Always At the Movies
Roger Ebert, the famous film critic who died on April 4, is rightly being remembered as an impassioned defender of cinematic art and a fierce opponent of Hollywood’s lowest-common-denominator ethic. He was a champion of the sleeper and the un-blockbuster. If his aesthetic standards were not as rigorous as those of highbrow reviewers like John Simon or Stanley Kauffmann, they nonetheless informed a generation of moviegoers who learned from him that big budgets and big stars do not inevitably produce great films. But Roger Ebert left another, more troubling, legacy – one he surely didn’t intend but which has nevertheless changed, for the worse, the medium he loved.
When it debuted on PBS in 1978, “Sneak Previews,” the program Ebert co-hosted with Gene Siskel, was a unique show that afforded TV viewers the unusual opportunity to learn about new, old, and little-known films. Today the review paradigm it pioneered – thumbs up, thumbs down; five star, one star; I say, you say; he says, she says – is ubiquitous on television and the Internet. Today movies, TV series, music, books, dance, and just about every other art form are subject to instant judgements passed by countless professional and amateur critics, ranging from highly paid celebrities, as Roger Ebert certainly was, to talking heads on the local news and down to anonymous bloggers and online trolls. Today there are cable networks devoted to old movies, websites devoted to new graphic novels, YouTube channels about television and Facebook pages about radio. Today the opinions of Ebert’s descendants and imitators are themselves praised, panned, and deconstructed by ever-expanding circles of commentary. Today the relationship between even the most populist creators and the least discriminating audiences is mediated by leagues of insiders, second-guessers, and full-time spectators. Today the entertainment and cultural industries are, in a significant sense, their own chief subjects.
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In this exhaustive and insightful reference text, rock writer and cultural critic George Case details the key names, dates, figures, and features of one of the biggest and most mythologized rock-and-roll groups of all time: Led Zeppelin. Here, finally, are the answers to the puzzles that have haunted fans for over four decades – puzzles such as the meaning of Led Zep’s enigmatic album covers; the truth about leader Jimmy Page’s involvement with the occult; a breakdown of the sometimes murky roots of their greatest songs; firm data on their musical instruments, live performances, and studio productions; and sordid specifics of the band’s infamously debauched private lives.
But here, too, is a deeply reflective analysis of why Led Zeppelin’s music has endured as long as it has, and of how Led Zeppelin’s mystique has only grown in the years since their official disbanding. Placing the group in the context of their time and place, Case scrupulously compares and contrasts their achievements with those of their influences, rivals, and followers. Led Zeppelin FAQ is not only an indispensable listener’s companion to a classic rock act, but a considered history of rock and roll as a business, an art form, and a worldwide social phenomenon.
Just past the quarter-century mark, director Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain (1984) continues to fascinate and intrigue global audiences. An MTV-era update of the classic back-stage musical format, Purple Rain introduced a wide audience to Prince and his world in the Minneapolis music scene.
Although the Reagan decade is long since over — as is the Prince fashion craze of ruffled collars — Purple Rain continues to gain enthusiastic new fans the world around. Here are four reasons why:
1. Purple Rain is as close to getting “to know” the real Prince as we’re likely to get.
The artist who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and declared the Internet “dead” in 2010 is an enigmatic, mysterious fellow. What makes him tick? From what inner turmoil does his creative genius derive?
Although featuring a heavily fictionalized account of his life, Purple Rain remains the closest we are likely to get to an authentic Prince screen biography. The film reveals the turmoil in his home life among his parents, and the relationships roiling Prince’s band mates in the Revolution.
At the start of Purple Rain, Prince emerges from smog and fog in silhouette and finally becomes visible…at least for the duration of the movie. This is as clearly as we have ever viewed the man, and his later films, including Under the Cherry Moon (1985) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) assiduously steered away from offering any further biographical detail.
2. The film is multi-faceted in its depiction of an icon.
We’ve all seen big-screen musical biographies, and most often, they gloss over warts to forge a heroic, larger-than-life portrait of a talent we’ve come to love. Consider Cool as Ice (1990), or even 8 Mile (2002), both of which failed to capture the real life experience or apparent rage driving performers such as Vanilla Ice or Eminem.
Or consider the superficial, bubble gum Rick Springfield vehicle, Hard to Hold (1984). By contrast, Purple Rain reveals Prince in all his flawed and human dimensions. He’s a genius, but he’s difficult. He’s talented, but he’s demanding. He’s an iconoclast and a perfectionist, and he’s anchored by nagging self-doubt.
In one of the film’s most famous scene, Prince sits back-stage — sulking in his tent as it were — making funny voices with a hand-puppet. He comes off as angst-ridden, self-centered, and isolated. Purple Rain is willing to reveal Prince in all his human shades, even the unflattering ones, and that’s why some critics (including Roger Ebert) listed it as one of the top ten films of 1984.
3. Purple Rain is the perfect fusion of music and meaning.
While prepping Purple Rain, director Magnoli had the opportunity to choose a wide array of tunes from Prince’s (largely) unpublished music catalog. Selecting from over a hundred such pieces, Magnoli was able to tailor the music directly to the film’s biographical content.
“Let’s Go Crazy,” the opening anthem, played as an introduction to Prince’s world.
“Take me with U” concerns the open road, and the burgeoning of a romance between Prince and Apollonia.
The song’s opposite, “Darling Nikki” is about betrayal and rage in a romantic relationship…a humiliating song for Apollonia to endure.
The climactic tune “Purple Rain” concerns forgiveness and love, and has been called a celebration of women, or what critic David Denby termed “both an apology for bad behavior and a promise of sexual ecstasy.”
Finally, “Baby I’m a Star” is valediction, heroic triumph after challenges external and internal are beaten back.
Even the song written expressly for the film, “When Doves Cry,” reflects beautifully the film’s thematic content. It’s re-states the film’s central conflict: that Prince may be “just like his father,” a failure in love and in music.
4. Morris Day and Jerome.
How many back-stage or biographical musicals expend the time and energy to create competitors for their heroes, especially competitors that serve so adroitly as comic relief?
Morris Day and Jerome Benton lighten up Purple Rain tremendously, and give the film a jaunty, humorous bent.
Morris Day and Jerome proved so intensely popular as foils for Prince that Purple Rain producer Robert Cavallo wanted to make a sequel to Purple Rain…about the duo making further mischief in Las Vegas.
In the summer of 1984, a small, low-budget film came out of nowhere and unexpectedly debuted at the number one slot at the box office, unseating reigning champion Ghostbusters and making its star, Prince, a household name. By the end of the year, the film was a multiple-award winner, a trend setter in terms of fashion, and recognized on many prominent critical “top ten” lists. Purple Rain: Music on Film explores in detail the behind-the-scenes struggles and triumphs of the film’s making, from the trouble casting a female lead to star opposite Prince, to concerns that the movie’s urban vibe and sound wouldn’t play in Peoria. Featuring extensive new interviews with the film’s director, producer, and assistant editor, Purple Rain reveals a 1980s cult-classic as you’ve never seen, heard or experienced it before. Let’s go crazy…
Visit John Kenneth Muir’s blog, Reflections on Film/TV