Tag Archives: Music

READER RECOMMENDATION: AMERICAN POP (1981)

Reader recommendation by “Jackie”

DIRECTOR:

FEATURING: Ron Thompson, Lisa Jane Perksy, Jeffery Lippa

PLOT: Centering on a family of musicians from the 1910s to the 1980s, American Pop takes a psychedelic look at the history and evolution of American music whilst telling a story of its own.

Still from American Pop (1981)
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: American Pop contains many vivid and flashy surreal images. It’s like a trip through psychedelia that encompasses it’s plot and structure beyond measure.

COMMENTS: This film is important not only for its creativity, but it also has a unique take on American culture. Bakshi’s talent is at its peak with this film. His style is fluid and the film’s visuals are stunning.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Bakshi… continues to push animation techniques to the outer limits more frequently explored by film makers who call themselves avant-garde, but who seldom are. His newest film, ‘American Pop,’ is a dazzling display of talent, nerve, ideas (old and new), passion and a marvelously free sensibility.“–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: FRANK (2014)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Lenny Abrahamson

FEATURING: , , , Scoot McNairy

PLOT: A struggling young musician lands a gig as keyboardist in an experimental band led by an eccentric prodigy who never takes off his oversized  papier-mâché head.

Still from Frank (2104)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Here at 366 Weird Movies, we immerse ourselves so deeply in the bizarre end of the cinema pool that we sometimes lose track of what the mainstream thinks of as “weird.” When I’m watching a movie in a theater, I usually keep an eye out for walkouts as a good gauge of when a film is too strange for the comfort of average cinemagoers. There were no walkouts in Frank; actually, the audience laughed frequently, at exactly the places the writers intended them to. As much as I enjoyed Frank, as I was leaving the theater I was wondering if it could make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies based merely on Michael Fassbender’s performance inside a giant fake head when a wide-eyed stranger accosted me with the observation, “that was one frickin’ strange movie.” (Yes, he actually said “frickin'”). That unsolicited endorsement of the film’s oddness, from a man who was obviously open-minded enough give a movie about a musician with a giant fake head a chance in the first place, is enough for me to give Frank consideration for the List.

COMMENTS: Steeped in self-aware indie music culture (Austin’s hipster festival South by Southwest is even a major plot point), the charming and playful Frank is in danger of becoming too twee for its own good. The early crisis that affords protagonist Jon Burroughs his opening to join macrocephalic Frank’s band “Soronprfbs” as an emergency keyboard player is one of the quirkiest and least depressing suicide attempts ever filmed, leaving us to wonder whether there will be this will be one of those consequence-free comedies where nothing is at stake and it’s impossible for any of the characters to be seriously hurt. And while Frank does play that way through its spry opening reels, it eventually shades its sunshine with clouds, as Frank’s madness progresses from cute to disabling.

Michael Fassbender, in what is almost a pure voice acting performance, conveys the fascination of the guileless Frank, a mad genius who wears his giant plaster head like a cocoon of childlike creativity. Frank is joined in his musical pursuits, which involve rigorous exercise regimens and spontaneous odes to tufts in the carpet, by engineer/manager Don, a friendly recovering lunatic Frank met in a mental hospital, and scary Clara, a sociopathic theraminist with an intense loyalty to Frank and an equally intense loathing for all forms of mediocrity. A French-speaking guitarist and a nearly silent percussionist round out the band, until they are joined by Jon, a struggling songwriter and competent keyboard player. Jon is encouraged by affable Frank and by Don, who sees him as an equally untalented kindred spirit, while the rest of the band considers him an interloper. Jon will attempt to grow as an artist under Frank’s tutelage, but can he find the divine spark of madness, or will his attempts to steer the band in a more accessible direction tear them apart?

Frank seems to cultivate an anti-success ethic, embracing the affectation that the only good bands are undiscovered bands. Soronprfbs, of course, is the ultimate uncommercial act: Frank’s ditties range from Syd Barret-esque doodles to full-out psychedelic noise freakouts, and the group never manages to get more than one song into a set before someone throws a tantrum or suffers a breakdown on stage. Ironically, however, as a movie Frank is actually pretty accessible, while still flying its freak flag proudly. It succeeds in finding an audience by being funny, from Jon’s fumbling attempts at basing songs at pedestrians he sees passing before him (“lady with a baby, that’s how it works”) to the description of the sexual peccadillo that got Don institutionalized to Clara’s terrifying moment of horniness. We can’t all be genius weirdo artists encased in fibergalss heads, but we can all laugh at Frank.

Frank is sort-of-based-on-a-true story. British musician/comedian Chris Sievey portrayed the hollow-headed character Frank Sidebottom from 1984 until his death in 2010. The script is a fictionalized version of writer Jon (“The Men Who Stare at Goats”) Ronson’s memoir about his time spent as a keyboardist in Sidebottom’s experimental retinue.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…[a] weird and wonderful musical comedy from director Lenny Abrahamson… [who] puts the pic’s eccentricity to good use, luring in skeptics with jokey surrealism and delivering them to a profoundly moving place.”–Peter Debruge, Variety (contemporaneous)

 

LIST CANDIDATE: SOUND OF NOISE (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Ola Simonsson, Johannes Stjärne Nilsson

FEATURING: Bengt Nilsson, Sanna Persson

PLOT: A music-hating, tone deaf detective from a family of musical prodigies tracks down a

Still from Sound of Noise (2010)

gang of musical terrorists staging disruptive avant-garde percussion performances across Malmö, Sweden.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: If David Lynch directed the Swedish cast of STOMP in an action-comedy, I think it might go a little something like this…

COMMENTS: Tummy drums. Banknotes in a shredder. Jackhammer. Bowed power lines. These are some of the instruments employed by Sound of Noise‘s anarcho-musical terrorists, who bang on the Swedish city of Malmö like a giant drum kit by staging surprise polyrhythmic concertos in emergency rooms, banks, and other public spaces. Hot on their trail is detective Amadeus Warnebring, the black sheep of a family of musical prodigies; he has a hearing disorder which makes the sound of music intolerable to his ears, so that attending a Haydn recital staged by his younger brother, a celebrity conductor, hurts more than his pride. Sound of Noise takes this outlandish setup as its base melody, then syncopates the beat into a thematic experiment that builds to a bizarro crescendo. An undercurrent of humor serves as a constant backbeat that keeps us from getting lost in the thematic noodling. This is a very funny film, from the way it parodies caper movie conventions as the criminal mastermind musicians recruit expert anti-establishment drummers from their straight day jobs to the moment the masked sextet breaks into a bank with the declaration “This is a gig! Just listen and nobody gets hurt!” Besides the comedy, the music itself provides pop appeal: each of the four movements of “Music for One City and Six Drummers,” the conceptual piece the detective is trying in vain to stop, is feisty, inventive, and catchy as hell. In the second performance, one musician bangs rubber stamps against a teller’s window while another taps the keys of a computer keyboard; his fellows accompany him with adding machines and paper shredders, stirring the soul by appropriating and reordering the mundane commotion of ordinary life. We can hardly wait to hear what the each succeeding movement will bring. The music the “terrorists” play is experimental and dangerous, but it’s not academic or obscure: in contrast to the chilly exclusivity of the symphonic musical establishment (Sound‘s main satirical target), these tunes staged in the public square aim to connect with ordinary people and set toes to tapping. The movie would like to advocate the same aesthetic mix of cutting-edge creativity and unpretentious appeal, but detective Amadeus’ storyline goes off-beat and heads into dissonant narrative realms. His back story is merely quirky, but it develops into something genuinely strange when he discovers that he can no longer hear the sound made by an “instrument” after it has been played on by the drummers. So, in discordant allegory, the percussionists progressive performances are helping antagonist Amadeus to achieve his dream of a music-free utopia of silence. Following this plotline to its illogical conclusion leads to an exceedingly odd and somewhat muddled finale where Amadeus’ selective deafness and his spiritual connection to Sanna, the female music theorist who leads the band, merge into a personal musical apocalypse. The movie’s competing rhythms of absurd comedy, police procedural, action (there’s a chase scene where a drummer tosses cymbals out of his van to slow down his pursuers), music, and surreal speculation don’t always merge perfectly, but the beats are original and high-spirited enough to keep you intrigued for the symphony’s short running time. Plus, I bet the official soundtrack is a blast to play at parties.

Sound of Noise is a feature-length riff on “Music for One Apartment and Six Drummers,” Ola Simonsson’s 2001 short film about six percussionists (played by the same actors) who break into an apartment to play music on the resident’s appliances while they are out walking their dog.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you’re looking to fill out your weird quotient for the week, there’s no better option in town right now than this Swedish film doozy. Unique to a fault…”–Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle (contemporaneous)