Sunday, September 29, 2019

On the Authorship of a Singular Vocalist in Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

"Different Drum"-era Linda / CNN Films
(Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2019, USA, 95 minutes) 

In a surprisingly youthful-sounding voice, Linda Ronstadt, 73, narrates this look back at her life. She speaks so quickly that the words seem to tumble out of her, as if she's been waiting for years to let them out. And that's as it should be. The device lets us know that she's going to be shaping her story rather than simply contributing sound bites to an outsider's take on it.

European-American on one side of her family, and Mexican-American (and European) on the other, Ronstadt took after her father, Gilbert, and her grandfather, Federico, who played traditional Mexican music. She grew up in Tucson, steeped in country, classical, and mariachi. In her home, English was for conversing and Spanish was for singing.

After singing with a few local groups, a former band mate, Bobby Kimmel, encouraged her to move to Los Angeles. She was 18 years old. They formed a folk trio called The Stone Poneys. Through their performances at the Troubadour, where aspiring artists went to make their mark, they landed a deal with Capitol, which led to a recording of the Mike Nesmith-penned "Different Drum." Though Ronstadt wasn't thrilled about the strings her producer added to the song, it was, she acknowledges, "a huge hit."

Capitol soon made it clear that Ronstadt was the one they really wanted, so her band mates went their separate ways. She invited Don Henley and Glenn Frey to back her up. They would go on to form the Eagles. J.D. Souther also made her his girlfriend, and I use that phrase, because his opening gambit was, "I think you should cook me dinner." I can't imagine that that line was any more enticing in 1971 than it is now. She made him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich…and they moved in together.

Just a few steps away from super-stardom / CNN Films
From Capitol, she segued to Asylum Records and found a manager in Peter Asher, who was looking for a new gig after the implosion of Apple Corps. An opening slot on a Neil Young tour brought her in front of audiences 18,000-20,000 strong. If they were resistant at first, she won them over. If she felt isolated as a female performer, she formed firm friendships with other women, like Bonnie Raitt, which helped. The first time she saw Emmylou Harris, she thought, "She's doing exactly what I'm doing, but she's doing it better," but they hit it off big time. Harris credits her for offering comfort and support after collaborator Gram Parsons' death.

Other women, like Dolly Parton, emphasize Ronstadt's ability to "inhabit a song." She wasn't a songwriter, and yet songs that weren't unknown when she got to them have come to be more closely associated with her than their original performers, from the McGarrigle Sisters ("Heart Like a Wheel") to the Everly Brothers ("When Will I Be Loved"). I'm quite certain I heard her version of Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (if I'm Still in Love With You)" before I heard his. As music journalist-turned-filmmaker Cameron Crowe notes, "When you become that sharp of a song stylist, you get authorship."

Ronstadt's success on the Pop, Country, and R&B charts--the first woman with five platinum albums in a row--saw her headlining the very stadiums she played on tour with Young. Long nights on the road with hard-partying men led to her to copy their worst behaviors, something she now regrets, though it's certainly understandable. Her drug of choice: diet pills. Fortunately, they don't seem to have wreaked the same kind of havoc on her that they did on Judy Garland, another petite brunette with a big voice.

The directors proceed to her relationship with California Governor Jerry Brown, which brought attention she didn't necessarily welcome, though she handled it as well as anyone could. When she grew tired of stadium life, she looked for other ways to use her voice, which led to a role in the Broadway production of Gilbert & Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. Her voice was "so pure," co-star Kevin Kline remembers, that it made him cry. She moved on to albums of standards, a trio with Emmylou and Dolly, a duo with Aaron Neville, and two traditional Mexican albums, including Canciones de Mi Padre, the best-selling Spanish-language album in US history.

If she shape-shifted with ease, Ronstadt eventually reached a point where singing was no longer an option due to a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease, and yet she sings, quietly and gently, in the film. If she can no longer sing professionally, because most of "the colors aren't there anymore," she can still harmonize with family members, just as she did in her youth.

Filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (The Celluloid ClosetThe Times of Harvey Milk), are best known for their non-fiction and fact-based films about civil rights and free-speech issues, so a documentary about a musician may seem uncharacteristic except that it was produced by James Keach (Walk the Line, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me). If Epstein and Friedman lack any significant music credentials, Keach, who considered Johnny Cash a friend, doesn't (Keach met Cash when the musician guest starred on his wife's Jane Seymour's Western series, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman).

Giving Bobbie Gentry a run for the money / CNN Films
Furthermore, Epstein and Friedman's Lovelace offers a sympathetic portrait of adult film star Linda Lovelace (nicely played by Amanda Seyfried) just as they offer a similarly sympathetic portrait of Ronstadt. Moving from a biopic about a famous woman to a documentary about another seems like a natural progression, and yet they've left out details that would've provided for a fuller picture.

As a portrait of a voice, their documentary does exactly what it set out to do, but as a documentary about a person, it falls short. We find out how Ronstadt met Souther and Brown, for instance, but we don't find out why they broke up. They ask Souther, but he says he doesn't remember, which seems disingenuous. How do you forget something like that? Bonnie Raitt defends a woman's right not to marry, and I fully support that, but it would've been better to hear from Ronstadt (the filmmakers also neglect to mention her relationships with Jim Carrey and former fiancé George Lucas). Though she never had kids of her own, she became a mother when she adopted a girl, followed later by a boy. This isn't mentioned even once.

Sometimes, when filmmakers work closely with subjects they revere, they tread too lightly, and audience members lose out on the chance to get to know them as well as we could have. We don't need to know everything,
but if a filmmaker is going to bring up a subject, like a relationship or a substance abuse problem, they should give it the attention it deserves.

So, I left feeling frustrated with the filmmaking, but not with the subject. Unlike Keach's Glen Campbell documentary, which focuses extensively on the late musician's experience with Alzheimer's disease, we learn almost nothing about Ronstadt's experience with Parkinson's, and that's okay. She's acknowledged it, and she's enjoying life as best she can, and that's enough. She's spoken about it in interviews; she doesn’t need to go into detail here. Mostly, the documentary makes you want to take a deep dive into her discography, especially that amazing run of albums from the 1970s, and that's one of the best things you can ask from any music documentary.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice plays Regal Meridian 16 and AMC Dine-In Seattle 10 through Oct 2. Update: the film returns to Seattle at Northwest Film Forum on Nov 24 and 27. Click here for more information. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend, I've Come to Talk With You…About The Sound of Silence

Peter Sarsgaard as Peter Lucian / IFC Films
(Michael Tyburski, USA, 2019, 87 minutes) 

Peter Lucian, the professorial-looking New Yorker played by Peter Sarsgaard in Michael Tyburski's debut, isn't a musician, a DJ, or even a Simon and Garfunkel devotee—he's a house tuner. Clients, who find him through other clients, tend to be skeptical at first, but once he identifies the noise that's causing their malaise, they become believers. Like a therapist, he doesn't just pinpoint the problem, he provides the advice they need to eliminate it.

Tyburski's feature film, an expansion of his 2013 short Palimpsest (also co-written with Ben Nabors), is filled with vintage recording equipment, just as Peter's life is filled with vintage recording equipment (in that sense, it recalls Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, which revolves around a sound mixer). Peter records the sounds he hears and the conversations he has with clients. After each assignment, he pins a note on a map, indicating the location of the problem. The map serves as the basis for a paper he plans to submit to an academic journal. For assistance, he enlists Samuel (Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel), his mentor's TA, to help him compile the data (the incomparable Austin Pendleton plays his mentor).

Rashida Jones as Ellen Chasen / IFC Films
Ellen (Rashida Jones) contacts Peter, because she's tired all the time. And it isn't because she works at a non-profit that helps the homeless. It's her apartment, or she comes to that conclusion after talking to friends (Alex Karpovsky plays one of them) who benefited from Peter's services. Ellen looks tired, too, though because Jones plays her, she does so quite attractively. Peter looks tired, as well, though the actor who plays him often does. The Sound of Silence is just that kind of picture. This is not a complaint so much as an observation about the lonely-people-in-the-city brand of art house film--soft-spoken, chronically under-lit--to which I sometimes gravitate, and this one certainly fits that bill.

Peter identifies Ellen's toaster as the source of her problem. She's skeptical it can be that simple, but switches out her old model for the new one he provides. A recently-single woman more haunted by grief than discordant sounds, Ellen gives it a few days, but when her fatigue fails to lift, she gives Peter a call. He decides to visit her workplace to see if that could be a factor.

In the meantime, she tries acupuncture, while Peter rejects an offer to apply his knowledge to a commercial venture that manufactures ambiance for hotels through serotonin-targeted lighting, fragrance, and sound. He wants to make the world a better place by removing obstacles from people's lives and not be manipulating consumers into making wealthy realtors wealthier. It makes him sound heroic, except he's also arrogant enough to think he's too good for anything except the oddball career he's carved out for himself.

Ellen is tired of being tired / IFC Films
As for Ellen, it doesn't seem completely coincidental that Jones would be drawn to this role. As an actress, she's never needed to lean on her father Quincy Jones's fame as a producer and composer, and yet Peter has more of a background in music than science. Once he explains that to her, you sense Ellen's interest growing (Jones's partner is also a musician: Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig).

Unfortunately for Peter, his well-ordered world starts to fall apart as a result of their meeting. Accustomed to being right all the time, he finds out what it's like to be wrong, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. As he tells Samuel, "Typically, I know the solutions to a client's issues before I even arrive," but Ellen's apartment messes up his map, which messes up his research project, which messes up his ability to trust his ears and his instincts. And on a more personal level, his arrogance and rigidity ends up scaring away someone who could be a friend--if not something more.

But sometimes you have to hit bottom to see your life clearly for the first time. It's a relatable (if somewhat clichéd) sentiment, so it's too bad cinematographer Eric Lin shot the film's conclusion in such darkness that I could barely see what was going on. It will probably make more sense on a big screen, but even on a small one, more light would have gone a long way. There's an unintentional irony that a film so sympathetic to sound, from the flapping of birds' wings to the clomping of horse hooves, would treat light with such casual disregard, but it reflects Peter's dilemma: he's so focused on seeing the world in one way that he misses all of the things--including some of the most pleasurable--that can't be so easily defined.

The Sound of Silence is playing at the Varsity (4329 University Way NE).

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Larry Fessenden's Depraved (on Account He Ain't Had a Normal Home)

I dig the old school-style poster
(Larry Fessenden, USA, 2019, 114 minutes) 

Larry Fessenden's Depraved isn't so much an adaptation of Mary Shelley's 201-year-old novel as his own unique take on the premise. He's changed names and biographical details and set the action in modern-day Brooklyn, but the doctor-creature relationship remains the same.

In the prologue, Alex (Owen Campbell, The Miseducation of Cameron Post), a young man who is a little wary about moving in with his girlfriend, Lucy (Chloë Levine, The OA), gets attacked on his way home from her apartment. The couple had just been talking about having kids--prematurely, in his view--and the next thing he knows, a stranger is plunging a knife into his abdomen. Repeatedly.

Fessenden then shifts to Henry (David Call, Gossip Girl*), a former field surgeon, who gives the gift of life to a collection of body parts he dubs Adam (Alex Breaux, a Harvard wide receiver-turned-actor). In Shelley's novel, the creature tells Dr. Frankenstein, "I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel," except Henry gives him the name for another reason, which will be revealed later in the film. It's clear that Adam has inherited Alex's brain. The two may not look alike, but they're brothers under the skin.

Initially, Adam has no idea what's going on, and so everything is vague and blurry. It's all rather psychedelic. Gradually things snap into focus. He's in some sort of loft-turned-laboratory. Henry dedicates his every waking hour to teaching him how to think, speak, and move. Meanwhile, Adam's memories are starting to come back, so there's a lot going on in his head.

Fessenden and Call chillin' in Brooklyn
Adam's world expands when Henry introduces him to John (Humpday's Joshua Leonard having a little too much fun), a pharmaceutical rep who takes him to a strip club and to the Met, where Adam spots Lucy in the gift shop. He recognizes her, but she doesn't recognize him. Although Adam has scars on his face, he doesn't look like the bolt-necked fellow of James Whale's--or Mel Brooks's--famous film. He just looks like a guy who's been in a few scraps. Because Breaux plays him as a blank slate, he may take some hits for his performance, but it works. Until it doesn't. Up until that point, Adam isn't a child and he isn't a simpleton--he's just an unformed human--and it takes him awhile to express himself.

When he finally figures out where he came from—the morgue—and why he exists—so that Henry and John can make money off an experimental drug called Rap X, he realizes he's just a means to an end. Like parents, Henry and John argue over their surgically-created son. Henry wants to restrict him to a calm environment, while John wants to expose him to the chaos of the wider world. I was reminded of Jake Weber's advice to his son in Fessenden's Wendigo that it's okay to be "fair and even-headed"--like his mom--but "you don't want to be a softy either." They're both right, of course, except the Frankenstein story is all about making the worst choices.

Left to his own devices, Adam meets a goth-lite woman in a bar who her finds herself entranced by--or at least curious about--his scars. Shelley (Addison Timlin) thinks he looks like Iggy Pop (he doesn't). Their one-sided conversation is cute at first, because she's talkative enough for the two of them, but when things go wrong, as they must, they go very, very wrong.

Adam and Shelley
I wouldn't say the movie goes off the rails once Adam becomes an instrument of vengeance. It doesn't, but what had worked about Breaux's performance earlier in the film becomes a liability once Adam turns on his creator-controllers. The problem is simply that he isn't very sympathetic. Intentionally or otherwise, Henry, who is suffering from PTSD, becomes the more sympathetic character, and that's not how this sort of thing is supposed to work.

Still, I like the way Fessenden found an ever so slightly more optimistic way to bring the film to a close. Things aren't supposed to work like that either--the creature is meant to take the life his creator gave him--but Adam deserves a chance at a better life. Maybe, just maybe, he might get one.

It's worth noting that Fessenden's son, Jack, worked on the film as both actor and crew member (and Larry dedicated 2001's Wendigo to him). The writer-director-producer's interest in father-son relationships isn't, I don't think, merely theoretical. If Depraved is a lesser work in his canon, it adds to a larger conversation around his abiding interest in this area.

*Call's first credit: Guy #1 at Party in Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page.

Depraved opens in select theaters on Fri, Sept 13 (local info TBA). Black and white Fessenden and Call portrait from this Anthem Magazine interview.