Reviews

'Waiting for ‘Superman’': Lack of Accountability

The young students' stories are surely Waiting for ‘Superman’'s most effective strategy, but it's hard not to wonder at how they are being used in such a slick enterprise.


Waiting for 'Superman'

Director: Davis Guggenheim
Cast: Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Bill Strickland, David Levin and Mike Feinberg
Rated: NR
Studio: Paramount Vantage
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-09-24 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-10-15 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"At first I was like, having difficulties in school," says Anthony, a fifth grader living in Washington DC with his grandmother. "That's because I wasn't coming home and studying. And that's when I started to study and I started to pass. I stayed back one grade, and that was in second grade." Davis Guggenheim, sitting with the boy in his bedroom, asks why. "'Cause my father had passed," Anthony says. "He just died. He took drugs."

Anthony stops smiling here, his braces no longer visible as he catches his breath and looks away. He gulps and tries very, very hard to hold back tears, pretty successfully. He's a strong, focused, self-aware kid. But still, this early interview in Waiting for ‘Superman’ underlines, Anthony is a kid. When everything else went upside down his life, school was "hard." And even now, as he's finding ways to study and survive, school is still hard, for reasons that have nothing to do with him or his family, and everything to do with how school works in the United States.

Guggenheim's documentary makes an impassioned case, against a system that no one would defend. As he puts it early in the film, his decision to enroll his students in a private school has left him feeling "uneasy," as if he's betrayed "the ideals I thought I lived by. "I'm lucky," he adds, as the camera shows his view of the three public schools he passes on the way to his kids' school. "I have a choice. Other families pin their hopes to a bouncing ball, a hand pulling a card from a box, or a computer that generates numbers in a random sequence. Because when there's a great public school, there aren't enough spaces." Close-ups of lottery balls reinforce the idea: the futures of public school students are left "in the hands of luck."

Waiting for ‘Superman’ doesn’t make points that are especially new. It does, however, make them in a brightly colored, sharply edited, smartly packaged way. Like Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, this movie means to make a difference. To that end, it focuses its argument through the stories of five families from across the U.S. All the kids have ideas about what they want. "I want to have a lot of choices, I want to be a nurse, I want to be a doctor, and I want to be a veterinarian, says Daisy, a fifth grader in Los Angeles who's already picked out the college she wants to attend. "My dad's struggling," she says, looking for a job. Daisy's sense of her future is based, she says, on her current interests. "I just love animals," she says, "And I would like to help somebody in need." Guggenheim wonders where she got such an idea. "I read books in the library," she asserts. Adults also say they want to help people: a montage of recent presidents, from LBJ to Reagan to Clinton to the Bushes indicates how often the call has been sounded for education reform. That nothing has changed over decades -- except perhaps that public schools are doing their jobs more poorly than ever -- is testament to the profoundly disturbing lack of will behind such pronouncements.

Geoffrey Canada, an educator in Harlem, who also testified in Madeline Sackler's documentary, The Lottery, provides a series of intelligent, even pithy observations regarding the entrenched, failing "system." When he graduated from Harvard with a Master's Degree in Education in 1974, he recounts, he was determined not only to be a teacher but also to change the culture of schools in the U.S. When he found system-wide change to be impossible -- and he's well versed in the manifold and overlapping reasons for this, from politics and poverty to racism and corruption to teachers' unions and parents' attitudes -- he instead decided to forge a small model of success. And indeed, his Harlem Children's Zone in 2009 inspired Barack Obama to commit to 20 similar schools across the country, under a program called Promise Neighborhoods.

"Kids look at the world and they make certain predictions based on the evidence they are receiving from their peers, their parents, and their educators," says Canada. "From their perspective, the world is a heartless, cold-blooded place because they realize they've been given the short end of the stick and they don't know why." As he speaks for kids, and encourages adults to behave responsibly, Canada is plainly frustrated.

The film's analysis is uneven, sometimes hard-hitting (Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, has complained about its attack on unions) and other times simple (it's easy to pick on No Child Left Behind, which this film does with clips of George W. Bush's mis-articulations and animated maps showing how NCLB has fallen short of all sorts of proficiency goals). It's sometimes celebratory (Michelle Rhee's attempt to fight the DC school system and especially, the lack of "accountability" in it, the ensuing ruckus, and the eventual falling short) and sometimes heartrending (the kids [and parents] who hope against hope to be selected in their lotteries appear in a lengthy series of close-ups at film's end, waiting to hear their fates). Taking a cue from the parents and educators in search of measurable goals, Waiting for 'Superman also points repeatedly to college as the answer, or an answer, which leaves out the problems students find there, whether they arrive unprepared (the film does note the egregious numbers of college students who need remediation), have other troubles adjusting, or leave with nowhere to go.

The young students' stories are surely Waiting for ‘Superman’'s most effective strategy, but it's hard not to wonder at how they are being used in such a slick enterprise (see also, Oprah's effort to publicize their plight, without making quite clear enough how it is your plight as well). It's the kids who matter, the kids who need something more secure than luck to find their futures. And it's the kids who suffer from the "complicated" inefficiency and inequality of public schools.

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The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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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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