Thoughts on Amy, The Wrecking Crew, The Lobster, and While We’re Young at this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival.
Asif Kapadia’s new documentary Amy is a devastating account of the struggles of Amy Winehouse as she goes from enthusiastic teenager with a great voice, to death from alcohol and heart failure at the age of just 27. The approach used by Kapadia in his superb Senna is used again here: a collage of from-the-time images coupled with voices speaking over the images rather than to the camera. The technique is extraordinarily effective: we get a collision of past and present happening at the same time, the dead-space of a direct to camera address replaced by something almost more ineffable. Amy Winehouse lives and breathes in the film, yet everything you see is suffused with the unbearably sad knowledge that it’s all about to end.
It’s about an artist who didn’t want what she was given, and had no idea how to cope with everything that came with it. While I confess to being largely indifferent to Winehouse’s music, what’s received here is a potent account of what it must have been like to be such a superstar, and the undeniable talent that was lost. There’s a key moment in the film when Winehouse wins a Grammy for Record of the Year. She’s not at the event itself, she’s in a club in London and on stage. When she wins her eyes look lost and frightened. She confesses to a friend immediately afterwards (she had just got clean), that it’s not as fun without drugs.
While the film gives life to Winehouse, it also examines the situation into which she was thrown into unprepared. For example, she’s greeted by a strobe-light of paparazzi flashes whenever she walked out of her door, people made fun of the addiction struggles that eventually killed her (it’s pointed that Jay Leno warmly congratulates her for her music, and then later mocks her), she couldn’t take a holiday without fans and Reality TV crews asking for a shot, and her contractual commitments pushed her when she wasn’t in a position to be pushed. The documentary attacks almost everyone in her life: her father, her ex-husband, her manager, the media, and herself. It’s not a scattergun approach, though, and is anchored by the trajectory of Winehouse’s life.
It’s also a critique of audience expectations. Winehouse’s final performance in Serbia shows the crowd initially laughing at her ‘comic’ drunkenness, as if they were mocking her living up to her presumed junkie persona. But then it moves into something just as ugly: they boo her for failing to perform. They paid their money, so why shouldn’t they get to hear her play her hits? If I had been a paying member of the audience, I worry that I would have reacted the same way. It’s this feeling of shared heartlessness towards her situation that makes Amy all the more powerful.
We’ve had a few great documentaries in recent times about some of the great American session musicians of the 1960s, in particular the glorious Motown, Stax, and Muscle Shoals musicians who complemented the incredible performers of those labels. Session musicians were able to make a good living in the ’60s performing for ‘legitimate’ artists, as sniffy attitudes of ‘authenticity’ only befitting musicians who played their own instruments hadn’t quite taken over. Though it must be said, many of the songs widely regarded as classics now weren’t considered so at the time.
A group of Los Angeles session musicians have gone down in pop history as The Wrecking Crew—although the loose collection of musicians from that era don’t consider themselves part of a particular collective. Simply put, they were hired to perform by the likes of Phil Spector and the Beach Boys, and by god did they perform. The bassline in Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’. The ‘mini’ wall of sound on The Beach Boys’ ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. The ukulele on ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’. The perfect guitar riff on The Crystals’ ‘Then He Kissed Me’. There are the unsung moments, too. The rhythm guitar on The Byrds’ superb cover of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. The drums (of all things) on the greatest pop song of all-time, The Ronettes’ ‘Be My Baby’ (well, if Brian Wilson can call it that—I’m just following in the slipstream).
The documentary is made by key guitarist Tommy Tedesco’s son, Denny. Tedesco brings together the performers to narrate their stories, many of whom remain completely unsung (in particular, Carol Kaye, one of the greatest unknown American performers). Given how many have subsequently passed away, Tedesco has almost performed a public service in getting them together before it was too late. He also grabs a bunch of stars to add their thoughts: Cher, Micky Dolenz, Glen Campbell (himself originally part of The Wrecking Crew), Brian Wilson, among others, who talk about the sheer importance of The Wrecking Crew on their greatest hits.
The documentary doesn’t bother situating The Wrecking Crew within wider social movements or popular music trends, and is relatively vague in defining them. In part, it’s the sheer versatility of the performers that would have made that a difficult task, though it would have also made it a richer documentary, as there clearly was a lot more going on. Nevertheless, The Wrecking Crew is a charming account of musicians who are credited for some of the greatest moments in popular music, yet who never got the full credit they deserve.
* * *
Given its unapologetic vision of a society teetering between totalitarian approaches, The Lobster was a brave, inspired choice for opening night. Yorgos Lanthimos’s breakthrough film Dogtooth provoked a certain amount of outrage when it played here in 2007, and the lure of star-power may have unwittingly dragged in a few folk with different expectations to what was offered up. That said, the crowd in Wellington overwhelmingly stayed glued to their seats, although the ambiguous ending meant a few furrowed brows as the audience retreated.
Lanthimos constructs worlds that seem real enough, but with their own internal rules and logic. Dogtooth, for example, centred on a family trapped in a house, subject to an overbearing patriarch’s rules. Within that set-up, Lanthimos was able to make searing comments on xenophobia and a latent desire for fascism (under the guise of conservatism). The Lobster features a world in which single people are not allowed. Upon becoming single, a person is taken to a hotel to find a mate. If a singleton does not couple up within a mandated period, he or she is turned into an animal of their choice. Extra time can be bought by killing an escaped singleton. It is into this world that David (Colin Farrell) is thrown after separating with his wife.
Ostensibly, Lanthimos is critiquing modern society’s obsession with relationships, but The Lobster’s main focus is on the nature of ideology and totalitarianism. It features one totalitarian regime being replaced by another—an either/or dichotomy exists, with each violently seeking to impose their ideologies. The characters express themselves in flat, blunt sentences. There is no room for ambiguity or subtext. David isn’t allowed to describe himself as bisexual. His shoe size has to be expressed as a whole number. He communicates with the “Short Sighted Woman” (Rachel Weisz) in secret via a series of elaborate and silly movements—it’s almost as if neither of them can countenance that things unsaid can be just as powerful as covering all bases. In such a rigorous world, it’s unsurprising the characters themselves rely on similarity to couple-up.
The rites and rules of a society simply cannot be disobeyed without serious consequence. Lanthimos suggests that such reliance on ‘same-ness’ or shared ideologies becomes an echoing chamber. It is easy to draw parallels to contemporary Greek politics: Dogtooth mirrored a rise in the anti-immigration and neo-fascist Golden Dawn, and it’s tempting to place The Lobster within a society that has oscillated between governments during the current austerity, and recently split itself on a yes/no vote. In a wider sense, it also suggests an increasing failure by people to listen to other viewpoints and tolerate difference.
For all of its darkness, The Lobster is also a warm and hilarious film (by Lanthimos’s standards). David and the Short Sighted Woman’s relationship is touching. There are some genuinely funny scenes, including a scene in which the parents of the Leader (Léa Seydoux) play ‘Romance Anónimo’ on the guitar—although in typically biting Lanthimos fashion, the same piece was memorably used in René Clément’s Forbidden Games, a film in which two naïve children cope with the death and destruction in fascist (Vichy-era) France by ‘playing’ with dead animals.
In a film in which characters consider ambiguity to be a threat, it is perhaps subversive that Lanthimos ends on ambiguity. While it’s hard not to be pessimistic about David’s likely choice in the final scene, it’s clear that Lanthimos has determined he’s not going to fall into the trap of filling in the gaps. Lanthimos simply forces us to accept uncertainty.
Noah Baumbach’s latest, While We’re Young, features a high-powered cast and a funny script, and is likely to do well. Documentary filmmaker Josh (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) feel out of place as their friends have children and have settled down. Josh and Cornelia are befriended by twenty-something Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), whose fancy-free lifestyle precipitates a newfound sense of adventure in the couple. Jamie is also an ambitious documentary filmmaker, a plot development that shifts the film into All About Eve territory, with professional jealousies, intergenerational confusion, and misplaced energy taking over.
Baumbach critiques the solipsism of his characters, and in particular, the lengths certain artists are prepared to go to be successful. The generations are compared and contrasted: the younger folk favour the ‘authentic’ and the ‘old’, while the elders have embraced the new, yet neither seem to know what they’re dealing with.
While the result is funny, it’s also incredibly shallow. A bugbear of mine is that I have little interest in texts or films that are about artists struggling to be creative: given everything that’s happening in the world, is it really that difficult to make something about a nurse, a cleaner, or a builder struggling to do their job, or for that matter, anyone but a white, middle-class artist in New York? While We’re Young fits squarely into the recent self-indulgent glut of such films and television shows (for instance, Birdman and Girls).
The characters’ milieu is so hermetically sealed that it’s tempting to use the critiques made in the film against the film itself: the assumed privilege, the lackadaisical consumption, the fact that one of the most multicultural cities on the planet is presented as one of the whitest. Josh and Cornelia’s world seems particularly open to questioning. How does Josh spend ten years making one of the most non-commercial film projects imaginable and yet live in such a flash apartment? What does Cornelia actually do? How does he afford all of those records? Is this film just an old man yelling at clouds?
While We’re Young wears its dreary apolitical nature on its sleeve too, which reaches its peak during the film’s dubious, conservative ending. Because Cornelia is unable to have a child, a fact the film takes pains to tell the audience every ten minutes, it lets her adopt a Third World baby. The result is a diverting enough film with no resonance whatsoever.