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Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Last Days of Video

I’ve addressed this topic in my blog before, but the problem won’t go away. Years pass, seasons change (not in the UK apparently), people fall in and out of love, but the crisis continues like the growth of mold in a two month old teabag (Not that I would know, my apartment is very clean). These days I think it’s more relevant than ever. Truly understanding the dilemma may be the key to unlocking not only the mystery of the credit crunch, but also perhaps the meaning of life itself. I am of course, speaking of the demise of the Video Store.

When I was 14, my first job was working as a delivery boy for The Video Connection, my local video store on 80th and Broadway. Back in the heyday of VHS, video stores had names that implied futurism while feeling ancient at the same time, as if they’d always been there and would be for millennium to come. Names like Video Vault, Pegasus Video, Royal Video, and Champagne Video, the lone survivor of the VHS boom. I recently walked through Champagne Video’s doors over the holidays. It was as if I’d entered a time warp: row upon row of rectangular plastic black boxes with poorly laminated covers. Movies grouped by section signs with cheesy, oversized bubble letters. Colorful displays on the checkout counter offering five flavors of microwave popcorn. It felt like 1994 all over again

Those were the days when the world was mine to discover. Every afternoon after school I’d pound the all-to-familiar blocks of my neighborhood, knapsack filled to the brim with tapes like Santa in his youthful prime. During the day I suffered all the indignities high school had to offer, but from the hours of 4 to 8, Tuesday through Thursday, I was in charge of my own destiny. I became a welcome sight to the uptown bourgeois elite, bringing them new releases of the day like Sirens with Hugh Grant and Elle Macpherson and Angels and Insects with Patsy Kensit. The titles and stars of countless, seemingly meaningless films were forever etched in my mind.

Back then (we’re talking the 90’s folks), movies came out on video no sooner than 6 months after being in the theater. This was when the Major Studios were king and had complete control of the supply chain. Whenever they decided to put a movie out on tape was the only time you could see it outside the cinema. Peer 2 peer networks didn’t exist. Pirated copies were made by a guy in the back row holding an off-center camcorder. If you wanted to see the movie you had to rent it. In addition, Studios would price VHS tapes at $89.99, making them impossible to buy for home entertainment. The Video Stores were the only places with enough capital to purchase cassettes and the clientele to make their money back. The Video Connection would get 5 copies at most of a new release (It was a big deal when they bought 10 copies of Jurassic Park). All these factors built up unbelievable anticipation for a movie coming out on video. Only 5 (10 when it came to the dinosaurs) lucky customers would get the latest film on a Tuesday night (Tuesday was the night we would allow customers to rent new movies. It was my most dreaded day, sometimes I would get out of there as late as 9:30!). As the delivery boy, the power was in my hands. I was Hermes, messenger of the Gods, delivering mortals fresh pop culture food for their starved brains. In retrospect, I realize Sirens was a piece of English poo. But back then, Hugh Grant was hot shit post-Four Weddings and A Funeral and pre-Divine Brown. Anything he was in sold like warm bagels straight out the oven.

It was at this job was where my love of Pop music blossomed. I have an overzealous clerk by the name of Derek Davidson to thank for beginning my education. Derek was a guy from Canarsie who’d been living on the Upper West in a one bedroom for ages, and still does to this day. Derek had a serious love of music and movies, and very definite opinions on what was good and what was crap. It was Derek who first gave me Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection, 10cc’s The Original Soundtrack, and Steely Dan’s Katy Lied. It was Derek who introduced me to the films Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese and David Cronenberg. Derek was the first guy I ever played in a band with, and he was the first guy to kick me out of one. I have so many wonderful teenage memories of trolling the streets of New York with a Discman in hand, discovering for the first time albums like The Beatles’ White Album, XTC’s English Settlement, Queen’s A Night At The Opera. And it’s all thanks to Derek. If it weren’t for him, you guys may not have these caustic, over-informed diatribes to read online. You’d also be less several nostalgic, sentimental Pop anthems for that matter.

After high school, things became a blur. I went off the college as big chains like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video pushed independent video stores out of business. A few years after graduation, Blockbuster, once a towering Goliath, was humbled by online rental services like Netflix and Lovefilm (which have a much better selection I must say. Who needs 50 copies of the new Will Smith movie?). VHS made way for DVD, which will soon make way for HD DVD and Blue Ray, or some other medium (whatever happened to Laserdisc?). In the next decade, movies and music will be usurped by video games as the main source of entertainment. Today’s Pop Stars are entrepreneurs, business moguls hyper–aware of the power of their brand. Clothing lines and perfumes are just as important as the song or the screenplay. Old-fashioned storytelling and heartbreaking performances have been replaced by CGI special effects and Super Hero movie franchises. The auteur of the future will be more informed by Halo, Resident Evil, Call Of Duty and World Of Warcraft then ET, Star Wars, Raging Bull or Clockwork Orange. The days of dreaming in the Video Store are gone. Maybe it’s for the best. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted, wandering in the wonder of the aisles.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Slumdog Singalong

Maybe this sounds strange, but recently, through the dark days that dawn in London in January, I find myself wanting to write a musical. I’ve been told my entire career my songs would fit right in on Broadway, with comments ranging from celebratory to slanderous, mainly the latter. I think the musical may be the most derided entertainment form. One look at the typical fare and you can’t help agree with its detractors. It seems the cheesiest, corniest, most unbelievable subject matter is reserved exclusively for musicals, be it the shameless rehashing of a film in the name of commerce (The Producers and Hairspary are the quality examples, Shrek, Saturday Night Fever and Lord Of The Rings: The Musical scrape the bottom of the barrel) or ridiculous, unentertaining concepts, i.e. Rollerskating in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Starlight Express; I was recently forced to sit through a West End production of La Cage Aux Folles. I can’t believe someone thought men doing cartwheels in drag for 3 hours with no semblance of a story would be interesting. Shame on them.

Other fodder includes songwriters trying to cash in on their catalogs, creating flimsy plots to fill their publishing coffers. Billy Joel’s Movin’ Out, The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations, John Lennon’s Imagine are prime examples (they even made a Boney M musical called Daddy Cool). Movies are just as guilty of perpetrating this trend, the High School Musical series an all too familiar reminder (they have confirmed 5 sequels. Someone save us please!). I ask the simple question: What’s so silly about someone stopping in the middle of the street to sing and dance? If Marlon Brando looked cool doing it in Guys and Dolls, it can’t be all that bad.

Back in the 1920’s, and moving well into the 1960’s, the musical was considered a serious art form, attracting the best and brightest songwriters, directors and performers. Virtually the entire catalog of standards, the songs of George Gershwin, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter, had origins in Musicals. Movies studios did their part, producing musical masterpieces like Singing In The Rain and An American In Paris, creating vehicles for song & dance stars Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. There are still serious autuers out there in stage and film who have tried over the years (some more successfully than others) to breathe new life into the genre. Stephen Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown on Broadway, and Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, and Lars Von Trier just to name a few.

Over the holidays in New York, I saw a movie that truly energized me, restored my faith in commercial art (Akon was beginning to look like the Grim Reaper). I haven’t been this excited by a piece of cinema since watching Pulp Fiction at age 15 (saw Tarantino’s masterpiece a total of 5 times in the theater. Only other movie I did that with was Jurassic Park. Dinosaurs are awesome). The film is Slumdog Millionaire by Danny Boyle. It’s a quirky rags-to-riches story told through flashbacks, the pivot point being an Indian version of the melodramatic game show, “Who Wants To Be An Millionaire”. This movie has it all: an inventive (yet totally unbelievable) script, brilliant performances by a cast of unknowns, mainly children, visuals shot at a furious pace with gritty realism, and a rocking contemporary soundtrack (M.I.A. never sounded so good). Mr. Boyle has somehow transmuted child prostitution, poverty, and blindness into a feel good film about destiny and hope, and has done it in less than 2 hours, a refreshing contrast to bloated, award season epics like Defiance and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (which was good, but TOO LONG!). And he topped the whole thing off with a slap-happy, Bollywood-style dance number ending. I left the theater buzzing.

Cut to a week later, I’m back in London, eating brunch and reading the Sunday Guardian (as us bourgeois major label musicians do) and imagine my surprise, where in a interview, Danny Boyle states his next project is going be a musical! “The achievement would be to create an entirely original musical rather than film a classic stage adaptation,” he says, continuing “There’s something amazingly cinematic about putting dance and film together – it’s what motion pictures are all about.”

I nearly choked on my Turkish breakfast. Is this man reading my mind? The guy who created 3of my favorite movies of the last 15 years (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, and now Slumdog), a very-arty sci-fi flick (Sunshine), a glorified travel film (The Beach), a Hitchcock style thriller (Shallow Grave), and a beautiful piece o’ shit (Life Less Ordinary) wants to do a musical? Consider this blog my job application, my CV, my ad in the personals – DANNY BOYLE I AM YOUR MAN! If you guys have any ideas on how to pitch me to write the songs for his next movie, if you know anyone who may have his ear, please drop me a line at This needs to happen.

Akon, eat your heart out.