Archive for Film & DVD Reviews

Mrs Merton and Malcolm Revisited

The Show that Stunned the Nation: Reviewed by Anthony C Green

“The most disturbing program on television’Time Out Magazine.

One of the major delights for me of the recent Christmas/New Year period was discovering that this short-lived 1999 Sitcom’ was available to stream in its entirety, all six episodes of it, free of charge, on You Tube. Last time I looked, maybe three or four years ago, it wasn’t available. For some reason, I also had it in my mind that it’d never had a physical release. In fact, a cursory glance at its Wikipedia page reveals it to have been released on DVD back in 2008, nine years after it was broadcast for the first and last time on BBC One, and is still easily available to buy from third-party sellers on Amazon. Why I hadn’t thought to check this out before, is frankly beyond me.

So, why have I long had a fascination for this almost forgotten by-water of British situation comedy? Well, firstly, precisely because it is all but forgotten. The late Caroline Aherne’s comic creation Mrs Merton is of course remembered by everybody, its spoof chat show format recalled perhaps most fondly for her question to magician’s assistant and celebrity wife Debbie Magee: ‘So, what was it first attracted you to millionaire Pau Daniels?’ But very few seem to have any recollection of its sitcom spin-off.

Episode One

The second reason for my interest is simply that I liked it at the time, despite it being near-universally panned. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my interest is down to the way I make my living. Already at the time the show was broadcast I’d been a support worker in the field of learning disabilities and mental health for five years; and much of the criticism of Mrs Merton and Malcolm centred on the idea that the show was poking fun at the cognitively impaired. I didn’t think that then, and now, almost a quarter of a century on, I still don’t think that.

A little background: The show was written by Aherne, Craig Cash and Henry Normal, the same team behind The Royle Family which had first aired a year earlier, and starred Aherne and Cash, with Aherne as the mother and Malcolm as her thirty-seven-year old man-child son. Each episode takes place solely within the pairs’ home, over the course of a single day, and apart from the two of them the only constant, visual character is the forgetful neighbour Arthur, played by Brian Murphy who is best known for playing George Roper in Man About the House and George and Mildred. Arthur pops in to see the bedridden Mr. Merton upstairs on a daily basis. Mr. Merton is never seen or heard, existing only as a shape under the bedclothes in the Merton’s marital bed. Steve Coogan appears in every episode, but apart from the final episode where he plays the vicar visiting the house after Mr. Merton’s funeral, he does so only as a voice on the radio or on Malcolm’s motivational tapes. The only other characters to appear in the series are the local pharmacist Mr. Malik who appears in two episodes, his assistant Judith, whom Malcolm hopes to take on a date, who appears once, and Malcolm’s obnoxious friend, a boy called Justine who, although his age is never stated appears to be around eleven yeas’ old. He also appears once.

When preparing to rewatch this series, two comedy parallels sprung to mind. One, the 1980’s Ronnie Corbett vehicle Sorry, and Ricky Gervais’ creation Dereck, which was screened initially over two seasons on Channel Four between 2012 and 2014.

In the first of these cases, it was only after listening to the two episodes featuring Sorry on the excellent British Sitcom History Podcast, and by watching a sample episode, that I realised the parallel doesn’t at all stand up to scrutiny. It’s true that the life of Timothy in Sorry is, like that of Malcolm, dominated by his mother. But whereas Malcolm accepts this as totally normal with no indication, apart perhaps from the thwarted hope of a date with Judith, that he would want his life to be any other way, Timothy constantly seeks to rebel, in small ways against the clinging, some might say Satanic embrace of his mother. Indeed, much of the humour in that show stems precisely from Timothy’s desperate, forlorn attempts to break free of her influence.

In addition, away from his mother, Timothy lives a perfectly normal, modestly successful, middle-class life, with a job as a librarian and his own circle of friends. Malcolm’s job in the pet shop is referred to in each episode of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, but only in the context of his mother offering to ring in sick on his behalf the next day, because he’s been over-excited by his birthday party (to which no one but him, his mum, and Arthur the neighbour attended), or because he’s worried that he may be asked to handle a snake which is due to be delivered. It’s never sated whether this is a paid or a voluntary position.

Gervais’ character of Derek is much closer to that of Malcolm, in that he too is a man-child and, were we to meet them, we would most likely conclude that he did indeed have a mental impairment of some kind. The main difference is that, within the care home setting where the two seasons of Derek almost entirely take place (apart from a single trip to the seaside, as far as I remember), Derek’s world is much wider than that of Malcolm. He is loved by the care home manager, by the other workers, by the elderly residents and visitors. Derek is a gentle soul who would never wish anyone any harm, and this does sometimes lead the show too far in the direction of sentimentality, though I did enjoy the series much more second time around. This gentility isn’t to be found in the much darker Mrs Merton and Malcolm. Derek is devastated whenever one of the elderly residents of the care home passes away. Malcolm’s only apparent upset at the death of his father in the final episode stems from the fact that it reminds him of the death of his pet hamster some years earlier.

It’s perhaps not the place to discuss it here, but I agree with the critic who said that Derek would have been much better had Gervais stuck to writing and directing. He’s not actually a good enough actor to pull off the lead-part, too many times slipping out of character, becoming Ricky Gervais rather than Derek. Conversely, Cash’ performance as Malcolm is note perfect.

One comedy parallel that didn’t occur to me, either in 1999 or at the tail-end of 2022, was that of the character of Frank Spencer, played by Michael Crawford, in the hugely popular Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em which ran on the BBC between 1973 and 1978, including Christmas specials. And yet, according to the BBC website, this was the character that was apparently closest to the model the writers were aiming for with Malcolm. This was one of the reasons Aherne and co. were so shocked by the negative response to their new show. After all, nobody as far as I’m aware anyway, ever accused the creators of Frank Spencer of belittling the cognitively challenged.

Of course, the similarities between Malcolm and Spencer don’t really stand up to close scrutiny, any more than do those to Timothy or Derek. Each episode of Some Mothers’… is marked by bizarre and often highly dangerous adventures, for which Crawford generally performed his own stunts. In the case of Malcolm, we never see him leave the family home, and the most dangerous thing he ever does is embark on a series of competitive children’s games on the day Justine comes to visit. In addition, whilst Malcolm can only dream of an innocent date with dowdy Judith, Frank somehow manages both to marry and father a child with Betty, played by the rather lovely Michelle Dotrice.

Aherne/Cash/Normal’s creation Mrs Merton had already been on our screen in her faux-chat show for four years at the time the sitcom spin-off was made. Her son Malcolm had frequently been mentioned by Mrs Merton, and had appeared briefly on three occasions, played by Cash. So, further development of the idea seemed, on paper to be a good idea. At over seven million per episode, viewing figures weren’t bad either. It was the damning critical reception that killed off any idea of a second season, and even the scrapping of a planned and already partially written Christmas special.

Assuming the character of Malcolm, like Derek, does indeed have some form of mental developmental disability, should that necessarily put it be the bounds of acceptable comedy?

With the proviso that it’s done well, I would argue not. And in Mrs Merton and Malcolm, it is done very well indeed. What I like most about the show, is that the writers have created a surreal, alternative reality, that exists on its own terms with only a tangential relationship to the real world. For instance, Malcolm is indeed a man-child who likes to play childish games, seem mainly in the episode with Justine, but these are games that were popular with children when I was growing up in 1960’s or ‘70’s, and even then they were seen as a bit dated, not the games that were popular with children as we approached the turn of the millennium. Malcolm’s main hobby is making Airfix models, something again that harked back to the days of childhood-past. It is almost as if Malcolm has remained trapped in his childhood of twenty-five or thirty years earlier, and this is also noticeable in the old fashioned clothes he wears This can and does happen with some people with learning disabilities. Some parents will continue to dress and treat them as a child throughout their life, which only adds to their ‘otherness’, to use a trendy, modern phrase, and their exclusion from mainstream society. We can’t ignore the possibility that the behaviour of Mrs Merton has, whether consciously or not, added to or even perhaps caused her son’s issues of arrested development.

This is another thing I really like about the show. The suggestion of dark themes beneath the surface. I don’t quite get the suggestion of a possibly incestuous relationship between mother and son, a possibility that was apparently raised in some contemporary reviews. This idea seems to rest solely on Mrs Merton’s comment that ‘if I was only thirty years younger….and not your mother,’ which was said really as a perhaps misguided means of raising Malcolm’s spirits after Judith failed to turn up for their planned date at the cinema. It wasn’t a theme that was further pursued.

But there are two other possibly very dark suggestions that occurred to me at this second time of watching.

The first of these is the idea that Mr. Merton’s bedridden state might not be caused entirely by necessity. At one point, Mrs Merton hands Malcolm a piece of ‘junk’ mail, saying ‘put this in the bin Malcolm. I do wish Mr’s Merton would stop sending off for these stairlift brochures.’ Does this suggest the possibility of a deeply depressed Mr. Merton cowering under the bedclothes dreaming of escape? It’s certainly possible.

Secondly, one of several great running gags used in the show is that the neighbour Arthur will gently provide some musical entertainment to Mr. Merton by his bedside, after he’s been reminded of the purpose of his visit by Mrs Merton. In episodes one and three he sings the kind of old-time songs you would expect of this generation, respectively Oh What a Lovely War and If You Were the Only Girl in the World. In episode two he simply plays the spoons. In episode four this musical entertainment has somehow morphed into Starman by David Bowie, and has come yet more up to date in episode five with The Drugs Don’t Work by The Verve. In episode six, Arthur sits by the empty bed of the recently deceased Mr. Merton and quietly, sadly, sings Seasons in the Sun by Terry Jacks. Given that we know that this is a song that deals with the subject of suicide, is there a suggestion here that Mr. Merton’s death may not have been entirely of natural causes: assisted suicide, perhaps? Or maybe I’m radically overthinking it.  

After the undeserved critical lambasting of Mrs Merton and Malcolm, Caroline Aherne and her co-writers decided to concentrate their efforts on The Royle Family. It’s worth mentioning that both of these shows broke with the convention of canned/studio audience laughter, still a brave, if not entirely unique, move at the time. It would be another two years before Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant permanently made old school situation comedy seem outmoded with their invention of the comedic ‘mockumentary’ with The Office.

Aherne and co. had certainly helped pave the way.

The Royle Family was, and is, of course hugely popular, genuinely landmark television; and it is for that that Aherne, along with the character of Mrs Merton, will best be remembered.

In her personal life, she certainly had her demons, like deep depression, alcoholism, and the cancer that killed her at a mere fifty-two years old. But she was a unique talent, and Mrs Merton and Malcolm was in my opinion a weird and wonderful, experimental expression of that unique talent. Even if it were to be regarded as a failed experiment, given its short-lived nature and critical hammering, then in my opinion it was definitely an experiment that was worth conducting.

Revisiting the show was a revelation. It was funny, it was dark, it was very strange, and very, very good. It deserves to be better known, and demands to be remembered.

“We’ve been accused of all sorts…from incest to insanity. But we honestly didn’t mean it to be. We didn’t think there was anything offensive about it.”

Craig Cash.

Mrs Merton and Malcolm is currently available to steam free of charge on You Tube

(1197) Mrs Merton & Malcolm – S01 E02 – YouTube

Links:

Mrs Merton &Malcom: Amazon.co.uk: DVD & Blu-ray

Mrs Merton and Malcolm – Wikipedia

BBC – Comedy – Mrs Merton And Malcolm

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Review of Muhammad Ali, the Eight-Part BBC television series, currently streaming on the BBC iPlayer

Big George and the Nature of Religious Conversion

When the then twenty-nine-year-old former World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman was laid out on the treatment table in his dressing following a shock twelve round points defeat by Jimmy Young (not that one), in March 1977, exhausted, suffering from heatstroke and feeling himself close to death, he had a full-blown spiritual experience, complete with visions of Jesus and the voice of God Himself. From that moment on, he decided to dedicate himself to the spreading of the Christian message, first on street corners, and then by forming his own church, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, in is hometown of Houston, Texas. Within this church he performed the role of both ordained pastor and chief fundraiser. It would be another decade before, and at around three-stone over his old fighting weight, he returned to the ring. When he did so, beginning with small-hall fights against what are known in the boxing world as ‘trial horses,’ code for fighters who can be relied upon to put up a decent performance but almost invariably lose when facing decent opposition, he stated three clear goals for his unlikely comeback: 1) to continue to raise money for his church; 2) to defeat Mike Tyson, then not yet twenty-one yea’s old and at his seemingly invincible boxing peak, having just won the World Boxing Council version of the Heavyweight title from Trevor Berbick; and 3) to regain the Heavyweight Championship he’d lost to Muhammad Ali in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ in Kinshasa, Zaire, now the Republic of Congo, back in November 1974.


The first of these tasks was always going to be relatively easy. George still had his name, and was always going to make more money bowling over mediocre opposition than he would by passing around the begging bowl following his sermon in his little Houston church every Sunday morning. But defeat Mike Tyson? Regain the championship? Not even the most hopeful of long-shot-gamblers would have bet serious money on either of those things occurring…


Well, after his ten-year retirement, George continued to compete between March 1987 and November 1997, a second career lasting more than a decade, during which he scored a total of thirty wins from thirty-three fights, twenty-six inside the distance, and made enough money to build a whole empire of the kind of Super-Churches which would have made Billy Graham feel like he was slumming it. So, first task accomplished… But he never did get to fight Mike Tyson.

The story goes that as an up-and-coming, powerfully built but problematic teenager Tyson would spend his downtime between training and fighting watching old fight films with his manger Jim Jacobs, and his legendary trainer Cus D’Amato. Jacobs, in these days before VHS tapes were common, and when nobody had yet begun to compile old fights onto them in any case, was said to own perhaps the most extensive collection of reel-to-reel old fight tapes in the world. One of the fights Jim and Cus would regularly ask the young Tyson to watch and study was footage of Foreman’s six-knockdown, two round demolition of the great Joe Frazier in Kingston, Jamaica in January 1973. By this time, of course, circa early to mid ‘80’s Foreman had been long retired and the likelihood of him ever squaring off with the prodigious Tyson was unlikely to say the least. Nevertheless, as George once again pummelled Smokin’ Joe to the canvas up there on the flickering white screen in a darkened room, old Cus, who sadly died a year before Tyson beat Berbick for the title, would nod sagely, turn to Mike, and say ‘Of course, we’d never have taken a fight with Foreman, ‘cos you’d never have got past his jab…’ This advice seems to have stuck with Tyson, and he never showed the slightest interest in fighting Foreman even when Big George was in his forties and the true lineal heavyweight champion. Apparently, when the legendary promoter Don King tried to make the fight in the spring of 1990, after Tyson had suffered his first loss to James’ ‘Buster’ Douglas in Tokyo in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, and Foreman the biggest win of his comeback so far, a two-round knockout of one-time Great White Hope Gerry Cooney, Iron Mike, despite being offered a purse in the region of ten million dollars, is said to have screamed at King ‘Look, if you love George so much, you fuckin’ fight him…The man’s a monster!’


But although he never did get to fight Tyson (and for the record, I think old Cus was right, that even an aged Foreman would have kayoed Tyson within three rounds), he did, in November 1994, with a tenth-round knockout of Michael Moorer, regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World at the astonishingly advanced age of forty-five, and a full twenty years since he’d lost it to Ali.

As far as comeback goal-setting goes, as Meatloaf long ago pointed out, ‘two out of three ain’t bad…’


Those of you who’ve been interested enough to have read thus far will probably be wondering why, in what is apparently a review of a BBC documentary series about Muhammad Ali, I’ve spent the first nine hundred words or so talking about George Foreman. Well, I do have a reason, and here it is.

After initially coming up with a litany of excuses for his Kinshasa defeat by Ali , including being ‘drugged’ and given a ‘fast count,’ Foreman, good Christian that he became, learnt humility, made his peace with Muhammad, admitted he fought the wrong fight through over-confidence after too many quick wins (he hadn’t been taken beyond the second round by anyone for over three years at the time of the Ali fight), and now says that he is simply ‘proud’ to have been part of the amazing story of Muhammad Ali. But, and this is the main point here, he also compared his religious experience following the Young fight, with Ali’s embracing of the Nation of Islam (NOI from now on, though were more usually called them the Black Muslims back in in the sixties and seventies.) George’s assertion was that he didn’t believe Ali ever had aa spiritual/religious experience comparable to his own, that Ali’s decision to involve himself with a militant, segregationist, and frankly metaphysically crackpot form of Islam (though he began to quietly embrace more conventional forms of the religion from the time of the death of NOI leader/’Messenger’ Elijah Muhammad in 1975 onwards, before formally and publicly declaring himself closest to the Sufi tradition in 2005) was essentially a political rather than a religious decision, a response to the racism he saw around him in America in the 1960’s, and a riposte to what he saw as the inadequacies of the mainstream, integrationist civil rights movement as led by Dr. Martin Luther King and his co. thinkers. Foreman himself of course rejected Black Nationalism of all kinds. After he won his Olympic Heavyweight Gold Medal in 1968, whilst other black American athletes gave the clench fist salute on the podium, George showed his patriotism by walking around the ring waving a small Stars and Stripes flag.

The Importance of Being Ali

Although we can’t ever know for sure, my own research on the subject suggests that this observation of Foreman is true. Even if it isn’t, the then Cassius Clay’s embracing of the NOI is of vital importance in understanding the life of Muhammad Ali, in particularly how he became such a massive, global cultural icon. Had he remained ‘Cassius Clay,’ a name of which he’d once been proud (‘don’t I sound like a Roman Gladiator?’) but which rejected as his ‘slave name’, officially the day after his first heavyweight championship victory over Sonny Liston in February 1964, although it seems he’d been on the periphery of the NOI for around three years prior to that. Indeed, research showed that his Great-Great-Grandfather had indeed been a slave owned by a man named Clay, though his original name and point of origin in Africa are unknown. First, and briefly, Clay became ‘Cassius X’, largely in homage to his then friend and mentor Malcolm X, before Elijah Muhammad renamed him Muhammad Ali (literally ‘Beloved of God’, or sometimes translated as ‘Worthy of Praise’ and ‘Most High’). Had he stuck with the consortium of eleven white Kentucky businessmen who signed him following his victory at Light-Heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Olympics, then he’d still have become a great champion. He’d likely have reigned for close to a decade, maybe beat Joe Louis’ record of twenty five successful title defences. He’d have had big fights at Madison Square Garden, the Inglewood Forum in LA, stadium appearances at the likes of the New York Yankee stadium. Unlike Louis and most American heavyweight champions, he may even have defended his title in Europe from time to time.


But he definitely wouldn’t have become what he was to become. Without the influence of the NOI, he would have accepted his draft into the US army and no doubt spent his years of service not fighting the Vietcong in the jungles of South-East Asia but, like Louis during the Second World War, entertaining the troops by boxing exhibitions at army camps around the world. He may have made it to ‘Nam, but it would’ve been more likely in order to clown around on stage with Bob Hope than to wield a rifle in the service of American Imperialism.

Refusing the draft made ‘Ali’ become something ‘Clay’ could never have been, a controversial world-figure, both loved and hated, a spokesperson for Black America and the scourge of what his leader/messenger referred to as the ‘White Devils’ who’d kept his people in servitude long after slavery had formally ended.


He wouldn’t have toured Africa soon after beating Liston for the title. He would never have fought in the likes of Zaire, Manilla, Kuala Lumpa, because heavyweight championship fights weren’t staged in such places. He wouldn’t have had illiterate black Africans who’d perhaps never even seen him fight on television, chanting his name: ‘Ali, Bomaye!’, ‘Ali, kill him’ as they shouted in Zaire, often joining him in the searing heat on his morning road-runs as they did so, treating him as a returning hero whilst Foreman brooded in his training camp and complained about the heat and flies.


No, Muhammad Ali became a true champion of the whole would, from the Americas, to Europe, to Africa and Asia in a manner that could never have happened had he remained plain old Cassius Clay.

The three-and-a-half-year ban from boxing, during which the American government took away his passport so that he couldn’t even fight abroad (and those who claim Britain is and always has been a ‘racist’ country should be reminded that we would have welcomed him here with open arms in the late sixties, as would much of Europe, had he been free to travel); and the threat of a five year prison sentence that fortunately he never had to serve, added extra layers to his legend, and made the achievements of his comeback possible and all the more extraordinary.

The BBC series

The documentary series is particularly strong on the cultural/political/religious/spiritual dimensions of the Ali story, more so than on the strictly boxing aspects, and it’s all the better for that. After all, if you’re merely a casual boxing fan who wishes to relive those great Ali fights, or perhaps even to experience them for the first time, then they’re all available to you free of charge on You Tube. You even get a choice of watching the British television coverage with the Harry Carpenter commentaries I remember so well from my childhood and youth (‘Oh my God, he’s won the title back at thirty-two!’), or the American coverage, often featuring the great Howard Cosell, which weren’t a part of my own cultural landscape and are all the more interesting for that.
This Ali documentary series offers something different, something more, something better and of greater importance, demonstrating that Ali was bigger than boxing, as Ali himself often stated.
Boxing in my Blood

I’d like to say a little about my own history with Ali, about how his life and career were to a large extent intertwined with that of my own. I come from a boxing family. My dad told me the story of how, during the Second World War, in trouble again for arriving back late and rather the worse for wear after a spot of Rest and Relaxation, away from camp, he was given a choice by his commanding officer: ‘It’s either thirty days in the glass house, or we need a Bantamweight for the boxing team. You look about the right size, so…? Unsurprisingly, my dad chose boxing. He also told me that after the war, already in his mid-twenties and preparing to marry, he wrote to the Boxing News asking if they felt he’d left it too late to consider a professional career. They replied that, if he was prepared to put in the training, it wasn’t necessarily too late. But it never happened, and it’s not something my dad ever seemed to have regretted, not publicly at least.


But I do have wonderful memories of us watching the big fights together, almost always on delayed recording the night after the fight in those days, though occasionally proceeded by live, as-it-happened radio commentary in the early hours of the morning. As far as Ali goes, I can go as far back to his first comeback fight following his enforced lay-off, against Jerry Quarry in October 1970, when he won on cuts in the third round, followed by all those memorable Ali fights/occasions of the seventies, Ali v Frazier 1-3, Ali v Norton, also 1-3, v Ernie Shavers, v Ron Lyle, v British contenders Joe Bugner and Richard Dunn, and most of all that incredible victory over Foreman in Zaire, when Ali produced what I still regard as the greatest display of improvised sporting genius at any sport, ever.


We’d look forward to these fights for ages, read all the newspaper and magazine build-up and preview articles, and make little bets on the likely result. I’m still proud that, as a precocious twelve-year old boxing-fanatic who’d been subscribing to the Boxing News weekly since I was ten, I took £2.50 from my dad by correctly predicting that Ali would defeat the seemingly indestructible Foreman. How clearly I remember my dad coming into my bedroom a few hours earlier after the fight had ended, transistor radio playing in his hands as Ali held court for the world’s press, my dad saying, understated and happy to have been proven wrong, ‘Ali knocked him out in the eighth.’


All good things come to an end of course, and I, with my best friend then and now, Michael Anderson, was on the overnight train from Grimsby to Aberdeen, en route to Lerwick, Shetland via the St Clare ferry, on the night of October the 2nd 1980, annoying fellow travellers by fiddling with my little Elvis Presley transistor radio, attempting to find commentary, or at least news of, what turned out to be Ali’s disastrous attempt to regain the Heavyweight title for an unprecedented fourth time against the underrated Larry Holmes; and we watched a recording of that sad, sad fight on the boat the next night, before the two of us strapped on our guitars and took to the stage for a drunken and shambolic unscheduled live performance…

And fourteen months later, now back in Grimsby, not long after becoming a member of Militant and the Labour Party Young Socialists, I skived off our usual Saturday lunch time town centre paper sale in order to watch the delayed recording of what turned out to be Ali’s very last professional fight, a brave but ultimately futile ten round points defeat against the afore-mentioned Trevor Berbick in the largely undramatic ‘Drama in the Bahamas’.

And, around and a decade after that, I had the pleasure of seeing the great man himself, at St. Ann’s square in Manchester, a shadow of his former self, but still a magical, magnetic presence. I was even moved to write a poem about the occasion soon afterwards, for a creative writing course,l, a version of which is available here Going to Muhammad • Tony Green (spotify.com)

I do regret that for whatever reason, perhaps simply because Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies are generally dull affairs best avoided, that I didn’t get to watch live as Ali lit the torch to signal the beginning of the Atlanta games in the summer of 1996. But it still brings a tear to my eye, the footage of that white clad figure, struggling to accomplish his task with hands that shook almost, but not quite uncontrollably, his mask-like face a study in concentration as he, willed on by the tens of thousands of people in the stadium and the untold millions watching at home, finally did what needed to be done in what was perhaps his greatest victory of all, a victory, albeit temporary as all such victories are, over sickness and Time. As the British boxer and fellow follower of Islam Naseem Hamed would later observe, Muhammad Ali, at that moment, was the most recognisable and loved figure on Planet Earth.
And of course, when I awoke on the morning of the third of June 2016 to find that Muhammad Ali had quietly slipped away at the age of seventy-four, surrounded by his family, after a noted Iman uttered the final words he would ever hear in this life – ‘Muhammad Ali, your name has inspired millions, now take your place in Paradise!’ – it was to a day of quiet reflection, of the intersection of my life with that of Ali, of memories of my dad, of watching the fights and documentaries on You Tube, of reading the online obituaries and talking with online boxing or simply Ali fans. ‘A life well-lived,’ although a cliché, perhaps best sums up the life of this incredible man.


The Greatest, not always the nicest…


Muhammad Ali was a flawed human being however, as are we all, and the BBC, thankfully avoiding hagiography, does not shy away from a discussion of his many faults in this eight part documentary series. Here, leaving aside the more general topic of his support for racial segregation, which in the 1960’s found him in alliance with the likes of the notorious white separatist Governor of Alabama George Wallace, which is a whole topic in and of itself, I will mention three that are covered in the series.

Firstly, there is no doubt that Ali was a serial womaniser who cheated on all of his wives,’ with the possible exception of Lonnie, the fourth and final Mrs Ali, on an epic scale. Angelo Dundee, his legendary trainer from shortly after his Olympic triumph until the final Berbick fight two decades later, was once asked if Ali followed the old-school fighter’s routine of abstaining from sex for a period before a big fight, so as not to weaken their body, and in order to build up reserves of tension, rage and determination that required physical, and in this case violent release. Dundee replied with words to the effect that Ali did not follow this routine. In fact, he’d been known to have sex not only in the build up to a big fight, but actually in the dressing room before his ring walk began.

His first wife, Sonji,, was a beautiful, normal, sixteen-year-old all-American black girl who liked to dance and to party, and had aspirations to be a pop star, when she first met the new heavyweight champion in the summer of 1964, and was no doubt proud to show off her tall, brash, incredibly handsome, rich, super-fit athlete boyfriend to her girlfriends. After their marriage, only a few weeks after they’d met, his heavy-handed attempts to mould her, following the strictures of the NOI, into the perfect, good Muslim wife, were not what she thought she’d signed up to, and were not exactly amongst his most edifying moments. Nor was his introduction to the press of his third wife Veronica in the build up to the Thriller in Manila with Frazier in October ’75, whilst still legally married to his ever-loyal, and exemplary Muslim, second wife Khalilah (formally Belinda), as Khalilah herself recounts during the series.

All that can really be said in Ali’s defence on the subject of his treatment of women, is that at least Ali doesn’t seem to have been a hypocrite as regards the racial aspect of his adopted belief system. Once he joined the NOI, which is of course strictly opposed to any form of miscreation, there doesn’t seem to have ever been any suggestion, despite his prodigious sexual appetite, that he ever had a sexual relationship with a none-black woman.

(It’s worth mentioning that Ali’s final wife, Lonnie, who’d known Muhammad from being a little girl, is herself an impressive, formidable woman who finally banished the large entourage of hangers-on from Ali’s life, sorted out his finances, and did more than anyone to help build the brand ‘Ali’ into both a hugely marketable commodity, and the man himself into a figure who was almost universally revered and loved. A valid criticism of her however is that the price paid for this transformation in the public perception of her husband was to make him ‘safe’ For mainstream society At the dawn of the twenty first century, Ali saw in the new millennium as an honoured guest amongst the super-rich on Wall Street. As one journalist at the time noted, in previous times he would more likely have celebrated within the poorer neighbourhoods of his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, or perhaps of Harlem).
Perhaps more serious than how Ali conducted his private life, is the way he treated Malcolm X.

As mentioned earlier, Malcolm had been his mentor, the man perhaps most responsible for guiding Ali towards the NOI. He was also a close personal friend. However, soon after Ali joined the NOI, Malcom quit. After making the obligatory Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, he realised that contrary to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Muslims actually came in all colours. As well as rejecting the racial aspects of the NOI, he was also, more and more, partly under the influence of the socialist experiment on the island of Cuba, only a short boat ride away from Miami, becoming more and more drawn to the conclusion that revolutionary change he believed necessary was best brought about through the unity, not the separation, of the poor and oppressed of all colours.

Malcolm soon paid for his change of direction, and for the charismatic challenge he posed to the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, with his life, being assassinated in New York City on February 21st, 1965. Though it’s never been definitively proven, the leadership of the NOI have long been suspected pf involvement in his killing, with the possible connivance of the USA deep-state.

Sadly, Ali commented at the time that ‘Malcolm X and anyone else who attacks, or talks about attacking Elijah Muhammad will die. No man can oppose the Messenger of Almighty God.’

To his credit, Ali later acknowledged the wrongness of his treatment of Malcolm. In his 2005 memoir ‘Soul of a Butterfly’ he described him as a ‘great thinker and even greater friend,’ going on to say that ‘Turning my back on Malcolm was one of the mistakes that I regret most in my life…’

Thirdly, we turn to Ali’s treatment of his greatest rival, ‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier.

Frazier established himself as the best active heavyweight in the world during Ali’s enforced absence from the ring between 1967 and 1970, cementing that position by flooring the come-backing Ali in the fifteenth and final round en route to a close but deserved points decision in the Fight of the Century in March 1971.

Though he’d known far greater poverty in his early life than the young Cassius, who grew up in a relatively stable and happy environment, Joe was an old school American patriot who, if he held any particular views about the civil rights movement and other political matters of the day, tended to keep them to himself. He’d opposed Ai’s decision to refuse induction into the US army, but he’d also opposed the decision to take away his license to box: ‘If his punishment is prison, then let him serve his time. But while he stays free, you don’t take away a man’s right to earn a living, to feed his family. You don’t take away a man’s tools.’ This was a principled, honest position to hold, and in addition, at a time when Ali, a man who always seemed incapable of moderating his spending according to changed circumstances, was so broke that he accepted a relatively paltry sum to take part in the staged ‘computer fight’ against the forty seven year old Rocky Marciano (and in one of life’s sad ironies, Rocky would die in a plane crash only a week after his filmed sparring with Ali ended, never even learning whether the ‘computer’ had decided whether he ‘won’ the ‘fight’ or not), Frazier is also said to have lent Ali money.

Ali repaid this support and kindness with a constant stream of invective, deriding him as ‘dumb’ and an ‘Uncle Tom’. This abuse reached its pinnacle before the third, epic, brutal fight in Manila, where in addition to the usual insults, he also routinely described Frazier as a ‘gorilla,’ an epithet that had it come from a white fighter would undoubtedly have been viewed as unforgivably racist.

Ali, who collapsed in the ring shortly after Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch forced a reluctant, and by now almost blinded Frazier to remain on his stool before the bell to start the fifteenth and final round sounded in Manila, and who described the fight as ‘the closest thing to death,’ would later express nothing but admiration for Frazier as a fighter and as a man. He would always say that his pre-fight abuse of opponents was never about anything more than selling tickets, a trick which, along with his general ‘I am the Greatest’ boast-fullness he always said he learnt from the 1950’s/1960’s white wrestler Gorgeous George, and was nothing personal. Frazier, however, never did forgive Ali for his treatment of him. Whilst, after their careers were over, the two would often appear on television or at various boxing functions together, shaking hands and even on occasion embracing, and praising the fighting prowess of one another, in unguarded moments Frazier was also heard to express pleasure at Ali’s sad physical decline, going so far as to take pride in the role his punces had undoubtedly played in that decline. On another occasion, he also said that the only way he could finally defeat Ali now was to outlive him. Sadly, for Joe, this proud warrior who never quite quite escaped from the shadow of his greatest rival, he didn’t achieve this final wish, dying of liver cancer at the age of sixty seven in 2011, five years before Ali.

Decline

So, yes, Muhammad was undoubtedly a man of many faults; and we could add to that the obsessive love of the limelight which caused him to fight on too long, when he could have walked away with his health intact. Defenders of boxing, of which I am obviously one, seeing in it the most primal and basic of all sports, will often try to claim that Ali was simply a victim of Parkinson’s Disease, and will point to fellow famous sufferers like the actor and fellow sufferer Michael J Fox, whose job did not involve being regularly beaten about the head, as evidence that Ali’s contacting of Parkinson’s was nothing more than bad luck. This is a position born of either ignorance or dishonesty. I love boxing and all combat sports, my eleven year old son even does Mixed Martial Arts, but I know and admit their dangers.

‘Parkinson’s’ actually refers to a set of symptoms, the slow, whispering, slurred way of speaking, the stumbling gate when walking and other motor impairments, the trembling hands, and so on, all of which Ali was beginning to display even before his boxing career ended. One of the causes of these symptoms is indeed Parkinson’s Disease. But Ali never was diagnosed as suffering from this disease. Other causes include drug and alcohol abuse, never an issue for Ali, or trauma to the brain, either by a single devastating incidence, or by repeated blows over a prolonged period of time. It’s 99.9% certain that this was the cause of Ali’s poor health during the last thirty-five years or so of his life.

And Ali had plenty of warning that his continuance of his boxing career was putting his health at great risk. Angelo Dundee told the story of how, when the young Cassius Clay was training in his Miami gym in the early ‘60’s, a broken down ex pug came over to converse with him, slurring his words badly as he did so. Clay treated him with his customary playful kindness, but when he had gone he turned to Angelo and said ‘Angelo, if I ever start to slur like that, tell me, and I’ll quit.’ Years later, following the fights in Zaire and Manila, Dundee was driving Ali somewhere or other, and Ali was talking, as he usually was. Dundee said to him: ‘You now champ’, you’re starting to slur.’ Ali just laughed and continued to talk.
It wasn’t just the 108 amateur and 61 professional fights, against some of the hardest punchers in heavyweight boxing history, either . His sparring sessions, especially in his later years,, would often consist of Ali lying on the ropes absorbing punches. They may have been wearing headguards and big gloves, but even in sparring these punches impact on the brain, shaking it about in its encasement within the skull. Thousands and thousands of punches to the head over almost three decades of competition and training, from twelve years old to almost forty: how could these not have a detrimental effect on a man’s health?

Ali actually had a rationale for this method of sparing. He was seeking to disprove the old boxing adage that the one thing you can’t train a fighter to do is to withstand big punches. A fighter either can do this, or they can’t. Ali believed this was wrong, that by deliberately putting himself into what he termed the ‘twilight zone,’ a state where conscious is almost but not quite lost, he could learn to fight on instinct alone, until his head cleared, remaining upright and fighting back when lesser mortals would have been down and out. George Foreman has an example of this from Zaire. He says that when he landed one of his haymakers, and Forman was undoubtedly one of the hardest punchers in history, he saw Ali’s eyes close. He was to all intents and purposes knocked out, George was as certain of this as he was ever certain of anything, apart perhaps from the existence of God. Yet, somehow, Ali remained standing, close to the ropes from where he’d conducted much of that incredible fight, and from somewhere deep within, he willed himself back to consciousness and continued the fight, taunting to George with such comments as ‘Is that all you got, sucker? They told me you was a big puncher, George…’


As his career continued and his speed and reflexes, once his greatest assets, slowed, Ali more and more came to depend on his incredible resilience, punch resistance, courage and determination to win fights at all cost. It was the primary weapon for his greatest victories, but it was also his undoing as far as his health was concerned.

And over the years, once his boxing career was finally over, as his biographer Jonathan Eig put it in his book ‘Ali’, he got quieter and quieter and slower and slower, until finally he could talk no more, and his public appearances, encouraged by Lonnie as a means of keeping him motivated when perhaps a quiet withdrawal from public life might have been kinder, was eventually reduced to a slumped, sad figure in an electric buggy, his eyes shielded from the sun, and his tendency to spend much of his life sleeping from public view, by omnipresent dark glasses.

Always Ali

But, as Frazier once commented, partly motivated by envy and continued bitterness, ‘He’ll always be Muhammad Ali, always have people chanting his name wherever he goes.’ And it seems that, although he might have had increasing trouble expressing it, he continued to enjoy being who he was, the brash kid Cassius Clay, disliked more than liked, who became Muhammad Ali, perhaps the most famous individual on the planet, almost universally loved, who would often, whilst it was still possible, walk the ten miles, at his glacially slow ‘great-grandaddy’ pace (as he himself described it) from his rural Kentucky home to the nearest shopping area, simply to be around ‘his’ people, to sign his name, by now simply ‘Ali’, with shaking hands, on the inside cover of Islamic tracts and hand them out to anybody who wanted one.

Michael Parkinson, who interviewed him three times, described him as ‘the most remarkable individual I have ever met.’ And Parkinson interviewed the likes of James Cagney, Bette Davis, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, George Best, Jason Donovan…’

A remarkable man indeed, and this BBC documentary does the best job of doing him justice I’ve yet seen.

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

Picture credit, Ali. This work is from the New York World-Telegram and Sun collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work.

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Review: David Bowie: Finding Fame (2019)

“David Bowie: Finding Fame” is a BBC documentary that explores the early years of David Bowie’s career, from his time with the band The Lower Third to the development of his alter ego Ziggy Stardust. The documentary features archival footage and interviews with Bowie’s friends and colleagues, including Lindsay Kemp, Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmandsey, and Trevor Bolder.

The documentary offers a fascinating look at Bowie’s early struggles as an artist and his transformation into a boundary-pushing, genre-defying musician. It also delves into his personal life, including his relationship with his mother Peggy and his half-brother Terry, who struggled with schizophrenia.

While there are certainly some tough moments for fans of Bowie’s later work, such as his novelty single “The Laughing Gnome” and early miming routines, the documentary ultimately portrays Bowie as a heroic outlier and trailblazer. It highlights his ability to persuade his bandmates to embrace makeup and unconventional fashion and his willingness to push musical boundaries, even when it wasn’t popular or fashionable.

Overall, “David Bowie: Finding Fame” is a must-watch for fans of the iconic musician and a great introduction to his early career for those unfamiliar with it. It provides a deeper understanding of the man behind the music and the events and experiences that shaped him as an artist.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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Film review: Sexy Beast (2000)

The film follows Gary “Gal” Dove (played by Ray Winstone), a retired ex-con who is living a peaceful life in Spain with his wife Deedee (Amanda Redman). Their idyllic existence is interrupted by the arrival of Don Logan (Ben Kingsley), a violent and aggressive gangster who has been sent to persuade Gal to participate in a heist in London.

The film is known for its strong performances, particularly from Kingsley, who is absolutely terrifying as Don Logan. The character is a force of nature, and Kingsley portrays him with such intensity and ferocity that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. Winstone is also excellent as Gal, a man who is trying to leave his criminal past behind but finds himself drawn back in by Logan’s manipulation and intimidation.

The film’s direction, by Jonathan Glazer, is also noteworthy. Glazer uses a variety of techniques, such as close-ups and slow motion, to create a sense of tension and unease. The cinematography, by Ivan Bird, is also noteworthy, with some beautiful shots of the Spanish coastline and countryside.

“Sexy Beast” was a critical and commercial success upon its release and has since gained a cult following. It was nominated for several awards, including a BAFTA award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Kingsley’s performance. The film has been praised for its sharp writing, which balances dark humor with intense violence, and its complex characterizations, particularly of Gal and Logan. It is also known for its unique blend of British and Spanish elements, as the film was shot on location in Spain.

In addition to its strong performances and direction, the film has been praised for its originality and its refusal to adhere to traditional crime film tropes. It is a raw and unflinching look at the dark side of the criminal underworld, and its characters are complex and flawed, rather than simple caricatures.

Overall, “Sexy Beast” is a highly recommended film for fans of crime dramas and character-driven stories. It is a tense and compelling film that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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Made in Dagenham (2010)

15
1h 53m
Director: Nigel Cole
Writer: William Ivory
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins and Andrea Riseborough

Made in Dagenham is a captivating film based on true events which took place in 1968 at the Ford motor plant in Dagenham, England. It follows the story of a group of women working in the factory, who fight for equal pay and rights eventually led to a major breakthrough for women’s rights across Britain.

The film begins with Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins) and her co-workers being informed that their jobs have been downgraded from skilled to unskilled status despite having done the same work as their male colleagues. This decision leads to them going on strike, and eventually forming an unlikely alliance with union leader Albert Passingham (Bob Hoskins). Together, they battle against sexism and inequality, determined to make an impact on British law and society.

The story is remarkable for its inspiring characters, its historical context and its timely reminder of struggles faced by working-class women of the time. At its heart is Rita’s struggle to find her voice amidst the male dominated atmosphere, while also balancing her home life. Her character arc is beautifully told through Sally Hawkins’ performance, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. The supporting cast are equally excellent; Miranda Richardson as Barbara Castle stands out particularly as she attempts to navigate political bureaucracy while trying to protect the workers’ rights.

The film succeeds by accurately capturing both the atmosphere of the 1960s workplace and wider society during this incredible period in British history. Set against a backdrop of changing social conventions around gender roles and equality, Made in Dagenham reminds us how much progress has been made since then as well as how far we still have yet to go when it comes to issues such as race and class discrimination.

It also offers a valuable perspective on collective action; how small acts can come together to create large-scale change if people are willing to take risks and stand up for what they believe in. This message is embodied perfectly by our female protagonists who refuse to be intimidated or silenced by those who attempt to keep them down.

Overall, Made in Dagenham is an inspiring film full of emotion that captures perfectly an important moment in history when ordinary citizens stood up against injustice. It will leave you feeling uplifted yet also mindful of ongoing struggles faced by marginalized communities today; proving that even small acts can have significant consequences over time if we choose courage over fear.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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Baz Luhmnan’s Elvis reviewed

  • 2022
  • 12A
  • 2h 39m
  • Stars: Tom Hanks, Austin Butler, Olivia DeJonge
  • Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner

In the build up to the release of this year’s Elvis movie, and in the various reviews I’ve read, seen and listened to since first seeing it on the big screen in late June, much has been made of the movie being ‘Baz Luhman’s Elvis’. I wouldn’t know. Scanning through Mr. Luhman’s Filmography shortly after my first viewing, I realised that I had never actually seen a Baz Luhman film. Since then, I’ve rectified this by seeing his Australia; and based on this admittedly small sample of his work, I have recognised certain stylistic tricks in his Elvis that would appear to be typical of his modus operandi

The life of Elvis Presley, from his childhood to becoming a rock and movie star in the 1950s.

It is certainly a very much a stylized reading of the Elvis story, with much fast cutting from scene to scene, and much use of music as a means of illustrating the story, so that the film takes the form of a semi-musical, rather than a movie with music as might be expected in a film about a major musical icon. All in all, what we get with Luhman’s Elvis is an impressionistic rather than a literal telling of Presley’s life.

Elvis focuses heavily on the relationship between Presley and his legendary manager, Colonel Tom Parker, played by another legendary Tom, Tom Hanks. Indeed, the film begins with Parker, at the end of his life, seeking to absolve himself of all blame for the sad decline of his protégé through addiction to prescription drug and junk food, problems which led to his tragically early death, aged forty-two, on August 16th, 1977.

Parker’s words are used as a means of giving narrative structure to the film, and this is perhaps the most important of Luhman’s stylistic tricks, the way that Parker’s narration, which seeks to dispel any notion of himself as the villain in the Elvis Presley story, are in sharp contrast to the action we see unfolding on the screen. We thus have at the core of the movie the cinematic version of the literary device of the Unreliable Narrator, and this works very well.

The same can’t be said, however, for Tom Hank’s accent. Anyone with a decent grounding in the Elvis Presley story will know that Parker was a native of Holland, was an illegal immigrant to the United States, and that his alien status played a huge, perhaps a defining part in preventing Presley from touring the world outside of America. For those who don’t know, the issue is dealt with in some detail in the movie in any case. It is therefore rather overdoing it to give Parker a vaguely Dutch, or perhaps generically European accent, especially as there is ample evidence to the fact that Parker didn’t speak anything at all like this. Why didn’t Hanks, skilled craftsman that he is, attempt to speak as Parker spoke, that is as the typical carnival huckster that he was? Apart from the issue of his voice, Hanks’ performance is very good, more or less capturing the charlatan essence of Parker, which was summed up by the assessment of one wag that he ‘was not a Colonel, not Parker, and not even a Tom.’ Hanks looks great too, largely due to the efforts of the film’s prosthetics department, who did a great job of aging the character as the film processed, and of adding considerable bulk to Hank’s frame.

If Hanks’ performance is very good with reservations, then that of Austin Butler as the leading man is simply superb without any such qualifications. It’s actually relatively easy to do an Elvis impersonation, of both the man’s speaking and singing voice, which is no doubt is why so many people do it. But it’s not easy to do it without lapsing into parody. Kurt Russell made a fair fist of it in 1979’s Elvis the Movie. But he didn’t do his own singing, and his 1969 Elvis, the year at which this film concludes, looked and sounded more like mid-seventies Elvis to me. Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the 2005 CBS Miniseries Elvis the Early Years wasn’t bad either, but again he didn’t do his own singing, and as with Russel, the script didn’t call on him to go beyond the late sixties. Butler, by contrast, portrays the man all the way from 1953 to close to his bloated, drug addled death in Memphis twenty-three years later. And, Butler did do his own singing throughout the film. His vocal performance is spot on, so good in fact that when the voice of the real Elvis was intercut with his at some points on the later numbers, the change was so seamless that only keen students of Presley’s singing style would be able to tell the difference. If anything, Butler nails Presley’s spoken voice and mannerisms with even greater precision. At times, his ability to capture the essence of Presley in a word or look is simply breath-taking.

For me, the ‘very Baz’ fast cutting of the movie worked much better on the big screen than it did the small. In the cinema, the visual pyrotechnics have a mesmerizing, hallucinogenic quality. By contrast, re-watching the film more recently on television, the style became at times a little wearying. The problem with this style of editing is that the mind has no opportunity to properly settle on and take in individual scenes before it is scattered elsewhere, and major events pass by at such a rate that it is easy to miss them. As an example, it is generally accepted that Elvis’ mother Gladys was the real love of his life, a major influence on how he lived it, and that her death was a tragedy from which he never really recovered. But Luhman never really takes the time to develop her character into someone we really care about independent of our knowledge of her real-world importance. Though we do see the devastating emotional impact of Gladys’ death on Elvis, it is rather fleeting and to the extent that it is explored at all, it is done so more in relation to how Parker uses the event as a means of supplanting her as the central guiding influence in Presley’s life than for its long-lasting psychological impact on Elvis himself.

The frenetic pace is however fitting for the section of the movie that deals with Elvis meteoric rise to national and international stardom in 1956. There has been no better depiction of what it must have been like to be young, particularly a young woman, experiencing Elvis’ raw sexual power live on stage in this period, before Parker succeeded in taming him in order to win the acceptance of the mainstream Show Biz’ establishment.

The pace does slow when we reach the last decade of Presley’s life, a period that encompasses roughly one half of the two-hour, forty-minute movie. This was perhaps a conscious decision to reflect changes in Presley’s life, and it is a good one as characters, including the lead, are at last given the space to change and develop, and for the viewer to become emotionally invested in them.

I should say here say a few words about Priscilla, the girl Elvis married in 1967, an event that neatly signifies the end of part one and the beginning of part two of the film. The fact that she was a mere fourteen years’ old when they first met, whilst he was serving in the armed forces in Germany in 1959, is never explicitly stated. The age difference between the two is only revealed to us through the words of Elvis as he says, rather desperately in response to her ending of their relationship five years after their marriage, ‘you’ll see Cilla, when I’m fifty and you’re forty, we’ll be together.’ Her youth may not have been made explicit, but in that very first meeting she is depicted as a bubbly, chattering, and frankly adorable presence, in a way that was perhaps typical of well-bred, mid-teens all-American girls of the period. Taken through the whole movie, the role of Priscilla is relatively small, but important, the character revealed through perhaps four short two-hander scenes opposite Butler, and which are very, very well played by Olivia DeJonge.

The musical component of Elvis has been criticised, mostly by the type of Elvis fan who prefers even the dodgiest Elvis sixties movie soundtrack track to anything none-Elvis. Luhman must have known that he was on a hiding to nothing with this stratum when he decided to include in the movie not only Elvis’ songs, but also songs that blended Elvis into a ‘mash-up’ with modern artists, and illustrative music that didn’t include Elvis at all, such as the hit single Vegas by Doja Cat, and The King and I by Eminem and CeeLo Green. This eclectic use of music new and old is apparently an oft used device in the Luhman playbook, an example being his use of Hip Hop in his version of The Great Gatsby, as well as the Jazz which is more often associated with this story. Personally, although we could perhaps have done with a tad more Elvis, I think the musical choices in the movie were brave, and very, very effective, and could perhaps widen the appeal of the movie beyond the Presley fan-base towards a younger audience.  

As mentioned, the script opts for a much more impressionistic than factual interpretation of the Elvis story. As with Luhman’s choice of music, this deployment of poetic license in the depiction of real-life events is fraught with danger, opening him up to the criticism of often knowledgeable hard-core fans. But, again with some qualifications, think the approach generally worked well.

As an example, Elvis’ relationship with blues guitarist/singer BB King is presented as being much closer than it was in real life. But the deception works as an excellent shorthand for Presley’s relationship with black culture as a whole, particularly with the blues scene centered around Beale St in Memphis at the time of Presley’s rise to stardom. It also helps to dispel the oft’ repeated myth that Elvis was a racist.

All attempts at telling the Elvis Presley story, be they dramatisation, documentary, or even literary, tend to deal with the rightly derided Hollywood years, roughly 1961 – ’68, almost em passant, usually through the use of quickly moving and quickly gone montage. Luhman’s effort is no exception, except for the way he rather brilliant combines a cursory run through of this period with an introduction to Presley’s fabled Memphis Mafia gang.

The treatment of the iconic 1968 Comeback Special is even more outlandish. Elvis fans all know that Parker’s vision for the special, which was to air at Christmas 1968 in America, was for Elvis to come out into the lights of an empty studio wearing a Tuxedo, say ‘Good Evening Ladies and Gentleman,’ sing twenty or so Christmas songs and spirituals, say ‘Goodnight and Merry Christmas everybody,’ and fade the lights. Fortunately, the show’s producer Steve Binder, and even more thankfully Elvis himself, realised that such an approach would have spelled the final death knell to his already dying career, and chose instead to put Elvis together with members of his 1950’s band, dress him in black leather with an electric guitar strapped round his neck, and put him in a boxing ring style stage surrounded by adoring fans. What Luhman does is to use this real-life disconnect between the visions of Parker and Binder as the starting point for an onscreen farce which bore little relationship to actual events, during which Binder and Elvis attempt to convince Parker that they are indeed producing a Christmas-themed show, complete with Elvis wearing a horrendously cheesy Christmas jumper curtesy of Singer sowing-machines, the special’s sponsor, for the closing number, whilst in reality they are putting together a show much heavier on rock ‘n’ roll than on Christmas cliches. It’s funny and enjoyable, and I think works well as a means of revealing the existential choice that faced Elvis as he returned to public performance after more than seven year’s burial beneath layers of Hollywood schmaltz. My only criticism of this part of the movie is that we see none of the sit-down sections of the special, the heart of the show, when Elvis, for once, really played guitar and bantered informally with members of his band and crew. This will perhaps be addressed when we eventually get the four-hour cut that Luhman promises us is coming, and at least we do get a sizable chunk of If I Can Dream, the actual show closer, when Elvis donned the white suit that was so much cooler than the white jump suit that was soon to come, and produced perhaps his finest ever vocal performance.

 It was a brave but brilliant decision by Luhman to have Butler’s turn as Elvis effectively close with Presley’s incredibly poignant rendition of Unchained Melody, seated at the piano, only weeks before his death. The moment when Butler’s Elvis finally gives way to the real Elvis, bloated and defeated but still pouring his whole self into this operatic last-gasp performance will, I think, have left few dry eyes amongst cinema goers. From 1977, we then cut back, to the early years, to Elvis, the real Elvis, at his peak, ripping through the social fabric of America, and of much of the world, leaving it forever altered. Finally, his phenomenal achievements and lasting legacy as the most successful solo recording artist in history, are reminded to the audience by bare, simple, but revelatory screen-text. As brilliant as Austin Butler is in this movie, it is only right and proper that it is the real Elvis who closes it.

So, there we have it.  Baz Luhman’s Elvis, far from perfect, but a genuine cinematic experience that is way in advance of any other dramatisation of the life of the man they called The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It could even be a contender for the greatest ever rock biopic.

By Anthony C Green

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Moonage Daydream (2022)

Director and writer Brett Morgen starts his film with an interesting choice. He does not show the chronological events of Bowie’s life. He instead starts with a song from 1995, “Hallo Spaceboy.” This song is played over old footage of Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie and fans. This sets the tone for the rest of the film which is overwhelming.

Not a normal documentary but an immersive experience

David Bowie’s music, paintings, ideas, influences and interviews from over 50 years of his career are all put together in one glorious collage. I kept thinking of a Kaladeiscope toy I had when young. The film has a dreamy, trippy quality and though over two hours long I didn’t notice the time going.

Morgen dispenses with music talking-head doesn’t include interviews with friends, family, critics, or associates. This is a film centred on Bowie himself and his is the main voice we hear. The only over voices come from fans and interviewers, Mavis Nicholson, and a cringeworthily bitchy Russell Harty (Psychiatrists could probably ponder for hours his antipathy to Bowie).

Much of the criticism of the film is, I think, based on some fans expecting a standard documentary format. This film doesn’t follow that. It’s not a concert film either, although it does have some live concert footage. There are loads of previously unseen clips and lots of unheard mixes of songs.

Those looking for each period of Bowie’s life to be reprented fully or equally will be disapointed. Essentially The periods mainly covered are Ziggy/ Aladin Sane, Berlin & his sad but interesting experiment with commercialism in the 80’s.

Morgen uses image, music, and editing channel Bowie more than explain him. It’s ambitious approach that I think David, the artist and innovator, would admire.

Morgen is successful in communicating the essence of David Bowie’s creative work in a way that is unique and interesting. He uses sound and vision together to create a movie that immerses the viewer in Bowie’s creativity. At times its overwhelming. All this is done in a way that is true to Bowie’s own unique style.

Bowie was ahead of his time in terms of understanding the power of pop culture to shape who we are and how we see the world. Throughout his career, Bowie pushed the boundaries of what pop music could be, constantly experimenting with new sounds and styles. One of the things that made Bowie so unique was his interest in the surface details of our throwaway pop culture. He believed that these details could express profound and radical ideas. For Bowie, the disposable culture of the mainstream was a source of critical inspiration.

Morgen shows how Bowie reflected on his own existential and spiritual development. He tried to find meaning in a world where everything is temporary. There are some fascinating contributions from Bowie on some very deep subjects (such as our understanding of time and attitudes and approach to chaos).

Bowie also played with and re-presented his identity a lot. Sometimes Bowie seemed lost and sad – an outsider. He struggled with addiction at times. He said himself that he never identified with the mainstream. Morgen reveals what Bowie was – a genius and a prophet, a seeker of Truth. Bowie was remarkable in that he could understand and engage while still standing apart. Bowie never stopped expressing his creativity and his output from this, in so many different forms, alone shows the energy he had. Bowie was emotionally, creatively and spiritually happy at the end of his life as the film makes clear. As a Bowie fan and admirer I was very satisfied by that.

There are not many films I would pay to see twice but this is one of them. I don’t think I will ever fully understand Bowie, he was incredibly complex and not always consistent! Yet this film made me fell closer to his spirit.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

Watch the trailer here. Listen to this review at YouTube.

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Film Review: Belfast

One of the most anticipated films of 2022 for this reviewer was Kenneth Branagh’s evocation of his hometown, Belfast. Branagh grew up in a predominately loyalist area of North Belfast just as “The Troubles” were beginning to take off. Your reviewer lived on a vast housing estate a few miles north of his area. How, I wondered, would his recollections tally with mine? What would audiences in Great Britain and abroad think?

A film that packs a real emotional punch

Branagh’s alter ego is nine-year-old Buddy.  He lives in a tightly knit area where everybody knows everyone else when out of the blue, a violent mob comes into the area, attacking the homes of Catholic neighbours, rioting, and erecting barricades. Soldiers appear on the streets, vetting who moves in and out of the area.

Some loyalists have criticised the film, claiming it doesn’t show context and portrays the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community in the worst possible light. However, for a nine-year-old, there would be no context, the child would be swept up in the bewildering events unfolding around him. Jude Hill, the young actor who plays the part of Buddy, brings out this sense of innocent confusion, bewilderment and grief magnificently.

Branagh’s decision to film most of the 1969 action in black and white really pays off. I was eleven then and all my recollections of that time are in black and white. Colour television sets didn’t really take off until the late seventies.  So much of this film resonated with me as I was only a couple of years older than Buddy at the time; Buddy’s interest in the Apollo space programme, his Thunderbirds International Rescue uniform, and the old route numbers on the buses. It all came flooding back. It could have been me and my family forced to leave the country if I’d lived four miles up the road.

Judy Dench was quite disappointing in her role as Buddy’s granny. In contrast, her screen husband, Ciaran Hinds, almost stole the show as Buddy’s wise but ailing granddad, Pop.

This film packs a real emotional punch; it left me shedding a few tears for those who had to leave, those left behind whose lives have been screwed up forever and for those who died. Please God, that we in Ulster don’t ever go through all that shit again.

Reviewed by David Kerr

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Benediction (2021)

Ivor Novello and a young Sassoon as portrayed in the film. Novello stands out in the film as an utter b***ard,

Benediction is a deeply depressing film. Benediction is the invocation of a blessing but if a blessing was invited by the characters in this film it never came. Superficially the film tells the story of Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden / Peter Capaldi). Sassoon was a complex man a soldier decorated for his bravery on the battlefield who became a vocal critic of the government’s continuation of the First World War. Benediction, however is not a biography of Sassoon. Many of his key life events, such as his father’s early death and the bequest he received from his aunt and his Jewish background are not mentioned.

It’s more a meditation on loneliness, regret and self-loathing. The self-loathing may partly be traced to the aftermath of his Soldier’s Declaration of 1917. When faced with a court-martial and possible execution Sassoon allowed his influential friends to arrange, instead, that he was committed to the psychiatric ward of a military hospital (Craiglockhart in Edinburgh). At Craiglockhart we see Sassoon talk to a sympathetic Psychiatrist about his sexual attraction to men. The Psychiatrist shares Sassoon’s sexuality but seems more at ease with it. At the Sanatorium he also meets the doomed poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) who he mentors and encourages.

Sassoon’s fame spreads and when released his fame spreads he is welcomed in artistic circles. Some of the members of these circles become lovers, including Ivor Novello (Jermy Irvine). None of the portrayals of the gay relationships are positive. The only humour in the film comes from the bitter, caustic remarks they make about each other. None of the characters are likeable.


Terence Davies is quoted as saying “I have hated being gay, and I’ve been celibate for most of my life. Some people are just good at sex, and others aren’t; I’m one of them who isn’t. I’m just too self-conscious.” It seems that this view has informed the Director’s approach to the “shadow life” featured in this film.

Ivor Novello stands out as a real piece of work with his catty wit and brutal treatment of lovers. He eventually decides to marry Hester Gatty (in her youth played by Kate Phillips and later by Gemma Jones). This is a steady relationship and they have a son but Sassoon still appears unfulfilled and distant failing to find comfort or salvation within the conformity of marriage and religion.

.So the film is miserable. Apart from the clever but cruel wit the main redeeming feature is the music, poetry and footage from WWI woven throughout the film. That has a dreamy, hypnotic quality which has a strange beauty. I was particularly struck by no-man’s land during snow with ‘Silent Night’ playing over the top, first in German and then English.

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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The Northman (2022)

(15)
2h 17m
Director
Robert Eggers
Stars
Alexander Skarsgård Nicole Kidman Claes Bang

The Northman is a star-studded production.

The Northman tells the story of Amleth, a young prince of a Norse king who goes into exile after his father is killed by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who then usurps Amleth’s kingship and marries his mother. As Amleth leaves he vows to avenge his Father by killing Fjölnir and saving his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). After being raised abroad by Viking raiders as a berserker, Amleth, with the help of a Slavic slave-woman, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), seeks out his uncle in Iceland and mete out revenge. Robert Eggers co-wrote the script with Icelandic poet and author Sjón.

Eggers’ film is very, very violent. It made me wonder how this brutal film got a 15 certificate. It seems that violence is kind of OK with UK censors but portrayals of sex are considered more of a problem. What does that tell you about our society? The harsh, bleak life depicted in the film is probably accurate. The depictions of violence are also probably accurate. What interests me is that the consequences of this violence (as in other films) are distorted. Recovery times for serious injuries are skipped over. In one scene Amleth is badly tortured but seems to regain full health almost miraculously.

Neil Price, a British archaeology professor who specialises in the Viking Age, was brought in to advise on The Northman

He says, “This is by far the most accurate depiction of the Viking Age I’ve ever seen. I was on set during pre-production when they were in the process of bringing all of this to life and I found it overwhelming – I’ve never seen this level of attention to detail in an historical film before.”

Alongside that realism there are strong supernatural themes centering on fate and destiny as well as hallucinogenic/dream sequences. It’s a heady blend.

I found this a disturbing film to watch but also a beautiful one. Amleth’s life is filled with horror, sorrow, and bitterness. He is twisted by his desire for revenge. Even his relationship with Olga fails to redeem or transform him. The theme repeated time and time again is that a man cannot escape his fate. Let’s hope that bleak message is not true.

The beauty to be found in this film is the way it is shot, the music by Sebastian Gainsborough and Robin Carolan and the spectacular scenery.

Watching the film left me undecided and with many questions. It’s certainly worth seeing. In fact I will have to watch it again before I can say I really understood it!

Reviewed by Pat Harrington

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