Reviews

Stepping Out (and Stepping Back in Time) With a Few 'Modern Girls'

A flashy relic from the '80s, Modern Girls is full of unrelenting, heedless energy, moving from setpiece to setpiece like a demented Bob Fosse number performed along Sunset Strip.


Modern Girls

Director: Jerry Kramer
Cast: Cynthia Gibb, Daphne Zuniga, Virginia Madsen, Clayton Rohner
Distributor: Kino Lober
Rated: PG-13
US DVD release date: 2015-10-20

A Night on the Town

Unfairly panned upon its 1986 release, Modern Girls, a comedy caper in the vein of Desperately Seeking Susan, remains one the ‘80s most emblematic films of the vacuously hip LA nightlife. Much like Susan Seidelman’s 1985 screwball comedy, which would further project its star Madonna into the public consciousness of the mini mall generation, Modern Girls aims for the same punkishly contrived thrills, but without the complicated fuss of a murder-mystery subplot.

Three lady friends, who spend their lives working away dispassionately in dead-end jobs, make plans one Friday evening to hit the town clubbing. Hoping to worm their way into the city’s hottest and trendiest nightspots, Cece (Cynthia Gibb), Kelly (Virginia Madsen) and Margo (Daphne Zuniga) doll themselves up for an evening of their usual bar-hopping exploits.

But pretty soon, a few hitches undo their plans for a night out. It seems Kelly, who hasn’t yet arrived back at the apartment because she’s too busy chasing after a popular nightclub DJ, has forgotten all about her date for the evening, Clifford (Clayton Rohner). Clifford shows up at the girls’ apartment only to be told by Cece and Margo that Kelly simply forgot about her date that evening. Disappointed, Clifford hangs around the apartment while Cece and Margo get dressed for clubbing. As they're ready to leave, the girls invite the reluctant Clifford along, promising him that they will later meet up with Kelly so that she may finally fulfill her commitments with him for their date.

Clifford is the uniformly square nerd to the girls’ fun-tastic, hedonistic night-rovers and he glumly expresses his social inadequacies as he chauffeurs the girls around town. In a silly subplot which cribs Desperately Seeking Susan’s storyline ruse of mistaken identity, a famous rock star named Bruno X – who happens to be a dead ringer for Clifford – lands in LA that evening to film a video for his new single. There’s some rumour that Bruno X (also played by Rohner) will be hitting LA’s hottest nightclubs and Cece, who’s determined to bed the rock star, drags Margo and Clifford along in pursuit of her object of affection.

Trouble begins to brew when the gang later meets up with a half-drugged Kelly, who’s attracted some unwanted attention from a few unsavoury barflies, and when half the city mistakes nerdy Clifford for Bruno X, hounding his every move. The four hapless carousers spend the rest of the night on the run, bickering, dodging groupies and falling in love.

Modern Girls was never written to be high art; its flashy, new wave pop-art romance brings to the mid-‘80s a certain comic book aestheticism that plays for groans and laughs in only the most innocuous of ways. The problem with the film’s reception at the time of its release was that it was taken far more seriously than it really needed to be. There are indeed plot holes big enough to drive a Mack truck through, but the film’s charm lies in its unrelenting, heedless energy, moving from setpiece to setpiece like a demented Bob Fosse number performed along Sunset Strip.

Director Jerry Kramer (working from Laurie Craig’s script) saturates the film with the garishly neon-coloured lights of LA’s nightlife, resulting in a feature which sort of operates as a high-budgeted music video for the ‘80s MTV market. This is no bad thing; Modern Girls is so hyped up on its own absurdity and so shamelessly immersed in MTV pop culture that your only choice is to go along for the ride.

Actors Madsen, Gibb and Zuniga each work to give their respective characters a separate and distinguishable identity while playing to the common stereotypes of LA women that littered the town during the ‘80s: the lustful Monroe-wannabe, the punky upstart and the brainy, elegant pseudo-goth. Rohner makes a good likable nerd, a grounding moral pivot who knows when to help out and when to shut-up and stay out of the way.

You have to hand it to Kino Lorber for retrieving this lost gem. Razed by critics during its initial release, Modern Girls was consigned to languish in the vaults of obscurity, its only crime being one of joyful self-indulgence. If you weren’t convinced the first time around you saw it (if indeed there was a first time), Kino’s spectacular transfer may help you realize how integral the setpieces and location scenery are to the film. Much the way Desperately Seeking Susan was a commercial-pop tour through New York’s Greenwich Village, Modern Girls is the LA equivalent; bold fluorescent colours pop like comic book art, making Sunset Boulevard seem more like a birthday party and less like the seedy danger-magnet it can sometimes be.

Despite some occasional softness, Kino’s transfer captures beautifully the colour and lighting contrasts to deliver a picture crisp, clear and evenly toned. It’s a remarkable improvement over Warner Archives’ DVD release of a few years back.

Sound, music and dialogue come through clearly. This is another great improvement over the DVD release as the DVD had some issues with sound clarity. Since Modern Girls’ soundtrack features a who’s who of ‘80s new wave music blaring out of every club and car stereo in the film (including Depeche Mode’s pop-euphoria “But Not Tonight”), audio is of crucial importance. Sound levels are nicely balanced and there's no distortion. Included on the disc are optional English subtitles.

Extras on the Blu-ray release include an interview with actor Clayton Rohner discussing the making of the film. It’s a little disappointing that the other actors couldn’t get on board to contribute; in particular, Zuniga, who would become a staple of television in the years following, must have an interesting perspective on a decade in which many studios tried to break her as a leading woman, Modern Girls being one project in such a case.

No other supplements, lamentably, are featured on the release. The Blu-ray artwork must be mentioned, however, as Kino Lorber wisely decided to stick with the film’s original film poster art, fetchingly styled like a frame from a comic book. If the premise of the film alone isn’t enough to push units, a nifty packaging like that just might.

Modern Girls came and went in 1986 with nary a stir. Having been rescued from the purgatory of film studio vaults, it can be appreciated today for what it was always intended to be: a silly, glitzy romp through an elongated music video. The film was torn to shreds by Roger Ebert, who called it “a movie without a brain in its head.” But in hindsight, even a normally astute observer of film like Ebert seems to have missed the point: Modern Girls is flashy, sugary, empty-caloried fun -- it’s got all the nutritional value of a Hostess cupcake but it tastes too good to turn down.

8

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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