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Monday, Nov 12, 2007

1965 was a transitional year for international icons The Beatles. It would see the release of their artistic “breakthrough” album, the pot-inspired mostly acoustic gem Rubber Soul. It marked their turn from pop music phenoms into actual artists, dispensing with the cover songs and collective cutesy routine that made up the majority of their marketability. In its place was a growing sense of self, a realization that the mania began on their little British Isle was spreading, unabated, across every aspect of popular culture. And it was the year they reluctantly starred in their second feature film, Help!   Hoping to capitalize on the success of A Hard Day’s Night, director Richard Lester kept the eccentric English humor intact. Gone, however, was the carefree innocence that seemed to spark their first foray into film. In its place was a workmanship and ethic that, while winning, provided portents of careering things to come.


After receiving a ring from an adoring fan, Beatles drummer Ringo finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with the notorious Kaili worshipping cult. Seems the piece of jewelry is one of their sacred ornaments, and whoever wears it will end up a human sacrifice to their god. Trying to avoid the murderous motives of High Priest Clang and his henchman, the boys seek help from a jeweler, the employees of an Indian Restaurant, and a crazed scientist named Foot and his bumbling assistant Algernon. Unfortunately, the only person able to help is fellow cult member Ahme. She seems sweet on Paul, and wants to return the ring to its rightful owner. With the help of Scotland Yard, the band records under heavy military guard, travels to Switzerland to avoid the thugs, and winds up confronting the perplexingly persistent fanatics on the shores of the Bahamas.


It’s a shame that Help! is constantly saddled with the “second best Beatles film” moniker. When compared to the rest of their output—the maddening Magical Mystery Tour, the next to no involvement in the decent Yellow Submarine, the dark and bitter aura of Let It Be - it’s faint praise indeed. Certainly A Hard Day’s Night set a cinematic bar so high that not even the most important band in the history of modern music could compete with it, and compared to other rock and roll film showcases of the time, it’s an unbridled masterwork. But for some reason, when placed along an equally fictional version of a ‘day in their life’, The Beatles’ East Indian romp gets some substantial short shrift. Frankly, it doesn’t deserve it. Fault it all you want for being a refashioned farce (the script was originally meant for someone else) or a marijuana soaked semi-spectacle, but the film contains some of the best onscreen work the band ever accomplished. It also features some of their most astounding songs of the pre-psychedelia/Sgt. Pepper period.


Help! is actually a hard movie to hate. The Beatles may be a tad dispirited here, less hyper and more humbled by what was rapidly becoming a cultural cocoon trapping them within their own fame (the next year—1966—would mark their decision to stop touring and concentrate on writing and recording only), but they make a perfect proto-punk Marx Brothers. While Ringo is the supposed star, perhaps because of the glowing notices he received from Night, it’s actually the entire foursome that truly shines. The reconfigured screenplay gives every member a standout sequence, from Paul’s amazing adventure ‘on the floor’ to John’s constant taunting of every authority figure in the film. The main narrative still centers on the emblematic drummer with the tendency toward ostentaceous jewelry and a large neb, but the other three turn in delightfully deadpan performances as well. It helps sell the rather clumsy, crackpot concept.


Equally endearing is the superb supporting cast. Made up of many then UK luminaries, Leo McKern and Eleanor Brom are excellent as opposing sides of the killer cult. Handling the pigeon English elements of his role with class and creativity, the future Rumpole of the Bailey never registers a single false note. Brom, on the other hand, is a strange choice for a romantic lead. Dark, imposing and very focused, she is a million miles from the hippy dippy flower children that were coming to mark the midpoint of the ‘60s. Returning to the Beatles camp for a second cinematic go round, Victor Spinetti is the perfect nonsense spewing mad scientist. Along with soon to be inseparable sidekick Roy Kinnear (the two became synonymous because of their brilliant chemistry here) they literally light up the screen. The sequence where they put Ringo into a metal expanding machine is a classic of screwball science shtick. In fact, there is a wonderful balance between physical and intellectual comedy here, something that definitely differentiates Help! from Night’s more normative approach.


And then there’s the music. While different entities love to claim the title of “Originator of the Music Video”, the Beatles will always remain the format’s grandest champions. Unlike Night, which used a performance based paradigm almost exclusively to showcase the songs, Help! creates little mini musical montages that form the foundation for everything MTV would do two decades later. While the title track purposely recalls the previous film, the next number, the fabulous pop tone “You’re Gonna Lose That Girl” sets the new standard for such presentations. Playing in a dimly lit studio, their silhouettes barely visible through the fog of cigarette (?) smoke, the boys bang out one of Lennon’s best, a catchy little number with a tantalizingly tough lyrical line. Indeed, most of the songs in Help! would avoid the June/Moon/Spoon musings of their Tin Pan Alley take on rock and roll to enter into realms that are dark, confrontational, and dismissive.



With titles like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (a nice nod to new buddy Bob Dylan), “The Night Before” and “Another Girl”, The Beatles were proving that they’d matured, and indeed, one of the main reasons some fans don’t like this glorified goofball lark is that it posits grown men, ready to explore the mysteries both inside and outside their insular world as juvenile jokesters. Many of the gags are aimed at the lowest levels of wit, and even some of the smarter material is offset by a clear cut cartoonish ideal. Still, there are incredibly clever moments (the opening sequence where we see the boys’ fictional living quarters, the police inspector’s spot-on Ringo impression) when the group’s inherent intelligence shines through. In fact, aside from the standard action film finish which finds the gang involved in car chases and foot races, the verbal humor is on par with anything Night had to offer.


As part of the long awaited DVD presentation from Capital Records and Apple Corps, we learn about the difficulty director Richard Lester had in coming up with another Beatles project. Popularity was demanding the boys’ return to the big screen, but since another mock documentary about their career was out of the question, something slightly more surreal had to be created. On the second disc of added content (sadly, sans current input of the remaining band members) we hear stories about the infamous amount of ganja on set, the description of a disastrous sequence that didn’t make the final cut, and confirm what many at the time were already quite aware of—the Beatles were chaffing at their continued closed-off existence. It was almost impossible for them to travel anywhere—even on set—without crowds of screaming fans isolating them. It’s clear that what seemed exciting in A Hard Day’s Night was becoming more and more unbearable by Help!


This is perhaps why the film feels strained to some. The madcap mop tops who captured everyone’s hearts a year before had become slightly dampened slaves to their incalculable success. The notion that they were now international trend setters, mocked and mimicked by every group looking to ride the cresting British Invasion must have manifested itself in ways that, subconsciously, snuck onto the celluloid. It is clear that the fun loving blokes we see cascading down the Alps to the glorious sounds of John Lennon’s classic “Ticket To Ride” would soon become introspective—and independent—parts of an unique whole. They would go on to make albums that transcended the medium, offering timeless examples of composition as art. But Help! remains a wonderful testament to a time when being a Beatle was still satisfying—at least, on the cinematic surface.   



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Monday, Nov 12, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
backpack-picnic

Every Tuesday PopMatters will be offering an exclusive early look at a new episode of Backpack Picnic, an online sketch comedy show from ON Networks.


This week: This family rocks! Or rather, this family IS rocks… In a drastic departure from previous episodes, Backpack Picnic takes us to the very center of the Earth. Surely the most harrowing and bewildering adventure yet.



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Monday, Nov 12, 2007

Here, for what its worth, is a Slate article by a researcher who investigated whether the practices of speed daters confirms certain gender stereotypes with regard to dating in general:


With the obvious qualification that we’re talking here about a four-minute version of love and dating, we found that men did put significantly more weight on their assessment of a partner’s beauty, when choosing, than women did…. By contrast, intelligence ratings were more than twice as important in predicting women’s choices as men’s. It isn’t exactly that smarts were a complete turnoff for men: They preferred women whom they rated as smarter—but only up to a point…. The same held true for measures of career ambition—a woman could be ambitious, just not more ambitious than the man considering her for a date.
When women were the ones choosing, the more intelligence and ambition the men had, the better. So, yes, the stereotypes appear to be true: We males are a gender of fragile egos in search of a pretty face and are threatened by brains or success that exceeds our own. Women, on the other hand, care more about how men think and perform, and they don’t mind being outdone on those scores.


But the obvious qualification mentioned—that we are talking about the snap judgments of people willing to be speed daters—would seem to go a long way toward making these findings sort of meaningless. How much insight can one really get into a conversation partner’s intelligence and ambition in four minutes in a bar? You could spend several months actually dating someone and not establish an accurate assessment. And any situations where snap judgments are required are going to intensify the significance of appearances—not merely beauty (which was in this experiment apparently adjudicated by research associates following their own whim) but also the outward signifiers that connote intelligence or ambition or whatever. And this among a populace that is especially attuned to such things, to reading situations immediately rather than allowing for interpersonal nuances to play themselves out and tell their own idiosyncratic story. So of course these rapidly told tales will tell the story that’s readily available as a shared cultural narrative, using gender stereotypes. It seems as though the caveat makes this research into something that merely serves a dubious and ideologically-striated entertainment function, that of reminding would-be daters of the games they are expected to play to help perpetuate the existing regime of gender relations.


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Monday, Nov 12, 2007
by PopMatters Staff

Taj Mahal singing the Cab Calloway classic “Reefer Man” with a Latin twist. From the new Ropeadope release, The Harlem Experiment. A YouTube Video of the Day.


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Monday, Nov 12, 2007
PopMatters Picks of the best of M for Montreal
WE ARE WOLVES MySpace
CREATURE MySpace
CHOCOLAT MySpace

Check out Day One


Day two of M for Montreal began with something a little bit unusual for a music festival: a round of “speed schmoozing” at a martini lounge with booking agents, talent managers, festival people, and anyone brave enough to jump into the shark-infested waters of timed small-talk.


Not really the most fun activity with someone who has more than a touch of Social Anxiety Disorder, but I thought it could at least provide a funny story. Mostly it was funny because, even though I do love music and listen to a lot of different things, at a music festival such as this, there will always be someone who will ask you if you know about the most current “It” band. Of course, being mainly a film person, I know nothing about any “It” bands, but after my hour plus of schmoozing, I was properly schooled in who was who in Montreal.


Watching the delegates interact was actually the best thing about the nerve-wracking exercise. It was a fuzzy reminder that music can really defy boundaries. New Zealand, Austria, Germany, Norway, Finland, the UK, and more were represented at the festival by delegates ranging from press to promoters to label owners. The importance of forging relationships with markets that might have heretofore been unnoticed was stressed and there was a genuine feeling of interests being piqued while the international crowd mingled.


It is a nice change to catch something elusive to the American music scene: bands that sing in another language. In this case, French. This is the true “hard sell” of M’s export-ready crop of artists. While the bands of the festival will sound awesome for those who appreciate good craftsmanship, it is probably going to be a detractor for the American record-buying public.


At the same venue as the previous evening’s showcase (Cabaret Just for Laughs), another eight acts readied to take to the tightly-organized stages. 16 bands in two days, each playing for 30 minutes, on two stages, with no overlap, and no snags. Sounds impossible? Not so for co-founder and artistic director Sebastien Nasra, who took to the stage after each act (often times with an omni-present mega-phone) to successfully direct the throng of listeners to scurry away in time to catch the next band. Sometimes there was even time to choke down a quick cigarette in between. Yes, I am talking to you, time-efficient British Delegates.


KRIEF [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

KRIEF [Photo: Marie Tremblay]


Night two, musically, didn’t leave as favorable an impression as the electric opening night. Perhaps jet-lag was settling in on the audience. Krief, an unremarkable blues-inflected act devoid of style and originality (and with bad lyrics) had the unenviable task of kicking off the night. While the guys have obvious heart, there was just a fundamental connection missing between them and their audience. There was a lack of cohesion in their playing and especially in the lead singer’s vocals—which need to be worked on before showcasing like this again. As a unit, the band pulled it together by the end of their set, triumphantly.


SHAPES AND SIZES [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

SHAPES AND SIZES [Photo: Marie Tremblay]


When the 2nd band, Shapes and Sizes, came out (God bless their youthful exuberance), their downright awful sound made Krief look like The Beatles.


Featuring the first female front-woman of the fest, albeit one that had a piercing, off-key howl that should never, ever be used in public again, the band seemed oddly uncharismatic and lacking energy. Their sound, at best, was incoherent. They skirted some sort of pseudo-hippie/folksy/raga sound that did not translate in their live show at all. It was an incomprehensible set.


The white-boy-reggae percussion section sounded poor and contrived, while the singer’s vocal desperately aimed for “quirky” but ended up just sounding so foolish. It was a classic case of a bunch of young white kids with stupid faux-Jamaican inflections missing any soul or character that are engrained in that musical genre’s roots. Shapes and Sizes was a train wreck that sent everyone running to the door to smoke. Oddly enough, they were one of the most touted bands of the night, signed to Asthmatic Kitty records.


ELSIANE [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

ELSIANE [Photo: Marie Tremblay]


HOT SPRINGS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

HOT SPRINGS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]


Thankfully, there were a couple of other female front women that, to varying degrees, erased Shapes and Sizes from everyone’s memories: Hot Springs’ charismatic leading lady Giselle Webber had her swagger down with a rollicking, yet somehow generic set of poppy rock ‘n’ roll. Elsiane was a bizarre solo female act steeped in mismatched tones of Portishead and other assorted trip-hop who is basically regurgitating what Bjork did about 15 years ago, only not as capably; although in her defense people seemed to really be buzzing about her work. It was actually quite brave of festival programmers to give her a spot on the mainly-rock stages, sandwiched in between all of the testosterone and the guitar squalls.


CREATURE [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

CREATURE [Photo: Marie Tremblay]


THUNDERHEIST [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

THUNDERHEIST [Photo: Marie Tremblay]


Creature‘s Anastasia and Lisa provided the liveliest female presence at the M festival, kicking it with an old school knack that would make Kate and Cindy of the B-52’s smile with approval. Strutting around in majorette boots and taking the audience directly to Funkytown via the express train, Creature was one of the most engaging, fun performances of the two days.


Kim’s swirling falsetto combined with the harmonies and rhymes from the girls invoked everything from Blondie to the Rapture, and while the cowbell is played out more than any other instrument, they managed to rock it. Creature was the only band of the entire fest that looked as though they were actually having fun. With their infectious dance grooves and questions like the age old “would you get high with Brigitte Bardot?”, the band is looking forward to a proper full-length release coming out sometime early next year.


More fun and rhymes closed the night courtesy of Thunderheist‘s Isis, who doled out shots of liquor to the crowd from a giant bottle—a smart strategy to get an audience on your side. At that point, you might as well get wasted, right? Isis provided a nice counter-point of musical diversity and in honesty was a really good emcee but kind of a bad live singer. Her verses celebrated drinking and drugs, and were sort of silly, but still really fun.


WE ARE WOLVES [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

WE ARE WOLVES [Photo: Marie Tremblay]


The biggest news of night two had to be when, deservedly, We Are Wolves won M for Montreal’s Galaxie Prize. Voted on by International Delegates and funded by the Continuous Music Network of the CBC, the winners received $5,000 in tour support, and also were ensured exposure with the guaranteed booking of a one week tour in Europe (in the UK and France). We Are Wolves, as part of this winning package, will also be given a spot onstage at Brighton’s The Great Escape Festival.


From the Arcade Fire to The Besnard Lakes, and now to We Are Wolves, Montreal is a hotbed of musical life, bubbling over with a vibrancy sorely lacking in other hipster music scenes. There is an elegant quality to the varied music coming from this haven, a unique perspective that is thankfully being validated by the Canadian government and being given its due by discriminating audiences the world over.


M for Montreal is the mediator of a cutting-edge experiment and a somewhat unholy marriage between the state and rock and roll. While this sounds absolutely preposterous in theory, that music should be joined in any way with government, it is a beautiful, interesting marriage that manages to work. I left Montreal feeling definitely more educated about the evolution of their musical landscape. It is thrilling to experience first-hand.


Check out Day One


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