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.

 

A Mega-Bumper Netflix Round-Up

As I mentioned last month I was pretty ill with the flu for a few weeks, lying flat on my back in bed and getting huge mileage out of my Netflix subscription. Although the weather this weekend is supposed to be spectacular and you’ll probably be outside soaking up the sun, here’s a quick round-up which you can bookmark for when the rain inevitably returns.

Stranger Things
At this stage you can’t have failed to hear about Netflix’s new hit. Paying homage to classic 80s sci-fi, Stranger Things follows a group of boys whose best friend disappears and who simultaneously find a mysterious girl named Eleven or ‘El’ who needs their protection. It has spawned much discussion online from a thorough run-down of every film reference (spoilers in that article), to criticism of the series’ depiction of women. Netflix have even announced that an official soundtrack is on the way due to popular demand. It’s a bona fide TV phenomenon which I enjoyed but I’m not a rabid fan in the way so many others are.

 

Fargo
Both seasons of Fargo are now available to watch and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Set in the same fictional world as the Coen Brothers eponymous 1996 film, Fargo is an anthology TV series, with a different cast and different plot set in a different era every season. Season one stars Billy Bob Thornton (in a career best performance), Mark Freeman, Colin Hanks and Allison Tolman and is set in 2006. Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, a hitman travelling through Bemidji, Minnesota, who causes chaos when he interacts with local residents. Season two is set in 1979 and stars Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Wilson, Ted Danson and Jesse Plemons. Dunst plays beautician Peggy Blumquist who covers up a hit and run accident involving one of the town’s most notorious criminals which leads to carnage. Both seasons were hugely praised and season three is due to premiere next year. If you haven’t seen it, get on it immediately.

 

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets
Marc Silver directed this documentary about the 2012 shooting of teenager Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn over an altercation about loud music. (Do I have to even say that this happened in the USA or did you assume that already?) It’s a brilliant documentary with interviews with Davis’ family, the witnesses to the crime and Dunn himself, and containing footage from the subsequent trial. Gun control in America is an oxymoron – as far as I can see there’s barely any control at all – and this documentary highlights the reasons why.

 

Tallulah
Tallulah debuted last weekend, and I had looked forward to it as it stars one of my favourite actresses, Alison Janney. Tallulah (Ellen Page) rescues a baby from an irresponsible mother (Tammy Blanchard) and pretends the child is her own, using the baby to form a relationship with her ex-boyfriend’s mother, Margo (Janney). I had such high hopes for this film, remembering the great chemistry the two actresses had in Juno. Unfortunately it didn’t live up to my hopes and I think the script was at fault. Both leads did their best but ultimately it seemed flimsy and predictable.

 

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
After so much drama I want some light relief and so a mate recommended Crazy Ex-Girlfriend starring Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch. Bunch is stressed out and about to burn out in her job as a corporate attorney in New York. After a chance encounter with her ex-boyfriend Josh Chan she decides on a whim to move to his town, West Covina in California. I was hesitant about watching the show for two reasons: firstly, American comedy doesn’t make me laugh a lot of the time, and secondly, the show has a couple of musical numbers per episode (nooooooo!). However I did end up watching the entire season and although the musical numbers do get a bit tiresome there are some absolute gems and Rachel Bloom is just brilliant.

Steve Jobs

(No posts for almost a month! Swine flu will do that to you, I guess. Yep, that’s right, swine Jaysus flu. I tried to deal with it by myself for two weeks and then admitted defeat and went to the doctor whereupon I was scolded, told I was a lot more sick than I thought, and put on various forms of medication. I very rarely get ill but when I do, it appears to be along the lines of ‘go big or go home’. Nearly better now though. And back to the matter at hand…)

I have never been a tech-fetishist. For me phones and computers are just devices that make life easier, like washing machines or hoovers. I don’t much care what they look like as long as they can do the basic job effectively. I have never owned an iPhone because the battery life sucks and the cameras on Androids are way better, and paying hundreds of extra euro for an Apple symbol just seems silly.

So for me, the massive outpouring of grief that happened when Steve Jobs died was bizarre. I found it hard to understand why people felt such a personal connection to a product and I didn’t get why people thought he was a genius. People like Steve Wozniak seemed to be the technical innovators. Jobs didn’t code, he didn’t design and he wasn’t an engineer. To me Jobs was just a savvy marketeer.

I watched two films to try and get more of a handle on why he was perceived as one of the greatest minds of his generation: Steve Jobs starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle, and Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, a documentary directed by Alex Gibney.

The film takes a three act structure, with each act taking place before a huge product launch. It’s a great construct which enables us to see the kind of pressure Jobs exerted on everyone including himself. At one point Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) questions what Jobs has really contributed to computing history and Jobs replies that he is the conductor of the orchestra and people like Wozniak are the musicians. It’s an interesting answer to my original question but not one I agree with. Fassbender was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance and he’s brilliant in the film, and the script by Aaron Sorkin is excellent.

The documentary is another impressive addition to Alex Gibney’s filmography, and provides a more rounded look at Jobs, containing interviews with most of the key figures in his life. He comes across as a fairly horrible individual. An early anecdote shows him ripping off a friend, claiming they got paid a tiny amount of money for a project when in fact Jobs just took the lion’s share for no reason other than greed. His rejection of his daughter Lisa is well documented, allowing her and her mother to live on welfare for many years while he earned millions. He often publicly humiliated his employees and rarely gave praise. Excuses are made during the documentary, such as the fact that he never got over being adopted, or he was such a genius that his failings should be tolerated. To which I have one response: really?

Both films are well worth a watch, but they haven’t really changed my mind. Jobs was probably one of the best marketeers the world has ever known, but Wozniak emerges as the true genius. I suppose it’s emblematic of our culture that the promoter is deified rather than the revolutionary.

 

 

Vincent and Theo

The last time I was in New York I paid a visit to MOMA to see parts of the permanent collection and the Matisse cutouts on exhibition at the time. The cutouts were lovely but the work that transfixed me and left me thinking about it for weeks afterwards was The Starry Night. Having seen so many reproductions of it – on postcards and prints and fridge magnets and even mouse mats – I thought I was anaesthetised to it, so I was completely unprepared for the effect it had on me. It genuinely moved me in a way that few pieces of art ever have, and I’m not sure I can explain why or how. Next time I’m in New York I’ll be going back just to gaze at it again.

I only mention this because last week I re-watched Vincent and Theo, a biopic of van Gogh directed by Robert Altman and starring one of my favourite actors, Tim Roth. The film opens with an unforgettable scene; documentary footage of The Sunflowers being sold at auction in Christie’s for the record breaking sum of over £22 million, juxtaposed with van Gogh, played by Roth, declaring his ambition to become a full-time painter at the age of thirty. The audio from the auction plays under a fight between Vincent and his brother Theo, who was an art dealer and who didn’t have much faith in Vincent’s ability.

The brothers had a fractious relationship, with Theo unable to understand his brother’s work and unable to find a market for it. Although Vincent famously sold few paintings and was not recognised for his talent in his lifetime, he continued painting, creating great art whilst living in poverty and squalor. His work was his obsession and in little over a decade he produced over two thousand works despite frequent psychotic episodes and hospital stays.

Van Gogh is now regarded as the epitome of the romantic genius starving in a garret, but the film shows the unvarnished reality. For most of his short life van Gogh was penniless, hungry, unappreciated and frustrated. He struggled with mental illness and alcoholism, and as a result his life was chaotic and often without love, leading him commit suicide at the age of thirty-seven.

This was one of the first films of Roth’s that I saw and I loved his performance. He demystifies the artist, making him less of a god-like genius and more of a human being, albeit a human being to be greatly admired given the heroic struggle that was his life and the influence his work has had for generations.

 

The Best Lipsynch in the Herstory of Drag Race

One of the great things about not having a TV is that you don’t get sucked into brain-drain channel surfing and so the only reality show I have ever been fanatical about is RuPaul’s Drag Race. I first discovered it in 2013, reviewed it here, then recommended it to everyone I thought would appreciate it, creating a few new fans in the process.

Drag is an art form, a unique expression of a personal creative vision, and the show has given me a look into a world I knew nothing about before. I am often blown away by the queens’ charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent (for an explanation of this phrase and a general resource for newbies, this is a comprehensive guide).

The Lipsynch For Your Life is the great leveller of Drag Race, the last chance to prove the queen deserves to stay in the competition. Stellar performances have come out of left-field to save the day, and seasoned queens have unexpectedly been sent home.

Having watched all eight seasons of Drag Race more than once, my favourite lipsynch is from season four: Dida Ritz doing ‘This Will Be’ by Natalie Cole. Cole is on the panel and her reaction sums up what the viewer is feeling. Dida lives the joy and energy of the song, and she’s so on point it’s jaw-dropping. As legendary queen Latrice Royale says, ‘that is what a lipsynch for your life is…that is high-drag at its finest.’