Monthly Archives: April 2009

1939 – The Best Vintage for Movies?

The Glasgow Film Theatre celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, along with the 70th anniversary of the  picture house that its building originally housed – the Cosmo. To mark the two birthdays, the GFT is devoting Sunday, May 10 to special celebratory events, including the screening of two films voted for by the public – one from 1939 and one from 1974.

Now, much as I love 1970s cinema, I can’t get excited about the choice of films for 1974. Okay, Woody Allen hadn’t yet settled into his film-a-year routine, so that partly explains the absence of a comedy… But then this was the year of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein – and it would have been a popular choice. It was also the year of  the about-to-be-remade Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, the brilliantly suspenseful thriller about the hijacking of a New York subway train, and The Godfather. So clearly 1974 was, as Frank Sinatra would have said, ” a very good year”.

The films in the running for Glasgow’s viewing public to see on May 10 are, I think, a bit of a mixed bag, though, with one title streets ahead of all the others. They are: Lenny, Chinatown (in a superior class all of its own), Celine and Julie Go Boating, The Man With the Golden Gun and A Woman Under the Influence.

Much more appealing (to me anyway) are the 1939 nominations. Mind you, 1939 is regarded by many as the greatest year in Hollywood history. It seems as if every second film was a future classic during that 12-month period – after all, this was the year of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.

Great movies emerged from every genre. Westerns-wise, there was John Ford’s lyrical Stagecoach (with John Wayne), arguably the first classic western; in the comedy category there were such gems as George Cukor’s witty, all-star (and all-female) bitch fest The Women, the western spoof Destry Rides Again (with James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich) and the sparkling Ernst Lubitsch screwball comedy Ninotchka (which had cool beauty Greta Garbo not only laughing but also sending up her own frosty image). Bette Davis triggered more than a few tears that year with two particularly classy melodramas – The Old Maid and Dark Victory. And Jimmy Stewart and director Frank Capra caused hearts to be uplifted with their first collaboration, the idealistic and often very funny political drama Mr Smith Goes to Washington.

Since several of these titles feature on the 1939 list of films to vote for, I’m in a bit of a quandary. Although I suspect it will be The Wizard of Oz that wins the popular vote, and justly so, it would be wonderful to have the chance to see the other films on the big screen. It’s not as if any of them are shown anything like as often as Oz on TV. Ninotchka isn’t even available on Region 2 DVD – unless you fork out £50 for a Garbo box set!

So, the 1939 list of choices is: Stagecoach, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz and Jean Renoir’s masterly (and eerily premonitary) La Regle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game).

Votes must be cast by 4pm, Friday May 1st – visit http://tinyurl.com/gftbirthday to have your say….

UPDATE – WEDNESDAY, MAY 6th

Well, no surprises: The Wizard of Oz did indeed win the public’s vote for 1939 while Chinatown was the choice for 1974. Here’s how the voting went:

1939
The Wizard of Oz – 34%
Mr Smith Goes to Washington – 27%
La Regle du Jeu – 21%
Ninotchka – 11%
Stagecoach – 8%

1974

Chinatown – 48%
A Woman Under the Influence – 16%
The Man with the Golden Gun – 14%
Celine and Julie go Boating – 12%
Lenny – 10%

Watch out for the Sunday Herald’s spread on the GFT’s twin birthday celebrations, including the case for 1939 as Hollywood’s best-ever year (by me), and Herald group arts editor Alan Morrison’s views on why 1974 was a bumper one for cinema.

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Grosz Humour

Sometimes fate takes a hand – at just the right moment. There I was (well, here actually – at my desk), despairing about the choice of CDs awaiting me when I heard a dull thud in the hallway. It was the arrival of a package containing .. my salvation: the new CD by my favourite guitarist, singer and raconteur Marty Grosz. I knew I’d enjoy my reviewing..

And I did. This new album, Hot Winds – The Classic Sessions (Arbors Records), finds Grosz in fine form – and no wonder, he’s playing his own distinctive , fresh arrangements of mainly 1920s & 1930s tunes with five of his most like-minded pals (among them clarinettist Dan Block, bassist/bass saxist Vince Giordano and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson). This lot clearly enjoyed recording together Indeed, Grosz told me: “I had more fun with this group than any other I can think of.”

Mind you, fun is an integral part of jazz for Grosz and his devoted fans. He has always believed that audiences want to be entertained and that jazz shouldn’t be a po-faced affair. He grew up with swing bands whose leaders were characters and put on a show. Grosz’s USP is his razor-sharp wit which flourishes both in the solo setting – noone can introduce a song like him; an introduction can become a surreal stand-up routine – and alongside such favourite sparring partners as the clarinettist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski. (Together, they’re the Matthau and Lemmon of the jazz scene.)

If you’re lucky enough to find that Marty Grosz is playing at a jazz club near you, make sure you take along one of the un-converted: his music is about as accessible as you can get. And his “act” is the best tonic for these dreary times.

More on Grosz at a later date, but to read about the Hot  Winds recording session in depth, visit the Jazz Lives blog – www.jazzlives.wordpress.com

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A Hitch in Time

Speaking of Duck Soup, I was reminded of one of my favourite Woody Allen scenes yesterday when a trip to the movies blasted the blues away on a miserable Monday…  I’ve always found that a good dose of escapism in the shape of a great film, especially on the big screen, is the best possible non-pharmaceutical antidote to what Holly Golightly called the Mean Reds.

My feelings about the therapeutic qualities of great films are brilliantly – and hilariously – summed up in Hannah and Her Sisters when a suicidal Woody Allen stumbles into an arthouse cinema and finds that, in something of a paradox, it’s the inane antics of the Marx Brothers hailing Freedonia in Duck Soup which make him forget his troubles and help him “put the world back into rational perspective”.

It wasn’t the Marx Brothers that I went to see at the Glasgow Film Theatre, but it was as rare a treat: a showing of the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Notorious. Only the sunshine (and the thought that yesterday might turn out to be the first and last day of summer) can explain the disappointing turn-out for a film which, although not one of Hitch’s very best, is still streets ahead of most other movies on offer at the moment.

For my generation, which grew up with these movies on TV, there is a real thrill about seeing them on the big screen. You’re more likely to lose yourself in the image – there’s so much to drink in, especially if Cary Grant is one of the stars. (And here he is beautifully photographed by Ted Tetzlaff, whose final film as cinematographer this was.)

It’s not only the image that’s magnified – maybe because your attention is so focused on the film, you pick up more of the subtleties in the dialogue than you do sitting in your living room watching the small screen. Of course, there’s also the fact that watching a film in company is a different experience from watching it alone – and it’s amazing how other people’s dirty minds make you realise that the dialogue isn’t always as innocent as it appears on the surface in films from the “Golden Age” of Hollywood.

Actually, Hitchcock got away with quite a bit in Notorious. 1946 was clearly the year of smooching while making a phone call – James Stewart and Donna Reed tested the censors’ patience with their famous, lingering kiss in It’s a Wonderful Life while poor Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright shouted a business plan down the phone to them. Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman have a similar moment in the altogether more risque Notorious which, in a strange anticipation of the reputation Bergman would gain four years later when she left her husband for her lover, Roberto Rossellini, cast her as a bit of a bad girl.

The only disappointment with the movie was Bergman’s wardrobe. Ogling the outfits is another reason to see an old movie in the cinema but, with the exception of the one dress I remembered anyway (you’ll know the one if you’ve seen the film), there wasn’t much to get excited about.

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Paris Blues & Highs

I was down in London yesterday to interview the mysterious jazz singer and guitarist Madeleine Peyroux whom I last interviewed by phone in 2005, just as her cultish CD Careless Love was on the verge of exploding into the mainstream (it topped the charts in August of that year).
One of the main subjects we chatted about was Peyroux’s time as a busker in Paris. Turns out she was there, singing and working as the “hat passer” for a group of street musicians in and around the Latin Quarter at exactly the same time as I was bunking off my 12-hour week as an English language “assistante” to go and watch old movies in the Latin Quarter – the cinemas in the rue des Ecoles, to be precise. (I do have a vague recollection of listening to a group of jazz-playing buskers at the St Michel fountain – and I may have bought a tape of them…)
I probably saw more old movies on the big screen during that year than in the rest of my life: they showed seasons devoted to the Marx Brothers (and you haven’t lived until you’ve watched Duck Soup in the company of like-minded strangers), Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, Astaire and Rogers, Frank Capra. This was where I saw Love in the Afternoon the one and only time ever, and ogled William Holden up close (in Sabrina) for the first time…
That year in France was one of abject poverty – until I got myself a summer job. But despite having no money, I did alright in the jazz stakes. During a trip back to Glasgow, I went to a concert at the late, lamented Glasgow Society of Musicians, a cavernous club, reeking with history (I think that’s what it was, anyway) behind an anonymous, speakeasy-style door on Berkeley Street. There I heard the American cornettist Warren Vache who struck up a conversation with my father and me. Upon learning of my imminent return to Paris, he told me to contact a pal of his, the trumpeter Alain Bouchet. And so I found myself at my first Parisian jazz club, nursing one Perrier (shared with my pal Siobhan) from 10pm-2am and then having to stay awake in the Pub St-Germain-des-Pres until the first RER train back to the suburbs at 6am. (Taxis were not an option – they cost money.) These were the lengths I had to go to back then to get my jazz fix.
I almost overdosed a couple of months later when, at the height of the Parisian summer, I crossed the city to attend the jazz festival at La Villette, the old abattoir, which, for one magical night, played host to the Newport All-Stars (with Warren, Scott Hamilton, etc) and the Re-birth of the Cool band, led by the great Gerry Mulligan – whose Glasgow concerts four years earlier had converted me from dabbler to devotee of this music….
* Madeleine Peyroux’s new CD, Bare Bones, is out now on Decca/Rounder – and my interview with her should be in The Herald Magazine on Saturday May 9th…

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Jazz for Babies

Promoters are always going on about creating new audiences for jazz but you don’t often see jazz gigs aimed at kids, in the way that there are hugely successful series  of classical concerts for children. The Baby Einstein CDs and DVDs have been popular with my five-year-old twins since they were introduced to them, at the age of 18 months, by a savvy older toddler.

Children just soak up these gentle orchestrations of Mozart, Beethoven and the other classical greats, which is wonderful for the classical music loving parent hoping to brainwash the offspring before they’re old enough to voice their own preferences. But what is there for the jazz fan seeking to plant the seeds of a lifelong love of their music in the next generation? Well, nothing as obviously geared to young ears. You have to do it yourself – and get used to playing the same two CDs in every car journey for, oh, about nine months.

An old tape of Louis Armstrong’s 1930s recordings became an unexpected favourite in our old banger for many formative months – the jubilant and fast-paced Swing That Music would produce an effect on the backseat passengers akin to the head-thrashing method of time-keeping favoured by heavy metal fans, while little voices would moan “Oh baby … ” along with Louis at the intro of If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight – long before they could actually talk.

More recently, Bix Beiderbecke has provided the soundtrack to car journeys with the inevitable bickering about whether he was as good as Louis or just different. Yup, they’re shaping up to be typical jazz fans – devoted to their heroes and blinkered to anyone else’s..

All this nostalgia for my boys’ early exposure to jazz was prompted by the visit on Saturday afternoon of a 6-week-old baby, Jacques, who was guest of honour at a little tea party which I was hosting. In a rush to get ready for his arrival, and influenced no doubt by the balmy weather which always seems to trigger a bossa phase, I grabbed my Getz-Gilberto CD.

It – along with a Sinatra-Jobim chaser – proved to be the perfect accompaniment to Jacques’  first visit, as it was gentle, lyrical and soothing. It would be difficult to think of a nicer introduction to jazz – at any age.

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Adventures in Jazz

Reviewing CDs is a tough job. No, really it is. After all if you want to do it properly, it takes quite a few listening sessions to get a real feel for the music and a considered opinion.  Sometimes a few sessions are just the beginning of a beautiful relationship with the CD, as I suspect is going to be the case with the one I’m listening to right now – an Arbors release with Johnny Varro (piano) and Ken Peplowski(clarinet).  Other times, listening to a CD for work feels just like that – work. ..

Anyway, listening to the Peplowski CD is doubling as a taster for the forthcoming Norwich Jazz Party – my first extended shot of jazz so far  this year (a terrific duo concert by Alan Barnes and David Newton in Glasgow’s City Halls Recital Rooms being a very tasty aperitif). Many of the musicians whose music means the most to those of us with a taste for mainstream and classic jazz will be there, and, since there are so far no clues as to who’ll be at the Glasgow, Edinburgh or Nairn jazz festivals this year, I figure the chance to hear favourites has to be grabbed when it’s available..  even if Norwich is a hop, skip and an almighty schlep from Glasgow.

Among the musicians on the Norwich bill are John Bunch (piano), Warren Vache (cornet), the aforementioned Peplowski (clarinet & tenor sax), Alan Barnes (clarinet & saxes), Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar), Scott Hamilton (tenor sax) and Rossano Sportiello (piano). Visit www.norwichjazzparty.com for more info.

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Credit Crunch Hit Parade

Just happened across Simply Red performing Money’s Too Tight to Mention on an old video tape – if ever a song needed resurrecting, that’s it… Got me thinking about other financially-themed songs. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

* Money Money Money (Abba)

* Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

* Pennies From Heaven

* Money Makes the World Go Round (Cabaret)

* I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and Ten Cent Store

* Brother Can You Spare a Dime

* We’re In the Money

* I’m in the Market For You

* With Plenty of Money and You

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