Blinded By The Light

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This started so well!  A Pet Shop Boys song, an A-ha song, and a shot of someone reading Smash Hits.  It doesn’t get much more promising than that!   Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually very good: it wasn’t a bad idea, but it was too full of tropes, stereotypes and negativity.  However, it was still worth seeing, for the glorious music – I thought it was all going to be Bruce Springsteen music, but, even better, it was like Greatest Hits of 1987 – and the ’80s nostalgia.  Pound notes, Walkmans, those traffic light thingies you hung from car mirrors, wearing too much eyeshadow … !  It wasn’t a great film, but it did get a lot of aspects of the ’80s across pretty accurately, and also highlighted the fundamental importance of music, especially during your so-called formative years.  Did anyone’s school actually have a radio station in the 1980s, though?  Mine certainly didn’t!

It was supposed to be a feelgood film.  I suppose it was, in some ways.  Plenty of music and dancing, and a happy ending.  British-Pakistani teenage boy growing up in Luton in the 1980s, and not feeling very happy about anything.  His dad had been made redundant, his mum was having to work all hours to pay the bills, he felt like a misfit at school, he couldn’t get a girlfriend, his parents had expectations of him that weren’t what he wanted, there were issues with racism in the area … and then a friend introduced him to Bruce Springsteen’s music, and the lyrics inspired him, and everything came right for him in the end.  It sounded great, but it just didn’t quite hit the right spots.

Too many tropes?  Most of them were tropes that could have been done so well, though. Loving but overly controlling British-Pakistani father, teenage kids who want to assimilate into British society but also stay close to their families – done brilliantly in East is East.  Geeky teenage boy who’s into politics, writes poems and somehow manages to get together with the cool girl – done brilliantly in the Adrian Mole books.  Supportive, inspirational teacher – done brilliantly in numerous films.  Teenager who wants to become a writer (/artist/singer/dancer/whatever), rather than get what his parents consider a “proper” job – again, done brilliantly in numerous films, and books.  There was nothing wrong with the tropes as such: the film just wasn’t all that convincing.  Maybe the characters didn’t work.  Everyone was so stereotypical.  And they were all, apart from the dad who was a bit of both, either goodies or baddies: there were no nuances at all.

It wasn’t exactly very realistic, either.  OK, fiction would be pretty boring if it was entirely realistic, but there are limits – at least make it believable!  The aforementioned supportive teacher entered one of our hero’s essays in a competition, and, whaddaya know, it won, and the prize was a trip to a writers’ conference in New Jersey, just near Bruce Springsteen’s home town.  Right, because stuff like that happens all the time.  He’d probably have got a £10 book token.  Also, no-one in Britain in the ’80s said “You did good” or referred to their homework as an “assignment”.

Then there was all this American Dream stuff.  In America, anyone can achieve anything!  No-one cares where you come from.  No-one feels negatively about anyone else.  Er, what??  Don’t get me wrong, I love America, but was that idea not all rather more 1890s than 1980s?  And it kept slagging off Luton.  What’s poor Luton ever done to anyone?  Maybe it was meant to be taken humorously, but I don’t like films or songs or books that sneer at places like that.  Why does Gurinder Chadha have to be so negative – not just about Luton, but about Britain in general?  See also Beecham House and Viceroy’s House !  I thought she overdid the controlling dad bit, as well.   But then Bend It Like Beckham was so good – that was everything this could have been and wasn’t, a really lovely feelgood film about a British-Asian teenager. Please, dear, get back to doing what you did so well in 2002!

Our hero did not, incidentally, end up in America.  He went to university in Manchester.  Nothing negative was said about Manchester, at least – that really would have been the final straw!   That was if they ever actually got to Manchester, given that they were rather worryingly following a signpost for “M1 London”.  And he suddenly realised that his dad was actually a really great guy who’d always done his best for his family, and his dad realised that he was really wonderful as well – yeah, yeah, yeah!  Subtle as a sledgehammer.

At one point, our hero and his mate took over the school radio station, blasted out Bruce Springsteen music, and damaged the DJ’s Tiffany record.  There are some Tiffany lyrics which sum this film up pretty well.  “Could’ve been so beautiful, could’ve been so right.”  Er, yes,  Could’ve been …

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Rocketman

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I thought this was great, although it didn’t make for easy watching despite the fun fantasy musical sequences.  I love the fact that a “fat boy from Pinner” became an international superstar, and continues to be one after all the years; but I’m so sorry that he’s had to go through so much.  Life can be very hard: we screw ourselves up, and other people screw us up.  I felt as if everyone should have jumped up and joined in with the “I’m Still Standing” happy ending … although, being a bit of an old romantic, I wish it’d jumped forward and finished with his wedding to David Furnish, rather than everyone dancing around on a beach 🙂 . I also feel really old: I’ve got Elton John albums on tape, and I remember when Dexter Fletcher, who directed this film, was in Press Gang!

It’s quite an unusual film, because you’ve got the big musical sequences – and it can’t be easy fitting songs into someone’s life story, rather than making a film like Mamma Mia! or Sunshine on Leith where the story’s written to fit in with the songs – and the flamboyant costumes, but you’ve also got a real human being’s real pain.  I hadn’t realised he’d suffered from eating disorders, but his issues with alcoholism and cocaine addiction are well-known.  They’re all played out on the screen, all tied in with his difficult relationships with his parents, and with his one-time manager and boyfriend John Reid.  I believe there’s been some criticism of the way Reid’s portrayed in the film, but we can’t know what went on behind closed doors so can’t really comment on that.

The film did seem to emphasise the lows rather than the highs.   As I’ve said, I’d like to have seen it show him finding him happiness with David Furnish.  And, come to that, I’d like to have seen a bit more about Watford!  What about them getting to the 1984 Cup Final?!   It started off with a group therapy session, which rather set the tone.  He’s achieved so much: he’s sung so many iconic songs, sold so many records.  I’d like to have seen a bit more emphasis on the positives.   But, having said that, the film’s showing us how he struggled behind the flamboyant act and the brilliant music, and anyone who’s ever had issues with self-hatred and addiction and eating disorders will feel for him.  Well, everyone will feel for him, I hope.   And maybe anyone who’s opposing the teaching of LGBT equality in schools will see how Elton John struggled with being expected to hide his true self, and think twice about their attitudes … although they probably won’t, because they probably won’t go to see the film.

There is a happy ending.  We’re told that he’s been sober for 28 years, and we’re shown pictures of the real Elton John – Sir Elton John, I should say! – with his husband and children and doing his charity work.  Not all life stories of celebs who’ve struggled with themselves and addiction turn out happily.  All too many have ended in tragedy.  I’m so pleased that things have worked out for him.  I’m sure he still has his moments – I’ve seen him in concert twice, and the first time he had a tantrum and walked off early, although the second time he was wonderful – but hopefully there aren’t too many of them any more.

And what a singer, and what a pianist.  The music’s great.  The music’s always great!   And, if you haven’t seen it already – I’m a bit late to the party because I’ve been busy with tennis and days out!! – this is definitely a film worth seeing.

Our Classical Century – BBC 4

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The soundtrack to the glorious summer of 1990 wasn’t anything by the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays, or even one of my beloved power ballads. It was Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. How mad (for it 😉 ) was that? Kids like us did not listen to classical/opera music. It was totally uncool. It was for old (i.e. over about 35) posh people in the Home Counties. Or Ken Barlow. And then, suddenly, it was for us as well. We even nicknamed one of our school bus drivers “Luciano” (there was a very vague resemblance, if you looked hard). The following year, Pavarotti sang in Manchester shortly after United won the Cup Winners’ Cup, in English clubs’ first season back in Europe after the ban. He wore a United scarf on stage. This was it – yep, classical music was cool after all!  Classic FM launched a year later. Nigel Kennedy’s Mockney accent was rather annoying, but, as the ’90s went on, along came Vanessa Mae, and she was brilliant. Suzy Klein, who’s the same age as me to within a few weeks, will probably have grown up with the same music as I did, but it still makes me feel really old to be reminded that Alexandra Burke, her co-presenter, is Melissa Bell’s daughter! But even people who aren’t old enough to remember the summer of 1990 know Nessun Dorma.  Vincero!  Vin-cer-o …!

I have to say that a lot of the stuff mentioned in this episode, about how classical music shed its stuffy image in the ’80s and ’90s, seems to have passed me right by at the time! I remember Bolero, obviously. Everyone remembers Bolero! I could have done without Alexandra Burke pointing out that she wasn’t born in 1984, but still.  And I remember classical music being used for TV adverts. We had to listen to Air on a G String in school music lessons, and, instead of looking blank like we usually did when the teacher asked if anyone knew what the piece was – I was OK with the 1812 Overture, because of its links with Russian history, and I must have recognised some things from the “Amadeus” film, but that was usually about it – everyone brightly pointed out that it was the music from the Hamlet cigar advert.

But I don’t remember the nation being “brought together” by a piece of classical music played at the funeral of Diana. Princess of Wales, although I remember Elton John singing Candle in the Wind, as clearly as if it were yesterday. And I have no recollection of a Venezuelan orchestra bouncing around whilst playing music from West Side Story, which the programme insisted was some great turning point in cultural history! Oh, and I never knew that Elgar supported Wolves – you learn something new every day! He wrote a football song called “He Banged The Leather For Goal”.  Seriously.

But Nessun Dorma in 1990 – oh yes. It was an interesting time, the summer of 1990. People Like Us, who were into football, were suddenly listening to The Three Tenors. People who were into high culture stuff were suddenly watching football.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the changes in football. Don’t get me wrong, no-one wants to go back to the days of hooliganism, but it’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the pre-1990 days as I try desperately to work out when to book some shows I want to see in the run-up to Christmas, knowing that Sky and BT Sports and now Amazon Prime as well can change the dates of times and fixtures whenever and to whenever they feel like it, and it’s hard not to feel resentful knowing that, should my team get to a Cup final, I’ll struggle to get tickets because priority will be given to the prawn sandwich brigade. But feeling that, yes, classical music is actually for everyone after all – that’s a definite change for the better. I don’t actually listen to Classic FM, because I’m usually listening to stations that play ’90s power ballads instead , and I don’t usually listen to the Proms except on the Last Night, but I will listen to classical music sometimes, and I don’t feel that it isn’t for People Like Us.

And, when I think of 1990 – which I do quite a lot, because it was a really big year for me, for various reasons – I think, along with all the “Madchester” music, and along with Roxette, and Elton John, and The Beautiful South, and Sinead O’Connor, of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, and making classical/opera music cool!

Queen Victoria: My Musical Britain – BBC 1

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This was an unexpected treat. Really entertaining!  I love the idea of Queen Victoria helping to popularise the “wicked waltz”, being serenaded by Prince Albert with songs he’d written himself, holding “impromptu jamming sessions” with Mendelssohn and being so obsessed with Jenny Lind (of Barnum fame) that she cut short a formal dinner with the Prime Minister to go and see her. Not to mention having her favourite celeb singers at her 16th birthday party – how cool is that? We even got brass bands and the Halle Orchestra – hooray!!  And the music halls. I think Lucy Worsley was pushing it a bit by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music; but, in this year which marks the bicentennial of their births, this was an interesting and original take on their lives and influence.

I was half-expecting Lucy to dress up as an opera singer and prance about on stage, but she actually managed to act like a serious historian for once. OK, she changed into a black dress when talking about Queen Victoria’s later years, but it wasn’t a particularly Victorian black dress! It’s usually Suzy Klein who presents the BBC’s musical history programmes, and I hadn’t realised that Lucy was so into music. We saw her playing the piano very impressively!

I’d never particularly thought of Queen Victoria in terms of music, either. Ask me to name a “musical monarch”, and I’d have said George II, Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. Young Victoria apparently found George II’s type of music boring, but was really into Italian opera. We got this rather lovely image of her, at a time at which she was given virtually no freedom by her mother and Sir John Conroy, being allowed to go to the opera and getting quite obsessive over some of the singers. Some of them came to sing at her 16th birthday party, and she took singing lessons from them. Lucy’s theory was that it was a way for an emotional person leading a very restricted life to express herself. I like that.

We’re all rather past the idea of Queen Victoria as a repressed and grumpy person who was “not amused”, and we know that she was into dancing. I didn’t know that Johann Strauss actually wrote a waltz for her, though. This was at a time when the waltz was still considered quite scandalous, so Victoria was out there at the cutting edge of things! It was rather pushing it to claim that it was Victoria who popularised the waltz, though, especially as she wasn’t actually allowed to waltz – all that bodily contact! – until she married Prince Albert.

Prince Albert did a lot of good things, but he was undeniably rather boring, and he wanted Italian opera and Viennese waltzes out and German classical music in. But he wrote his own love songs for Victoria, and serenaded her with them. That’s so romantic ❤ !! OK, it’d only work if you had a partner with a good singing voice, but Albert and Victoria both did have good singing voices. They played duets on the piano, as well. So sweet!

They did still go to the opera, as well – and I think it was a valid point that their presence helped to make opera-going, which had become associated with drunken posh blokes trying to seduce opera girls, respectable. And they held musical soirees at home. It was overplaying it to say that it was their interest in music which led to the increase in interest in musical entertainment generally, though! It was part of the general growth of leisure activities during the Victorian period, and, to be fair, Lucy did point out the importance of the development of mass production of musical instruments at more affordable prices. We got to see a brass band. Yay, I love brass bands! I’m not sure that Queen Victoria was particularly into brass band music, but, if she wasn’t, she didn’t know what she was missing! And we heard about the birth of the Halle Orchestra. Always nice to get some Mancunian history into any history programme 😉 . Lucy noted that Sir Charles Halle always made sure that some seats at the Free Trade Hall and anywhere else that the Halle were playing were made available at low prices. Music for all!  One thing that wasn’t mentioned was church music, but maybe that wasn’t particularly Queen Victoria’s thing.

Of course, Charles Halle was originally from Germany, and, as Lucy kept saying, the music scene in Britain at that time was dominated by Germans.  Mendelssohn notably spent a fair amount of time in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’d never realised that Victoria and Albert were so pally with him: the Queen’s patronage was a real boost to his career, and he even used to go round to see them and they’d all sing and play the piano together. That’s brilliant! And, whilst I’m vaguely familiar with Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony, I wouldn’t have thought to connect his interest in Scotland with Victoria and Albert’s well-known love of Scotland. Er, having just looked on Google to see when his Hebrides Overture was composed, I see that it was after a visit to Scotland in 1829, well before Victoria even came to the throne! So that’s another area where Lucy’s arguments were pushing it; but they did undoubtedly create interest in Scottish culture outside Scotland.

Going back to the subject of opera becoming respectable, Lucy then started talking about a Swedish opera singer – and I knew before she said the name that she meant Jenny Lind. How cultured am I?! Well, OK, not very, in fact – I only know about Jenny Lind because of the Barnum connection! But Victoria was apparently a huge fan of hers. She went to see her sixteen times in one season, threw flowers at her, gave her a dog, and cut short a formal dinner with the PM in order to go to one of her shows! She was really keen. And then Prince Albert died … and she never went to a public concert again. That’s really sad – and we got some poignant images, from things she’d written in her journals, of how it’d taken her a while even to listen to music again, but that, when she did, particular pieces reminded her of Albert. I think everyone can identify with that. We’ve probably all got songs/pieces of music which remind us of loved ones who are no longer with us. But she chose to have the Royal Albert Hall and the Royal College of Music founded in his memory – and that, as Lucy pointed out, says a lot about how important music was to both of them.

We then moved on to the music halls. Much more my sort of thing than German Lieder or Italian opera! And the “By jingo” song, which always annoys me because the peoples of the Balkans got a very raw deal due to the obsession with restricting Russian influence!  Anyway. Lucy then claimed that Queen Victoria wearing black all the time was partly an image thing, and facilitated the branding of the monarchy because everyone knew that she always wore black. I wasn’t impressed with that. It was mourning black, OK – she was in mourning for her dead husband, not trying to look cool l like I did when I was 14 and wanted to wear black because the Stone Roses did!  I’m not even sure what wearing black was supposed to have to do with music – although the idea seemed to be that it was all part of the idea of Queen Victoria as the face of the British Empire, and that music played a big part in promoting imperialism via both music hall patriotic songs and the music of Elgar. Hooray for Elgar – finally, a top-level British composer.  I take the point about music and imperialism, but trying to connect that with Queen Victoria wearing black wasn’t overly convincing!   Oh well.

The programme finished by talking about Wagner’s Lohengrin being played at Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday party, and how Wagner’s music was to become synonymous with the Nazis, and Queen Victoria would have been devastated to know what lay ahead for Anglo-German relations. Things had rather wandered off the point by this time, and topping it off by saying that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s romance was responsible for a century of British music was definitely going over the top, but it was a very interesting programme. The bicentennial of Victoria and Albert’s birth, in addition to the popular ITV series about them, means that we’re going to be hearing a lot about them this year, and it’s going to be difficult to find different and original angles. The BBC managed it with this programme, and Lucy Worsley, who can sometimes be very irritating, did an excellent job with it. Queen Victoria wrote in her journal that she was “very, very amused”, with three underlinings, after one Italian opera performance. I was pretty amused by this programme!

 

Pose – BBC 2

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Could we have more TV series set in the 1980s, please? My music collection has never got out of the 1980s (except sometimes into the early 1990s), and it’s never going to! This is set in 1987-88, and is centred on the ball(room) culture of African-American and Latino LGBTQ people in New York. It’s been hugely popular in the US, and premiered here in the UK last night. The music’s brilliant and there’s quite a soap opera feel to it as well, as well as shades of ’80s music/dance films like Fame and Flashdance; but it’s also got a serious message, with some scenes of violence, and many of the actors having spoken out about their experiences of facing prejudice even, or indeed especially, from their own families. The producer’s giving all his profits from the series to LGBTQ charities. On a different note, it also features Trump Tower and the people who work there.

Whilst most of the characters are fictional, some of them are real people – notably Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, who was very involved in developing “vogueing” and worked closely with Madonna on Vogue and the Blonde Ambition tour. The surname Xtravaganza came from the House of Xtravaganza, one of the “houses” associated with the ball culture scene, which provided alternative families for people who’d had issues with their own families. This series revolves around the (fictional) House of Evangelista – named in honour of Linda Evangelista – and House of Abundance.

It got off to a pretty hard-hitting start. Blanca, a transgender woman, was diagnosed with HIV. She decided to leave the House of Abundance and set up the House of Evangelista: she was the house mother, looking after young people who were alone. Then Damon, a 17-year-old dancer from Pennsylvania, was kicked out by his parents after telling them that he was gay. Those were very emotive scenes, with his dad hitting him and his mum coming out with a lot of Bible-basher comments. We next saw him sleeping on a park bench in New York. He tried to raise some money by dancing, and Blanca saw him and took him in, and he walked for the House of Evangelista at the balls.

I have to admit that I hadn’t realised that “walk” meant walk as catwalk poses, rather than actual dancing: the competitions at the balls involved people dressing for certain themes, and then doing catwalk poses and being judged on those. Hence “Strike a pose” in the Madonna song. “I know a place where you can get away. It’s called a dance floor, and here’s what it’s for.” The lyrics to that song are incredible: I’d never really thought about it much before! And a lot of the costumes were very 1980s – really glamorous and OTT.

However, it wasn’t just about having fun. Blanca told Damon about how her family had disowned her for being trans, and there was a lot of talk about how some of the ball contest themes involved seeing who could best pass as, say, a businessperson. There were some superb lines, about “the world of acceptability”, and how they felt that they didn’t “have access to the American Dream”, because of being both gay/trans and black/Latino.

There’s been a bit of a row this year over the decision that the rainbow flags for Manchester Pride should feature black and brown stripes. It’s been done at some events in the US, but not previously in the UK. Some people feel that it’s inappropriate because it suggests that the rainbow flag does not represent non-white people, whilst others feel that it highlights the fact that many non-white LGBTQ people face a double whammy of prejudice. This series is certainly highlighting that fact. And it’s got the biggest transgender cast of any TV series in history.

Then a different aspect of New York life was brought in – Stan, the aspiringYuppie who’d just got a job at Trump Tower. There’s a scene in Back to the Future in which someone in 1955 asks Marty McFly who’s president of the United States in 1985, and is both bemused and amused to be told that it’s Ronald Reagan, whom he thinks of as a film star. Imagine if someone had told you in 1987 that the president of the United States in 2017 would be Donald Trump. Who’s going to be president of the United States in 2049? It might be best not to think about that! A comment was also made about the fact that Donald Trump was so rich that he probably had a solid gold toilet, but Donald Trump’s toilet isn’t something that I really want to think about either!

Stan had a wife and kids (even though he looked about 12 – I’m clearly getting old), and he was living right in the middle of the “world of acceptability” – but he picked up Angel, a prostitute whom he didn’t realise was pre-op transgender until she actually stripped off. They then got involved, and there was a sense that everyone was pretending and everything was a bit fake.

And then it turned pure ’80s Fame/Flashdance. Damon had missed the cut-off date for sending his application form in to the dance academy where he was hoping to get a place. Blanca pleaded with the powers that were to give him a special audition. They agreed, and, of course, they loved him, and offered him a place on the spot. So that was quite a change-up from where the episode had started. We’d gone from this very tragic tale of a young lad being rejected by his own family to a Fairytale of New York. And this programme is both – it’s joy and tragedy and so many other things. I think I was watching mainly for the ’80s music, but I really got drawn in by the storylines and the characters, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series. Highly recommended.

 

 

Fisherman’s Friends

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All right, all right, this isn’t historical, but I’m using the excuse that most of the songs in it are traditional songs.   And everyone knows these songs.  At one point in the film, the eponymous Fisherman’s Friends start singing “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” in a crowded London bar, and all the other people in the bar join in.  What’s more, the scene would have worked just the same had it been set in Dublin or New York or Sydney.  So where do we learn these songs?   I remember being taught some folk songs and music hall songs at primary school.  Presumably not that particular one, as it’s a bit rude – although we always seemed to manage to learn slightly rude versions of some songs (Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay springs to mind) as well as the proper words.  Both my grandfathers were very big on folk songs and music hall songs, as well.   And I do often listen to songs from “the second folk revival”.  I just need to point out that Ewan MacColl was from Lower Broughton 🙂 .  And that “Where have all the flowers gone”, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s and by my class at primary school in the 1980s, was based on a Cossack folk song.  I have now got completely and utterly off the point, because this film is about a group singing sea shanties in Cornwall, circa 2009!

Well, it’s sort of historical!   There’s a lot of talk about being the rock and roll of the 1750s.  And a lot of sea shanties, and indeed other folk songs and music hall songs, are about wars, or political events.  Even a lot of nursery rhymes are supposed to be coded references to political events.

It’s essentially a feelgood film, more than anything else, and it really is that.  There are some gorgeous shots in and around Port Isaac.  And there’s a nice story.  Well, two nice stories, intertwined, and both with happy endings.  Three music executives from London go to Port Isaac for a stag weekend.  There are a lot of clichéd but funny jokes about outsiders who do stupid things like parking their cars where they’re likely to get caught by the tide.  They come across the Fisherman’s Friends, a local men’s group who sing Cornish sea shanties in between going fishing and saving the lives of people in trouble at sea.

Two of the executives play a prank on the third by pretending that they want to sign the group. He falls for it, and promises the band a record deal.  By the time he finds out that he’s been had, he’s fallen for the band, the rural lifestyle, and a pretty woman who’s the daughter of one of the singers.  After various problems, and the sad death of one of the band members, the band get their deal, their first release makes the top ten, and our pal gets together with the pretty Cornishwoman, buys the local pub –saving it from closure – and moves to Port Isaac.

It’s really lovely 🙂 .

And the themes are historical, as well as the music. Seriously, they are!   The links between folk music and Cornish patriotism – I could write all day about examples of folk music as an expression of roots, of heritage, of patriotism, of nationalism, of keeping an oppressed culture alive, of resistance against an oppressor, of raising spirits in difficult times … and this is something you find pretty much everywhere in the world.   Then there’s the idea of life in a rural/smalltown idyll being better for you than life in a big city, and that’s very much a 19th century Romantic idea.

I actually get really annoyed when I read things written by patronising well-to-do Southerners (I’m talking 19th century here) who claimed that industrialisation and urbanisation destroyed some sort of Garden of Eden, as if life for everyone in pre-industrial Merrie England (or Merrie anywhere else) was perfect.  It certainly was not!   But, when it’s taking you an hour to crawl two miles through horrendous traffic, or you’re crammed up against the door of a tram with your face in someone’s armpit, or you’re frantically trying to do a dozen things in your dinner hour, looking at your watch every ten seconds as you wait in queues behind other people who are also frantically trying to do a dozen things in their dinner hour, or you’re practically in tears because the repair person says that they’ll be coming “between 12 and 6” and you’re stuck in an office/factory/shop and it’ll take you at least half an hour to get home … yep, the idea of the Romantic Rural Idyll doesn’t half appeal, because we’ve still got it in our heads that it’s the answer!

The story about the music executive and the romance and him buying the pub and moving to Cornwall is fictional, but the Fisherman’s Friends are a real band, and they were “discovered” by BBC DJ Johnnie Walker whilst he was on holiday in Cornwall, in 2009, and he got them a recording contract, and they’ve had a lot of success. They’ve also, sadly, suffered great tragedy, with the death of their manager and one of their singers when they were hit by a heavy steel door which fell whilst they were preparing for a show in 2003, and this film is in part a tribute to those two men.   And they’ve won an award for keeping folk music alive and bringing it to new audiences.  This film is hopefully going to bring their music to an even wider audience, and, with music lessons in schools increasingly being cut and, especially with kids today possibly not having the same chances that we did to learn traditional songs at school, that’s very important.

The Fisherman’s Friends throat lozenges don’t actually come into it, apart from a few puns, incidentally. They remind me of primary school as well.  The headmistress’s husband, who worked in the office, always used to have them.  He was a lovely man, who sadly died young.  Fisherman’s Friend lozenges always remind me of him 🙂 .  They taste bloody awful, though!!

Back to the film – to finish off, this is such a nice film!  I don’t suppose it’s going to win any BAFTAs or Oscars, because films like this usually don’t, but go and see it if you get chance.  And, if you do, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did 🙂 .

 

Green Book

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This wasn’t what I expected – and, whilst it wasn’t the best film ever, it asked some very interesting questions.  I thought, given the title, that it was all going to be about someone’s experiences of racism, but it went beyond that, and also explored the issues of not fitting the expectations, both external and internal, of a particular demographic group, and trying to cope when you end up feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere.  Even now, never mind in the 1960s, society isn’t set up for individuals.   That all sounds very deep and meaningful, but the story’s told by way of an old-fashioned, “buddy movie”, two totally different people thrown together and bonding type stuff, not very subtle and sometimes more than a bit cringeworthy, but good for plenty of laughs. It veers from the complex to the crude within seconds, at some points. Incidentally, since when was “dramedy”, which I saw on one website the other week, a word?  It sounds like some sort of camel.  “Comedy-drama” will do nicely, thank you.

Also, I was stupidly chuffed to discover that Mahershala Ali’s full first name is Mahershalalhashbaz.  I’ve never come across that name in real life before.  I assume that his parents got it from the Bible, and not from Clover Carr’s poem in What Katy Did At School!

Anyway.  This is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga, on an early 1960s concert tour through various states including parts of the racially segregated South.  The script was written partly by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, but some people who knew Don Shirley well have apparently questioned its accuracy, especially in terms of the way it shows the two men bonding and becoming friends rather than just being employer and employee.  That’s quite complex, because the racial issues of the time make the fact of a black man employing a white man to be his driver/minder a very big thing, but the “buddy movie” light entertainment comedy element of the film relies on them developing a close personal relationship.

I’d love to know how accurate the depictions of the two men, as well as their relationship with each other are, because they both sometimes seem a bit … what’s the word?  Overblown?  I wouldn’t say pantomime-ish, but certainly a little OTT.  Tony is quite a caricature of a working-class NooYoik Italian-American.  He never stops talking, works as a bouncer at a nightclub where most of the punters seem to be Mafiosi, and spends the rest of his time with his large and very noisy family.  Women in the kitchen, men in front of the telly, but everyone is devoted to each other.  They do not mix with anyone who is not Italian-American.  He’s also a caricature of a certain type of working-class bloke, commonly found in soap operas and comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, generally.  He hits out with his fists before he thinks, swears all the time, eats with his fingers, and, whilst driving the car, smokes, eats, drinks and then throws the rubbish out of the window.

He also throws two glasses in the bin after two black plumbers working at his house drink out of them.

Don, Dr Shirley, is the complete opposite.  He’s elegant, cultured and refined.  He lives in the most beautiful apartment, full of antiques.  He dresses impeccably, his manners are perfect, and his grammar is perfect.  However, he’s so uptight and snooty that you want to yell at him to loosen up a bit, especially when he’s lecturing Tony about his speech and his behaviour.  Both of them would fit very well into a sitcom, but sitcom characters are supposed to be a bit OTT.  Superb performances from both actors, with the scripts they were given, but I think we could have done with a bit more subtlety in the way both men were written.

The rest of the people in this film aren’t exactly subtly portrayed, either.  Every white character in the South is a racist.  The very first time Dr Shirley sets foot in a bar south of the Mason-Dixon line, he gets beaten up.  When he and Tony go into a posh menswear shop, the sales assistant assumes that it’s Tony who wants to try on an expensive suit.  Every single person they see, black or white, gawps at the sight of a white guy driving whilst a black guy is sitting in the back.  At one point, the car breaks down in a rural area where several black people are working in a field.  More like a scene from a cartoon than a scene from a film, every single person stops, tools in hand, to stare when Tony gets out and lifts up the car bonnet.  And, everywhere they go, the police are just waiting to arrest them.  I’m not saying that this inaccurate, just that it’s a bit heavy-handed to generalise about entire populations of entire regions like that.

However, whilst the film is a bit heavy-handed, the fact of racism in the South in the 1960s is just that – a fact.  The title of the film comes from a guidebook, produced annually from 1936 to 1966, for African-American motorists, because of the very common problems of being refused accommodation, or service at restaurants, or even being told that they couldn’t fill up their vehicles at petrol stations.   This was going on all the time.  A century after emancipation, this was going on all the time.

We don’t actually hear that much about the book, though.  We do occasionally see Tony referring to it for suggestions of places to stay, but, otherwise, the impression given is that he and Dr Shirley didn’t bother to read it – which, for the purposes of the film, is a good thing, because it means that the viewer gets to see just how bad things were, because they don’t avoid trouble.  They haven’t been going long before they take a wrong turn whilst driving at night, get lost, and are pulled over by two policemen – because a black man is in an area which black people are not allowed to be in after sundown.

A brief historical note here.  “Sundown towns” were not particularly a Southern phenomenon.  There were many in other parts of the United States too.  Nor was it always, or only, black people who were excluded.  Some places excluded Jews, Native Americans, Chinese people or Hispanic people.  Welcome to the land of the free.  In the 1960s.  Not the Middle Ages.  The 1960s.

Tony punches one of the policemen.  Again, this all seems a bit overboard.  Maybe it did actually happen, but … would anyone actually do that?  But, for the purposes of the film, it has to happen.  He and Dr Shirley both end up locked in the only cell at a very small police station.  Eventually, the police acknowledge that they’ve got the right to a phone call, so Dr Shirley makes a call … and, the next thing you know, Bobby Kennedy, in his capacity as Attorney General, is ringing this two bit police station to say that the police have got to let them go.  Tony thinks that he’s going to be dining out on this story for the rest of his life.  Dr Shirley finds the whole thing utterly humiliating.  It’s taken away his dignity.

That’s probably the biggest point that the film makes about racism – that it strips Dr Shirley of his dignity.  For all his talent, his education, the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the racist attitudes with which he’s confronted keep challenging his dignity.  He may have the class to appreciate an elegant suit, and the money to afford it, but the manager of the shop won’t even let him try it on.  He’s denied admission to hotels, restaurants and even toilets.  Maybe the title “Green Book” doesn’t really work, because the idea of the Green Book is to enable people to avoid situations where they’re likely to face awkwardness and trouble.  Obviously no-one should have to think like that, and people should be able to go where they want, but, even now, you see comments in guidebooks saying that, for example, women travelling alone would be well advised to avoid a particular place.  Tony and Dr Shirley keep running into trouble.

The next time Dr Shirley ends up being arrested isn’t actually about race: it’s because he’s been caught in a sexual encounter with another man.  Tony bribes the police to let him go.  Again, Dr Shirley is upset at having had to resort to underhand tactics to get out of the situation, but, as Tony points out, it would be very awkward for him, in the climate of the 1960s, if this arrest became known publicly.  It’s already been mentioned that Dr Shirley had been married to a woman, although he’s now divorced, so we’ve previously got the impression that he’s heterosexual.  In an emotional conversation with Tony afterwards, he says that he doesn’t feel as if he’s accepted anywhere.  It seems that he’s referring to sexuality, as well as race, but the subject of sexuality’s never mentioned again, so we don’t really know exactly what’s going on.  I don’t really know why the scriptwriters put that in if they weren’t going to develop it properly.

Tony, on the other hand, is happy and secure within his world.  He hasn’t got much money, and he’s got no qualifications, and his manners are appalling, but he knows exactly who he is and where he belongs.  He’s part of a big working-class Italian American New York extended family, within a working-class Italian American New York community.  He’s happily married.  Part of the “bonding process” is that he writes terrible letters to his wife, Dr Shirley dictates romantic letters for him to write instead, and his wife is thrilled – even though she knows very well that someone must have helped him with them.  But he and his wife and their children are all very happy together.  And they’re part of a big network of relatives and friends, all of whom are working-class Italian-American New Yorkers.  He’s fine with that.  He doesn’t particularly want to learn about different things, and he certainly doesn’t aspire to what might be considered a more cultured lifestyle, or a more multicultural lifestyle.

Do you ever think that it might be easier to be like that?  Maybe by the 1960s, things were starting to change, but, before that, a lot of people never moved out of the communities in which they grew up, and never mixed with different people.  Whilst doing some family history research, I found that, on one side, my great-great-grandparents had lived next-door-but-two to each other.  Not quite marrying the boy/girl next door, but as near as makes no difference.  There are still people whose lives aren’t too far removed from that.  Is it tragic, that their lives are so narrow?  Or is it easier to be like that?  And, once you’re out of that sort of set-up, you can’t really go back.

We know very little about Dr Shirley’s background, so it does feel as if some of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing.  He’s very far removed from the stereotype of what a black man in the US in the 1960s should be, but what we don’t know is whether he was brought up like that or whether he’s distanced himself from that.  There’s a mention of a brother whom he doesn’t speak to – although apparently that isn’t true, and he got on perfectly well with his brother.  We don’t meet any of his relatives, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends who aren’t connected with his work.   Whether it was the way he was brought up or whether it was his own choice, or just the way his life panned out, he’s completely detached from “black culture”.

He’s barely even heard of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t recognise their music when it comes on over the car radio.  He doesn’t eat fried chicken – which is quite a motif of the film: people keep going on about fried chicken.  Food is such a big part of culture.  People who’ve become detached from a cultural group, or even people whose parents or grandparents became detached from a cultural group, will often still eat the food associated with it.  And, in 1960s America, it’s still expected that part of the experience of being black is to grow up in poverty.  At one point, Tony says that he’s blacker than Dr Shirley is, because he does live in a working-class neighbourhood.  Dr Shirley doesn’t disagree.

And, for all his success, he’s deeply unhappy.  And, because of that, he drinks.  And it’s because he feels that he doesn’t belong.

It all sounds so ridiculous, this idea that, in order to belong, you have to conform to cultural norms.  Surely that’s the most prejudiced thing of all.  And yet that’s how it is, even now.   And it’s coming as much from people inside a particular community as from people outside it.  More, if anything.  There are so many films and TV programmes and comedy acts which play on stereotypes of particular groups, and most of that is coming from people within those groups.  Fair enough, as long as no-one’s getting offended by it?  But doesn’t it just make harder and harder for the people within those communities who don’t fit those stereotypes?

That word “community” – it gets used in so many ways, these days.  People talk about “the black community” or “the Islamic community” or “the LGBT community” as if everyone who fits that particular demographic is somehow supposed to have the same beliefs and outlook and interests.  You’re talking about millions of completely different people, living different lives, in different areas.  And yet, all the time, you get political commentators saying that a particular party’s trying to appeal to the X community, or has lost support amongst the Y community.  Or else it’s retailers trying to appeal to the A community or the B community.  As if you’re supposed to vote the same way, and have the same likes and dislikes, as everyone who’s from the same ethnic group or religion or part of the country as you, or is of the same sexuality, or even the same gender.  And then you get people claiming to be spokesmen/women for that community, as if they can somehow represent all these millions of different people.

It’s actually getting worse.  We’ve now got this “cultural appropriation” thing going on, as if you aren’t even allowed to sing particular music or make particular food or wear particular clothing unless you’ve got a personal connection to the demographic group from which it originates.  What is that about?  And people are accused of betrayal if they have a partner from a different demographic group, or express views which aren’t those which people from their ethnic or religious background are “supposed” to have.

Everyone wants to belong.

Or do they?

Dr Shirley doesn’t want not to be seen as black.  He’s not trying to get away from being black, just from the idea that black people have to be a certain way.  He’s actually one of the people who sees himself as being a standard bearer for a particular group, because the reason he’s touring the South is to try to change people’s attitudes, to overcome the stereotypes of what a black person is like.  One of the other musicians explains this to Tony, who’s struggling to understand why this very talented man, who can get as many well-paid gigs as he likes in places where he’s treated with the respect he deserves, is putting himself through all this unpleasantness.  He thinks he can take on the attitudes of racists in the South, and change their minds.  And it would have been great if that was the way things had gone, but it wasn’t.

At one concert, which was meant to be in North Carolina but was actually filmed at the beautiful Houmas House plantation in Louisiana, which I’ve visited, he’s welcomed by the host and hostess and their guests, and sits down at the dinner table with them – even though they do serve up friend chicken – but, when he asks to use the toilet, he’s told that he’ll have to use a grotty outhouse: the proper gents’ toilets are only for white men.  He says that he’s not using the outhouse and, if they won’t let him use the other toilets, the second half of the concert will have to be delayed whilst he goes all the way back to his hotel, uses the toilet there, and comes all the way back.  The host agrees.  We’re left thinking how absolutely ridiculous the host’s attitude is, but we’re also left wondering why Dr Shirley doesn’t just tell him exactly where he can shove both his piano and his toilets.  Tony says that, if anyone treated him like that, he’d use their luxury carpet as a toilet.

Dr Shirley says that what matters is to be dignified.

However, in order for the film to work, either someone’s going to have to give in and accept that they’re in the wrong, or he’s going to have to snap and say that he’s had enough.  Attitudes are, sadly, not going to be changed by a concert tour, so Dr Shirley has to decide that he’s not taking any more –  and, of course, this happens at the last concert of the tour.

It’s in a posh club, on Christmas Eve.  Tony, Dr Shirley and the other musicians want to have a meal at the club’s restaurant before the concert, but the restaurant is whites-only and, despite the fact that all the white people in the restaurant are only at the club because they’ve come to hear him play, Dr Shirley is not allowed in.  He’s told that either he should eat somewhere else, or that some food can be brought out to him in the miniscule dressing room.  Enough’s enough, and he walks out.  He and Tony go to a bar where Tony is the only white person in the place.  And he plays the piano there.  Mostly jazz music.

And then, after this grand denouement, after he’s finally had enough, after he’s accepted that what he’s tried to do hasn’t worked, after he’s stood up for himself – and done it in an immeasurably dignified way, rather than walloping someone as Tony would have done – the film suddenly turns into one of those warm fuzzy Christmas films that get repeated on the Sky Christmas channel all the way through December.

Will Tony make it home in time to have Christmas dinner with his wife, his kids, and their enormous extended family?  As head north, it starts snowing heavily.  They can hardly see for more than a few inches in front of them.  And then they’re pulled over by a policeman.  Oh no!  Are our heroes going to spend Christmas Day in the cells?  Fear not.  This policeman just wants to tell them that they’ve got a flat tyre.  Tony changes it.  They drive on.  But Tony’s tired.  He really can’t drive any further.  So Dr Shirley takes over.  And they make it back to New York City just as Tony’s lovely wife Dolores is dishing up.  Hooray!   And Dr Shirley is invited into join them.  Bless!  Everyone hugs and kisses.  Merry Christmas!

I suppose they wanted a happy ending, and that was the only way of doing it.  The tour didn’t change people’s attitudes.  Dr Shirley didn’t find inner peace and a sense of belonging.  But we got our happy Christmas dinner scene.  A bit of a non sequitur, but, hey, why not?  We don’t have to fit films into pigeon holes as being comedies or dramas, or being buddy movies or films about racism or films about angst or anything else.  This film doesn’t really fit into any one standard category.  It’s just itself.  And people should be able to be just themselves, but the world doesn’t work like that, and it can be very hard if you don’t fit in.  There are better films than this about the evils of racism, but this one’s a bit different, and, whilst it’s got its faults, it’s got plenty to say, and all of that is well worth listening to.