with no questions asked.

The Transporter makes no pretensions to be anything more than it is - a slick, well made action flick with a very watchable and charismatic leading man and some thrilling driving stunts and wild fight scenes. All in all the perfect no-brainer Saturday night entertainment. The Transporter spawned a sequel, imaginatively entitled Transporter 2 which contains even more crazy stunts. On the strength of these movies, his work with Guy Ritchie and Crank, hard man Jason Statham is fast becoming that rarest of Hollywood commodities - a British action star who can open movies.

Stanley Clarke, the slap-bass supremo formerly with Chick Corea's Return to Forever, provides a suitably solid and pacy soundtrack for The Transporter which is augmented by punchy tracks from Replicant and DJ Pone. All have their place in this fast paced action movie score. Prior to The Transporter, Clarke scored such movies as Boyz N the Hood, What's Love Got to Do with It, Passenger 57, Higher Learning and Romeo Must Die.

Sunday 3 February 2008

Monsoon Wedding - a tasty treat for the senses

Monsoon Wedding is Mira Nair's delightful award-winning 2001 film which traces several intersecting love stories during the Verma family's frantic wedding preparations for a traditional Punjabi wedding in Delhi.

Avoiding the overt Bollywood excesses and overdramatisation, Monsoon Wedding tackles the issues of traditional family values versus the modern world with humour and honesty. At times it can resemble a superior soap, and while it addresses some important issues, it remains entertaining, looks fantastic and leaves you with a warm fuzzy feeling at the end

The film's dazzling soundtrack is a spicy mix of old and new with original music by Mychael Danna sharing the audio space with modern dance tracks, old Bollywood hits and traditional Indian folk tunes - check out standout tracks like Your Good Name, Fabric Aaja Savariya (Come to me, my beloved), Hold me I'm falling, Mehndi/Madhorama Pencha and Fuse Box (Alexkid's Dub Remix). Even if you are unfamilar with Indian Music, don't let that ecelectic mix put you off, this is a joyful and exuberant soundtrack with entrancing melodies and rhythms that will get even the most stubborn feet moving.

Bright Eyes and Black Rabbits on Watership Down

At a time when big action blockbusters like Star Wars and Superman were packing them in at the cinema, a modest cartoon about rabbits trying to set up a new warren was perhaps not considered a safe bet. However, Martin Rosen's adaptation of Richard Adams' novel Watership Down, after a slow start became the sixth most popular film of 1979 at the British box office.

Whilst the animation would hardly give Disney any sleepless nights, the watercolour backgrounds were beautiful and the voice work of John Hurt, Richard Briers, Harry Andrews, Simon Cadell, Nigel Hawthorne, Roy Kinnear and in his last film role, Zero Mostel was inspired.

Some of the film's success may have been down to the popularity of Art Garfunkel's British No. 1 hit, "Bright Eyes", written by Womble-meister Mike Batt, but with a different arrangement to the film version. As a result, many parents expecting a heart warming family adventure with some cute flopsy bunnies, had to escort their howling infants from the cinema when they discovered the darker subject matter contained in Watership Down. Some years later a more child friendly TV animated series was made which bore little relation to the movie other than the name.

Sir Malcom Williamson was originally slated to compose the soundtrack, but due to illness, was only able to submit six minutes of music that comprise the prelude and opening of the movie. Enter Angela Morley to complete the exquisite score for Watership Down.

Although the name, Angela Morley may have been new to some, the musical talent however was well established. Angela Morley's original birth name was Wally Stott, whose composer credits include the top BBC comedy shows Hancock’s Half Hour and The Goon Show. Film credits include The Looking Glass War, When Eight Bells Toll, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City as well as assisting John Williams with the orchestration of his scores for Star Wars, Superman and The Empire Strikes Back.

Morley's pastoral score for Watership Down recalls Ralph Vaughan Williams with its evocation of the English countryside, particularly the Berkshire Downs - the location of the real Watership Down. The more pacier and dramatic cues have a definite John Williams feel to them, which sheds an interesting light on Morley's work with Williams.

So don't let Art Garfunkel's sacharine, tear terker of a single cloud your judgement, Watership Down is a great and unfairly overlooked soundtrack.

The Riddle of The Sands - a right old ripping yarn

Based on Erskine Childers' 1903 spying and sailing novel set in the Frisian Islands of northern Germany, The Riddle of The Sands was directed by Tony Maylam and released in 1979.

Michael York and Simon McCorkindale star as Davies and Carruthers, two heroic British yachtsmen who foil a German plot to invade the east coast of England in a flotilla of specially designed barges.

The Riddle of the Sands' author Erskine Childers was something of an enigma. Not only was Childers a Parliamentary Clerk in the House of Commons, but he also fought for the British in the Boer War and won the Distinguished Service Cross for valour in World War 1. He then founded the Sinn Fein movement which ultimately led to his execution by an Irish Free state firing squad in 1921.

Even though it is a highly abridged version of the source novel, The Riddle of The Sands is the perfect rainy Sunday afternoon movie. It is an old fashioned but utterly charming ripping yarn that makes negotiating sandbanks and tides, and dining on bacon and eggs rather appealing. Never mind that its pace is perhaps a little leisurely for today's slam bang action audiences, the cinematography by Christopher Challis is sumptuous and is perfectly accompanied by Howard Blake's beautiful score. Using strings and woodwinds for the British heroes, Blake counterpoints with Wagnerian tones for the German elements.

Howard Blake, familiar to millions for his score for Raymond Brigg's The Snowman, had previously scored Ridley Scott's acclaimed 1977 debut, The Duellists. Based on the Joseph Conrad short story, The Duel, it dramatises the conflict between two French Hussar officers during the Napoleonic Wars whose rivalry is realised by a series of violent duels over a twenty year period. Blake's lush and evocative score beautifully matches the mood and changing times so stunningly visualised by Ridley Scott.

Both the scores for The Riddle of The Sands and The Duellists demonstrate Howard Blake's mastery of a relatively small orchestra and his ability to create strong themes and get to the heart of a movie without overpowering it.