Humor in Sadness, Beauty in Wretchednes, 'Life is Sweet'

Laughter can be a weapon, or maybe an armor against sorrow. It might not always come as naturally as we think.

Life is Sweet

Director: Mike Leigh
Cast: Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Spall, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks, David Thewlis, Moya Brady and Stephen Rea
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-05-28
“Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.”

-- Ecclesiastes 7:3.

“Fake it till you make it.”

-- Alcoholics Anonymous

There's something uniquely maudlin about a palette of washed out pastels. In a poetic mood, I might say that this soft color scheme echoes the humor that seems to keep impoverished British folks going. Humor in sadness, beauty in wretchedness; these are the poles of Life is Sweet . Laughter can be a weapon, or maybe an armor against sorrow. It might not always come as naturally as we think.

Color in this film has been wrung to the point of being dessicated. It's as if the atmosphere were anorexic, leaving only the faintest trace of life. And yet, what remains dances brilliantly along the endless horizon of a bleak world of penury and sadness. Made with care and precision, the film brings out the latent possibility in a minimalistic style.

A worn out family tries to hold it together, beaming and bawling through days spent at torturous jobs, or unemployed in the garden. Dreams of better lives have become trite after years of disappointment. They try to put on good faces despite their seemingly ineluctable failure.

The mum Wendy (Alison Steadman) is the core, the center that holds. She bears the greatest burden. Laughter falls from her pretty, wizened face, at times enchanting and at others tinged with scorn. It's clear that her rather anti-social daughters resent her charm. The dad Andy (Jim Broadbent) is a simple man, easily influenced and perhaps a bit of a lush. They live with their two, striking twin daughters Nicola and Natalie. The girls are in their early 20s but don’t look older than 15, making Nicola’s kinky sex scenes a bit jarring.

Natalie is bookish and respectful. One could easily mistake her for a boy and she works as a plumber. She overcompensates for her sister’s boorish acting out by doting on everyone else in the family. A child choosing to bear the burden of the most emotionally mature in a family is generally not a sign of the well-adjusted. Her sister Natalie is a layabout. She postures, wearing anachronistic punky T-Shirts with phrases she can hardly be expected to understand like “Bollocks to the Poll Tax” (a reference to a mass tax implemented by Margaret Thatcher that Natalie has certainly never had to pay). Hands constantly twitching and head braying to avoid eye contact, Natalie is deeply insecure in her own skin.

Further, she is bulimic. She keeps a lock box full of candy bars and chips that she gorges on and immediately throws up into a plastic bag every night. At mealtimes she sits sullenly, smoking, calling her family members “fascists” or “capitalists”. Despite her vitriol, there is true comedy in the acting that saves the film from becoming dour.

One of the loveliest scenes in the film is a shot of Nicola fighting with her boyfriend. He is fed up, accuses her of being a fake and hiding behind all the books with man hating titles in her room without having ever read them. She claims this is preposterous and of course she has read them all. When asked what she learned, Nicola responds “I’m a feminist”. Innocence underscores the sadness of her aggressive tendencies.

Gastronomy looms over the entirety of the picture. Many of the shots take place in the family home; the camera peers through doorways into the cramped, homey dining room. A central plot device is Andy being conned into buying a food truck from his drunken friend. The truck becomes a mainstay set piece; an eternal reminder of the need to laugh at futility.

A satellite character Aubrey, a corpulent, comedic genius in a clownish hat and a San Francisco Giants Starter jacket opens a restaurant named “The Regret Rien” tres exclusive . This sly reference to Edith Piaf, like the French theme played throughout the film are stinging sendups of the provincial in Europe. Nicola’s sexual perversion of choice- having her beau eat chocolate off of her naked body until he is sick.

Life is Sweet is a wonderful film. It's existential and weird and uncomfortable, but the perfect comedic timing the actors lend to the script engulf you. Moreover, where a lesser director would feel complacent in the shallow end of art house posturing, Leigh takes up the gauntlet and in the final act allows the tension to boil over in a painful, cathartic confrontation between Wendy and Nicola. Yet he does not allow himself to veer into the sentimental. Nicola, in the finale asks her sister for some money for a pack of “fags”. It’s a trope that has been played throughout the film for laughs, and the last time it’s done it is both touching and hilarious.

Mike Leigh provides a thorough, even meticulous at times run down of the practical realities of shooting the film in an audio commentary. It's fascinating for filmmakers, but perhaps a bit nitpicky for the workaday film snob. He has also contributed a fine interview conducted at the National Film Theatre in London in 1991, shortly after the film’s release.

There are five short films directed by Leigh intended for his proposed television series: Five Short Films , which are lovely and unsettling although I have a hunch one might do well to seek out his other feature films before going to these. Finally, as per usual, the Criterion Collection has hired venerable critic David Sterritt to write a lovely piece espousing the virtues of the film. In the greatest critical tradition, Sterritt is able to enhance the pleasure to be found in the film rather than trying to dominate it with his own erudition.


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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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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