Reviews

The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean by Jack Dann

Nikki Tranter

What begins as an exciting premise, though, quickly dissolves into a bizarre mess of ill-conceived ideas and inconsistencies that twists the life of Hollywood biggest and most enduring icon into a preposterous joke.


The Rebel

Publisher: HarperCollins Australia
Length: 416
Subtitle: An Imagined Life of James Dean
Price: $24.95 (US)
Author: Jack Dann
US publication date: 2004-07
Amazon

Jack Dann's new book, The Rebel: An Imagined Life of James Dean, begins a matter of days before the actor's fatal car crash on that frosty September morning in 1955. Instead of mangling his Porsche and instantly creating legend, in Dann's alternate reality, Dean escapes serious harm because of an apparent second chance afforded him by the ghost of his dead mother. It's a chance, he believes, to live a better life and be a better man. What begins as an exciting premise, though, quickly dissolves into a bizarre mess of ill-conceived ideas and inconsistencies that twists the life of Hollywood biggest and most enduring icon into a preposterous joke. Apparently the answer to the big question of what would have happened had James Dean survived the crash is that he would have become a savvy film producer and a state governor, while having Paul Newman's film career and a lot of sex with Marilyn Monroe.

Dann's major failing here is that he chooses not to tell the story of James Dean the deeply flawed and complex Young Man, but rather James Dean the already created and well-established Legend. Much of Dann's rearranging of history relies on the reader having a good knowledge of Dean lore and the Hollywood of the 1950s. It means little otherwise for Dean's list of credits following his explosive turn in Rebel Without a Cause, to include Hud, The Hustler, The Left-Handed Gun, Sweet Bird of Youth and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or for the actor to relish his co-starring role with Elvis Presley and girlfriend Pier Angeli in The Manchurian Candidate. Then again, maybe Dann is relying on readers not knowing all that much Dean lore, which would help explain the lack of depth in his characterization of the actor.

What made James Dean who he was? What made him so unrelenting in artistic pursuits? To hear Dann tell it, Dean was a wannabe who made good, who lucked out with the success of Rebel. Truth is, Dean was a committed theater performer who struggled for years to perfect his acting style, thriving on the opportunities afforded him by directors like Nicholas Ray that allowed him to better himself and improve his craft. Dann's version of Dean never once sets foot on a film set. Instead, he skulks around Hollywood, grabbing the boobs of young starlets and sleeping with Marilyn whenever he gets the chance, while telling her he understands how poor and sad life is for the two of them.

None of these great actors Dann reinvents, come to think of it, ever do any acting. Dann is more interested in the behind-the-scenes gossip, speculating as to Bobby Kennedy's participation in Marilyn's death, as well as the brutish behavior of Monroe's partners Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio. Pretty much everyone on Dann's hit list is famous, and nary a single person flittering in and out of Dean's new life isn't a big name. It's this silly notion that famous people only ever hang around with famous people (or the wives and mothers of famous people) that calls Dann's credibility into question with his story, especially when scenes occur such as DiMaggio interrupting Dean and Monroe having a dinner date with Frank Sinatra by his side. DiMaggio and Dean go at it and Miss Monroe ends up in tears, but Frank says nothing, apparently there only for name recognition. Like Joe DiMaggio ever spied on Marilyn with a nobody!

As if the name-dropping wasn't bad enough, Dean not only hangs out with all these people, but he seems to consistently show up Forrest Gump-style at pivotal moments in their lives. He's there when Marilyn's dead body is wheeled from her house on a gurney; he's present at the shooting death of Pat Brown; he's visiting with Bobby and Ethel when they find out Ted Kennedy has been rushed to hospital. Dean's seemingly unassuming existence prior to his death fires up like a tornado, with him jet-setting to various political events and rallies, while managing his joint careers as an actor and a producer. He finds time, too, in the 13-year period in which Dann's book takes place, to head off on a mountain-climbing expedition with Bobby Kennedy ("You're on belay!" is a phrase I never though I'd read associated with James Dean), to mourn the deaths of his great loves Marilyn and Pier, to save the life an activist on Black Sunday, and marry a snotty journalist. He basically goes from lowly artiste to super hero -- his mum's message must have had some power. Incidentally, it's at Dean's wedding that Paul Newman apparently spends the occasion scowling at him -- one wonders why Newman feels any ill-will towards Dean at all, it's not like he could know all those parts were meant for him.

Ugh. It's all just too silly. Dann seems so obsessed with proving just how savvy a film and political historian he is that he forgets to actually give James Dean any heart. Dean is apparently obsessively in love with Marilyn and Pier yet he cheats on the both of them with each other and with other people, dragging behind him a string of lies. For some reason, too, everyone is Dann's story is overtly vulgar, dropping "fuck" and "cunt" into everyday conversation without reservation.

Here's a snippet of a conversation, for example, between Bobby Kennedy and James:

"You fucked Pier, didn't you, Bobby?" Jimmy said.

"What, You dumb, stupid bastard, of course I didn't."

"No, of course," Jimmy said sarcastically, "you would never fuck a friend's wife."

"Well, I didn't fuck your wife," Bobby said, his ragged breath visible in the cold air. "Pier used to call me just to talk,

that's all, and it was always about you."

"About me? Fuck you, Bobby."

And on and on. Dann leaves logic on the doorstep (James Dean as a governor using Be a Rebel With a Cause as his campaign slogan? Come on!), instead constructing his story around who fucked who, who wanted to fuck who and who should have fucked who among the glitter and glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age. Dean's bisexuality is glossed over, as is his penchant for self-mutilation. Dann's Dean is a ruthless moneymaker who constantly puts down his contemporaries (he hates Brando as well as Newman, and refers to Frank Sinatra as "Old Glass Jaw"), who spends his time making movie deals and lying to the women his says he loves. He's crude, callous and unforgiving, and never once shows signs of being a passionate young artist. Dann's Dean purports to wish to make a better life for himself following his crash, but instead does little else but structure his hate-fuelled life around his own narcissistic desires.

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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