8/10/2014

A Hard Day's NightThe power of the Beatles was not immediately obvious. To those of us who first heard them in 1964, the nasal accents and plagal harmonies seemed a logical extension of our rock sensibility. Sure, they owed a great debt to the Everly Brothers, and the Beach Boys. We knew they were different, but we didn't realize how different, or how they would change everything.

Charles Taylor's essay on A Hard Day's Night tracks the film's evolution from its intended quick-and-dirty commercial success to generational icon. He tells us what we thought we knew, but never admitted to ourselves, much less our friends:

"Teenagers screaming for pop idols, whether from the past or the present, can seem quaint to us. But the screaming for the Beatles has much less to do with teenage girls (or maybe the boys screaming on the inside) wanting John, Paul, George, or Ringo for a mate than wanting the exhilaration and fullness of life they collectively represent. It’s an instinctive response to a profoundly felt moment, a moment that can never come again, not just because the Beatles can never be replicated but because the conditions don’t exist for any performer to dominate the popular consciousness in the way the Beatles did."

For me, an African-American teenager growing up as a wannabe Jewish hipster in Brooklyn, the Beatles were a godsend. Yes, the boy screaming inside me copied the long hair and the tight pants and the pointed boots, wondering what it all meant, pondering these issues over the next decade as I pursued and then walked away from my own career in rock, ending with a stint as sideman to the recently rediscovered Jobriath. (No credit on the released albums, but I'm in the film, playing bass at Electric Ladlyland, working with Eddie Kramer on a track called "As the River Flows.")

The Beatles, particularly John Lennon, gave my generation the gift of plausible rebellion, a trait that both guided and doomed my subsequent banking career, along with my former and current stints as corporate software maven. That "Mister, can we have our ball back?" line, so aptly quoted by Taylor as one of the surreal, non-corporeal scenes in AHDN, encapsulates the liberation from knee-jerk sequence - the college/army/corporate/suburb shuffle so wryly eulogized in Mad Men. We occupied university buildings, burned draft cards and dropped acid, all the while reassured that it was OK to get high with a little help from our friends. In the ugliness that followed - Altamont, Kent State, the fall of Saigon - we kept that sweet message close to heart, even when eulogizing the messenger himself, when he died in 1980.

Today, that rebellion continues to question the establishment, only this time it's the digital honchos who need roiling. None of today's hip offerings approaches the honesty of Richard Lester's collaboration with the Beatles. Taylor embeds this judgment in recursive damnation:  

"Every rock critic or former rock critic, every fan or blogger who proclaims the empowering democracy that the digital age has made possible is in fact denying the possibility for the kind of pop moment that, as with Elvis or the Beatles or punk, called everything into question, made us ask what it was we wanted of our life, and fed that energy into political and social ways those changes could be realized. They are celebrating their own irrelevancy."

Whether Taylor becomes the larger critic for saying this, or the more clever critic for escaping his own indictment as cottage-industry pundit, his words weigh as heavily as Lennon's comparison of the Beatles' popularity to that of Jesus. I prefer the lyrics to "Imagine," particularly in the face of today's mélange:

"Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too" 

7/26/2014

Walter Isaacson's review of A Spy Among Friends, the latest study of British double agent Kim Philby, is itself a study in meta-narrative. Early on, Isaacson tells us that author Ben Macintyre has no new "startling revelations" about Philby, who led a notorious ring of Cambridge-educated spies and distinguished himself as the best Soviet mole ever to penetrate the U.K.'s intelligence leadership. But the story reads like a novel, says Isaacson, with a nod to McIntyre's impressive record of "nine previous histories chronicling intrigue and skulduggery."

We learn from a footnote that Isaacson wrote biographies of Einstein, Kissinger, and Steve Jobs, the last credit immediately conjuring the iconic image of Silicon Valley's most enigmatic figure staring pensively from the cover. Despite this impressive record, he stays out of Macintyre's story, and this is how it should be, the reviewer as invisible force moving a resistible object.

Except Isaacson is one of those polymaths we love to read about. Currently CEO of the Aspen Institute, he has been chairman and CEO of CNN, and the managing editor of TIME magazine, making that publication's 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

This is good stuff.

Isaacson goes on to clarify Mcintyre's theme, explaining that the narrative of Philby's relationship with fellow Cantabrigian Nicholas Elliott runs deeper than your ordinary spy story, that those chosen to grace the playing fields of Eton learn early on "to shield themselves from vulnerability...to mask their feelings for one another with jokes, cricket-watching, drinking..."

Philby was one of The Cambridge Four, a group recruited by the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB. Isaacson does not mention the feelings two of the other members had for each other. Anthony Blunt, who became Queen Elizabeth's royal art advisor while passing secrets to the Russians, had an ongoing affair with Guy Burgess. This was one of two habits they picked up at university, the other being an unbridled commitment to Communism.  

The review ends with an anecdote about John LeCarré's 1986 interview of Elliott, during which he asked if Elliott, a loyal member of the British intelligence group MI6, had ever considered having Philby killed: "To that Elliott gave a disapproving response. 'My dear chap,' he said. 'One of us.'”

Isaacson's tag line - "What does it really mean to be 'one of us'?" - resonates, perhaps louder than intended. He will publish another book about Silicon Valley in October, a study of innovators in technology. It's safe to say that his research uncovered at least one modern-day Kim Philby, an executive or academician freely passing digital secrets to a foreign power in the guise of his employ. The only question is, did he write about it?     

7/12/2014

Begin AgainFifty years ago, the Beatles consolidated their already dominant brand by starring in A Hard Day's Night, the brilliant work by director Richard Lester that straddles the Social Realist and British New Wave schools of film. Until then, pop music had been filmed as the extension of male charisma. From the homoerotic machinations of Jailhouse Rock (no threat to Elvis Presley's career, the male bonding trope later reprised in G.I. Blues) to the saccharine beach party films starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (e.g. - Beach Blanket Bingo), the male musician qua movie star extended his vinyl antics unscathed to the big screen. For better or worse, they were our heroes.

Then Ringo, the anti-hero, captured our hearts. His struggle with identity became an insidious plot point buried in a sequence of infectious tunes and catchy one-liners (John Lennon: "Hey he's reading the Queen...that's an in joke, you know.") We saw the angst behind the fame, the Liverpudlian sense of dislocation, of alienation in the metropolis.  

Keira Knightley plays the latest incarnation of this well-trodden character, a disturbingly photogenic singer-songwriter whose caddish boyfriend-collaborator first feeds from and then genuflects before her tentative accomplishments. Her character Greta (we catch a whiff of Wagner) arrives in New York City with Dave (Adam Levine from Maroon5) to promote his new album, which includes songs co-written by the two of them. Through a mélange of jump cuts and flashbacks, we see the inevitable arc of betrayal, survival, rescue and redemption. When Dave returns from a West Coast junket with label execs, he plays a newly written song for Greta, whose preternatural sense of the jilted collaborator (culminating in her world-class slap to his unsuspecting face) forces him to admit that the song's dedicated to Mim, his conveniently Asian publicity person. Greta decamps for the living room couch of her friend Steve (James Corden), who cajoles her into performing a song one night during his set at a convenient hipster bar in Manhattan.  

Enter the dragon, Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a washed-up indie label exec who's just split with his partner Saul (Yasiin Bey, the former Mos Def). From the edges of an alcoholic stupor, Dan hears Greta singing over the crowd and imagines the band behind her, animated instruments played by invisible musicians in a scene that might have succumbed to the weight of its own kitsch, had we not already been seduced by Greta. Our unconscious anti-Valkyrie eventually gives in to Dan's insistence, recording a "live" album of her work with the help of Steve, a group of Dominican waifs hired to silence their street antics, and several professional musicians paid by Cee Lo, an early client of Dan's whose abject gratitude, seemingly at odds with the real world of music, funds this quixotic venture.   

In this new world order, where the black characters Cee Lo and Saul control the economics, we see a different set of actors than the Beatles, whose irreverence for the ruling class arguably proved their greatest asset. Here, the downtrodden have become the ruling class, and the quotidian hipster faces anonymity instead of certain fame.   

Greta's success elicits a redemptive entreaty from Dan, a record deal from Saul, and the ancillary rehabilitation of Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan's alienated daughter. In the bargain, Dan's ex-wife Miriam (Catherine Keener), survives her initial antagonist role (hastily delineated in Dan's knee-jerk narrative). Greta's last-minute decision to release the album on the Internet is somewhat plausible, the wrath of a real-world executive much easier to imagine than the tractable Saul, who smiles good-naturedly and exits, stage right. (We can only guess how Tommie Mattola would have handled it.)

The backstory to this film has yet to be resolved. Yasiin Bey was recently barred from touring the United States. In the real world, Jay-Z does business with Russian billionaires. On the screen, the former Mos Def plays an indie exec struggling to keep his company, and his career afloat. His character faces issues of economic survival, not political suppression. Once again, it's tough to find the line between fiction and reality. 

Mos Def

Hard Day's Night

The Social Publisher