Friday, September 18, 2009

Wasted Postage: Reports from the Netflix Theater: Wattstax, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, X-Men Origins

Wattstax (1973)
Seven years after the Watts riots burned blocks of Los Angeles, a documentary film crew set out to record the annual festival that sought to bring the neighborhood together for an afternoon of healing through music and comedy. The film serves as an artifact, preserving what it was like to be black in America in the 1970s for the rest of us. It's a fantastic document of the slang, fashion, music and personality that converged at the LA Coliseum for a day of music, performed by Stax Records' roster. An aging Rufus Thomas (the prince of dance) slays in a hilarious pink get-up, asking the crowd "Don't I Look Cleaaaaaan?" The Bar-Kays nearly funk themselves to death (honestly, they create unearthly, unhealthy amounts of funk.) And Black Moses, Mr. Isaac Hayes himself, closes the night with an iconic performance. The film is cut to edit back and forth between the music, and interviews with normal folks in barber shops and street corners, allowing them to riff on relationships, racial dynamics and whatever else. This occasionally slides into seemingly pre-determined opinions and almost stereotypical or manufactured dialogue, but mostly it seams to ring true. In perhaps the biggest highlight, Richard Prior absolutely kills during snippets of him improvising at a bar (and he name drops Peoria, woot.) For fans of the Memphis soul label Stax Records, I would have liked to see more of the full performances, and it's a shame that the label was more into it's funk phase than the earlier, classic soul sounds of Otis Redding (who was dead years before this documentary) and Sam and Dave. B+

I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco (2002)
I avoided seeing this for seven years, out of fear that its viewing would cause me to dislike members of a favorite band, plus I'm generally not interested in any Some-Kind-of-Monster-ish therapy moments. But, I am interested in the creative process and how a combination of certain personalities lead to the creation of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," one of the decade's greatest rock 'n' roll achievements. The film is famous for chronicling two things that occurred during the making of YHF: the dissolution of friendship between lead singer/band leader Jeff Tweedy and multi-instrumentalist/annoying genius Jay Bennett, and the band's fight against their label (Reprise) who refused to release YHF after Wilco nearly broke itself recording it. The tale goes that the label wanted it to be Wilco's commercial breakthrough, and instead Tweedy and Co. turned in a occasionally difficult record that is probably loved for the very reason the suit-wearing monkeys rejected it. Reprise eventually gave the band full rights to the record, and the Wilco ended up selling the album to Nonesuch for a good chunk of change. Of course, YHF went on to be one of the best reviewed albums of the decade, and one of Wilco's few records to go gold. [Also famously, both Reprise and Nonesuch are subsidiaries of Warner Bros. (idiots!) Some cynics think the whole mess was suspiciously beneficial to Wilco's career, but I don't believe there was anything manufactured about it.]

The film is shot in grainy and gorgeous b/w, interspersing haunting shots of Chicago with the band live in the studio. For fans of YHF, the film is a goldmine, showcasing early and alternate versions of beloved songs and some full live clips of the band in concert and Jeff Tweedy on his solo tour. Best of all, I didn't come away hating Tweedy or Bennett. I mostly felt sad for Jay, a feeling only compounded by his death this year. On film, he is obviously insecure about his contributions to the band, and no matter what Tweedy and the other band mates say, he never feels like he gets confirmation that his ideas are working, which leads him to continue to half-argue and plea for acceptance. Of course, his contributions were substantial, writing the music to "Jesus, Etc," among other songs, and creating all the ambient, tension-building sounds that linger like ghosts in soundscape's background. And, in the film's most grimace-inducing scene, getting the drum sound just right on "Heavy Metal Drummer (If you want a headache, watch Bennett try to explain his mixing ideas for the song to his band mates). Bennett was booted from the band shortly after recording the album, and he he died a poor, sad and presumably lonely man living in Champaign, Il. Without Jay Bennett, Wilco has put out one good record and two (by their standards) mediocre ones. What "I Am Trying to break Your Heart" does best is capture — with stunning photography and crisp sound — a band at the height of its creative powers, cutting tracks that have stood the test of time, and there is clearly nothing to dislike about that. A

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Pretty dumb, but with some sweet action scenes. Liev Schreiber steals the show as Sabretooth, who for once doesn't look like a WWF sideshow freak (long gone are the outrageous fake eyebrows and scene stealing mane that made him look more like the Cowardly Lion than villain in the first X-Men movie). He is legitimately scary and unstable, killing for pleasure, murdering for fun. And Hugh Jackman is still perfectly cast as Wolverine. Also, shout-out to the opening credit montage showing Wolverine and Sabretooth kicking ass in every American conflict from the Civil War to the present. I wish that would have been the whole movie. C+


The Juice Box said...

That Wilco film looks really interesting.

Did you miss "Sex Drive" on this list? I saw you recently watched it. I hidden camera in your living room ... and on your computer.

Warped Coasters said...

my roommates watched Sex Drive on insta-que this week, I believe I included it in my inaugural "Wasted Postage" about a year ago, I liked it.

The Juice Box said...

Oh, did you? Hmm, I couldn't find it when I did a search.

Yeah, that movie surprised me.

Warped Coasters said...

I don't know why it doesn't come up during searches, I tried too. But here it is, I wrote like 2 sentences on it.