Saturday, January 31, 2015

Excuse me, while I read between the lines

Jimi Hendrix died in 1970 at 27. His stint as the lead vocalist, guitarist and composer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience lasted roughly four years. Four years, three studio albums — that's the bedrock of the Hendrix legend. Everything else — the live albums, the footage of him playing Woodstock and Monterey, the numerous outtakes and b-sides — is window dressing. Every year some new Hendrix curio comes to light, and is solemnly packaged and distributed to the faithful. One of the strangest of these is Starting at Zero, a quasi-autobiography assembled from Hendrix's own writings.

Starting at Zero's journey began when British filmmaker Peter Neal, director of Experience (1967), the first ever film on Hendrix, began to gather material for a documentary on the musician. To create as authentic a portrait as possible, Neal, along with writer Michael Fairchild, set about collecting everything Hendrix had ever said: quotes culled from press meets, books, magazines, recordings and concert raps. They had an unexpected windfall in 1990, when a large collection of Hendrix's handwritten notes were auctioned in New York (Fairchild somewhat overestimates this as "the most amazing archaeological find since the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls"). Neal incorporated some of these notes, and completed a first draft in 1991. However, a copyright battle with the Jimi Hendrix estate stalled publication for almost two decades. It was finally published in the U.K. in 2013.

The entries in the book, though not precisely dated, cover the entirety of Hendrix's life. We know this because the first page has Hendrix recalling his birth ("It was fireworks — so it must have been the Fourth of July"), and the last words in the book are "When I die, just keep playing the records". In between, Hendrix discusses the first time he heard Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, his stint in the air force, his largely unhappy career as a sideman in the States, and the chance meeting with Chas Chandler that bought him a ticket to Britain — and instant fame. It's certainly Hendrix's voice — you can almost hear him speak some of the lines in his woozy, dulcet tones.

Those who know the general trajectory of Hendrix's life should welcome this opportunity to read between the lines. When we read Jimi's 1965 letter to his father ("Nowadays people don't want you to sing good"), we can sense his quiet confidence and connect it to the fact that he was finding his own sound around this time. For someone who comes across as an unusually modest rock star, there's a rare moment of hubris when he writes in another letter home in 1966: "Tell Ben and Ernie I play the blues like they NEVER heard." He was right, of course, and in a few months, the whole world would know it.

Purists will complain that Starting at Zero is cheating — and they won't be wrong. These aren't notes for a book; they're simply musings, scattered thoughts and random utterances that have been collected and given the shape of a biography. This "shaping" is key; on the same page, presented as part of the same thought process, may be sentences Jimi said or wrote years apart, in very different contexts and moods. There are four interviews that read like regular fanzine Q&As: it's only when you go to the book's website that you realise that the questions are all from different interviews. The other problem the book suffers from is the man's famed spaceyness — his tendency to obscure meaning in clouds of science-fiction, mumbo-jumbo and marijuana fumes. This becomes more pronounced as the book goes on, and after a while, less patient readers might begin to scan pages for references to specific events, songs and performances, rather than Hendrixian raps about the planets, love and cosmic consciousness. ("Where all the earthquakes stem from is bad vibrations," he writes at one point.)

Still, this is hardly a less worthy project than the dozens of Hendrix compilations and reissues that have surfaced since his death. Hendrix anticipates these in the book, writing about recordings he made with Curtis Knight and the Squires when he was a session man that surfaced as bootlegs when he became famous: "It was just a jam session, and here they just try to connive and cheat and use... They never told me they were going to release that crap." Yet, last year, it was announced that the Hendrix/Knight recordings would be released in their entirety. Posthumous compilations such as these (and probably Starting at Zero too) are more likely to appeal to completists — people happy to glean a lot of chaff for a kernel of gold — than to regular music fans. And there's enough gold sprinkled here to keep fans interested: Hendrix's evolving thoughts on Eric Clapton, The Beatles and Bob Dylan; his surprisingly frequent mentions of composers like Bach and Wagner; his initial aversion to political issues, followed by his growing involvement.

Of the three J's who died at 27 (Jimi, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin), Hendrix was by far the biggest loss to music. He was fertile till the end, and would have probably embraced funk, rap, perhaps even punk if he'd continued to record into the '80s. The last few entries in the book have him enthusiastically discussing his plans for setting mythology stories to music ("It wouldn't be like classical music, but I'd use strings and harps, with extreme and opposite musical textures...") At one point, he writes that he'd like to achieve a sound that combines the strengths of "Handel and Bach and Muddy Waters and flamenco". No wonder he admits soon after that "I can't play guitar well enough to get all this music together." But he came closer than anyone else, and Starting at Zero is a reminder of this, and of what might have been.

This piece appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Big Eyes: Review

Big Eyes begins with a burst of freedom, as Margaret (Amy Adams) drives off with her young daughter in the night, leaving her first husband behind. We then see her in San Francisco, applying for jobs that will allow her to utilise her talent for painting (she gets one in a furniture company). Sketching portraits of passersby in the park, she meets what appears to be a fellow-painter. Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) realises that Margaret's paintings of waif-like children with unrealistically large eyes are special. He courts her, and soon, they're married, trying to make ends meet by selling their artwork. But the public only has eyes for Margaret's paintings.

What follows is both incredible and absolutely true. Walter Keane — who, Margaret later discovered, was never an artist — took credit for his wife's paintings, first without her knowledge, and later, with her complicity. In the film, Walter is a gushing huckster with affectations of high culture (he's in love with France, never a good sign in a Hollywood film), and Margaret a timid '60s wife. As his star rises, she sits at home, producing paintings that Walter then sells under his own name.

That Big Eyes is directed by Tim Burton is hardly a surprise. The children in Keane's paintings could easily pass off as one of the large-eyed characters in Burton's films — The Penguin in Batman Returns, the animated leads of Corpse Bride, the wild, dark-lined peepers of Johnny Depp in half a dozen movies. Burton had been a fan of Keane's for decades, getting her to paint portraits of two of his partners, Lisa Marie and Helena Bonham-Carter. Big Eyes is one of his more restrained films — but the fact that he's reigned himself in just means that the ersatz Burton touches that keep surfacing sit awkwardly with the more straightforward biopic approach he adopts for the most part.

Burton emerged in the late '80s seemingly fully formed: a former animator whose visual style had the rude energy and wackiness of a cartoon. Lately, however, his work has taken on the quality of a meal comprising solely of dessert: beautiful to look at, fun in small doses, but hardly sustaining. Working with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Burton creates an eye-popping vision of Frisco in the '60s, but there's surprising little weight behind the emotions. Instead of delving deeper into why Margaret — timid but capable of standing up for herself — lives a lie for 10 years, Burton teases us with the possibility that Margaret is going insane when she starts seeing people with big eyes in the department store. She isn't crazy, and the film doesn't really believe she is either — it's just that Burton can't help himself.

Big Eyes is further harmed by the casting of Waltz, who gives one of the hammiest performances by a two-time Oscar-winner ever. The script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, doesn't liberate Waltz's German-accented English the way Quentin Tarantino's lines do, but that's only part of the problem. Waltz preens, puffs, lunges, gurgles and almost salivates in his effort to convey the mendaciousness of Walter Keane. The courtroom scene at the end should be all about the protagonist, but is instead taken over by Walter's buffoonery. Would that Burton have thought of Danny Huston, seen in the small role of a muckraking journalist, as Walter: he has right mixture of menace and charm for this character.

In recent years, Adams has played fiery, take-charge women in films like The Fighter, The Master and American Hustle. Here, she's withdrawn but still compelling. When she says early on she draws the eyes large because they're a window to the soul, Adams' own searching look lend credibility to the cliché. Whenever Walter's rants became unbearable — which was often — I found myself scanning the room for Margaret, hoping to see a spark of rebellion in her eyes. It arrives, too late to save the film — but thankfully, not too late for the real-life Margaret, who escaped to Hawaii, remarried, and got the long-overdue credit she'd been denied.

Unbroken: Review

Unbroken opens high up in the sky. At first, all we see are clouds and the distant horizon. Then, we begin to make out a bomber plane flying slowly towards us. Almost immediately, a dozen or so more planes materialise. Though there are no opening credits, it's no surprise to learn that the architect of this lovely shot is the great Roger Deakins. What is more surprising is that two of the four writers on this film are his most frequent collaborators, the Coen brothers. It's difficult to imagine the misanthropic, sardonic brothers penning this ode to the triumph of the spirit.

One of the planes in the opening fleet has a bombardier named Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell). En route to a tricky landing after their plane is attacked – a sequence which second-time director Jolie handles admirably – we're whisked into an extended flashback. We see Louis as a scrawny American school kid who's picked on because of his Italian ancestry. His life changes when his brother recognises his talent for track and field. After some pro-forma training sequences, we switch back to the older Louis, off to represent America in the 5000 metres at the Olympics. "A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory," his brother says as he's leaving. What follows seems like a brief moment of glory and a lifetime of pain.

Sent on another mission over Japanese waters, Louis and his fellow airmen crash land in the sea after one of the plane's engines fails. Three of them – Louis, Mac (Finn Wittrock) and Phil (Domhnall Gleeson) survive – and float around on lifeboats for 47 days, fighting off sharks, hunger, thirst and delirium. It's a harrowing passage, lasting for what seems like half an hour, and it's almost a relief when Louis and Phil (Mac succumbs on day 33) finally float into the hands of the Japanese. Unfortunately, our hero's troubles are nowhere near ending.

We know, from half a century of Hollywood films, if nothing else, that Japanese POW camps were hell. Yet, I see no reason to believe why camps anywhere else in the world would be much nicer. The cultural hegemony of Hollywood has drilled the image of the sadistic "Jap" into our heads. Jolie perpetuates this stereotype by introducing a guard named Mutsuhiro "The Bird" Watanabe, an antagonist so brutal that after a while, the viewer is numb to the pain and hoping the same for Louis. Watanabe, played by the baby-faced Japanese pop star Miyavi, subjects Louis to unbearable levels of physical punishment. In one scene, he forces the emaciated prisoner to lift a huge boulder above his head. The way the scene is framed, Jolie is clearly trying to conjure an image of Christ on the cross. But if Louis is Jesus, whose sins is he suffering for?

During the flashback, there's a brief recreation of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the one held under Nazi rule. Jolie must have enjoyed paying tribute to Leni Riefenstahl, arguably the first great female director, whose Olympia documented these very games. I'd argue that Jolie's own approach in the second half of this film borders on a kind of fascism. By presenting the Japanese as unrelentingly evil and sadistic – less than human – and the Allied prisoners as loyal, polite and brave, she's essentially saying, this is why we had to drop the bomb on them. (There's a brief disclaimer at the end, saying Louis preferred forgiveness to revenge, but it's too late by then.)

Unbroken marks the start of Oscar release season here in India – and it's certainly an Academy-friendly film. One wishes it were a little bit black and white in in characterisation, and a little more willing to play around with its source material, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. None of the film's faults, however, can diminish the considerable screen presence of the young British actor Jack O'Connell, who gives Zamperini a doggedness and enthusiasm that audiences will have no difficult in rooting for. Let's hope they don't put him in a superhero movie next.