Reviews Of Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?); Anvil! The Story Of Anvil; I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) Of The Independent Record Store; When I Rise; And Youíre Gonna Miss Me
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/16/14
I recently streamed and watched five films dealing with music, the art and industry. They were Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?); Anvil! The Story Of Anvil; I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) Of The Independent Record Store; When I Rise; and Youíre Gonna Miss Me.
The first film followed one of the best known singer-songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s, Harry Nilsson, who was friends with the Beatles, and followed them into a mire of drugs and self-destruction. Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), made in 2006, does a good, solid job of portraying the man and his music, but, like too many off the rack celebrity biography documentaries, too little of the film focuses on the early years and the creative process. The two hour film, in fact, eventually devolves into mere solid territory by focusing too much on Nilssonís drug descent and his celebrity status. One of the better aspects of this film, though, is that it rightly portrays John Lennon as the asshole that most people who knew him personally claimed he was, rather than the saint that got murdered. Just ask the Smothers Brothers, who are two of the many talking head celebrities in the film. Others include Jon Voight, Micky Dolenz, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Yoko Ono, Robin Williams, and Brian Wilson.
The most interesting aspect of the film is Nilssonís early years as a bank employee, and how he wrote hits for other acts (One for Three Dog Night, being his biggest coup) even as he broke through into mainstream acceptance by singing a song written by someone else: Fred Neilís Everybodyís Talkiní from the film Midnight Cowboy. The film highlights Nilssonís daring- such as recording an album full of songs by another songwriter (Randy Newman), his creation of a funky musical cartoon, The Point, and the slow drain of talent from him. Like most artists- especially musicians, Nilsson only got worse with age. Not only did he blow his voice out but he made poor decisions, financially (before being embezzled from), but his songwriting went from innovative to pedestrian. At the height of his career, he decided to release a record of musical standards that was beneath his talent level, and one need only compare the songs he wrote and performed in his last ten years (he died in 1994, at 52 years of age) to those of his first decade in music, and the gap is starkly huge.
By filmís end we get the usual paint by numbers hagiography, and the film, like its subject, makes the transition from being possibly genre enriching to off the rack. Far too much time is wasted on Nilssonís friendships with Lennon and Ringo Starr, as well as his anti-gun crusade, after Lennonís death, when perhaps the most interesting trope of the film- Nilssonís relationship with his son Zak, from his first marriage, is barely skimmed, even as it mirrorís Nilssonís own relationship with his father (subject of the song 1941), and, despite the lauding of the manís voice and music, we get maybe 10-12 minutes, total, of the music- trumped in favor of the Ďsordidí stuff all too common in films of this ilk. Director John Scheinfeld booted a golden opportunity to bring this manís talent to a new generation, in favor of an easy film to slot into cable television.
A far better film that Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?) is Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, which follows a far inferior set of musicians that Nilsson. Director Sacha Gervasiís 80 minute long, 2008 film has natural parallels to Rob Reinerís 1984 cult classic mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap, as Anvil is a real heavy metal band from the 1980s that never made it to the big time, yet whose career was salvaged by this filmís success. The reason for Anvilís failure is quite like that of their fictive doppelgangers, and that is that Anvil, frankly, sucks musically. Although the film opens with talking heads from other 1980s heavy metal bands (Lars Ulrich- of Metallica, Slash- of Guns-N-Roses, Tom Araya- of Slayer, Lemmy Kilmister- of Motorhead), the drop in quality, musically, is apparent, even to folks not aficionados of the thrash metal genre. The two founding band members, drummer Robb Reiner (again a parallel) and Steven ĎLipsí Kudlow, are simply not that good, and likewise mimic the two Spinal Tap Ďfoundersí in nearly tearing the band apart with their arguments, just before (as in the earlier film) the band is saved by a successful show in Japan. The band also includes Stonehenge in their sightseeing tour (a nod to Spinal Tap, as is the amp that goes to 11).
But, unlike the comedy, this film achieves a form of near-greatness in the rockumentary subgenre by being full of heart. Seeing Reiner and Kudlow in their personal lives lends great empathy. They are musical has beens- Kudlow works for a childrenís catering service to make ends meet, and Reiner shows some talent as a painter (he loves Edward Hopper, but is so clueless that he relates the master painter to the audience as if he is his own discovery), but he also has a sister that keeps him real, and tells the audience that her brother is not realistic, and the reason that the band never made it big was because they are not good. Kudlow, on the other hand, has a supportive wife, and we see him shat on constantly: other musicians avoid him, club owners stiff paying the band, he hires a terrible manager who was a fan, he and Reiner bust each otherís balls, and he gets screwed over by record industry hacks who put out even worse music than Anvilís. At one point Kudlow rightly decries that 99% of the musical agents donít even listen to the music that is submitted to them. Still, the film makes great hay of the fact that the filmís two leads are dolts (not unlike in Jay Delanyís film Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie, which presents the dolts in a positive light) and that their Ďartí is utter trash (not unlike Jessica Yuís In The Realms Of The Unreal, which focused on insane schlock writer Henry Darger, not cast in a good light).
But, when invited to a big Japanese show, the band worries that their 11:30 am slot will mean they will open to only a handful of people in a 20,000 seat arena. Gervasi does a good job of teasing the audience (they earlier played to a similar sized arena in Transylvania that had only 174 paying customers) and building empathy for the band, and especially Kudlow, who comes off as a terrific human being, if barely mediocre musician and singer. Fortunately, the arena is jammed with Japanese Anvil fans, and I admit to being happy at seeing this. Such a moment is testament to the narrative devices that Gervasi uses so effectively, for we see these two, letís be honest, failures in their craft, finally get some reward. Anvil! The Story Of Anvil is not great art, but nears a certain form of greatness in its subjectís sincerity of story, and the natural appeal underdogs, in whatever form, have on human psyches.
Whereas Anvil! The Story Of Anvil is the triumph of story over substance, 2008 also saw the release of a music industry documentary that was the inverse. Brendan Tollerís 77 minute long I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) Of The Independent Record Store. Unfortunately easily veers into clichť with its claim that the decline of record stores, due to big label monopolizing has led to musical stagnation. Itís a tempting lie to believe, and the same trope is often argued in writing circles, that somehow the merger of big media conglomerates single-handedly destroys that aspect of the arts, as well.
But, just as Barnes & Noble and Amazon are not to blame for the fall of local bookstores, neither are the big music companies for used record stores. First, just like most small presses, which publish only certain writing engaged of their own political views, or written by cronies, indy record labels put out music every bit as bad as the banal crap foisted by the major labels. If one is to argue that the big monied interests kill culture (which they do) one has to acknowledge so do the little guys, and this is because both ends of the spectrum do not respect art. Diversity is fine, as long as it goes hand in hand with quality. Diversity for its own rationale is the road to bad culture. And this fact is glazed over (or perhaps glossed over?) by Toller and his film. Yes, he hammers away at the viewer with assorted statistics and cartoon melodramas over the end of music as we know it, but the rise of file downloading, in the years since the filmís release, has seen the flourishing of all sorts of music, although, ironically, as in the e-book realm, many folks who lamented the big record companiesí grip now long for its return, as it is even harder than ever for a band to break big on its own artistic merit.
Yet, this reality seems not to have made it into this film, which shows its trite Left Wing colors by employing, as a talking head, none other than linguist turned intellectual everyman, Noam Chomsky, whose brief comment on the situation, and naÔvely comparing it to the advent of supermarkets in the 1930s reveals just how ignorant even the smartest person can be when wholly out of their own element. Fortunately, by filmís end, and over an hour of mere agitprop, the film does recognize that big money, while part of the problem, is not the problem itself, even if it never puts a nail to that problem, which is that it is but a symptom of a larger malaise in American music, and art, itself. The film does do well the area of graphics, but cannot be recommended for viewing, overall, because it simply follows a banal form (you know what point will be brought up at every turn of the film), and never attempts to rise above itself and its misguided aims.
Formula, however, is not always the death knell for a film. Sometimes, a film can at least be informative as it follows a formula. 2010ís 74 minute long, PBS-ready documentary, When I Rise, directed by Mat Hames, is proof of that. The film provides a none too deep overview of the life and career of black mezzo-soprano Barbara Smith Conradís life and career, but bizarrely fixates on a minor incident in her career- that of an incident in Austin, Texas: her being awarded the role of Dido in the 1956-57 season of the University of Texasís music departmentís production of the opera Dido And Aeneas. She was eventually rejected, when the university got pressure from segregationist (that year was the first that all Texas colleges were integrated), only to have to relinquish it after death threats came her way.
The story made national news, and led to her discovery by singer Harry Belafonte, who mentored her career as she rose to the top of the opera world. But, all Conrad did was what she could. To posit her as operaís Rosa Parks, in face of the fact that even the film mentions that Conradís hero was Marian Anderson, a black opera star from a quarter century earlier, and that Conrad starred as Anderson in a telefilm that showed Andersonís famed performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial, is to make far too much of the womanís real accomplishments, and itís such false embellishments that bring down many such films as this.
The film would have been far better served had it relied on more footage of Conrad actually singing- her New York City days, or in many of the actual filmed or taped interviews sheís given over the years. Having some music historians, or even some sociologists, or even some opera critics, as well, would have rounded out the portrait of this woman, whose life is far more interesting and broadly profound than this documentary credits her with, in favor of the Conrad as the Parks of Opera trope. By filmís end, one sees that the septuagenarian Conrad has settled into a role as elder stateswoman for opera, and seeks to encourage other blacks to follow in her footsteps. Itís too bad that that Hamesí film, which is neither well structured not visually arresting, does not do justice to such an interesting, and positive, legacy. Here is a perfect example of an artist hewing to formula, and his work suffering for it.
The fifth, and final film in this review contains possibly the most musically talented and potentially important person of them all, but does an even greater disservice to him than does When I Rise to Barbara Smith Conrad. The film is 2005ís 91 minute Youíre Gonna Miss Me, and the musician is the great vocalist and songwriter from Austin, Texas, Roger (Roky- no c) Erickson. Erickson rose to fame in the mid-1960s with his band, the 13th Floor Elevators- whose claim to fame was that they Ďinventedí the term Ďpsychedelic rock.í Yet, like the prior documentary, this film (whose title comes from one of Ericksonís songs, his biggest hit) focuses on the wrong attributes of the man. Instead of focusing on Ericksonís music, ability, and his assorted incarnations, the film fixates, first, on Ericksonís descent into insanity after bad acid trips, and his stays in mental institutions, then, even worse, losing total focus and zooming in on Ericksonís family problems. The film thus becomes a grim and perverse vanity documentary. Early on, we see clips of Erickson and his band on old television shows, as well as interviews with other musicians and bandmates. Then it stops.
The bulk of the film (75-80 minutes) is spent on seeing Roky wander around like a zombie, controlled by a domineering shrew of a mother, who is in a legal battle with Ericksonís youngest sibling for control and guardianship of Erickson, rather than seeing him perform or talk about his creative process. As in Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?), an insanely disproportionate amount of time is wasted on the sordid and unimportant details of a life that was and is so much more, for, as in Anvil! The Story Of Anvil, this filmís release helped spur a revival of Ericksonís career which, if one Googles his name, and looks at video clips, is still going well in small clubs, state fairs, and the indy rock circuit.
Director Keven McAlester is responsible for this utterly irresponsible film. Whereas the Anvil film is sad happy, given that we get an uplift by that filmís end, but this film is sad sad, since the lead subject is in bad shape, and the film is in even worse shape. Not that Erickson is as important a world figure as Sir Isaac Newton, but watching this film is akin to watching 88 minutes spent on Newtonís personal psychoses and obsession with alchemy, while splitting the last three minutes on his contributions to physics and the invention of calculus. Itís absurd, and worse- itís silly and demeaning. The result is poorly edited filmmaking. There are so many scenes where one finds a drugged up and psyched out Erickson just shambling about his apartment, or acting insane in home movies. As if this has any real relevance to why his music was good or not? McAlester picked a good subject, but utterly botched the film, in every way- from conception to technical aspects. Perhaps his future works will improve, but this film is, despite its ameliorating effect on Erickson and his career, a blight on the directorís resume.
Overall, the five films under review- Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?); Anvil! The Story Of Anvil; I Need That Record! The Death (Or Possible Survival) Of The Independent Record Store; When I Rise; and Youíre Gonna Miss Me- are worth seeing, mostly for their content, not their execution.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
Return to Bylines