Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Remembering Prince

I would think this is a common thing, but I find nowadays that one of the most sobering reality checks of my advancing age (I’m 46) arrives in the form of coming to terms with the deaths of music artists who had a meaningful impact in my younger years. This pattern has been repeating all too frequently lately. It’s been an absolutely brutal stretch of months for losing hugely significant figures from the world of music. 

It started back in early December with the overdose death of Scott Weiland, formerly of Stone Temple Pilots. Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister followed a few weeks later and then came the earthshaking loss of David Bowie on January 8th. Next was Eagle Glenn Frey, Beatles producer George Martin, and country legend Merle Haggard (who interestingly was born and died on April 6th). I’m not a fan in the least of those last three, but there’s no denying their important musical legacies. And now we’re down one more with the shocking death of Prince. 

I’d classify my level of Prince fandom as somewhere past the point of “casual” and a fair distance from “devout”. Admittedly, the vast majority of his musical output the past decade failed to inspire many repeat listens from me. I chalk that up to his reputation for being extremely prolific (Wikipedia lists just shy of 40 studio albums that he released since 1978), but with a wildly uneven quality to his work. The last release of his that I truly connected with was 2004’s Musicology. That tour was the one and now only time I saw Prince live, but oh my did it leave a deep and lasting impression on me. 

I’ve seen well over a hundred concerts in my life and U2 and Bruce Springsteen are by far my two favourite music artists. Although Bono and The Boss are two of the best contemporary live performers we’ve ever seen (in my humble opinion and many others), I can say without hesitation that the single greatest person I’ve ever witnessed on a concert stage was Prince. Hands down. I’d known about his abundant talent for years, of course. The legend-building stories of his musical virtuosity were established early on, as he played nearly every instrument on his first five albums. I’d also seen enough live footage of him over the years playing a host of different instruments to know that he was a one-of-a-kind talent. Still, nothing prepared me for seeing all of it on display in person. 

Feeling just a tad superior to my sister as I enjoyed a great floor seat in July 2004 at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre while she was relegated to seats up in the stands, Prince completely floored me with his musical talent and showmanship. At various points during the concert, in addition to his frequent guitar playing, he played piano, drums, and bass. And we’re not talking a “Jack of all trades, master of none” kind of multi-instrumentalism, either. The guy played those three latter instruments damn well. His virtuosic guitar skills weren’t a huge surprise, yet it added another level to my appreciation for those skills seeing them from such a close vantage point. Add in some badass dance moves, a surprisingly playful sense of humour (something Prince diehards would be quite familiar with), and a near-flawless vocal performance and you can see why I was bowled over. And for good measure, the sound was some of the best I’d ever heard at a major venue. That really surprised me, considering I’d seen Van Halen at the same venue just two weeks earlier and that show had some of the worst sound I’d ever heard at a big venue. Good live sound engineers are very underrated members of a touring act’s road crew.  

I’d have loved to experience Prince in concert again, but his ticket prices skyrocketed on subsequent tours, as I ranted about here in 2011. Even as recently as a month ago, I checked out the ticket prices for one of the intimate Toronto shows he announced a couple of days ago before they were played, which would turn out to be some of his final performances. Alas, they were priced far beyond my means, plus their high exclusivity would have made getting tickets a longshot anyway.

While I frequently didn’t connect with a lot of Prince’s music, I always respected his musical integrity that predominantly saw him do things on his own terms, which included taking plenty of musical risks. During his 2007 Super Bowl halftime show, I remember wondering why the hell a guy with a catalog as deep as his was doing a cover of the Foo Fighters “Best Of Me” on such a high profile platform with such a limited amount of performance time. Talk about an out-of-left-field song choice. Prince made it work, though, and that performance is now one the Super Bowl’s most acclaimed halftime shows. 

As much as I’m now crushed for only having had one experience of seeing Prince’s next-level kind of talent in person, I also consider myself fortunate for having had the opportunity. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Black Mass [film review]

Released theatrically on September 18th; now available on DVD/Blu-ray and video-on-demand 

Black Mass is definitive proof of how difficult it is to make not just a great film, but even a good film.

The framework is certainly in place for Black Mass to be a standout movie. Compelling source material? It’s based on the 2000 book Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob about James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger was an FBI informant whilst simultaneously rising to the upper level of Boston’s organized crime ranks via brutal methods. Then, before he could be arrested on racketeering charges, he fled and was on the run for 16 years as one of the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives, before being captured in 2011. So make that a boldfaced check. How about a talented and committed lead actor? Check number two, as Johnny Depp signs on, did plenty of homework on his subject, and transforms his face and hair to more closely resemble the notorious gangster. Strong supporting cast? Kevin Bacon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Corey Stoll, Adam Scott, Julianne Nicholson, Peter Saarsgard, Joel Edgerton, and Jesse Plemons make that a resounding check number three. While all of these ingredients are abundantly fertile ground on which to build a great film, director Scott Cooper and his screenwriters still can’t save Black Mass from being a limp, forgettable mess.

Depp’s portrayal carries a decent amount of the imposing and unsettling quality that the thuggish Bulger displayed. Much of that comes from the confident swagger he instills into the character. The visual mimicry also plays a large role, as Depp dons a dead tooth, prosthetics, and an intricately constructed hairpiece to replicate Bulger’s facial features and baldness. Then there’s those blue contact lenses. Depp’s eyes in Black Mass are extremely distracting. The lenses seem bizarrely unhuman when shown in close-up shots, almost zombie-like. That contributes to the lack of investment I had with his version of Bulger. The actor just never disappears into the role and I was consistently hyper-aware that it was a made-up Depp I was watching.

The large collection of fine supporting actors barely register any performances that won’t quickly fade from your memory. Edgerton’s corrupt FBI agent character who has childhood ties to Bulger should resonate much deeper, but doesn’t. The same goes for Cumberbatch’s character, who’s Bulger’s brother and an extremely powerful Massachusetts politician. You couldn’t ask for a better recipe to explore a complex family dynamic, but the characters’ scenes together simply don’t generate any interest. And just wondering — can Adam Scott ever not play a character that’s a total dick?

To be fair, Depp and his ensemble are completely let down by a bungled script that dilutes a fascinating true-crime story into an uninspired, wasted opportunity. On a massive scale. Everything about Black Mass feels lazily ripped off from other crime dramas.

How a character as intriguing and complicated as Whitey Bulger emerges from a film about his life feeling thinly drawn and dull speaks to a serious failing in that film’s creative process. My first thought as Black Mass' credits rolled was that it disappointingly paralleled an organized crime drama I wrote about in 2012, The Iceman. That movie also miserably failed at telling the real-life story of mob hitman Richard Kuklinski. For the best cinematic telling of Bulger’s story, give a wide berth of Black Mass and watch Joe Berlinger’s engrossing Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger documentary, which I reviewed here.

Rating: D