20 November 2012

Take it to la bridge

Reading the London Independent’s fascinating obituary of French pretty-boy singer Frank Alamo – the leading exponent of the 1960s yéyé genre – I came across a sentence about his rivals Johnny Hallyday and Claude François. All three recorded French-language adaptations of UK and US hits, occasionally covering the same songs, eg ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. This is how the obituary described Alamo’s competitors:

Hallyday, in the late 1950s, based his moody persona on Elvis Presley and the US rock’n’rollers, while François drew on James Brown and Motown and surrounded himself with dancing girls – les Clodettes, inspired by Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes – but the clean-cut Alamo gave them a run for their money …

A French James Brown, go-go-ing Clodettes? I had to see this. The song I found is called ‘Belinda’.

Still, delving into old French pop singers required a nostalgic re-visit to Claude Nougaro’s ‘Anna’.

06 November 2012

When the day is dawning

‘Just a Little Lovin’ is the perfect opening track to the perfect album, Dusty in Memphis. Written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, it works like an overture to the 40-minute emotional opera that is Dusty Springfield’s 1969 classic.

Dusty and guitarIronically, Dusty never really recorded in Memphis. While the backing tracks were put down in Memphis at the American Studios of Chips Moman, Springfield herself was intimidated by the setting. A tormented perfectionist, she found she couldn’t record with musicians who played by ear, not using charts. Always insecure, she had her headphones turned up extremely high, as if to drown out her own voice. In 1990 Springfield told me (in an interview for Rip It Up) that hearing the producer Jerry Wexler and engineer Tom Dowd tell her, “Stand there – that’s where Aretha stood” just unnerved her. (I’ve since realised of course that Aretha never recorded at Memphis: her two classic Southern tracks, ‘I Never Loved a Man’ and ‘Do Right Woman’ were actually recorded at nearby Muscle Shoals.) So – oddly, like Aretha after her unhappy experience at Muscle Shoals – she bailed out, and recorded the final vocal tracks in New York.

But what a brilliant song, recently revived by Shelby Lynn for her Springfield tribute album, Just a Little Lovin’. Is there a better opening than, “Just a little lovin’, early in the morning / beats a cup of coffee, for starting off the day…”

This is all a preamble to a discovery recently made, of 60s bombshell Elke Sommer performing the song with a charming accent on The Dean Martin Show. Not so charming is the bibulous host, who undercuts any message the song has by donning his tuxedo and fleeing. Martin did have issues.

Martin himself recorded a song called ‘Just a Little Lovin’ but it wasn’t the same song. Written by Eddy Arnold, it had the sub-title “Will Go a Long Way”, and was also recorded by Ray Charles. After Springfield released the Mann/Weil classic, though, it was later recorded by Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. Now there’s a vote of confidence in a song – and a performance.

01 November 2012

Raiders of a Lost Art

Brian Kellow's recent biography of Pauline Kael is workmanlike, but for the past couple of weeks any pre-1991 film watched at home is followed by a book coming down from the shelf to wallow in her reaction. Her life was at its richest when watching a film or sitting at a typewriter to release her response, so in lieu of personal information, Kellow leans heavily on précis of her reviews. Her reaction to the impact of the Jaws/Star Wars blockbuster successes in the mid-1970s on the future of the film business - and independent films - was prescient.

Discussing Kael's response to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the George Lucas-Steven Spielberg 1981 tribute to the old movie serials, Kellow's summary encapsulates the disappointment so many feel when watching talented filmmakers waste their time on action-packed but emotionally empty epics. Raiders, writes Kellow,  
... appealed to an incredibly wide base, but Pauline regarded it as a perfect symbol of the rise of the marketing executives; in her review of the picture, she pointed out that marketing budgets often surpass total production budgets, a practice that "could become commonplace." She found Raiders didn't allow you "time to breathe - or to enjoy yourself much, either. It's an encyclopedia of high spots from the old serials, run through at top speed and edited like a great trailer - for flash." At last, she could see the direction in which Jaws had led. Its excesses were especially a pity, she thought, because both Lucas and Spielberg were loaded with movie-making talent. She observed that if Lucas "[wasn't] hooked on the crap of his childhood - if he brought his resources to bear on some projects with human beings in them - there's no imagining the result." But it's doubtful that Lucas paid attention to her admonishment - not in the face of the $230 million gross racked up by Raiders.
Brian Kellow, Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking, 2012), p295.
In response to Disney's purchase this week of the Lucas/Star Wars empire, Richard Brody, the New Yorker's film blogger (is he too geekish to be an actual columnist?), has just written a positive post about US independent filmmaking.