Glory Daze: The Life and Times of Michael Alig

Last time I was in New York I was struck by the huge difference in the city from my first visit in 1990. Back then it had an edge: crime and violence, buildings that were rundown or abandoned, rats and garbage on the streets, and hundreds of homeless people. But it was also a creative city with a palpable sense of energy and a thriving arts and music scene on the Lower East Side. Today it feels like a Disney version of New York, sanitised and gleaming, and filled with hedge fund managers and wannabe Carrie Bradshaws. The soul has been sucked out of it and all the artists are gone.

Glory Daze looks at this change in the city through the lens of the Club Kids, in particular Michael Alig. Alig is familiar to some people as being the subject of a documentary, feature film and book, all called Party Monster. He was the king of downtown clubbing, a promoter who turned everything he touched to gold and who seemed invincible until he was accused of murder.

Alig was involved in an altercation with his drug dealer Angel Melendez, and he and a friend, Robert ‘Freeze’ Riggs, smashed Angel’s skull with a hammer, injected him with Drano and left him sitting in the bathroom of their apartment for ten days, while they continued partying. Eventually the body started to smell so they cut it in two and disposed of it by throwing it in the Hudson River. Alig spent seventeen years in jail for the crime and was released in May 2014.

The documentary looks at Alig’s journey from misfit outcast in small town America to King of the Club Kids, a phenomenon he largely created and managed. The Club Kids were the successor to Andy Warhol’s superstars, famous for their outrageous outfits, hedonistic lifestyle and prodigious drug consumption. They were featured on talk shows and magazines and some of them became well-known, like RuPaul, Chloe Sevigny, Amanda Lepore, and Kabuki.

Many of these people are interviewed and Alig himself is interviewed extensively. He comes across as a superficially charming man, not genius-like as some people think, but someone who found himself in the right place at the right time to best utilise his talent. Glory Daze is an interesting film, a snapshot of a time that will probably never be repeated. As one of the interviewees said, ‘there is no chaos in Manhattan anymore’. It’s true and New York is all the poorer for it.

 

Nocturnal Animals, Arrival, and Amy Adams

Last weekend I made two visits to The Lighthouse to see two just-released films, both of which starred Amy Adams: Arrival and Nocturnal Animals.

Nocturnal Animals is definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year (it helps that it stars two of my favourite actors, Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s the second film written, produced and directed by designer Tom Ford. Adams plays Susan, an art gallery owner living an aspirational life in LA: chic wardrobe, stunning house, successful career, handsome husband. She is contacted by her ex-husband who sends her a book he has written and dedicated to her, called Nocturnal Animals. The novel is set in Texas and is a revenge thriller, brutally violent and unsettling, and the viewer sees it enacted as a film within a film. The book throws Susan’s life into disarray and she begins to reflect on her past relationship and on her current life with her husband.

Nocturnal Animals is a huge shift in tone from A Single Man, much more visceral and plot driven, yet perfect in its observation of details which is a hallmark of Ford’s aesthetic. The entire cast are wonderful and the cinematography by Irishman Seamus McGarvey is breathtaking, whether he’s capturing the dust and searing heat of West Texas or the polished perfection of upmarket LA. I honestly can’t recommend Nocturnal Animals enough.

 

 

Next up was Arrival, a sci-fi thriller starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner and directed by Denis Villeneuve. The title refers to the appearance of twelve spacecraft at different locations around the world. Louise Banks (Adams) is a linguist and Ian Donnelly (Renner) is a theoretical physicist who have been drafted into a team lead by US Army Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker) to visit the alien site in Montana and make first contact. Louise and Ian end up in conflict with military forces in America and around the globe; the scientists advocate trust and diplomacy, whereas the army guys want to bomb the aliens to smithereens, just to be on the safe side. The analogy is a little heavy-handed but not so much that it ruins the film.

A friend of mine described The Martian as a ‘love letter to science’ and I feel like Arrival is similar. It’s a love letter to the power of language, the effectiveness of communication versus action.

 

 

Afterwards I checked out Amy Adams’ filmography and realised that I’ve seen almost all of her movies. She has such multi-faceted range, from a naive princess in the hilarious Enchanted to a genius conwoman in American Hustle, a young and innocent nun in Doubt to a feisty no-bullshit barmaid in The Fighter. Her characters are so fully realised that it’s hard to imagine any other actress in the role. Adams has been nominated for an Academy Award five times, 2017 must surely be her year to win.

Mourir Auprès De Toi – Spike Jonze

Although Mourir Auprès De Toi (To Die By Your Side) was made in 2012 I only discovered it in a recent article on Open Culture. It’s a stop motion film directed by Spike Jonze in collaboration with Olympia Le-Tan (she of the much coveted and beautiful handbags), a fairytale about characters in books that come alive when the lights go out.

The setting is Shakespeare & Company, the iconic Parisian bookshop, and the characters are Mina Harker and the skeletal Macbeth. They fall madly in lust from afar but tragically Macbeth loses his head and then falls into the sea only to be chased by Moby Dick. Mina heroically saves Macbeth, the film ends and the credits show the couple hilariously in flagrante.

It’s a perfect marriage of Le-Tan’s craft, Jonze’ imagination, and Shakespeare & Co.’s inspiration, and just on the right side of literary macabre to be suitable for All Hallow’s Eve.

Loving Vincent

Regular readers may remember that back in June I posted about Vincent van Gogh, specifically The Starry Night and the movie Vincent and Theo, a biopic starring Tim Roth. Now van Gogh is the subject of the world’s first fully painted feature length animated film, Loving Vincent, which is due to be released in 2017.

According to the directors of the film: ‘Loving Vincent is an investigation delving into the life and controversial death of Vincent Van Gogh, one of the world’s most beloved painters, as told through his paintings and by the characters that inhabit them. The intrigue unfolds through interviews with the characters closest to Vincent and through dramatic reconstructions of the events leading up to his death.’

Over sixty different painters retrained as animators to create 62,450 frames painted in oil, and 200 of the original paintings will be made available for sale according to the official website. Polish actor Robert Gularczyk voices the character of Vincent, and Irish actors Aidan Turner, Saoirse Ronan and Chris O’ Dowd lend their voices to other characters.

Van Gogh was a groundbreaking artist, a visionary, and it seems fitting that a groundbreaking history-making film takes him as its subject. The trailer looks mesmerising and I can’t wait to see Loving Vincent next year.

 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

 

The world of manufactured pop has been begging for a mockumentary for a long time and in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping it finally gets the parody it deserves. Conner4Real (Andy Samberg) forms a band called Style Boyz with his childhood friends and they become popular due to their good looks and dance gimmick, the ‘Donkey Roll’. When they inevitably break up under the pressures of fame, Conner goes solo, with bandmate Kid Contact (Jorma Taccone) relegated to hitting play on an iPod under the guise of beat-maker and DJ.

Conner is propelled to superstardom with his catchphrase verse on ‘Turn Up The Beef’ by Claudia Cantrell (Emma Stone), and it seems he can do no wrong until he makes a deal to automatically upload his newest album to household appliances via WIFI (shades of Ireland’s original boyband?) leading to a backlash and Conner’s fall from grace.

Never Stop Never Stopping has its roots in the carefully controlled promotional films of pop stars since the genre began, from The Beatles to Madonna to Katy PerryJustin Beiber‘s ‘Believe’ seems to be a direct inspiration – just check out this trailer which might seem like a parody if you didn’t know any better. Writers Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer have hit every recognisable plot point: a mother who gave up her own dreams of stardom and now parties with the kids (Joan Cusack), a faux relationship with a fame hungry singer (Imogen Poots), and a support act in the tradition of ‘All About Eve’. Sarah Silverman as Conner’s publicist delivers some gems in her trademark deadpan: ‘I’d like to get Conner to the point where he’s everywhere, like oxygen or gravity or clinical depression.’

The cameos are a who’s who of the Billboard charts: Ringo Starr, Questlove, Pink, 50 Cent, Carrie Underwood and RZA are among many recognisable faces. Mariah Carey in particular is worth watching out for, brilliantly sending herself up in just a couple of lines of dialogue. And Andy Samberg is perfect as Conner: handsome enough to be believable, a better than decent dancer and singer, and so committed to the role that you can’t help but be on his side even though he’s eye-rollingly stupid.

Never Stop Never Stopping is cleverly written and its Spinal Tap style satire delivers proper laughs. If you haven’t seen it, it’s one to put on your list for an afternoon watch this weekend.

OJ: Made in America

 

As an Irish girl with no interest in sport of any kind I had never heard of OJ Simpson until 1995, but on holiday on the west coast that summer it was a conversation that was impossible to avoid. I watched American Crime Story earlier this year, the dramatisation of the trial starring Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance and Cuba Gooding Junior. While the performances were excellent I found the pace very slow. When I read early reports of the documentary miniseries OJ Simpson: Made In America I knew it was much more up my street.

OJ Simpson: Made In America was broadcast by ESPN in June in five parts totalling eight hours, starting with OJ’s glory years: football in USC in late 60s including what became known as ‘The Run’, a 1967 match against UCLA, his acting career and subsequent fame. Adored by the public and by his friends, he was charismatic, handsome, charming and funny: ‘everybody’s best friend.’

It was in his relationship with Nicole that his dark side surfaced. He met her in a nightclub when she was just eighteen. He was married but they started an affair, then OJ divorced his wife and married Nicole. True to form he continued having affairs yet he was incredibly jealous of Nicole, often becoming violent and verbally abusive. A couple of Nicole’s phone calls to 911 are played and she is clearly in fear of her life as OJ rages in the background.

In tandem with OJ’s story the documentary shows the history of black people in Los Angeles: Watt’s Riots, Rodney King, 1992 Los Angeles Riots, police brutality and racial profiling. It’s impossible to talk about OJ without seeing the murder trial in this wider context.

OJ’s trial became about race and he became a symbol of civil rights injustice, when in fact he had turned his back on the African-American community throughout his life. When he was asked to become an activist he refused, he married a white woman, he socialised with white people and lived in Brentwood, a predominantly white and very affluent suburb of LA. OJ often said, ‘I’m not black, I’m OJ’, believing that his celebrity transcended race.

The interesting thing is that when discussing the verdict both jury members and onlookers viewed his exoneration as payback for how black people were treated in America, ‘for Rodney King’. Almost nobody discusses his guilt or innocence, as if that was such a secondary issue it wasn’t worth mentioning. To this day no-one else has been tried for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, and OJ has on numerous occasions outright confessed or alluded to his guilt.

The final part of the documentary focusses on OJ’s life after his criminal acquittal and it’s a sleazy and sordid mess, involving drugs, alcohol, sex and bad rap music, culminating in his 2007 arrest for robbery in Las Vegas. Thirteen years to the day after he was acquitted for the double murder he was found guilty of robbery, then sentenced to thirty-three years in jail.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of documentary filmmaking. OJ: Made in America is one of the best I have ever seen, a meticulously researched and riveting piece of investigative journalism which deserves a huge audience.

Born to be Blue

 

Chances are that even if you’re not a jazz fan you’ll have heard the above song, ‘My Funny Valentine’ as sung by Chet Baker. He’s the subject of a new biopic Born to be Blue starring Ethan Hawke which I saw in The Lighthouse last weekend. I read Deep In A Dream by James Gavin years ago so I was familiar with Baker’s story: a trumpet player who exemplified West Coast cool jazz as opposed to the harder, more experimental East Coast players like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, a guy with James Dean good looks that he famously ruined with hard living, and who died when he was just fifty-eight, falling out of a hotel window high on coke and heroin.

The film is factual in some respects. Yes, Baker’s life took a tragic turn at the age of twenty-seven when he discovered heroin. It’s true that his teeth were kicked out in a fight, so he had to learn to play again with dentures, a grisly process depicted in detail in the film. (I went to see this with my Dad who is a sax player and who has had problems with his teeth in the past, so he easily related to Chet. He couldn’t watch the scenes of Chet practising, gums bleeding, obviously in tremendous physical pain, but also desperate to play again.) Yes, Chet was imprisoned for drug use in Italy and America, and he fucked up his romantic relationships due to his addiction, although Jane (played by Carmen Ejogo) is a composite character.

Other elements are clearly fictional. The shots of Baker playing trumpet in the surf, on top of a caravan, resting on the roof of a snow covered shed, in corn fields, on the edge of a cliff, in the bath, struck me as being the kind of romantic notions a director might have about a musician. (What serious trumpet player brings his horn into the sea? Sea salt + brass = disaster!) While the individual shots are beautifully composed, the montage gets a little cheesy.

The film is stylised, with flashbacks in black and white and then returning to colour to show the events of 1966, the year Chet lost his teeth, had to learn to play again and made his comeback playing in Birdland. Ethan Hawke is excellent as Baker, conveying his charm, vulnerability and insecurity. Apparently Hawke was first approached about playing Baker fifteen years ago and he has obviously done his homework since. He learned how to play trumpet for the film and also wore dentures to correctly portray Baker’s mumble.

Fittingly Born to be Blue struck me like a jazz tune, an interpretation of Chet’s life rather than factually rigorous. I thoroughly enjoyed it.