Music in film and television – Mars

Fifth from the left.

I have recently been watching the new National Geographic/Ron Howard TV program Mars. And it is no good. It is an awkward mix of documentary footage and interviews with people like Elon Musk who are working on getting humans to Mars, and tedious melodrama. The acting and the dialogue are clunky and wooden, while the story itself is painted with such broad strokes that all I can see is a barn. Everything is a plot device designed to illustrate the “danger of the week” and its transparency is grating.

The third episode (they’re drip-feeding one a week as if it is something I should look forward too and I am only persisting with it because I paid for it and didn’t realise I’d be made to wait a week at a time to be annoyed and disappointed) is even more boring than the first two.

The concept of lava tubes is introduced in the interview footage, then there is a dramatised scene of the crew looking for a lava tube, then of the team back on earth pressing the point that without a lava tube the mission will fail, then they cut to the pre-flight “interviews” where the crew discusses the lava tubes, then they find a suitable lava tube, then they explain what happened in regards to the lava tube discovery in the previous scene…. you get the picture. The science is dumbed down to sub-History Channel depths so that a cockerspaniel could follow it. For anyone who understands a concept the first time, the 15 subsequent scenes explaining it in 15 different ways are beyond tedious. All the episodes have been like this.

One of my main problems with the series as a whole, are the musical cues. A film or TV show can live or die on the music used. Or not used. Being a Ron Howard production, there is the schmaltz you’d expect. Not least in the soundtrack. The third episode features a visually arresting scene where an astronaut is lowered into a volcano on Mars. The actor is saying her lines about how there is nothing down there. She can’t see anything… she can’t hear anything… yet all the audience can hear is her wooden reading and the maudlin strings swelling behind the scene. If the point is to convey the depth of the oppressive nothing that exists in the blackness of a dead Martian volcano, then why the James Horner* strings? Why not adopt the approach of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body” episode? The lack of music makes the entire 50 minutes an intense television experience. The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock has no music, which adds to its eeriness, and No Country For Old Men‘s almost complete lack of music only adds to the vastness of the Texan landscape and the trouble in which Llewelyn finds himself. A string ensemble that sounds kinda like Titanic/Braveheart/Glory/An American Tail: Fievel Goes West is distracting and removes any tension. The scene could have been utterly terrifying, preying on the human fear of the unknown and instead it’s about as tense as an episode of M*A*S*H.

*James Horner hasn’t actually done the score. I am using his name as a shorthand for tone deaf movie scoring.

Baby boomers and their bullshit music 

Some asshole listening to The Troggs, probably.
Some asshole listening to The Troggs, probably.

Those conceived during post-WWII coitus and inhabit the term “baby boomer” have always had a special relationship with music. With the image of free love and iconic events like Woodstock, the swinging 60s and everything that’s been immortalised in film and literature ever since, the music recorded by artists of this demographic has been revered for decades. Sure, there are some great names to come from this era: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin all spring to mind. But it always seemed to me that simply being a band or artist that existed in that time gives them membership to some hallowed hall of artists, regardless of their actual output. Hearing The Monkees spoken in the same breath as Betty Davis, or The fucking Byrds compared to anyone. Them, Yes, Supertramp, and a whole lot of bands and groups who wouldn’t even reach footnote status if they weren’t part of some so called “golden age”.

Conveniently, the baby boomer generation doesn’t include anything approaching hip hop or electronica, which allows those genres to be written off as something lesser. Bob Dylan is famous for his lyrics and the way he used language. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature because apparently he’s so good. Aside from the fact he’s not really an author, is his writing any stronger than someone like Chuck D? Ghostface Killah? Kendrick Lamar? These guys write lyrics that cover many of the same issues, through a different lens and in a different genre, but at least equally eloquently and effectively. Ice Cube’s lyrics about the 1992 LA riots are some of the most insightful and affecting commentaries on that time. Listen to Predator and try to tell me it isn’t evocative.

Of course, I am being deliberately hyperbolic. On that note, here’s why it is time to forget The Beatles.

The Beatles

Compared to today’s musicians, The Beatles sound like they’re drumming on the skulls of defeated foes in the frozen tundra. The Beatles were good for their time. Many people neglect that disclaimer. The Beatles are like Neil Armstrong. The first man on the moon, sure. But other astronauts went and they did it better and more smoothly. The Beatles are pioneers, but in much the same way that early pioneers brought flea ridden blankets, venereal disease and whisky, The Beatles have incurred a debt that many are still paying. Oasis, Travis, Keane and the entire Britpop atrocity is their legacy, as much as any of the decent bands that claim they were an influence. When I listen to bands like Radiohead, Blur, Wilco and Parquet Courts, I don’t hear the influence of The Beatles, I hear bands that have surpassed the creative achievements of history’s most overrated band. In fact, John Lennon’s solo work is streets ahead of his former band’s.

Other tedious musicians whose reputation far exceeds their talent (the short version):

Fleetwood Mac

Joni Mitchell

The Rolling Stones

Simon and Garfunkel

The Doors

David Crosby

Cat Stevens

I also think it is important to make these points before more of these fuckers die and it becomes taboo to speak ill of them.

A Tribe Called Quest – We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service

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The trouble with recording an album in the lead up to a major event like the US presidential election, is that your efforts can suddenly seem tame and out of touch. While A Tribe Called Quest attempts to address some aspects of the last 18 months of nauseating electioneering, the album lacks the anger and urgency it needs to fit in with the fraught week the world has experienced.

We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service hits all the points you’d expect from an A Tribe Called Quest record. Smooth rhymes and beats, inventive use of familiar samples and loops, but it comes across as too sentimental — not surprising given the death of Phife Dawg during recording — and a tad pedestrian. Their lyrics tend to focus inwardly rather than apply a critical eye to the world in which we find ourselves, and while introspection is important, the world they create on this record seems too small, insular and limited. They sing about their lives, which is fair enough, but it isn’t what I want right now. That’s what got us into this mess.

It’s a tough pill to swallow. That a record so anticipated from a group so revered cannot provide the type of comfort I’m looking for. It might be unfair to expect it from them, but the best records tend to capture the mood of the world they were created in. I think immediately of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Released in the aftermath of 9/11 and despite being written and recorded months before the event itself, it has become a touchstone for those first years of the 00s. I can’t help but relate We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service to the blindsiding we have all experienced and how out of touch and oblivious at least half the western world seems to be.

This record, for better or worse, will more than likely get lost in the endless noise and histrionics that have come to characterise 2016.

 

New release round-up

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Apparently Robbie Williams is still alive and The Heavy Entertainment Show is his wailing from beneath the rubble. Exactly what you’d expect from its title, replete with self-aggrandisement disguised as deprecation and song titles like “Party Like a Russian” and “Motherfucker.” No idea who this is aimed at but it misses.

“This House is Not For Sale” is the weirdest title for anything. Of course, it gives ol’ Jon a chance to bellow “We’re coming home!” for some reason. The band sounds like they’re having a good time, and who am I to begrudge them that? It’s my own fault for listening. Perhaps fans will like it, but like most bands of Bon Jovi’s ilk, they could release the 5th Symphony and people will still say it’s no “Livin’ on a Prayer.” I would be surprised if anyone bought this record, not because it is particularly bad, but because it isn’t 1985.

Tall Black Guy’s third record, Let’s Take a Trip, is a subtle yet absorbing mix of jazz, hip hop, soul and funk. Like contemporaries such as Ivan Ave, it is deceptively engaging while remaining mellow. I can imagine listening to this on a Sunday afternoon, or equally, late at night. The way it weaves samples and instruments through each other, makes it a record that will continue to reveal itself with each listen and mood you are in.

Kendrick Lamar didn’t simply raise the bar, he created an entirely new one. Hip hop records now have to either aim low and hit the modest mark of familiarity, or aim for the stars. Common’s Black America Again sails through these two points, never quite reaching the cinematic scope of Lamar, or his own Be, without hitting you in the guts like more straight-forward yet accomplished records such as recent releases by Ghostface Killah. Black America Again is decent enough and I’m sure it would benefit from repeated listens, however, given its lack of mind blowing ambition, it probably won’t get that kind of attention. From me at least.

Bruno Mars – 24K Magic

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If his face wasn’t bad enough, Bruno Mars is also a singer. His record, 24K Magic, is due out later this month and if the single “Versace on the Floor” (yes, it really is called that) is anything to go by, it will be another triumph of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” -era Stevie Wonder proportions. The synth solo before the middle 8 cuts through my calm like a stubbed toe, while the “Baba O’Reilly” background riff makes me realise how much I dislike The Who as well. Truly, a remarkable song.