Category Archives: Film & Music

Let it be more Beatles: some notes on the ‘Get Back’ documentary

I recently finished watching the full Get Back documentary, directed and produced by Peter Jackson and released as a miniseries in 3 episodes. With a total running time of nearly 8 hours it may seem a daunting task at first, but true Beatles fans will most likely be craving for more once the viewing is over.

Although it draws material from the 1970 Let It Be documentary, Get Back is a far cry from Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s earlier film. Meticulously going through 60 hours of film footage and over 150 hours of audio, Jackson and his team have produced an impressive work that accurately captures the subtleties and nuances of the band’s inner relations and tensions, their interaction with friends and collaborators, as well as the broader cultural climate of the era.

A fly on the studio wall

Following the band through 3 consecutive weeks in January 1969, we are literally being transferred inside the studio with the Beatles, following every little chat between the band members and seeing them unravel their musical and creative ideas. The experience is truly astonishing and, for once, exactly what the film’s trailer promises: unprecedented access to the most intimate footage ever shot of the band.

We get to hear Lennon’s hilarious quips and witticisms, see McCartney doing an impersonation of Elvis, or watch Yoko Ono and Linda Eastman chatting casually in the background. More intriguingly, we overhear the conservation between Lennon and McCartney as they are trying to handle a sudden crisis (caused by Harrison’s temporary resignation) via a hidden microphone planted inside a flower pot. Reality TV has rarely been more culturally meaningful or historically informative.

Breaking up can be fun

As the film goes on, we are gradually being immersed in the developments during the band’s fateful final period. And it’s actually a lively and rather joyous picture full of excitement, sparkly music, contagious laughs and that unmistakable Beatles humor, tied to their innate ability of having fun at all times while simultaneously making fun of pretty much everything – especially of themselves.

So, even though the band’s imminent break up is kind of hanging over Apple Corps headquarters like a specter, the boys are still having a great time and some magical moments are born despite, or -more likely- because of, the underlying tension. We watch them as they literally give birth to some of their finest music, going through sketches of songs like Across the Universe, Get Back, I Me Mine and I Got a Feeling (or ”I got a hard-on” as Lennon jokes), in between endless jams, impromptus, and casual conversations over tea and toast.

A particularly revealing moment comes up when keyboardist Billy Preston comes in and starts jamming with the band in the studio. Seeing the refreshing effect his presence brings to the band’s playing and overall vibes, Lennon says: ”I’d just like him in our band, actually. I’d like a fifth Beatle.” In what closely resembles a family discussion about adoption, Harrison agrees: ”We can do that.” McCartney, however, is quick to end the enthusiasm about getting extra band members: ”I just don’t, cause it’s just bad enough with four” (for a small taste of alternate music history, just listen to the amazing performance of Without a Song by Preston and the band during the end titles of the second episode).

To the (roof)toppermost of the poppermost

Along with a priceless view and uncensored access to the Beatles at work during their final days, the film also offers a unique glimpse of swinging London and the surrounding cultural milieu. We see the band discussing daily news, newspaper articles (often about themselves) and contemporary TV programs, while in the last episode the camera moves out of the studio and on to the rooftop that is about to become the stage for the band’s last public performance.

The film culminates with the famous rooftop concert, a show largely spontaneous and improvised, as can be seen by the band’s relaxed and playful attitude. With the blue-gray London skyline as a backdrop, the Beatles go through some of their new songs for an invisible audience, as people start gathering down the street and around the neighboring rooftops, unaware they are witnessing a landmark event in 20th-century cultural history.

The Beatles rooftop concert (Evening Standard, Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It is hard to miss the irony of the band singing ”Get Back” almost at the face of the police officers who are sent to restore order, ultimately stopping the performance due to complaints for ”breach of the peace”. Indeed, the Beatles had been disturbing musical peace from their early beginnings in Liverpool and Hamburg right up to their final public concert in the heart of London – a fitting epilogue to the band’s cataclysmic career that encapsulates some of the essential traits that made them great: their unique chemistry and charisma on (and off) stage, their unpredictability and unhindered creative spark, and of course an overwhelming sense of the sheer, pure joy of music making.

Someday in Athens: The 4 Levels of Existence then and now

The band

Mid-1970s, Greece. Following the fall of the military junta, amid difficult circumstances that were however marked by widespread creativity and -hitherto suppressed- artistic activity, a rock band was beginning to take shape through lengthy jams inside improvised music studios somewhere in the western suburbs of Athens. Its name? The 4 Levels of Existence.

The 4 Levels of Existence – top to bottom: Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis, Marinos Yamalakis, Nikos Grapsas / photo by Vassilis Asimakopoulos

The band’s initial line-up consisted of ex-Frog’s Eye members Athanasios Alatas (rhythm guitar) and Christos Vlachakis (drums), together with Marinos Yamalakis (bass – vocals) and Nikos Dounavis (lead guitar). The group started rehearsing and making live appearances  (mostly in local cinemas as was customary for Greek bands at the time), eventually managing to win third place in a music contest organized by the National Radio and Television Foundation (EIRT) in 1975.

After having Dounavis replaced by Nikos Grapsas (lead guitar – vocals), the band was asked to make an album for Venus Records, a small record label specialized -oddly enough- in Greek folk and popular music. It was, nevertheless, a unique opportunity and the band didn’t miss it: On 5 and 6 January 1976 at the legendary Columbia Studios in Athens, their first -and only- album was recorded. Within just 10 (!) hours in total, the recording was ready after two short sessions: first all instrumental tracks were laid, then the vocals were added.

The album

Although born under such tight time constraints and adverse circumstances (there was essentially no producer or sound engineer), the band’s self-tiled debut album was nevertheless an extraordinary achievement : A guitar-based blend of psychedelia, folk and hard rock that also featured Greek lyrics – something unusual for a rock band at the time.

A highly original mix of diverse elements, the record manages to convey a considerably wide spectrum, both musically and emotionally – from teenage aggression and heavy guitar riffs (“Metamorphic”) to controlled emotional outbursts (“The Fool’s Trumpet”) and melodic passages that exude a nostalgic feeling of youthful melancholy and lyricism (“Untitled”, “Disappointment”).

The album’s original 1976 vinyl release – the cover art was created by Athanasios Alatas, initially conceived for Frog’s Eye

Shortly after the album’s release, the band was dissolved. However, their sole recording would follow its own incredible course, becoming a highly sought-after item among record collectors and considered one of the rarest Greek rock discs ever. Moreover, in an amazing turn of events, US rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z used Alata’s guitar riff from “Someday in Athens” as a sample for their hit song “Run this Town”, which would be sung by Rihanna and win two Grammy Awards in 2010.

Following subsequent releases in both vinyl and CD format, the 4 Levels of Existence album was recently re-released in beautiful 180gr vinyl by Anazitisi Records, a small independent label that specializes in psychedelic/progressive/blues/jazz/rock records from the 1960s and 1970s.

The movie

Just as the band’s music resurfaces once more, becoming available for a new generation of listeners, the story behind the 4 Levels of Existence has been just made into a film documentary. Directed by Iliana Danezi, the film will be having its première next week at the 21st Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

While offering an overview of the band’s history, the film traces the surviving band members (Alatas, Vlachakis and Grapsas) and depicts them in their current whereabouts, painting their individual portraits and highlighting the development of their distinct personalities. What is more, the three musicians are seen together again some -special- day in Athens, chatting, strolling around old hangouts, and jamming for the first time in a very long time…

The band’s surviving members in 2018, during the shooting of the documentary (left to right: Nikos Grapsas, Athanasios Alatas, Christos Vlachakis)

In the end, the band’s story can also be seen as a reflection on changing times and the things that matter most as time flies by: the common aspirations and dreams of youth, the power of friendship, the sense of group solidarity and identity, the fulfillment brought by artistic expression, the feeling that not everything has been futile or wasted…

In the words of the band’s guitarist Athanasios Alatas: “[Our] record is dedicated to all the bands that played in West Attica at the time. All those who didn’t get a chance to record, who broke up, etc. All those who did their best back then, to fulfill their life and dreams through music.”

 

At the meeting point of Greek cinema and music: Notes on a remarkable collaboration

A pivotal figure at the intersection of Greek cinema and music, Costas Ferris is mostly known as the director of the award-winning film Rembetiko, and -to a lesser extent- for having penned the lyrics for Aphrodite’s Child’s psychedelic masterpiece 666.

Probably less known has been the collaboration between Ferris and musician Stavros Logaridis, member of the famous Greek pop group Poll and founder of the progressive rock ensemble Akritas, whose debut (and sole) self-titled album still ranks as one of the very peaks of its genre.

Described as a “dance suite for quartet and play back”, Akritas (1973) features a highly original blend of rock, electronic, classical as well as folk elements. Ferris, who had first met Logaridis in London in late 1972, wrote the lyrics for this truly outstanding album, which (like Aphrodite’s Child 666) contains biblical references and allusions to the Book of Revelation in particular.

The two men would soon collaborate again for Ferris’s film The Murderess (1974), based on a well-known Greek novel by Alexandros Papadiamantis. A visually stunning and innovative film, The Murderess also stands out for its unique soundtrack, consisting solely of instrumental electronic music. Composed by Logaridis, who was only 21 years old at the time, the music is largely experimental and abstract, yet closely following the film’s narrative and complementing the various themes and motifs so effectively it soon becomes itself one of the movie’s major components.

Ferris and Logaridis would form a close friendship and collaborate again on various occasions, including the music for the TV series Violet City in 1975 (which would actually lead to a legal battle against Vangelis concerning the famous theme from his Oscar-winning score for Chariots of Fire).

Although Logaridis never quite achieved the level of fame or international success of artists like Vangelis or Aphrodite’s Child, his singular talent remains indisputable. Not unlike Ferris’s seminal role in the evolution of modern Greek cinema, Logaridis’s work has been crucial -if somewhat understated- for the development of the Greek music scene in the 1970s and 1980s.

Indeed, as testified by such groundbreaking works as The Murderess and Akritas, the collaboration between the two Greek artists bore some very special fruit, both on screen and on record.

Soul, jazz, and punks: A selection from this year’s In-Edit festival

It all started in 2003 in Barcelona with the first version of In-Edit festival, when the once neglected genre of music documentary came to the fore. Ever since, a steady increase in interest from audiences worldwide has ensured a great selection of music docs are screened each year from Chile and Colombia to Germany, Spain and Greece.

As I find myself sitting through various screenings during the first chilly and cloudy November days in the Greek capital, here’s my picks from this year’s Athens edition.

Charles Bradley: Soul of America

A moving and heart-warming documentary about American soul singer Charles Bradley (1948 – 2017), who sadly passed away in Brooklyn earlier this year. Tracking the events that led up to the release of his debut album No Time for Dreaming, the film follows Bradley’s remarkable life story through his early childhood in Florida and Brooklyn, his years as James Brown impersonator in California, and finally his return to New York and his recording with Daptone Records.

Through a series of endless hardships and constant struggles, there emerges a portrait of a man who, against all odds, managed to realize his biggest dream, releasing his first and widely successful album at the age of 62! Not unlike the excellent Searching for Sugar Man, which also relates an inspirational story of an unlikely revival, the film is ultimately about the unwillingness to compromise and the triumph of will in the face of adversity.

Bill Evans: Time Remembered

A key figure in the history of jazz, American pianist and composer Bill Evans (1929 – 1980) was one of the most influential jazz musicians to emerge in the second half of the 20th century. This documentary portrays Evans both as musician and person, following chronologically his life through his childhood in New Jersey, his musical development and collaborations (most notably with legendary trumpeter Miles Davis), to his drug addiction and untimely death at the age of 51.

Highlighting Evan’s musical genius while also showing his darker, less attractive side, the film (which took producer Bruce Spiegel 8 years to make) provides valuable insights into the music and -often troubled- life of Bill Evans, while offering a comprehensive overview of his career by bringing together the testimonies of various ex-collaborators of Evans, such as Tony Bennett, Jack DeJohnette, and Paul Motian.

B-Movie: Lust & Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989

If there ever was an epicenter of alternative culture throughout the turbulent 1980s, it must have been the western half of the -still divided by then- city of Berlin. The film takes us through a fascinating tour of West Berlin’s alternative music scene through the eyes of musician and producer Mark Reeder, who traveled from Manchester to Berlin as a teenager in order to get a first-hand experience of the city’s vibe.

Featuring rare footage from the city’s underground hubs as well as clips, interviews and performances by key artists that lived and worked in Berlin around that time (such as Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Toten Hosen, Die Ärzte, Nena, and Nick Cave), the film gives us a good idea of what it was like to be living and creating in 1980s West Berlin, while also providing the soundtrack for one of Europe’s most vibrant cultural scenes during the Cold War era.

 

Conversations on music

When people from different disciplines interact and engage in dialogue, novel and stimulating perspectives often emerge. This is the case with the following fascinating exchanges between world-class musicians and prominent representatives from other fields, who also happen to share a deep passion and interest in music.

Haruki Murakami – Seiji Ozawa: The writer and the conductor

An ex-owner of a small jazz bar in Tokyo, Murakami is known for his love and appreciation of music, which is evident throughout his oeuvre. In Absolutely on Music (2011), he exchanges views with acclaimed Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa on a variety of topics, ranging from Beethoven and Brahms to opera, Chicago blues, and the joys of teaching.

These conversations, dating from 2010 – 2011, unravel while the two men listen to various recordings from Murakami’s record collection and exchange views on various artists and music genres. They offer a unique insight into Ozawa’s approach to conducting, memories of his mentors such as Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, was well as his educational activities and work with the prestigious Saito Kinen Orchestra.

Moreover, Murakami provides some very interesting remarks about the relationship between writing and music. “You can’t write well if you don’t have an ear for music”, he says, referring to his own beginnings as a writer:  “How did I learn to write? From listening to music. And what’s the most important thing in writing? It’s rhythm.”

Edward Said – Daniel Barenboim: The intellectual and the maestro

A highly compelling exchange between cultural critic Edward Said and pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society (2002) features conversations between the two men centered on music, but touching upon many themes such as the nature of sound, religion, antisemitism, politics and identity.

Full of captivating ideas and insights, the book offers a glimpse of the two men’s philosophical pondering and the great significance they attribute to music. For Said, “music, in some profound way, is perhaps the final resistance to the acculturation and the commodification of everything”, while Barenboim, who subscribes to Ferruccio Busoni’s definition of music as “sonorous air”, says: “Whenever we talk about music, we talk about how we are affected by it, not about it itself. In this respect, it is like God.”

In 1999,  Barenboim and Said (who was an accomplished pianist) founded the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, a youth orchestra consisting of Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab musicians, with the aim to promote understanding and enable intercultural dialogue. As Barenboim has put it: “The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it.”

Bruno Monsaingeon – Glenn Gould: The director and the virtuoso

French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon has made several documentaries about prominent musicians, while his interviews with Soviet pianist Sviatoslav Richter and French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger have also been published separately as books (Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations, and Mademoiselle: Conversations With Nadia Boulanger, respectively).

One of the artists that most fascinated Monsaingeon was Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. On hearing Gould performing J.S. Bach for the first time, Monsaingeon later wrote: I don’t think I was less inflamed that night than Blaise Pascal during his night of fire. “Joy, joy, tears of joy!!!” In July 1972, Monsaingeon traveled to Toronto to meet Gould, who by then had already stopped giving public recitals. The two would develop a lasting friendship and work on various projects that included the films Glenn Gould, the Alchemist (1974) and Glenn Gould, hereafter (2006).

A conversation between Gould and Monsaingeon is included in The Glenn Gould Reader (ed. Tim Page, 1984), a compilation of Gould’s writings that offers an abundance of original and highly unconventional ideas with regards to performance and music making. When Monsaingeon asks Gould  why he doesn’t want to record Mozart’s concertos, he replies: “Well, you see, Bruno, I don’t really enjoy playing any concertos very much. What bothers me most is the competitive, comparative ambience in which the the concerto operates. I happen to believe that competition rather than money is the root of all evil, and in the concerto we have a perfect musical analogy of the competitive spirit.”

Brimming with thought-provoking and stimulating remarks, Gould’s words were as unique as the notes he played. Whether one agrees with him or not, there’s little doubt he had some very interesting, and often profound, things to say – both on paper and at the piano.