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Posts Tagged ‘Sparks’

Annette begins with an orchestra and singers preparing to make a recording; instruments are plugged in and tuned, everyone seems to slowly be getting ready for the moment of truth. Observing from the control booth is the director, who looks a lot like Leos Carax (this role is played, in a strikingly well-judged bit of casting, by the director Leos Carax). He asks if it would be possible to start.

And so they begin, singing a song on the topic of starting. Very quickly, however, the key members of the band (the instantly recognisable figures of Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks), the backing singers, and so on, all get up and proceed out of the studio into the street. And I do mean proceed: this is a procession in the classic style. The Mael brothers cede their position at the front to Adam Driver, Marion Cotillard, and Simon Helberg, but the parade continues out into the streets of Los Angeles, the lyrics addressing the anticipation inherent in beginning-of-movie moments like this, but also including the reasonable request that the audience ‘shut up and sit’. Eventually Driver and Cotillard depart to get into character and things become marginally less odd for a while.

(The closing credits of the film feature another procession by the cast and crew, this time politely wishing the audience a safe trip home after the movie, a thoughtful touch which is rather more endearing than the usual post-credits scene.)

Annette is a musical directed by Leos Carax, based on a story and with songs by Sparks, so this is never what you’d call a conventional movie experience for long. Adam Driver plays Henry McHenry, a misanthropic stand-up comedian not entrely unlike Andrew Clay or Bill Hicks, while Marion Cotillard plays operatic soprano Anne Defrasnoux. Henry and Anne have recently begun a relationship and fallen deeply in love with one another: they sing a song about this, called ‘We Love Each Other So Much’, which – in authentic late-period Sparks style – largely consists of the title repeated over and over again, albeit with the couple in increasingly startling situations as they sing the line.

Soon the news breaks that Anne is pregnant, and the world awaits the birth of the child. (I particularly enjoyed the singing obstetrician and chorus of midwives who appeared at this point to perform a song largely about breathing and pushing.) The baby is named Annette, but her arrival marks a change in the fortunes of the couple: while Anne meets with success after success, Henry finds it hard to maintain his edginess and his career struggles as a result. And so they decide to take Annette with them on a fateful boat trip…

‘Not mainstream’ was my partner’s considered opinion after watching Annette, and this strikes me as a very accurate assessment of the kind of film this is. Of course, few films have the capacity to become beloved crowd-pleasers in quite the same way as a great musical can, but I suspect the relentless weirdness of Annette will prove a bit of a barrier to mainstream success.

It’s not quite the conventional ‘sing a bit, talk for a bit, sing a bit’ musical, for one thing: this is practically sung through, which always produces some slightly odd moments. The effect is something akin to actual opera, with all the strangeness associated with that – Driver, Cotillard and Helberg play the only developed characters, so a lot of the time they are interacting with choruses made up of supporting roles – the audience of Henry’s stand-up show get a song with the lyrics ‘Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha!’, the police interrogate people to music, and so on.

What of Annette herself, you may be wondering? Well, just in case a slightly self-referential rock opera starring people without trained voices and with music by Marc Bolan and Hitler lookalikes isn’t offbeat enough, baby Annette is played by a wooden puppet. It is fair to say this is a slightly creepy wooden puppet (though still not as unsettling as the CGI baby in the last Twilight film). As the film goes on it proves to be the case that there are sound artistic and metaphorical reasons for the baby to be played by a puppet. But this doesn’t make the various scenes of Driver and Cotillard putting the puppet to bed, and so on, any less bizarre.

The baby puppet only really becomes prominent in the later sections of the film, by which point the plot has soared to such heights of extravagant madness that it probably registers less than it would in a film with a more naturalistic plot. Someone is murdered (they keep on singing even as they are being done in), someone comes back as a vengeful ghost, Annette the baby puppet turns out to have a borderline-magical gift which leads to her becoming the subject of much attention, and so on.

I think the non-naturalism of the movie musical is one of its greatest strengths, but there’s non-naturalistic and then there’s Annette. This is one of those rare movies fully in the self-aware, presentational mode, which is open about its own artificiality. Normally this is a recipe for camp, pretentiousness and a rather desperate reliance on irony, but – and this is probably Annette’s greatest achievement – the remarkable thing about this film is that it still packs a significant emotional punch in its key moments. Much credit must go to the actors, particularly Adam Driver (especially since most of the songs seem to be pitched rather higher than he seems comfortable with), but of course the Mael brothers deserve praise for an inventive score which includes some extraordinary pieces of music.

I was hoping to see rather more of Ron and Russell on screen during the film, but apart from the opening and closing sequences they stay behind the scenes, except for a brief cameo as aeroplane pilots. But the film does have the mixture of wit, playfulness, and sincere emotion that is the hallmark of much of Sparks’ music. The central metaphor of the film is an effective one, and if the things it has to say about modern culture are not terribly original, it at least puts them across well.

This is a soaringly weird and often deeply strange film, but also a rather beautiful and affecting one. It’s a coming together of such special and diverse talents that it’s almost certainly a unique, one-off piece of work – not that this shouldn’t instantly be clear to anyone watching it. I doubt there will be a more distinctive film on release this year.

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It seems like that one of the perks that comes with your Successful Film Director badge is the opportunity to occasionally make a documentary about anything you like, more often than not a niche personal interest of some sort: James Cameron has done a couple about deep-sea exploration, Peter Jackson seems to have an interest in military history (particularly aviation), Shane Meadows did one about his favourite band, and so on. You can see why these sorts of projects get the green light: documentary features are usually a tricky sell and putting the name of someone popular on them helps to offset that.

Edgar Wright is the latest to have a go and the subject of his film is effectively given away by the title, The Sparks Brothers – the fact that this is a title which the siblings in question supposedly loathe gives you a reasonably good sense as to the general tenor of the piece, which is playfully deadpan and carefully absurd.

These may sound like odd choices for a documentary, but then this is a documentary about the rock band/pop group/synth duo/trio Sparks, or more specifically the Mael brothers, who have been the core of the enterprise for half a century now. Movies celebrating groups or bands or individual artists like this one usually start with a section where a selection of celebrity admirers come on and try to explain just how wonderful, accomplished, pleasing to the eye and generally deserving the subjects are. It perhaps says something about the essential nature of Sparks that even their most passionate devotees, given this opportunity for fulsome praise, still end up describing the duo as ‘an anomaly’, and offering thoughts such as ‘they would make good Muppets’ and that they look less like a band than people on day release from some kind of institution.

This seems rather unfair to younger brother Russell, who is the vocalist and front man for the band, and seems an engaging and personable chap, but may well be a fair description of elder Mael Ron, whose angular, threatening, slightly predatory stage presence – coupled to a dress sense which is interesting, to say the least – is one of the things the band is most famous for. There’s a famous, probably apocryphal story about John Lennon seeing Sparks’ first Top of the Pops appearance and phoning up Ringo Starr to tell him he’d just seen Marc Bolan performing a song with Hitler.

That song was This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, the 1974 single which is probably the only thing a lot of people can remember about Sparks. This was certainly the case for me: I was only vaguely aware of them beyond this one record, and was entirely in the dark about the twenty-plus albums and hundreds of songs they’ve recorded in a half-century career.

Happily, Wright and his film are here to provide some illumination into the Sparks opus, and do so at potentially exhausting length: there’s some background on the siblings (they are native Californians, hence the line that Sparks is ‘the best British band ever to come out of America’), including – courtesy of what must have been some ferocious research – footage of them as teenagers in the audience of a Beatles gig. Then the film covers the coming together of their first band Halfnelson, later renamed Sparks in a slightly perplexing marketing exercise.

From then on, every album is discussed, along with the brothers’ various peregrinations, reinventions, changes of style, and other projects. It is such an odd story – at one point they were going to make a film with Jacques Tati, at another they spent literally years working on an adaptation of a Japanese manga to be directed by a young Tim Burton – and essentially that of two men driven to follow their muse rather than any kind of commercial instinct. Former Sparks drummer (and, apparently, long-time TNG extra) Christi Haydon is reduced to tears as she recalls the brothers’ longest period in the commercial wilderness (in the late 80s and early 90s) and the fact that they continued to write and produce music on a virtually daily basis throughout this period.

One question the film doesn’t directly address is that of how a band can be so prolific and massively influential and yet remain so little known. (Wright makes the reasonable suggestion that every synth-pop duo with a flamboyant singer and a rather less demonstrative keyboard player are basically ripping off Sparks’ act, albeit usually with less wit.) The closest it comes is the suggestion that the whole essence of Sparks is an exercise in irony and the deconstruction of cliché – it’s usually impossible to tell whether the brothers are taking something deadly seriously or quietly sending it up; they may in fact be doing both at the same time. Their single Music You Can Dance To is an arch parody of vacuous commercial dance-pop, but at the same time it’s a banging example of the form at its best. Other songs reveal the same dry sense of humour or a willingness to completely tear up the usual norms of pop music – the lyrics to My Baby’s Taking Me Home are basically just the title, repeated seventy or eighty times in a row.

Wright manages to suffuse the movie with the same kind of deadpan artiness, including animated sequences and a droll section where Ron and Russell enact various metaphors – the suggestion that Sparks push the envelope of conventional pop music is accompanied by a clip of them pushing an envelope back and forth, and so on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are exceptionally good value as interviewees, in a film which is not short on people willing to come on camera and sing their praises – various musicians, actors, writers and fans all turn up.

The Sparks legend is largely based on the duo retaining an aura of mystique, which the film duly respects – we learn virtually nothing about their private or personal lives, beyond the fact that Russell once had a brief entanglement with Jane Wiedlin and that Ron has a large collection of snow-globes. Even so, the brothers appear at one point and admit their concerns on this front, attempting to remystify themselves by sharing some rather dubious Sparks facts – Russell is apparently a NASCAR driver in his spare time, while Ron writes spy thrillers under the pseudonym John le Carre (a joke which seems a bit tasteless now but wasn’t at the time of filming).

Two hours and twenty minutes is a long duration for this kind of film, but it trips along very enjoyably: as ever, you almost wish they stopped to play some of the songs in full. (Still, I suppose we have the internet for this sort of thing now.) It really succeeds as a funny, engaging and warm film, and also as a documentary. I went to see it on the strength of the trailer and Edgar Wright’s track record, really knowing very little about the band, and I came out actually loving them a bit. Consider me a convert.

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The final chapter of the original run of Survivors, comprising the last six episodes, gets underway with three episodes in a row from Roger Parkes: the only time other than at the very start of the series that one person does so. At least this gives you hope of a little more tonal consistency than is often the case with this series.

The first of the three is The Peacemaker (The Pacemaker might also be an appropriate title, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). To begin with, would you believe it, Jenny, Charles, and Hubert are still searching for Greg (it’s starting to seem like Jenny’s suspicions that he doesn’t actually care about her or his son may have some truth to them), but almost at once they get distracted when they discover a working windmill under the control of a religious group. These guys initially look like Christian monks of some kind, but it soon transpires they’re not quite as ascetic as they appear (Hubert gets a roll in the hay before the end of the episode – we don’t see this on camera, thank God), and many of their beliefs in fact seem to be vaguely Hindu – an Indian woman, Rutna, has converted them all to vegetarianism, for instance. Hubert is appalled when he discovers curry is on the menu, grumpily complaining (in one of those only-in-1977 moments) about – oh dear – ‘wog food’.

The ostensible leader of the mill settlement, Henry, is in fact very much reliant on his mentor, Frank (Edward Underdown), as indeed is everyone else. Frank was apparently a professional head-hunter (as in, recruitment consultant) before the plague, and has become a kind of counsellor and, for want of a better expression, life coach. Everyone is very protective of him, and the visitors soon sense a little chilliness towards them – but then their horses are poisoned, stopping them from making the prompt departure they were intent on…

This is an interesting episode, for all that Hubert’s mutterings about ‘darkies’ make it a slightly awkward watch 40 years on.  There’s some slightly contrived shotgun-toting action half-way through (it has to be said that neither Denis Lill nor John Abineri is as adroit at this sort of thing as Ian McCulloch usually was) but mostly this is character-based stuff, exploring what it takes to be the kind of mentor Frank has become, and also (once again) the question of what kind of world it is that the survivors are trying to build. The mill setting is somewhat distinctive, as is the religious angle, and there are some interesting moments along the way – Charles criticises Henry for his decision to withdraw from the outside world, viewing it as a desertion of his responsibility, while Jenny gets an excoriating speech, tearing into Charles, Frank, and Greg (in absentia) for being all too ready to set out across the countryside on their various crusades and pilgrimages rather than staying in one place and meeting their more quotidian responsibilities there. And you can’t really blame her, especially when the search for Greg is finally parked, and the trio, joined by Frank, set off in search of an electrical engineer who may be able to help Charles get the electricity switched back on. This is probably not the greatest episode ever, but it’s a big improvement on the last couple, for sure.

Next from Parkes is Sparks, which primarily functions to introduce Alec Campbell (William Dysart), the last major character of the original run of Survivors. I have no idea whether there were ever plans for a fourth series of the show in 1978 (received wisdom seems to be it was canned in favour of Blake’s 7), but if there were, could it be that Alec was intended to become a new male lead? Given the problems that arose when Ian McCulloch and Denis Lill were sharing the male lead role, it would have been a slightly odd choice, given that Alec is, like Charles, a passionate, bearded Celt. Unless the plan was to ditch Charles completely.

Anyway, as the episode gets started, Charles, Jenny, Hubert, and Frank are searching for Alec, as they need his expertise as an electrical engineer to restart the hydroelectricity plants of Norway (the point is stressed that Greg, a civil engineer, is from the wrong specialisation). Alec is living in a settlement based out of an old and rather decrepit church, which reflects his rejection of the technological world and everything it represents. He is a bitter, sombre figure, much given to brooding over his dead wife’s picture (Vincent Price was presumably unavailable for the part).

Well, the main thrust of the episode is about Charles and Frank’s increasingly startling attempts to snap Alec out of it so he can help them get the electricity turned back on. The possibility that Alec has the right to hold whatever views he wants is at least touched upon, but not explored in any detail – one of the things you take away from this episode is how quietly fanatical Charles and Frank seem to have become about federation and the reconstruction, and you’re more inclined to agree with Jenny, who finds it all deeply suspect (and inevitably gets patronised when she raises a dissenting voice).

When Charles’ impassioned reasoning fails to get Alec to shift his position, kindly old Frank’s solution is to get hold of a bottle of pethidine and slip Alec a slug of it without telling him. This appears to trigger some kind of psychotic breakdown, not to mention hallucinations and suicidal impulses, but apparently this is all for the best (according to Frank) as it is breaking through the shell of his alienation and allowing a catharsis of the… you get the idea. Frank and Charles even get Jenny to pretend to be Alec’s dead wife to assist in the ‘cure’. Quite apart from the fact that this is handled in a rather stagey and melodramatic fashion, you have to wonder about exactly what kind of new society these guys are planning on setting up, because (based on their treatment of Alec) it isn’t one that seems to value the rights of its individual citizens very highly.

Oh well. By the episode’s end, Alec has made an absurdly rapid and full recovery from his long-term psychiatric malaise, and is as keen as mustard to switch the power back on – but why go all the way to Norway? There are power stations up in Scotland, after all. (Does this mean all the Norwegians will be left to starve after all? After everything else this episode, I wouldn’t completely rule it out.) So, the quest to meet up with Greg and help establish a trading connection with Norway, has, somehow, mutated into the mission to switch on a hydroelectric plant in Scotland. By this point I suspect most viewers are inclined to just shrug and let them get on with it. Lucy Fleming is making the most of an increasing number of good scenes where she takes the others to task for being ruthless, self-centred, and unreliable, and there’s a decent scene where Charles and Frank consider how they coped with the death of their own loved ones during the plague, but this is a very odd episode and a rather unsettling one. (It also ends on a freeze-frame, which is another oddity for this show.)

Things initially don’t show much sign of improvement in The Enemy, which opens with Charles, Jenny, Hubert, Frank, and Alec (Uncle Tom Cobley and all are presumably travelling just off camera) heading north as fast as they can. This is bad news for Frank, whose pacemaker battery is showing signs of conking out. To allow him to rest up, the party stop at a settlement near an old coal mine – just the kind of resource Charles and Frank want to preserve. Frank doesn’t want to let on to Alec how ill he is, so they have to find a pretext to stay – and, luckily, the settlement has a generator they can’t seem to get working.

There’s quite a long sequence with Charles, Hubert, and Alec getting epically wrecked with the locals. Charles and Frank, coming across even more like a chillingly Machiavellian post-apocalyptic Arthur and Merlin, have figured out that Alec will be easier to keep under control if they use Jenny and her feminine wiles to manipulate him (I repeat: this is Charles, ostensible hero of the series, doing this). Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Sam (Robert Gillespie), a technician and ex-junkie who believes his life was saved by the collapse of the old world in the plague. Sam is concerned that Charles’ quest to restore the electricity will symbolise the resurgence of the bad old ways and the destruction of the new, purer world the survivors have managed to create.

We get another electric scene between Charles and Jenny, where he at one point suggests it’s her moral duty to sleep with Alec, and also reminds her that her dedication to Greg seems to have declined a bit in recent weeks, regardless of how indifferent he seems to her (Greg does seem to have visited every other settlement in the country before finally heading back to his friends; this episode marks one of the few times Charles arrives somewhere Greg hasn’t visited first).  The episode’s big revelation comes later – just what is the enemy alluded to in the title? Is it laziness or boredom, as the settlement leader suggests? Apparently not: the enemy is a true believer with an agenda.

The generator won’t work because it has been deliberately sabotaged. Sam is so terrified of the old world and all its evils – the social workers who he feels enabled his addiction, ‘softness’, corruption – that he is prepared to destroy the surviving technology himself. He tries to persuade Frank of the justness of his cause, believing Charles won’t listen to him, but Frank dies before he can warn Charles and Alec of what Sam believes. Alec fixes the generator anyway, and Charles has visions of a techno dream team to get everything running again – Alec, Greg, and Sam! It’s a properly ominous set-up for the climax of the series, and works quite well because of the strength of Robert Gillespie’s performance – he was equally good in a small part in one of the very early episodes. He’s a convincing softly-spoken zealot, and just sympathetic enough to be very interesting, especially when placed in opposition to characters like Charles and Frank, who seem equally fanatical and ruthless in their own way, and equally unwilling to examine their own motives. Is Charles indeed right to try and bring about his own vision of progress without really having consulted anyone around him? His motives are more obscure now than when we first met him. All in all, an episode with more strong elements than weak ones, I would say.

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