Thursday, 19 May 2016

Is it too early to say I wasn't a massive Prince fan?

The tributes are still flowing in, but a month has passed, so I thought I might, tentatively, politely, say, you know, Prince, not a massive fan, to be honest.

I know how some people felt when Bowie died. Of course, people die all the time who we're not fans of, but these two combined such universal acclaim with popularity and iconic coolness, they meant so  very much, genuinely, to so very many people, that I would really have felt like a bit of a dick either saying I wasn't a massive Prince fan or pretending I did... until now ...

I thought about Prince's music a lot when he died. I wondered what my favourite song was. But, really, I had nothing. For a while, I thought I liked the early 90s single Morning Papers, but not really. Raspberry Beret is pretty ok, I like the first verse, that's for sure. "boss was  Mr McGee". I like that.

But, really, that's about it. 1999, Sign of the Times, Little Red Corvette, Purple Rain etc they always left me cold. I did try. I bought his two most famous albums and a greatest hits. I knew I was missing something. Prince wasn't just popular while being someone a music snob could look down on, he was universally revered by musicians and hipsters, funk fans and rock fans. I had to be missing something.

I could see he was stunningly talented, I could see he was a star, I could see he could write a pop song with a hook, but I just didn't like those songs. I couldn't see why people said he wrote great lyrics. All those acclaimed line - "Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life" "Dig, if you will, the picture ..." "a big disease with a small name" ..."I was dreaming while I wrote this, forgive me if it goes too fast ...", to me they were naff, meaningless, portentous, show-offy. Sorry.

It was probably, I suppose, the voice more than the songs. I like Nothing Compares 2 U and Manic Monday, though not that much. Again, it's the way lots of people feel about Bob Dylan.

But I was never moved by a Prince song. Never, never felt they were soul songs. I never wanted to sit and mope listening to Prince, never wanted to think, never wanted to work, to write, to run or to dance. I could take bathetic pleasure in comparing him to small-scale artists whose songs I prefer. Prince, he's ok, but he's no Bluetones, he's ok but he's no Brendan Benson, he's ok but he's no Chaka Demus and Pliers.

I'm already being meaner-spirited than I intended to be. It's just, there's no-anti Prince movement. Everyone seems to love him. Surely I'm not the only one who just doesn't think those songs set off and take flight like you hope they will? Am I really the one who's only seeing the crescent? (He's ok, but he's no Waterboys ...)

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

De Niro

I've been meaning to write about Robert De Niro in depth for years, but couldn't decide where to place it, what to focus on.

Alongside Bob Dylan, this other Bobby D was my main American cultural icon in my late teens and early 20s. Dylan, since the mid-90s, has had a significant late career burst of critically acclaimed work. De Niro, it goes without saying, hasn't.

He is still revered but it is taken as read that he has lost it, that his work since the very early 90s is insignificant. I'm not here to claim that is a completely false impression.

Where will I start? I have a lot of things to say about, and emotions to attach to Robert De Niro.

I think a series of vignettes are better than an attempt to form a central thesis,

I'll start with recent times.

1. On a bored Sunday afternoon, we made the mistake of watching The Intern, a wretched 2015 "comedy" starring De Niro and Anne Hathaway. Despite reasonably good credentials, I found pretty much everything about it boring and painful - the script, the story, the central idea, nearly all the acting. But De Niro is great. Unflashy, endearing, funny, utterly human. Hathaway is hard to watch, as are the main support actors. So I wonder if De Niro is now quite tricky to act opposite because he's such a legend, it's intimidating. His acting doesn't appear showy or ungenerous, far from it. He seems to leave plenty of space on screen for everyone else. But I wonder if his very presence unbalances a lot of the films he's in.

2. De Niro's not as Italian as everyone thinks. Layman's impression of him (and indeed his own) concentrate on that wiseguy schtick.  But he's only a quarter-Italian, if that. His father was the child of an Italian-American father and an Irish-American mother. His mother was American, but of Irish/Dutch/German/English ancestry. And not all his greatest roles are Italian, far from it.
Jake Le Motta, Johnny Civello and Vito Corleone are
Travis Bickle, Michael Vronsky, Rupert Pupkin, Noodles Aaronson, Jimmy the Gent Conway, Ace Rothstein etc are not
I always find it surprising too, that both his parents were artists (his father a pretty renowned one) and bohemians. That's not really the vibe he gives off.

3. Some actors are just as good, if not better, as they get older. The ones that, to paraphrase Laurence Olivier, just act. But I suppose De Niro's greatest performances were so dependent on hard physical labour, months of preparation and exertion, that, like a great sportsman, it's inevitable that he's become capable of a little less. It would be physically impossible for him to put in a performance like in Raging Bull or Taxi Driver now. It would be like Usain Bolt still running the 100m in 10 seconds when he's 70.

4. The famous inarticulacy. How awkward he is when he's interviewed. How he struggles for words. Scorsese and others joke that it's not just a public, put-on thing.  He's just not much of a talker.
Then look at some of those performances. In particular look at his first famous scene, the first time he walks into the bar in Mean Streets, probably my very favourite scene in film history, this fast-talking wise guy, this joke machine, he's making it up, improvising. You can't believe it's the same person. D'oh, that's acting.

5. The sweetness. What's my favourite De Niro performance? I love the crazies, the psychos, the oddballs, the monsters, but my favourite is the one where he plays a straight, true heroic character, in The Deer Hunter - his acting with Meryl Streep in this is fabulous. Sure he's crazy in this too, but he's so still sometimes, and so sad. There are quite a few very fine performances where he plays someone very ordinary.

6. What's wrong with comedy? OK, I'm not saying that the last 20 years are a patch on the previous 20, but why is the fact that he became a genuinely funny mainstream comedy star so sneered upon? Analyze This and Meet the Parents are actually funny. Genuinely funny. It's called range.

7. I still think that 70s run is simply the best there is. I don't like gangster films anymore, I'm tired of them. I don't necessarily like films that are complex studies of ugly masculinity, but Mean Streets, Godfather II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Once Upon a Time in America.  That's without equal as a run of film performances by an actor.

8. As he's got older, his face has become more set and I think that's a bit of a hindrance. When he was younger, it was more elasticm more surprising, now, well, it's just Robert De Niro's face, it couldn't be anything else.

9. It is still surprising to me how few good films he's in these days. Surely he could position himself to work with more top directors to pretty much guarantee a degree of acclaim. David O Russell he works with now. There's Scorsese obviously, and one more on the way from them, but Tarantino only once, no Coens, no Andersons, no Inarritu or Del Toro etc Don't they want him in their films? Doesn't he want to be in them?

10. OK, I'll finish with a list. Bypassing the obvious, here are 10 Very Decent De Niro films which aren't seen as classics, but are definitely enjoyable
Wag the Dog
Meet the Parents
Jackie Brown
A Bronx Tale
Angel Heart
True Confessions
and (though almost a classic) Midnight Run