Bring on the Night

October 8, 2012

Bring on the Night is, in almost every way, your typical rock documentary. It traces the evolution of a project from beginning to fruition, with heavy emphasis on musical numbers, interspersed with interviews and behind-the-scenes hijinks.

Now, if you’ve seen a few “rockumentaries,” you know that the form itself is intrinsically stupid. The things are usually vanity productions designed to indulge the whims of the stars, who often babble on about their philosophies during the all-too-lengthy breaks between songs.

Bring on the Night falls into most of those traps, but redeems itself in other ways. The good thing is, it’s about Sting, who happens to be one of the most intelligent and thoughtful rock musicians.

The bad thing is, it’s about Sting, who also happens to be one of the most pretentious and least fun-loving rock musicians.

The project here is the new band that Der Stingle assembled for his current “Dreams of the Blue Turtles” album, and some touring he did with the band. The film, Sting explains at a press conference near the beginning, wants to show the creation of a band—unlike other rockumentaries, which sometimes catch bands at their bitter end (as with the Beatles and Let It Be).

The dichotomy between Sting’s intelligence and his pretentiousness makes this process interesting to watch. The musicians Sting has gathered together (in a chateau near Paris) seem deliberately chosen to represent something he’s not—he’s British, they’re American; he’s rock, they’re jazz; he’s white, they’re black.

These jazz musicians are a fun bunch, no question about it, while Sting seems to be straining to join in their groove. But at least he is trying, even so far as joining in on a chorus of “Meet the Flintstones” as kicked off by saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The outgoing (and supremely talented) Marsalis presents quite a contrast with the rather aloof Sting. While Sting goes on, somewhat pompously, about his search for a new sound, Marsalis describes how he switched from the clarinet to the saxophone because you could get girls with a sax. Marsalis is no less serious a musician, of course, but he seems to have a healthier sense of humor.

Director Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Kipperbang) shows us the birth of the album, in rehearsal sessions at the chateau, and the culmination of the project, in some live gigs in Paris. We also see another kind of birth: a human one, as Sting’s girlfriend Trudie Styler delivers a baby boy on camera.

It’s the music (not the medicine) that sustains the film. The songs take over near the end, and all the forced backstage stuff fades away. Sting is a talented songwriter, and his work is his vindication. The concert’s final song, “Message in a Bottle,” could be a description of the movie itself—a message sense out in the hope that someone will listen. Well, message received—but Sting, next time just sing the songs, don’t talk about them, okay?

First published in the Herald, November 7, 1985

There were quite a few of these back then. And just a year after This Is Spinal Tap, too.

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Gorky Park

January 17, 2012

During Gorky Park, you should be thinking about the murder mystery: Did the KBG kill those three people in Moscow’s Gorky Park? Or was it that rich American furrier (Lee Marvin)? Will the Russian detective (William Hurt) fall in love with the mystery woman (Joanna Pacula) who may have known the dead people, or will he betray her? And what about the American (Brian Dennehy) who keeps sticking his nose into everybody’s business?

These are things you should be thinking about during Gorky Park. Maybe you’ll be able to, but I wasn’t. Nope, I was thinking about William Hurt’s accent.

For some reason, Hurt has adopted a British accent for this movie. Maybe it’s because most of the other actors are British—even though they’re all supposed to be Russians, anyway—and Hurt isn’t supposed to stand out by comparison.

Hurt is the kind of exciting actor who is always taking chances; he’ll read a line as though nobody had ever said anything like it before—even if it’s a dumb line. When he’s cooking—as in Altered States, Body Heat, or The Big Chill—there’s no one more interesting to watch.

But speaking in this absurd accent seems to have taken up the better part of his artistic concentration for Gorky Park. Now he’s not just trying to give a line a fresh reading, he’s struggling to get the pronunciation right, too. I tell you, it’s distracting.

And the mystery is so convoluted that, if you get distracted, you’ve lost it. That may be part of the point of the film—that the various plots and reasons for the murder are so tied up in knots that they become meaningless.

That’s fine, but director Michael Apted and screenwriter Dennis Potter are not quite up to the challenge of spinning this yarn with the clarity it needs (it’s based on a best-seller by Martin Cruz Smith). Gorky Park lacks focus; it’s missing the thread that would pull together its shadowy elements.

The locations are nice, thought—most of it was shot in Helsinki, Finland—and some of the supporting players seem to be enjoying themselves, especially Ian Bannen as a Soviet prosecutor and Rikki Fulton as the head of the local KGB. Like almost everyone in the film, they’re both completely untrustworthy.

And Lee Marvin is good to have around. He plays the rich fur trader who wants to get some live sables out of Russia so that he can break the Soviet Union’s monopoly on that expensive fur. Somehow this leads him to an involvement with four young people, three of whom wind up in shallow graves, buried by the falling snow at Gorky Park.

The surviving member of the group, played by Pacula, has her hands full—not only is she connected to the ghastly murders, she’s also caught in a sexual tug-of-war between Hurt and Marvin.

Hurt, despite the distractions, has his moments. But I hear his next movie is Kiss of the Spider Woman, now shooting in Brazil. Uh-oh. Let’s hope he plays an American tourist, not a Brazilian generalissimo.

First published in the Herald, December 15, 1983

I can remember watching this again on a drowsy winter afternoon on TV, when it seemed endless and wintry and dull. The cast alone suggests giving it another try, but I think I’ll tackle The Russia House again before that happens.