The Beatles: Anthology
The Rolling Stones: Just for the Record
The film autobiography that the Beatles created for themselves over seven years ago remains the definitive document of the band’s history, especially now that only half of the band is still alive. Anthology is a good argument for total artistic control - while the series only occasionally skirts touchy details and flirts with hagiography, its first-person perspective is by turns humourous and painful, especially at the group’s bitter end.
Just for the Record, a five-part history of the Beatles’ sole rivals, the Rolling Stones, is very much the opposite sort of experience. An unauthorized documentary, it lacks the perspective of any current living Stone - only former guitarist Mick Taylor gives a brief look at the band from the inside which, since Taylor was with the band during their creative zenith at the turn of the 70s, is not easily discounted. Still, Just for the Record has on insurmountable flaw - without permission or, apparently, a suitable budget, the rights to use Stone music were apparently unobtainable.
So when someone is onscreen talking about the pivotal “Exile on Main Street” sessions, or the leap forward that a single like “Jumping Jack Flash” represented, the soundtrack can only afford lame, pseudo-Stones instrumental mimicry. It isn’t until the third disc that a brief snatch of live Stones can be heard, by which point the band’s third decade is under scrutiny, and the long, sad slide into becoming the world’s greatest nostalgia act is nearly complete.
Stones fans, alas, have had to live with this sort of cheapening of the band’s legacy for decades. Beatles fans are better served, and Anthology, with its wry exchanges between band members, barely concealing squabbles over “what really happened”, suggests a respect for fans’ intelligence that’s as admirable as the band’s sane decision to make their career together finite, over thirty years ago.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Paul Justman’s slick, reverent documentary about the musicians who created the Motown sound - the most successful hit-making band in pop history - is a mixed bag for both fans of Motown and neophytes who assumed that it was the Pips or the Miracles who were Gladys Knight or Smokey Robinson’s backup band.
On the one hand, Justman digs deep into the lives and careers of the men - mostly Southern-born, jazz-trained musicians - who ended up in Berry Gordy’s cramped, funky little studio, playing on songs like “My Girl” and “My Guy”. On the other hand, the live concert sequences - with the living “Funk Brothers” backing up contemporary singers on Motown standards - are a mixed bag, superfluous when they’re not downright mystifying. When you see Joan Osborne singing “Heat Wave” just minutes after Martha Reeves, the original singer, was onscreen, excitedly recalling her life at Motown, you have every right to feel confused, even a bit cheated.
Beauty and the Beast
Jean Cocteau’s lush, surreal fairy-tale re-telling of a story more familiar to kids today from the treacly Disney cartoon might be the only film suitable for both young children and decadent surrealists, if such a demographic still exists.
The capering candlesticks and teapots of the Disney version are eerie disembodied arms and smoking, staring heads set into walls and fireplace mantels, and Jean Marais’ beast is altogether more sinister. A bonus included with the Criterion edition of the film is an alternative soundtrack, with Philip Glass’ operatic version of the film whirring away, making Cocteau’s film that much more otherworldly.
The long hibernation of the movie musical - Chicago notwithstanding - might be over if you consider a film like Drumline alongside Eminem’s movie debut, 8 Mile. Both films rely on Black American musical phenomenon - rap in 8 Mile, the vast, “show style” marching bands that thrive at predominantly black, Southern colleges in Drumline - to make it possible for performances or huge dance sequences to believably erupt in the midst of real life. The basic story of Drumline is straight out of a sports film - cocky rookie learns teamwork and helps beat rival team - but the acre-wide choreographed production numbers are the reason to sit through the often-kludgy dramatic filler.
Jason Statham plays an intriguing James Bond-variant in this story of an ex-SAS man using his driving skills to make his army pension stretch a bit further in the sun-drenched beauty of the south of France. Hong Kong action director Cory Yuen’s fight sequences are spectacular, especially the remarkable “oil fight”, but the story itself is a limp bit of backbone that melts at the end. Perhaps it was the British, Chinese and French cast, or the crew of assistant directors in charge of the non-action scenes, a bureaucratic polyglot that suggests that a lot of the film was lost in the translators.