The Rolling Stones – Some Girls (1978)

By R. David

In the mid-seventies, New York City was caught in a downward spiral.  The city was in financial disarray, the streets were full garbage, crime and rats, record heat caused roving blackouts, and a serial killer known as the Son of Sam had people in a panic.  All of this led to hot tempers and hot times in the original Sin City.  People still fled to discos and drugs to escape the heat, both literally and figuratively.  Disco and punk were heating up the airwaves and ushering in a new crop of musical styles.  Traditional rock and roll was on the outs, which also meant a lot of the legendary rock bands from the last decade or two were beginning to be thought of as old hat (the ones that still existed and didn’t lose key players to drug-related deaths, anyway).  Nevermind that many of them were still only in their 30s.

Such was the case with The Rolling Stones.  Arguably the greatest rock and roll band in the world at the the beginning of the ’70s, the Stones suffered a string of albums that were each less successfully received than the last over the course of the decade.  By 1978 they found themselves fighting for a comeback at time when the very style of music they made was in need of a comeback.  Add to this that the band would possibly be disbanded within a few months if guitarist Kieth Richards received the maximum prison sentence for heroin possession with intent to distribute he was currently facing in Vancouver, and it becomes clear that the Stones had everything riding on “Some Girls”.

Fast-forward nearly 35 years and the album is considered a bona-fide classic, arguably the Stone’s last.  It became their biggest-selling album in the U.S., with 6 million-plus copies moved, and pulled the band back from the brink of obscurity.  Though a magnificent record by any measure, when put in the context of New York, the American music scene, and the inner turmoil that plagued the band at the time, “Some Girls” is a fascinating snapshot of – and soundtrack to – a very particular, very chaotic moment in time.  It’s all there in the music; from the disco-infused swagger of “Miss You” (which, perhaps in hindsight predictably, went straight to number 1), to the sloppy punk sass of “When the Whip Comes Down” and “Respectable”, to the venomous blood lust of “Shattered” (“Go ahead, bite the Big Apple/Don’t mind the maggots.”); every issue, every influence the band was wrestling with at the time.  Perhaps most candid is “Before They Make Me Run,” a none-too-subtle lament on Keith Richards’ legal woes.  Sung by Keith and set to a jaunty bar band groove that is tonally at odds with its lyrics of a party animal being run out of town after over-staying his welcome, “Run” is perhaps the album’s best, if most underrated, track.

All of the songs, “Shattered” and “… Make Me Run” in particular, gain a new depth when listening to them with the events of 1978 in mind.  Listeners who discovered the album – or were born – decades later no doubt enjoy the album as a diverse collection of extremely accessible genre exercises, which it is, but that merely skims the surface.  All of these songs cut much deeper when you consider their context.  However, whether you’re just in it for the music or hope to gain a deeper insight into one of the Stones’ best albums, you’ll be glad to know the album has never sounded better.  Like a lot of seventies albums – and a lot of Stones albums – “Some Girls” always sounded rather cold and muddy on CD.  More often than not the guitars drowned out the vocals and there was rarely the appropriate (or desired) separation between instruments allowing each one to pop where necessary.  The remaster corrects a lot of these wrongs.  “… Make Me Run” in particular is a revelation and one gains a new-found appreciation for the effortless sway of “Beast of Burden”, perhaps the album’s most endearing and enduring track, as if hearing it for the first time.  The title track, with its controversial lyrics that drew protests at the time, is another sonic highlight.

The “Some Girls” reissue, is being released in various configurations, from a lavish (and expensive) boxset to a 2-disc set with the remastered original album and a second disc of outtakes, similar to last year’s “Exile on Main Street” reissue.  While the material on the second disc essentially proves that the Stones made the right call with in what made the cut and what didn’t, the outtakes are an interesting glimpse at what could have been.  A good majority of them, for instance, are country songs and the rest are traditional blues/rock homages.  Only one country song made the final album line-up (“Far Away Eyes”), and its nearly a parody of classic country music, and there are no rockin’ blues numbers to be found.  Its rather amazing that an album as diverse – and successful – as “Some Girls” could have been so radically different.  No one can be certain, of course, but it seems safe to say that if they were to have released the songs that make up this bonus disc as their album in ’78, we probably wouldn’t be revisiting it now, and we may not even still be talking about the Stones themselves.  That’s not to say there aren’t a handful of fun, well-written, even rockin’ tracks among the outtakes (“Claudine”, “So Young”, “Do You Think I Really Care”, and “Keep Up Blues” are the standouts to these ears), and die hard fans and completests will be elated to finally have professionally released versions of these oft-bootlegged tracks; but none of them jump out as something that should have been traded for a song that made it on the album instead.

Whether because they knew they had to fight to stay relevant, because they wanted to get as many tunes in the can in case Keith ended up in jail for years to come, or if they were just inspired and on a creative roll, the Stones were especially productive during the “Some Girls” sessions, churning out over 50 tracks that were never released (some, including a few on the bonus disc here, never finished).  None of those shelved cuts that have emerged over the years, however, has been able to make a case that the album would have been better with its inclusion.

Which just goes to show – if there were still any doubt – “Some Girls” is one perfect damn record.

Key Tracks:  Before They Make Me Run, Beast of Burden, Shattered, Some Girls.

FU HOLLYWOOD!

A Battleship movie - based on the board game - will feature pop star Rhianna. And may God have mercy on our souls.

Today “Out on the Wire” adds a new feature that is, quite frankly, well past due.  We all know the powers that be in Hollywood make some baffling decisions; from remaking classic films seemingly only to dumb them down for mass consumption, to greenlighting abominations like “Jack & Jill” in the first place, to allowing soul-sucking, talentless hacks like Snookie, Ke$ha, and Kim Kardashian to run way past their 15 minutes.

It’s no secret that Hollywood “jumped the shark” long ago in terms of the sort of awful ideas they will push into development in the name of the almighty dollar; but on the heels of word that Warner Bros. is currently developing a Lego movie (you didn’t misread that:  a friggin’ Lego movie!) – in addition to the Battleship, Ouija, and Monopoly movies all currently in the pipeline – Out on the Wire can no longer sit idly by and not create a forum to complain about each of these mind-boggling awful ideas as they are occur.

We are fully aware that the audiences who make terrible movies, TV shows and music into mega-hits are just as much to blame for the onslaught of insipid, uninspired and downright awful product that Hollywood sharts into the marketplace on a regular basis (perhaps more so since audiences voting with their wallets determines what sort of projects these studios will continue to produce – and then proceed to immediately run into the ground), and we are also prepared for the fact that some of these ideas may just prove crazy enough to work and we may be eating our words down the road.

Still, there is much to rail against in the entertainment world, here is the place to do it.  Please send any articles devoted to Hollywood’s crimes against humanity to editoroutonthewire@gmail.com, att:  Eff You, Hollywood!

Go Nuts!

J. EDGAR

By R. David

Clint Eastwood continues to be one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors.  Nearly every year for the last decade he has produced and directed (and in many cases even scored) at least one film.  Some have been more successful than others, but his versatility in the projects he selects is staggering.  Who else but Eastwood would make twin WWII epics (“Flags of Our Fathers”/”Letters From Iwo Jima”), a period kidnap thriller (“The Changeling”), come out of semi-acting-retirement for an epilog to his iconic action hero roles (“Gran Torino”), the tale of how rugby and Nelson Mandela united South Africa (“Invictus”), and an exploration of spirituality and the supernatural (“Hereafter”)?  And all this after “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby”, both arguably among the greatest films of the ’00s, and Clint’s career.

While not a modern Eastwood masterpiece along the lines of “Mystic River”, “Million Dollar Baby” or “Letters From Iwo Jima”, his latest film,”J. Edgar”, is a great looking, terrifically performed, and absorbing biopic of the notorious FBI head honcho.  The film is not without it’s flaws:  some questionable make-up effects, a handful of performances that are more imitations of historical figures than fully realized characters, and a curious lack of urgency to some of the more dramatic moments.  But these are all more or less minor quibbles.  Eastwood tackles the subject matter with his trademark stateliness.  At this point, you either dig his simplistic directorial style or you don’t.

I do.

Though “J. Edgar” admittedly lacks any major fireworks – scenes that are so disturbing, joyous or otherwise powerful they are seared into the brain – Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for “Milk”) do their subject proud, crafting a all-encompassing portrait of an extremely complex man without reducing his story to over the top melodrama or hatchet-job salaciousness simply for the sake of titillating audiences or generating controversy. “Fair and balanced” is probably not the most exciting phrase to sell a drama with, but Eastwood and Black are obviously more concerned with exploring their subject than exploiting him.

And they make a good case for their approach because J. Edgar Hoover, as presented here, is a fascinating anti-hero and a true walking contradiction. He rises to power because of his unflappable disdain for crime and the communist influence in the U.S., but his willingness to trample the constitution in order to bring his suspects to justice essentially makes him as dangerous as the criminals he so despises. At the same time, despite his questionable ethics and – in many cases – flat out illegal activities, he was the innovator of several crime fighting tools that forever changed the way police work is conducted (the concept of fingerprint identification, criminal databases, crime labs; hell, the FBI itself and the standard by which agents are hired and held) and the nation would have been far less successful in warding off domestic terrorists –  both then and now – without. But Hoover was a paranoid, insecure, frightened and vindictive soul who hid behind the law and his delusions that anyone who does not share his views is conspiring against him – and the country – in order to justify his actions.

Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in the title role (and bares an uncanny resemblance to present day Jon Voight when made-up as Hoover in his later years), but its “The Social Network’s” Armie Hammer who steals the show as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand man and possible romantic interest (his elderly make-up, unfortunately, is less convincing than DiCaprio’s, though Hammer is so committed to the performance it hardly matters). The film goes beyond simply hinting that Hoover was a closeted gay man, but here too, it avoids assuming it knows more than what’s on the record about Hoover’s romantic interests and doesn’t assert unfounded rumor as fact. Whatever their ultimate feelings for one another, romantic or not, Hoover and Tolson were obviously deeply committed and connected to one another.  Its one of the great tragic themes in “J. Edgar” that Hoover was unable to allow himself to admit his true feelings, even at the expense of his own happiness.

“J. Edgar” hopscotches through Hoover’s life and career and many of his defining moments (most engrossing is the film’s mid section which is largely devoted to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping), always a risky stylistic choice for a director to use in telling a story, but Eastwood pulls it off. The film is not flashy or comprised of a lot of big, exciting moments, so it was smart of Eastwood to use a non-linear storytelling style to keep things interesting. One criticism I have read of the film is that it has a confusing narrative structure. Yes it helps to pay some attention to what’s going on (I know; silly, right?), but really, if you have trouble following this film, maybe “Jack & Jill” one theater over would be more your speed. “J. Edgar” may be a respectful, straightforward biopic, but there is no reason Eastwood need be resigned to constructing it as such.

To that end, it is also not the film’s failing that Hoover’s story isn’t rife with shootouts, car chases and explosions. The drama in his life was that of a personal and emotional nature, and that is the story Eastwood has chosen to tell. To that degree, “J. Edgar” is story fundamentally well told and a film exceptionally well made.

3 and a half stars out of 4.

A VERY HAROLD & KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS

By R. David

Published November 4, 2011

I will say this for “A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas”:  it is the single best use of the 3D format to hit cinema screens yet.  I have all but sworn off the 3D gimmick which, more often than not, does nothing to enhance a film beyond adding some depth and separation to the images, but dimming the picture and adding as much as a $5 surcharge to already bloated ticket prices in the bargain.  Simply put, I have yet to sit through one 3D film where I thought the extra dimension was worth the extra money.  But H&K3D seems to understand that 3D is at its best when objects are constantly flying out of the screen at the audience.  That has always been the main allure of 3D when its done right – what makes it so much fun despite being something of a corny gimmick that never really lived up to its promise or theoretical potential – that urge to reach out and grab the object coming at you or hovering just past your nose.  H&K3D seems to exist, if for no other reason, to make 3D fun again; and exploit the technology for all its raunchy potential.  Its a shame that the film itself is not nearly as inspired.

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas’ is easily the weakest of the three films in terms of story, character development and – most importantly – laughs.  Its not without its moments, but it lacks the kinetic spark of the first two films and feels like an uninspired retread of the same themes and scenarios.  H&K3D follows the same blueprint of its predecessors, with the titular heroes embarking on another episodic, drug-fueled journey that lands them in all sorts of unexpected predicaments.  They encounter an array of oddball characters, their friendship is tested, and hey look, there’s Niel Patrick Harris again!

This time around Harold (John Cho) and Kumar (Kal Penn) have been estranged for several years, in which time Harold has married Maria (Paula Garces), the object of his obsession from the first film, and become a successful stock broker.  Kumar, on the other hand, continues to spend his days in front of the TV and getting high, unable to live up to his potential and finish medical school because he failed a drug test.  When a package for Harold arrives at Kumar’s doorstep, Kumar decides to deliver it to him personally, at which point he immediately burns down Harold’s Christmas tree – an all-important symbol for Harold’s imposing father-in-law (Danny Trejo, in a seemingly perfect bit of casting that should be way more fun that it comes off).  They set out to find an exact replacement for the tree, at which point they are immediately plunged into another long night of various catastrophes.

Recycling the basic story structure of the first two films is not H&K3D’s problem.  The second film, “Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” was essentially a rehash of the first, only on a larger geographic canvas.  That sequel also seemed to be determined to up the ante on the first in terms of raunchy humor and un-PC commentary on hot-button issues like race, religion and politics.  Some criticized the film for being an all too obvious retread or mistaking vulgarity for comedy, but I admired its take-the-best-parts-of-the-original-but-amp-them-up approach.  I thought it was a wilder and crazier ride.  Had this third entry continued in that vain, it may have succeeded in at least pleasing those fans eager to see what sort of crazy adventures these guys can possibly land themselves in that could top hot tub parties and whore houses in “Guantanamo Bay,” or Freakshow’s secluded cabin in “White Castle”.  But the events H&K3D seems almost quaint by comparison, and the attempts and raunchy humor and social commentary feel arbitrary at best, forced at worst and mostly fall flat.

Niel Patrick Harris shows up halfway through the film as usual, playing himself as a sex and drug obsessed playboy, faking his gay public persona to lure beautiful women into feeling comfortable enough to strip down in front of him.  As usual, NPH injects a shot of   adrenaline to the proceedings.  His sequence is the best in the film, but just like the film around him, it is his weakest appearance of the series.

“A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas” feels like reheated leftovers from the first two films.  Though the characters remain likeable and some funny ideas and lines surface from time to time, everyone seems to simply be going through the motions in a serviceable, yet workman-like and uninspired way.  It’s more of the same, which would be fine, but it lacks the big laughs, memorably outrageous gags and crazy-eyed zeal of the first two films.  Not that the H&K3D doesn’t have a few laugh-out-loud moments and inspired visual gags – especially with whgen  taking full advantage of its extra dimension.  But baring something more interesting for them to do, it feels as though these characters may have simply run their course.

2 and a half stars out of 4.

HOMELAND

Showtime, Sundays, 10/9p.m.

By R. David

“Homeland”, Showtime’s complex and provocative new weekly series (and a terrific companion to the network’s equally excellent “Dexter”), is the rare densely-plotted drama that will – presumably – spend an entire season building towards the revelation of a central question where each episode is chalk full of enough tension and plot-thickening development to suggest the journey may prove to be more fascinating than the destination.

Expertly acted, written and paced, “Homeland” is the story of Nicholas Brody (“Dreamcatcher’s” Damien Lewis), an American POW who returns home from Baghdad after 8 years of imprisonment and torture.  His assimilation back into the American society and his family after 8 years, dealing with the newfound celebrity that has been thrust upon him, as well as his emotional and physical scaring, would yield enough drama for any series to explore.  “Homeland” doesn’t short change these elements of its story, but the series adds a layer of paranoia, and asks the audience to consider that Brody may have been turned by al-Qaeda and may be returning home as a terrorist threat.  Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), a CIA agent convinced that an elusive al-Qaeda terrorist is planning an imminent attack on American soil, believes Brody has been allowed to return home as a double agent who will facilitate the attack.

Mathison, who is already concealing the fact that she suffers from bipolar disorder, becomes obsessed with her suspicions of Brody, to the extent that she illegally bugs his home, lies to her superiors, and generally lets her investigation of him consume her life and endanger her career.  While we witness Brody trying to put the pieces of his life back together, cope with his emotional demons and learn how to interact with his family and friends once again; we watch as Mathison’s life and career increasingly unravel as she hangs all of her bets on the notion that Brody is a national threat.

So is she right?  If you want easy answers wrapped up in a tidy package by an episode’s end, you’d do better to stick with “NCIS”.  What makes “Homeland” so compelling is that it does not tackle good and evil and right and wrong with broad strokes.  Brody is clearly damaged and hiding something; but a terrorist threat?  Mathison is so concerned with hiding her own secrets and proving her theory correct that she may simply be seeing what she wants to see in Brody.  Unlike most series which establish a clear hero and villain, and the hero has to fight against all the bureaucratic nonsense and red tape to bring the villain to justice, it is not clear where “Homeland” is headed; and that is the show’s greatest asset.    Brody could indeed be a terrorist, or he could be the tragic hero; while Mathison could be the only one who sees him for the danger he represents or she could be a total head-case.  The thrill of “Homeland” is, at this point, either scenario seems equally possible.

But the show can’t keep us on the hook forever, constantly tricking the audience or dragging the story out.  So far the writers have done a great job of revealing small but satisfying and important bits of each character’s persona as well as the bigger puzzle in each episode.  Though it’s to “Homeland’s” credit that the show is just as captivating when exploring the issues of Brody’s home life as it is when focusing on the espionage stuff.

“Homeland” never feels too talky or complicated despite being complex and challenging.  Danes (who I’ve admittedly never been a real fan of) and Lewis both give Emmy-ready performances, and the supporting cast – which includes Mandy Patinkin as Mathison’s mentor and “V’s” Morena Baccrain as Brody’s (beautiful) wife – is equally impeccable.

“Homeland” was adapted by “24’s” Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa from an Israeli series.  Gordon brings the best of “24” to this project, namely the often muddled line between good and evil and the question of when is it acceptable to break the laws of the country – or even society – for the greater good; and who has the right to make that determination.  But “Homeland” is not “24” 2.0.  Though I am of the opinion that every show could benefit from a Jack Bauer, this is a much more cerebral approach to the idea of fighting a terrorist threat from within.  Yet, somehow, it is no less thrilling.