Film: “Midnight to Six” at the Egyptian Theatre

July 8, 2012

By Mike Finkelstein

On Friday night at the Egyptian Theatre, the American Cinematheque screened what could possibly have been the only showing of Midnight to Six, a truly entertaining and satisfying tutorial on the career of the legendary Pretty Things.   This is one of five (so far) projects focusing on influential bands of the British Invasion in the series of documentaries put together by the archivist wizards at Reeling in The Years productions.   All of these projects feature extensive, insightful, and informative interviews and full-length musical performances that completely immerse the viewer in the band’s world.  You couldn’t get any closer to the topic through a film.

The British Invasion began in the wake of the Beatles’ phenomenal success in the U.S.  The floodgates opened up and a torrent of fascinating and wonderful British talent flooded the U.S. radio market, basically putting the music squarely on the map and on the minds of, well, pretty much anyone who heard it.    On Saturday, Midnight to Six, featuring the Pretty Things was shown as a double feature with All or Nothing about the Small Faces.  This is noteworthy because, as legendary as both these bands were in the British Invasion, neither of them enjoyed more than a blip of any noteworthy radio success in the US…and never toured in this country during the 60’s when the movement was blowing up.

Pretty Things

The Pretty Things’  history actually is cinematic on its own merit.  With several members attending art school alongside members of the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things took up music for fun and expression and followed in the Stones’ wake playing art school dances and such.   Midnight to Six brings out fascinating pieces of humor and irony from interviews with original members Phil May, Dick Taylor and John Stax.   As the film progresses we cannot help but begin thinking that these guys were a real life Spinal Tap, right down to having a weird succession of drummers with a knack for getting into big trouble and drumming on anything available.  I actually found myself wondering if director Rob Reiner or any of his researchers for Spinao Tap weren’t fans of the band.

The Pretty Things began as a good time rhythm and blues band, taking their name as a giggle from “Pretty Thing” by Bo Diddley.    Aware that the Stones concentrated on Chuck Berry, and the Yardbirds on Howlin’ Wolf, the Pretty Things offer that they chose toconcentrate on Bo Diddley’s catalogue and within five years of image changes, personnel changes, personal leaves, losses of sanity, pill popping, and acid trips they evolved into an adventurous, psychedelic, progressive rock band.   Ambitious harmonies, Mellotrons, esoteric guitar tunings, and working with imaginative production finally got them to a place with S.F.  Sorrow where they were actually satisfied with the way their art was developing, if not selling.   And, yes, the music does sound quite like Spinal Tap in places.

This film is a tickle because it all actually happened.   There is one scene where the band are filming themselves near the docks and a woman comes walking through the shoot…walking a goat and totally unplanned!  At this point, drummer  Skip Alan decides to take his cymbal for a strolling play and can barely stand up.   You can see the spontaneity in this and other stoned moments for the band.   There is a prodigious amount of fascinating footage that has been assembled for this project and it is all a pleasure to watch. It would be a shame if Midnight To Six were not to see the light of day.

But this is a world where, perhaps more than ever before, it’s still all about profit, even in a medium where the big idea is simply to galvanize a performer’s legacy as original, influential, and seminal.  These projects aren’t aimed at a large market, but they will delight those of us who are interested and are finally getting to learn a lot more about the performers.  Currently, the Midnight to Six team is out of money and thus cannot clear/buy the rights to release it.  So it remains waiting in the can.   Saturday’s screening was an effort to generate interest in getting the project to see the light of day.

Producer David Peck was on hand as part of a panel discussion and we understood his huge enthusiasm for the project as well as the frustration of working the dynamics of getting through the red tape and bullshit to simply get the film released.  It put him 50 grand into a personal hole of debt and that’s sad.   Hopefully, there is someone out there who has the nerve, the resources, and the good intentions to get this deal done.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.


Film Review: Chico & Rita

March 6, 2011

Chico & Rita

Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, Tono Errando

Screenplay  by Fernando Trueba, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón

Music by Bebo Valdés

By Fernando Gonzalez

“Chico y Rita” has been presented at several film festivals but does not yet have commercial distribution. It is being reviewed here for its evocation of a significant period in jazz and Latin music.

For more information about screenings and festival bookings, click HERE.

Chico & Rita, the animated feature film by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando that opened the 28th Miami International Film Festival Friday night,  follows the romantic story of the title characters. But Chico & Rita is really about the love affair between Trueba & Co. with Latin jazz and the Havana and New York of the 1940s and ‘50s.

The fictional tale of pianist Chico Valdés and singer Rita LaBelle is part Hollywood pulp melodrama, part telenovela. It’s  a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl story that plays out over several decades and a number of cities, as chance and dastardly deeds separate them. Will love triumph at the end? You get the idea.

But the story of Chico and Rita is actually both the subject and the pretext for a lush, visually stunning, and musically charming recreation of an era.

The film is a collaboration between: Trueba, an Oscar  winner who directed Calle 54, a valentine to Latin Jazz, and has also become, in recent years, a jazz record producer; Mariscal, a visual artist and designer; and animator Tono Errando.  Cuban pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdés, 92, who once actually sat at the piano and led the orchestra at the Tropicana Club in Havana, wrote the music score and plays on the soundtrack. The film is dedicated to him.

In Chico & Rita, the creators have  evoked a pre-Revolution, neon-lit Havana so effectively that there were murmurs of recognition among the audience in Miami, as many were no doubt taken back by images of longed-for places and old store signs.  So, too, for the scenes of New York City’s legendary music joints and larger-than-life musicians making jazz history every night.

Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Chano Pozo, Ben Webster, Nat “King” Cole, and Tito Puente are some of the artists whose images have cameo appearances throughout the film.  Their instrumentals are played on the soundtrack by a first rate cast of musicians including Jimmy Heath (Webster), Michael Philip Mossman (Gillespie), Irakere’s Germán Velazco (Parker) and Freddy Cole (Nat King Cole). Flamenco star singer Estrella Morente plays herself. Valdés plays piano for his screen counterpart, and Rita is sung by Cuban singer Idania Valdés (no relation to Bebo).

There are many musical references throughout the film that will make jazz and Latin jazz lovers nod and smile in recognition: Monk sitting in at a jam; Tito Puente at the Palladium;  Chico idling at the piano and slyly paying tribute to bebop (and Bud Powell?). There is also the tragic story of Chano Pozo´s killing, allusions to Wim Wenders and the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, and the Latin GRAMMY-winning Lágrimas Negras, an improbable worldwide hit in 2004 by Valdés and flamenco singer Diego El Cigala.

The drawings, the animation and, especially, the music are so delightful, that it feels petty to object to some choices in the setup and the telling of the story, or point to the odd mistake (e.g. Parker, an alto sax player heard playing an alto, is drawn with a tenor).

The bottom line is that the music and the images in Chico & Rita will stay with you long after you’ve forgotten the particulars of their tale.

(Note that this is an animated film for adults that includes nudity and sex scenes that make it not suitable for children.)

To read more reviews and posts by Fernando Gonzalez, click HERE.


Film Review: “Remembering Phil”

October 13, 2010

By Don Heckman

The tease line for the film Remembering Phil is “Even in Hollywood, you never know how your own script will end.”  And that’s pretty much on target for a picture about a screenwriter who unexpectedly finds himself in a real life version of a story he may well have written.  Except for the fact that he has no idea where it’s going or how it’s going to end.

Phil Winters, played with utter believability by Nicholas Turturro, returns from a vacation to discover that there doesn’t appear to be any prior record of his existence.  His suitcase has disappeared from the luggage pick up at LAX.  He has no email or voice messages.  There’s no one he recognizes – or who recognizes him – at the production studio he’s been working at for years.

It’s not until he makes a stop in a bar for a recuperative drink that someone actually calls his name.  It’s a young, attractive woman named Debbie, perfectly played by Christina Murphy, who claims that she is Phil’s daughter by a college romance.  Phil knows it’s both impossible and absurd.  But, lacking options, desperately aware that Debbie is the only person who seems – for whatever reason – to recognize his existence, he sticks with her.

And that’s where things become even more complicated.  Phil hangs on for dear life as he follows Debbie into the dark corners of L.A. on a journey that brings him more self revelation than he thinks he can handle.

It’s a compelling story, atmospherically directed by Brian Smith to a well-paced screenplay by Michael Katz, filled with unexpected twists and turns before its startlingly revelatory ending.  And it derives a good portion of its dramatic pacing from the musical score by Nic tenBroek.

Jazz-driven film scores have had their day over the years, especially in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  But beyond exceptions such as Terence Blanchard’s scores for Spike Lee’s films, they haven’t been showing up much lately.  So it’s a distinct pleasure to hear how effectively tenBroek has used written and improvised passages to underscore both the picture’s intimate character interaction and its full range of Los Angeles settings.

Played by the stellar ensemble of pianist Todd Chochran, saxophonist/flutist Bob Sheppard, drummer Roy McCurdy and bassist John B. Williams (with pianist Michael Wolff present on one of the most significant cues), the music has a life of its own.  So much of a life, that — heard on the film’s soundtrack album — it surfaces as an appealing jazz recording, completely apart from its excellence as a film score.

The DVD of “Remembering Phil” is available at Amazon.com.  The sound track CD is available digitally from iTunes, Amazon mp-3 and CD Baby, and physically from CD Baby.  For more information about the film and the soundtrack click HERE.


Film Review: “City Island”

May 9, 2010

By Roger Crane

In the world of jazz, a “riff” is a repeated series of improvised notes, chord progressions or musical patterns. Since City Island’s screenwriter/director, Raymond de Felitta, is also a noted and practicing jazz pianist, it make sense that this movie feels like a jazz riff.

City Island introduces us to the Rizzos, a boisterous Italian-American family of four living in the tradition-steeped seaside spit of The Bronx called City Island. The Rizzos are a dysfunctional family who don’t talk to each other much and, when they do, the neighbors undoubtedly hear every word. But we understand…they shout because they are, well, Italian and because they care. Vince Rizzo (Andy Garcia) is a New York City prison guard (he prefers the term “corrections officer”). His wife is the sexy, frisky, high profile Joyce (Julianna Margulies). Their oldest child, Vivian, is played by Garcia’s real-life daughter, Dominik Garcia-Lorido. Their teen son, sarcastic Vinnie, is portrayed by Ezra Miller.

Steven Strait, Dominik Garcia-Larido, Andy Garcia, Julianna Margulies, Ezra Miller

The Rizzos harbor secrets. Vince tells Joyce that he’s out playing poker when he’s really taking acting classes in Manhattan. Joyce smokes cigarettes on the sly and nurses a grudge about the extramarital affair she’s sure Vince is having. Vivian dances in a strip club to earn tuition money and Vinnie spies on an obese neighbor, since his “thing” is a yen for lavishly overweight women.

When Vince discovers that an inmate at his prison is his long-lost, love-child Tony (Steven Strait), he arranges to have him paroled into his custody, without explaining to anyone the reasons why. (He figures he’ll tell Tony and his sure-to-be-furious wife later.) Here is a paraphrased example of the Rizzo conversation that evening as Vince asks Joyce for a favor:

VINCE (smiling): Make something special for dinner. Like for a special occasion. Something nice.

JOYCE (loud, frowning and sarcastic): Want balloons or something?

VINCE (exasperated): Nah, I don’t want balloons or something. I’m just saying something nice.

JOYCE: Don’t I always make something nice?

VINCE: Make it nicer!

JOYCE (shouting): MAKE IT YOURSELF!

With a fifth character added to the Rizzo mix, confusions and complications ensue. Since Joyce thinks Vince is cheating, in retaliation she begins flirting with the 20-year old Tony. Joyce is a good looking woman, so Tony is intrigued but he is more interested in Vivian who, of course, unbeknownst to him, is his half sister. Meanwhile, Vince, at his acting classes, meets fellow student Molly (Emily Mortimer) who talks him into auditioning for a Scorsese movie.

I’ll leave the plot at this point and simply say, there are enough misunderstandings and dysfunction to fill five or more Mitch Leigh movies. But, like a good jazz riff, de Felitta keeps the many moving parts – perhaps a few too many – straight and, most importantly, fun. He understands that a proper farce, like a good jazz solo, needs plenty of tension and friction to work. De Felitta also works well with actors and, like a jazz arranger, gives each plenty of room to roam.

Garcia and Margulies have never been better. Their scenes together are brimming with life, are funny and occasionally harrowing. Garcia, in particular, gives a most satisfying performance and shows a previously untapped flair for comedy, making Vince a likable and vulnerable character. Margulies’ performance is equally stellar and the fierce and funny Joyce bears no resemblance to Alicia Florrick in the popular TV series The Good Wife. Mortimer exhibits an innate glow as fellow acting student Molly; her scenes with Garcia are believable and project much warmth. Alan Arkin, as usual, is great in a small role as Vince’s drama teacher.

No eye-blink edits, no squealing tires or shattering glass, no pumped-up special effects, just a warm story about a dysfunctional but likable family. De Felitta’s City Island is a relief from the usual Hollywood formulaic, by-the-numbers dreck and is highly recommended.

Raymond de Felitta displays the jazz piano side of his talents in a performance with his trio tonight (Sunday May 9) at Vibrato Grill Jazz… in Bel Air.  (310) 474-9400.


Film Review: “Handsome Harry”

April 15, 2010

By Michael Katz

Jazz has had a rich history in the film business, but lately the opportunities for jazz influenced film scores have not been abundant.  Composers leap at the chance to do scores that feature music they love when the opportunity arises; often these opportunities come in independent film, as is the case of Handsome Harry, directed by Bette Gordon from a script by Nicholas Proferes.

Harry Sweeney is an electrician, divorced and closing out a business in upstate New York, a sometime member of an a cappella group, estranged from his only son. Portrayed in cheerfully gruff fashion by Jamey Sheridan,  Sweeney’s life of muted regret is interrupted by a phone call from an old Navy buddy, Kelly, terminally ill in a Philly hospital. Kelly reminds Harry of a beating  they and friends from their unit administered to a man named Kagan thirty years ago.   A budding jazz pianist, Kagan apparently made a pass at one of the men in the shower, resulting in a simmering rage that played out in the drunken attack and beating at a jazz club. Someone crushed Kagan’s right hand, leaving it permanently deformed. No one seems to remember who did it; Kelly, played by Steve Buscemi, thinks it may have been him and he will go to Hell for it without forgiveness from Kagan.

Jamey Sheridan and Steve Buscemi

Thus begins a road trip for Harry as he visits Kelly just in time to see him die. Kelly’s daughter has found the locations of their buddies from the Internet, and Harry sets off, ostensibly to find some posthumous forgiveness for Kelly, but really to square up his own feelings that have been repressed over the years. The layers of the mystery are peeled off bit by bit, both through Harry’s encounters with men he hasn’t seen in three decades, and flashbacks to their relationship with Kagan, filled in after each encounter.

Musically, the elements of jazz in the score by Anton Sanko, with jazz cues and piercingly poignant trumpet solos by Jumaane Smith, are used mainly to feather the transitions from present to past. The cues are used beautifully, if sparsely. It is only at the end of the film, when Harry and Kagan are reunited, that we hear more of Jumaane Smith and his quartet, and most of that is over the closing credits.

The film itself features some fine cameo roles by a group of well known actors as Harry’s old Navy pals, including John Savage as a homophobic real estate mogul with an alienated wife, Mariann Mayberry, herself an a capella singer, who was in a competition with Harry (what a small world). Their brief but heated affair is a foreshadowing to the film’s later revelations. Aidan Quinn plays a college professor who has conveniently denied his military history to his students. Titus Welliver has found Jesus, not far from a golf course.

Jamey Sheridan

All the men have tried to bury the incident with Dave Kagan, but it is Harry, as we find out, who has suppressed the most. Director Bette Gordon  handles the relationship between Kagan and Harry with depth and sensitivity. Campbell Scott, as Kagan,  contributes a layered portrayal in the film’s final two scenes, demonstrating the elusiveness of both love and forgiveness.

For jazz afficionados, it is nice to hear the nuanced score, but you will have to wait for the closing credits to really hear the best of the Jumaane Smith quartet.

To read more posts by Michael Katz click here.


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