Saturday, January 10, 2015

Movie Reviews: Everyday Sunshine, Leaves of Grass

Everyday Sunshine
directed by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler
I wrote a previous post on Fishbone's music here. Everyday Sunshine is not only the title of one of Fishbone's most accessible songs but is the title for the generally sad but mostly informative 2011 band documentary. This documentary followed the band for about three to four years. At the time this documentary was made the band only had two original members remaining (frontman, saxophonist and poet Angelo Moore and bassist Norwood Fisher). Before watching this documentary in its entirety (I had previously seen bits and pieces) I knew that Fishbone had never really attained massive financial success or even decent returns. However I was surprised to learn just how far they had fallen. 

At one point Moore was living with his mother while Fisher only had a small modest apartment. No palatial estates, vintage auto collections or harem of supermodels for these two men. Sometimes people tell us to do what we love and good things will follow. Perhaps, but those good things don't necessarily include money. We follow the band as they play to shockingly small and visibly bored audiences in Eastern Europe, carry their own instruments and other gear through airports,and arrive at music stores for CD signings only to discover that the band outnumbers the people who are interested in having a CD signed.

Laurence Fishburne provides narration. He used to moonlight as a bouncer in some of the clubs where Fishbone honed its craft. Most of the original band members were from South Central LA with the exception of Moore who met the other members when they were bused to his local suburban Valley high school. Moore is described as having no hood sense at all. He narrowly avoided a few beatdowns when he went to South Central to visit and practice with his new friends. The early story was told via humorous Fat Albert style animation. The cartoons captured Moore's near constant charming and somewhat manic smile and Fisher's laid back confidence. Fisher used to ask fellow students if they wanted to be in his fan club.

There are a lot of bands that go through periods where members feud, argue over songwriting credits, insult each other's spouses or girlfriends, refuse to talk to each other or even get in physical fights. I think that's normal. I wish the documentary had explained more of the issues among and between original Fishbone band members. Instead,we have the trumpet player (Walter Kibby) suddenly blurting out that the pianist/trombonist's problem (Chris Dowd) is that he has always been an a%*@!! , Dowd stating that he left because he was tired of the personality conflict bs while everyone seemingly agreed that Moore was literally insane and a hyperactive prima donna on stage. 

Those things may be true. I don't know. But I wanted more details on why the original group couldn't have risen above those sorts of problems. There is the sad story of how the guitarist (Kendall Jones) went temporarily bonkers and joined his father's polygamous religious cult. The band's (and Jones' girlfriend's) attempt to rescue Jones got the band bogged down in lawsuits and criminal charges just when it was on the verge of a commercial breakthough. We do get an intense discussion between Fisher and Moore. Moore felt that he had more creativity than he could express in the current Fishbone structure while Fisher said that he wasn't at all interested in being in a band with Moore's alternate persona of Dr. Maddvibe and had had quite enough of Moore's theremin explorations, thank you very much. There are other lawsuits and never much money.

Still for all of this the band soldiers on. Other musicians, often better known and almost always much wealthier, tell of the first time that they met or heard Fishbone and/or how much the band influenced them. These notables include Ice-T, Gwen Stefani, Branford Marsalis, Perry Farrell, Flea and several other musicians. Stefani in particular claims that she owes a great deal of her stage style to Moore. She says she adores him.
There's a lot of vintage and modern concert footage. The band, their producers, fans and other musicians claim that none of Fishbone's releases ever captured the ferocity and tightness of their live shows. I think that's accurate. The balance of the documentary concerns the occasionally tense but always deep relationship between Moore and Fisher. Both of them deal with their lack of financial success in different ways.

Moore is sarcastic, biting and direct about industry racism and record company or rival band ripoffs. He's also pretty upset about some child support and visitation issues. Fisher claims that sure he would like to have more money but wouldn't have given up his experiences for that. Both men also appeared a little peeved at relatively conservative and rigid African-American popular music tastes. I believe that Fisher said that although he thought his band played "black" music they were simply not going to try to sound like Bobby Brown. And they never did. But that cost them.

If you are a hardcore Fishbone fan you've probably already seen this film. But even if you aren't a fan or are instead just curious about how and why some bands make it and others don't this was a pretty interesting film. It ends on a bright note. As one filmmaker noted, Fishbone's great strength was that it was a musical democracy where everyone could and did contribute something to the mix. But what worked musically didn't necessarily work for marketing or other business decisions. Talent alone is not enough for success. That's true in music or any other career path.

Leaves of Grass
directed by Tim Blake Nelson
The only reason I decided to watch this older film was because it was directed by Tim Blake Nelson, whom I liked so much in Cherish. Nelson also acts in Leaves of Grass. The film shares a title with the Walt Whitman poetry collection but the art I truly appreciated after watching this film was Steve Earle's music. Earle also has a pivotal role in Leaves of Grass but for whatever reason I had never paid that much attention to his music, with the exception of his version of The Wire's theme song "Way Down In The Hole." That changed. I REALLY like his song "Lonely are the Free" though I know that for some people his accent and cadence may not be quite to their taste. Free your minds I say. The song plays over the end credits and in my opinion fits quite well with some of the movie's themes and some other things that were on my mind at the time. Anyway. 

This is one of those movies where I initially wanted to write a very short review, not because I disliked the movie but because I liked it so much that I don't want to ruin it for you by giving away too many spoilers. Nelson also wrote the movie. It has a lot of intelligent mordant writing that spices up the storyline. Things never really drag as the film flips back and forth between family drama and black comedy. There is violence within. People hurt and get hurt. There's also some pretty incisive social and philosophical commentary. As one character tries to explain to another one "The world is broken and it's up to us to fix it." 

This movie stars Edward Norton in two different roles. He's playing identical twin brothers who are estranged from one another. Actually Billy Kincaid (Norton) is estranged from his entire family and isn't too broken up about it. Billy is a Brown university philosophy professor who's a rising star in his field. He's working on new books and has what amounts to groupies in the philosophy department.

He's nonplussed when he hears news of his brother's death but decides to travel home to Little Dixie, Oklahoma for the funeral and to help settle accounts. His brother Brady (Norton) was a rising marijuana dealer with his own philosophical bent. Billy is more than a little upset when he discovers that Brady is not dead. 

People lied to Billy on Brady's orders so that Brady and his best friend Bolger (Nelson) could settle their own accounts with Tulsa drug baron Pug Rothman (Richard Dreyfuss) Brady intends to use Billy as an alibi for his meeting. Brady also thinks that Billy needs to make amends to their mother Daisy (Susan Sarandon). At first Billy wants no part of any of that but ends up staying a while because one of Brady's friends Janet (Kerri Russell) is making goo-goo eyes at him. Janet is an English teacher and poet. She's just as smart as both brothers. Brady might have taken a different path than Billy but Brady is no dummy. He may still have a "hick accent" but that has nothing to do with his brain power.

This film is as much about the meaning of life and the importance of love and family as it is about sibling rivalry and drug dealing. I enjoyed it. I will rewatch it. It has a few weaknesses in that tones switch suddenly and jarringly but on the other hand, that's true to life as all of us will eventually discover. Nelson's and Norton's accents impressed me but then again Nelson is indeed from Oklahoma.

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