Thursday, September 25, 2014

In Defense Of Daniel Johnston

excerpt from LIFE IN A TIN CAN (or Still-Life With Piano Van).

Benjamin Shapiro’s paragraph-length summary of his forthcoming monograph in the 33 1/3 Book series covers a lot of the most salient components to the myth of Daniel Johnston, so I’ll quote it in full for the benefit of those who don’t know:

"In 1983, the troubled American songwriter Daniel Johnston suffered the first of a series of mental breakdowns that would plague him for the rest of his life. In his mental illness, he managed to commit 15 song fragments to tape using a $59 Sanyo cassette recorder and Radio Shack tape stock. The collection would later be presented as Hi, How Are You, the single most influential homemade cassette tape of all time. Composed during a period of extreme emotional stress, the album has fascinated and haunted its many listeners, including Tom Waits, Beck, Ben Gibbard, and Kurt Cobain, who popularized the record by wearing a Hi, How Are You T-shirt during Nirvana’s 1992 performance at the MTV Music Awards. 20 years later, the recording is recognized as a key document of early independent music and a master text of virtuosic outsider art. The album doubles as a document of music produced from the isolated borderline between insanity and mental disorder. The historical links between creativity and madness have been studied at length, but never seen through the lens of a document such as this. Johnston, who suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression, saw his early cassettes as a message to the world. This lo-fidelity recording was not only a temporary cure for the disease that had gripped his mind since childhood, but also a manifestation of a schizophrenic’s illusions of grandeur. Johnston didn’t hear the tape as the hiss and crackle of a basement recording—he heard the pronouncement of the next major pop star who would, like the Beatles before him, change the very fabric of the world."

Shapiro begins by introducing, and emphasizing the artist rather than the particular album: a “troubled American artist” who “suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression.”[1] Shapiro frames his proposal by adopting the tone of clinical psychoanalysis: “The historical links between creativity and madness have been studied at length, but never seen through the lens of a document such as [Hi, How Are You].“ Thus, the book promises what literary critics call a “thematic reading,” of the Album. The album becomes a document for a case study, and the aesthetic value is secondary.

Shapiro’s summary also implies that his case study of Johnston will not focus merely on the individual and his emotional illness, but also on what the success this album/cassette achieved tells you about American society (or at least a sub-culture of [mostly white] indie rock) in the 80s/90s, or even into the 21st century, by showing how Hi! How Are You? became “the single most influential homemade cassette tape of all time.”

Although Shapiro recognizes the influence of this album, his summary seems to purposely avoid attributing this influence to any genius or brilliance in Daniel Johnston’s own art. He doesn’t bother here with aesthetic claims like: “Walking The Cow,” or “Speedy Motorcycle,” are more powerful songs than “Like A Virgin.” Nor will he call Daniel Johnston a brilliant conceptual artist for choosing “to commit 15 song fragments to tape using a $59 Sanyo cassette recorder and Radio Shack tape stock” during this era of corporate dominated rock (with its vital punk and hip-hop scenes bubbling beneath).

In fact, Johnston is presented as a rather passive figure in the story of this album’s ultimate influence. Far from being career savvy, Daniel Johnston created this album out of “a schizophrenic’s illusions of grandeur.” In saying this, Shapiro’s book promises to be provocative and controversial and reopen the debate that Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil And Daniel Johnston presented various sides of. As the title implies, Feuerzeig’s movie went beyond the merely psychiatric interpretation, and explored how his the Christian-Fundamentalist upbringing may have been at least as significant a contributing factor to Daniel Johnston’s “affliction.”

Jeff’s movie simply does not simplify this issue. It offers both the psychoanalytic interpretation that is common in this secular society, but also suggests a sociological or even religious one. The devil is not just a demon that possesses a delusional madman, but also a central tenant of the kind of Christianity that Johnston’s family always tried to hold themselves to (and instill its moral code in Daniel). In this religious world-view, the devil is real, as in many gospel (and even secular country) songs---“Don’t let the devil ride. If you let him ride, he’ll want to drive. Don’t let the devil drive.”

When discussing Daniel Johnston’s art, the psychiatric emphasis may be unavoidable (since the line between aesthetics and psychology—behavior, ethics--blurs in this myth), yet the diagnostic terms that Shapiro uses here are themselves controversial, and need to be defined more clearly in order not to provoke the ire of “mental health activists” and even some passionate DJ fans.

Take the phrase, “ illusions of grandeur,” for instance. In order to support his claim that the album is “a manifestation of a schizophrenic’s illusions of grandeur,” Shapiro writes: “Johnston didn’t hear the tape as the hiss and crackle of a basement recording—he heard the pronouncement of the next major pop star who would, like the Beatles before him, change the very fabric of the world.” It’s an interesting either/or distinction, yet there is no verifiable evidence to support that DJ “didn’t hear…the hiss and crackle of a basement recording.” Clearly, Daniel Johnston knew that he didn’t have a band, and couldn’t afford a recording studio. Furthermore, Shapiro’s claim that Johnston believing he could be the next Beatles, or the next big thing, albeit delusional, is a delusion many other musicians—including bands that are considered much more ‘well-adjusted’ than DJ---shared, especially during the time the album was released.

Many musicians were vying to be, and publicists, managers and critics were promoting bands as, the
next Beatles. It was becoming increasingly clear that with the corporate monopoly dominating the
American music industry, and the fragmentation of niches over the previous decade that even the mega
selling acts like Michael Jackson or Hall And Oates could not “change the very fabric of the world,” as
the Beatles apparently did for many (though that history, too, is often overemphasized compared to
other of their contemporaries; if the Beatles changed the very fabric of the world, we should at least ask,
given the changes that have taken place since 1970, was it really for the better?).  The pop-group, or
solo artist, that could transcend niches and reach people from a wide range of demographics as The
Beatles did, was simply not possible by The Reagan Era.

Against this corporate trend, other bands were trying to convince us “that phony Beatlemania has bitten
the dust.” Daniel never said that (as far as I’m aware), but since Hi. How Are You? has become “the
single most influential homemade cassette tape of all time,” that, for many, “changed the very fabric of
the world,” we should at least consider that DJ was not suffering from “delusions of Grandeur” in
creating this album—but did somehow understand that there was a need for music like this, presented in
this format (a chord organ and a cassette) that was not being met by the increasingly soul-less corporate
glitz that dominated this time.

Certainly Daniel Johnston was not the first to choose music—or the other arts—as “a message to the world,” which he could not communicate with by other means. Take, for instance, the patently “well-adjusted” musician (at least as well-adjusted as a famous musician can be), the debonair Bryan Ferry singing that music is his “only way to reach you.” In terms of clinical psychology, almost every musician would suffer from some ailment (hell, if Jesus or Moses, lived to today, they’d be trying to get them on pills too). In the contemporary American pharmaceutical/mental health complex, sometimes overemphasizing the psychiatric interpretations of maladjustments are encouraged to distract us from the deeper issues of the highly materialistic, individualistic, tech-driven economy and culture that many artists struggle against.

One may be a genius artist or intellectual, but still can barely tie his shoes without assistance, as I know too well. State-hired shrinks may offer many clinical diagnoses, but they often come down to semantics. Match the symptoms to the disease from a book; it doesn’t always work. I’m no clinical psychologist, but I’ve read enough to know that some of the “symptoms” I share with Daniel Johnston could render me with a mild, or early-stage manifestation, of what used to be called “Idiot Savant” (though the more correct word these days is “Savant Syndrome”) at least as much as “schizophrenic.”

In Shapiro’s proposal, he relies on the term “mental illness” to describe Daniel Johnston, yet that term is often used unreflectively in our society. There is a distinction between “mental illness” and “emotional illness.” Many people who suffer from “emotional illness” still have enough mastery of their mental faculties to function as intellectuals and artists in our society. But this distinction is often elided, smoothed over, by the dominant media and healthcare industries. Such a conflation can have disastrous consequences for the patient so diagnosed. For instance, a university is less likely to hire a “mentally ill” professor (even if is her intellectual/analytical skills remain in tact and s/he can do her job even better than many others) than they are to hire an “emotionally troubled” one (especially if she published a memoir). If this person can no longer find a job in the one field he excels at, he can no longer pay people to take care of the basic needs that are simpler for everyone else: last year’s genius artist can become this year’s raving homeless maniac.

The fact that Daniel Johnston, at age 53, is still able to tour---no small feat at his age even for more ‘well-adjusted’ people---suggests a man who can do that one thing, and do it well enough to make a living on it. He did not commit suicide like some of his “pretty boy” contemporaries, nor did he end up homeless. There is a strength in this man who is a survivor, and maybe even a kind of mental health advocate if he’s taken seriously---whether or not you like his music or want to get close to him as a person. I do not mean to downplay the strong evidence that reveals DJ’s “maladjustments” in many areas of life, only to suggest that the vague language of “mental illness” Shapiro relies on runs the risk of weakening what promises to be a very fascinating, thought provoking book, yet analyzing it gave me a deeper appreciation of Daniel.

[1] This could also describe David Berman, or at least the speaker of “Random Rules” who was hospitalized for approaching perfection in 1984, almost the same day that Daniel Johnston was.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Get On Up! and the Limits of the Biopic (or “DEATH TO THE BIOPIC!”)

While I generally do not see Hollywood movies these days, I try to make an exception for music biopics: not because I think they will be great films, but because I feel a duty to see how Hollywood presents, or often misrepresents, musicians, music and music history—especially since these accounts give many their “education” about legendary figures such as Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Etta James, Chuck Berry, and Biggie Smalls to name but a few….and, now, James Brown. Directed by Tate Taylor, with a screenplay by the Butterworth brothers, and co-produced (and partially financed by) Mick Jagger. Get On Up (2014) is ostensibly a film about James Brown, but in many ways the film is as much about Hollywood as it is about Brown.

It is interesting to observe that the subjects of most of these major Hollywood biopics made in the past decade (with the exception of Biggie) emerged during the 1950s, a time when America was building its national (and imperial) mass culture identity. These stories of iconic figures that were the subject of Ray, Walk The Line, and Cadillac Records all tell us as much about the changes taking places in American culture (the ground) as they do about their ostensible subject (figure). In general, there is a reason so many more larger than life iconic musicians---even geniuses—emerged during that time than in more recent years. Electronic mass culture encouraged and nourished a present culture then, but now it prefers to use these figures, and our cultural past in general, to prevent something like this from happening today.

Part of this is due to the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s a more decentralized music culture (for instance, the chitlin circuit) dominated and generally lead the more centralized Hollywood culture, from the ground up. But since the early 1970s, the music culture of America takes its lead much more from an industry centralized in Hollywood (NYC and Nashville to a lesser extent, but increasingly Silicon Valley).

James Brown, in fact, touches on this transition that occurred in American music culture in his autobiography, when he speaks about what happened after Syd Nathan, the owner of his Cincinnati-based record label King Records, died and he had to search for new labels in the early 1970s, and large bureaucratic multi-national conglomerates like Polydor were now the only game in town. Of course, that insight, and chapter of JB’s life is absent from Get On Up (more on this egregious, but predictable, omission a little a later).

One Standard Cliche of the Music Biopic (a short summary)

In Ray (2004), the childhood accident that lead to Charles’ blindness is emphasized, not just for giving the gift of music, but as a way to locate a founding trauma that lead to the many demons that Ray had to battle in his own life. While racism, especially as experienced in the Jim Crow south, is not absent in this movie, his troubled childhood as a poor blind boy becomes the main context in which his talent and genius, as well as his heroin addiction, emerged. Here, the biopic convention essentially demands such a superficial analysis that de-emphasizes the racism and poverty and emphasizes the “internal” causes of Ray’s maladies.

The personal story of a man who is addicted to heroin for the same reason he’s addicted to music (and loves it more than his wife) almost serves to ‘justify’ the white naysayers who felt that R&B and soul music he was playing was “devil’s music.” Furthermore, the scene in which he takes a gospel standard, and secularizes it (“I Got A Woman”), makes a clear ideological choice in presenting the black gospel scene who resist this heroic ‘crossover’ moment that lead to what is now called classic rock as a bunch of reactionaries (hell, even the Beatles tried to cover “I Got A Woman”).

Such reductions and distortions of history show how these biopics push a despiritualized, commercial sense of American music that elevates a heroic, yet troubled, individual who can change (or at least provide a decorative soundtrack for) history. On the heels of this movie’s success, Walk The Line (2005) seemed consciously scripted with Ray in mind. Another “rags to riches” story of a southerner from a broken home (though he doesn’t become blind), who is haunted by and motivated to musical greatness (and drug addiction; again, the two are almost synonymous in this convention) to prove something to the parental figure who abandoned him, whether physically or emotionally (again, cut off from any serious dramatization of environmental factors like abject poverty or systematic racism).

This deeply Freudian under song to Walk The Line becomes one of the many things the movie Walk Hard (2007) brilliantly satirizes. Obviously, the director and screenwriters of Walk Hard felt something very similar to what I felt when watching Walk The Line, and one of the reasons Walk The Line did not achieve the success that Ray had was because it had taken Ray and crassly made it into even more of a formula…and audiences seemed to be getting hip. While Walk Hard is primarily a satire of Walk The Line, it reaches deeper to satirize many conventions of the bioptic genre. The “hero,” Dewey Cox is presented alone, in solitude, pausing before a long walk down a hall to a retrospective performance that would somehow sum up his life-work. After Walk Hard, I hoped we would never have to weather another scene like this, but it reappears in Get On Up, providing the narrative frame for the movie.

Life As Rise And Fall (and maybe redemption)

A biopic is ostensibly similar to a behind-the-music show in proposing a dividing line between the art and the life, but what does it mean to be “behind the music” when you put your life into your audience and to regular everyday people who can blow your mind each time you feel them dance at your shows? Hollywood loves to undress what it believes is the hubris of any musician who believes the power of music, of call and response, both live and recorded, can be bigger than life viewed as a story.

Here, Hollywood casts itself in the roll of Toto: Take that, you mighty and powerful OZ! We know you’re just a bumbling man from Nebraska slumming it in Oz, a kind of homesick imperialist who really just never wanted to grow up and be abandoned by mama like Citizen Kane.

Hollywood is so wedded to the conventions of the biopic that they exploit people’s love of music to lure people in, and in most cases fans of the music leave disappointed. It’s not that that the musical scenes in Get On Up are not good. As Odie Henderson points out, “Chadwick Boseman has done his dancing homework. Watching him perform, and listening to him perfectly nail Brown’s speaking voice are the true pleasures of Get on Up.  Unfortunately, the movie wastes this performance.”[1] Indeed, the biopic seems designed precisely to push an alien religion on those for whom music, especially black music, is often superior to, and wider than, a story--in particular, a rise and fall story of an isolated self.

The film doesn’t go quite as far as to have James Brown cry Rosebud with his dying breath, but we do get Citizen Cocaine, if not King Heroin, right from the get go. As Henderson brilliantly summarizes, Brown enters the movie “as a buffoon reeking of danger and insanity who is rendered harmless by his own comic ineptitude.” This “neutered, cartoonish,” yet nonetheless still threatening, version of him hangs over the whole movie.

Clearly the screenwriters, the Butterworth boys, felt that emphasizing these scenes set in 1988, only two years after the positive note on which his autobiography ended, was the most dramatic way they could introduce the character they call James Brown. Apparently, the directors and screen writers felt that this was the fall, the negative climax, and it can only (or most ‘realistically’) be explained by a superficial Freudian reading of the “family romance” of his childhood formative years. Thus, the plot of the movie becomes “how did he fall so low from such a height?”

In Get On Up, the scenes with his birth parents are overemphasized unless one is a Freudian or post-Freudian developmental psychologist. Brown’s autobiography is frank, and doesn’t dwell on his dad’s whoopings or inability to provide for him. Yet JB offers a wider context for his dad’s particular pathology. His dad had a temper about white people, but he was too submissive to express that to whites, so took it out on his son. Showing the young James witnessing his dad’s encounters with racist white folks could’ve made for great cinema, and dug into a truth much deeper than trying to fit the movie into the Ray and Walk Hard grid that puts Brown on the shrink’s couch when it’s not putting him on trial.

The post-Freudians, of course, have their system rigged so that they would call any other interpretation of childhood other than “primal foundational trauma” to be denial, and as long as (white) Hollywood continues to be dominated by this mindset it simply cannot register why JB devotes much more time on the largely positive relationship he had with his extended family in a brothel presided over by his aunt. The movie does devote some time on a touching scene with his aunt (her nurturing, her spiritual wisdom, her prophecy, and her pride in him as he makes his first money hustling for her before he ends up in prison as a teenager)—but it more insistently flashes back to the trauma presumably caused by his birth parents.

White Supremacy & Black Capitalism

Because JB understood his dad’s pathology against the backdrop of white supremacy, the movie’s erasure of this is suspect. It’s not that Get On Up entirely sweeps white supremacy under the rug. Little Richard and JB bond over how to deal with what Richard calls the white devil that runs the music business. This is a lesson JB would later apply in his relationship with his white manager, Ben Bart, affectionately called “Pop” by Brown (and played by “Blues Brother” Dan Ackroyd in the movie). These scenes are perhaps the film’s most intimate, and reveal some of JB’s chutzpah in dealing with the white music establishment (and provide a useful contrast with the scenes between Chuck Berry and Leonard Chess in Cadillac Records).

I’m glad the movie dramatized the scene in which James brilliantly explained why cutting out those who “Pops” calls the best big time promoters in the business and, instead, choosing to work with the local DJS, would make both client and manager more money….and, in addition, help the underpaid, exploited, DJS who were the lifeblood of the music industry (the filmmakers had to make the DJ white, but that’s no biggie; some were). James’ solution is a win/win situation that helps the local economy and helps bring democracy to the nation’s music culture!

The manager was skeptical, but JB’s wisdom prevails. This kind of insight into, and analysis of, the music industry is part of what makes JB’s autobiography such a delightful, engaging and even empowering read. It shows JB’s generous, populist, community oriented side—which is otherwise absent from the movie. Yet, once again, Get On Up has to frame this as a largely individual mere selfish attempt to make money and, like Berry Gordy, disrespectfully underpay his musicians. But can you really reduce his pubic service advertisements, his ownership of several radio stations, his James Brown Stamps, and the generosity of his enlightened self-interest to that?

Sure, he may have been too busy making music to really know how to run all the enterprises he started (just like The Beatles with their Apple Corp fiasco), but the movie makes it seem like it was merely about JB trying to dodge taxes! I’m not looking for a white-washed portrait of JB, stripped of his various contradictions that are touched on, for instance, in Thomas Sayers Ellis’ brilliant poem sequence (with photographs and footnotes for footwork), “My Dynamite Splits.” But I would at the very least like to see a movie that acknowledges that what was so great about James Brown was not merely the genius super bad musician and performer.

When I hear the cry in “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World” about how man makes money to buy another man, and how man is lost in the wilderness and bitterness, it’s not just about little James and his personal hell, it’s about life in White man’s America, and one black man’s attempt to do something about it, an attempt that in its own way was as successful as any of the more radical spokesman and organizers of Black Power during this era. He may not have liberated the people, but his hard work liberated—and still can liberate--the spirit. There is little or no room for this in the ideological interpretation the Butterworth boys, Taylor and Jagger, promulgate in Get On Up!

“Closure: Walk Hard Style”

Though the movie touches on how important music was for JB in prison the first time around, as a kid where he lead a group “to sing for the lord,” it shows nothing but one horrific broken man scene during his 88-93 prison stay. It certainly shows nothing of the grassroots movement of fans and supporters who held “Free James Brown” dance parties across the country to fight the racist double standard in his 6 year sentence for nothing more than a “blue light” violation.

Despite the repeated testimony by those who were closer to him and visited him in prison during this period (like Tucker and music critic Dave Marsh), the directors try to render James Brown into a flawed tragic hero who couldn’t really relate to those closest to him, or even a villain, like Richard III (pushing away the loyal Bobby Byrd as Buckingham) into that isolation of the tragic individual that the genre of tragedy demands.

At least Walk The Line, could rely on the cliché of the MGM or Shakespearean comic happy ending, a love story that could inspire such songs Heidi Newfield’s “Do You Want A Love Like Johnny and June?” Like Johnny, James Brown was also deeply devoted to his wife and devastated by her death, but Get On Up makes no room for that, and in the process reduces his (temporary) split with Bobby Byrd to an argument over whose dick is bigger (“I could’ve had your wife”); Byrd’s marriage is presented as healthier and more loving than Brown’s because that fits the tragic larger than life cliché that underlies this movie’s portrayal of Brown. What makes Brown great is what makes him tragic. Larger than life becomes smaller than life; this isn’t what the audience demands, what the complicated truth demands, and it’s not what the music demands; it’s what the convention and the shrinks demand.

The movie does offer its little biopic cliché of redemption when JB gets out of jail in 1994, a comeback concert and a personal humbling before Byrd (“I neeeed you”). This is closure: Hollywood style: Walk Hard style; it’s touching, but ultimately trivial and tedious. I really wish JB could get on up today to tell a thing or two about the “honky hoedown” these directors and screenwriters tried to reduce him to, or even look Mick Jagger in the eye, and say, “you still making money ripping off black folks.” Maybe someday, when Jagger dies, there will be a bioptic made of him. After all, stories of the (Rolling) Stones mistreatment of women and drug abuse are at least as prevalent as much as JB’s, but I severely doubt they will play as central a part in such a movie.

In Get On Up, we return to that long walk down the hall, in which the larger than life character sees his life and career pass before him, a life reduced to the child’s need for ego-validation. In this light, you can listen to many of James Brown’s lyrics and see how much of an individualist he could be (in words), but that’s a persona he consciously developed, as he reminds us over and over again in his autobiography. Even the movie reminds us it was the white suits who wanted to change the name of the Famous Flames to elevate the solo artist. Sure, he’s a “greedy man.” Sure, “I got mine, don’t worry about his,” but listen to the sounds of the grooves, the collective unit, the package shows he put together: see everybody dancing. Join the dance (if they let you do it in the theatre, or better Get On Out of the theatre), and feel the unity—everybody working together in the name of soul, in the name of JAMES BROWN who contains multitudes.

Now pause and think about that experience for a second (even if it’s just a recording of a song by a dead man at a party or an aerobics class), and then think about what Hollywood—white Hollywood—is trying to tell you, sell you, about Life---not just James Brown’s life, not just the biopic convention, with no personal investment, not just the life of any public figure, but life in general. Is the soliloquy really more “authentic” than the dialogue? Is the community organizer really just a tortured individual? Is the so-called man behind the music really the deeper reality?

“Hollywood: “that’s how the white man sells himself to the world.”
                                                                                                      Judy Juanita, Virgin Soul

Critic Tanya Steele argues that Get On Up exhibits “the need for ‘Hollywood’ to situate itself in the lives of Black Americans without giving a Black Director the opportunity to tell the story.” White Hollywood has a long history of this, dating back to its origins with D.W. Griffith’s Birth Of A Nation. While Get On Up doesn’t go so far as to celebrate the KKK, it presents a series of dubious “tropes that are supposed to relay that this is Blackness.”[2]

From its first scene, Get On Up puts James Brown on trial, looking at him through judgmental white eyes. As Bruce Tucker, co-author of James Brown’s autobiography, The Godfather of Soul, pointed out over 20 years ago: “for white audiences, even sympathetic ones, [JB’s] difference always threatens to become otherness—the raw, uninhibited, possessed exotic black Other of colonialist fantasy….Perfectly well-meaning people….talk to me about his troubles in tones usually reserved for the appreciation of Road Runner cartoons. It is clear that part of the price of the difference James Brown sought—and the otherness he didn’t---is to be treated like a cartoon character, capable of popping back into shape no matter how many anvils land on him. Or, in an only slightly more affectionate form, he is regarded as a child.” (xxii, xxv).

Get On Up relies on both interpretations, and it’s unclear whether the filmmakers are “well-meaning,” unconsciously racist, or purposely trying to debunk James Brown by “dwelling on James’ high-handedness with musicians, the reported domestic violence, and the problems that [in 1988] landed him in jail,” in Tucker’s words. In Get On Up, even these cartoonish portrayals cannot entirely neutralize the presentation of a strong, proud black man who is first introduced as threatening and potentially violent. And the movie is in many ways about the white culture of fear of the black male which Michael Moore memorably exposed in Bowling For Columbine, and presumption of violent until proven gentle often subliminally instilled in contemporary white consciousness.

However, comically portrayed, the fear on the faces of the white people in the film’s first scene is real, and implicitly justifies the harsh six-year sentence he received for his blue-light violation in 1988, entirely ignoring the racist double standard involved in his sentencing by relying on an unverified story of Brown shooting at a crowd. According to Get On Up, this apocryphal story is the first thing you need to know about James Brown. We may ask, by what standards this is great cinema?

These ruminations lead me to some heavy question: Is Get On Up a failed movie, or does it do exactly what it set out to do? Is it a bad movie that was genuinely intended to be a tribute to James Brown? Or is or is it bad for the same reasons it’s inherently racist?  Amiri Baraka writes, “our enemies have created our spokesmen” in reference to how white corporate culture has elevated the image of the “gangsta rapper” and package it to black folks. Hollywood couldn’t create James Brown, or even the image of JAMES BROWN. However, they can muscle their way into it with their money in his death.

Yet, Get On Up shows the bioptic as it is currently understood is a dead-end genre so based on a Euro-Westernized notion of a self-contained “self” that it simply cannot begin to sound the phenomenon, and ongoing legacy, of James Brown. If one must accept that JB indeed had a “downfall” after 4 decades of top ten hits, this is more likely due to the corporate takeover of the record industry than his own personal trauma; this becomes very clear reading his autobiography. Ultimately I concur with Tanya Steele that there are definitely black filmmakers “talented as f**k who could smash a James Brown bioptic” much better than Get On Up does. I firmly believe that such a movie could help revolutionize Hollywood as much as James’ Brown’s music was able to breathe life into and transform American music.

In the meantime, if you want to know about James Brown, read the autobiography, or check out all those less famous recordings he did (most of us have only scratched the surface of his oeuvre). There’s really no point seeing the movie unless you are interested in studying how Hollywood uses its shock and awe tactics to try to manipulate us with its frame and narrow world-view.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Commercial or Poem (for music for a movement)

Commercial or Poem (for music for a movement)

Ah, yes, to do commercials for banks
then you can afford to make music for the movement
to support candidates who promise not to take out TV or Youtube ads
and run (on people-power) on the Get-Money-Out-Of-Politics Agenda!
And if you keep doing these commercials,
you may even convince these candidates
to put a plank on their platform
forcing all those Wellness Professionals to put better music on hold
while you’re waiting over an hour to find out if you’re still covered!

Yes, imagine a world where you call up an HMO, and they have a menu:
if you prefer to listen to classical, press one (and the pound sign)
press 3 for country,
4 for R&B, 5 for punk, etc.
And give access to local musicians who will work for less!
Let them compete on your “hold music” channels,
just like airlines have channels
(or at least did in the early 00s it’s been a while since I last flew).
Make the music experience an enjoyable one
for your customers, your captives.
You can make them love you,

Cmon Kaiser Permanente, I’ve listened to your “Thrive” ads
about the healing powers of music; put your money where your mouth is.
It certaintly wouldn’t cost nearly as much as those “Thrive” ads do,
and why do you really even need advertising.
I mean; we get it, just as they got it back before the 1980s
when it was illegal to take out ads.
So, yes, we’d love to make your advertisements illegal again,
but in the meantime we’re willing to compromise
and make some really cool grooves for you.
This is called pragmatism and it gets closer to, uh, democracy.

And, you, chainstores like Wallgreens and Wallmarts
Where people still actually share a quasi-social space
walking down aisles as they used to walk on sunny sidewalks,
we love you like a kid loves the parents he didn’t choose!
You could be our home!
Ah, I’ve seen it at places like Grocery Outlet in Oakland;
people singing along as “Hitchhike” by Marvin Gaye plays
and even sort of dancing in the marketplace
(not a lot, but more than at most live shows),
walking with a stride in their step,
not at all minding the lines even if they were longer,
and actually letting old ladies with a shopping cart full of groceries go ahead of us 
even if we only have a bunch of broccoli and three bananas. 
Ah, wellness!

But Wallmart and Wallgreens, you could do even better!
You have more money and many stores,
you could play local new musicians and save money,
you could hold little contests and shows in your parking lots,
you could even have a podcast
for the music some of the “general listeners” might find offensive
like the “light rock in the salad bar” that David Berman lamented in 2001.
Take a poll, how many people really find your easy listening that easy to listen to.
I will bet you this; no more than those who would love to hear “Big Boss Man”

Oh Venture Capitalists, do you have any ears?
If you need to hear these idea seeds spoken very softly,
in tones of a spreadsheet flowchart about the fiscal benefits,
just explain your language and know we could make it work.
But, oh candidate, when you come to me for money, please consider ideas.
This is why the teach us “The Little Drummer Boy” for Christmas.
The rich give gifts; the poor can “only” give their drums,
and it ain’t that stiff little “a rump-a-tum-tum.”
It wasn’t that silent of night.
There ain’t much snow in Palestine,
especially when it’s not December—
but yes we need drums all year long:
not always perhaps, but it is the “easy listening music” for many
and that would help galvanize and electrify your base with people power.
Yes, even today, in 2014.

Chris Stroffolino