Saturday, August 3, 2013

Movie Reviews-A Band Called Death, Only God Forgives

A Band Called Death
directed by Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino

The story of the punk-rock band Death is one that I'm not sure could have been written as believable fiction. Three black brothers from Detroit were playing punk before the Ramones, Sex Pistols, or several other punk bands. I had heard of this group before. I have their long out of print cd. I didn't review it here because I'm not a huge genre fan. Nevertheless this documentary is worth watching. I liked seeing some familiar Detroit landmarks and hearing about some classic 1970s Detroit area music names. I wouldn't necessarily say this was a sad tale but it is a sobering one because Death never fulfilled its musical potential. For every musician who writes songs the whole world wants to hear and becomes a multi-millionaire or billionaire there are thousands of others who must put their dreams on hold and find jobs as janitors or fall into substance abuse. However after a long period in the musical wilderness Death is making something of a comeback. 

Death had its beginnings among the younger three brothers of the close knit Hackney family. All of them were musically inclined. Their parents encouraged them to follow their dreams. David Hackney, the oldest in that section of brothers, was a fan of the 60s and 70s hard rock groups. He became an acolyte of a hard edged guitar sound that took its cues from musicians like The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Grand Funk Railroad. As he and his brothers had been taught unity above all else he convinced them to join him in a power trio. They practiced incessantly and loudly, around the neighborhood and at home. This music was NOT popular within their community as David made almost no concession to traditional blues, soul, funk, jazz or early rock-n-roll. He was interested almost exclusively in what neighborhood critics called "white boy music". He liked to play fast, hard and above all loud.

Eventually the band, which is to say David, decided to call itself Death. The film elides over how much live/paid work Death got. I'm thinking it wasn't that much. Death had a very unpolished sound. Of course YMMV. Bobby and Dannis Hackey reminisce how the band's name and to a lesser extent, the band's race made it difficult to find local gigs. Persevering, Death eventually obtained a record deal with Groovesville/United Sound, a local Detroit area recording studio and production company that was primarily engaged with soul artists. After a lot of rejection, United Sound was able to contact Arista record mogul Clive Davis, who heard the band's master tapes and liked them. He agreed to a record distribution and promotion deal. This could have put Death on the fast track to fame and fortune. There was just one requirement. Like most other music industry big shots Davis didn't like the band's name. He wanted the band to change it. David Hackney refused in quite profane terms. For him the band's name, concept and music were all connected. As he told his brothers if we let them change the name that would be giving ownership of our soul. His brothers weren't crazy about the decision but supported their older brother. But that ended their initial involvement in the music industry as Death. Davis withdrew his offer. United Sound decided to find musicians who actually wanted record deals.

The band Death would disappear for the next quarter century. Ultimately Bobby and Dannis would move to Vermont, meet Peter Tosh and reinvent themselves as a reggae and later a gospel group. David stayed in Detroit, brooded and fell into bad habits. It wasn't until one of Bobby Hackney's sons fortuitously heard a friend raving about a mysterious old school Detroit rock group that Death would reform. Musicians such as Questlove, Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Vernon Reid and Kid Rock talk about Death. The film is bittersweet. It has interviews with the two surviving original Death members and several of their family members. It details their ups and downs, loves and losses, their frustrations with life and even occasionally their brother David, whom they love and miss terribly. As they point out consistently, throughout the documentary, one of the last things David did before leaving this earth was to hand them the Death master tapes for safekeeping, predicting correctly that someone would come looking for them some day. Even if you're not a fan of this music this documentary is as much about family as it is punk rock. I certainly saw echoes of my family in this story. You also might do so. This movie made me think that you should try to avoid regrets. Let your loved ones know what they mean to you today.

Only God Forgives
directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
This film was a hot mess. I don't necessarily mean it was no good at all but the director was obviously interested more in visuals and style than he was in telling a story or actually ensuring that actors and actresses had dialogue. Upon thinking about it some more I'm not willing to say it was a s*** sandwich with a cherry on top, which was my initial viewpoint. This is done by the same man who directed Drive. Just as in that movie he evidently wanted his star Ryan Gosling to give a minimalist performance in Only God Forgives. The problem here is that almost everyone else in the film also gives a minimalist performance. So there is no hero or heroine to hang your hat on. There is a LOT of bloody violence. Also the film continues what seems to be a trend of bringing Freud back to the forefront as an explaining factor for people's (or at least men's actions). Maybe Freud was right. It's not like Freud wrote Oedipus Rex or Hamlet, to name just a few Western works that touch on actual or sublimated incest as a motif in socio-sexual development. He just put together some of those things into a theory. And incest is, if not explicit in this story certainly implicit. The protagonist's mother first greets him with a hug that is anything but motherly. She attempts to shame him into action by speaking dismissively of the size of his manhood as compared to his brother's. One wonders how she would know that. The two come across as more embittered ex-lovers, which I think they must be, rather than mother and son. The mother's relationship with each of her sons appears to have been complicated.

Another director would have made this into a standard action/revenge flick. Refn went for something else. I don't think it quite worked for me but it was different at least. Gosling has only a handful of lines. The movie felt like a silent film.
Julian (Gosling) manages a Bangkok, Thailand boxing club. Some fights are fair; others are fixed. The club provides thugs for and is a money laundering front for the drug import-export operation overseen by Julian's older brother Billy (Tom Burke). To say that Billy is unstable is an understatement. After the conclusion of a match Billy is desirous of rough sex with a prostitute, the younger the better. He is turned away by a few pimps until he finds one willing to give him what he wants. The sex is not shown but the aftermath is and it's ugly. Billy has raped and murdered the underage prostitute. For whatever reason Billy doesn't seek to escape. He is still there at the scene when the quiet and serious police Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) arrives to handle the matter. Chang's a very hard but brutally fair man whose idea of justice might be looked upon approvingly by Tywin Lannister. He allows the girl's father to beat Billy to death. However, disgusted by the fact that the father pimped out his own flesh and blood, Chang later amputates the man's hand as a reminder to be a better father to his remaining children. Chang is never without his trusty short sword (really more of a machete). Chang is also equally devoted to his family and karaoke.
This incident brings Billy's boss, his and Julian's mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) to Bangkok. She's a racist, foul mouthed, cold eyed, mean, sexually charged drug baroness who can't believe that Julian hasn't already taken revenge. Julian looked into it but refused to act when he found out his brother's actions. Crystal could care less about the "yellow n*****s" as she calls them, saying only that whatever Billy did he must have had his reasons. Crystal constantly tries to manipulate Julian into doing something (maybe something of a more intimate nature as well). But as boss she is also quite comfortable ordering Billy's crew to put people in the ground. The rest of the movie goes on from there but again the story and plotting are very weak and virtually non-existent other than what I've outlined. This is a dreamy surrealistic flick full of neon colors and fantastic sets. Dreams, flashbacks and reality combine and confuse both the viewers and the characters. I've heard that Refn, who also directed Valhalla Rising, had a similar visual style but better story in that film. I may have to check it out. Bottom line with this film though was that it was strange. Thomas and Pansringarm give the best performances. But their work was almost was wasted here. Do not see this if you are expecting Gosling to give a well, driven, performance. But if you just like watching Gosling this movie might be up your alley.
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