Being For the Benefit of Mr. Martin!

georgemartin2.jpg

George Martin, in 1962, long before he was knighted by the Queen of England, heard a demo tape at Parlophone Records at EMI in London. He was not impressed. But the band’s manager, Brian Epstein, insisted Martin hear the band live to understand their appeal. Martin agreed and when The Beatles performed for him in the studio, he was still unimpressed by their music. But he heard something particular and unique in the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But as Martin explained to a packed Bovard Auditorium at USC last week, had he known every label in London had already passed, he might not have agreed to meet them.

The Grammy Foundation presented Martin, the 82-year-old “Fifth Beatle” and most successful pop record producer of all time, with their Leadership Award the night after his Bovard presentation, on the creation of The Beatles’ ground-breaking Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The weekend tribute certainly acknowledged his unparalleled 50 number one hits over five decades in the US and Great Britain. It must certainly take into account not only his utterly innovative and fascinating work with the Beatles but with names like Jeff Beck, Peter Sellers and the Goon Show, Elton John, Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Brian Wilson, The Who, Stevie Wonder and on into the stratosphere. But the instantaneous standing ovation that greeted Martin upon his arrival and departure from the stage at Bovard testified to his reputation as a gentleman as well as creative force in music.

From being an oboe player and wanting to design aircraft, George Martin evolved into scoring music and engineering, when, as he described it, a recording engineer wore a white jacket and wax discs were cut with lathes, as masters. From this, he inevitably ruled the roost at London’s Abbey Road Studios, which he called “a wonderful, musical toy shop.”

His influence upon The Beatles and their eventual releases first took hold when he heard “Please Please Me,” suggested they play it at twice the speed and turned it into a number one hit. Martin shared, with video clips, many anecdotes of this special collaboration, including urging McCartney to use a string quartet on “Yesterday,” a result that Martin claimed “…didn’t do too badly,” wringing laughter out of the audience with his understatement. More chortling was heard when the crowd saw a clip contrasting the strings on “Eleanor Rigby” with Martin’s inspiration for their use, Bernard Herrmann’s staccato violin bursts in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho.

But Sargeant Pepper not only changed the direction of popular music; the process of recording and producing it was utterly novel and at times eccentric, experimental. “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” took over 100 sound clips of steam organs and mixed them together in a crazy quilt bed of circus sounds. And when “A Day in the Life” was recorded, Martin and McCartney, to the befuddlement of the orchestra, insisted they improvise the crescendo that comes before a final monstrous, echoing piano chord at song’s end. Martin revealed he instructed them, “If you’re playing the same note as the fellow next to you, you’re doing it wrong.” The orchestra eventually got into the groove. Martin recalls one member wearing a red clown nose and another using a monkey’s paw to play his violin.

Previously reviewed in these pages is the Cirque du Soleil production in Las Vegas of The Beatles Love, which Martin and his son Giles worked on in secret for three years, remastering and mashing together their favorite Beatle tunes for inclusion in the technologically staggering show. It is precisely this kind of challenge to grow and to tinker and to explore that signified the work of The Beatles and George Martin. It is what made their partnership so musically magical. The first album The Beatles recorded took just under 600 minutes of studio time, according to Martin. Sargeant Pepper took over 700 hours.

And despite the joy and freshness of so much of The Beatles canon, it is both amusing and thought-provoking to hear Martin tell of a time after the Fab Four split up, when he was visiting John Lennon in the Dakota in New York City.

Lennon confided that he wished he could re-record all of The Beatles music.

“What, even ‘Strawberry Fields?’” asked Martin, citing a favorite of both men.

Martin said Lennon looked down over the tops of his oval eyeglasses and replied in his droll way, “Especially ‘Strawberry Fields.’”

As Paul Valery said, “A work of art is never completed, only abandoned.” Martin seems to have impeccable taste in knowing when to throw in the towel on recorded music. And he’s not ceasing his exploration. He’s currently working on an eight-part history of recorded music that he’ll be hosting. On Record: The Soundtrack of Our Lives is scheduled to premiere in the U.S. on PBS in the fall of 2010.

L.A. Film Fest, Declaring Independence

thegirl2.jpg

[The Girl Cut in Half, directed by Claude Chabrol] 

Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival, which ran June 19-29 at a variety of theatres throughout Westwood, also included a number of panels, poolside chats and a film financing conference, scattered about the its West Los Angeles radius.

The Girl Cut in Half, dir. Claude Chabrol

Not at all a cheesy grindhouse flick, this generally breezy ménage-a-trois, directed by French director Chabrol, and co-written with his former assistant, Cecile Maistre, has assured pacing and some clever editing that accentuates the dark humor. A cute, attractive TV weatherwoman (Ludivine Sagnier), falls madly in love with a respected author (Francois Berleand) who is old enough to be her father. An effete and arrogant, rich young man (Benoit Magimel) not only obsesses about winning her, but when he does, he cannot let go of her previous dalliance and the fear that she cannot truly love another. The briskly told story keeps one smiling, and the somewhat violent twist near the end is topped off with a melancholic irony that is most pleasing and fitting for this clever work.

Choke, dir. Clark Gregg

Actor-turned-director-screenwriter Clark Gregg has done justice to novelist Chuck Palahniuk, whose anti-establishment, pro-support group prose yielded the eccentric and brilliant Fight Club. Here, Victor Mancini (perfectly cast Sam Rockwell) is an utter loser, part of a sex addiction program and a colonial America recreator at some lame tourist trap. His mother (Angelica Huston) is an Alzheimer’s patient and Mancini pays for her debts, barely, by purposely choking on food in restaurants and relying on the largesse of those who save him. The marvelously whacko story goes into hyperspace as an attractive female doctor (Kelly MacDonald from No Country for Old Men) agrees to help Mancini and winds up bedding him, mostly because a historic text suggests he has divine lineage to Jesus Christ. Flashbacks to his too-bohemian upbringing help bring a nice depth to this charmingly twisted tale, which Gregg handles with just the right sense of ironic detachment.

Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story, dir. Stefan Forbes

From a poor Southern boy who loved the blues, Lee Atwater climbed to the highest rungs of political power in America, ably shown by this attractively made documentary by Stefan Forbes. It follows the charming but cold-blooded Atwater, as his smear campaigns destroy Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. The man who taught Karl Rove dirty tricks also loved playing guitar and this doc has the coolest blues soundtrack you will ever hear on a political documentary. Forbes did miss the opportunity to explain more fully the complex relationship Atwater had with Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager who gave Atwater his big break. But with on-camera interviews with Dukakis, Sam Donaldson, Mary Matalin, Joe Conason, Eric Alterman and others, it’s hard to quibble with a film that captures the elevation of no-holds-barred politics and the illness, swift downfall and strange legacy of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Man on a Wire, dir. James Marsh

Winning an audience award at the L.A. Film Fest, Man on a Wire follows the illegal but stunning high wire walk of French aerialist Philippe Petit, between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit is clearly an antic, fun-loving character who is quite engaging on camera, as well as in an audience, as he handled a Q&A after the screening. But director James Marsh spends a bit too much time with the logistics of the planning of this death-defying act. By the time these pranksters are about to let Petit take his life into his hands, the film certainly has us where it wants us. Significantly, though, Petit on camera talks of his love relationship dissolving, as well as the friendship with his best friend and planning cohort. The staggering dare that Petit took has been described as “the artistic crime of the century,” but it is fair to say there is a crime in Marsh not digging deeper into the psychological after affects of Petit’s high wire act.

The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not for Sale, dir. Jeff Stimmel

Suffering a similar lack of depth is this upcoming HBO doc. It follows New York visual artist Chuck Connelly, who soared high along with names like Schnabel and Basquiat, only to hit rock bottom in marketability. His drunken rages and childish behavior are amusing, even endearing for a while. And the breadth of his artistic vision is most impressive. Where the documentary itself fails, though, is in showing us a deeper and darker place in this artist’s psyche, one that is only hinted at after his love relationship breaks up. While not wholly satisfying, the film does show a great variety of Connelly’s considerable work. But shedding a tear at the grave of your family is no substitute for a more soul-searching investigation of a great artist and his demise.

 [Choke, directed by Clark Gregg]

choke2.jpg