Netflix Corner: Ken Burns’ Jazz Series

Jazz: The TV Mini-Series

Directed by Ken Burns

Ken Burns Jazz Series Review

I’ve heard people talk time and time again about Ken Burns documentaries, but I’m actually not sure I’d ever seen one. Burns is sort of PBS’s documentarian extraordinaire, as he has done documentary series on everything America including baseball, the Civil War, national parks, and much more. Burns is so patriotic in his work, I bet there is a 12-part series on apple pie coming soon. Describing jazz as the only true American art form, it makes total sense that Burns would cover it at some point. The series is actually 14 years old, so you may ask why we are covering it now. Well it seems like Netflix grants new life to all sorts of content (old documentaries, classic TV series, and even TED Talks), this nearly 20 hour documentary series is now available to watch in a click from your queue. Jazz is an extraordinary beginner’s to jazz and its importance in American history.
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Get On Up Review

Get-On-Up

Music biopics are cat nip for Oscar voters. Biopics like Ray, Dreamgirls and Walk the Line have been showered with love from the Academy, but for whatever reason, Get On Up, Tate Taylor’s (The Help, Winter’s Bone) James Brown biopic, is getting very little Oscar buzz, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it got completely snubbed.

Why is this the case? Well I have three reasons I think Get On Up isn’t getting the attention it deserves.

1. Get On Up lacks a star actor playing the lead.

While Get On Up has plenty of stars (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Dan Akroyd, Allison Janney), the lead Chadwick Boseman and main supporting actor Nelsan Ellis (who plays Brown’s lifelong sidekick Bobby Byrd) are not the marketable stars that Joaquin Phoenix, Jamie Foxx, and Beyonce are. Boseman did play Jackie Robinson in the (boring) hit sports movie 42, but otherwise, Boseman is largely unrecognizable to the general public.

2. The story lacks a marketable through-line.

Brown’s life didn’t boast an incredible love story, late-life crowning achievement, or other driving narrative, so his story on the surface isn’t going to appeal as much to a wide audience.  Director Tate Taylor decided to make the primary through-line about Brown’s relationship with Byrd the real love story in the movie as it admirably skips over weddings and baby births (staple moments in most biopics), since they weren’t central to the story or Brown’s life. It’s great to see friendship as the most important part of a story as it’s largely looked over in these sorts of movies. The movie is also very non-linear, as it bounces around  forward and backward from time period and tries to connect the dots between Brown’s actions and his brutal childhood. This is mostly very effective, but it does occasionally connect some dots you could have connected yourself without so much jumping, and due to the bouncing around, the film requires some extra attention to stay on top of the story.

3. This isn’t a glamorous look at the Godfather of Soul.

Get On Up opens with Brown at his craziest, getting arrested from being all-drugged up and threatening his employees with a gun. The movie quickly moves to his childhood so you can see the abject poverty, brutal abuse, and complete disregard that was shown towards him as a young child, helping make sense of his horrible actions. Boseman’s take on Brown is certainly charming at points and no doubt determined, but his flaws like his anger, mistrust, and greed bleed through more than his best traits. I like the fact that the director Tate Taylor didn’t try to sugarcoat Brown’s story (as far as I know) and tried to show a true-to-life take on the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.

So that’s why I don’t think it will get the attention it deserves, but why should it get some awards season love? Here are three reasons to get up for Get On Up.

1. Chadwick Boseman’s transformation is outstanding.

While he might not be as well-known, Boseman’s transformation is as impressive as the aforementioned stars if not more impressive. His ability to play Brown young and old, crazy and compassionate, and as self-determined as the real Brown is a tremendous feat that deserves Academy recognition, but most certainly won’t get it. It’s one thing to get down the mannerisms and vocals of a legendary musician, but another thing to do James Brown. Brown not only went through so many stages looks-wise and has an incredibly distinct and incredibly great voice, but there are only a few people that can dance and perform as well as Brown, and Boseman had to learn all the moves and performance tricks that made James a must-see. He really disappears into the Godfather of Soul in this movie, the highest compliment in a music biopic.

2. The writing and direction for Get On Up is very unique.

Also mentioned previously, but the screenplay for Get On Up doesn’t fall into the usual tropes of these movies where you can pretty much guess the next scene. Rather Get On Up keeps you guessing by bouncing around from era to era and not including the conventionally big life moments in the film (wedding, births, first hit), but rather the secretly impactful moments (first time experiencing music in the church, realizing music was his way out of the Jim Crow system, reconciliation with Bobby Byrd) that really mattered the most to Brown. The movie is also incredibly vibrant musically and visually, keeping you captivated throughout.

3. It speaks very well to the racial divide in America.

Watching it now as opposed to its summer release actually probably helps, as Get On Up isn’t shy at showing the racism in America in the most disturbing and gutwrenching ways. It’s not just cheap ugly stares and “we don’t want you around here” stuff you see in bad sports movies (like Boseman’s 42), but uses truly shocking and relevant examples. From getting 5-13 years in prison for stealing a 3-piece suit on his first offense, to getting shot at multiple times by police for non-violent crimes, to being forced to fight other black children blind-folded for white people’s entertainment, Taylor leaves you with tangible examples of racism that relate to our current state. Even the dealing of Brown and his bandmates is horribly unfair and their distrust of the system is justified. It’s disgusting to watch, and makes you realize we haven’t come as far as we hoped.

For these reasons, I think you should get your hands on Get On Up. Did I mention it’s a really great biopic about Brown and full of wonderful music, performances, and interesting tidbits about his life? Oh yeah, it’s that too.

LittlebyListen_Scores_85

Ain’t In It For My Health Review

Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm

Ain't In It For My Health Review

Levon Helm is widely celebrated and beloved among musicians for his collaborative and joyful attitude (unlike Ginger Baker, whose documentary I covered last week), but for the only documentary about the legendary drummer of the Band, it shows a surprisingly very different side of Levon Helm. The film covers the recording of his first album in 25 years, the eventually Grammy Winning Dirt Farmer, but more importantly his ongoing struggle with throat cancer, which would ultimately take his life in 2012.
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Beware of Mr. Baker Review

mr-baker

Few embody the rogue spirit of rock ‘n’ roll quite like Ginger Baker. When people think of maniac behavior from rock stars, legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker comes to mind alongside Johnny Rotten (who considers Baker a hero), Ozzy Osbourne, Keith Moon, and John Bonham (both of who Baker has resentment towards). Unlike Bonham and Moon, Baker is a look at what happens to a wild rock star when they don’t flame out and die at a young age, but rather live a long, strange, withering life.

Ginger Baker grew up a son of a World War II hero, and instead of aiming to follow that honorable example, he zagged the other way. Fortunately Ginger had rhythm and worked hard at drumming, becoming one of the greatest drummers in rock history. However, his bitter and difficult personality affected his bandmates, friends, and family ultimately lending itself to a life of being a rotten parent, thrice divorced, a quick departure from almost every band he was in, and even deported from the U.S. to South Africa. The film’s conceit is Ginger is just Ginger and that’s just part of the package with his brilliance, but I beg to differ. There are plenty of examples of people equally brilliant who also choose to be caring to those around them (like the late great Levon Helm) resulting in an increasingly fruitful life rather than one that damages all around it.

Young filmmaker Jay Bulger decided to pursue following Baker around after his celebrated Rolling Stone article “The Devil and Ginger Baker”, and goes to visit Baker on his ranch in South Africa to recount his life story. So much of the story is told directly and reluctantly from Ginger’s own words, but with him being fairly incoherent as is, that makes for a less than eloquent way of pushing the story along. Bulger’s direction is a little scattershot which could have to do with Ginger’s life itself and the quality of the film feels fairly low budget, but you can see he did a lot with a little. Thus it’s not the most quality filmmaking, but it also doesn’t fall into some of the same clichéd tropes that most rock docs fall into.

It is fascinating to watch how Baker’s life has rolled out, but it does feel more like watching a slow car crash than anything. If you are a fan of Cream or interested in this sort of rogue rock character, Beware of Mr. Baker is for you and its easy to catch on Netflix. Otherwise, you can do without it.

LittlebyListen_Scores_5

Muscle Shoals Review

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There would never be rock ‘n’ roll without the South, and all the blues, New Orleans jazz, and country to come out of that region of the country. Thus, Muscle Shoals, the small Alabama town that holds the legendary Fame Recording Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, makes surprisingly perfect sense as a setting for so much classic musical output.
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Begin Again Movie Review

begin again

Begin Again is a musical romantic comedy written and directed by John Carney, of Once fame.  The reviews were pretty good, most everything big studios have released this year has been trash, and I was itching to see a movie.  So why not give this one a chance?  On top of Begin Again being a halfway decent way to spend an hour and a half, it is also a guaranteed to please female significant others.

Begin Again starts with down on his luck record executive Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) chancing upon down on her luck singer/songwriter, Gretta (Keira Knightley) at an open mic night.  Gretta has just been dumped by her budding pop star boyfriend (Adam Levine) for his assistant.  Dan has just been fired from the company he started.  All in all its a pretty contrived premise that of course ends with Dan wanting to make music magic one last time with Greta as his muse.

To be quite honest the movie probably wouldn’t have been able to get off the ground if it wasn’t for the performances of Ruffalo and Knightley.  Keira Knightley is magnetic as usual, and Ruffalo plays his typical kind of an asshole that has a heart of gold underneath it all type character.  Dan comes up with the idea that he is going to make an album with Greta recorded all over New York City.  The meat of the movie is the duo recording this album, and also getting to know one each other better.

What I found nice about Begin Again was the platonic relationship between Dan and Greta.  Carney decided not to complicate things with some forced relationship between the two leads.  Cliches abound in the film (like Ruffalo’s distant relationship with his daughter), but the classic Romantic Comedy format is not in play here.  There is no big bottom dropping out moment like most films of this ilk.

The film features pretty much a full album worth of songs by Knightley and the gang.  It’s about what you would expect, decent enough for a musical film, but not great if we’re talking real pop music.  No matter, Knightley does a great job of selling the performances.  The sets for all the performances were pretty impressive, including rooftops, alleys, and even rowboats in central park.

Where the movie probably falls most flat is believability.  The premise of the film is not believable, which is fine, but more troubling was the believability of any of the motives or emotions of the characters.  Greta’s boyfriend cheated on her, and has an all too quick about face when he merely apologizes.  Ruffalo, a brutal alcoholic, tries to sell quitting drinking when things start to go right, and it appears he succeeds.  These are just a few of the inconsistencies to real life we see throughout.

But despite these flaws, Begin Again is too charming to completely ignore.  For a harmless diversion that can keep your attention, it is a fine choice.

LittlebyListen_Scores_6

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me Review

Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me

Big Star Nothing Can Hurt Me Review

Big Star had one of the biggest chasms between commercial success and critical praise, and because of that, they have become underground legends. While their music really should have appealed on a larger scale (I’m not sure why they couldn’t have seen the same success as power-pop brethren Cheap Trick), they certainly – like Velvet Underground – have their influence shown in how many bands they inspired,  including R.E.M., The Replacements, Wilco, and Teenage Fanclub. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me came out in 2012, but can be easily accessed on Netflix, and the documentary makes a strong case as to why they should have been bigger and why they weren’t bigger.

Arguably the most obnoxious portion of the film is its opening, where it covers their humorously-titled first album #1 Record and followup Radio City. The problem with this portion of the documentary is not that these albums aren’t great or interesting; it’s that they spend the coverage of both albums filled with commentary from self-congratulatory music critics, talking about how brilliant Big Star’s music was and why they couldn’t understand why the public didn’t get it. It’s the sort of elitism and egotism that drives people crazy about critics, and one reason I don’t always like writing about music.

Once you get past that portion, the documentary and the lives of members of Big Star really got interesting. Chris Bell, really half of the creative brainpower of the band, never got the credit for how important he was to the band, since co-lead singer/songwriter Alex Chilton was charismatic and already known for his #1 hit “The Letter” with the Box Tops. Bell dives into drugs, becomes born again, releases a few pieces of brilliant music, and then dies in a tragic car accident at 27, that infamous age when we have lost so many music legends too soon. Chilton himself becomes estranged in an up-and-down relationship, leaves the band, forms a love of punk and performance art, and then finally comes full circle playing with the band again before passing in 2010. Bell and Chilton have a similar dichotomy to McCartney and Lennon, only if McCartney was the one that passed too soon and got the recognition of Ringo.

Beyond the fascinating life stories, the film and those talking about Big Star’s music truly understand the essence of their music and arc the film around that narrative: “pain transformed into beauty.” The film ebbs and flows nicely, changing moods decisively yet smoothly, and is produced very skillfully. The film also captures the musical heritage Big Star adopted being from Memphis, recognizing how they both fit in and stuck out in the Memphis tradition. The film wraps nicely focusing on the primary players Big Star has influenced like Teenage Fanclub and R.E.M., and ending with an eye on Bell and Chilton’s legacy.

It’s a well done documentary that is easy to get at (on Netflix) and worth watching for pop music fans, fans of music history, or people who are fans of any of their disciples.

LittlebyListen_Scores_7