Movie of the Month: Starstruck (1982)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made HannaBoomer, and Britnee watch Starstruck (1982).

Brandon: I’ve been thinking a lot about movie musicals lately.  Not only are the releases of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights and Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake threatening to dominate online film discourse all the way through next Oscars season, but we also recently discussed the grim, reality-grounded stage musical London Road as a Movie of the Month selection.  In his intro to London Road, Boomer mentioned a few reasons why the movie musical is a medium he struggles to connect with as an audience—its awkward rhyme schemes, its Declared Feelings, its emotional artificiality, etc.—a few of which I bristle at myself.  The real reason I struggle with most musical theatre, though, is that I often just don’t care for its music.  The singing-for-the-back-row emotional projection of most traditional, stagey musicals strikes me as a kind of false, strained earnestness that takes me out of the promised fantasy of the artform.  When I think of movie musicals I do love—Rocky Horror, Velvet Goldmine, Hedwig, The Lure, etc.—they’re often the ones that indulge in the punk, glam, synthpop, and new wave musical tones I already listen to in my idle time.

In that respect, the 1980s new wave extravaganza Starstruck is perfectly suited for my movie musical tastes.  Not only does it operate like a rough prototype for 90s Australian gems like Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding, and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desertall huge tastemaking discoveries for me as a young film nerd—but it also plays like a jukebox musical adaptation of Cyndi Lauper’s landmark debut She’s So Unusual, one of the greatest pop albums of all time.  If you’ve ever found yourself watching a marathon of Cyndi Lauper music videos on YouTube (if you haven’t, who are you?) you’ll notice that there’s a vaguely defined storyline from that She’s So Unusual album cycle wherein Lauper is a bubbly, working class teen desperate to escape her restrictive household to find other artsy weirdos like her in the big city outside her reach.  Starstruck was released at least a full year before that album but follows a remarkably similar storyline: a bubbly teen who’s tired of working the counter at her family’s local pub maneuvers her way into fronting a new wave punk band, then a Top 40s pop career (thanks largely to collaborating with her younger, manically ambitious cousin) where she excels as her So Unusual self.  There’s some indulgences in record industry satire, let’s-save-the-pub community rallying, and television broadcast heists along the way, but largely the film is a fantasy-fulfillment for the same sheltered, artsy kids who saw their ideal selves blooming in Lauper’s avatar a year later.  And it’s just as satisfying here as it is in those videos.

Speaking of music videos, I think the main reason Starstruck works so well for me as a movie musical is that its break-from-reality performances are presented in the visual language of early MTV broadcasts.  Given how much of my idle time is still spent YouTubing videos from 80s icons like Lauper, Kate Bush, and Madonna, that MTV-specific version of fantasy-fulfillment cinema speaks to me in a way most musical theatre can’t.  The new wave music & fashion of Starstruck is pitched exactly to my tastes, and the movie only strays from those modernized music video pleasures to (lovingly) mock the traditional movie musical as outdated kitsch (most notably in a Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming sequence featuring a pool packed with oiled-up muscle boys).  It’s my ideal version of its genre, and I can’t believe it’s not more routinely cited as an all-time classic.

Boomer, was Starstruck able to sneak past your own genre biases, or did its new wave-ification of the artfrom still fall flat in the face of your general movie musical skepticism?

Boomer: I was initially resistant to giving in to Starstruck‘s allure in much the same way that the first time I saw God Help the Girl; despite my absolute and utter adoration for all things Belle & Sebastian (a close friend gave me a copy of The Life Pursuit for my recent birthday and it hasn’t left the turntable yet), I had a hard time surrendering to Stuart Murdoch’s twee vision until the first non-title musical number well and truly won me over. With regards to Starstruck, I had the same hesitancy, and was also immediately set a bit off-kilter by its odd opening that dispensed with the normal film structure–there’s no studio or distributor logo, we’re simply thrust straight into the opening credits. From there, we meet our two leads in a brief intro scene that’s mostly taken up by a phone call that obscures both of their faces. Before the film even hits the three minute mark, Phil Judd from The Swingers is staring straight into the camera and singing “Gimme Love,” and by the seven minute mark, Jackie Mullens (Jo Kennedy) is doing her own musical number, singing “Temper Temper.” And I … wasn’t really having a great time, if we’re being honest. As I’ve noted before, the two things that I dislike most about typical Western musicals are the artificially earnest “musical voice” that’s a hallmark of “classically” trained singers and the belabored nature of musical lyrics, as plot points and exposition are beaten into submission in order to match a rhyme scheme and rhythm. As to the former, I much prefer the raw earnestness of your average local garage band to the operatic diaphragming of the university, and although Kennedy’s untrained and—frankly—confrontational vocals certainly aligns with my preferences, the strong-armed rhyming lyrics are very much in the style of those of traditional musicals: So trigger happy you get vicious / Also getting malicious / And you throw the dishes. I know that those are real lyrics because The Swingers were a real band, but they’re painful.

But then … as soon as “Temper Temper” ends at about 8.5 minutes in, the “musical” part of this musical dries up for nearly 30 minutes, and we just get to enjoy the antics of Angus (Ross O’Donovan) and Jackie as they try to make Jackie famous. When Jackie first starts to tightrope walk in the family pub, the film was giving such strong The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking vibes that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself, because I realized that what I had initially interpreted as just another “teenager wants to be a star” narrative, with all of its well-worn waypoints that we know from previous films in the genre, was actually a fantasy for children (the nudity, swearing, and smoking notwithstanding). The elaborate set piece that follows, in which Jackie dangles precariously from a wire between two buildings, was a genuine thrill in which there’s no real danger, unless you put yourself into the accepting mindset of a child who thinks Jackie may actually plummet to her death. That this is prelude to “Body and Soul,” which was the best and most energizing musical number to that point, only makes it that much more fun. The song itself wasn’t necessarily better than the dead-in-the-water tracks that frontloaded the picture, but that it’s not framed as an on-stage performance lends itself to a feeling of genuine spontaneity, and the frenetic energy of the family and the ever-present barflies as they dance around and sing is infectious, and the backing band gives it an effervescent quality that was lacking in the first two numbers. It’s genuinely catchy! 

And then we have our first (and only) song that’s a showpiece for Angus, and even though Angus is by far the most fascinating and magnetic character in this movie, it’s also … not very good. However, as musical producer/host Terry (John O’May) says to Jackie at one point after she botches a show, “There’s only boring and interesting, and you certainly weren’t boring;” and Angus is never boring. This is about the point where the movie really started to lose my interest: Angus’s number, “I Want To Live In a House,” fun as it was, ends at 55:05, and it’s less than two minutes before Jackie does her disastrous rendition of “My Belief in You,” which lasts over three minutes of screen time (56:45-59:48), and then it’s less than ninety seconds before Terry and Jackie perform “Tough,” which itself clocks in at five long minutes (60:07-65:07). Five minutes later, we’re in another musical number (“It’s Not Enough”), this time a sappy ballad, but it’s mercifully short. When looping back to take notes about those time codes, I think that “I Want to Live in a House” works fairly well in isolation and suffers primarily from its proximity to several consecutive stinkers, and although it’s not a good track, I was thoroughly charmed by the performances and dancing of Donovan and the backing band (mostly comprised of members of The Swingers minus Phil Judd, but also our love interest Robbie, as played by Ned Lander). It’s interesting, not boring, like the tracks that follow it. After this overstuffed middle section, we head into our final act, in which we spend a goodly amount of time with the Mullens family, as they have what may be their last Christmas together in their apartments above the pub and commiserate about the possibility of losing their business and home. After that, the last performances at the opera house are pretty fun, counterposed with the Mullens et al watching the performance and doing their little old people dances, and I was pleased in spite of myself. 

So I would have to say that, yeah, the New Wave nature of the music did do some of the legwork of making the musical part of this musical more palatable. The lyrics of the songs were still very much in line with what annoys me about the traditional musical—It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to do it / It’s the monkey in me that makes me want to chew it is a lyric written by an alien trying to imitate human music after only having heard “Rock Lobster”—but the energy and unadulterated, unpolished performances really made up for it. The musical sequences would perhaps be better served from being more spaced out, rather than happening in multiple clumps, but there’s an argument to be made that putting all of the worst ones in the middle and lumping them together helps you get through them more efficiently. 

Britnee, a few weeks back my best friend and I were sitting around and watching Cyndi Lauper videos (as one does), and she asked me if I thought a woman with Lauper’s lack of “traditional” talent would be able to make it in the current musical market. I’m of the mind that it’s possible, since it’s more difficult for most people to sing along with a classically trained vocalist as opposed to someone whose range is “whatever range the listener is in” (Lindsay Ellis once made this comparison between Christina Aguilera, who is inarguably a better vocalist, and Britney Spears, who is the better performer; Aguilera has something in the range of four octaves that she can dance between, while Spears has a broader appeal because it’s a lot easier to keep step with “Toxic” than, say, “Beautiful”). I have no interest in shaming Jo Kennedy, but she’s in the latter camp, with a sound that’s very similar to Lauper’s high, nasally own. Do you think that if Jackie were a real person, she would have had a real chance to make it big in 1982? Do you think she would have a chance now?

Britnee: I honestly never made the Cyndi Lauper connection with Jackie, but that definitely makes sense. I don’t think that Jackie would have made it big in the world of mainstream pop in 80s though. She’s too cool for any of that nonsense. She reminded me a lot of Kate Fagan (especially with Kate’s hit “I Don’t Wanna Be Too Cool”), but with a little more quirkiness. At most, she would have been more on the popular side of underground 80s pop/punk. I actually think she would find more mainstream success today. With social media being a huge component to the success of musicians, especially in the world of Pop, she would be a hit! If nothing else, her tightrope stunt would be all over TikTok and the Gram, reaching millions around the globe. 

I do agree that Jackie’s strength lies more in her performance than her voice, but my god, this soundtrack is so damn good. I love pretty much every song, especially “I Want to Live In A House” and “Body and Soul”.  And all of the outrageous performances that go along with the songs are chef’s-kiss spectacular. That’s something that musicals don’t always do as well as Starstruck. The wacky hijinks and action constantly happening around the musical numbers add to the entire feel of the movie. It’s so high energy and fun without falling into any boring slumps. 

Other than the fabulous tunes, I think the other component of this movie that blows it out of the water is the eccentric pub crowd. The lady covered in leopard print, her Lifetime movie mom, Nana, the bird, and the rest of the gang could have had their own TV show that I would have watched without a doubt. Not to mention the gorgeous pub décor and tiling. While that part of the film was a huge win for me, I did have some difficulty following along with some part of the plot. Especially the drama in her family. I knew that Angus was Jackie’s cousin, but I was so confused by the dynamics between her mother, father, and uncle. I honestly thought that her uncle was her widowed/divorced mother’s boyfriend for a bit. It was just hard for me to keep track of that story while focusing on Jackie’s journey to stardom. 

Hanna, what do you think about Jackie’s family drama happening in the background? Was it necessary or added anything extra to the movie? 

Hanna: I also had a hard time understanding the family dynamics; I consistently mixed up brothers, cousins, uncles, and romantic partners up until the very end of the film. I definitely thought Pearl was having a fling with her brother for a minute. I have pretty terrible hearing, so I would blame 80% of my confusion on the thick, wondrous Aussie accents. I wasn’t that invested in the particular relationships as a result, but I think the haze of confusion actually complemented everything I liked about the film; it added another little another little layer of chaos over the dance numbers and bare-breasted publicity stunts. On top of that, I enjoyed each family member so much (Nanna is a sweetie, Pearl’s outfits are A+, and I’m a sucker for Uncle Reg’s cockatoo) that I was happy to watch them saunter around Sydney and Pearl’s beautiful pub without quite knowing what was going on.

Besides, the film with or without the drama is absolutely delightful. I was totally charmed by Jackie, Robbie, and the weird little pub community. There are so many delicious visuals that have stuck in my mind: the seafoam barmaid dress! The pool boys with their big inflatable sharks! The big red kangaroo outfit! Jo Kennedy’s performance alone makes Starstruck worth the watch; she carries her plucky new-wave energy with an effortless joy, and her rabid determination to stardom give the film a fantastic backbone. Basically, Starstruck is a whole lot of fun, and you should watch it; I love watching musicals when I’m in the mood for a visual feast with a bare minimum of conflict, but I never dreamed that the pop-punk version of musical escapism was out there waiting for me.

Lagniappe

Hanna: I am completely in love with the sweeping curved bar and the splashes of tile Pearl’s pub, which was filmed in the Harbour View Hotel in Sydney. It’s one of the most unique locations I’ve seen in a long time (Hilly Blue’s mansion in Trouble in Mind gets second place; I would love to go on a Swampflix MOTM location tour). It looks like the bar was renovated with wood paneling, and all of the beautiful colorful tile is gone. It’s still gorgeous, but I’m crushed that I’ll never be able to see the pub in its kitschy prime. 

Britnee: Jackie’s cousin Angus had a look that reminded me a lot of AC/DC’s guitarist Angus Young. They both wore blazers with shorts, both were named Angus, and they both were Australian. I don’t think this means anything, but I thought it was interesting and worth mentioning!

Boomer: It’s worth noting that the lead singer of The Swingers, Phil Judd, was much more handsome than Ned Lander, who plays the love interest, Robbie (for what it’s worth, I think Lander looks much cuter now in his older age). I can only imagine two reasons why they didn’t use him in the film outside of his appearances at the beginning and end during the “Gimme Love” and “Starstruck” musical numbers, respectively: (a) at nearly 30, it was too creepy to have him act as love interest to the supposedly teenaged Jackie, or (b), he refused to stoop to doing the “litter box” choreography for the “I Want to Live in a House” segment.

Also, if you’re a sci-fi fan and saw the name “Melissa Jaffer” in the credits and recognized Mrs. Booth and weren’t sure from where, it’s because she’s Noranti! From Farscape!  

Brandon: While Jackie’s fashion sense and persona both strongly resemble Cyndi Lauper’s, I think her vocal style lands much closer to Lene Lovich’s, especially in the song “Temper, Temper”.  If Jackie were a real-life performer in the 1980s, I think she could have easily “made it” on the level of Lovich’s minor-league version of success: a few decent new wave albums on a mid-card record label like Stiff, followed by decades of obscurity in the shadow of more memorable performers of the same ilk like Kate Bush, Nina Hagen, and Siouxsie Sioux.  As an eternal sucker for new wave kitsch who owns most of Lene Lovich’s output on vinyl, I can almost guarantee I’d have Jackie Mullins records on my shelf right now if they existed.  I’m actually frustrated that I don’t own the Starstruck soundtrack, as it’s wonderful from start to end (contrary to some outrageous claims made elsewhere in this conversation).

Upcoming Movies of the Month
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
October: Hanna presents Lisa and the Devil (1973)

-The Swampflix Crew

Movie of the Month: Home of the Brave (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Brandon made Boomer, Britnee, and Hanna watch Home of the Brave (1986).

Brandon: One of the more frequently repeated clichés in the weeks following the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was “This is not who we are.” Political pundits & sentimental patriots were quick to distance their own guarded mental image of Who We Are As Americans from the racist, conspiracy-addled maniacs who attempted to thwart the democratic process that day. That’s easier said than done. America is a vast assortment of all kinds of disparate peoples & ideologies, and this recent election cycle has only highlighted what an alarming percentage of the U.S. citizenry are fascism-friendly white supremacists. A distorted, revisionist version of this country’s history and shared principles has been so rigorously hammered into our brains without reckoning with the uglier truths at its core that we genuinely have no idea Who We Are. Our national identity is mostly built on an often-repeated lie, so we have a lot of self-examination left to do if we can ever claim “This is not who we are” the next time far-Right extremists commit an act of domestic terror in an effort to disenfranchise Black voters.

This national self-examination does not have to be an entirely pessimistic or self-flagellating effort, though. One of the more glaring recent examples of popular art grappling with this topic was last year’s David Byrne concert film American Utopia, the kind of political self-reckoning you can dance to. In the film, Byrne’s parade of solo & Talking Heads hits are bookended by short lectures that examine the function & the soul of American culture from an abstracted outsider perspective – a kind of spiritual sequel to his small-town America portrait True Stories. American Utopia is an honest but optimistic temperature check of where America is today, both acknowledging the horrors of racially-motivated police brutality that have long been a stain on this country’s honor and pointing to our current moment of change as a possibly transformative turning point towards a better future. Meanwhile, everything onstage is rigidly uniformed & regimented like a dystopian sci-fi film, with the traditional rock performers’ instruments & colorful costuming stripped away to mimic the minimalism of modern performance art. It rightfully earned a lot of praise for its honest but hopeful examination of modern American culture, but it also reminded me a lot of another, older work that was very dear to me in high school: Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV.

United States was a four-part, two-night concert series in the early 1980s that combined lectures, performance art, digital projections, and avant-garde new wave compositions in a way that innovated much of what Byrne has been praised for in his own concert films, American Utopia & Stop Making Sense. Unfortunately, that stage show was only officially documented in audio form (on the excellent four-hour concert album United States Live). The closest motion-picture document we have for the series is the 1986 concert film Home of the Brave, which Anderson directed herself. Home of the Brave is a streamlined, 90min distillation of United States I-IV that collects the more polished versions of the show’s compositions that appeared on Anderson’s first two studio albums, Big Science & Mister Heartbreak. In the film, Anderson also observes the soul & structure of America in a series of abstracted, outsider-POV lectures the way Byrne does in American Utopia, but those monologues are interwoven into her avant-garde new wave songs to the point where there’s no boundary between them. It’s an existential “Who are we?” national identity crisis for The Reagan Era, one that still rings true even if our populist politics have only gotten more rabid and our technology has upgraded from landlines to smartphones.

Laurie Anderson begins Home of the Brave with a stand-up routine about the 1’s & 0’s of computerized binary code, then immediately connects that line of thought to America’s national obsession with being #1. From there, she continues to abstract other basic modern concepts to the point where they feel foreign & uncanny: America’s national identity, the nature of rock music, the absurdism of gender performance & 80s workout routines, basic human interactions, technology, language, etc. Musical instruments don’t look or sound the way they’re supposed to, with violins transformed into synthesized samplers and rubber-necked guitars creating hideously distorted waves of noise. Anderson waltzes with William S. Burroughs, calls her keyboardist on the phone to chat mid-set, and at one point transforms her own body into a literal drum machine. It’s difficult to say with any clarity how these individual elements directly comment on the nature & soul of modern America, especially since the screen behind her often broadcasts phrases like “YOU CONNECT THE DOTS” in digital block text. Still, the overall effect of the work is an earnest prodding at what, exactly, we are as a modern society. Instead of declaring “This is not who we are” in the face of repugnant Reagan Era politics, Anderson instead asks “Who are we?”, which is a much more worthwhile spiritual & intellectual response to the hell of modern living.

I know all this abstract head-scratching about national identity and the eeriness of modern technology sounds a little hyperbolic for a concert film, but that’s exactly what Laurie Anderson’s art & music has always inspired in me. Hanna, do you think Home of the Brave has anything direct or meaningful to say about life in the modern Western world, or in America in particular? Or did you experience it merely as a kooky performance of esoteric new wave jams?

Hanna: Both! I think I would have to watch Home of the Brave at least three more times to absorb a thesis about modern intellectual and spiritual identity. However, one of the many threads of thought I really enjoyed was the obsession with categorization to cope with complexity, and how that categorization limits our understanding of our own experience and cannot possibly provide real comfort. In the short song “White Lily”, Anderson misremembers a scene in Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz where a man walks into a flower shop and asks the florist for a flower that expresses: “Days go by, and they just keep going by, endlessly pulling you into the future …” Apparently, it’s a white lily. I’ve always liked those moments where somebody asks for a simple representation or expression of something confusing/painful/complex and receives a representation that’s totally insufficient, like the scientists in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle who discover that the secret to life is “protein”. The fact that Anderson uses a white lily instead of the actual flower mentioned in Fassbinder’s film (a white carnation) is especially appropriate: first, because people are filled with little bits of information they’ve reconstructed to suit their needs and memories; second, because it might as well be either flower – both of them “mean” the same thing, which is nothing. We’re all just desperately trying to organize the world through our grossly inadequate schemas and forget that we’re big electric meat bags, pulled endlessly forward by impulses we can’t control (0 … 1 … 0 … 1 …). I don’t think this is a specifically American impulse, but I do think that American culture is especially repulsed by ambiguity—as referenced by Anderson in her opening monologue—and is especially prone to cutting the world up into jarring and unnatural pieces to avoid uncertainty.

Even without the intellectual and spiritual reflections on modern existence, Home of the Brave is a stone cold stunner in the arena of Kooky Jams. I was absolutely reminded of American Utopia and Stop Making Sense, especially because all three concerts host ensembles of incredibly talented people and funky performances abstracting the human condition. I think the biggest difference between Byrne’s films and Home of the Brave is that I could not take my eyes off of Laurie Anderson; she is, without a doubt, one of the most commanding performers I’ve ever seen. Her short spiky hair, wide eyes, and long white silk coat give the look of a mad music scientist; her voice slivers, swoops, shrieks, and howls in the span of a minute; and her performance varies incredibly in tone, both between and within songs. For example, “Difficult Listening Hour” opens with Anderson announcing the start of the aforementioned radio show (the spot on your dial for that relentless and impenetrable sound of Difficult Music!), a concept which I find endlessly amusing; the song takes a menacing turn when the speaker comes home to find a man sitting in their house, with “big white teeth / like luxury hotels on the Florida coastline”, and a mouth like “a big scar.” Yikes! Even the delivery of her prose is mesmerizing – she withholds her speech, slowly releasing phrases one after the other with total control in a way that’s utterly captivating (“and the flame would come dancing out of his mouth … and the woman liked this … very much.”) For the entirety of the show, I had the impression Anderson was interrogating me philosophically with a fun band and big shirts and satellites. Does that make sense? No! As I’m writing this, am I realizing that maybe I have a big crush on Laurie Anderson? Yes!

Boomer, what did you think of the tonal shifts in the songs and skits throughout Home of the Brave? Did Anderson fuse chaos into something meaningful, or was I just hypnotized by her snake monologue?

Boomer: One couldn’t blame you for being entranced by her poems or monologues. Poetry is a peculiar form of writing in that its beauty exists (and one could argue must exist) in two distinct realms, the physical and(/or) the abstract, in the performance or on the page. Even a novel or essay with the most melodic prose elicits something different than the poem, and some poems cannot exist on the page and must exist in the performance. There’s no way that this is a universal experience, but by the time I was seventeen, I thought that there was no better demonstration of fauxlosophical depth than being obsessed with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” and found the exultation of it within my peer group to be annoying, until an undergrad class years later in which a professor played a live audio reading of it, and it just clicked. There’s a division in poetry between what can exist and remain both alive and meaningful on the page (and each person’s mileage on which poets for whom that might be the case) and what demands a performance, requiring bombacity and the meaningful pauses Hanna mentioned.

It’s that same mesmerism of her activity that means that I can’t rightfully say whether or not something “meaningful” was created in this synthesis of images, ideas, and sounds. It may be partially due to the quality of the version I was able to track down, but there are large sections that are verbally focused and wordy (like the discussion of the one-zero dichotomy) and some that are less clear for a first time viewer like I was; I was a little lost during the phone call with the keyboardist and although I feel like I absorbed the essence of the skit, any meaning was outside of my grasp. There’s a certain rhythm to what Anderson’s doing that, stripped of all of the props and projections, there’s a kind of sermon happening before you. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, but I spent a lot of time in churches in my youth with a lot of “fellowship” that was indistinguishable from the instruction of the week before, and the week before that; as such, my mind often goes into a kind of self-defense mode, where I get absorbed in the melodicism of the language but the words themselves sort of float past me in the stream. Home of the Brave does something similar in parts, as it moves from music to spoken word to skit to music again and so on, all flowing into one another without discrete sections. This is an immersive experience, and a beautiful one, but until I read Brandon’s description of the film, I failed to CONNECT THE DOTS between a philosophical criticism of American opulence/consumption and the specifics of Anderson’s recitations (even though it’s right there in the title).

I do love Anderson’s ear for lyricism in her koans. I’m not familiar with any of the works referenced, but I do know her album Big Science; in particular, the track “From the Air” was in the digital library at KLSU when I was a DJ there, and it got heavy rotation during my three years as the morning drive DJ as both a phone-in request and just because I like it. I always loved the self-reflectiveness of the line “This is the time / And this is the record of the time.” It’s such a pure distillation of the artist’s experience: the semiotic thing that is being signified is the time, but the art which is the signifier is also the sign, and the record of the time, as it both creates and captures. Even though I didn’t digest Home of the Brave‘s intent as well as I might have, I knew what I was in for when I heard that we were watching a Laurie Anderson concert film. Britnee, is she an artist with whom you had prior familiarity? If not, what was your experience going into this “blind’? And if so, where does this work fit into your larger cognitive framework of her art?

Britnee: I wasn’t very familiar with Laurie Anderson prior to watching Home of the Brave. I knew of her, and I knew that she had a very unique music style. When I was younger, my aunt had a wicker basket filled with cassette tapes. I would love digging in it to find new musical discoveries, and I vividly remember picking out a copy of Laurie Anderson’s Strange Angels. The album was mesmerizing, with “Coolsville” being my favorite song from it. I didn’t know what any of the lyrics meant, but it made me happy. This is the same feeling I got from watching Home of the Brave. I didn’t pick up on the meaning behind all of it, but I enjoyed every minute.

Mainly, what I took away from Home of the Brave was admiration for Laurie Anderson as an artist. She’s the total package. Watching her move across the stage with her mad scientist business suit, doing all of her strange choreography, was a real treat.  I was way more focused on her than I was on what she was trying to say. One of my favorite stage props was the screen with all sorts of images and messages projected. “What does it all mean?” was a constant question in my mind while watching the wacky journal entries and animal drawings pop up on the screen. I still don’t really understand what it all means, but I found it to be exciting and thought provoking. This is definitely a film I would have to watch a few times to truly get its full effect, but I think that’s more of a personal problem and no fault of Anderson’s.

Lagniappe

Britnee: Anderson’s Nash the Slash style getup at the beginning was such an attention grabbing opener. The voice modulator she used to create this disturbing electronic male voice was both chilling and brilliant. That will forever be the first thing I think about when I think about Home of the Brave.

Boomer: There’s a moment in this film where Laurie Anderson is dancing in her silk suit with her back to the audience/camera and the spotlight on her is a yellow gel, and her body movements are very similar to those of Jim Carrey in The Mask, and she suddenly turns around with a very “large” expression on her face, for lack of a better term. As much as I can’t stand The Mask (I have a Pavlovian dislike of Carrey’s work as the result of having a peer with severe ADHD—before they learned to pacify kids in the classroom—who would endlessly repeat every Carrey film routine on a daily basis in class, with at least one outburst per hour from 1995 until 1999, and only then because Austin Powers started airing on TNT constantly so there was another reference point to beat to death and then some), I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the mannerisms of the character were inspired by elements of Anderson’s performance art.

Hanna: A short stream-of-consciousness from my notes while watching this film:

She pops up through the floor! Squeaky voice! “Bending” the guitar! It sounds terrible! Now he’s hitting it with a mallet! Everybody’s just jumping around! A big fish bowl porthole magnifying her face! Ballerina accordion player! Huge drumsticks! Hitting a ball with the guitar!

So, if that (in addition to abstract new wave) sounds at all appealing, I highly recommend Home of the Brave.

Brandon: I know that Stop Making Sense has been communally anointed as The Greatest Concert Film of All Time, but this movie certainly belongs in that conversation, if not only for highlighting how Anderson’s work pioneered a lot of the more Conceptual Art elements that bolster Byrne’s stage shows. At the very least, it’s outright unforgivable that it never made the format leap from VHS & Laserdisc to DVD or Blu-ray. I would love to see a cleaned-up version in a proper theatrical setting someday, but for now all we’ve got is dead formats & fuzzy YouTube uploads.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
April: Boomer presents London Road (2015)
May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985)
June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016)

-The Swampflix Crew

Nobody May Come (2020)

When I was a kid living way “down the road” in St. Bernard Parish, New Orleans felt like it was planets away. I was fascinated by the boozy, draggy glam of the city but too young to access it without constrictive parental supervision – an endless source of frustration at the time. One of the ways I would scratch my ever-worsening itch for New Orleans hedonism those years was by frequenting a long-forgotten 1990s website that profiled & documented the most eccentric weirdos of The French Quarter as if they were celebrity icons. The site had individual pages for local Personalities like Ruthie The Duck Lady, Varla Jean Merman, and a clown who supposedly sold weed out of his balloon cart (a fuzzy memory that yields no useful Google results two decades later). I’d return to that site every now and then the way most kids ritualistically review their baseball cards or comic book collections; it was an aspirational window into a much more interesting world I couldn’t wait to occupy as soon as I had some personal freedom (and a car).

Valerie Sassyfras is very much of that tradition of New Orleans-specific eccentrics. Usually, when I catch her playing her spaced-out avant-garde new wave jams around the city, it’s totally by happenstance. I’ll be walking my dog in City Park and stumble onto her abrasively bewildering the tourists & Metairie Moms just trying to enjoy a beignet with their kids at Cafe Du Monde. Her legendary status as a local eccentric is built on those kinds of guerilla gigs in unlikely venues, starting with her regular features at a now-closed Piccadilly Cafeteria. Usually, very few people in the audience are directly paying attention to her, but she always parties hard on her keyboards, mandolin, and accordion as if she’s playing the most important gig of her life. Inevitably, one or two fellow weirdos in the crowd lock onto her warped wavelength and have the time of their lives, while everyone around them tries their best to remain politely oblivious to the outsider-art theatricality just outside their peripheral view. It’s always a wonderful spectacle to stumble into, more like encountering a magical creature than a struggling gig musician.

Sassyfras may never have had a page on whatever bullshit GeoCities website about New Orleans eccentrics I was frequenting as a kid, but she now has a much more substantial mythmaking platform to highlight her persona and her art: a documentary. Nobody May Come is the exact kind of niche-interest no-budget filmmaking you only see at festivals: a local documentary about a New Orleans street musician that only a handful of like-minded weirdos ever seek out in concert on purpose. It premiered at this year’s (mostly) digital New Orleans Film Fest, with much cheerleading & social media promotion from Sassyfras herself. On Valerie’s Facebook page (a wonderful follow that I highly encourage you to pursue), she promoted Nobody May Come as “a funny, fabulous movie all about me!” I’m not sure we saw the same film based on that description, but I’m also not sure anyone experiences the world the way Valerie Sassyfras does; that’s exactly what makes her so fascinating as an outsider artist & a documentary subject. I also don’t think it would improve her life at all if she found this movie about her art and her daily drudgery to be as upsettingly grim as I did.

If you’ve ever stumbled across an impromptu Valerie Sassyfras show in the wild and were curious about what, exactly, is her Whole Deal, Nobody May Come is eager to sketch out those details. It’s an intimate slice-of-life doc that captures Sassyfras at her most glamorous (performing with sequins & backup twerkers to adoring bar-scene audiences) and at her most mundane (stoned and eating Popeyes in her favorite armchair while listening to modern pop-country tunes). She’s an unreliable narrator of her own life’s story, defending herself against past accusations of abuse & neglect within fraught familial relationships as if the audience were interviewing to be her lawyer. Meanwhile, her career is enjoying newfound national attention thanks to her party jam “Girls Night Out” being memed by mainstream bullies like The Ellen DeGeneres Show and America’s Got Talent. Sassyfras’s avant-garde, zydeco-turned-new-wave pop tunes are much better suited for weirdo bar culture than they are for wide public consumption, falling somewhere between the conceptual art pageantry of a Laurie Anderson stage show and the crude prankishness of a Tim & Eric bit. Watching her expectations of impending fame clash with the ironic get-a-load-of-this-weirdo bullying of mainstream American television can be just as dark & upsetting as listening to her grumble about the ways she’s been left behind by her family and the world at large.

Nobody May Come is a jarring mix of fun outsider-art punk aggression and severely upsetting social & mental dysfunction. It would be easy to slap together a montage from the film of Valerie struggling to accomplish simple, mundane tasks: opening elevator doors, playing videos on her phone, negotiating with venue staff, routinely ordering Popeyes over a fuzzy drive-through intercom, etc. It would be just as easy to edit together a full-glam rock star fantasy montage that highlights her aggressively bizarre crowdwork and music videos instead of her personal & professional Issues. Personally, I would have preferred that the film lean harder into that latter option, if not only to gift Sassyfras the “funny, fabulous movie” she was looking for. There’s a lot of dark energy running throughout Nobody May Come that contextualizes her as a Daniel Johnston-type outsider artist who has her Good Days and her Bad. There may be some truth to that, but I personally found the doc to be most useful as an act of local mythmaking, not a warts-and-all exposé.

It would have been nice if Nobody May Come were as purely fun & fabulous as Valerie Sassyfras’s concerts, but I am still very much appreciative of it as-is for seeking to preserve her Local Legend status with a document much more substantial than a meme-of-the-week viral video or a late-90s blog post. She deserves the attention (and more).

-Brandon Ledet

Kraftwerk 3-D and the Modern Concert as Cinema

At the time I’m writing this it’s been over a week since I’ve seen a proper movie, which is likely the longest stretch I’ve gone without watching one in at least two years. Thanks to the ever-expanding grey area of what does & does not qualify as cinema, however, I feel like that itch is being scratched elsewhere, with a surprising amount of that content relating to pop music. For instance, long form music videos like Beyoncé’s Lemonade or our former Movie of the Month Girl Walk //All Day and prestige television shows like Baz Luhrmann’s recent chaotic mess of a hip-hop disco musical The Get Down all feel cinematic without being what’s traditionally considered cinema. Gallons of ink have already been spilled about how television is becoming more like film & vice versa (in the form of never-ending franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe),but what’s been of particular interest to me lately is how music videos & live concerts have been doing the same. This might explain why while attending a 3-D Kraftwerk concert in New Orleans last Friday I found myself (between spaced out, gin & soda fueled dancing) asking “Is this cinema?” I don’t know if it was because I hadn’t watched a film in days & was desperate to tap myself into that headspace, but I wound up deciding that yes, it was. And it was one of the best movies I had seen all year.

If you’re wondering, like I was before I reached the Orpheum that Friday, exactly what a “3-D concert” is (besides watching three-dimensional musicians perform in a three-dimensional space), Kraftwerk basically performed in front of a stage-sized screen that displayed a moving image to correspond with each song, not unlike a live music video. These images were made to look 3-D through cardboard glasses specifically printed for the show & distributed at the entrance. Now, watching a screen at a live event isn’t all that novel for a 2010s concert experience. In fact, it’s almost become standard. Besides attendees watching acts through their view-blocking, media-capturing smartphones, bands often use projections & display screens to enhance the live music experience. From metal bands doing living room sets in front of projections of silent horror relics to gigantic crowd music festivals using jumbotrons to reach the folk miles form the stage, we’ve all witnessed 2-D visual media incorporated as part of the live concert experience. The concept goes back pretty far down the history of rock n’ roll too, touching on the rudimentary light shows of 60s psychedelia & the multimedia assault on the senses of acts like The Butthole Surfers. There’s something different about the way Kraftwerk is crafting their live experience that makes it more of a recognizably cinematic endeavor, however, and that difference has a lot to do with the immersion & the gimmickry of the 3-D experience.

When trying to conjure the ways live music is gradually becoming more cinematic the first thing that might come to mind is the live performance of movie scores for public screenings. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood performed live versions of his There Will Be Blood score for recent events. Prog rock legends Goblin embarked on an entire international tour where they performed their killer score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria along with screenings of the movie. Local musician Hellen Gillet recently performed a live score for Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis at an outdoor screening outside the US Mint in the French Quarter. These examples of cinema seeping into the live music experience are exciting, but they’re also more traditional than they might initially appear. Think back to the early days of silent cinema where soundtracks would be performed by a live, in-house pianist. Updating that dynamic for a pop music context is exciting, but it’s not necessarily the innovation of a homogenous live music & cinema blend that acts like Kraftwerk have been bringing to concert venues.

What’s fascinating to me lately is the film-concert hybrid, a cinematic experience specifically designed to be engaged with as a live musical act. The multimedia performances of Björk’s Biophilia & Laurie Anderson’s United States I-IV were brave steps in that direction, but the first live music cinema experience I can remember attending myself was Dan Deacon’s collaboration with visual artist Jimmy Joe Roche. Live performances of their visual album, the blisteringly psychedelic Ultimate Reality, were singularly overwhelming experiences. Two live drummers set up on opposite sides of the stage in front of an oversized projector screen. They played mechanically in sync over a recording of Deacon’s trademark synth assault, accompanied by a mid-length feature film collage of bright, kaleidoscopic imagery lifted from various Arnold Schwarzenegger films. Ultimate Reality pushes its concert-cinema hybrid even a step further by marrying its aural & visual assault with a loose narrative in which all of Arnold’s movies, from Total Recall to Junior, are melted into an incomprehensible mess of a storyline that doesn’t exactly resemble the story structure of even the loosest, most Lynchian of film narratives or the vibe-driven, movement-based structure of a live concert. Ultimate Reality occupies a strange gray area between those two extremes, the same cinematic live music territory I experienced while watching Kraftwerk 3-D.

Kraftwerk is a seminal band, having played the role of innovator for nearly half a century. Listening to them perform live you can detect the early beginnings of pop music genres as varied as hip-hop, techno, industrial, and (duh) new wave lurking in the sparse, cold sounds of their digital meditations. They marry this slow, synth-soaked hypnosis, each song stretching on for dozens of minutes at a time, with a stark, minimalist, stage show. All four members of the band are centered at their own synthesizer podiums, remaining stoically still as they mix their digital soundscapes into a cohesive whole. It took me almost two songs into their set to even realize that the vocals were being provided live by one of the members. Everything felt so fixed & so clinical. Behind those four synth-commanding demigods stands a gigantic projector screen, which of course displays 3-D imagery related to each song performed. The imagery can range from archival footage of supermodels of the 1950s (during my personal favorite Kraftwerk tune “Das Model”) to crude digital renderings of a pixelated car on the highway (during the song “Autobahn”), an intentionally outdated aesthetic that recalls the look of certain Tim & Eric segments or, perhaps more appropriately, the music video project that accompanied the Death Grips album Government Plates. The rudimentary, elemental nature of these images matched the sparse genre seedlings of Kraftwerk’s music and transported their audience into a cinematic headspace that’s foreign to most concert experiences, even ones aided by higher tech on their display screens.

Unlike Ultimate Reality, 3-D Kraftwerk didn’t form its individual vignettes into a larger narrative whole. Instead, each music video experience was allowed to exist as its own separate meditation, functioning almost like a horror anthology, with the concert hall itself standing in as a wraparound segment. One song dove into the ever-present threat of nuclear war. One meditated on the machine-like efficiency of athletes who participate in the Tour de France. One provided a visualization of the digital landscape where the band’s Tron-like costumes might be considered high fashion. A particularly playful rendition of “We are Robots” had the band replaced onstage with mannequins propped up behind their synth podiums & projected in 3-D behind them. That last moment in particular pointed to the absurdity of paying to see a band so rooted in the artistry of music studio production perform “live” in the first place. The very idea of “a 3-D concert” is an exceedingly ridiculous concept on its own and the band never shied away from pointing to that absurdity. Instead of pursuing a more kinetic stage show, they turned their songs into a collection of short films with live music accompaniment, each devolving into long form meditations on concepts like international travel & “computer love”. The result felt a lot like watching a movie. Instead of feeling comradery with the band, like being within arms’ reach at a $5 punk show, you feel as if you’re watching a collection of mannequins stand before a silver screen; it’s distancing, but it’s also dazzling.

3-D technology has always been a William Castle-type gimmick meant to sell extra movie tickets to audiences looking for a novel & immersive cinematic experience. It was a perfect choice for Kraftwerk to draw an audience in with that cinema-specific gimmick because their live show already feels so similar to watching a movie in the first place. As the screen-heavy multimedia approach to the live concert becomes increasingly cinematic it’ll be interesting to see where other bands can take the basic idea explored by 3-D Kraftwerk, Dan Deacon, and others into new, more narrative territories. It’s not a perfect fit for every musical act, but in a struggling industry suffering long-term declines in album sales the idea of live music cinema could be a great potential moneymaker for bands more prone to in-the-studio tinkering than live rock n’ roll antics. More importantly, though, it could lead to innovative modes of great, cinematic art, the next evolution in both the movie going & live music experiences as we know them. It’s only appropriate that Kraftwerk would be one of the acts on the forefront of that innovation, as they have been with so many other musical advancements since the late 1960s.

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-Brandon Ledet