SIFF 2019: Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Stanley Nelson, 2019)


Whatever film festival I cover, I always like to find time for a movie about music and/or dance. This year’s music movie is a biodoc about Miles Davis, produced for the PBS American Masters TV series. As such, in no way does it attempt to explore the limits of the form, or give us anything more than an illustrated history of its subject (unlike previous festival favorite art docs like Ballet 422 or any random Frederick Wiseman film). But its limitations being what they are, it’s a solid enough piece of work. A kind of Miles 101 for a general audience, distinguished by wall-to-wall music and excellent use of archival photographs and home movies.

We follow Davis’s life from birth to death, hitting all the musical high points along the way, and making time for the low points of his personal life as well (mainly drug and spousal abuse). First person narration is read in an imitation of Davis’s distinctive rasp by actor Carl Lumbly, repeating Davis’s words from interviews conducted by Quincy Troupe during their writing of Davis’s autobiography. Musical luminaries serve as talking heads, along with a few of Davis’s friends and wives and children. The film is at its best when it gets lost in the music, highlighting with ease what made Davis’s tone and style so uniquely special, ably distinguishing him from his peers in bebop and charting his evolution from post-war New York all the way through the 1980s. As much time is devoted to the later work as the early hits, which is nice to see for once in a music doc. So many tend to focus on a small slice of an artist’s work, Birth of the Cool embraces the whole of Miles Davis though.

And that includes his personal life, the failings in which the film does not excuse, though some of the interviewees might seem to do so. His second wife, Frances Taylor Davis, is the most affecting interview, recalling with equal poignance the good times and the bad ones. The question underlying it all–what do we as fans, as a society, do with a genius artist who does unequivocally bad things–is never really answered. I don’t know that it can be. I do know that Miles Davis, flaws and all, is probably the greatest American composer of the second half of the 20th century.

Monterey Pop (DA Pennebaker, 1968)


Ruthlessly cut down to only 80 minutes of a three day festival, DA Pennebaker’s seminal concert film captures in celluloid the moment in 1967 when a whole generation was about to lose its mind, but with a killer soundtrack. As the festival sits in the transition between festivals of the past and the rapidly approaching future (it was the first major rock festival, modeled after various Jazz and Folk fests), so the film has one foot in the past and one in the future. In the rhythm of cutting between performers and audience, interstitial shots of people (with an especial focus on beautiful women, with whom this camera crew seem particularly obsessed) and the festival environment, it’s essentially Jazz on a Summer’s Day, the 1960 concert film of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. But at times it breaks into something far stranger, as in the cameraman who stares directly into a light during Otis Redding’s set, the silhouette of the star only occasionally breaking up the blinding whiteness, or in the particularly cruel cut from Canned Heat’s blistering “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” to Simon & Garfunkel’s simple syrup “The 59th Street Bridge Song”. It’s a culture on the edge, one which would reach it’s apotheosis in Woodstock and begin its rapid decline just a few months later with Gimme Shelter (whose co-director, Albert Maysles, served as a camera operator on Monterey Pop).

Most of the bands get only a single track in the film, and some big names are cut out entirely (including, famously, the Grateful Dead, who objected to the commercialism of the project). It’s a particular shame that we only get to see the incandescent finale of Jimi Hendrix’s brilliant set (you see watch most of it, his introduction to American audiences, in Pennebaker’s 1986 film Jimi Plays Monterey). Pennebaker’s decision to devote almost a quarter of the film’s runtime to Ravi Shankar is some kind of perverse genius. But with apologies to Hendrix and Shankar, the MVP of the film is Janis Joplin, without a doubt. Her performance of “Ball and Chain” is the reason we have music.

Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)


Making its way to Seattle last week for an unheralded run at the Pacific Place, then quickly dropped to a single show in town and shunted off to Tukwila’s Parkway Plaza was the latest film from the most singular artist working in mainstream American film today. As with every Terrence Malick film since his reemergence with 1998’s The Thin Red LineSong to Song has been met with baffled derision by much of what passes for the Hollywood intelligentsia, that dense Ouroboros of movie reviewers, Oscar bloggers and self-appointed box office gurus that pass as journalists in our debased world. The complaints are familiar, cheap and lazy, ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick doesn’t make movies like They expect movies to be made. Unable to conceive of possibilities beyond their narrow imaginations, his refusal to conform is viewed alternately as pretension or incompetence (see for example Christopher Plummer’s whining about Malick during The Tree of Life‘s Oscar campaign that Malick didn’t know how to edit films, a complaint (I believe, perhaps uncharitably) ultimately sourced in the fact that Malick cut out most of Plummer’s performance in The New World). Malick doesn’t make conventional movies, and it’s easier to snark about twirling and poetry (the nerve!) than it is to wrestle with what he does make.

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The Frances Farmer Show Ep. 6: SIFF Preview, The Long Day Closes and Tokyo Sonata

With the Seattle International Film Festival fast approaching, we discuss earlier films by two prominent directors whose films will be bookending this year’s SIFF. Terence Davies will be kicking the festival off with his Sunset Song, while Kiyoshi Kurosawa will bring it to a close with Creepy, and so we talk about Davies’s 1992 masterpiece of poetic memory The Long Day Closes and Kurosawa’s 2008 surreal domestic melodrama Tokyo Sonata. We’re joined as well by Melissa to preview this year’s festival, running down some new obscurities, interesting documentaries, much-anticipated archival presentations and more. All that, plus cameo appearances from TS Eliot and Paul Verlaine.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.

This Is Spinal Tap (Marty DiBergi, 1984)

“Have a good time, all the time.” — Viv Savage

viv zombie

Much has been written about the career of Spinal Tap, the second greatest rock band to ever come out of England, apologies to The Rolling Stones. The longevity of the band, their expert songwriting, and their general loudness have all become the gold standard for nearly every musician that has followed in their wake. Often referred to as “Heavy Metal’s Susan Lucci”, Spinal Tap’s annual snubbing by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is a travesty of monumental proportions, especially considering the band has written two of the very best songs with the Hall’s name in the title, Rock ‘n’ Rolls “Creation” and “Nightmare”.

While the core personnel has been the same since the 1960s, and principal songwriters David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel have a relationship going “all the way home” back to childhood, one of the most famous elements of the band is their constant retinue of replacement players. Drummers in particular. And while these performers have ranged from the perfunctory (“Gimme Some Money” percussionist John “Stumpy” Pepys) to the incongruously virtuosic (Nigel’s temporary replacement, Ricky, “the hottest lead guitarist in San Francisco”), some of these musicians made lasting contributions with the band and they deserve to be remembered. None more so than keyboardist Viv Savage.

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Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015)

press soc

While they sold tons of records and the content of their songs grabbed a lot of headlines, there was never enough appreciation for the look of N.W.A. Their late-’80s ensemble of black sweatshirts and Los Angeles sportsgear doesn’t get as much traction as Beatle boots but it is just as iconic. Certainly the group worked because it was comprised of astonishingly talented individuals, but they also looked the part. F. Gary Gray’s new film, which tackles the meteoric rise and enduring impact of N.W.A., also looks the part. That goes a long way in selling this story. Not all the way, but pretty close.

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Love & Mercy: The Atticus Ross Interview

atticus ross

This week sees the nationwide release of the Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy. As part of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, Seattle Screen Scene was lucky enough to sit down with the soundtrack’s composer, Atticus Ross, to talk about the Beach Boys and his own meticulousness in the studio.

Below is an edited version of the twenty minute interview. To hear the complete segment, tune your dial over to Episode 61 of The George Sanders Show podcast.  Continue reading Love & Mercy: The Atticus Ross Interview”

SIFF 2015: Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll (John Pirozzi, 2014)

This is part of our coverage of the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival.

Unknown Cambodian soldier

Fans of Seattle’s essential record label Sublime Frequencies may already be familiar with the sound of Cambodia’s music scene from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The country’s music during that time was often a unique blend of Western-style rock and traditional Eastern singing styles. Sublime Frequencies gets a shout out in the credits of John Pirozzi’s documentary Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock & Roll, which tracks the country’s wild regime changes over those years and the concurrent development of their music.

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