Extra: That Dylan Play…


…which is not my favourite thing to do. But as two friends have opposite opinions on the play that uses Dylan songs throughout, it’s going to be necessary. [Image above shows Hibbing’s High School, Dylan’s Yearbook picture, Dylan onstage with his first band, The Golden Chords, and North Country Girl Echo Star Helstrom].

So here’s Bruce Millar on Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country:

“The first inkling that something was not quite right came early on, as it became clear that the young female actor (20s, early 30s at a pinch) in the lead role was actually playing an aging woman with dementia – well, at least 60, and we are talking about the 1930s, when that age did make you old. Her husband was, appropriately, my age and similarly gone to seed. I know, this is acting, you suspend your disbelief – but as Tom said, is it really not possible to find a female actor of 60-odd who can sing a bit? They’re always complaining of a lack of roles, but here one comes along on the West End stage and it’s snaffled by a youngster. Anyway, for me the production immediately smacked of the school play, with a teenage Lady Macbeth…

The play itself, set in Duluth (the possibly spurious BD connection – I couldn’t make out any dramatic justification for it), seemed to throw in every cliche of American southern gothic literature – the nutter in every family, the sinister and manipulative Bible salesman, the subterranean sexual passions, the wastrel would-be writer son, the washed-up pro boxer – in a not very stylish or original manner, and a couple of thousand miles north of its proper territory.

And then, in a manner rather too reminiscent of Abba – The Musical, the cast burst into song every now and then. Some of the singing was good, and there was nothing particularly wrong with the interpretations, but it slowly dawned on me that this was a Crime against Art. Recorded or live, these songs, mostly from the 60s and 70s, are all very precise, but at the same time extraordinarily open-ended; they play on the imagination, suggesting multiple meanings, feelings and depths, in a way that few songwriters have ever achieved so consistently (which is probably why the Nobel committee gave Dylan the literature prize).

Shoe-horned into this derivative drama, each song seemed to have been limited, confined, diminished, flattened and emptied-out; there was no charge, none of the reverberation that I value in the originals. It was strange to hear these great songs transformed into something so small.

Over an interval drink, Tom and I decided to cut our losses and head for Dunkirk instead. I’ve got pretty catholic tastes and am both patient and mean enough to want to get my money’s worth – the last time I walked out of a film or play was 40 years ago (strange how some things stick in the mind). I haven’t seen what the professional reviewers make of Girl from the North Country – I’ll be particularly interested in Ann Treneman’s review in the Times (if she reviews it), given that she is an admirer of Dylan. My prediction is that lazy subs will probably run headlines saying For fans of Dylan only; I would reverse that, but even then advise against going.”

And here’s Mick Gold:

“It’s a funny beast but I recommend it. Twenty songs in search of a play? Stuck in 1934 Duluth with the Eugene O’Neill Blues again? Set in a Depression era rooming house in the city where Bob will be born in seven years time, McPherson’s play floats in a fragmented way on a sea of songs. The good news is the cast and the music are wonderful. Worth the price of a ticket just to see Bronagh Gallagher (of Pulp Fiction fame) play the drums.

When a falsely accused black pugilist enters stage left, you can guess what is coming, but when the inevitable “Hurricane” blows the audience away, it’s done with massive energy. To my ears some outstanding young singers in the cast (Sheila Atim, Arinze Kene). Jim Norton, who did a brilliant job of reading the whole of Ulysses for Naxos discs, plays a seedy old man.

“Jokerman”, “Slow Train”, “Duquesne Whistle”, “Like a Rolling Stone” and many more are all done with great artistry and emotional impact. There was the occasional tear in my eye. If this were a boxing match I’d score it Play 3, Bob 5. But the reason the music is so good is McPherson does have some strange and poignant ideas about not making the songs too obvious. And the rhyming of 1934 Depression-era Main Street USA and 2017 zero-hours UK is convincing.”

Monday, August 1st

Baz Luhrmann explores the birth of hip-hop in his upcoming Netflix series, The Get Down. US Esquire asks, pertinently, “but didn’t announcing a 13-part drama series about hip-hop make you feel really… white?” to met by “Well, sure, there’s that. What kind of an idiot would do that? …the truth is, I could have made several things, but a large-scale work in which the leads are five unknown African-American and Puerto Rican actors? You can’t get that done. I was in a position where I could…”


Here’s the trailer, a slightly gaudy mixture of Saturday Night Fever, West Side Story and, worryingly, Can’t Stop the Music, the Village People movie notorious for being the first winner of the Worst Picture Golden Raspberry Award. It’s a movie I remember well, as I watched it on a lurching ferry to somewhere, at ten in the morning, always a good time to watch a movie set in nightclubs. As it happens, it was shown in the ferry’s excuse for a disco – a DJ booth, 5 coloured lights and a glossy floor. Quickly re-named Please Stop the Music! by its audience of fifteen, I absolutely loved it, mostly for the hilariously camp script; as the barely-formed group are about to hit the stage for their debut appearance, one of the characters (it may have been the Cop, or the Construction Worker, I can’t be sure) turns to another and asks how he’s feeling, to which comes the deathly reply – “Leathermen don’t get nervous!”

The intro to the trailer is tracked by a whispered version of Garland Jeffreys’ “Wild in the Street” before it busts out into the hip and the hop. I think there’s probably a great movie in the birth of hip-hop – but the jury is out on this one at the moment, although I’m hoping for the best…

Bloodlines is a story of everyday Florida Keys folk, centred around the toxic return to home of the wayward son, now a man. The damaged Danny Rayburn is a fantastic turn from Ben Mendelsohn, and the script is sharp and believable. I mostly love the series for its fantastic swearing. In some scenes “fuck” is uttered every other word, sometimes bitterly, sometimes woundedly, sometimes viciously – but always brilliantly, telling you all you need to know about that character at that point. Brother Kevin (played by the wonderfully-named Norbert Leo Butz) is constantly making bad decisions – and his is the swearing that hits rare heights.

Clearing out some stuff I found a US Esquire “What I’ve Learned…” interview with Jimmy Iovine. I found this interesting: “Bruce Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, hired me to do Born to Run. They had a lot of faith in me. I was twenty-one at the time and the album was really successful. And so they hired me for the follow-up album, which was Darkness on the Edge of Town, and we go in and we start recording the drums. We get this drum sound – but then we move studios, and we can’t get the drum sound back. It’s weeks on the same boom-boom on one drum. And Bruce keeps saying, “I can hear the stick.” And I would look at him and say, “It is a stick,” you know?

At some point, Little Steven says he knows this guy in New Jersey that can help get the drum sound. I get mortified and insulted, and I go see Landau in the hotel. I said, “Jon, I quit. Fuck this.” And Landau said, “Let’s just talk for a second. I’m going to try to teach you something now, at what could be a crossroads in your career.” He said, “This is not about you. This is about Bruce’s album and making the best album we possibly can.” And he stopped me in my tracks and said, “I want you to go in there and I want you to say to Bruce, I’m going to support you no matter what. Bruce will remain your ally throughout the rest of your career. You don’t just walk out because you think someone has insulted you and your pride has been hurt.”

So I listened to him, because I was always good at learning. I could hear people and the messages they were sending. We got the drum sound somehow, and six weeks later Bruce gave me “Because the Night” to record with Patti Smith, which really launched my career. And that just was like ink on a shirt. You know, it just took. The rest of my career I approached like that. I just take a step back, don’t buy my own bullshit. Just look at the work. That lesson is the most powerful lesson I ever learned. It goes against human instinct.”

Walking down Villiers Street on the way to seeing Mark Kermode in 3D at the BFI with guests Hadley Freeman and David Arnold, I see a young accordionist busking whilst another, older, accordionist looks on. I’m not sure whether the older man likes the other’s playing but as I pass he crosses the road. I turn back to see what transpires – the young guy seems a little wary of hearing the older guy’s opinion – and quickly take a few pictures, before the scene resolves with a smile and a handshake.


I’m totally with my old friend Bruce Millar, responding to a recent post:
I clearly haven’t got the hang of the digital present, because here I am responding to a post of yours from several weeks ago. Oh well, here goes… Your quote from Al Schmitt – “It really was just the way records were made in the old days! In those days you could not edit or fix things, and so you had to do the take when things were emotionally right. And you chose the take that had the feel on it. This is why so many records from back then are so much more emotional and touch you so much more deeply. Today everything is perfect, and in many places we have taken the emotions out of records” – rang a bell.

A couple of weeks before I had seen Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious with Nick at the BFI, and was struck by how the less important linking scenes, in particular, were clearly polished off in one take, whether or not timings were slightly off or the acting slightly ragged. Interestingly, instead of making the film less convincing or ‘realistic’, this somehow made it more so. For two reasons, perhaps: first, ‘real life’ is not smooth and seamless anyway, and we recognise that instinctively; second, Lang isn’t trying to emulate reality, he’s striving to dramatise events and characters, to express things. After all, this is a Western shot almost entirely in a studio.

Contrast this with contemporary films, which tend to mix smooth and apparently seamless Vraisemblance with absolutely preposterous action, leaving me completely cold. To adapt Schmitt: – “Today everything is perfect, and in many places we have taken the emotions out of films.”

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