Ziggy played guitar

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I can’t remember precisely when I bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, but I can definitely remember the first time I listed to it all the way through. I was catching the train from Sydney to Melbourne for a wedding in 2006. I’d been a Bowie fan throughout my teenage years; any Queen fan naturally transitions to the Thin White Duke at some point. But listening to and absorbing such a perfectly-crafted, wonderfully rich album was a life-changer.

Musically, it’s diverse. From blues to rock to old-school R&B, the album has all of it in spades, each track with its unique Ziggy-ish twist. And it’s spacey and druggy and rocky and everything in between. More than that, though, if you let the words and the music roll over you for the album’s length, it becomes a transcendent experience. Think of Major Tom, now returned to Earth and suffering the worst kind of comedown/depression; or better still, having flown through a wormhole (a la 2001: A Space Odyssey) and met the Starman himself. What kind of stories would they tell each other? What prophecies would Ziggy pass on? 11 prophecies in all, ranging in length from two five minutes, and making use of some of the most iconic musicians and styles and motifs of the era.

Do yourself a favour and track down the D.A. Pennebaker-directed concert film of the album. This was another of those revelatory high school moments. It’s a top film in and of itself, capturing the persona of Ziggy in that signature grainy Pennebaker style, making the character seem grounded, real, if unapproachable and ethereal.

It’s hard to describe how I’m feeling. Rumours had been circulating that Bowie was unwell for a decade or more, but he was a name, a figure, a character, that, despite removing himself from public life, was always so present. He was at the forefront of popular culture, not really giving a damn, for nearly half a century. I came to Bowie late, but I fell head over heels for the man, the music, the myth. Funny how culture, art, music in particular, can make you feel like you know someone. Suffice to say, there’s a hole in my heart today. Listening to the music dulls the ache, but it will take some time to heal.

And he was alright, the band was altogether.
Yes he was alright, the song went on forever.
And he was awful nice,
Really quite out of sight

Whiplash (2014)

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good job'."
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘Good job’.”

Richard Brody didn’t like Whiplash (2014).

That’s fine. Critics, of all people, are certainly entitled to their opinion. And Richard Brody is by no means an unqualified critic. What Brody’s done here, though, is fundamentally misunderstand the thrust of the film he’s critiquing. It’s a trap that a great many critics fall into: thinking the film is about one thing, when it’s actually about something else, or a bunch of other things.

‘The movie’s very idea of jazz,’ writes Brody, ‘is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.’ It certainly would be, if this was a film about jazz, rather than a jazz film.

What on earth is a jazz film? Damn fine question. The notion came to me in one of the earlier scenes in Damien Chazelle’s film. Miles Teller’s Andrew leaves the Conservatory, heading home after thinking he’s failed to make the cut for the concert band. Amid the standard cutting of Andrew walking the streets between his school and his home, random shots show street lamps, illuminated windows, signage, traffic. This isn’t a standard contextualising montage between scenes – these are random shots interspersed with the character-centric frames.

This random approach to cinematography and editing persists throughout the film – take the phenomenal final shots which obscure the subjects’ faces, and not the parts a cinematographer would normally mask.

So while perhaps Chazelle is not glorifying jazz, the learning of music, or education more broadly, he is certainly contributing a jazz sensibility to the craft of cinema.

Billy Crystal is quoted as saying ‘That’s the thing about jazz; it’s free-flowing, it comes from your soul.’ This idea works for Whiplash: not only is the flow of images free, but they all feel as though they came from some deep place.

This is particularly appropriate given that this is not a film about music, or education, or history, or culture. This is a film about the systematic manipulation and mangled reconstruction of one soul by another.

Whiplash is a staggering film, that I’ll struggle to get over. It’s a stellar character piece, and I feel that the claustrophobic intimacy of its dark story will haunt cinema for some years to come.