February 10, 2022

The right people made Tap, the new movie musical. A project like this, in the wrong hands, might have been a blown opportunity to capture the essence of one of America’s cultural treasures.

But they got it right.

Tap features the only contemporary star who could handle a role such as this, the terrific dancer (and lately actor) Gregory Hines, who teams with some of the legends of tap dancing. And the man who wrote and directed the movie is Nick Castle, the son of a Hollywood choreographer (also named Nick Castle) who worked with the greats back in the glory days.

The plot of the movie isn’t anything much. It plays a bit like one of those John Garfield movies from the 1940s in which the hero agonizes over whether to choose the violin or his life of crime. Hines plays a petty criminal who gets out of a spell in Sing Sing and begins slipping back into bad habits. He used to be a talented tap dancer, but he’s left all that behind. Or has he?

Don’t you believe it. With the help of an ex-girlfriend (Suzzanne Douglas) and the formidable old-timers down at the dance studio, Hines feels the old steps coming back. He’s being hassled by a former partner in crime (Joe Morton), who wants Hines’ legwork to be of the second-story variety.

But don’t pay much mind to the plot. The film is alive with splendid dance numbers (the choreography is by another Hollywood legend, Henry LeTang), that range from a spontaneous group session on a crowded, noisy city street to Hines’ solo improvisations. Hines is such a marvelous dancer that he blows away the story’s more formulaic aspects. When this guy dances, everything snaps into focus.

The sweetest element of the film is the collection of old-timers from the pantheon of tap dance. They included Sandman Sims, Bunny Briggs, Harold Nicholas (of the incredible Nicholas Brothers, who used to tumble into Hollywood musicals and steal the show with their specialty dances), and the grand old man himself, Sammy Davis, Jr. Davis, clearly having the time of his life, plays Hines’ mentor, a wizened dandy with a cane and a colorful scarf around his noggin.

The film’s high point comes early, when the old pros issue a tap challenge to Hines in a dusty studio. The guys take turns out-tapping each other, and it’s as though a time capsule had been opened. These veterans perform with the silky assurance of people who know they are masters. And maybe with melancholy, too; had then been white, some of these fellows might have been major stars in their heyday.

It’s difficult to imagine anyone not enjoying Tap on some level. Like the classic musicals it aspires to, it has silly, simple passages, redeemed by bursts of exuberance. But before audiences can go to a movie, they have to go to the theaters. Is anyone intrigued by tap dance anymore? It’ll be interesting to find out.

First published in The Herald, February 9, 1989

Savion Glover, still a teen but already a Broadway star, is also in the film. Does anybody remember this movie? I can understand its fringe appeal, but it’s got glorious people in it. I interviewed Nick Castle for The Boy Who Could Fly, and thought his director career would maybe be bigger than it was (you will recall that he played “The Shape” in the original Halloween for his buddy John Carpenter). Suzzanne Douglas did a great deal of stage work as well as a co-starring role in Robert Townsend’s TV show Parent ‘Hood; she died in 2021.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America

January 11, 2022

There’s nothing dreary about Leningrad Cowboys Go America, from Finland’s heralded young filmmaker, Aki Kaurismaki. This 33-year-old director has a sardonic viewpoint and a very funny way of expressing it; life in his movies has a despairing hilarity about it. Even his tragedies are loopy.

Leningrad Cowboys is the first Kaurismaki to get a wide release. In some ways, this is too bad, because it’s the slightest of his films I’ve seen. There’s really only one joke in the movie, repeated in variations: a Finnish band wants to hit the big time in the United States.

Dressed in idiotic pointed boots and matching pompadours, they storm the backwaters of America, phonetically singing rock songs (“Born to Be Wild” is milked for all it’s worth). The first few times we see this, it’s funny, and Kaurismaki’s eye for absurdity is clear. The movie is laced with wordless, nutty blackouts. But it gets a bit repetitious after a while.

Here’s hoping this prolific moviemaker gets the exposure he deserves. He’s going to make some sensational films in the next decade.

First published in The Herald, April 6, 1991

This mini-review was part of a three-film article, the other two being brief reviews of 1990 releases, Gianni Amelio’s Open Doors and Vitali Kanevsky’s Freeze – Die – Come to Life. My reference to “dreary” comes from the end of the previous review. I saw this movie at the 1990 New York Film Festival, the first time I went to NYFF in a decade of covering it for Film Comment. Aki K. was a guest of the festival more than once, and his blasé post-film appearances onstage – usually waving around a cigarette and a beer bottle – were delicious exercises in Nordic irony. He did go on to make good movies, although the Leningrad Cowboys were something of an indulgence – or maybe you have to be Finnish.

Imagine: John Lennon

November 24, 2021

Since John Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono has been a very deliberate caretaker of the man’s considerable legacy. Through a series of albums, books, a TV-movie, and even a recent star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Yoko has kept Lennon’s presence felt.

One thing she couldn’t control was the wholly unauthorized biography of Lennon written by Albert Goldman, published a few weeks ago. Goldman, who trashed Elvis Presley in a notorious book earlier this decade, spent more than five years writing his Lives of John Lennon. I haven’t read the book, but Goldman seems to have unearthed many nasty bits, some of which have been denied by the people involved (and many of which had been admitted by Lennon all along).

But the resourceful Yoko has come up with a reply to Goldman, in the form of a feature film. (Everyone denies that the film is a response to Goldman’s book, but the timing is too perfect.) Yoko went to producer David Wolper and director Andrew Solt and turned over more than 100 hours of audio tapes, video, and film, all from John and Yoko’s private collection.

The movie that Wolper and Solt made from the footage (and other available materials) is Imagine: John Lennon. It’s a largely predictable, but unavoidably fascinating film.

Lennon was part of one of the century’s most amazing cultural phenomena, but even if The Beatles had never happened, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Lennon would have been a remarkable man. This film does not attempt to float a halo over his head, although it is highly laudatory. By revealing him in moments of anger, pettiness, and foolishness, the film simply acknowledges Lennon’s complexity; he was a man much greater than the sum of his parts.

There is a healthy does of music, both Beatle and solo, and there are interviews with ex-wife Cynthia and Yoko, and sons Julian and Sean. But the major attraction of the film is the home-movie quality of the newly-seen footage.

Much of it is offhand, showing Lennon noodling around with songs that would eventually become familiar. There are revealing moments of Lennon’s petulance, such as a conversation between John and George Harrison in which they derisively speak of Paul McCartney as “Beatle Ed” before cutting Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”—a caustic jibe at Paul.

During John and Yoko’s famous bed-in for peace, they are visited by cartoonist Al Capp, who had become a raving reactionary late in life. Capp assails the couple, and openly insults Yoko in racist terms. John really must’ve been into peace, because he would have been perfectly justified in slugging Capp.

And there are eerie passages. At one point John reads a letter from a fan who had consulted a Ouija board and deduced that Lennon would be assassinated. In the movie’s oddest sequence, Lennon talks to a flaky chap who’d been shadowing the star’s estate, and who felt that John was speaking to him through the music. Lennon compassionately brings this poor soul down to earth, then invites him in to breakfast.

Imagine is consistently intriguing (though, as George Harrison said of it, there’s a bit too much Beatles stuff, buoyant as that is). It is not a lofty or great documentary, but there’s enough of value to whet one’s appetite for the other 99 hours.

First published in The Herald, October 1988

We are on the verge of Peter Jackson’s multi-hour revamp of the Let It Be footage, so this seemed worth digging out. “Beatle Ed”—very funny.

This Is Spinal Tap

October 27, 2021

One of the funnier moments in recent movie memory occurs halfway through This Is Spinal Tap, when the fictitious British rock band finally gets copies of their long-delayed new album, Smell the Glove. The cover was supposed to be adorned with a multifariously sexist image, but the record company balked, so the new album has simply an all-black cover – no name, no title, no nothing. Lead guitarist Nigel (Christopher Guest) looks at the album, and starts to wax poetic about the nature of its blackness. “It’s like, it’s asking the question, how much blacker can black be,” he suggests, in perfect Liverpudlian haze. “And the answer is … none.”

That last word, delivered at the end of a superbly timed pause during which the speaker struggles through a graveyard of dead brain cells in an impossible attempt to remember the beginning of his sentence, it typical of the film’s feel for delicious non sequitur. Reportedly, much of the film came out of improvisation, and bearing that in mind, it’s remarkable that the movie is as cohesive and on-target as it is. In case you haven’t heard, This Is Spinal Tap is a pseudo-documentary about a rock group called Spinal Tap, a band that has ridden the various fads from psychedelia through heavy metal, and which now appears to be on its last tour.

The idea for the movie came from Rob Reiner, who directed the film, co-wrote it with the actors, and appears as Martin DiBerge, filmmaker (DeBerge’s hilariously earnest introduction to the film is wonderful; as a matter of fact, Reiner’s reaction shots of himself throughout the movie, absolutely deadpan as the band members proffer their weirdnesses, is a canny comic device.) Reiner, like the rest of us, probably sat through one too many grainy, pretentious, amateurish documentaries about some sleazy rock ‘n rollers who paid for a vanity project on themselves and then lost interest halfway through. He’s clearly a student of the subgenre, because all the stylistic signatures are in evidence: hit-and-miss focus, wandering camera, labyrinthian language (the kind that surrounds “real people” when they try to sound articulate for the camera). Much of the credit for that language goes to the actors, especially to Michael McKean and Christopher Guest, who are sort of the Lennon and McCartney of Spinal Tap (although their bassist, Derek Smalls – played by Harry Shearer – claims they’re really like Shelley and Byron). They may have had their differences before, but the band’s already fragile biorhythms are seriously disrupted when McKean’s girlfriend pops up during mid-tour, as the band finds itself getting canceled out of gigs in small clubs.

Exerting a Yokoesque hold on McKean, she suggests that the way to rekindle their sagging fortunes is to dress the group as animals while onstage. Somehow this leads to a Stonehenge motif, which appears in the act as an 18-inch shrine that descends from the rafters so that a pair of uncoordinated leprechauns can skip around (I guarantee you will have tears in your eyes during this). So much of This Is Spinal Tap is bullseye stuff that it becomes almost too good; the parody captures sleaziness and pretentiousness and vacuousness so exactly that it comes close to being gruesome to watch. This movie gets to be terribly, horribly good.

First published in The Informer, April 1984

I hope that if anybody reads these things, part of the appeal is seeing what it’s like to watch future classics utterly cold – at the time, one did not know how completely a movie like this would enter the popular consciousness. Anyway, this is what that initial snap of discovery was like. I like Yoko, by the way, and meant the phrase “Yokoesque” only in the sense of how this character operates in the world of the mockrockumentary. Don’t know what else to say about it, but I did see Spinal Tap perform live once, after walking past the Paramount Theater in Seattle one night, seeing they were playing right then, and buying a ticket. Which was fun.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains

August 3, 2021

Yes, it is a weird title, but then it’s a weird movie. Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains – there may be a comma in there – is a 1980 film which has been sitting on some shelf since its completion. Its recent revival – including a midnight screening at the Ninth Seattle International Film Festival – may be due to the success of the pseudo-rock-documentary This Is Spinal Tap.

Stains isn’t as funny as Spinal Tap. For starters, it doesn’t hew to the same documentary parody form. It’s more straightforward; all about the rise and fall of a punk-rock band of teenage girls, who dub themselves The Stains, led by Diane Lane (of Rumble Fish and Streets of Fire), and of the brief hysteria they create.

Scrappy stuff, but rock cliches are sometimes trounced with accuracy, particularly the life on the road. There’s also a hilarious supporting role for Fee Waybill, in real life the lead singer of The Tubes. He plays the leader of the creaking 1960s heavy metal band, The Metal Corpses. Waybill oozes flower-child platitudes and packs on the Kiss-style makeup. It’s a dead-on cameo.

The music, with Lane snarling the band’s heavy-duty lyrics while wearing see-through shirts and fire-red eye makeup (inspiring a fad that lasts at least a week), tends toward the intentionally screechy. The band musicians include members of The Clash and the late, lamented Sex Pistols.

You can see why the movie sat around for a few years before anybody saw it. Then again, there are many movies released without anything near this movie’s sometimes-engaging strangeness. The right crowd in the right mood should like it.

First published in The Herald, October 1982

Just guessing about the publishing date. The cast included Laura Dern as a band member, plus Christine Lahti, Ray Winstone, and Brent Spiner. Paul Simonon and Steve Jones act in it. It has a reputation now and it’s almost certainly better than this review suggests. It was written by Nancy Dowd, and directed by music mogul Lou Adler, whose only other film as director was Up in Smoke.

Tango Bar

May 25, 2021

By ordinary standards, Tango Bar is barely a movie at all, more a compendium of great moments in the history of tango dancing.

But somehow this film blends a fictional story with its documentary aspects to create a highly entertaining movie; it was clearly an audience favorite at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival.

The fictional story takes place entirely in a tango bar in Buenos Aires, where a pianist (Raul Julia, from Kiss of the Spider Woman) awaits the return of his former accordionist partner (Ruben Juarez). They made a popular team as entertainers more than a decade ago. But during the political upheavals of recent Argentinian history, the accordionist left for safer pastures, while Julia stayed behind, with the other man’s wife (Valeria Lynch), a singer.

The film is made up of snippets from their old show, in which they tell the crowd the history of tango. For the movie audience, this lecture is illustrated with some sensational dancing by pairs and groups, choreographed and performed by some of the best talents in tango today.

It’s also illustrated with film clips of the tango, Hollywood-style. These delightful moments include familiar numbers from Astaire-Rogers and Gene Kelly, as well as rarer items. A glimpse of Rudolph Valentino throwing, literally, his partners around the dance floor is enough to explain his electric appeal.

The movie describes the tango craze in the early part of this century, when Europe and America discovered the sexy dance and brought it into the most civilized parlors. And there’s some witty explanation of the tango mystique, as the two “tango men” field questions from their nightclub audience.

When, in the end, the men are reunited and they sing a tango that reflects the new freedom in Argentina, it is a surprisingly emotional moment. Tango Bar appears not to have much of a story, then you realize it has been the story of tango all along.

First published in The Herald, June 1, 1989

SIFF success could get a movie a Seattle run in those days, for sure. I just looked at the only other review linked to IMDb, a piece from the Washington Post by Rita Kempley, and boy, she lays into it: “they are reprising their extremely tedious act before wildly appreciative, easily amused, glassy-eyed Stepford audiences….these Latin lovers are grouchos, not gauchos, and hold the salsa.” It’s also “Terribly directed by Puerto Rico’s Marcos Zurinaga.” Ouch. Ruben Juarez was a successful singer and player of the bandoneon (I probably hadn’t heard of that instrument at my tender age; accordion was pretty close). This is his only big-screen credit.

Heartbreak Hotel

May 13, 2021

Yes, Elvis is alive. (Or don’t you read the Enquirer?) The question is: Is he still hot at the box office?

Perhaps Heartbreak Hotel will provide the answer. Oh, Elvis himself isn’t actually in this one; he’s played by David Keith. Keith does well enough, and he’ll have to do until the real Elvis comes out of hiding.

The film is set in 1972 and the premise is that a teenager (Charlie Schlatter) from a small Ohio town kidnaps Elvis Presley after a Cleveland concert and takes him home to cheer up his mom (Tuesday Weld). The kid doesn’t really like Elvis. He thinks The King has turned his back on his rock and roll roots, has sold his soul to Vegas.

Elvis doesn’t cotton none to this kind of talk. He washes the black dye out of his hair, cuts off those porkchop sideburns, and for a couple of days reverts back to the rockin’ rebel he once was.

This movie, written and directed by Spielberg protégé Chris Columbus (with the approval of the Presley estate) is a mostly dopey affair, predictable and contrived. Still, the thought of getting the opportunity to talk Elvis back into his original style of music is an appealing fantasy.

And it’s another fascinating testament to the way a single larger-than-life figure has taken hold of the public’s imagination. The boy from Tupelo who became King has been the subject of a torrent of speculation, souvenirs, paraphernalia, and devotion, to say nothing of his Messianic rise from the dead. (The enduring power of his voice sometimes gets lost in all this.)

He’s been dead only 11 years, but there have already been a brace of filmed versions of his life. John Carpenter’s TV movie, Elvis, has been the most satisfactory so far, with Kurt Russell turning in a precise impersonation of Presley. David Keith, best known as the buddy in An Officer and a Gentleman, is quite good; when he strides down a stairwell singing “Love Me” to Tuesday Weld, he has some uncanny moments. (Weld, that fine actress, did make a movie with the original Elvis, 1961’s Wild in the Country.)

Columbus knows his Elvis and scores some points. Elvis’s toadying coterie of yes-men is wickedly sketched (they call him “E”), the great man’s passion for cheeseburgers is noted, and the show stops for someone to say, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.”

There’s still one test: What does Elvis think of this movie? You know he’s out there somewhere, renting a movie theater for a private, middle-of-the-night screening. Hope you enjoy it, King, and please come back soon.

First published in The Herald, September 1988

Oh yeah, Charlie Schlatter – this was just after 18 Again!, with George Burns. This was Columbus’s sophomore effort as director, after Adventures in Babysitting; next up was Home Alone. As for the mysterious career of Tuesday Weld, who turned down most of the female leads of the 1960s and 70s, this was yet another curious choice, although you can understand the appeal, in this case.