Author Archives: Michael Mand

Blogalongabond – Licence to Kill: A Song to Die For

Contributor Michael Mand takes a look at the rich history of Bond music, culminating with an appreciation of his own personal favourite theme tune.

The word ‘iconic’ is often overused; however, when it comes to the James Bond film series, there are undoubtedly numerous iconic elements, from the cars to the catchphrases and the actors themselves. Perhaps the most iconic Bond feature of all, however, is the music. This includes both the original Bond theme (perhaps the most instantly recognisable piece of music in all of cinema) and the individual films’ disparate theme songs, recorded by an array of contrasting artists and always the subject of competition and debate.

The iconic James Bond theme

The James Bond Theme” sets out the blueprint for the series; teeming with drama and menace, flailing horns and grandiose production. Written in 1962 in the surf rock style popular at the time, the original, defining riff was played by guitarist Vic Flick (who received a generous one-off fee of six English pounds for his performance). The authorship of the theme has been the subject of dispute over the years. Initially credited to Monty Norman, the theme was recorded by the John Barry Seven. Barry, who would go onto become the composer most associated with Bond, claimed credit for the piece, culminating in a court case which came down on the side of Norman. Since its debut in Dr No (celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) each Bond film has seen a different arrangement of the theme, often reflecting the film’s setting, star and title song.

Flick later worked with The Beatles on A Hard Day’s Night, coming under the production eye of George Martin, one of a number of producers/composers who would take the helm when Barry was unavailable. Martin teamed up with Paul McCartney for the first time post-Beatles on 1973’s Live & Let Die. The list also included Michael Kamen, Eric Serra, Marvin Hamlish & Bill Conti before David Arnold stepped into the breach full time. With directorial duties passing to Sam Mendes for the forthcoming Skyfall, Arnold has been replaced by Mendes’ long-time collaborator Thomas Newman.

Another notable musical trademark of the Bond series is the increasing tendency to use snatches of famous soundtracks from other films, as well as self-referential appearances of previous Bond themes and even the use of classical scores. One such example of the former is the appearance of Maurice Jarre’s ‘Theme from Lawrence of Arabia’ during The Spy Who Loved Me’s desert scene.

For every film an individual theme song

If the Bond series’ incidental music is familiar, then far more debate and speculation surrounds the individual theme song which usually accompanies each film’s title sequence. Matt Monroe’s version of ‘From Russia With Love’ was the first vocal track to accompany a Bond film (though it was played over the closing titles), while the following year saw Shirley Bassey make her Bond debut with Goldfinger. Bassey went on to record two further themes, and remains the only person to have had the honour of performing more than one. The use of Tom Jones and Lulu in subsequent films continued the standard pairing of mega-lunged singer with brassy, show-stopping tune.

By the 1970s and early ‘80s, this approach had given way to drippy ballads performed by female singers, including Sheena Easton’s ‘For Your Eyes Only’, Carly Simon’s ‘Nobody Does It Better’ (from The Spy Who Loved Me) and Rita Coolidge’s ‘All Time High’ (Octopussy); the latter two rare examples of theme songs which don’t share the film’s title (this trait has recently reappeared, but then you try shoe-horning Quantum of Solace into a song lyric). There was also a conscious effort to make the songs reflect contemporary musical trends, while retaining their ‘Bond-ness’; this manifested itself in the disco feel of the pre-title music in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and the choice of ‘80s pop titans Duran Duran & a-ha to soundtrack A View To A Kill and The Living Daylights respectively.

Increasingly, the choice of artist recording the Bond theme has become the subject of fevered speculation, competition and controversy, perhaps as much as the choice of actor to play Bond himself. While recent performers have ranged from the hopelessly naff (Madonna, Chris Cornell) to the bizarre (Jack White’s duet with Alicia Keys), it’s interesting to look at the artists who missed out, in the same way as I previously considered the actors who almost played 007.

The Pet Shop Boys submitted a version of ‘The Living Daylights’ in 1987, which was later reworked as their 1990 album track ‘This Must Be the Place I’ve Waited Years to Leave’; Alice Cooper and Blondie recorded unused versions of ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’ and ‘For Your Eyes Only’; the 1997 film Tomorrow Never Dies attracted entries from Pulp, Marc Almond, Space & The Cardigans, before the bizarre decision to opt for the dismal Sheryl Crow. Speculation is already rife about the theme to this year’s Skyfall, with Adele, Noel Gallagher, Muse & Lady Gaga among the motley crew apparently in contention. A personal preference would be for Radiohead (take a listen to ‘Down is the New Up’ from the extended In Rainbows for a taste of how this might sound) or Arctic Monkeys (recall their Glastonbury cover of ‘Diamonds Are Forever’?), while the great might-have-been is perhaps the late Amy Winehouse.

Note to Eon: Robbie Williams must NEVER be allowed near a Bond theme.

The greatest Bond theme of all time

So, to my personal favourite. As this was ostensibly to be an article about Timothy Dalton’s 1989 swansong Licence to Kill, let us turn to the film’s true star: Gladys Knight. While the film itself is a solid effort, featuring a more confident turn from Dalton than in the preceding drear-fest The Living Daylights, a plot involving personal revenge and the suspension of Bond’s 00-status (plus a surprisingly fresh-faced Benicio Del Toto as a henchman), the most memorable aspect is Knight’s magnum opus of a theme song.

The Empress of Soul (for it is she) beat a mooted collaboration between Flick and Eric Clapton to the gig and, in the absence of Barry, was paired with Narada Michael Walden (he of ‘Divine Emotions’, ‘80s fans), Jeffrey Cohen and producer Walter Afanasieff. The result was the definitive Bond theme. Borrowing liberally from Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’, it was suitably self-referential, featured trademark brass and bluster and benefitted from a soaring vocal performance from Gladys herself. Topped off by a somewhat gangsta lyric which suggested that our Glad was ready to pop a cap in the ass of anyone who might dare try it on with her man, it was even cool enough to make its debut on Radio 1’s Big Beat Show, normally the home of hip hop and R’n’B.

‘Licence to Kill’ was the last of the great Bond themes, encapsulating all of the traits that had been established in the decades before, and overshadowing the disparate shambles who have since taken up the mantle. Somehow, I just don’t see Noel Gallagher living up to a song that remains one of the great film openers, with or without The Pips.

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit. Contributor Michael Mand can be followed on Twitter @grindermand.

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Blogalongabond – The Living Daylights: How Do You Solve A Problem Like Bond?

I recall that the appointment of Timothy Dalton as the fourth official actor to play James Bond, following the retirement of Roger Moore, caused some confusion in my postal district. Up until that point, Dalton had been largely known as a stage actor and was only familiar to us as Prince Barin in the enjoyably barmy Flash Gordon. Dalton’s debut came in 1987’s The Living Daylights, which I will confess remains perhaps my least favourite Bond film, and makes Dalton my least favourite Bond (George Lazenby’s brief miscasting aside).

A Bond fan’s view of their favourite era tends to depend on age; my parents’ generation grew up with Sean Connery, the suave, definitive Bond (in their eyes), while I was used to Roger Moore’s irony-laden, eyebrow-raising model. Those who came of age in the ’90s will have enjoyed Pierce Brosnan’s amalgamation-Bond, and Daniel Craig has brought the franchise up-to-date, with his post-Bourne/post-9/11 action hero. The character has something in common with Doctor Who, as an icon with a dedicated fanbase, with each reinvention the subject of enormous interest and controversy.

Theatrical poster

Dalton, however, seems to have fallen through memory’s cracks, almost obscure enough to warrant a quiz question, but too recent to have been entirely forgotten. However, the story of his casting as 007 reveals a wider tale of missed chances, second chances and actors being in the right place at the right time (and vice versa). Indeed, Dalton only got the role when he did because Brosnan was unavailable due to contractual obligations with the TV show Remington Steele. In many ways, the history of those who didn’t play Bond is more interesting than that of those who did, and takes us into some surprising areas.

Bond’s creator – Ian Fleming – was keen to bring his character to the big screen and was involved in the production of an early screenplay called James Bond, Secret Agent, written with Richard Burton in mind. However, Burton rejected the role and the Bond film was shelved until Cubby Broccoli’s production company Eon obtained the rights and a film dynasty was born. Eon initially held a contest to ‘find James Bond’, which was won by an obscure model named Peter Anthony. It quickly became clear that Anthony could not act, leading Eon to begin a search for an established actor capable of filling 007’s shoes.

Many stars of the day were linked with the part – James Mason, Trevor Howard and even Cary Grant were considered – but, following the decision of first choice Rex Harrison to reject the role, Broccoli settled on a young Scottish actor named Sean Connery (incidentally, this casting choice influenced Fleming’s later portrayal of his hero in his books, as he added a previously unheard of sense of humour and Scottish heritage). Connery retired (briefly) from the role in 1968, at which point a then 22-year-old actor was approached to replace him. His name? Timothy Dalton. Dalton refused the part, believing that he was too young for the role, the first of a series of fateful decisions which would come to define the Bond series. Instead, Lazenby was cast (apparently beating One Million Years BC star John Richardson to the part), making his only appearance in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service before Connery returned.

Briefly researching the list of those linked with role of 007 is notable for the sheer number of actors considered, but even more surprising is their disparate styles; from professional Yorkshireman Sean Bean to Cold Feet posho Robert Bathurst; from tuxedo-sporting Bond wannabe Clive Owen to anti-Semitic has-been Mel Gibson; from family friendly Hollywood star Sam Neill to Brodie-from-The-Professionals Lewis Collins; and from ballet dancer Antony Hamilton to actual Frenchman Christopher Lambert.

“Actual Frenchman” Christopher Lambert

Those of you who have read Fleming’s original Bond books will recall that his creation was a rather different character to most of the portrayals which have appeared on the big screen over the fifty years since Connery first took to the screen in Dr No. Fleming’s Bond was a difficult and conflicted man, displaying many of his creator’s own prejudices (sexism & homophobia were par for the course). He is described in the novels as having been born in the early 1920’s, resembling musician Hoagy Carmichael, with a scar on his cheek, grey/blue eyes, a cruel mouth and as standing six feet tall, with a thin build. From this we can perhaps judge which Bond actor has been most faithful to the original 007; we can probably discount Moore’s ironic, elderly stint, which seemed to be based more on his earlier portrayal of The Saint than Fleming’s novels. Connery, as mentioned, became more of an influence on the Bond novels than they were on him, while Brosnan’s reinvention seemed to be an amalgamation of his favourite aspects of Connery and Moore, a smug, post-cold war heartthrob mixed with a witty, heart-in-the-right-place ironist. As good as Craig’s current incarnation may be at running up cranes and modelling swimwear, he surely bears no resemblance to the James portrayed in Fleming’s books. Perhaps then we should re-evaluate Dalton’s contribution to the canon?

The Living Daylights, based on a late short story by Fleming, sees Dalton reinvent Bond as a harder, more serious character than we had seen previously. The rather convoluted plot sees 007 deployed to oversee the defection of a KGB agent and discovering that the KGB themselves appear to have rebooted their policy of “Smert’ Spionam” (“Death to Spies”). As he crosses Europe and Afghanistan, it becomes clear that Dalton’s Bond has more in common with the character of the early novels than that of his film predecessors; gone are the painfully comic asides, the easy charm and the much parodied silliness. Instead we have an actual spy thriller, with all the complexities that involves. The problem is, that’s not what I look to Bond for; having scratched my head through last year’s inexplicably lauded Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I clearly lack the intellectual chops to deal with any spy film which doesn’t involve chasing Russians through space. Perhaps I’ve come to love the screen Bond as an entirely different character to that of the books; for me Dalton is just too damn straight.

So, where next for James Bond? A quick perusal of the internet shows that bets are already on for Craig’s successor in the iconic tuxedo, with CGI’s Sam Worthington the hot favourite, followed by Tom Hardy & Christian Bale (a potentially over-serious 007 if ever there was one). There is also the ongoing debate about whether it’s time for a black Bond, with Will Smith (rather absurdly) being mentioned; my own preference would be Adrian Lester. This appears to be a controversial subject (Bond’s a white guy, right?), but I refer you to Idris Elba’s quote in Bim Adewunmi’s excellent recent article in The Guardian: “Can a black man play a Nordic character? Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”

Bond remains Fleming’s creation, but has evolved so many times that he is essentially the property of whichever actor is playing him at the time. This makes him a character for the ages and goes some way to explaining why Dalton’s ‘true to the text’ 007 in The Living Daylights is perhaps the least fun of any film in this much loved series.

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit. Contributor Michael Mand can be followed on Twitter @grindermand.

Sound It Out: A Eulogy for the Record Store

Contributor Michael Mand takes a wistful look at Jeanie Finlay’s music shop doc Sound It Out.

During my recent review of Michael Dowse’s hockey comedy Goon, I reflected on my youth in North East England and suggested that the local ice rink provided the city’s youth-cultural centrepiece. I was of course referring to those healthy beings who value such vulgar activities as ‘fun’ & the company of others; for the rest of us, there was Volume Records.

For the benefit of younger readers: in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, music was largely available in three formats – vinyl, cassette and the new technology of compact disc – but could be bought from a range of outlets. There were the obvious chain stores (Durham had not one, but two branches of Our Price), non-specialist shops such as Woolworth’s and, in my case, the local newsagent (which sold ex-jukebox singles at 50p a pop); meanwhile, for those who dared enter, there were independent record shops.

Volume was one of these shops; a small, dark and musty space, secreted down a narrow street and staffed by the largest array of cultural snobs north of the Royal Opera House. To enter was to brave the judgement of older, cooler men and confront a bewildering array of records, posters and flyers, a cacophony of unfamiliar noise and the stench of both ageing cardboard and bizarrely attired individuals. Friends of mine who worked there attest to the absurdly competitive and superior owner – think Comic Book Guy with a Wearside accent.*

Shane: “There’s nothing like doing 6 solid nights of Quo, one after the other”

“Barry, Dick and I have decided you can’t be a serious person if you own less than 500 records…”

Anyone who has read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity or watched Stephen Frears’ excellent film adaptation will be familiar with the type personified by Rob, who represents all of us downtrodden by the male compulsion to own, to collect, to hoard. There’s an anthropological study to be made of this phenomenon but, for now, Hornby must do, such is his bull’s-eye depiction of these once-hipsters trapped by their obsessions (Rob), geeky music-librarians struggling to socialise outside of their artificial, vinyl environment (Dick) and aggressive record-snobs who can only assess themselves (or others) via a personally approved musical pantheon (Barry).

This is a world in which everything and anything can be safely compartmentalised in All-Time Top Five lists, in-jokes and an obsession with obscure fact and arbitrary opinion. Jack Black’s ostensibly OTT performance will seem entirely natural to anyone who has encountered that type in a shadowy record shop or stained-carpet ROCK pub. The stereotype calcified in Hornby’s book – and its predecessor, the football crazy’s crazy football bible, Fever Pitch – along with the likes of Loaded magazine, reduced us chaps to the status of one-track minded monoliths in the 1990s. Despite this, I believe that there is an emotional richness to the male collector; a wish to surround himself with something meaningful, beautiful and to possess something he might one day leave behind.

“They’re as close to being mad as makes no difference…”

All of which makes it all the stranger that the melancholy yet uplifting documentary Sound It Out (recently released on DVD) should be so sympathetically directed by a lady, specifically Jeanie Finlay. Her film heads twenty miles south of Durham City, to run-down Stockton-upon-Tees, and focuses upon the only remaining independent record store in the town, the eponymous Sound It Out. The shop is run by a real-life ‘Rob’, Tom Butchart, who’s making vinyl’s last stand in an obscure part of the north. This is not a trendy London outlet, not a Rough Trade, or any Portobello Road boutique; the shop is a refuge and supplier to a range of troubled local souls, who look to Tom as a kind of guru.

Finlay is an unobtrusive presence, documenting the irregular comings and goings of the local refugees. There’s a formerly suicidal fan of anything subtitled ‘metal’ who credits the music he finds in Rob’s shop as his salvation;  a pair of local hip hop wannabes, hoping that music might lift them out of the dead end of recession-hit Britain; a now successful London-based female singer-songwriter, back to her hometown for a shop-based show. There’s even room for the random characters from the pub opposite the shop, who occasionally appear to slur questions about songs they have cocked an ear at on the boozer juke.  Each one is treated with complete, interested and non-patronising respect, and sometimes followed home by Finlay to their (usually) celibate flats, in order to further discuss this music thing.

Shane is my favourite; a balding, middle-aged, denim-jacketed yet eloquent oddball who encapsulates the power of the music that we addicts rely on like seatbelts. Shane has seen Status Quo live between 450 and 500 times, yet claims he is “not fanatical” (“there’s nothing like doing 6 solid nights of Quo, one after the other”); he lives alone and has never washed his patch-ridden Quo jacket. Growing up with a physical disability, Shane discovered what those of us with a social disability also identified at some point in our teens: music enables a form of internal, yet real conversation that can’t possibly be matched in the local park or ice rink. Finlay deftly reveals that, in his record collection, Shane has found the comfort he might otherwise have sought in the enriching career or relationship he’s been wrongly denied. As with the depressed metal fan, these are Morrissey’s literal “songs that saved your life”.

Pop to Sound It Out and that Jesus Jones badge could be yours

“I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like… Books, records, films – these things matter…”

The near-anachronistic milieu evinced by Sound It Out got me thinking about how we consume music today. In my youth, the modern capacity to access music would have seemed a crazy sci-fi dream. Reduced to scouting for music in Volume-type stores or record fairs (my original vinyl copy of The Smiths’ Meat Is Murder cost me £4.50 from a church charity sale in Crewe), or to taping the Top Forty from a crackling Radio One, the idea that virtually every record ever made could be available at one’s fingertips would have appeared magical. However, even as I take advantage of technology in consuming music, I can’t help but feel that this ease of access in some ways devalues the music itself. MP3 players have traduced the role of the album –  a cohesive whole which rewarded time spent with it – in favour of single tracks, shuffles and the downloading/deleting of unloved digital files. Gone also is the artwork, the craving for liner notes – for information. I own a much loved picture book which details in glorious colour every sleeve of every record released on the Factory label; such tactile pleasures don’t exist with the iPod.

Of course, the ability to download music, or find thousands of tracks on Spotify or YouTube, has wonderful benefits, opening up a whole world of sound from across the decades. However, this sea change in the way we consume music is sounding a death knell for the record collector’s Mecca: shops like Sound it Out.

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music…?”

Tom seems more balanced and far happier than High Fidelity’s Rob, but is still a fanatic at heart . It’s easy to sense the desolation that will be felt if and when his one man crawl against the tide comes to an end; at one point, Tom explains that for him, records are “all about emotions & memories”. In many ways, Sound It Out also holds just these things for so many of his dwindling disciples.

As a piece of documentary film, Sound It Out has much in common with the music it celebrates. It is engrossing and heart warming, but it is also deeply sad and reveals many truths about the present in which we live which far transcend the obscure world of the independent record shop it enthusiastically profiles. Tom’s assistant, previously made redundant by a mainstream record outlet, expresses his fear that he may soon be out of a job again, and suddenly a film about a subset of people takes on a wider resonance, reflecting the changing times and providing an account of the decay of towns like Stockton, as businesses collapse and shops stand empty or are changed into bargain outlets.

On a recent return visit to Durham, I passed the narrow side street where Volume Records used to be. There, in its place, now hides a discount electrical goods store. In the ancient market place, even the likes of Our Price and Woolworths are now a Haagen Dazs ice cream outlet and a Tesco supermarket, standing incongruously amid the cobblestones. Around the statue teenagers, as ever, gather in groups, MP3 players in their pockets, headphones covering their ears.

Sound It Out is out now on DVD, released by Dogwoof. Extras include: filmmaker and cast interviews, Jeanie Finlay’s first short documentary film Love Takes and another music themed short docu by Tim Mattia – The Chapman Family is not a Cult. Also included are additional music videos and trailers.

*Though, to be fair, Volume’s Führer would be kind enough to gift certain of us outdated window displays, leading to the decoration of our sixth form common room with an entire wall of Teenage Fanclub album covers, a life size cardboard cut-out of the members of James and large posters hyping records by Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and Cypress Hill.

Blogalongabond – A View To A Kill: Visual & Vinyl Villains

In 1985, Roger Moore celebrated his final appearance as James Bond in the film A View To A Kill. He also celebrated his 58th birthday. Unfortunately, these two events are difficult to separate when watching Moore’s swansong; when Sean Connery (who also played Bond into his fifties) derides you as “too old”, it’s time to think about turning in your licence to kill.

Moore disliked AVTAK, later describing himself as “horrified” by the film’s violence while self-deprecatingly admitting, “I was only about four hundred years too old for the part”. This observation cannot really be denied: at times Moore resembles a condom stuffed with walnuts, while maintaining the air of a boxer who has taken on one fight too many – Ricky Hatton in a tuxedo, perhaps?

Despite this complaint – and the fact that AVTAK holds the lowest rating on review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes of any official Bond movie – I maintain a level of affection for the film, largely based on three factors: my age, my memories of the theme tune, and the mighty Grace Jones.

AVTAK was the first Bond film I ever saw at the cinema and, despite the fact that the character on screen bore little resemblance to the 007 I had recently read about in Ian Fleming’s original novels (and my mother’s insistence that “Connery is the real Bond”), I was ready to accept the aged figure creaking his way up the Eiffel Tower as the genuine article. (Anyway, since Fleming’s Bond is a physical wreck of a man, perhaps Moore’s portrayal is more accurate than Daniel Craig’s Bourne-inspired superman thug-hunk)?

Prior to AVTAK, Bond theme songs had been largely recorded by long-established crooners, such as Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones and, despite their success, bore little relevance to the pop music of the day. This all changed, however, when Duran Duran’s Bond-loving drummer John Taylor ran into producer Cubby Broccoli and insisted that it was time to let “someone decent” have a crack. I will leave it to you, Dear Reader, to judge whether Le Bon’s yacht-dwelling fops do actually fall into the “decent” category, but it cannot be denied that, at the time, they were hot property on both sides of the Atlantic.

(At this point, I shall admit to having purchased said single, but will not dwell on this further, other than to point out that it remains the most successful Bond theme ever in chart terms, having reached number one in the US, so I was clearly riding some kind of zeitgeist. Also, I was nine.)

So, to GRACE! One of the weaknesses of the later Moore films lies with the routinely unthreatening villains – the anti-feminist pushover Octopussy and business-bore Aris Kristatos to name but two – but AVTAK provides us with a double-dose of charismatic anti-heroism, in the shape of Jones’ May Day and the abominable Max Zorin (a surprisingly fresh-faced Christopher Walken). Zorin is the super-intelligent yet psychopathic result of Nazi medical experiments, out to dominate the world’s microchip market by triggering a massive Earthquake on the San Andreas Fault which will flood and destroy Silicon Valley. His relationship with May Day is complex, falling somewhere between co-conspirator, lover and martial arts teacher/pupil.

Walken, of course, is a man able to look intimidating while tap dancing and, having seen Jones performing in person last summer, I can confirm that even at 63 years of age she still cuts the kind of figure that you might imagine eats British secret agents for breakfast. May Day is a woman of few words, leaving Jones to convey menace via a serious of turn-to-stone glowers. If not technically accomplished, it’s still a captivating performance, not least as a rare example of female empowerment in the Bond series; Jones’s sheer physical presence pre-empts Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, Goldeneye’s thigh-crushing femme fatale.

Re-watching AVTAK today, it seems overlong and unnecessarily convoluted, though there are highlights: 007 snowboards down a mountain to the sound of the Beach Boys, a sequence credited with kick-starting the sport’s popularity; a tense horse racing scene gives new meaning to the phrase “raising the bar”; we meet a female henchwoman named Jenny Flex, which may or may not be a pun on the word ‘genuflex’, a name aiming much higher than the standard Pussy Galores. Generally, however, the film’s saving grace lies with its charismatic pair of villains.

One final thought: AVTAK was the end of an era in two ways. Not only did it mark the end of Moore’s tenure as James Bond, but the original line-up of Duran Duran would not record together for another quarter of a century. Small blessings indeed…

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit.

The British Guide To Showing Off

“Being natural is merely a pose, and the most irritating one I know” – Oscar Wilde

The notion of camp has been an integral, if much misunderstood, part of British cultural life for more than a century, from the humour of the music halls, through the innuendo of Round the Horne and the Carry On series, to the dressing-up-box excess of ‘70s glam rock and the ‘80s New Romantic scene. Jes Benstock’s 2011 documentary The British Guide to Showing Off, released on DVD this week, profiles a man who perhaps more than any other figure exemplifies this country’s love of camp. Encompassing all of the contradictions that this suggests Benstock weaves together its disparate elements in regal style.

Artist, sculptor and performer Andrew Logan first staged the Alternative Miss World competition in 1972 and the film follows his preparations for the twelfth event, staged in 2009, while looking back on the competition’s history and the eccentric menagerie of people who have been involved along the way.

The Alternative Miss World is a pageant of the outsider, featuring an array of contestants (including several members of Logan’s family) dolled up in a series of extravagantly outrageous outfits, from drag queens to theatrical performers and grotesques. As in the non-alternative version, the lovelies must model a range of costumes – day wear, evening wear and swim wear – though in Logan’s version, shallow beauty is replaced by creativity, self-expression and a celebration of the different. The result is a very British creation, yet clearly reminiscent of Studio 54, Warhol and the spectrum of New York oddities that moved in his creative orbit and appeared in his work.

The cast of characters who have been involved in the contest over the years, many of whom appear in the film, is a virtual who’s who of British pop and even high culture; David Hockney (who judged the first contest), David Bowie (who failed to gain entry to the second), Zandra Rhodes (who designs all of co-host Logan’s outfits), Derek Jarman, Sir Norman Rosenthal, Brian Eno, Ruby Wax, Nick Rhodes and Julian Clary have all been part of it, either as judges, guests, co-hosts or even contestants. The spirit of creative otherness and freedom that Logan has engendered brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s declaration that “I am a lie that always speaks the truth”; beneath the makeup and costume lies a fundamental truth about British culture, to the extent that the contest has reflected and influenced the look and attitude of almost every major pop musical movement of the past thirty five years, from glam to punk to the Blitz Kids, taking in Rocky Horror along the way.

The film mirrors Logan’s sense of playfulness, including Python-esque animation, collages of photographic images and some wonderful footage of the contest down the years, as well as revealing interviews with former contestants and some intriguing talking heads. Despite some problems including budgetary concerns (incredibly, Logan’s team manage to entice major companies including Swatch to sponsor the event) and a desperate hunt for venues, Logan comes across as perennially cheerful, open and likeable. Far from being a specifically ‘gay’ event, the Alternative Miss World challenges perceptions of sexuality and encourages us all to embrace the myriad layers of our personalities. As Logan himself says, “this whole thing is about realism”.

In an age in which ‘alternative’ has come to mean the creative cul-de-sac of Coldplay, while the depressing factory line of X-Factor defines performance, Andrew Logan and his pageant are a key reminder of our culture’s camp heritage, individualism and tradition of reacting against the norm. The British Guide to Showing Off is nothing less than a journey through the alternative history of Britain.

The British Guide To Showing Off is available on DVD now, released by Verve Pictures.

Blogalongabond – Octopussy: An All Time Low?

Political correctness and James Bond have always been mutually exclusive. Ian Fleming’s literary 007 was an unreconstructed chauvinist, a reflection of the author’s own tastes and prejudices and an “anonymous, blunt instrument”, as Fleming himself called his creation. Russian journalist Yuri Zhukov described the world of this Bond as “nightmarish…where laws are written at the point of a gun, where coercion and rape are considered valour”, but the cinematic Bond has routinely been lent redeeming charm by the humour and suavity of the actors cast to play him.

In 1983, we were treated to not one, but two Bond films, as Sean Connery’s return in Never Say Never Again faced up to Roger Moore’s sixth outing as Connery’s successor in the official series, Octopussy. The promotional posters for Octopussy featured the tagline “nobody does him better”, a tacit acknowledgement of the competition between the two, but in truth Connery was the winner as the Broccoli camp produced one of their duffest and most troubling efforts in Octopussy.

The origins of the film lie in a posthumously published short story by Fleming, the plot of which is largely ignored in the film, used solely to provide a back story to the titular character. While the two preceding films (Moonraker and For Your Eyes Only) offered absurd science fiction and an attempt to add depth to the Bond character respectively, Octopussy is a muddled and convoluted affair, which leaves an unpleasant taste of right-wing misogyny and casual racism in the mouth.

As ever, we begin with a stand-alone pre-title sequence, in this case involving Bond’s escape from Cuban communists using a light aircraft disguised as a horse’s arse. Soon, however, we encounter a more sinister set of reds, as Soviet General Orlov (played by Stephen Berkoff, a man who never knowingly under acts) seeks to take advantage of European unilateral nuclear disarmament in order to expand his country’s borders. The message here is clear: back off peaceniks, nukes are necessary.

Confusingly, we then encounter yet more villains and Orlov is offered little subsequent screen time. Instead, Bond heads to India to investigate a fake Fabergé egg, coming up against exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jordan), who works for a mysterious female cult leader (think Blofeld, with a preference for sea life). The India of Octopussy is a parade of clichés; dirty, taxi-strewn streets are filled with elephants, snake charmers, sword swallowers, beds of nails, hot coals and rope tricks. The natives dine on curry and sheep’s heads, while Bond’s Indian contact Vijay (played by real-life tennis professional Vijay Amritraj, a fact which is referenced more than once) resembles a satirical character from BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.

Even more worrying than this rather tiresome stereotyping is the film’s attitude to its female characters. Of course, Bond’s womanising is a major element  of his character, and one which FYEO attempted to address through reference to his dead wife, but for a film made in the post-feminist era, Octopussy (from its suggestive title onwards) seems strangely misogynistic.

Bond’s usual flirting with Moneypenny is quickly undermined by his new interest in her young assistant, with Moneypenny treated like yesterday’s news. Khan’s strangely anachronistic barge is rowed by a bevy of bikini-clad, semi-slave girls. When he finally comes face-to-face with Octopussy herself, Bond ignores the standard “no means no” rule, virtually forcing himself on her (despite her protestations, she is predictably unable to resist his overpowering ‘charms’), while her island paradise is entirely populated by scantily-clad swimwear models.

Perhaps the only moment of female empowerment in the film sees said models turn ninja, aiding Bond in giving Khan’s minions an almighty kicking, a sequence that still requires little clothing and bears more resemblance to an Eric Prydz video than, say, Kill Bill. However, the novelty of a female villain is lost in Octopussy’s turning to 007’s aid, which leaves her as just another, rather underwhelming Bond girl.

On a separate note, Octopussy contains some of the weirdest dressing-up in the Bond series. Much of this is due to the bizarre inclusion of a circus as a key part of the world domination/egg-smuggling plot; indeed, 009 meets a sticky end early on having been knifed in the back while dressed as a clown (though he does get to boot a villain in the jewels with his enormous shoes). Bond himself slaps on the pancake while attempting to locate a nuclear bomb, lending a sense of levity to an otherwise fairly serious scenario. We also see 007 in a monkey outfit and fleeing would-be assassins in a safari suit, a scene during which he delivers a farcical Tarzan impression, complete with Johnny Weissmuller yodel.

The theme tune of Octopussy is Rita Coolidge’s ‘All Time High’, a song which flopped in the UK charts. Similarly, the film’s confused plot, lack of engaging action and outdated, often distasteful attitudes make Octopussy itself one of the Bond series’ all time lows.

Blogalongabond is the ingenious brainchild of blogger The Incredible Suit.

Blood on the Ice: Goon, violence & hockey cinema

As a young man in a small town in the north of England, entertainment was hard to come by in the late 80s and early 90s. My particular town did boast a two screen cinema (now an Australian theme pub) but in our pre-pub/club days, there really was only one social option: the local ice-rink. This pigeon-infested structure was of interest to local youth largely on the basis of the skate discos held there each weekend (think ‘50s hops, but colder). However, of far more interest to me were the rink’s resident stars: the most successful British ice hockey team of the day, the legendary Durham Wasps.

As today, the North East was a hotbed of football, with my town split – sometimes violently – between two local teams. A uniting sight, however, were the numerous, colourful Michelin Man-sized jackets worn around town by fans of the hockey team. I was a regular, shivering in the stands as a coalition of local boys and Canadian imports took to the ice in my name. This was a fast game, thrillingly dangerous, as blades sent sleet into the air, sticks clattered into midriffs, and pucks and bodies alike clattered plexiglass partitions.

Goals were met with cheers and chants by a surprisingly female-heavy crowd (particularly when compared to the aforementioned football), but it was a far more sinister element of the game which really worked the fans into frenzy: the fighting. On a ridiculously regular basis, members of both teams would remove various gloves and helmets and begin a punch up of the type that would be familiar yet frowned upon in the taxi queue not 200 yards away.

This violence wouldn’t be tolerated in any other team sport yet even to a sensitive youth like myself, its prevalence was intrinsic to the essence of the sport. I recall a local news report on one game concluding, “Eventually, a game of hockey broke out”. It was with all this in mind that I sat down to watch Canadian hockey comedy, Goon.

STIFLER ON ICE

Written by Seth Rogen collaborator Evan Goldberg in conjunction with one of the film’s stars Jay Baruchel, Goon approaches the inherent violence of the sport in a manner not seen since 1977’s Slap Shot and with as much brutal relish as the most bloodthirsty boxing movie. That the film is in the hands of Michael Dowse of Take Me Home Tonight and It’s All Gone Pete Tong ‘renown’ did not fill me with confidence; nor did the fact that the lead is played by Stifler himself, Seann William Scott. However, Goon is a movie which surprises not only in its violence, but in its successful comedy and central performances.

A “goon”, as any fule kno, is a hired thug, and the word is commonly used in Canadian hockey to describe a player whose role is to protect his team mates, rather than to contribute to the general play. In Goon, Ross Rhea (Liev Schreiber) is the ultimate example of such a player; an ageing hard man who prides himself on his ability to physically overpower any opponent, and whose assault on Halifax Highlanders’ flair player Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-Andre Grondin) has left the French-Canadian terrified, out-of-form and spiralling into a world of drugs, loose women and prima donna behaviour.

Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott) becomes a local hero in Goon

Into this uber-masculine world enters our hero Doug Glatt (Scott), son of an intellectual Jewish family, whose parents and brother are doctors with inflated expectations of their boy. Doug is an amiable idiot; slow, yet self-aware enough to understand that he cannot match his parents’ academic demands. Taken to a minor league hockey game by his best friend Pat (Baruchel), Doug earns notoriety and praise when violently defending Pat in a scuffle with an opposition player. This street fighting performance attracts the attention of the team coach and the offer of a contract. Soon Doug is on the other side of the glass, as his inability to skate or play hockey fails to dissuade the Highlanders from picking him as the ideal on-ice bodyguard for the out-of-sorts LaFlamme.

Scott brings a surprising amount of heart to the character of Doug, whose gentle naivety and innate loyalty includes a touching belief in his teammates and willingness to suffer in their name. When he meets hockey fan Eva (Alison Pill), it transpires that this decency and acceptance of physical and emotional pain also applies to romance. Even in the face of LaFlamme’s abuse, Eva’s unavailability and his parents’ disapproval, Doug’s decency away from the ice is in stark contrast to his brutality on it.

Make no mistake; this is a film which glories in violence. Just as in my days watching hockey in the local rink, the fans see the confrontation between their boys and the opposition as gladiatorial. With Eva (who admits her attraction to such primal physicality) and Pat cheering him on, Doug becomes the crowd’s hero, as he drops a series of rivals, happily waving his way towards the sin bin. The fight scenes are shot in close-up, every punch reverberating with the sound of slapped meat and claret colouring the ice below. That we are able to look beyond this blood-letting to enjoy the film’s occasional belly laughs and relate to Doug’s vulnerability is either a testament to Scott’s performance, or a damning indictment of our society’s numbness. You decide.

Of course, Doug’s path is inevitably leading to a climactic stand-off with Schreiber’s Rhea, though even their initial encounter betrays the mutual respect of gladiators; the suggestion being that these ‘goons’ are a vital part of the sport, willingly sacrificing themselves in the name of glory and the team ethic. It is an odd strength of the film that such mindless violence can seem to contain an element of heroism.

HOCKEY ON SCREEN

While the origins of Goon lie in a book called Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into a Minor Hockey League which detailed the career of boxer turned ice warrior Doug Smith, another clear influence is the 2004 Canadian documentary Les ChiefsLes Chiefs follows the fortunes of five players with the Laval Chiefs, a semi-professional hockey team in Canada, including Mike Bajumy, whose brother produced the film. Bajumy, like Doug Glatt, came from an educated family (his parents were also doctors), but similarly rejected academia for the thrill of the minor leagues, much to the disapproval of his mother. Directed by Jason Gileno, the documentary details the squalid living conditions of the players and the violence of the game itself, while also revealing the blood lust of the Chiefs’ rabid fans.

The clearest link in Les Chiefs with the characters of Goon is found in the substantial shape of Tim Leveque and Dominic “The Giant” Forcier. Leveque joins the Chiefs mid-season to initial suspicion from his new team mates, but wins their respect by thrice defeating 6’7” Forcier in fights and eventually helping the team to the championship. This rivalry and Leveque’s ability to win respect through violence has much in common with Doug Blatt’s rise to prominence with the Halifax Highlanders and his eventual face off with Ross Rhea.

Of course, it would be foolish to consider Goon without placing it in the light of perhaps the best hockey film of all (Mighty Ducks fans, save your ire for the comments section), George Roy Hill’s aforementioned Slap Shot. Another comic-violent exploration of a struggling minor league team, it benefits from the presence of Paul Newman in the lead role and its refreshingly foul-mouthed collection of characters.

Slap Shot's terrifying Hanson brothers

The fictional Charlestown Chiefs, led by veteran player/coach Reggie Dunlop (Newman) are perennial losers who find their very existence under threat thanks to the closure of the local factory, the town’s major employer.  In an attempt to carry the morale-sapped team through to the end of the season, Dunlop resorts to manipulation, lies (suggesting that a mystery buyer may be about to transfer the Chiefs to sunny Florida) and an extreme change of tactics following the arrival of the Hanson brothers, a trio as dense as their jam jar glasses.

The Hansons are real ‘enforcers’, launching into violence at the slightest provocation, starting fights before the game has even begun and, at one point, even climbing into the stands to attack opposition fans. Suddenly, the team begin to win, the crowds return and Dunlop realises that this new ultra-violence may be the key to success. On the whole, his players revel in this new tactic, one even changing his name to the physically inappropriate ‘Killer’, but opposition fans are outraged (“GOONS GO HOME”, reads one banner) and Dunlop finds a moral opponent in his talented, college educated top scorer Ned Braden who insists, “I’m not gonna goon it up for you”.

Off the ice, many of the themes of Goon are present in Slap Shot, as the hockey players are presented not as elite sportsmen, but rather as hard-drinking, womanising wash-ups, caught in a spiral of small-town living, loneliness and divorce. Just as Goon’s Pat seems to belch obscenities with every breath, Dunlop is similarly profane (Newman admitted that the character spilled over into his own life and vocabulary) while the women who are drawn to hockey and to those who play it are portrayed as lonely alcoholics, dabbling in lesbianism and enjoying a love/hate relationship with the routine violence. This is far from the perecived glamorous world of professional sport.

Increasingly, Dunlop is corrupted by the violence he finds himself revelling in; one key scene sees him taunt an opposition goaltender until he provokes an attack. Grinning on the ice he, like Glatt, happily takes a beating on behalf of the team. This corruption perhaps reaches its apogee when Dunlop places a bounty on the head of an opposition player. He has lost touch with the game that has been his life and hockey, in both his eyes and those of most of the Chiefs’ players and fans, has become more about gore than goals.

Ultimately, all three films reveal very similar truths about the underside of minor league hockey and of the corruption of violence, though different conclusions are drawn. While Doug’s defining clash with Rhea provides the redemptive climax of Goon, Slap Shot relies on Reg’s realisation that winning by any means possible is a betrayal of his ideals. Violence is a part of hockey, but it is a sideshow, and should not be allowed to eclipse what is in itself a fast, skilful and exciting sport. Goon is a lot of fun, but not for the squeamish and certainly not for the sporting idealist.

Goon is released in cinemas on Friday January 6th via Entertainment One.