Reviews

By the People: The Election of Barack Obama

Imagine a documentary about JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign that skipped his stump speeches and ignored the Nixon debates.


By the People: The Election of Barack Obama

Director: Amy Rice and Alicia Sams
Cast: Barack Obama, David Axelrod, David Plouffe, Michelle Obama
Distributor: HBO
Rated: Not Rated
Year: 2010
Release date: 2010-01-12

The most remarkable thing about By the People: The Election of Barack Obama is the candidate himself. Obama came out of nowhere in the summer of 2004 to deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Within a few months he would win a US Senate seat. When he addressed the convention four years later, he was the party’s nominee. Then he won the presidency. How did this happen?

The trajectory of Obama’s meteoric rise to power would make for a great documentary—unfortunately By the People isn’t it. In order to make sense of this film, one needs to understand its subject. Obama is a detached liberal intellectual with a self-deprecating sense of humor, very much in the mold of JFK. On the campaign trail he’s chatty and disarming, more like Bill Clinton. It’s Obama’s ability to deliver a thundering speech, his voice rising and falling with the cadence and power of Martin Luther King, however, that sets him apart from other candidates.

Obama’s oratorical gifts should provide the dramatic strength of By the People, yet there’s precious little footage of Obama’s rousing stump speeches. Instead, the story is told from the point-of-view of Obama’s army of volunteers, as the filmmakers visit campaign offices in several battleground states.

This point of view has some value, but it cripples the film at signature moments. Obama’s stunning win in the Iowa primary was capped by his electrifying victory speech. Yet this dramatic moment gets only a few seconds in the documentary. The directors (Amy Rice and Alicia Sams) are more interested in the reactions of Obama’s ground troops at Iowa’s campaign headquarters.

One scene features a poised nine-year-old working on the Obama phone banks as he makes a cold-call to a voter: “Hi Barbara, I’m Lorenzo. I’m nine-years-old and a volunteer for the Obama campaign. How are you? Who’s Diana? Not Diana, Obama. Barack Obama is running for President... of the United States of America (at this point Lorenzo slaps his forehead and rolls his eyes). OK, hope you have a wonderful day.”

Back on the campaign trail, the fallout over Reverend Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon has wounded the candidate. Obama seizes the moment to address the larger issue of race relations in America. Obama’s ‘Race Speech’, another pivotal campaign moment, is discussed on film by campaign strategists but barely shown. As we glimpse the campaign through this narrow point of view, nothing comes alive and everything seems secondhand.

For Americans who didn’t follow the 2008 campaign, or for foreign viewers looking for a summary of an historical American election, By the People will be a frustrating viewing experience. Imagine a documentary about JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign that skipped his stump speeches and ignored the Nixon debates.

I witnessed Obama on the campaign trail first-hand in Springfield, Missouri the weekend before the election. He spoke at a high school football stadium that seated 5,000 people and 40,000 people showed up. When the bleachers were full, the crowd spilled out onto the field. Obama’s speech that night resonated with power as he boldly offered a different vision of America. The film shows a clip of Obama on the stump on that final weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, right after the death of his grandmother. With tears streaming down his cheeks, Obama renders this moment:

This is a bittersweet time for me… my grandmother passed away this morning… she’s gone home. Her name was Madelyn Dunham, and she was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America. They’re not famous, their names aren’t in the newspapers, but each and every day they work hard, look after their families, and sacrifice for their children and grandchildren. In this crowd… there are a lot of quiet heroes. That’s what America is about, and that’s what we’re fighting for.

One wonders why there aren’t more moments like this in the documentary. Another memorable scene is on election night, minutes after Obama wins the presidency. Obama’s top aides, David Axelrod and David Plouffe step out of a hotel elevator, both men are clearly exhausted. As these two middle-aged white guys walk through the lobby, the hotel staff, all of them black, break into wild applause and cheers. It’s a spontaneous moment of genuine goodwill and it epitomizes Obama’s campaign: an old wound has been partially healed -- the horrible rift between whites and blacks in America has closed just a bit, and it’s a wonderful moment.

Yet as I write this, the right-wing backlash has already begun. Obama Nation is turning into Tea Party Nation, fueled by white rage. Recent right-wing disasters like Iraq and Katrina are already forgotten. As Gore Vidal once said, “We live in the United States of Amnesia”. It remains to be seen whether By the People becomes an artifact from a false spring in America, when it seemed that the election of the first black president represented a new beginning in American politics.

The DVD’s extras include several deleted scenes that would have improved the film, including an excerpt of Obama’s nomination speech as well as his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park.

5

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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