Sunday, December 9, 2007

Real Deals

To paraphrase a joke by Robin Williams, I know music the way Gandhi knew catering. The first album I can recall ever buying was Billy Joel's Glass Houses, setting my tone-deafness for quality for years to come. Shortly after that, a few friends in junior high introduced me to what in my mind passed for edgier fare -- the J. Giles Band. There we were on the playground, listening to "Centerfold" on somebody's boom box, when down the sidewalk came another group of guys with a bigger, louder boombox blasting Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll," and our entourage ditched us to join theirs. If I didn't know I wasn't cool before then, this moment sealed the deal.

It took me much longer to learn that they weren't cool either; they were just flavor-of-the-month fans who had no loyalty to any musical artist, certainly not the steadfast devotion that Bruce Springsteen's legions have showed him. I arrived to The Boss late, beginning with Born in the U.S.A., then played catch-up in my mid-teens with his multi-tape live album. Into my tin ear his songs submerged themselves like depth charges: I loved equally the twangy energy of "Working on the Highway" and "Darlington County" and the quiet slowdown of "Fire" and the piano solo of "Thunder Road" that opens the album. (Though an older friend splashed cold water on my reverie by saying, "Idiot, the faster version's better.")

I lost touch with Springsteen's later work, and reportedly didn't miss much, until a couple of cuts off his latest, Magic, persuaded me to give the whole thing a listen. "Radio Nowhere" kicks things off with an infectious, hard-driving rhythm ("I was spinnin' round a dead dial/Just another lost number in a file/Dancin' down a dark hole/Just searchin' for a world with some soul") that could serve as a comment on the lame state of current pop music. "Girls in Their Summer Clothes," about a young man's uncomfortable awareness of the women around him, is a lovely small-town fable. It can come across as transparently unconvincing when an artist as successful as Springsteen returns to the kind of "just-folks" songs that propelled him to stardom, and if he's a little overly affected with dropping the g's off of words to achieve street cred (dancin', searchin', comin', livin'), he still shows a knack for detail and local color, and his vocals seem clearer and stronger than ever.

The rest of Magic is uneven. I liked "You'll Be Comin' Down," a standard breakup-comeuppance tune given a jolt that the naval-gazing emo bands regularly lack, and "Livin' in the Future," which is the one track clearly reminiscent of his earlier, funkier work. But many of the other songs, especially his Iraq War polemic "Last to Die," are forgettable. Springsteen is also overly fond of cliches like "cuts like a knife" and "you broke the mold" that betray an occasional lack of creativity. He's almost never funny, he's not an ironist; but nor is he whiny or pathetic. Indeed, his unwavering conviction in his music remains Springsteen's greatest strength; in songs like "I'll Work for Your Love," the religious symbolism is clunky ("Your tears, they fill the rosary/At your feet, my temple of bones/Here in this perdition we go on and on"), but as arguably the best known Catholic artist this side of Mel Gibson -- only less scary -- he pulls off the feeling anyway. As Peter Rainer once wrote about Johnny Cash, Springsteen is a poseur who is also the genuine article. As Magic demonstrates, you can't have one without the other.

Another person who appears to have fit that definition was Petey Greene, the late deejay who is given the biopic treatment in Kasi Lemmons' new movie Talk to Me, now on DVD. Whereas Springsteen wrote the hits, Greene played them, though they came from radically different backgrounds -- The Boss a white Jersey boy, Greene an African-American from the D.C. ghetto, and their musical tastes corresponded to their experiences. Greene battled alcohol and drug addiction, and had done time for armed robbery; yet it was in prison that he had found his voice as a deejay, playing music and providing withering social commentary that he carried over to a local station following his release. Bellowing "Wake up!" as his signature intro shtick (until seeing this movie I had no idea Greene was the basis for Samuel L. Jackson's character in Do the Right Thing), Greene threw down the gauntlet and simultaneously challenged and pandered to his listeners, calling Motown record producer Berry Gordy a "pimp" only one of numerous examples of how he used words as weapons, and how those words frequently got him into trouble. Greene's mantra was "Keepin' it real," and the great thing about Don Cheadle's performance is the way he lets you see how this is both an authentic persona and a carefully crafted pose.

Unfortunately, the film lacks the courage to focus exclusively on Greene. The main character is actually Dewey Hughes (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), an ambitious young African-American producer at the radio station where Greene is ultimately employed, and whom Greene initially calls a "sell-out." Hughes is meant to be a more accessible character and a counterpoint to the demon-haunted, loose-cannon Greene as we follow their trajectories from enemies to friends to a personal and professional falling-out and back to friends again before Greene's death in 1985, but he's a fuzzy concept who gets in the way of the person who primarily interests us. (Ejiofor, an actor of considerable screen presence, needs to stop co-starring with the likes of Cheadle and Denzel Washington -- their respective charismas keeps canceling each other out.)

Eve's Bayou, Lemmons' debut as a director, was as elegant and controlled as a Flannery O'Connor short story. Here she's trying for something rougher and looser to reflect her subject, but the result is a shambles. I don't know the exact story of how Greene established himself on the air, but I doubt it happened with the contrived hijinks (a lot of scurrying around the station and locking people inside their offices) that are depicted here. And the soundtrack (Sly and the Family Stone, Otis Redding) is pretty familiar stuff for a film that aims to be edgy. Most of what works is due to Cheadle: he's funny early on (especially when he cackles over being labelled a "mis-cree-int") and deeply moving in a later sequence, when Greene calms the city following the assassination of Martin Luther King. I also laughed at Cedric the Entertainer's bassoon-voiced late-night deejay and whenever Martin Sheen's square liberal do-gooder executive is dubbed "Blue Blazes." But as a portrait of the black experience -- or any experience -- Talk to Me is disappointingly superficial.

I'm Not There, the new movie about "the lives" of Bob Dylan, isn't particularly deep either, but Todd Haynes, the director, makes up for that by going wide. Unlike Talk to Me, Haynes's film is no connect-the-dots biopic but an impressionistic Portrait Of The Artist as a young prodigy (played by Marcus Carl Franklin), cryptic poet (Ben Whishaw), folk singer (Christian Bale), actor in an estranged mariage (Heath Ledger), media icon (Cate Blanchett), and reclusive outlaw (Richard Gere). The six Dylans on display offer a rich plurality on a man who, unlike Bruce Springsteen, has always been maddeningly elusive. "I accept chaos," Whishaw's Dylan says at one point. "I don't know whether it accepts me."

Also unlike Springsteen, who has had only one relatively major film role to date (dispensing romantic advice to John Cusack in High Fidelity), Dylan has appeared more than a few times onscreen, notably in Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (alluded to in the Gere sequence here) and has been the subject of a handful of documentaries, most recently Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home. Rather than take on its subject squarely and earnestly -- a lost cause if ever there was one -- I'm Not There blends into its palette a variety of cinematic styles, from A Mighty Wind-like satire in the Bale passages (featuring Julianne Moore as a thinly veiled Joan Baez) to the textured Depression-Era magical realism (though it's obviously set later) in the scenes with the wonderful Franklin playing Dylan as a young African-American hopping trains with guitar case in hand. (There's a great image of him falling into a river and being swallowed by a whale.) As for Blanchett, it's taken me a long time to warm to her as an actress. In her early films I found her annoyingly mannered, but she adds a layer of mischievousness in playing Dylan alienating his fan base and dodging the pointed questions of a smug British television host. Whether antagonizing Michelle Williams's party-hopper or cavorting with Allen Ginsberg, there's a joy in Blanchett's acting that anchors the movie without weighing it down.

No Dylanite, I haven't seen most of his movies and wasn't introduced to his music until by my roommate my freshman year in college, but from the perspective of an outsider I'm Not There is an entertaining experiment, a playful change of pace. I may not be the core audience for this film, but I accept its chaos, whether or not it accepts me.

No comments: