Wednesday 27 June 2012

Top Five For News, Views and Music 150: More Weird AAA Films

‘Wonderwall’ is a pretty weird film, but its not the weirdest AAA film of all time. Just take a look at the following AAA films and their soundtracks...

The Monkees “Head” (1968)

Like ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Head’ must be one of the most mis-understood AAA projects of all time. People think ‘Head’ is a complete mess, with no link or theme and just a lot of random passages tied together through nothing more than the presence of the four Monkees. In actual fact it’s a very clever attempt to break down the audience’s expectations, breaking down the fourth wall repeatedly across the film and using fake backstage footage, newsreels and clips from other non-Monkees media across the film (including the first ever ‘death’ broadcast, with the Vietnamese prisoner who gets shot in the head twice in the film). All films have some sort of artifice to them, but ‘Head’ comes about as close to the ‘truth’ of films reflecting reality as it was possible to go in 1968, freeing the world from ‘supermen’ and ‘heroes’ in favour of a long bunch of ‘losers’ long out of public circulation (Annette Funicello, Sonny Liston, Terri Garr, Victor Mature, etc) Even The Monkees don’t come out of the film too well, with each of them insulting the others in turn and being insulted by others along the way, although it’s the shot of the band drowning that begins and ends the film that caused the biggest stir, as The Monkees wave ‘goodbye’ to their public image on their last project with co-creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. Legend has it that a Monkees film was booked early for production in 1968 on the back of the band’s huge success in early 1967 and it was too far gone to cancel when the band fell out of favour so the creators were left alone to complete it; if so then it’s a lucky break, revealing just how much care, though, intelligence and humanity went into the Monkees away from the wise-cracking and the musical romps of the TV series. You could spend hours analysing this film and still not find enough – I know that to be true because this film was the cornerstone of my university dissertation on The Monkees and postmodernism.  Surreal it may be, unwatchable in parts and a huge flop at the time, ‘Head’ is actually one of the biggest achievements of the 1960s and only now in the past 20 years has film begun to caught up with many of the techniques pioneered here almost casually. Scene highlight: The Monkees jump off that bridge to the strain of Carole King’s masterpiece ‘Porpoise Song’. Other films have started with a death before and since – no others have been quite this beautiful or unexpected. 

The Beatles “Yellow Submarine” (1969)

Recently re-issued on sparkling DVD, this is a cartoon vision of the fab four that seemed doomed from the start. Even though I’ve got a soft spot for the American ‘Beatles Cartoon’ series (made with the band’s music but not their voices) that aired in the States and most of Europe between 1964 and 66 I’d have hated to have seen a 90 minute version (yep, they even did a cartoon for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ though the series was cancelled just short of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘A Day In The Life’). And yet that’s exactly what this project is, made with the same company and arranged by Brian Epstein as his last act before he died in September 1967, with The Beatles so annoyed at the idea they gave only a few of their outtakes collecting dust for the project and appeared in the film for a grand total of 90 seconds. Yet ‘Yellow Submarine’ works only too well, successfully utilising the humour heard in many a Beatles press conference and the pathos of many of their songs, with several intriguing characters drawn tongue-in-cheek (the ‘Apple Bonkers’ are meant to be the Beatles’ lawyers working for Apple; the Blue Meanie feared company boss Alan Bromax) and the song ‘Yellow Submarine’ to hold the storyline together. Scenic highlight: the depiction of The Beatles’ beginnings in Liverpool (seen here in monochrome, in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s glorious technicolour) is spot-on, with the ‘Eleanor Rigby’ sequence that suddenly goes from 2D to 3D still pioneering enough to make animators weep with joy today.

Pink Floyd “Zabriskie Point” (1972)

Film director Michal Antonioni wasn’t known for doing things on small scales, but even for him this project was a huge – and his greatest folly (it flopped so badly at the box office and cost so much money no one ever risked working with him again).Key to this film of hippie yearning and chaos (not at all like ‘Easy Rider’, honest) from the beginning was the soundtrack. Originally Pink Floyd were set to record all of it, coming up with several songs for the project (many of them issued officially in the 1990s, with a handful still only available on bootleg and a few ending up on next album ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’). However Antonioni was hard to pin down, going ‘weeeeell I like it but its a bit...’ at every single piece the band had to offer so that in the end only three songs made the album (one of them a collage and one of them a re-make of B-side ‘Careful With That Axe Eugene’, although third song ‘Crumbling Land’ is among the highlights of the Floyd canon, especially the slower version heard in the film!) In the end Antonioni used other groups to fill space, including Jerry Garcia who improvises the delicate acoustic guitar filled ‘Love Theme’ heard in the beginning of the song (actually an edit of four of the best takes). The most talked about aspect of the film is the ‘Violent Sequence’ when the powers that be turn on the hippies: despite having an early version of Floyd career highlight ‘Us and Them’ the producers went with some 1950s doo-wop schmuck. Scene highlight: The unexpectedly noisy ending, when the hippies’ shack gets blown up to the strain of ‘Come In Number 51, Your Time Is Up’.

The Who “Tommy” (1975)

‘Tommy’ was a pretty strange beast as an album in 1969 anyway: coming at the tail end of the peace and love years it’s about a boy whose stepdad gets killed by his dad and who ends up so traumatised by the event that he becomes blind, deaf and dumb. The film version from six years later is much weirder though, shot by recently deceased film director Ken Russell in bright glaring colour, with the likes of Oliver Reed trying to sing (unsuccessfully). The story makes some kind of sense on record, but heard here – with music substituting for dialogue for much of the film – it’s just seems convoluted and silly. That said, Roger Daltrey is absolutely magnificent in the title role and the music is, of course, excellent, especially towards the end when the film stops going for effect and the gloriousness of the music finally takes off (having the main role in the film as an unspeaking part till 45 minutes doesn’t help matters much either!) Scenic highlight: Ann-Margret, trooper that she is, re-creating the album cover for ‘Who Sell Out’ by writhing in a bath tub filled with baked beans and chocolate.

Neil Young “Human Highway” (1982)

The most recent entry on this list still looks as if it should have been made in the 1960s. Edgy, complicated and full of song and dance numbers set in a nuclear power plant(!), a lot of this film was reportedly made up on the spot – and it shows. That said, considering how involved Neil was with the project (he directs, wrote the music and the screenplay and co-stars, with music the only role that isn’t his first) it comes off quite well, in parts, if you’re in the right frame of mind, What’s weirdest is the way the plot seems to be coming together (nuclear power = bad, old traditional values = good) and then just completely stops, ending on a 15 minute jam of a then-new song ‘Hey Hey My My’ with Devo jamming away with Neil from a baby cot (one of the most unusual of acts around, it speaks volumes that they came away from the experience thinking Neil had gone ‘too weird’ for them). Truly bizarre and with the strapline ‘so bad it’s going to be huge’, there’s still some intelligence and thought going on in there which makes the film compelling viewing – more compelling than Neil’s other two weirder films ‘Journey Through The past’ and ‘Greendale’ anyway. Scenic highlight: ‘It Takes The Right Man To Sing The Right Song’, a gloriously retro musical dance number sung by the whole cast – in nuclear protection gear as the power plant blows up!

And that’s that for another week. See you next time at Alan’s Album Archives!

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