tue 16/07/2024

London Film Festival 2023 - movies in a musical vein | reviews, news & interviews

London Film Festival 2023 - movies in a musical vein

London Film Festival 2023 - movies in a musical vein

Anita and the Stones, Paul Simon, Priscilla Presley and Sakamoto

Alpha female: the remarkable Anita Pallenberg

The Rolling Stones are winning plaudits for their Hackney Diamonds album, but Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill’s documentary Catching Fire: The Story of Anita Pallenberg is a brilliant and sometimes painfully emotional portrait of the woman who helped inspire some of their finest work in their golden years, including “Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Pallenberg’s heroin habit prompted Marianne Faithfull to write “Sister Morphine”.

The German-Italian Pallenberg, fluent in four languages, had the bone structure of a supermodel and the physique of an athlete, and might have become a major film actor if she hadn’t opted for the perpetual madhouse of the Stones. Clips of her in Barbarella show her comfortably holding her own against Jane Fonda, while Pallenberg’s role in Performance helped define an end-of-the-Sixties collective nervous breakdown. It also triggered rumours about her relationship with co-star Mick Jagger, of which Pallenberg says: “I never felt Mick’s charm the way other women did.”

Her comments here are voiced by Scarlett Johansson and taken from an unpublished autobiography, which sounds as though it would be a blockbusting read. She has a superb line about how the Stones turned into a corporation – “guys in suits, a nebula of yes-men.”

Bloom and Zill’s film is rich in evocative period film clips and classic stills photography, while what are described as “16mm recreations” transport the viewer back through time. After an affair with Brian Jones, Pallenberg became the partner of Keith Richards. Actor Jake Weber, whose drug-dealer father supplied the cocaine for Jagger’s wedding to Bianca, recalls how “she was the alpha in the room until Keith came along, and then they were both sort of co-alphas.”

Anita and Keith’s son Tara died at 10 weeks old, but daughter Angela and son Marlon are both interviewed here. Marlon in particular sheds piercing light on his parents’ experiences and his own upbringing. He recalls how Keith was told by the band’s lawyers “to choose the Rolling Stones or choose her, you can’t have both because you’re self-destructing.”

His remarks about the nature of the Stones rock’n’roll circus also bear the scars of bitter experience. “It’s an ugly chauvinistic environment… very unhealthy psychologically, physically and definitely mentally.”

In the Nineties, Pallenberg put it all behind her and earned herself a fashion and textile degree at London's Central Saint Martins. She was a close friend of Kate Moss, who says “I think she found her true self, because there was none of that Stones thing… I didn’t know her when she took drugs, but she was so interesting without them.” Watching this, you’ll wish you’d got to know the remarkable Pallenberg too.

As well as making films about Enron, Wikileaks and America’s opioid epidemic, documentary doyen Alex Gibney also has a track record in music docs, with projects about Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix and the Eagles adorning his CV. In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon, Gibney deep-dives into Simon’s multi-stranded career, from his upbringing in Queen’s, New York to his current retreat in rural Texas with his third wife, Edie Brickell (pictured above, Paul Simon).

It was here (among other places) that he recorded his latest album Seven Psalms, and Gibney uses the ongoing sessions as a platform for his filmic journey. You might need some endurance training before embarking on this three and a half hour odyssey, but Simon has packed a lot of highlights into his 82 years, so the narrative never feels over-stretched. It’s incongruous to be reminded of how he met girlfriend Kathy Chitty (of “Kathy’s Song” fame) at a folk club in Brentwood, Essex in 1964. Amusing, too, to hear him recall how he was briefly a law student in Brooklyn, since his scholarly and rather pedantic manner would seem perfect for the legal profession.

Gibney has homed in on a cluster of nodal points. Producer Tom Wilson’s inspired notion of adding an electric band to "The Sound of Silence", thus creating a Number One hit, is one of them. Another is the making of the epochal Bridge Over Troubled Water album, with some inspired assistance from producer Roy Halee (recording drums in an elevator shaft, the use of two linked 8-track recorders which fortuitously created a slight rhythmic delay etc).

Despite all Simon’s solo successes, peaking with 1986’s historic Graceland project, many will still feel that his name ought to be followed by “& Garfunkel”, and the film illuminates the duo’s classic “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” predicament. It doesn’t reflect too well on Simon that it seems he only agreed to the pair’s vast Central Park comeback gig in 1981 to compensate for the failure of his One-Trick Pony movie and accompanying album, but that’s showbiz.

There are more oblique reflections on superstardom in Sofia Coppola’s Priscilla, a subtly-observed evocation of the relationship between Elvis Presley and Priscilla Beaulieu. The 14-year-old Priscilla met Elvis in West Germany, where he was in the Army and Priscilla’s stepdad was serving with the US Air Force. The word “inappropriate” springs to mind.

The King, seemingly suffering from homesickness, enjoys the company of the shy young girl from Austin, Texas whom he invites to visit him at his rented home, where he presides over a retinue of male and female acquaintances. His impeccable display of Southern courtesy and gentlemanly good manners, and his protestations of undying love for his dear, departed mother, gradually overcome the understandable misgivings of Priscilla’s parents, so much so that they even allow their now-infatuated daughter to visit Elvis at his Graceland home in Memphis when they’re back from overseas.

In part, it's a kind of shadow-biography of Presley, as though his career is being pieced together from sporadic clues, intuitions and overheard conversations. Elvis, in a coolly judged performance by Jacob Elordi, treats Priscilla to a kind of courtly love, making a great display of not having sex with her until it’s “the right time”. When he eventually asks her to marry him (naturally paying due respect to her father, who he always addresses as “sir”), her parents breathe a giant sigh of relief.

But just because Elvis wants to make the union official, it doesn’t mean Priscilla (Cailee Spaeny, pictured above with Elordi) has any more autonomy than she did before. The Elvis household is a suffocating bastion of maleness, with Elvis permanently surrounded by his lunkheaded “Memphis Mafia”. They’re depicted as a drone-like bunch of sycophants, and Coppola has barely bothered to differentiate them as individuals. Elvis’s father Vernon runs the mechanics of the household like a curmudgeonly old sergeant-major.

Priscilla’s girlish dreams begin to curdle as rumours of Elvis’s infidelities filter through the ether. He’s often away shooting movies in Hollywood, but Priscilla keeps reading gossip-mag stories about him having flings with Ann-Margret or Nancy Sinatra. The prisoner of Graceland, entirely dependent on her husband’s whims, reluctantly allows herself to be fobbed off with his evasive denials.

Clearly this is no basis for an adult relationship, and Elvis’s increasing addiction to various kinds of pills makes him cranky and erratic. His manager, the notorious Colonel Parker, is never seen, but we do see Elvis raging about the rubbishy film scripts and third-rate songs that Parker sends him for his approval. The seeds of destruction have been sown.

With a thoroughness and fastidiousness typical of him, Ryuichi Sakamoto (pictured above) bids a calm and measured farewell in Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus. Sakamoto died in March this year, but not before he had filmed this solo piano performance of 20 of his best-known compositions. It was directed by his son Neo Sora and shot late last year in a studio in Tokyo’s NHK Broadcasting Centre in rich 4K black and white, without an audience. It’s as if Sakamoto is holding a final conversation with himself.

Material includes his music for The Sheltering Sky, The Last Emperor and Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, alongside pieces from his days with Yellow Magic Orchestra and from his last album, 12. Seated at a Yamaha grand piano, with subdued studio lighting and a single table lamp illuminating the keyboard, Sakamoto applies himself to his task with ascetic single-mindedness. As his hands roll out deep, sonorous chords, explore bell-like higher registers or tap into pools of minimalist limpidity, Sakamoto’s face, framed by curtains of silvery-white hair, reflects moods of of amusement or solemnity. It’s a shock when he suddenly speaks, hinting at the otherwise invisible effort this is costing him. “I need a break. This is tough. I’m pushing myself.”

Variations are introduced by an interlude on player-piano, where Sakamoto is suddenly absent as the keys work themselves, and the moment when he puts small metallic tubes on some of the piano strings to create a clashing, jangling effect. Meanwhile the camera is the soul of discretion, perhaps breaking away to a shot of a chair-leg or Sakamoto’s feet on the piano pedals. It is, in its way, a minimalist masterpiece.

The German-Italian Pallenberg had the bone structure of a supermodel and the physique of an athlete

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