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Saturday, June 07, 2008

Saturday Night At The Movies

SIFF-ting Through Celluloid: The Wrecking Crew & Sita Sings the Blues

By Dennis Hartley

The 2008 Seattle International Film Festival is in full swing, so I thought that for the next few posts I would take you along to some of this year’s screenings.

Navigating a film festival is no easy task, even for a dedicated buff. This year’s SIFF is screening nearly 400 features and documentaries, over a period just shy of four weeks. It must be a wonderful opportunity for independently wealthy slackers, but for those of us who have to work for a living, it’s a little tough catching the North American premiere of that hot new documentary from Uzbekistan that is only screening once at 11:45am on a Tuesday. I’m lucky if I can catch a dozen films each year, but I do take consolation from my observation that the ratio of less-than-stellar (too many) to quality films (too few) at a film festival differs little from any Friday night crapshoot at the multiplex. The trick lies in developing a sixth sense for which titles “feel” like they would be up your alley (or, in my case, embracing your OCD and channeling it like a cinematic divining rod.)

Some of the films I will be reviewing will hopefully be “coming to a theatre near you” in the near future; on the other hand there may be a few that will only be accessible via DVD (the Netflix queue is our friend!). BTW, if you are lucky enough to go to Sundance, Toronto or Cannes, let’s get this out of the way now-Yes, I am quite aware that Seattle gets sloppy seconds from some of the more prestigious festivals; so go ahead, we’ll wait while you do your little “superior dance”. Okay, feel better? Good! Now let’s move on.

The Wrecking Crew: Girls just wanna read charts.

First up-a breezy and highly entertaining music biz documentary called The Wrecking Crew (not to be confused with the 1969 “Matt Helm” caper). “The Wrecking Crew” was a moniker given to a relatively small group of crack L.A. session players who in essence created the “sound” of classic American pop music that dominated the Top 40 radio charts from the late 50s through the mid 70s. With several notable exceptions (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack) their names remain obscure to the casual listener, even though the music they helped create is forever burned into our collective neurons.

The film was a labor of love in every sense of the word for first-time director Denny Tedesco, whose late father was the guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, a premier member of the crew. Tedesco traces the origins of the aggregation, from its participation in helping to create the legendary “Wall of Sound” of the early 60s (lorded over by mercurial pop savant Phil Spector) to collaborations with Brian Wilson (most notably, on the Beach Boys’ seminal “Pet Sounds” album) and backing sessions with just about any other popular artist of the era you would care to mention (Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, The Righteous Brothers, Henry Mancini, Ike & Tina Turner, The Monkees, The Association, Nancy Sinatra, The Fifth Dimension, The Byrds, Sonny & Cher, The Mamas and the Papas, Frank Zappa, etc.). Not to mention a myriad of TV show themes.

Tedesco features some incredibly cool vintage studio footage, as well as archival and present day interviews with key players. You also hear from some of the producers who utilized their talents (Herb Alpert, Brian Wilson and Jack Nitzsche). Tedesco assembled a group of surviving members to swap anecdotes (and as you can imagine, these guys have got some great stories to tell). One of my favorite reminiscences concerned the first recording sessions for The Monkees. An apparently uninformed Peter Tork showed up in the studio, guitar in hand-and was greeted by a roomful of bemused session players, giving him a “WTF are YOU doing here?!” look before he slunk away in embarrassment.

One of the revelations in the film is bass player/guitarist Carol Kaye, a quietly unassuming pioneer who commanded a lot of respect in a traditionally male-dominated niche of the music industry. In a great scene, she modestly demonstrates a few signature bass lines that you may have heard, oh, once or twice; the opening riffs for “The Beat Goes On”, “California Girls”, the “Mission Impossible Theme”, even that subtle 5 note run that opens Glen Campbell’s “Witchita Lineman” proves to be distinctively all hers.

Judging from audience reaction, however, the star of the film is drummer Hal Blaine, who may very well be the most recorded drummer in the history of pop music. Blaine was at the screening I attended, and did a Q & A along with the director after the film. He told the audience that he is currently in the midst of compiling his discography (with the help of several researchers); he said so far they have been able to annotate “only” about 5,000 sessions (some estimates top the 10,000 mark). Blaine tells colorful and hilarious stories; he reminds me a lot of musician/comedian Pete Barbuti, who never failed to put me on the floor in his numerous appearances on The Tonight Show throughout the 70s.

Tedesco’s film makes a perfect companion to the 2003 doc Standing In The Shadows of Motown. That film profiled another group of unheralded session players (aka the “Funk Brothers”) who backed nearly every Motown hit. I know that there are some who look down their nose at this “lunch pail” approach to creating music, but there is no denying the chops that these players bring to the table, and I say more power to ‘em, myself. Tedesco’s film is a joyous celebration of a body of popular art that (love it or loathe it), literally provided the “soundtrack of our lives” for those of a (ahem) certain age.

Sita Sings the Blues: Cry me a river

Another film that looks to be an early audience favorite at SIFF this year is a wholly original animated musical called Sita Sings the Blues. This is the first full-length animated feature from cartoonist turned filmmaker Nina Paley, whose alt-comic strip “Nina’s Adventures” has appeared in the San Francisco Examiner and the L.A. Reader. She is now being called a “one-woman Pixar”, for producing this film on her home P.C.

Paley cheekily adapts the Ramayana, an ancient and highly revered Sanskrit epic about the doomed love between Prince Rama (an incarnation of the god Vishnu) and the ever-devoted Sita. She juxtaposes it with a neurotic examination of her own failed marriage; the result is perhaps best described as Annie Hall meets Yellow Submarine in Bollywood.

Borrowing a device from the 1981 film Pennies From Heaven, Paley literally “jazzes up” the tale with musical interludes featuring the long suffering Sita lip synching to scratchy recordings by 1920s vocal stylist Annette Henshaw. Modern context is also provided by a parallel narrative concerning a present day yuppie couple living in NYC. The contemporary scenes are demarcated by a stylistic departure from the colorful computer generated animation that informs Sita’s story; Paley switches to a mix of stop-motion line drawings and rotoscoping. She also uses three narrators, who frequently (and hilariously) break through the fourth wall to debate with each other about the subtexts of the tale.

Paley’s film is actually not the first animated adaptation of this story; Ramayana - The Legend of Prince Rama (a Japanese anime from 1992) and Ramayana - Epic of Ram (an Indian production aimed at kids) have preceded it. Keeping in mind that the original Ramayana is a 24,000 couplet epic poem, and that this is an 80 minute film with a Cliff’s Notes vibe, it obviously may not sit well with scholarly purists. But for those who harbor no objection to an imaginative and fun deconstruction of such a culturally venerable tale, Sita Sings the Blues makes for a lively, tuneful, funny and eye-popping cinematic treat.