TNAG Notes: Movie Edition by Stephen Bennett
Gird those opinion-sensitive loins, reader, as this time out, your trusty TNAG correspondent is on home territory; guitars and films. Not just films with guitars in them (for they are many) but yer actual dramas featuring guitars and/or guitarists. These are, sadly, few –hens’-teeth-rare, in fact - and even, we hear you ask, has there ever been a truly decent guitar-based film? Oh, yes, we say! Well, all right…maybe. More of which, anon. First…
A WORD ON “TONE”
David Gilmour once said something along the lines of “I can make anything sound good”. He wasn’t showing off. The deceptively throwaway remark was aiming to show that, by combining what he brings, via hand and brain – physical know-how plus musical instinct, refined over years – with whatever range of sonic possibilities the guitar has to offer, he’ll invariably get a pleasing result. The musical product will be about man, in this case, and machine working in tandem while, crucially, not saddling the whole operation with unreal expectations. So let’s accept that our Watkins Rapier 44, amplified through the old Dansette (kids, ask your grandad), is never going to sound like next door’s ‘54 Tele/Fender Princeton rig, dammit. Who cares? Though it will always be a Massive Selling Point in the shop, an instrument’s tone “in use” – in your hands as opposed to the next pair - is not the same as its tonal potential. Your Kostal, played by a mate, may sound like a completely different guitar once you’ve both got past the “listen to the sustain from those open strings” stage. Tone isn’t just a quality intrinsic to the instrument, it’s equally what we, the players, bring to the party. That’s why the (perceived) “best guitar in the showroom” might not be the best guitar for you. David Lindley, for example, sounds brilliant on a fifty-dollar Kay, but that’s because he’s looking for, and trading on, a certain sound. Similarly, you wouldn’t take your Somogyi to the pub for a night of Sex Pistols covers. Or would you? It’s your tone, after all. It’s the sound of you – not the technical-wizard sales-guy or the YouTube rock icon - playing your guitar. And that’s unique. As it should be.
NOW. ABOUT THOSE FILMS…
Around 90% of Hollywood movies rely on the same plot; reluctant everyman (or woman) is forced, by one-off setback or worsening circumstance, to confront and, we hope, defeat The Monster. Said nemesis can take the form of a giant conglomerate, a criminal gang, say, or even, well…a monster. Of the rest, 9% are about someone “just trying to get home” despite a dizzying array of metaphorical roadblocks and the other 1% consists of failed attempts at art. Anyway…the key to our engagement with these stories is that word, “everyman”. The film’s protagonist has to be, essentially, us. That way, we can see ourselves at the heart of the story and both identify with the hero’s struggle and rejoice in his or her ultimate triumph. That’s why there are no decent guitar films. We are not Everyman. We are nerds. Most people regard our six-string obsessions as a mere trivial pursuit therefore, watching some kid wrestle with the existential crisis of not being able to sound out a proper bar-chord doesn’t quite plumb the deep emotional well of the average viewer. What normal cinema-goer will give a toss if Tarantino wrecks a priceless Martin? Let’s not even go there.
Still, there have been a sorry-few writers daft enough to pitch guitar-based dramas and (even sorrier-fewer) producers crazy enough to turn such lunacy into cinematic “reality”.
We’re not talking documentaries, here, or the myriad biopics in which the tortured star (Hank, Jimi et al) just happens to carry a guitar as both the main tool of his employment and partial ingredient in his ultimate demise. There are, indeed, some fabulous guitar-centric documentaries; Scorsese’s Blues series, for one, “Searching For Sugarman”, the essential-viewing Muscle Shoals and Motown session-band stories and even “It Might Get Loud”, provided you don’t think The Edge’s contribution to rock history is more linked to the advancement of the loop-pedal than the actual guitar. There’s also quite a number of excellent dramas with guitars featured prominently in them; “Once”, “Almost Famous” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” spring to mind, as do the none-more-hilarious “Spinal Tap” and the accidentally tragi-comic “Anvil”. But arguably, none of the above is specifically “about” the guitar or its players such that the instrument itself is centre-stage and fundamental to the plot. So, what’s left? Sadly, not a lot.
Woody Allen’s acerbic, 1930s New York-set, “Sweet and Lowdown” (1999) features a twitchily insecure Sean Penn as the brilliant jazz guitarist who, in the manner of Salieri and Mozart, can’t get over the fact that he’ll never be as good as Django Reinhardt. It’s full of fabulous playing, mostly by the great Howard Alden, whose off-screen coaching of Penn surely helped with the latter’s subsequent Oscar nomination.
Then, of course, there’s that legendary 1986 movie-Marmite and sort-of-remake of “Karate Kid” (swapping the flying fists and feet for even faster-flying fingers on frets), “Crossroads”. This column (demonstrably a paragon of refined musical taste) would contend that it’s possible to accept that the whole thing is absolute tripe but love it nonetheless. Ry Cooder versus Steve Vai? Soulful Authenticity v Hollow Technical Flash? Bring it on, guys. The final shred-tastic “play-off” didn’t make the soundtrack album for all kinds of boring copyright reasons but the US mag “Acoustic Guitar” gave away a free, floppy single of it at the time that may now be worth a fortune to collectors of, well…free floppy singles. And it’s awesome.
The 2017 Pixar animation, “Coco”, is the tale of a young boy who enlists the help of his musician ancestor in order to escape from the Land of the Dead (as you do) and convince his sceptical family that music isn’t such a Bad Thing. For all its vibrant colour, sparky mariachi soundtrack and madcap cartoon energy, though, it’s actually pretty dull stuff; all dazzling surface, lacking the emotional depth Pixar usually excels in. A central pillar of the narrative, however, is the fate of a beautiful white guitar and, what’s perhaps most interesting, since the film’s release, is the remarkable resurgence of the flagging economy of Paracho, in Mexico, home-town of luthier, German Vasquez, who built the prototype model for the animators to work from. Fans now flock to the place in search of replica instruments and the local luthiers can’t keep up with demand. Word even has it that, if the boom carries on, Paracho may soon be able to open its first cinema.
And finally, what may be the pick of the bunch – in “artistic” terms, if nothing else – is the only one with the balls to get the key word into the title. Ladies and gentlemen, sit back, grab that popcorn and prepare to be baffled by Nicholas Ray’s barking mad, 1954 psycho-Western, “Johnny Guitar”. The plot revolves around allegedly-perma-refreshed Joan Crawford juggling the affections of eponymous hero, Johnny, and his rival, The Dancin’ Kid (really!), before everyone starts shooting each other in the head. All in new-fangled Technicolour. What’s not to like? It even had a hit theme-song.
Yes, there’s a horrible 2008 thing called, “The Guitar” but the poster alone should be enough to encourage a desperate search of obscure sports and shopping channels, instead, while we reserve judgement on last year’s “Guitar Man” for no other reason than a) we can’t find it and b) the publicity blurb talks about saving souls and finding the true meaning of freedom. Er…no. But thank you.
THIS FORTNIGHT’S FAB FIVE (DOCUMENTARY) FILMS
Unlike the dearth of quality drama, the documentary field is littered with gems. Concert movies abound, of course, and there are dozens of superb “genre” documentaries covering topics from Jazz Manouche to Bluegrass, African and Latin guitar styles. Here are a few crackers you might have missed, though, that zoom in on specific artists or bands who’ve had a massive impact on the way we listen to (and play) guitar music in the 21st century.
“Heartworn Highways” (1976) feels like the chronicle of a lost world. A ragged, loosely brilliant exploration – fittingly, considering those involved – of the Texas singer-songwriter scene of the mid-70s (too many Ss! - Ed.), it centres mostly around Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt while introducing the world to the young Steve Earle and some of the finest romantic-outlaw balladry in the entire Americana canon. So effortlessly laid back it’s almost horizontal.
1997’s “Can’t You Hear The Wind Howl?” (if you don’t mind the “dramatised” sequences) is a detailed and engaging tribute to the legend (and somewhat less romantic reality) of Robert Johnson. Danny Glover narrates to camera in appropriately sonorous style and Keb Mo’ gives a lively and likeable portrayal of the Man Himself. Worth it for the fabulously atmospheric, black’n’ white, song’n’dance rendering of “Hot Tamales” in the final reel. And it’s on YouTube so there’s no excuse for not watching!
“The Winding Stream” (2014) traces the fascinating history and timeless legacy of the Carter Family. Apart from the unsurpassed beauty of the music itself and the wonderfully evocative images of rural, southwest Virginia, US film-maker Beth Harrington was lucky enough to capture some sharp and often heart-breaking family insights from a clearly ailing Johnny Cash.
From the same year, “Rise of a Texas Bluesman”, Tom Odell’s tribute to the mighty Stevie Ray Vaughan, illustrates the Dallas Stratmeister’s importance within the wider Texas tradition while gifting us nearly two-hours of jaw-dropping, house-rocking blues wizardry, all for free on YouTube.
And while Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz” (1978) features one of the finest musical casts ever assembled on a single stage (18 months earlier), it sneaks in last on the strength of it being not so much a concert film as a steamy window into both the collaborative genius of The Band and the seeds, within it, of so much tragically inevitable self-destruction.
Something we missed? Probably. Summon up the green biro and get writing!
See you next time.
by Stephen Bennett