Jamie Cullum: Twentysomething

Tim O'Neil

Jamie Cullum


Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2004-05-11
UK Release Date: 2003-10-20

Maybe I should pay more attention. I initially thought that this Jamie Cullum fellow was a decent enough musician, if a rather blatant attempt to horn in on the unbelievable market success of various neo-classical jazz successes as Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Josh Groban. The cover alone is pretty silly: Cullum is leaping into the air like a Warped tour refugee (sans skateboard, of course), with an imposing grand piano in the foreground. In the annals of marketing, it's a classic image meant to communicate a classic sentiment: a young punk singing old standards in a hip, edgy fashion. Ka-ching.

But, as I said before, perhaps I need to pay more attention. Fact is, Cullum isn't a homegrown attempt to horn in on the previously mentioned domestic success of pop-crossover artists like Jones, Krall and Groban. Cullum is actually an authentic British phenomenon whose debut album, 2002's Pointless Nostalgic (released stateside in 2003) was enough of a breakthrough to inspire a million-pound bidding war. In the UK, Twentysomething has already gone double-platinum. So, if we've learned anything, it's that all of my cynical assumptions about Cullum's career are going to rebound on me in a heap of bad karma. I realize this.

If Cullum isn't quite the "Sinatra in Sneakers" heralded by the British music press, that's hardly worth worrying about. That's a heady tag to lay on anyone, let alone a kid who, by his own admission, is barely two-and-a-half decades on this planet. Cullum's voice isn't as good as he probably thinks it to be, but he's got time. A good jazz voice, just like a fine wine or a dope MC, only improves with age.

More important than his voice, however, are his undeniable strengths as a songwriter. We seem to be in the midst of a bumper crop of impossibly precocious young songwriters at the present moment, from The Streets' Mike Skinner to Cullum's own evil twin, Nellie McKay. Amazingly, Cullum's original material manages to hold its own next to well-worn standards by composers as wide and varied as Lerner & Loewe ("I Could Have Danced All Night") and Jeff Buckley ("Lover, You Should Have Come Over"). Cullum's three solo compositions manage to stick in your brain for longer and with more tenacity even than his token Cole Porter cover ("I Get A Kick Out Of You"), and Porter was definitely someone who knew a thing or two about writing catchy melody lines.

Cullum's piano playing is spry and jaunty, a perfect match for the straightforward and muscular arrangements by Geoff Gascoyne and Cullum himself. If there's nothing terribly surprising in the arrangements, that's hardly a cardinal sin considering the sedate nature of most vocal jazz these days.

"Twentysomething" is bop tribute to Porter's signature wordplay, and a seemingly effortless evocation of mid-'20s ennui. "All at Sea" is the kind of cascading, melancholy pop song that will be itself covered many years from now by succeeding generations of ambitious punks intent on making their bones. "Next Year, Baby" is your typical slow burning ballad, right up until the moment is erupts into an irresistible Latin samba number. It's one of the musical moments I'll most remember from this entire year, ballsy and unpredictable and just burning with talent.

I can almost forgive him for covering "Singing in the Rain" on account of his deliciously melodic cover of the Neptunes' "Frontin'" (added as a bonus track to the American edition). The only real missteps are, surprisingly, his covers of tracks from the Jimi Hendrix and Radiohead songbooks. I say missteps not on account of any failure on Cullum's part, but merely because "The Wind Cries Mary" and "High and Dry" (respectively) are hardly the best specimens from either artists' voluminous catalogs. But all things considered, that's a fairly minor quibble.

If you can get past the heinous cover photo they've given the American edition, "Twentysomething" is an absolutely wonderful album from a fast-rising talent who does not seem even to have reached his stride yet. I expect that as he grows away from his laudable influences and into his own songwriting voice, he shall truly become a force with which to be reckoned.

(As a brief note, I should mention that the UK and US editions of this disc are totally different. The British edition has a few tracks which were not included on the American edition and the American edition includes a few tracks from Cullum's debut, Pointless Nostalgic. I don't know why they do things this way but it makes life endlessly difficult. Caveat emptor, and all that.)

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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