Michael Winterbottom's superb Wonderland (1999) is quite possibly the greatest, most realistic portrayal of modern London I've seen, in all its sweaty intimacy, in its harshness and brutality, in its lonely crowds and cluttered streets and desolation, in its often stunning beauty, in its banality and dullness. Great cast and amazing Michael Nyman soundtrack, too. It needs watching if you haven't seen it:
It always looked like it would be fun to be in Supergrass. Like they enjoyed it, like they never took it too seriously. They made derivative dadrock music, sure, but it was also, generally, joyous and fun. You felt that they believed in its validity, and that gave it a truth that more original and innovative bands can miss. And, crucially, they had scope and range - they rocked when they wanted to, but they could swing a bit, throw in a ballad and some folk. Over time I think they were the (unlikely) survivors of the Britpop era: Oasis grew rotten and pathetic, Blur imploded, Pulp fell away and only Gaz Coombes and his cheeky-chappy mateys were left, all growned up and serious. Still releasing great - or at least very good - records. Until last week, when they announced their split after 17 years.
Of course, they had good record collections. Thats obvious from what their music sounds like. The Beach Boys, the Stooges, the Beatles, CSNY, T-Rex, Bowie, Dylan - they listened to classic rock and they filtered it through their own songwriting to good effect. I love their second and third albums in particular, but all of the others contain sublime moments, too. Here are five such moments, and some thoughts about them, in memorium, I suppose:
A friend of mine always insists that this riff - one of the best of an era admittedly light on great riffs - is a rip-off of one of Black Sabbath's. He may be right, but I doubt that the Sabbath song has the same energy that Richard III has, the same combination of belligerent rock and unabashed pop, the same surfeit of hookiness.
Taken off their second album, In It For The Money, where Supergrass easily surpassed their debut, broadening their scope emotionally and musically without losing sight of why they were popular in teh first place, this was a single. At first, it seems like a newly serious band, those opening bars of riff so deadpan and determined, so grimly fixed on something unseen, something adult, perhaps. Then Gaz goes "Woooo!" to kick it all off, and it gets louder, but its still Supergrass, willing to compromise the hardman rock (Made plain by the menacing lyric: "I know you wanna try and get away/But it's the hardest thing you'll ever know/Tryna get at you, tryna get at you") of such a song to include some lovely falsetto backing vocals.
So while its as heavy and driving a rock song as any they ever did, its always a pop single, too. Which makes it Supergrass, and makes it fantastic.
Road to Rouen, the fifth album, marked a real and decisive change of style for the band. If their third, Supergrass, had messed with their formula and been a commercial and critical disappointment, they pacified their record company with the more predictable Life On Other Planets. But even that didn't halt their commercial slide. Britpop was over and even something of an embarrassment in the eclectic mp3 era, and its survivors were all in trouble.
So Supergrass changed tack entirely. The new record was folkier, largely acoustic, ruminative, mellow. Its also frequently beautiful and the band's songwriting has clearly benefitted from their new direction. Where Life on Other Planets sounded tired and almost self-parodic, Road to Rouen is fresh and dynamic, the product of a band re-energised and excited by their music.
"St. Petersberg" was the lead-off single for the album. But it doesn't sound remotely like a single. Its subtle and gentle, slowly strummed guitars over tinkling piano and hushed, muted, gorgeous strings towing the melody along. The lyrics are impressionistic, with no obvious narrative or meaning, just some phrases emerging from the mix. The opening lines are "Before the time of the morning sandman/I can find my way around" and it continues in that vein for three minutes or so, going nowhere in particular. This could not be by those lovable scamps who recorded "Alright", could it? Well yes it could, not that anybody wanted to know anymore.
Supergrass, the band's third album, is probably their most "Rock" record. It is jammy, and musically their most complex and interesting release. There are fewer of the numbers that most people would think of back then if asked to think of a typical Supergrass song, and more where they expand and stretch out and let a big, muscular groove build. In that vein, as well as the superb "Eon", there are the equally impressive "Born Again" and "Faraway". But there are also two of their greatest pop singles, in the exhilarating "Moving" and the sleazy stomp of "Mary", and the lovely doodle of "Mama & Papa" to end the album. In short, if In It For The Money is their most obviously accessible, crowd-pleasing record, Supergrass is their best.
This song builds up patiently on long winding lines of electric guitar and a rhythm section that seeps in like cloud, and after it all breaks up into a wash of chiming arpeggios, its almost two minutes before the vocal starts. Then its a blissed out nursery rhyme concerned with astral bodies (I know you're out there/We saw a shooting star/We don't know what you done/You're nearer for a star") composed of three verses and no choruses. It is casually epic and feels longer than it actually is, some sort of tribute to the mastery of dynamics the band display here. The moment at 1:24 when the tempo changes is just breathtaking.
I Should Coco came out in 1995, when Gaz Coombes was 19 years old, Danny Goffey was 21 and Mick Quinn was a prehistoric 26. The chirpy pop single "Alright" - the song the band will be remembered for - was a massive smash, but the album sold 900,000 copies too, making Supergrass one of the biggest bands in the UK just a few months after they had released their first single. "Lenny" was another single off that record. Its a punk-pop gem, cocky and breathless and insistently catchy. I love the first 25 seconds or so - that simple, hesitant drum pattern, then the guitar hammering a dumb one note riff, and then the way Goffey definitively kicks in on the offbeat, his drum fill jumpstarting that elastic bass and the song is suddenly rolling forward. Its a young man's song, all forward momentum, full of the thrill of being alive and young and in a band, the lyrics disposable and so meaningless they're run through three times and you barely notice: "I've been around and around/But I've got nowhere to go now/But the funny thing is/That when I'm gone, I'll kill you/When I tell you/I don't want you-hoo-hoo". And thats it.
In a way, it perfectly encapsulated what Supergrass were then. All energy, brio, and a cocksure stupidity that made them seem invincible. Musically too, with its fuzzy guitar, its simple rhythm, its big harmonies, its soaring vocals on the middle eight, its commitment to being a pop single.
It still sounds great.
The Evening of the Day
This sounds like one of those odds and ends songs the Beatles used to do, combining bits of three separate scraps masterfully into one coherent whole. It comes from Life On Other Planets, a comeback album of sorts which is my least favourite of their records apart from Diamond Hoo Ha, their uninspired final outing. This album is a bit too Supergrass-by-numbers for my liking, but it does contain a handful of great songs, like "Za" and "Brecon Beacons". This is better though. Sung in the main by Quinn, who had handled lead vocals on several numbers on Supergrass, its first section is a folksy shuffle, all energetic strummed acoustics and drawled vocal. Around the one minute mark it shifts gears, electric guitars and organ cut in, and a chorus from a different song emerges, complete with a lyrical reference to Spinal Tap's "All the Way Home" ("If shes not on that 3:15/ Then I'm gonna know what sorrow means"). It reverts for the rest of the verses, accumulating instrumentation as it progresses - horns, piano, more guitars - while the chorus remains shouty and raucous, before a final collapse and a delicate little coda, complete with bongos, lounge piano and whistling.
- The best thing about Kick Ass the comic was always the art of John Romita JR, one of the greatest working artists in comics nowadays. When I read there was a movie coming, while I could see the obvious commercial potential in such blackly funny and outrageously violent material, without the visuals of JRJR, it seemed a little pointless. The comic is never quite as shocking or as funny as it seems to think it is, a common complaint with Writer Mark Millar's putatively "edgier" work. He is instead at his best when he sticks to straight Super Hero material (his very best work may be his run on DC's tie-in comic with the Superman the Animated Series cartoon from the late 90s) or inflects such material with just the slightest trace of his more sensationalist authorial personality (as in the brilliant The Ultimates). Unsurprisingly, the comic remains grittier and far more violent than the often slick excesses of the film. And it provides JRJR with a chance to depict lots of his putty-faced people being beaten to a pulp with his always beautiful and dynamic storytelling giving everything a fantastic, hyperbolic, almost sickening impact.
- Aaron Johnson, who does just fine, is wrong for the role. A valid comparison would be the casting of Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man. Maguire is geeky-looking, slightly bug-eyed, not too tall or pretty or athletic. He could have been the nerd Peter Parker is meant to be. Johnson, on the other hand, is obviously a handsome boy, and a geeky afro and pair of specs don't really change that. He's also too jocky - tall, broad-shouldered, fit. A young leading man, in other words. Anybody who is cast as a young John Lennon , which is a role requiring a brooding, charismatic, smouldering kind of teen, is wrong for Kick Ass.
- Nicolas Cage, on the other hand, finds just the right film for that chihuahua-on-acid energy of his. Here he doesn't feel like he's wandered in out of his bubble of celebrity where its ok to marry Elvis' daughter because hey, you're a big fan and where you should say yes to every film that goes over a certain figure for your salary. Here he feels like he's caught the tone of the film just right, like he even exemplifies it. His Adam West impression is funny for a few seconds, he has plenty of action scene experience, and he doesn't jolt us out of the film with any bizarre line-readings or twitches for once. Do this and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans constitute a comeback?
- There have been films before parodying the Super-Hero genre. It is eminently parody-worthy, and comics have been doing the job for decades. Special (2007) is probably the most obvious recent example of this sub-genre, and Mystery Men is probably the most famous. There are numerous problems with this approach: a Super-Hero film really has to deliver Super-Hero action to achieve any commercial success. But fulfilling that particular cliche doesn't really square with mocking the genre and all of its cliches. Hancock, for example, begins as a semi-parodic, or at least certainly extremely revisionist, Super-Hero film, before abandoning any attempt at wit or satire for its actioncentric, exposition-filled finale. Revisionism complicates the issue, having usurped parody in the comics medium in the 1980s. The key mainstream works of that decade, the influences of which can very definitely be felt in Kick Ass, are definitively revisionist texts. Last year's Watchmen, based on one such text, perhaps failed commercially due to its extreme revisionaism- general audiences didn't recognise the archetypes these characters played off, and more to the point, they didn't really care. Kick Ass proves that audiences are ready, though. Years of watching Big Summer Blockbusters about Super-Heroes and absorbing formulas, identifying types and recognising narrative beats has made us all geek-literate. Everybody gets the joke. As long as its well told.
- Set in New York City, Kick Ass was mostly shot in London, and there are times when the difference between the two cites is all too apparent. London and New York look different, basically. The architecture is different, the street furniture, the shopfronts, the alleyways...Vaughn and his people do well dressing up locations, for the most part, but this New York just feels wrong. It never coalesces into something that feels like a real city, with all its vague locations - lumber warehouse, drug dealers pad in council estate, suburban high school - and for all is references to NYC, the attitude and spirit of the place are utterly absent. It feels plastic. It feels like the generic "Metropolis" which is home to Superman, and is an obvious analogue of New York without being tied to the actual New York in any way. It feels more comic book-influenced then the same city does in Raimi's Spider-Man films. But this is the film that purports to be a realistic view of Super-heroes. Here New York is full of knife-wielding muggers, and there are plenty of darkened alleyways, just like in my 70s Marvels. In some films, geographical uncertainty can work well. David Fincher's Seven, for instance, is set in an unnamed city which we assume is New York for the first two acts of the film. But at the end, as three characters drive out of the city and into the countryside, they drive through the sun-blasted scrub of what can only be California, and the city seems suddenly more likely to be Los Angeles. This small detail shakes an audience a little, rocks its preconceptions and expectations about what it is watching. I generally hate when films are shot in one place and set in another, though the strange atmospherics of an everycity can be effective in the right hands. Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut was famously shot in a London standing in for New York, while Vancouver finds itself repeatedly impersonating American cities, often badly. Lost is a treasure trove of city masquerades, as Honolulu impersonates everywhere from London to Seoul to LA. But Lost does it either very well or horrendously badly. Either way is somehow better than the just-slightly off attempt made by Kick Ass.
- The most interesting material in both comic and film is in the early scenes, before the arrival of Hit Girl and Big Daddy into the narrative. Here Millar and Vaughn take on the concept of the Super-Hero and its application in a cynical, frightened world, but also a scattershot approach to modern culture, from viral video to cash-in merchandising. Then Hit Girl and Big Daddy show up, and it all turns into a big ridiculous stupidly entertaining action scene. Betraying the influence of both Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Jason Pierson's Body Bags, their characters are hilarious and fun and yet they are a big part of some of the film's problems. In the first act, they are somewhat uncomfortably crowbarred in to a story which is not theirs. And then later Hit Girl's central role is undermined by the fact that she is entirely without an interior life - we see her kill and maim and flip and stab, we see her beaten and shot, but we never have the slightest idea what she is thinking or feeling. This reduces her to a pretty black sight-gag, a flash of Japanese anime in the film's DNA, or perhaps a slightly offensive reduction, a character created purely for fanboys, which is never a good thing. Kick Ass himself, by comparison, is all interior life, as his voiceover fills us in on his every thought and aspiration, rendering him without mystery or much nuance. A better actor than Johnson might have given him more shades of despair or horror, but he remains a two dimensional creation throughout.
- The film is the very epitome of the modern genre spectacle. In a post-Tarantino world, that means that it is broadly post-modern, casually fascist and directed with an efficiently anonymous "stylish" sheen. It is also more concerned with being fliply funny than with being an effective action film, sacrificing emotional impact on several occasions for a gag. It has a scene with a heavy video game (read: First Person Shooter) reference in Hit Girl's night vision POV massacre, lots of martial arts and insane gunplay, and a soundtrack littered with pop culture ephemera and rescued trash - Sparks, Joan Jett, the Dickies' version of the Banana Splits theme, the Prodigy's sampling of Manfred Mann and a very Tarantino usage of Morricone's "For A Few Dollars More". In other words, it feels like a DVD movie, the sort of film made for Chapter Selection where you can rewatch favourite scenes and moments.
- The worst material in the climactic scenes is not from the comic. The comic stays gritty and horrifying whereas the movie finally aims for purest fantasy in a sort of betrayal of its own earliest impulses. Its a shame.
- What Kick Ass is, unexpectedly, is a great portrayal of adolescent male friendship. The protagonist says of himself that he "just exists, like most teenagers". He and his two best friends seem like the film's most authentic element, to me. Their warm camaraderie, based on mutual geekiness and constant ribbing, reminded me of my relationship with my friends at that age. Comic shops, sexual frustration, continual teasing of one another, not belonging to any of the teen tribes - all evoked lightly and wittily. Even if the film has little use for this side of its character, its brilliantly done while it lasts, before the costumes and the fight scenes come out.
I love Jellyfish and its a source of great personal angst to me that they only released two albums in their time together. But those early 90s records are both minor classics and the band splintered into a series of equally high-quality ventures, as key members like Jason Falkner, Roger Manning and Eric Dover all released solo material or worked with other artists in a way which guaranteed the lasting influence of Jellyfish in modern indie and alternative rock.
Oddly, however, Jellyfish's main songwriter and singer Andy Sturmer has been the least visible of the band members since the band split. He has kept himself busy, writing and recording with other bands, and there are a slew of often great solo demos across the internet for fans to obsess over, but the writer of "Baby's Coming Back", "the King Is Half Undressed" and "New Mistake" would have been the favourite to go onto great things after his band broke up.
And in a way, he has. My son loves the cartoon Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Which features an opening theme by none other than Andy Sturmer. A little research has revealed a flourishing sideline in theme tunes for cartoons, most notably the theme for the phenomenon known as Ben 10.
It felt right for me to find Sturmer at the start of a Batman cartoon. Because I had liked his theme from the first time I had heard it. It captures the excitement, brightly camp sensibility and incredible pace of the show, and its got a hell of a hook and some brilliant details to its arrangement. Check it out, and then go buy everything you can by Jellyfish if you can: